Delays in Satellite Broadband

One of the big unknowns for rural broadband is if there will ever be a better satellite broadband option. The industry was surprised last year when Elon Musk announced that he planned to blanket the earth with over 4,000 satellites and operate as a worldwide ISP under the newly formed Starlink. These satellites would be launched by SpaceX, another Elon Musk company that that provides commercial rocket launches.

I’ve been following the financial news about the Elon Musk family of businesses, and about SpaceX and Starlink more specifically, since a successful launch of the business could provide another rural option for broadband.

There are several financial analysts predicting that Starlink is now largely on hold, due mostly to funding issues. They report that Starlink has stopped hiring the new employees needed to implement the business plan. Further, it appears that SpaceX needs up to $10 billion to fulfill its own business plan and that any money raised by the company is likely to go there first before Starlink is funded. At a minimum this probably means a major delay in satellite launches for Starlink.

These analysts warn that the SpaceX business plan is not yet solid. The commercial launch business is now seeing other major competitors. ULA, the existing major competitor to SpaceX has been stepping up their game. Boeing is behind Space Launch Systems, another newcomer to the field. Jeff Bezos of Amazon has started Blue Origin and has started construction on a spaceflight center in Florida. There is also a new competitor announced in Japan. The competition is going to drive down the cost of space launches and will also spread the launches among numerous parties, diluting any early advantage enjoyed by SpaceX.

SpaceX was counting on riding the coattails of other commercial launches to get the broadband satellites into space. The company is scheduled to complete 28 launches by the end of this year but is only scheduled so far for 18 launches in 2019. The company is also banking on making money from selling commercial space travel to rich tourists, but the analysts doubt that will be enough revenue to keep the company afloat.

Starlink had originally announced plans to have 40 million broadband subscribers generating $30 billion in annual revenues by 2025. That’s an average revenue per customer of $63 dollars per month. It now looks like the date for getting the company started will be significantly delayed. Starlink launched two test satellites earlier this year, but has not reported how they performed.

I’ve also wondered if Starlink would strongly pursue the residential broadband business in North America. While they will be a great alternative for rural America, they will be just another player in cities. Being an ISP makes a lot more sense in those parts of the world where the company could enjoy a near-monopoly.

In the US and Canada there is probably a lot more money to be made instead by serving the many proposed small cell sites if 5G turns out to be a relevant business plan. Starlink says they can deliver speeds of a gigabit or more to a given customer, but the math behind the bandwidth available at any given satellite means that would only be available to a relatively small number of customers rather than to the whole residential market. Speeds for residential broadband are likely to be at much lower speeds. However, gigabit satellite broadband could be the backhaul solution that 5G needs and might let it escape the bottleneck of needing fiber everywhere. I’ve never seen any discussion of such a partnership, but that’s probably because the satellite business is still somewhat theoretical and at a minimum, delayed from the original projected time line.

Getting Militant for Broadband

My job takes me to many rural counties where huge geographic areas don’t have broadband. I’ve seen a big change over the last two years in the expectations of rural residents who are now demanding that somebody find them a broadband solution. There have been a number of rural residents calling for better broadband for a decade, but recently I’ve seen the cries for broadband grow into strident demands. As the title of this blog suggests, people are getting militant for broadband (but not carrying guns in doing so!)

The perceived need for broadband has changed a lot since the turn of this new century. In 2000 only 43% of homes had a broadband connection – and in those days that meant they had a connection that was faster than dial-up. In 2000 DSL was king and a lot of homes had upgraded to speeds of 1 Mbps. There have always been homes that require broadband, and I’m a good example since I work from home, and when I moved fifteen years ago my offer on a new house was contingent on the home having broadband installed before closing. My real estate agent at the time said that was the first time she’d ever heard about broadband related to home ownership.

As I’ve cited many times, the need for broadband has continued to grow steadily and has been doubling every three years. By 2010 the number of homes with broadband grew to 71%, and by then the cable companies were beginning to dominate the market. By then DSL speeds had gotten better, with the average speeds at about 6 Mbps, but with some lucky customers seeing speeds of around 15 Mbps. But as DOCSIS 3.0 was implemented in cable networks we started seeing speeds up to 100 Mbps available on cable systems. It was a good time to be a cable company, because their rapid revenue growth was fueled almost entirely by adding broadband customers.

Broadband in urban areas has continued to improve. We’re now seeing Comcast, Charter, Cox and other cable company upgrade to DOCSIS 3.1 and offer speeds of up to 1 Gbps. DSL that can deliver 50 Mbps over two bonded copper lines is becoming old technology. Even urban cellular speeds are becoming decent with average speeds of 12 – 15 Mbps.

But during all of these upgrades to urban broadband, huge swaths of rural America is still stuck at 2000 or earlier. Some rural homes have had access to slow DSL of 1 – 2 Mbps at most. Rural cellular speeds are typically half of urban speeds and are incredibly expensive as a home broadband solution. Satellite broadband has been available the whole time, but the high prices, gigantic latency and stingy data caps have made most homes swear off satellite broadband.

Rural homes look with envy at their urban counterparts. They know urban homes who have seen half a dozen major speed upgrades over twenty years while they still have the same lousy choices of twenty years ago. Some rural homes are seeing an upgrade to DSL due to the CAF II program of speeds of perhaps 10 Mbps. While that will be a relief to a home that has had no broadband – it doesn’t let a home use broadband in the same way as the rest of the country.

