I’ve seen bids in the last few weeks that range from wireless municipal specifications from 8 years ago to the desire to reach for the outer limits. Both strategies have unrealistic expectations, just from different ends of the equation. Eight-year old municipal specifications assume that delivering 300Kbps is an adequate expectation for anyone in 2011. Of course, if you still use AOL dial-up, then 300Kbps is a magical upgrade. For the rest of us, using 300Kbps is painfully close to watching paint dry for some websites and applications. Forget using the cloud for storing anything with 300Kbps.
To quote George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”.
Municipal designs that are based on historically overly expensive mesh concept systems that didn’t work all that well eight years ago simply aren’t the best idea. They aren’t going to be a whole lot better today if the basic design architecture is the same and the yearly maintenance and support costs add another 10-20%. Nobody is going to pay for a service that has more stops and starts than a New York taxi while trying to stream a video of “The Adventures of Pluto Nash.” However, since most people will probably never watch that movie, it’s probably not the best example.
On the other side of the equation are RFIs that think fiber is simply a bid away. The expectation is that all sorts of government or private funding are available to put fiber everywhere. The idea is that somebody has hopefully figured out a way to make inexpensive fiber happen through various means and the RFI writers simply have to ask although they have no money or funding mechanism in place to make this happen. In fact, in some cases, the RFI is also a request on how to fund the project. Although having a 1Gbps fiber into my house would be amazing, the financial reality is that most municipalities are tighter than heat-shrink in a blast furnace, so fiber isn’t their highest priority. Also, writing a response to an RFI is a big, expensive endeavor. It’s unfair to expect companies to spend resources researching and developing a system for which they then have to figure out how to get paid. There is a much better way to do this and an RFI isn’t it, although it’s good to see the desire out there.
15 years ago, everybody was jumping on the FTTH concept. New housing developments encouraged everybody and their mom to create small companies that funded fiber to the home or private cable company developments. They also came with 10 year exclusive contracts for the subdivisions which gave a rough estimate of an ROI of 3-4 years. It was a great business plan until building slowed down to the speed of our federal bureaucracy and then collapsed like the 2011 Boston Red Sox.
We all want fiber everywhere but except for some isolated projects, it’s just darn expensive with a poor ROI. The costs are coming down, but technology advancements aren’t helping with the cost of digging and all the engineering involved. If it was profitable, private industry would make it happen. If they aren’t going to do it, there is probably a clear and compelling reason. I’m thinking of the profit motive although monopolistic pricing and local political protection can’t be ruled out either. Just because some city in China does it and they have 48,000 people per square mile, it may not be the best fit in an area that has Mom and Pop Kettle, 2 hound dogs, and a Jersey cow in a tower service area. After working on an RFI with a colleague, Craig Settles from www.cjspeaks.com, I learned that these RFIs are long on expectations and short on anything else. Because they haven’t usually done a Needs Analysis, which is one of Craig’s highest priorities, they just assume that fiber is the answer.
It’s great to imagine 10 years down the road and try to come up with compelling reasons why we need fiber. The idea is that if someone comes up with the killer application that might give a reason for fiber everywhere, then it will drive expansion. As much as I like to dream about really amazing technical ideas (see Chapter 31) and hope someone comes up with something, I also think that it’s better to use the stairs than to try and jump from the first floor to the third floor. Just think about all the stuff you miss on the second floor in the process. And the reality is that we really will know if man-made global warming is true long before we get broadly-deployed fiber to the home.
Instead of imagining why we need to go from 3Mbps, or as I like to put it, DSL on a nice sunny day, to 1Gbps (Fantasy Island), let’s evaluate it based on Craig’s criteria and question the need. What does 1Gbps give us that 3Mbps doesn’t? I get that we won’t get to see Avatar in 3D in high-definition on two televisions at once but hey, order cable or satellite if that’s your biggest concern. What I’m after, as is many people, is a technical, business, societal, or other compelling reason we need 1Gbps. Since I haven’t see that pop up, let’s analyze what level of bandwidth we really need or what would be necessary for today and part of tomorrow. Or to finish Mick’s famous line, “if you try sometime, well you just might find, you get what you need”
The reality is that in most major cities, we get what is generally financially feasible and for all intents and purposes, what we need. We may not have kicked the wall over on the digital divide but we are definitely knocking at the gate. DSL can deliver up to 20Mbps download speeds as long as you are close enough to the DSLAM to tie a string to it or your sister-in-law who is a real estate agent who can make that happen. In the real world, users see between 2-6Mbps when it’s not raining which is really sufficient for most needs. Cable is even better with real-world bandwidth up to 50Mbps although I’m seeing between 8Mbps and 17Mbps normally. The fun part, and this is probably the part that most fiber advocates aren’t seeing, is that the war that is now going on between these two technologies in the price/performance area is definitely having an effect. I know that Cox has made major improvements in Phoenix and Century Link installation trucks are applying for Homestead rights around my neighborhood. Even Viasat just put up a new satellite that has more bandwidth than many countries.
