Where Broadband Isn't -- and Aging in Place Tech

A long, long time ago, in an FCC commentary far, far away. Back in the dark ages (2009 to be exact), the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened a public comment on the US national broadband plan. David Isenberg’s response, It’s the Internet Stupid, (http://itstheinternetstupid.com/) is the consummate comment on broadband. “The direct, most immediate way to “advance consumer welfare, civic participation, public safety and homeland security, community development, health care delivery”, etc., is via broadband connections to the Internet. (I was an original signer to this document.)

AiP and Broadband. Broadband Internet is the foundation of many of the aging in place technologies that we are all so enamored with these days. While the industry seems to think that new names for these connections is clever, the bottom line is that they all use the Internet in some fashion. M-health is, oh yeah, cellular broadband Internet via apps. Wi-Fi connections in the home or in public are, yup, broadband Internet via directly connected routers/modems. Even devices that use the plain old telephone service phone line to upload data, eventually use some form of the Internet and broadband to report the data.

Broadband isn’t where FCC says it is. Since we are all building a foundation of apps, devices, clouds and such that heavily utilize the Internet (and broadband), I thought it might be fruitful to discuss where broadband isn’t. Broadband isn’t deployed in many rural areas in the US. Broadband isn’t deployed in many urban and suburban areas considered “too expensive to serve” by providers. Cellular broadband isn’t in every area that one might expect a cellular phone to reach. Even urban areas have pockets of no or poor coverage. (Just ask any person with an iPhone in San Francisco, Seattle or New York.) The FCC has been collecting data and reporting coverage (as self-reported by the service providers) on a national map.  But, regional studies prove some of the data is incorrect — overestimated coverage both in upload/download speed and geography. The FCC’s plan specifically mentions older adults in the National Purposes section on health care (because there will be twice as many folks over 65, who are too fat, take lots of drugs and go to the hospital and get infections.) Bottom line, the FCC recognized the importance of health care (including remote monitoring), which is a good thing. According to Pew Research, only 26% of adults age 65+ actually have home broadband. Furthermore, the problem is that there is no obvious way to get from here to ubiquitous broadband which is reliable (it works when you need it) and available (it’s up when you need it).

Rural areas don't work (for broadband). I’ve been spending part of my summer consulting with a rural area to see how we can get better broadband deployment throughout the region (less than 4% of the population in an area over 16,000 square miles reports having adequate broadband access today.) This area includes the city with the second densest 65+ population in the state of California. Many of the AiP technologies we have tested would be perfect to monitor and manage an aging population with not-enough doctors, but, alas, there is no reliable way to get to the Internet. One resident downloaded one itty bitty (80Kb file) in just over 2 hours. Really, these folks have 28.8 Kbps modems and are a bit miffed that you can’t buy them in computers anymore.

This is your target market. Unfortunately, AiP vendors seem to forget or are unaware about the fact that their product may not work without broadband Internet. One CCRC in Pennsylvania that tests equipment found that cellular-based GPS/location contraptions reported widely varied results (6 devices were side-by-side and had discrepancies of thousands of feet.) It is imperative, as an industry, that we take broadband Internet seriously, especially considering that many of us still seem to believe that everything works everywhere. To paraphrase David, are you stupid about broadband?

A Note

Carl and Paul: Great to hear of your focus on "silver" broadband. One of the issues that I repeatedly find in rural areas is the lack of backhaul/middle mile. Even if we could figure out how to build something broadbandesque, it is impossible to get adequate bandwidth to get out of the region. I'm hoping that the stimulus largess through USDA and Commerce will help with that issue tremendously throughout the country.

And, Carl, I hope you keep us posted on your progress in getting the "triple play" in senior living. I know there are some other companies in that space as well. My observation is that the high-end establishments are full of residents who are demanding connectivity, even in the assisted living and memory care units. But, the mid-level establishments are not quite there yet.

An Internet Solution

I helped start a wireless internet service provider (WISP) to provide internet to the underserved rural areas back in 2003. We expanded that company into one that also provided managed internet to student housing properties nationwide (believe it or not, they were underserved for a while too). I’ve since sold those companies and started a new one, SilverFox Broadband to provide Internet to the underserved senior housing market nationwide. I was quite shocked to find that we were one of the only companies doing this.

I apologize if this post sounded a little self-serving, but it is obviously a problem senior housing communities are facing and they don’t currently know where to turn. If they can learn about a solution, then we can all start connecting the residents sooner – which helps everyone.

For example, we are currently installing over 600 low-income housing units in Illinois in coordination with Connected Living as a part of a grant to bridge the digital divide grant to bridge the digital divide. Residents living on a fixed income of $90 per month can’t afford $50 internet service, but they can potentially afford $15 service. Our goal with this and other communities we are serving is to then integrate the AiP technologies to better the lives of the residents within those communities. Internet is the foundation to a better and more cost-effective life for many people, we build that foundation so the AiP technologies can provide the next level of service. We’re actually forging a lot of partnerships with AiP technology companies who are running into the challenge described in this article. Broadband simply isn’t there for them to provide their services that rely on broadband for full functionality. We assist them in building the broadband network so they can then provide their services.

Instead of the residents of a community purchasing their own expensive internet connection from the cable or telephone company, we build a network for the housing community and offer wholesale service. This reduces the cost to the resident by 40-60%, but they receive better service because this is our specialty. If we are having problems getting an internet connection to a building, I use my ingenuity from my WISP days to find a creative way to bring the connection to the property – and can do this anywhere in the country!

It’s discussions like this that both excite and frustrate me. It excites me because we have a solution to the problem, but it’s frustrating that we don’t have the huge marketing budget of Comcast to let everyone know about it. Our biggest challenge is simply that people don’t know that we are out there to help because we can’t shout over the $1 billion marketing voice of Comcast. At this point we are relying on word of mouth marketing to help people be aware that we are out there to help. If you know of a specific property that is facing the challenge of cost-effectively connecting their residents, please connect us.

Right on again

I have been in the communications industry for over 40 years. This is an issue that has become financial as well as political. I would suggest a solution. If I have 100 seniors in a 5 mile radius why wouldn't I pool my money to obtain a broadband link to the world. Most broadband services ( 256K and higher) cost about $49.00 per month in rural areas. It is usually served by a local telephone company. $49.00 X 100 subscribers = $4900.00 per month. Now consider that you can use Skype or other Digital telephone service over broadband. The average consumer pays $36.00 per month today for a telephone line. $36.00 X 100 = $3600.00 per month Like to watch movies? Cable starts at $39.00 per month for the basic package. There are free and very inexpensive shows available on demand if yoiu have broadband. $39.00 X 100 = $3900.00 per month. Let's say 50 people need to make one trip to the doctor out of town once a week. Assume $25.00 for gas ( not counting preperation time, assistance for physically challenged seniors, and Caregiver lost wages). $25.00 X 100 = $2500.00 per month. Total cost today is $14,900.00 if everyone pools their present expenses. I guarantee I can get broadband to all of them for less than $15,000.00 per month and I am talking speeds from 1.5K to 10 Meg. Better yet, have a local retirement community install these services for their residents and offer them to surrounding customers in their market area. We can wait for the FCC to weed it out. But they way they count broadband is to give credit if there is one customer using broadband in a zip code. It does not mean that broadband is available to everyone in those areas. They would be building a loyal customer base for their services should the need arise. I would welcome an opportunity to work with anyone who really wants to better their community, give their young folks a reason to stay, build a higher quality of life,improve medical and educational services and to enable seniors to rejoin the community, their friends and family. We can get it done.

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