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March 25, 2021

Is Wireless the Answer to the Digital Divide?

The following transcript has been edited for length and readability. Listen to the entire discussion here on The Broadband BunchThe Broadband Bunch is sponsored by ETI Software

As the broadband industry works hard to solve the digital divide in rural America and around the world, there’s a spirited debate on how best to get it done. Our guest today, Ely Compean with SBC Services, thinks that wireless should play a vital role. In fact, when done properly, Ely believes wireless is the obvious answer in most rural areas.

Topics discussed include:

  • Broadband Funding
  • Broadband Spectrum
  • Wireless Use Cases
  • Intelligent Device Management

Craig: I’m here with my colleague Jeff Boozer and our guest today is Ely Compean from SBC Services. Welcome, Ely!

Ely:

Thank you, Craig, appreciate it. Craig, I’ve been working with telecoms, part of the first CLEC in Texas. I have been doing telecom, as you mentioned, for decades, but more importantly, the most recent is utilizing spectrum efficiently and being able to use the current technologies and evolving technologies to deliver very high-speed access via the wireless spectrum to the home residential and to portable devices.

Ely:

My firm and I are working in conjunction with many of the other BSS, OSS providers in the market. We found success in every vertical. We’ve been able to automate and configure as zero-touch provisioning from the initial contact with the customer, going all the way to the provisioning, activation, and then complete back-office support to be able to manage and be able to do the reporting of the performance of the network customer experience, not only in the MDU space but also in the residential space and the enterprise space. That requires a lot of integration with a lot of different tools. A lot of people have a sales management tool. A lot of people have different BSS or OSS platforms so integration through APIs has been key to that success and we’ve deployed that in many markets.

Broadband Funding and Spectrum

Jeff:

I know you have a lot of background in working with carriers in more rural areas and working with them on wireless-type solutions to broadband connectivity. Can you describe a little bit of what you’ve done with some of the carriers? It’s kind of relevant at the moment to what is going on with the RDOF funding and some of the challenges that are out there.

Ely:

Sure. Thank you, Jeff. Jeff, I’ve worked with many carriers, specifically very rural carriers. When we talk about rural in my space, we’re talking with densities of anywhere from less than five humans per square mile to all the way down to 0.03 humans per square mile. We’re talking very low density. That is a huge challenge. You’re trying to find a cost break-even point. You have to get some kind of return on your investment, even for some of the CLEC or the ILEC that is becoming a pressing issue.

Ely:

Of course, as you mentioned, in the RDOF, the performances are now being laid down that if you’re going to be using wireless, it has to have very low latency. It has to have very high speeds. Although the FCC has not imposed the rule of 100 megabits down and 25 up, we’re already engineering all our networks to be able to perform at a at least 100 megabits down and 25 up. That requires a very different set of engineering parameters so that we can maximize the technologies. But we have coverage of customers that have over 3,800 square miles, working on a new one right now, it’s 5,900 square miles, to be able to provide that high-speed service route in a wireless.

Jeff:

That’s interesting. What kind of speeds are you able to get in these situations and what kind of challenges are you running into to maintain those speeds?

Ely:

The technology is there and by that, I mean, it’s been around for at least 36 months. The biggest challenge, of course, is spectrum. Folks will look at it and say, “Well, I only have a 10 mg channel or a 20 mg channel. The FCC, however, has proved to be keeping up with the technology and the requirements of rural telcos, just write a report that they are going to absolutely focus on an identified additional 12 million students that don’t have the ability to do high-speed broadband at their homes. What the FCC has done and it started quite some time ago, maybe some remember it, but we’ve already taken what used to be the TV channels, moved them. Those have all been repurposed, many incumbent carriers and enterprises have other spectrum. The FCC is doing its part to move and provide more spectrum to us the end-users.

Ely:

But then you have to design with a very different methodology. Historically, carriers have looked to maximize the footprint of a tower and how far a radio could broadcast. In order to gain high speeds, you have to inverse that model completely. You’re looking for much smaller radiuses. You’re looking for much smaller towers. You’re also looking for a higher density. The more we reduce that radius, which is counter-intuitive to everyone that is involved in rural America, they want large coverage, we are designing it to be able to keep a very short distance, as short as possible, by that, I mean less than five miles, and then we can get easy, a hundred megabits per second. If we get into that three-mile radius, we see performance of 250 megabits per second without any problem. With some of the newer technologies in that two-mile range, we can do a gig up and a gig down all day and all night.

