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The Proper Role for Broadband Mapping When Implementing Fiscal Stimulus

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2009 – According to a research report released Monday by BroadbandCensus.com, the broadband mapping provisions associated with the fiscal stimulus act should be (1) Narrowly scoped; (2) Ideally suited to visually depict unserved areas; (3) Related directly and exclusively to expanding the scope the Broadband Data Improvement Act; (4) Potentially misleading and harmful if allowed to drive and dominate the broader need for good-quality broadband data.

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BroadbandCensus.com Research Report

By Ken Austin, Research and Analysis Manager, Broadband Census.com

Editor’s Note: This paper was produced by Ken Austin to spur discussion and dialogue about the best way to address the “broadband mapping” provisions of the fiscal stimulus legislation. This document is neither a formal comment nor an official statement of the position of BroadbandCensus.com.

WASHINGTON, March 23, 2009 – Through public hearings on broadband stimulus, it is starkly apparent that demand for spending broadband stimulus funds far outstrips the $7.2 billion in available funds. These hearings, by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and Agriculture Department’s Rural Utilities Service (RUS), have assembled officials and interested parties to examine and address the gap.

The same is true of the realm of broadband data, and in the $350 million allocated to that task by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  Consider the competing needs to:

•    Produce meaningful data that support existing law.
•    Align with key metrics that inform the goals and metrics associated with the emerging National Broadband Strategy
•    Allocate resources to projects that are expedited, transparent, and accountable.

Part 1 of this article looks at two laws that set the scope of broadband mapping initiatives addressed in section 8 of the joint NTIA and RUS call for comment.

The conclusion? The broadband mapping provisions associated with the ARRA are:

  1. (1) Narrowly scoped;
  2. (2) Ideally suited to visually depict unserved areas;
  3. (3) Related directly and exclusively to expanding the scope of S.1492, Section 103(c) as amended;
  4. (4) Potentially misleading and harmful if allowed to drive and dominate the broader need for good-quality broadband data.

Part 2 of this article responds to the questions about the broadband mapping initiative posed in Section 8 (a through j) of the joint NTIA-RUS call for comment.

Part 2 gives voice to the policy and budget implications of the argument made in Part 1.

Part 1: Statutory Bounds for Broadband Mapping

The joint call reads:

The Recovery Act directs NTIA to establish a comprehensive nationwide inventory map of existing broadband service capability and availability in the United States that depicts the geographic extent to which broadband service capability is deployed and available from a commercial provider or public provider throughout each State.

The broadband inventory map envisioned by the Recovery Act is both similar to and yet noticeably different than the language in the Broadband Data Improvement Act of 2008 (BDIA), commonly referred to as S. 1492. Section 103 (c) of S. 1492 reads:

Demographic Information for Unserved Areas—As part of the inquiry required by subsection (b), the Commission shall compile a list of geographical areas that are not served by any provider of advanced telecommunications capability (as defined by section 706(c)(1) of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (47 U.S.C. 157 note)) and to the extent that data from the Census Bureau is available, determine, for each such unserved area—

(1) the population;

(2) the population density; and

(3) the average per capita income.

(Emphasis supplied.)

The Recovery Act adds scope to S.1492. It overlays the requirement to “compile a list” with a burden to “visually depict” results.

That apparently subtle shift in language has the potential for derailing an otherwise focused effort to map existing inventory.

How much of the pubic budget should go to “visualizing” otherwise useful information?

Parsing the language of broadband mapping under the Recovery Act is a way to start.  The inventory map is supposed to:

  1. (1) Be comprehensive;
  2. (2) Be national in scope;
  3. (3) Depict geographic extent;
  4. (4) Account for existing service capability;
  5. (5) Account for existing service availability;
  6. (6) Show where “a commercial provider” or “a public provider” exists in each state.

If one takes only the language of terms 1, 2, 3 6, one finds that they result in a “negative” map.  The logic generates a “reverse image” that identifies geographies with zero service.  It produces exactly the result necessary to address the minimum critical specification of “unserved”.

What does it mean to be comprehensive?

Term 6 bounds the scope of broadband mapping.  It provides the minimum critical specification called for in term 1.

When taken literally, term 6 so limits the utility of “a broadband map” that terms 4 and 5 are impossible to achieve.

