The Million Dollar Question: Can We Use Wireless Technologies to Provide the Last Mile of Connectivity to Save Money?

One of the most common questions about the Lakeland fiber project is how the Last Mile should be connected to the network. For those unaware, the Last Mile is a term that means the final step between the internet cable infrastructure and a person’s home or place of business. In the industry, this is typically the most expensive part of infrastructure deployment and has been at the heart of the discussion with the Municipal Fiber project.

Over the years, many people have promised technologies that would bridge the gap, simplify the connection process, and ultimately reduce costs of an infrastructure’s deployment. These promises usually started with grandiose visions of a wireless future free of wires, until the dust settled and reality set in.

Wireless technologies are nothing new

The first wireless device was created in 1894, over 125 years ago. And yet we still use cables plug in our TV’s, PC’s & laptops. Remember when satellite TV was hailed as the ultimate competitor to cable 30 years ago? Or when 20 years ago industry insiders hailed WiFi as the ultimate cable killer? What about 10 years ago when Telecom companies offered “unlimited” data plans on their LTE networks? Despite all of those promises, the trusted method of communication is still wired technology.

The King is Grandaddy Fiber

Fiber optic cables continue to be the arbiters of our data. Every second, billions of photons travel through a strand the width of a human hair, in a tunnel 10 microns wide. These photons are traveling close to the speed of light, at almost 300 million meters per second. Fiber technologies have a leg up on almost any other data transfer medium because it has physics on its side.
Another key advantage of fiber is that it requires less maintenance than other upcoming technologies. There are very few moving parts, and with the ability to traverse 10+ miles without having to use repeaters, you can significantly reduce the logistics to deliver the data.

What About 5G?

5G, 5G, 5G….. It’s a term that carries the same weight as the “cloud” did 5 years ago. 5G is an ambiguous term that needs to be broken down so that we can be sure we’re talking about the same thing.

Five years from now, when we all look down at our phones, we all will see the 5G in the top corner of our screens. However, that won’t tell the whole story. The truth is that 5G is quite a few different technologies all bundled up into one word.

How 5G Works

One of 5G’s features is an increase in the “modulation” density of the signal. Microprocessors chop up our data into little tiny bits that are put into the radio wave before its sent across the air. The number of chops a microprocessor can get per wave, the faster our speeds. Scientists have gotten extremely good at encoding these bits into the radio wave, and 5G is no exception. The problem is that the modulation techniques scale linearly, so it’s getting harder and harder to squeeze more data into the same spectrum.

5G Key Component: Millimeter Waves

Engineers also use another technique with 5G. They started using MMwave technology. Radio waves are a lot like waves in an ocean; the choppier the wave, the higher the frequency and the bigger the wave, the higher the amplitude.

Engineers also have figured out an ingenious way to send more data in a shorter amount of time. They just make choppier waves. If they send more waves in the same period of time, then they can send more data. However, there’s a problem; just like how choppy waves have trouble traversing objects in the water (think of a boat hull diminishing choppy wake), small radio waves can’t go through dense objects or heavy rain and suffer from refraction issues.

So that’s the heart of the issue.

As we increase speed with 5G, we decrease reliability and transmission distance. Scientists are trying to use advanced techniques to get around this issue, like beamforming, phased arrays, and MIMO technology. These technologies can alleviate some of the issues with the technology but at this point its a stop-gap.

Murphy’s Law Strikes Again

When things are complicated, they often break down a lot and require a lot of maintenance. If you don’t believe me, ask a BMW owner.

5G is a lot like a fancy Porsche or BMW. Fast and pretty, but it may not be the best way to get your kids to soccer practice.

I believe 5G is going to be great for certain things. It’s going to be utilized in dense urban areas like downtowns, auditoriums, and trade shows. 5G technology will require your phone to constantly change towers to accommodate the finicky signal. And for the most part, your phone will seamlessly transition from one node to the next when the signal degrades. Eventually, it’s going to go out, and you know what? You’ll curse it and move on. Mad that you couldn’t get the latest Facebook update.

