Good Enough Broadband

I’ve lately been asked by several local politicians why they should pursue getting grant funding for their county since Starlink satellite and FWA cellular broadband seem like good broadband alternatives that are already here today. It’s a reasonable question to ask since they have likely heard from rural households that are happy with both technologies. The question usually includes some degree of wishful thinking because the officials want to be able to tell constituents that good broadband is already available and that the broadband gap has been solved.

I hate to tell them that these technologies are not a good permanent solution. At the same time, I stress that they should be promoting these technologies to make sure that folks know there are some better alternatives available today than other extremely slow broadband options. But I don’t think either of these technologies is a long-term broadband solution.

FWA cellular broadband is home broadband that is delivered by cellular companies from cellular towers. It uses the same technology as the broadband delivered to cellphones, with the only real difference being that there is an in-home receiver that can be used for home broadband.

The primary problem with thinking of FWA cellular as a permanent solution is the reach of the technology. Somebody living right under a tower might be able to get 200 Mbps broadband today, and for somebody who has been suffering with rural DSL or cellular hotspots, this is an amazing upgrade. But the strong cellular service doesn’t carry far from a given tower. Speeds drop rapidly with the distance between a customer and the cell tower. A customer living a mile away from a tower might see maximum speeds of 100 Mbps, but after that, speeds drop precipitously until the product looks like other current slow broadband technologies.

The distance issue wouldn’t be a big problem if rural counties were peppered with cell towers – but most rural counties don’t have nearly enough towers to support this technology. In fact, in most rural counties I’ve worked in, a lot of the county doesn’t have good enough cellular coverage for voice calls. There doesn’t seem to be any mad rush to build new towers to support FWA – and I wouldn’t expect a cellular carrier to want to be on a tower that might only see a few dozen potential customers.

A final issue with FWA is that cellular carriers give priority to cell phones over home broadband. If cellphone traffic gets heavy, then the carriers will throttle the FWA speeds. This is probably less of an issue in a rural area than in a city, but it means that the broadband is not fully reliable.

Satellite broadband is also not a great long-term solution for several reasons. Starlink has already said that it will only serve some fixed number of customers in a given geographic area – a number it won’t disclose. That makes sense to any network engineer because the bandwidth from a single satellite overhead is shared by all homes using the service. This means that if too many households try to use a satellite at the same time that broadband speeds will bog down. Starlink is never going to be willing to serve all of the rural customers in a county – when it reaches it’s target customers it won’t sell more connections.

The other issue with Satellite broadband is that customers need a great view of the sky. Homes located amidst trees or near hills or mountains may not be able to get the service at all or get a slowed connection.

The final issue with both technologies is the speed being delivered. FWA is most typically today delivering only 50-100 Mbps to most households that are within range of a tower. The speed tests for Starlink show a similar range between 50-150 Mbps. These are amazing speeds for a home with no broadband alternatives. But these speeds are already at the low end of acceptable broadband today – particularly since these technologies have a much higher latency than fiber.

In twenty years, we’ve grown from DSL and cable modems that delivered 1 Mbps to fiber technology today that can deliver multiple gigabit speeds. There are those that claim that the fast speeds are just marketing gimmicks, but I’m hearing from more households over time that need the faster speeds. The reality of the marketplaces is that technologies will spring up to take advantage of faster broadband. We’re already seeing 8K TVs today, and telepresence should be here in the near future. A rural customer receiving 50-100 Mbps will be locked out of future faster applications.

Any county that decides not to pursue the grants to get faster broadband will regret the decision in a decade when neighboring counties have blazingly fast broadband and are the places where folks will want to live. We’ve learned that fast home broadband now equates to economic development due to the work-at-home phenomenon. I worked with a county recently where 30% of the homes include at least one person working full time from home. That means higher incomes which translates into local prosperity.

I really like both of these technologies, and I recommend them to rural folks all of the time. But these are not the broadband solution that a county needs for long-term prosperity.

2 thoughts on “Good Enough Broadband

  1. Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader?

