The quest to broaden broadband

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Among Wisconsin government officials and leading business executives, there is consensus agreement that future business prosperity depends on ubiquitous broadband coverage, yet there remains a digital divide between the state’s two most populous and well-connected counties and rural parts of Wisconsin. It’s a divide that could undermine economic development.

Knowing the future will require a combination of technology, innovation, and access to digital education, the state Department of Administration is developing a partnership with the private sector (telecommunications and cable companies) and the education community. The state is looking to challenge the cable and telecommunications industries to meet remaining economic development and educational needs and to get a better handle on actual broadband demand.

At the moment, it’s fair to say the state has addressed the “low-hanging” fruit in terms of broadband coverage, servicing the high-demand, high-density areas like Milwaukee and Dane counties. Those areas have multiple broadband choices with cable, satellite, and telecommunications companies, but there is uneven coverage in the remaining 70 counties.

David Cagigal, chief information officer for the State of Wisconsin, references the pent-up demand for broadband services, both public and private. In Cagigal’s view, ubiquitous connection would not only service existing businesses but also be a magnet for new business, especially Internet-sensitive companies. 

Cagigal also believes the need to wirelessly connect the entire state is escalating. “It grows significantly day-by-day,” says Cagigal, a former information technology executive with Alliant Energy Corp. “I truly believe the state is being underserved because it’s currently so expensive, but we’re working on that. As we reduce our expenses, I anticipate a realized understanding of the true demand.”

Public-Private Partners

More will be known by July 18, the deadline for submissions in a state request for proposals from cable companies, telecom providers, and other would-be partners. The subsequent evaluation process will determine how the program will proceed, and the stakes are high. As Cagigal notes, every one of the governor’s stated economic development priorities — job creation, workforce development, education reform, infrastructure modernization, and leaner government — require greater broadband service at a lower cost. 

There is growing recognition in state government and academia that it also requires a public-private partnership. Even though the leading investment in the United States, by a factor of two, has been AT&T’s investment in broadband, there still are weak spots. In Wisconsin, they exist in rural areas and in areas where topographical challenges make it difficult to provide strong coverage. One example is Wisconsin’s Driftless Area, but rural areas are also impacted because cable operators have found it prohibitively expensive to extend broadband service there. 

The public and private sectors haven’t always worked well together, hence the need to start pooling expertise and address a convergence of needs for state government, the private sector, education, and first-responder services. Cagigal notes the state has developed a one-stop portal for new businesses, in part to make it easier to launch a new business and in part to gauge the extent to which new business operators are “broadband sensitive.”

On the public side, the Badger Converged Network, a statewide program to provide wide area network service to state offices and educational facilities, has helped to connect all municipal libraries, which is where many rural residents get their broadband service. Additional assistance has come from the federal E-rate program, administered on behalf of public schools and libraries. The program, which is part of the federal Universal Service Fund, provides discounts to help schools and libraries secure more affordable telecommunications and Internet access.

However, there is still work to do with school locations, small residential areas, and office parks. Thus far, 93% of the state’s public school locations are wired, but the future of K-12 curriculums are predicated on strong Internet connections and communities, and an open partnership will be the key to wiring the remaining school locations.

“In those underserved spaces, those kids don’t have the same access as Dane County and don’t have the same education as kids in Dane County,” Cagigal says. 

In education, digital service is the coin of the realm, especially high-definition video. That not only consumes a lot of bandwidth, it needs to be available for students in Rhinelander as well as those in Fitchburg. Imagine a school with 1,000 students, all using high-definition technology. With the school day now a 24/7 proposition, to use that technology at school during the day and then use it again at night in the home requires infrastructure. Just like efforts to electrify the state more than 100 years ago, broadband to accommodate high-definition video won’t be possible without the private and public sectors working together.

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The University of Wisconsin System also has a stake in better broadband. Its member schools are building online course offerings, which are available to any adult student with broadband access. However, one of the things its flagship university, the UW–Madison, had to consider is how to connect to all campuses around the state and wherever it has research collaborations outside the state.

