The Flood of New Satellite Networks

I wrote a blog a few months ago about SpaceX, Elon Musk’s plan to launch a massive network starting with over 4,400 low-orbit satellites to blanket the world with better broadband. SpaceX has already launched the first few test satellites to test the technology. It seems like a huge logistical undertaking to get that many satellites into orbit and SpaceX is not the only company with plans for satellite broadband. Last year the FCC got applications for approval for almost 9,000 different new communications satellites. Some are geared to provide rural broadband like SpaceX, but others are pursuing IoT connectivity, private voice networks and the creation of space-based backhaul and relay networks.

The following companies are targeting the delivery of broadband:

Boeing. Boeing plans a network of 2,956 satellites that will concentrate on providing broadband to government and commercial customers worldwide. They intend to launch 1,396 satellites within the next six years. This would be the aerospace company’s first foray into being an ISP, but they have experience building communications satellites for over fifty years.

OneWeb. The company is headquartered in Arlington, Virginia and was founded by Greg Wyler. The company would be a direct competitor to SpaceX for rural and residential broadband and plans a network of over 700 satellites. They have arranged launches through Virgin Galactic, the company founded by Richard Branson. The company plans to launch its first satellite next year.

O3b. The company’s name stands for the ‘other 3 billion’ meaning those in the world with no access to broadband today. This company is also owned by Greg Wyler. They already operate a few satellites today that provide broadband to cruise ships and to third-world governments. Their plan is to launch 24 additional satellites in a circular equatorial orbit. Rather than launching a huge number of small satellites they plan an interconnected network of high-capacity satellites.

ViaSat. The company already provides rural broadband today and plans to add an additional 24 satellites at an altitude of about 4,000 miles. The company recently launched a new ViaSat-2 satellite this year to augment the existing broadband satellite service across the western hemisphere. The company is promising speeds of up to 100 Mbps. In addition to targeting rural broadband customers the satellite is targeting broadband delivery to cruise ships and airplanes.

Space Norway. The company wants to launch two satellites that specifically target broadband delivery to the Arctic region in Europe, Asia and Alaska.

The business plans of the following companies vary widely and shows the range of opportunities for space-based communications:

Kepler Communications. This Canadian company headquartered in Toronto is proposing a network of up to 140 tiny satellites the size of a football which will be used to provide private phone connectivity for shipping, transportation fleets and smart agriculture. Rather than providing broadband, the goal is to provide private cellphone networks to companies with widely dispersed fleets and locations.

Theia Holdings. The company is proposing a network of 112 satellites aimed at telemetry and data gathering for services such as weather monitoring, agricultural IoT, natural resource monitoring, general infrastructure monitoring and security systems. The network will consist almost entirely of machine to machine communication.

Telesat Canada. This Canadian company already operates satellites today that provide private voice communications networks for corporate and government customers. The company is launching two new satellites to supplement the 15 already in orbit and has plans for a network consisting of at least 117 satellites. The company’s largest targeted customer is the US Military.

LeoSat MA. The company is planning a worldwide satellite network that can speed a transmission around the globe about 1.5 times faster than terrestrial fiber networks. Their market will be large businesses and governments that need real-time communication around the globe for applications like stock exchanges, business communications, scientific applications and government communications.

Audacy Corp. The company want to provide the first satellite network aimed at providing communications between satellites and spacecraft. Today there is a bandwidth bottleneck between terrestrial earth stations and satellites and Audacy proposes to create a space-only broadband relay network to enable better communications between satellites, making them the first space-based backbone network.

Who’s Pursuing Residential 5G?

I’ve seen article after article over the last year talking about how 5G is going to bring gigabit speeds to residents and give them an alternative to the cable companies. But most of the folks writing these articles are confusing the different technologies and businesses cases that are all being characterized as 5G.

For example, Verizon has announced plans to aggressively pursue 5G for commercial applications starting later this year. The technology they are talking about is a point-to-point wireless link, reminiscent of the radios that have been commonly used since MCI deployed microwave radios to disrupt Ma Bell’s monopoly. The new 5G radios use higher frequencies in the millimeter range and are promising to deliver a few gigabits of speed over distance of a mile or so.

The technology will require a base transmitter and enough height to have a clear-line-of-sight to the customer, likely sited on cell towers or tall buildings. The links are only between the transmitter and one customer. Verizon can use the technology to bring gigabit broadband to buildings not served with fiber today or to provide a second redundant broadband feed to buildings with fiber.

The press has often confused this point-to-point technology with the technology that will be used to bring gigabit broadband to residential neighborhoods. That requires a different technology that is best described as wireless local loops. The neighborhood application is going to require pole-mounted transmitters that will be able to serve homes within perhaps 1,000 feet – meaning a few homes from each transmitter. In order to deliver gigabit speeds the pole-mounted transmitters must be fiber fed, meaning that realistically fiber must be strung up each street that is going to get the technology.

