Will Spectrum Hunger Kill Weather Forecasting?

If you are a fan of the work we do each week with our Gestalt IT Rundown on Facebook, you probably saw a story in this week’s episode about the race for 5G spectrum causing some potential problems with weather forecasting. I didn’t have the time to dig into the details behind the story on that episode, so I wanted to take a few minutes and explain why it’s such a big deal.

First, you have to know that 5G (and many other) speeds are entirely dependent upon the amount of spectrum they can use to communicate. The more spectrum available to them, the more channels they have available to communicate. Which increases the speed they can exchange information and reduces the amount of interference between devices. Sounds simple right?

Except mobile devices aren’t the only things that are using the spectrum. We have all kinds of other devices out there that use radio waves to communicate. We’ve known for several years that there are a lot of devices in the 5 GHz spectrum used by 802.11 that interfere with wireless devices. Things like ISM radios for industrial and medical applications or government radar systems. The government has instituted many regulations in those frequency ranges to ensure that critical infrastructure isn’t interfered with.

When Nature Calls

However, sometimes you can’t regulate away interference. According to this Wired article the FCC, back in March, opened up auctions for the 24 GHz frequency band. This was over strenuous objections from NASA, NOAA, and the American Meteorological Society (AMS). Why is 24 GHz so important? Well, as it turns out, there’s a natural phenomenon that exists at that range.

Recall your kitchen microwave. How does it work? Basically, it uses microwave radiation to heat the water in the food you’re cooking. How does it do that? Turns out the natural frequency of water is 2.38 GHz. Now, thanks to the magic of math, 23.8 GHz is a multiple of that frequency. Which means that anything that broadcasts at 23.8 GHz will have issues with water, such as water in tree leaves or in water pipes.

So, why is NOAA and the AMS freaking out about auctioning off spectrum in the 23.8 GHz range? Because anything broadcasting in that range is not only going to have issues with water interference but it’s also going to look like water to sensitive equipment. That means that orbiting weather satellites that use microwaves to detect water vapor in the air that reacts to 23.8 GHz are going to encounter co-channel interference from 5G radio sources.

You might say to yourself, “So what? It’s just a little buzz, right?” Well, except that that little buzz creates interference in the data being fed into forecast prediction models. Those models are the basis for the weather forecasts we have today. And if you haven’t noticed the reliability of our long range forecasts has been steadily improving for the past 30 years or so. Today’s 7-day forecasts are almost 80% accurate, which is pretty good compared to how bad things were in the 80s, where you could only guarantee 80% accuracy from a 3-day forecast.

Guess what? NOAA says that if the 24 GHz spectrum gets auctioned off for 5G use, we could see the accuracy of our forecasting regress almost 30%, which would push our models back to where they were in the 80s. Now, for those of you that live in places that are fortunate enough to only get sun and the occasional rain shower that doesn’t sound too bad, right? Just make sure to pack an umbrella. But for those that live in places where there is a significant chance for severe weather, it’s a bit more problematic.

I live in Oklahoma. We’re right in the middle of Tornado Alley. In the spring between April 1 and June 1 my state becomes a fun place full of nasty weather that can destroy homes and cause widespread devastation. It’s never boring for sure. But in the last 30 years we’ve managed to go from being able to give people a few minutes warning about an impending tornado to being able to issue Potential Dangerous Situation (PDS) Tornado Watches up to 48 hours in advance. While a PDS Tornado Watch doesn’t mean that we’re going to get one in a specific area, it does mean that you need to be on the lookout for something that day. It gives enough warning to make sure you’re not going to get caught flat footed when things get nasty.

Yes Man

The easiest way to avoid this problem is probably the least likely to happen. The FCC needs to restrict the auction of that spectrum range identified by NOAA and NASA until it can be proven that there won’t be any interference or that the forecast accuracy isn’t going to be impacted. 5G rollouts are still far enough in the future that leaving a part of the spectrum out of the equation isn’t going to cause huge issues for the next few years. But if we have to start creating rules for how we have to change power settings for device manufacturers or create updates for fixed-position sensors and old satellites we’re going to have a lot more issues down the road than just slightly slow mobile devices.

The reason why this is hard is because an FCC focused on opening things up for corporations doesn’t care about the forecast accuracy of a farmer in Iowa. They care about money. They care about progress. And ultimately they care about looking good over saving lives. There’s no guarantee that reducing forecast accuracy will impact life saving, but the odds are that better forecasts will help people make better decisions. And ultimately, when you boil it down to the actual choices, the appearance is that the FCC is picking money over lives. And that’s a pretty easy choice for most people to make.


