Good Enough Broadband
Several local politicians ask me why they should pursue getting grant funding for their county since Starlink satellite and fixed-wireless access (FWA) cellular broadband seem like good broadband alternatives that are already here today. I hate to tell them that these technologies are not a good permanent solution. At the same time, I stress that they should be promoting these technologies to make sure that folks know there are some better alternatives available today than other extremely slow broadband options.
Picking a Good Steward
The hardest question I get asked by counties and cities is how to know if they can trust an ISP to fulfill its promises. I suggest a series of questions that makes them dig deeper into the real nature of a given ISP and why they want the local funding.
Is the Broadband Market Mature?
Is the broadband industry reaching maturity? There was still significant growth in broadband over the last few years. In 2019, national broadband subscribers grew by 2.6%. That leaped to 4.5% in the 2020 pandemic year. In 2021, broadband growth slowed to 2.8% but rebounded to 3.3% in 2022. The 2022 growth rate is likely inflated by rural broadband growth, as practically all the overall industry growth for the year came from cellular fixed wireless access (FWA) broadband provided by T-Mobile and Verizon. What would a mature broadband market look like?
The Most Challenging Fiber Permits
The Virginia House of Delegates recently took up the issue of regulating the fees and the time it takes to get a permit to cross railroad tracks with fiber or other wire infrastructure. We rarely hear about the problems encountered when trying to cross railroad tracks, bridges, interstate highway underpasses, or parklands. Each of these situations can add both time and cost to a fiber construction project. There are lot more miles of railroads than a lot of people assume. In a rural area, the first challenge is often finding out who owns a given set of tracks.
My Fiber Bias
In my mind, infrastructure is an asset with a long useful life. If you assume that fiber is good for 40 years, the weighted average useful life of the a network is 53 years. If you assume the average life of fiber is 60 years, the useful life climbs to 65 years. Aerial fiber networks have a lower economic life without conduit, but the range of expected life is still between 37 years and 53 years. Other broadband technologies have a much shorter economic life.
Will Cellular Companies Pursue BEAD Grants?
Several people have asked me recently if cellular companies will be pursuing Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grants. Until recently, cellular companies didn’t have a product that would have qualified for broadband grants. BEAD and other grants are awarded to internet service providers (ISP) that serve homes and businesses, not cell phones.
Can WISPs Compete Against fiber?
I fully expect high-quality wireless internet service providers (WISPs) to be able to compete against fiber networks. While the industry lately seems to be fixated on broadband speeds, there are customers that value other aspects an internet service provider (ISP), such as trust and reliability. I think WISPs (and every other ISP) will have a hard time competing against a cooperative that builds fiber, particularly one that sets low prices like $50 or $60 for a gigabit.
Influencing the BEAD Rules
One of the most interesting aspects of the upcoming Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) grants is that the Infrastructure Ivestment and Jobs Acy requires states to solicit feedback from the public. I can’t recall that ever happening with any grants in the past—normally the rules are handed down from on-high, and that’s that. States have to solicit feedback on two grant programs. First will be each state’s share of the $42.5 billion of BEAD broadband infrastructure grants. Second is the state’s portion of $1.44 billion in digital equity grants.
Corporate Broadband at Home
One of the broadband products that quietly emerged during the pandemic is a suite of products that enable corporate broadband to safely be used at home. IT directors of large companies were aghast when a large percentage of staff were sent home to work and instantly wanted full access to the same systems and functionality that they used in the office. One of the key linchpins of corporate data security has always been to limit access to corporate networks from outside the physical confines of the office.