Cellular is Not the Rural Broadband Solution

Cell-TowerI’m often asked why we can’t let cellular 4G bandwidth take care of the bandwidth needs for rural America. When you look at the ads on TV by Verizon and AT&T you would assume that the cellular data network is robust and is being built everywhere. But there are a lot of practical reasons why cellular data is not the answer for rural broadband:

Rural areas are not being upgraded. The carriers don’t make the same kinds of investments in rural markets that they do in urban markets. To see a similar situation in a related industry, consider how the large cable companies are upgrading cable modems in the metropolitan areas years before they upgrade rural areas. It seems that urban cellular technology is being upgraded every few years while rural cell sites might get upgraded once a decade.

Rural networks are not built where people live. Even where the cellular networks have been upgraded, rural cellular towers have been historically built to take care of car traffic, referred to in the industry as roaming traffic. Think about where you always see cellular towers and they are either on the top of tall hills or else along a highway not close to many homes and businesses. This matters because like all wireless traffic, the data speeds drop drastically with distance from the tower. Where a 3G customer in a City might get 30 Mbps download speed because they are likely less than a mile from a transmitter, a customer who is 4 miles from a tower might now get 5 Mbps. And in a rural area 4 miles is not very far.  

The carriers have severe data plans and caps. Even when customers happen to live close to a rural transmitter and can get good data speeds, the data plans for the large carriers are capped at very skimpy levels. One HD movie uses around 1.5 gigabits, meaning that a cap of 2 to 4 gigabits is a poor substitute for landline broadband. There are still a few unlimited data plans around but they are hard to get and dwindling in availability. And it’s been widely reported that once a customer reaches a certain level of usage on an unlimited plan that the speeds are choked to go very slow for the rest of the month.

Voice gets a big priority on the network. Cellular networks were built to deliver vice calls to cell phones and voice calls still get a priority on the network. A cell phone tower is limited to a finite amount of bandwidth. And so, once a few customers are downloading something big at the same time, the performance for the rest of the cell site gets noticeably worse. 3G networks are intended to deliver short bursts of fast data, such as when a cell phone user downloads an app. But there is not enough bandwidth at a cell phone tower to support hundreds of ‘normal’ data customers who are watching streaming video and using bandwidth like we use in our homes and businesses.

The plans are really expensive. Cellular data plans are not cheap. For example, Verizon will sell you a data plan for an iPad at $30 per month and a 4 gigabit total usage cap. Additional gigabits cost $10 to $15 each. To get the same plan for an iPhone is $70 per month since the plan requires voice and text messaging. Cellular data is the most expensive bandwidth in a country that already has some of the most expensive bandwidth in the world. 

There are no real 4G deployments yet. While the carriers are all touting 4G wireless, what they are delivering is 3G wireless. By definition the 4G wireless specification allows for gigabit data download speeds. What we now have, in engineering terms can best be described as 3.5 G and real 4G is still sometime in the future. There are reports of current cellular networks in cities getting bursts of speed up to 50 Mbps, which is very good, but is not close to being 4G. But most realized speeds are considerably slower than that.

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