COVID-19 strains household broadband Internet access across North Carolina
Is existing broadband access up to the task of working and learning from home?
Experiencing a noticeable difference between the speed of your broadband internet connection at home compared to the speed you had back at your office cubicle or college campus? Despite the physical isolation that has become routine for so many of us, you’re not alone. Since office and school closures began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic earlier this year, remote workers and students across the state have been feeling the effects of decreased network speed and sputtering performance on their home networks, leading some to question whether their home internet service is up to the task of keeping them connected with remote co-workers, classmates, and professors. It has even led some policy makers to question if now is the time to reconsider whether high-speed internet should continue to be viewed as a high-tech luxury, or simply a necessity of modern life.
The FCC defines the broadband benchmark as a download capability of 25 Mbps (million bits per second) and upload capacity of 3Mbps, although there is no clearly defined FCC process for keeping the benchmark up to date with current technological standards. As a result, the current broadband benchmark is over ten years old, a geological epoch in terms of technological change and consumer demand. This makes the official definition of what counts as broadband somewhat misleading, and also skews coverage statistics to make the availability of fast internet appear more favorable than would be the case if the benchmark were kept up to date with market trends, or comparison with other rich, industrially advanced nations.
Broadband Now reports the average connection speed available across North Carolina as 60Mbps, but connection quality and user experience vary greatly throughout the state, with the majority of up-to-date high speed broadband infrastructure concentrated around metro areas with high population density. Advertised speeds soar past the broadband minimum defined by the FCC in most of North Carolina, although it isn’t likely that anyone regularly experiences speeds near those advertised maximums, since these speeds represent the maximum expected downstream performance of the network, not the average speed that users are likely to encounter in day-to-day usage. This is primarily due to the kinds of broadband internet infrastructure deployed most widely across the state: DSL and cable.
DSL (or, Digital Subscriber Line) re-purposes existing telephone lines for internet usage and is the broadband technology most widely deployed throughout the state. The problem with these lines is that the signal strength deteriorates rapidly after a few thousand feet, so the only subscribers that get anything close to the advertised speeds are the ones that live within a mile of the central office. In rural areas of western North Carolina where users live many miles from a central office location, speeds can dip well below 10 Mbps for download and just 1-2 Mbps upload. These speeds will barely support one Zoom or WebEx teleconference, much less an entire household working and schooling from home. Unfortunately for many rural broadband subscribers, DSL is the only wired broadband option.
Broadband connections based on cable technology usually offer speeds that are much higher than DSL, but these connections also come with a catch, since bandwidth is shared between neighbors who share the same cable line. Under normal circumstances this wouldn’t cause noticeable issues, since you wouldn’t expect all your neighbors to be at home utilizing the limited available bandwidth day and night, but under COVID conditions with offices and schools shifting to the virtual environment, this is no longer the case.
Although fiber optic connections (AKA fiber to the home or fiber to the last mile) as advertised by new entrants like Google Fiber do not suffer from any of the speed limitations of DSL and cable, fiber optic connections require deployment of new physical infrastructure and are notoriously difficult to implement because of the high fixed costs involved. This is known in the telecom business as the last mile problem. The last mile refers to the final stretch of cable that comes into your house and physically connects your home network to the rest of the internet. Many internet service providers have struggled to overcome the last mile problem, and Google Fiber has been no exception, despite the company’s reputation for innovation. For this reason, modern network infrastructure such as fiber to the last mile is available in only about 30% of the state.
In addition to the problems of signal attenuation and shared bandwidth seen with DSL and cable is a limitation known as asymmetrical connectivity. Instead of internet data flowing into your home network and back out again at about the same speed, as it can over a fiber-optic connection, DSL and cable broadband data typically flows asymmetrically, with an upload speed that is 10 to 20 times slower than the download speed.
Normally, this wouldn’t be such a problem since the typical household consumes or downloads internet content at a much higher rate than they produce or upload internet content. Think about the relatively small number of bits uploaded when you update your Facebook status or Tweet vs. the flood of bits coming downstream when you binge an entire season of your favorite show on Netflix. For typical household behavior such as this, asymmetrical connectivity gets the job done most of the time. However, if we compare those activities with a typical work-from-home scenario such as teleconferencing using an app like Zoom or WebEx, you’re downloading and uploading voice and video streams at the same time. In that case, the demand is more symmetrical, and the asymmetry of our home broadband connections can become a performance bottleneck, resulting in video freezes, garbled audio, or dropped calls. The FCC’s speed guidelines define 1Mbps as the minimum threshold for teleconferencing, so it’s easy to see that an upstream bandwidth of 3Mbps or less can quickly become exhausted with entire families concurrently telecommuting to work, school, and university. If your home network performance is bad enough, this may cause you to begin researching service alternatives in your area, although your choices may be limited depending on where you live.