Things are going to be different at home though. If your internet goes out, you may miss your deadline for your job or school. Or you will be unable to log in remotely at work. Even worse, you may even miss the tele-doctors appointment you made for your sick kid. Because of the nature of how people access content at home, people will demand greater reliability from their landline service provider. This isn’t going to change going forward either. In fact, people may demand even higher reliability from their service provider for their homes of the future than we do today.

Businesses have even more at stake. If the internet goes out and their credit card machine goes down, they are looking at hundreds, even thousands of dollars in lost revenue. An owner may also deal with employees who are unable to login to their computers, telephones no longer working or theft prevention systems failing. Businesses need reliable internet. And if they get unreliable internet, they will either move or change providers. 5G is not an option for businesses, plain and simple.

5G: Tech for Cellphones

So 5G. It’s a promising technology. I’m rooting for it. We’re going to need more bandwidth as more of our devices become connected. However, what it won’t do is provide us with reliable connectivity to our homes and businesses. Especially outside of the downtown area. Additionally, the cost of managing the estimated 1,500 nodes (a 5G node has a ~650 sqft radius & a 7-year service life) required to cover the city of Lakeland is going to be outrageous. Much higher than just connecting everyone with fiber internet. And far higher than the 60 bucks a month people are willing to pay for it.

Elon Musk’s Starlink: An Enigma

I want to start by saying that I’m a huge Elon fan. The guy is my hero. Quirky, nerdy, intelligent, and ambitious. He’s generated billions of dollars, created tens of thousands of jobs, and buoyed the dreams of stargazers for generations to come. I’m also a big believer in his vision for a truly connected world. He plans to launch thousands of satellites into low-earth orbit to blanket the globe in high-speed internet.
Its a super ambitious plan. There are many hindrances though. These have been discussed ad-infinitum on various blogs on the internet. Chiefly among them, the fact that Starlink will need a constant resupply of satellites to stay healthy. This goes back to my theory on Murphy’s Law. Elon’s Starlink has 10’s if not hundreds of thousands of moving parts. I do think eventually he may be able to offer internet to people, though I struggle to see how he can compete with terrestrial fiber.
Even on Elon’s extremely aggressive and almost always wrong timeframe, the system won’t turn online for another decade. I estimate that we’re looking at a full 15 years before people even have access to the program.

Elon does have a history of delivering, but he’s usually wrong about the price. So yes, Starlink will be a competitor in 15 years or so but even if his business plan proves successful, he’s still going to have to maintain a fleet of 7,500 satellites that have a service life of five years. With Lakeland’s fiber already installed and paid for by then; we can aggressively price our service to compete directly with Starlink.

Fixed Wireless & Other Technologies

I don’t want to go into significant detail on other technologies because there are so many, and this blog post would quickly turn into a book. But all the other wireless technologies still have to rely on the same physics that I covered above. I just want to mention a story I learned on my journey to become a networking professional.

A few years ago, when Lakeland started thinking about the fiber investment, I also thought that Fixed Wireless as a last-mile alternative was our best bet. I wanted to learn more, so I set up a fixed wireless system in my backyard and tried to beam out the signal to a few other houses in the area. In some instances, it worked, and in others it didn’t. The setups were tricky; they were prone to mishaps due to antenna location, line of sight issues and interference. It did work, but it had some caveats.

If a person who owns a 1,000 acre farm in Kansas and calls me up wanting internet; I say fixed wireless is the way to go. In fact, there is a burgeoning industry (known as WISPs) that bridges the gap for a lot of these folks in rural areas already.

But Lakeland is not a rural area, it has a high population density, and is on the verge of becoming a bustling metropolis. Fixed wireless and other technologies are not the best choice for the city. The population density alone justifies the cost of deploying fiber. Additionally, Lakeland has thousands of trees, has a high RF noise floor and already has 300+ miles of fiber. These facts make it abundantly clear; the best option is fiber, not wireless.

Closing

Wireless technologies are great. We use them every day on our phones, tablets and soon to be IoT devices. But people will still need access to high-quality, fast speed and large bandwidth connectivity at home. Moreover, the only technology that can promise to deliver this into the foreseeable future is cabled fiber. The cost is high, but if the city wants to do this the right way they are going to have to invest in proven, reliable and high-speed technology. And that technology is Fiber Optics.