Mark Goldberg

It can take a community to build a network

When tackling large scale projects, the metaphor of eating an elephant is sometimes used by management consultants.

How do you eat an elephant?

One mouthful at a time.

It is a way of saying that such projects can often be broken down into smaller, measurable sub-projects. Those smaller targets help address the over-all goal, but are less intimidating, are more easily managed, and provide milestones to celebrate along the way.

I think the same approach can be applied to rural broadband. Street by street; block by block, broadband technology gets deployed.

A few years ago, an article in the Nation Valley News described the efforts by Storm Internet to rally neighbours together to help with the economics of extending service in its service area in Eastern Ontario. “Rural neighbours working together can help spur arrival of Storm Internet Services’ wireless broadband” describes how Storm would encourage groups to come together to help justify the costs of extending the reach of the network, “because the company ‘can’t throw a node up’ for one or two potential clients, … groups of residents must organize to sign up adequate households on their street or subdivision before the node goes in.”

A couple weeks ago, in “The economics of broadband expansion”, we had a macro level look at the economic considerations impacting rural broadband expansion. At a project level, the economic theory gives way to looking at a return on investment for each wireless tower, or each wire-line extension.

In many communities there are private companies, like Storm, ready to provide high quality broadband service, tower by tower, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. In all but a very few number of cases, the government doesn’t need to build and operate a network, but local, regional, provincial and federal bodies can each play an important role in creating conditions that accelerate network development.

How can governments create and maintain a policy framework that encourages private sector investment in rural broadband? In some cases, direct, partial subsidies are needed to make the business case go positive. In other cases, communities can help by facilitating access to ducts, rights of way or other support structures for fibre, and make available vertical real estate for radio antennas, as described in the Nation Valley News article.

How do you achieve universal access to broadband? You build it one neighbourhood at a time.

CIRA fails its performance test

Canada’s internet registration authority, CIRA, operates an internet performance test that appears to be flawed, likely due to a test architecture that seeks to promote the use of internet exchange points (IXPs) at the expense of providing meaningful test results.

CIRA’s performance data seems to significantly understate the actual internet speeds being delivered to Canadians. It looks like CIRA’s Internet Performance Test itself may not be performing very well.

Yesterday, the CRTC released a report that shows “that all major Canadian ISPs are delivering users with average download speeds that exceed maximum advertised rates and that overprovisioning (providing users with additional throughput) is common.” In its 2019 Communications Monitoring Report, the CRTC said the weighted average internet subscription (by year end 2018) was 126 Mbps down and 51 Mbps up. Yesterday’s report, using measurements from October 2019, shows that Canadians are receiving performance levels exceeding the subscribed rates.

And indeed, Ookla’s Speedtest has been reporting Canadian test speeds closely matching those expected speeds. As I wrote earlier this year (“Words matter. Accuracy matters”), Ookla measured download speeds of 120.98 Mbps and upload of 52.91 Mbps in March. Ookla’s most recent report for Canada (July) shows 139.11 Mbps down and 57.62 Mbps up.

But a CIRA report says “Overall, the median download and upload speeds for both rural and urban Canadians combined over the 12 month period were 17.56 Mbps download and 6.69 Mbps upload.” Its results are off by nearly a full order of magnitude.

It’s unfortunate. Regular readers know that I have been calling for more data to help us build a better understanding of digital economy issues [see for example, “Understanding the digital divide” (March 2018) and “We need more data” (October 2019)].

However, when I called for more data, perhaps I should have been clear. We need more meaningful data.

CIRA’s Internet Performance Test, unfortunately does not live up to its promise of measuring “actual performance of an Internet connection in real network conditions”. Although CIRA claims that locating its test nodes in IXPs is intended to represent the user experience of Canadians, in reality that simply isn’t true. Various groups have shown only a small fraction of Canada’s internet traffic passes through IXPs.

The CRTC’s internet speed tests measured traffic using servers at exchange points but also looked at traffic going to real applications.

