5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.

bill rightA guest post by Bill Coleman
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5G Wireless as Rural Solution: Not any time soon.

Minnesota legislators are now hearing that a market-based broadband solution is near. 5G wireless to the rescue!  Learning that public dollars would not be necessary for rural broadband development would be soothing music to elected officials’ ears as other groups line up for funds– roads, schools, health care, tax cuts; the list is endless.

After all, many counties and regional entities are growing desperate for broadband and are actively studying the options for spurring broadband delivery to meet at least minimum FCC broadband standards.  Alternatives range from subsidizing incumbents to partnering with new or existing broadband cooperatives.  While the State of Minnesota is seen as the major finance partner, even townships are writing checks for broadband!

So the question “Is 5G coming to rural America anytime soon?” is critical for policy leaders and elected officials.  They wonder, “If we wait, will our future pass us by?” Conversely, they question “Will our investment in fiber be a waste of money as wireless becomes the preferred and available technology?”

After doing a lot of reading and talking with technologists, it is clear that 5G wireless is coming to the marketplace, but it is not coming to rural America anytime soon.  5G wireless does offer promise, but only to high density population centers such as  campuses, large office buildings and apartment buildings.  5G’s chief feature is very high bandwidth– 1 Gigabit or more!  Once established, 5G promises to have the ability to connect many devices with very quick responses, especially applicable for self-driving vehicles or many smart devices in a factory, on urban streets and so on.  5G would also be great for large file sharing applications like HD movies.

So why not 5G in rural areas?  That answer is easy and indisputable.  Deployment of 5G wireless services will require significant fiber deployment, more than either the current 4G wireless cellular network or the new CAF2 Fiber to the Node (FTTN) installations by large incumbent providers.

Rural 5G wireless services would require installing radios every 1,000 – 3,000 feet on towers and poles.  These small cells would require direct fiber connections and all of them would require electricity to power the radios.  The radios would connect to wireless devices in customers’ homes and to other devices on the network and, of course, back to the network backbone.

For comparison, today’s fiber-fed 4G towers might be four to fifteen miles apart depending on terrain and the number of customers.  We know that 4G services have yet to reach many rural customers at their homes since these services are often focused down state and federal highway corridors in tandem with existing fiber routes leaving those in the bulk of the rural countryside without modern service.

In today’s CAF2 environment, providers are making significant investments to deploy FTTN, shortening copper loops to approximately 7,500 feet.  These shorter loop lengths will allow some customers to exceed the 25 Mb download and 3Mb upload FCC broadband standard while others at the end of the line will more likely receive 10 Mb/1 Mb. While this may be a significant improvement from current services, it lags far below the Minnesota broadband goal of 100 Mb/20 Mb by 2026.  Optimists view these CAF2 improvements as an interim step to future FTTH deployment; others view these improvements as the last incumbent investment for a generation.

There are many questions yet unanswered on 5G wireless technical standards and final standards may be years in the making. There are just as many questions on the different business models that will drive deployment in urban, suburban and rural markets.  These deployment strategies will likely vary by location and provider mix.

For example, ATT and Verizon are dominant wireless carriers seeking to use more wireless in their old wired local exchange areas.  They could relatively easily transition their landline customer base to the new 5G networks adding to their existing wireless customer base.  In Minnesota, these wireless companies use a combination of their own networks and leased facilities from a variety of providers to reach large customers, but primarily to reach cell towers.

In Minnesota, incumbent providers CenturyLink and Frontier are just one year into a five-year process to deploy their CAF2 FTTN networks.  Once completed in 2020-21, likely to coincide with 5G technology and devices entry into the marketplace, will they be willing to open these deep fiber networks to competitive 5G wireless providers?  Or will they offer their own 5G wireless services on enhanced CAF2 networks?  Or, will these companies decline to sell access to their networks to wireless providers to preserve their own customer base.  In that scenario one has to wonder if there would ever be a business case for wireless carriers like ATT and Verizon to install duplicate fiber networks to reach rural customers?

So 5G is coming, definitely and soon, but only to metro areas, just as new technologies always seem to hit metro markets first.  But will and when will 5G reach rural?  For those rural residents and businesses still waiting for 4G wireless services, the answer is clearly not any time soon.  Fiber networks, to the home or to the node with very short loop lengths, will be a requirement to support future 5G wireless services.  First fiber, then 5G.  Not the other way around.

