Will SpaceX low-orbit satellite broadband meet required latency to be eligible for RDOF money?

Engadget reports…

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) said it has “serious doubts” that SpaceX will be able to deliver internet service with latency under 100 milliseconds (via Ars Technica). That would not only be bad for users, but means that SpaceX could be at a disadvantage in an auction to distribute $16 billion in federal funds to support rural broadband access. SpaceX strongly disagrees, but it may not be able to prove its case in time.

In a report on the phase I auction for the rural digital opportunity fund (RDOF), the FCC admitted that Starlink and other LEO (low-Earth orbit) providers have advantages over geostationary satellites that operate at much higher altitudes. However, it’s skeptical that latency can be determined by orbital altitude alone, saying it can also be affected by factors like “processing, routing and transporting traffic to its destination.”

SpaceX argued that the FCC’s doubts are unfounded and that Starlink will “easily clear the commission’s 100-millisecond threshold for low-latency services, even including its “processing time” during unrealistic worst-case scenarios. In fact, with altitudes at 335 to 354 miles (compared to 21,750 miles for geostationary systems), SpaceX is shooting for a latency below 20 milliseconds — in line with cable internet.

It will be a race to get there for sure. The top comment on the article (when I visited) wished them luck but also noted that 100ms is still pretty slow for gaming, which might indicate some hurdles for other applications too, if not know in the future.

An investment in satellite is a Band-Aid, not a cure

The Institute for Local Self Reliance reports…

“The federal government is about to spend more than $120 million on subsidies that, rather than improving rural connectivity, will make tens of thousands of families worse off.

These funds are part of a 2018 federal program intended to expand rural broadband access called the Connect America Fund phase II (CAF II) reverse auction. The program, in which Internet access providers competed for subsidies, will distribute nearly $1.5 billion over the next 10 years to connect unserved rural residents. But in some communities, the auction may do more to widen the digital divide than diminish it.

While some winning bidders committed to building out high-speed fiber optic networks, satellite company Viasat will rake in more than $120 million in subsidies to continue providing inadequate geostationary satellite connectivity to rural households that are clamoring for something better. Not only does satellite Internet access offer slower speeds, greater latency, and less reliability for a higher cost compared to other technologies, but Viasat’s subsidies are making those areas ineligible for future broadband funds, deterring other providers from building truly high-quality networks. Instead of bridging the digital divide, the process will relegate certain communities to satellite Internet access while others receive ultra-fast fiber and do nothing more than deepen the fissure.”

As you can see from the map, Minnesota doesn’t have any blocks assigned to Viasat. And because of that I nearly walked by this story, except yesterday I was a press conference where Governor Walz announced the 2019 MN Broadband grant awards. A reporter asked if the grants only went to fiber networks, because he had heard there had been great advances in satellite.

I think Commissioner Grove answered by talking about fixed wireless. (Grants have gone to fixed wireless projects in the past, not to satellite.)

The press conference was not the time or place to talk about limitations of satellite – but it was a reminder that there are some strong proponents of satellite and there’s a story out there that it is a viable, long term, public-investment-worthy technology. There is a place for satellite. It will serve users with limited requirements in areas where nothing else is available but it won’t serve a community of users and therefore it doesn’t make sense for public investment.

Text for latest version of the broadband grants in the MN House

Here’s the latest text of the House version of the broadband grant bill taken from the Journal of the House (88th Day – Monday, April 30, 2018). Starting with the details on the funding (the additions are underlined)…

Subd. 3.Broadband Development  0   15,000,000

(a) $15,000,000 in fiscal year 2019 is for transfer to the border‑to‑border broadband fund account in the special revenue fund established under Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396 and may be used for purposes provided in Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.395.  This appropriation is onetime and is available until spent.  Of this appropriation, up to three percent is for costs

incurred by the commissioner to administer Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.395.  Administrative costs may include the following activities related to measuring progress toward the state’s broadband goals established in Minnesota Statutes, section 237.012:
(1) collecting broadband deployment data from Minnesota providers, verifying its accuracy through on-the-ground testing, and creating state and county maps available to the public showing the availability of broadband service at various upload and download speeds throughout Minnesota;

(2) analyzing the deployment data collected to help inform future investments in broadband infrastructure; and

(3) conducting business and residential surveys that measure broadband adoption and use in the state.