Ely:

Absolutely. I don’t know if you were familiar with what just happens with CBRS. The FCC came out with a new model. It was the first time or it was the first model that had ever allowed non-carriers. Traditionally, only carriers, you had to be a true telephone company or a truly mobile company to be able to gain access to spectrum. But the CBRS model, option 105, was the first time that any business at Ely Compean bought CBRS spectrum. Anyone could do it. Then, it was a model that allows for frequency reuse. In other words, I know what channels are available. I know which channels I can reuse, and everybody knows what channels are available. To be able to reuse that spectrum over and over again within a certain geographic range is key to be able to have efficient use of spectrum.

Ely:

Then, we have other options like what’s about to happen with the C block where many members of rural America are asking the FCC to go ahead and make some of the spectrum available for the larger carriers in PEAs, which are very large geographic areas, but also to segment some of that traffic off to the rule of carriers and do it in the County level so that we can be able to afford the pop per megahertz.

Ely:

Yes, everybody is involved. We’re all operating. The FCC is listening so spectrum reuse and the efficiency and reallocating of the spectrum is happening literally every day that we’re working together.

Ely:

Thanks for bringing that up. Yes, I’m going to go out on a limb, it’s not a very thin limb, but I’m probably one of the few people that have two 5G NOBs inside my house. I have my own PAL reservations. I have my own GAA reservations and my own CPNI. If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry about it. You can Google it.

Ely:

Then, myself and my family, we all use 5G inside the house. I’ve disabled the wifi completely. We’re using every day, for streaming, for communicating, for texting, private LTE, combined with carrier LTE, bonded these together, and what we’re seeing is specifically, I have two daughters, a teenager, a young adult, and I hate to tell you, they no longer even think about it. They go in and out of the house, they go with their masks on and go pick up something curbside, come back in. It switches to private LTE. They don’t even think about it anymore. The technology is here now where we can bond, we can switch. We don’t even need even a second SIM. If the device doesn’t have second SIM support, we now have e-SIMS and all of that is completely transparent to the end-user. When you test it that way and you hand it to a teenager, they’re going to prove that the technology works or not, and the performance is incredible for the speeds are equally impressive.

Wireless Use Cases in Rural America

Jeff:

That’s really interesting. It sounds like it would be fun to hang around your house, play games, and stream. Take that and extrapolate that a little bit with some use cases or where you’re beginning to use some of that experimentation you’re doing in your home into some of your carrier relationships and most importantly, out there in the more rural, less dense areas we’re talking about. Are there use cases out there today that demand this kind of technology? Maybe you can share an example.

Ely:

Jeff, it is. We already have deployed scenarios where obviously we have wireless to a residence. Their homes are too far to be served by traditional methodologies, whether it’s copper or fiber to the curb or fiber to the home. The costs are just cost-prohibitive. I mean, we’re talking about return on investments here in decades. If you go to a very rural community, I know of carriers that have offered that rancher or farmer a home, they’ll buy a house for a rancher inside their coverage area, because it’s literally will cost less than trenching all the way to their existing home. Of course, they never take it. But the technology is now to where I can do a point-to-point design or a point to multipoint design and deliver very high speed, very reliable service to a resident or a business.

Ely:

Once you think about this, Jeff, none of the devices that we have an internet connection. We cannot plug an ethernet jack into your iPad. You can’t connect it to your Android tablets or anything. Everything is wireless. As a matter of fact, you may not even have paid attention to this, but most people don’t realize that a lot of the laptops that we are currently buying, especially if they’re very portable, very slick, they don’t even have an ethernet port anymore. Everything is designed to be wireless now. Forget about fiber. Trying to find something with a fiber port nowadays is extremely difficult. You’re looking more at a router or something that is designed to be very fixed. Everything that is mobile, everything that is convenient and gives the customer the ability to move from one area to the other is wireless.

LTE Technology and Open WAN Is Evolving

Ely:

What we have done for some of our carriers is that same service that is providing the, and I don’t say last mile because the last mile is typically not what we do. We do the typical last five miles or in some cases, the last 15 miles from the road to the house. In that environment, if it’s already wireless, when you’re using 5G or 4G LTE technology, that very device that’s inside the home being used on wi-fi, the instant they leave the home, can connect to LTE. This is seamless. They can be nomadic and move around on the ranch, they can move around inside the community and have the same service and be connected under the same account. That is very powerful.

