I want you to try and think of telecommunications networks the same way you think of the network involved in the circulatory system in the body. With fiber-optic cabling making up the arteries and wireless networks making up the capillaries that run through the city of Bellingham and Whatcom county, or rather should.
For any network technology to work well it needs to be backed up by fiber. This fact is backed up in many articles like the WIRED article “The Next Generation of Wireless 5G is all Hype” and the book “The 5G Myth.”
Let me start by de-bunking a myth: While 5G wireless technology has some good points, it is not a magical technology that will solve all of our issues. In order to ensure we have multiple ethical providers, drive down costs, and create connective flexibility to help us meet our social and economic goals, any wireless model needs to be paired with a constant connectivity model including a lot more fiber. 5G is not without its problems, and even when it reaches its full potential, probably around 2022, you will still need to back it up with fiber for it to work well. This will help to make it more than just a marketing term.
We do need better wireless technologies. We also need to test everything that we’re putting into our environment and make sure that it’s safe before we use it. It’s also obvious that any technology installed needs to be done in a way that it does not create a virtual monopoly. Focusing on a constant connectivity model, at least for now, makes a lot more sense.
5G is a very complex way to do wireless. Did you know that heavy hitters like Microsoft have been developing wireless technologies that use the lower frequency white-space bandwidth that used to be used by old broadcast TV and are less complex and safer. Sure, these technologies don’t yet claim the same speeds as 5G, but they will continue to get better. 5G is aiming at a currently virtually unused bandwidth space called millimeter wave (30GHz to 300GHz) which is currently uncluttered by other devices and has room for future expansion, but this is what they told us every time they went to a new wireless standard, and there is a catch.
Since Bellingham does not yet have the proper backbone to support any robust network, we don’t need to panic and run to the big telecoms begging for 5G. In fact, most users have never even experienced the full capabilities of 4G LTE tech before being told to upgrade to 5G. The average cell phone life in the US is only 18 months, even through the phones can easily last for up to 5 times that long. Most users would be pleased with their 4G service if they actually got the speeds the companies advertised to them. In fact, 4G LTE is capable of providing speeds of up to 300 MBps down. This is 6 times faster down then many of your copper-based Comcast connections at home. Apple realized this and started intentionally throttling their phones to force upgrades from 4G to 5G. So perhaps we should start by holding the companies accountable and getting the 4G speeds they originally promised us before throwing all of our 4G stuff in the garbage. It’s time for a better standard in telecom companies before we change to any new standard in wireless technology.
There is also a lot of bandwidth, associated with largely abandoned technology at lower bandwidths, that can be re-purposed too. Either way, Bellingham and Whatcom County need to establish a Dig Once Policy first and build the backbone that a modern city needs to support any broadband solution. Any radio wave spectrum can eventually become filled up with devices. The fact that that has happened in some of the lower bandwidths is part of the argument for 5G; however, we have also done a poor job of freeing up bandwidth used at lower frequencies. Freeing up this bandwidth would also reduce clutter and, if we had more fiber to back up current networks, greatly increase the performance of existing 4G LTE devices. Plus, most of our problems don’t exist on the front end with wireless networks; they exist on the back end because the companies do a bad job of installing enough fiber to move multiple users’ data around quickly once it makes it to the towers or small cells. Remember, all they need to do to advertise that they have 5G is get one working antenna hooked up to something. There is a big difference between doing something to a “good enough” standard and doing it right.
So why are we pushing 5G so hard and working on 5G before a Dig Once Policy when it would still be prudent to do more testing and build better basic infrastructure? Turns out that it has a lot to do with the wishes of the big telecoms. Even though we’ve been talking with the government about Dig Once for over 2 years now, they chose to prioritize wireless policies before anything else. Michael Lilliquist describes 5G as, “a freight train that is coming whether we like it or not.” Ted Carlson said, “let’s just wait for wireless” and has done everything to have the council prioritize 5G wireless over working on the necessary infrastructure to back it up first. They have had more than enough time to do both.
They are all aware that we need a balanced solution, including both new wireless technology and a Dig Once Policy to compete. Fortunately, both Michael and Gene Knutson have recently said that we should include a Dig Once Policy along with a wireless policy. It should also be noted that, especially in rural areas, part of the reason that 5G is a “freight-train” is that we haven’t built out adequate infrastructure, making it good only in comparison to your other awful choices.
Sadly Bellingham’s government officials take almost all of their advice from the big anti-net neutral telecoms, and their supporters, above all others, and seem totally unconcerned on the potential health hazards associated with this technology. If you push them on it, they say their hands are tied and they have to allow for the irresponsible use of public resources to install these technologies including removing all land use policies or other reasonable restrictions. While it’s true that the radiation used in 5G is done at a very low level and probably safe, it is also true that at a very high level it is definitely not safe. That’s why you hear the key words, low-level, just about every time a company makes a statement about 5G. High-level microwaves were used in the creation of directed energy weapons. Since it’s 2018, and we can get results quickly, why not commission a more in-depth study of the effects of 5G microwaves by WWU while we’re putting in backbone we need for everything else?