Data provided by a broadband provider under this subdivision is nonpublic data under Minnesota Statutes, section 13.02, subdivision 9.  Maps produced under this subdivision are public data under Minnesota Statutes, section 13.03.

(b) Of the amount appropriated in paragraph (a), $750,000 is for grants to satellite broadband providers under Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.395.

And details about definitions, which really amounts to details about satellite and satellite providers…

ARTICLE 12

TELECOMMUNICATIONS

Section 1.  Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.394, is amended to read:

116J.394 DEFINITIONS.

(a) For the purposes of sections 116J.394 to 116J.398, the following terms have the meanings given them.

(b) “Broadband” or “broadband service” has the meaning given in section 116J.39, subdivision 1, paragraph (b).

(c) “Broadband infrastructure” means networks of deployed telecommunications equipment and technologies necessary to provide high-speed Internet access and other advanced telecommunications services for end users.

(d) “Commissioner” means the commissioner of employment and economic development.

(e) “Last-mile infrastructure” means broadband infrastructure that serves as the final leg connecting the broadband service provider’s network to the end-use customer’s on-premises telecommunications equipment.

(f) “Middle-mile infrastructure” means broadband infrastructure that links a broadband service provider’s core network infrastructure to last-mile infrastructure.

(g) “Political subdivision” means any county, city, town, school district, special district or other political subdivision, or public corporation.

(h) “Satellite broadband equipment” means a satellite dish or modem installed at a broadband user’s location in order to receive broadband service from a satellite broadband provider.

(i) “Satellite broadband provider” means an entity that provides broadband service by means of wireless signals transmitted between communication stations orbiting the earth and satellite broadband equipment installed at a broadband user’s location.

(j) “Satellite dish” means a parabolic aerial installed on a building exterior that receives signals from and transmits signals to a satellite broadband provider’s satellite communication station orbiting the earth.

(k) “Underserved areas” means areas of Minnesota in which households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and at least 20 megabits per second upload.

(i)(l) “Unserved areas” means areas of Minnesota in which households or businesses lack access to wire-line broadband service, as defined in section 116J.39.

EFFECTIVE DATE.  This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Sec. 2.  Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.395, subdivision 2, is amended to read:

Subd. 2.  Eligible expenditures.  (a) Grants may be awarded under this section to fund the acquisition and installation of:

(1) middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure that support broadband service scalable to speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 100 megabits per second upload.; and

 

(2) satellite broadband equipment installed on the premises of a broadband user located in an unserved area that can support broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second download and three megabits per second upload.

(b) Grants may be awarded under this section to fund monthly satellite broadband service charges for a period of 12 months for a subscriber whose satellite broadband equipment has been partially funded by a grant under paragraph (a), clause (2).

EFFECTIVE DATE.  This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Sec. 3.  Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.395, subdivision 5, is amended to read:

Subd. 5.  Application contents.  An applicant for a grant under this section shall provide the following information on the application:

(1) the location of the project;

(2) the kind and amount of broadband infrastructure or satellite broadband equipment to be purchased for the project;

(3) evidence regarding the unserved or underserved nature of the community in which the project is to be located;

(4) the number of households passed that will have access to broadband service as a result of the project, or whose broadband service will be upgraded as a result of the project;

(5) significant community institutions that will benefit from the proposed project;

(6) evidence of community support for the project;

(7) the total cost of the project;

(8) sources of funding or in-kind contributions for the project that will supplement any grant award;

(9) evidence that no later than six weeks before submission of the application the applicant contacted, in writing, all entities providing broadband service in the proposed project area to ask for each broadband service provider’s plan to upgrade broadband service in the project area to speeds that meet or exceed the state’s broadband speed goals in section 237.012, subdivision 1, within the time frame specified in the proposed grant activities;

(10) the broadband service providers’ written responses to the inquiry made under clause (9); and

(11) any additional information requested by the commissioner.

