ELTM16: The (Not So) Connected World

Where I live, connectivity is still far from ideal. My home (Newfoundland Labrador, CA) is twice the size of Great Britain, in area at least. The population is something else. At a little over a half-million people it doesn’t stack up very well against the 60 million that live in Great Britain. Think about it: less than one percent of the population lives in an area twice the size. That means lots of: almost impassable mountains, deep Fjords with no roads, wide open spaces between tiny communities, inhospitable coastlines, bogs, rivers and forests. My home is truly beautiful; a mostly unspoiled place where both flora and fauna are left to live away from the destructive meddlesome hand of humanity. We have a joke here: Q—How do you spot a Newfoundlander or Labradorian in heaven? A—they are the ones trying to get back home.

That’s just fine until you try to connect all of the communities with a single contiguous fibre –based digital network—essential infrastructure for a 21st century society and economy. Those mountains, rocks, bogs and rivers, coupled with the huge distances between subscribers don’t make for easy fibre-deployment. More importantly the relatively small number of subscribers could never hope to pay, straight up, for the cost. It doesn’t add up. Just take a look at two estimates, one worse than the other:

A conservative estimate for the cost of a said provincial network would be around $500 million just to build it, never mind run and maintain it. I’d estimate that the province would have around 100,000 subscribers so that’s a $5000 up-front cost for every subscriber if it’s to be a fee-for-service funding model. It gets worse, though. Roughly 350,000 of the people in the province live in cities or communities of a size where a provider might just be able to put together a business model for broadband, fibre-based connectivity. While it will not happen overnight it is reasonable to expect that it will happen in these places at roughly the same speed as it will happen in the rest of the rural sections of the developed world. That leaves roughly 150,000 people or roughly 35000 subscribers. Taking out the part of the build (roughly $100M) that is covered by the business case in the larger centres this means that the cost for the hard-to-reach subscribers now climbs to roughly $11,000 each. Amortized over 10 years, that would mean $140/mo per subscriber; significant;y more than the typical $50/mo charged! Expensive connectivity!

Granted, this is a simplistic model assuming a planned approach with few building compromises—a fast efficient network built for the long haul. We are not starting from scratch, though. All of the major internet Service Providers (ISPs) have partial fibre networks so if you wanted to get fibre everywhere you’d only have to concentrate on where it currently is not and work out an arrangement with the existing providers.

The ISPs also don’t have to structure their income in the way presented. Business customers have different needs from home consumers and can be expected to pay more for more.  Besides there’s always an argument that the information highway is a vital piece of public infrastructure to there’s a valid argument for tapping into our collective wealth—namely tax money—to subsidize this build and help make a proper business case.

There are, as I see it, several barriers to this. First, those in the larger centres already have access to fibre-based Internet at reasonable cost and do not want to subsidize the costs for those living in smaller, isolated communities. They don’t care that their fellow citizens have less access. “Why don’t they live here like I do?” they ask. Fair enough but those same people need to consider that many of the jobs in the larger centres do not grow the economy. Since they are retail and government based they (a) recycle existing wealth and (b) depend on those outport communities for the majority of their economy anyway. They also should consider that the jobs in the outports are, by contrast, ones that bring new money into the local economy. People in smaller centres either sell fish on the world market, work in mining, oil & gas which also exports to the world economy or commute to oil& gas jobs in places like Alberta, again bringing new money in to the province. Simply put, outport dollars are net contributors, not money recyclers. As such the people who live there deserve some sort of break.

Second, those in a position to do something about it (senior provincial and federal government officials and senior management at the ISPs) generally do not fully comprehend the real problem. Their blackberries work—that is they deliver voice and email—so the holders assume that all is, in fact, good enough. What’s more, the majority of them rarely, if ever, spend significant time in the communities where the problem exists. Here’s what they do not see: (a) just because you can get email does not mean that you have decent Internet—after all, you can get email over low-speed dialup (b) they’re not playing the right game anyway. Internet is not about downloading. Can I say that again? Internet is not about downloading.

