San Jose Tackles the Digital Divide

As a country we have done well with 85% of households in most areas now buying some form of broadband connection. But that still means that 15% of homes don’t have broadband. Certainly there are some homes that don’t want broadband, but it’s clear that a significant percentage of those without broadband can’t afford it.

Affordability is going to become more of an issue now that we see a strategy of the big ISPs to raise rates every year. I don’t think there’s much doubt that the cost of broadband is going to climb faster than the overall rate of inflation. We recently saw Charter raise the rate of bundled broadband by $5 per month. Wall Street is crediting the higher earnings of several big cable companies due to the trend that the companies are cutting back on their willingness to offer special prices for term contracts – I think the cable companies are finally acknowledging that they have won the war against DSL.

San Jose is no different than any big city in that it has big numbers of homes without broadband. The city recently estimated that there are 95,000 residents of the city without a home broadband connection. The city just announced a plan to begin solving the digital divide and pledged $24 million to kick off the effort. They claim this is the biggest effort being taken by a major city to solve the digital divide.

The digital divide became apparent soon after the introduction of DSL and cable modems in the late 1990s. Even then there were households locked out from the new technology due to the cost of buying broadband service. The digital divide gets more acute every year as more and more of our daily lives migrate online. It’s grown to become unimaginable for a student to have an even chance in school without access to broadband. Anybody with broadband only has to stop and imagine for a second what it would be like to lose broadband access – and then realize that there are huge numbers of homes that are missing out on many of the basic benefits that those with broadband take for granted.

The San Jose plan is light on detail at this early stage, but it’s clear that the city will be looking for infrastructure plans to extend broadband rather than subsidizing service from incumbent ISPs. Consider the mayor’s stated vision for broadband:

“Ensure all residents, businesses, and organizations can participate in and benefit from the prosperity and culture of innovation in Silicon Valley . . . Broaden access to basic digital infrastructure to all residents, especially our youth, through enabling free or low cost, high-speed, 1 gigabit or faster broadband service in several low-income communities, and increasing access to hardware, including tablets and laptops, for low-income students.”

The city won’t be tackling the issue alone and is hoping for involvement from the business and charitable organizations in the city. For example, the city is already working with the Knight Foundation that has been addressing this issue for years. The city is interested in technologies like Facebook’s terragraph wireless technology that plans to use 60 GHz spectrum to create fast outdoor wireless broadband.

The city recognizes that there are no instant fixes and already recognizes that it might take a decade to bring fast affordable broadband to everybody in the city. I’m sure that $24 million is also just a downpayment towards a permanent broadband solution. But this plan puts the city ahead of every other major metropolitan area in the willingness to tackle the problem head-on.

There has been a cry for solving the digital divide for twenty years. Some communities have found solutions that help, like the charitable effort by E2D in Charlotte, NC that is bringing laptops and wireless broadband to large numbers of homeless and low-income school students. But no city has directly tackled the problem before with a pledge of serious taxpayer funds to help find a solution. It’s been obvious from the beginning of the digital divide discussions that it was going to take money and broadband infrastructure to solve the problem. I’m sure that many other cities will be watching San Jose because the broadband gap is becoming a significant contributor to creating an underclass that has less access to education, healthcare and the chance for good paying jobs. I’m willing to make a bet that the long-term economic benefits from solving the digital divide in San Jose will be far greater than the money they are putting into the effort.

Facebook’s Gigabit WiFi Experiment

Facebook and the city of San Jose, California have been trying for several years to launch a gigabit wireless WiFi network in the downtown area of the city. Branded as Terragraph, the Facebook technology is a deployment of 60 GHz WiFi hotspots that promises data speeds as fast as a gigabit. This delays in the project are a good example of the challenges of launching a new technology and is a warning to anybody working on the cutting edge.

The network was first slated to launch by the end of 2016, but is now over a year late. The City or Facebook won’t commit on when the network will be launched, and they are also no longer making any guarantees of the speeds that will be achieved.

This delayed launch highlights many of the problems faced by a first-generation technology. Facebook first tested an early version of the technology on their Menlo Park campus, but has been having problems making it work in a real-life deployment. The deployment on light and traffic poles has gone much slower than anticipated, and Facebook is having to spend time after each deployment to make sure that traffic lights still work properly.

There are also business factors affecting the launch. Facebook has had turnover on the Terragraph team. The company has also gotten into a dispute over payments with an installation vendor. It’s not unusual to have business-related delays on a first-generation technology launch since the development team is generally tiny and subject to disruption and the distribution and vendor chains are usually not solidified. There is also some disagreement between the City and Facebook on who pays for the core electronics supporting the network.

Facebook had touted that the network would be significantly less expensive than deploying fiber. But the 60 GHz spectrum gets absorbed by oxygen and water vapor, so Facebook is having to deploy transmitters no more than 820 feet apart – a dense network deployment. Without fiber feeding each transmitter the backhaul is being done using wireless spectrum, which is likely to be contributing to the complication of the deployment as well as the lower expected data speeds.

For now, this deployment is in the downtown area and involves 250 pole-mounted nodes to serve a heavy-traffic business district which also sees numerous tourists. The City hopes to eventually find a way to deploy the technology citywide since 12% of the households in the City don’t currently have broadband access – mostly attributed to affordability. The City was hoping to get Google Fiber, but Google canceled plans last year to build in the City.

Facebook says they are still hopeful that they can make the technology work as planned, but that there is still more testing and research needed. At this point there is no specific planned launch date.

This experiment reminds me of other first-generation technology trials in the past. I recall several cities including Manassas, Virginia that deployed broadband over powerline. The technology never delivered speeds much greater than a few Mbps and never was commercially viable. I had several clients that nearly went bankrupt when trying to deploy point-to-point broadband using the LMDS spectrum. And I remember a number of failed trials to deploy citywide municipal WiFi, such as a disastrous trial in Philadelphia, and trials that fizzled in places like Annapolis, Maryland.

I’ve always cautioned my smaller clients to never be guinea pigs for a first-generation technology deployment. I can’t recall a time when a first-generation deployment did not come with scads of problems. I’ve seen clients suffer through first-generation deployments of all of the technologies that are now common – PON fiber, voice softswitches, IPTV, you name it. Vendors are always in a hurry to get a new technology to market and the first few ISPs that deploy a new technology have to suffer through all of the problems that crop up between a laboratory and a real-life deployment. The real victims of a first-generation deployment are often the customers using the network.

The San Jose trial won’t have all of the issues as are experienced by commercial ISPs since the service will be free to the public. But the City is not immune from the public spurning the technology if it doesn’t work as promised.

The problems experienced by this launch also provide a cautionary tale for the many 5G technology launches promised in 2018 and 2019. Every new launch is going to experience significant problems which is to be expected when a wireless technology bumps up against the myriad of issues experienced in a real-life deployment. If we have learned anything from the past, we can expect a few of the new launches to fizzle and die while a few of the new technologies and vendors will plow through the problems until the technology works as promised. But we’ve also learned that it’s not going to go smoothly and customers connected to an early 5G network can expect problems.