Can broadband help with these wild fires? Turns out yes!

I am in St Paul and I can tell you the air is thick and air quality seems poor. My colleagues up North say it’s worse there (between storms!). So this story from Urgent Communications seems particularly apt today…

Members of the Verizon Response Team (VRT) are using a variety of solutions to deliver broadband communications to public-safety agencies battling wildfires throughout the U.S.—at no additional cost—as part of the carrier’s Verizon Frontline offering, according to a Verizon official.

Cory Davis, director of Verizon Response and public-safety operations, said the VRT has been “super busy,” responding to a total of 74 named wildfires already in what is proving to be a very active wildfire season.

“We’ve had 88 deployments across the United States, from California, Oregon, Arizona, Montana, all the way to Minnesota,” Davis said during an interview with IWCE’s Urgent Communications. “There’s a huge fire—the Delta Lake fire—that’s burning right now along the Canadian border. We sent a team up there to help support the operations center, working really closely with the COMLs up there.”

Apparently some states are used to this, Minnesota is listed as a newer or less frequent fire place…

“This is the first time my East team went to a large forest fire in that part of the country,” Davis said. “Places like Canada and Minnesota just generally don’t have large forest fires that often like the West does. But as things are getting warmer and the climate is changing, we’re seeing that fires are popping up everywhere—I had my team out in North Carolina at a fire about a month ago.

The goal is bringing the network closer to the emergency workers…

Firefighters often work to control and extinguish wildfires in locations where terrestrial wireless coverage is not available, so many of the VRT solutions utilize geosynchronous (GEO) satellite communications with “public-safety-grade priority” to provide backhaul, according to Davis.

“We can get an average of 30 mbps downlink and 10 mbps uplink,” he said. “Obviously, there will be bursts with more [data throughput] being available.

“The biggest thing is dealing with latency when you use satellite backhaul—anywhere between 600 and 800 milliseconds—but first responders can do a lot with 30 mbps.”

Davis said that Verizon is closely monitoring developments in the low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite arena and will consider leveraging that technology in the future. This assessment process include testing of LEO-based offerings from companies like Lynk and AST SpaceMobile, which have announced satellite LTE services that will connect directly to a smartphone, as opposed to requiring the user to deploy a satellite dish or a specialized device, he said.

In addition to traditional deployable communications solutions—from those on vehicles to offerings housed in Pelican cases that can be carried by hand to a location—VRTs are using satellite pico cells on trailers (SPOTs) to deliver broadband in a focused area to help support first-responder communications.

“Essentially, we can provide not only a 4G LTE bubble but also a Wi-Fi bubble for—and it depends on the environment—about 6,000 to 7,000 square feet. So, it’s really good for base camps,” Davis said.

“Since it is enclosed, we also have the capability to have it be like a mini operational command-center—you can fit two or three good-sized adults in there. So, you can turn it into not only an asset that deploys coverage and capacity, but it can also work as kind of a makeshift operations center for a very, very small group.”

Verizon cannot use the high-power user equipment (HPUE) that is only permitted on the 700 MHz Band 14 spectrum licensed for FirstNet, but VRTs do have some solutions that can be deployed when extra range is needed, Davis said.

So what’s Starlink satellite really like? One user reports in

The Verge takes a look at Starlink’s beta from a user’s perspective. The original article includes a lot more but I wanted to pare it down. The quick take is that he did see speeds that were faster than advertised, but he also was not able to do a lot of things (like Zoom) consistently because of reliability issues…

The idea of ordering a $499 dish with a $99 monthly fee that can deliver Starlink’s current goal of 100Mbps down and 20Mbps up would indeed be a dream come true — especially since Starlink has set a long-term goal of 1Gbps down. It represents competition, something the American broadband market sorely lacks.

Author gives Starlink a try…

Starlink is a lot of very bold engineering advancements packaged up in a $499 consumer product; the whole thing is far more advanced than previous satellite internet systems, which are slow, heavily data-capped, and very expensive.