When a map shows the extent to which “a commercial provider and “a public provider” exist (emphasis supplied), then the deliverable meets the statute.  It does not provide data necessary to discern and make judgments about availability or capability.

The value-add derived from term 3 is suspect. Some stakeholders may have a need for “a map”.  It is not at all clear that “a map” is, in and of itself, valuable to any stakeholder other than a digital cartographer.  A proper inventory would have greater inherent value than a depictable map.  With proper data, people can compare and contrast a wide range of data and use 21st century data visualization techniques of their choosing.

Terms 4 and 5 are bound by The Recovery Act, which specifies existing capability and availability.  That language significantly limits the scope, complexity, and cost of mapping.  It also limits the utility.  No provision is made under ARRA to ensure that the map is sustained or even sustainable.  As written, the language envisions only a “snapshot” of inventory to serve as a baseline.

Meaningful data in support of capability and availability require a larger scope than required of Broadband mapping under the ARRA or by Section 103(c) of S.1492, the Broadband Data Improvement Act.

Assume that we do not accept the low standards set by terms 3 and 6 to be adequate over a range of stakeholders; it could be argued that:

•    Term 4 is the vanguard provision.  Capability today is not an accurate picture of capability tomorrow.  Capability required for telemedicine is not capability for energy management device control and message services.  With no provision for looking forward, the “inventory map” cannot cost-effectively account for capability.  If one were audacious enough to create a sustainable inventory that kept track of the provisions of the act indefinitely, who and what would maintain configuration control and how much would that cost?

•    Term 5 expands the narrowest definition of unserved and opens the inquiry to questions of underserved areas.  It presumably distinguishes the type of service available by technology, geography, price, and service provider necessary to implement a broadband universal service fund required for sustainable ubiquitous service.  Ensuring ubiquity means resolution to the 9-digit ZIP code level.  Spending federal resources on “an inventory map” could divert resources from more meaningful outcomes.  Budget resources should be apportioned accordingly.

The notion of “an inventory map” gives way to a sustainable data-set when the concepts of availability and capability are seriously addressed.

Care should be taken not to rush broadband data funds into the hands of a small number of players whose approach is inextricable linked to the commercial interests of telecommunications providers. In other words, the policy prescriptions of the ARRA for a national broadband map should not be jeopardized by funneling money into cartographic eye-candy.

With visions of “a national map,” long-term policy interests are jeopardized.

•    Is the priority substantive data that informs commercial and civic investment decisions?
•    Is the priority a snapshot of existing inventory?
•    Is the priority expedient and expensive eye-candy?

The choices we make today reverberate for at least a decade.

Part 2: Broadband Data More Fundamental than Broadband Mapping

Section 8 of the Joint NTIA-RUS call asks ten questions; 8a. through 8j.  Those questions are repeated here in italics.

Answers to the questions make an effort to be remain consistent with the argument made in Part 1.  How does the argument shape, or predispose the answers to the joint call for comment?  How would such answers inform policy?

8a.    What uses should such a map be capable of serving?

Given the statutory limits outlined in Part 1, such a map should be limited to displaying, on an electronic map, 9-digit ZIP codes where neither commercial nor public broadband service is available.

The map should be limited to its intended purpose, a one-time baseline inventory of existing broadband capability and availability from a commercial provider or public provider throughout each State.

The outcome is a clear picture of “unserved” areas.  The snapshot provides a solid baseline against which to measure progress toward at least one service option in each place.

8b. What specific information should the broadband map contain, and

See response 8a., immediately above.

Claims over and above those required to meet the statute are recognizable expansions that drain resources available to meet related public policy interests outside the narrow scope of S.1492, Section 103 (c).

should the map provide different types of information to different users (e.g., consumers versus governmental entities)?

No, “the map” should not reflect different information for different users.  It should reflect only a one-time baseline that indicates what regions are unserved in each state.  It is a baseline that informs progress against goals and metrics defined in the National Broadband Strategy.

Efforts to collect otherwise meaningful data should be taken separately from such a scope limited map.

8c.    At what level of geographic or other granularity should the broadband map provide information on broadband service?

Data should be collected at the 9-digit ZIP code level.  If the idea is to find and close all of the gaps, 9-digit ZIP codes provide sufficient resolution.

The Federal Communications Commission’s Form 477 data remain inadequate.

