Rural Broadband, Picture Essay

I awoke to a beautiful day today, with that special kind of appreciation for nice weather that native Midwesterners have.    We live through four seasons and all the joys and hazards that each one brings, so it is especially nice when we get a breezy, temperate day that is perfect for doing things outside in our beautiful surroundings.

Here is the farm where I live:

This is where I live

We have 40 or so acres of land between Mitchell and Scottsbluff, Nebraska.   Spring Creek is 20 feet from my front door and the North Platte river is a stone’s throw to the West.   This farm was originally a timber claim and the Mormon Trail went through it.    There are references to emigrants stopping here to refresh themselves and their animals in the creek before traveling west again on the long journey to Utah.

My wife’s father, who had served as a Marine on the USS Arizona before World War 2, built the house we live in with his own hands.  My mother in-law lives in the house next door to us, which was built before 1900 and belonged to one of the early families that settled this part of the country.   This is not the farm and ranch where I grew up, but there is a strong connection to this land, the people that were here before us and the future that we have in front of us.

The wrong side of the tracks!

So what does that have to do with broadband?

My wife and I both have businesses that rely on fast, reliable Internet connectivity.   If we want to continue to live here, we need to have access to broadband.   When it comes to wireline access of the kind that is supported by USF or delivered by a cable Internet provider, we are on the wrong side of the tracks, specifically the Burlington Northern railroad tracks at the end of our driveway.

There is no fiber to our homes, and won’t be at any point in the near future.  The cost to run fiber across the railroad right of way and down to our two homes would be in the tens of thousands of dollars.   Even with massive government subsidies, it is not going to happen.

The copper telephone wire to our houses is barely suitable for voice – it was sometimes down for days after heavy rains – and has no DSL capability.   Not that I would want to use something as slow and unreliable as DSL, but you would think that a company like CenturyLink that receives something like 45% of its annual revenue from USF would be able to find the coin to fix the problem.

Charter cable is available to the houses on the other side of these tracks.   But not to us, and probably not any time soon.   My guess is that there are another 30-40 homes on the south side of the tracks between the highway and the river that are not going to get fiber anytime soon because of the expensive costs to build out and low density.

Fixed Terrestrial Wireless (FTW) For The Win!

Fear not for us though, because fixed terrestrial wireless (FTW) is providing all of the speed and reliability that we need, for a fraction of the cost and with no government subsidy!

The round, white antenna on the rooftop is a Ubiquiti NanoBridge radio shooting to a radio tower on the ridge in the background.   If you look really close, you can see the FM tower that the access point is installed on.   Our house is one of nearly 400 within a 15 mile radius of the tower that gets high speed Internet service from Vistabeam.

This radio is the third one to grace our rooftop since we moved to this house.   The first was a Tranzeo 2.4ghz model that was capable of solid 1 meg speeds.    The second was a StarOS unit that could get up to 8meg.   The current generation of the Ubiquiti AirMax platform that Vistabeam uses is capable of up to 50meg to end users, but maxes out at about 20meg in the configuration that we are using on this tower.   In a place where DSL tops out at 1meg (in the places where the copper is usable) we have 20x more speed and it is faster than the speeds that Charter is offering to the houses across the road.

There is real broadband, and then there is "Toy Broadband"

But what about all of these fancy mobile broadband networks that the cell phone companies are setting up?   You see lightning bolts and fancy robots and cute girls in pink dresses talking about how fast their “4G” networks are.   All I have to say is this – Lets Get Real.

I have the fanciest phone, fastest available mobile broadband plan (3G) and service with the one provider that has reliable coverage at my house.    Running speed tests from my cellular broadband and fixed wireless broadband connections to the exact same server at the exact same time produced the results you can see in the picture.

I was a little disappointed in the fixed wireless speedtest because it averages 18-24 to our network center, but this sort of thing happens with offsite speed tests that include all the variables of the Internet backbone.   The biggest surprise to me was that the mobile network was this fast.   Apparently Saturday morning is a low usage period because it almost never gets faster than about 768kbps.   Even with the decent speed results (for 3G) check out the latency.   55ms for the FTW and 300ms for the 3G network.   Try running a VPN or VOIP over a 300ms connection and see if it really feels like broadband.   I can tell you this – my rooftop radio lost ethernet after a power spike during a thunderstorm, forcing me to use the 3G.   After 45 minutes of that hell, I climbed up on the roof in the rain and put up a replacement radio because the 3G network kept dropping my VPN and ssh connections.    I don’t want to even think about how miserable it is for people who only have 3G available to them.   Ugh.

