Starlink Promising Satellite Cellular Service

Starlink recently launched a new webpage that advertises the future ability to deliver text, voice, and data to 4G cell phones via satellite.

The texting service is supposed to be available in 2024 with voice and data coming in 2025. The service will require a user to have a view of the open sky. I would also guess that a user will have to be stationary and not in a moving vehicle. The service is likely going to be aimed at people who spend a lot of time outdoors, in places out of reach of cell towers. There is no talk yet about price, but this seems like a premium service and will probably be priced accordingly.

T-Mobile’s service will be able to connect through any of its many satellites, and reports have said that speeds will be relatively slow, at perhaps only a few Mbps.

Starlink says that users of the service will be able to connect to users in cellular networks that participate in the program. The initial list of network partners includes T-Mobile in the U.S., Rogers in Canada, Optus in Australia, One NZ in New Zealand, Kodi in Japan, and SALT in Switzerland.

There is already an early version of satellite texting. Apple provides texting to 911 through a satellite connection to those using an Apple 14  or newer iPhone. The text connection to 911 is slow and takes about 15 seconds to complete a transaction. The service allows very limited follow-up texts between public safety and the person initiating the 911 call. Apple is providing this service for free today but will eventually likely charge for using it.

AT&T claims to have made the first broadband connection with an unmodified cell phone and a satellite in September. The company used AT&T’s 5G spectrum and a Samsung Galaxy S22 to connect a caller from a dead cellular zone in Maui, Hawaii to one in Madrid, Spain. This test was done in conjunction with AST SpaceMobile. The first test achieved a download speed to the phone in Maui of 10 Mbps, but AST has subsequently been able to boost the speed to 14 Mbps. AST plans to launch five BlueBird satellites in the first quarter of 2024 to support the cellular satellite effort.

It’s unlikely that any of these services are going to be competing with mainstream cell phone connectivity. The speeds will be slower, and the satellite constellations will not be equipped to process the amount of data associated with normal cellphone service. There is no need to pay extra to use a satellite connection for anybody in reach of a cell tower or a WiFi connection.

I’m not sure if most people appreciate how much of the land mass of the U.S. has little or no cell service. Practically every county I’ve worked in has large dead cellular zones. Providing even rudimentary cell coverage in remote areas is a valuable new service for the many people who work in remote places. I can picture that farmers, park rangers, and anybody who spends a lot of time in unconnected areas will want this service as soon as it is available. I envision the satellite companies and cellular companies generating good revenue while filling this needed market niche.

Satellite Broadband Competitors

Starlink gets almost all of the satellite press in the U.S., which is fair since the company now serves a lot of homes and RVs with broadband. The company now has over 4,600 active satellites in orbit, and if it sticks with its original business plan it will eventually have 30,000. But there are a few other satellite companies working in the broadband space that don’t get the press.

Not all competitors want to chase the residential market that is the bread and butter for Starlink. OneWeb went through start-up pains and came out of bankruptcy in 2020. Since then, the company was reorganized to include ownership from the British government and a few other large carrier investors. OneWeb now has 634 satellites in space parked at about 1,200 miles above Earth – twice the height of Starlink. The company is still in the process of constructing the ground stations needed to be able to provide broadband connections around the world.

OneWeb recently announced a successful test of using satellite broadband to connect to Britain’s Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, Argus. This is the first successful test for the company with a mobile military application, and OneWeb intends to emphasize using its satellites to support governments and militaries around the world.

The U.S. military recently inked an arrangement with Starlink to provide basic broadband, but the military is not comfortable using Starlink satellite broadband for mission-critical applications. There are valid concerns by the military of relying on broadband connections for active troops with an ISP that could refuse service in times of conflict.

The ability of OneWeb to support military operations will be enhanced with the pending merger with the French company Eutelsat, which operates geostationary satellites parked at 22,000 miles above Earth. The combination of the two satellite fleets should be able to guarantee the connections that the military demands. OneWeb is already in the process of upgrading its satellites to support military applications. It’s planning to start replacing existing satellites with ones that contain two separate platforms for military and commercial applications. The company is focusing the rest of its business on bringing broadband to governments, telecommunications carriers, and energy companies.

