Now that some $7 billion+ will be spent on rural broadband expansion, thanks to President Obama's just signed $787 billion economic stimulus package, the interesting question becomes which broadband technologies, wired or wireless should be supported i.e. subsidized to deliver it.
To get at the answers let's look at the two key benefits of this program:
1. It opens the door to truly effective e-commerce to residents and businesses, thereby increasing the availability of competitively priced products and services, and enhancing the economy, and to more information and services like distance learning and telemedicine. That means less gas, vehicle wear, and time in the long drives to the nearest urban centers
2. It enables job creation in rural areas such as from telework
Many rural communities have missed out on the recent economic boom. Unemployment and underemployment have been high and is getting worse. A recent story in The Daily Yonder reports double-digit rates in many communities. The recent economic downturn has for example decreased demand for resources such as forestry products. Fewer new homes means less need for local loggers, sawmill workers, and truckers.
Telework--via broadband--enables organizations that have forward-enough management i.e. supervision-by-performance rather than by-pointing-to-heads into this excellent supply of hard working individuals. It can also save them money: $10,000 to $20,000 per agent per year and improve customer satisfaction and retention, and revenues.
Not surprisingly telework through home-based agents is emerging as a viable alternative to offshoring. The cost savings and productivity benefits through home agents have made U.S. and Canada viable competitors to other countries for call handling.
There is a wide range of existing and developing broadband technologies available. TMC Group Publisher Rich Tehrani has in a recent blog pointed to broadband over power line (BPL), along with satellite, 3G, 4G (WiMAX/LTE), and perhaps white space technology. He correctly points out that the 'jury is still out' on these choices, and for good reason.
While with the exception of satellite, whose setup can be problematic (ask a rural resident who has tried to get it going) most of these methods appear to be fine for Internet access and e-mail.
Where the issue lies, however, is with VoIP. VoIP can and has for many firms made teleworking/home-based agents possible by dramatically reducing communications costs. No more LD charges from the switch to remote workers 50+ miles away.
Yet according to conversations with firms such as inContact and MegaPath there are quality of service (QoS) issues with wireless: cellular and satellite transmission. These methods have apparently not delivered consistent high enough QoS that callers, and companies expect. There are also other obstacles to VoIP ranging from old copper and data networks to home networks, depending on who you talk to.
There has been sufficient concern with VoIP to prompt three prominent pure-play telework outsourcers: Alpine Access, Arise, and Working Solutions to prohibit VoIP by their agents. Meanwhile 'blended' teleservices firms like Convergys that permit their home agents to have VoIP can route calls to bricks-and-mortar agents.
Yet in another strike against wireless, for Internet access to work at home applications, Convergys also clearly states that "Wireless or satellite broadband does not work effectively with our desktop configuration, and therefore does not meet our requirements".
Even with the good QoS on the network there can be inconsistency. You can have two VoIP 'lines' at home, one for work and one for personal, being fed from the same source, yet the quality can be different for each.
The alternative to integrated high QoS VoIP+ data: broadband for Internet--assuming that it can support work-at-home hosted solutions--and PSTN for calls would become just as unwieldy for rural residents and businesses as it is becoming for those in more urban areas, many of whom are opting for voice/data through the same pipe.
The future of voice communication according to many experts is VoIP rather than old-fashioned PSTN. If that is the case the VoIP issue, along with the need to support intensive web-based solutions, needs to be explored and resolved before any tax dollars are handed over to companies to install rural broadband.