Since the move to online education of universities and public schools, media reports have highlighted the plight of rural students evicted from their gigabit-connected dorms who have resorted to siphoning bandwidth from the parking lots of restaurants and other businesses offering public Wifi to download lectures and upload their homework. In cases such as these, with college students returning to hometowns in rural areas of the state where obsolete network technology like DSL may be the only broadband option, increasing home broadband capacity is a far more complex problem than simply upgrading one’s service plan. A 2016 report by The Community Broadband Access Initiative reported that only 12 percent of rural North Carolina households have a choice in broadband internet providers.
Some western NC counties that are counted as having broadband-quality speeds have been benchmarked in the field with connections as slow as 4-5Mbps download, which can pose a challenge for accessing recorded material through a streaming video application. As previously mentioned, teleconferencing may not be feasible for students with such limited bandwidth, yet the UNC system is poised to rely more heavily on online proctoring for exam students in the current academic year, which relies on the same technology as teleconferencing (the student’s webcam, keyboard inputs, and display are monitored in real-time for signs of cheating.)
Although the COVID19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of robust internet infrastructure to sustain economic activity during prolonged periods of social distancing, broadband connectivity is not considered a public utility such as electric, water, and sewer services, but a luxury service like cable TV. Many economists would also consider telephone service to be a public utility, although its inclusion as part of this category has fluctuated over time as the technology evolved. The nature of work and communication in today’s business environment has led some to question whether broadband internet should also be reclassified from a policy perspective, and COVID-19 has underscored the urgency of this discussion.
Whether broadband internet is considered a public utility from a policy perspective or not, internet service providers certainly face the same high fixed cost operational structure seen with other public utilities. Services considered public utilities often fall into an economic category known as a natural monopoly or, an industry where it costs so much to set up operations in the first place, the first supplier to market normally has an insurmountable advantage over any possible competitors. This is why new entrants such as Google Fiber have found it difficult to expand operations in North Carolina even though they have substantial capital at their disposal. These high fixed costs also mean that internet service providers rely on a combination of private funding and publicly funded grants to invest in service expansion and upgrades.
In media coverage, innovation in technology is often portrayed only in terms of new hardware gadgets and software, but some North Carolina communities have found novel ways to close the gap in providing fiber to the last mile through innovative business models and public/private partnerships, even in more sparsely populated areas. The city of Wilson is perhaps the best example of this, having developed their own municipal fiber optic network over a decade ago (Greenlight network), resulting in increased economic development and opportunities for its residents. Initiatives like this often involve pooling the resources of local government and industry with existing public utilities such as electric co-ops, since stakeholders such as these not only stand to gain from the benefits of more robust broadband infrastructure, but are also more well-positioned to implement community-level change.
However, innovative approaches such as these have faced additional challenges, mainly in the form of legal restrictions designed in favor of large nationwide broadband operators. In 1999 and 2011, the state passed legislation that restricted local area electrical co-ops and other utilities from building and selling broadband access services to rural areas, but examples such as Wilson are slowly changing minds and opening space for renewed debate about how best to provision broadband infrastructure and give communities more control over broadband access. House Bill 431 or, the FIBER NC Act seeks to overturn the restrictive effects of these earlier regulations, allowing municipalities to apply for grants to build public-private broadband partnerships, but it is yet unclear whether this bill will attract broad enough support to become law. Although bills such as this will be instrumental in opening the broadband space up to local innovation, it is also important to better understand needs at the community-level.
To better understand the needs of communities across the state, North Carolina established the Broadband Infrastructure Office (https://www.ncbroadband.gov/) in 2015 as a public resource for tracking the development of broadband infrastructure, including classroom connectivity initiatives to expand broadband capability and dedicated fiber connections to public schools. Their website currently features a listing of free or low-cost options for underserved households to get access and avoid falling behind as more educational and employment opportunities shift online in the wake of the pandemic.
We have all felt the anxiety of disconnection and alienation that social distancing and the shift to remote work has imposed upon our lives during this crisis, but one small silver lining in all this could be a heightened sense of awareness that investment in broadband infrastructure for the future is something that benefits all of us, our families, and our communities. Even though connecting all of North Carolina with real high-speed, affordable broadband access will not be easy or immediate, it is certainly worth the effort.
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