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Broadband Communities Summit Reprises Age-Old Question About Fiber Versus Wireless Networks

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Screenshot of participants in Broadband Communities Virtual Summit

September 29, 2020 — A panel of experts with experience deploying both fiber and wireless networks weighed the pros and cons of each technology during a virtual conversation on Thursday streamed as part of the Broadband Communities 2020 Virtual Summit.

The panelists recognized that there are benefits and shortcomings to each technology. Both fiber and wireless networks will be required to close the digital divide, they said.

“Using the right tool for the job” was a common refrain during the discussion.

“Fiber needs wireless and wireless needs fiber,” said Nathan Stooke, CEO of the Wisper wireless internet service provider in Illinois. He said it may not be beneficial to spend a great deal of time on the age-old question of “fiber or wireless,” although the panel still engaged in a lively discussion on the topic.

Mike McGannon, vice president at Engineering Associates, laid out the case for fiber to the home deployments. He said “fiber requires high capital expenditure and is slow to deploy, but has a low operational expense and holds its value over time. The payback on a fiber network is easily realized in five to ten years.”

McGannon noted that fiber networks are “more likely to offer symmetrical speeds and provide higher latency, which is required by smart cities and internet of things technology.”

“Fiber is more resilient when faced with environmental disruptions than wireless networks,” he said, adding that fiber networks are “estimated to have a 30 to 50-year lifespan, which no other technology can compete with.”

In defense of wireless networks, Brett Glass, founder of Lariat.net, retorted that “wireless has a low capex and is super-fast to deploy.” Yet he also noted the downsides to maintaining wireless networks, saying “they have higher operational expenses and offer speeds nowhere near what fiber is capable of offering.”

But Glass maintained that in some places, and during some points in time, wireless remains the better option.

He detailed a build conducted in a town where only five people lived per square mile in North Dakota, saying it was the financially the smartest option.

Glass further urged that wireless networks have been crucial during the coronavirus pandemic as many have rushed to expand their networks to serve the unserved, as quickly as possible.

While wireless networks allow for broadband to reach consumers sooner, “the rising demand for fiber” and symmetrical upload and download speeds cannot be ignored, said Carroll Faulkner, president and CEO of Digital Fields. Faulkner upheld that “the competitive landscape is trending towards fiber.”

Contributing Reporter Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide and has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband.

Expert Opinion

Bjorn Capens: Strong Appetite for Rural Broadband Calls for Next Generation Fiber Technology

The first operator to bring fiber to a community creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Björn Capens, Nokia Fixed Networks European Vice President

In July, the Biden-Harris administration announced another $401 million in funding for high-speed Internet access in rural America. This was just the latest in a string of government initiatives aimed at helping close the US digital divide.

These initiatives have been essential for encouraging traditional broadband providers, communities and utility companies to deploy fiber to rural communities, with governments cognizant of the vital role broadband connectivity has in sustaining communities and improving socio-economic opportunities for citizens. 

Yet there is still work to do, even in countries with the most advanced connectivity options. For example, fixed broadband is missing from almost 30 percent of rural American homes, according to Pew Research. It’s similar in Europe where a recent European Commission’s Digital Divide report found that roughly 18 percent of rural citizens can only get broadband speeds of a maximum 30 Mb, a speed which struggles to cope with modern digital behaviors. 

Appetite for high-speed broadband in rural areas is strong

There’s no denying the appetite for high-speed broadband in rural areas. The permanent increase in working from home and the rise of modern agricultural and Industry 4.0 applications mean that there’s an increasingly attractive business case for rural fiber deployments – as the first operator to bring fiber to a community creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors. 

The first consideration, then, for a new rural fiber deployment is which passive optical network technology to use. Gigabit PON seems like an obvious first choice, being a mature and widely deployed technology. 

However, GPON services are a standard offering for nearly every fiber broadband operator. As PON is a shared medium with usually up to 30 users each taking a slice, it’s easy to see how a few Gigabit customers can quickly max out the network, and with the ever-increasing need for speed, it’s widely held that GPON will not be sufficient by about 2025. 