Another company that is enhancing its satellite fleet to remain relevant is Intelsat. The company has been signing contracts with the militaries of smaller countries who want to make sure that troops always have connectivity. Intelsat can provide reliable broadband to militaries but is also working with countries that want to put up their own military and government satellites.

Intelsat is also exploring the expansion of its fleet by using Medium-Earth-Orbit (MEO) satellites that are parked at between 6,000 and 13,000 miles above Earth. There are a few applications like GPS today that use MEO satellites, and Intelsat thinks there are a lot of advantages to having satellites that have less latency than the higher orbit geostationary satellites.

There still is not a lot of news from Amazon’s Project Kuiper. The company has been trying for several years to launch its first test satellites and has been plagued by problems with the planned use of the RS1 rocket from ABL Space Systems. Amazon now plans to use rocket launches from the United Launch Alliance and others to start getting its fleet into space. Amazon has supposedly made great progress in the design of its satellites and still has plans to launch over 3.200 satellites to compete with Starlink.

For those interested in keeping track of events in space, I highly recommend the Payload newsletter.

Industry Shorts September 2023

Following is a discussion of a few topics I found to be interesting, but which are not long enough for a separate blog.

Starlink is massively far behind its original business plan. Starlink ended 2022 with around 1 million customers, while its original 2015 plan projected 20 million customers by the end of 2022. The 2022 revenues were $1.4 billion, far under the original projection of over $12 billion. The original projection was for Starlink to make $7 billion in profits in 2022, but the company still had monthly operating losses last year – although the company now claims a small profit at the end of the first quarter of 2023. Starlink company currently has over 4,700 satellites in orbit. The FCC has approved the launch of over 30,000 satellites, and Starlink says that 11,000 are needed to complete the first full constellation.

The company is currently up to around 1.5 million customers worldwide, which is impressive. But Starlink has a new competitor in FWA cellular wireless in many rural parts of the country. T-Mobile and Verizon added almost 3.2 million customers in 2022 and another 1.8 million in the first two quarters of this year. Much of rural America should be getting faster broadband over the next four years from the many federal grants, and I have to wonder if Starlink will ever meet it’s rosy projections for rural America.

Starlink has also been delivering slower broadband speeds than it originally advertised. The company now claims the following speed capabilities on its website, which are slower than what was reported a year ago. For example, in September 2022, residential speeds were claimed to be between 50 – 200 Mbps with upload speeds of 10 – 20 Mbps.

Download                   Upload

Residential      20 – 100 Mbps            5 – 15 Mbps

Business          40 – 220 Mbps            8 – 25 Mbps

RV                  5 – 50 Mbps                2 – 10 Mbps

There is still a lot of pent-up demand for Starlink. In every county I’ve worked in this year, I’ve talk to people on the Starlink waiting list.

AT&T Internet Air. AT&T has not taken the same aggressive approach to selling FWA cellular broadband as Verizon and T-Mobile, which together had over 5.9 million FWA customers at the end of the second quarter of this year.

But AT&T recently announced that it is now installing several thousand FWA connections every day. The product will use the frequencies that AT&T has labeled as 5G for customers living in range of a 5G-enabled tower and will use LTE spectrum elsewhere. AT&T said customers could be provisioned with a combination of 4G and 5G.

Chris Sambar, the President of AT&T Networks, wrote a recent blog that says that the AT&T cellular network has seen a 30% annual increase in the amount of bandwidth used per cellular customer. Any network engineer will tell you that is a huge increase. Landline broadband usage has historically grown at a rate of about 20% annually. At a 30% annual increase, network traffic will double in less than three years.

Sambar also said that AT&T was starting to test what he calls standalone 5G. That means using cellular technology that incorporates the 5G standards. For the last five years, everything offered by cellular companies that has been labeled as 5G was actually 4G LTE delivered using a new set of frequencies. It will be interesting to see what 5G can actually do differently. The blog mentions network slicing, which is perhaps the most important 5G feature – it will allow a cell tower to match the bandwidth being delivered to a customer to match the demand – small bandwidth for simple uses, and bigger bandwidth when needed. If network slicing works as originally intended, the bandwidth at a cell site will be used far more efficiently and a cell site will be able to handle a lot more simultaneous connections.

