Rural Broadband: ‘Fiber is the Only Future-Proof Solution’
In writing about the provincial government’s latest rural broadband promises last week, I cited the example of Yarmouth County’s Cedar Lake Wireless Cooperative. The group received a grant of $41,879 under the province’s Municipal and Community Rural High-Speed Internet Funding Program to bring high-speed internet service to the community and, to date, has connected 45 households to its wireless system.
I presented this as a success story — which it is, in that, 45 households that did not have access to high-speed internet now do — but after speaking with the cooperative’s president, Gerry Curry, this week, I realize it’s better seen as a stop-gap measure. Real success in rural broadband access, he says, would be fiber-to-the-home service for everyone. But that’s not something the provincial government is aiming for.
Curry is critical of just about every aspect of the latest plan to expand rural broadband coverage in Nova Scotia, beginning with the consultant behind the Middle-Mile and Last Mile strategy reports, Brightstar: “If you google Brightstar you’ll find out that they’re…part of the whole telecom oligarchy,” he told me during a phone interview on Monday.
…the world’s largest specialized wireless distributor and a leading provider of diversified services focused on enhancing the performance and results of the key participants in the wireless device value chain: manufacturers, operators and retailers. In 2014, Brightstar reported global net revenues of more than $10 billion (USD) and employs about 9,000 people on six continents.
Brightstar’s reports build on an earlier consultant’s report — Ernst & Young’s (EY) “Review of Alternatives for Rural High-Speed Internet,” which came out two years ago, in 2016. But two years, says Curry, a retired Apple Systems engineer, “is an eternity in this business.”
This is what drives me crazy, the federal government is talking about, you know 20 megabits per second or…50[Mbps] or whatever their latest is, it’s fine for a household. Well, it’s fine for one person in a household. But if you’ve got a husband and a wife and four kids and the four kids are all doing research and they’re googling like crazy and two of you want to watch an HD movie and another person wants to watch a football game in high-def, you better have a lot more than 20 megabits per second.
Conversely, if you’re a business and you’ve got 10 people in your office…and you’re trying to do teleconferences and all that sort of thing, you can’t do that on 5 or 10 megabits per second. They’re just not keeping up with the times, is the problem.
Curry had told me earlier in an email that the Cedar Lake Wireless Cooperative:
…guarantees a minimum of 30[M]bps up and down to all its members, however most get considerably better performance, some up to 90[M]bps down and 50[M]bps up. The cooperative is a commercial customer of Eastlink with a 100[M]bps fibre connection that we share among our members.
The cooperative pays Eastlink $1,400 per month for the connection.
But the problem with wireless, says Curry, is that it’s “extremely sensitive to line of sight.”
Now, the way that Eastlink got around that for some of their customers is, there are three frequency bands that they’re using. But the lower the frequency band you use, the lower the bandwidth, so therefore the lower the speed that you can provide to a customer.
Customers in the lowest frequency band get service of 1.5Mbps. Says Curry:
You might as well use a wet noodle.
In the case of the Cedar Lake cooperative:
Everything that we’re putting out is in the 5 gigahertz band, so you really need good line of sight…Our towers are 85-feet tall and you’ve got to get above the trees, so if you’ve got trees in the way and you can’t see the tower, then you’ve gotta put up something so you can see the tower, and when you do, you get really good service.
But in addition to the line-of-sight limitations, wireless has another drawback according to Curry, “a major wind storm can take down the towers, so I don’t sleep at night when that sort of thing happens.”
Satellite broadband, the option Brightstar proposes for those rural areas unreachable by fixed or wireless internet, also has its drawbacks (one of which is the price) but Curry says the biggest one is latency:
That’s the time it takes for the signal to go up to the satellite and come back down. You can’t do any gaming on it, because you’d be dead before you knew you were dead. And you can’t do video chats and that sort of thing. But if it’s one-way streaming — for Netflix it’s fine.
Which brings us back to what Curry considers “the only future-proof solution” — fiber-to-the-door:
Fiber is now cheaper than running cable. Not by much, but it is, and it’s only going to get cheaper.
What’s more, he says, it’s a solution the private ISPs could offer today, if they wanted to:
There’s nothing stopping Bell or Eastlink or any of these companies from doing that. The problem is the business model everybody operates under today. If they can’t turn a profit in a year, they won’t do it. Because they’re answerable to their shareholders and they’re answerable for their yearly executive bonuses. Now…if there was a house three miles down the road that they had to run fiber to, it would take about 10 years just to pay for it. But after those 10 years, they’re laughing to the bank because of what they charge for their services.
Curry thinks the answer is for the provincial government to do what it’s done in the past when the private sector proved unable (or unwilling) to provide a necessary service (like electricity or telephones) in rural areas and step in and say, “We are gonna put in a fiber infrastructure to the entire province, down every single road in the province.”
Whether the government continued to own the system once it had built could be debated — Curry says the province could “sell it off to someone later” or follow the example of a town like Olds, Alberta, which owns its fiber-op system and leases it to other ISPs.
In Cedar Lake, says Curry:
Our long-range plan is to replace our wireless with…fiber. And once we do that, we may approach Eastlink and say, “Look, we put all the infrastructure in. Do you want to take it over?” And then see what they say. But that’s sort of like baking a beautiful, triple-layer cake and saying, “Here, do you guys want to eat it?”
If the notion of a small community building its own fiber-op network sounds like science fiction to you, then you clearly haven’t heard about Broadband for the Rural North Ltd or B4RN, which, full disclosure, I hadn’t heard of until Gerry Curry told me about it on Monday.
It’s a company that provides 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) fiber-op internet to rural communities in Lancashire, England. It’s worth reading the whole BBC article on the subject, but the crux of it is that it began when a self-described “farmer’s wife” named Chris Condor decided to help out a neighbor:
It all began when the trees which separated Chris’s neighbouring farm from its nearest wireless mast – their only connection to the internet, provided by Lancaster University – grew too tall.
Something more robust was required, and no alternatives were available in the area, so Chris decided to take matters into her own hands.
She purchased a kilometre of fibre-optic cable and commandeered her farm tractor to dig a trench.
After lighting the cable, the two farms were connected, with hers feeding the one behind the trees.
“We dug it ourselves and we lit [the cable] ourselves and we proved that ordinary people could do it,” she says.
“It wasn’t rocket science. It was three days of hard work.”…
Each household pays £30 per month with a £150 connection fee and larger businesses pay more. Households must also do some of the installation themselves.
Most landowners have given the group access to their property free of charge (and have even pitched in with their tractors to do the heavy digging). And while Condor freely admits alternative providers like B4RN can’t service the entire country, she says they can force the bigger providers to up their game — in terms of both price and speed — in order to compete.
Condor says the effort has brought farmers and village dwellers together, a side-effect of DIY broadband Curry has also noted in Nova Scotia:
It’s brought the whole community together. We are a true cooperative — all the money gets funneled back in, no one’s making any money out of this and it’s really brought us together and we have social events now.
This is kind of a unique area. The side of the lake that I live on is in Yarmouth County, the other side is in Digby County, because the County line goes right through the lake. And the people over there never had much to do with the people over here. And now we’re all good neighbors.
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