But perhaps even more valuable is a succinct description of different types of broadband…
With wires, DSL, or digital subscriber line, is the most deployed broadband access technology in rural America. DSL connections are the copper wires owned and operated by telephone companies like CenturyLink. Despite its prevalence, the problem is that these types of connections are slow and outdated, oftentimes not able to meet the FCC’s definition of broadband, which is 25 Mbps download, 3 Mbps upload. More than this, DSL gets worse the further you are away from the network node. So once you’re about 3 miles from the access point, your internet is going to slow down considerably. AT&T and other providers have also begun phasing out their DSL networks, leaving many in rural America without an alternative.
Cable internet, or coaxial, or coax-hybrid internet is the most deployed type of connectivity in urban areas. These connections are owned and operated by cable companies like Comcast Xfinity. The benefit of cable internet is that you get blazing fast download speeds, which is great for binging Netflix. The problem is that the upload speed, which is so important for business and for video conferencing like we’re doing, is slower. More than this, cable internet suffers from something called “network congestion” – the more people on the network at the same time, the slower it becomes. Here in Charlottesville, my husband and I have Comcast, and we have definitely noticed slower service during peak working hours when everyone in our neighborhood is trying to make a Zoom call. It can make teaching really difficult!
Then there’s fiber optics, the “future-proof” and “gold standard” technology. It offers blazing-fast download and upload speeds, doesn’t degrade with distance, and is not impacted by how many people are on the network at the same time. The problem? It is expensive: Upwards of $27,000 per mile. And this is where counties and cooperatives and localities tend to struggle – how to raise the money necessary for fiber-to-the-home?
On the wireless side, counties like Culpeper are deploying towers with fiber-optic connections that transmit broadband wirelessly. This is known as “fixed wireless” and is provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers or “WISPs.” Fixed wireless has proven to be an important form of connectivity on its own, and for some counties, a mid-point towards fiber-to-the-home. It’s not as fast as fiber, and certainly comes with drawbacks like suffering from inclement weather and requiring line of sight, but many counties, particularly rural ones, are erecting a series of towers that are connected at the back end with fiber optics so that residents have meaningful connectivity. Fixed wireless is particularly useful for rural communities and agricultural spaces since one tower can cover a rather large distance. Others, however, say that nothing short of fiber for all will suffice. Again, the type of connectivity should be in tune with the community and the community’s needs.
Also on the wireless side is satellite, which many people don’t even consider viable because it is so problematic. Hughes and ViaSat are the two satellite internet providers in the country. Often times when I bring up satellite in rural areas, people roll their eyes at me, because it is expensive, slow, suffers from lag and inclement weather interruptions, and comes with tiny data caps. Still, the FCC considers satellite a viable complement to wireline broadband. It is available to almost everyone in the country, perhaps 99% or so. That said, I know of many residents who have to augment their satellite connections with mobile hotspots to ensure they are always connected, but at tremendous expense – sometimes $300 a month.
Many of you may have also heard about StarLink – Elon Musk’s SpaceX broadband service. StarLink is a type of satellite broadband called LEO or “Low Earth Orbital,” where the satellite sits closer to the Earth than traditional geosynchronous satellites like from Hughes or ViaSat. Theoretically, this proximity allows LEOs to provide faster and stronger service. Trials suggest StarLink is providing faster service, upwards of 100/20 in certain communities, but this pales in comparison to the original hype around LEOs, which promised speeds of gigabits per second. StarLink and others like it are just getting going, and the technology is still unproven at scale. A recent study, for instance, suggested that StarLink will reach capacity in only 8 short years. There’s still so much we don’t know about these networks. Despite this, the FCC recently awarded StarLink almost $900 million in funding. StarLink’s competitors are challenging this award, claiming that it overexaggerated its capabilities to the FCC.
We could say the same thing about 5G. While urban areas are getting a taste of what 5G can do – like blazing-fast mobile connections and the potential to replace your home broadband network – it is still in its trial stages and the type of 5G found in urban areas, known as millimeter-wave 5G or high-band 5G, is unavailable to the rest of the country. So far, 5G has not lived up to the hype mobile providers like Verizon and T-Mobile have promised us.
I get worried when I hear counties say that they are considering pausing their broadband plans in hopes that StarLink or 5G will arrive soon. Truth be told, these technologies are years away from being deployed in rural areas across our country. There is also uncertainty around cost, in addition to time. Communities that decide to pause will be waiting for something that may never come. In contrast, there are very real solutions available to counties today.