Why is this page text-only?


Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

« NetNeut Update: FCC Hammer Coming Down on Comcast? | Main | My Grandpa's Killer App »

July 21, 2008 12:30 PM

My Speech to NARUC on Wireless Broadband

This afternoon I'll be addressing the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners on a panel entitled "Wireless Broadband: Has Its Time Arrived?"

Since I don't think I'll have any video to share, I want to post my remarks here so you all can read along about what I think about the present and future of wireless broadband and how it should be perceived relative to wireline.


Hello, I'd like to thank Commissioner Jones for the opportunity to address this esteemed audience today.

He's asked me to provide a mile-high view of what all this means in terms of the ever-shifting paradigm of telecommunications in the 21st century. That's what I try to do on my blog App-Rising.com every day: make sense of how broadband can help make America great.

Ultimately that's what this is all about for me: harnessing the power of technology to expand opportunities and make more efficient all parts of society. While AT&T; does sponsor the blog, my only interests are in what's best for America, not any individual company.

So today we're discussing wireless broadband. Has its time finally arrived?

On many fronts I can confidently say a resounding "Yes!", but in order to better understand what this all means it's important to acknowledge the nuances and limitations of wireless broadband in order to understand where its true potential lies.

Take speed. I personally have been a wireless broadband customer for about a year. I found myself paying $10 a night to get Internet access in hotel rooms and figured it'd be cheaper to pay $50 a month to Verizon to get an EVDO card. And with that card I've been able to realize 200Kbps plus speeds all across the country. And on weekends while in the heart of DC, it's topped out at over 2Mbps down. While not overwhelming speeds, it has been enough to do basic web surfing, and at times I've even been able to use it to watch Internet video. Overall I'm a satisfied customer.

But we can't ignore some of the limitations of the connectivity wireless technologies are able to deliver. They're shared networks so the more people using them the less bandwidth you have, and that fluctuates throughout the day. They're affected by distance so the farther you are from a tower the less speed you'll get. And speeds can be impacted by other variables like weather and the composition of any walls wireless signals have to pass through.

Initiatives like Sprint/Clearwire's WiMax deployment are terrific. In the near term they're going to offer new competition in the broadband marketplace to wireline services, offering roughly equivalent multi-megabit speeds.

But in the long term they can't realistically compete with wireline. Already we're starting to see wireline connections hit 100Mbps. And future demand for bandwidth should rise to 1Gbps and beyond through the advent of new video technologies like 3DTV and UltraHD.

While you can get some point-to-point wireless connections at those speeds, it's not realistic that we'll ever have ubiquitous wireless connectivity at those speeds. You quickly start running into issues of basic physics, where there just isn't enough spectrum to push unlimited bits. Whereas fiber optics have been shown in the labs today of being capable of delivering all the world's Internet traffic over a single strand.

Because of this, it's my belief that wireless broadband is best thought of as a complementary technology rather than competitive to wireline. Whenever you can't be hooked up to a pipe, wireless makes connectivity possible. Because of this, where I see the greatest potential for wireless is in mobility-driven applications. Wireless isn't another pipe into your home, it's a way for you to never have to be without access.

For example, I've done some work with a Internet video security company called GOSN that offers a product called the SafetyBlanket. It blankets the outside of buildings or structures with a motion-sensitive SafeZone that gives dispatchers the ability to see what's happening during emergencies. While it can deliver video over wireless pipes, the less bandwidth it has the lower the quality of video it can deliver. The better the quality of video the more dispatchers can see and the more effective the protection becomes, which is why it's their preference to run that video over fiber optic cables. But at the same time, wireless connectivity provides tremendous utility for scenarios like when first responders are driving up to an ongoing emergency. With wireless they'll be able to pull up video from these cameras from their vehicles, so no longer are they having to walk into potential dangerous situations blind.

