The rise of low-earth-orbit satellite technology to enable decent Internet service for regional, rural and remote parts of the world has gained a bit more traction.
This time, it is the German Federal Government (Bundesregierung) with its Transport ministry who are subsidising Starlink installations across rural Germany. The US’s FCC has engaged in some form of subsidisation for Starlink but this is at a corporate level as part of their US-government-based program for enabling decent rural Internet service there.
The German approach is to provide EUR€500 towards Starlink hardware purchase for installation in Germany’s rural areas. This doesn’t just apply to Starlink but to any satellite or other radio-link-based Internet service provided on a retail level. It is intended to be consumer-focused and provider-agnostic in the same manner as what is expected for the provision of broadcasting and telecommunications in modern Germany.
It doesn’t apply to ongoing service costs that customers pay to keep the service alive. In the case of Starlink, the monthly service costs are EUR€99 / month at the time of writing.
.. to improve access to real broadband in German rural areas
This was just announced as Tesla were about to commence work on building its European Gigafactory near Berlin and was riding on the fact that Tesla and SpaceX Starlink are owned by Elon Musk. The Bundesregierung need to seek approval from all of Germany’s 16 Federal States for this retail-level subsidy to go ahead.
The question that will come up is whether public subsidies for satellite or other radio-based Internet service is the way to go to bring decent broadband Internet to rural areas. This is compared to current efforts by local or regional governments in cohort with local chambers of commerce to bring fibre-optic Internet to rural and regional areas.
There will also be the issue of whether to extend this kind of subsidy to people living in boats along Germany’s inland waterways. Think of retirees who have riverboats on the Rhine, Elbe or Wupper rivers or cabin cruisers on the likes of Lake Constance (Bodensee).
Personally, I would see Starlink and similar technology come in to play for sparse rural areas while fibre or similar deployments are considered for more dense settlements. The long fibre-optic trunk link between towns or to serve a remote employment / industry area should never be forgotten as a way to encourage economic growth along its path.
At least Germany is taking another approach to dealing with the rural Internet deficiency issue by subsidising the installation of Starlink and similar technology in its rural households.
Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has on the 21 April 2021 made his Project Kuiper low-earth-orbit satellite effort ready to launch. This, like OneWeb, will be in competition to the SpaceX Starlink low-earth-orbit satellite effort driven by Elon Musk of Tesla fame.
This will be about providing affordable reliable credible satellite broadband Internet service primarily to rural and regional areas.
Initially the satellites will be launched using Atlas V rockets owned by the United Launch Alliance that is established by Boeing and Lockheed Martin. But Amazon are wanting to work with other space-tech consortia like Arianespace, Bezos’s own Blue Origin company or Elon Musk’s SpaceX company.
The Kuiper constellation consists of 3236 satellites that work at an orbit of 590-630 km. The customer’s installation for the Kuiper setup will be based around a 12” flat-dish antenna, something equivalent to the size of an LP vinyl record. It will be about making such equipment affordable and portable for most users.
But Musk’s Starlink service has a head start with coverage of the Earth, Earth-station installations and service licensing in a significant number of countries. As well Starlink even has got going with seeking regulatory approval for mobile equipment intended to be installed in road and rail vehicles, maritime vessels and aircraft.
But to achieve the desireable amount of competition for the satellite Internet service, there will be a significant number of hurdles. There will be the launch frequency issue i.e. how frequently Jeff Bezos can get satellites in to space to cover the Earth. There is also the issue of establishing ground stations and licensing end-user device designs and legitimately providing service in many jurisdictions. It also includes the design and licensing of mobile stations for installation on vehicles, vessels and aircraft to allow use of Kuiper on the move.
Both the tech visionaries are in a bitter fight to the end with the FCC regarding licensing of satellites and similar technology. But when in full flight, expect competitive service and low prices for broadband at your bush block.
