I have always had a lot of respect for David Isenberg and the ideals of the Freedom to Connect conference. David was the first to widely promote the “stupid network” concept – networks that are little more than big, open pipes with a minimal amount of intermediate management applied to the flow of information. David has also put on several of the Freedom to Connect conferences, a gathering of enlightened people looking for the best ways to make universal broadband access a reality. I had the privilege of attending the 2006 F2C in Washington DC and spent the majority of the conference having my brain stretched in several different directions. It was one of my first “near the Beltway” experiences – an opportunity to interact with academics, policy makers, politicians and deep thinkers. As I look at the agenda for this year’s F2C, I am impressed by the number of quality participants that are going to be there. But there is something very important missing and I can’t let it slip by. The agenda shows speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of fiber powered community networks, but F2C has missed the boat on the most disruptive and cost effective competitive alternative to the cable/telco duopoly – fixed wireless utilizing unlicensed spectrum and the WISPs all over the world that are delivering broadband to their communities.
There is no disagreement from me that fiber everywhere is the ultimate connectivity goal. But I have some very substantial disagreements with the timeline and economic costs to get there. First of all, it takes a long time to build wireline networks of any kind – including fiber – and the construction of those networks is usually delayed at every corner by right-of-way negotiations, availability of materials, regulatory roadblocks and an insane amount of logistical issues. While all of these things are holding up the deployment of the network, potential users are stuck with substandard or no broadband connectivity. Second, fiber is EXPENSIVE (caps intended) and the economic model doesn’t work without substantial commitment from investors or a high percentage of government subsidization. This high cost means that community-oriented and entrepreneurial smaller providers are usually kept out of the market. The majority of fiber providers are either larger corporations that are prone to redlining and restrictive access policies, or government supported systems that put an undue strain on taxpayers through their dependence on subsidies or construction bonds.
I talked with several ISP operators about fiber during the ISPAmerica conference last month. The universal conclusion from them is that fiber is just too expensive to deploy to the home in any kind of realistic (re: unsupported by outside revenue) business model. One of the people I talked to was Dane Jasper, who has gotten a lot of attention for his deployment of gigabit fiber in Sebastopol, CA. He agreed that fiber won’t cash flow on its own, and needs to be supplemented with a lot of copper to make a worthwhile business case. None of the community network advocates has ever been able to show me a model where they could make the network stand on its own without a substantial amount of subsidization through taxes or government bonds. And the fiber economic model really falls apart when you get outside of the dense urban environments and into suburban and rural areas. The cost to deploy fiber in these areas goes up even while the number of potential customers goes down.
Fixed wireless on unlicensed spectrum has many important advantages in comparison to fiber:
1) Fixed wireless is inexpensive. The cost of building out fiber to the 700 homes in my rural hometown is estimated at somewhere between $800,000 and $1,000,000, which doesn’t include the ongoing maintenance and pole-attachment costs. This cost also doesn’t account for the hundreds of homes outside of the city limits. The cost to put up three fixed wireless clusters to serve the same set of homes – and all of the homes outside of the city limits – is about $15,000. Ongoing operational costs are also lower because there are no pole-attachment rights. If done right, wireless will PAY for the fiber deployment without taxpayer support or ongoing need for investor support.
2) Fixed wireless can be deployed quickly. Fiber networks take months of negotiation and require specialized equipment and workers before you even get into the field. Field work is also very time-consuming and can be stalled out by weather. A new wireless POP can be deployed within a week and tied to multiple new towers in the same time it takes a fiber crew to hook up a block of homes. New unlicensed backhauls like the Ubiquiti AirFiber can extend gigabit speeds to any point within five miles that has clear line of sight back to the head end, bypassing the need for right-of-way.
3) Fixed wireless is fast enough. The newest generation of fixed wireless systems are far beyond DSL speeds and can keep up with cable. Gigabit to the end user is not a reality and probably never will be due to spectrum constraints, but 20-30meg service to end users is possible and already being offered by many fixed wireless providers. I live in a house five miles out in the country, with three laptops, two smartphones, two iPads, four workstations, an Internet-enabled TiVO and a Roku box. 10meg Internet service meets all of our current needs, so for all practical purposes the difference between 10meg and 100meg or 1gig is negligible.
4) Fixed wireless is igniting a wave of innovation around the world. Companies like Ubiquiti, Mikrotik and Cambium are coming up with incredible, low cost systems that are perfectly capable of delivering broadband performance in places where there is no wireline infrastructure or that infrastructure is not accessible. Thousands of fixed wireless providers are bypassing telcos and cable operators to deliver broadband to otherwise unserved or underserved end users. In several countries and regions around the world, fixed wireless is the most popular way to get broadband.
I am very disappointed to see Isenberg and F2C disregard the power and potential for disruptive change that fixed wireless represents. However, I offer up a chance to make amends. WISPA, the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association, will be conducting their advocacy day activities the week before F2C. If Dr. Isenberg can make some space on the agenda, I’m sure that there are two or three very capable fixed wireless operators who would be interested in spreading the gospel of fixed wireless and WISPs to the F2C crowd. If the goal of Freedom to Connect is to show the possibilities and solutions available now to help deliver universal connectivity, then fixed wireless networks and the community of WISP operators need to be part of the discussion.