Wireless: What is it Good For? (Absolutely Something!)

I’ve been eagerly anticipating the arrival of Susan Crawford’s new book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Promotion for her work has been widespread recently, with notable examples being a review by Sam Gustin for Time and a radio appearance by Dr. Crawford on NPR’s “The Diane Rehm Show.” This morning, I listened intently to the latter over the crackle of bacon and eggs, and found myself unexpectedly agreeing with two callers-in to the show who had criticism for her work.

First, Dr. Crawford is a Professor at the Cardozo School of Law, former advisor to President Obama on Science, Technology and Innovation Policy, and presented an eminently agreeable synopsis of her book’s position in the first segment of the program. Her general proposition seems to be that “the invisible hand”, reductively appropriated by mainstream observers of telecommunications as a panacea, has failed to produce just and equitable access to a service as vital as telecommunications. This position closely parallels my own general understanding. So, I pay a certain amount of deference to her arguments. However, on one particular detail I found myself in disagreement: Crawford insists that “wireless” is not a substitute for a high-speed wired connection to the core network.

As I sit here, watching cars and snowmobiles whiz by on the ice road out front of my remote home, I am connected to the Internet via a “fixed wireless connection”, meaning there is a little dish on top of my house which connects to a nearby tower, that in turn relays my requests through a series of wireless hops to KMTS’s servers in Kenora, roughly 50km away. A quick check on Ookla’s speedtest.net reveals that my connection boasts 24ms latency, 11.85Mbps down and 1.15Mbps up. That’s faster than 71% of Canadian Internet connections! For a point of reference, my wireless connection is more than sufficient to send email, browse flash-intensive websites, watch Youtube or Netflix, and even play Call of Duty on Xbox Live. I have to wonder, in what way is this service inferior to the 10Mbps down, 1Mbps up, ~60ms latency wired connection to which my parents subscribe in Winnipeg (from local incumbent MTS) for roughly the same price?

When dismissing wireless as non-substitutable for wired, Crawford isn’t referring to “fixed wireless” (a term that occupies a very specific meaning in the telecommunications jargon) connections like mine; she’s referring to “mobile wireless” connections. This relates to the complaint raised by caller Mike. Mike, calling from South Carolina, chides Crawford (in considerably harsher terms than I would have employed) for talking like a “pessimistic technological Eeyore”, and he asserts that increasing efficiencies in spectral utilization and technology make mobile wireless a viable substitute. Crawford dismisses Mike’s claim that wireless is not a static technology, and that protocols and efficiencies are constantly improving, with the claim that ‘that’s the standard monopolist’s position’. [Paraphrase] While Crawford correctly responds that there are many tasks that are too inconvenient to do on a smartphone, or in some cases downright impossible (imagine trying to write a report on an iPhone or Galaxy phone; my thumbs are already aching), she misses one major factor: tethering.

LTE (Long Term Evolution) is the standards protocol for mobile wireless that is currently being deployed throughout North America. Often referred to by the catch-all PR term “4G”, LTE has theoretical speeds of around 300Mbps, with actual currently achievable speeds closer to 30Mbps, which is still quite impressive for such a young technology. All you have to do is pay slightly more for a plan with unlimited data and tethering (I have one on MTS’s HSPA+ 3G network that sets me back about $75 a month, phone subsidy included), plug your phone into your computer, and the difference between wired and wireless evaporates before your eyes. Having to pay more for tethering, of course, is offset by rendering the need to subscribe to wired service unnecessary.