Unintended Consequences of Satellite Constellations

Astronomy & Astrophysics published a research paper recently that looked at “Unintended Electromagnetic Radiation from Starlink Satellites”. The study was done in conjunction with the Low Frequency Array (LOFAR) telescope in the Netherlands.

The LOFAR telescope is a network of over forty radio antennas spread across the Netherlands, Germany, and the rest of Europe. This array can detect extremely long radio waves from objects in space. The antennas are located purposefully in remote locations to reduce interference from other radio sources.

The study documents that about fifty of the 4,000 current Starlink satellites are emitting frequencies in the range between 150.05 and 153 MHz, which have been set aside worldwide for radio astronomy by the International Telecommunications Union. The emitted radiation from the satellites is not intentional, and the guess is that these are stray frequencies being generated by components of some of the electronics. This is a common phenomenon for electronics of all sorts, but in this case, the stray frequencies are interfering with the LOFAR network.

This interference adds to the larger ongoing concern about the unintended impact of large satellite constellations on various branches of science. We already can see that satellites mar photographs of deep space as they pass in front of cameras. The intended radiation from the satellite constellations can accumulate and interfere with other kinds of radio telescopes. There is a fear that this current radiation will interfere with the Square Kilometer Array Observatory that is being built in Australia and South Africa. This new project is being built in remote locations away from cellphones, terrestrial TV signals, and other radios. But satellite arrays will still pass within the range of these highly sensitive radio sites.

The fear of scientists is that interference will grow as the number of satellites increases. Starlink’s current plans are to grow from the current 4,000 satellites to over 12,000 satellites – and the company has approval from the FCC to launch up to 30,000 satellites. There are numerous other satellite companies around the world with plans for constellations – and space is going to get very busy over the next decade.

One of the issues that concern scientists is that there is nowhere to go for relief from these kinds of issues. There are agreements reached at the International Telecommunications Union for setting aside various bands of spectrum for scientific research. But there is no international policemen with the authority to force satellite companies into compliance.

In this case, Starlink is working with the scientists to identify and isolate the issue to hopefully eliminate the stray radiation from future satellites. If the problem gets too bad, the FCC could intercede with Starlink. But who would intercede with satellites launched by governments that don’t care about these issues?

I don’t know how many of you are stargazers. When I was a kid in the early 60s, it was a big deal to see a satellite crossing the sky. A few satellites, like Telstar, were large bright objects crossing the sky. Most of the new satellites are much smaller, but it still doesn’t take very long watching the sky to see a satellite crossing. The sky is going to be busy when there are tens of thousands of satellites passing overhead. It’s hard to think that won’t have unexpected consequences.

The Fiber Land-Grab

It’s becoming clear that we are now deep into a fiber land-grab. By that, I mean that companies that overbuild fiber are moving as quickly as possible into markets to build fiber. The biggest ISPs have publicly discussed their plans for building a lot of fiber in 2023. Following are some of the latest projections for 2023:

  • AT&T plans to build past 2 – 2.5 million new passings.
  • Frontier plans to pass 1.3 million new homes.
  • Altice is aimed for 900,000 new fiber passings.
  • Brightspeed is planning on 600,000 new passings.
  • Verizon hasn’t announced a number, but built 550,000 new passings in 2022.
  • MetroNet is aiming for 500,000 new passings.
  • Lumen plans to build 500,000 passings.
  • Consolidated Communications is planning on 350,000 passings.
  • Charter announced plans for 300,000 passings.
  • Comcast announced plans to pass more than 200,000 homes.
  • TDS plans on 175,000 new passings.

This list doesn’t include the numerous smaller companies that are building fiber. The largest among the rest include fiber builders like Bluespeak, Clearwave, Omni Fiber, Surf Internet, WOW!, and Ziply Fiber. I would guess that there are a few hundred other companies with aggressive fiber plans. This also doesn’t even count the fiber being built by over 200 electric cooperatives.