There is one thing that the mobile companies are doing a great job on – overhyping their “toy broadband” with advertising!  At a recent broadband forum in Gering, NE, I ran 15 speed tests in a row from my cell phone that never got over 640kbps and all of which failed to meet the government definition of broadband.   Verizon advertises this service on the National Broadband Map as having a speed of 4meg down.  Who is in charge of verifying those speeds anyway?   If all you use is Twitter, Facebook and email, “toy broadband” is probably fine.   But it is not real broadband.

When it comes to delivering broadband to rural areas, mobile broadband shouldn’t even be in the picture.    Mobile “toy broadband” is slow and expensive to deploy.   DSL is obsolete, the copper infrastructure is decaying and now it is more expensive to maintain it than to just put in fiber.   Fiber is great, but it is also expensive to deploy and as you can see from my situation, there are places where it is going to be too expensive.   Fixed wireless is the perfect solution to our rural broadband needs.

I for one, am thankful that I have the ability to own and operate a business like Vistabeam.   By filling the coverage gaps and providing competitive alternatives to landline and mobile providers, WISPs using fixed wireless are doing the work that USF is supposed to be enabling, even as that money is used against them.

Plus, we get some great views of nature.   Here are a few shots taken from my front yard and from our tower sites.   Enjoy!

Summer Sunset over Spring Creek

Looking into Wyoming from one of our tower sites

Purple Mountain Majesties – Laramie Peak at Sunset from Rifle Site Pass

Pink Moon over Spring Creek at Sunrise

What A Broadband Market SHOULD Look Like

I think it would be instructive to take a look at a place where there is robust private competition in broadband.

On the Western border of Nebraska, just across the line from Wyoming, is Scottsbluff/Gering.    Scottsbluff/Gering has a population of 25,000 and broadband is available from ELEVEN different last-mile providers including:

1 Cable fiber/hfc Docsis 2.0 (Charter, speeds up to 20meg)
1 ILEC (CenturyLink, speeds up to 7meg)
1 Fiber/Cable provider (Allo, speeds up to 20meg – but capable of 200+meg)
1 Fixed Wireless Provider using licensed spectrum (Mobius speeds up to 1meg)
3 Mobile “Toy Broadband” providers (Viaero, AT&T, Verizon with claimed speeds up to 4meg, actual sub 1meg)
3 Fixed Wireless Providers using unlicensed spectrum (Action (3meg), Telecom West (1meg), Vistabeam (12meg))
1 Satellite provider (WildBlue (1meg)

There are also several middle mile networks through the area including:

-  The Western Nebraska Rural Health Network,  a fiber network between all hospitals and rural health care clinics that will be partially open to commercial use through Zayo networks.

-  CenturyLink fiber

-  Charter fiber

-  Great Western Networks maintains an older OC-196 capable licensed microwave network that passes through the area with termination points in Denver and Casper, WY

-  The three unlicensed WISPs maintain their own microwave backhaul between towns

Despite a redundant fiber network, one fiber outage last year took out almost all of the long distance and cellular capacity in the Nebraska Panhandle.    Something to do with not enough spare equipment and/or multiple configuration failures.

Charter has a decent sized footprint and their own fiber network out of the area.    They were incapacitated about a year ago by a major fiber cut near Kansas City that had their Internet down for about 18 hours.   This has been resolved, according to their sales people.

Allo utilizes the Charter, Great Western and Health Network middle-mile and their broadband was unaffected by the Charter or CenturyLink fiber cuts because they were able to route IP around them

Charter is pretty decent for the most part, but is hitting the limits of Docsis 2.0 in many nodes, leading to congestion.   I seriously doubt that we will be seeing Docsis 3.0 anytime in the near future.

Allo has been very successful, especially in the business sector as they have taken a huge marketshare from CenturyLink/Qwest.    They have recently put in a head end for cable and are offering IPTV to residential areas as their footprint gets bigger.   The Allo service offerings are comparable or superior to anything available on Verizon FIOS.    Their biggest drawback is that their footprint is small in comparison to the other providers, but it is growing steadily.

The fixed wireless providers are all in various stages of evolution, with WiMAX, Alvarion VL and Ubiquiti AirMax systems currently operational and capable of delivering 10meg+ speeds.   There are few places in the Nebraska Panhandle that cannot get service from one of the WISP providers.   They also get their service from different middle-mile networks, so they are not as affected by the fiber cuts.

