A New Partnership Model

Last year the New Hampshire legislature passed bill SB170 that allows municipalities to bond for a broadband network as long as the town doesn’t have existing broadband speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps.

Several small towns in the state have taken advantage of the new legislation and have entered into a partnership with Consolidated Communications, the incumbent telephone company serving much of the state. Consolidated became the incumbent after acquiring Fairpoint in February 2017.

The latest announced partnership is for Dublin, NH, a town of a little more than 1,500 residents. In the announced partnership, Dublin will finance a $1.3 million bond to build fiber to every resident and business in the town. The bond passed by a vote of 223 to 5. The town will own the network and has partnered with Consolidated to operate the business.

On paper, Consolidated will make the bond payments, but in fact, the residents of the town will make the payments. Consolidated plans to add a surcharge to each broadband bill of $11.50 per month. I assume the surcharge will go away once the bonds have been retired. Residents are not required to subscribe to broadband and won’t pay the surcharge unless they are a broadband customer.

The partnership in Dublin follows a similar partnership last year in Chesterfield, a town of 3,600. Other New Hampshire towns are weighing similar partnerships – with Consolidated and with other ISPs.

These partnerships are unique in that the towns are trusting their network to the incumbent telecom provider. Granted, Consolidated is new to the state and is probably being viewed as a breath of fresh air. The company is also investing in fiber in larger communities in the state and announced it will build fiber to pass over 86,000 residents in the state. There was a lot of frustration with the previous incumbent Fairpoint, which seemed unwilling to build fiber or even to upgrade DSL to faster speeds. Consolidated is currently embarking on improving DSL speeds for 500,000 customers.

These small communities know that lack of broadband is hurting their communities. People don’t want to buy houses in communities without good broadband, and communities without broadband foresee a bleak future as people settle instead in other communities around them.

Dublin and Chesterfield are joining a long list of towns that are willing to borrow the money needed to bring broadband. Every community in this situation looks around for the best operating model available to them – and in this case they chose the incumbent telco.

Legislators around the county need to take a look at the realities of municipal broadband. For every community that decides to become an ISP there are a lot more cities that instead partner with an existing ISP. The vast majority of cities have no interest in becoming a commercial ISP, but still can be hindered from finding partnerships by existing laws that prohibit municipal participation in broadband.

It’s time for legislators to ignore the lobbyists of the giant telcos and cable companies and do what’s right for their constituents and communities. These two New Hampshire towns will be better places to live when they get fiber – the residents and businesses will be able to fully partake in our modern online society and not be left behind. The New Hampshire legislature did the right thing last year and a whole lot of other states need to take heed.

We Need Penalties for Bad FCC Mapping Data

The FCC has been in the process of implementing revised mapping that will fix a lot of the problems with the current 477 broadband reporting process. The needed changes should be further boosted by the Broadband DATA Act that was signed into law on Monday. The new mapping will use polygons, and ISPs are supposed to show precise coverage areas for where they offer or don’t offer broadband.

If ISPs do this correctly – and that’s a big if – then this will fix at least one big problem that I call the town boundary problem. The current FCC data gathering asks ISPs to report the fastest speed they can deliver in a census block. Unfortunately, census blocks don’t stop at town boundaries, and so the FCC databases regularly assumes that all of the people outside of town can receive the same speeds as people inside the towns. If cable companies and fiber providers draw honest polygons that stop where their network stops, this boundary issue should disappear.

Unfortunately, the benefits of the new mapping are not so clear cut in rural areas. DSL providers and fixed wireless providers are also supposed to draw polygons. The rural polygons are supposed to only cover existing customers as well as places that can be connected within ten business days of a customer request for activation.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately looking through the claimed coverage on Form 477 by telco DSL and WISPs. Some of the things I see in the FCC database are massively erroneous and I’m not convinced that rural ISPs will clean up their act even if they are forced to use the polygons. Consider a few examples:

  • I’ve been working with a sparsely populated county that has large rural census blocks – which is pretty normal. The incumbent telco claims 25/3 Mbps coverage for almost all of the rural areas of the county. We’ve been working with the county to have residents perform speed tests and have seen almost no speeds faster than 5 Mbps, with some speeds on DSL below 1 Mbps. The incumbent telco does widely offer DSL, but the claimed 25/3 Mbps capability reported to the FCC is pure fantasy.
  • I’m working with another rural county where two WISPs claim to provide 100 Mbps wireless service covering the whole county. The WISPs don’t operate towers in the county and their nearest towers are in a nearby county. The county has undertaken a large canvass of residents to identify the ISPs in the county and so far hasn’t found even one customer of these WISPs. Even if they find a few customers, the WISPs can’t deliver 100 Mbps wireless broadband from towers more than 10 miles away – it’s doubtful they deliver that much speed even next to the existing towers.