Verizon says it is investigating wireless local loops and it hopes someday to eventually use the technology to target 30 million homes. The key word there is eventually, since this technology is still in the early stages of field trials.

AT&T has said that it is not pursuing wireless local loops. On a recent call with investors, CFO John Stevens said that AT&T could not see a business case for the technology. He called the business case for wireless local loops tricky and said that in order to be profitable a company would have to have a good grasp on who was going to buy service from each transmitter. He says that AT&T is going to stick to it’s current network plans which involve edging out from existing fiber and that serving customers on fiber provides the highest quality product.

That acknowledgement is the first one I’ve heard from one of the big telcos talking about the challenges of operating a widespread wireless network. We know from experience that fiber-to-the-home is an incredibly stable technology. Once installed it generally needs only minor maintenance and requires far less maintenance labor that competing technologies. We also know from many years of experience that wireless technologies require a lot more tinkering. Wireless technology is a lot more temperamental and it might take a decade or more of continuous tweaking until wireless local loop become as stable as FTTH. Whoever deploys the first big wireless local loop networks .better have a fleet of technicians ready to keep it working well.

The last of the big telcos as CenturyLink and their new CEO Jeff Storey has made it clear that the company is going to focus on high-margin enterprise business opportunities and will stop deploying slow-payback technologies like residential broadband. I think we’ve seen the end of CenturyLink investing in any last-mile residential technologies.

So who will be deploying 5G wireless local loops? We know it won’t be AT&T or CenturyLink. We know Verizon is considering it but has made no commitment. It won’t be done by the cable companies which have upgraded to DOCSIS 3.1. There are no other candidates that are willing or able to spend the billions needed to deploy the new technology.

Every new technology needs to be adopted by at least one large ISP to become successful. Vendors won’t do the needed R&D or crank up the production process until they have a customer willing to place a large order for electronics. We’ve seen promising wireless technologies like LMDS and MMDS die in the past because no large ISP embraced the technologies and ordered enough gear to push the technology into the mainstream.

I look at the industry today and I just don’t see any clear success path 5G wireless loop electronics. The big challenged faced by wireless local loops is to become less expensive than fiber-to-the-home. Until the electronics go through a few rounds of improvements that only come after field deployment, the technology is likely to require more technician time than FTTH. It’s hard to foresee anybody taking the chance on this in any grand way.

Verizon could make the leap of faith and sink big money into an untried technology, but that’s risky. We’re more likely to keep seeing press releases talking about field trials and the potential for the 5G technology. But unless Verizon or some other big ISP commits to sinking billions of dollars into the gear it’s likely that 5G local loop technology will fizzle as has happened to other wireless technologies in the past.

The False 5G Narrative in DC

The FCC and some members of Congress have adopted a false narrative about our need for the rapid deployment of 5G. The narrative says that rest of the world is already ahead of the US with 5G deployment and warns about the huge downsides to our economy should we not sweep aside all barriers for deploying 5G.

This is the narrative being used to justify giving wireless carriers cheap and ubiquitous access to poles for 5G transmitters. The FCC and others want to sweep away all state and local rules for pole-related issues. They want rules that will allow wireless carriers to deploy electronics first and straighten out the paperwork later. They argue that all of this is needed so that the country can keep up with the rest of the world in 5G deployment, with some horrific, yet unspecific disastrous result should we fail to make this happen.

The big problem with this narrative is that it’s based upon false premises. The narrative is nothing more than a fairy tale spun by the wireless industry as a way to justify bypassing the normal regulatory process, to hand them fast and cheap connections on poles for wireless devices.

First, there is no big impending needed to deploy huge numbers of 5G devices, because the technology doesn’t yet exist. There are two distinct 5G technologies – 5G cellular and 5G millimeter wave broadband. The industry agrees that it’s going to take a decade until we have a 5G-compliant cellular technology available. There are thirteen key aspects of the new 5G standard that must now be tackled by engineers and then woven into the next generation electronics. We made numerous gradual incremental improvements in technology to evolve from 3G to 4G and it was only last year that we finally saw the first deployments of 4G technology that meets most of the original 4G specifications. There is no reason to think that we are going to progress any faster towards 5G and we will upgrade over time to 4.1G, 4.2G, etc. until a decade from now we finally have a 5G cellular network. By then we will no doubt start over and begin implementing 6G.

