Skip to Main Content

Strategic Business Insights (SBI) logo

Connected Homes October 2017 Viewpoints

Technology Analyst: Michael Gold

Toward Improved Rural Broadband Services

Why is this topic significant?

In developed and undeveloped countries, rural residents cope with inadequate broadband services. Some initiatives promise improved connections.

Description

Statistics and definitions of broadband vary, but more than 1 billion rural residents worldwide likely have inadequate access to broadband services. US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) analysts recently estimated that closing the national gap for the United States alone would require infrastructure investments of $40 billion to $80 billion. Many other nations see unmet needs for investments. Do any efforts toward improved rural broadband service give reasons for optimism? Hopes tend to rest on a combination of innovative technologies and new business models.

During May 2017, Microsoft committed to invest an unspecified amount of funds sufficient to build infrastructure that brings broadband connections to 2 million rural US residents. The company intends to rely mainly on TV white-space frequencies, plus fixed wireless connections in medium-density areas (more than 200 people per square mile) and satellite connections for low-density areas (less than 2 people per square mile). Microsoft claims it has already connected about 185,000 people in 19 nations using white-space frequencies. The company doesn't intend to operate new services but rather hopes to recoup its investments from service-provider partners and then reinvest the money in other regions.

For an April 2017 thesis, University of Colorado researcher David Espinoza performed detailed cost engineering for low-density areas of Peru, finding that combined capital and operating expenses for broadband via LTE (long-term evolution) would be less than the expenses for TV white spaces or Wi-Fi. Bonus savings could obtain if initial rollout stages were to make use of Google's Project Loon, an experimental network of floating LTE base-station balloons. Espinoza, who estimated costs and capabilities based on Google's disclosures to regulators, sees the balloons as potential helpers for rolling out service rapidly but not for fulfilling the lion's share of demand for service. As of early October 2017, a search for Google on FlightRadar reveals more than a dozen balloons floating at high altitudes worldwide, several of them over South America.

At a September 2017 meeting, FCC advisors reported some cost data for aerial cables, which are far from obsolete. A CableLabs survey indicated that services spend at least $30,000 per mile for new fiber or hybrid fiber-coax infrastructure. Representatives of rural-electric cooperatives estimated that they could add fiber to existing rural grids for about $18,000 per mile.

Implications

Probably, no single technology will universally connect people at least cost. LTE seems to have relatively low risks, with predictable coverage capabilities and promising economics. But infrastructure developers will likely find that networks are like snowflakes: They are all different. Technology decisions will have strong dependence on terrain, legacy utilities, available spectrum, and local governance.

Impacts/Disruptions

Imaginably, future rural broadband services could come from an abundance of low-Earth-orbit satellites, communications drones, balloons, or piloted aircraft. Barring wild cards, a combination of point-to-point and mesh microwave connections seems to warrant further exploration (as Facebook has done).

Business-model decisions might prove to be more important than technology decisions. For example, as emergency-services networks expand into rural areas, excess communications-carrying capacity could connect residents. Rural areas might see synergies and leverage from coordinated deployments of communications, energy, and transportation infrastructures. Complex public-private partnerships would need to be accountable for producing many working connections.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: 5 Years to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Electronics manufacturing, communications services, government agencies, municipalities, nongovernment organizations, philanthropy

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas:

Digital-Rights Management

Why is this topic significant?

A suite of technologies that were formerly controversial is now encoded in law and pervasive software.

Description

Muso, a provider of various services to copyright owners, claims that people illegally streamed or downloaded new episodes of Game of Thrones about 1 billion times over the course of seven weeks during summer 2017. Most infringement reportedly occurs via pirate streaming services that make money selling advertisements—not via peer-to-peer file sharing.

SlySoft provided software for copying DVDs and Blu-ray discs from 2003 until it ceased operation in 2016. It seemed to operate in violation of the antipiracy laws in its home nation of Antigua and Barbuda, but SlySoft benefited from a favorable ruling from the World Trade Organization in 2007. From then until 2014, when its owner lost a lower-court ruling, SlySoft may have been one of very few developers in the WTO (World Trade Organization) community—more than 150 nations—that was able to openly sell software that copies video from protected discs to customers in the United States. Similar software remains available, but its distribution apparently violates US and many other nations' laws and treaties.

Some technical protection measures are difficult to defeat. Stealing multichannel pay-TV service has become rare in North America. Anticopy technology is very effective in preventing unauthorized copies of games. Streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu terminate when people don't pay their bills.

Digital-rights-management practices include nontechnical measures. Copyright owners and their representatives undertake automated and manual procedures to demand that service providers cease distributing content and that individuals pay penalties. Lawsuits against "John Doe"—requests to unmask unidentified US persons who purportedly pirated movies and who exposed their network addresses—increased dramatically after 2010, according to a forthcoming Iowa Law Review article. "Copyright trolls" issued complaints against nearly 6,500 individual John Does in US lawsuits during 2016, and many more people may have paid unreported settlements to avoid lawsuits.

Implications

Service providers control access to streaming audio and video, multichannel pay TV, satellite radio, and many games. Anticopy features are pervasive in HDTV cables and connectors, game consoles and discs, and DVD and Blu-ray players and discs. Nevertheless, unauthorized distribution occurs despite technical measures that aim to deter infringement. Sources of video include data breaches during production processes—one of the ways Game of Thrones episodes recently became available—as well as via illegal use of disc-copying software and of hardware costing less than $100 that defeats HDTV anticopy technology. Such hardware could also be counterfeit because it appears to violate HDTV patents, licenses, and trademark agreements.

Impacts/Disruptions

Digital-rights management can also refer to digital measures for protecting almost any type of intellectual property, not just audiovisual works. Manufacturers have copyrighted aspects of printers, coffee makers, and motorized garage doors, and they have implemented technical protection measures that, in theory, expose users and businesses to infringement lawsuits if unauthorized ink cartridges, coffee pods, or handheld remote controls are in use. Starting in late 2016, US residents who repair their own cars and tractors, which also have copyrightable aspects, began enjoying rights to legally bypass technical measures that previously deterred them from making such repairs; hot-rodders cannot abuse the privilege in ways that cause additional pollution. Vehicle makers claimed copyright protections, so it became the Librarian of Congress's duty to decide the do-it-yourself car-repair rules.

Scale of Impact

  • Low
  • Medium
  • High
The scale of impact for this topic is: Medium

Time of Impact

  • Now
  • 5 Years
  • 10 Years
  • 15 Years
The time of impact for this topic is: Now to 10 Years

Opportunities in the following industry areas:

Film and TV, games, software, operating systems, entertainment electronics, smartphones, personal computers, embedded devices, law, government

Relevant to the following Explorer Technology Areas: