Public Safety Advocate: Broadband in Rural Areas—Why They Keep Getting It Wrong!

Today I read an article in Inside Towers that discusses a recent survey of 2,000 row-crop, livestock, and specialty-crop farmers. The survey shows that 60-percent of those responding reported their Internet connectivity was insufficient for their business needs. Quotes such as the following from Tim Venverloh, USB vice president of sustainable strategy, underscore this situation. 

“When farmers can’t maximize the functionality of their equipment, particularly in the middle of the field, it has repercussions beyond the farm.” And, “More and more of the future is about data and data transfer. The timely dissemination and use of data is becoming more important in a precision ag and decision ag world.” 

The article goes on to report that the majority of farmers who responded said they wanted more access to digital data but lack options to obtain it. According to Progressive Farmer, 78-percent of respondents said they had no choice in service providers, some were able to use fixed Internet connections, and others said they relied on satellite services to connect. 

The Feds and States

As we know, there are many grants available for broadband in rural areas offered by the NTIA, FCC, farm-related agencies, and others. More recently, states have issued RFPs and/or RFIs for rural broadband solutions. There are two issues with most of the grants. One is that few grants include funding for ongoing operation. The other problem, which is having a greater negative impact, seems to be the continued belief that the only viable way to provide broadband to rural areas is fiber to the home/farm/business.

The cost of laying fiber in the ground, according to costowl.com, is $1 to $6 per foot, depending on the number of strands in the cable. Costowl.com goes on to say that once the cable reaches a multi-occupied dwelling, 100 to 200 “drops” would cost between $15,000 and $30,000. If fiber has to be run ten miles to a farmhouse, the cost of the deployment would be huge, especially since most farms are remotely located down roads where there are farms but few other dwellings to help absorb the cost. Based on $3 per foot, one mile (5,280 feet) would cost $15,840, so ten miles would cost $158,840. 

If grants and proposals for rural broadband service would specify fiber to a hub followed by wireless to a local area, they would provide farmers with wireless in their fields where they want it most and it would cost a whole lot less. If fiber is run to a school and terminated there, when students leave to go home, they may not have access to the Internet from their home. However, if fiber is run to a central location and then wireless 4G, 5G, or WiFi 6 is used depending on the terrain and the need for inbuilding penetration, much more of the area can be covered for a lot less money. When running fiber to a hospital, library, or other government building, these locations could also serve as a hub for wireless to serve the community. 

There are a large number of cellular providers, Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), and others that want to serve rural areas. I recently mentioned rural power companies that, according to my records, cover many rural areas in 47 states. Many of these companies are co-ops that are non-profit-oriented organizations and many have funds to invest in broadband for their grid operations, meter reading, and to establish a conduit to rural houses, businesses, and farms. These co-ops already hold many rights-of-way, and they are now authorized by the FCC to enter into the broadband business.

In other words, there are plenty of opportunities to partner with others who can assist in providing broadband services. Why FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has not established partnerships with them remains a mystery to me. From what I can surmise, FirstNet is willing to work with rural partners to help extend FirstNet coverage and ongoing service obligations, but it appears as though other federal agencies, including the agency that houses The FirstNet Authority, are not interested in capitalizing on FirstNet’s achievements.

Public-safety band 14 can be used by others when it is not being used to full capacity by public safety.  Public-safety activity will usually be light enough in rural areas to allow almost full access to band 14 for non-public-safety users unless, of course, there is a major incident. Even then, the incident will most likely be localized and band 14 traffic will be normal in other cell sites or sectors. Further, FirstNet is about to certify High-Power User Equipment (HPUE) made by Assured Wireless that will enable units in fields and homes to operate at 1.25 watts of power as opposed to the 0.250 watts typical of cellular devices. The combination of band-14 availability and HPUE appears to be a winning solution waiting to be developed.

Back to the farmers. What would it take for farm equipment companies such as John Deere to build HPUE into their farm machinery to provide farmers with greater coverage than they have with a smartphone? I have been surprised that states that have already signed up for FirstNet have not parleyed a relationship between FirstNet (Built with AT&T) and broadband communications to help with their rural coverage issues.

Waiting for Congress

We are also impatiently waiting for Congress to enact legislation that has been proposed during several sessions to create a new federal agency that would aggregate all rural and poverty-level broadband grants currently being offered by multiple entities, each with their own sets of rules. If run correctly, such an agency would work with states, form public/private partnerships and, given all the funding already on the books for rural broadband, probably solve the broadband issue for most of the United States in short order.

Waiting for New Technology

Unfortunately, the various promises of new technologies and new ways to use existing technologies may serve to slow the spread of rural broadband services. As you may recall, four vendors are now promising Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites that will, of course, provide broadband for everyone everywhere. If all four companies launch their services as promised, there will be more than 14,000 little LEOs orbiting the earth. They will be in sight for a few minutes or less and then switch the connection to the next little LEO coming into view.

