Why the Headless Horseman? The more complex issues are outlined below, but the simple answer is that there has never been more interest in extending broadband into rural America than there is today with so little being accomplished on the ground. What is being accomplished is happening in small areas where there is a combination of local leadership and planning. Everyone wants to help but there is no coordination among the numerous efforts underway.
It does not make sense with all the efforts aimed at solving the digital divide and digital poverty broadband issue that the pace is so slow and only in sporadic areas. In the past two years, Congress has introduced twenty-five different bills in the House of Representatives, all of which attempt to address the rural broadband issue. In the Senate, to date, only one bill has been introduced. The FCC has made rural broadband a priority and has funding available, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), Farm Bureau, and others have grants and loans available for rural broadband and some in Congress are asking the President to put rural broadband on the list of infrastructure funding requests that will be coming up soon.
Most recently, the FCC has decided that wireless broadband does not “count” as true broadband but it still defines broadband speeds of 25 Mbps down and only 3 Mbps up. These speeds are consistent with wireless broadband networks and cable Internet over which data speeds in the downward direction are faster than data speeds from the device back to the network. However, the model for fiber deployment is that the customer receives the same data speeds in both directions, so wireless is not “broadband” according to the FCC. It is not clear why the FCC is maintaining that wireless is not “broadband” while the data speeds quoted are more in line with wireless than fiber deployments.
Estimates for fiber installation are all over the map and depend on whether the fiber is run above ground on existing poles or has to be underground. I have seen prices ranging from $26K per mile for aerial runs to more than $173K per mile for underground runs. Further, if the fiber is to be installed in a school there will be additional charges for last-mile runs, equipment at the school, and integration into the school’s network that are estimated to run from $185K for rural area schools to almost $600K for what are considered desert schools. Once the fiber is installed and operational, if it is to be extended to homes and businesses in the area, costs will run up quickly.
A full-up cell site installed by a carrier is an investment of about $250K and there is a cost to take fiber or microwave backhaul to the site. But rural areas don’t necessarily need a full-up cell site to cover a small town. It is equally effective to install a number of small cells, perhaps some point-to-point wireless services, and then make use of Wi-Fi if additional coverage is needed in the home or business. In the case of wireless, the cost per customer is much lower than the per customer cost for fiber to the home.
What if we take the fiber connection to the school and use it as the foundation for a wireless network? If longer shots are needed, it might be less expensive to deploy microwave, closer-in, the distribution of broadband can be point-to-point, point-to-multi-point, and mobile wireless broadband. Also, data speeds for wireless are increasing all the time and with the advent of 5G small cell technology and point-to-point wireless, data speeds can easily exceed the FCC’s “standard” for broadband services.
If I have a grant available for a county to deploy rural broadband in the amount of say, $2 million, it is possible to potentially cover ten times the number of homes and businesses using a combination of fiber to a hub and providing wireless for the last mile. Yet most of what I am reading and most of the rural broadband webinars and seminars I attend seem to push toward fiber to the home. In an ideal world, that would be a great thing. However, in many major cities including Phoenix where there is a much larger population, we do not have fiber to the home in some parts of the city yet from any provider. It is time to look at how funds that are becoming available can be best used to provide more rural businesses and citizens with access to broadband. Perhaps the FCC commissioners should ask themselves if it is better to have 10 Mbps or 15 Mbps of broadband than no broadband!
Where We Are Today
Today many different organizations and people desire to solve the rural broadband issue and as soon as possible. Some work is being done in some rural communities with a lot of success, many different resources are available to assist in solving the problem, but there is no one place where all of these efforts are being tracked and where an interested community can find out who to work with to solve its broadband issues. It should not have to take the next ten years to deliver broadband to those who want and need it. If this were viewed as a priority and driven forward by some one or some group, we could establish broadband in much more of rural America, tribal lands, and to poverty-level citizens who cannot afford it.
Let me say from the beginning that I do not expect FirstNet, either the authority or the ecosystem, to undertake the task of coordinating efforts for rural deployment of broadband beyond their federal mandate. However, FirstNet is required by Congress to serve the public safety community in rural America and in the tribal nations. Because of this requirement, the contractor, AT&T, is already working with smaller wireless carriers and others in rural areas. The law is clear that rural broadband for public safety must be made available at the same time it is becoming available for major metro areas, so this is not urban first and rural America last. It is about making it all happen at the same time.
How can FirstNet become a catalyst to extend broadband into rural areas? There are a few answers to that. Let’s start here: FirstNet is already a public-private partnership and as a term of the contract with FirstNet the authority, it is required to work with rural carriers in the deployment of the public safety broadband network. Next, it has a five-year plan for public safety broadband coverage in every county in the United States. Then there is the fact that with the FirstNet spectrum (band 14) it is permissible for AT&T to make it available to secondary users on a non-priority basis. Further, the FirstNet network requires mobile broadband to meet the needs of public safety. Finally, AT&T has expressed a willingness to sit down with counties and others to discuss ways to increase coverage in a given area beyond what it has promised.
I view all of this as a “starter kit” for rural broadband deployment and poverty-level access to broadband services. As an example, a county might want to engage with AT&T on the FirstNet build-out in its county. The first step would be to sit down and understand where AT&T plans to provide FirstNet coverage over the next five years and also what AT&T has planned in its own network upgrades for the area. Next up might be the county asking AT&T what it would take to increase coverage in its county. The final point of the conversation would be to find out how AT&T might work with the county on additional infrastructure builds or funding to increase the proposed FirstNet build. Based on the answers that come out of this meeting, the next steps might be to find out what federal and/or state funding the county might qualify for from these sources and finally what funds the county might be willing to come up with to assist in the build-out efforts.
The next step is, of course, to put together a plan to work toward these goals. There will need to be local buy-in for these efforts and an agreement with AT&T, the contractor building and operating FirstNet. If funding can be obtained from one or more of the state and federal funding options, more serious discussions will need to be held to see exactly how AT&T wants to or is willing to integrate additional radio sites and backhaul into the overall FirstNet network and who will be responsible for maintaining these new assets and paying the monthly expenses for their operation.
This may sound like a complex issue with a lot of moving pieces but it can be taken apart and worked on one piece at a time. Filling in the gaps for rural coverage will not happen overnight but it can be accomplished faster with a partner such as AT&T or FirstNet than a county going it alone and being faced with only the option of fiber to the home. There are also consulting and other organizations that are well versed in this process that might also be of assistance (including us).
Of course, it would be great to have fiber to all the citizens in the United States no matter where they reside but that is not economically possible. Another thing many of those looking at rural broadband seem to miss is the fact that more and more broadband services are being consumed by people who are mobile. Fiber to establish the capacity near an area and then wireless to deploy it makes the most sense, it is the most economical, and FirstNet might be a good partner for this type of scenario.
With the high cost of fiber to the home and the fact that more and more of the demand for broadband services is from mobile users, the idea that the only real broadband solution for rural America is fiber to the home is now outdated. 5G wireless will provide data speeds as fast if not faster than fiber in some areas, and upgrades to wireless standards that are happening on a yearly basis keep making it faster and able to handle more capacity all of the time. There are so many different people and organizations promoting rural broadband and yet it is painfully slow to happen. Perhaps with some management and partnerships it can happen much faster.
Andrew M Seybold
©2018 Andrew Seybold, Inc.