Categories
The Industry

Pinpointing Urban Broadband Gaps

The City of Chicago asked some researchers at the University of Chicago for help to identify the neighborhoods and the number of households that are not connected to broadband. It’s been well known that large numbers of people in cities don’t have broadband, but there have been no easy ways to pinpoint where solutions are needed. The researchers, along with folks from the University of California at Santa Barbara tackled the challenge and reported on their findings in this report.

The report highlights something that’s obvious but hard to do – you can’t tackle the digital divide until you can identify where help is needed. Cities often concentrate efforts on public housing because they understand the needs there, but there is no easy way to identify other blocks and neighborhoods that could use help solving the digital divide.

The research began with the U.S. Census ACS survey data and also the FCC Form 477 data – the researchers fully understood the weaknesses of both sets of data. They layered on Ookla speed test data in an attempt to identify areas that have broadband that underperforms other parts of the City. Finally, they layered in the results of earlier work where millions of online queries were made to ISPs asking for the availability of broadband at specific addresses.

They found the following, which is not a surprising list for anybody working with urban broadband:

  • Broadband adoption varied widely across Chicago with broadband penetration rates in neighborhoods varying from 58% to 93%.
  • Neighborhoods with the lowest broadband adoption rates correlated well with the majority-Black neighborhoods that reflect the City’s historical patterns of residential segregation.
  • Adoption rates also correlated well with other factors such as the percentage of the Hispanic population, low incomes, low education attainment, and a higher percentage of elderly residents.
  • 90% of Census blocks have at least one ISP that offers high-speed broadband. There was a big variance in the number of high-speed broadband options. 50.6% of Census blocks have only one high-speed option.

Some of the findings are not surprising. There have been numerous studies that have correlated race, income, level of education, and age to broadband adoption. The big difference with this study is that the researchers were able to specifically identify the parts of the City with the lowest broadband adoption and could pinpoint which of these factors likely played a role for each pocket.

Some of the findings are unexpected. If 90% of Census blocks have at least one high-speed ISP, then 10% of the Census blocks in Chicago do not have a high-speed broadband option. We’ve been spending a lot of money to make sure that rural areas get good broadband, but this finding means there may be far more people in cities without a good broadband option than rural folks. This should lead to some interesting discussions on how to use some of the BEAD grant funding.

The fact that 50% of Census blocks in Chicago have only one high-speed ISP means that half of the City is served by an ISP that holds a virtual broadband monopoly. In a large City that has multiple ISPs, this is probably a surprising finding.

One of the most important questions I have is how this research can be duplicated in other cities. If cities want to get the best results from digital literacy plans, they need to know where to concentrate resources. If cities want to push ISPs to make sure that everybody has at least one high-speed broadband option, they need to pinpoint those areas that don’t have fast broadband.

Categories
Technology

Millimeter Wave Cellular Service

Verizon is claiming to have the first real-world deployment of fast 5G cellular service. They launched an early version of what they are calling 5G in downtown Chicago and Minneapolis. This launch involves the deployment of millimeter wave spectrum.

A review of the cellular performance in FierceWireless showed exactly what was to be expected. This new service will only be available from a few cell sites in each city. For now the service can only be received using a Motorola Z3 handset that has been modified with a 5G Moto Mod adapter.

As would be expected, the millimeter wave broadband was fast, with peak speed measured at 500 Mbps. But also as expected, the coverage area is small, and millimeter wave spectrum is easily blocked by almost any impediment. Walking inside a building or around the corner of a building killed the broadband signal. The signal speed cut in half when received through a window. When not in the range of the millimeter wave signal the phone reverts to 4G, because Verizon is not yet close to implementing any actual 5G standards. This was not a trial of 5G technology – it’s a trial that shows that millimeter wave spectrum can carry a lot of data. That is especially easy to demonstrate when there are only one or two users on a given cell site.

Verizon announced a fee of $10 per month for the faster data speed, but almost immediately said the fee will be waived. This launch is another marketing gimmick letting Verizon get headlines proclaiming 500 Mbps cellular data speeds. The reviewer noted that the Verizon store in downtown Chicago was not ready to provide the product to anybody.

There are big issues with using millimeter wave spectrum for cellular service. I first ask what a cellphone user can do with that kind of speed. A cellphone can already be used to stream a video on a decent 4G connection. Other than software updates there isn’t any real need to download big files on a cellphone. It’s unlikely that the cellular carriers are going to let you tether speeds of that magnitude to a computer.

The other big issues will be the real-life limitations of millimeter wave spectrum outdoors. Since the frequency won’t pass through walls, this is strictly going to be an outdoor walking technology. As the FierceWireless review showed, it’s extremely easy to walk out of coverage. A cellular carrier will need to provide multiple cell sites in very close proximity in order to cover a given area.

It’s hard to think that there will ever be many subscribers willing to pay $10 more per month for a product with these limitations. How many people care about getting faster data speed outside, and only in areas of a city that are close to 5G transmitters? Would many cellular customers pay more so that they could save a few minutes per month to download software updates?