Just the other day I had a conversation with a friend who is fairly influential and knowledgeable. (To my former colleagues—no this is not any of you nor is it about any of you.) (S)he said that things were looking up and that many of the more challenging schools and businesses would soon be guaranteed 5 megs (5 MBps)

I almost fell back. My cellphone gets around 50 megs on a bad day! My house has a 70 meg fibre line running into it and I often find it slow. There’s no way that 5 lousy megs can do what a school needs to be doing in this century.

It’s not about downloading. Get out of 1993! Sure, back then, people dialed in, downloaded their email and “surfed the web.” In both cases, here’s how that happened: the browser sent out a few small data packets containing your IP address and the URL of the “page” you wanted. It want to your ISPs centre where first the URL was looked-up and matched with its IP address and then it was routed (via a few hops; routers pass the packets along until they get to the right place) to the serving address. There, the server read your packets and assembled a few packets containing its IP, your IP and the data that comprised the page you wanted and then sent them back the same way. Simply put: you initiated a tiny burst of data packets and the server responded with another short burst. That was it. The two bursts only took a short time—sort of like automatic gunfire; you fired a couple of rounds and the opponent fired a few back. The majority—the VAST majority—of the time was silence. Yes you were connected for an hour or so but for the most of the time your computer would just periodically say “I’m still here” and the ISP’s server would respond “acknowledged.”

That’s not how it is now. When people connect now they have multiple channels open: Facebook, Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, Pinterest, one or two online stores, a game or two and some sort of video-conference (Skype or Hangouts, maybe); probably multiple windows. It’s no longer a few bursts of packets. It’s more like a huge spray from a fire hose; a constant HUGE stream of data packets going to multiple destinations, both upstream and downstream.

And that’s just one user.

Look at the school situation. Ideally every single student is connected in this way all of the time. Perhaps it’s on a PC but it’s much more likely to be on multiple machines at the same time. The student is on a laptop but there’s also a cellphone or tablet nearby. At lunch time you can be sure that those devices will be joined by a slew of gaming machines (Sony PS/P and PS Vitas, Nintendo DSs, 3DSs and such) too.

And the oft-stated response? Either “They should not be doing that anyway,” or “There’s nothing we can do.”

Let’s be clear: this is not going away nor will it get any better. Students will not magically slack back on using digital equipment just because somebody says they should. Some—the rich ones—may find other ways: huge data plans, home based satellite systems and such. The less-well-off will, one supposes, be expected to just continue to exist in some decision-makers idea of how the Internet should be, namely the way in was in the 1990s when things were simply something else.

And that’s the way it is in my home province, a safe, secure and relatively prosperous place. I can only imagine how it is elsewhere.

So what should be done? Sadly, there is no simple solution. That’s fine, though, we should expect that complex problems should have equally complex solutions. A combination of these should help:

  • Smaller communities should band together, combine financial resources, hire consultants and apply for the provincial and federal grants that are available. They do exist at both levels but are not really utilized to the fullest potential. Both provincial and federal governments do have money available that can be used to upgrade local digital infrastructure.
  • As citizens we should continue to lobby politicians at all levels. While support is available it is still insufficient, especially for those in the most isolated regions such as Newfoundland’s south coast, and Northern Peninsula and most of Labrador.
  • Individuals should make themselves aware of other options that also exist. Perhaps it’s not possible to string fibre throughout a small community right now but if a single high-speed line could be brought in, perhaps a community-based Wi-Fi could be set up as a stop-gap until a full community build is feasible.
  • Finally, it’s high time that some of the larger providers and their shareholders stopped sanding all of the money away to the Caymans and, instead put some of it back to the communities from which it came.

As we roll further and further into the 21st Century we are becoming increasingly dependent on broadband services. The Internet is not an add-on, but, rather a vital part of everyday life, especially for our young people. Serious challenges posed by geography need to be met head-on with thoughtful deliberate efforts that balance equity with economy. Failure to do this will, in the end spell the death of the productive aspects of rural living. People will, in general, not settle for less than adequate connectivity and will, instead, choose to take their skills along with their social and economic contributions elsewhere.