Of all these options, the weakest are the USF funded (CenturyLink and Mobius (a division of a nearby RLEC)) and the mobile carriers.   The mobile broadband carriers can barely hit 1meg speeds even at 3am in the morning.  The mobile providers can barely keep phone calls up in this area – do we really want to rely on them for Internet?

In this part of the country, we have seen government funded networks fail miserably (Lusk, Wyoming) USF funded networks get severely outclassed (hello Qwest and CenturyLink) and stunning successes from private enterprises that get no government support (Allo, Charter, WISPs).

I could barely restrain my laughter as I read a fellow blogger’s post about the Omaha FCC Panel last week, as several times during the panel people referred to Western Nebraska as if it was some kind of broadband desert.   Consumers in Scottsbluff/Gering have MORE choices of providers and better broadband than people in Omaha.    WISPs are filling the gaps between wireline plants with comparable speed plans and providing needed choices in the towns for people who are fed up with terrible service from the ILEC or want a lower priced service than what the cable or fiber providers offer.

This is the competitive environment that I live and thrive in with my WISP.    From my perspective, USF does nothing to make broadband better here and more spectrum for mobile broadband will not help.   More unlicensed or lightly licensed spectrum for fixed wireless would allow the WISPs to provide speeds comparable to cable, but not quite enough to keep up with FTTH.   Best thing we could do with USF is kill it and start over.   The market will work, if there is competition.   That is the key.

Opening Comments from the USF Workshop

Here is a copy of the opening comments that I submitted for the panel that I participated in this morning.   Enjoy!

First of all, I’d like to thank the FCC for inviting the fixed wireless service providers industry to present at this panel.    On behalf of my over 2000 wireless ISP (WISP) colleagues, we thank you for the opportunity to have a seat at the table for this discussion about the future of broadband in the U.S.

Fixed wireless technology is evolving rapidly.   When I started Vistabeam in 2004, we were using wifi based gear that was basically an indoor card hooked up to a high gain antenna and the fastest connection we offered was 512Kb.   Fast forward seven years, and I now have a 25meg connection at my house in the country that is 5 meg faster than the cable across the road, and 22meg faster than the available DSL.   While cable and DSL speeds have seen incremental speed increases over the last decade, fixed wireless networks have seen exponential increases and continue to evolve rapidly.

Fixed wireless deployments are economically efficient to deploy.   The base station that services my house – and has the capacity to serve over 100 customers – costs $600.   The radio on my rooftop is $79.   Using these numbers, the equipment cost for providing 25meg speeds is $85 per subscriber.    Including installation, total system cost is well under $200, and half of that goes toward the employment of an installer – a job that contributes to the local economy.

Right now, over 2000 WISPs using unlicensed spectrum are delivering quality broadband to several million customers.    Fixed wireless networks deliver higher speeds, lower latency and better overall network performance than mobile wireless or satellite systems.   For years, WISP customers have been using voice-over-IP telephones, watching online video, telecommuting with VPNs and videoconferencing – applications that satellite and mobile wireless do not handle well because of latency.   Fixed wireless can be rolled out faster than fiber and cable systems – and provides the quickest way to get broadband to unserved areas.  Fiber to the end user may be the desired end result, but fixed wireless is an important transitional bridge for many places that will otherwise be left behind.

Fixed wireless technology will continue to evolve and play a very important role in America’s broadband future.   Technologies such as GPS sync and beamforming are being deployed right now and enable fixed wireless networks to deliver speeds to end users that will double or triple that of LTE and 4G networks.   Independent demographic studies show that 71% of US households are within or just outside of WISP coverage areas – but the lack of tree penetrating spectrum and congestion of existing unlicensed spectrum inhibits the ability to deliver service to many parts of the country.   Availability of more unlicensed and lightly licensed spectrum for fixed wireless broadband deployment will increase the capacity and reach of WISPs.

Lost in the shadows of 4G and LTE media blitzes and lobbying of big telecommunications companies, WISPs have been toiling away in unserved and underserved areas, delivering broadband at competitive prices and doing it with shared spectrum and little or no government subsidy.    The transition to the Connect America Fund should have consideration for the important role that fixed wireless and the WISP “wireless cowboys” play in our broadband ecosystem.

FCC USF Workshop on April 27

I will be appearing on the Broadband Technology panel at the FCC’s April 27th workshop on USF reform.  We will also be doing live demos of WISP networks blowing away LTE base stations in speed and latency.    I’m looking forward to that part!

