In an interview with Re/code Craig Barrett, the CEO of Access for Alphabet said that Google is looking at wireless last mile technologies. Google is not the only one looking at this. The founder of Aereo has announced a new wireless initiative to launch this summer in Boston under the brand name of Starry. And Facebook says it is also investigating the technology.
The concept is not new. I remember visiting an engineer in Leesburg, Virginia back in the 90s who had developed a wireless local loop technology. He had working prototypes that could beam a big data pipe for the time (I’m fuzzily remembering a hundred Mbps back when DSL was still delivering 1 Mbps). His technology was premature in that there wasn’t any good technology at the time for bringing fast broadband to the curb.
As usual there will be those that jump all over this news and declare that we no longer need to build fiber. But even should one of these companies develop and perfect the best imaginable wireless technology there is still going to have to be a lot of fiber built. All of these new attempts to develop wireless last mile technologies share a few common traits that are dictated by the nature of wireless spectrum.
First, to get good the kind of big bandwidth that Google wants to deliver, the transmitter and the customer have to be fairly close together. Starry is talking about a quarter mile deliver distance. One characteristic of any wireless signal is that the signal weakens with distance. And the higher the frequency of the spectrum used, the faster the signal deteriorates.
Second, unless there is some amazing breakthrough, a given transmitter will have a fixed and limited number of possible paths that be established to customers. This characteristic makes it very difficult to connect to a lot of customers in a densely populated area and is one of the reasons that wireless today is more normally used for less densely populated places.
Third, the connection for this kind of point-to-multipoint network must be line of sight. In an urban environment every building creates a radio ‘shadow’ and block access to customers sitting behind that building. This can be overcome to a small degree with technologies that bounce the signal from one customer to another – but such retransmission of a signal cuts the both the strength of the signals and the associated bandwidth.
However, Google has already recognized that there are a lot of people unwilling or unable to buy a gigabit of bandwidth from them on fiber. In Atlanta the company is not just selling a gigabit connection and is hitting the street with a 100 Mbps connection for $50. A good wireless system that had access to the right kind of spectrum could satisfy that kind of bandwidth to a fairly reasonable number of customers around a given transmitter. But it would be technically challenging to try to do the same with gigabit bandwidth unless each transmitter served fewer customers (and had to be even closer to the customer). A gigabit wireless network would start looking a lot like the one I saw year ago in Virginia where there was a transmitter for just a few nearby customers – essentially fiber to the curb with gigabit wireless local loops.
But if Starry can do what they are shooting for – the delivery of a few hundred Mbps of bandwidth at an affordable price will be very welcome today and would provide real competition to the cable companies that have monopolies in most urban neighborhoods. But, and here is where many might disagree with me, the time is going to come in a decade or two where 200 Mbps of bandwidth is going to become just as obsolete as first generation DSL has become in the twenty years since it was developed.
Over the next twenty years we can expect the full development of virtual and augmented reality so that real telepresence is available – holographic images of people and places brought to the home. This kind of technology will require the kind of bandwidth that only fiber can deliver. I think we’ll start seeing this just a few years from now. I can already imagine a group of teenagers gathering at one home, each with their own headset to play virtual reality games with people somewhere else. That application will very easily require a gigabit pipe just a few years from now.
I welcome the idea of the wireless last mile if it serves to break the cable monopoly and bring some real price competition into broadband. It’s a lot less appealing if the wireless companies decide instead to charge the same high prices as the incumbents. It sounds like the connections that Starry is shooting for are going to fast by today’s standards, but I’m betting that within a few decades that the technology will fall to the wayside – like every technology that doesn’t bring a fast wire to the home.