WiFi a Serious Technology in the Broadband Mix?

Money may or may not be the root of all evil, but it is certainly the tail threatening to wag the dog for many communities’ broadband planning teams. At the California Emerging Technology Fund’s Rural Connections workshop last week, a number of people representing communities expressed concern they can’t move broadband forward until they can find money.

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Make no mistake; you can’t build a network without a passel of dead presidents to fund it. But you can mitigate the money hurdles you face, particularly if you don’t put extra ones in your way.

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During the broadband stimulus mania I noted people polarizing around either wireless or wired technology as the “one true broadband.” Reviewing Round 1 stimulus grant winners, NTIA/RUS apparently were heavily wired in their thinking. Then Google jumped into the pond with its gigabit fiber splash, and that definitely increased the “wired way or no way” disciples.

This, I have a problem with. Not the goal of gigabit speed, but the thinking that “real” broadband is fiber and anything else is a failure.

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If you believe fiber is the only way to go, you’ve given your community a big money hurdle right off the bat, whether the private sector or the community owns the network. True, fiber is ideal in many respects, and the best way to get to 100 Mbps or more. However, setting this course can deter private providers or box cash-strapped communities into an all or nothing position.

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A pure FTTH (fiber to the home/business premise) network comes with a much higher price tag than other network options. Your budgeting, fundraising, partnership choices, your go-no-go decisions are skewed by this price tag. You start off limiting options, and may even bail on the project if your remaining options fall through.

Broaden your view of broadband

Go ahead and keep your goal of 1 gigabit fiber, but re-calibrate your definition of broadband. Furthermore, re-construct your path for getting to broadband. How does this unfold for your project team?

  1. Define broadband as the technology required to provide Internet access at the speed and with the quality of service that meets the short-term and long-term business, educational, etc. needs defined by your respective constituent groups. That means wired, wireless, WiMAX, WiFi, cable, fiber. Anything but dial up is in the mix.
  2. Divide broadband need into 1) the here and now, and 2) what constituents need three or five years from now.
  3. Create Plan A and Plan B. Plan A is what you do if you get all the money you need to build the network of your constituents’ dreams. Plan B is what you do to deliver broadband on an evolving basis depending on the needs of your various constituent groups, obtainable funds, ROI scenarios and so forth.
  4. Ask you higher power to grant you the gift of an open mind during the needs assessment, planning and implementation processes so you and those around you recognize opportunities that otherwise would elude those burdened with closed minds.

Here’s a radical idea (for some)

WiFi could be a great stepping stone to gigabit broadband. No, seriously.

After a small town in Florida and my service partner RidgeviewTel hit me with the same idea within 24 hours, I figured it was time to document it. I’ve actually written several times about taking a roundabout path to resolving broadband financing issues, though not with WiFi as a lead-off technology.

If you can find a way to finance, underwrite or otherwise fund a full-on wired network to deliver 1 gigabit, or even 100 Mbps speed, go for it. For those in smaller, less wealthy or otherwise constrained communities, or you have constituents with limited broadband needs for the foreseeable future, here’s a possible Plan B.

Build a fiber line to one or more points that touch on the outskirts of your community. Build a wireless network to cover your actual city or section of the city. Consider WiFi as your wireless option of first choice, though do consider WiMAX and point-to-multipoint. Initially and over time, have businesses and other organizations underwrite the cost of building spurs from the fiber network to their premises.

I can see some knees jerking, but hear me out.

First, this approach won’t work for everyone. But keep an open mind at least long enough to test it out, or visit places that are using WiFi successfully to learn firsthand what’s possible.

Second, realize that WiFi technical capabilities today are beyond what they were in 2005 (and please, don’t confuse business models – no one’s talking about giving service away for free). I’m hearing about 802.11n and new super-duper customer premise equipment (signal boosters) that make it possible to get 7 – 9 Mbps in the home. Verify it, because if it’s true, a lot of your residential users and even small business would probably be quite happy with 7 Mbps for a year or two.

This particular Plan B, if it meets enough constituent groups’ needs to make the network financially viable, puts you in a better position to afford the initial buildout, and charge a reasonable rate to encourage adoption. By bringing fiber to the edge of your community and then asking businesses and institutions to pay to bring a fiber spur to their door, you shift this part of the buildout expense to those who need and can afford the extra speed.

As more organizations subscribe, and new businesses that need broadband move to the area, these fiber “spurs increase over a year or two. By that time residential users can consider migrating from wireless to wired service, or keeping the wireless service for citywide mobile broadband use. The cost of running lines to homes is likely to be more affordable than a total FTTH buildout at the start.

The devil’s in the details, of course, but I believe this approach deserves consideration and obviously will require modifications to meet specific communities’ needs. But the important thing is, as you ponder clearing the financial hurdles, try lowering a couple first.

Tonight (5/20) at 7:00 CST I’m on Longmont (CO) Town Radio discussing this and other aspects of wireless in the broadband mix. It’s online, so don’t miss it!

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