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.

Korea switches on 5G

All three of Korea’s major mobile operators switched on 5G networks simultaneous at midnight on 1 December, offering business FWA based on 3GPP standards.

The launches marked Korea as the first country to have more than one commercial 5G network. The largest operator SKT, launched the service in 13 cities, while LG U+ plans to expand its 5G coverage to 85 cities by the end of the year. KT, the second largest mobile operator and the leading fixed-line services provider, which recently suffered a fire damage to its cable tunnel, is said to be only covering the greater Seoul area with its 5G network.

The services offered are limited to business users on fixed-wireless access. The launch at LG U+ was signalled by a video call made from a PC by the operator’s Vice Chairman. SKT’s CEO made a call using a prototype 5G smartphone. Both the wireless router and the prototype phone were supplied by Samsung, which sent out a congratulatory tweet for the occasion:

Three UK and Ovum reckon 5G FWA is a great idea

Research from Ovum, commissioned by Three UK, has concluded 5G-powered fixed wireless access could replace fixed connections for most UK households.

The report, entitled 5G Wireless Home Broadband: A Credible Alternative to Fixed Broadband, was commissioned to assess the potential of 5G as a substitute to fixed wired broadband in the UK. The bandwidth promised by 5G rivals what is currently available to most UK households via traditional fixed lines and it doesn’t involve digging up the pavements, so what’s not to like?

In fact Ovum anticipates speeds of 80-100 Mbps from FWA, compared to the current fixed-line average of 46 Mbps. Furthermore Ovum reckons 85% of urban punters currently get less than 80 Mbps, so they would receive a boost from 5G FWA.

“Advantages of 5G wireless broadband technology are not just in speed: wireless is more flexible, does not require long-term contracts, is faster and cheaper to deploy and less of a burden for customers – no waiting time, no engineer visits,” said Dario Talmesio of Ovum, who wrote the report. “With low availability of fibre and high cost of deployment, 5G Wireless becomes a viable alternative to fixed-line broadband. While the UK continues its fibre roll-out, this is a quicker and more economical way to satisfy customers’ fast-growing demand for data.”

“5G gives consumers the opportunity to bin their fixed line, enjoy faster speeds and save money,” said Three UK CEO Dave Dyson. “Wireless home broadband means that we can speed up access to super-fast internet services at a lower cost, without installation delays or inflexible contracts.

“The efficient and widespread rollout of superfast broadband across households and businesses is crucial to the growth of our economy. Wireless home broadband de-risks government’s ambitions for a Digital Britain by providing alternatives to a fibre-to-the-home solution.”

Now it should be noted that Three UK doesn’t have a stake in the UK fixed line market and that it’s keen to show something for its £250 million acquisition of UK Broadband, part of the stated reason for which was to offer 5G FWA over the 3.4 GHz spectrum that came with it. Three expects to launch a UK FWA service sometime next year, so it’s fair to say it has a strong commercial interest in bigging up the potential of FWA.

FWA could help inform operators of fibre rollout priorities – Nokia

While some are still sceptical of the longevity and performance characteristics of Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) as a usecase for 5G, Nokia thinks it could serve a very useful purpose for fibre rollout plans.

Although the case for fibre has been built and justified, forecasting where demand will actually be is still a tricky task. For every correct prediction analysts and forecasters make, we suspect there will be dozens of forgotten failed ones. But Stefaan Vanhastel, Head of Fixed Networks Marketing at Nokia, thinks there could be useful benefits from FWA in making economical and efficient fibre rollout plans.

Here is Vanhastel’s theory. Offering a gigabit FWA service to customers will meet the demands of tomorrow, and offer a bit of breathing room from those who demanding full-fibre connectivity. Monitoring the data consumption of customers who have taken up the service could indicate where the greediest users are, and therefore the greatest potential for strain on the network and bottlenecks. Once these areas have been identified, they can be the first to receive the full-fibre connectivity diet.

Although fibre is the perfect solution for our connectivity cravings at home and work, upgrading current infrastructure is not going to happen overnight. It is an incredibly expensive process, time consuming and fibre is a product which is in high-demand. The reality of fibre connectivity is that it will be a gradual rollout throughout the network. Connecting small cells with fibre is a tough enough ask, but the last-mile is where telcos will struggle the most. 5G FWA might offer a temporary solution, while also providing valuable insight to the areas which need full-fibre the most.

Of course, it’s always worth bearing mind Nokia has something to gain out increased FWA interest, though it is not the worst idea we have ever heard.

