State funding for the Office of Broadband Development and the Minnesota Broadband Fund is in jeopardy. The root seems to be because folks in the House led by Representative Pat Garofalo, think wireless broadband is enough for rural areas and that wireless providers don’t want or need State support.
The business of broadband is pretty geeky. I think it’s confusing and I spend a lot of time on it (and have since 1995) so I get where he’s coming from, but I think there are some misconceptions in the theory that wireless can replace wireline technology. Here are some points that I think help make this clear.
- You need wired to support wireless. In 2012, Kevin Beyer from Federated/Farmers telecom gave a nice explanation of the role of wireline infrastructure to support wireless access. You can put wireless “hotspots” on towers but generally those towers are wired with fiber which leads to the backbone of the Internet. That fiber is essential for decent wireless speeds. But the fees paid by wireless providers alone will not make the business case for this fiber deployment and maintenance.
There may be opportunities to change that in the future, if/when spectrum becomes more available but currently spectrum as a middle mile solution is a rare and expensive resource.
- Distance matters so rural areas will still be difficult to serve. According to a recent NTCA report…
An important determinant of connection speed is the proximity of the customer to the tower. In rural areas, customers may live long distances from the closest tower, which frequently are spaced 10 to 20 miles apart. At this distance, service may be extremely slow or nonexistent.
- Weather and trees matter. The same NTCA report points out climate issues…
Mountains, hills, buildings and trees interfere with wireless signals. Rain, fog or snow can also reduce broadband speeds and even cause network outages. All of these factors are common in rural areas.
- Current wireless options available to users (especially in rural areas) are more expensive. Marc Johnson, an educator in rural Minnesota, has spoken eloquently on this by giving direct costs in his community based on location (and availability of wired solutions)…
How would you feel knowing that if you lived in town 3 miles away, you would have access to 30mbps speeds with no data cap for less than $50/mo or 7mbps with no data cap for less than $40/mo? Or, in some circumstances, if you lived across the road, where you could have a Gb connection from a rural cooperative while you are stuck with slow DSL or only wireless options?
Given those options, what would your choice be and what would the conversations in your household sound like? Availability of quality broadband is near the top of business location selection criteria. For many households, broadband is also high on the list of required features when selecting a home or community, especially doctors, financial specialists, and other high income earners, plus families with children. Telling those people to live in town where broadband is in place or rely on wireless is essentially telling them to choose another community in which to live – this is not a good economic development strategy.
I have had my own choke-a-horse wireless bills ($700/month), especially on the road. I am the first to say that my mobile wifi makes road trips possible for my family but the cost is crazy and would not be sustainable if we used wireless-only connectivity at home.
- A move to support wireless-only will increase the digital divide. Fire Island in New York got a glimpse of this when Verizon tried to get rid of copper/wired solutions. There are folks who still need plain old telephone service. It is a lifeline. What happens to the lifeline if we go wireless? The folks on the far end of the divide are older and lower income. They won’t be shifting to a smartphone. (And electronic 911 isn’t ready for them yet anyway!) We still have a few years of needing to bridge the extreme ends of the divide if we want to best serve all citizens.
There is a role for wireless and wireline. Each bring us different strengths in a disaster; wireless great for immediate contact in a disaster; wireless better for ongoing situations. Wireless brings us mobility. Wireless is a lower-cost approach to bringing broadband to a community. We’ve seen it in Leech Lake, Fond du Lac, Cloquet Valley, in fact MVTV Wireless uses that approach to reach dozens of communities and in the rural countryside. But in those cases wireless has not been the assumed final answer. It is a stepping stone and a complement to wireline solutions. It is necessary but not sufficient!
Want to know more about wireless? Blandin recently had a webinar on the topic – you can catch the archive online (Wireless Broadband – It’s Complicated!).