5G and Rural Virginia

A horse pulling fiber in Kentucky. Photo credit: Pro Publica

by DJ Rippert

A tale of two places.  The next generation of consumer wireless technology is called Fifth Generation or 5G. It is being rolled out in select parts of the United States right now. 5G will be a boon to urban and suburban Virginia. Absent heavy government subsidies, it will likely have a minimal direct effect on rural Virginia. Of course, any technology that favors high population density areas over low population density areas expands the rural-urban gap. The reasons for 5G’s value in high density areas vs low density areas run the gamut from physics to economics. However, there are some engineering scenarios and demographic situations where 5G might be effective in select rural areas without massive governmental subsidies. Those will be discussed later in this post. And, of course, massive government subsidies are always on the table.

The promise of wireless broadband in rural Virginia. The allure of high bandwidth wireless communications (25 Mbps download speed/3 Mbps upload speed) is obvious. The costs of wired communications are extensive. Trenches need to be dug, conduit laid, wires or fibers pulled, etc. A good estimate of the cost range for fiber infrastructure is between $18,000 and $22,000 per mile. If there were a hundred homes along that one mile route the costs might be bearable. If there are four homes over the mile – probably not. But what if radio waves could be used to cover the ground instead of wires or fiber bundles? That would certainly cut the cost. Hence, the holy grail of broadband for rural areas often rides on vague hopes of wireless radio waves.

Frequency. At the risk of ignoring a lot of crucial engineering detail … high frequency transmissions carry more information than low frequency transmissions. Given that frequency is the number of waves in any given period of time, this makes sense. If each wave is used to impart a given amount of information, more waves per second (i.e. higher frequency) allow for more information carried per second. In other words, higher bandwidth.

But higher frequency telecommunication comes at a cost. First, the chips and software have to be fast enough to send and receive information as fast as the frequency will allow or what’s the point? Second, wavelength matters. A wavelength of a periodic wave is the distance over which the wave’s shape repeats. At a given speed, such as the speed of light, the higher the frequency the shorter the wavelength. Aye, there’s the rub. Shorter wavelength waves travel shorter distances than longer wavelength waves. You can have speed or range but not both. Short wavelength (i.e. high frequency) waves are also are less effective at penetrating physical objects like the walls of a building. In the cellular industry, the solution to both problems is to build a lot of cell sites. Since the cost of cell sites is spread over the number of subscribers using the wireless service, there is a certain population density where high frequency, high bandwidth communications make economic sense. That population density is far higher than the densities usually associated with rural areas.

5G or 5Gs? 5G is the latest evolution of cellular communications. It uses new technology (hence the need for new 5G phones) to harness the speed of high frequency radio waves. As mentioned above, one cost of this high frequency communication is the need for lots of cell towers. In fact, “4G wavelengths have a range of about 10 miles. 5G wavelengths have a range of about 1,000 feet, not even 2% of 4G’s range”.  Telecommunications providers are not charities. They will not build out 5G infrastructure unless there’s a payback. That payback is a lot easier to get in high population density areas than in low density areas. So, will your shiny new 5G phone just stop working when you cross the Prince William/Stafford County line? No. But it will revert to much slower speed communication. Per Wikipedia, “5G networks operate on up to three frequency bands, low, medium, and high. A 5G network will be composed of networks of up to 3 different types of cells, each requiring different antennas, each type giving a different tradeoff of download speed vs. distance and service area. 5G cellphones and wireless devices will connect to the network through the highest speed antenna within range at their location.” Your 5G phone on your 5G plan might very well be operating at 4G speed once you leave the big city.

No joy in Mayberry. The optimism for 5G to bring wireless broadband to rural Virginia is probably a forlorn hope. It would take too many towers covering too few people to make economic sense. However, there are situations where it might help. For example, a small town exhibiting Jim Bacon’s nirvana of walkable urbanism might be an oasis of density in an underpopulated desert of fields and forest. That town could be quickly brought into the broadband age with a few 5G towers. The leasing of additional low density spectrum for the slow side of 5G might help reduce costs and make high speed (if not broadband speed) wireless data more practical in rural Virginia.

The physics of other people’s money. What physics and economics resist big government enables. The lubricant, as always, is money. Other people’s money. The FCC is hard at work on a $9B rural 5G fund that hopes to make high speed 5G cell towers as ubiquitous in rural America as those adorable rooster themed weather vanes. There’s more. As Fierce Wireless reports, “T-Mobile officially closed its merger with Sprint on Wednesday. As part of securing regulatory approval, T-Mobile pledged that within six years of closing, the combined company (which goes by T-Mobile) would deploy 5G service to 99% of the U.S. population, including 90% of those living in rural America at speeds of at least 50 Mbps.” The costs of this “free stuff through regulation” will be borne by those using the T-Mobile service.