Having that backbone installed all over the state, a project that was completed earlier this year, means that all of Wisconsin’s four-year campuses are connected through state-of-the-art equipment in one network. “What that does is ensure that the connectivity we had under WiscNet [a community area network, or CAN, to support education and research],” says Don Nelson, chief of staff to Bruce Maas, the CIO for UW–Madison. “The connectivity that we need going forward is there for a lot of different purposes. Most importantly, the academic and research elements of our mission are being served by that network.”

Through Internet2, a community of U.S. and international academic and industrial researchers, the UW–Madison’s researchers are connected with global research collaborators. It’s one of several networks that allow the university, which attracts $1 billion annually in federal research grants, to expand its research enterprise. Those federal grants are an important component of Madison’s economic vitality, especially when they result in technology transfer from the university to the business community.

Many federal grants require the kind of collaboration made possible by high-speed broadband connectivity, and they make the UW, which has an estimated $15 billion annual impact on Wisconsin’s economy, more competitive in securing research opportunities. “A lot of the things that we were talking about with the legislature at the time the WiscNet issue was happening centered on the critical connections that we need in terms of Internet2 and other networks,” Nelson says. “WiscNet was the conduit previous to that, and as we moved into this other environment, where we have connectivity within the state university system, we had to figure out how to make sure we maintain those connections as well.”

Given outside perceptions, especially on the coasts and in academic communities, it’s also critical for the recruitment and retention of academic researchers, and for the technology transfer from the UW–Madison to University Research Park. Nelson recalls the example of a faculty member that came here after being recruited by a UW–Madison academic department. 

“We got a call asking about the broadband connectivity in Madison compared to other cities because this faculty member was considering another city,” Nelson recalled. “It wasn’t about the faculty member at all, it was about this person’s spouse. The person was an executive associated with a social media company, and this person does work from the location that the spouse typically works at in terms of the university, and that person wanted to know what kind of connectivity was here.” 

For Nelson, it was a reasonable question to ask, although he was somewhat surprised that Madison having robust broadband wasn’t the assumption coming in. That tells him that it’s still a concern for people in the technology industry, where they rely upon high throughput bandwidth, and it’s something for Wisconsin policymakers to think about. “Maybe when you’re on the east coast or west coast, there is a concern about the depth of that connectivity in the middle of the country,” Nelson says, “and you definitely can see that in Wisconsin.” 

Another broadband priority is making sure all first responders are connected statewide. In this public-safety realm, the state is collaborating with the federal government under a program called FirstNet, the First Responder Network. The state, part of FEMA Region V, and local interoperability councils that are responsible for public safety through the Wisconsin Department of Justice, are pushing providers to expand broadband to meet first-responder needs. 

FirstNet will provide some funding. “We cannot afford to have first responders without the ability to connect,” Cagigal notes. “If you look at education reform, if you look at the one-stop business portal, and if you look at the state’s needs, here comes the federal government forcing and advocating strongly, with a lot of subsidies, to have 50 states with an enormous amount of coverage, specifically for first responders.”

Another source of funding is the Wisconsin Public Service Commission. Nathan Conrad, communications director for the PSC, cites the Commission’s Broadband Expansion Grant Program as one way to help public and private entities expand coverage in unserved and underserved areas. The program, created by Act 20, a 2013 state law, provides reimbursement for equipment and construction expenses incurred to extend or improve broadband telecommunications service.  

Grant funds can only be used to reimburse the construction of broadband facilities. Thus far, grants have been awarded to 14 applicants during fiscal years 2014 and 2015.

Cabling Costs

Cagigal notes that cable and telecom companies invest a great deal of capital expenditures, or CAPEX, to trench cable to homes, and they have to recover that cost in their monthly service fee, which helps explain why he considers monthly broadband rates to be high. He noted that under the current contract, one gigabit (128 megabytes) of service per second costs $9,700 a month because that charge is heavily loaded with capital expense.