Here are the details on how to watch or participate in the workshop online:

Intercarrier Compensation/Universal Service Fund Reform Workshop

April 27, 2011 / 9:30 AM – 3:30 PM EDT / 445 12th Street SW, Washington, DC 20554

The second of three workshops on Universal Service reform will focus on modernizing current programs that support voice service into a Connect America Fund (CAF) that will drive investment in and access to 21st Century broadband and voice services in rural areas.

Universal service has been central to the Federal Communications Commission’s mission since the Communications Act of 1934 created the agency and committed our nation to making vital communications services accessible to all Americans. The Universal Service Fund has helped connect virtually every American to our 20th Century communications grid.

Panel discussions in the morning will focus on current and projected capabilities and deployment costs for different broadband technologies and how such capabilities and costs may impact the implementation of the Connect America Fund. The afternoon panel will focus on targeting support for areas unserved by broadband through the use of a technology-neutral competitive bidding.

In addition to the panel discussions, technology demonstrations of satellite broadband and 4G Wireless broadband services will be provided before and after the Workshop panels and during the lunch break.

Featuring a broad range of stakeholders, the workshops will inform the FCC’s consideration of proposals from the USF/ICC Transformation NPRM unanimously adopted Feb. 8, 2011. The FCC has indicated that it intends to adopt reforms in this rulemaking in the coming months.

WHAT: Workshop on Modernizing Universal Service into a Connect America Fund

WHERE: FCC Commission Room, 445 12th St. SW, Washington DC 20554

WHEN: Wednesday, April 27, 9:30 a.m. – 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHO: FCC Chairman, Commissioners, and staff; outside panelists, state commissioners and staff

LIVESTREAM: http://www.fcc.gov/live

ONLINE PARTICIPATION VIA WEBEX: https://fccevents.webex.com/fccevents/onstage/g.php?d=996413375&t=a

EMAIL ADDRESS FOR QUESTIONS TO THE WORKSHOP MODERATOR: USFReform@fcc.gov

TELEPHONE BRIDGE: 866-808-8519; Passcode: 3093784.

AGENDA

Note: this preliminary agenda is subject to change

9:30 a.m. – 10:00 a.m. Welcome and Introductory Remarks from Chairman Julius Genachowski, Commissioners and Sharon Gillett, Chief, Wireline Competition Bureau

10:00 a.m. – 11:15 a.m.

Panel: Broadband Technology Capabilities Today and in the Future

· Ralph Brown, Chief Technology Officer, CableLabs

· Ken Ko, Senior Staff Scientist, ADTRAN

· Paul Mankiewich, Chief Architect, Mobility, Juniper Networks

· Mark Dankberg, Chairman & CEO, Viasat, Inc.

· Matt Larsen, Owner, Vistabeam

· Jim Stegeman, President, CostQuest

11:15 a.m. – 12:30 p.m.

Panel:  Implications of Technology Capabilities for Achieving Universal Service Policy

Objectives

· Mark Cooper, Research Director, Consumer Federation of America

· Andrew Newell, General Counsel, Viaero Wireless

· Dave Bickett, GM/CEO, Park Region Mutual Telephone/Otter Tail Telcom/Valley Telephone

· Phil Jones, Commissioner, Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission

· Dr. Traci L. Morris, Homahota Consulting LLC and Native Public Media, Chickasaw Nation of Oklahoma

· David Russell, Solutions Marketing Director, Calix

· Christopher McLean, Senior Advisor, Rural Utilities Service, Department of Agriculture

12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m. Lunch break

1:30 p.m. – 1:45 p.m. Presentation: The National Broadband Map Today and Where We Are Headed

· Angela Simpson, Advisor to the Assistant Secretary, National Telecommunications and Information Administration

· Michael Byrne, Geographic Information Officer, Federal Communications Commission

1:45 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

Panel: Phase 1 of the Connect America Fund –Targeting Support for Unserved Areas Through Technology-Neutral Competitive Bidding

-Grant Spellmeyer, Senior Director – Legislative & Regulatory Affairs US Cellular

· Jason Hendricks. Director of Government Relations and Regulatory Affairs, RT Communications, Inc.

· Maggie McCready, Vice President , Federal Regulatory, Verizon

· Ross Lieberman, Vice President of Government Affairs, American Cable Association

· Greg Rosston, Deputy Director, Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research

8:30 a.m. – 4:30 p.m.

