Bridging the broadband gap: Connecting the truly last internet mile

Thanks to the coronavirus, we rely on the internet more than ever. By and large, it's held up well, but some underserved areas are suffering more than ever. What is and can be done for internet access beyond the cities?

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Ten-years ago, 10 carrier pigeons, equipped with 30GB USB keys, raced to deliver a video against a typical 200 Kbps rural Internet connection. The winner was -- drumroll please -- the pigeons. And, they weren't even using the proper internet protocol (IP) for pigeons: RFC 2549 IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC).

Now, that's funny, but I'll tell you what's not funny. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever must work from home, see doctors from their living room or finish 10th grade from the kitchen.

Related: Technology winners and losers in the days of coronavirus

That's great if, like me, you have a 400 Mbps cable Internet connection. I can watch Avengers: Endgame in 4K, while participating in a Zoom conference and downloading the latest version of Mint Linux. Then, there's my high-school friend Bill Bailey who still lives in our childhood home in rural West Virginia. He reports having a DSL connection, which gives him an "average speed of 27 Kbps." That makes it impossible for him to connect with his work computer except around 3 a.m. 

A modem would be faster. And, oh, by the way, it's 2020 and people are still using dial-up modems. Give AOL a call -- those once-ubiquitous AOL CDs are obsolete -- but AOL dial-up lives on. Compared to 27 Kbps, even a 56 Kbps modem would be an improvement.

Bill's far from alone. Another friend from my days in Calhoun County, W. Va., Rick Poling, reports that while he has cable internet at home, "My office is stuck and even with a dual phone line modem, 15 to 19 Kbps is about the best we can get there. It is adequate for our business needs, Microsoft Teams works fine with it, but uploading large data files requires great patience. In the vast majority of our County, there are very poor internet options, and with limited cellular coverage, even grabbing signal from a tower is viable for only a few."

They're not the only ones. There are millions. The digital divide between the urban haves and the rural have nots remains great.

Ten-years ago, 10 carrier pigeons, equipped with 30GB USB keys, raced to deliver a video against a typical 200 Kbps rural Internet connection. The winner was -- drumroll please -- the pigeons. And, they weren't even using the proper internet protocol (IP) for pigeons: RFC 2549 IP over Avian Carriers (IPoAC).

Now, that's funny, but I'll tell you what's not funny. Thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, more people than ever must work from home, see doctors from their living room or finish 10th grade from the kitchen.

Related: Technology winners and losers in the days of coronavirus

That's great if, like me, you have a 400 Mbps cable Internet connection. I can watch Avengers: Endgame in 4K, while participating in a Zoom conference and downloading the latest version of Mint Linux. Then, there's my high-school friend Bill Bailey who still lives in our childhood home in rural West Virginia. He reports having a DSL connection, which gives him an "average speed of 27 Kbps." That makes it impossible for him to connect with his work computer except around 3 a.m. 

A modem would be faster. And, oh, by the way, it's 2020 and people are still using dial-up modems. Give AOL a call -- those once-ubiquitous AOL CDs are obsolete -- but AOL dial-up lives on. Compared to 27 Kbps, even a 56 Kbps modem would be an improvement.

Bill's far from alone. Another friend from my days in Calhoun County, W. Va., Rick Poling, reports that while he has cable internet at home, "My office is stuck and even with a dual phone line modem, 15 to 19 Kbps is about the best we can get there. It is adequate for our business needs, Microsoft Teams works fine with it, but uploading large data files requires great patience. In the vast majority of our County, there are very poor internet options, and with limited cellular coverage, even grabbing signal from a tower is viable for only a few."

They're not the only ones. There are millions. The digital divide between the urban haves and the rural have nots remains great.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) defines broadband with a speed benchmark of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. By its count, 33% of residential fixed connections are below that speed. That's overly optimistic.

Related: Coronavirus challenges remote networking

The FCC tries to put a good face on the broadband gap, but if you read their latest Broadband Deployment Report, for 2020, you'll find that they count broadband as being available "if the provider does, or could, within a service interval that is typical for that type of connection — that is, without an extraordinary commitment of resources — provision two-way data transmission to and from the internet with advertised speeds exceeding 200 Kbps in at least one direction to end-user premises." I don’t know about you, but 200 Kbps hasn't been broadband in my book since 1993 and the birth of the Web.