I call it a land grab because these ISPs are all hoping to get to towns and neighborhoods first in order to dissuade anybody else from building fiber. Since most places getting fiber are already served by a cable company, most of this land grab is not going to create monopolies – but these fiber builders all think they can win a significant share of the market away from the cable competitor.

It doesn’t always work out the way that the fiber overbuilders hope. I talked to somebody in Lansing, Michigan who was amazed that there were three different fiber providers in their alley offering fiber broadband. As somebody who builds fiber business plans, I have to wonder about the third company that constructed fiber when there were already two other competitive fiber providers on the poles. Will any of the three ISPs get enough customers to be successful? But most markets are not seeing that kind of competition, although some of the announced plans on the list above must be in markets where somebody else has already built fiber.

This level of fiber construction bodes poorly for cable companies. Every one of these fiber providers will tell you that they will get at least a 30% market share, and most are hoping for 50%. They are all banking on the current public sentiment that fiber is the superior technology compared to cable company coaxial networks. These ISPs almost all have lower broadband prices than the big cable companies.

Of course, cable companies are rushing to fight back by upgrading upload speeds to become symmetrical. You can expect when that happens to see a huge blitz everywhere talking about symmetrical gigabit speeds. Cable companies also compete by offering very low introductory rates intended to win or keep customers from leaving for fiber. But much of the public has gotten tired of that cycle of having to renegotiate rates every few years.

Only time will tell if cable companies will be successful with this strategy. If enough of the public believes fiber is superior, then any cable marketing plan is going to fall on deaf ears for some portion of every market.

Rural fiber land grabs are different because anybody building fiber in a rural market probably will have a monopoly for fast landline broadband. It’s hard to think that many companies will consider building a second fiber network in places with low housing density. The rural fiber builders will likely face competition from WISPs deploying the latest radios. Just like with competition with cable companies in cities, it’s going to be interesting to see who wins that battle. It’s likely going to be a neighborhood-by-neighborhood battle. I suspect local WISPs with good local reputations will fare well against fiber built by the giant telcos or cable companies. On the flip side, local cooperatives and other local fiber builders will likely do extremely well against the giant WISPs. It’s going to be an interesting battle to watch.

I have no idea how Starlink and FWA cellular wireless fit into this battle. Fiber and fixed wireless with the newest radios will both be faster than these two technologies, and the market battle might come down to prices. The next decade is going to be an epic battle for broadband customers, and a boon to ISP marketers.

The FCC’s 12 GHz Decision

One of the hardest things that the FCC does is to decide spectrum policy. The agency has full authority to determine the details of how we use each slice of available spectrum. Most importantly, the agency can determine who can use spectrum – and that’s why the task is challenging.

In the last decade, it’s hard to think of any spectrum deliberation and decision that didn’t have to weigh the interests of multiple spectrum users. There is almost always somebody using spectrum that must be considered. The FCC must decide if there is more national benefit in allowing others to use the spectrum, and in doing so, the FCC has to decide if the current users can somehow stay in place. If not, the FCC has to find existing users a new slice of spectrum and cover the cost of moving existing users to the new frequencies.

There are multiple users of spectrum that want more spectrum than they have today. Probably first on this list are the cellular carriers who say they need scads more spectrum to keep up with the demands of our connected world. Satellite carriers are now clamoring for spectrum as they continue to add more users onto satellite broadband – and as they contemplate launching IoT and cellular services. The U.S. government and the military insist on having bands of spectrum for a wide variety of uses. WISPs want more spectrum for rural broadband. The companies that make WiFi equipment want more free spectrum for public use. Then there are the important niche players like connected automobiles, GPS, weather satellites, etc.

Finally, as odd as it sounds, there are also investors who have purchased spectrum in the past and who lobby the FCC to increase the value of their ownership – only in America would this be one of the underlying reasons to deliberate on the use of spectrum.

The recent FCC decision on the use of the lower 12 GHz spectrum is a good example of the FCC deliberation process on spectrum. This spectrum sits in the middle of the range of spectrum that the FCC recently dubbed as 6G. This spectrum has great characteristics – it can carry a lot of data while still being transmitted for decent distances. In general, the higher the frequency, the shorter the effective distance of a broadcast transmission.