Tom’s Take

If I’m a bit passionate about weather tech, it’s because I live in one of the most weather-active places on the planet. The National Severe Storms Laboratory and the National Weather Center are both about 5-6 miles from my house. I see the use of this tech every day. And I know that it saves lives. It’s saved lives for years for people that need to know

Budgeting For Wireless With E-Rate

Wireless

After having a nice conversation with Josh Williams (@JSW_EdTech) and helping Eddie Forero (@HeyEddie) with some E-Rate issues, I’ve decided that I’m glad I don’t have to deal with it any longer. But my conversation with Josh revealed something that I wasn’t aware of with regards to the new mandate from the president that E-Rate needs to address wireless in schools.

Building On A Budget

The first exciting thing in the new rules for E-Rate modernization is that there has been an additional $1 billion injected into the Category 2 (Priority 2) items. The idea is that this additional funding can be used for purchasing wireless equipment as outlined in the above initiative. I’ve said before that E-Rate needed an overhaul to fix some of the issues with reduced funding in competition for the available funding pool. That this additional funding came through things like sunsetting VoIP funding is a bit irritating, but sometimes these things can’t be helped.

The second item that caught my attention is the new budgeting rules for Category 2 in E-Rate going forward. Now, schools are allocated $150 per student for a rolling five year period. That means the old “2 of 5” rule for internal connections is gone. It also means you are going to have to be very careful with your planning from now on. But when it comes to wireless, that’s what has been advised by the professionals for quite a while. The maxim of “one AP per classroom” won’t fit with these new funding rules.

Let’s take an example. If your school has 1,000 students you are allocated $150,000 for Category 2 for a five year period. If you want to use this entire amount for wireless, you could use it as follows:

  1. Spend $150,000 this year on new wireless gear. You will have no extra money available in the next four years.
  2. Spend $100,000 on new wireless gear this year. You can then use the remaining $50,000 for more gear or maintenance on the existing gear in the next four years. Adding a warranty or maintenace contract to the initial cost will give you coverage on the gear over the five-year period.
  3. Spend $30,000 each year on new APs or on a managed service. This means you have less each year to spend, but you can continually add pieces.

If you student numbers increase in the five years, you gain access to additional funding. However, that’s not a guarantee. And thankfully, if you lose students you don’t have to pay back the difference.

The “D” Word“”

With the amount of money allocated to Priority 2 limited over a time period, design becomes more and more important, especially if you are building a wireless design. You can’t just throw an access point in every classroom or at every hallway intersection and call it a day. You’re going to need to invest real time and effort into making your design work.

Sometimes, that will mean paying for the work up front. Without funding. Those words strike fear into the hearts of school technology workers. I’ve seen cases where schools refused to pay for anything that wasn’t covered under E-Rate. In the case of a wireless design, that may be even harder to swallow, since the deliverable is a document that sits on a shelf, not a device that accomplishes something. If tech professionals are having a hard time buying it, you can better believe the superintendant and school boards will be even more averse.

A proper wireless design will save you money in the long term. By having someone use math and design principles to place APs instead of “best guesses”, you can reduce the number of APs in many cases while improving coverage where it’s needed instead of providing coverage for a strip of grass outside a classroom instead of the library. Better coverage means less complaints. Less hardware means less acquistion cost for your E-Rate discount percentage. Less cost means more money left in your budget for other E-Rate technology needs. Everyone wins.


Tom’s Take

I couldn’t figure out how the FCC was going to pay for all of this new wireless gear. Money doesn’t appear from nowhere. They found some of it by taking their budgeted amounts and reducing the unneeded items to make room for the things that were required. That learning process made them finally do something they should have done years ago: give the schools a real budget instead of crazy rules like “2 of 5”.

Yes, the per student budget is going to hurt smaller schools. Schools without higher headcounts are going to get much less in the coming years. But many of those smaller schools have disproportionately benefitted from E-Rate in the past 15 years. Tying the funding amounts to the actual number of users in the environment will mean the schools that need the funding will get it to improve their technology situation. And that’s something we can all agree is welcome and needed.

 

Accelerating E-Rate

ERateSpeed

Right after I left my job working for a VAR that focused on K-12 education and the federal E-Rate program a funny thing happened.  The president gave a speech where he talked about the need for schools to get higher speed links to the Internet in order to take advantage of new technology shifts like cloud computing.  He called for the FCC and the Universal Service Administration Company (USAC) to overhaul the E-Rate program to fix deficiencies that have cropped up in the last few years.  In the last couple of weeks a fact sheet was released by the FCC to outline some of the proposed changes.  It was like a breath of fresh air.