BBWF 2018: Telefonica Germany pitches case for FWA

Telefonica’s UK business O2 might be avoiding convergence like the plague, but for its cousins in Germany, FWA is one of the biggest drivers for the adoption of 5G.

Speaking at Broadband World Forum in Berlin, Cayetano Carbajo Martín of Telefonica Germany is not fearful of the convergence distraction. In fact, it might just save the country from a connectivity embarrassment.

“5G implementation will be driven by different needs from fixed wireless access to ever increasing eMBB demand and even co-created new industry and service solutions,” said Martín.

As you can probably imagine, dealing with the tsunami of internet traffic is a big driver for 5G within Telefonica, but FWA is a long-term money making opportunity. In terms of the rate of growth, Martín highlighted traffic increased 160% over the last 12 months on O2’s network. Looking forward, even if you take a conservative estimate of 50% year-on-year growth, by 2027 internet traffic will be 38 times greater than it is today.

Looking at today’s resources, the network will hit full capacity by 2022 and the demand for new frequencies will become a necessity. And of course, these are conservative estimates not taking into consideration the unknown usecases of tomorrow. From a bandwidth perspective, 5G is increasingly becoming a necessity, with the deadline is becoming shorter and shorter.

This will also facilitate the telcos plans to venture into the FWA market. Martín highlighted there are no ambitions to explore the possibility of 4G FWA, it simply wouldn’t be able to compete with the experience of traditional broadband, though trials in Hamburg are readying the assault on the FWA space. If you listen to Martín, the opportunity is quite significant, with the CTO predicting 20-25% of Germany will convert to FWA, and perhaps this will dig Germany out of a hole.

Like the UK, Germany is one of those markets which has not glorified itself with an ambitious fibre rollout and is now playing catch-up. The FWA buzz which is beginning to build might just disguise a couple of blushed Bavarian cheeks should 5G-driven FWA be able to cover up the fibre-less cracks across the country.

What is worth noting though is FWA will not be the saviour many are plugging it to be. Some, no names mentioned, believe it might be able to bridge the connectivity gap between urban and rural environments, but this is exaggerated. The same financial pressures will be on FWA as there will have to be suitable population density to build the business case. FWA will not mean gigabit speeds will be democratized.

Even at what is supposed to be a fixed broadband conference, 5G has managed to muscle in on the action. It’s almost embarrassing how much its hogging the limelight.

FWA success is about deployment without engineers – Nokia

The 5G euphoria might have reignited excitement for Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) but Nokia doesn’t think we need to wait that long.

The FWA portfolio from Nokia isn’t new, here we’re talking about enhancements to products and solutions which are designed for 4G connectivity. What is worth bragging about is the simplicity of the portfolio, something which Nokia’s Head of Fixed Networks Marketing Stefaan Vanhastel thinks is critical for adoption.

“Fixed wireless access is all about ease of deployment, so need to make it is as easy as possible,” said Vanhastel. “We don’t want to send out engineers for every customer, but make the products all about deployability. Each of the announcement make by themselves are relatively minor, but when you bring everything together suddenly you have an offering which is appealing.”

FWA might be primarily a 5G conversation, though there is no reason the technology cannot be run over 4G networks. With 4G networks peak residential speeds beyond 100 Mbps are possible but not always achievable, though Nokia will be launching new antennas which it claims can improve performance. Nokia FastMile can help improve spectral efficiency by 4-5x, resulting in faster connections for residential users, more consistent performance at the cell edge and lower RAN costs. It starts to make 4G FWA a more viable proposition.

Another area of the portfolio which has received a power-up are the indoor gateways. Nokia is introducing new products which include high-gain antennas and 4X4 MIMO to increase performance. Some models are also claimed to be 5G upgradable. However, the most important point is ease of deployment; it is simply a plug-in device.

This for Vanhastel is one of the most important aspects of FWA. The usecase not only has to be built for the telcos, though this is a simple one with the cost of laying fibre, but also for the users. FWA is likely to be a considerable change for some customers, many of whom will know the pros and cons of mobile connectivity and coverage. Simplicity and ease of deployment will certainly come as an advantage over waiting for a couple of weeks for an engineer to show up.

Realistically most broadband connections across the UK do not reach the speeds which Nokia will suggest is capable over a 4G-FWA offering, but the task will be to convince telcos and users of the reliability of the offering. Should reliability be proven, it poses an interesting question; why should we have to wait for 5G when FWA is theoretically possible over 4G networks?

EE shows its 5G ambitions are greater than the smartphone

EE is set to green light its first 5G trial in London, testing out its fixed wireless access ambitions.

