Loon bolsters connectivity credentials with advisory board signings

Alphabet’s latest X graduate Loon has added industry heavyweights to its advisory board as the business searches for commercial credibility in the world of connectivity.

As the ludicrous dream starts to become a reality, Loon has added three industry veterans to its ranks. Former McCaw Communications CEO Craig McCaw, Evernote CEO Ian Small and Verizon EVP Global Media & New Business Marni Walden will all be added to the roster, bringing with them years of experience and, perhaps more importantly, connections in the telco space.

“As Loon transitions to a commercial business and looks to partner with MNOs worldwide, we’re adding some serious expertise to our ranks with a new Advisory Board that brings together top wireless innovators with decades of experience in the industry,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post.

For those who have missed out on this blue-sky thinking idea, Loon is Alphabet’s latest attempt to branch into the connectivity segment. Previous efforts might have been a flop, just have a look at the success brought through Google Fiber, but this is something slightly different; its attempting to create a new segment rather than steal business from established players.

By floating these massive balloons 18-23km above the earth for periods of up to 100 days, the Loon team claims each balloon can create a connectivity cone with coverage to a ground area 80km in diameter. The balloons are fitted with a broad-coverage LTE base station and a high-speed directional link used to connect between balloons and back down to the internet infrastructure on the ground.

In an industry which has constantly struggled to bridge the digital divide due to the expense of deploying infrastructure, this is a genuinely innovative approach to providing connectivity. It helps lessen the financial pressures of delivering the internet, adding to the connectivity mix.

Back in November at AfricaCom, Westgarth gave some insight into the business on the main conference stage. At the time he announced the beginning of a commercial relationship with Telkom Kenya, as well as outlining the wider ambitions of the business. This is an idea which has big commercial potential, most of which will be in the developing markets. These are after all areas where ARPU is low and deployment is staggered. It would appear to be the perfect mix for Loon’s proposal to bring the internet to the masses.

These appointments however perhaps suggest Loon is not a firm satisfied with the developing markets alone. These are three US executives who have considerable experience in the domestic market. Of course, there will be connections in the international space with telcos in the developing nations, but perhaps Loon has spotted an opportunity in the US. These executives would certainly help pave the way for conversations across the homeland.

Of course, this is just a theory and the PR team have been, just as you would expect, pretty evasive when asked the question. However, the digital divide is certainly a challenge in the US. For those who are lucky enough to live in the cities, they’ll have no concept of connectivity challenges, but the vast expanses and challenging terrain of the US open up numerous, huge not-spots, despite what the telcos actually tell you.

Loon has been touted as an innovation for the developing markets but seeing as the US telcos are clueless as how to solve the domestic digital divide, why not. These executives will certainly know the right people in the right places.

The US digital divide – does anyone have a clue what’s going on?

Depending on who you listen to the severity of the digital divide varies greatly. But with so many different opinions, how do you actually know what is going on? And if you don’t have a clue, how can you possibly solve the problem?

This topic is one which carries a particularly heavy amount of political charge, for good reason might we add, and is not limited to the US. Digital inclusion is a buzzword and objective associated with almost every nation due to the increasingly complex and embedded role digital is having in our lives. Every society should be considering strategies to ensure everyone is taken forward into the digital utopia, but the success of such initiatives is questionable.

Here we are going to have a look at the US market, but not question how successful the political administration and telcos have been at closing the gap, but whether they have the right foundations in the first place. To tackle a problem, you have to actually know what it is, and this is where we feel the industry is failing right now.

First of all, let’s start with the obvious issue. The telcos clearly favour the denser urban environments due to the economics of connectivity; providing customers the internet is an expensive job in the beginning. Not only do you have to buy the materials and the equipment, you have to process planning permission, deal with lawyers and do the dirty-job of civil engineering. But, you also to have to have the confidence customers will buy services off you. When there is such a sparse residential population in a region, it can be difficult to make the equation add up.