Technology Demonstration Area

Technology demonstrations of satellite broadband service will be provided by WildBlue/ViaSat and demonstrations of 4G Wireless broadband service will be provided by Verizon before and after the panels and during the lunch break: (1) 8:30 a.m. – 9:30 a.m., (2) 12:30 p.m. – 1:30 p.m., and (3) 3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

UBB and the Nebraska Broadband Forum

I moderated a session on UBB last week at the FISPA/WISPA show, and it was pretty clear that UBB was a key element in the transitional phase from where ISP networks are now and where they are going to be in the future.   As operators, the consensus is that user consumption has increased at least 50%, but revenues are staying flat and the business model for unlimited usage is pretty much done.   In the WISP market, UBB is going to be critical for survival.   In fact, I strongly believe that the ultimate goal of implementing UBB is to generate at least some of the revenue needed to pay for the network upgrades that will be needed to provide higher caps and higher speeds to users.   Without UBB and deterrents to unlimited consumption, our nation’s broadband network performance will continue to degrade.

On a somewhat related note, I attended a State of Nebraska Broadband Forum meeting, where the state PUC introduced the initial data from their broadband mapping, surveying and planning efforts.   One of the major points of the survey was that Internet access is very price sensitive – and the major reason for lack of penetration in many demographics is cost.   People with dialup were on dialup because of price.   People with broadband connections were happy with the performance of their connections, but were unhappy with the price.   I have speeds up to 4meg available across nearly my entire network, but 42% of my subs choose to purchase connections that are under 768K.   Most of this is due to price, even though it is only a $10 jump from $24.95/month to $34.95/month to go from 384k to 1meg.

Many people think that fiber is the answer, but we simply can’t afford to subsidize fiber networks everywhere right now and its not going to get done based on the current business models unless there is a mechanism to generate some kind of revenue from all of this additional usage.

One last tidbit from the forum – Verizon claims to have 3-6meg speed mobile wireless in our area.   What an exquisite work of fiction!   I ran 10 speedtests on my smartphone during the course of the forum, and not a single one even met the 768K/256K government requirement for broadband.    Of all the broadband related trends in government right now, the compulsion to throw money and spectrum at mobile wireless “toy broadband” is one of the most disturbing.   We might as well subsidize playstations.

Stop Selling Our Airwaves!

(Note:  This is from my good friend John Scrivner.   He operates a WISP in Illinois and is one of the founding members of WISPA)

Do you have little or no access to broadband (high speed) Internet? Then forward this note to your Congressman to get this fixed.

Broadband is something most Americans take for granted. That is unless they live in remote rural areas where cable modems and DSL are rarely available. For rural Americans real access to broadband is limited at best and often is non-existent. Thousands of small companies called WISPs (Wireless Internet Service Providers) have been working for over a decade to bring people broadband in the harder to reach areas of the United States. Thousands of United States WISPs use radio airwaves , also known as spectrum, to transmit broadband through the air from central locations to customers throughout rural parts of America.

WISPs are usually started up by a local person with technical knowledge who is an entrepreneur and has decided to take on the effort to bring broadband to their neighborhood, their town or even their whole county. WISPs transmit from existing small towers, water towers, tall building roofs, grain silos, whatever it takes to deliver broadband through the air. They fund their operations using all they have, they borrow against all assets they own, they spend all their savings. There is at least one WISP who was a family farmer and actually “sold the farm” to build the WISP he started in rural Indiana. WISPs are a growing part of our economy employing tens of thousands of Americans to help them serve broadband to rural America.

WISPs work against many obstacles to build broadband into areas where the population is so small that a business case would not normally work. By being frugal and doing much of the work themselves WISPs have found a way to make this a thriving business by solving the “digital divide” for their neighbors while earning a good living and often hiring others in their area to help them. There is one obstacle that all WISPs face that is not only preventing millions of Americans from having access to broadband now but is threatening to kill their industry completely.

SPECTRUM AUCTIONS ARE KILLING WISPS AND ARE PREVENTING AMERICANS FROM HAVING BROADBAND.

There is a dirty little secret hidden in plain sight in the United States. If big businesses were bribing the government to prevent competing small businesses from having access to government owned assets and reserving these assets for themselves one would think we would see people calling to have these people tried for corruption. Instead we are seeing it happening regularly with practically nobody giving it a second thought. It may be a much more formal and open process than bribes but the net effect of Spectrum Auctions is exactly the same. Big Businesses are the only winners of these spectrum auctions and WISPs are left with no access to good spectrum.