Street level data are too detailed for the scope limited broadband map envisioned by the statute.  Upkeep is not provisioned and content changes rapidly.  The ensuing costs make street level data non-feasible when weighed against a range of priorities.

A database/inventory built on 9-digit ZIP codes can be correlated with a range of other data sets including census tracts, 477 data, political districts, and county plats.

8d.    What other factors should NTIA take into consideration in fulfilling the requirements of the Broadband Data Improvement Act, Pub. L. No. 110-385 (2008)?

None.  Other data collection priorities should be performed outside the scope of a broadband map.

8e.    Are there State or other mapping programs that provide models for the statewide inventory grants?

Yes.

If this question 8e. is limited to the scope of an existing inventory map, then most states have some understanding of where public and private broadband is and is not available by county.  Each knows enough to target a few unserved areas immediately.  An extensive map – as opposed to an extensive collection of data – is not required to make near-term progress.

Paradoxically, if stimulus works, “the map” is obsolete before it is published.  With no provision for sustainability of the data, the national map promises ballooning costs without commensurate benefits.

States, having purchased “a mapping solution” touted across the nation, lament that they have no means for questioning service provider claims that broadband deployment is proceeding well. That is evidence enough that such a map is not sufficient to meet data requirements beyond those of Section 103(c) of S. 1492.

The nationally-touted “mapping solution” marginally satisfies the limited scope of the “existing inventory map.”  It also comes with a few difficulties.

  1. (1) The solution provides a host of other capabilities not required to meet the statue, some of which are glitzy, but have no bearing on policy.  This might mean paying far more than necessary.
  2. (2) States purchasing such a solution are bound by non-disclosure agreements.  Such non-disclosure data will not “roll up” to a national map that can be used by citizens and governments to make informed decisions.
  3. (3) If one exhausts the stimulus data budget on creating an existing map of the “negative space,” then a long-term approach to data in support of other sections of S. 1492 would be jeopardized.
  4. (4) Once created, such a “mapping solution” is difficult to sustain.  Government at all levels is hostage to a sole-source information provider.  Such a blind spot makes it difficult to negotiate allocations for sustainment costs essential for a broadband Universal Service Fund.  Keeping broadband data fresh as service providers merge and deploy new technologies is nearly impossible.  It would not be a cost-effective use of data for broadband data.
  5. (5) Expending a substantial portion of the broadband mapping effort on an elaborate broadband map – without a good-quality data underlying such a map – is likely to tilt the playing field toward players that make use of proprietary carrier data.

8f. Specifically what information should states collect as conditions of receiving statewide inventory grants?

Entities seeking broadband stimulus resources related to broadband mapping should commit to verifiable outcomes that satisfy the minimum critical specification. Collecting only the data required to meet the statute, which in turn provides a baseline for key policy measures over time.

If one remains focused on the minimum critical specification for the broadband mapping provisions in the ARRA, states should only be required to collect those data that report which areas currently have one or more commercial and one or more public broadband services by 9-digit ZIP code.

If one finds the scope prescribed by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to be too narrow, states should be required to collect those data that inform availability and capability over time.  Accordingly, a state should be required to report data that provide unrestricted visibility into the range data points envisioned by S. 1492.

When states are compelled to collect other data, the initial instance of scope-creep expands.

8g.    What technical specifications should be required of state grantees to ensure that statewide inventory maps can be efficiently rolled up into a searchable national broadband database to be made available on NTIA’s website no later than February 2011?

Files in .xml format will be most useful.  They can be used in creating a map of existing inventory.  They can also be used by thousands of people for other reasons.

8h.    Should other conditions attach to statewide inventory grants?

Yes, data paid for with federal funds should be placed in the public domain.

Data paid for with federal funds but not placed in the public domain shall be accounted for by reporting the amount paid, the type of data purchased, and the time period that the data contract covers.

If non-disclosure agreements preclude even that modest disclosure, the risk and life cycle cost of purchasing data from that source should be accounted for.

8i.    What information, other than statewide inventory information, should populate the comprehensive nationwide map?

None.  The scope of the inventory map should be constrained to its rightful purpose, an inventory of existing service by “a commercial” or “a public” service.

8j.    The Recovery Act and the Broadband Data Improvement Act (BDIA) imposes duties on both NTIA and FCC concerning the collection of broadband data.

