The Arguments Against Building Fiber

Fiber CableAny time that there is talk of putting public money into broadband the same arguments against funding broadband are made. I’ve seen these claims made in survey responses, public meetings and in newspaper editorials. If your City is thinking about funding broadband or thinking about taking part in a public private partnership, you should be prepared to counter these typical arguments against your participation.

People Don’t Really Need Fast Speeds. This generally comes from folks who don’t use the Internet much and who just can’t imagine that others need or want a faster Internet. You will often see people cite the fact (for example) that Netflix suggests that you have 5 Mbps to comfortably use the service.

What these people fail to recognize is that there is video everywhere, not just on Netflix. It seems that every news page on the web and many advertisements are full of videos. Facebook and other social media sites are full of video and are going to be more video-intense in the near future. I know that my family starts crashing if our Internet slows down to about 25 Mbps.

And of course, this ignores the long-term trend we’ve seen where broadband consumption by households doubles about every three years. That was not so noticeable when the demand grew from 1 Mbps to 2 Mbps, but it is now starting to become very obvious. And nascent web services like 4K video (which needs a 25 Mbps stream) are going to really put the pressure on service providers.

Government Has No Business Competing with Commercial Companies. This has been the mantra of the fiscally conservative, and perhaps there are times and places where this might be a valid point. But in rural America – and even in cities under 100,000 – there are not many commercial companies out building broadband. There are independent telcos, electric cooperatives, and local governments building fiber, but all of these entities together are barely scratching the surface for the 34 million people that the FCC says don’t have access to broadband.

Communities are waking up to the realization that if they don’t find their own broadband solution that they are never going to get it. And that frankly scares a whole lot of communities that are afraid of becoming irrelevant and becoming a place where nobody wants to live. History has shown us that it doesn’t take a lot to send a community into a tailspin. There are a huge number of ghost towns around the country that were left behind by the railroads, the interstate highways or that lost their only major employer, and lack of broadband is going to create the next wave of abandoned communities.

Wireless is Going to be Fast in the Future. This myth is being fed by the constant hype that AT&T and Verizon put out about the coming 5G cellular with gigabit speeds. The expected specification for outdoor 5G cellular service is going to be aimed at ‘several tens of megabits’, or 20 – 30 Mbps. The 5G spectrum is going to be capable of supporting speeds up to a gigabit – within a room as a competitor to WiFi – but not for outdoor cellular service. 5G is going to increase cellular data speeds a few times faster than today in cities, but cellular performance in rural areas will still be as spotty as today due to the way that cellular bandwidth decreases with distance from a tower.

People Can Use Satellite Broadband. Anybody that says this ought to try using satellite broadband for a week and they would change their mind. It is better than dial-up, but not by a lot. There is a lot of latency, meaning that it’s nearly impossible to do something in real time like play a game or take part in distance learning. And most of the satellite services have draconian data caps that are even worse than cellular caps, because once you cross them you get cut off for the rest of the month.

The Incumbents are Going to Fix It. This is a relatively new argument that comes from the hype behind CAF II. The large telcos are getting federal grant money to expand rural broadband, but with speeds that only have to be 10 Mbps download. Anybody that gets this upgrade is going to be happy with it for a week or two until they realize that they still can’t do the things on broadband that people in cities can do. And within a decade, with the inevitable increase in demand it will feel as slow as dial-up.

Farmers and Big Data

johndeereoutsideProbably the biggest change coming soon to crop farming is precision agriculture. This applies GPS and sensors to monitor field conditions like water, soil, nutrients, weeds, etc. to optimize the application of water, pesticides, and fertilizers in order to maximize the crop yields in different parts of the farm. Anybody who has ever farmed knows that fields are not uniform in nature and that the various factors that produce the best crops differ even within one field.

Precision agriculture is needed if we are to feed the growing world population, which is expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050. As a planet we will need to get the best possible yield out of each field and farm. This might all have to happen against a back drop of climate change which is playing havoc with local weather conditions.

A number of farmers have started the process of gathering the raw data needed to understand their own farms and conditions. Farmers know the best and worst sections of their fields, but they do not understand the subtle differences between all of the acreage. In the past farmers haven’t known the specific yield differences between the various microcosms within their farm. But they are now able to gather the facts needed to know their land better. It’s a classic big data application that will recommend specific treatments for different parts of a field by sifting through and making sense of the large numbers of monitor readings.