This is the issue in the US, and perhaps why the digital divide is so much bigger than somewhere like the UK. The land mass is substantially bigger, there are a huge number of isolated communities and connectivity tariffs are much more expensive. The problem has been compounded every time connectivity infrastructure improves, creating today’s problem of a digital divide.

But, here lies the issue. How do you solve a problem when you have no idea what the extent actually is?

An excellent way to illustrate this is with a road-trip. You know the final destination, as does everyone trying to conquer the digital divide, but if you don’t know the starting point how can you possibly plan the route? You don’t know what obstacles you might encounter on the way to Eden, or even how much money you will need for fuel (investment), how many packets of crisps you’ll need (raw materials such as fibre) or how many friends you’ll need to share time at the wheel (workforce).

The industry is trying to solve a problem when it doesn’t understand what it actually is?

The FCC don’t seem to be helping matters. During Tom Wheeler’s time in-charge of the agency, minimum requirements for universal broadband speeds were tabled at 25 Mbps, though this was then dropped to 10 Mbps by today’s Chairman Ajit Pai. Rumours are these requirements will once again be increased to 25 Mbps.

Not only does this distort the image of how many people have fallen into the digital divide, it messes around with the CAPEX and OPEX plans of the telcos. With higher requirements, more upgrades will be needed, or perhaps it would require a greenfield project. Once you drop the speeds, regions will once again be ignored because they have been deemed served. If you increase these speeds, will the telcos find a loophole to ignore them, or might they unintentionally slip through the net?

Under the 25 Mbps requirements it has been suggested 24 million US customers, just over 7%, fall into the digital divide, though this is an estimate. And of course, this 25 million figure is only meaningful if you judge the digital served customers as those who can theoretically access these products.

A couple of weeks ago, Microsoft released research which suggested the digital divide could be as wide as 150 million people. We suspect Microsoft is stroking the figures, but there will certainly be a difference because of the way the digital divide has been measured.

In the research, Microsoft measured internet usage across the US, including those who have broadband but are not able to surf the web at acceptable speeds. Microsoft considers those in the digital divide as those who are being under-served, or have no internet at all, whereas the FCC seems to be taking the approach of theoretical accessibility. There might be numerous reasons people fall into the digital divide but are not counted by the FCC, price of broadband for example, but this variance shows the issue.

Another excellent example is in Okta’s speed tests across Q2-Q3 which have been released this week. The Okta data suggests a 35.8% increase in mean download speed during the last year, ranking the US as the 7th best worldwide for broadband download speeds. According to this data, average download speed across the US for Q2-Q3 was 96.25 Mbps. This research would suggest everything is rosy in the US and there is no digital divide at all.

As you can see there is no consolidated approach to arguing the digital divide. Before we know it campaigning for the next Presidential Election will begin and the digital divide will become another political tool. Republican’s will massage the figures to make it seem like the four-year period has been a successful one, while Democrat’s will paint a post-apocalyptic image.

And of course, it is not just the politicians who will play these political games. Light Reading’s Carol Wilson pointed out Microsoft has a commercial stake in getting more bandwidth to more people so that more people can access their cloud apps and make them more money. Should we trust this firm to be objective in contributing to the digital divide debate? Even if the digital divide is narrowing, Microsoft will want to paint a gloomy picture to encourage more investment as this would increase its own commercial prospects.

The issue which is at the heart of the digital divide is investment and infrastructure. The telcos need to be incentivised to put networks in place, irrelevant as to the commercial rewards from the customer. Seeing at this bridge is being built at a snail’s pace, you would have to assume the current structure and depth of federal subsidies is simply not good enough.

The final complication to point out is the future. Ovum’s Kristin Paulin pointed out those in the digital divide are only those who are passed by fixed wireless, not taking into account almost every US citizen has access to one of the four LTE networks. Fixed Wireless Access will certainly play a role in the future of broadband, but whether this is enough to satisfy the increasingly intensifying data diets of users is unknown. 5G will certainly assist, but you have to wonder how long it will take to get 5G to the regions which are suffering in the divide today.

