Broadband speed matters, so does quality, quantity and cost

by Steve Blum • , , , , , ,
Tube in the 1000 Watt standby transmitter for CKCI 1350 AM Parksville. (now gone and replaced by CIBH 88.5 FM) This was once the standby transmitter for CKEG 1350 AM Nanaimo.
Copper costs pennies, glass even less.

There’s more to measuring bandwidth than simple speed. The number of bits per second a customer can send and receive is the defining characteristic of most services. But to be meaningfully compared with alternatives, solutions – particularly satellite-based ones – also have to be evaluated on other metrics such as data caps, variability, capacity limits, latency and reliability.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) did not explicitly make that distinction when they relaunched the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) infrastructure grant and loan program last year, and extended eligibility to include qualified satellite companies.

However, they did require applicants who proposed satellite-based service to “prove functionality”. Elsewhere in that decision, the commission discusses specific satellite-related issues such as latency, robustness, reliability and cost. The CPUC seems to have given itself enough leeway to consider those factors when evaluating proposals from satellite companies.

One such was filed by ViaSat earlier this month, giving the commission and its staff an opportunity – sought or not – to define what qualifies a broadband service as functional and fundable.

They should start with an independent technical evaluation of real-world service levels, including the likely speeds actually delivered when the system is fully loaded with subscribers. Latency and quality of service fluctuations should be measured, along with the effectiveness of mitigation strategies.

The next question is how to factor data caps into an assessment of speeds, and how to balance, say, effectively unlimited copper or fiber-based service with severely capped satellite packages. Bandwidth is a two-dimensional question: how fast the bits arrive and how many you can actually get.

There’s a difference between a gigabyte that costs pennies and one that costs $5 (ViaSat’s price). The CPUC has to decide if it wants to use its economic and regulatory clout to develop the former or lock some Californians into the latter.

Tellus Venture Associates assisted with several CASF proposals in the current round, including some that are impacted by ViaSat’s proposal. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.