Getting Up To Speed

The largest shift in E-Rate funding in the last two years has been in applying for faster Internet circuits.  Schools are realizing that it’s cheaper to host servers offsite either with software vendors or in clouds like AWS than it is to apply for funding that may never come and buy equipment that will be outdated before it ships.  The limiting factor has been with the Internet connection of these schools.  Many of them are running serial T-1 circuits even today.  They are cheap and easy to install.  Enterprising ISPs have even started creating multilink PPP connections with several T-1 links to create aggregate bandwidth approaching that of fiber connections.

Fiber is the future of connectivity for schools.  By running a buried fiber to a school district, the ISP can gradually increase the circuit bandwidth as a school increases needs.  For many schools around the country that could include online testing mandates, flipped classrooms, and even remote learning via technologies like Telepresence.  Fiber runs from ISPs aren’t cheap.  They are so expensive right now that the majority of funding for the current year’s E-Rate is going to go to faster ISP connections under Priority 1 funding.  That leaves precious little money left over to fund Priority 2 equipment.  A former customer of mine spent the Priority 1 money to get a 10Gbit Internet circuit and then couldn’t afford a router to hook up to it because of the lack of money leftover for Priority 2.

The proposed E-Rate changes will hopefully fix some of those issues.  The changes call for  simplification of the rules regarding deployments that will hopefully drive new fiber construction.  I’m hoping this means that they will do away with the “dark fiber” rule that has been in place for so many years.  Previously, you could only run fiber between sites if it was lit on both ends and in use.  This discouraged the use of spare fiber, or dark fiber, because it couldn’t be claimed under E-Rate if it wasn’t passing traffic.  This has led to a large amount of ISP-owned circuits being used for managed WAN connections.  A very few schools that were on the cutting edge years ago managed to get dedicated point-to-point fiber runs.  In addition, the order calls for prioritizing funding for fiber deployments that will drive higher speeds and long-term efficiency.  This should enable schools to do away with running multimode fiber simply because it is cheap and instead give preferential treatment to single mode fiber that is capable of running gigabit and 10gig over long distances.  It should also be helpful to VARs that are poised to replace aging multimode fiber plants.

Classroom Mobility

WAN circuits aren’t the only technology that will benefit from these E-Rate changes.  The order calls for a focus on ensuring that schools and libraries gain access to high speed wireless networks for users.  This has a lot to do with the explosion of personal tablet and laptop devices as opposed to desktop labs.  When I first started working with schools more than a decade ago it was considered cutting edge to have a teacher computer and a student desktop in the classroom.  Today, tablet carts and one-to-one programs ensure that almost every student has access to some sort of device for research and learning.  That means that schools are going to need real enterprise wireless networks.  Sadly, many of them that either don’t qualify for E-Rate or can’t get enough funding settle for SMB/SOHO wireless devices that have been purchase for office supply stores simply because they are inexpensive.  It causes the IT admins to spend entirely too much time troubleshooting these connections and distracting them from other, more important issues. It think this focus on wireless will go a long way to helping alleviate connectivity issues for schools of all sizes.

Finally, the FCC has ordered that the document submission process be modernized to include electronic filing options and that older technologies be phased out of the program. This should lead to fewer mistakes in the filing process as well as more rapid decisions for appropriate technology responses.  No longer do schools need to concern themselves with whether or not they need directory assistance on their Priority 1 phone lines.  Instead, they can focus on their problem areas and get what they need quickly.  There is also talk of fixing the audit and appeals process as well as speeding the deployment of funds.  As anyone that has worked with E-Rate will attest, the bureaucracy surrounding the program is difficult for anyone but the most seasoned professionals.  Even the E-Rate wizards have problems from year to year figuring out when an application will be approved or whether or not an audit will take place.  Making these processes easier and more transparent will be good for everyone involved in the program.


Tom’s Take

I posted previously that the cloud would kill the E-Rate program as we know it.  It appears I was right from a certain point of view.  Mobility and the cloud have both caused the E-Rate program to be evaluated and overhauled to address the changes in technology that are now filtering into schools from the corporate sector.  Someone was finally paying attention and figured out that we need to address faster Internet circuits and wireless connectivity instead of DNS servers and more cabling for nonexistent desktops.  Taking these steps shows that there is still life left in the E-Rate program and its ability to help schools.  I still say that USAC needs to boost the funding considerably to help more schools all over the country.  I’m hoping that once the changes in the FCC order go through that more money will be poured into the program and our children can reap the benefits for years to come.

Disclaimer

I used to work for a VAR that did a great deal of E-Rate business.  I don’t work for them any longer.  This post is my work and does not reflect the opinion of any education VAR that I have talked to or have been previously affiliated with.  I say this because the Schools and Libraries Division (SLD) of USAC, which is the enforcement and auditing arm, can be a bit vindictive at times when it comes to criticism.  I don’t want anyone at my previous employer to suffer because I decided to speak my mind.