Thursday, December 14, 2006

Will The Real Rural Broadband Solution please stand up!

Over the last 3 years or so there have been several consumer products and services claiming to be the end-all solution to a lack of high speed internet in rural and "off the grid" areas of the U.S. So far, nothing approaching a true broadband experience at prices competitive to traditional land based products has emerged. Let's take a look at the current and proposed products and what the current status of each approach is today:

1. Consumer Satellite Internet:
There are three companies offering a consumer satellite dish approach to reach rural areas - HughesNet, Wildblue and Starband. All three offer equipment that is bi-directional (send & receive), so you don't need a phone line to get the service. At the service levels that compete in price with terrestrial services like DSL & Cable, the results are pathetic: much slower speed for uploads, extremely high "lag" or latency, no voice over IP capability and severe bog down during a 4-8 hour period referred to as "prime time"- the after work to late evening hours generally. In order to get speeds that are remotely close to terrestrial counterparts you have to spend upwards of $2,000 for equipment and about $200 per month or more.

The satellite industry's answer to providing competitive priced broadband to rural areas was supposed to be the introduction of ka band satellite internet, and that still might be the answer; however, the results thus far by the two companies offering it - Wildblue and Telesat, are mixed at best and many are dropping the service in the U.S. after giving it a one year trial. Once again, overcrowding has been the greatest problem - not the satellite (as is the case in most ku band satellite approaches), but the equipment on the ground not capable of dealing with growth. Wildblue Communications is launching their own bird in December 2006 and that should be better able to handle the growth they anticipate.
HughesNet plans to launch a ka band satellite in early 2007 which is a more complex approach that doesn't require the regional ground station equipment required in the Wildblue/Telesat approach. It remains to be seen if this effort will result in better performance once the network is loaded with customers.

2. WiMax Internet:
Hailed by the inventors (mainly Intel) as the cost effective answer for Rural America, this technology has been bogged down in Standards differences, extremely high cost of implementation and all kinds of problems shooting the microwave signals through anything but VERY open spaces! The notion that WiMax could cover a 20+ mile area with a single tower has been smashed by the reality that this technology is 50% better than what has come before and 50% vaporware. I don't know if it will be improved by going to lower frequencies or not, but the WiMax craze has quieted down and many don't see it as more than a big city solution for cell operators.

3. Broadband over Powerlines (BPL):
Another one of the "ultimate" answers for Rural America, BPL has encountered many of the same cost issues that plague widespread WiMax deployment. To keep the speed up to broadband levels, this technology requires LOTS of equipment on the powerlines they carry the broadband over. Even with the recent ruling by the FCC to make BPL more competitive with other types of broadband by changing it's designation to "Information Service", FCC Commissioner, Michael Copps, suggested that even with a level playing field there hasn't been much effort to build infrastructure by the Utilities. That doesn't even include the pressure that the Ham Radio operators have and will bring to try to stop this technology dead in it's tracks.

So what does this really mean? Don't look for anything better than what the satellite internet operators will be offering for the foreseeable future. Ka band internet might improve things a bit next year with two new ka band satellites going up, but my bet for Rural America for the longer term is on cell operators eventually extending the EVDO network out to rural areas. The Enterprise satellite solutions will still be the fastest solutions available, but at a cost most consumers would choke on.