There is similarly no pressing need to deploy millimeter wave 5G. This is a technology that promises to potentially offer a gigabit alternative in residential neighborhoods. We have a long way to go before we are going to see wide-spread deployments of this technology. We are just now seeing the first early trials of the technology and it’s going to take years before electronics are widely available and affordable. Further, this technology is going to require a lot of concurrent fiber deployment, and that is likely to be the biggest cost barrier to deployment – not getting onto poles. I even have to wonder who is going to be deploying the 5G millimeter wave radios on a big scale – every one of the big telcos has made it clear that they are backing away from residential broadband, and the big cable companies have, or will soon have, gigabit-capable networks. We might never see the gigabit wireless networks that are the bait being used to tout 5G, because there might not be any deep-pocket ISPs willing to tackle such a large infrastructure investment.

What the wireless carriers are starting to deploy today are 4G small cell sites. These cell sites are being used to supplement and boost the existing cellular networks. The original big-tower cellular network was built to provide voice services and the cell site spacing is terrible for delivering broadband, which uses frequencies that don’t carry as far as the lower frequencies used for voice. The exploding demand for cellular broadband is driving the need for more cell sites just to accommodate the number of users and the amount of bandwidth that can be deployed in a given neighborhood.

The existing cellular networks are clearly under stress in urban areas. But the real issue we should be talking about is how to bolster 4G networks, not how we are already behind in the mythical 5G race. The cellular carriers are crafty and they are using the 5G race narrative as a way to get politicians to support their demands. They are promising wireless gigabit cellular speeds in just the next few years and cheap wireless gigabit broadband soon coming into every home. They have created a feigned panic that the current regulatory rules will stop this progress dead in it’s track unless carriers get fast and cheap pole access.

If this 5G narrative was true we’d be seeing a collapse of cable company stock prices. Cable companies have the most to lose if they are suddenly faced with gigabit cellular and gigabit wireless to the home. We are probably decades away from seeing cellular speeds approaching anything close to a gigabit – that’s the biggest myth in this narrative. And even when the new technology is developed for wireless gigabit to the home one has to ask what ISPs are going to spend the huge billions needed to build that network to compete against the entrenched cable companies.

I don’t want to minimize some of the barriers faced by wireless companies when trying to get onto poles today. Wireless carriers have cited a few horror stories in FCC filings. But like anything else brand new, most pole owners aren’t sure yet how to respond to requests for wireless attachments. There are a lot of issues to work through including safety, pricing, aesthetics and the long-term impact on the real estate space on poles. These are all issues that need solutions, but I can’t find one reason why we need to tackle this at breakneck speed or why we need to give the wireless carriers everything on their wish list. It’s important to bolster the stressed 4G network and we will want to be ready for the 5G technology when it is finally available. We have the time to make the needed regulatory changes in the deliberative manner that makes sure that all aspects of the issues are considered. We don’t need a fast knee-jerk response to a false 5G narrative that might create more problems than it solves.

CenturyLink and Residential Broadband

CenturyLink is in the midst of a corporate reorganization that is going to result is a major shift in the focus of the company. The company merged with Level 3 in 2016 and the management team from Level 3 will soon be in charge of the combined business. Long-time CEO Glen Post is being pushed out of day-to-day management of the company and Jeff Storey, the former CEO of Level 3 will become the new CEO of CenturyLink. Storey was originally slated to take the top spot in 2019, but the transition has been accelerated and will happen this month.

It’s a shift that makes good financial sense for the company. Mr. Storey had huge success at Level 3 and dramatically boosted earnings and stock prices over the last four years. Mr. Storey and CenturyLink CFO Sunit Patel have both made it clear that they are going to focus on the more profitable enterprise business opportunities and that they will judge any investments in last-mile broadband in terms of the expected returns. This differs drastically from Mr. Post who comes from a background as an independent telephone company owner. As recently as a year ago Mr. Post publicly pledged to make the capital investments needed to improve CenturyLink’s last-mile broadband networks.

This is going to mean a drastic shift in the way that CenturyLink views residential broadband. The company lost 283,000 broadband customers for the year ending in December 2017, dropping them to 5.7 million broadband customers. The company blames the losses on the continued success of the cable companies to woo away DSL customers.

This size of the customer losses is a bit surprising. CenturyLink said at the end of 2017 that they were roughly 60% through their CAF II upgrades which is bringing better broadband to over 1.1 million rural households. Additionally, the company built FTTP past 900,000 potential business and residential customers in 2017. If the company was having even a modest amount of success with those two new ventures it’s hard to understand how they lost so many broadband customers.

What might all of this mean for CenturyLink broadband customers? For rural customers it means that any upgrades that are being made using CAF II funding are likely the last upgrades they will ever see. Customers in these rural areas are already used to being neglected and their copper networks are in lousy condition due to decades of neglect by former owner Qwest.

