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Verizon talks about expanding access to broadband in rural areas, wirelessly: Cnet's Marguerite Reardon interviews Verizon Wireless's CTO, who says that his company's plan for LTE will extend far beyond its current CDMA cellular footprint. The missing piece in this interview? The fact that Verizon is obligated to build out a significant footprint in the 700 MHz band about which the CTO is speaking; more on that in a moment.
The 700 MHz band has so much bang for the buck, perhaps offering four times the coverage area with a single base station than an 1700-2500 MHz base station (3G or U.S. WiMax). And that's in urban areas. In rural locations without obstructions and with less dense usage, I would imagine a single base station could cover an enormous area. Backhaul is still an issue, of course, but Verizon has a variety of frequencies it can use for long-distance point-to-point wireless feeds. And while LTE could deliver a pool of 50 Mbps in urban areas with 5 to 10 Mbps or more available per user, rural performance could be lower and still far exceed what's currently available.
Verizon Wireless's CTO speculates that Verizon could offer fixed wireless offerings to homes, much like Clearwire's WiMax. Clearwire can't provide such service across large areas outside of densely populated areas because its bandwidth portfolio is centered in the 2500 MHz (2.5 GHz) band, which is going to be unaffordable to deploy in less-populated areas. Clearwire could cover an entire town with one base station, but it wouldn't make sense for them to cover the area between small towns. In fact, Clearwire's pre-WiMax offerings were originally in lower-tier smaller-city markets that had poor DSL and cable broadband availability.
According to research last year from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 38 percent of rural households in the U.S. have broadband access, and 12 percent of all American households use fixed wireless for access. This shows the great potential for selling service into the rural market in two ways: it's underserved, but those with service are likely paying too much for what they get.
I contacted that report's author a few days ago to ask about the wireless stat, as it seemed incredibly high to me. He explained that it included satellite and all forms of fixed wireless. I found some more recent confirmation of the number from a University of Vermont poll released just two days ago. Vermont has a rural population, but still sees most people in towns and cities. Internet access is Vermont, the poll said, is split out as: dial-up, 18 percent; cable, 24 percent; DSL, 42 percent; satellite, 7 percent; wireless Internet, 6 percent; fiber or other, 3 percent. That 13 percent combined wireless number neatly tracks the Pew's research.
Satellite Markets & Research estimates 731,000 satellite Internet subscribers as of 2008's second quarter. With a bit over 100 million households in the U.S., that's not even one percent of the market, but the Vermont numbers show how that skews in less-populated areas. Pew research puts just 55 percent of households online, with a relatively large number that want broadband. (Some significant number will never want it for reasons of costs or utility, of course.)
As we know, satellite Internet is a kind of marvelous, ugly, and expensive compromise to bring broadband to the hinterland. People who would otherwise be restricted to dial-up service, if they could even get a decent 56K signal, can have far higher rates. But the cost is high, upstream rates low, and satellite services weren't designed to offer pinpoint residential access.
Thus Verizon has a defined market, and it won a large number of licenses covering these rural markets in the 700 MHz sale a year ago; so did AT&T, which also bought up many previously auctioned 700 MHz licenses. Verizon captured the coveted national license, but both firms purchased a patchwork of regional licenses that let them build country-wide 700 MHz networks.
But what Cnet's Reardon doesn't mention, and Verizon's CTO deftly avoids, is that 700 MHz licenseholders are obligated to build out service across the licenses they won. The FCC, tired of awarding licenses that aren't used, attached some modest but significant installation requirements on Auction 73.
While there are several classes of licenses, each class has a 4-year check-in mark for signal coverage. In some classes, that's 35 percent of the geographic area regardless of population, ideal for rural areas; in others, it's 40 percent of the population. If that mark is met, then licenseholders have a full 10 years to build out to 70 percent of the geographic area or 75 percent of the population. Failure to hit a 4-year mark shortens the license term and remaining build out to 8 years. Failure to meet the final target at 8 or 10 years results in the likely loss of the license. Licenses were carved out so that even the cheapest have significant population centers, making it less than optimal for a licenseholder to abandon the coverage area.
Verizon's national licenses (the C Block) require population-based buildouts, which is fair for the scope of the licenses. But some significant spectrum in the A, B, and E blocks require geographic-based deployment. (The public/private D Block didn't have a winning bidder, and is now in limbo after the withdrawal of a significant partner in the public partnership.)
I don't believe Verizon is being disingenuous in pushing the rural message, but the company is also talking up how stimulus money could be used for rural buildouts after the company had, essentially, already agreed to cover 75 percent of the population of the U.S. and 75 percent of the population or area of licenses it purchased.