My advice: keep pursuing local fiber deployment so that all innovative broadband services – wired and wireless – can be offered in your community.

Steven Senne of Finley Engineering reviewed this article for technical accuracy.


DEED Annual report: An annual update on the Office of Broadband Development

DEED just released their 2016 annual report. I thought the section on the Office of Broadband Development would be of interest. I’ll add in my own two cents to say I have heard nothing but high praise for the Office from all corners of the state and beyond – from communities, provider and policymakers…


The Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program received $35 million in new funding to encourage the continued expansion of broadband access to unserved and underserved communities around the state.

Most of that funding was awarded to 42 projects in Greater Minnesota in the latest competitive grant round that was announced in January 2017. These grants are anticipated to reach more than 11,000 previously unserved and under-served households, businesses and community anchor institutions.

Grant Project Status Report:

  • For first-round projects, eight of 16 have been completed. Total fiber miles: 1,591. Number of passings: 4,107.
  • Four of 15 second-round projects have been completed. Total fiber miles: 655. Number of passings: 2,086.

Broadband Outreach and Technical Assistance

  • Broadband staff presented at 54 conferences and public meetings to more than 3,200 people and conducted 20 site visits to current grant projects.

  • The office co-sponsored the Advancing the Vision statewide broadband conference and published 12 monthly issues of the “Office of Broadband Development Update” blog to 1,600 subscribers.

Broadband Data and Mapping

The office conducted its annual inventory of broadband availability across the state and produced over 100 maps and data sets measuring broadband capacity across Minnesota.

I was going to post other items of interest – but there were too many of them. It’s worth a quick perusal of the report to see if there’s any you, your company or your community can use to make life easier.

What does rural really mean? And how does it impact broadband?

The Minnesota State Demographic Office recently released a new report that redefined rural. It turns urban, suburban, rural into urban, large town, small town, and rural—based on both population size and proximity to other communities. The report draws a picture of what each community looks like and what they are likely to look like in the future.

Here are some quick differences in populations today:

  • More than 7 in 10 Minnesotans lives in an urban area, yet 434,000+ live in (remote) rural areas
  • 89% of all immigrants residing in Minnesota live in urban communities
  • 32% of urban Minnesotans are age 50 or above, that rate rises to 38% of large town residents, 41% of small town residents, and 44% of rural Minnesotans
  • Urban workers’ median earnings, for men and women, are $10,000 higher than all other geography type (Won’t even go into male/female divide on earnings)

And here are some observation and predictions on changes:

  • Rural populations are shrinking
  • Urban populations are growing
  • Urban population growth in MN has been due exclusively to international migration
  • Deaths outpace births in rural areas
  • Migration will drive growth in Minnesota counties

And here’s a map of geographic areas (yellow is rural) compared to areas with broadband as defined by 25 Mbps down and 3 up – red means less than 50 percent have broadband.

You can see some similarities in the maps.  The Twin Cities has broadband access, Duluth has access, Moorhead has access. Much of the area around Roseau is unserved and rural or small town. There’s a swath of East Central Minnesota that’s rural or small town and largely unserved. But there are some areas that don’t correlate. Cook County (NE Minnesota) is rural – but they have broadband. Western Minnesota is rural (Lac qui Parle County) and they have broadband. So rural broadband is possible! People are doing it. Looking closer at the conditions at play can inform legislators as they make choices shaping public investments in broadband infrastructure.  Cook County has benefitted from active local leadership and $43 million in federal ARRA funding; Lac qui Parle has benefitted from partnerships with community-minded telephone cooperatives. (LQP is served by Federated – but there are several coops in MN including Paul Bunyan, Hiawatha Broadband, CTC and Garden Valley Telephone.)

The Demographic report outlines ways that broadband can be essential – especially for rural areas…

It is essential to plan for the needs of this population [over 65], as rural and small town residents are more remote from health care providers and specialists, and due to low population density these areas may face steep challenges to delivering needed services. Employing technological tools and improving coverage and speed of broadband to deliver telemedicine and meet other needs—by conquering distances without being physically present—will be especially valuable. Community leaders should consider how to improve social connections for older adults, many of whom live alone, as strengthened social networks can serve as a bulwark against isolation and related health and mental health concerns.  Great examples of this exist in MN – Redwood Area Hospitals example.