I do still see a significant number of questions come about regarding low-earth-orbit satellite broadband in its current form. Firstly, there needs to be a wide variety of customer equipment that suits different use cases, such as satellite modems that work with broadband routers that have Ethernet WAN connections,
There will have to be the issue of assuring the legitimacy of satellite-broadband service within peri-urban rural areas. These are the rural areas that form the hinterland of a city or large town and some of these areas do not have access to broadband service of a decent standard due to the settlements being relatively sparse. Here, if there is a requirement to assure “rural-only” service for a satellite-broadband service, the peri-urban areas could be deemed legitimate based on the absence of wired or terrestrial wireless broadband service providing a minimum bandwidth.
Similarly there will be the issue of facilitating mobile and portable satellite broadband services whether to serve campers or to serve airlines offering inflight Wi-Fi. For countries with international land borders or airlines and ships that offer international transport, it will encompass providing mobile satellite broadband on an international form.
But what I see of the Starlink and Kuiper efforts is that they are about providing decent and affordable broadband service to rural and remote areas of the world. This year could effectively be the year of a race for this goal.
A consistent problem associated with bringing broadband Internet to rural and remote places is the cost and time involved in bringing these services there. But there have been various efforts by public and private sector entities to implement satellite broadband to serve this need.
Most of these have distinct disadvantages such as the equipment and service being very costly and a lot of these services not offering great bandwidth and latency. Let’s not forget that the deployment of this technology isn’t all that scaleable.
The COVID-19 coronavirus plague has underscored how dependent we are on Internet connectivity for our business and social lives. The role of rural areas has even been underscored with these areas gaining increased appeal to live or do business within because of the pandemic. A recent Euroconsult report has stated that satellite broadband will gain its value over the next decade as a way to enable access to the Internet from remote areas.
The new low-earth-orbit satellites
… allowing more rural and remote areas to gain real broadband
But a new form of satellite broadband is being pushed out at the moment. This is based on low-earth-orbit satellite technology which uses a very large constellation of satellites that are closer to Earth than traditional satellite technology. This improves on latency and on bandwidth available to the end users.
Silicon Valley visionaries like Mark Zuckerberg and Elon Musk have been behind this technology in order to have Internet all over the world, even in the remotest areas thereof.
But Elon Musk has got this idea off the ground with Starlink which is a subsidiary of his SpaceX venture. Most of his constellation of Starlink satellites are in orbit now while he has more being manufactured and set up for launch. The service is in beta testing for the USA, UK, Ireland, New Zealand and Germany at the time of writing but more areas are expected to be covered soon. They have also started establishing their presence in Australia.
Elon Musk’s service isn’t just for rural and remote areas at the moment. He is seeking FCC type approval for equipment that is to be installed on vehicles, ships and aircraft and to be operated while the vehicle, vessel or aircraft is moving. This is to court the provision of Internet service aboard the likes of commercial jets, the merchant navy and long-distance land transport. Who knows when Musk will then have consumer equipment designed to facilitate ad-hoc use of Starlink from caravans, motorhomes or remote camping locations.
Another service being pushed out at the moment is the OneWeb service that is pushed out by a UK and Indian consortium. Let’s not forget that Amazon is working on their Project Kuiper low-earth-orbit satellite service but they want to make sure everything is perfect before a single satellite is launched.
The idea of having many satellites is being made feasible with reuseable rockets like the Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket, which effectively reduces the cost of launching many spacecraft.
What I see of the low-earth-orbit satellite constellations is that they are intended to be viable competition in the satellite-broadband Internet service space. This could allow the idea of cost-effective high-throughput low-latency broadband to be made available to rural and remote areas or long-distance transport applications.
In some countries like the UK, Australia and Germany, regional broadband infrastructure providers set up shop to provide next-generation broadband to a particular geographic area within a country.
This is used to bring next-generation broadband technology like fibre-to-the-premises to homes and businesses within that geographic area. But let me remind you that fibre-to-the-premises isn’t the only medium they use — some of them use fixed wireless or a fibre-copper setup like HFC cable-modem technology or fibre + Ethernet-cable technology. But they aren’t using the established telephone network at all thus they stay independent of the incumbent infrastructure provider and, in some areas like rural areas, that provider’s decrepit “good enough to talk, not good enough for data” telephone wiring.
