Regulation - What is it Good For? The Industry

Gaining Access to Multi-tenant Buildings

In 2007 the FCC banned certain kinds of exclusivity arrangements between ISPs and owners of multi-tenant buildings. At the time of the order, the big cable companies had signed contracts with apartment owners giving them exclusive access to buildings. The FCC order in 2007 got rid of the most egregious types of contracts – in many cases, cable company contracts were so convoluted that building owners didn’t even understand the agreements were exclusive.

However, the FCC order was still a far cry away from ordering open access for ISPs to buildings and there are many landlords still today who won’t allow in competitors. The most common arrangements liked by landlords are revenue share arrangements where the building owner makes money from an arrangement with an ISP. While such arrangements aren’t legally exclusive, they can be lucrative enough to make landlords favor an ISP and give them exclusive access.

WISPA, the industry association for wireless ISPs has asked the FCC to force apartment owners to allow access to multiple ISPs. WISPA conducted a survey of its members and found that wireless companies are routinely denied access to apartment buildings. Some of the reasons for denying access include:

  • Existing arrangements with ISPs that make the landlord not want to grant access to an additional ISP.
  • Apartment owners often deny access because wireless ISPs (WISPs) are often not considered to be telephone or cable companies – many WISPs offer only broadband and have no official regulatory status.
  • Building owners often say that an existing ISP serving the building has exclusive rights to the existing wiring, including conduits that might be used to string new wiring to reach units. This is often the case if the original cable or telephone company paid for the inside wiring when the building was first constructed.
  • Many landlords say that they already have an existing marketing arrangement with an ISP, meaning they get rewarded for sending tenants to that ISP.
  • Many landlords will only consider revenue sharing arrangements since that’s what they have with an existing ISP. Some landlords have even insisted on a WISP signing a revenue-sharing arrangement even before negotiating and talking pricing and logistics.

These objections by landlords fall into two categories. One is compensation-based where a landlord is happy with the financial status quo relationship with an existing ISP. The other primary reason is some contractual relationship with an existing ISP that is hard or impossible for a landlord to preempt.

The concerns of WISPs are all valid, and in fact, the same list can be made by companies that want to build fiber to apartment buildings. However, landlords seem more open to fiber-based ISPs since saying that their building has fiber adds cachet and is valued by many tenants.

WISPs sometimes have unusual issues not faced by other ISP overbuilders. For example, one common wireless model is to beam broadband to a roof of an apartment building. That presents a challenge for gaining access to apartments since inside wiring generally begins in a communications space at the base of a building.

The issue is further clouded by the long history of FCC regulation of inside wiring. The topic of ownership and rights for inside wiring has been debated in various dockets since the 1990s and there are regulatory rulings that can give ammunition to both sides of wiring arguments.

The WISPs are facing an antagonistic FCC on this issue. The agency recently preempted a San Francisco ordinance that would have made all apartment buildings open access – meaning available to any ISP. This FCC has been siding with large incumbent cable and telephone companies on most issues and is not likely to go against them by allowing open access to all apartment buildings.

Technology What Customers Want

The WISP Dilemma

For the last decade I have been working with many rural communities seeking better broadband. For the most part these are places that the large telcos have neglected and never provided with any functional DSL. Rural America has largely rejected the current versions of satellite broadband because of the low data caps and because the latency won’t support streaming video or other real-time activities. I’ve found that lack of broadband is at or near the top of the list of concerns in communities without it.

But a significant percentage of rural communities have access today to WISPs (wireless ISPs) that use unlicensed frequency and point-to-multipoint radios to bring a broadband connection to customers. The performance of WISPs varies widely. There are places where WISPs are delivering solid and reliable connections that average between 20 – 40 Mbps download. But unfortunately there are many other WISPs that are delivering slow broadband in the 1 – 3 Mbps range.

The WISPs that have fast data speeds share two characteristics. They have a fiber connection directly to each wireless transmitter, meaning that there are no bandwidth constraints. And they don’t oversubscribe customers. Anybody who was on a cable modem five or ten years ago understands oversubscription. When there are too many people on a network node at the same time the performance degrades for everybody. A well-designed broadband network of any technology works best when there are not more customers than the technology can optimally serve.

But a lot of rural WISPs are operating in places where there is no easy or affordable access to a fiber backbone. That leaves them with no alternative but to use wireless backhaul. This means using point-to-point microwave radios to get bandwidth to and from a tower.

Wireless backhaul is not in itself a negative issue. If an ISP can use microwave to deliver enough bandwidth to a wireless node to satisfy the demand there, then they’ll have a robust product and happy customers. But the problems start happening when networks include multiple ‘hops’ between wireless towers. I often see WISP networks where the bandwidth goes from tower to tower to tower. In that kind of configuration all of the towers and all of the customers on those towers are sharing whatever bandwidth is sent to the first tower in the chain.

Adding hops to a wireless network also adds latency and each hop means it takes longer for the traffic to get to and from customers at the outer edges of one of these wireless chains. Latency, or time lag, in signal is an important factor in being able to perform real-time functions like data streaming, voice over IP, gaming, or functions like maintaining connections to an on-line class or a distant corporate WAN.

Depending upon the brand of the radios and the quality of the internet backbone connection, a wireless transmitter that is connected directly to fiber can have a latency similar to that of a cable or DSL network. But when chaining multiple towers together the latency can rise significantly, and real-time applications start to suffer at latencies of 100 milliseconds or greater.

WISPs also face other issues. One is the age of the wireless equipment. There is no part of our industry that has made bigger strides over the past ten years than the manufacturing of subscriber microwave radios. The newest radios have significantly better operating characteristics than radios made just a few years ago. WISPs are for the most part relatively small companies and have a hard time justifying upgrading equipment until it has reached its useful life. And unfortunately there is not much opportunity for small incremental upgrades of equipment. The changes in the technologies have been significant enough that that upgrading a node often means replacing the transmitters on towers as well as subscriber radios.

The final dilemma faced by WISPs is that they often are trying to serve customers that are in locations that are not ideally situated to receive a wireless signal. The unlicensed frequencies require good line-of-sight and also suffer degraded signals from foliage, rain and other impediments and it’s hard to serve customer reliably who are surrounded by trees or who live in places that are somehow blocked by the terrain.

All of the various issues mean that reviews of WISPs vary as widely as you can imagine. I was served by a WISP for nearly a decade and since I lived a few hundred feet from the tower and had a clear line-of-sight I was always happy with the performance I received. I’ve talked to a few people recently who have WISP speeds as fast as 50 Mbps. But I have also talked to a lot of rural people who have WISP connections that are slow and have high latency that provides a miserable broadband experience.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to some of these WISPs as rural telcos deploy CAF II money and provide a faster broadband alternative that will supposedly deliver at least 10 Mbps download. WISPs who can beat those speeds will likely continue to thrive while the ones delivering only a few Mbps will have to find a way to upgrade or will lose most of their customers.

The Industry

Broadband and Farmers

The 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.

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