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Panelists Take Issue with Government Preference for Fiber

‘Advertising around gig speeds is doing tremendous damage to our public policy.’

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Screenshot of the panel at the TPI Aspen conference on Tuesday

ASPEN, Colorado, August 16, 2022 – The federal government’s preference for fiber technologies to bridge the digital divide was a point of contention on a conference panel on Tuesday, as panelists urged the public sector to give nascent and wireless technologies an opportunity to develop and show their potential.

The Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration has $42.5 billion to deliver to the states for broadband infrastructure from federal infrastructure legislation, and its progenitors have clearly stated that they prefer hard fiber technology. Last week, the Federal Communications Commission denied nearly $900 million in subsidies to SpaceX’s Starlink satellite broadband project partly because it is still a developing technology.

But on a TPI Aspen conference panel made up of representatives from private industry, trade associations, and academia, the message was to give these technologies a chance.

“Let’s let these nascent technologies develop,” said Lisa Scalpone, head of country development for Amazon’s Project Kuiper, its low-earth orbit constellation institution that is preparing to launch thousands of broadband satellites in the sky.

“There may be things about wireless technology that are actually better in some ways than wireline technology — it may not be speed or capacity…it could be portability…that’s what a low-cost, LEO antenna terminal can do,” she said.

Similarly, Christopher Yoo, a professor of law in communications and computer information science at the University of Pennsylvania, said the nation should be “openly experimental in what we’re doing, because in the 1970s we didn’t see the technology future…the question is can we create an environment where we allow brilliant experiments to take place and we find out what actually works.”

Yoo added that he thinks the “advertising around gig speeds is doing tremendous damage to our public policy.

“It’s become, you have to match it because it’s been advertised that way…and that’s part of the drive towards fiber. In a world where teleconferencing…requires eight to 12 meg per (second), maybe you get 50 in a multi-screen households, but the idea you need a gig is what’s killing the case for fixed-wireless and satellite.”

Those comments are in stark contrast to the push for gigabit speeds by the fiber industry and the private sector. Earlier this summer, AT&T’s vice president of broadband network product management said the company has seen a tremendous growth in gigabit speed demand. Meanwhile, as Congress was debating infrastructure legislation that would eventually spawn the NTIA’s $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program, the Fiber Broadband Association pushed the focused on gigabit speeds as it lobbied for a fiber preference over other technologies.

“The policymakers think they know best — one technology is better than all the rest, and I think that’s given away in the slogan: future-proof…we know the future, we the government know what technologies are going to work forever,” Jonathan Adelstein, managing director and head of global policy and public investment at DigitalBridge Investment Management, who in his previous role as head of the Wireless Infrastructure Association was outspoken about the need to support a diversity of technologies to bridge the digital divide.

Adelstein – who’s company invests in major fiber infrastructure provider Zayo and has seen providers grappling with supply chain problems and the build delays that arise from that – said he’s concerned about the focus on one technology when there are bottlenecks in materials and equipment for projects.

WISP

Wireless Internet Service Providers to Connect More Fiber Points as Bandwidth Consumption Increases

‘The only way to get that density is to get fiber out there. That allows you to get more subs with your wireless.’

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Photo of Jay Anderson, chief technology officer of FiberLight

LAS VEGAS, October 6, 2022 – By employing more fiber points, wireless internet service providers can improve network performance and innovation, industry players at the WISPAPALOOZA conference told Broadband Breakfast.

Jay Anderson, chief technology officer of FiberLight, which has built fiber networks in several states, including Texas, Florida, and Virginia, told this publication as wireless internet service providers get more subscribers online, the existing connections to the fiber backbone can get congested without more densification of fiber points.

“The only way to get that density is to get fiber out there, and that allows you to get more subs with your wireless,” Anderson said.

Anderson said he expects WISPs to adopt a “hybrid architecture” moving forward. FiberLight’s Texan WISP partners have grown “leaps and bounds,” he said. “They’re using our infrastructure…to get that capacity out there…our job is to get as much of it out there, [at as high a] bandwidth as possible,” he added.

Mike Rowell, senior vice president of operations for Hilliary Communications, related some of his own professional experience with fiber to Broadband Breakfast. Hilliary provides internet, telephone, and television service across Texas and Oklahoma.

“We can see fiber helping us out tremendously in some areas getting us to a wireless access point,” Rowell said, explaining that a single fiber deployment can replace a less-reliable, multi-device connection to a hard-to-serve area. He said this strategy enabled his company to offer higher internet speeds and reach new customers. 

Rowell has worked in telecommunications for four decades. He said he has seen once-prohibitive costs for fiber-installation machinery plummet, which makes fiber a far more viable option than it previously was.