The Starlink coverage map divides the globe into a honeycomb-like hexagonal grid; the satellites launched so far mostly provide service in the northern part of North America. The whole thing is still in beta, so access is limited — even if you’re in a coverage area, there are only so many available slots in each part of the grid, so as not to stress the system.

Luckily, my area has not yet filled its allotment yet, so I was able to simply sign up on the website, and my kit arrived about a week later. Let’s smash the system, I thought.

Then I learned about trees.

Inside the large gray Starlink box, you’ll find four items: the dish itself, which is connected to a 100-foot power-over-Ethernet (PoE) cable; a short black metal tripod stand for the dish; the main black Starlink power adapter; and a small silver Wi-Fi router with its own white PoE cable. The fundamental setup is incredibly simple: you plug both Ethernet cables into the power adapter, plug that into the wall, and you’re done. The printed instructions in the box are just pictograms, like Ikea for space internet.

All of the hardware is nicely designed — even though it’s in beta, it feels close to a consumer product already, with a sense of style that goes well beyond the hospital equipment vibes of most satellite gear. The dish itself (officially named “Dishy McFlatface”) is made of white plastic, with a matte white texture on its face. Two buttons on the mounting pole click into the included tripod mount, and that’s that. There are motors that rotate and tilt the dish to align it automatically; no fiddling required.

(One design oversight: the cable is permanently attached to the dish, so if it gets damaged — it’s outside, after all — you’re likely looking at replacing the entire dish, not just the cable.)

Although the Starlink kit ships with a short tripod and the sparse online instructions refer to it being “knee-high,” the dish really needs to be mounted as high up as you can get it. Starlink requires near-perfect line of sight to its satellites, which are often fairly low in the sky. Trees, buildings, and even poles will easily obstruct the signal, so if you’ve got tall trees blocking the horizon there’s really no choice but to get up and over them. Starlink beta testers have gone to hilarious and wonderful DIY lengths to solve this problem. (If there is one unreservedly excellent thing about Starlink, it is the community of beta testers, who are all the sort of clear-eyed we’ll-figure-it-out nerds that lend early tech products an air of infectious discovery and enthusiasm. I love you, Starlink people.)

I am going to emphasize the line-of-sight requirement, since it is crucial to understanding what Starlink can and cannot do right now, and it’s an important reality check on what it might be able to do in the future. Like the similarly over-hyped mmWave 5G, Starlink is remarkably delicate. Even a single tree blocking the dish’s line of sight to the horizon will degrade and interrupt your Starlink signal. Whatever satellite internet dreams you may have will run crashing into this reality until you can literally rise above.

Starlink’s website makes all of this crystal clear. “If any object such as a tree, chimney, pole, etc. interrupts the path of the beam, even briefly, your internet service will be interrupted,” says Starlink. “The best guidance we can give is to install your Starlink at the highest elevation possible where it is safe to do so, with a clear view of the sky. Users who live in areas with lots of tall trees, buildings, etc. may not be good candidates for early use of Starlink.” (I encourage you to square the advice to mount the dish as high as possible with the Starlink team’s further recommendation to bring ol’ Dishy inside in high wind conditions. Keep that ladder handy.)

Why am I hammering this point home? Because Starlink’s solution to the line-of-sight issue is to put more satellites into space, and, well, that’s not necessarily great. While Starlink has an army of devoted heart-eyed fans, it has an equal number of critics in the scientific community who note that blanketing the sky with tiny satellites will interfere with astronomers the world over. Starlink satellites are already bright enough to confuse people, and their potential to interfere with telescopes is well-documented. (No, you cannot just paint them black because the idea is to look at space, not thousands of little black satellites.) …

Once you’re all set up and plugged in, there’s not much to say. Starlink offers a moderately fast, very inconsistent broadband connection. I definitely saw speeds that exceeded the promised 100Mbps down, topping out at 222Mbps down and 24Mbps up. But my usual speeds hovered between 30 and 90 down, matching what others have reported, and the connection slowed down and dropped out with surprising frequency.