If CIRA’s national averages are off by a factor of ten, how can we draw any meaningful conclusions from its reports? How do we know which areas actually fall short of the service objective? How can researchers meaningfully determine funding requirements for under served areas?

CIRA’s testing is not living up to its promise. As such, it fails the test of contributing to a better understanding of issues.

Speeding up your internet connection

Last week, I was able to increase my internet speeds without even talking to my internet service provider (ISP). All it took was a modest investment in some new home networking equipment.

When I had tried to upgrade the firmware on my old equipment, I was a little embarrassed to find that the latest updates were about 10 years old. Just sharing that information with you, I’m blushing more than a little.

I bought a new WiFi router and access point, each just $40, and my download speeds instantly increased from 25 Mbps to 40 Mbps.

There are a lot of factors that can contribute to you getting slower speeds, some of which are the responsibility of your ISP, but many are due to your own home network. The app for my new router helped me identify 15 devices that were connected to my wireless network: computers, TVs, smart speakers, mobile phones, tablets, smart plugs. It adds up pretty quickly.

If you are having problems, try upgrading your home network gear. It made a difference for me.

A summer like no other

I have been busy this summer. In July and August, I wrote 21 blog posts. By way of comparison, last year I wrote just 7: 3 in July; and, 4 in August. Granted, last year summer I had some family distractions, but the summer of 2018 also saw similar total production of 7 posts: 5 in July; and, 2 in August. This year, I wrote 11 pieces in August and 10 in July.

A big part of the increased production is likely due to changes in the work environment driven by the stay-at-home response to COVID-19. Having worked from home for nearly 25 years, it was somewhat easy for me to get used to pandemic-induced isolation. But, there have also been a lot of telecommunications issues to write about this summer, coupled with the time to sit down and write.

It has been a summer like no other.

We didn’t have visitors and we didn’t go anywhere, despite a strong desire for both.

My brother likes to say I golfed almost every day: I almost golfed on Monday, I almost golfed on Tuesday… at the end of the day, I can say that no turf was harmed in the making of my summer of 2020.

I was never crazy about the week before Labour Day. I tend to get into a bit of a blue funk. I liked school, but I liked summer vacation even more.

I suspect I’m not alone in that feeling, but this summer has been very different. A lot of summer events didn’t take place. Travel plans were cancelled. Though video calls may be the ‘next best thing’, it just isn’t the same as being there. I’m not alone in missing the direct contact with family members and close friends. But it makes me wonder about the new school year for all levels of education, from primary school through university.

For families who have had kids at home for the past half year, many parents and kids may be looking forward to some time apart. Still, there must be anxiety over the potential increased risk of exposure at school. Distancing protocols in schools that are opening will result in changes that could have a lasting impact on students of all ages. As an example, will a kindergarten teacher be able to console a young student suffering separation anxiety?

It is going to be interesting to follow and study how boards of education and universities in various communities handle the fall term. In my family, we have a couple university students starting the year on-line, and we have young kids who started pre-school and first grade up close and personal.

As school gets started, whether in person or online, we should make sure we are watching and assessing progress and engagement in digital classrooms. As I wrote a few weeks ago, there is an opportunity for us to be “Using evidence to solve the digital divide”. Hopefully, researchers will use this opportunity to gather data and learn more about factors that impact adoption and use of digital technologies.

And speaking of education, there is a webinar coming up at the end of September that may be of interest to readers. The International Telecommunications Society (ITS) is hosting an online panel on COVID-19 Tracking and Tracing Apps. The workshop will address legal, regulatory and data protection issues related to corona virus tracking, tracing and testing applications, the role of Big Data in assessing the effectiveness of measures against COVID-19, and how joining forces of telecommunications and data companies can contribute to a more effective fight against COVID-19. Other issues to be discussed include interoperability of apps, mandatory use, central versus decentralized approaches, and the role of the GDPR which is both a strength and challenge for digitalizing medical services. It is intended that this webinar will compare insights and practical experiences from Asia, New Zealand, Canada and Europe and draw lessons for further development. For more information, see the webinar outline. The webinar takes place September 29 and registration is free.