Paulin points to the affordability question as well. With the FCC only counting those US citizens who cannot access the internet in the digital divide, who knows how many citizens there are who can’t afford broadband. A New York times article from 2016 suggested the average broadband tariff was $55 a month, meaning 25% of the city, and 50% of those who earned under $20,000 would not be able to afford broadband. The Lifeline broadband initiative project is supposed to help here, but Paulin politely stated this is suffering some hiccups right now.

If citizens cannot afford broadband, is this even a solution? It’s like trying to sell a starving man, with $10 in his wallet, a sandwich for $25. What’s the point?

Mobile broadband might well be the answer, Nokia certainly believes a fibre network with wireless wings is the answer, though progress is slow here. Congestion is increasingly becoming a problem, while video, multi-screen and IOT trends will only make the matter more complicated.

As it stands, the digital divide is a political ping-pong ball being battered as it ducks and dives all over the landscape. But, the US technology industry needs to ask itself a very honest question; how big is the digital divide? Right now, we’re none the wiser, and it will never be narrowed without understanding the problem in the first place.

Microsoft suggests FCC is telling Porky Pai’s

New Microsoft research suggests the digital divide in the US is much more prominent than any of the politicians, who are supposedly fixing the problem, would let you believe.

The digital divide is one of the most active political ping-pong balls in recent years, with US politicians seemingly using the desirability of bufferless cat videos to gain support in some of the country’s poorest communities. If you believe what the FCC has been telling the media, this disparity has been getting smaller, though it is still large.

The Microsoft research suggests very little or no progress is being made and the FCC is misleading US citizens.

Looking at the statistics, the FCC claims the digital divide currently stands at 22 million across the US. The threshold seems to be what many would consider basic broadband speeds. With so much of the world become digitized it is critical every person is not only granted access to new opportunities, but also allowed to continue using basic services (such as banking) which are increasingly moving into the digital world.

Looking at the Microsoft research, the team is suggesting around half of US citizens, 162 million, are not using the internet at broadband speeds. The difference between the two numbers is quite staggering, and while it does question to competence at the FCC, the answer might be a bit simpler; it’s all a game of politics.

When looking at the figures it is important to understand the FCC estimates on the digital divide are based on those individuals who can theoretically access the internet. There might be various other reasons why they do not, price for example, but these factors do not seem to be considered. Why you might ask? We suspect it is not politically convenient.

If you look at the last US election campaign trail, the idea of the digital divide was a hot topic. Both President Trump and the Democrat candidate Hillary Clinton suggested tackling the issue would be a high priority for their administrations, buying favour in communities which could (and eventually did) turn the tide in the election.

The FCC is a body which is funded via the pockets of the tax payer, therefore it does have to demonstrate it is fulfilling the objectives set out before it. Holding telcos accountable to theoretically offering broadband access is a much simpler job than ensuring these business price it at a cost which would be deemed accessible.

The Microsoft research is based on those who are using the internet at speeds which would be deemed relevant to broadband. Slow broadband could be deemed as bad a no broadband in some cases, with websites timing out or taking so long to load little could be achieved. With this in mind, stories about kids making use of McDonalds wifi to do homework start to make sense.

As you can see from the graph below, wired technologies do generally take a lot longer to reach 100%, especially in a country which is as vast and varied as the US, though broadband has been sluggish in recent years.

Broadband Adoption

But before you start to congratulate Microsoft too much, you must take into account its position is also political, or perhaps PR-drowned is more accurate. One of Microsoft’s more prominent CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives is closing the digital divide. If the problem is much worse than people originally imagined, the corporation coming in to help looks much more glorious.

On both side of the coin you have to take the claims with a pinch of salt. The FCC will continue to make bold statements on progress to ensure favourable light is shed on the Trump administration at a time where the White House will be starting to consider the next election, while Microsoft has a lot to gain commercially through the Airband Initiative, a five-year commitment to bring broadband access to two million unserved US citizens living in rural communities.