EFFECTIVE DATE.  This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Sec. 4.  Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.395, subdivision 7, is amended to read:

Subd. 7.  Limitation.  (a) No grant awarded under this section may fund more than:

(1) 50 percent of the total cost of a project.under subdivision 2, paragraph (a), clause (1);

(2) 50 percent of the total cost of satellite broadband equipment installed at user locations, up to $300; or

(3) $600 in monthly satellite broadband subscription charges.

(b) Grants awarded to a single project under this section must not exceed $5,000,000.

EFFECTIVE DATE.  This section is effective the day following final enactment.

House moves $15 million for broadband grants, carves out $750,000 for satellite

House Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance Committee met to finalize the Omnibus bill. One of the amendments was set to ear mark $750,000 of the proposed $15 million for broadband grants for satellite. (The bill is moved to Ways and Means.)

Video of the meeting is available online. I have pulled out the discussion on broadband…

And notes on the meeting: Continue reading

US News reports on MN House’s discussion on broadband funding and satellite

US News and World Reports wrote about yesterday’s House meeting (House Bill Would Make Money Available to Satellite Broadband) where they discussed broadband funding and introduction of satellite as eligible recipient of funding.

Here’s what the article says about funding…

Minnesota lawmakers were considering ways Thursday to improve internet speed in rural areas.

Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking another $30 million to improve high-speed internet in rural areas. Republicans, who control the Legislature, say they’ll support about half that.

Although I don’t think they changed the language of the bill, which outlines $51.4 million

Section 1. BROADBAND GRANT PROGRAM; APPROPRIATION.

$51,480,000 is appropriated in fiscal year 2019 from the general fund to the commissioner
of employment and economic development for deposit in the border-to-border broadband
fund account under Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.396. The appropriation must be used
for grants and the purposes specified under Minnesota Statutes, section 116J.395.

But according to another article in US News, the House GOP budget plan has $15 million for broadband…

The House GOP’s plan also calls for using $15 million to expand broadband internet in rural Minnesota, put an extra $101 million toward road and bridge repairs, and devote roughly $30 million for school safety improvements and mental health initiatives in the wake of February’s mass shooting at a Florida high school.

Back to the article on broadband, here’s what they said about satellite…

Republican Rep. Pat Garofalo is proposing legislation allowing satellite broadband companies to tap into public funds that they couldn’t before. He said that would help connect people in remote areas where laying cable is challenging and expensive.

Some critics worry the service isn’t as reliable as cable connections, especially during bad weather, and that companies might occasionally reduce users’ speeds.

Eric Klindt, a Wilkin County Commissioner, said his satellite internet speeds sometimes drop slower than dial-up. He needs a fast internet because his work includes monitoring planes involved in agricultural spraying in three states.

“When the service goes down, I don’t know what to do,” he said.

Under Garofalo’s proposal, satellite providers would be required to meet minimum bandwidth speeds before they can get funding.

CBS Minnesota posts the same article.

MN House Job Growth and Energy Committee Hearing – addressing broadband (HF3527 and HF4180)

The MN House Job Growth and Energy Committee met today in part to accommodate testimony from members of the Minnesota Broadband Coalition. It was an opportunity for folks to tell stories. The first topic (HF4180) – the recommendation to include satellite as a provider eligible for MN Broadband grant funding. The industry spokesperson mentioned that any gran funding would be spent to offset equipment on the customer’s site because the infrastructure (satellite) is already in place.

The bulk of the meeting was spent hearing from folks on the frontlines of rural Minnesota and their support of continued funding for the MN Broadband grants (HF3527). They heard from providers, students, business owners, community leaders and the healthcare industry. Their stories are captured below. (I was having trouble  sustaining a connection to the network – so there’s a backup version of the video, with limited visuals.)

Full notes… Continue reading

A bill to make Satellite broadband providers eligible for grants (SF3892) is introduced

According to the Senate bill introductions for April 9…

Senator Draheim introduced–

S.F. No. 3892A bill for an act relating to broadband; making certain satellite broadband providers eligible for grants; amending Minnesota Statutes 2016, sections 116J.394; 116J.395, subdivisions 2, 5, 7.

