Higher costs, relative to the number of homes served, and lower income levels, compared to urban areas, is the fundamental business model problem that has to be solved in order to extend wireless broadband service into rural area. But it can be solved, even in some of the most extreme cases. David del Val, Telefonica’s head of research and development in Latin America, described the hurdles he’s encountered delivering Internet connectivity to remote regions, in a speech at last week’s inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco.
The challenge, del Val said, is that connecting a person in a rural community to mobile service is three times more expensive than in urban areas.
Telefonica is installing cell sites in Brazil along the Amazon river, in the mountains of Chile and in other areas where customers are thin on the ground. Building middle mile backhaul facilities are a particular challenge, he said. Satellite is ubiquitous but the service comes with a high price tag. So does fiber. Microwave links are also expensive, particularly when the cost of maintaining them in very remote areas, such as the Amazon basin, is factored in. Even so, it’s a workable solution according to del Val.
Then cell sites have to be built. The cost of building access points in rural areas might be comparable to costs in cities, but population densities are lower, so more towers are needed to reach the same number of customers. Operating costs also increase the farther away you get from urban areas. Del Val said that it can sometimes take days for an engineer to get to a base station in the jungle when there’s a problem.
Some of the communities that del Val serves are poorer and far more remote than any you would find in California. The numbers here are different, but the equation is the same. If it can be solved in the jungles of Brazil, it can be solved here too.
Project Loon demonstrated a real-world usage case earlier this year, when the worst flooding in decades hit Peru. The stratospheric balloon-based broadband system under development by Alphabet, Inc. – Google’s parent company – was deployed to backfill mobile networks that were damaged or overwhelmed by the disaster.
That’s according to Anne Bray, Project Loon’s business development director. She was speaking at the inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas trade show in San Francisco last week.
She said that Project Loon began working with Telefonica in Peru a year ago. It was a testing ground for, among other things, balloon flight operations, including a long duration flight that began at a base in Puerto Rico and then remained on station over Peru for 14 weeks. When the floods hit, the program accelerated, launching balloons and scaling up to reach tens of thousands of people in a short amount of time. It was a new experience. Up until then, Project Loon’s deployments were still largely research projects; all of a sudden it was an emergency responder.
Project Loon is a wholesale play. It partners with terrestrial mobile companies in rural areas, and provides bandwidth to areas that they can’t reach, or where existing infrastructure can’t handle the load.
Using a solar-powered transciever – basically, a small cell site – attached to a balloon that floats at an altitude of about 20 kilometers, one Loon access point can cover about 5,000 square kilometers. Bray said they’re aiming for gigabit-class throughput on each balloon. Project Loon’s website specs the service as delivered to a user on the ground at 10 Mbps.
Early tests were with Vodaphone in New Zealand, but those were tests. Although commercial deployments were promised to follow quickly, it’s been slow to roll out. The flooding in Peru appears to be the catalyst that kicked Project Loon into something like a real world operational mode.
Once he left the big stage at the Mobile World Congress Americas in San Francisco last week, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai walked a couple of blocks to an event put on by the Lincoln Network, a Silicon Valley political club with a libertarian outlook. It was a much smaller stage, but he seemed completely at home in a room full of smart people – some even smarter than him – who would rather let the market sort things out than to try to fine tune the Digital Age using the blunt, mindless tools of government.
The moderator, tech journalist Ina Fried, asked Pai what does ideal regulation look like?
Ideal regulation is regulation that solves a market failure, regulation that creates a competitive market place that otherwise would not exist but for those rules. That’s part of the reason why I consistently say…what is the problem we’re trying to solve? And do the costs of this regulation outweigh the benefits?…What are the impacts of the rule? Is the rule solving the market failure, and if not we could have unintended consequences that could actually disincentivise investment or distort the market place in ways that wouldn’t serve consumers. How do you measure the cost and benefits? So those are some of the things I think about. And so that’s why I don’t really like the term deregulation or hyper regulation. Simply, in my view at least, the goal is to make sure our goals are tailored to the market place that exists in 2017.
Pai has a coherent philosophy of political economy and a sense of right and wrong: without it, he wouldn’t have broken with FCC tradition and political expediency and begun publishing draft decisions weeks before commissioners vote, instead of weeks afterwards, as his predecessors did. If he can hold onto his values and seek facts beyond those shovelled by the lobbyists and lawyers that slither through the halls of the FCC, there’s hope of rational decisions ahead.
Rebranding and a return to San Francisco has reversed CTIA’s slide into trade show oblivion. Now known as the Mobile World Congress Americas and run by GSMA, the outfit that puts on the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, the show is drawing a more international crowd and a better class of speakers. Or at least speakers that are living up to MWC’s standards.
The first keynote yesterday featured Carlos Slim Domit, the chairman of America Movil, which is the largest mobile telecoms company in Latin America, and the fourth largest in the world. He talked a little bit about his company and a lot about the road ahead in Latin America, where mobile telecoms are taking on a central and growing role in everyday life, and where carriers are struggling with ever increasing demand for bandwidth on the one hand, and a deep digital gulf that mirrors social divisions on the other.
Slim was followed by Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. His speech didn’t break any news, but it was a lucid overview of the issues the FCC is taking on this year, with a focus on mobile topics in general and spectrum availability in particular.
It was a welcome contrast to recent CTIA keynotes, which over the past few years featured elaborate marketing videos accompanied by increasingly junior executives grinning their way through vapid scripts that might have been written by Mister Rogers. As if to remind us how good we have it now, CTIA president Meredith Attwell Baker briefly took us back to the bad old days with a third grade-level, walk-about-the-stage presentation complete with pictures of puppies.
The new MWC Americas show owes a lot to its roots. In Europe, speakers are expected to offer whatever wisdom they can about the topic at hand, rather than deliver tacky sales pitches or smarmy presentations. The show still has one major problem, though: head to head competition with Apple’s annual fall launch event. It’ll never win that fight, particularly since next year’s show is the same week (although they’re moving it to Los Angeles). Even in the press room, where one might expect live streams from the conference program, the video display was stuck on an endless replay of Tim Cook and friends.