In most of the United States, people think that there is competition for their broadband service dollar. They can go to either the telephone company and get DSL, or go to the cable company to get cable Internet. If you live in the right place, you might even be able to get something resembling a broadband connection on a cellular data card. None of these options were available in Medicine Bow. The choice was between satellite and dialup. What is the alternative to these unpleasant options?
Fixed wireless broadband.
Most people think of wireless telecommunications as beginning and ending with the cell phone. Indoor WiFi wireless networks have recently become very popular as well for connecting devices inside the house, but when it comes to connecting up to the world wirelessly everyone thinks of cell phones and cellular data networks. Commercials on TV show hipsters downloading live sports events and YouTube videos, Twittering restaurant recommendations to their friends, playing online games and grabbing popular songs from iTunes – all on their cell phones. The future is this cool, connected place where we have access to all of these wonderful things through supersmart cell phones.
While there might be hordes of metrosexuals roaming the streets in urban areas, Twittering themselves into flashmobs, updating their Facebook status and creating mashups with their iPhone apps, it is a completely different story in the rural areas of the United States. The 60 mile drive from Laramie to Medicine Bow has about 30 miles of decent voice coverage in it and there are only a couple of spots in Medicine Bow where a cell phone will work reliably. Driving from Scottsbluff to Laramie, on major highways and Interstate 80, there are six places where calls will drop and about 25 miles between Cheyenne and Laramie where you are lucky to get any calls through. In Fort Laramie, Wyoming there is a water tank above town that sits on “cell phone hill” – named because that is the only place in town where you can make a cell phone call. It looked like a parking lot on some days before one of the carriers finally installed a tower near the town. The data plans in this part of the country regularly top out at about 128k, and are really only good for checking mail and very basic mobile web apps. Using a cellular data card for broadband access is an exercise in futility. Some of the denser urban 3g/4g cellular deployments might have enough capacity to be a broadband alternative to cable, fiber or dsl – but it just isn’t happening in rural areas.
However, there is a less well-known alternative that holds a tremendous amount of potential for delivering broadband to rural areas – fixed wireless. In a fixed wireless deployment, the customer side of the connection is typically a radio with a high gain antenna, mounted on a roof or side wall and pointed back to a nearby access point. This enables the wireless system to maintain a higher signal to noise ratio and therefore deliver much higher speeds. A typical cellular deployment has tiny antennas in the smartphones and data cards and is dependent on a lot of “RF Magic” to maintain their data rates and voice quality. All the “RF Magic” in the world doesn’t help when you drive behind a hill, take your phone in the basement where the signal is weak or are located too far away from the nearest tower. Fixed wireless sacrifices mobility in exchange for the ability to deliver higher speeds – enough to deliver real broadband of 1megabit and higher. Fixed wireless is also used for the backhaul connections between two points, as a substitute for wireless middle mile connections.
Fixed wireless deployments have a long history. The old AT&T Long Lines system was a microwave network installed on a series of big, nuclear blast resistant towers that can be found all over the US. They were a product of the cold war, and carried civil and military traffic between exchanges and from coast to coast. The microwave systems stayed in use until the 1990s, when the explosion of traffic from the Internet and the wide deployment of fiber networks rendered them obsolete. Many of these towers were sold to tower companies that stripped and refurbished them for use on cellular networks. The establishment of the Long Lines network was quite a feat of engineering, and there are quite a few stories about the amazing things that were done on it. As late as 1974, 70% of the long distance telephone traffic in the US traveled across this network, so the reliability and capability of a properly engineered fixed wireless network is well established.
The original Long Lines network used licensed microwave backhauls, and there are several spectrum bands in the 6, 11, 18, 23 and 38ghz ranges that are still dedicated to licensed microwave backhauls. Licensed links for point-to-point backhaul have been commonly used as replacements for landline connections, and the price of licensed links has dropped considerably. A 5-15 mile licensed link capable of hauling 100meg of traffic can be installed for under $20,000, and there are a wide variety of manufacturers and different radio options all the way up to Gigabit Ethernet speeds. In rural areas, point-to-point licenses are still available, but urban and now suburban areas are starting to get crowded and license application rejections are more common as carriers scramble to upgrade capacity to their overloaded cell sites.
In addition to providing a substitute for landline based point-to-point backhauls, fixed wireless also addresses the last mile problem in rural areas. Installing and maintaining a wireline network in rural areas is an expensive proposition. The commonly quoted average $1000/customer loop cost for a fiber network goes up considerably ($2000 to $3000 per subscriber) when fiber is deployed into a rural area. Fixed wireless deployment costs have dropped from the $500-$600 per customer range down to the $150-$300 range, depending on the equipment used. Coverage can vary, according to tree density and geography, but in an area like Medicine Bow – mostly flat and only a few trees – fixed wireless is in its sweet spot. With the right antennas and clear line of sight, a fixed wireless access point can deliver up to 10meg speeds at 25 miles. Judicious use of repeaters can also resolve issues with geographic obstacles and trees.
Fixed wireless technology is inexpensive, flexible and has decent capacity. Why isn’t it more popular for broadband in rural areas? The answer is spectrum availability.