Rural Mapping and Broadband Asset Inventory
DCS Technology Design takes a very practical and realistic approach to planning for Rural Broadband. The challenge to get everyone in the United States access to Broadband Internet as quickly as possible cannot be accomplished with a fiber only mindset, even though that is the goal, and ultimately what the country needs. Broadband services can be split into two general Technology Categories: Cabled and Wireless. Fiber Optics, in its many variations, tops the category for cabled technologies, and wireless technologies, (perhaps led by 5G now), will continue to evolve and play a vital role in last mile Broadband services. However, all other arguments aside, based on just the physics of Radio Wave vs Light Wave, wireless will never offer the level of security, reliability, and capacity that fiber has the potential for.
Today, Fiber to the Home (FTTH) is, in many ways, the most cost-effective long-term solution for high-speed broadband internet. Especially considering the enormous bandwidth potential and durability of the technology, which is expected to be sustainable, once built, for 50 or more years. However, it takes time and money to design and build systems, and it will take years before fiber can become the pervasive utility in rural areas that it needs to be. If we have the time and resources, fiber should be at the top of the consideration list. But, if fiber just isn’t feasible yet, there are quite a few practical options that can be quicker to apply, and can meet current FCC minimum requirements in many rural areas. The best way to know what those options are is to start with an accurate and trusted set of data that inventories every existing and proposed technology available, and how it is performing (or could perform) for your area.
The need for reliable and high-capacity internet is no longer a luxury. It has become an essential utility for homes and businesses to function today. Especially now, where education, healthcare and workplace practices are being driven by social restrictions and economic demands, the ability to connect to the world virtually has become a vital part of our society. Unfortunately, this ubiquitous access to these types of services is still incredibly inadequate in so much of our country’s rural areas.
What we do
Start with trusted base data
There is no single source of data that can provide a municipality an accurate inventory of the Broadband technologies that might be available to their communities. DCS Technology will look to several sources for the base data, assess the accuracy of each set of data relative to what it is providing, then build from there.
What makes the most sense for your community?
Although DCS Technology gains new experience with each community we work with, no two are a duplicate of another. There are key base elements that can create continuity across communities, but each community and rural area we look may have something others don't, such as a local WISP that has become integral to their Broadband strategy. First steps will always consider which needs are most important, what resources and technologies are generally available, the sentiment of the community and its leadership relative to need and funding, and a myriad of other geographical and technical considerations before we suggest any course of action. Anything from consulting, advisory and project management services for efforts already underway, to full community/county wide studies and technology assessments and inventories.
Geographical Information Systems (GIS)
DCS employs several software and hardware tools, technologies, and has developed exclusive methodologies to Map and collect Broadband asset data. One of the primary methods we use to compile and manage collected data for Rural Broadband Asset Inventories, is GIS. We collect data in many different forms, and then compile them into a single GIS platform which provides a tremendous amount of flexibility and compatibility with municipalities and ISPs.
Technology is our middle name
DCS Technology Design
DCS Technology Design offers the best ICT and OSP design and assessment resources available. We do study the feasibility of different technologies, but we don’t offer studies on demographics or do needs assessments; we believe the need is established, and Broadband is a utility that is needed by pretty much everyone. We don’t do online surveys. That is good for general assessments for large areas but is not very accurate for finding exactly who has access to what, especially since the folks that can't get internet, can't answer the survey! We don’t base our work or generate maps based on national averages or algorithms and we don't base our work on Google Earth or building footprints.
No, we will investigate exactly what is, and what is not available, by address, from boundary to boundary, and probably make a few friends along the way. Our focus is on the various technologies it takes to get true Broadband service to people, and that requires going out to where the people are and looking ourselves.
Cable Modem and
Fiber to the Home (FTTH)
Cable and FTTH can be surveyed and mapped to the parcel level, with performance levels defined based on the technology. Since this class of cabled technologies can exceed FCC 25/3 requirements by 40x, and can be validated to exact street addresses, it provides a good base for all broadband inventory requirements. The area mapped on the right is reported as 100% served by FCC Form 477. However, after DCS completed their survey, the reality is that the blue parcels do have access to gigabit services, but the yellow areas don’t have any access. Other methods that are using building footprints (pink polygons) may also have concluded this area to be 100% served. The only thing 100% on this image is the accuracy of which parcels have access to Broadband, and which do not.
High Speed Data on POTS lines
The first widespread use of a modem for internet was on telephone lines, known as POTS lines (Plain Old Telephone System). The “dial-up” modems being used when bulletin board services started becoming the World Wide Web (WWW), were 2400 bits per second, or 2.4 Kilobits per second (Kb/s). Dial-up modems dominated for about a decade and over that time, evolved to 56 Kilobits per second (Kb/s), but then faded even quicker. The phone companies evolved into digital technologies and formats to keep up with demand, and still utilize the millions of miles of telephone wires already in place across the country. Today, although there are some digital technologies that still work on POTS lines, and deliver hundreds of megabits per second services, the high cost and technical limitations make most of them impractical to meet today's Internet demands. Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) is the most widespread service today, but in its most common deployments, it struggles to meet the FCC minimum 25/3 requirements of Broadband, and most DSL subscribers report that it does not perform near that threshold. Regardless, in some instances, it may still be the best alternative, at least for the short term.
