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Can Hybrid Wired/Wireless Infrastructure Stop the Broadband Hype?

As long as there are vendors and providers, there’s always going to be hype. But hopefully the hybrid approach will keep the hype in check so community network buildouts can surge head.

In the 1960s, a musical debuted called Stop the World, I Want to Get Off in which the storyline followed the life of a character named Littlechap. At crazy points in Littlechap's life, he would call out, “Stop the world!” and talk directly to the audience.

Communities trying to wrap their brains around Wi-Fi and its Wxyz variations and several flavors of fixed wireless can probably relate. We have fiber. Wait, here comes gig fiber. No, wait again, gig wireless. Every week, it seems, there’s the next “new development” followed by a mind-numbing array of press releases, articles and Ted talks. IT leaders probably wish they could say, "Stop the hype in the broadband world! We want to get off!"

Now that wireless can comfortably reach 40 to 50 Mbps in the home and gig wireless capacity backhaul is working in the field, can hybrid wired/wireless infrastructure dial back some of the hype?

Wired/wireless hybrids have a long history

In 2005, Axcess Ontario launched in western New York. Foregoing employees, the nonprofit created a board of directors and retained firms with the talents needed to run a telecom business that sells dark fiber.

The board retains ECC Technologies Inc. to handle network design, oversee construction, and manage marketing, sales and customer service. Axcess Ontario, which facilitates wireless and wired deployments through dark fiber sales to carriers and businesses, formed a public-private partnership that includes Ontario County, the Ontario County Industrial Development Agency, local businesses and carriers.

“Empire Access, for example, brought fiber to the home in Naples, N.Y., a rural village of 2,500,” said  ECC Director of Broadband Services Andy Lukasiewicz, adding that cellular carrier towers use Axcess Ontario fiber or get lit fiber from other carriers, and other providers get backhaul transport.

Then there's the Southern Tier Network (STN), a nonprofit that formed in January 2011 with three counties and now includes eight, and the partnership also includes Corning Inc., fiber and wireless providers, and ECC.

”Many providers are local or regional so they best understand the communities’ needs and challenges," said STN Chair Marcia Weber. "We expect an increase in wireless providers as the technology continues advancing.”

Reality check — reliable, affordable, secure and fast

To lower their susceptibility of getting caught up in the hype, community broadband planners could start by understanding that the average person doesn’t much care how they get their data, so long as it's reliable, affordable, secure and fast. Many variations of wireless — including fiber-powered Wi-Fi radios and almost all configurations of fiber — can meet those for criteria.

"Research tells us that even for a family of four, the biggest use of their home connection is for video,” said Jimmy Carr, CEO of All Points Broadband, a wireless Internet service provider (WISP). “Speed tests show Netflix takes, at most, 4 or 5 Mbps of bandwidth per person."

So rather than focus on speed, Carr says, policymakers, funding agencies and others should focus on unlimited data. "Because if you listen to consumers, that’s what they want," he added. "Fixed wireless with no data caps is the sweet spot where WISPs play. This bias against wireless is no longer grounded in reality.”

As far as ECC Technologies President Joe Starks is concerned, hybrid networks provide the needed underlying fiber capacity while embracing the flexibility of multiple technologies enabled by the fiber, whether that be fixed wireless, cellular, fiber to the home — whatever is needed.

“The cellular industry, and small cell in particular, is growing exponentially," he said. "A hybrid network allows for this growth by facilitating these last-mile solutions as they evolve.”

In Cleveland and other urban centers, there are economic considerations that point to wireless infrastructure as a practical and fiscally responsible way to improve broadband. That being said, however, cellular service may not be a wise wireless choice, particularly since most incumbents have data caps.

“Because of cost flexibility, we are experimenting with different business models, different pricing, maybe even different service levels, to figure out which variables works," said Ron Deus, CEO of regional WISP NetX. "We can look at online funding options, public partnerships, potentially free access for some, pay-as-you-go type of service for others.”

WISPs such as NetX and others have provided wireless services to individuals and companies in urban areas for several years.

Hybrids solve the cash and cash-flow dilemma

Ten Minnesota towns banded together, created a co-op named RS Fiber and designed a plan to link the towns under one network. The original plan called for a fiber backbone and fiber laterals to the premises. It was estimated to take three years to complete. RS Fiber would in 2018 pass another bond to finance the remaining buildout to the surrounding farmlands. In total, the entire network will cover over 600 miles, 10 towns and 2,500 farm sites, and cost $70 million.

HBC split the project into two phases and focused on the towns first. Starting in mid-2015, it used multiple crews to:

  1. build out the fiber ring;
  2. simultaneously run fiber to towers that held fixed wireless equipment; and then
  3. build fiber to the premises.
By the end of 2015, 90 percent of the residents got 25 Mbps symmetrical wireless service, and 70 percent had fiber by the end of 2016.

Wireless was the key because it allowed RS Fiber to collect $50,000 to $100,000 in monthly revenue and start retiring the debt because residents received service soon after the project started. It helped significantly that RS Fiber gave the go-ahead immediately while cities expedited permitting processes and access to vertical assets. HBC retained appropriate staff to conduct simultaneous buildouts.

“It was good we could use our own fiber ring for five of the towns, our own video head-end and several towns let us use vertical assets such as water towers,” said HBC CEO Dan Pecarina. “We installed point-to-point fixed wireless with 1-gig capacity to ensure every customer gets 25 Mbps symmetrical.”

Craig Settles assists cities and co-ops with business planning for broadband and telehealth. He has surveyed economic development professionals nationwide about the impact of telehealth and community broadband, and offers guidance for federal grant proposals for broadband, telehealth, or other digital projects.