WiFi a Serious Technology in the Broadband Mix?

Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the tail threatening to wag the dog for many communities’ broadband planning teams. At the California Emerging Technology Fund’s Rural Connections workshop last week, a number of people representing communities expressed concern they can’t move broadband forward until they can find money.

Make no mistake; you can’t build a network without a passel of dead presidents to fund it. But you can mitigate the money hurdles you face, particularly if you don’t put extra ones in your way.

During the broadband stimulus mania I noted people polarizing around either wireless or wired technology as the “one true broadband.” Reviewing Round 1 stimulus grant winners, NTIA/RUS apparently were heavily wired in their thinking. Then Google jumped into the pond with its gigabit fiber splash, and that definitely increased the “wired way or no way” disciples.

This, I have a problem with. Not the goal of gigabit speed, but the thinking that “real” broadband is fiber and anything else is a failure.

If you believe fiber is the only way to go, you’ve given your community a big money hurdle right off the bat, whether the private sector or the community owns the network. True, fiber is ideal in many respects, and the best way to get to 100 Mbps or more. However, setting this course can deter private providers or box cash-strapped communities into an all or nothing position.

A pure FTTH (fiber to the home/business premise) network comes with a much higher price tag than other network options. Your budgeting, fundraising, partnership choices, your go-no-go decisions are skewed by this price tag. You start off limiting options, and may even bail on the project if your remaining options fall through.

Broaden your view of broadband

Go ahead and keep your goal of 1 gigabit fiber, but re-calibrate your definition of broadband. Furthermore, re-construct your path for getting to broadband. How does this unfold for your project team?

  1. Define broadband as the technology required to provide Internet access at the speed and with the quality of service that meets the short-term and long-term business, educational, etc. needs defined by your respective constituent groups. That means wired, wireless, WiMAX, WiFi, cable, fiber. Anything but dial up is in the mix.
  2. Divide broadband need into 1) the here and now, and 2) what constituents need three or five years from now.
  3. Create Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is what you do if you get all the money you need to build the network of your constituents’ dreams. Plan B is what you do to deliver broadband on an evolving basis depending on the needs of your various constituent groups, obtainable funds, ROI scenarios and so forth.
  4. Ask you higher power to grant you the gift of an open mind during the needs assessment, planning and implementation processes so you and those around you recognize opportunities that otherwise would elude those burdened with closed minds.

Here’s a radical idea (for some)

WiFi could be a great stepping stone to gigabit broadband. No, seriously.

After a small town in Florida and my service partner RidgeviewTel hit me with the same idea within 24 hours, I figured it was time to document it. I’ve actually written several times about taking a roundabout path to resolving broadband financing issues, though not with WiFi as a lead-off technology.

If you can find a way to finance, underwrite or otherwise fund a full-on wired network to deliver 1 gigabit, or even 100 Mbps speed, go for it. For those in smaller, less wealthy or otherwise constrained communities, or you have constituents with limited broadband needs for the foreseeable future, here’s a possible Plan B.

Build a fiber line to one or more points that touch on the outskirts of your community. Build a wireless network to cover your actual city or section of the city. Consider WiFi as your wireless option of first choice, though do consider WiMAX and point-to-multipoint. Initially and over time, have businesses and other organizations underwrite the cost of building spurs from the fiber network to their premises.

I can see some knees jerking, but hear me out.

First, this approach won’t work for everyone. But keep an open mind at least long enough to test it out, or visit places that are using WiFi successfully to learn firsthand what’s possible.

Second, realize that WiFi technical capabilities today are beyond what they were in 2005 (and please, don’t confuse business models – no one’s talking about giving service away for free). I’m hearing about 802.11n and new super-duper customer premise equipment (signal boosters) that make it possible to get 7 – 9 Mbps in the home. Verify it, because if it’s true, a lot of your residential users and even small business would probably be quite happy with 7 Mbps for a year or two.

This particular Plan B, if it meets enough constituent groups’ needs to make the network financially viable, puts you in a better position to afford the initial buildout, and charge a reasonable rate to encourage adoption. By bringing fiber to the edge of your community and then asking businesses and institutions to pay to bring a fiber spur to their door, you shift this part of the buildout expense to those who need and can afford the extra speed.

As more organizations subscribe, and new businesses that need broadband move to the area, these fiber “spurs increase over a year or two. By that time residential users can consider migrating from wireless to wired service, or keeping the wireless service for citywide mobile broadband use. The cost of running lines to homes is likely to be more affordable than a total FTTH buildout at the start.