Given the statutory requirements of the Recovery Act and the BDIA, how should NTIA and FCC best work together to meet these requirements?

Responding specifically from the position that the statutory scope of broadband mapping is limited and that it expands the scope of a similar result compelled by other legislation, the two responsible organizations can:

  1. (1) Be clear that broadband mapping under the Recovery Act (term 3 in Part 1) creates a one-time baseline that satisfies Section 103(c) of S. 1492.
  2. (2) Agree that capability and availability (terms 4 and 5) are not achievable if the modest standard imposed for identifying unserved geographies (term 6) is taken as the standard for broadband data writ large.
  3. (3) Agree that allowing the scope of the broadband map to creep beyond that which has already occurred (depict visually) diffuses the efforts for meaningful data collection.
  4. (4) Agree that budgets applied to broadband mapping should be proportionate with a wider need for broadband data. Budget resources applied to a “broadband map” should be limited to the scope of the statute.
  5. (5) Agree that the Federal procurement community’s standard works for broadband mapping.

Conclusion

This article makes a case that broadband mapping as defined in the ARRA:

  • Reflects a snapshot of existing conditions.  No provision is made for sustainability of data, or life cycle cost.
  • Makes a limited contribution to the range of data collection needs defined in S. 1492.
  • Increases the scope of S. 1492 by increasing task complex and cost, without adding additional information.
  • Is narrow in its focus on “mapping,” and should remain that way.

In modifying the scope of S.1492 to include “a depictable map,” the ARRA diminishes the relative value of a proper inventory and data set which might be used as raw data for maps that suit a range of needs.

By focusing narrowly on “a map,” policy-makers would fool themselves and those who rely on meaningful data to make supportable investment decisions.

The perception that “broadband mapping,” as defined in the ARRA, will result in a single, scalable, and sustainable “national map” that simultaneously supports infrastructure management and civil debate impairs focus and poses unending sustainment cost, especially if the source data are proprietary.

The second greatest risk is that the focus becomes merely “a map” and is therefore devoid of meaningful substance.

It is crucial to consider that data underlying state-by-state and national broadband maps, are useful for thousands of applications, some not imaginable today, and others having nothing to do with geography. Any public hearing, and presumably any considered response, would recognize that the inherent value lies in the data, not “the map”.

Resources should be apportioned accordingly.  A depictable map should not siphon resources from the goals and metrics that are established for National Broadband Strategy and other data-collection efforts that inform the National Broadband Data Improvement Act.

Broadband Mapping & Data

Jeremy Jurick and Paul Schneid: Preparing Data for the FCC’s Broadband Filing

The new FCC requirements in the broadband data collection program are important to meet the nation’s connectivity goals.

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The authors of this Expert Opinion are Jeremy Jurick (left) and Paul Schneid of Michael Baker International.

The recent emphasis on the expansion of broadband access across the country, coupled with the requirements of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and Broadband Equity and Deployment program, has prompted the Federal Communications Commission to review and update its collection of data. Accurate data pinpointing where broadband service is – and is not – available is critically important. Broadband maps are used by Internet Service Providers and governments to identify locations that need service, as well as how to fund broadband expansion.

The FCC has recently established an important initiative called the Broadband Data Collection Program to ensure the collection of accurate, vital broadband availability data, implementing new requirements. Among other requirements of the BDC, ISPs must submit their serviceable location data and align that data with the FCC’s serviceable location fabric, which will require new methodologies from ISPs, resulting in additional hours spent and more resources allocated to address this upcoming task.

At Michael Baker International, our team is at the forefront of data collection and broadband expansion services. This article provides details on the requirement and filing process for ISPs.

Recognizing the challenges

The BDC filing process may be unfamiliar and challenging to some service providers due to the novelty of the program and the list of requirements it encompasses. Moreover, ISPs may be delayed in the processing and submission of their data, either due to limited resources or bandwidth to support these new tasks and responsibilities or experience to immediately and effectively tackle and complete this complex data collection/submittal process. With the extent of the data expected to be collected and submitted, which involves technical elements and resources, proceeding may seem daunting. Sifting through newly published materials and resources takes away valuable time and issues can arise before or after submittal with incomplete data or the ability to process the data into the appropriate standards, recently specified for fabric comparison by the FCC.

Getting started according to the timeline

To begin the BDC Filing process, ISPs should first become familiar with the timeline, federal regulations and data requirements surrounding the submission period.