I am not convinced that the revised FCC mapping is going to fix these two situations. The incumbent telco is going to say that they can install DSL within ten business days everywhere in the county – so they might not shrink their claimed coverage when going to the polygons. The problem with the telco isn’t the coverage area – it’s the claimed speeds. If the new FCC reporting still allows ISPs to overstate speeds, then nothing will be fixed in this county with the new mapping.

The two WISPs have a double problem. First, the coverage area of the two WISPs seem to be highly exaggerated. The WISPs are also exaggerating the broadband speeds available and there is zero chance that the WISPs are delivering speeds even remotely close to 100 Mbps broadband from a distant tower. These WISPs seem to be guilty of overstating both the coverage areas and the speeds. Unfortunately, the WISPs might still claim they can install in this area within 10 business days and might not shrink their claimed coverage. And unless they are somehow forced, the WISPs might not lower the claim of 100 Mbps.

There are real life consequences to the claims made in these two examples. In the first example, the FCC believes the whole county has access to 25/3 Mbps DSL, when in fact it looks like nobody has DSL even close to that speed. The county with the two WISPs is in even worse shape. The FCC considers this county completely covered with 100/10 Mbps broadband, when in fact there is no fast broadband coverage. In reality, the fastest broadband option in some parts of the county is a third WISP that markets speeds of 15 Mbps but mostly delivers less.

The consequences of the current mapping are dire for both of these counties. These counties are not included in the FCC’s eligible areas for $20 billion RDOF grants that was just published because the FCC thinks these counties have good broadband. If the ISP data being reported was honest, both counties would be eligible for these grants. These counties might be eligible for other grants that would allow the grant applicant to challenge the FCC speed data – but such challenges are a lot of work and don’t always get accepted.

I know there are hundreds of other counties in the same situation, and I have little faith that new mapping is going to fix this in rural areas. What is needed are severe fines for ISPs that overstate speed or coverage areas. In this case, the existing ISPs are causing huge economic harm to these counties and the fines ought to be set accordingly. I don’t understand what motivates ISPs to claim speeds that don’t exist – but if we are going to fix rural broadband, we need to start by kicking the bad ISP actors hard in the pocketbook.

The Broadband DATA Act allows for a challenge process so that localities can force honest reporting. The FCC needs to implement this immediately, without more study or delay.

Using Bigger Bandwidth Applications

The recent Cisco Annual Internet Report for 2018 – 2023 had one chart that I found intriguing. The purpose of Cisco’s report is to look at the future of broadband usage, and the report included a chart showing the amount of bandwidth needed for various web functions. To me this list was reminiscent of the list that the FCC made in 2015 when they set the definition of broadband at 25/3 Mbps – except that all of the item on this list require more bandwidth than the functions the FCC foresaw just five years ago.

I think Cisco’s point is that we find ways to use more broadband when it’s available. Most of the items on this list are already in use today, with the last few on this expected in the near future.

  • 4K security cameras – 16 Mbps
  • Streaming 4K Video – 16 Mbps
  • Virtual Reality Streaming – 17 Mbps
  • Self-Driving Car Diagnostics (done when your car pulls into the driveway) – 20 Mbps
  • Cloud Gaming – 30 Mbps
  • Streaming 8K Video – 51 Mbps
  • 8K Wall TV – 100 Mbps
  • Online HD Virtual Reality – 167 Mbps
  • Online 8K Virtual Reality – 500 Mbps

Cisco notes that these functions have become viable for the public as the amount of bandwidth to homes has grown. Anybody with broadband speeds of 125 Mbps or faster should be able to use all except the last few services. In the US a lot of homes now have Internet speeds in this range as Comcast, Charter and the other big cable companies have increased basic speeds to 100 – 200 Mbps homes with the introduction of DOCSIS 3.1. Charter increased my home last year from 60 Mbps to 135 Mbps.