This spectrum has been used for satellite broadband connections. At the prompting of others in the industry, the FCC decided to investigate if there are other ways to use this spectrum to satisfy more national needs.

  • Dell owned a lot of the 12 GHz spectrum and was lobbying to expand the use of the spectrum to improve its value.
  • DISH was hoping to use the 12 GHz spectrum as part of its nationwide roll-out of a new cellular network.
  • The other big cell companies jumped in with the suggestion that the spectrum be sold at auction for FWA broadband.
  • WISPs jumped in and suggested they could coexist with the other users and use the spectrum for rural broadband.
  • The WiFi coalition asked that the spectrum be allowed for free indoor usage.

As is usual in FCC spectrum proceedings, the various parties all filed testimony from experts that demonstrated that their proposed use could work. In this case, many of the proposals tried to show that the FCC could order terrestrial use of the spectrum without interfering with satellite base stations. The experts on both sides of the argument said that the arguments on the other side were incorrect.

The spectrum engineers at the FCC are left to somehow glean the truth from the conflicting arguments. Meanwhile, the FCC commissioners have to wrangle with the policy and lobbying aspects of the issue since all of the players do their best to bring pressure to bear on such FCC decisions.

The FCC decision was that the lower 12 GHz spectrum should continue to be used for satellite backhaul. The big winner in the decision was Starlink, and the biggest loser was DISH.

But the FCC left the door open to other uses and will continue its investigation. The FCC is still interested in hearing more about the use for point-to-point and point-to-multipoint wireless connections. That would serve as backhaul between towers and could be used to connect FWA and WISP customers. The FCC is also willing to consider the free unlicensed use of the spectrum for indoor use. So, as is often the case, the debate continues.

Who’s the Top ISP?

Americans have an insatiable desire to rate things. We want to go to the best restaurant in town and drive the most highly-rated car. PCMag ranks the biggest ISPs every year.  It’s an interesting exercise in that each year it points out a few noteworthy ISPs. The magazine asks readers to rate ISPs on a number of factors, including broadband speed, satisfaction with the connection process, and the interaction with customer service.

This year’s winner and highest-rated ISP is NextLight, the municipal fiber utility in the city of Longmont, Colorado. The ISP had the highest rating ever for PCMag and got an overall rating of 9.9 out of 10. The highest-rated national fiber providers were AT&T Fiber and Verizon FiOS, both with a rating of 8.2. Google Fiber was also highly-rated but doesn’t have a big enough footprint to be considered a national provider.

The highest rating for a cable company was Astound Broadband, with a rating of 7.8. Starlink was rated as the best satellite provider with a rating of 8.2. The final category was 5G FWAS wireless, and Verizon won in this category with a ranking of 7.9.

This is an interesting survey, but it is not close to being a scientific sample. The only voters are PCMag customers who also subscribe to the company’s What’s New Now newsletter. An ISP had to receive at least 50 customer responses to be considered. PCMag runs numerous polls throughout the year to let customers rate a range of technical products and services.

There are a few takeaways from the poll responses. The survey rated a local fiber provider the best with a rating of 9.9, while the best cable company in the country got a 7.8 rating. I can’t help but wonder how many other small fiber ISPs would get a high rating if they could get fifty customers to respond to the survey. It’s not hard to imagine that many other municipal providers, cooperatives, independent telephone companies, and small fiber overbuilders would have rated higher than AT&T and Verizon fiber, and higher than all of the cable companies.

The ratings for Starlink and Verizon FWA fixed wireless are interesting because these companies are bringing broadband to many places where all other broadband alternatives are inadequate. I talk to rural folks all of the time who have converted to FWA wireless, and they are thrilled to finally have a broadband solution that works. When you’ve been on rural DSL, high-orbit satellite, or a cellular hotspot, a new alternative is a welcome new option. But I have to wonder how well Starlink and FWA cellular wireless will do after federal grant funding results in fiber networks being built in many of the rural markets in the country? How many people will ditch Starlink and change to a fiber connection that’s both faster and a lot less expensive?