Microsoft is not wrong, and we suspect the way it is judging the digital divide is more accurate (usage vs. theoretical accessibility), but it always worth remembering there is always something to gain.

Speak to the right people and Africa is about much more than just the digital divide

Yesteryear’s conversation in Africa was all about balancing the commercial realities of bridging the digital divide, but this year’s AfricaCom has showcased the bigger ambitions of South Africa.

Perhaps we haven’t been giving the right people the podium in the past, but the conversation in Africa has always been focused on the same thing. How do you deliver connectivity to the masses on a continent which has significantly lower ARPU than more developed regions? While this is still a priority, this year’s AfricaCom conference is demonstrating there are bigger ambitions than simply enhancing coverage.

Yesterday we heard MTN’s ambitions to create a more agile organization which operates in the OTT space and can be branded as a digital services beast, and this morning’s presentations had a smart city twist. It might seem odd that we’re discussing such advanced ideas when basic connectivity is an issue, but why not? If Africa is going to compete in the digital era these conversations need to happen now, and these individuals need to be given their time in the limelight. The smart city segment in South Africa is an excellent example.

Looking at Cape Town, Omeshnee Naidoo, the city’s Director of Information Systems, told the audience the city has a fibre spine 1000km long but the project is still at the starting gate. The infrastructure rollout is set to finish in 2021, while the team has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Google to provide public wifi. The next step is figuring out how the initiative can now incorporate the citizens.

Johannesburg is in a similar position. Lawrence Boya, the smart city Director, said the city also has a fibre spine 1000km long, and currently more than 1500 public wifi spots. The challenge now is optimising the infrastructure and making sure government services are making use of the assets not going down the private route. Boya also highlighted the team are trying to figure out how to take the concept of smart cities down to a personal level for the citizens.

In both of these examples, steady progress is being made and the idea of the smart city might not be that far away. More government help is needed, both from a policy side as Boya highlighted South Africa currently lacks the framework to make smart cities sustainable, but also collaboration. Naidoo suggested public sector across the board in South Africa is far too siloed. To be fair to some local governments however, data sets have been opened up to the general public, providing the fuel for these new ideas.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to be honest, but perhaps we are guilty of pigeon holing Africa. Too many people, and admittedly Telecoms.com does this too often, suggest the only challenges in Africa are focused on expanding the connectivity footprint. This is patronising and ignores the excellent work which is happening further up the stack. It’s not the case that these initiatives are difficult to find, but maybe we need to give them more airtime instead of taking the easy ‘Africa needs to improve connectivity’ angle.

Google’s Loon is actually starting to look like a genuine business

The idea of using balloons floating 20km above the earth to provide connectivity quite frankly sounds bat-sh*t, but Google’s Loon is actually starting to look like a feasible business.

Google is a company which certainly attracts criticism, but you cannot argue with the creativity which is nurtured. The company has a knack of taking an idea which no-one has much commercial faith in and running with it.

Take Google Maps as an excellent example. For years it was nothing more than a helpful tool for users, but now it is turning into a commercial success. And Loon might just be the next moonshot to make waves. Speaking at AfricaCom, Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon, gave some insight into progress being made at the business, but also some of the challenges faced when attempting to use balloons to deliver the internet to some of the worlds digital baron lands.

Loon started life as ‘Project Loon’, one of the freewheeling ideas to come out of the mysterious X labs at Google. The idea was initially conceived in 2012 as a means to connect the five billion people around the world who are still without the internet, and named so purely because of the audacity of the concept. Last year, with the team gathering pace, the ‘Project’ part of the name was dropped and the company spun out into its own separate company. Justification for the confidence came soon after, with the team signing its first commercial customer in Telecom Kenya.

“Something which we’re really excited to announce today is that we have all our necessary regulatory approval in Kenya for our operations,” said Westgarth.

