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‘If this were easy, it would already be done’: Nsight’s insights on rural broadband

“The business models are extremely complex and there is a lot of risk embedded in this,” says Nsight’s Brighid Riordan

Brighid Riordan is the CINO and VP of Emerging Services and Public Affairs for regional telecom company Nsight, which operates the Cellcom wireless brand serving customers based in Wisconsin and Michigan’s upper peninsula — the seventh-largest wireless operator in the U.S., by Riordan’s calculations. The company’s history dates back to 1910 as a telephone service provider, and it has operated its Cellcom wireless brand since 1987. Riordan’s family has been involved with the company since 1923. She says that all of the money flowing into broadband networks right now— both wired and wireless — is almost like a puzzle, with the challenge being to figure out where the money is coming from, how it can be used and what part it will play in Nsight’s decisions.

Brighid Riordan, CINO and VP of Emerging Services and Public Affairs, Nsight/Cellcom

Capital expenditures for network build-outs has been a “huge stumbling block, it is absolutely the truth,” she says. But there are new challenges that come with a funding and competitive environment that she describes as “a little bit more Wild West.” She points out that even within the same state, the difference between federal and state funding programs can mean significant differences in implementation requirements. And when it comes to legislation, small turns of phrase — like the difference between “up to” a certain speed or “a minimum of” that speed —make huge differences in what it means for a network operator to build out.

What does a future-ready network look like for Nsight? She said that Nsight believes that fiber is the best option for its broadband services. “When we look at solving the broadband problem, I know there’s a few different opinions, but certainly the most reliable, future-proof is fiber.” But that’s a relatively recent phenomenon, she adds.

“If you asked any of us at our company two, three, four years ago, ‘How is broadband going to be deployed to rural areas?’, we would say, ‘Wireless. It’s going to be wireless from here on out. … That has changed with the infusion of capital [from the federal government.]” Riordan expresses some reservations about whether all of America can actually be connected via fiber-to-the-home and how long that would take, but somewhere along the line, in what she calls a “leapfrog moment,” that has became at least a possibility. “I feel like that leapfrog has taken place over the last few months and I think the pandemic has certainly spurred that.”

She credits both the funding and in part, new companies trying out different technologies in wireless – even if the things that they tried perhaps have been expensive for consumers, or not quite lived up to the reliability or speeds that were hoped for. Nsight has been trying new technologies as well, like piloting CBRS, which Riordan says finally made it possible to get decent reliability and speeds for fixed wireless broadband. “That technology is really new – it wasn’t available before,” she notes. Nsight doesn’t consider fixed wireless speeds of 25/3 Mbps to be future-proof, she says, so it is testing 4G LTE CBRS that achieves 100/10 Mbps speeds.

While the pandemic and the amount of money flowing into broadband is resulting in heightened interest in operating networks from municipal entities, Riordan is quick to say that the intricacies of day-to-day operations and TCO get complicated very quickly – and more money isn’t always going to solve them.

“What I see, working with every different county, township, village, they all have a different perspective and they’re all approaching it in a different way. Some counties or entities are saying, ‘We think we want to own this, we think that’s what makes best fiscal sense for us.’ And I say, ‘Please, let people who know how to run a broadband company do that, because you’ve got bills, you’ve got callers, you’ve got installation – there’s so much more to it” both in terms of complexity and cost. “There’s just so many, so many things,” Riordan says, on operations alone, such as running a 247/365 network operations center and, as Nsight does, providing live customer care: No email bots, no social media bots, real people picking up the phone. And then there’s marketing and factoring in competition. All this new funding, she points out, “isn’t a gimme. This isn’t, ‘we’re going to give you all this money and you don’t have to worry about marketing yourself’ … there is competition. I don’t know if [government] understands the risk we’re still taking.” Riordan recalls times when Nsight has decided to start piloting or serving a new area and a local incumbent abruptly decides to uprade the single-Mbps service it had been allowing to languish. NSight has ILEC territories as well, where it is the provider of last resort, and it sees competitors come in and “cherry pick,” Riordan says – which in rural areas might mean that a competitor decides to only serve the slightly-more-dense areas that make the business case work for the very remote areas. In addition, when it comes to funding programs Nsight is “punished,” in Riordan’s words, because it already provides speeds greater than 25/3, precluding it from participating in some programs that instead benefited operators who had let their speeds lag.

“The business models are extremely complex and there is a lot of risk embedded in this. I hope that the government sees that just throwing the money isn’t necessarily going to solve the issues. It’s got to be coordinated,” Riordan says. But, “I think everybody has the right intentions,” she concludes. “If this were easy, it would already be done.”

Here more from Brighid Riordan of Nsight, as well as representatives from the Competitive Carriers Association and A10 Networks, on the recent webinar on Building a Future-Ready Broadband Infrastructure.

ABOUT AUTHOR

Kelly Hill
Kelly Hill
Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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