Qantas backs off from earlier plans, changes provider for in-flight broadband: The Sydney Morning Herald somewhat erratically and incompletely reports that Qantas has delayed and modified its in-flight broadband plans. Aeromobile was the provider when the service was tested in second quarter 2007, but OnAir is now described as the airline's partner. This was noted by colleague Fabio Zambelli, who emailed me the news, and has his own account at setteB.IT (in Italian).
OnAir has so far tested their calling/texting-only service on two aircraft--one operated by Air France, one by TAP Portugal--even though RyanAir announced plans that its planes would started being unwired with the service by late 2007. Still no word on that fleet progress.
Qantas will apparently launch cached Web browsing and limited Web email (probably through a proxy) along with instant messaging, with full Internet service coming "later in 2009." This is clearly due to a lack of satellite coverage that was just remediated a few weeks ago (see below). The first plane with limited service, a new A380, should be in flight 20-October-2008.
I hate in-flight
The Morning Herald seems to overstate the importance and scope of a complaint filed by the union representing American Airlines' flight attendants. The detailed coverage in the U.S. had more to do with the potential for issues, and likely attendants lack of interest in policing yet another media on the plane. Filtering doesn't work, the attendants probably already know, and this may just be a negotiating point with the airline.
On why Qantas is waiting until late 2009? This requires unwinding how OnAir gets its signal.
Aeromobile and OnAir both rely on Inmarsat satellites for their service. Both companies had several years ago staked their futures on the fourth-generation network Inmarsat was to inaugurate with three satellites that would use beamforming to allow precise delivery of nearly 500 Kbps per receiver, with hundreds or thousands of regions being able to be targeted from a single satellite. Inmarsat's third-gen network--don't confuse this with 3G cellular ground-based networks--can deliver about 64 Kbps per channel.
Now, unfortunately, Inmarsat was three years late on launching its trans-Pacific bird. While the company claims 85 percent coverage of the earth and 98 percent coverage of population, there's a big gap over the Pacific that also prevents them from having good overlap between the U.S. and Japan/China/Korea, as well as the southern Pacific, covering Australia. Since the biggest market for long-haul flights would likely be Australia, Japan, and China, traveling trans-Pacific or trans-hemispheric routes, that gap is rather large.
Aeromobile opted to build out a service, deployed only by Emirates airline as far as I can tell, that uses the 3G service since it was available, and most necessary equipment is already installed on most over-water planes. OnAir was waiting for 4G, which has necessitated a long wait, but allowed them to launch in Europe with a seemingly next-generation service. Given that OnAir is controlled by an airline-owned integration firm, SITA, and by Airbus, they're not going anywhere.
Inmarsat finally lofted its third satellite on Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on 19-August-2008, and the launch and separation was reported as successful. Previously, the company has needed up to a year to verify and deploy its 4G satellites. (You can read extremely close coverage of the launch at a Web site devoted to space enthusiasm.)
However, the dirty little secret about Inmarsat's BGAN is that it costs a fortune to heft bandwidth across it. Thus, in-flight broadband over BGAN, if it's ever available, is going to be changed on an extremely high per-MB rate. None of the providers want to say this. This is in contrast to Row 44 (and, once, Connexion by Boeing), which relies on leased Ku-band transponders where they can fix costs and they require high volumes to keep per-bit costs efffectively low.
OnAir's launch of calling on Air France's service involves paying a few euros per minute for calls, which might help you understand what data costs could ultimately run.
A small spate of announcements from remote access firm iPass: The company resells access to 75,000 hotspots worldwide and countless dial-up lines, and has added EVDO Rev. A access and satellite roaming via Inmarsat's BGAN service. EVDO Rev. A reportedly runs at 450 to 800 Kbps downstream and 300 to 400 Kbps upstream; testers have found much higher downstream rates but often much lower upstream rates. iPass also said they will support Windows Vista in the second quarter.
While they don't identify which EVDO provider is which, it's easy to guess that iPass is offering service from both Verizon and Sprint, since there are two networks they offer and two providers of such in the U.S. They call them Network A and Network B, and require separate subscriptions for each network. It's likely that the EVDO Rev. A addition is from Sprint. The new offering costs $60 per month for unlimited use and volume discounts can reduce that further. Adapters are extra. This is one of the few cases in which iPass has a recurring per user fee, and I imagine that if the cell operators ever offer a pay-as-you-go system, iPass will be one of the first to provide it. They were T-Mobile's first roaming partner, too.
