According to the most recent study published by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) the US has dropped again in our world ranking to 16th place from an embarrassing 13th place last year.

With only a little better than 10% of our population connected to broadband (remember, broadband as defined by 200Kbps) we are behind such international powerhouses as; Finland, Norway and Iceland.

Several countries have made great strides in connecting their populations including, the Netherlands, (which rose from 9th to 3rd) Switzerland (moving from 10th to 6th) and Israel. Conversely, Canada dropped from 3rd to 5th which is still pretty impressive overall as it certainly demonstrates that countries with large areas of land can deploy broadband effectively and at a reasonable cost.

Om Malik, someone I certainly respect, published his take on the issue here bringing an interesting slant to the discussion. Should we be looking at overall adoption rates or should the focus be on overall users connected to broadband? If we look at the total number of users per country the US is first in the world as far as people connected. For the life of me I cannot understand how this would be an important metric to measure.

Would it be valid to rank ourselves in the total number of users that have telephone? After all, the US has nearly a 100% telephone availability rate compared to India is somewhere below 1%. The same holds true for electricity. the US has almost 100% availability to electricity to every resident as compared to a country like China. China has approximately 1 billion people and while I don’t know what the total number of people living in China have electricity I believe the numbers are probably on par with the US if we were to look at the number of residents that have electricity available. I would also like to point out that there are 1 billion people in China that eat food and a little less than 300 million people living in America that eat. Does this mean that China is ahead of the US by a three to one margin in population being fed?

If anything, this is a perfect application of the old Benjamin Disraeli quotation, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies, and statistics.”

The amazing thing about this report is that no matter how you interpret it this is one hell of an opportunity for anyone in the business of providing high speed Internet. I believe it is a given that at some point in the future nearly the entire population of the US will need to be connected leaving something like 90% of the total available market waiting for a reasonably priced solution to be offered to them even if a significant portion of those people haven’t realized it yet.

If you are willing to accept the premise that our entire population will eventually need to be connected then the next question that comes to mind is what is the best technology to use to connect these people? By “best” we also need to look at the overall cost versus performance equation, the required time necessary to build the infrastructure along with how these people can best be served.

This is certainly something that is not going to have one set answer for every situation – period.

I think we can all readily understand that the technology employed by the ILECs and the cable companies has one inherent flaw, there needs to be a minimum number of users per wireline mile in order to maintain any kind of profit margin in an operational network. WISPs also see a similar paradox by needing a certain number of clients in a coverage area with the major difference being that WISPs do not need these potential users located all in a line on a contiguous road.

To clarify this, is we look at a typical layout of a rural community we might find a grid pattern that has “X” number of homes dispersed randomly per mile of road. For the typical copper/coax/fiber installation to be profitable we would need a set number of homes per mile – every mile – to justify cabling every single street. What this often leads to is a pattern where connectivity is rolled out down the middle of the main thoroughfare leaving the secondary roads without any connection. Ironically, this now paints the town as having broadband by the FCC while a substantial portion of the population is left without any option other than satellite.

WISPs, on the other hand, can light up a geographical region completely inside of a set radius as long as certain restrictions such as positioning our distribution antennas in such a way as to keep a clear Line Of Site to the customer (no hills in the way) and avoiding foliage if the WISP plans on using anything in the upper frequency ranges. What this means is WISPs have a distinct in many rural deployments because they are not tied to a set number of homes per mile to cover the entire regional area.

This also means that WISPs could potentially connect a huge portion of the country as something like 85% of the country is considered rural. Incredibly, WISPs could also do this rather quickly as a typical WISP deployment can be turned up in a very short period of time given cooperation by the town government and population.

Another interesting battleground is the urban areas of our country. While the population density is certainly well within the necessary requirements for the wireline technology companies want to connect there can be problems with permitting and having the capacity to add more lines onto the poles, which could add enormous amounts of time along with additional cost to any deployment due to construction.

WISPs that can put together a business model that takes advantage of these weaknesses in the competition and can still meet the requirements of the customers could quite easily be deployed profitably in a very short period of time.

So, what’s holding us up? This sounds like a dream come true.

The downside is that the regulatory environment can be one factor. If the FCC would look at strengthening the OTARD rules to prevent real estate owners from holding up their building from being connected we could make dramatic strides forward. The ILECs have guaranteed access to their buildings and we should be accorded those very same rights. The same holds true for community and state governments. I know of one WISP that was begged by a group of residents to light up their community and answered the call only to find out that the town government had different plans. Let me be clear, I am not suggesting WISPs be allowed to erect towers wherever they choose but rather the guidelines be laid out on a federal level for everyone to adhere to.

We have a situation in Vermont where regulations that were passed a few decades ago to prevent massive towers from being erected are now used to prevent anything over 19 feet from being used to connect customers. Imagine, a law that was passed back in the “Dark Ages” meant to regulate one potentially environmentally damaging technology from being implemented now being applied preventing connectivity from being deployed in a totally innocuous manner. This type of embedded inertia will do more damage to this country, in my opinion, now than at any time in the past.

As technology exponentially improves at ever increasing rates we find ourselves in a position that requires we remove these impediments as quickly as possible. Every year that passes by is one more year that we have fallen behind.

Will things change?

Undoubtedly, but probably for the worse before things get better. We, as a nation, have dropped from the top to almost the very bottom and the plummet seems to be continuing at breakneck speed.

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