If Starlink could offer consistently fast speeds, it would be competitive with the fastest package I can get from my rural cable provider, which tops out at $200 / mo for 325 / 25 but is still not attractively priced compared to the services available in more populated areas.

In my week of testing, Starlink was perfectly fine for anything that buffers — I was able to stream Netflix and Disney Plus in 4K and jump around YouTube videos without significant issues — but doing something faster-paced, like quickly scrolling through TikTok videos, would run into delays.

Services that require a sustained, real-time connection, like Slack, Zoom, or gaming, simply weren’t usable for me, even when I was seeing the fastest speeds. I had high hopes that I could spend several days working over Starlink, and after just a few lost Slack messages and Zoom calls where my video dropped to low resolution and then froze entirely, I gave up. Many Starlink beta testers similar report experiences — consistent dropouts of a few seconds, every few minutes.

Starlink’s latency also swings from fine — Zoom did not exhibit any delay when it worked — to pretty bad. My feeling is that the connection dropouts are going to be worse for gaming than latency, so I didn’t spend any time testing gaming latency, but Starlink itself measures ping times for Counter-Strike: Go and Fortnite in its app, and I rarely saw those numbers dip below 50ms, mostly hovering around 85-115ms. Those aren’t numbers you’d want to game with, unless you like losing. (Some Starlink testers have been able to play games and even use Stadia, but that seems both inconsistent and heavily dependent on satellite coverage in your area.)

There are no data caps right now, but Starlink is clearly thinking about it, using the same “preventing abuse” language as any other broadband provider. If you are dreaming of signing up for Starlink as a way to tell your local cable monopoly to kick rocks, well, consider what might happen when Starlink is your space-based internet access monopoly.

“I will keep Starlink as long as its the only broadband option available to me”

CNBC reports

Starlink is the company’s capital-intensive project to build an interconnected internet network with thousands of satellites, known in the space industry as a constellation, designed to deliver high-speed internet to consumers anywhere on the planet.

SpaceX launched the “Better than Nothing Beta” program for the public in October, and the majority of users CNBC surveyed received invitations to join between November and February. The service is priced at $99 a month in the U.S. under the beta, with a $499 upfront cost for the equipment customers need to connect to the satellites – plus taxes, shipping, and any accessories needed to mount the antenna.

CNBC’s surveyed users on total cost, the installation process, what they thought of SpaceX’s equipment, internet speed, reliability of the service, what their service alternatives were, their experience with customer service, any concerns they had, and their overall impressions.

It sounds like people were OK with the price as it seemed to compare to what they had paid before. Feedback on installation was more diverse, based on the customer’s past experience with rooftop installations. The speeds sound like they were as promised…

SpaceX told the Federal Communications Commission in February that Starlink’s internet service is “exceeding” 100 megabits per second download speeds, 20 megabits per second upload speeds, and latency “at or below 31 milliseconds.” Latency is the amount of delay in an internet network, defining how much time it takes a signal to travel back and forth from a destination. Latency and download speeds are key measures for an internet service provider.

The company’s report to the FCC matched with what users told CNBC, who reported download speeds ranging between 60 Mbps to 150 mbps – with some even reporting peak speeds near 200. Latency also matched expectations, as most users reported latency of about 30 milliseconds – with some in the low 20 milliseconds.

It was interesting to hear what customers had before this beta test…

Users reported a wide variety of prior services that they had before Starlink, ranging from other satellite broadband companies to low-speed wired networks to cellular hotspots – and some with no prior service at all.

Starlink users most commonly switched for one of three reasons: Price, speed and data restrictions (also known as “caps”).

And what one customer said after the beta test…

I will keep Starlink as long as its the only broadband option available to me.