“Fiber – from just…two years ago – was totally different than today,” he said. “You can [now] have fiber splicers that can do a really, really nice job for under $3,000.”

Rowell also emphasized the importance of foresight and innovative business planning. “We never thought we’d be selling one-gig, and here we are selling it,” he said. “It’s going to be the same thing: We don’t think we’re going to be selling 10-gig, but we’re going to.”

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Broadband Mapping & Data

Garland McCoy: How Your State Can Defend Its Broadband Maps for Maximum Funds

Crowdsourced and bulk data are subject to a challenge process that has successfully eliminated crowdsourced data in the past.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Garland McCoy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of PAgCASA

On September 15, 2022, the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Data Task Force issued a public notice on “Specifications for Bulk Fixed Availability Challenge and Crowdsource Data.”

The notice provided guidance for filing bulk challenges, and bulk crowdsource data, to fixed broadband availability data that will be published later this year by the FCC as part of its new Broadband Data Collection. According to the notice, “individuals and entities, including consumers, state, local, and Tribal governmental entities, and service providers,” can submit challenges to the BDC fixed broadband availability data for single locations, as well as “bulk” challenges with respect to multiple locations.

Historically, Internet Service Providers have effectively used the FCC’s challenge process to disqualify the vast majority of disputes brought forward by states, counties, and other complainants regarding FCC’s broadband maps. And frankly, this will be the case again unless states take a new tack to validate their own data in such a way that will stand up to ISP challenges. Given the enormity of the federal broadband funds available to states this time around, the stakes could not be higher; that is, a single state could forgo hundreds of millions of dollars of federal broadband funds due to insufficient preparation to challenge-proof its data.

Here are two observations to start:  1) The ISPs are correct in challenging the data if the data is corrupted or incapable of being validated, and therefore should be disqualified. 2) the FCC and the ISPs must now be seen as embracing the new “crowdsourcing” challenge process since the Broadband Data Act of 2020 was very specific in requiring that the FCC’s new data gathering methodology include third-party crowdsourced data. That said, third-party “crowdsourced” and “bulk” data are subject to the same challenge process that has successfully eliminated individual and crowdsourced data in the past.

Three ways ISPs successfully challenge and disqualify third-party data

Alone, or in combination, the following three scenarios have succeeded year after year in ensuring that third-party data, crowdsourced or otherwise, has not made it past the challenge process and onto the FCC’s approved maps.

  • Was the speed test launched from a device wirelessly? Modern modems set up a Wireless Area Network around the premises over the one or two Wi-Fi channels allocated. Almost all devices are now connected wirelessly to the modem. A wireless launch of a speed test, e.g., from your laptop or smart phone, therefore affects/corrupts the network speed test and disqualifies the data.
  • Was the on-premises modem “still” when the speed test was taken? By “still” the ISP is referring to the modem’s management of data coming from any device remotely or over cable, ethernet connection, during the time of the test. For example, if a family member is working on their laptop, e.g., doing homework, the modem’s management of the data from the laptop will affect a speed test taken during that time. This will disqualify the speed test data.
  • Was the crowdsourced and or bulk data drawn exclusively from the ISP’s premium service customers? The FCC stipulates that the speed testing data must be drawn from an ISP’s customers who have purchased the service provider’s best available service package. A customer might not need or be able to afford FCC’s “broadband” minimum service of 25/3 mbps, and thus would purchase a less expensive, slower service package offered by the ISP. For purposes of accurate speed testing, the ISP should not be penalized for offering true broadband-speed service that is passed over by a customer seeking a cheaper service.

PAgCASA, the Precision Ag Connectivity & Accuracy Stakeholder Alliance, is a non-profit organization whose sole purpose is to ensure broadband map accuracy, connectivity, and rural prosperity, stands ready to help states get their full share of federal broadband funds and successfully defend against challenges.

PAgCASA’s on-premises, cybersecure, network monitoring methodology – which deploys the same network monitoring devices the major ISPs use, on wired/ethernet-connected customer modems, from a volunteer pool of an ISP’s premium service customers selected using standardized random sampling methods – will, in fact, address all the challenge issues above and generate data ready for potential litigation.

As noted in another recent article on Broadband Breakfast, states like Georgia and North Carolina are finding significantly fewer served locations based on their latest state broadband data compared to FCC’s most recent Form 477 data. We expect to see similar differences across the country as states and the FCC bring forward their latest respective data.

Consider this: a ten percent delta between the FCC and state maps translates into a staggering $4 billion based on an overall federal broadband infrastructure spend of $40 billion – needed funds that will not make their way to genuinely unserved or underserved communities across the country.

Our nation can and must do better.