Due to be submitted for the first time on September 1, 2022, and semi-annually going forward, specific data must be provided by all facilities-based providers of fixed and mobile broadband internet access who had one or more end user connections in service on June 30, 2022. Each filing will be based on the same schedule as the Form 477 filings (June 30th through September 1st and December 31st through March 1st).

Fulfilling the prerequisites ad the data requirements

As prerequisite to filing data in the BDC portal, the FCC requires ISPs or government entities to first complete the registration process within the FCC’s Commission Registrations System (CORES). Users will be assigned a 10-digit FCC Registration Number that will be used for verification purposes by the FCC.  Additionally, filers are also required by the FCC to show proof that they are indeed an organization that is responsible for tracking broadband coverage.  Each filer must provide documentation from the highest-ranking executive within their company confirming that the organization tracks broadband data.

Each BDC filing must include detailed information about the filer, broadband availability data (including supporting data) and Form 477 broadband subscription data. In addition, specific requirements are mandated for various ISPs:

  • Fixed wireline and satellite broadband service providers: Submit either polygon shapefiles or a list of locations constituting the provider’s service area.
  • Fixed wireless broadband service providers: Submit either propagation maps and propagation model details or a list of locations constituting the provider’s service area.
  • Mobile wireless broadband service providers: Submit propagation maps and propagation model details for each network technology, as well as for both outdoor stationary and in-vehicle mobile network coverage. Additionally, these ISPs must submit data for their signal strength heat map.

Finalizing for submission

Finally, ISPs must gain access to the serviceable location fabric, format the data to requirements for accurate comparison against the fabric and identify the addresses that meet requirements of serviceable areas. When the necessary data has been compiled and reviewed, the filing entity must navigate to the BDC system and submit its data onward to the FCC. The FCC gives the option to file submit data as an upload/web-based file or alternatively submit using an Application Programming Interface.

Partnering with a broadband expert

It is recommended that ISPs looking to both save time and ensure accuracy throughout the submission process partner with broadband experts that will ensure that all BDC requirements are met before submitting any data. Michael Baker International has thoroughly researched the BDC requirements and created a streamlined solution. ISPs simply provide the initial information, and our team then determines the appropriate data to be submitted, along with our translation of that data into the proper format. Once ISPs receive the data, they need only create a login and finally, upload the submission data.

Today, there is increased focus on an existing but growing need to close gaps in the digital divide. The new FCC requirements in the BDC program are an important part of ensuring the nation’s connectivity goals are met by collecting accurate data that will be necessary to provide services where they are most needed.

Jeremy Jurick is Michael Baker’s National Broadband Services Director and oversees Michael Baker International’s broadband planning, mapping and program management initiatives. His broadband experience includes roadmap development, planning, data collection and analysis, stakeholder engagement, broadband provider engagement, branding, multimedia design, GIS services, and software design, and he has provided testimony during several government hearings to inform policymakers on broadband policy and expansion, including advocating for high speed thresholds for the definition of broadband and allowing government entities to be eligible subgrantees for broadband funding.

Paul Schneid is a program manager at Michael Baker with nearly a decade of experience in broadband wireless equipment operation, customer service, and process improvement. Most recently, Schneid interfaced with vendors and clients to manage all implementation project phases from inception to completion across a citywide wireless broadband expansion in New York City. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Expert Opinion

Bryan Darr: An Order of Fiber, Please, with Wireless on the Side

Wireless is essential because for truly remote properties, a physical connection may never be practical.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Bryan Darr, vice president of Smart Communities at Ookla.

Over the next five to ten years we will see an explosion of projects bringing high-speed connectivity to underserved communities in the United States. Although fiber infrastructure rightly gets most of the attention and funding, wireless networks should also be part of this planning process. Wireless networks can deploy faster, serve remote locations more economically, and provide some capabilities that fixed networks can’t. Failure to consider the comprehensive needs of the mobile broadband environment will hobble efforts in the next phase of this technology revolution.

How we got here

As federal broadband infrastructure funding is ramping up, state broadband offices are preparing to prove their need for a larger slice of the pie. This is detailed in the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment Program, which is a part of the infrastructure bill (the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act) passed into law in the fall of 2021. Although every state is guaranteed $100 million, that leaves about $37 billion yet to be divided up.

