Clarifying “Broadband”

(April 23, 2010)  Bill Moyers Journal interview with FCC Commissioner Michael J. Copps regarding Net Neutrality and FCC regulation of broadband “telecommunications”

Update:  (April 22, 2010) CenturyTel Buying Qwest in All-Stock Deal

Regarding the multiple issues discussed related to the proposed new telecommunications ordinance in Santa Fe, I think there is some confusion about what the term “broadband” means. I heard anti-wireless advocates at the April 8 meeting say things like, “I want broadband, not wireless!” There’s a Facebook group called Broadband Internet for Santa Fe!

In fact, Santa Fe already has broadband Internet, using the generally-accepted definition and use of the term. (See What is Broadband? per the FCC.) In the two examples I mentioned, I think what both mean is that they want fiber optic broadband, which to my knowledge Santa Fe does not have since Qwest is the local telephone provider and I can’t find anything on their website that indicates a fiber optic offering in Santa Fe.

I made this little graphic in an attempt to clarify the different technologies according to Wired and Wireless delivery methods.

In Santa Fe, this currently translates to:

  • Cable = Comcast Cable, which offers various levels of  TV programming, broadband Internet via cable modem, and telephone
  • DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) = Qwest, which offers telephone service and broadband Internet via DSL modem
  • Fiber Optics = not available in Santa Fe (unless through Qwest; typically residential fiber optic service is offered by the primary telephone provider, which can also TV programming). However, a company in Albuquerque, CityLink Communications, has applied for approval from the city of Santa Fe to install a fiber optic system in part(s) of the city. Their application is one of those affected by the dispute/controversy over the re-write of the telecommunications ordinance.
  • Mobile/Cell = any/all of the providers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, Cricket, etc. I give their Internet/Data services credit as broadband because even though their speeds are certainly not as fast as a typical Wi-Fi connection, I assume they meet the 200K minimum data rate threshold as defined by the FCC.
  • Wi-Fi = both commercial and residential services. Commercial venues would include hot spots in coffee shops, public libraries, hotels, etc. Residential Wi-Fi services are typically found as part of a home network in which the resident gets a wired Internet connection via either DSL or cable modem, then connects the modem to a wireless router from which she can typically add wireless computers as well as several wired (via ethernet) computers to the home network. However, see NOTE 1 below about Extenet Systems which could provide a city-wide wireless network.
  • Wi-Max = similar to Wi-Fi, with a larger range footprint measured in miles or kilometers rather than feet or meters. The most common service application is probably for a mobile computer user to use a special modem for connecting to the Internet through his mobile phone service provider. However, Wi-Max can also be used for delivery to home or premise, providing a wireless alternative to cable or DSL.
  • Satellite = a service like DirectPC (from DirecTV or Hughes), which is primarily used in remote areas without access to cable or DSL service.

NOTE 1: Extenet Systems, like CityLink Communications, has applied for approval from the city of Santa Fe to install a network of wireless antennas in/around the city. Their technical approach is interesting:

  • They provide the infrastructure of antennas and equipment, not the actual wireless services (phone, Internet).
  • Their distributed system relies on a network of smaller, lower-powered and shorter-range antennas which each cover a smaller footprint, as opposed to the typically much larger cellular/wireless towers/antennas. It’s analogous to repeater stations for radio or TV signals.
  • Their system uses existing mounting infrastructure (telephone poles, light poles, etc.) to minimize adding new, dedicated mounting structures, poles, towers, etc.
  • They use aerially-strung fiber optic cable to network each node (electrical control box) in the system. For each node in the system there is a dedicated antenna, with the antenna mounted on the top of the pole and the node mounted about 2/3 up the pole.
  • Their antenna is multi-functional (or multi-use) in that it can transmit/receive signals that are used by: mobile phones (voice and data, 3G and CDMA), Wi-Fi internet (short range), WiMax internet (longer range). The function for each antenna is programmed via that antenna’s node.

Other firms providing similar distributed antenna systems include NewPath Networks and NetG Networks.

COMMENT:

The status quo for broadband Internet is rather standard and can be considered the minimum that would be expected for a city. The fiber optic approach of CityLink Communications and the networked wireless system proposed by Extenet Systems are steps toward the future. Fiber optic provides much faster data rates (advertised up to 1,000 times as fast as standard broadband) and, depending on pricing, would offer competition to Comcast and Qwest for not only Internet service but also TV programming and phone service. A city-wide networked wireless system, depending on how it’s set up and managed, would portable computing/Internet access all over the city without having to re-connect wherever you go. It could attract a Wi-Max service provider to enter as another competitor for residential Internet service. The Extenet system also offers the possibility of better cellular phone service without the service providers having to add more cell-only antennas and towers.

But as they say, the devil is in the details.