Spectrum is to a WISP what good land is to a farmer. Without good land a farmer would not be able to deliver much food to market. At this time there is no practical way for a WISP to reach all homes and businesses within what should be the coverage area of their tower locations. The reason is that WISPs have ZERO access to good quality spectrum. WISPs have to use uinlicensed spectrum which has no protections against interference. It is shared by other users of the frequencies. This spectrum is only barely usable for the delivery of broadband when there are trees or other obsructions blocking clear line of sight to the WISP tower locations. Low power restrictions, noise and higher frequencies of the unlicensed spectrum mean that only a portion of potential customers can be served within WISP tower locations. Depsite these limitations WISPs have built their entire business on using these unlicensed frequencies to bring broadband to where it never was before. If WISPs had access to good spectrum then they would be able to build higher quality wireless broadband which would be available to all rural Americans. Plentiful access to good quality spectrum would also mean that prices would lower as more people per tower would be buying the service which would allow for a better return on investment for each tower built.

Spectrum Auctions happen now because Congress tells the FCC they have to sell off the all-important spectrum licenses at auction as opposed to allowing WISPs and others to pay for licenses with monthly fees or register them for free if they prove they are serving the public good with broadband. Congress and the FCC tell the public that auctions are good because they raise billions of dollars in auction revenues.

If Spectrum Auctions are so good for America then why do we still have large areas where services are not available after 20 years of selling off spectrum to the highest bidder?

Why are we selling off the airwaves to the highest bidders and then turning around and giving away tax money for people to build broadband (aka broadband stimulus and USDA grants)? I have a novel idea for Congress and the FCC. Stop selling off the airwaves to big business and stop paying us to build broadband. Let’s just cut to the chase and get the spectrum out to the people who need it. Let’s stop pretending that selling off spectrum is the in America’s best interest. It is quite the opposite.

On the surface raising money from spectrum auctions looks like the government is being responsible but auctions are causing great harm.

To put this into perspective please imagine for a moment that a US “Farm and Crop Commission” (FCC for short) suddenly held property rights to all farm ground outside of the big cities in the United States. The only exceptions would be ground that was rocky or otherwise was not capable of real agriculture. Now imagine that Congress tells the FCC that the only access to this ground by family farmers or anyone else would be to buy it at auction. Now imagine that only a small portion of all the farm ground is made available at auction once every 5 to 10 years. Now imagine that the smallest parcel of ground would be millions of acres in 12 county wide sized blocks of ground with no ability to buy smaller parcels. Next the FCC sets minimum auction price for a parcel of the ground at $5 Million dollars. There would be ZERO chance of a single farmer having access to even 1 acre of good quality farm ground in this scenario. How many family farmers do you think would survive trying to grow crops on the few rocky outcroppings on hillsides with no property rights of any kind? How much do you think food would cost if there were only 5 mega-farmers in the United States who grew all the food? Do you think we could get enough food to live if we only had 5 farmers who held a monopoly position on the only farm ground available to be farmed in the United States?

To a WISP and to all American citizens, spectrum is just like farm land and broadband is just like food.

This is a travesty. I think once you really read the FCC / farm land metaphor above and understand what is going on then you will understand why the number one obstacle to Americans having access to cheap and plentiful broadband across the entire country is that WISPs (aka your broadband family farmers) are being deinied access to good quality spectrum under reasonable terms. WISPs do not expect a free ride. WISPs will pay good money for access to good spectrum. WISPs will pay license fees over time or raise enough money to buy a license for each tower as they build these locations. What we CANNOT do is pay millions or billions of dollars for access to good quality spectrum and try to compete at these spectrum auctions with the likes of at&t, Verzon, Sprint, etc.. We will lose every time in that scenario.

So we need Congress to act now today. We need them to tell the FCC to give us access to unused spectrum now. The auctions need to end now. The way to simulate the economy and give everyone broadband is one simple solution and it does not cost us a penny. We need to make spectrum available for broadband use in the US for free. Once a WISP, cable company, phone company, municipality or other organization uses this spectrum to serve up broadband to a significant portion of an area the FCC needs to grant an exclusive license to the entitiy serving the broadband at that location.

Think of it as homesteading. In the past the US needed to grow into the land westward so they allowed people free access to land if they settled it and lived on it and made it their own. That is how we quickly expanded our great country. We need to do the same thing now with broadband. We need to let people homestead the spectrum to grow our access to broadband. Spectrum Homesteading will do just that.

Congress – we plead with you now – stop auctioning off our spectrum and let us homestead it now. Pass a Spectrum Homesteading Act and let the free market flourish in building broadband access to 100% of Americans without a single penny of government subsidies.

State of the WISP Industry

I was in Washington DC last week to visit with staff at the FCC and my congressional representatives.