In terms of fixed wireless connections, Jay from Maryland calls in with a question about satellite Internet. Crawford similarly dismisses this option, stating that “here’s the problem with satellite internet: it’s a long way up, and it’s a long way down; communications are extraordinarily expensive, and it’s very slow!” She concludes by stating that satellite “creates enormous friction and expense for communications.” This is not a satisfying answer for me, nor should it be for you if you have read Andrew Blum’s book Tubes. Blum’s work examines the tremendous complexity of terrestrial telecommunications, exhaustively detailing the ins and outs of fibre optic infrastructure from the point it leaves your house, to its arrival at data centers and Internet Exchange points across the globe and along the underground and undersea cables through which it travels. Crawford adds nothing distinctive about wireless communications by pointing to their complexity and cost. As I understand it, satellite is hamstrung by low data caps at relatively expensive prices and high latency. But as I’ve outlined above, it is far from the only, and certainly not the best form of wireless broadband that is available today, and therefore singling out satellite as representative of wireless as a whole is misleading.

But wait a minute! (You might be thinking), Google Fibre is offering a blazing 1Gbps symmetrical speed in Kansas City for just $70 a month! How can wireless compete with that? Yes, true, fibre is fast, and more importantly, it is capacious. With fibre, your entire family could simultaneously stream their own programs in Super-HD on Netflix, while browsing the web, sending emails, fighting wars on Xbox and texting under the table at dinner. Crawford is right to point out that wireless is, and probably always will be, behind the curve when it comes to top-notch speeds and capacity. High-speed wired fibre connections are the fastest thing we’ve got. I, for one, would pick fibre over wireless if it were available. Does this mean that the two are not substitutable in the here and now? I’m not so sure.

If fibre were to become the norm, Wireless Internet Service Providers would have 2 options for retaining their position as viable alternatives: maintain price levels while raising the quality of their services in terms of capacity and latency, or lower prices while maintaining service levels. In either case, wireless remains a viable substitute for wired. The former is dependent upon technological advancement and regulatory spectrum management, both of which are ongoing. In the first case, the IEEE’s 802.11ac standard is currently making its way to market, and by its second generation, theoretical gigabit speeds are expected. Even faster standards are in the works, such as 802.11ad, expected to hit up to 7Gbps. Wi-Fi transmitters that makes use of next-generation standards such as these are already being deployed alongside mobile networks by companies such as AT&T. On the regulatory front, the FCC is working on releasing the largest chunk of spectrum available for unlicensed Wi-Fi use since 2003, in the 5GHz range.

The second option, similar service with lower prices, has begun to emerge in the United States. Companies often referred to as MVNO’s (Mobile Virtual Network Operators) have also been springing up left and right to cater to the more price sensitive broadband customers. Recognizing that people require access to the Internet but in many cases cannot afford it, outfits such as Republic Wireless, FreedomPop, and Walmart’s Straight Talk brand have begun to offer low-price, unlimited alternatives to the standard wireless fare. The future success of these companies is uncertain, but we can’t ignore the fact that they represent viable ways of accessing vital communications services wirelessly.

I wholeheartedly agree with Susan Crawford that the current North American “market forces” approach to provision of telecommunications services is failing. Oligopolistic control of our telecommunications infrastructure is stifling the provision of and consequently access to vital services. But to write wireless broadband out of the script simply because it’s not the fastest thing possible misses the point. Wireless can be perfectly sufficient for the aspects of connectivity that are in fact vital to our existence.

Looking forward to reading more in depth when Amazon shows up at my door with the new book!

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One comment

  1. Brett Glass · ·

    You are not alone. I am a wireless Internet service provider — the very first, as far as I know; my WISP has been operating continuously since 1992. We have thousands of users, many of whom switched from overpriced, poorly performing cable modem connections to our service.

    Crawford fails to acknowledge the viability of wireless, or of any competitive ISP, because she recognizes that our existence and the quality of our service destroys the entire argument she makes in her book. And that just wouldn’t do, because her goal is to promote stringent regulation of ISPs on behalf of Google, the large, monopolistic corporation that has been responsible for her career arc to date. In short, she is a corporate lobbyist whose sole purpose in writing the book is to promote Google’s corporate agenda.

    Fortunately, neither Crawford nor Google has been able to stop WISPs’ continued progress. We now cover more than 70% of the US population — more than cable — and are growing daily.

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