Referred to the Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy.

A similar bill (HF4180) was introduced in the House late March. Here’s the text of the bill

A bill for an act
relating to broadband; making certain satellite broadband providers eligible for
grants; amending Minnesota Statutes 2016, sections 116J.394; 116J.395,
subdivisions 2, 5, 7.

BE IT ENACTED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF MINNESOTA:

Section 1. 

Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.394, is amended to read:

116J.394 DEFINITIONS.

(a) For the purposes of sections 116J.394 to 116J.398, the following terms have the
meanings given them.

(b) “Broadband” or “broadband service” has the meaning given in section 116J.39,
subdivision 1, paragraph (b).

(c) “Broadband infrastructure” means networks of deployed telecommunications
equipment and technologies necessary to provide high-speed Internet access and other
advanced telecommunications services for end users.

(d) “Commissioner” means the commissioner of employment and economic development.

(e) “Last-mile infrastructure” means broadband infrastructure that serves as the final leg
connecting the broadband service provider’s network to the end-use customer’s on-premises
telecommunications equipment.

(f) “Middle-mile infrastructure” means broadband infrastructure that links a broadband
service provider’s core network infrastructure to last-mile infrastructure.

(g) “Political subdivision” means any county, city, town, school district, special district
or other political subdivision, or public corporation.

(h) “Satellite broadband equipment” means a satellite dish or modem installed at a
broadband user’s location in order to receive broadband service from a satellite broadband
provider.

(i) “Satellite broadband provider” means an entity that provides broadband service by
means of wireless signals transmitted between communication stations orbiting the earth
and satellite broadband equipment installed at a broadband user’s location.

(j) “Satellite dish” means a parabolic aerial installed on a building exterior that receives
signals from and transmits signals to a satellite broadband provider’s satellite communication
station orbiting the earth.

(k) “Underserved areas” means areas of Minnesota in which households or businesses
lack access to wire-line broadband service at speeds of at least 100 megabits per second
download and at least 20 megabits per second upload.

(i)(l) “Unserved areas” means areas of Minnesota in which households or businesses
lack access to wire-line broadband service, as defined in section 116J.39.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Sec. 2. 

Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.395, subdivision 2, is amended to read:

Subd. 2.

Eligible expenditures.

Grants may be awarded under this section to fund the
acquisition and installation of:

(1) middle-mile and last-mile infrastructure that support broadband service scalable to
speeds of at least 100 megabits per second download and 100 megabits per second upload.;
and

(2) satellite broadband equipment installed on the premises of a broadband user located
in an unserved area that can support broadband speeds of at least 25 megabits per second
download and three megabits per second upload.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Sec. 3. 

Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.395, subdivision 5, is amended to read:

Subd. 5.

Application contents.

An applicant for a grant under this section shall provide
the following information on the application:

(1) the location of the project;

(2) the kind and amount of broadband infrastructure or satellite broadband equipment
to be purchased for the project;

(3) evidence regarding the unserved or underserved nature of the community in which
the project is to be located;

(4) the number of households passed that will have access to broadband service as a
result of the project, or whose broadband service will be upgraded as a result of the project;

(5) significant community institutions that will benefit from the proposed project;

(6) evidence of community support for the project;

(7) the total cost of the project;

(8) sources of funding or in-kind contributions for the project that will supplement any
grant award;

(9) evidence that no later than six weeks before submission of the application the applicant
contacted, in writing, all entities providing broadband service in the proposed project area
to ask for each broadband service provider’s plan to upgrade broadband service in the project
area to speeds that meet or exceed the state’s broadband speed goals in section 237.012,
subdivision 1
, within the time frame specified in the proposed grant activities;

(10) the broadband service providers’ written responses to the inquiry made under clause
(9); and

(11) any additional information requested by the commissioner.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Sec. 4. 

Minnesota Statutes 2016, section 116J.395, subdivision 7, is amended to read:

Subd. 7.

Limitation.

(a) No grant awarded under this section may fund more than 50
percent of the total cost of a project or, for a grant to a satellite broadband provider, 50
percent of the total cost of satellite broadband equipment installed at user locations
.