Here are a few of the points that I made about fixed wireless:

1)  WISP technology in unlicensed spectrum can deliver up to 25meg to each customer in typical fixed wireless deployments.   I love to point out that I have a 25meg connection at my house, while the cable across the street only goes to 20.

2)  Mobile broadband is “toy broadband” that will never scale to the point of being as useful as fixed wireless or wireline networks

3)  Mobile broadband has far more issues with loading and problems with the physics of the connection than other types of networks and will degrade under load at a substantially higher factor than fixed wireless or wireline networks.

4)  WiMAX is a non-factor.   It has been made technically obsolete by advances in the open source based (Ubiquiti and others) and proprietary unlicensed platforms.   It has been financially obsolete due to its necessity of open, licensed spectrum (expensive) and typical costs of 2-5x unlicensed fixed wireless gear.

If we, as a country, decide that everyone needs to have broadband, then we should be pushing FIXED wireless networks and opening up spectrum in the 2ghz and 5ghz ranges that could take advantage of the low cost commodity chipsets that can operate in that range.   This would also create far more jobs and community benefit, as more installers and local support personnel are needed for fixed wireless as opposed to mobile wireless networks which only need sales droids and the skeleton crews for network maintenance.

Fiber is the end game, but fixed wireless is perfectly capable of standing in for several years while the business models for fiber deployments improve.

(more to come from my visit later)

Universal Slush Fund: Report shows 60% of USF Goes Directly into Telco Pockets!

HT to Peter Pratt, with a link to this dandy report -  The Tech Policy Institute:  Universal Service Fund Money Trail that shows 60% of USF funds going directly into administrative overhead and general expenses – instead of actually PROVIDING SERVICE.    Sounds like a real representative program of cooperation between the telcos and government bureaucracy.

Reminds me of an old cowboy joke:

John:   “You know what the difference is between Ol’ Ray and a six foot tall sack of crap?”

Wayne:  “I reckon I don’t.”

John:  “The sack.”

USF is sacking the taxpayers, that is for sure.

The WISP Manifesto

Brian Webster made the following statements in an email thread about WISPs and the government last week:

“Think about it as a politician for a moment:

Do you make spectrum available for free to give to a bunch of rag tag independent operators who don’t like to file their government compliance reports,

OR

Do you listen to the lobbyist who represents the cellular, telephone, cable and entertainment industries, who will contribute to their re-election campaign in dollar amounts we could only dream of?”

Well, this got me thinking about how WISPs can make a difference.

I think that Brian is mostly right, but this implies that we are accepting the framing of the issues as the telcos and politicians want them to be framed.   That there is no way that we can win a toe-to-toe slugging match for spectrum, but this is not about a full on, frontal attack.    This is guerilla warfare, and the game is played by a completely different set of rules.

Think of it from the wisp operator’s point of view….

1)         We’ve been given essentially no spectrum (the junk bands that we use were around long before WISPs were),

2)        We get no government subsidies, despite the existence of stimulus and rural development programs for broadband deployment, which actually….

3)        Pours billions of taxpayer dollars into our competition, the same competition that has either delivered low grade broadband or none at all.

4)        The USF program allows telcos to impose additional “taxes” on their services to go into a giant government enabled slush fund that goes right back into their systems.

5)        RUS only lends to ILECs and will not work with multiple entities in an area

6)        We are asked to turn over highly detailed information about our subscriber bases, tower sites and anchor tenants as part of the broadband mapping programs – information that is a FOIA request away from being public knowledge!

In many (most) ways, we have little incentive to cooperate with the government.   The scale is tilted so far that there is little we can do that will make much of a measurable impact.   As an upstanding citizen, and WISPA member, I file my Form477, and I’ve been working with my state broadband mapping group, and I have supported our FCC lobbying efforts.  But I am very frustrated at the lack of substantial progress in our federal and state governments – and I’m ready to look at a different approach.

One of the primary reasons for mapping out our coverage areas and compiling better demographics on our industry is because no one has done it right and no one outside of our industry seems to care – including the government.   So it is up to us to get it together and deliver it to the public and our potential allies out there.    We should be leading with our hearts and our deeds, because we have been doing the tough work of improving broadband conditions in the US with little or no help and a wide array of forces working against us.