In Kansas City, where Google Fiber first introduced its broadband Internet and cable television service, “some would tell you that Google can deliver one gigabit of service for $50 a month in operating expenses or OPEX,” Cagigal says. “Obviously, for Google, that is a loss-leader. It’s more of a publicity play because obviously they are losing money at $50 a month, compared to $9,700. 

“I think the more realistic number might be in the range of $500 to $1,000 a month in OPEX for one gigabit of service.”

To help determine local costs, which can vary due to several factors, nine regional groups, each consisting of representatives in business, education, government, and health care, have been established to get broadband discussions down to a regional level in Wisconsin. The most important of the so-called “micro-level” questions pertain to the price point that makes sense for each community and the required level of investment. 

In the Driftless Region of Wisconsin, where hills and valleys make it difficult and expensive to provide broadband service, the answer could lie in a consortium of small telecom providers. There is already quite a bit of infrastructure in the ground, but it needs to be leveraged, perhaps with the help of public subsidies.

Additional public funding could come from sources such as the Universal Service Fund, which is paid for by contributions from telecom providers. In Wisconsin, the fund is managed out of the PSC, and as part of the proposed state budget, a segment of the broadband expansion grant allocation dealt with reallocating, for the purpose of broadband expansion, Universal Service funds. 

Applying Leverage

According to Conrad, the PSC has conducted consumer demand surveys, but they have to be updated in the coming year to see how consumer needs have changed, especially given the Federal Communications Commission’s new definition of broadband. For downloads, that definition has been changed from four megabits per second to 25 Mbps. 

There is a sense of urgency to complete the broadband expansion project sooner rather than later, or run the risk of having Wisconsin placed at a competitive disadvantage. 

That’s true even for picturesque areas of the state that could attract more people and businesses, but don’t have strong broadband coverage.

The operative word is leverage, as in leveraging all the aforementioned needs to economize on serving underserved spaces, including dairy farms that now can be run off the Internet. 

“Just try to visualize more people, more businesses in the other [70] counties and what that would mean for the vitality of the state of Wisconsin,” Cagigal says. “You really need to look at the [entire] state of Wisconsin and not be so centered on two counties.”

Is Roving Wireless the Answer?

WiRover system installs a gateway in the vehicle that connects to many networks simultaneously.

Is laying that last mile of cable really necessary for the provision of broadband in underserved areas? Not necessarily, according to Suman Banerjee, a professor in the Department of Computer Sciences at UW–Madison who is researching alternative ways to extend broadband.

In an attempt to understand wireless performance issues, Banerjee’s Wisconsin Wireless and Networking Systems (WiNGS) laboratory has focused on mobile computing and wireless networking. Perhaps the most promising alternative to cable involves leveraging existing cellular networks.

In a project called WiRover, the WiNGS lab began to study high-bandwidth connectivity for the transportation sector. The lab has built a gateway, a special browser, that connects simultaneously to different cellular operator networks, and the enabling software has been tested in ambulances in West Allis, Wis., Madison Metro buses, and Van Galder buses that run between Madison and Chicago. 

“We can get the sum total of those networks in the vehicle to get higher bandwidth, so you’re not depending on just one network,” Banerjee explains. “We’ll aggregate the bandwidth of all of them and make it available inside a vehicle to provide a Wi-Fi service for the passengers, and uplink it to several different cellular operators simultaneously.”

With a box similar to a wireless router that connects to multiple networks, and with a willingness to invest in multiple data plans from those networks, the same Internet connectivity could be provided in homes. 

Banerjee is looking for business partners to bring the technology to market, first for vehicles. For underserved areas, the most obvious partners are cellular operators and Internet service providers. 

“Obviously, it would depend on having some cellular coverage in the regions they would be providing the service,” he notes. “Maybe you’d have to stand up additional cellular towers, but that is far cheaper than drawing cable to the house.” 

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