Electronic Design
Broadband For Everyone

Broadband For Everyone

Back in February 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and President Obama signed it. As part of this legislation, Congress asked the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to produce a comprehensive plan to bring broadband technology to all the citizens of the U.S.

The FCC submitted its plan to Congress on March 15, 2010. Now, the FCC wants to move forward to implement the plan, which calls for a mix of new regulations that will have an effect on you and on the electronics industry (see “The FCC Outlines Its Long-Term Goals”).

BROADBAND STATS

Creating a national broadband plan requires some knowledge of the broadband connectivity that exists now (see “Defining Broadband”). We have had broadband for many years, and its penetration into U.S. households is significant. But the federal government wants everybody to have access to it.

To help assess the current broadband situation, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a division of the Commerce Department, recently surveyed consumers. The NTIA is the government’s own telecom and spectrum regulator, just like the FCC is the regulator for business and consumer communications.

The NTIA surveyed 54,000 homes and 129,000 citizens in October 2009 and announced its results were announced in February 2010. The report, Digital Nation, 21st Century America’s Progress Toward Universal Broadband Internet Access,” is available at www.ntia.doc.gov/reports/2010/NTIA_internet_use_report_Feb2010.pdf.

According to the survey, as of October 2009, 68.7% of U.S. households had Internet access (Fig. 1). That includes all forms of access from dial-up to fiber. But 63.5% had some broadband connectivity. That’s pretty good penetration, and the percentage is increasing each year in double-digit jumps. If we did nothing without any incentive or regulation, I suspect we would easily get to almost 80% penetration by 2012.

Jason Blackwell, director of digital home at ABI Research, confirms those figures. According to ABI’s surveys, at the end of 2009 there were 78.2 million broadband subscribers in 121 million households for a 64% percentage.

Those with broadband include younger whites and Asians with higher incomes as well as residents who are more highly educated. Those without include residents with low incomes, seniors, minorities, the less educated, and those in rural areas with no access. Those without broadband are roughly 35% of the population today. The broadband plan is intended to serve this latter group.

Those who do not have a broadband connection (Fig. 2) offer a variety of reasons why they don’t. The largest group (37.8%) says they don’t need it, nor are they interested. Another 26.3% say it is too expensive. And amazingly, 18.3% don’t even have a computer. Only 3.6% said that broadband was not available.

THE PLAN

The FCC’s plan is really just a set of recommendations for action by all concerned including the FCC, Congress, industry, the states, and individuals. If you are in any way connected to or influenced by broadband, you should read the plan. It is a 360-page monster but not that bad to read. Go to the FCC’s broadband Web site, www.broadband.gov, and download it.

The plan begins by emphasizing how important Internet access is to all of us. For example, in 1995, the early days of broadband, consumers only used the Internet about one hour per month. That jumped to 15 hours a month in 2000. Today, estimates say we are each using the Internet 29 hours per month.

The average connection consumes roughly 9 Gbytes of data per month. However, that rate is increasing at more than 30% annually. The Internet service providers (ISPs) have been keeping up. But as video increasingly consumes more bandwidth, their ability to grow will get tougher and more expansive. Video and TV are converging on the Internet both at home and on mobile devices. ISP expansion must be relentless to keep up.

The ISPs have generally done well by increasing their subscriptions and data capacity. The cable companies have been on an expansion plan to upgrade the hybrid fiber networks over the past few years with DOCSIS 3.0. This latest version of the Data Over Cable Service Interface Specification standard of CableLabs provides the framework for speeds to 100 Mbits/s to each home. It will be expensive, but it will be available. You can already get a 50-Mbit/s cable connection in some parts of the country.

AT&T and Quest, two large DSL providers, have upgraded their systems with fiber to a neighborhood node. Then they use ADSL2+ or VDSL to get IPTV video to customers over their plan-old telephone service (POTS) twisted pairs. That rollout will continue. On the other hand, Verizon went the fiber route with fiber to the home (FTTH). Its FiOS fiber system provides 50 to 100 Mbits/s to up to 17 million subscribers.