“It took a long time, it took partnership with government, partnerships with regulators as well as the MNO you’re working with. As we went on that journey we’ve been working with Liquid Telecom, Nokia, working with Telecom Kenya to install ground stations to connect the balloons, and that process is almost complete. Also we’ve been making sure we have the interconnection between where the Telecom Kenya ground infrastructure is and where our ground infrastructure is, so when someone finally connects to a balloon the signal goes all the way through from our balloon to Telecom Kenya.”

What Westgarth pointed out is this is not a substitute for traditional infrastructure, but an opportunity to enhance coverage. With each balloon capable of delivering a 5000 square km cone of LTE connectivity, this is an opportunity for those countries who deal with hostile environments to deliver the internet and bridge the digital divide in areas where traditional infrastructure is a no go. Westgarth pointed out around 50-60% of the world’s land mass is yet to receive the connectivity euphoria.

With the technology and concept validated, the challenge now is to make Loon a viable business.

“As much as we want to do good things in the world, we also want to be a profitable business,” said Westgarth.

The technology has more than proved its value after launches in Peru following an earthquake which decimated Telefonica’s network, as well as Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. These were ventures which justified the six years of struggles attempting to keep a balloon the size of a tennis court in the air for more than a month, while also keeping it juiced up and automating the steering.

This was a challenge which took ages according to Westgarth, as engineers had to learn how to read wind forecasts, before applying that to the balloons logistics, and then automating the process. It turns out getting a balloon to stay in the same place is a tricky task, as is getting it up in the air in the first place. The engineers had to design a completely custom launch system which, again, has been automated. Then you have to figure out how to monitor the health of the asset, as well as bring it down safely, in the right place and collect all the equipment.

The issue now is on the commercial side. The team are talking to various operators around the world, with particular enthusiasm from Africa and South America, though business is being massaged as the team search for the right balance between CAPEX and OPEX investments from the operators. Right now the balloons operate on an as-a-Service model, though you have to remember this is still early days, a business which is very much taking the first steps of its journey.

The focus will continue to be on Telecom Kenya for the moment, it is important to nail the first project or the business will never be a success, though Westgarth hopes to have more customers in 2019. Africa is seemingly the best opportunity for Loon, though having done most of the testing in South America, there is interest from the operators, while certain Asian markets fit the bill as well.

The balloons are now up there, and staying up, the boring commercial side has to be figured out now. However, this is just another example of how Google’s bold and adventurous attitude can reap rewards; it’s not an accident Google is one of the most influential companies on earth. And now even 20km above it…

O2 commits to plugging 339 farmer Johns into the digital economy

O2 has announced it will start pumping enhanced 4G into some of most notorious not-spots throughout the UK, with 339 communities set to receive the connectivity boost.

While the digital divide is clearly still present across the UK, it does seem O2 is attempting to make use of 4G spectrum acquired in the last auction to counter the imbalance. The last 12 months has certainly seen O2 up its game on the connectivity front, Ofcom confirmed O2 had delivered against its commitment to provide 98% indoor 4G coverage and 90% geographical coverage across the UK earlier this year, and this appears to be a continuation of the positive work. O2 has stated in intends to improve the 4G experience for an additional 339 communities of more than 100 people across the UK by the end of the year.

“We know mobile has the power to make a real, positive difference to people’s lives and businesses in rural communities across Britain,” said O2 UK COO Derek McManus. “That’s why we’re proud to be investing in 4G connectivity for more than 330 rural areas by the end of this year. Technology never stands still, which is why we are always looking for the right partners and investing in our future network. Whether trialling 5G to support a future-proof, mobile Britain, or ensuring the remotest parts of rural Britain can connect to 4G, for O2, this is about continuing to invest in all areas – not one at the cost of the other.”