In order to maximize precision agriculture new automated farm machinery will be needed to selectively treat different parts of the fields. The large farm equipment manufacturers expect that farming will be the first major application for drones of all types. They are developing both wheeled vehicles and aerial drone systems that can water or treat sections of the fields as needed.

This is a major challenge because farming has historically been a somewhat low technology business. While farms have employed expensive equipment, the thinking part of the business was always the responsibility of each farmer, and the farmers with the best knowledge and experience would typically out-produce their neighbors. But monitoring can level the playing field and dramatically increase yields for everybody.

There are several hurdles in implementing precision agriculture. First is access to the capital needed to buy the monitors and the equipment used to selectively treat fields. This need for capital is clearly going to favor large farms over small ones and will be yet one more factor leading to the consolidation of small farms into larger enterprises.

But the second need is broadband. Gathering all of the needed data, analyzing it, and turning it into workable solutions presupposes the ability to get data from the fields and sent to a supercomputer somewhere for analysis. And that process needs broadband. A farmer who is still stuck with dial-up or satellite broadband access is not going to have the bandwidth needed to properly gather and crunch the large amount of data needed to find the best solutions.

This doesn’t necessitate fiber to the fields because a lot of the data gathering can be done wirelessly. But it does require that farms are fed with high-speed Internet access and good wireless coverage, something that does require rural fiber. I published a blog a few weeks ago that outlined the availability of broadband on farms and it is not currently a pretty picture. Far too many farms are still stuck with dial-up, satellite, or very slow rural DSL.

Some farmers are lucky to live in areas where communications co-ops and rural telcos are bringing them good broadband, but most are in areas where there is neither broadband nor anybody currently planning on expanding broadband. At some point the need for farming broadband will percolate up as a national priority. Meanwhile, in every rural place I visit, the farmers are at the forefront of those asking for better broadband.


Broadband and Farmers

johndeereoutsideThe National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) just released their latest Computer Usage and Ownership report on Internet usage by American farmers. They have been doing this tracking for many years and looking through the statistics in this report is a good way to get an overall picture of rural broadband since the broadband that is available to farmers is the same that is available to many other rural people who don’t live in towns.

Since most farms are rural, the picture this report paints is not pretty and is much like what you would expect. Farmers are being forced to rely on the slowest forms of broadband due to where they live.

The report says that 70% of farms now have access to the Internet, up from 62% in 2011. It’s interesting to see how farms access the Internet now vs then:

‘                                   2011                2015

Dialup                           7%                   2%

DSL                              24%                 21%

Cable                             7%                   8%

Satellite                         9%                 15%

Wireless                       12%                 20%

Unknown type               2%                   5%

Total                             62%                 70%

What is obvious in this numbers is that dial-up has been abandoned in favor satellite and wireless access. The wireless category ought to be clarified in future surveys because this can consist of point-to-multipoint wireless provided by a WISP or cellular data from one of the big cellphone companies. There is a huge difference between those two kinds of access and in rural areas especially, cellular data is not broadband.

I would also love to see future reports of this type look at download speeds. The picture painted is not a good one in terms of probable speed. Rural DSL is often very slow since the bandwidth delivered by DSL drops with distance. Just getting back to a lot of farm lanes would be enough to eat much of the speed out of a DSL connection and it’s very unlikely that many of these farms are sitting next to a DSLAM cabinet. Rural DSL is very regularly reported to have speeds of 1 Mbps, and often considerably less – sometimes not much faster than dial-up.

I have talked about satellite data many times. Some of the newer satellites offer faster speeds and I’ve seen reports of speeds up to 12 Mbps from satellite broadband. But there are two big problems with satellite data. A functional problem is the latency, meaning that the signal takes a long time to get to the end user due to having been bounced to and from a satellite. This latency means that real-time functions are hard or impossible to do. So this kills applications like Skype, but more importantly it kills myriad applications that require you to maintain a connection. That could be all sorts of things like gaming, logging onto an email server, or trying to buy something from a web site. It can be aggravating when a satellite connection forces you to log into applications over and over again.