Up next: What will 5G enable and how will that change Virginia?

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49 responses to “5G and Rural Virginia

  1. Jim – before you chastise me, I put a page break into this post but it doesn’t seem to be working. Also, my browser now lists “Budgeting in the time of COVID” as the most recent post. Only by clicking on that post do you get to see the most recent posts. I guess that’s one way to get a lot of clicks on a post! I use Chrome.

    • Your page break is working fine in my Chrome browser.

      For reasons unexplained, a lot of people are getting hung up on old versions of the blog. The solution is almost always to click on the “home” button, as you did.

      • If you go to https://www.baconsrebellion.com/ it’s borked.

        If you go to https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp it works just fine.

        I think https://www.baconsrebellion.com should redirect to https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp but what do I know.

        • I’m using my spousal unit’s hand-me-down 10-year old iPad OS 10.3.3 with Safari. She has a new iPad.

          Both BR.com and BR.com/wp/ look and work the same. Both show all of the stories even when others say the have to resort to bizarre navigation. Safari does not redirect.

          I also have Windows 10 and XP with Firefox, both to their latest variants. The XP browser works fine. Next time I spin up the Win10, I’ll check it.

          • It works fine on my Apple products as well (2 phones and a tablet) but I’m having the same problems as everyone else connecting via laptop or desktop computer.

      • P.S. Thanks for the clear explanation. One of the best I have read. No, make that the best that I have read.

      • FWIW, on Win10 with Firefox the lead story at BR.com is “Budgeting in the time of Covid”. At BR.com/wp the lead is this 5g story.

        Also missing from this site on all machines and browsers is the feedback info for the user account. This is not the case on other WP blogs.

        The WP Dashboard at BR.com/wp/wp-admin is working and behaves the same as the Dashboard at othe WP blogs.

        • It’s messed up from my end. Normal Chrome tabs will not work on wind 10 nor the Chromebook.

          • I just went to my wp dasboard, saw jetpack, went to it’s dasboard, and saw a request to link BR. I agreed and *poof* suddenly everthing is working.
            It may not be BR, but individual users Jetpack dashboards.

          • I just liked your post. Did you receive notice?

          • what is “jetpack”? no did not receive notice of “like”.

            I use other WP blogs – like Power to the People – and no such issues.

          • On a narrow board at the top of the page, I have a WordPress Logo. Next to that is an icon that looks like an analog meter with “Bacon’s Rebellion” next to it. This is the Dasboard button. If you press it, it takes you to
            (BR)(dot)com/wp/wp-admin (Mockup to avoid moderation)

            This is the dashboard. On the left of the BR dashboard is a tab to the jetpack dashboard it takes you to
            https://www.baconsrebellion.com/wp/wp-admin/admin.php?page=jetpack#/dashboard

            Try clicking on that link

          • I don’t have such a thing.

            I have:

            Bacon’s Rebellion
            Reinventing Virginia for the 21st Century
            Skip to content
            HOME
            ABOUT
            BLOGGERS
            NEWS FEED

            then an image – that varies..

            I have that band for Power to the People

            when I try to bring up BR on Chrome, I get:

            Bad Request
            Your browser sent a request that this server could not understand.
            Size of a request header field exceeds server limit.

            Apache/2.4.43 (Ubuntu) Server at 127.0.0.1 Port 80

  2. 25mbps download / 3mpbs upload isn’t really that great. That’s like cablemodem broadband circa 2005.

    • That’s the federal government’s definition of “broadband”. It may be too slow. There has been some debate recently.

      https://www.govtech.com/network/Does-the-Federal-Broadband-Definition-Reflect-Real-World-Need.html

    • Sadly, the definition of high speed has not evolved as what most people get and depend upon has evolved. Likewise, the definition of an area being served by broadband counts all as covered if one person is.

      Back when 3G was the thing rural people were told that we just needed to wait until 5G came along to serve our needs. Now, lo and behold, it’s not suited for us. As providers focus on the easiest and cheapest to serve, we’ve been consistently told that “someone” will serve us “someday.”

      Everyone wants to serve the cream, no one wants to serve the bottom. It seems that everyone could be served if all providers had the obligation to serve some bottom along with getting some top. That’s how we got landlines out. The market doesn’t care whether all get served or not. As long as we cling to “market only” and let providers select some and avoid others, we’re not going to allow all areas to have the opportunity to be economically sustainable.

  3. I know SO MANY people who live rural and access the internet via cellular.

    They do email, texts, facebook, craigslist, you name it. At least two of them actually have a business that they operate via cellular.

    I still don’t understand why cable can’t go everywhere electric/hard line phones poles do .

    A friend in New Mexico on a ranch out in the middle of nowhere got DSL because he was within a mile of the phone hut.