I think that sentiment says a lot about the service. It is a great option for people who don’t have other options but drawbacks are the cost and it’s not futureproof. Also, investing public funding into Starlink is not an investment in futureproof technology.

US poised to award $100B to SpaceX Starlink – will it help rural residents?

Telecompetitor reports…

The analysts estimate SpaceX’s total addressable U.S. market at full deployment at between 300,000 to 800,000 households, or less than 1% of the market.

It’s a particularly noteworthy number, considering that SpaceX is poised to receive nearly $900 million from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) to cover some of the costs of bringing broadband to unserved rural areas. And considering that the total number of locations for which SpaceX was the winning RDOF bidder is 642,000.

Why do they have doubts?

MoffettNathanson’s estimate of SpaceX’s addressable market is based on several assumptions, which according to the researchers, are conservative. These include:

  • Although Starlink currently has about 1400 satellites deployed, the analysis is based on the nearly 12,000 satellites that the company expects to launch, approximately one third of which will cover the U.S.
  • Based on satellite inclines of 53 degrees, researchers estimate that only about 3% of Starlink’s satellites will be visible to U.S. customers at any given time.
  • According to SpaceX FCC filings, each satellite will have a capacity of 17-23 Gbps, but future developments could expand that. Therefore, the researchers assumed a doubling or tripling of per-satellite capacity.
  • The average broadband user consumes data at a constant rate of 2.2-2.7 Mbps during peak consumption hours, leading to researchers’ assumption that 4 Mbps of bandwidth per user would be needed to provide good quality of service today. The researchers forecast that requirement to increase to 10-18 Mbps per user in the next five years

One last factor…

SpaceX is charging customers $499 for a rooftop antenna, which according to news reports, cost the company $2,400, which suggests that the company is subsidizing each installation by nearly $2,000.

It seems like that $499 installation fee could increase at any time, which would make satellite much less affordable to deploy for the household. The authors also remind us that Starlink is in line to get $100 billion from the US government through an RDOF award.

Christopher Ali outlines broadband options for rural areas

Benton recently posted a column from Christopher Ali about the importance of cooperatives. He promotes cooperatives as broadband providers because they are local and they have infrastructure. He also quotes Bernadine…

Long story short, and to use a quote from Bernadine Joselyn of the Blandin Foundation in Minnesota, “everything is better with better broadband.”

 

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.

EVENT Feb 16: RDOF – LEO Satellite Assessment Webinar from Fiber Broadband

Of potential interest to folks watching RDOF and especially if you like in an area where satellite is in line to get RDOF funding (check map)…

RDOF – LEO Satellite Assessment
Presented by: Fiber Broadband Association
Complimentary Webinar
Tuesday, February 16th, 10:00 AM EDT

The Fiber Broadband Association commissioned research firm Cartesian to develop an independent analysis and a model to help the FCC analyze whether Starlink is likely to meet the RDOF public interest obligations.

The results of this study indicate that Starlink will fail to meet the RDOF public interest requirements on a nationwide basis, with over 56% of subscribers expected to experience service degradation during peak periods. This expected service degradation will worsen and significantly impact all its awarded RDOF locations if Starlink’s broadband capacity is also offered to (non-RDOF) commercial subscribers.

Register now

Rural communities shouldn’t settle for temporary broadband fixes

Wisconsin State Farmer is looking at the role for satellite in bridging the digital divide. They talk to a rural resident who has it and is much happier than he was without it and they talk about the investment that the federal government (via RDOF) is about to make in satellite. They also talked to Bernadine Joselyn who warned that satellite is just a piece of the puzzle…

More likely, it will take multiple technologies to bridge the digital abyss — including some not so cosmic such as transmitters mounted on barn silos. Even powerlines strung along country roads could someday be used for internet access.