CenturyLink is required by the CAF II program to upgrade broadband speeds in the rural areas to at least 10/1 Mbps. The company says that over half of the upgraded customers are seeing speeds of at least twice that. I’ve always had a concern about any of the big telcos reaching the whole CAF II footprint, and I suspect that when the CAF II money is gone, anybody that was not upgraded as promised will never see upgrades. I’ve also always felt that the CAF II money was a waste of money –  if CenturyLink walks away from the cost of maintaining these newly upgraded DSL networks they will quickly slide back into poor condition.

There are already speculation on Wall Street that CenturyLink might try to find a buyer for their rural networks. After looking at the problems experienced by Frontier and Fairpoint after buying rural telco copper networks one has to wonder if there is a buyer for these properties. But in today’s world of big-deal corporate finance it’s not impossible to imagine some group of investors willing to tackle this. The company could also take a shot at selling rural exchanges to independent telcos – something US West did over twenty years ago.

It’s also likely that the company’s foray into building widespread FTTP in urban areas is done. This effort is capital intensive and only earns infrastructure returns that are not going to be attractive to the new management. I wouldn’t even be surprised to see the company sell off these new FTTP assets to raise cash.

The company will continue to build fiber, but with the emphasis on enterprise opportunities. They are likely to adopt a philosophy similar to AT&T’s which has been building residential fiber only to large apartment complexes and to households that are within short distances from existing fiber pops. This might bring fiber broadband to a lucky few, but mostly the new management team has made it clear they are deemphasizing residential broadband.

This management transition probably closes the book on CenturyLink as a last-mile ISP. If they are unable to find a buyer for these properties it might take a decade or more for their broadband business to quietly die. This is bad news for existing broadband customers because the company is unlikely to invest in keeping the networks in operational shape. They only ones who might perceive this as good news are those who have been thinking about overbuilding the company – they are not going to see any resistance.

“But I Live Close to Fiber”

I often hear from people who are excited that fiber is coming to their neighborhood. They see work crews installing fiber and they hope this means that they are finally getting fiber to their homes. But unless folks are in one of the lucky neighborhoods where some ISP is making the big investment in last mile fiber-to-the-home, the chances are good that the new fiber that is tantalizingly close is not going to reach them.

There are a lot of fiber networks in the country that are being used for purposes other than serving homes. Consider some of the following reasons why fiber might be close to you, but unavailable:

  • Electric companies have private fiber networks to connect substations and other electric company facilities. In the last few years we’ve seen some of the biggest electric companies pull back from sharing fiber with others because of security concerns for the electric grid. It’s not uncommon for the electric company to be the only tenant on such fibers.
  • Telcos have fiber networks that connect their central offices in various towns. They have more extensive local fiber networks that are built to supply neighborhood DSL cabinets. If your neighborhood has DSL speeds greater than 15 Mbps, the chances are good that there is telco fiber close to you.
  • Cable companies have fiber for similar reasons. Cable networks are subdivided into neighborhood nodes. These nodes used to be large and served upwards of a thousand homes, but cable companies have reduced node sized to eliminate the problem of their broadband slowing down in the evenings. Nodes might now be as small as a hundred homes – and since each node is fiber fed there is cable company fiber somewhere near to every cluster of homes.
  • A large number of cities have built fiber networks to connect city hall, libraries, firehouses, water utility facilities and other city locations. This has largely been done to reduce the high payments to ISPs to connect these locations with broadband. While many municipal FTTH projects got started by expanding these networks, the vast majority of the municipal fiber networks serve only the city. There’s a decent chance that there is fiber at the library, firehouse or other city facility near your neighborhood.
  • Similarly there are a number of states that have built state-wide fiber networks to connect their own facilities. These networks are often shared with anchor institutions like city halls and other local and state government buildings. Most of these networks are prohibited by state law from sharing the fiber with last-mile fiber builds, even municipal ones.
  • Many school districts have fiber networks to connect schools to provide gigabit speeds. While some of these networks can be shared with other providers, the majority of these networks are used only for the school district.
  • Various companies including telcos, cable companies, and big ISPs build fiber to reach large businesses or industrial parks. The larger downtown buildings in most cities now also have fiber.
  • There is now a major push for building fiber to large apartment complexes. For example, a lot of the push by AT&T to pass millions of locations with fiber is mostly being done by reaching apartment complexes.
  • Today every cell tower is fed with fiber. There will be a lot of new fiber built to reach the smaller cell sites we’ll see on utility and light poles.
  • There are long-haul fiber networks that only function to connect cities and major markets. These networks rarely allow any connections to the network other than at major network nodes.
  • Many cities now have fiber networks that feed traffic signals and traffic cameras. Because of the way that these networks are funded with highway money, these fiber networks are often inexplicably separate from other municipal fiber networks.
  • State highway departments also now operate a lot of fiber networks for their own use to feed the signs that provide traffic information and to feed cameras that are used to monitor traffic.