The wireless providers aren’t far behind. A rollout of 3G data services has been ongoing with Verizon adding advanced versions of cdma2000 EV-DO and AT&T adding HSPA to their WCDMA offerings. T-Mobile and some other smaller carriers are still in a 3G expansion mode. Downlink speeds are said to be multiple megabits/s. But in real-world wireless environments, actual rates rarely exceed 600 kbits/s. Under ideal link conditions, it is possible to achieve speeds greater than 5 Mbits/s, but they are not typical.

That will change as the carriers upgrade to 4G. Sprint and Clearwire are there first with their WiMAX offerings. In fixed service, these companies say their downlink speeds are in the 4- to 7-Mbit/s range. Verizon will provision Long-Term Evolution (LTE) this year, immediately boosting downlink speeds to up to 10 Mbits/s. AT&T will deploy LTE in 2011. Others like MetroPCS and T-Mobile are expected to follow. Look also for some femtocell deployments that will further boost wireless broadband capability.

Overall, the companies that provide broadband have done a good job. Speeds have increased steadily as technology and economics have allowed. Wireless lags, but that is expected as it is a tougher environment to conquer. We are getting there as wireless continues to adopt orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing (OFDM) systems and technology like multiple-input multiple output (MIMO).

The FCC wants the U.S. to lead the world in broadband innovation and investment and especially to ensure that all Americans have access to modern broadband and the benefits it enables. In a way, we have already been on that path for a decade or more. But the FCC feels that its influence and regulation can foster increased innovation and investment.

The FCC believes the plan can help four key areas. First, by keeping track of who is doing what, the FCC can use its many regulatory tools to increase competition in every sector on a case by case basis. Second, the plan could really help provide more spectrum for wireless. If wireless is to succeed, it needs more bandwidth for broadband systems. The FCC is promising big spectrum chunks to auction off in the near future.

Third, the FCC can influence and control resources like pole attachments and rights-of-way access to lower infrastrcture costs. Finally, the FCC will invest in research whose return on investment (ROI) is greater for society in general rather than it is just for industry.

Additionally, the public can expect digital educational content development. There also will be Smart Grid information services and devices. And, the plan will yield first responder benefits such as reasonably priced handsets and full broadband capability.

SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS

The FCC promises more wireless spectrum over the next decade. The idea is to make up to 500 MHz available by 2020 and 300 MHz within five years. That really will be needed if wireless is to be a major part of broadband. Wireless will play a major role, as it may be the most economical and practical way to provide service to rural areas and small communities without service now. The FCC will auction off that spectrum for billions that could help the broadband initiatives.

Where does the spectrum come from? The FCC wants TV broadcasters to give up any unused spectrum they have now and share in the auction result. That’s not a bad idea. But will the broadcasters buy that approach, or will the FCC just take it?

Another positive recommendation is for a nationwide interoperable broadband service to be established for public safety first responders. The idea was put forth before the spectrum auction in 2008. The FCC set aside a 10-MHz block in the 700-MHz spectrum for public service. That block of spectrum was not auctioned, as no one could figure out a business model for the proposed public-private partnership.

Now the FCC is including this goal with the broadband plan and will try again to auction off the so-called D block. The difference now is that the FCC has asked Congress to come up with $12 billion to $16 billion to pay for this network. There’s no doubt some tax will be collected to fund this, but overall it will be a small price to pay for the security that such a nationwide system can provide.

The recommendation to use the Internet to help education is also good. Most of the specific recommendations direct the Department of Education to improve public education through more online content and e-learning for schools. This would include support for better Internet connections between schools and libraries and the development of online study materials.

With most new jobs requiring knowledge and skills only available through post-secondary education, more and more citizens need access to schools and materials that are not widely available now. More online learning sooner could mitigate the problems this is causing for citizens and employers.