“4G coverage is improving all the time, but there’s more to do, particularly in rural areas,” said Digital Minister Margot James. “We’ve already reformed planning laws to make it easier and cheaper to install and upgrade digital infrastructure, and it’s great to see O2 and the rest of industry responding to ensure more people in rural Britain can share the brilliant benefits of 4G connectivity.”

Thanks partly to an enhanced mobile experience, O2 has pointed to a report from Development Economics which suggests tourism, transport and manufacturing segments could receive a financial boost with improved connectivity. Perhaps this is one of the most notorious statistics associated with the digital divide, but Development Economics predicts connectivity parity could add as much as £141 million a year to the 14,000 rural businesses who are missing out on the full digital experience.

Although this is a positive step forward, let’s not forget O2 has a lot of catching up to do, it certainly isn’t uncommon to see the brand slumping at the bottom of the mobile performance rankings. Opensignal’s most recent report assessing the performance of the four UK MNOs had O2 sat in last place for all categories aside from latency (3G and 4G) and availability, where it was second behind EE. Back in August, Rootmetrics also had O2 at the bottom of the pile for almost every category.

The performance of the network is certainly a dent in the O2 pride, but it has still managed to claim top-spot in the market share leagues. Although MNOs should stride towards creating the best possible experience for customers, O2’s top and bottom standings demonstrate buying decisions are more than performance orientated. The big differentiator between O2 and rest of the UK MNOs is its loyalty programme, Priority, which does appear to be paying dividends, while Giffgaff is still proving a successful venture to attract a new SIM-only audience. Such is the success of Giffgaff over the last few years, Three has creating its own version in Smartie, while Vodafone has launched Voxi.

That said, building the customer experience in rural areas of the UK will only add to the success of the telco, creating a more interesting proposition for customers which might have ignored the brand in the past. O2 has been swimming against the tide when it comes to convergence trends, choosing to focus exclusively on mobile, a decision which is increasingly looking justified.

UK Gov releases another £95 million for local full-fibre diets

Over the last year, the UK Government has been proudly preaching of massive investments into digital infrastructure. It’s questionable how much has made its way into reality, but an additional £95 million has been released today.

The Local Full Fibre Networks (LFFN) Challenge Fund has announced £95 million has been made available to aid the roll-out of full fibre networks. Local authorities and public sector bodies around the UK can apply to the Local Full Fibre Networks Investment Panel to access the investment, which has been earmarked for rural areas, regions which have higher than average hurdles to 5G, the public sector and the development of local technology hubs. A plan to spend the money by March 2021 would have to be tabled to be applicable, with the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport believing £95 million should be enough to fund roughly 20 projects.

“We recently set out our ambition for a nationwide full-fibre broadband network by 2033, and initiatives like this will be instrumental in achieving that,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “We want to hear from any local authority interested in taking part, so we can work closely with them on their plans to help them secure funding.”

The first two rounds of grant funding released £105 million into the economy, while this £95 million will deplete the funds bank account. The cash itself is part of the government’s expanded £31 billion National Productivity Investment Fund, £740 million has been reserved for digital infrastructure. How many cheques have been signed so far is unknown, though questions still remain whether £740 million is a big enough commitment considering the lost ground on global leaders.

As it should be, emphasis will be placed on the proposals which plug the gaps from private sector investment. Rural regions are of course an area of interest here, as are regional technology hubs, potentially decreasing the reliance of the UK economy on London. The Midlands is an excellent example of this initiative, with the region targeting the development of electric cars and the components in creating its own hub of technical excellence.

For those interested in wrestling investment away from the fund, an email expressing interest would have to be sent by September 30 2018.

Government research suggests digital divide plans might actually be working

When you compare the digital divide to other countries around the world, it looks like nothing more than a minor crack in the UK. That said, it is still there and new research suggests it is getting smaller.

Before you give the mish-mash-of-no-one-wants-jobs Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport too much credit, you have to bear in mind this is research which has been funded and influenced by the department itself. That said, government initiatives do seem to have spurred on the lethargic Openreach/BT into action in the countryside taking the number of households which are able to access superfast broadband across the UK to 95.39%.