(b) Grants awarded to a single project under this section must not exceed $5,000,000.

EFFECTIVE DATE.

This section is effective the day following final enactment.

Elon Musk will be launching low orbit satellites

The Washington Post reports…

SpaceX has received official permission from the U.S. government to launch a fleet of satellites designed to beam high-speed Internet signals down to Earth.

The decision marks a major milestone for chief executive Elon Musk as he pursues a dream of putting 12,000 small satellites into low Earth orbit, connecting rural and developing parts of the world to the Internet.

In more-connected areas, the technology could inject a new competitor into markets that have historically been dominated by one or two Internet providers — potentially driving down prices, increasing speeds and improving service.

They say the network will be different that what folks are used to…

The proposed satellite network would differ from current satellite data technology, which is slow and expensive. Under Musk’s plan, SpaceX’s satellite fleet would orbit much closer to Earth than traditional communications satellites that stay in geostationary orbit high above Earth. That means data will travel to and from the satellite much more quickly — increasing the speed and reliability of the connection.

Better broadband is always awesome. Satellite might suffer from a history of upgrades that while improved, have not impressed all customers. So I wanted to look into the low orbit solution a bit. This is what I learned from Wired

Traditional satellite communications systems float in what’s called geosynchronous orbit, around 22,000 miles1 above the Earth. These satellites can provide internet access to remote parts of the Earth, as well as airplanes. But the connections can lag, which isn’t good for real-time applications like online gaming or video conferencing. SpaceX and OneWeb both aim to overcome this problem by launching satellites into what’s called low Earth orbit, which ranges from roughly 100 to 1,250 miles above Earth.

The problem is that in order to reach the entire world from low Earth orbit, these companies need hundreds or thousands of satellites, raising the system’s cost. Previous attempts at building low Earth orbit networks ended in bankruptcy, including the Bill Gates-backed Teledesic and satellite-phone companies Globalstar and Iridium.

SpaceX and similar companies, like Jeff Bezos-backed Blue Origin, are trying to reduce the costs of launching rockets, which lower the cost of building such a network. But it’s not yet clear whether these companies could offer internet access at rates that subscribers can afford, and skeptics worry this will end up costing more than just trenching fiber and building cellular towers.

It sounds like cost may still be an issue, especially for the hardest to reach areas.

How much of the US has access to broadband? Depends on your definition of broadband

The Daily Yonder recently ran an interesting article by Brian Whitacre, Roberto Gallardo, Angel Siefer and Bill Callahan om their look at the FCC’s most recent Broadband Deployment Report.

The report shows an increase to access to broadband in the US from 89.4 percent in 2014 to 95 percent in 2016. It seems like a great leap and it is – but it’s not causing the celebrations one might expect and that’s because the FCC is including satellite in their definition of broadband. In fact the FCC reports that 2016 marked the first instance where 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps satellite service was reported in the Form 477 data use to compile their maps…

This is a significant increase from the 89.4 percent reported to have broadband availability in 2014 and the 81.2 percent reported in 2012. However, digging a bit deeper into this increase demonstrates a little-known fact about how the FCC defines “fixed” broadband and how the implications associated with that definition have changed. 

To the layman, the idea of a “fixed” broadband connection would likely be a traditional, wired line run directly to a business or residence. However, the FCC has historically defined some technologies as “fixed” that might surprise some people. These include fixed wireless connections, or wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), that are basically individual towers that provide line-of-sight service to customers. Additionally, the FCC includes satellite connections as “fixed” broadband. Each of these technologies (WISPssatellite) has been pushed as important for rural broadband. (The rationale behind this definition is that the consumer receives these technologies from a fixed point, as opposed to mobile technologies where the consumer may be in motion).

The implications in this change are big…

When all is said and done, we estimate that about 10.5 million were covered by 25/3 speeds thanks to satellite as of 2016. In other words, the number of Americans WITHOUT access to 25/3 speeds would nearly double if satellite technology was removed (from the 14 million claimed in the FCC’s report, to over 25 million). 75% of this population is classified as rural by the FCC.