In addition, the FCC counts a census block as having broadband access if even a single home in that block can get service. The FCC's data itself, which is reported by the ISPs, is also questionable, as is its data interpretation.

By the FCC's questionable math, 18.3 million people lack access to fixed broadband, BroadbandNow Research took the FCC's data, and did a detailed analysis of it. They found that "42 million Americans do not have access to wired or fixed wireless broadband." Microsoft, analyzing how its customers use the internet, found that "162.8 million people are not using the internet at broadband speeds."

In addition, as Adie Tomer, a Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program researcher pointed out in 2018, since there's no rule all Americans should have broadband access, ISPs may not report accurate data to the FCC. Tomer said, "There's an extreme interest for the ISPs to be hiding their hand."

The FCC also doesn't think "a broadband experience metric based on reliability, bandwidth, and latency, would better reflect how consumers are increasingly examining broadband service.” Thus geostationary satellite internet, which is often the only high-speed internet available in the country is considered as the equivalent of landline-based internet. That's a nice theory, but with an average latency of 550 milliseconds, satellite internet from HughesNet and Viasat is next-to-useless for videoconferencing and other real-time applications.

Related: Coronavirus: What companies are ready for our new reality

Bridging the broadband gap

So, what can be done about this? In 2018, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to improve rural broadband. But, it only made it easier for wireless operators to put cell towers on federal lands. That's not really helpful.

Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai promised that killing off net neutrality onerous restrictions would encourage the major ISPs to invest more in broadband infrastructure. That simply hasn't happened. In reality, the top three last-mile ISPs, Comcast, AT&T and Charter, have all cut their infrastructure spending.

The result of these failures hasn't gone unnoticed. Democrat FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said: "This report is baffling. We are in the middle of a pandemic. So much of modern life has migrated online. As a result, it has become painfully clear there are too many people in the United States who lack access to broadband. In fact, if this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big."

Hopefully, the FCC's recently passed $20.4-billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF), will encourage ISPs to bring more broadband to the countryside. But, the RDOF also comes with restrictions that interfere with state and local broadband initiatives and the US Department of Agriculture's ReConnect Program.

The result may not be much of a net gain in broadband growth. Consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge Senior VP Harold Feld said according to a Pew Report published in December 2019, 35 states have funds that directly subsidize broadband. [and/or] receives funds under the Department of Agriculture ReConnect program. Thus, "this would appear to cut off millions of unconnected rural Americans from a program designed explicitly to help them."

So, if you're looking for your local ISP to make it possible for you to work from home on a country road, don't count on getting any more speed anytime soon. But. there is hope thanks to two new technologies.

5G

First things first, there are actually three different kinds of 5G. I'm not talking millimeter wave (mmWave), which is the one that gets all the headlines thanks to its gigabit per second speed potential. But, with a range of merely tens of meters, it's more competition for Wi-Fi 6 than it is for widespread internet deployment.

Low-band 5G, which lives in the 600MHz spectrum, is a totally different story. If you're an old-school TV watcher, this frequency band is where UHF TV channels 38-51 live. They won't be for much longer though. By the end of the summer 2020, they'll be switching to new frequencies to make more room for 5G.

This kind of 5G has far greater range 4G LTE or any other kind of wireless networking. A single tower can cover hundreds of square miles. Its performance will vary, but it's usually at least as fast as 4G LTE's 20+ Mbps and can reach speeds of up to 250 Mbps.

T-Mobile, the one company supporting it, started rolling our low-band 5G on Dec. 6, 2019. T-Mobile has promised the FCC that it would deploy 5G service to cover 97% of the American people within the next three years, and to cover 99% of all Americans within the next six years. How fast will it be? T-Mobile has committed to providing 99% of Americans with at least 50 Mbps speeds, and 90% of the US with at least 100 Mbps.