Five businesses and five homes will have the chance to test out EE’s 5G broadband capabilities as the telco shows us it’s not all about bufferless cat videos on the bus. The trial will see 5G switched on at ten sites around East London in City Road, Old Street, Hoxton Square, St Paul’s and Chiswell Street.

Although details of the trialists are thin at the moment, EE has hinted it will make use of social media to find them. If anything else, it’s an interesting idea to increase follows across the various platforms.

“This live trial is a big step forward in making the benefits of 5G a reality for our customers, and in making sure that the UK is at the front of the pack for 5G technology,” said Marc Allera, CEO of BT’s Consumer business.

“We’re focusing our resource and experience across EE and BT to ensure that we continue to lead the UK market with a mobile network that keeps giving our customers the best speeds and the best coverage. 5G is a fundamental part of our work to build a converged, smart network that keeps our customers connected to the things that matter most.”

Of course it wouldn’t be a proper trial if a politician didn’t get the chance to show off the fluoride smile to the world.

“We want the UK to be a global leader in 5G as part of our ambition to create a world-leading digital economy that works for everyone,” said Margot James, Minister for Digital. “Together with the Government’s own test beds and trials programme, industry initiatives like this will help deliver the benefits of this new revolutionary technology to businesses and consumers across the UK.”

While the main buzz of the 5G euphoria has been centred around improving the experience on your smart phone or filling the roads with autonomous vehicles, the fixed wireless access use case has been seldom touched in the UK. It certainly has been a talking point elsewhere, Verizon just launched it offering in very limited pockets of the US, though now the UK telcos seem to be catching on.

In recent weeks, Vodafone outlined their plans and trials for the 5G world, unusually selecting two rural locations as test beds, Cornwall and the Lake District. The explanation here; there is a need to trial all sorts of different use cases in different environments, with fixed wireless access being one.

Of course, 5G broadband connectivity does not offer the same reliability or potential of fibre-based connectivity (at least not until we start talking about 6G/7G/8G…) but it is a genuine use case which can be brought to the market in the near future. While we will have to wait until mid- to late-2019 for 5G compatible smartphones, routers will be on the market much sooner.

5G becomes real as Verizon launches FWA offering in four cities

It might not have been the blockbuster moment the industry has been building towards, but the dawn has broken on the 5G era.

Just to put that statement into perspective, this is a small launch, a handful of pockets in four US cities, and only available as a wireless broadband offering for the home right now. If you happen to be one of the few Americans living in the right area and fancy cutting the cord on your broadband connectivity, Verizon is up your street promising ‘typical speeds’ of 300 Mbps, and peaks of 940 Mbps. Houston, Indianapolis, and Los Angeles will be receiving the 5G treatment, with Sacramento gaining special attention.

“We were able to make Sacramento one of our first 5G cities because Mayor Darrell Steinberg and city leaders embraced innovation and developed a strategic vision for how 5G could be a platform for the larger Sacramento technology ecosystem,” said Jonathan LeCompte, Pacific Market President for Verizon. “We believe this vision will pay off big for the city, attracting new investment, businesses and next generation services for residents.”

Sacramento has seemingly been the most proactive of partners for Verizon, with the city hoping 5G can spur investment and growth in a variety of different industries, autonomous vehicles for instance, with the city recently announcing a partnership with Phantom Auto to prepare infrastructure to support teleoperation safety technology for driverless vehicles. Over the last 12 months, Verizon has installed small cells on more than 200 utilities poles and street lights.

“This is a significant day in Sacramento,” said Mayor Darrell Steinberg. “When cities like ours partner with innovative businesses, investment follows. Not only has Verizon invested heavily to bring the latest network technology to our city, but they are partnering with us to focus investments on equity and economic opportunity for all neighbourhoods.”

While it is only available in a very, very small number of locations, it is a promising start. Those who signed up to be the first to receive the surface will be rewarded with a three-month free trial period before paying $70 a month (or $50 a month for existing Verizon customers) and the promise of no data caps. These customers will also receive a free Apple TV 4K or Google Chromecast Ultra device at installation.

Irrelevant to the size of the launch, Verizon now has the bragging rights of being the first in the US to deliver 5G to customers. Competitors will argue this is not the promised 5G experience, and no-one will be able to deliver the 5G bonanza until compatible mobile devices hit the market next year, but that is beside the point. Verizon can now run as many in-your-face adverts as it wants, boasting about beating all the other telcos in the world in delivering 5G to the consumer. It’s a nuance, but it is not incorrect.