Thursday, December 16, 2010

Untangling Wireless and Wired Services

Some of the (technologically) innocent bystanders are confused.  They can't make sense of the technical and political discussions about broadband internet access in Maine.  Herewith I offer a bit of "disambiguation", as the folks at Wikipedia call it.  It is my attempt to simplify by categorizing the players and their promotional messages:

The Maine broadband problem lies in connecting a business or home user to information systems and services of his/her choice with sufficient speed and stability and at an affordable cost.  Not that the user has a choice of devices and the place(s) from which those devices must be usable.

In my view, this is really two problems:

Fixed location connectivity -- Internet access for homes, businesses and institutions.

Mobile device connectivity -- Network access for plain cell phones, ever-smarter smartphones, and netbooks, tablets, and laptops with 3G  and 4G modems.

The long-term answer to broadband service at fixed locations is wire.  This may be copper in the midterm, as long as optical fiber continues to be used in upgrading links to neighborhoods.  In a decade, however, fiber to the premises will make sense for a large number of customers.  High-bandwidth applications involving video are driving the evolution of internet services globally.  Only fiber can economically provide the capacity needed to meet business and home services expectations into the future.   Even though  mobile broadband technologies like 3G and 4G offer high nominal speed, the mushrooming demand for these services on mobile devices will certainly "outbid" fixed location used for new capacity as it comes available.

Fixed wireless service will remain as a fall-back for truly isolated sites fixed locations.  However, the economic viability of this service will decline as wired broadband fills in the gaps in lesser populated areas and current fixed wireless users switch over.

Localities that lack broadband now are more likely to get new DSL service from a phone company than new cable internet service, I think.  DSL requires high quality linkage from a phone company central office facility to the remote distribution nodes that serve neighborhoods (Remote Terminals).  This may mean running new fiber to that single location.  However, cable TV expansion requires new cable on every street and to the premises of every subscriber.  The difference in deployment cost has to be enormous.  While cable companies may derive additional revenue in return for the television services they are also able to sell to new customers, this too is likely to be dependent on customer demographics -- number of households per mile of new wire and disposable income of those customer. 

Of course, the situation may be reversed in special situations where an existing cable infrastructure can be easily extended to cover immediately contiguous streets without running new backhaul capacity.

Mobile devices require one of the mobile broadband technologies broadly categorized as 3G (faster, higher capacity) or 4G (even faster and higher capacity).  Because of the higher price of services based on these technologies, as well as low usage caps, they offer at most a stopgap, last-resort answer to the fixed location problem. 

What Maine needs is more broadband transponders on existing cell towers, more cell towers in areas with poor mobile coverage, and probably increased backhaul capacity that will allow cell providers to avoid local bottlenecks in getting to the Internet.  It could really use more competition in the hinterlands where Verizon and/or U. S. Cellular are the only vendors.

In short, Maine needs two robust service networks for two distinct sets of needs.  And it needs them everywhere there are people attempting to live and thrive, economically and personally in Maine.

We Got Ours!

It was Thanksgiving week, appropriately enough, when some anonymous staffer at FairPoint changed the DSL availability widget on the company website to signify that one could sign up for wired broadband in Northport.  I put in my order bright and early Monday, Nov 30.  I was up and running a week later, happy as a clam sifting sand at 7 Mpbs.  Finally!  For $39.95/mo compared to the $60.00/mo I had been paying for Verizon Mobile Broadband, sub-megabit download speed, and the 5 GB/month download cap.  (I could have gotten 15 Mbps for $49.95.  Given the rapidity of big downloads and the smooth performance of streaming audio and video work at 7 Mbps, however, I have no need right now for the faster service. )

I was sent a self-install kit ahead of time, and a technician.  The kit consisted of a Westell-branded black box encompassing the functions of DSL modem, router, four-port 100 Mbps switch, wireless access point.  Impressive.

Usually, DSL devices are a "plug and play" exercise for the homeowner.  Just plug the box into a phone jack, put the supplied filters on the jacks used by voice phones and you're done.  This time, however, the technician was needed.  When the box failed to sync up with the network he tweaked the local RT.  While apparently necessary, this was not sufficient.  It turns out that the box is a new model that supports FP's new ADSL2 technology.  The sign-in process is different than for older DSL equipment.  My guess is that the process will be smoother for subsequent users.

Interestingly, the kit was supplied by a Pennsylvania-based corporate unit of Verizon. 

Unfortunately for others in Northport, the rest of the town that is outside the area served by our neighborhood remote terminal cannot yet get the service.  When I checked recently, the FP website had been updated to reflect that.  Apparently the work done so far on the other RT's in town was not by itself sufficient to make them fully operational.  We were lucky that our RT is just down the road from the Edna Drinkwater School, a Maine School and Library Network site to which FP had already deployed optical fiber.  We needed just a couple hundred yards of line for the RT link.  The RT's, if not already connected, will likely need several miles of new optical cable.  Still, the work already done indicates that the process of connecting the rest of the town is at least underway.

So, enough about my needs...