In the UK especially, most of these operators will target a particular kind of population centre like a rural village cluster (Gigaclear, B4RN, etc), a large town or suburb (Zzoom), city centres (Cityfibre, Hyperoptic, etc) or even just greenfield developments. Some operators set themselves up in multiple population centres in order to get them wired up for the newer technology but all of the operators will work on covering the whole of that population centre, including its outskirts.
This infrastructure may be laid ahead of the incumbent traditional telco or infrastructure operator like Openreach, NBN or Deutsche Telekom or it may be set up to provide a better Internet service than what is being offered by the incumbent operator. But it is established and maintained independently of the incumbent operator.
Internet service offerings
Typically the independent regional broadband infrastructure providers run a retail Internet-service component available to households and small businesses in that area and using that infrastructure. The packages are often pitched to offer more value for money than what is typically offered in that area thanks to the infrastructure that the provider controls.
But some nations place a competitive-market requirement on these operators to offer wholesale Internet service to competing retail ISPs, with this requirement coming in to force when they have significant market penetration.That is usually assessed by the number of actual subscribers who are connected to the provider’s Internet service or the number of premises that are passed by the operator’s street-level infrastructure. In addition, some independent regional infrastructure providers offer wholesale service earlier as a way to draw in more money to increase their footprint.
This kind of wholesale internet service tends to be facilitated by special wholesale Internet-service markets that these operators are part of. Initially this will attract boutique home and small-business Internet providers who focus on particular customer niches. But some larger Internet providers may prefer to take an infrastructure-agnostic approach, offering mainstream retail Internet service across multiple regional service providers.
Support by local and regional government
Local and regional governments are more likely to provide material and other support to these regional next-generation infrastructure operators. This is to raise their municipality’s or region’s profile as an up-to-date community to live or do business within. It is also part of the “bottom-up” approach that these operators take in putting themselves on the map.
In a lot of cases, the regional next-generation infrastructure providers respond to tenders put forward by local and regional governments. This is either to provide network and Internet service for the government’s needs or to “wire up” the government’s are of jurisdiction or a part thereof for next-generation broadband.
There will have to be legislative enablers put forward by national and regional governments to permit the creation and operation of regional next-generation broadband network infrastructure. This could include the creation and management of wholesale-broadband markets to permit retail-Internet competition.
There is also the need to determine how much protection a small regional infrastructure operator needs against the incumbent or other infrastructure operators building over their infrastructure with like offerings. This may be about assuring the small operator sufficient market penetration in their area before others come along and compete, along with providing an incentive to expand in to newer areas.
It will also include issues like land use and urban planning along with creation and maintenance of rights-of-way through private, regulated or otherwise encumbered land for such use including competitors’ access to these rights-of-way.
That also extends to access to physical infrastructure like pits, pipes and poles by multiple broadband service providers, especially where an incumbent operator has control over that infrastructure. It can also extend to use of conduits or dark fibre installed along rail or similar infrastructure expressly for the purpose of creating data-communications paths.
That issue can also extend to how multiple-premises buildings and developments like shopping centres, apartment blocks and the like are “wired up” for this infrastructure. Here, it can be about allowing or guaranteeing right of access to these developments by competing service providers and how in-building infrastructure is provided and managed.
The need for independent regional next-generation broadband infrastructure
But if an Internet-service market is operating in a healthy manner offering value-for-money Internet service like with New Zealand there may not be a perceived need to allow competing regional next-generation infrastructure to exist.
Such infrastructure can be used to accelerate the provision of broadband within rural areas, provide different services like simultanaeous-bandwidth broadband service for residential users or increase the value for money when it comes to Internet service. Here, the existence of this independent infrastructure with retail Internet services offered through it can also be a way to keep the incumbent service operator in check.
The UK is still pushing on with the idea of providing gigabit-class broadband in to its rural areas in a few different ways. It is becoming very real as COVID-19 validated the concept of working from home and has made the idea of “tree-changes” to rural areas more appealing.
Government assistance being provided
At the moment, the government is providing national-level financial help to these rural communities, especially those that are relatively distant. This is in the from of subsidising connections to current-specification gigabit broadband Internet through the implementation of a voucher scheme. It is also being supported by local-government funding in some areas thus making these efforts more affordable. The driver will be to have the Internet connection future-proofed to suit newer connection needs.