4K security cameras have been on the market for a few years. They provide enough resolution to clearly identify people at the front door or outside a factory. The 16 Mbps bandwidth application is needed to upload video images into the cloud or to view the camera feed remotely over the web. Interestingly, a 4K security camera ought to have a fast upload speed to work properly – something that is still lacking for most cable company connections.

The web is now full of 4K videos on Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube and elsewhere. There are already web sites doing virtual reality streaming.

The self-driving car diagnostics is an interesting category. My wife’s 2019 Subaru already connects to the web every time she pulls into the driveway. This connection is likely not at 20 Mbps, but her car is doing diagnostics and uploading the results of driving to Subaru, and also making driving statistics available to us.

Cloud gaming is already here, although most applications are streaming at 4K or slower speeds. However, since several of the game companies have migrated online, the intensity and bandwidth needed for games is expected to increase, and Cisco pegs that at needed a 30 Mbps connection. What this speed requirement doesn’t tell you is that kids that routinely run several games simultaneously.

Bandwidth needs really shoot up for 8k video at 51 Mbps per stream. 8K content is already widely available on YouTube and other websites. 8K TVs have been around for a few years. Their prediction of 100 Mbps for an 8K TV assumes multiple simultaneous streams – something that sports fans routinely do.

Cisco also lists two near-future applications that will be real bandwidth hogs. They estimate that HD virtual reality done online will require 167 Mbps. They set 8K virtual reality as needing 500 Mbps. These functions are going to need faster broadband connections than what most homes have today. However, OpenVault reports that the number of US homes subscribing to a gigabit connection doubled in 2019 to 2.8% of all households. As that number keeps growing there will finally be a market for applications that need giant bandwidth. For years the industry has searched for gigabit applications, but nobody developed them since there have been so few homes that could use them. 8K virtual reality would bring true immersive virtual reality into the home – but ISPs are going to hate it. They love selling gigabit connections, but they don’t really expect homes to use that much bandwidth.

Expect a New Busy Hour

One of the many consequences of the coronavirus is that networks are going to see a shift in busy hour traffic. Busy hour traffic is just what is sounds like – it’s the time of the day when a network is busiest, and network engineers design networks to accommodate the expected peak amount of bandwidth usage.

Verizon reported on March 18 that in the week since people started moving to work from home that they’ve seen a 20% overall increase in broadband traffic. Verizon says that gaming traffic is up 75% as those stuck at home are turning to gaming for entertainment. They also report that VPN (virtual private network) traffic is up 34%. A lot of connections between homes and corporate and school WANs are using a VPN.

These are the kind of increases that can scare network engineers, because Verizon just saw a typical year’s growth in traffic happen in a week. Unfortunately, the announced Verizon traffic increases aren’t even the whole story since we’re just at the beginning of the response to the coronavirus. There are still companies figuring out how to give secure access to company servers and the work-from-home traffic is bound to grow in the next few weeks. I think we’ll see a big jump in video conference traffic on platforms like Zoom as more meeting move online as an alternative to live meetings.

For most of my clients, the busy hour has been in the evening when many homes watch video or play online games. The new paradigm has to be scaring network engineers. There is now likely going to be a lot of online video watching and gaming during the daytime in addition to the evening. The added traffic for those working from home is probably the most worrisome traffic since a VPN connection to a corporate WAN will tie up a dedicated path through the Internet backbone – bandwidth that isn’t shared with others. We’ve never worried about VPN traffic when it was a small percentage of total traffic – but it could become one of the biggest continual daytime uses of bandwidth. All of the work that used to occur between employees and the corporate server inside of the business is now going to traverse the Internet.

I’m sure network engineers everywhere are keeping an eye on the changing traffic, particularly to the amount of broadband used during the busy hour. There are a few ways that the busy hour impacts an ISP. First, they must buy enough bandwidth to the Internet to accommodate everybody. It’s typical to buy at least 15% to 20% more bandwidth than is expected for the busy hour. If the size of the busy hour shoots higher, network engineers are going to have to quickly buy a larger pipe to the Internet, or else customer performance will suffer.