Assuredly, this pie won’t be sliced into equal portions across states, tribal areas, and U.S. territories. Differences in population, geographic area, household density, and income levels will impact the funding eligibility of individual jurisdictions. Preparedness to verify underserved areas will ensure that state and local governments can maximize their chances of securing adequate funding. The first step is to identify these communities and estimate the cost of covering each household. With a desire to help as many people as possible, there will be a tendency to prioritize areas with the lowest cost per connection.

State governments have been focused primarily on fiber access. However, as big a pot of money as the IIJA may be, it won’t be big enough to connect every household to fiber. Continued supply chain issues, inflation, and labor shortages (particularly with needed expertise) will expand the cost of projects in the coming years.

The race to compete for these billions of dollars has had a very uneven start. Some state broadband offices are fully staffed, have hired consultants, have obtained and collected network performance data, and already have mapping projects launched. Other states are just now funding their broadband offices and beginning to hire their first employees. States that cannot successfully challenge both the mapping fabric (think number of service addresses) and confidently identify unserved households will be disappointed with the size of their slice.

The recipe may require adjustment

Recently, Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel called for the commission to reset its definition of broadband from 25 Mbps download speed and 3 Mbps upload speed to 100 down and 20 up. Many would agree that a reset is long overdue. The IIJA legislation is already requiring that new infrastructure builds meet this criteria. We should all recognize that this metric reset could make millions of additional households eligible for funding. Some policy organizations, including the Fiber Broadband Association, are voicing their opinions that those numbers are already dated and that the new target will not be enough for future needs such as the much-anticipated metaverse.

The specific benefits of wireless

Wireless connectivity can be broken down into three basic types of last-mile providers:

  1. Cellular service providers, offering traditional mobile and new fixed wireless access services
  2. Wireless internet service providers (WISPs), offering fixed point-to-point service
  3. Satellite companies (more on them later)

Wi-Fi is also wireless, but provides a final hop for only the last few feet of a network connection.

Wireless is essential because there is broad recognition that for truly remote properties, a physical connection may never be practical. As subsidies flow, that fact may be applicable to fewer locations, but there is certainly a point of diminishing return. As state and federal officials plan their networks to connect as many communities as they can, they should be factoring in where the wireless networks need bolstering as well. This is applicable for both mobile and WISP infrastructure.

Additional wireless investment could serve multiple needs. Poor wireless coverage is a common complaint even in densely populated areas. If you spend any significant time in rural areas, you know that there are locations where service is so spotty that the local population knows when to not risk initiating a call. Even if you get a signal, throughput can vary greatly. Just because you can receive a text in a particular location doesn’t mean you can download a video. These rural areas have weak wireless signals for the same reason that they lack good terrestrial broadband — the population density does not provide enough return on the investment.

Fiber is still a necessary ingredient

Today’s higher data usage demands the capacity that fiber provides. Mobile service providers are not going to build a new 5G tower without access to fiber backhaul. Sites that require long, dedicated fiber deployments can cost far more and lead to an unreasonable dent in the CapEx budget.

As new middle-mile networks are being designed, network planners should consider where wireless networks are weak and new towers are needed for improvement. Strategically adding splice points in poor service areas can significantly lower the barrier to attracting new wireless infrastructure. A lower cost of deployment will be a big incentive to wireless networks to bring improved service to rural communities.

We all depend on wireless services

Mobile connectivity has moved beyond a luxury and has become an expectation. Even if we could practically and affordably connect every house with fiber, there are many reasons to include wireless in your overall design plans.