Here, it’s about subsidising costs associated with activity necessary to bring broadband out to distant areas like digging long trenches to lay fibre-optic cabling. This is something that most commercial operators would find difficult to cover out of their budgets alone.
Of course a lot of this effort is being driven by a number of independent broadband networks who are laying down their own infrastructure in to these areas. Some of these efforts like Gigaclear are ordinary businesses while some like B4RN are co-operatives that have local help towards laying down infrastructure through the rural areas. It is seen as a way to sidestep the likes of Openreach who may see the rural market as being less profitable to have to current specification.
Wholesale broadband market for independent infrastructure providers
The UK market is gaining an increasing number of independent broadband Internet infrastructure providers who are courting particular geographical areas, be it large cities or rural areas. Examples of these include Gigaclear and B4RN serving rural communities, through Zzoom who serve large towns and suburbs, to Hyperoptic and Cityfibre who serve large cities. Most of them offer very-high-bandwidth service using fibre-optic technology, usually fibre-to-the-premises and offer this service on a retail footing.
Another factor that is being considered is to give independent network infrastructure operators access to the wholesale broadband trading market. This is so they can allow retail Internet service providers to buy bandwidth on their networks to sell to end-users, which is part of a lively competitive Internet-service market.
The main issue that plagues independent network infrastructure providers is the fact they can only sell wholesale access to retail ISPs directly. That makes it hard for a retail ISP or telco to buy bandwidth on multiple infrastructure providers serving many communities and they would have to deal one-to-one with each infrastructure provider. It may appeal to a speciality ISP who provides bespoke Internet services to particular user groups but wouldn’t satisfy ISPs targeting the mass market.
It makes it also confusing to end-users who want to take advantage of a particular technology offered by one or more of these providers but want to be sure of what is offered on their platform and by whom. This includes knowing who will offer their Internet service and at what prices. As well, there is the difficulty associated with admitting competing providers to these networks to permit a highly-vibrant broadband market using these technologies.
The UK’s independent infrastructure providers are working towards a wholesale-broadband market that simplifies the processes required of retail ISPs to buy wholesale bandwidth (and operating rights) in multiple communities. The ability to easily sell bandwidth wholesale may make it more economically feasible for independent infrastructure providers to build out in to more areas due to tbem being able to sell more of the bandwidth and recoup infrastructure costs quickly.
Here, these infrastructure providers offer the bandwidth to ISPs in an aggregate approach. As well, there will be mechanisms that will exist to facilitate the switching of a connection between ISPs who use the same infrastructure. The
I also see this facilitating the ability for retail ISPs to provide single-pipe triple-play services to residential customers using the independent infrastructure providers. This means that customers could benefit from packages that have landline telephony, multichannel pay-TV and broadband “hot and cold running” Internet through the same connection on the same account. It would mean that moving to that large AGA-stove-equipped farmhouse won’t have you forego the cost-savings associated with these packages when you want landline telephony, pay TV and an Internet connection at the farmhouse.
A question that can easily arise is the possibility for a retail ISP to offer its services on multiple infrastructure providers that serve the same geographic area. In the UK, it could be an independently-operated fibre-to-the-premises network or it could be Openreach’s infrastructure for example.
This may be of benefit with providing all levels of service within a neighbourhood even if different providers offer differently-capable infrastructure to that neighbourbood. Or it can be about assuring service competition when there are exclusionary agreements regarding access to a premises for supplying network infrastructure.
Britain is still keeping its foot on the accelerator regarding the availability of current-specification. Here, it will have to be about public subsidies for reaching hard-to-reach rural areas along with measures to assure competitive Internet service to current specifications.
I have given a fair amount of coverage to Matthew Hare and his company, Gigaclear, on this Website. This is due to the effort put in by Matthew Hare and this company to put fibre-to-the-premises broadband in to a significant part of rural England like East Anglia, the Home Counties and now Devon.