We should start thinking of ourselves in slightly different terms.   In the past, industries like ours have started out with many small companies that are eventually swallowed up by consolidation into a small number of big players.  This has happened over and over again with telephone companies, cell carriers, cable and dialup ISPs.   I thought it was going to happen with this industry as well, but at this point I don’t think it will happen very soon.   Especially with Clearwire on the verge of collapse and capital being tied up in the New York casino.   In many ways, WISPs work like the Internet, described by one of the blogs (Global Guerillas – http://globalguerillas.typepad.com) I like to follow:

“Work like the Internet?  Here’s what we mean:  companies that are highly decentralized, open and egalitarian.  This is in contrast to traditional corporate hierarchies that are secretive, centralized, and totalitarian.  What’s the benefit of this organizational style?  We believe these organizations would be much more productive, responsive/agile, innovative, rewarding, socially beneficial, and competitive than all other forms of organization for many business tasks.”

WISPs might be a herd of cats, but we are agile, innovative, competitive and socially beneficial cats.   Someone at the Broadband Expo show said that WISPA was probably the most egalitarian trade organization he had ever come across, and I took that as a compliment.   With these things in mind, I think that we should ponder some slightly different tactics, and think of some out of the box ways to deal with the government – and more importantly the public.   With that in mind, I present to you:

THE WISP MANIFESTO

1)         We should NEVER ask the government for stimulus or any other kind of money.   We should be actively lobbying for the government to STOP subsidizing telecom/broadband because it supports untenable business models while wasting taxpayer money.   300 million American taxpayers approve this message.

2)        Along those lines, we should advocate the complete disbanding of the USF program.   It funds our competition and we are never going to get access to it in any usable fashion anyway

3)        We should come up with our own numbers on our industry by surveying our members, compiling as much publicly available information as is available on the net about WISPs that aren’t members and working with distributors to help put together meaningful numbers about our industry.   And we should broadcast our numbers as loudly and widely as possible

4)        We should position ourselves as the solution to Net Neutrality.   Net Neutrality is about regulating ISP behavior in a monopolistic market.   It wouldn’t be needed if customers had a choice of competitive providers.   If WISPs can provide an alternative for a user who doesn’t like cable or telco usage policies, there is less need for legislation to impose conditions on all ISPs.

5)        We should push the envelope on innovative uses of spectrum.   Back in the 80s, Nextel bought fleet dispatch spectrum rights, and used that spectrum to deploy cellular for a fraction of the cost of buying regular cellular spectrum.   They were definitely pushing the envelope – and skirted around several legal obstacles to create something out of nothing.   I would imagine that WISPs could come up with some very innovative uses for Clearwire’s spectrum after it goes under.   Or many of the other pieces of spectrum that are now sitting fallow.

Finally, and most importantly, we need to give ourselves an image makeover.   I have been participating in this industry for 12 years now.   I have had a chance to travel all over the country and meet hundreds of WISPs.   The weaker ones have been sorted out.   The snake oil salesmen have moved on to some other group of suckers.   The people that are left in this business are making a big difference for a lot of people who would otherwise be out of luck.   How many soldiers in Iraq are able to Skype with their loved ones over a WISP connection?   How many small towns are now able to retain businesses and residents because a WISP is delivering broadband?   How many businesses have been able to escape the telecom billing fraud machine in favor of a WISP?   How many jobs have we created in our areas?   How much money have we been able to put back into our local communities?

We have been working long hours, maxing out our credit cards, climbing towers on frozen winter days, crawling around on rooftops in the blazing summer sun, sacrificing time we could be spending at the lake or beach or with our families to fix a network problem, driving for hours to reboot a radio then turn around again to drive in the other direction to reboot another one, sitting on hold for hours waiting for some moron at the telephone company to fix the T1 connection that THEY messed up in the first place, telling customers that the “No Signal” message on their monitor doesn’t mean their Internet doesn’t work – it means they need to turn their computer on!, starting our own trade association from scratch and pouring hundreds of hours of volunteer time into it, and all because we want to be able to do good things for our community and hopefully make a living from our labors.   We need to let the world know what our employees, customers and communities know….

WISPS are a bunch of f***king HEROES!

The revolution starts here.

Great Net Neutrality Article!

Disguised as a rant against bad WiFi at shows:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/29/technology/29wifi.html?_r=1&hp

Show floor wifi is the perfect example of what our broadband environment would look like if we had forced Net Neutrality without network management – it would be a giant piece of crap and everyone would be mad about it.

Network management is a key ingredient in the successful operation of a broadband network.   Taking away the ability to manage network traffic would lead to catastrophic failures on all broadband networks.   Even the most advanced networks would eventually succumb.

Broadband networks without network management would put us back to the days of dialup – except we might be wanting our dialup back just to have something that would be reliable.