Tales from the Towers Chapter 53: It’s time to Point-to-Point out a few things

Over the last few months, it’s become painfully evident that the concept of government of the people, by the people, and for the people has morphed into government gives us the business, is run by business, and is there to serve business.

The real power lies with the geriatric leaders of the House and Senate who listened to Cecil and Beanie live during the golden age of radio. They usually do what they are told by the special interest groups that keep them in office (the average age of the leadership of the House and Senate is 72 years old, so some of those relationships have been around a long, long time). These are the people who support this clueless ideologue of a President (I’ve been asked to take it easy on Obama here because after all, this is his first real job, so consider this me being nice), who has now corrupted what can only be described as a politically dysfunctional agency, the FCC. Yes, the same FCC run by T-Tommy Wheeler, who must be really proud of his accomplishments so far and who has now taken feckless to another level and allowed his agency to become as bad as the House and the Senate. There is no doubt that after T-Tommy (see previous article to understand his nickname) spent his entire tenure trying to thread the needle between special interests that own the current administration and his lobbying business clientele, he was completely undermined by the President.

Obama’s ultimate goal is control of the Internet by the government and a few large companies that have close ties to the government, plus higher taxes and the suppression of innovative technologies and ideas. Basically, every time the government imposes new taxes or new regulations, industries hunker down and then spend time trying to work around whatever damage the government has done to that industry. The only people who really know are the lobbyists that helped draft the legislation (GE is the master of this technique, they paid fewer taxes than the kid who mows my lawn). I used to be able to figure out what the government was up to by just following the money, but nowadays my head hurts just thinking about it. Although the players are now evident — Google, Amazon, NetFlix, and Apple — their purchase of influence may be unethical but it’s legal and understandable. At this point though, between a self-serving FCC Director/ex-lobbyist and a President with the economic acumen of Paul Krugman combined with the political negotiating abilities of Attila the Hun (really, I’m still being nice considering what I wrote the first time that my wife made me take out), this is just a disaster in waiting for the American taxpayer.

Obama’s latest move with Title II includes allowing cities and counties, the same entities that threw up all the regulatory road blocks and created monopolistic infrastructures though political favoritism, to install their own broadband networks. Basically they make it prohibitively expensive and even create anti-competitive environments, so they have an excuse to use taxpayer money to compete with companies to further destroy the free-market system. Of course, private companies would get millions of dollars to install it through their normal process of semi-rigged bidding systems. The FCC just had Dish Network cheat them out of $3B dollars in the most recent auction for AWS-3 spectrum, so forgive me if I’m cynical that this process is going to be ethical or efficient.

Unfortunately, the WISP industry in the US, both manufacturers and Service Providers, is now spending a boatload of money, wasting a lot of engineering talent, and getting a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out what to do next. When the rules are changed in the middle of the game because some bureaucrat had his feelings hurt from some minor rule infraction, the industry shouldn’t be destroyed over it. Innovation in the WISP industry slowed down significantly in 2014 because of the implementation of rule changes without any feedback or what looks like any intelligent thought as to the ramifications. Further edicts in the beginning of 2015 by the POTUS have now sown even more uncertainty in the industry. That would be the same industry that has shown innovation and an ability to connect America anywhere, anytime at prices that would make fiber supporters cry like Seahawk fans.

Personally, I’m pretty tired of all of it. I haven’t been in this industry as long as many others, but I did have the experience of seeing how a disruptive concept can be successfully implemented and how it changed the landscape. Another thing I’ve seen is that even with all the roadblocks that government keeps putting in the way of new business, the idea of the American Dream hasn’t stopped the real drivers behind the economy. Although it’s important that our industry keep fighting for some semblance of common sense and integrity with the FCC and whoever is pulling Obama’s and Wheeler’s strings, it’s also not as important as losing focus on the next wave of wireless technologies and capabilities. Therefore, I’ve decided that even though I’ll watch what the FCC does in case I need to change my future plans, I’m not going to waste my breath or any more articles on ideologues, corrupt and unethical politicians (see, I didn’t even mention Obama in this sentence), and bought-and-paid-for appointed bureaucrats (slot in T-Tommy here). These people simply don’t have the right to be mentioned in the same breath as hard-working Americans, entrepreneurs, or honest taxpayers that pay for the government. And I’m pretty sure that no matter how inept they are, they aren’t going to stop the WISP industry’s efforts to compete in the broadband industry. They simply can’t conceive that there are people in this country that can do things without government intervention and have a work ethic that exceeds their political ideologies and the actual importance of the job.

Getting back to the technical stuff again, it’s time to start re-evaluating the RF environment that the FCC has created (or damaged depending on how you look at it). The first problem is that the traditional rural model has been the most affected by this change. The question is, how do rural providers get around this problem within the realm of the limits of physics and legal power issues? The answer is the same one that we have used in urban areas, but not the one the industry is jumping at as a technical solution. At the same time, rural operators are willing to either walk away from some customers or are willing to accept reduced bandwidth options due to the physics of getting signal through trees or long distances which I don’t see as an acceptable solution. I personally don’t find walking away from customers a viable alternative because if they aren’t your customers, they will be someone else’s.