The devil’s in the details, of course, but I believe this approach deserves consideration and obviously will require modifications to meet specific communities’ needs. But the important thing is, as you ponder clearing the financial hurdles, try lowering a couple first.

Tonight (5/20) at 7:00 CST I’m on Longmont (CO) Town Radio discussing this and other aspects of wireless in the broadband mix. It’s online, so don’t miss it!

5 Responses

  1. I consider fixed and mobile terrestrial wireless as interim solutions until FTTP can be fully built out to serve all premises. That’s also the role DSL plays. Both DSL and terrestrial wireless have their technological limitations and are challenged by distance and terrain. WISPs can find obtaining backhaul with sufficient capacity at a price that fits within their business models difficult. Satellite Internet is a national disgrace and a
    technology one should only find in very remote portions of
    the globe.

    Terrestrial wireless throughput is advancing. But at the
    present time, it doesn’t appear it will have the capacity or
    omnipresence necessary to serve as the “fat pipe” to serve
    homes and businesses, particularly as IP applications and
    the bandwidth they demand grows exponentially.

    Fred Pilot

  2. I disagree, I think satellite internet is a life saver to many citizens in rural areas. Not only this, but I know for sure WildBlue is updating their satellite equipment mid next year to support download capacities up to 8mbps. This is more than twice the bandwidth I am getting with DSL. Satellite Internet just needs to be improved not eliminated. More on this subject on my blog at mybluedish.com/blog.

  3. Satellite Internet access is useful to the extent that it serves as a floor on competition, i.e. “worse than satellite” would be a death knell for any terrestrial broadband company. Satellite RF frequency monopolies do sometimes interfere with terrestrial applications, so those should be eliminated. Speed of light and earth orbit distances create inherent latency limits on satellite connections, so it will never match terrestrial solutions completely.

    I’ve been reading a lot of promising things about wireless technology lately. Anyone interested in WiFi ISP deployments should take a look at these and related resources:

    30Mbps connection over 65 miles using PtP 802.11n WiFi. Lower distances can connect at up to 300Mbps:

    3650 MHz FCC “light licensing” enables lower cost backhaul, PtMP, and WiMAX deployment:

    Municipal deployments should also look into using Public Safety FCC allocated frequencies.

    4×4 MIMO 802.11n with “beamforming” technology enables up to 600Mbps connections, even around obstacles.

    One techie thing a lot of people don’t realize is that the Internet isn’t like the old telephone connection model, where you’re just connecting one end to another. Once your data packets are out on the web of interconnections, they can take whatever path is best at the time. Just because current ISPs use the “one customer, one connection” or hub-spoke model doesn’t mean that’s the way forward. Simple Multi-WAN firewalls/routers are already available on store shelves, enabling hybrid connection solutions today. Near-future technologies, like mesh and fixed geographic stateless routing, will make multi-connection access even better in the near future. Give them WiFi today, and the future fiber will just add to the bandwidth, so keep both!

  4. Without a doubt, wireless and WIFI need to be in the assessment package of communities trying to bring BB to their residents and businesses. With the right design and network management the system can be successful. Communities do not need to be network specialists. They need to talk to both the equipment suppliers and then spearately with folks who know how to design and manage the network.

  5. We call this interim solution FiWi – as in Fibre—>wireless. For many of our cash strapped and rural communities, getting fibre from the incumbent is like pulling teeth, and for FTTH/FTTP at present, outside the realms of fiscal reality. However, getting fibre as close to the community and then using wireless is a great stepping stone until the UK govt and telcos get the idea that many consumers are chomping at the bit for decent bandwidths.

    Where the problem is access to backhaul ie internet connectivity, you can do worse than satellite (it’s called dial up and in many rural areas of the UK, ADSL is far worse than a two way satellite connection!).

    We have rural communities hooked up to satellite where there is no other option. We have rural communities using leased lines and bonded ADSL to feed a wireless network, and we now have communities digging in their own fibre.

    Two books on communities JFDI for themselves on http://www.lulu.com/lannison and look up JFDI on Youtube for some cracking video of UK communities turning the turf on the telcos. Also up to date news and vids on http://www.fibrestream.co.uk/blog

    As Geoff at AppRising says and demonstrates with such great events as Fiberfete.com, we can all encourage each other to find the solutions to next generation access, wherever we are. Let’s all keep talking and sharing as well as JFDI!!

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