    • Strangely enough, there are LOTS of places in Prince William County where you can get cable but not FIOS…and this despite cable requiring a lot more “field” equipment like power supplies, optical nodes, and amplifiers. And also despite both Comcast and Verizon supposedly being held to the same standards in the franchise agreement.

      • Been awhile but I recall FIOS as being fiber to the home. High speed, dedicated connection. Requires Light Terminating Equipment (LTE). I’m guessing Comcast uses coaxial cable in a shared configuration (or hybrid fiber-coax if the network was installed after the mid-a990s).

        Fiber itself is cheaper than coax but when you add in all the electronics it is much more expensive. I’ve heard estimates of $5k to bring lit fiber to the home, although that sounds high to me.

        When demand reaches 10Gbps – 100Gbps to the home fiber will be the only real answer. Until then, there probably aren’t enough people willing to pay the freight for fiber to the home.

        But be hopeful. Once upon a time I’m sure people asked when cars would be less expensive than horses. Then people realized that there are lots of things that a horse just can’t do.

        • FIOS “cable” is not coax and it’s not armored. You can cut it in half with a hoe … and then the guy with the optical equipment has to come to repair it.

          but it can and does carry internet, phone and TV on that skinny line.

          Comcast is much heavier duty and their TV stuff is much more “better”.

          • FIOS is fiber. It’s skinny because fiber strands are skinny. Comcast is coax. It’s usually made of copper and plastic. It is thicker than fiber.

            Not sure about the “heavy duty” aspect of coax vs fiber but fiber supports much higher bandwidth.

            Optical guys are required to fix fiber cut by hoes because optical splicing is much more complicated than copper splicing.

          • My dad has FIOS and the cable boxes they’re using are awful compared to Comcast’s X1 box. The one my dad has would occasionally freeze up, requiring a reboot. Got a note from Verizon saying that they needed to change the box out because it would soon stop working. They sent a new box…same make and model as the old one. I thought for sure they’d be issuing newer boxes. Didn’t even send a new remote with the replacement box, the cheap $#@$.

            To give you an idea, the Comcast X1 box gives you functionality close to what you’d get with a Roku.

            They also have an app that you can load on the Roku, if you have TV service through Comcast, that lets you watch your Comcast channels on the Roku, saving you the monthly cost of an additional box!

          • I get discombobulated when the blue light goes out and the screen says “check you cable connections”… or ” please reboot”.

            I have no idea how that would work if the cable box was a roku or if I called for service and they said – “it’s probably your ROKU”.

        • Comcast is all HFC now. They are in the process of going to a node+0 network–no actives after the node. No amplifiers. This will greatly increase the number of nodes on the network. The nodes are fed with fiber.

          The cost of the electronics for fiber has come down significantly.

          • Interesting. I haven’t worked in telecomm since 2002. Not surprised by the HFC. Is the Node + 0 – no actives topology required by recent DOCSIS standards?

        • Optical splicing isn’t that tough. I’ve used a fusion splicer before, it’s not rocket science by any stretch of the imagination.

          • in the mud with it raining? 😉

            last time they strung a brand new cable …

          • Usually…they leave enough slack in the fiber so you can pull it into a fiber splicing van and do the work there.

            They won’t usually bother to splice a customer drop cable (the cable that feeds your house). They will just run another cable.

        • I don’t think node+0 is required but it’s an improvement. For one thing, it makes implementing a mid-split much easier since only the node has to be reconfigured, not all the amplifiers after it. It also improves the signal/noise ratio as well, which means that more efficient modulation schemes can be used. Right now I’m using a DOCSIS 3.0 modem and all the downstream channels are 256QAM — IIRC they were once using 128QAM, which is half the data rate in the same 6MHz channel.

    • You can do a lot of things over the internet without needing broadband speed. You can also access the internet from almost anywhere via satellite. The question isn’t really “rural internet” it is “rural broadband”.

      “Cable” can go anywhere. Period. However, if it’s coaxial cable it doesn’t have a great data speed profile and the bandwidth is usually shared by multiple connections reducing the effective bandwidth to any given connection. If it’s fiber then it’s expensive.

      You can’t make a profit at normal prices running broadband to rural homes. Unfortunately, 5G doesn’t look likely to me to change that.

      • I routinely get the 225 megabits/sec I’m paying for with Comcast. Right now at 5:37pm speedtest shows I’m getting 234 megabits/sec.

        Comcast is even offering 1 gigabit service using DOCSIS 3.1 modems.

        The big problem, if it is actually a problem, is the upload speed is limited. Comcast will probably go to a mid-split configuration where the upstream will extend to 85MHz or higher. This will allow for additional bandwidth for upstream. When I last connected a spectrum analyzer to my Comcast line, I noticed that they have no carriers below about 100MHz. They have carriers all the way to 860MHz, by the way. Cox apparently has some plants that go all the way to 1GHz.

