CAF II and Wireless

Frontier Communications just announced that they are testing the use of wireless spectrum to complete the most rural portions of their CAF II build-out requirement. The company accepted $283 million per year for six years ($1.7 billion total) to upgrade broadband to 650,000 rural homes and businesses. That’s a little over $2,600 per location passed. The CAF II program requires that fund recipients increase broadband to speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up.

Frontier will be using point-to-multipoint radios where a transmitter is mounted on a tower with the broadband signal then sent to a small antenna at each customer’s location. Frontier hasn’t said what spectrum they are using, but in today’s environment it’s probably a mix of 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz WiFi spectrum and perhaps also some 3.65 GHz licensed spectrum. Frontier, along with CenturyLink and Consolidated told the FCC a year ago that they would be interested in using the spectrum in the ‘citizens’ radio band’ between 3.7 MHz and 4.2 MHz for this purpose. The FCC opened a docket looking into this spectrum in August and comments in that docket were due to the FCC last week.

I have mixed feelings about using federal dollars to launch this technology. On the plus side, if this is done right this technology can be used to deliver bandwidth up to 100 Mbps, but in a full deployment speeds can be engineered to deliver consistent 25 Mbps download speeds. But those kinds of speeds require an open line-of-sight to customers, tall towers that are relatively close to customers (within 3 – 4 miles) and towers that are fiber fed.

But when done poorly the technology delivers much slower broadband. There are WISPs using the technology to deliver speeds that don’t come close to the FCC’s 10/1 Mbps requirement. They often can’t get fiber to their towers and they will often serve customers that are much further than the ideal distance from a tower. Luckily there are many other WISPs using the technology to deliver great rural broadband.

The line-of-sight issue is a big one and this technology is a lot harder to make work in places with lots of trees and hills, making it a difficult delivery platform in Appalachia and much of the Rockies. But the technology is being used effectively in the plains and open desert parts of the country today.

I see downsides to funding this technology with federal dollars. The primary concern is that the technology is not long-lived. The electronics are not generally expected to last more than seven years and then the radios must be replaced. Frontier is using federal dollars to get this installed, and I am sure that the $2,600 per passing is enough to completely fund the deployment. But are they going to keep pouring capital into replacing radios regularly over time? If not, these deployments would be a sick joke to play on rural homes – giving them broadband for a few years until the technology degrades. It’s hard to think of a worse use of federal funds.

Plus, in many of areas where the technology is useful there are already WISPs deploying point-to-multipoint radios. It seems unfair to use federal dollars to compete against firms who have made private investments to build the identical technology. The CAF money ought to be used to provide something better.

I understand Frontier’s dilemma. In the areas where they took CAF II money they are required to serve everybody who doesn’t have broadband today. My back-of-the envelope calculations tells me that the CAF money was not enough for them to extend DSL into the most rural parts of the CAF areas since extending DSL means building fiber to feed the DSLAMs.

As I have written many times I find the whole CAF program to be largely a huge waste of federal dollars. Using up to $10 billion to expand DSL, point-to-multipoint, and in the case of AT&T cellular wireless is a poor use of our money. That same amount of money could have seeded matching broadband that could be building a lot of fiber to these same customers. We only have to look at state initiatives like the DEED grants in Minnesota to see that government grant money induces significant private investment in fiber. And as much as the FCC doesn’t want to acknowledge it, building anything less than fiber is nothing more than a Band-aid. We can and should do better.

The WISP Dilemma

For the last decade I have been working with many rural communities seeking better broadband. For the most part these are places that the large telcos have neglected and never provided with any functional DSL. Rural America has largely rejected the current versions of satellite broadband because of the low data caps and because the latency won’t support streaming video or other real-time activities. I’ve found that lack of broadband is at or near the top of the list of concerns in communities without it.

But a significant percentage of rural communities have access today to WISPs (wireless ISPs) that use unlicensed frequency and point-to-multipoint radios to bring a broadband connection to customers. The performance of WISPs varies widely. There are places where WISPs are delivering solid and reliable connections that average between 20 – 40 Mbps download. But unfortunately there are many other WISPs that are delivering slow broadband in the 1 – 3 Mbps range.

The WISPs that have fast data speeds share two characteristics. They have a fiber connection directly to each wireless transmitter, meaning that there are no bandwidth constraints. And they don’t oversubscribe customers. Anybody who was on a cable modem five or ten years ago understands oversubscription. When there are too many people on a network node at the same time the performance degrades for everybody. A well-designed broadband network of any technology works best when there are not more customers than the technology can optimally serve.

But a lot of rural WISPs are operating in places where there is no easy or affordable access to a fiber backbone. That leaves them with no alternative but to use wireless backhaul. This means using point-to-point microwave radios to get bandwidth to and from a tower.

Wireless backhaul is not in itself a negative issue. If an ISP can use microwave to deliver enough bandwidth to a wireless node to satisfy the demand there, then they’ll have a robust product and happy customers. But the problems start happening when networks include multiple ‘hops’ between wireless towers. I often see WISP networks where the bandwidth goes from tower to tower to tower. In that kind of configuration all of the towers and all of the customers on those towers are sharing whatever bandwidth is sent to the first tower in the chain.

Adding hops to a wireless network also adds latency and each hop means it takes longer for the traffic to get to and from customers at the outer edges of one of these wireless chains. Latency, or time lag, in signal is an important factor in being able to perform real-time functions like data streaming, voice over IP, gaming, or functions like maintaining connections to an on-line class or a distant corporate WAN.

Depending upon the brand of the radios and the quality of the internet backbone connection, a wireless transmitter that is connected directly to fiber can have a latency similar to that of a cable or DSL network. But when chaining multiple towers together the latency can rise significantly, and real-time applications start to suffer at latencies of 100 milliseconds or greater.

WISPs also face other issues. One is the age of the wireless equipment. There is no part of our industry that has made bigger strides over the past ten years than the manufacturing of subscriber microwave radios. The newest radios have significantly better operating characteristics than radios made just a few years ago. WISPs are for the most part relatively small companies and have a hard time justifying upgrading equipment until it has reached its useful life. And unfortunately there is not much opportunity for small incremental upgrades of equipment. The changes in the technologies have been significant enough that that upgrading a node often means replacing the transmitters on towers as well as subscriber radios.

The final dilemma faced by WISPs is that they often are trying to serve customers that are in locations that are not ideally situated to receive a wireless signal. The unlicensed frequencies require good line-of-sight and also suffer degraded signals from foliage, rain and other impediments and it’s hard to serve customer reliably who are surrounded by trees or who live in places that are somehow blocked by the terrain.

All of the various issues mean that reviews of WISPs vary as widely as you can imagine. I was served by a WISP for nearly a decade and since I lived a few hundred feet from the tower and had a clear line-of-sight I was always happy with the performance I received. I’ve talked to a few people recently who have WISP speeds as fast as 50 Mbps. But I have also talked to a lot of rural people who have WISP connections that are slow and have high latency that provides a miserable broadband experience.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to some of these WISPs as rural telcos deploy CAF II money and provide a faster broadband alternative that will supposedly deliver at least 10 Mbps download. WISPs who can beat those speeds will likely continue to thrive while the ones delivering only a few Mbps will have to find a way to upgrade or will lose most of their customers.