Will satellite networks provide inbuilding coverage? I am skeptical and I am not taking what we are being told at face value; I have to see it for myself. In any event, I suspect an antenna much like a DirecTV or Dish antenna will be required on the roof of each building and then 5G, WiFi, or WiFi 6 will be used to carry the signal inside the building. Further, I doubt all four companies can even reach a commercial launch since the amount of money each company will have to spend on LEOs, launches, ground stations, and customer equipment is staggering. While we wait to see, we should not let the hype surrounding LEOs deter us from a concentrated effort to expand terrestrial coverage.

T-Mobile, as part of the proposed merger with Sprint, promised to deploy 5G to cover all of rural America. This is an interesting pledge. T-Mobile is deploying 600-MHz spectrum, which is well-suited for longer-range services, but at the moment it is claiming only that its networks are “5G-ready.” Once again, words are cheap. Rural America has been promised so much, over so many years, by so many different entities, that the farmers and others are not only frustrated, they are skeptical they will ever see good, solid broadband for data. If they do, they believe they will only have one choice of carrier. 

The issue concerning how many providers can survive in rural areas is a critical one. At this point, it is difficult to comprehend how even one provider can make a profit, which is why I keep talking about partnerships. It will take more than a single entity to make rural broadband a reality. However, it can be delivered in most areas through a variety of partnerships. My final thought is a result of what we have learned from working on rural broadband issues in our consulting practice. A county, for example, needs a local person or entity to become the champion of broadband. This champion will drive the efforts forward, meet with potential partners, and raise awareness within the community. Without a show of local support, vendors that are able to provide services may believe they will not be able to count on the community’s support.

Especially now, given both the financial times and the climate, farmers find themselves in need of every available tool to grow their crops more efficiently and hopefully more cost-effectively. Even as FirstNet provides broadband with a new set of tools for public-safety communications, FirstNet can equip farmers, businesses, school children, medical professionals, and local governments with the tools they need.

Winding Down

First, I would like to congratulate ESChat. According to its press release, ESChat has been awarded T-Mobile’s Push-to-Talk (PTT) business. Among the reasons ESChat was selected is that it provides over-the-top PTT services for LTE regardless of the operator. It appears T-Mobile understands something the rest of the LTE community does not. The only way to grow PTT beyond a small user base is to make it available cross-network. This was true with voice, text, and certainly data, and I believe it holds true for commercial PTT services. 

I am currently in the process of writing two books, one on the birth of FirstNet with a co-author and one about what motivated me to become a public-safety advocate. In the second book, I am looking back at my life and the decisions I have made that prepared me to work with both the Public Safety Spectrum Trust (PSST) and the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) as they geared up their efforts to convince Congress to set aside more broadband spectrum and fund what was to become FirstNet.

Looking back, I am reminded of the days I spent as a dispatcher for the Delaware County Police Radio System licensed as KGA905 in the late 1960s. We were using a single dispatch channel at 39.82 MHz and other departments with their own dispatch facilities were on the same channel. 

The dispatch center was housed in a room in the courthouse where a single person received incoming calls and then dispatched the various police agencies that were part of the system. If a call came in for a jurisdiction that had its own dispatch, the call was relayed over-the-air to the other dispatcher so it could be handled there.

With only one dispatcher on duty, when we needed a restroom break, we announced we would be off the air for a few minutes. While traffic was usually light and routine, it did get dicey on occasion. We have come a very long way since then. Delaware County now has a T-band trunked radio system for fire, police, and EMS, several volunteer fire departments have their own T-band systems, and the number of incidents in the county has greatly increased.

Today’s dispatch centers, now called “Emergency Communications Centers” (ECCs), are no longer housed in a single, dingy room. They are expansive, usually with their own rest area and staffed by a number of well-schooled professionals. It is amazing how much progress has been made in the world of public-safety communications and there is more to come: We are waiting for Next-Generation 9-1-1 (NG911) to become a national mandate, FirstNet is well on its way to being declared a huge success, and new devices and technologies are being introduced at a fast pace. 

Still, we continue to face many issues. The most pressing appears to be that if Congress does not rescind the T-band giveback, where will users go? There are no 700-MHz channels available close to Philadelphia, 800-MHz channels are in use in surrounding counties, and there is no VHF or UHF spectrum available. If Congress does not act, not only are Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and eight other metro areas in deep trouble with their ongoing communications, smaller communities such as Delaware County will be in a world of hurt. 

I have discussed other spectrum issues facing the public-safety community in previous columns. The 4.9-GHz WiFi-like spectrum used for camera and other backhaul is under siege, and the 6-GHz spectrum used by multiple types of organizations for microwave is also in jeopardy because the FCC wants to open it to sharing with unlicensed users. Regardless of plans for requiring unlicensed users to sign onto a database to find spectrum they can use, I don’t believe a database will provide a fool-proof solution.

What would happen if the NTIA decided to open the federal government 7-GHz microwave band to unlicensed users? This spectrum is widely used by federal agencies including many with three-letter designations. I am certain the ruckus that would result from any proposal for shared, unlicensed use of 7-GHz microwave would squash any efforts. Why aren’t microwave systems in the 6-GHz band receiving the same consideration? I keep waiting for the FCC or Congress to address some of these issues but, so far, I continue to be disappointed by the apparent attitude that any spectrum is fair game.

Until Next Week…

Andrew M. Seybold
©2019, Andrew Seybold, Inc.

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