There will be time for more of such serious issues next week. For now, I hope you get a chance to recharge and enjoy the upcoming holiday weekend, celebrating the end of summer.

Acting in the public interest

What does it mean to act in the public interest for telecommunications?

Does it mean working to get Canadians universal access to the fastest internet speeds? The lowest prices? The greatest coverage? All of the above?

There are few people who would say that they are oppose lower prices, faster speeds or improving coverage. In his remarks opening The 2017 Canadian Telecom Summit, Minister Bains said:

our government understands that Canadians want three things from their telecom services.

  • Quality. Is the service fast enough to do what I want it to do?
  • Coverage. Is the service available where I want it to be?
  • and lastly, Price. Is this service affordable?

These three areas are clearly where providers need to compete and that’s why our Government is doing our part to promote competition and investment. The goal is very clear. We want to improve quality, coverage and price for all Canadians.

There is a tension that ties these together. Quality and coverage each require capital investment, which in the Canadian context is measured in billions of dollars each year. Canada has achieved world leading quality scores for our mobile and fixed line networks. The overwhelming majority of Canadians have access to the latest generation of wireless technology, delivering the fastest speeds in the world.

The Minister carefully defined “Price” as offering service at an affordable level. An affordable price is not necessarily the same as the lowest price. PwC recently looked at Canada’s mobile affordability and described its analytic process in concluding “Canadian mobile services top G7 affordability ranking”:

To provide a holistic view of wireless affordability in Canada, this report examined a number of aspects related to the overall affordability of consumer wireless in Canada, including:

  1. The changing pattern of household expenditures, as wireless data use is enabling a different delivery of products and services – including the substitution of select historic spend categories by wireless.
  2. The assessment of wireless affordability in Canada, as measured by recognized affordability metrics.
  3. The affordability of wireless services for Canadians in proportion to their income relative to other jurisdictions.

As I concluded at the time, “We need to focus on strategies to drive “demand”: increasing adoption rates among groups that could subscribe, but have not. That is a problem across all geographies, and perhaps more pronounced in urban markets. That should start with developing a greater understanding of those individuals and households on the wrong side of the digital divide.” Last week, I wrote more about “Using evidence to solve the digital divide.”

The third leg, coverage, is a real challenge. Many countries define regions as “rural” in terms of population densities that Canada considers to be “suburban”. Not only are there remarkably low population densities in some areas, but some of these are in extremely harsh geographies or so far north to be difficult for equatorial geostationary orbit satellites to “see”. Other underserved areas are close to high quality networks but located just beyond the economic reach of existing service providers. These households are perhaps the most frustrated, and understandably so.

In some cases, it means direct subsidy to offset the uneconomic costs associated with building to an area. Government subsidy programs only amount to a fraction of the level of investment required to extend coverage to unserved and underserved areas. The balance comes from the private sector.

The challenge is how do we create the right environment to incent investment. In some cases, there can be policy incentives, ranging from simplifying approval processes, making available government owned (or government controlled) passive infrastructure, or changing regulatory disincentives. It is important to understand that the current regulatory and financial conditions do not support the business case for extending service to other regions. To incent investment, there has to be an increase in top line revenue or a reduction in costs. Some of these levers are within the control of regulators and policy makers.

Acting in the public interest involves balancing priorities to achieve an optimal outcome. It isn’t all about price. As a nation, we can use targeted subsidies, or programs like Connecting Families to aid with affordability.

It takes a certain level of intellectual maturity to understand that reaching an optimal balance of Quality, Coverage, and Price is a challenge in the Canadian environment. There are trade-offs and prioritization required, especially in these difficult economic times with extraordinary and shift demands for connectivity.

Ultimately, the responsibility for determining the policy priorities rests with the government. Given the response to the pandemic, it is understandable that the federal Cabinet decided Canada’s future depends on connectivity.

How does this shift the equilibrium between Quality, Coverage, and Price?