XGS-PON is an already mature technology

The alternative is to use XGS-PON, a more recent, but already mature, flavor of PON with a capacity of 10 Gigabits per second. With the greater capacity, broadband operators can generate higher revenues with more premium-tier residential services as well as lucrative business services. There’s even room for additional services to run alongside business and residential broadband. For example, the same network can carry traffic from four G and five G cells, known as mobile backhaul. That’s either a new revenue opportunity or a cost saving if the operator also runs a mobile network. 

This convergence of different services onto a single PON fiber network is starting to take off, with fiber-to-the-home networks evolving into fiber for everything, where homes, businesses, industries, smart cities, mobile cells and more are all running on the same infrastructure. This makes the business case even stronger. 

Whether choosing GPON or XGS-PON, the biggest cost contributor is the same for both: deploying fiber outside the plant. Therefore, the increased cost of XGS-PON over GPON is far outweighed by the capacity increase it brings, making XGS-PON the clear choice for a brand-new fiber deployment. XGS-PON protects this investment for longer as its higher capacity makes it harder for new entrants to offer a superior service. 

It also doesn’t need to be upgraded for many years, and when it comes to the business case for fiber, it pays to take a long-term view. Fiber optic cable has a shelf-life of 75 or more years, and even as one increases the speeds running on fiber, that cable can remain the same.  

Notwithstanding these arguments, fiber still comes at a cost, and operators need to carefully manage those costs in order to maximize returns. 

Recent advances in fiber technology allow operators to take a pragmatic approach to their rollouts. In the past, each port on a PON server blade could only deliver one technology. But Multi-PON has multiple modes: only GPON, only XGS-PON or both together. It even has a forward-looking 25G PON mode. 

This allows an operator to easily boost speeds as needed with minimal effort and additional investment. GPON could be the starting point for fiber-to-the-home services, XGS-PON could be added for business services, or even a move to 25G PON for a cluster of rural power users, like factories and modern warehouses – creating a seamless, future-proof upgrade path for operators. 

The decision not to invest in fiber presents a substantial business risk

Alternatively, there’s always the option for a broadband operator to stick with basic broadband in rural areas and not invest in fiber. But that actually presents a business risk, as any competitor that decides to deploy fiber will inevitably carve out a chunk of the customer base for themselves. 

Besides, most operators are not purely profit-driven; they too recognize that prolonging the current situation in underserved communities is not great. High-speed broadband makes areas more attractive for businesses, creating more jobs and stemming population flows from rural to urban centers. 

But rural broadband not only improves lives, but it also decreases the world’s carbon emissions both directly, compared to alternative broadband technologies, and indirectly by enabling online and remote activities that would otherwise involve transportation. These social and economic benefits of fiber are highly regarded by investors and stockholders who have corporate social responsibility high on their agendas. 

With the uber-connected urban world able to adopt every new wave of bandwidth-hungry application – think virtual reality headsets and the metaverse – rural communities are actually going backwards in comparison. The way forward is fiber and XGS-PON. 

Björn Capens is Nokia Fixed Networks European Vice President. Since 2017, Capens has been leading Nokia’s fixed networks business, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fixed broadband access industry and holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, Telecommunications, from KU Leuven. 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 reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband Mapping & Data

FCC Maps Have ‘Misleading’ Satellite Claims, Need Clarity on Challenge Process: Advocacy Group

The commission published the initial draft of its map Friday, unleashing a storm of controversy in the industry circles.

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Photo of Jenna Leventoff from Internet Law & Policy Foundry

WASHINGTON, November 23, 2022 – Advocacy group Public Knowledge alleged in a letter on Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission’s newly released map includes “misleading” coverage claims of satellite broadband providers and asked the commission to demystify the national broadband map’s bulk challenge process.

The commission published the initial draft of its map Friday, unleashing a storm of controversy in industry circles. While many agree that the map’s granular, location-level model is superior to the previous Form 477–based, census-block model, some worry that much the new map’s data is deeply inaccurate.

“State broadband offices, local communities, and community based organizations have noted a number of inaccuracies in the new broadband maps,” Public Knowledge wrote in its filing, authored by Jenna Leventoff of the advocacy group, and submitted on behalf of her, Harold Feld, and Greg Guice of Public Knowledge.