The chances are that if you live in any kind of populated area, even in rural counties, that there are several of these fiber networks close to you. If you live in a city it’s likely that you can easily walk to half a dozen different fiber networks – none which are being used to bring fiber to your home.  The chances are high that the new fiber you see being built is not being built for you.

WiFi Kiosks

One of the first thing a visitor to New York City will notice these days is the proliferation around the city of LinkNYC kiosks. There are now about 1,300 of the 9.5 foot tall kiosks scattered around the city with hopes eventually have 7,500 of them. The kiosks are being installed in sites that used to have public payphones.

The kiosks offer a range of connectivity and other services. Each kiosk offers a free blazing fast gigabit WiFi hot spot. Each terminal has a phone that can be used to make free calls to anywhere in the US and allows for calling cards to be used for international calling. There is a button for an instant connection to 911. Each device has a tablet that can be used to access city maps, directions and other services. The kiosks off a fast charger for cellphones and other devices.

Probably most striking about LinkNYC are the two large 55-inch high definition displays on each side. The screens are used to display local ads and public service announcements. The business model for the kiosks relies solely upon advertising revenues from these screens.

The launch of the kiosks was not without some issues. Early kiosks allowed for web browsing on the tablets and there were reports of crowds using the kiosks to view pornography. There are concerns from privacy groups that the network can be used to track the 2.7 million people who have signed up to use the kiosks. The system is essentially a big ISP in terms of being able to match web browsing habits with users who log onto the network.

The kiosks have the potential for more uses in the future. Since they have fast connectivity they are natural places to collocate 5G small cell sites. There was talk when the project started of using the kiosks as platforms for municipal security cameras, although it doesn’t seem like there is much public support for that concept.

One interesting aspect of LinkNYC is the ability to tackle at least some portion of the digital divide in the city. The homeless, or those who can’t afford home broadband can gain access to the web through the WiFi connections at the links. Anybody with a WiFi-enabled phone can be connected to the web or make and receive phone calls without having to subscribe to a cellular plan. The kiosks are bringing some level of Internet access to those who otherwise might never have it.

There are obvious drawbacks to using the kiosks to solve the digital divide. The devices are outdoors and only the hearty are going to use them for very long during the winter. While the WiFi is fast, this isn’t going to make it easier for kids to do schoolwork or for people to take online training or do anything else that takes much time.

I’ve also been wondering how viable these kiosks might be in other cities? New York City is unique in that it’s both the largest US city and also one where people walk everywhere. That means a lot of potential viewers to support an advertising-funded model. Something similar is being built in London. How many other places in the US have the demographics to support this same funding model? Places like San Francisco, parts of Chicago and other major cities come to mind – but none of them have the same potential as New York City. There are other places that have a lot of people, like college campuses, but students are already connected to the web.

The idea is probably not going to be financially viable in more places until some other way to help fund them is found. There are cities that are probably willing to pay to support part of the cost of these systems – many cities have been searching for ways to expand public WiFi access. Getting the wireless companies to install 5G cell sites could be another difference maker. I’m sure that if these platforms become more widely available that other entrepreneurs will find ways to monetize them.

You have to give kudos to New York City for tackling this. Having kiosks spread all over the city is bringing benefits to citizens and providing access to those who would otherwise not have it. I wonder, though, if the city would be willing to step in to keep these operating if this trial is not financially sustainable? Cities have found many times that it’s not easy to kill a service that is widely popular.

Finally a la carte TV?

Charter just sent me an advertisement that got my attention. They are offering a TV package for $21.99 per month that includes my local network affiliates plus ten other channels that I get to select. This is the first TV service I’ve seen that provides a la carte choice. The statistics from Nielsen show that the average family watches around a dozen channels and this service could give people exactly that.

The local networks included are ABC, CBS. FOX, NBC and PBS. The offer I got then allows me to pick 10 out of 65 of the most popular cable networks. This includes a wide range of options like AMC, Bravo, CNN, the Disney Channel, the Food Network, HGTV, MTV, MSNBC, TBS, and USA. I was surprised to see the offer includes the option to pick the pricier sports networks like ESPN, ESPN2 and FS1. This price includes access to the apps of your selected channels. Charter also offers around 6,000 on-demand titles, although it’s hard to know how worthwhile this might be without signing up for the package.

The offer made it sound like this was an online OTT offering, but when I went to the web site I found that I can choose between delivery through a Charter settop box or delivery through a Charter broadband connection.