I have my own definition of the best ISPs. The best ISPs are those with almost no churn. This means customers don’t leave these ISPs to change to another ISP. Every ISP has churn from customers that move, die, or have a financial downside. But the best ISPs rarely lose customers to their competition. I’m sure this is true for Longmont’s NextLight as it is for hundreds of other small fiber ISPs across the country. Getting this accolade is great for Longmont. The many other small fiber ISPs don’t need a national magazine to tell them what a great job they are doing. Their customers show them that every day.

Good Enough Broadband

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.

Lets Stop Talking About Technology Neutral

A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog about the misuse of the term overbuilding. Big ISPs use the term to give politicians a phrase to use to shield the big companies from competition. The argument is always phrased about how federal funds shouldn’t be used to overbuild where an ISP is already providing fast broadband. What the big ISPs really mean is that they don’t want to have competition anywhere, even where they still offer outdated technologies or where they have neglected networks.

Today I want to take on the phrase ‘technology neutral’. This phrase is being used to justify building technologies that are clearly not as good as fiber. The argument has been used a lot in recent years to say that grants should be technology neutral so as not to favor only fiber. The phrase was used a lot to justify allowing Starlink into the RDOF reverse auction. The phrase has been used a lot to justify allowing fixed wireless technology to win grants, and lately, it’s being used more specifically to allow fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum into the BEAD grants.

The argument justifies allowing technologies like satellite or fixed wireless using unlicensed spectrum to get grants since the technologies are ‘good enough’ when compared to the requirement of grant rules.

I have two arguments to counter that justification. The only reason the technology neutral argument can be raised is that politicians set the speed requirements for grants at ridiculously low levels. Consider all of the current grants that set the speed requirement for technology at 100/20 Mbps. The 100 Mbps speed requirement is an example of what I’ve recently called underbuilding – it allows for building a technology that is already too slow today. At least 80% of folks in the country today can buy broadband from a cable company or fiber company. Almost all of the cable companies offer download speeds as fast as a gigabit. Even in older cable systems, the maximum speeds are faster than 100 Mbps. Setting a grant speed requirement of only 100 Mbps download is saying to rural folks that they don’t deserve broadband as good as what is available to the large majority of people in the country.

The upload speed requirement of 20 Mbps was a total political sellout. This was set to appease the cable companies, many which struggle to beat that speed. Interestingly, the big cable companies all recognize that their biggest market weakness is slow upload speeds, and most of them are working on plans to implement a mid-split upgrade or else some early version of DOCSIS 4.0 to significantly improve upload speed. Within just a few years, the 20 Mbps upload speed limit is going to feel like ancient history.

The BEAD requirement of only needing to provide 20 Mbps upload is ironic for two reasons. First, in cities, the cable companies will have much faster upload speeds implemented by the time that anybody builds a BEAD network. Second, the cable companies that are pursuing grants are almost universally using fiber to satisfy those grants. Cable companies are rarely building coaxial copper plant for new construction. This means the 20 Mbps speed was set to protect cable companies against overbuilding – not set as a technology neutral speed that is forward looking.

The second argument against the technology neutral argument is that some technologies are clearly not good enough to justify receiving grant dollars. Consider Starlink satellite broadband. It’s a godsend to folks who have no alternatives, and many people rave about how it has solved their broadband problems. But the overall speeds are far slower than what was promised before the technology was launched. I’ve seen a huge number of speed tests for Starlink that don’t come close to the 100/20 Mbps speed required by the BEAD grants.

The same can be said for FWA wireless using cellular spectrum. It’s pretty decent broadband for folks who live within a mile or two of a tower, and I’ve talked to customers who are seeing speeds significantly in excess of 100/20 Mbps. But customers just a mile further away from a tower tell a different story, where download speeds are far under 100 Mbps download. A technology that has such a small coverage area does not meet the technology neutral test unless a cellular company promises to pepper an area with new cell towers.