Jeff:

It sounds to me like you’re very bullish on LTE as a technology to connect even devices inside the home when they’re not necessarily mobile outside the home, or in some cases they are. Tell us, can you expand a little bit more on why you’re so bullish on LTE?

Ely:

It is a completely new paradigm where LTE now has what’s called Open RAN. RAN stands for the radio access network. The second you have a technology and LTE stands for long-term evolution for those that are not that familiar with it, this technology is not new but it’s been evolving. As LTE has been evolving and the standards of open RAN have been merging together, it no longer matters what the device is. Whether it’s an Android device, whether it’s an Apple device, or whether it’s an embedded operating system inside an IoT device, whether it’s a car, whether it’s a windmill that is being monitored, or if it’s some other monitoring device for a wellhead or a pump jack, because it’s now open RAN, which is again an open standard, the reason we’re so bullish in it is because you’re no longer tied to a single ecosystem.

Ely:

The UE, the user equipment, what traditionally has been called either the CPE or the handheld device in your hand, we have connected to a LTE base station every brand and every model of LTE device that is standard space. Before you can become LTE certified as a manufacturer, you have to agree that you’re going to follow the standards of LTE. At that instance, you no longer are bound by some DSL architecture. You’re no longer bound by some fiber architecture. You’re no longer bound by some custom one-off technology. It’s LTE. You know what the standards are and you know what the performance should be. Now, all you have to worry is are you deploying a category six device or a category 12 device? And as they come out, the category 15, category 16.

Ely:

It no longer causes us heartburn. It comes out as a standard. It can connect inside the home. There are internal devices that have small antennas. You set them up close to a window. They convert from LT to wi-fi, or the LTE signal can go into the home and their standard mobile device with an e-SIM, and be connected to both networks. That is what we’re bullish at. Because it provides the flexibility for anyone who buys to be able to join the network and with the proper back-office support systems that can do auto-provisioning or auto subscription, or they can have a landing portal and somebody can pay for one day worth of service or four hours worth of service or 30 days worth of service. That is the transparency that we’re trying to convey to the carriers. You move forward in this direction and you’re no longer landlocked. You will never be caught pinned into a corner by technology that gets outdated because long-term evolution is just that.

Ely:

Even with a new 5G, there is a sub-nine gigahertz definition for 5G that will support everything that is out in the market today. As the upper above nine gigs, where you get into the 23 gigs and the 60 gigahertz, all of those are going to merge together and play well. That’s the first time I’ve been in this environment where that level of integration comes, as we call it, components off the shelf. It’s cut, let’s deploy it.

Wireless Reliability

Ely:

I have to tread lightly here. There are many wireless internet service providers that are not taking that utility approach. I have to say that some are getting a lot better at it. However, my predominant client base is [inaudible]. They are true carriers. They know about five, nines. They know that they have to provide reliability. If their service is down for greater than 24 hours, they have to report to the PUC and explain why the service outage occurred. In the traditional carrier world that I tend to work with, that means that the carriers are our clients and those that are serving, again, thousands of square miles out in the rural, they’re designing these networks, whether they’re DSL fiber to the home. Now with wireless, they’re designing it with five, nine reliability, and that’s important.

Ely:

There’s been a lot of discussion about the RDOF and how some couldn’t possibly deliver the capability and the service based on the percentage of revenues that they reverse auction bid. I understand that because in several cases, we helped our customers design a true carrier wireless network with redundant towers serving the areas with high speed, with generator backups, with solar panels if they were needed, and everything to be able when there is a storm or an outage, it wouldn’t, no one element would shut down the service to their home. This is really important now because with a voice over the top, video over the top, it has become truly the data path has become a utility.

Ely:

I know this because we just went through a horrific event with the freeze here in Texas. We have to shut down a huge number of servers because we got requests from ERCOT that if possible, let’s shut down anything that doesn’t need to be on because they needed heating electricity for the elderly. We couldn’t shut down a lot of things because we knew that those customers, they were using that for their telephone over the top. They were using that for their keeping up with the weather forecast and emergency services. Utilities now equals internet. I say internet loosely because that’s how people at the home identify with data. They don’t know that it’s a data pipe that can be used for many things. They just call it the internet. But for us in the carrier world, we now call that a critical service.

Jeff:

Ely, the essential service component or perspective of broadband is changing a lot of decision criteria, both from the network as well as operations. I’m curious, listening to you talk about the wireless and the LTE experiences you have. Are you in favor of wireless last mile or pick your distance based on your conversation, but wireless last mile and in particular, an LTE last mile? Even in less or in more dense areas where you could make fiber to the home economically feasible?