I know my suggestion isn’t the most popular and clearly doesn’t work in every situation, but it’s very possible that the best answer is simply a relayed (point-to-point) PTP-PTP-PTP-PTP and so on system (we’ve done 5 hops and are planning longer). The FCC changes the rules, we have to change the way we think and although this is a repeat, I believe it’s now even more important to reconsider. We all know how to build this type of system. Moreover, equipment failures are now less frequent. Other than having to make a lot of new friends and approaching complete strangers to ask to borrow their roof for a few years, it’s a completely viable technology. Face it, users in the middle of nowhere need more capacity and this model can fill in some holes. In addition, 802.11n radios from Ubiquiti and Cambium that cost less than $100 can hit 120+Mbps with line-of-sight (LOS). The speed, distance, quality mantra applies here and if you can move radios closer, it’s much better.

I know that most rural areas are usually connected by towers, but the equipment has changed since the early days of Canopy, at least to everyone using Cambium ePMP or Ubiquiti radios. 100Mbps to 400Mbps+ PTP connections can be made for less than $200-$400. If you need a router or NEMA box, that might add $100-$150 more. That means a house that can be a relay point to get around trees or hills really only costs $100-$250 more than not needing a relay point. We always mount the NEMA box on the outer wall and put everything in there. With all the spectrum available, especially in rural areas, this model can hook up a lot of houses that don’t need to see a tower and minimize the amount of vegetation that needs to be penetrated.

The only problem with this idea is that you might have to provide the owner of the house with some type of discount. In some areas, we give them free Internet. If we are giving away free Internet, then we expect to connect to several more clients than we could before. In other locations, we simply give them a free indoor router and priority service. If it’s a rural area and we are the only game in town, then our contract states that for us to provide Internet service, that user must allow the house to be a relay point if necessary. I’m fully aware that many of you think of houses as a pain in the rear and unprofessional since they aren’t anywhere nearly as reliable as a tower. For example, what happens if a user turns off the electricity, moves, or someone disconnects the equipment? We have clauses that say that users are required to provide electricity, 24-hour access, etc., and we have all equipment outside the house. Users that are relayed through those locations are also notified that their SLA agreement is different because we may not have control of a user relay point that can take us offline.

Over the past 7 years, we have had a couple of incidents where we had to move the equipment but ended up with no downtime (except for the apparently really hungry psycho rabbit that must have mistaken the cable for a Twizzler). In most cases though, when we sign a contract, we scout multiple locations that we can relay from just in case we have to move something. I suspect in many rural areas, there may be only one path. Negotiations with homeowners should include discussions about how long they plan on being in the residence, possible credit check to establish stability even though you may not be charging them, and if they are renters or owners (yes, that should be first, we got fooled on that once). And although we haven’t done it yet, we are currently looking at using the houses to create redundant loop or pseudo mesh on the backhauls. It only adds $100 per backhaul house since routers are really cheap nowadays.

If you don’t think this is a great idea, consider this. Mimosa is still working diligently to get more spectrum up at 10GHz. If that happens, vegetation and distance are going to be twice as difficult as 5GHz. However, it’s also opens up a boatload of spectrum we greatly need and if making it work means getting closer to the clients, this is one way to do it. Yes, Ham Operators are going to be up in arms over losing some spectrum or at least be unhappy in sharing it but in reality, it’s barely being used. Considering that this country is about 3.8M square miles, many ways can be found to make it work where most people will be happy, except possibly the AARL (that should get me a lot of email).

With the reduction in power by the FCC in 5.8GHz, this may be the only way to reach many houses, or at least reach them with any level of capacity. We have great technologies coming out like LTE and White Space, but they just don’t have the spectrum to meet future needs of the video streaming community, at least not yet (another way to block WISPS from competing with the cellular companies). Then consider that the cost of tower deployments for these products may exceed $10K. Don’t get me wrong, these products are absolutely needed in many areas and may be the only choice. However, using 802.11 equipment to relay shorter distances at higher speeds, especially through vegetative environments, also looks like a pretty good option. I’ve used this technique for many years and with new low-cost 802.11ac radios from Ubiquiti and Mimosa coming to market, it means that moving hundreds of Mbps for very little cost is going to become another tool in the toolbox.

About Rory Conaway

Rory Conaway has been in the IT and Wireless Industries for the past 25 years as an author and consultant. He currently operates a growing WISP operation in Southern Arizona. He consults with investors, manufacturers, and WISPs, and develops financial business models for startups. In addition to writing articles in industry publications such as Mission Critical Magazine, Mr. Conaway also writes the series “Tales from the Towers” that can be found on various such as www.triadwireless.net and www.muniwireless.com. He has also engineered several wireless designs such as S.P.I.R.I.T. and Guerilla Wireless as well as building integrated wireless and video surveillance for airport security, municipal and critical infrastructure, SCADA systems, and hotel/MDU deployments.