Related: Why everything you know about 5G is wrong

As for the countryside, T-Mobile promises to cover 85% of rural Americans within three years and 90% of rural Americans within six years. While they won't see the speeds of their city cousins, T-Mobile claims 90% of Americans living in the country will see 50 Mbps average speeds and two-thirds of rural Americans can look forward to speeds of 100 Mbps and above.

Former T-Mobile US CEO John Legere promises its 5G will eventually cover 200 million customers with speeds of up to 450 Mbps by 2024. Not everyone believes these numbers. Vantage Point Solutions, a rural internet provider, states such numbers are "completely unrealistic for real-world dimensioning for capacity, and it overstates an access point’s practical capacity by 500% or more." This company expects "the average of the experience among all users ...is often only 15%–25% of the theoretical peak for a single user."

Still, even at 15% and 50 Mbps, 7.5 Mbps is a lot more than most of my friends and family are seeing back in West Virginia. For rural internet users, T-Mobile low-band 5G may prove to be a game-changer.

Low-earth orbit satellite internet

SpaceX gets the headlines with Starlink, it's low-earth orbit (LEO) internet service but Amazon's Project Kuiper and the financially-troubled OneWeb also promises to deliver high-speed, low-latency internet across the United States.

SpaceX is by far the most advanced with its plans to launch a constellation of LEO internet satellites. According to SpaceX founder and CEO Elon Musk, SpaceX needs about 400 Starlink satellites to provide "minor" coverage and 800 for "moderate" coverage.

As of early June 2020, there are 422 Starlink satellites in orbit. The FCC has approved SpaceX's request to launch more than 12,000 Starlink satellites. SpaceX wants to put far more into orbit. In late May, SpaceX applied to the FCC to launch 30,000 Starlink satellites,

So, how fast will Starlink be? According to SpaceX, Starlink will offer speeds of up to a gigabit per second at latencies from 25 to 35 milliseconds. That's much faster than old-school satellites. HughesNet, the granddaddy of satellite internet, offers download speeds up to 25 Mbps and upload speeds up to 3 Mbps.

Related: SpaceX wants to blanket the Earth in high-speed internet

SpaceX has yet to release data on its upload speeds, but it appears it would be much less than its 1 Gbps download speed. I strongly suspect it won't be able to do much better than a geostationary satellite's 3 Mbps. Still, that's a usable speed.

When it comes to latency, SpaceX has the older satellite internet services beat all hollow. HughesNet has a latency of over 500 milliseconds, that is half-a-second in people time. Starlink promises to have a latency of between 15 to 25-milliseconds. Good Earth-bound broadband gives you latency of about 8 milliseconds to 20 milliseconds.

As nice as that sounds, it's still a theory. Starlink isn't available yet. The service is expected to go into beta in the fall of 2020. Come the day it starts operating, SpaceX has big plans for the service. The FCC has given the right to deploy a million user terminals with flat discs measuring 0.48 meters in diameter. Musk describes these as looking like a "little UFO on a stick." These terminals' antennas will self-direct themselves for the best satellite signals.

Musk has also said Startlink will cost about $80 per month. SpaceX is also trying for grants under the FCC's $16 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund on the basis that its latency comes under the FCC's 100ms latency threshold. The overall goal: "Starlink will deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable, expensive, or completely unavailable."

Connecting that last mile

You get the picture. It's not easy bringing broadband outside cities and suburbs. At the same time, with the rise in work at home; vital services such as telehealth and e-education; and our growing dependence on ecommerce, broadband is essential. Indeed, the United Nations and other countries have declared broadband is a fundamental human right.

Older technology and business approaches have failed to deliver broadband to the countryside. I see no reason to think that will change. Short of a Rural Electrification Act level project, which brought electricity to the country, high-speed conventional landline won't be coming to rural counties. Today, Rosenworcel wants this to happen, but knows it's seen as too expensive. "But it happened, and the broader country benefited," Rosenworcel said. "We need to do it again, we need a rural digitization act now."

Short of that, low-band 5G and LEO satellite internet is the real hope to bring broadband to the country at affordable prices and good-enough performance. I hope so. Tens of millions of Americans still live in the countryside and they deserve their chance at the 21st century American dream too.