Maybe you don’t need a gig. Wireless might bridge the broadband gap

Not every community needs a fiber-to-the-home network. Not every home needs a gig to their doorstep. In our gigabit crazy era this statement might seem like a step backward, but take note that there’s more than one option for delivering the speed consumers and businesses need. Even Google is hinting that some form of wireless might become part of its goodie bag of services.
When people fixate on one technology to the exclusion of all else the people governing cities can make wrong choices that hurt or hinder communities’ ability to fully benefit from broadband. When investing in technology, users’ needs should dictate technology choices, not media hype. Two other recent broadband developments indicate some broadband decision makers should step back for a minute and re-assess their options.

Gigabit wireless goes high profile

RST, a new regional ISP, announced it had quietly built and acquired a 3,100-mile 100-gig fiber middle mile infrastructure throughout the state of North Carolina. However, it plans to deliver a 1-gigabit last mile service there and in South Carolina, mostly using Wi-Fi with fiber options available on demand. In Utah, home security and automation company Vivint threw its hat into the gigabit ring with plans to connect Utah homes wirelessly using gigabit Wi-Fi on rooftops to create a high-capacity mesh network built on customers’ rooftops.
The gigabit picture is still developing, and no rules are set in stone, so why not extensively evaluate all available options? Do consumers really care whether their connection comes through a wire or wirelessly as long as it’s fast enough to meet their needs, and guaranteed to be secure, reliable and affordable?
“We’ve come up with a unique approach in that we built a 100-gig fiber infrastructure, but we’re going with the new Wi-Fi standard – 802.11ac – to enable us in smaller communities and even big cities to reach out with 1 gig symmetrical speed,” stated RST Co-Founder Dan Limerick in an interview. “The major excuse big providers have given for not building out the entire U. S. with high-speed Internet access is the expense of it. With the technology we’re using, that’s a fallacy and we’re going demonstrate it very soon.”
Some communities already are benefitting by keeping their options open. Ottumwa, Iowa, for example, after doing considerable research is implementing a small pilot that will use a high-speed point-to-point wireless connection to link a seniors medical and assisted living facility into the project rather than build an extra two miles of fiber through an area with few potential additional customers. Furthermore, the project team may evaluate high-speed wireless (over 15 Mbps) along the fiber route to provide residential coverage.

Is less than a gig ok?

Some people are skeptical of the ability to deliver a gig wirelessly. “I know the limitations it has,” states Jesse Harris, Editor of FreeUTOPIA, which tracks broadband developments in Utah. “Even if Vivint has figured out a few tricks, there are some laws of physics they simply can’t avoid. Going with a mesh network could introduce a lot of latency, and unlicensed spectrum is subject to all kinds of interference that they can’t control.”
Matt Larsen, owner of wireless ISP Vistabeam, shares some skepticism of gigabit Wi-Fi but wants to see how Vivint and RST perform as they sign up lots of subscribers. He has seen point-to-point wireless consistently deliver reliable speeds in the 20-30 Mbps range and above, which is sufficient for many homes. “Gigabit speed is important for delivering the network capacity needed to ensure scores of individual subscribers can get these speeds simultaneously. “
Larsen believes, as does Limerick, another huge value wireless delivers is faster speed and lower costs to build broadband to under-served rural and urban communities. He said, “A WISP can deploy a five-mile network with line-of-site, point-to-point wireless in one or two days at a cost of between $4,000 and $5,000 using unlicensed spectrum. There are many variables in pricing for fiber buildouts, but a five-mile fiber run can cost at least tens of thousands of dollars.”
Every community is different in terms of demographics, broadband needs, geography, etc. The lesson people should take from RST and Vivint is that a thorough, objective evaluation of all available technologies is in their best short-term and long-term financial interests. For example, wireless last mile networks can meet peoples’ needs now, then become backup for fiber network later.
Craig Settles is a consultant who helps organizations develop broadband strategies, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation and a broadband industry analyst. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.