The other problem with satellite data is the tiny data caps. An end user can download some small amount of data per month and there are monthly caps of anywhere from 5 gigabits to 50 gigabits, with most caps on the low end of that scale. This makes a satellite connection unusable for many of the things the rest of us take for granted like watching video or distance learning.

And then there is cellular data where the monthly caps are even smaller and it’s hard to find a plan with more than 10 gigabits of monthly download. Not only that, but cellular data is incredibly expensive at around $10 per downloaded gigabit.

What this reports shows is that, overall, the condition of broadband on farms is miserable. Not surprisingly, a large percentage of farmers have the slowest forms of connectivity. And many of these farms are multi-million dollar enterprises that could greatly benefit from better broadband. I’ve been reading about a lot of research for implementing IoT solutions at farms to micro-monitor fields to improve crop yield, and such applications are going to require bandwidth. But I guess farmers are only going to get better broadband when we figure out a way to give all rural people better broadband.

When Will We See Landline Data Caps?

Numismatics_and_Notaphily_iconThe National Journal asked the FCC how it was going after one month of net neutrality and also asked how many complaints they had gotten from consumers during this time. The FCC estimated they had gotten about 2,000 complaints, and further said that most of them were not about net neutrality issues, but were more generally about service issues with ISPs. One of the more common complaints was about data caps.

The FCC has already ruled that customers with unlimited plans can’t be throttled. Just recently the FCC fined AT&T $100 million for throttling its unlimited wireless data customers for actually trying to use the data they paid for. But it’s a harder case to say that data caps are somehow prohibited by net neutrality. Perhaps an argument might be made that data caps can unreasonably interfere with a consumer’s internet access, something that is prohibited by net neutrality.

But for the most part, data caps are just a way of getting more money out of customers. The US has high broadband rates compared to the rest of the developed world and the rates charged on our cellular traffic have to be among the most expensive Internet access in the world.

Net neutrality does define a few things that carriers can’t do. For example, in the past the FCC has ruled that carriers can’t have a data cap and then provide some of their own programming for free, not to be counted against the caps. The FCC has also frowned on sponsored data where a content provider or somebody else will pay the fee for data so that it won’t count against a cap. If you recall, Netflix had worked out a deal to pay AT&T so that their customers would get the ‘fast lane’ and so that Netflix usage wouldn’t count against data caps.

But there is probably not much of an argument to be made against data caps as long as the customer is fully informed that they are part of the product. The FCC is likely to enforce hidden data caps or plans that were not openly obvious to consumers.

Data caps are also a big issue with satellite data. Customers with that service get very small monthly data caps, and unlike cellular that lets you keep using data and charging you more money, some of the satellite companies cut off your service once you reach the cap. That has to be painful and perhaps that starts crossing the network neutrality line.

Cable companies and telcos have fewer hard data caps, but they do exist. Many cable companies with caps today don’t strictly enforce them. Interestingly, they often use the argument that data caps are necessary to avoid network congestion. They argue that big users tie up networks and make it hard for others to get good service. But two years ago, Michael Powell, ex-FCC Chief and head of the NCTA admitted that data caps are not about congestion but are about ‘pricing fairness’ – which means they are not about fairness at all, but about charging large users more.

I believe we are going to see data caps become a much bigger issue. I wrote recently about how cable companies will be struggling to find ways to grow revenues in the future. They are losing cable customers and they are no longer seeing double digit growth of new data customers as that market gets saturated. They are likely to start routinely raising data monthly rates, but they are also likely to introduce and then fully implement data caps as a way to extract more revenue from their biggest data users. Unfortunately, the large cable companies are publicly traded firms and they will be punished with lower stock prices if they can’t find a way to keep revenues growing quarter over quarter.

I know that Comcast has been ‘experimenting’ with data caps for a number of years in the southeast. They put them in on a trial basis and then get so many complaints that they withdraw the test. But I feel certain that when the extra revenues are needed to meet earnings goals that Comcast and others will then ignore complaints. And sadly, if Comcast or any one other large ISP introduces and enforces data caps and shows a lot of revenue from the process, the other large ISPs are going to follow suit.