Still, rural communities shouldn’t settle for temporary fixes, says Bernadine Joselyn with the Blandin Foundation, a Grand Rapids, Minnesota nonprofit that’s helped rural Minnesotans gain broadband access.

“We encourage communities to be ambitious in choosing their partners. They ought to be looking for a marriage partner, not a prom date,” Joselyn said.

Minnesota has set high goals. By 2026, it aims to make speeds of at least 100 Mbps for downloads and 20 Mbps for uploads available to all homes and businesses. Wisconsin has a goal of 25 Mbps for downloads and 3 for uploads in the next few years, in line with the current definition of broadband set by the Federal Communications Commission.

It will take much more public investment to reach those goals, according to Joselyn, even though Wisconsin state government has spent about $49 million on rural broadband in the last six years and Minnesota $84 million.

“For Wisconsin to really make strides, you need a bigger fund. The other problem is affordability. It’s a huge barrier for many people,” Joselyn said.

How is it looking for the new StarLink satellite? Let’s ask Doug Dawson!

I’m always happen when Doug Dawson (POTs and PANs) takes a deeper dive into something I’ve been wondering. He’s more technical than I am and I’m happy to defer to his assessment, which is what I’m about to do today and I’m trying to focus on the how and why of the latest satellite project.

Doug has recently taken a look at Starlink Satellite. (That’s Elon Musk’s latest plan to launch 30,000 satellites for broadband deployment. It was been billed as the next great thing for rural broadband especially.) Turns out the marketing may be better than the real thing…

Most folks that work in the industry have probably seen the early speed test results for the StarLink satellites that come from the Ookla speed test site. There are only a few results posted and they show a range of download speeds between 35 Mbps and 60 Mbps, upload speeds between 5 Mbps and 18 Mbps, and latency between 31 and 94 ms.

I call these results disappointing because the speeds are so much slower than Elon Musk’s hype about providing gigabit data speeds from the satellites for the average customer. Unfortunately, a lot of rural Americans let themselves get sucked into that hype and they’ve been talking about satellite broadband as the solution that would solve rural broadband issues forever. There are communities putting broadband plans on hold since they think that the satellites will solve all of the local broadband problems.

Here are factors that will contribute to services…

  • But to offset any improvement in the technology will be the fact that speeds will naturally slow down when the satellites fill with subscribers. When everybody in a rural area is heavily using the Internet in the evenings the speeds from the satellites will slow down, just like they do with other shared bandwidth technologies. We also still don’t know how the satellites will handle rain and snow and how badly broadband might bog down during weather events.
  • We know that this technology is only going to work for homes with a decent view of the sky. Homes in ravines, in valleys surrounded by steep hills, or located on hillsides will likely get slower speeds or might not be able to maintain a connection to satellites. It seems likely that homes located in heavy woods will have similar problems.

Is Starlink better than what many people in rural areas have now? Yes. But like some technology that seems old the minute we take it off the self, Starlink is far from future-proof, it’s second tier out of the shoot…

What’s most disappointing is that these speeds don’t close the broadband gap. These speeds would be a great band-aid and will bring broadband to many homes that desperately need it. But these kinds of speeds are still second-class broadband on day one compared to urban broadband, and the gap between satellite and urban broadband will grow rapidly over time.

We’re seeing an explosion of data usage in urban areas. OpenVault recently reported that at the end of the second quarter of 2020 that 61% of all homes in the country subscribe to broadband speeds greater than 100 Mbps. That includes 37.8% subscribe to plans between 100 Mbps and 200 Mbps, 13.5% subscribe with plans between 200 Mbps and 400 Mbps, 5% with speeds between 400 Mbps and 900 Mbps, and 4.9% subscribing to gigabit speeds. What’s not shown in the OpenVault numbers is the trend where homes are upgrading to faster broadband. The number of homes subscribing to gigabit broadband grew by over 130% in the last year. Home data usage continues to grow at a blistering pace and homes are upgrading speeds in search of broadband that meets their needs.

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.