Ely:

Absolutely. I am in favor of that because we are in the technology business, again my family is very happy. I upgrade to the latest device the second they come out and I’m always looking at everything that can leverage the data. I will tell you that I can go to San Antonio. It’s not available where I’m at yet, full bonded 5G with 23 gigahertz or 60 gigahertz, but in downtown Austin or in Metro Austin, not just downtown, but Metro Austin and Metro San Antonio, I go with my handheld device, which can become a hotspot for up to 15 other devices and I get 600 megabits per second download speeds.

Ely:

I’m here to tell you when you know that you have a device in your hand that can host an additional 50 devices wirelessly, and I have a 600 megabit pipe broadband backhaul to any court, it just opens up the possibilities. Yes, you may be able to have a one gig pipe in your office via fiber, but why would you? I mean, we’re looking now at devices that are going to be able to host 256 wi-fi devices with multiple 5 gig back halls, and now you have one gig or two gig, if it’s a full symmetrical one gig in each direction, and now you can go anywhere in a metro area, you can put it in a back of a commercial truck. You can go out and do displays and kiosks and parking lots for whatever you are marketing. You can’t get that level of freedom and service from any other technologies that I’m aware of without pre-planning way ahead, not just driving up to a parking lot and setting up a kiosk and saying, “Don’t worry. We don’t have to worry about the utility call. A wireless loop.”

Jeff:

As part of the case for going LTE as the last mile in, let’s say, all situations. More than just the speed, is there a benefit you’re saying in your experience to having the device now “managed by the network”, as opposed to all of us trying to figure out the wi-fi in our house?

Ely:

Right. Jeff, you and I have seen the demos. You and I have seen what some have attempted. But we now have the tools to be able, I’m going to use, it’s an old expression, a single pane of glass, or call it a dashboard for the user. We can see the device. We can see the model number of the device. We can see what the capability of the device is. We can see the wireless connections. If allowed by the customer, we can even see the name of the device. I can tell you that I can.

Ely:

Sometimes we have customers that call in and say, “Look, I’m having trouble.” We can log into an operating support system and OSS, pull up that customer, and we can, because they’ve given us the permission or they grant us the permission at that instant while we are doing support, and we can tell them, “Well, your service is great. You have 250 megabits per second in a wireless connection. But you currently have four PlayStations running and you have three smart TVs at 4k resolution.” We have to educate them sometimes. Not because technology is the cause. It’s some people just don’t realize that the background TV streaming 4k is taking some of the bandwidth.

Intelligent Device Management

Ely:

What I’m trying to communicate here is the technologies, the devices can now be managed and now provide enough information where managing a wi-fi network is no longer required because the devices are intelligent enough to give us that information. They have the protocols and they have the tools built-in for us to be able to say your quality of service can also be managed now. Some include it, some charge a premium, but they’re adding quality of service to voice over the top. They’re adding quality of service to Zoom sessions or maintain sessions or whatever video virtual meeting tools they have. Those cannot be put in a QoS and some of the other technologies or products or services inside a residence or inside of the business that are not so important are being given less quality of service.

Ely:

All that is not built-in. DLANs are built in APS, it used to be a very frustrating technology to manage in wireless have now become synonymous to any of the enterprise protocols and you can correlate them. Teachers can come into their own networks. Students can come into their own networks, end up at the same school and quality of service manager. That is why these tools have become a priority for us.

Ely:

I’ll give you a little bit of background. I don’t think we touched upon this. I grew up in rural America and I had nothing. I had to go to the library and check out books. In the town I grew up in, you still do not have a fixed internet provider and you still don’t have more than two bar signals from any carrier. I literally have a passion for this because when I’m out there in rural America and helping homes, and when you have a mom say, “Thank you so much. My family and I have been having to drive to the parking lot of a library where my children have been sitting there till almost 11 o’clock or midnight because that’s the only wi-fi that’s available in our community that’s reliable. We sit out there until 11:00 PM at night so my children can do homework.” When you see a mom tear up and say, “Thank you so much. We no longer have to be out there when it’s freezing cold.” That’s really been the driver because I can identify with those that are still without.

Ely:

Now, I’m no longer without. I have more bandwidth and enough bandwidth to choke a horse. That’s a country expression. But I know that there are still millions of individuals that cannot sit down and study at home, play a video from one of the education websites, and learn. How sad is that?

Craig:

We share that sentiment and the passion you have for making a difference. Thank you for sharing with us today.