  • Public safety – If you have ever had a flat tire or an overheated radiator, you know how important wireless coverage can be. Just try calling a rescue service with no bars. FirstNet wants to improve coverage as well, and incentivising new towers can provide a big assist.
  • Precision agriculture – Fiber-to-the-home can connect the farm house, the barn, and even the chicken houses, but it won’t connect the tractor or the combine. Livestock now wear devices that monitor animal well-being. Wireless is the only way to keep the whole farm connected and competitive in a global marketplace.
  • Healthcare – Devices to monitor blood pressure, heart rate, glucose levels, and more are revolutionizing patient care. Many can now automatically notify a care facility when a patient is in distress. Mobile networks keep these devices connected if the patient’s residence lacks fixed broadband and when they are away from the home.
  • Economic development – Picking the best location for a new factory, business park, or neighborhood is about more than adequate roads and water resources. Good connectivity for both wireless and fixed telecom services has become a standard amenity for site selection.
  • 5G, part 1 – These new networks are quickly overlaying the 4G footprint. You don’t have to experience the lightning speeds of inner city millimeter wave service to see huge improvements in network performance. Wireless carriers are now introducing Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) to directly compete with traditional fixed providers. Competition means pressure in the market to keep services more affordable.
  • 5G, part 2 – Just over the horizon is the Rural 5G Fund, established by the FCC in October 2020. Over $9 billion dollars will be made available to improve 5G coverage. However, the Competitive Carriers Association, which represents many rural mobile service providers, estimates the need at well over $30 billion. Without some advance planning and dialogue with the wireless providers in your state, you may see very little of those investments.

WISPs have brought first-time service to millions 

According to WISPA (the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association), over 2,800 WISPs are now serving more than seven million customers in portions of all 50 states, bringing internet to many rural households that had previously relied on aging satellite services. Although some subscribers are seeing median speeds below the current 25/3 broadband definition, new technologies are improving user experiences as equipment is modernized. Of course, better access to fiber is also needed to increase capacity and link to internet backbones.

All radio signals degrade with distance. Some of the largest WISPs cover sparsely populated regions, often with rugged terrain, making physical household connections particularly expensive to build. Commonly, customers who experience slower than advertised speeds are living at the practical edge of these coverage areas. Providing fiber to just a handful of locations can attract new towers that could substantially expand network services. This would also save much of the cost compared to direct-to-home routes and reduce the time needed for these subscribers to see significant improvements.

The IIJA is written to be technology-neutral, but some broadband officials seem to be paying little attention to proven solutions that could have immediate impact. Even if the eventual goal is to offer direct-to-home fiber for everyone, we may go well beyond this decade without realizing that dream.

Aren’t satellites wireless, too?

Modern and improved satellite services are already fulfilling broadband needs for some households and businesses. Availability is limited to certain geographies but is expanding, and new competitors plan to enter the mix soon.

Throughput speeds and latency have improved dramatically, but waitlists are long, and initial equipment costs of more than $500 (that’s for do-it-yourself) and subscription fees of $100 or more per month will make this a difficult purchase decision for low-income households. There’s also limited capacity for any given geographic area, so even if there is satellite service available in your location, it may be that your neighbors have already maxed out the service and you will be waiting for additional capacity to be made available.

Without wireless, a broadband plan is just half-baked

We are many years away from realizing the full impact of the IIJA and the other recent funding sources that will deliver new fiber connections across the country. The FCC’s map is already delayed. There are early grumblings about uncertain challenge processes and many states are just now getting their planning efforts underway. The federal government has promised millions of Americans better broadband and they are expecting action soon, not in five to ten years.

Regulators and policymakers will ultimately be held accountable by voters and Congress for how the BEAD funds are spent. Two key metrics will matter most: the number of households gaining a new or improved connection and how quickly this progress is being made. Monitoring compliance will become more important as projects hit milestones and contractors get paid.

For some rural communities, wireless may be the best option right now and, perhaps, for the foreseeable future. Some households can already experience better service from their wireless provider than from DSL or satellite options. Reports are surfacing of DSL providers refusing to reconnect service to households where an interruption of service has occurred — whether for late payment or change of ownership — leaving families cut off from the digital economy.

Because satellite service is expensive and hard to acquire, wireless services are the only logical solution to get some rural households (particularly those in low-income brackets) connected before these communities wither past the point of no return. WISPs and mobile providers can fill some of this gap today and, if given the opportunity, will provide competitive options for families unhappy with their service. FWA from the traditional mobile operators is gaining public acceptance quickly in select markets and where signal levels are strong.

Think of anticipating wireless needs while planning fixed networks like an extension of a “dig once” policy. You don’t want to look back years from now and ask why wireless wasn’t considered in your planning process. Across the country, economic and community development departments spend millions of dollars every year to attract new citizens and businesses. Reliable mobile coverage is an amenity everyone – and every thing – wants.

Data from Ookla can highlight areas of need for both fixed and wireless networks. Leveraging coverage data to spotlight deficiencies can serve as an additional assessment in your middle-mile fiber planning, which can ultimately improve public safety, agricultural competitiveness, and overall quality of life.