Garland T. McCoy, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Precision Ag Connectivity and Accuracy Stakeholder Alliance, is a long-time non-profit veteran in the fields of technology and telecommunication policy having served as Founder and CEO of the Technology Education Institute & Technology Policy Institute.  Garland was recently an adjunct professor at Syracuse University’s iSchool, teaching information policy and decision making. He can be reached at garland.mccoy@pagcasa.org 

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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Expert Opinion

Paul Atkinson: Why Fiber Trumps Satellite When Bridging the Digital Divide

On the surface, satellite seems like the ideal way to close the rural-urban digital divide.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Paul Atkinson, CEO of Optical Networks of STL

The Grand Canyon in Arizona is 18 miles across at its widest point. The only thing wider is the digital divide between the state’s rural and urban areas. Roughly 99% of urban Arizonans have access to fixed terrestrial broadband services that deliver at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) down and 3 Mbps up, according to the FCC’s 2021 Broadband Deployment Report . Only 66% of its rural residents do.

Arizona isn’t an anomaly, either. Nearly 99% of all urban Americans have access to broadband versus 82.7% of rural residents.

This problem also is a business opportunity, which is why so many vendors and service providers are positioning their technology of choice as the best way to bridge the digital divide. The main contenders are satellite, fiber, Wi-Fi and fixed wireless access that uses 5G cellular. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

For example, 5G FWA requires building hundreds of thousands of base stations in remote areas that might be home to only a handful of homes and businesses — a buildout that likely would take years and tens of billions of dollars. That’s a difficult investment to recoup and make profitable.

That’s simply not a viable business model, as a US Cellular white paper acknowledged: “ Our economics require approximately 500 subscribers to build a new tower, and we can’t assume that everyone will adopt the service. The cost of building and maintaining a tower in rural America can be nearly twice as expensive as building a tower in an urban area.”

Satellite and fiber have emerged as the top two contenders. On the surface, satellite seems like the ideal way to close the rural-urban digital divide because it doesn’t require hundreds of thousands of base stations. But satellite has its share of technological and business limitations, too — to the point that in August, the FCC rejected SpaceX’s application for Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) subsidies.

FCC Chairwoman Rosenworcel questioned whether it was affordable to ‘subsidize ventures that are not delivering the promised speeds or are not likely to meet program requirements, especially when consumer would have to purchase a $600 dish.

Rural America’s high-fiber diet

The FCC’s rejection of SpaceX/Starlink is not a setback in bridging the rural-urban digital divide. It’s actually a milestone toward parity because it ensures that an unproven technology doesn’t divert scarce public subsidies from a proven one.

As Gary Bolton, Fiber Broadband Association president and CEO rightly stated, this is a huge victory for 640,000 families who were relegated to Low Earth Orbit Satellite service. They could have been redlined from being eligible for fiber broadband. There is now clarity and a path forward for fiber to bridge the digital divide.

Fiber has already proven its worth in rural America, where it has 23% of the broadband market and the highest customer satisfaction of all internet-access technologies, according to a 2021 Pivot Group study . By comparison, fixed wireless and satellite have only 10% and 6% penetration, respectively. Cable has the largest share of the rural market, but many customers find it lacking: One third say they want faster speeds.

In fact, broadband speed is a decisive factor when people are deciding where to relocate. According to the 2022 RVA Market Research & Consulting study “A Detailed Review: The Status of U.S. Broadband and The Impact of Fiber Broadband,” 47% of the people who moved to a rural area in the past year chose one where fiber-to-the-home service is available. That preference highlights how rural communities can use fiber to attract retirees, young professionals, families, entrepreneurs and other demographics looking to escape to the beautiful countryside.

Fiber’s 23% share of the rural broadband market also busts the myth that as a wired technology, it takes too much time and money to deploy in sparsely populated areas, including those with challenging terrain such as mountains. Another wired technology — electricity — overcame those challenges 86 years ago with passage of the Rural Electrification Act , which funded utility cooperatives that built out transmission and distribution networks to serve farms, ranches, small towns and other rural places.

Today, more than 250 of those co-ops have built or are planning broadband networks, according to the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association . Many have been in service for the better part of a decade — or longer. For example, in 2006, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC launched FTTH in Georgia. In 2019, it deployed a 7,000-foot line up a mountain, using drones to overcome challenges such as deep gorge and 100-foot-tall pine trees. In 2016, Elevate Fiber, a division of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, launched gigabit FTTH in two Colorado counties by overlaying fiber on its 4,000 miles of distribution lines.

Co-ops are just one example of how fiber isn’t just poised to bridge the rural-urban digital divide. It already is. That’s great news for rural Americans, who don’t have to wait on unproven, pie-in-the-sky technologies such as satellite.

Paul Atkinson is Chief Executive Officer of Optical Networks for STL. This Expert Opinion 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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