Finally, and a comment that always gets pushback from WISPs, is that fixed wireless technology using unlicensed spectrum has plainly not been adequate in most places. Interference from the many users of unlicensed spectrum means the broadband speeds vary depending on whatever is happening with the spectrum at a given moment. Interference on the technology also means higher latency and much higher packet losses than landline technologies.

I’ve argued until I am blue in the face that grant speed requirements should be set for the speeds we expect a decade from now and not for the bare minimum that makes sense today. It’s ludicrous to allow award grant funding to a technology that barely meets the 100/20 Mbps grant requirement when that network probably won’t be built until 2025. The real test for the right technology for grant funding is what the average urban customer will be able to buy in 2032. It’s hard to think that speed won’t be something like 2 Gbps/200 Mbps. If that’s what will be available to a large majority of households in a decade it ought to be the technology neutral definition of speed to qualify for grants.

Packet Loss and Broadband Performance

In a recent article in FierceWireless, Joe Madden wrote an article looking at the various wireless technologies he has used at his home in rural central California. Over time he subscribed to a fixed wireless network using WiFi spectrum, cellular LTE broadband, Starlink, and a fixed wireless provider using CBRS spectrum. A lot of rural folks can describe a similar path where they have tried all of the broadband technologies available to them.

Since Joe is a wireless expert who works at Mobile Experts, he was able to analyze his broadband performance in ways that are not easily understood by the average subscriber. Joe came to an interesting conclusion – the difference in performance between various broadband technologies has less to do with speed than with the consistency of the broadband signal.

The average speed tests on the various products varied from 10/2 Mbps on fixed wireless using WiFi, to 117/13 Mbps on Starlink. But what Joe found was that there was a huge difference in consistency as measured by packet loss. Fixed wireless on WiFi had packet loss of 8.5%, while the packet loss on fixed wireless using CBRS spectrum dropped to 0.1%. The difference is stark and is due to the interference that affects using unlicensed spectrum compared to a cleaner signal on licensed spectrum.

But just measuring packet loss is not enough to describe the difference in the performance of the various broadband connections. Joe looked at the number of lost packets that were delivered over 250 milliseconds. That will require some explanation. Packet loss in general describes the percentage of data packets that are not delivered on time. In an Internet transmission, some packets are always lost somewhere in the routing to customers – although most packets are lost due to the local technology at the user end.

When a packet doesn’t show up as expected, the Internet routing protocols ask for that packet to be sent again. If the second packet gets to the user quickly enough, it’s the same, from a user perspective, as if that packet was delivered on time. Joe says that re-sent packets that don’t arrive until after 250 milliseconds are worthless because by then, the signal has been delivered to the user. The easiest way to visualize this is to look at the performance of Zoom calls for folks using rural technologies. Packets that don’t make it on time result in a gap in the video signal that manifests as fuzziness and unclear resolution on the video picture.

Packet loss is the primary culprit for poor Zoom calls. Not receiving all of the video packets on time is why somebody on a Zoom call looks fuzzy or pixelated. If the packet loss is high enough, the user is booted from the Zoom call.

The difference in the percentage of packets that are delivered late between the different technologies is eye-opening. In the fixed wireless using WiFi spectrum an astounding 65% of re-sent packets took longer than 250 ms. Cellular LTE broadband was almost as bad at 57%. Starlink was better at 14%, while fixed wireless using CBRS was lowest at 5%.

Joe is careful to point out that these figures only represent his home and not the technologies as deployed everywhere. But with that said, there are easily explainable technology reasons for the different levels of packet delay. General interference plays havoc with broadband networks using unlicensed spectrum. Starlink has delay just from the extra time for broadband signals to go to and from the satellite and the ground in both directions. The low packet losses on a CBRS network might be due to having very few other neighbors using the new service.

Joe’s comparison doesn’t include other major broadband technologies. I’ve seen some cable networks with high packet loss due to years of accumulated repairs and unresolved issues in the network. The winner of the packet loss comparison is fiber, which typically has an incredibly low packet loss and also a quick recovery rate for lost packets.

The bottom line from the article is that speed isn’t everything. It’s just one of the characteristics that define a good broadband connection, but we’ve unfortunately locked onto speed as the only important characteristic.