Prepare for all the broadband needs ahead of you. It’s smart business. It’s smart government.

Bryan Darr is the Vice President of Smart Communities at Ookla. He coordinates Ookla’s outreach to local, state and federal governments and serves on CTIA’s Smart Cities Business & Technology Working Group. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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David Flower: 5G and Hyper-Personalization: Too Much of a Good Thing?

5G, IoT and edge computing are giving companies the opportunity to make hyper-personalization even more ‘hyper’.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is David Flower, CEO of Volt Active Data

It’s very easy for personalization to backfire and subtract value instead of add it.

Consider the troubling fact that we may be arriving at a moment in hyper-personalization’s journey where the most hyper-personalized offer is no offer at all. Nobody likes to be constantly bombarded by content, personalized or not.

And that’s the paradox of hyper-personalization: if everyone’s doing it, then, in a sense, nobody is.

5G and related technologies such as IoT and edge computing are giving companies the opportunity to make hyper-personalization even more “hyper” via broader bandwidths and the faster processing of higher volumes of data.

This means we’re at a very interesting inflection point: where do we stop? If the promise of 5G is more data, better data, and faster data, and the result is knowing our customers even better to bug them even more, albeit in a “personal” way, when, where, and why do we say, “hold on—maybe this is going too far.”?

How do you do hyper-personalization well in a world where everyone else is doing it and where customers are becoming increasingly jaded about it and worried about how companies are using their data?

Let’s first look at what’s going wrong.

Hyper-personalization and bad data

Hyper-personalization is very easy to mess up, and when you do mess it up it has the exact opposite of its intended effect: it drives customers away instead of keeping them there.

Consider an online ad for a product that pops up for you on a website a couple days after you already bought the thing being advertised for. This is what I call “noise”. It’s simply a nuisance, and the company placing that ad—or rather, the data platform they’re using to generate the algorithms for the ads—should already know that the person has already bought this item and hence present not a “repeat offer” but an upsell or cross-sell offer.

This sounds rudimentary in the year 2022 but it’s still all too common, and you’re probably nodding your head right now because you’ve experienced this issue.

Noise usually comes from what’s known as bad data, or dirty data. Whatever you want to call it—it pretty much ruins the customer experience.

Hyper-personalization and slow data

The second major issue is slow data, which is any data being used way too slowly to be valuable, which usually includes data that has to the trip to the data warehouse before it can be incorporated into any decisions.

Slow data is one of the main reasons edge computing was invented: to be able to process data as closely to where it’s ingested as possible in order to use it before it loses any value.

Slow data produces not-so-fun customer experiences such as walking half a mile to your departure gate at the airport, only to find that the gate has been changed, and then, after you’ve walked the half mile back to where you came from, getting a text message on your phone from the airline saying your gate has been changed.

Again, whatever you want to call it—latency, slow data, annoying—the end result is a bad customer experience.

How to fix the hyper-personalization paradox

I have no doubt that the people who invented hyper-personalization had great intentions: make things as personal as possible so that your customers pay attention, stay happy, and stay loyal.

And for a lot of companies, for a long time, it worked. Then came the data deluge. And the regulations. And the jaded customers. We’re now at a stage where we need to rethink how we do personalization because the old ways are no longer effective.

It’s easy—and correct—to blame legacy technology for all of this. But the solution goes deeper than just ripping and replacing. Companies need to think holistically about all sides of their tech stacks to figure out the simplest way to get as much data as possible from A to B.

The faster you can process your data the better. But it’s not all just about speed. You also need to be able to provide quick contextual intelligence to your data so that every packet is informed by all of the packets that came before it. In this sense, your tech stack should be a little like a great storyteller: someone who knows what the customer needs and is feeling at any given moment, because it knows what’s happened up to this point and how it will affect customer decisions moving forward.

Let’s start thinking of our customer experiences as stories and our tech stacks as the storytellers—or maybe, story generators. Maybe then our personalization efforts will become truly ‘hyper-personal’— i.e., relevant, in-the-moment experiences that are a source of delight instead of annoyance.

David Flower brings more than 28 years of experience within the IT industry to the role of CEO of Volt Active Data. Flower has a track record of building significant shareholder value across multiple software sectors on a global scale through the development and execution of focused strategic plans, organizational development and product leadership. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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