Network engineers also keep a close eye on their network utilization. For example, most networks operate with some rule of thumb, such as it’s time to upgrade electronics when any part of the network hits some pre-determined threshold like 85% utilization. These rules of thumb have been developed over the years as warning signs to provide time to make upgrades.

The explosion of traffic due to the coronavirus, might shoot many networks past these warning signs and networks start experiencing chokepoints that weren’t anticipated just a few weeks earlier. Most networks have numerous possible chokepoints – and each is monitored. For example, there is usually a chokepoint going into neighborhoods. There are often chokepoints on fiber rings. There might be chokepoints on switch and router capacity at the network hub. There can be the chokepoint on the data pipe going to the world. If any one part of the network gets overly busy, then network performance can degrade quickly.

What is scariest for network engineers is that traffic from the reaction to the coronavirus is being layered on top of networks that already have been experiencing steady growth. Most of my clients have been seeing year-over-year traffic volumes increases of 20% to 30%. If Verizon’s experience in indicative of what we’ll all see, then networks will see a year’s typical growth happen in just weeks. We’ve never experienced anything like this, and I’m guessing there aren’t a lot of network engineers who are sleeping well this week.

Quantifying the Homework Gap – Finally a Definitive Study

The Quello Center that is part of the Department of Media and Information at Michigan State University just released a definitive study that looks at the impact of lack of broadband on students. The study was done in conjunction with Merit Networks, the organization that acts as the ISP for schools in Michigan.

I describe the study as definitive because it used study techniques that isolate the impact of broadband from other factors such as sex, race, and family income. The study was done in conjunction with the schools to allow Quello researchers to get blind performance results from student participants without violating student confidentiality. The study involved 3,258 students in grades 8 – 11 in Michigan from schools described as being in rural areas.

The study showed significant performance differences for students with and without home broadband. Students with no Internet access at home tested lower on a range of metrics including digital skills, homework completion and grade point average. Some of the specific findings include

  • Students with home Internet access had an overall grade point average of 3.18 while students with no Internet access at home had a GPA of 2.81.
  • During the study, 64% of students with no home Internet access sometimes left homework undone compared to only 17% of students with a high-speed connection at home.
  • Students without home Internet access spend an average of 30 minutes longer doing homework each evening.
  • The study showed that students with no Internet at home often had no alternative access to broadband. 35% of students with no broadband also didn’t have a computer at home. 34% of students had no access to alternate sources of broadband such as a library, church, community center, or homes of a neighbor or relative.

One of the most important findings was that there is a huge gap in digital skills for students without home broadband. To quote the study, “The gap in digital skills between students with no home access or cell phone only and those with fast or slow home Internet access is equivalent to the gap in digital skills between 8th and 11th grade students.” It’s almost too hard to grasp that the average 11th grade student without home broadband had the equivalent digital skills an 8th grader with home broadband. Digital skills not only involves competence in working with technology, but also is manifested by the ability to work efficiently, to communicate effectively with others, and managing and evaluation information.

Students with lower digital skills don’t perform as well on standardized tests. Students who are even modestly below average in digital skills (one standard deviation below the mean) rank nearly 7 percentiles lower on their total SAT/PSAT scores, 5 percentiles lower in math, and 8 percentiles lower in evidence-based reading and writing. Students who are even moderately lower in digital skills are also 19% less likely to consider a STEM-related career (that’s science, technology, engineering, and math).

The study also showed lower expectations for students without broadband at home. For example, 65% of students with home broadband have plans to pursue post-secondary education. Only 47% of students with no Internet access have such plans.

This study is significant because it is the first study I know of that isolates the impact of home broadband from other factors. There are other studies that have shown that lack of broadband hurt school performance, but in other studies it was impossible to isolate Internet access from factors like household income levels.

This study should be a wake-up call for getting broadband into the home of every student. It’s not tolerable to allow a big percentage of our kids to underperform in school due to the lack of home broadband. We know that underperforming in school translates to underperforming in lifetime earnings, and so the cost to society for not fixing the homework gap is far larger than the cost to find a broadband solution. If you are lucky enough to have a home computer – do the math.