“Our rollout of superfast broadband across the UK has been the most challenging infrastructure project in a generation but is one of our greatest successes,” said Minister for Digital, Margot James. “We are reaching thousands more homes and businesses every week, that can now reap the clear and tangible benefits that superfast broadband provides. We are helping to ensure the downfall of the digital divide.”

In terms of closing the digital divide, it is worth reminding ourselves every now and then what this actually means. It is more than simply cat videos streaming faster than a laser pointer on the carpet, but accessibility to education and employment opportunities. With businesses increasingly reliant on the internet for everyday processes such as cloud-based services and infrastructure, connectivity decides whether a company opens up an office in one place or another, or the competitiveness of a regional. Functional companies create jobs, which dominos success throughout the local economy.

The initiative was first launched 2010/11 in response to concerns commercial deployment of superfast broadband would fail to reach areas which were not deemed commercially attractive. Backed by £530 million of subsidies (and an additional £250 in 2015), telcos were enticed to rollout out relevant infrastructure, though early years were plagued with claims BT was rebuilding its monopoly with public funds as it won the majority of early contracts. While the criticism of BT’s dominance continues to be an issue for some, it is worth noting £500 million in subsidies has been returned to the public purse due to uptake being higher than expected.

In terms of the impact on local firms, the report estimates postcodes benefitting from subsidised coverage saw employment rise by 0.8% and turnover grow by 1.2% in response to improved infrastructure. This has resulted in an additional 49,000 jobs for local economies, plus an additional £9 billion in annual revenues. When looking at productivity gains, better connectivity essentially means each employee makes an additional £1,390 per year on average for the firm.

Government Table One

As you can see from the tables above, the ‘other’ regions are still growing at a faster rate, though you have to question how big the digital divide would be today without the telcos being ‘encouraged’ to invest in rural areas with government subsidies. Growth is a positive, as it would be a fair assumption the statistics would be in decline without improved connectivity.

Education and health and social work were the sectors which really benefited here (worker turnover increased 4.7% and 3.7% respectively), though subsidised coverage raised turnover per worker in the manufacturing sector by around 0.8%. With improved connectivity now in place in the manufacturing space the opportunity to demonstrate further benefits through IoT and smart-factory environments is much more apparent. The manufacturing segment might be a slow-burner with the next wave of technological advancements proving to be the gamechanger.

With a benefit to cost ratio of £1.96 per £1 of gross public sector spending, it is difficult to argue with the success here. Yes, the numbers could be better, though as the report states the net benefits of the programme does not include any value associated with the future use of the infrastructure, you could conclude the value has been considerably underplayed. Governments do not often earn plaudits, but this does genuinely seem like an initiative which has been well managed, delivering on the stated promises.

Work is not complete on closing the digital divide, the South West for instance is still underserved for example, though it is difficult to argue that the government hasn’t done a bad job overall.

US appeals court tells FCC that poor people are allowed broadband

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has lost a skirmish in the District of Columbia Court of Appeals following moves from the watchdog attempting to remove a broadband subsidy for low income families in Tribal areas.

The removal of the Lifeline subsidy has been a contentious decision from Pai and his Republican cronies leading the FCC since it was announced in November last year, though the courts have now blocked it. While there has been strong resistance from the likes of Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn (now former), this is a notable win for Democratic leaning politicians and public servants, as the momentum has been favouring the Pai movement in recent months.

“Petitioners have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their arguments that the facilities-based and rural areas limitations contained in the Order are arbitrary and capricious,” the order states. “In particular, petitioners contend that the Federal Communications Commission failed to account for a lack of alternative service providers for many tribal customers.”

While the FCC proved there would not be a ‘mass disconnection’ in the regions should the subsidy be removed, the court has pointed to a lack of competition in the region. These are areas which are traditionally underserved, with the subsidy going some way to aid connectivity, as a watchdog and public-funded organization, surely this is one of the fundamental objectives; to assist and serve US citizens where necessary; clearly Pai disagrees.