Even I think that for these waves to be a problem you’d have to climb a pole and stick your face in between the small cells for a few weeks, but there is no good reason not to be sure. The health advocates have good points about this technology that are currently just being blown off. Even the FCC says that they have not done enough testing of the effects of 5G wireless on children. They have not even developed a standard for what a healthy level of exposure to these wavelengths is. This also means that they have done virtually no testing on the effects of this technology on other forms of life. Perhaps 5G will be proven by independent research to be safe but why not be sure? A lot of the studies out there now, just like lead in gas studies in the 1960s, come from biased sources. For some reason, even though Bellingham is full of impartial unbiased sources for the government to obtain telecom information from, they prefer to listen to the guys who put the technological equivalent of lead in the gas instead.
On March 12th, I spoke for my 3 minutes to the City of Bellingham Council about installing wireless small cells to complement 5G towers and why it was unwise to do this without also at least establishing a Dig Once Policy and at least listening to impartial experts on the topic. The council was trying to slip though an agreement, to allow anti-net neutral companies like Verizon to use public right-of ways, without also establishing a Dig Once Policy that would guarantee public access and, therefore, net-neutral competition provided by local providers.
You see, the Public Works department said that they were too busy to bring a Dig Once Policy forward until the Q2 of this year. Carlson, showing to me a real lack of knowledge of how the technology works almost 2 years ago, seemed to believe that wireless was a magic solution that would solve all of our broadband problems and keep us from having to make real infrastructure improvements. He is of course, wrong. There is no quick fix to building good infrastructure. Prioritizing a wireless policy over establishing the Dig Once Policy also makes even less sense. It’s like building a modern house with a dirt foundation.
It seems like some of our leaders still believe that creating the environment to support next generation jobs, and giving people real access to information which will improve their lives and productivity are not paramount issues. They believe this even though 1/3rd of our residents earn less than $25K a year and the cost of living keeps going up. I think the answer is simpler than that. You see virtual monopolies everywhere in Bellingham. For example, in my neighborhood people will tell you that you have 2 choices in providers. Comcast offers up to “175 MBps” down and a pitiful 10 up (the reality is worse). CenturyLink offers 40 MBps down and about 7 MBps up (the reality again being worse). This means that if you have any real work to get done you only have one choice.
In rural, like Whatcom County, areas the story is worse and the County Council’s belief that we can get away with wireless-only connections even deeper. This is very sad because in the past, via the rural electrification act, we have run electricity to virtually every American. This is what we need to do with broadband and something we can afford to do in the richest country in the history of the world. You could then hook up whatever you wanted to the fiber. The expense is well justified as educating your population is always a good bet, and broadband provides excellent opportunities for education. On the industrial front, modern Artificial Intelligence systems can help farms produce better yields while using more responsible farming techniques. Does it really matter how much money we spend running fiber to all Americans if a person from a rural area discovers the digital equivalent of something as useful and successful as super glue? In fact, super glue was discovered by a researcher raised in Kingsport, Tennessee, when its population was less than the size of the current population of 98229. It’s not even expensive to provide them with good Fiber to the Home connections, via a public infrastructure.
Taking their cues largely from the big telecoms, the council is also considering the crazy idea of removing land use policies for small cells, like Doug Ericksen (a Sprint Investor) Ajit Pai (The FCC Director and a Verizon investor and lobbyist) and the current White House have recommended. You may remember Pai well because he went against 87% of all Americans and removed Net-Neutrality. When I mentioned this, and the fact that the big telecoms are already using federal pre-emption to try to get around the recently passed Washington State net-neutrality law, I had my first Amendment rights violated by city council president Roxanne Murphy. More on this in a later article.
Heavy supporters of 5G will tell you one fact, while hiding the many drawbacks of Wireless. They will say that data actually travels faster through the air than through fiber. This negligible difference, only achieved under perfect conditions, is technically true. The best fiber networks travel at 99.7% the speed of light while in air the full speed of light can be achieved, but of course there are many catches to wireless that fiber does not have. That’s why any good wireless installation is backed up by lots of fiber and that’s why we need a balanced approach including both technologies.
In order to achieve the gigabit speeds that they claim on some of the 5G networks, you have to have direct line-of-sight connections and be within a certain range. How close? Well, that depends on a lot of factors as I’ll describe below. For 5G to work reliably, you’ll need expensive, small cells, hooked up to fiber, at every street corner. The millimeter waves used on these networks are so small that they bounce off of, and are absorbed by, many other objects. That’s why, they generally don’t work well in a city, which is why you install small cells to pass the signal through the city more efficiently.
So some will say that 5G speeds can replace wired networks, but that is only sort of true because our wired infrastructure is so bad. Sure, if you live in a rural area and are getting a 12 MBps down and 7MBps up copper-based connection from CenturyLink, then speed wise this may be better. What wireless is, is a complementary technology to fiber, not a competing one and certainly not a replacement.
But wait, there’s more. “These waves can’t easily travel through buildings or obstacles and they can be absorbed by foliage and rain.” - IEEE You know what though, no big deal, we live in the flat landed, arid desert environment of Bellingham; we don’t have buildings, obstacles like trees, mountainous terrain, other natural barriers, or rain to worry about, right? Now you’re starting to see how obscenely complex this technology needs to be just to work and come close to being truly reliable like fiber is. It’s obvious that fiber makes a lot more sense here and in the county.
