The Barriers to Better Internet – Comment and Share!

Where is this tower?
Who owns it?

We all want more Internet in more places. Most folks assume that the stage is set to make this happen. Unfortunately, no it is not. As an Internet builder myself, I can say that, yes, funding is an issue but it’s not the first hurdle. The initial barriers to better Internet involve data. That is, there is no infrastructure map or market to help build the Internet. These are things we need before we can even look at the issue of funding. Let’s explore what I mean.

Explaining the Barriers to Better Internet

I’ll use an analogy because it simplifies things and takes the industry specific terminology off the table. We want to build a house. We have nails but where do we find the wood? There is no equivalent of a home hardware store to go to. Instead what we have are wood piles placed all over the country sitting unused. How do we find the wood piles? Who owns them? What kind of lumber is it specifically? (2×4? 2×6? Length? etc.)

Most first world governments do supply funding but it is typically for building more of these hidden wood piles.

What exactly are these “wood piles”? They are “passive infrastructure” needed to build the Internet. Things like towers, conduits and cables (like fiber). And this infrastructure is shareable; meaning they are more like a 40-story office tower than a single-family home. The nails are active infrastructure like radio and cable transceivers which are readily available. But where do you install these things if you don’t have any passive infrastructure to install them on? How do you create a budget that is reasonable? (That is, not build absolutely everything from scratch; which is how we do it today.) This is the challenge of Internet builders and it affects urban and rural but rural to a much greater extent.

Rural Problem? Urban Problem? First World Problem?

Here in Canada, there is tons of empty passive infrastructure across the nation but it is hard to find, figure out who owns it and then to strike a deal in which to share it.

But based on what I’ve seen, this problem certainly exists in both the USA and Canada and it is highly likely most other jurisdictions around the globe. It is just the degree of the problem that will vary.

Canada has a partial database of passive infrastructure for towers called “Spectrum Direct” but adding information about the towers is an afterthought. That is, its intended use is to track wireless (spectrum) licenses and only collects data on where the radio is as meta data about the license (an afterthought). This doesn’t track any unlicensed wireless or “free” wireless. On a tight budget, which would you expect to be used? This means it doesn’t have data on towers for 10s of thousands of towers. Further, the database doesn’t validate the passive infrastructure information and does not indicate ownership of the passive infrastructure. 

On other geospatial databases, nothing seems to be public and whatever there is a patch-work across provinces. I’ve checked with IHS, Esri and even Bell / Telus. In fact, Telecom companies often don’t even know what they own. In one story, a peer of mine reported a fiber pedestal that Bell owned to Bell. Bell didn’t know about it. It turned out they had acquired a company that owned the fiber and had not incorporated the information into their main geospatial database. This is if they even have a main database? It could be spread across multiple databases. A 2013 article by Esri located here explains how Bell better used GIS. This article does not inspire confidence that telecom companies have excellent geospatial databases.

USA has a bit better database, the FCC’s Antenna Structure Registration (ASR) database, but it only tracks towers above 100’. Nothing about smaller infrastructure that is equally as useful to wireless and will be even more so with 5G. There is nothing about private infrastructure or accessing cable.

In urban locations, my own community specifically, Enmax has been laying empty conduit in alleyways. Telus has been “planning” to lay fiber for at least 7 years, probably more. I know rural communities that have fiber to the premises faster. Are Enmax and Telus communicating about what assets are in the ground? Hopefully? Probably not. So urban situations, a little bit better, but clearly not a lot better.

Ground Truthing is not the Answer

Sure, we could drive around urban and rural Canada “ground truthing” to figure out what is there every single time we want to build more Internet. But not all infrastructure is located along roads. And even if you do find something, often times the infrastructure is physically unmarked with ownership information. I have unmarked boxes in my community in Calgary, in rural areas the problem is infinitely worse.

But should we have to drive around mapping everything every time we have a project to build better Internet? This is a mapping process that takes between 1 to 18 months for every single Internet building project being undertaken in every single jurisdiction, every country, etc. This mapping process has to be completed before applying for funding (including government funding!). It introduces considerable delay and expense.

We’re in the year 2020. Why is this data problem not being addressed? I would hope that it’s crystal clear that this data problem is central to resolving the barriers to better Internet. In my experience though, most people do not know about this. And they are further shocked to hear that the Internet is mostly a low profit margin business.

The Internet is mostly a low Profit Margin Business

I hear you: “Wait? What?”. The money in the Internet is in high density/volume (e.g. smartphones). Every other Internet related business has lower margins. The lower the density, the lower the margin. So cabling households with fiber in urban communities is something Telecom companies only do organically over time unless subsidized. This is why Google Fiber has been so slow to expand and hasn’t built anything for the past four years. It takes a lot of creativity to make the funding work.

The fact is, consumers and businesses do not want to spend a lot of money on Internet. It’s a utility now. The cheaper it is, the better for the economy. So, for rural areas, their exceptionally low density makes the situation incredibly dire. Rural profit margins are usually negative. This is the reason why rural areas are a low priority for Telecom companies. Even with government subsidies to help bring the profit margin above zero, rural projects are still lower priority due to lower profit overall and poor prospects for growth.

Taking Down the Barriers to Better Internet

We need two things:

  1. A government policy requiring all Telecommunication assets to be registered to a no-fee publicly accessible geospatial database. Oil & Gas is already required to do this. They have to register every pipeline, every compressor, every plant, etc. to a no-fee publicly accessible geospatial database. Why shouldn’t Telecommunications similarly have to register?
  2. A marketplace for passive infrastructure; a “rentfaster” site for building the Internet. Need to make an offer someone can’t refuse? This shouldn’t take years. It should take less than an hour. And renting passive infrastructure is already proven to work. That’s why ~70% of the world’s towers are already shared, just not here in Canada; read more about that here.

These items would create a marketplace that would drive Internet growth. It would create a vibrant market that could start solving the problem on its own with less and less government funding and intervention and in less time. Based on all this, where are our respective governments with respect to providing funding and direction to this problem? Canadian government: Zilch. US government: Nothing that I know of.

Next Steps?

Overall, I’m looking for like minded individuals willing to volunteer some time. Possibly next step would be to start a petition but I’d like to discuss and develop this idea. If you can’t do much, please share this message and help me reach out to more like-minded folks. There is no requirement to have technical knowledge in this area and many times cross discipline knowledge is critical.

While We Wait for the Barriers to Better Internet to Fall

I’ve written an article that explains some things households, and sometimes businesses, can do to help improve their Internet service without waiting for the larger forces of the Internet to make things happen. Click here for my article “Forget a bandwidth upgrade! Try these 4 things to make the home internet experience better”.

About the Author

An avid writer, Trevor Textor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, and among others. Over the course of 20 years Trevor has designed and built many small rural Internet builds across the globe. “It’s slower than dial-up” is something he knows personally (move mouse, wait 10 seconds, screen re-draw, try again) and has since used his passion to look for ways to help build better Internet. How Trevor pays his bills is as a freelancer providing a “swiss army skillset” and a proven ability to successfully assist many small, medium and large businesses in most areas of their business. Please consider clicking here to ask Trevor and his partner if they can help via their freelancing corporation “Textor Corp.”.

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