Inmarsat hasn't to date offered a simplified access structure for their fourth-generation satellite network known as the Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN). Various companies resell terminals and access, but iPass will have the clearest and most transparent model for a company that may deploy a few terminals and have various employees using the network. BGAN can operate up to 492 Kbps, and charges are levied per megabyte.
Via email, an iPass spokesperson explained that the satellite service will come with two pricing models. A usage-based model will cost $60 per month per user and $7 per megabyte. This can be canceled at any time. More favorable to large corporations is a pooled model which carries a 1-year commitment and must include at least 10 users. The pricing is per user per month with 10 users at 20 MB each costing $120 per month up to 750 MB each for $3,000 per month. Terminals are sold separately and range from $2,000 to $4,500 with most falling in the $2,400 to $2,800 range, iPass said.
(Recall that OnAir and Aeromobile are planning to launch in-flight data services using BGAN eventually--in-flight cell may launch any day now on limited airlines in Europe and Asia--but you can see that the per MB cost on a corporate level makes it impossible for unlimited in-flight satellite-based Internet use. Connexion by Boeing relied on a different set of satellites that carried largely fixed costs, but those costs required millions of sessions a year to produce enough revenue to break even.)
iPass sells mostly to the corporate market where rather than have each roaming employee set up their own accounts with recurring fees, iPass can meter access or provide negotiated monthly rates across an entire organization.
Satellite is often the only option for rural or exurb broadband Internet: The New York Times reports that Hughes, Starband, and WildBlue have over 390,000 consumers subscribing between them by year's end (240K, 30K, 150K, respectively); WildBlue is adding 15,000 home users and HughesNet 8,000 each month. Installation costs can run $500 with monthly service $50 to $130 per month. The installation costs can be reduced through long-term commitments. Satellite broadband reaches 463,000 households and businesses in all, but will double by 2010.
About 15m U.S. households cannot get broadband service from the local incumbents, this article says. My guess is that number is actually higher, because service availability is usually estimated over broad areas. I have attempted to get DSL service in many places that the line tested as "available," but the service was either marginal or non-existent. This has happened many times to my colleagues as well, and I don't believe we're rare cases, often looking for access in the middle of a city.
The two firms plan to launch new satellites to provide better coverage and access, the Times reports. WildBlue has waiting lists in the midwest and central U.S. where they need more capacity to serve demand. And satellite customers are being slowly picked off as incumbents expand their own coverage as they see demand for wireline service.
Update: This original post stated 150,000 subscribers, but that unintentionally excluded the HughesNet numbers! Thanks to Hughes PR firm for correcting my math.
This is bad news and good news for OnAir, in-flight broadband and telephony: You know it's bad when Reuters misses the key point in a story. In this article about Inmarsat announcing a launch date for its third satellite--its Asia/Pacific geostationary orbiter--to complete its fourth-generation, broadband satellite network, two key facts were missed. First, the third bird should have been in the air as long ago as 2005. Last year, it was expected to launch in the first half of 2006. Now we're looking at late 2007.
The second critical fact is that while Reuters dutifully reported the fact that Inmarsat's 4G network covers "85 percent of Earth's landmass," the network does not cover the Pacific Ocean, in large part. While Inmarsat has tried to bill its 4G network as being the first affordable, targetable worldwide broadband network, using beamforming arrays that aren't fixed for the life of the satellite, it's pretty clear that aviation and maritime use have to form a chunk of the service's revenue. There are generally mobile broadband alternatives in all but remote areas that would be cheaper than what Inmarsat calls BGAN (broadband global area network), except at sea and in the air.
The third satellite's launch is tied, in this story, to Inmarsat's deal with Aces International to offer handheld satellite phones in Asia.
Now this affects OnAir because the Airbus/SITA joint venture, which incorporate the assets of Tenzing Communications, based their in-flight cellular and broadband platform on the 4G service. When I spoke to OnAir's CEO recently, I said he must be extraordinarily patient. He said they were in it for the long haul. Now that haul is even longer. The company will launch extensive European services in 2007, however--pending regulator approval--starting with an Air France plane factory equipped with Inmarsat's 4G avionics system and an OnAir picocell. And they scored the 200-plus fleet of Ryanair planes, too.
But they can't serve Asia or US-Asia trans-Pacific routes, which I believe were a big market for Connexion's service due to the flights' duration. OnAir's competitor Aeromobile can provide cell service over Inmarsat's globe-spanning third-generation network, which operates about 1/8th as fast, and thus limits the number of simultaneous calls per flight to a relatively small number. Still, Aeromobile is talking about a near-term launch over Asia, and just announced a trail with Qantas.