It’s hard to envision that the incremental revenues from customers will ever justify the cost of deploying multiple cell sites within close proximity of each other. T-Mobile already announced that they don’t plan to charge extra for 5G data when it’s available – there is no incentive to offer the product if there is no additional revenue.

What I found interesting is that Verizon also announced that they will be launching this same product in 20 additional urban markets soon, with 30 markets by the end of the year. The company will be using this launch to promote the new Galaxy S10 5G phone that will be able to utilize the millimeter wave spectrum. Verizon is touting the new service by saying that it will provide access to faster streaming, augmented-reality, gaming, and consumer and business applications.

If anything, this launch is a gimmick to sell more of the expensive 5G handsets. I wonder how many people will buy this phone hoping for faster service, only to realize that they have to stand outside close to a downtown millimeter wave cell site to use it. How many people want to go outside to enjoy faster gaming or augmented reality?

This is not to say that millimeter wave spectrum doesn’t have value, but that value will manifest when Verizon or somebody offers an indoor 5G modem that’s connected to a landline broadband connection. That would enable a cellphone to connect to faster gaming or augmented reality. That has some definite possibilities, but that is not cellular service, but rather an indoor broadband connection using a cellphone as the receiver.

I’m really starting to hate these gimmicks. Verizon and AT&T are both painting a false picture of 5G by making everybody think it will provide gigabit speeds everywhere – something that is not even listed as a goal of the 5G specifications. These gimmicks are pure marketing hype. The companies want to demonstrate that they are cutting edge. The gimmicks are aimed even more for politicians who the carriers are courting to support deregulation of broadband in the name of 5G. In the cease of this particular gimmick, Verizon might sell more Samsung 5G phones. But the gimmicks are just gimmicks and this trial is not a real product.

Categories
The Industry

Taxing the Internet

Starting on September 1, Chicago is trying something new and will be adding a 9% tax onto almost every service provided on-line. The city, along with the state of Illinois, is having huge budget problems and they are obviously leaving no stone unturned in looking to fill the tax coffers. But Chicago is the first local jurisdiction in many years that is trying to tax Internet-based services, something that will have wide repercussions.

So what are they trying to tax? The short answer is every information service that uses the Internet. For instance, the tax would apply to services that provide searchable databases—things like the LexisNexis system used by lawyers to find legal cases and precedents. As the data we use moves to the web this is a huge source of potential revenue for the city. Consider all of the services around today that charge people to access data. The Ordinance lists services like access to consumer credit reports, real-estate listings, car prices, stock prices, economic statistics, weather statistics, job listings, resumes, company profiles, consumer profiles, marketing data—any information or data that has been compiled, entered, and stored in a provider’s computer and then sold to others. The tax is also going to apply to taxable leases of personal property that include “cloud computing, cloud services, hosted environment, software as a service, platform as a service, or infrastructure as a service.

This tax does not apply to buying things over the Internet; it is not a sales tax on tangible assets, for instance, it would not apply to all of the physical products bought from Amazon. It would instead apply to companies like Netflix and Spotify and any other web service that sells electronic products. It would be up to the companies selling the onlune services to collect the tax and to remit the revenues to Chicago.

Obviously this new law will be challenged because it taxes a whole lot of things for the first time. It will also be interesting to see if this law is infringes on the protections provided several times by Congress in the Internet Tax Freedom Act as well as multiple times by the FCC, most recently as part of the Net Neutrality ruling.

But the city might have found a clever loophole. They are not taxing Internet access, but rather are taxing access to information and information services that happens to be stored somewhere else and then delivered over the Internet. It will be up to courts to sort out that nuance (or for Congress to pass a new law which is more specific).

One has to think that this law is very bad for businesses in Chicago. A 9% tax on anything is significant. Businesses spend huge amounts of money today on access to online databases and on cloud-based services that are moving their own information to the cloud. In effect, this law would tax companies for accessing their own data that they have chosen to store somewhere other than at their own business. I would not be surprised if this law drives businesses that spend heavily for such IT functions out of the city.

This also affects most people who live in the City directly. Almost everybody today who has an Internet connection buys some service over the web, be that a movie service like Netflix or Amazon prime or a music service like Spotify or Apple.

This kind of tax potentially adds a lot of cost for on-line service providers. Every town, county and state in the country has a different basis for assessing sales and service taxes like this one, and so this is going to require companies like Spotify to incorporate the tax assessment and collection process when they sell a subscription – something they don’t do today.

One would think that there will be a lot of avoidance of such a tax. It’s not hard for a business with multiple locations to be billed from a location that doesn’t get the tax. And since most on-line services don’t verify people’s addresses, somebody living in Chicago could most likely avoid these fees just by telling a Spotify that they live somewhere else. It’s hard to think that the City is ever going to be able to dig deep enough into online transaction to ever audit this.

But the real issue is not how the people in Chicago will deal with this. I am sure people and businesses there will take steps to avoid the new taxes if possible. The bigger issue is that other localities will copy the Chicago example if this holds up in Court. There is an old maxim that politicians have never seen a tax they don’t like, and so its not hard to foresee this tax spreading all over the country. And that is going to add costs to the online services we buy today, and since more and more things are migrating to the cloud this will become even more significant over time.

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