To make matters feel worse, rural customers without broadband see some parts of rural America get fiber broadband being built by independent telephone companies, electric cooperatives or municipalities. It’s hard for them to understand why there is funding that can make fiber work in some places, but not where they live. The most strident rural residents these days are those who live in a county where other rural customers have fiber and they are being told they are likely to never see it.

This disparity between rural haves and have nots is all due to FCC policy. The FCC decided to make funds available to rural telcos to upgrade to better broadband, but at the same time copped out and handed billions to the giant telcos to instead upgrade to 10 Mbps DSL or wireless. To make matters worse, it’s becoming clear that AT&T and Verizon are intent in eventually tearing down rural copper, which will leave homes with poor cellular coverage without any connection to the outside world.

The FCC laments that they cannot possibly afford to fund fiber everywhere. But they missed a huge opportunity to bring fiber to millions when they caved to lobbyists and gave the CAF II funding to the big telcos. Recall that these funds were originally going to be awarded by a reverse auction and that numerous companies had plans to ask for the funding to build rural fiber.

It’s no wonder that rural areas are furious and desperate for better broadband. Their kids are at a big disadvantage to those living in towns with broadband. Farmers without broadband are competing with those using agricultural IoT. Realtors report that they are having a hard time selling homes with no broadband access. People without broadband can’t work from home. And rural America is being left behind from taking part in American culture without access to the huge amount of content now available on the web.

Is the FCC Disguising the Rural Broadband Problem?

Buried within the FCC’s February Broadband Deployment Report are some tables that imply that over 95% of American homes can now get broadband at speeds of at least 25/3 Mbps. That is drastically higher than the report just a year earlier. The big change in the report is that the FCC is now counting fixed wireless and satellite broadband when compiling the numbers. This leads me to ask if the FCC is purposefully disguising the miserable condition of rural broadband?

I want to start with some examples from this FCC map that derives from the data supporting the FCC’s annual report. I started with some counties in Minnesota that I’m familiar with. The FCC database and map claims that Chippewa, Lyon, Mille Lacs and Pope Counties in Minnesota all have 100% coverage of 25/3 broadband. They also claim that Yellow Medicine County has 99.59% coverage of 25/3 Mbps broadband and the folks there must be wondering who is in that tiny percentage without broadband.

The facts on the ground tell a different story. In real life, the areas of these counties served by the incumbent telcos CenturyLink and Frontier have little or no broadband outside of towns. Within a short distance from each town and throughout the rural areas of the county there is no good broadband to speak of – certainly not anything that approaches 25/3 Mbps. I’d love to hear from others who look at this map to see if it tells the truth about where you live.

Let me start with the FCC’s decision to include satellite broadband in the numbers. When you go to the rural areas in these counties practically nobody buys satellite broadband. Many tried it years ago and using it is a miserable experience. There are a few satellite plans that offer speeds as fast as 25/3 Mbps. But satellite broadband today has terrible latency, as high as 900 milliseconds. Anything over 100 milliseconds makes it hard or impossible to do any real-time computing. That means on satellite broadband that you can’t stream video. You can’t have a Skype call. You can’t connect to a corporate WAN and work from home or connect to online classes. You will have problems staying on many web shopping sites. You can’t even make a VoIP call.

Satellite broadband also has stingy data caps that make it impossible to use as a home broadband connection. Most of the plans come with a monthly data caps of 10 GB to 20 GB, and unlike cellular plans where you can buy additional data, the satellite plans cut you off for the rest of the month when you hit your data cap. And even with all of these problems, it’s also expensive and is priced higher than landline broadband. Rural customers have voted with their pocketbooks that satellite broadband is not broadband that many people are willing to tolerate.

Fixed wireless is a more mixed bag. There are high-quality fixed wireless providers who are delivering speeds as fast as 100 Mbps. But as I’ve written about, most rural fixed broadband delivers speeds far below this and the more typical fixed wireless connection is somewhere between 2 Mbps and 6 Mbps.

There are a number of factors needed to make a quality fixed broadband connection. First, the technology must be only a few years old because older radios older were not capable of reaching the 25/3 speeds. Customers also need a clear line-of-sight back to the transmitter and must be within some reasonable distance from a tower. This means that there are usually s significant number of homes in wireless service areas that can’t get any coverage due to trees or being behind a hill. Finally, and probably most importantly, the wireless provider needs properly designed network and a solid backhaul data pipe. Many WISPs pack too many customers on a tower and dilute the broadband. Many wireless towers are fed by multi-hop wireless backhaul, meaning the tower doesn’t have enough raw bandwidth to deliver a vigorous customer product.

In the FCC’s defense, most of the data about fixed wireless that feeds the database and map is self-reported by the WISPs. I am personally a big fan of fixed wireless when it’s done right and I was a WISP customer for nine years. But there are a lot of WISPs who exaggerate in their marketing literature and tell customers they sell broadband up to 25/3 Mbps when their actual product might only be a tiny fraction of those speeds. I have no doubt that these WISPs also report those marketing speeds to the FCC, which leads to the errors in the maps.

The FCC should know better. In those counties listed above I would venture to say that there are practically no households who can get a 25/3 fixed wireless connection, but there are undoubtedly a few. I know people in these counties gave up on satellite broadband many years ago. My conclusion from the new FCC data is that this FCC has elected to disguise the facts by claiming that households have broadband when they don’t. This is how the FCC is letting themselves off the hook for trying to fix the rural broadband shortages that exist in most of rural America. We can’t fix a problem that we won’t even officially acknowledge, and this FCC, for some reason, is masking the truth.