My first reaction to the offer is ask how Charter is able to offer this. There are specific FCC rules that define cable tiers and I’m not sure how Charter gets away with this as a traditional cable product. This doesn’t fit the FCC definition of a basic tier and certainly is not even close to an expanded basic tier. We’ve been told for years that cable companies cannot offer a la carte pricing for channels, and yet Charter is doing just that. I’m guessing that Charter does not consider this to be a true OTT offering since it’s only available to Charter broadband customers and never touches the open web.

I also wonder about the $21.99 price. I have a hard time thinking that Charter talked the local network affiliates across their huge footprint to agree to put their content onto the web, and so Charter is going to charge local franchise fees on the product with or without having the settop box. I also wonder if Charter will charge ancillary fees like a local broadcast fee or other bogus fees they charge to their normal cable customers. Anybody getting this through a settop box is clearly going to pay for the box. A customer buying this through a settop box might end up paying $35 to $40.

I also wonder if I can watch this programming when I’m traveling, which is a major consideration for me. If they can make that work then I again wonder how Charter can ship local affiliate programming over the web.

Regardless of how they are getting past all of the regulatory rules this has the potential to be a great product. Assuming it doesn’t really cost too much more than $21.99 it blows away the base prices for other OTT options like Sling TV, Playstation Vue and DirecTV Now. Those packages have an affordable basic option, but it always costs more when you add enough tiers to get the dozen channels you really want. As a traditional cable service it’s massively better than Charter’s basic offering for around the same price that doesn’t include any popular network. Any Charter basic customer ought to upgrade to this package. Interestingly Charter is charging a $20 install fee whether this is done using a cable box or over broadband, which further confirms that this is probably not considered as an OTT product.

Surveys have always shown a huge public desire for a la carte programming. People don’t like paying for the hundred channels they don’t watch. I have to think that this is going to put the pressure on the other cable companies to offer something similar.

This product seems to be aimed at cannibalizing Charter’s other TV offerings. This offer, perhaps more than anything else I’ve seen from a cable company shows that they recognize that a huge number of their customers are thinking of bailing on traditional cable TV. This offer offers a lower price option for customers to not completely cut the cord. Unless they pad this with ancillary fees it’s hard to see much margin in this package.

This package makes a lot of sense in places like the research triangle of North Carolina where Charter is competing against Google Fiber and AT&T fiber. It’s harder to understand why they are offering a low-margin cable option where they are competing only against DSL. Perhaps the reasoning is as simple as wanting to keep a few dollars margin rather than losing customers as cord cutters.

I thought about buying this, but I don’t really trust Charter and wonder what the real price tag is – it’s almost certainly not $21.99. I would also be unhappy if this only worked when I was at home on my Charter broadband connection. I am an unabashed Maryland Terrapins fan and I also wouldn’t buy this package since it doesn’t include the Big10 Network. Perhaps my own pickiness about channels shows the real challenge of offering a la carte programming. We each have our list of favorite channels and are likely to reject any OTT offer that excludes a network we insist on buying.

 

Anything but Maps

I guess this is the time of the year when governments start thinking about what should be put into next year’s budget. I’ve been party to at least three conversations over the last few weeks talking about how a budget priority ought to be to develop better mapping for broadband. These conversations make me cringe, because I think that maps ought to be the last priority – I have yet to see maps produce anything useful.

There are two kinds of maps. One is a map of broadband speeds. I’ve written about this a number of times. As long as the data in these maps is provided by ISPs the data will be highly suspect and nearly useless. No ISP is going to admit to having poor broadband on a map if their public relations posture is that they offer great broadband speeds. For technologies like DSL, the amount of broadband available can literally vary by customer with two neighbors with different speeds due to local issues with the copper. Even the idea of letting households report their speeds won’t work since users might have slow speeds due to non-network issues such as poor inside wiring or the use of an obsolete WiFi router. I know one of the stated purposes of these maps is to help spur politicians to fund broadband solutions, but since these maps overstate broadband coverage they probably do more harm than good.

The other kind of map, and the one I heard discussed recently, is one that shows the location of all of the fiber in a state or a county. On the surface this sounds like a good idea, because who wouldn’t want to know where somebody has already built fiber? But in practical terms this usually turns out to be more of an effort to identify where you can’t connect to fiber, because a huge portion of existing fiber in any community is off limits to new fiber ventures. I often hear the lament. Consider some of the following:

  • There are a number of entities that are not going to tell you the specific location of their fiber unless there is somehow an inescapable law forcing them to do so. Electric companies rarely share fibers and don’t want to show specific fiber assets because of concern for the safety of the electric grid. Cable companies almost never let a competitor share their existing fiber. Telcos are generally willing to sell expensive special access circuits anywhere they have fiber, but because of security concerns don’t like sharing their detailed maps.
  • Fibers can be off limits for other reasons. One of the most aggravating situations is fiber funded by a state or other government entity that cannot be shared with others. I know of several states that have extensive gigabit networks to anchor institutions, but which prohibit ISPs and even local governments from sharing the fiber. This is sometimes due to a state law which prohibits the government from using their assets to benefit non-state ventures, but often these prohibitions are due to lobbying during the funding process by the big ISPs who don’t want competition.
  • Fiber varies in condition. Many fibers built decades ago are in bad shape if they weren’t installed and maintained properly. Neglected conduits can fill up with dirt over time and become unusable. Fibers can be dead because a technician snipped a fiber somewhere in the network and didn’t resplice.
  • Fiber without access points can be worthless. It doesn’t do any good to get access to a fiber if the only place you can access it is miles from where you want to use it. Fiber owners are leery about creating new access points on existing fiber routes. The construction process of getting such access can accidently cut the fiber. They also know that adding any new splices to a fiber adds degradation and reduces the eventual life o the fiber. This means that in many cases, even when fiber can be shared, it can only be done so with terms dictated by the fiber owner.
  • Fiber owners rarely let outsiders have physical access to the fiber, meaning that a new connector must pay the owner for the labor to get access. I’ve seen fiber owners not give access due only to the fact that they don’t have the spare labor force in an area to support anything but their own needs.
  • Long haul fibers often are just passing through. I worked with a city that was right next to a major fiber route along an interstate that connected two major cities. They were amazed to find out that no carrier on that fiber was willing to serve them. The carriers only wanted to sell fiber routes between the two big markets and were not willing to kill a lucrative fiber to serve one smaller customer.

Spending the money to create a map of existing fiber is mostly a fool’s errand. Many of the fiber owners won’t cooperate. Even when they do, they are unlikely to provide details about where they might or might not allow access to the fiber – something they often only determine when they get a specific request.

Unfortunately, mapping sounds like a logical thing to do and it’s something that politicians can latch only to show they care about broadband shortages. I’ve repeatedly heard the argument that we can’t start to solve the broadband issue until we know what we already have in place. The reality is that it’s nearly impossible to create a meaningful map, and even should you do so it’s not going to really show fiber that is actually available for use. My advice is to use scarce broadband funds for anything else but mapping. There are plenty of unscrupulous consultants who will take money to create maps that they know will be worthless.

Broadband Advocates

I’m writing this blog while sitting in a meeting of NCHeartsGigabit, a non-profit started in North Carolina to promote the expansion of broadband. The group started five or six years ago as an informal group of folks who were interested in expanding broadband coverage around North Carolina. A few years ago they realized that they needed to move from talking to action and created a non-profit organization that now brings together the various broadband stakeholders to look for broadband solutions.

Today’s meeting is a great example of the progress they’ve made. There is a wide range of attendees representing state and local government, telco cooperatives and ISPs, bankers, foundations, equipment vendors, consultants and engineers. Most impressive is that they attracted both current Governor Roy Cooper and former Governor James B. Hunt to speak to the group. I think their presence highlights the importance that broadband coverage is now getting in this and other states. North Carolina is like the majority of states where there are some pockets of fiber-to-the-home, cities served by the big cable company networks, a smattering of rural areas served well by small telcos and cooperatives, and much of the rural parts of the state with poor or nonexistent broadband.

Sitting in this meeting reminds me how important it is to have what I call broadband advocates – folks like NCHeartsGigabit who have taken it as a mission to promote broadband. I’ve written many blogs about why broadband is vital for rural America and these are folks who get it.

I work around the country in communities of all sizes and I regularly interface with broadband advocates. Sometimes these groups are formal like a broadband committee that is empowered by the local government. I recently worked with such a group in Davis, California and it is one of the most knowledgeable and engaged advocacy groups I have ever worked with. I can tell that this group, which is also backed by widespread citizen support is going to hold the city’s feet to the fire on broadband issues.

Sometimes there is no formal group, but instead the public acts in mass to make their voices heard on the issue. As an example, I was at a public meeting in Pope County, Minnesota last year to give the findings from a broadband feasibility study. This is the most sparsely populated county in the state and there was little broadband outside of the county seat. The public meeting was standing-room only and the county officials heard story after story about how lack of broadband was affecting people’s lives. The County officials heard this message and have since provided funding in a public private partnership with a telco cooperative to bring broadband to the County.

The more common situation is that there only a few broadband advocates in a community who push for broadband. If these few broadband champions are persistence enough they can sometimes finally pull the rest of the community along. The best example of this I can think of is my friend Mark Ericsson who was the one-man force behind bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in Minnesota. He went to hundreds of local meetings and eventually got a lot of other volunteer help, but without his early persistence this project would have died in the early days.