The authors have some concerns…

While any technology with potential to deliver broadband is welcome, there are numerous concerns about classifying satellite as broadband. Satellite technology is highly susceptible to weather disruption; data latency is an issue; and data caps / cost are also concerning. In fact, one of the minimum requirements for providers seeking Connect America Funding (an FCC program to expand broadband services in unavailable areas) is that their latency cannot be higher than 100 millisecond per round trip – a threshold that excludes satellite providers.  Some individual states, however, are embracing satellite providers with their own broadband funding.    

The little known fact that the FCC includes satellite as part of its “fixed” broadband analysis raises questions about the adequacy of the FCC’s definitions and standards. Accurate data of existing broadband infrastructure is essential to local, state and national planning and public policy decisions. Issues of latency, pricing, data caps, and even length of contract are important elements of broadband that should be identified and defined in any publicly available broadband datasets.  

Video – Why 23 million Americans don’t have fast internet

There are a lot of things I like about this video – you just need to know in advance that it doesn’t end after 2:30 or 3:30. It’s great to hear about wireless solutions – but for today as the video says, we need to look to the past to get the infrastructure we need! And that solution is in the second half of the video…

MN Broadband Task Force: Fixed wireless, satellite, CAF and MN grant challenge process

Today the Minnesota Broadband Task Force met; the topics of the day were fixed wireless and satellite. It was interesting to hear from the various vendors. In short they got an update on what’s going on with fixed wireless and then a demo of satellite. (There was public feedback in the form of letters that came in from rural satellite users.)

I think most folks in the room would agree that this is the B-side of broadband. (There might not be agreement on whether they will stay on the B-side.) These are the folks that are interested in serving rural areas and/or in playing the role of competitor to an incumbent provider. We heard dismay at how CAF money is being spent on expanding slower connections – rather than upgrading services. The presenters attract customers who have slow connections and whose providers have said they have no plans to upgrade. They see the frustration and are able to capitalize on it by offering service that they say is better.

One red flag was a discussion on the CBRS (citizen band radio spectrum) and fear that the government may sell that public property to the highest bidder. A bidder that may choose to not use the spectrum. The problem is that can keep the competition away – leaving community members with limited choice for broadband.

Folks were also talking about the grant challenge process for the MN broadband funds in light of what’s happening in Kandiyohi County. (I will try to get more details on what’s going on there.) The issue is that a grant applicant must inform an incumbent (or nearby) provider if they intend to seek funds to upgrade service. Then the incumbent/nearby provider has a chance to challenge. One issue is that even if they don’t challenge – they know competition is coming, which means they can make just enough changes to make it difficult for the newcomer to the area. (Discussion at 3:30 in video below.)

Lots of interesting discussion….

 Here are more detailed notes… Continue reading

Rural broadband editorial from Duluth on cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans

The Duluth News Tribune recently posted an editorial from Jan Keough and her personal experience with satellite living north of Duluth…

My personal experiences with satellite tells me this may not be a universal answer. Cost, speed, and the frustration of data plans make satellite Internet less available and less useful in rural areas than wired services.

I live 20 miles north of Duluth. No wired Internet via DSL, cable, or fiber optic is available in our township. Internet is possible through fairly poor mobile (one cell tower with a weak signal), fixed wireless from the electric cooperative (tower), and satellite via two providers. I used to get Internet from one of those two providers but switched to fixed wireless largely because of cost and reliability. With satellite, the signal can be lost when ice and snow fall on the dish.

Both providers in our area offered plans with speeds of 25 megabits per second with data plans up to 50 gigabytes per month for $129 and $110, respectively. The service reaches us but is very expensive; and latency, upload speeds, and data plans are problematic.

Some friends had to deal with serious illness this past winter, with months of treatment and recovery from surgery. That meant more time working and convalescing from home and up to three people trying to access their satellite Internet at the same time to work via Skype, to connect with family, and to watch Internet movies. Simultaneous use slowed down everyone, and they ran through their “unlimited” monthly data plan halfway through the month; then the satellite service ramped down to effectively block a reasonable connection for a couple of weeks until the data plan renewed.