To pay for all these new services, the FCC recommends repurposing the existing Universal Service Fund (USF) to create the Connect America Fund (CAF), which would provide support for those without broadband. We have all been paying into the USF for decades as we have been paying our phone bills. The CAF would fund broadband Internet service for low-income Americans. The money has to come from somewhere if we really are going to do this, so perhaps moving from the USF to the CAF is the way to go since we have been paying for years anyway.

INTERPRETING THE INITIATIVE

I’m inclined to say we don’t need a broadband initiative. The Internet and broadband are growing nicely on their own. No government intrusion, regulation, or incentive is needed. Regulation could mean more taxes, and it might not be good for the industry or the economy either.

On the other hand, there are some really good things in the plan. For example, any broadband growth is great for the electronics industry. Also, the wireless industry will get at least some of the spectrum it needs to keep growing. Rural areas, minorities, and other underserved groups will get broadband to bring them into the 21st century, but probably at an additional expense to those who already have it.

The improvements to education and a broadband public first responder network are benefits as well. We need both of those. I just don’t see the broadband plan helping the healthcare industry that much or any significant benefit to the Smart Grid for a decade. But who really knows what additional benefits we will derive from more broadband? If we build it, they will come. Maybe.

Let’s say most of the plan is already implemented. How will the industry be affected? First, if we do get 100 million folks with 100-Mbit/s equipment, the Internet backbone will undergo traffic stress like it has never seen before. Net neutrality routinely implies last-mile access for services like cable, DSL, and wireless.

If we get to the magical numbers of 100-Mbit/s access to 100 million homes, just think of the impact on the fiber backbone. While not all homes will use that bandwidth, some will create an even greater data glut. We will automatically see more applications and services that take advantage of this superior communications link. Will the backbone be in overload? At some point, it has to.

Yes, we are working toward the 40-Gbit/s and 100-Gbit/s backbone right now, but it is certainly not pervasive. Already, many segments of the Internet are at 40-Gbit/s rates, and the technology is just about in place for 100 Gbits/s using both Carrier Ethernet and the optical transport network (OTN) standards. 40-Gbit/s Sonet/SDH systems will continue to serve.

Will it be enough by 2020? At a recent conference, several carriers and vendors discussed work on the next-stage bandwidth increase, which I thought was ridiculous. But now, I’m not so sure. Service providers like YouTube and Facebook would love to see the next level in the works, like a 400-Gbit/s core. And some say it isn’t too early to begin thinking about a 1-Tbit/s backbone.

Another factor is the huge cost to upgrade the wireless networks. With the mobile Internet being a key growth sector, we will need more 3G basestations, faster 4G systems like LTE and WiMAX, and a super upgrade to all the related backhaul. Think major capital expenditures.

The FCC’s plan is mostly positive. Many will buy into all of it, while others will resist the heavy-handed regulation that could end up being implemented. Net neutrality still looms as a regulatory possibility (see “Net Neutrality’s Impact On The Broadband Expansion”). Let’s hope the FCC and Congress go easy on us. We all want the benefits but with minimal new taxes and other restrictions. The big unknown is the cost (see “Whatever Happened To The Broadband Stimulus Money?”).

The FCC says most of the recommendations do not require government funding and instead drive increases in efficiency. There are funding requests for the public safety recommendations as well as for implementing the deployment of broadband to underserved areas. Spectrum auctions will offset many costs, but the private sector will still have to come up with some big bucks to implement an infrastructure that will meet potential government mandates. I have heard estimates of several hundred billion dollars to implement this plan.

Lance Wilson, research director for wireless infrastructure at ABI Research, reminds us that the plan is not a mandate. Despite the fact that he believes the plan is a good one, he does not see much future action on it given the current political environment in an election year. He believes that the next 10 years will be chaos as industry goes its own way. He also says that what we really need is cheaper broadband. We can all agree on that. Places in Europe and Asia have broadband rates at half that or less of what we pay here in the U.S. That should be one of the guiding goals. 

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