The group argued the map overestimates the capabilities of satellite broadband. “Satellite broadband, in theory, is capable of serving most locations in the country,” the filing reads. “However, in practice, satellite providers cannot serve the whole country at broadband speeds.”

The NTIA, in its notice of funding opportunity for the BEAD program, classified locations served exclusively by satellites as unserved. In August, the FCC rescinded Starlink’s $885 million grant from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, alleging unreliability. Besides private advocates such as think tank TechFreedom, FCC commissioners Nathan Simington and Brendan Carr have criticized the agency’s RDOF flip-flop. Starlink appealed in September.

Problems with the challenge process

Public Knowledge also took issue with the process by which the public can challenge the maps’ accuracy. “Although eager to challenge those inaccuracies,” it wrote, “Many expressed confusion over the bulk challenge process, with one even noting that they did not think it was possible.” The advocacy group also asked the commission to clarify the treatment of submitted speed test data.

The FCC scheduled a webinar on the bulk-challenge process for fixed-availability data for November 30, at 4 p.m. ET.

Regardless of accuracy, the FCC’s data will shape the National Telecommunications and Information Administration’s state-by-state allocations from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, which are scheduled to be announced in June 2023. To ensure challenges are factored into the NTIA’s decision making, the agency has encouraged potential challengers to submit data before January 13, 2023 – less than two months after the map was made available.

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Wireless

GOP Senators Want NTIA to Revisit View That Unlicensed Spectrum Networks Are Not ‘Reliable’

The coalition sent a letter to NTIA head Alan Davidson urging the agency to reconsider the policies outlined in the BEAD NOFO.

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Photo of Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mon., in July 2015, by Joel Kowsky used with permission

WASHINGTON, November 22, 2022 – Led by Montana’s Steve Daines, a coalition of Republican senators on Tuesday urged the head of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration to remove regulatory barriers facing networks that rely entirely on unlicensed spectrum.

In the notice of funding opportunity for the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment program, the NTIA stated that any fully unlicensed networks will not be considered a “reliable broadband network,” and therefore all locations served exclusively by such networks will be classified as unserved.

The coalition, which included Ted Cruz, R-Tex., John Cornyn, R-Texas, and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., sent a letter to NTIA head Alan Davidson urging the agency to reconsider, arguing the NTIA’s BEAD notice was at odds with congressional intent and precedent set by the Federal Communications Commission.

“Broadband is not a one-size-fits all service. Different states, regions, communities and differing terrain will require different solutions. Removing options off the table will result in communities being left behind,” the senators wrote. “Solutions that work in urban areas may not work in rural America where farms and homes can be miles apart. Likewise, what works in flat terrain, may not work well in mountainous areas. It is important that NTIA allow all broadband providers and technology to compete in order to ensure that we finally close the digital divide.”

The senators also expressed concern that the NTIA’s current policy would lead to waste of taxpayer dollars if areas served by otherwise satisfactory unlicensed-only networks are allotted funding for another type of build, such as a fiber deployment.

“This is a great development for [wireless internet service providers], who serve their communities mainly with unlicensed spectrum,” Mike Wendy, director of communications for the wireless-provider trade organization WISPA, said Tuesday. “Instead of fiber-only builds, it would help limited taxpayer resources go further to bring all Americans online.”

Not all industry players are sanguine about the potential of unlicensed spectrum. Gary Bolton, president and CEO of the Fiber Broadband Association and a fervent supporter of fiber-optic broadband, opposed the senators’ stance.

“Senators that are pressing NTIA to include technologies that have been defined as ‘unreliable’ are doing their constituents a huge disservice,” Bolton told Broadband Breakfast Tuesday.

“We have a once in a generation opportunity to get this right,” he added. “Let’s keep broadband about people and ensure that no one is left behind because of their zip code.”

Bolton argued that the NTIA’s BEAD-related policies should facilitate the deployment of long-lasting broadband infrastructure. Bolton also touted fiber as essential to smart grid modernization, public safety, and emerging technologies such as 5G.

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