    I like the way you are thinking – it has taken way too long for people to understand that ‘wireless’ deliverance of internet to a home is FAR inferior to the capabilities of fiber. NO, ZERO, NADA funding needs to be approved for wireless internet deliverance to communities as it will barely meet minimum expectations today IF consumers can even get the intended signal at their home and always falls short in latency and consistency of speed. Any funding given to companies for wireless buildouts will be obsolete in a few years and providers/companies ‘know’ this because they are wanting the taxpayer gravy train to continually fund them for as long as they can ride it (while communities and real people suffer daily – and yes, the struggle is real). In addition to speed, obsolescence, and latency issues, many wireless carriers put data caps on service…and they are usually more expensive to consumers than fiber options. Starlink has ‘solved’ the ‘underserved’ problem for ‘now’ which gives providers time to build out with the only product worthy of taxpayer funding, fiber, and would bet my lunch most fifth graders would come to this conclusion if given a 30 minute homework assignment on the topic; unfortunately, massive greed by ‘quasi’ private providers, misinformed/apathetic/party aligned legislators who control funding for the buildout and lack of a centralized plan will continue to plague underserved citizens until our leaders decide to do the ‘right thing’.

    Elon Musk, who is my hero at the moment because we are using Starlink while waiting for our municipality (that received zero taxpayer funding) to install fiber, never intended (and has been on record stating this) for Starlink to be a solution to the underserved problem in ‘homes’. His ‘real’ intent is to use Starlink as an internet provider for ‘vehicles in motion’ (EV’s – they all need it and he will benefit greatly with the ‘green’ push to produce more electric vehicles, semi-trucks, cruise ships, cargo ships, RV’s and anything else that moves) and was given the green light by the FCC last springish (2022) to market in this area. Starlink has stated data caps are in their future for customers and sent an email to customers in February of a price increase (SECOND one in a year) if you live in an area with ‘limited’ capacity; hence, the underserved are bullied again in the whole digital divide. Below is directly copied from my email:

    ‘The Starlink monthly service for residential customers is changing as follows:

    $10 increase in areas with limited capacity. New price will be $120/month.
    $20 decrease in areas with excess capacity. New price will be $90/month.

    As a current customer in an area with limited capacity, your monthly service price will increase to $120/month beginning April 24, 2023. For new customers in your area, the price increase is effective immediately.’

    Hmmmm…still trying to decide if I need to file an FCC complaint…Elon is my hero because Starlink far surpasses my other options; however, this is just plain evil and feel like the FCC needs to know what is going on to get an understanding of the underserved citizens’ plight. My hesitation in filing a complaint comes from a ‘fear’ the company may ‘drop’ me or intentionally sabotage service and we ‘need’ internet service at my home for my husband to make a living because he works exclusively at home since Covid and is self-employed. Pre-Starlink ‘work from home’ for my family can only be described as a horror movie entitled ‘Nightmare on Hope Creek Road’…hence the life of an underserved citizen in what is supposed to be the greatest country in the world (MANY countries far surpass our internet infrastructure). Elon’s price increases in 2022 are a piece of evidence confirming Starlink is NOT a solution for the underserved.

    My last rant, as an underserved citizen, is ‘broadband’ being one of the most vague and overused/misunderstood word in the world today. I realize there is a ‘definition’ that defines an infinitely changing minimum speed for broadband; however, our legislators and general public have little understanding of all the variables that create quality internet to the home – deliverance (wireless/fiber), latency, data caps and consistency of speed and latency. My suggestion is to retire the word broadband and have use several parameters when funding internet with financial penalties if actual service is inferior to promised.

    I am glad to see you, and hopefully others, writing about the necessity of fiber to build internet infrastructure and hopefully taxpayer dollars will begin funding FIBER ONLY and quit ‘throwing away’ taxpayer dollars on substandard wireless options. My request for you today is that you use your contacts and knowledge in the industry to educate people making decisions on the correct way to solve the digital divide (FIBER BUILDOUT-there is nothing in the works that will take its place and well worth the investment) so people can work from home, students can complete homework, elderly can take advantage of multiple options that improve their health and well being as well as multiple other daily tasks citizens need quality internet to function.

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