DSL is more challenging to validate but can be assessed to some level of accuracy. Here is an example of DSL service areas in Orange, reported as offering FCC minimum threshold speeds of 25/3. Based on actual DSLAM locations (blue symbol with black dot), and published performance specifications of the technology, it is more likely that 25/3 may only be available within the red circles. Conversely, the survey also reveals areas that may have services, but are reported as unserved. DSL is harder to predict service areas and levels, but based on what can be validated, the red circles show a much different picture than what is reported to the FCC.
4G, 5G and Fixed Wireless
Contrary to claims of “Nationwide Coverage” by major Cellular providers, 5G in rural areas is, with a few exceptions, non-existant. 4G LTE services, although more established, also don’t have the blanket coverage into rural areas their coverage maps may indicate. Regardless, both of these standards, whether connecting through cellular “Hotspots” or with dedicated “Fixed Wireless” installations, can provide Broadband speeds if located close enough to a cell tower, with fixed wireless installations providing a bit more range than simple hotspots. But in rural areas, these towers tend to be spaced much further apart than urban cell sites, and performance, which is impacted by many factors, will vary day to day. In no rural case are you likely to find 5G Ultra Wideband services that many of the largest cities in America enjoy, which can compete with Fiber for raw data speed.
DCS can provide a general assessment of existing cellular technologies by measuring 4G and 5G signal levels. This will typically give a much better estimate of which areas can expect good service, and which areas are marginal to unusable for Internet. However, this type of field survey is best used as a reference for planning other types of services since the major cellular providers are reluctant to accept actual performance as an indication of their service areas.
Unlicensed (Wi-Fi) for Rural Networking
Wi-Fi, or more technically, 802.11x technologies, have become a pervasive expectation among most people carrying any type of internet device. First question many people ask when walking into a restaurant or other public establishment, is “do you have Wi-Fi”? Most businesses today try to offer free Wi-Fi as they know it is what their patrons expect, and it is good for business. It is also the most used method of networking within homes and is expected to be generally available in most workplaces as well.
The name Wi-Fi is a generic noun (like Kleenex or Band-Aids) that refers to dozens of technologies and standards, that were mostly developed over the years for local area networks (LANs). And although a couple of the standards do cover longer distance point to point and point to multipoint applications, it was never a very good set of standards to develop full wide area networks, especially ones to cover entire communities. Most of the 802.11 family of standards use unlicensed 2.4 and 5.2 GHz frequency bands, which is great for gaining wide acceptance of the technology, but also the problem; the bands are not protected from interference issues or overuse, and they cannot operate at high enough power levels to propagate long distances. But pioneers in this industry have pushed it beyond all limits, and managed to bring some level of Internet, especially to rural areas, and have done a remarkable job with the technology. But it is still not a good choice for building a county wide wireless strategy on.
DCS works cooperatively with the Wireless ISPs (WISP) who use unlicensed (and perhaps mixed with some licensed technologies), to document service areas so the Municipal leaders and WISP's can work together to improve, expand, or supplement the efforts of the WISP to improve offerings to the communities.
Licensed LTE and CBRS
4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) is commonly known as a cellular technology, currently the most pervasive standard in the United States, and what most cell phones operate on today. But private carriers building fixed wireless for data only services utilize the technology to connect to wireless modems in homes and businesses. It is growing in rural markets, and performs similarly to 4G fixed wireless offerings by the major cellular providers. It can operate in a variety of licensed frequency bands, including the much coveted Band 71 operating in the 600 MHz range. Relative to cellular technologies in general, Band 71 can offer greater coverage areas than any other licensed cellular band.
Citizens Broadband Radio Services (CBRS) is another emerging technology (not to be confused with CB radio and Truckers) that uses a tiered licensing program that allows private companies to lease access to a band that is normally used by Military, Satellite, and Utility operators. CBRS is a frequency band rather than a specific technology, operating from 3550 MHz to 3700 MHz, and supports 4G LTE, 5G, and others. Being licensed, it can operate at a higher power and provide more predictable and reliable services that meet FCC minimum
for Broadband service (as compared to Wi-Fi). Click on Idea Bulb to start learning more about CBRS.
DCS coordinates with CBRS providers to identify service areas and where they may overlap other technologies, or where gaps remain so that a strategy can be developed to get to all unserved areas.
Most of the work for Rural Broadband Mapping and Inventory revolves around existing technologies and service providers. But when applying for Grants or other funding opportunities, some cost estimating may be required for the applications, which may require some pre-engineering work. There may also be a desire to explore municipally or privately owned facilities, which may also require engineering and cost estimating. DCS works with the client to determine what level of engineering and cost estimating may be necessary and helps them through the process. Click on the Idea bulb for more on OSP engineering.
Once all of the surveying and inventory assessments are complete, the goal is to get Broadband Internet to the parts of your community that don't have it. DCS can help with the management of that process. Each project will be unique, an assembly of ISP coordination and oversite, new system construction, grant compliance assurance, budget management, etc. etc..