This being said, in the near-term wireless broadband does hold tremendous potential both for providing competition to wireline and especially on extending broadband quickly into rural areas. Too many parts of our country have limited or no access to broadband, despite what the FCC's data shows. While I ultimately want to see them get wired with fiber, deploying that fiber can take a lot of time so wireless offers the potential to get them online sooner rather than later.

Yet, it seems unlikely a purely private enterprise-driven strategy for deployment will reach rural areas any time soon if even at all. While I prefer market-driven approaches, in some areas that just won't work and some form of government intervention will be needed. And to anyone who says it's too expensive or not worth the effort, I defy those thoughts because nowhere is connectivity more urgently needed than in rural areas. With it, they no longer have to be isolated and disadvantaged from the global economy. The simple truth is that if we don't want to see our rural communities shrivel up and fade away, we need to get them online as quickly as possible, and wireless broadband offers one of the greatest hopes for doing so.

Also important on the deployment front to realize is that while we're seeing massive investment from the carriers, it appears as though we're only going to be able to count on the biggest incumbents to get wireless broadband out there. The investment environment for new entrants just isn't that strong, as evidenced by the plight of Frontline, which wanted to make an attempt to deploy wireless everywhere but couldn't drum up the money to do so. Deploying even a regional wireless network let alone a national one just requires so much capital that it's unlikely we're going to see any major new entrants beyond what's already happening. While there are some opportunities for smaller access networks in areas that aren't being properly served by incumbents, I personally know wireless guys who are walking away from the industry to focus on things like fiber deployment.

Another thought that's not talked about enough is that while new technologies like WiMAX offer exciting new opportunities for multi-megabit connectivity, there's no silver bullet in wireless broadband. Every carrier seems to be deploying different technologies offering their own pros and cons. One challenge that presents is that we may not be able to realize a wireless broadband equivalent of roaming on cell phones. Right now if you're trying to make a call but your carrier doesn't have a nearby tower it's not a big deal as your phone will just use someone else's tower. With wireless broadband, because of the different technologies, most people will only be able to connect to one type or another. So even if you are equipped to access the Internet wirelessly that doesn't mean you'll be able to access the Internet wirelessly if you're in an area covered by a technology different from yours. While multi-mode technologies do exist, they're years away from the mainstream as having WiMAX chips alone built into devices is still not yet a widespread reality.

One final thought to leave you with is that wireless networks are only as good as the wireline networks they're plugged into. Part of deploying new wireless networks is getting more fiber out there and/or utilizing fiber that already exists.

Utilities can play a potential role in this as while I haven't confirmed the specifics, in general I know that utilities have more dark fiber than just about anyone because of the prevalence of fiber networks being built to connect substations over the years. If we could coordinate utilities to open up those networks to help ease the deployment of wireless networks, we're likely to see more investment, more capacity, and a better chance for new entrants. And this becomes even more true if we're able to get full fiber networks deployed.

If I could snap my fingers and wire the country with fiber, it'd be a breeze to set up a wireless network. A technology like that offered by Meraki puts a wireless router into every house that can talk to each other to form an ad hoc wireless mesh network, enabling a handful of wireline connections to be shared by a larger area. There are also ideas out there like FCC Commissioner Copps suggesting we put up towers on libraries to reach the surrounding community, though that's currently not feasible as the average library only has 1.5Mbps, which isn't enough for their own needs let alone the community's. But once that library has fiber, ideas like this start making sense.

So I'd argue that the best thing you can do to help make wireless broadband a reality is focus on making a full fiber nation a reality.

In the end, I don't know if I can say that wireless broadband's time has arrived, but I can confidently share that it is in the process of arriving. And as it does, the best things we can be doing to foster its growth is to focus on figuring out how to use it to create demand for these services, while at the same time looking to how we can leverage existing and deploy new fiber networks in order to support the speedier, more robust deployment of broadband everywhere, making sure we don't ignore the plight of rural areas.

Del.icio.us Digg Yahoo! My Web Seed Newsvine reddit Technorati


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)