Disconnected – A Documentary about the Broadband Gap

Today I’m touting a documentary created by WRAL TV from Raleigh, North Carolina. The documentary is called Disconnected and looks at the plight of those living without home broadband. I have to disclose that I have a role in the documentary as the industry talking head that comments on the various topics.

The documentary shows what it’s like to not have broadband at home. The majority of Americans have good broadband and many of them have no idea that just a few miles outside their towns and cities that people struggle from having poor broadband or no broadband. Homes without broadband struggle with things that most people take for granted – kids doing homework online, connecting to a doctor’s website, working from home. Communities without broadband struggle because they are losing businesses that need broadband and they can’t attract new businesses.

The documentary was created before the coronavirus pandemic which has heightened the need for home broadband. How can we send students and workers home and then expect them to function in homes that don’t have broadband?

Below is the advertisement for the documentary. It will also be available starting this evening on the WRAL website. If you’re in North Carolina, note that the documentary actually airs at 7:30 tonight.

The primary purpose of this documentary is to inform the public that a lot of the people in North Carolina don’t have home broadband. But this is not North Carolina specific because this same documentary could be made about every rural county in America that doesn’t have a broadband solution. As somebody who constantly works to improve rural broadband, I am still surprised when I talk to urban folks who have no idea that many homes don’t have broadband. Hopefully, this documentary will open a few such eyes – because we need everybody’s support to find solutions to close the rural broadband gap.

A Message to DC – A Quick Fix for the Broadband Gap

Millions of people without broadband are being sent home to work. Even more millions of households without broadband have kids coming home to finish out the school year. It’s not realistic to expect many of these folks to shelter in place to wait out the coronavirus emergency if they don’t have broadband at home. These folks are going to go out every day to find broadband.

There is one way that the federal government can quickly provide broadband to those without it. The government should buy piles of portable WiFi hotspots that work on cellular networks and distribute them to homes that need the broadband to function.

Distributing hotspots is only half of the needed solution. The cellular carriers will want to be compensated for all of the broadband usage on the cellular networks, and the federal government should just write a lump sum checks to Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and the smaller cellular carriers so that people using these hotspots can get the broadband for free during the crisis. We can’t let the carriers bill this as if it is normal cellular data or everybody working at home would get a bill for $500 per month. One interesting idea is for the cellular carriers to connect these hotspots to the newly released spectrum band they’re touting as 5G – they could then claim that 5G saved the day!

The federal government should also distribute funding now to beef up cellular networks. The FCC was already planning to distribute $9 billion later this year using the newly created 5G Fund which is aimed at improving rural 4G. Let’s fund this now out of coronavirus funding and ask the carriers for an accelerated plan to improve cellular data coverage now.

The final challenge is getting the WiFi hotspots into the right hands. This could be done through employers asking for hotspots for employees and for school systems asking for hotspots for students. Those two groups could do the heavy lifting of identifying the homes that have the most immediate need for a broadband solution.

Most urban ISPs have announced plans to make it easier on folks without broadband, but none of those plans helps the millions of rural homes without broadband today. As a country, there may be no better use of federal money than to enable millions of homes to comply with stay-at-home directives while remaining productive. Every employee we can keep working is one less person that is going to need other assistance due to the crisis. Everybody benefits if we can keep students on track to finish the school year.

I’ve heard giant numbers like a trillion dollars, being thrown around that will be needed to keep the economy afloat. What I’m suggesting would cost only a tiny percentage of that. It’s also an idea that will create a greater dollar benefit than the cost of the program. Keeping folks working and paying taxes might be the best possible use of federal funding during this emergency.

We could skip the hotspots and instead subsidize data plans on cellphones. However, using a hotspot makes it easier to create one connection per household. We also don’t want the hotspots to roam, and activating data on cellphones would likely invite people to leave the home.

We also need a fast solution. People need broadband to work at home now, not 3 months or 6 months from now. We don’t want to create a lot of red tape for this and we don’t run this funding through existing programs like SBA or E-Rate, because doing so means nobody gets a hotspot this year. This is a national emergency and we need to treat it as such.

When this crisis is over we hopefully will finally have the discussion about providing more funding for building rural broadband infrastructure – but those are multi-year plans and don’t help with the immediate problem. We need a solution for those without broadband or we’re going to pay a big price for inaction. Getting a mobile hotspot to somebody trying to work in a home provides a solution immediately.

