Technology Options for Rural Broadband

The term “broadband” has become imprecise and subject to redefinition for political convenience. That convenience was exercised by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2015 when it chose 25 Mbps as a replacement for 4Mbps, the threshold speed for “broadband” at that time. That political gambit gave the FCC an excuse for denigrating private sector ISP investments and for “taking action.”

Without any change in Internet speed or consumers’ accessibility, the FCC could claim that suddenly fewer Americans were able to access “broadband,” a shamefully fake justification for government action. Within the FCC, government action too often means taxing service providers that make the big investments in networks, or increasing subsidies to favored small network operators or adjusting subsidies and entitlements for favored consumers.

What followed broadband redefinition was predictable regulatory kabuki. In act one, a chorus of regulators shed crocodile tears about inadequate speeds in underserved and rural areas. In act two, more universal service fund disbursements were eyed for rural areas, and ISPs were reminded that broadband rollout into underserved areas is their duty regardless of how prohibitive the cost.

Access speeds exceeding 25 Mbps for Internet are widely available and used. A 2016 FCC report revealed that 55% of rural residents have access to 25 Mbps speeds compared to 94% in urban areas. This year, President Trump assured rural areas that broadband was one of the targets in the President’s $1 trillion infrastructure upgrade. The sentiment is welcomed, but care should be used in allocating those funds. They should align with the newer infrastructure technologies and consumers’ actual uses of Internet access.

Recently many consumers have subscribed to broadband as a replacement for conventional TV program delivery. This “cable cord cutting” transition has been in play for several years. Traditional Pay TV subscribers stood at 103 million in 2012, but it is anticipated that they will decline to 92 million in 2018.

Of the Internet subscribers who use streaming or social networks, more than half of their IP traffic is carried on a content delivery network (CDN), not the public Internet. CDNs (including Facebook, Netflix, and Google) choose the speed and priority for their services and also choose which network to use for the last mile delivery. So much for the sanctity of net neutrality. By 2021, CDNs will deliver 71% of all IP traffic. This has a bearing on the relevance of plans and regulations for upgrading public Internet infrastructure.

Most of the lost TV subscribers are moving to Internet delivery of streaming TV programs and movies. But while cable cutting proceeds and fuels demand for broadband, wired Internet access is also losing share to mobile Internet access.

The transition to wireless Internet delivery is precisely what we expect for 5th generation mobile (5G) wireless as the delivery vehicle for the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT’s arrival will drive the transition from wireline to wireless consumer Internet. Traffic from wireless and mobile devices will account for more than 63 percent of total IP traffic by 2021. The one-time clamor for fiber to the home is being rethought by the marketplace. Verizon, AT&T and others are already grooming their networks in anticipation of offering 5G services.

Google, once a loud proponent of fiber optics for delivery of Internet to the home, bought Webpass, an Internet carrier that uses wireless signals from an Internet hub to the client’s building and Ethernet cabling from the roof to the consumer’s apartment. Webpass achieves 500 Mbps between the building roof and the Internet hub. Wireless Internet strategies such as Webpass will help reduce the daunting Internet infrastructure costs that rural areas could face.

Another innovation the FCC is considering is the use of Television White Space (TWS) for delivering broadband into rural and underserved areas. TWS proponents want to use what they claim is fallow radio frequency spectrum located “between TV channels.” TWS spectrum is especially good at propagating signals across long distances. More needs to be explored to make sure broadcast channels are not disrupted in any way, as well as assuring that national emergency and local weather information is available for viewers.

Satellite broadband services are available to the most remote areas, although at higher prices than other types of broadband services.

In any case, the marketplace is showing that broadband services are likely to arrive as a mix of wireline and wireless technologies, not just fiber to the building. If permitted, owners of competing backbone and last mile networks are likely to specialize in ways that best service their targeted customers. CDNs are largely outside the FCC’s purview, but they will have a major impact on consumers’ Internet experience. What consumers consider most desirable as “broadband” is likely to be shaped by their choice of video programing, and by the density of the IoT systems that consumers choose for their homes. In effect, consumers will tell us what “broadband” means. We don’t need a political thumb on the scale to set the goal.

The best solution for hard to reach areas could involve a wireless downstream component and wired backhaul, or some other intermodal combination. Regulators’ most relevant involvement in fostering widespread broadband will be from orchestrating availability of the high frequency spectrum that 5G cells will need.

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