Comments

  1. Hi Rory:
    New Delhi (India) government is planning for a Muni wireless network across the city ( 1400 sq km, population 20 million) with carpet coverage outdoors. The government plans to bridge the information inequity through Right to Internet and are looking at Wi–Fi as quick and viable option to bridge the gap.
    The project is still at exploration phase and various options are being looked at offering cheap options. Just wondering given your experience, what would you propose as a short term ( 2 years(as well as a long term ( 5 to 6 years) solution. on top of it, govt also plans to put 150,000 CCTV cameras across the city.

    Your advise or any other suggestion from the group is welcome.

  2. I’ve been approached by a couple of different groups looking at this. I also know a company that currently has some infrastructure out there now.

    The scope of this project is the actual challenge and that it is going to take a huge amount of fiber for backhaul. As for the cheap solutions, there are many but they all come with compromises. In addition, I guarantee that the bigger players would provide discounts that would make WalMart blush to be part of this deal. However, most of them would be counting on long-term yearly support agreements and that cost alone could break this project over 5 years.

    The advantage to a project in New Delhi is the cost of labor is actually going to be less than the equipment whereas in most projects, it’s the other way around. That gives you a lot more flexibility. At the same time, the more AP’s you put up, the more interference you create.

    Here is the reality, this project is so huge and so many details have to be balanced against 100 other details, that nothing I or anyone will tell you here will be good advice until the expectations of the project are discussed and hashed out with the people funding it. Those have to be documented so tightly and exactly that there is no doubt, no room for interpretation, and completely quantifiable. This must be done long before this project even starts.

    My advice is that you bring in 3 experts, all with different experience sets, and you have them develop a model and specifications with all the budgets, design capabilities, compromises, and gotchas they can come up with. That is going to take 6-12 months and cost $500,000-$1,000,000 to do it right. If you don’t, this project will never meet expectations and will either cost more than budgeted or will never work the way everyone expected. Basically, nobody will be happy. This is how governments work so do it right, make a plan and make everyone stick by it. If you don’t, the project will fail.

  3. Hi Rory: Thanks for the response. One basic question, from a 5 year or a 10 year perspective what should be the broadband speed target for the govt. 100 Mbps or gig? Or more 🙂
    Two things seem clear from your answer
    1. Rollout is not possible without fibre. Fibre is must for back haul. Wireless may not work this scenario.
    2. Good citywide planning and design is a must before rollout happens.

    Delhi has some fibre from private operators but have no idea about the total Kms as this is not in public domain.

    On a separate note, what do you think should be the structure of the organisation rolling out the project? Should govt deploy and own all the fibre and then have multiple operators roll out the service ( say Singapore model of netco and opco) or just pay private operators to roll out? In one of your previous article ( related to LA) I got a sense that you prefer the Singapore model.

    Last question, do you think there is an opportunity to make the project zero cost project while providing 100% free wifi/ internet up to certain usage ( e.g., from 4g towers using the backhauk, ads, allowing third parties to run services like IPTV, etc)

  4. One question i missed. From outdoor equipment perspective which are best equipment vendor options we have- current vs future.

  5. Rajeevr, please understand that as much as I wish your project well, no answer I give here has any value without a whole lot more information on the project. I can’t answer the questions you ask because I don’t know enough about the project, the people running it, the goals, etc… and any person or vendor who tells you anything either has an agenda or is simply too arrogant to realize they aren’t qualified. All of your questions will be answered by the team you hire to design your project. And this isn’t just an engineering feat, this is an entire business with deep political association. There is no answers until someone defines the project. That’s why you want consultants who know the area, the politics, the business model, and the technology. When all that is done, you will have your answers.

  6. get it, Rory. Let me get some ore details on the project.

  7. The most important detail is who is the consultants. Period. If the government goes out to bid and expects the vendors to design it, walk away. This isn’t that type of project and no vendor is going to spend the time and money to do this right (and they have a bias) without a guarantee of payment. The first bid should be for the consultants, all three of them. This project is too big for any one firm and you will be limited in ideas.

  8. I agree with you. I need one clarification. You said “The first bid should be for the consultants, all three of them.”. What do you mean by “all three of them”? which three are u referring to?

    Secondly, if we were looking at an independent consultants, can u suggest some possible names ( In india if possible) and what kind of tentative budget and time do we need?

  9. I only know 1 in India. I also know a company that can do the project management although I’ll have to send that to you offline. This project either requires a consultant with a full staff or if it was me, I would actually hire 3 consultants and assign 1 of them as the manager. This project is too big and the potential for failure is just too high. I would go out of the box on this project, find 3 experts and create a team of 3 people on the client side. By the time this group is done, you should have ever single location where equipment goes, network diagrams, parts list down to almost every screw, test site with actual metrics, billing system screen shots, deployment schedules, site lease contracts signed, electrical diagrams, router configurations, labor rquirements, shipping schedules, budget, etc… I’m not suggesting a consulting group to give you idea, I’m suggesting a team that hands you the entire blueprint of the project so the next step is to start hanging APs.