Broadband can help attract new residents as well.

broadband-to-helpI’ve written before about broadband as a lure for the rural “brain gain” – a population segment that communities generally like to attract. Folks in the 30-40s who are interested in moving to a rural area, often with children or intention of children. Having broadband makes it easier for brain gainers to work online and therefore work anywhere, which is often what one or two partners do.

workers-in-chisholmA few years ago the Blandin Foundation had students from University of Minnesota Morris talk about what they look for in a new community – or what would they look for as soon as they graduated. One biggie – broadband. They want to live where they can get online.

Finally the demographics report indicates that growth in urban areas comes down to international migration. If rural areas want to grow, one strategy is to mconnect-with-scotlandake a concerted effort to reach new Americans. Presumably however, new Americans have friends and family in different parts of the world. I think access to broadband as a tool to stay in touch with folks back home would be a priority for choosing a community. When I was in my 20s I lived in Europe for several years. Back then access to a phone from my apartment was a big draw – and not an assumed amenity. My friends, who were often natives of the country, weren’t as concerned with a phone but I was. In the same way, I think other immigrants would be as well.

It will be interesting to see if the demographics maps don’t start looking more like the broadband access maps if people move to areas with better access.

It’s valuable to be able to look at the demographics report. I think it can help communities plan for the future they want to achieve. So I was surprised to learn that earlier this month federal legislation (HR482 and S103) was introduced that would limit funds to such demographic detail…

SEC. 3. PROHIBITION ON USE OF FEDERAL FUNDS. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no Federal funds may be used to design, build, maintain, utilize, or provide access to a Federal database of geospatial information on community racial disparities or disparities in access to affordable housing.

How, when, why to use hybrid fiber-wireless solutions in community broadband projects

Craig Settles just published a new report – Fiber & Wireless – Stronger Together for Community Broadband. It includes a nice sections of definitions and a lot of examples, including some from Minnesota. The core message is that a broadband solution is not painted with one brush. Communities was the capacity and speed of fiber; they want the mobility and affordability of wireless. BUT wireless requires fiber infrastructure.

A hybrid solution allows a network to reach to the far corners of a community quickly, which means singing up customers quickly, which means money to reinvest in fiber to the far corners. But again it also means mobility. It means access what you need while on the road, at the football game, in the field taking to constituents or customers.

Craig provides help on how to fix the RFP process for communities that are looking into community broadband. And also a reminder that what works in a laboratory setting might night mirror results in the real world.

Minnesota examples in Chaska..

Chaska, Minnesota formed a public private partnership that delivered fiber initially, then added wireless to serve businesses that have smaller budgets. Other small towns had their municipal IT departments build and run the networks, including Sandy, Oregon and Wilson, North Carolina. Some of the bigger cities and the counties are building out and selling fiber services themselves, but retain WISPs or other providers to sell wireless services to the public.


And Renville and Sibley Counties.

 Midwest Electric Cooperative in Michigan says that most of their fiber customers use about 20 Mbps of speed. One Christmas, the co-op doubled their speed for a month. Afterwards most customers were content to return to their old speed. An ISP in Minnesota, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, has been selling the residents in 10 towns 25 Mbps symmetrical wireless since 2015. Customers are overjoyed because before this there was mostly dial up. A hybrid infrastructure can address a median need for speed.

10 Minnesota towns in Renville and Sibley Counties, ranging in populations from 2305 down to 504, created a joint powers board to bring broadband to constituents. The board created the RS Fiber co-op to represent communities’ communications interests, and sign up members. The board and co-op retained an ISP, Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC), to oversee network operations and marketing.

The original plan called for a fiber backbone to link the 10 towns together and build fiber laterals to the premises. It was estimated to take three years to complete and in 2018, RS Fiber would ask the board to pass another bond to finance the remaining buildout to take in surrounding farmlands. In total, the entire network will cover over 600 miles and 2500 farm sites and cost $70 million.

Broadband projects present two major financial challenges for communities: raising cash for buildout costs and generating sustainable cash flow. They can’t start billing customers until the network is built, plus there is a lag between the buildout and the time when revenue can cover operating costs. HBC came up with a solution that resolved both concerns.

HBC split the project into two phases and focused on the towns first. Starting in mid-2015, they used multiple crews to 1) build out the fiber ring, 2) simultaneously ran fiber to towers that held fixed wireless equipment, 3) then built fiber to the premises. 90% of the residents got 25 Megabit symmetrical wireless service by the end of 2015. 70% had fiber by the end of 2016.

