In an op-ed piece entitled “Better options for wireless than ‘faster horses” published in the July 17 Landmark, the writer, a concerned Princeton resident, makes the analogy that deploying a fiber optic network in town is like getting a faster horse and that a ‘wireless white space’ solution is like the innovation of Henry Ford’s first automobile. It should come as no news that the question of ‘wireless’ vs. ‘wired’ has been tried before in Princeton and the ‘wireless’ path has proven to have significant issues in both the performance and costs.
Using ‘white space’ is not the solution
Newly available ‘white space’ radio spectrum that has been relinquished by TV broadcasters, does not significantly address the bandwidth, geographical or political challenges that doomed our existing wireless network launched a few ago known by the municipal light department. The FCC estimates that there are between 12 and 32 ‘white space’ channels freed up in our region, each of which could provide up to 20Mbps of bandwidth. All of these channels are shared with our neighbors in Holden, Sterling and elsewhere. Assuming the unlikely case that we could abscond with all of these ‘white space’ channels, that would allow all 1250 premises in town a bit less than 2Mbps, which still does not mean the definition of high-speed broadband, and an increase of only 1Mbps over the existing wireless network. It means we will once again have a wireless network that is great for sending and receiving emails and little else.
Additionally, the FCC announced it plans to auction ‘white space’ wireless spectrum to existing cellular providers, indicating this spectrum would not at all be available for Princeton’s use.
An advantage of white space design is that it is not strictly line of sight wireless. There is some refraction over geological obstacles, but the severe hills and valleys in Princeton would require multiple sources to assure connectivity for all, a configuration not unlike that of those tall poles we see around town. Connecting each of these poles to a source sufficient to use the wireless bandwidth would require infrastructure of significant cost, probably fiber optic cable. And although Carlson Wireless, the company cited by the author of the letter, has an interesting and innovative product, it does not seem to solve the central problem Princeton is facing, and, according to its own website, is currently working on devices that “are far, far from ready” for prime time.
Why a single bidder?
The writer mentions that there is only one bidder in the plan to bring ‘wired’ Internet to Princeton. He is correct, there is only one corporate entity that came to the town unrequested with a proposal backed by $3.7 million of their corporate money to build a lease-to-own network. Yes, Matrix/Millenium will put up $3.7 million of material, engineering and labor in exchange for a construction royalty of $25/subscriber for 20 years. Subscribers will pay for the network over time as part of their monthly bill and the town will own it at the end of that term. The fixes to the town’s poles and licensing right of way will still need to be paid for by taxpayers, as would have been the case in the suggested white space deployment but to a lesser extent.
Concerned citizens who attend the 2014 town meeting will recall there was a discussion regarding the new municipal light plant (MLP) and its first order of business to better understand the state’s legal requirements particularly as they require a more formal bid selection process. Town Manager John Lebeaux addressed that issue by saying if the law requires a public bidding processes then the MLP will be legally required to solicit more bids.
The price quoted by Matrix/Millenium is certainly in line with similar projects that are ongoing elsewhere in the Commonwealth, particularly in the western region. Given the strong resistance in town to any increase in taxes, requesting a bond for the town of over $4 million has a non-zero probability of failing. If there was a better deal to be had, the town is not in a position fiscally or politically to take advantage of it.
Impact on real estate sales misunderstood
The writer incorrectly suggests that a ‘wired’ network is simply too expensive and will burden the town for generations and make our homes unsellable. The PBC, with input from area realtors, has always claimed that our homes are becoming less sellable by the year without the Internet connection people in our region need and expect. Moreover, ‘wiring’ the town with fiber could provide the town and Matrix/Millenium opportunities for revenue to help pay for the network from other than the subscribers. Sometimes the cost of doing nothing or of staying the course is much more expensive than acting, especially in a 21st century town that has no cable service and is ‘unserved’ for internet completely surrounded by towns that do. Let us not look a gift horse in the mouth, especially the one that is also the fastest.
Fiber is built for generations to come
According to the FCC’s technical paper entitled The Broadband Availability Gap, “As broadband needs continue to grow, fiber emerges as the only last-mile technology capable of meeting ultra high-speed needs. So, any solution that brings fiber closer to the home by pushing it deeper into the network puts into place an infrastructure that has long-term strategic benefits.”
Fiber optic in residential broadband applications is established and ubiquitous; running 90 percent of the entire Internet, including the technology that lets cable companies provide those blazing fast CATV services over their coaxial network. Bandwidth over fiber has improved continuously over time and researchers pushing the limits still see about one million times more data bandwidth capability than is currently being used.
The Princeton Broadband Committee welcomes all comments and suggestions relating to this issue, which we will address via this website.