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.