ABOARD THE SILVER METEOR There’s a reason for the vague dateline you see here. In my sleeping quarters on this legendary Amtrak train, as it speeds through the south on the way to Miami, are 3G and 4G devices from every major carrier serving this part of the United States.
The reason I don’t know where I am right now is because I can’t find out. While all these wireless devices are equipped with GPS and navigation software, when I don’t have Internet access, I can’t retrieve maps, and as a result, I can’t find my location. And that’s a problem.
While many devices will let you download maps to your phone if you know you’ll be traveling outside their company’s coverage area, that’s not really the issue here. If I want to navigate, I have a dedicated GPS device. But if I want data, I should be able to reach the Internet, and I can’t.
What I’m finding is that in spite of the promises by the big wireless companies that they cover virtually all the U.S. population, those promises are actually specious. That the carriers can even make the claim that they cover nearly all the United States must be because they focus on big cities.
If you look at the land area, both on their coverage maps and in the real world, you find vast open spaces. These are areas where there is no data service of any kind. Not only is there no 4G service, there’s not even any 1G. In short, the South is a vast area of businesses, homes and government entities without reliable wireless data service. In fact, in many places, it’s an area without broadband of any kind. When I would talk to the people who lived in the towns where the train ran, the best Internet access they could muster in many cases was 28.8k-bps dial-up.
The trip through the South on the train was telling because the train doesn’t travel along the Interstate highways that are usually well-served, although that’s not true everywhere. But when you get away from Interstate 95, there’s simply nothing. I could go for an hour without seeing the slightest glimmer of a signal on any device sitting on the table looking for broadband. And when I did see a signal, it was usually the dreaded 1X type of broadband, which isn’t broadband at all. It’s barely connectivity.
So I began to wonder about the success of the Federal Communication Commission’s change to the Universal Service Fund that’s supposed to pay for providing broadband to everyone, not just well-off people and companies in urban areas.
Rural Broadband Lags Because There Are No Fat Backhaul Profits
Part of the problem, it turns out, is that the FCC’s decision to try to extend broadband to underserved areas got some wireline phone providers upset. They wanted all of the FCC’s money for themselves, so they sued the FCC to stop the deployment of such broadband access. Eventually, the federal courts decided that the FCC could allocate the money this way, but that slowed down the process.
So also did the fact that there’s a lot of fraud involved with the Universal Service Fund money. Phone companies were popping up all over, slamming would-be users, applying for federal money and getting it. Only last year did the FCC implement ways to prevent this fraud
Perhaps it’s no surprise that so many areas of the United States have no broadband service, wireless or otherwise. Fortunately, the reason I was riding on the Silver Meteor was to travel to Miami so I could speak at a conference called NetEvents, where this very subject would be addressed. Also speaking was Nan Chen, president of the Metro Ethernet Forum, which is made up of the folks that actually implement broadband in communities.
So I told Chen and some members of his panel about my findings when I visited communities across the Southeastern United States only to find the great dearth of broadband. I asked them why this was, given the support by the government, the obvious need and the wide-open market.
Of course, once I got to Miami, broadband is everywhere. There’s probably more network capacity in my hotel room than there is in some counties in central Florida through which I passed. The question obviously must be why it isn’t everywhere else.
Only Ron Mudry, president and CEO of TowerCloud had an answer. To get wireless broadband to a community, Mudry said, first there had to be broadband for backhaul. Without that, wireless broadband couldn’t happen. He has a point. Then the obvious question for the carrier groups there, including the MEF, is: where’s the broadband? Apparently there is no answer to that question. It hasn’t happened because the carriers that provide it don’t see an incentive, even with the FCC’s funding.
So I thought back to the scenes outside the train window and saw the hundreds of businesses, the farms, the residential areas all without broadband access. What, I wonder, is the incentive they need?
These communities need access if they’re to play a full role in the economy. The answer, apparently, is that they won’t get the carriers rich enough quickly enough. It’s not really about profits, but rather about big profits. And that’s not really a good answer.