This situation is not unusual. Multiple users simultaneously using multiple Internet video or other intense systems is common for families with schoolchildren, at family gatherings, for small businesses, and at local community centers. Internet video is becoming very data-intensive, with high-definition video common for gaming and certain software, eating both speed and more and more data. The “Internet of things” is real. Home-based monitoring tools are now common in thermostats, refrigerators, pet minders, medical monitors and more. And that’s on top of telecommuting, video connectivity, music streaming, gaming and other data-intensive activities. Many people use the Internet to access television networks. While 25 megabits per second may be a sufficient speed now, it won’t be long (a year or so?) before it isn’t enough for personal and business use, and cost-effective data plans are inadequate.

Can satellite deliver 100 megabits per second at a reasonable cost by 2026, which is Minnesota’s border-to-border goal? Satellite Internet may bring fast broadband to rural areas, but it is very expensive and data plans are easily exceeded; satellite Internet at the higher speed and data plans are far more costly than offerings in urban areas.

Wired systems like DSL and, especially, fiber optic offer far more affordable access to broadband and can be scaled to vastly higher speeds to meet the needs of families and businesses well into the future.

Wired infrastructure is expensive to build, but so was rural electrification. Private-public funding (leveraged by Minnesota broadband grants) and technology partnerships are capable of bringing modern and scalable broadband Internet to everyone, even in rural areas.

With satellite Internet, rural folks are at a great disadvantage, especially where cost, uploads and latency matter. That’s in health care, education, and business operations, as examples. Satellite may not be the short- to medium-term panacea in rural areas.

Like electricity and roads, wired Internet is needed across our state to ensure that everyone in Minnesota will be able to use convenient, affordable, world-class broadband networks that enable us to thrive in our communities into the future.

Jan is active with the Cloquet Valley Internet Initiative.

How much do you pay per bit and byte for your broadband? New comparison tool looks at speed and usage

Grocery stores put “price per ounce/serving” labels on product shelves. It has changed how I shop. Do I always buy the cheapest? No. Not all cookies are the same. But am I better informed? Yes. The National Broadband Plan promised similar tools with their Broadband Speed and Performance Digital Labels but those were based on performance – not cost.

The Minnesota Broadband Coalition has been working on a comparison of broadband pricing based on speed (bit) and data usage (byte). The Coalition is hoping that this information can help people — both consumers and policymakers –make more informed choices.

What does this mean?

There are some extreme differences – especially with satellite. You can see that the satellite service is more expensive for both bandwidth (speed) and data usage. The satellite price for data usage, at $5 or $6 per GB (gigabyte) compares unfavorably to the dimes and nickels charged by landline providers. For all providers except satellite, the lower bandwidth services have the highest price per Mbps (megabit per second).  In other words, the more you use, the less you pay per unit. There are two providers have no data cap for their Gigabit service.

Sources now put monthly average household data use at 190 GB (gigabyte) and that number is constantly growing. For rural residents that use data for school, business, health care or other data-heavy activities, it is clear that satellite is an expensive or very limiting broadband option.  It is, however, available everywhere, for those who can afford it.

The Coalition has created a broadband cost analysis spreadsheet that you can use to help calculate the unit cost of your broadband.

Mini-Lesson: Reminder on bits (speed) versus bytes (data usage)

  • Mbps is a measure of speed – megabits per second.) Speed provides the capacity to interact online. The FCC has a guide to help track speed requirements by online activity. For example, streaming an HD video requires 4 Mbps connection (download). To figure out your household’s speed requirement, you’ll have to consider all the users of broadband – every laptop, smartphone, ipad and the Internet of things for each member of your household or office.  Think about it – your family is probably using more than one device at the same time.
  • GB is a measure of how much data you’re using – gigabytes. For example, an HD movie may be 3-5 GB.  It’s like a cup that gets filled. Depending on your provider, you may pay more if you overfill your cup, your connection maybe slowed down if your cup gets filled or your provider may not have data caps (aka data allowances) so you can interact online (download or upload) without limitations. Many people have experience with usage on mobile contracts – but cellular providers aren’t the only ones that track and charge by usage.

Need more? I wrote a longer piece on bits/bytes and average household use in December.