      • And the issue with cable and distance is that coax has loss. To compensate for the loss they have to install a line extender (amplifier). And to compensate for the loss not being equal across all frequencies (the slope), they have to install an equalizer (which corrects the slope by attenuating lower frequencies more than higher ones).

        The more they extend the coax, the more line extenders and equalizers they need to install. The more of these that they install, the worse the signal to noise ratio gets. Signal to noise ratio gets bad enough, the digital services don’t work anymore. (In the analog days, your picture would get get progressively snowier as the S/N ratio got worse).

        This is part of the reason they went to HFC hybrid-fiber coax. HFC allows them to replace long sections of coax with fiber fed directly from the headend. This greatly improves the S/N ratio, and allows getting rid long amplifier cascades (many amplifiers in a row). Not only does the S/N ratio get better, there are fewer active electronics in the field to maintain and/or fail.

        But all of these nodes and line extenders require power. So they have to install power supplies every few thousand feet. You have probably seen these. Beige or gray boxes on the telephone pole that say ALPHA (one of the bigger manufacturers of these) on them with a green light (might be red if there’s a problem). Below them you’ll usually find a power meter, because they’re connected to grid power. All of these need to have battery backup so they have batteries inside as well. They output either 60 or 90V AC 60Hz to power the nodes and amplifiers, and I believe that they can supply up to 15A.

        So there is a lot of equipment required in the field to support coax/HFC networks.

        FIOS, on the other hand, has very little equipment in the field. It’s a passive optical network. There are optical splitters (these require no electrical power). Theoretically, it is easier to install and maintain than an HFC network.

        • How have the FIOS NIDs at the home progressed? That always seemed like a weak spot to me. OF course, I was working in telecomm when FIOS was being called Stargazer at Bell Atlantic.

          • The POTS (telephone) interface on the one at my dad’s house blew out. Completely dead, not even any talk battery. This may have been due to lightning (but nothing else in the house was damaged). The Verizon tech didn’t replace anything, just reconfigured it to use the remaining good POTS interface. That made me wonder exactly how good the surge/overvoltage protection on the POTS ports actually is.

            IMHO, it is a weak spot because now you have non-user replaceable active electronics at each home. Only a Verizon tech can fix or replace them when they break.

            Whereas with cable modems and EMTAs (cable modems with POTS ports), they’re user replaceable. If they blow out, customer can go to Comcast store or buy a new one and self-remove and self-install.

  4. Has anyone on this blog ever heard of the FCC?

    https://www.fcc.gov/auctions/ruralbroadbandauctions

    https://www.fcc.gov/general/native-nations

    The first is a reverse auction for unserved rural areas where companies will bid to do the most for the least amount of money. The latter gave recognized tribes the ability to get “free” unused 2.5 GHz spectrum for broadband in their communities. While there is considerable use of that band east of the Mississippi, such that spectrum is not always available, much of the band is fallow out west.

    I guess it’s easier to whine than to learn what’s going on.

    • 2.5GHz? Isn’t that the range that MMDS (multipoint microwave distribution system–basically, cable TV over microwave) ran on?

      MMDS was a big flop.

      • That’s the band. The rules were changed several times since MMDS. The band was split between Educational Broadband Service and Broadband Radio Service. The channels were reorganized and now the FCC is auctioning open spectrum not assigned to tribal nations. It’s good spectrum.

        • It’s been around upwards of 30 years. I remember seeing ads for the equipment in Radio Electronics magazine in the early 90s. About time something useful is done with it.

  5. James Wyatt Whitehead V

    Will my rotary dial telephone even work now? I love both of them.

    • The last time I hooked one of mine up it worked – but I have a conventional landline service from Centurylink at my house. I do not know whether it will work if your “landline” uses VOIP.

  6. My family and I live in a rural county in central VA and we were just notified that we will have access to fiber-optic internet service by the end of the year. $40/month for 100 Mbps or $80/month for 1Gbps from Firefly, which is CVEC’s fiber broadband subsidiary. I just talked to them on Monday, and a guy was on my property Wednesday to plan a route for the fiber-optic cable which will run to my house.

    I’m a lot more excited about that than I am concerned about 5G cell service.

    • “Virginia state regulations do not allow electric cooperatives to sell internet service, but they do allow electric cooperatives to own a subsidiary that may engage in any business legal in Virginia. The intent of the rule is to assure that electric rates do not subsidize other business ventures.”

  7. The thing is – most (not all) homes in Virginia have a public right-of-way for utilities. In other words, other property owners cannot stop the utility from putting in infrastructure to serve homes past the guy that would stop them if he could.

    So – if most homes in Virginia can get electricity and phone service – for a reasonable price – not an unaffordable price because there are fewer house per mile then why doesn’t that also apply to internet?

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