It also helps if crony capitalism (definition: the relationship of buying a politician who will borrow or steal tax-payer money to provide loans or grant that no sane investor would support for any bad business idea that will get them a contribution) and misguided feel-good legislation can be counted on as part of your business plan to expand service. This apparently works even better for many of our senators and congressmen if down the road you can give them some inside information so they can make even more money legally. I suspect this is what’s going on with Lightwave and the Incentive Auction programs but until someone investigates how many Senators, Congressman, or their political backers have cellular companies in their portfolios, we just won’t know. The reality is that government and our representatives aren’t going to release any more unlicensed frequencies while big cellular providers are holding their leashes. If the fiber ISP companies had the relationships with this Democratic administration that the solar panel industry does, my dog would be watching reruns of Lassie in HD over the new fiber laid in my backyard to his house.
So if my argument is that if we generally have what we need, why is everyone crying for fiber? Right now the only viable applications that I’m seeing are either movies or video on demand. Other applications might be developers moving a lot of code, gamers who want really low latency, traders who are crying for every microsecond of advantage, and a hundred other applications that are a small percentage of overall internet use. Netflix is the only company whining that they can’t get better quality for free unlimited bandwidth to their clients at the expense to the rest of us in the WISP industry. For example, bandwidth requirements in my areas are up 170% over last year with only a 10% increase in clients because of Netflix alone.
When I originally conceived the concept of the Secured Public Integrated Radio Infrastructure Technology (S.P.I.R.I.T.), it was partially built on the idea that that there needed to be a second floor stop, or something between fiber and copper. DSL really isn’t the technology of the future and nobody is expanding copper for better DSL service. They are simply adding fiber end points to shorten up the distance from the DSL switches to the house. The shorter the distance, the better it will get. The current practical limits on DSL are somewhere between 16Mbps and 50Mbps which if we could really do, would be pretty impressive. The catch with these speeds is that they are one way with much, much slower upload speeds. That is really the only upgrade path that DSL providers have since trenching a single fiber run to a central DMARK point in a neighborhood is a lot cheaper than FTTH and is their version of stopping off on the second floor.
Cable systems moved to a new system, DOCSIS 3.0, a couple years ago that really cranked up the bandwidth. DOCSIS can support up to 160Mbps down. Keep in mind that the 160Mbps is shared by everyone on the chain but still, it’s an impressive amount. Both DSL and cable suffer from reduced upload speeds though. Basically, there is x amount of capacity that is defined by either of these technologies and they are optimized for maximum throughput in one direction. They both choose to place the majority of that capacity on the download side. Fiber on the other hand, pushes the same capacity both directions. Since we can get so much download bandwidth, the real limiting factor is the upload bandwidth. Before I get a bunch of emails stating that a lot of the country doesn’t get these kinds of DSL or cable speeds, it’s not the technology to blame, it’s just infrastructure and economics. So if we have enough bandwidth now, why do we need S.P.I.R.I.T.?
Assuming APs that are connected wirelessly at street level down a chain, Guerilla Wireless was good for 20-35Mbps, depending on types of traffic. Part of this limitation was 802.11G specifications. The latest versions of Guerilla Wireless can support 40-70Mbps simply because of 802.11N specifications. The 2×2 MIMO version of Guerilla Wireless also takes advantage of dual-polarity technology, which adds better range and more capacity. Depending on the model, S.P.I.R.I.T. can deliver up to 120Mbps today with plans up to 1Gbps in the future. The difference here is that the infrastructure is wireless and has been deployed at a much lower cost per square mile than fiber. .
These kinds of speeds are right between DSL and cable for most applications. The difference is that this is wireless capacity meaning more freedom. APs that are connected at backhaul points are only limited by the capacity of the AP itself. If the backhaul feed is fiber or high-bandwidth microwave, the bandwidth is probably between 100Mbps and 1Gbps, full-duplex. S.P.I.R.I.T. was designed as an upgrade to Guerilla Wireless so that more capacity, redundancy, and capability can be added without throwing out a single piece of equipment. If you started with 802.11G radios, then keep them and experience a doubling of throughput with the additional of S.P.I.R.I.T technology infrastructure. However, you can always upgrade the individual radios to 802.11N which can then support several times more capacity. .
Another thought that just came to me is that S.P.I.R.I.T. could be used to upgrade existing municipal deployments. For example, Commonwealth Capital Corporation paid $1.8 million dollars to the city of Tempe for 6 months of rent. This shows that MobilePro made a bad deal from the beginning and the vendors that lost the bid should be giving thanks to Jobu (Major League 1989, one of my favorite baseball movies) for that happening. That being said, the system could have been made operational at a cost of about $350,000. If the city drops the rent to something reasonable like $13 per year per pole and doesn’t require the WISP to give away free service to everyone with a pulse, a business plan could be made to save this disaster. Unfortunately S.P.I.R.I.T. came along too late to propose it.
Does that mean there is funding to put in S.P.I.R.I.T.? Actually, there is no more funding for it than anything else . However, a couple ideas have been tossed around between Craig Settles and I. One idea was that S.P.I.R.I.T can be built around schools that already have some infrastructure. That may make it available for additional funding mechanisms such as E-Rate. Schools also have a lot of smart students that can help to support the system and benefit from the experience while doing it. Couple this with some of the ideas developed for “Education Everywhere” , and it’s a powerful combination to really help students and low-income areas, both at school and at home. This takes a lot of cooperation among different entities but if anything screams “let’s do it for the children,” this is it. Who knows, the children might lead us into the next great bandwidth infrastructure upgrade.