If the federal government doesn’t tackle this, states might want to consider it. Nobody understands more than local politicians the societal benefit of keeping people working. We can either spend a few hundred dollars per home to get broadband or we can spend thousands for the same homes if people can’t work and are unemployed – the math is simple.

The FCC is Redlining Rural America

The recent statistics of broadband usage in the US provide evidence that, unwittingly, the FCC is redlining rural America. OpenVault recently released its Broadband Industry Report for 4Q 2019 that tracks the way that the US consumes data. OpenVault has been collecting broadband usage for more than ten years, and the last two reports have been eye-opening.

The most important finding is that the average data consumed by households grow by 27% from 2018 to 2019 – in the fourth quarter of 2019 the average US home used 344 gigabytes of data, up from 275 gigabytes a year earlier.

The report also looks at power users – homes that consume a lot of broadband. They report that nearly 1% of homes now use 2 terabytes per month and 7.7% use over 1 terabyte per month. A terabyte is 1,000 gigabytes. The percentage of homes using over 1 terabyte almost doubled from 4% a year earlier. This statistic is important because it shows the number of homes that are hitting the 1 terabyte data caps of companies like Comcast, AT&T, Cox, and Mediacom is quickly growing.

Homes are starting to buy gigabit broadband when it’s available and affordable. 2.8% of homes in the country now subscribe to gigabit speeds, up 86% from the 1.5% of homes that bought gigabit in 2018.

54% of homes now purchase broadband plans with speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. Another 23.6% of homes are subscribing to broadband between 50-75 Mbps. This means that nearly 78% of homes are subscribing to data plans of greater than 50 Mbps. The average subscribed speed grew significantly in 2019, up from 103 Mbps to 128 Mbps.

What’s the point of all of these statistics? They show that broadband usage and speeds in urban America is growing by leaps and bounds while broadband in rural America sits still. Urban broadband speeds have increased so rapidly that the average home in the US in 2019 got speeds that were 25 Mbps faster than what they had in 2018. The average speed of broadband in 2019 was more than 100 Mbps faster than the FCC definition of broadband. I contend that FCC actions and inaction have now culminated in the redlining of rural broadband households. It may sound drastic to call the FCC inaction redlining, but I think the word fits the situation.

Redlining historically has been used to describe how big corporations discriminate against poor neighborhoods. Redlining is more often due to neglect than to conscious decisions – grocery stores don’t consider poor neighborhoods as places to build; cable companies and telcos make upgrades in neighborhoods where they have the most customers or the highest revenue per customer. The consequence of redlining is that some neighborhoods get left behind.

The FCC has taken a series of actions that is dooming large parts of rural America to poor broadband for decades to come. One of the most egregious actions by the FCC is refusing to consider a faster definition of broadband, although every statistic shows that urban America is leaping far ahead of rural America and the broadband gap is now growing rapidly each year.

The decision to stick with the outdated 25/3 definition of broadband then boxes the FCC into having to allow federal grant dollars go to build technologies that meet the 25/3 definition of broadband. Considering how fast broadband speeds and consumption are growing, this is an amazingly shortsighted decision when considering that that grant recipients for programs like RDOF have six years to construct the new networks. There will be ISPs still constructing 25/3 broadband networks using federal money in 2026.

Next, the FCC has made it clear that any rural area that gets any federal or state subsidy – even if it’s to support 25/3 Mbps, or to support satellite broadband is not going to be eligible for future federal assistance. Once the FCC sticks you with poor broadband, they’re done with you.

Finally, the FCC continues to hide behind ludicrously dreadful maps that show good broadband available for millions of homes that have no broadband option. The rules for the 477 data collection are lousy, but that’s only half the problem, and I can’t recall ever hearing any discussion at the FCC about penalizing ISPs that file fraudulent speeds. There should be huge financial penalties for a telco that claims 25/3 speeds when nobody gets speeds even close to that or for WISPs that claim 100 Mbps speeds and deliver 15 Mbps. These ISPs are stopping whole counties from being eligible for broadband grants.

All of these FCC actions and inaction have doomed huge swaths of rural America from even participating in federal grant programs to get better broadband. If that’s not redlining, I don’t know what else to call it.