As I have highlighted before, rural areas do have a real need for urban-grade broadband Internet service. This is due to the many small businesses that serve these areas, including people who run these businesses from home along with people who live a significant distance from friends and family who are based in city areas. In some cases
It has also encouraged other independent fibre-to-the-premises networks to exist like the Hyperoptic urban network and the B4RN communitiy-driven rural networks.With these networks, the provision of current-expectation Internet service has been about working independently of BT Opennreach who look after the main telecoms infrastructure of the UK.
As I have covered before, Gigaclear have invested GBP£1000 / property to provide a standard of broadband not normally associated with a rural-broadband deployment. It is to provide a symmetrical Gigabit service using fibre-to-the-premises technology rather than a fibre-copper technology which can introduce many variables like decrepit infrastructure.
Just recently, Matthew Hare and Gigaclear received FTTH awards from the FTTH Council Europe who represent European fibre-to-the-premises network providers. This was because of his successful use of that technology in British rural areas.
Now Matthew Hare has received an Order of the British Empire as part of the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours thanks to his groundbreaking effort in providing broadband Internet service that is beyond ordinary for rural areas. This Honour, fully referred to as “Officer of the Order of the British Empire” was cited as for “Services to Broadband Provision in the UK”.
There have been some other Royal honours issued in relationship to providing independent Internet service using independent high-grade infrastructure within the UK. One of these is Dana Tobak CBE, whose Honour was granted as part of the New Year’s Honours list in 2017-2018 for her work with Hyperoptic and two granted in 2015 in relationship to the B4RN effort – Christine Conder OBE and Barry Forde MBE.
What these awards are showing is that someone has gone out of their way to provide a high standard of Internet service to Britain’s rural community and has broken the ground to offer it independently of an established incumbent telco or ISP.
I have given a fair amount of coverage to the effort that Matthew Hare and Gigaclear have undertaken to get the ball rolling for establishing fibre-to-the-premises in a significant area of rural England. Here, the standard for the service was up to a Gigabit per second symmetrical (upload and download) which was above average for consumer-grade broadband and they were even working with Fluidata to open up these networks for competitive service access.
I was regularly identifying issues like people in the rural communities working from home or running a home-based business or practice as a user group that would benefit from the high standards of coverage. It also included the reality that most of the business activity in rural areas was driven by small businesses who would benefit from cloud computing and other similar technologies that also benefit frim this same coverage standard.
As well, I was also calling out the so-called “tree-changers” who a class of residents who have moved from the cities to rural communities in search of that tranquillity associated with country living. Here, these users want to be able to benefit from the same or better standard of Internet connectivity to maintain contact with their family or, perhaps, to run a business of some sort.
Now the FTTH Council Europe have awarded Matthew Hare with an FTTH Individual Award for his effort in using fibre-to-the-premises as a way to bring real broadband to rural areas. As Matthew said:
“It is an honour to be recognised by such an influential industry body. Since 2010, we have been delivering on our quest to connect some of the UK’s hardest to reach communities to reliable, ultrafast broadband. Every day, we see the difference having a reliable internet connection can make to people’s lives and we remain committed to closing the digital divide, ensuring we put an end to rural isolation. This is just the beginning. There is a lot more we aim to achieve with our fibre networks ”
he was underscoring the realities with working with rural areas along with the benefits that these rollout efforts would bring to the communities. He was also highlighting the feasibility of rolling out full-fibre broadband in to relatively-sparse rural areas including hamlets and villages. There is also the fact that if the established operators won’t answer a need, independent operators could end up satisfying that need.
What has happened today for Matthew Hare and Gigaclear could be a ray of encouragement for anyone wanting to provide fibre-to-the-premises broadband in a rural area.
The B4RN effort is a successful rural broadband effort that relies on community effort to bring FTTP all-fibre broadband to villages within the UK countryside. This has initially taken off within the North of England but is also taking off in Lancashire and a few other rural communities there.
What has been happening in some of the B4RN areas is that the UK’s “broadband establishment” namely Openreach have been building out infrastructure in to those areas to compete with these efforts. This has led to some overbuild taking place at the hands of Openreach which has opened up the possibility of competitive Internet service taking place in those areas.