Inmarsat has the FCC licenses to sell its satellite receiver gear in the U.S.: The Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) system makes use of new fourth-generation satellites that were launched in 2005 with one more to come this year. The satellites use beam forming to pinpoint coverage to cities or regions and has hundreds of beams per satellite. Speeds using the portable broadband terminals run 432 Kbps for $3 to $7 per megabyte. Inmarsat promises streaming quality at up to 256 Kbps. Receivers cost about $3,000.
While ruinously expensive for casual use, there is almost certainly a market of 100,000s of regular users who need broadband in areas where there really are no alternatives, including news crews and rescue workers for whom the tradeoff is time versus lives, making the cost less critical.
AT&T unleashed a spate of announcements that Om Malik reviews: They'll use satellite broadband (reselling WildBlue which in turn buys service from a satellite operator) to reach rural markets they can't serve with DSL. Project Lightspeed, which is fiber to the node (FTTN) technology, will pass 5.5m low-income homes in 41 markets within three years, which should buy them some credibility in the digital divide bridge building market. (Affording Lightspeed is different than having it pass by your home, of course.) And it's pushing out WiMax, too. Together, Om writes, this could add 11.5m potential homes to AT&T's reach.
WiMax and satellite will help AT&T reach the 20 percent of its existing customer base that they can't get DSL to yet. The Lightspeed service lets them push more heavily for bypassing local TV/cable franchise boards through federal or state legislation as they can show they won't redline poorer customers.
The satellite operator launched its Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) yesterday, IDG News Service reports: The company has two birds in the sky that use beamforming antennas to allow focusing bandwidth in more discrete areas and relocating bandwidth on demand. The 4G satellites will eventually provide OnAir's in-flight broadband service as well.
The BGAN service will offer 492 Kbps speeds and meld voice and data simultaneously, which the company claims is unique for wireless offerings. Calls will cost about US$1 per minute; data, €4 to €7 per megabyte. These are initial prices Inmarsat expects will fall as resellers roll out plans. A terminal will run $1,500 to $3,000 and be laptop-sized for portability.
North and South America officially lack coverage at the moment; they're waiting for the third launch in spring 2006.
Inmarsat is about to launch the second of its high-bandwidth, beamforming satellites: The fourth-generation of satellites doesn't cover huge areas by default. Instead, they can beam 492 Kbps signals to areas that range from the size of a city to the size of a small region.
Portable phones and data devices should work more simply and be much smaller than previous planned or deployed fast satellite networks. Tenzing's descendent firm OnAir will make use of the "I-4" network to bring speeds at multiples of 492 Kbps to in-flight aircraft. Thousands of aircraft already have Inmarsat equipment on board; the upgrade is fairly inexpensive and quick to put in a fourth-generation receiver.
The new system could also fuel rural broadband by providing superior bidirectional speeds at a lower cost per user.
21Net, a UK company, says its technology can enable faster bi-directional wireless Internet service on trains than other options: Some other companies offer systems that use the cellular data networks to send data from trains to the Internet. 21Net says that it can use satellite links to support a higher speed service. During trials, four laptops on a train were connected at 700 Kbps each.
Wi-Fi on commuter trips is one place where the business case for fee-based access is pretty clear. There's a captive audience eager to make use of what otherwise might be considered wasted time.
In other satellite-backhaul news, a government IT magazine has more details about the network some troops in Afghanistan set up to improve their Internet access. It sounds like the kind of network the army should be offering troops. The soldiers have also hooked up VoIP phones to the network for far cheaper calling home than the Iridium phones offered by the army.
Direcway Wi-Fi Access is now formally available as a broadband backhaul to businesses for which wireline broadband is too expensive or unavailable: Hughes originally launched its satellite service targeted at RV parks, which are typically full of people who want access and outside of metropolitan wire networks. Pricing isn't mentioned.
The press release has a whopper, claiming that Wi-Fi hotspots in the U.S. will generate $9 billion in revenue in 2004. Maybe by 2009 -- at which point Wi-Fi and cellular revenue will be hopelessly intermingled. The most recent analyst estimates put U.S. 2004 Wi-Fi revenue at under $100 million, optimistically.
MCI introduces new service, MCI Internet Broadband Satellite Corporate, for 128 Kbps to 1 Mbps of satellite bandwidth: A railroad, CSX, already plans to use the service at 200 locations which are too remote for terrestrial networks to be affordable. The service will be priced at from around $200 to $500 per month, comparable to wired line pricing. The article notes that MCI could only previously deliver 128 Kbps via its satellite network. The service apparently offers symmetrical bandwidth and can support VPNs.