Low-orbit Satellite Security

I’ve been watching the progress of the low-orbit satellite providers which are promising to bring broadband solutions across the planet. There has been some serious movement since the last time I discussed their status.

On January 29, Starlink launched its latest round of low-orbit satellites, bringing the number in space to 242. Not all of these will be delivering broadband. The first half dozen satellites were test units to try out various concepts. Starlink will use 10 of the most recent batch to test the ability to ‘de-orbit’ and bring satellites back to earth.

The latest Starlink satellites weigh 260 kilograms, up from 227 kilograms for the first satellites launched in May 2019. The latest satellites are designed to be 100% demisable, meaning they will completely burn up in the atmosphere upon reentry.

Starlink still has a long way to go to meet its business plan. If they meet all of the planned launches this year, they’ll have 1,500 satellites in orbit. They’ve told the FCC that they plan to have 6,000 satellites in orbit by the end of 2024 and 12,000 by the end of 2027. As they add new satellites the company must also replace the short-lived satellites that only have a planned life of about five years. That means by 2026 they’ll have to launch 1.200 satellites a year forever just to maintain the first fleet of 6,000 satellites.

We also saw some progress being made by OneWeb, the satellite company founded by Greg Wyler with backing from Virgin, Airbus, SoftBank, and Qualcomm. The company launched 6 satellites last year. They recently launched 34 more satellites and the company’s goal is to put 200 satellites in orbit this year.

These launches show that the industry is for real and that over the next few years we’ll see big numbers of low-orbit satellites in the sky. We finally heard just last week from Elon Musk that he does not intend to compete with rural ISPs and will only sell satellite broadband in the most remote places. He still hasn’t disclosed prices – but if he doesn’t compete with existing ISPs he’s not going to have to be competitively priced. Starlink hints that it might add some customers by the end of this year, but the serious launch of broadband service will start next year.

It’s starting to feel odd that these companies won’t talk about broadband speeds. Like with any broadband technology, the degree of oversubscription will affect broadband performance. The first customers to use the satellites might see blazingly fast speeds – but speeds will lower quickly as customers are added. One of the biggest temptations facing these companies will  be to oversubscribe the technology.

Like with any new technology, satellite broadband brings a new set of worries. There is a recent article on Fastcompany by William Akoto asking how we’re going to protect satellite fleets from hacking. If the proposed satellite constellations grow as promised, there will be tens of thousands of satellites circling the earth delivering broadband. Akoto points out that the satellite supply chain is far from secure and open to tampering. The satellites are being constructed by a number of different vendors using off-the-shelf components. The satellites are not much more than a router connected to a solar array.

It’s clear that there are virtually no hardware or software system that can’t be hacked by a determined effort. The satellites will fly over every country on earth, giving ample opportunity for hackers to hack into satellites directly overhead. The satellites will be controlled by earth station hubs, which also might be hacked in the same manner that happens to big corporate server farms.

The consequences of hacking for satellites are direr than with land-based technology. Hackers could turn satellites off making them dead weights in space. They could rearrange the solar collectors to make them run out of power. Hackers could direct all satellites to come back to earth and burn up in the atmosphere.

In the worse scenario, hackers could crash satellites together creating a lot of space debris. NASA scientist Donald Kessler described the dangers of space debris in 1978 in what’s now described as the Kessler syndrome. Every space collision creates more debris and eventually creates a cloud of circling debris that makes it impossible to maintain satellites in space. Many scientists think such a cloud is almost inevitable, but malicious hacking could create such a cloud quickly.

Hacking won’t only affect rural broadband. The ability of satellites to connect remote locations into a unified network is going to be attractive to a wide range of industries. It’s not hard to imagine the satellite constellations being used to connect to critical infrastructure like rural electric grids, rural dams, and industries of all sorts that connect to rural or third-world locations.

Industry experts are already calling for regulation of satellite security. They believe that governments need to step in to mandate that satellite constellations be as safe as possible. While this could be done voluntarily by the industry there doesn’t seem to be any such effort afoot. The consequences of not getting this right could be a disaster for the planet.

A New Paradigm for Conventions?