His success is memorable because it is rare. Bringing fiber to a rural area requires a huge amount of effort. It means convincing politicians to support the idea. It means raising the money needed for doing the feasibility analysis. It means raising even more money for customer education and marketing and in many places a referendum. It takes yet more money to raise the funding. And unless a community wants to be an ISP it means finding an ISP partner to operate the business. More often than not, a community with only a few advocates can’t make it through this daunting gauntlet of tasks.

This is why I always recommend that communities with poor broadband make a push early to involve as much of the community as possible finding a solution. I don’t understand the sociology of why it works, but I know from practical experience that unleashing a group of broadband advocates often creates momentum that is hard to stop. Households in rural counties generally want broadband badly enough that many of them will agree to play some role in getting a broadband network. If a community really wants broadband, my first advice is to create the advocacy group first and then get out of their way.

Using Gigabit Broadband

Mozilla recently awarded $280,000 in grants from its Gigabit Communities Fund to projects that are finding beneficial uses of gigabit broadband. This is the latest set of grants and the company has awarded more than $1.2 million to over 90 projects in the last six years. For any of you not aware of Mozilla, they offer a range of open standard software that promotes privacy. I’ve been using their Firefox web browser and operating software for years. As an avid reader of web articles I daily use their Pocket app for tracking the things I’ve read online.

The grants this year went to projects in five cities: Lafayette, LA; Eugene, OR; Chattanooga, TN; Austin, TX; and Kansas City. Grants ranged from $10,000 to $30,000. At least four of those cities are familiar names. Lafayette and Chattanooga are two of the largest municipally-owned fiber networks. Austin and Kansas City have fiber provided by Google Fiber. Eugene is a newer name among fiber communities and is in the process of constructing an open access wholesale network, starting in the downtown area.

I’m not going to recite the list of projects and a synopsis of them is on the Mozilla blog. The awards this year have a common theme of promoting the use of broadband for education. The awards were given mostly to school districts and non-profits, although for-profit companies are also eligible for the grants.

The other thing these projects have in common is that they are developing real-world applications that require robust broadband. For example, several of the projects involve using virtual reality. There is a project that brings virtual reality to several museums and another that shows how soil erosion from rising waters and sediment mismanagement has driven the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw band of Indians from the Isle de Jean Charles in Louisiana.

I clearly remember getting my first DSL connection at my house after spending a decade on dial-up. I got a self-installed DSL kit from Verizon and it was an amazing feeling when I connected it. That DSL connection provided roughly 1 Mbps, which was 20 to 30 times faster than dial-up. That speed increase freed me up to finally use the Internet to read articles, view pictures and shop without waiting forever for each web site to load. I no longer had to download software updates at bedtime and hope that the dial-up connection didn’t crap out.

I remember when Google Fiber first announced they were going to build gigabit networks for households. Gigabit broadband brings that same experience. When Google Fiber announced the gigabit fiber product most cable networks had maximum speeds of perhaps 30 Mbps – and Google was bringing more than a 30-times increase in speed.

Almost immediately we heard from the big ISPs who denigrated the idea saying that nobody needs gigabit bandwidth and that this was a gimmick. Remember that at that time the CEO of almost every major ISP was on the record saying that they provided more than enough broadband to households – when it was clear to users that they didn’t.

Interestingly, since the Google Fiber announcement the big cable companies have decided to upgrade their own networks to gigabit speeds and ISPs like AT&T and Verizon rarely talk about broadband without mentioning gigabit. Google Fiber reset the conversation about broadband and the rest of the industry has been forced to pay heed.

The projects being funded by Mozilla are just a few of the many ways that we are finding applications that need bigger broadband. I travel to communities all over the country and in the last year I have noticed a big shift in the way that people talk about their home broadband. In the past people would always comment that they seemed to have (or not have) enough broadband speed to stream video. But now, most conversations about broadband hit on the topic of using multiple broadband applications at the same time. That’s because this is the new norm. People want broadband connections that can connect to multiple video streams simultaneously while also supporting VoIP, online schoolwork, gaming and other bandwidth-hungry applications. I now routinely hear people talking about how their 25 Mbps connection is no longer adequate to support their household – a conversation I rarely heard as recently as a few years ago.

We are not going to all grow into needing gigabit speeds for a while. But the same was true of my first DSL connection. I had that connection for over a decade, and during that time my DSL got upgraded once to 6 Mbps. But even that eventually felt slow and a few years later I was the first one in my area using the new Verizon FiOS and a 100 Mbps connection on fiber. ISPs are finally facing up to the fact that households are expecting a lot of broadband speed. The responsive ISPs are responding to this demand, while some bury their heads in the sand and try to convince people that their slower broadband speeds are still all that people need.