Last week in GN Docket 13-5 the FCC issued an update that asked additional questions about its planned transition of the historic TDM telephone network to all-IP network. This docket asked for comments on several topics like having a trial for transitioning the TDM telephone network to all-IP, for having a trial to go to enhanced 911 and for making sure that a switch to IP would not adversely affect the nationwide telephone databases.
But the docket also asks for comments on whether the FCC should grant telephone companies the right to substitute wireless phones for wireline phones and abandon their copper network. The docket mentioned two companies that wanted to do this. For example, Verizon said they intend to put wireless on Fire Island off New York City as they rebuild it from the devastation of hurricane Sandy. But AT&T has told the FCC that they are going to request permission to replace “millions of current wireline customers, mostly in rural areas, with a wireless-only product”.
Let me explain what this means. There are now traditional-looking telephone sets that include a cellular receiver. To replace a wireline phone, the telephone company would cut the copper wires, and in place of your existing phones they would put one of these cellular handsets. They would not be making every family member get a cell phone and there would still be a telephone in the house that works on the cellular network.
This make good sense to me for Fire Island. It is mostly a summer resort and there are not many residents there in the winter. It’s a relatively small place and with one or two cell phone towers the whole island could have very good coverage. And if the cell phone tower is upgraded to 4G there would be pretty decent Internet speeds available, certainly much faster than DSL. One would have to also believe that the vast majority of visitors to the island bring along a cell phone when they visit and that there is not a giant demand for fixed phones any longer.
It is AT&T’s intentions, though, that bother me a lot. AT&T wants to go into the rural areas it serves and cut the copper and instead put in these same cellular-based phones. This is an entirely different situation than Fire Island.
Anybody who has spent time in rural areas like I do knows the frustration of walking around trying to find one bar of cellular service to make or receive a call. Cell phone coverage is so good today in urban areas that one forgets that this is not true in many places. I have a client, a consortium of towns and the rural areas of Sibley and Renville Counties in Minnesota. Let me talk about my experience in working with them as an example of why this is a bad idea.
My primary contact works in the small town of Winthrop. I have AT&T cellular service and when I visit him my cellphone basically will not work. I sometimes can move around and find one bar and get a call through, but I can’t coax the phone to get a data connection so that I can check email. And if you go west from Winthrop the coverage gets even worse. AT&T’s coverage maps show that they serve this area, but they really don’t. There are places in the east end of Sibley County that have decent coverage. But there are also plenty of farms where you can get coverage outdoors, but you can’t get coverage in the house.
The traditional cellular network was not built to serve people, but rather cars. Cell phone coverage is so ubiquitous now that we already forget that cellular minutes used to be very expensive, particularly when you roamed away from your home area. The cell phone network was mostly built along roads to take advantage of that roaming revenue stream. If you happen to live near to a tower you have pretty decent coverage. But you only need to go a few miles off the main highway to find zero bars.
And I use the Renville / Sibley County client as an example for a second reason. The people there want fiber – badly. They have been working on a plan for several years to get fiber to everybody in the area. The area is a typical farming community with small hub towns surrounded by farms. The towns have older cable systems and DSL and get broadband, although much slower than is available in the Twin Cities an hour to the east. But you don’t have to go very far outside of a town to get to where there is no broadband. Many people have tried satellite and found it too expensive and too slow. There are any homes still using dial-up, and this is not nearly as good as the dial-up most of you probably remember. This is dial-up delivered to farms on old long copper pairs. And it is to get access to an Internet that has migrated to video and heavy graphics. Dial-up is practically useless for anything other than reading email, as long as you don’t send or receive attachments.
Over 60% of the people in the rural areas in Renville and Sibley Counties have signed pledge cards to say that they would take service if fiber can be built to them. One would expect this would translate to at least a 70% penetration if fiber is built. They refer to the project locally as fiber-to-the farm. There has been a cooperative formed to look at ways to get fiber financed. And any financing is going to require local equity, meaning the people in the County are going to have to invest millions of their own dollars in the project – and they are certain they can raise that money. That is how much they want the fiber. And this same thing is true in rural areas all over the country. Most of rural America has been left behind and does not have the same access to the Internet that the rest of us take for granted.
AT&T’s idea is only going to work if they make a big investment in new rural cell towers. The current cell phone network in rural areas is not designed to do what they are proposing, even for delivering voice. And even if the existing rural cell phone towers are upgraded to 3G or 4G data (which almost none have been), most people live too far from the existing towers to get any practical use from cellular data. Cellular data speeds are a function of how close one is to the tower and, just like with DSL, the speeds drop off quickly as you get away from the hub.
I hope rural America notices this action at the FCC and files comments. Because as crappy as the rural copper wires are today, when the wireline network disappears many rural households are going to find themselves without telephone service. And forget about fast rural data. The AT&T plan is really just a plan for them to abandon and stop investing in rural communities.