In the last few days, I’ve seen numerous notices of telecom conventions and meetings that are being canceled or postponed. Many big corporations that attend conventions have already decided that their employees can’t undertake non-essential travel. It’s likely soon that local governments are going to cancel conventions even if meeting organizers won’t. It seems, at least for this year, that big public telecom events will be a rare event, if they happen at all.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few days and it seems like a good time for us to reexamine how we hold telecom conventions. When you consider how much technology has changed, the way we hold telecom conventions hasn’t changed in the last forty years since I’ve been going to them. There is usually a string of speakers during the day using PowerPoint presentations (used to be overhead slides), mixed in with some panels of folks discussing various topics. There are vendors that pay for coffee breaks and meals hoping that people will stop by their booth to chat.

You probably wouldn’t be able to tell much difference if you were plopped down into a convention from twenty years ago – other than the laptops were larger and the speakers wwere talking about the big breakthroughs in DSL. There is one big difference I’ve noted that should be of concern to convention planners – there are not nearly as many young people attending the conventions today as there was twenty years ago. They find them boring and unproductive.

I got a few glimpses of a different way to meet. FierceWireless just announced a completely online ‘convention’ for 5G. I call it a convention because it stretches over multiple days and includes an array of speakers you’d expect to see at a live 5G convention. I also got a notice that WISPAmerica 2020 is going virtual – no details yet of how they’ll do it.

Having virtual portions of conventions is an idea that’s long overdue. It’s got to be a lot easier to assemble good speakers for virtual presentations. Virtual speakers can devote a few hours rather than a few days to talk at a convention. People like FCC Commissioners or presidents of major telecom firms might speak at a lot more events if they are able to speak from their office for an hour instead of making a trip. Online sessions might also make it easier to ask questions of presenters – sessions are freed from the constraints of clearing out meeting halls for the next presentation, and question sessions could be extended as needed.

If we really want to duplicate the convention experience, then having virtual speakers is not enough. The main reason that a lot of people, including me, go to conventions is the networking and the chance to make new connections in the industry. As a consultant, I invariably meet a few potential new clients and I get to catch up with existing clients. I also go to check in with the various vendors to see what’s new.

I don’t think it would be hard to duplicate the networking in a virtual convention. Speakers, vendors, and attendees could post calendars and make appointments to speak virtually with each other for 15 or 30-minute slots. This would be a lot more productive than a live convention because I always come home feeling like I’ve not met with everybody that I should have.

The coronavirus isn’t going to last forever, and it will die out or we’ll eventually find an effective vaccine. Virtual meetings like the one I describe above could keep communications in the industry flowing this year and not put the industry on hold. If anything, the giant increase in the demand to work-from-home and the demand for telemedicine means that the broadband industry will likely be busier than ever.

My hope would be that after this crisis is over that we don’t return to the existing convention format. Future live conventions would benefit by these same ideas. Bringing in virtual speakers can improve the quality of the message being conveyed. Most conventions have a few good speakers but a host of the same folks that speak year after year. Having a mix of live and virtual speakers would be an upgrade. Scheduling meetings between attendees is an idea that’s 10-years overdue.

This would also be a boon to vendors. The current system of having valuable employees man booths for several days to then meet with folks during hurried time is incredibly nonproductive. Having a reservation system to easily schedule virtual meetings with vendors would be incredibly attractive to me. It ought to also be attractive to vendors who get quality time with interested attendees instead of trying to juggle several folks standing around their booth at the same time. I can’t tell you how many vendor booths I’ve walked away from because they were busy with somebody else.

Of course, this raises the question in the future of also having virtual attendees. Paying a fee could give virtual attendees access to the speaker sessions. It would also allow for one-on-one meetings with speakers and vendors. I know there are many conventions that I’ve considered attending but that didn’t fit into my schedule. I would participate in more events virtually if I could buy a half-day, full-day, or several-day pass, priced appropriately.

The above scenario is a big break from the way we’ve traditionally held conventions. I know that I would find the virtual format I’ve described to be a lot more efficient and productive than what actually happens at conventions. We already have the technology that could make this work – although somebody has to bundle this into a convention product. There are folks who attend conventions to get out of the office and have a beer with colleagues – and that’s one reason conventional conventions won’t totally lose their appeal in the future. But if we want to make conventions relevant to the next generation of telecom employees and make them more efficient for everybody today, then mixing a virtual component into conventions ought to become the new norm.