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6 thoughts on “ELTM16: The (Not So) Connected World

  1. A real problem indeed. I think I recall that you posted something similar before and I responded with a BBC story (I think, maybe NPR) about an isolated community in the UK which took on the responsibility of providing their own cable connection to some larger bit of infrastructure. They actually dug the trench within which a fiber optic cable was set. But communities in mega-isolation need a different solution. I’m no expert but, aren’t satellite connections possible? Not for every household, of course, but can’t a satellite feed provide connectivity which can then be distributed somehow? Yours is a difficult problem … certainly there must be folks in government who are concerned about such thing? If they aren’t … they should be … and, who better qualified to light the fires under them! D

    1. You are correct! Last year I did post of some of the connectivity challenges we have faced over the years. The problem with everything but fibre, at the moment, is the limits placed on overall bandwidth. Most two-way satellite installations support speeds compatible with domestic DSL which is not bad at all for a home but stretches pretty thin for a whole school when, perhaps, hundreds of devices are competing for it. One good quality video conference, for example, will consume all of the available bandwidth by itself. Satellites also suffer from two practical problems caused by the fact that they have to be in geostationary orbit which means they have to be approximately 37000 km directly above the equator. First, latency: the signal takes about 0.8 s for a round trip which always adds approximately a 1 second delay in any conversation. Not enough to ruin it but certainly enough to make it a bit stilted. Far more serious is the issue of look angle. Here in St. John’s the satellites are only 7 degrees above the horizon. That’s low enough that even moderately high hills can block the signal. Other technologies such as digital microwave can be tried as well and their radios are getting higher and higher bandwidth. These, too have problems. They need towers, which are also quite expensive to build. These can easily be loaded with many tonnes of ice in the winter and collapse. Fibre, too is very expensive, especially with permafrost. It can’t be left on the ground–bears will chew through the cable and it’s wickedly expensive to either bury it or string it on poles (where it can break with ice). In the end the compromises are always serious ones.

      1. You have very clearly painted a very complex picture. If the government threw itself at the problem, what would you suggest … given all of the difficulties outlined above?

      2. So in a nutshell, here’s what I’d like to see:
        1. Given that government has some money put aside for broadband and that it’s not all being used then let’s earmark some of it to bring together leaders from the telcos, IT managers from education and healthcare as well as the Newfoundland Association of Technical Industries to discuss, round table format, what is the best response. Following that meantine, then strike a small committee to draft an action plan.
        2. If that can’t happen then it would at least be nice to see some of that same pop of money carver out to create a one-year contractual position charged with a. putting together a priority list of communities not well served by broadband and b. working with those communities, one-by-one to craft a suitable response and put together a funding proposal to carry it out. In short, letting the improvement process be a bit more proactive.

  2. I live in a rural part of Austria (at the edge of “greater Vienna area”) and we had the same discussion here some years ago. I guess the (European) taxpayer finally paid for an upgrade of the infrastructure via EU governmental subsidies as all kinds of infrastructure here was heavily funded in “underprivileged” regions of countries who became new members of the EU. We were the last region in Austria that has been connected to the digital phone system – me ordering ISDN 15 years ago was quite uncommon. We use a petty ASDL “business” connection though today – that is about 3,5MBit/s download and less than 1MBit/s upload. I didn’t find a satisfying solution to migrate my two ISDN channels and associated numbers over to faster cable/VoIP provider so I stick with ADSL – we are able to work remotely at clients’ systems and do conf calls.
    So it is very interesting for me to read about how this the “connectivity problem” is handled in other rural regions of the world. I feel that tangible infrastructure, in particular roads, do get disproportionate attention. Every politician comes up with this incredibly innovative idea to “fuel economy” by having new roads built or existing ones amended.
    Where I live most people commute to Vienna every morning (> 60km) and that commute is subsidized by tax incentives. I would rather like to see real incentives to work from home offices – both by corporations (as despite the technical options you can use in your spare time for 24/7 availability you are still expected to show up in office) and by the government: by rather paying for upgrades of data lines. I am not sure if it was such a great idea that governments sold their shares of telcos.

    1. Hah–I am sure that governments lost out in selling off to the telcos as they will always be a source of income. Now, that said, once they do provide a decent level of service (and I consider that 100 megs burstable to gigabit) then they’ll have to find new ways of increasing revenue. That truly scares me as they will by then have put it in place so that (1) net neutrality is gone and traffic will be metered passing from region to region and (2) they will have figured out a way to “own” the content so that royalty money changes hands each time content is accessed. Not good.

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