The original plan from the FCC was to ban the subsidy from being used to purchase broadband services from resellers, though it could be used with network owners. Removing this $25 subsidy would have left the applicants with only a $9.25 option, which the courts did not deem sufficient. Without the option of purchasing services through resellers, competition would be drastically reduced and the opportunity for market abuse would be rife.

The case, which was initially brought to the courts by the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe and Oceti Sakowin Tribal Utility Authority, while also being supported by several non-profits, creates a useful precedent in those opposing the Pai reign. Although Pai is seemingly attempting to scale back all regulation, intervention and market influence at the FCC, the coalition suing were able to demonstrate changes to the FCC’s Lifeline programme would result in people losing telecom service; Pai opponents throughout the US will be looking at this case with much interest.

One interesting point which can be taken from the ruling is that less regulation and market intervention will not necessarily lead to investment.

“Furthermore, the Federal Communications Commission has not shown that the historical record supports its assertion that these new requirements will encourage development of communications infrastructure in underserved areas, thus preventing mass disconnection.”

The principles of the Republican leaning officials is less regulation offers market freedoms and room to innovate. Removing red tape would actually encourage telcos to invest in the infrastructure the country so desperately needs, though it seems the court does not agree with this theory. This rhetoric has fuelled the scaling back of power and influence at the FCC, though such comments from the court will certainly take a bit of the wind out of the Pai sails.

Rural wireless group calls bullsh*t on Verizon coverage claims

The Rural Wireless Association (RWA) has filed a request with the FCC asking the watchdog to investigate Verizon’s 4G coverage claims, sniffing out some creative communications from the telco.

The filing itself requests the FCC investigate the 4G LTE coverage claimed by Verizon and require re-filing of the company’s data to correct what the RWA believe is overstated coverage. The request comes off the back of an investigation launched by a coalition of radio frequency engineering firms, which believes Verizon’s claimed 4G LTE coverage is grossly overstated.

“Commission review of Verizon’s claimed coverage is critical,” said RWA General Counsel Carri Bennet. “Our participating small rural carrier members estimate that it will cost them each $1 million dollars or more to complete the challenge process – a figure that could be dramatically reduced and used for deployment of rural broadband services if Verizon’s reported coverage was accurate.”

While we in the UK might complain about not being able to download cat videos at lightning speed while strolling the beautiful, dramatic and unrivalled Welsh countryside, our pains seem minimal in comparison to some regions of the US. Such is the vast scale of the country, the digital divide between rural and urban environment isn’t even the same conversation.

The farmers and trekkers might not be the most commercially attractive customers to US telcos, but it has become somewhat of a political issue in recent years. Equality is a US principle, therefore the telcos have to give as much attention to corn as concrete, and should you believe the press releases, they certainly do. This is where this filing could be an issue for Verizon; it could turn into political embarrassment with the telco undermining politicians who are claiming the digital divide is a priority.

Another issue is down to funding. The Mobility Fund Phase II (MFII) funding is an initiative which provides cash injections for smaller, regionalised telcos assistance in covering not-spots. Should Verizon have overstated its 4G coverage, covering up not-spots, the FCC would be less inclined to support the smaller telcos in these regions with additional funding.

As part of the investigation, Panhandle Telephone challenged the claim Verizon covers almost all of the 14,778.47 square kilometre Oklahoma Panhandle area. Using information which is available to the general public, as well as the aid of a newer modelling tool and the FCC-adopted 5 Mbps downlink standard, Panhandle Telephone claims Verizon in reality covers less than 50% of the area.

An investigation by the FCC could be an embarrassing episode for Verizon, though it could snowball into a PR disaster. If claims are found to be true, the telco isn’t just embarrassing politicians or ignoring farmers, it is a multi-billion dollar heavyweight stealing money from the pockets of minnows in the industry, a segment which is apparently the foundation of the US economy.