Wireless was the key because it allowed RS Fiber to collect $50,000-$100,000 in monthly revenue and start retiring the debt because residents received service soon after the project started. It helped significantly that RS Fiber gave the go ahead immediately while cities expedited permitting processes and access to vertical assets. HBC retained appropriate staff to do simultaneous buildouts.

“It helped we could use our own fiber ring for five of the towns, our own video head-end and several towns let us use vertical assets such as water towers,” says Dan Pecarina, HBC CEO. “We installed point-to-point fixed wireless with 1gig capacity to ensure every customer gets 25 Mbps symmetrical

Digital Inclusion is more than access – it’s about use, especially with youth

The World Economic Forum reports..

[A] new research from the OECD, which found that richer teenagers were more likely to use the internet to search for information or to read news rather than to chat or play video games.

The report, based on data from more than 40 countries, concludes that even when all teenagers, rich and poor, have equal access to the internet, a “digital divide” remains in how they use technology.

There’s a misgiving that “digital natives” know how to use technology to do homework, to get jobs, succeed on the job, to do anything. Unfortunately, knowing the technology doesn’t mean you know strategy.

I do training with all ages on how to use social media. Training with non-youth (certainly 40+) is often about the logistics of using tools (Twitter, Instagram…) such as tagging or when to post. Training with youth is much more about strategy – how to define a purpose and then use the tools to meet that need.

A very simple example: my kids can use Instagram but they are terrible with Google Maps because they don’t drive. They don’t read maps. They have limited experience being responsible for directions. That is something they must learn – as they must learn how to do homework, get a job or keep a job. The OECD report makes a similar conclusion…

While the report acknowledges efforts to close gaps in internet access, it argues that developing all young people’s literacy skills would help to reduce digital inequality.

“Ensuring that every child attains a baseline level of proficiency in reading will do more to create equal opportunities in a digital world than will expanding or subsidising access to high-tech devices and services,” it says.

Kids need to learn. Unfortunately technology without the power to use it runs the risk of deepening the digital divide. Unfocused technology can be distracting – while focused technology pushes the user farther header, faster.

NDIA webinar set for Feb. 7: “Digital Inclusion Data 101”

I am very excited about this webinar – it will help practitioners better use data to advocate for digital inclusion…

NDIA Webinar Set For Feb. 7: “Digital Inclusion Data 101”

On Tuesday, February 7, NDIA will hold a webinar to introduce digital inclusion practitioners and advocates to available Federal data that can be used to analyze the state of digital inclusion at the local community level.

The hour-long webinar, scheduled for 3 p.m. Eastern time, is called “Digital Inclusion Data 101: Using available Census and FCC data to document digital divides in your community.”

It will be led by Bill Callahan of Cleveland’s Connect Your Community (who also serves as NDIA’s Policy and Research Coordinator) and Dr. Roberto Gallardo, who leads the Intelligent Community Institute of the Mississippi State University Extension Service.

Save the date!

Digital Inclusion Data 101: Using available Census and FCC data to document digital divides in your community
Tuesday, February 7     3 to 4 pm Eastern
https://zoom.us/j/4320943209 (No RSVP required)

New Pew Report: tracking the rise of technology use from 2000 to 2016

It’s interesting to see the trajectories of use of technologies in the last 15 years in Pew’s latest report on technology use. The graph below really spells most of it out…


The report also highlights four observations…

  1. Roughly three-quarters of Americans (77%) now own a smartphone
  2. After a modest decline between 2013 and 2015, the share of Americans with broadband service at home increased by 6 percentage points in 2016.
  3. Nearly seven-in-ten Americans now use social media.
  4. Half the public now owns a tablet computer.

One caveat to the broadband statistics is that they don’t use a speed to define broadband. When asked about the speed of broadband, this was their response…

1. And our definition of broadband users is not based on connection speed—we’ve tried to ask that question in the past, but found that the vast majority of our respondents were not able to even guess what the speed of their internet service is.
Instead, we define broadband users by simply asking them for the type of connection they have. That question has changed somewhat over time, but our most recent version is phrased as follows: “Do you subscribe to dial-up internet service at home… OR do you subscribe to a higher-speed broadband service such as DSL, cable, or fiber optic service?”