But this time it is to expand in to rural East Anglia. Initially B4RN instigated an effort to create a fibre backbone from Telehouse North to Lowestoft by leasing some dark-fibre infrastructure. The first building to benefit will be Scole Community Centre, which most likely will be used as a public-awareness “launchpad” for B4RNorfolk’s effort along wiht serving as a core node for the network as what a lot of village halls do in the B4RN networks.
Some of this effort will overbuild established Openreach infrastructure but this will provide some level of competition in the affected communities. Let’s not forget that the kind of broadband service is symmetrical Gigabit fibre-to-the-premises Internet which will place “established” providers on notice.
It is another effort by the full-fibre networks that service rural areas to raise the bar for real broadband in that kind of market.
County Broadband are a wireless ISP who are offering improved Internet service across most of rural Cambridgeshire and East Anglia in the UK. But they have decided to run a 1Gbps fibre-to-the-premises service in Broughton, Cambridgeshire as a proving ground for deploying this technology in rural villages.
This is similar to the efforts that Gigaclear, B4RN and other small-time rural ISPs are undertaking to enable real broadband expectations in other parts of rural England. In this case it is to provide a viable alternative to substandard ADSL service that may not have a chance of hitting the headline 2Mbps speed thanks to the typically decrepit telephony infrastructure that these areas end up with.
They are announcing the impending arrival of this service through a village hall meeting for the townsfolk on the 4th of August 2017. The ISPReview article raised issues about poor-quality service with BT Openreach saying on their Website that the local street cabinet was mad ready for fibre but this installation was found to be located 3 miles or 4.828 km away from Broughton, without the likelihood of delivering high-speed broadband to that town.
That article also said that, like what has happened in other British rural areas, larger companies would “wake up and smell the bacon” with the intent to service those areas because of the small-time operators offering next-generation Internet in to those areas thus leading to infrastructure-level competition. Of course, there is also the fact that as the town grows, more retail-level ISPs could be offering to use the infrastructure to service that neighbourhood along with mobile telephony providers using the same infrastructure to provide an improved cellular mobile telephony service for that area.
But I also see this as being of benefit to the householders and businesses who want to benefit from what a high-speed Internet connection offers. This is more so where small businesses see the cloud as a way of allowing them to grow up such as for a shop to move from the old cash register towards a fully-electronic POS system as part of “growing up”, or for the hospitality trade to benefit from offering high-speed Wi-Fi Internet as a marketable amenity.
For County Broadband to provide the FTTP fibre-optic infrastructure to Broughton as a proving ground could lead them to better paths for rural broadband improvement. This could mean something like more villages and small towns in East Anglia being wired for next-generation future-proof Internet and perhaps making that area an extension of the Silicon Fen.
A typical UK postcode would covers a small neighbourhood represented by a street or something similar but it would typically cover a rural hamlet or small village.
What has just happened lately is that Cotwaldon, a small hamlet in Staffordshire which is represented by one postcode, was to benefit from improved next-generation broadband Internet thanks to a public-private partnership involving that community. This hamlet was able to only benefit from a very slow broadband Internet connection due to it being an ADSL service provided using a long telephone line which I suspect could be decrepit due to it being poorly maintained.
But what has happened lately was for a community partnership to allow households and businesses in that location to benefit from fibre-to-the-premises next-generation broadband. This was facilitated in a public-private manner through the BT Openreach Community Fibre Partnerships which also worked alongside the Superfast Staffordshire next-generation broadband effort funded by the Staffordshire County Council and the UK Government’s Broadband Delivery UK programme.
There will be similar activities taking place around some of rural UK as part of the BT Openreach Community Fibre Partnerships as part of “opening up” their FTTP effort to be launched next year. This is with their vision of publicly-funded local broadband-rollout efforts engaging with them to facilitate the rollout of next-generation real broadband Internet in to rural communities.
The BT Openreach press release highlighted some usage scenarios where this technology was relevant to Cotwaldon and its peer communities. One of these affected small business which effectively drives these rural communities – a builder who wanted to use the Internet to communicate with their customers and partners. But there were use cases that affected personal lifestyles such as downloading or streaming AV content reliably, or using online storage services as a data backup facility especially with high-resolution photos.
It is anther effort that brings real broadband to rural communities who are likely to be treated as second-class citizens by the telecommunications industry.
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