I’ve lately been asked by several local politicians why they should pursue getting grant funding for their county since Starlink satellite and FWA cellular broadband seem like good broadband alternatives that are already here today. It’s a reasonable question to ask since they have likely heard from rural households that are happy with both technologies. The question usually includes some degree of wishful thinking because the officials want to be able to tell constituents that good broadband is already available and that the broadband gap has been solved.
I hate to tell them that these technologies are not a good permanent solution. At the same time, I stress that they should be promoting these technologies to make sure that folks know there are some better alternatives available today than other extremely slow broadband options. But I don’t think either of these technologies is a long-term broadband solution.
FWA cellular broadband is home broadband that is delivered by cellular companies from cellular towers. It uses the same technology as the broadband delivered to cellphones, with the only real difference being that there is an in-home receiver that can be used for home broadband.
The primary problem with thinking of FWA cellular as a permanent solution is the reach of the technology. Somebody living right under a tower might be able to get 200 Mbps broadband today, and for somebody who has been suffering with rural DSL or cellular hotspots, this is an amazing upgrade. But the strong cellular service doesn’t carry far from a given tower. Speeds drop rapidly with the distance between a customer and the cell tower. A customer living a mile away from a tower might see maximum speeds of 100 Mbps, but after that, speeds drop precipitously until the product looks like other current slow broadband technologies.
The distance issue wouldn’t be a big problem if rural counties were peppered with cell towers – but most rural counties don’t have nearly enough towers to support this technology. In fact, in most rural counties I’ve worked in, a lot of the county doesn’t have good enough cellular coverage for voice calls. There doesn’t seem to be any mad rush to build new towers to support FWA – and I wouldn’t expect a cellular carrier to want to be on a tower that might only see a few dozen potential customers.
A final issue with FWA is that cellular carriers give priority to cell phones over home broadband. If cellphone traffic gets heavy, then the carriers will throttle the FWA speeds. This is probably less of an issue in a rural area than in a city, but it means that the broadband is not fully reliable.
Satellite broadband is also not a great long-term solution for several reasons. Starlink has already said that it will only serve some fixed number of customers in a given geographic area – a number it won’t disclose. That makes sense to any network engineer because the bandwidth from a single satellite overhead is shared by all homes using the service. This means that if too many households try to use a satellite at the same time that broadband speeds will bog down. Starlink is never going to be willing to serve all of the rural customers in a county – when it reaches it’s target customers it won’t sell more connections.
The other issue with Satellite broadband is that customers need a great view of the sky. Homes located amidst trees or near hills or mountains may not be able to get the service at all or get a slowed connection.
The final issue with both technologies is the speed being delivered. FWA is most typically today delivering only 50-100 Mbps to most households that are within range of a tower. The speed tests for Starlink show a similar range between 50-150 Mbps. These are amazing speeds for a home with no broadband alternatives. But these speeds are already at the low end of acceptable broadband today – particularly since these technologies have a much higher latency than fiber.
In twenty years, we’ve grown from DSL and cable modems that delivered 1 Mbps to fiber technology today that can deliver multiple gigabit speeds. There are those that claim that the fast speeds are just marketing gimmicks, but I’m hearing from more households over time that need the faster speeds. The reality of the marketplaces is that technologies will spring up to take advantage of faster broadband. We’re already seeing 8K TVs today, and telepresence should be here in the near future. A rural customer receiving 50-100 Mbps will be locked out of future faster applications.
Any county that decides not to pursue the grants to get faster broadband will regret the decision in a decade when neighboring counties have blazingly fast broadband and are the places where folks will want to live. We’ve learned that fast home broadband now equates to economic development due to the work-at-home phenomenon. I worked with a county recently where 30% of the homes include at least one person working full time from home. That means higher incomes which translates into local prosperity.
I really like both of these technologies, and I recommend them to rural folks all of the time. But these are not the broadband solution that a county needs for long-term prosperity.