Wireless devices should be thought of as extensions to fiber, not a replacement for it. That’s because fiber optic cables can be split into individual threads and isolated, therefore providing multiple channels to communicate on. Each thread is basically its own wireless spectrum. How many threads will Verizon actually provide to each cell? Only they know for sure, but probably not enough. They’ll say you’re connecting at gigabit speed, but then the bottlenecks will happen further back as you connect with many other users over the piss poor backbone that a lot of the country “enjoys.” The 5G waves are difficult to handle so reseachers had to create even more complex tech to handle these waves like MIMO technology and beamforming. If you want to know more about all of these technologies please see the IEEE article.
Essentially, they’re selling you access to fiber, via a less efficient delivery method known as wireless. Remember, wireless signals are in the radio frequency band; fiber optic operates within a theoretically infinite light frequency band. This difference in frequency, wireless/radio being the lower of the two, has a direct effect on the peak theoretical data transfer rate known as the channel capacity. The Shannon-Hartley equation puts frequency as proportional to this peak rate, meaning that the frequencies used by fiber have a physically much higher capacity for data transfer.
I’m not saying anything crazy like, let’s stop using cell phones. I’m just saying that wireless has long suffered from the “Star Trek Movie Curse.” Where the odd-numbered standards tended to be bad, but the even numbers good, the best parts of the standards emerging much later in the game and as part of yet another standard. 4G LTE could be amazing, We could focus on a constantly connectivity model backed up by fiber, instead of always giving you the greatest speed at the tower, and then passing your data through an awful network in the background. We could see much better speeds and accomplish, with existing 4G LTE networks, much of what is being claimed by 5G. This would then give us the time to really shake 5G down before deploying it.
Yet the City of Bellingham Council is again helping create another virtual monopoly for Verizon, and other giant anti-net neutral telecoms. The fact that these companies just got away with obtaining the right to censor your information doesn’t seem to bother the council at all. They also fail to mention that most of the poles in the city are owned by PSE who charges $600 per pole for rental. PSE stands to greatly benefit from a small cell deployment without having to do infrastructure upgrades. High rates like this keep smaller local providers from using them and increasing your choices. This is again why we need a real Dig Once policy where we are putting in public-use conduit every time we are doing a repair. Going ahead with a wireless policy, that is structured to only benefit the big anti-net neutral telecoms and doesn’t protect the environment, without establishing a Dig Once Policy is foolish. There is no shortcut to good infrastructure. You either have the resources a city needs to compete in the modern world or you do not.
The bottom line is that you need fiber to do wireless anyway, and while we need to be upgrading our infrastructure as fast as possible, your government is busy working on helping Verizon install small cells before they work on a Dig Once Policy for the public good. How do I know this for sure? A few hours after I made my speech to the city council on 3/12/18, Verizon started texting its customers in Bellingham to support small cell wireless.
There will be a public hearing on this topic. Please, at least make them do their homework on this and establish a Dig Once Policy to guarantee competition before pushing through yet another poorly thought-out agreement that benefits another unethical big-telecom company at the expense of all of us. Bellingham and Whatcom County deserve deserve safe, robust, ethically provided, broadband connections. Fiber optic cabling doesn’t have any of the problems I’ve described with wireless. It is perfectly safe and electromagnetically immune.
Remember that we already gave the big telecoms about $400 Billion Dollars for fiber upgrades that they never installed. In short, they stole it and now we’re talking about giving them the money again! We pay some of the highest prices per MBit in the developed world for broadband. In Japan 1,000 MBits down and up is about $25 a month; in Kansas City it’s $70. In Bellingham, the only net-neutral fiber provider charges $250 for 100 Mbits. Notice the change. You lose a zero on the speed and gain one on your price. Time for something better!
I’ve been working on this for almost 2 years now, so the council’s claims that they had to prioritize wireless policies over other policies, and that they have to let these companies do whatever they want is false. Right now, since PSE owns most of the poles and Verizon will be renting them, the facts on the ground are that they are creating a condition where they are boosting the profits of Verizon and PSE at the expense of the public without creating a way for actual competition to take place. This is what we call an anti-competitive practice.
One last thing. For decades, technology has existed to allow you to go between using a cell tower for your calls to a broadband wireless connection? Sprint even offered it on a few phones and called it “Wi-Fi Calling.” So say you’re talking on your hands-free in a car and walk into a mall where you would normally lose the cell signal. This tech would allow you to make calls using the location’s wireless network, for free. In fact, some people already do a make-shift version of this using apps like Skype and Google’s Talk/Hangouts.
This would decrease the amount of time you needed a cell tower. Many companies have excluded it from their phones, using the excuse that it would increase the cost of the phone. Even if your phone cost an extra $20 for this feature you could conceivably never have to use a cellular tower to make a call again. This would also free up a lot of bandwidth on towers since more calls would be taking place inside of buildings on their broadband connections making existing tech work better and allowing us to keep our equipment longer.