Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Guiding principles for U.S. broadband infrastructure economic stimulus

As Congressional leaders and the incoming administration of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama mull economic stimulus legislation including a portion of which is expected to be devoted to telecommunications infrastructure to boost broadband Internet access, I offer these guiding principles:

1. The focus should be on the so-called "last mile" or local access network portion of the system. There's a broad consensus that the lack of adequate broadband access in the United States is due to technological shortcomings on this segment of the telecommunications infrastructure, its weakest link. The overall goal should be full build out of this currently incomplete but vital infrastructure to serve all residents and businesses.

2. The "copper wall" that comprises the last mile telecommunications infrastructure is the primary barrier to wider broadband Internet access. It has been obsolete for about a decade and will become increasingly so as demand for broadband access and more bandwidth intensive content like video grows. The copper wall should be torn down and replaced with fiber optic cable, either aerial or buried depending on local construction cost factors and neighborhood preferences. Calls by large telcos for funding for DSL over copper should be rejected. Funding for such projects would keep the U.S. lagging behind other developed nations on broadband telecommunications technology and constitute an economic bailout to build increasingly obsolete technology rather than a true stimulus.

3. The last mile is the most local element of the nation's telecommunications infrastructure. Accordingly, stimulus should favor local entities to replace copper with fiber such as locally owned private companies, local governments and fiber cooperatives, the latter aided by incentives to encourage homeowner-owned fiber over the last mile.

The 12 year period following the enactment of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act has shown providing tax breaks and other incentives to large publicly traded telcos has not resulted in adequate capital expenditure on infrastructure to serve the nation's future telecommunications needs or the selection of broadband technology best suited to do so.

As for private providers, Congress and the Obama administration should note that even generous subsidies to incumbent telcos to build out broadband infrastructure may prove indequate as seen from their less than enthusiastic response to a California Public Utilities Commission program that subsidizes broadband deployments in unserved and underserved areas with a surcharge on intrastate voice long distance calls.

The investment cycle of these companies is apparently too short to earn a return on broadband infrastructure investment even at the 40 percent funding level provided by the program -- and even for arguably obsolete DSL equipment proposed in the handful of projects approved by the CPUC in 2008. Accordingly, broadband infrastructure stimulus funding directed to community-based cooperatives, nonprofits and local governments would likely produce the most rapid deployments.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Media reform group recommends $44 billion broadband "down payment"

Free Press, a nonprofit group that advocates "diverse and independent media ownership, strong public media and universal access to communications," has issued a paper calling on the Obama administration and Congress to make a $44 billion "down payment" investment in U.S. broadband telecommunications infrastructure as part of the incoming administration's planned economic stimulus package.

Free Press plan recommends the bulk of the $44 billion be used to fund grants and interest free bonds to private sector providers as well as municipalities and nonprofits fund deployment of wireline and wireless broadband to underserved areas of the U.S. capable of providing minimum 5 Mbps symmetrical service with priority
given to projects that can deliver speeds in excess of 50 Mbps. The funding would be paid out over three years.

Free Press properly raises the concern that the funds could end up becoming a slush fund and like the Universal Service Fund has for voice telephone service could be used to fund broadband infrastructure in areas that already have a range of broadband services.

"Congress must not simply write blank checks to industry," the organization states in an executive summary of the report. "To maximize the effectiveness of scarce taxpayer resources, oversight and accountability measures must be established." Free Press suggests these measures include strict build-out schedules and affordability and capacity requirements, including minimum rather than "up to" throughput capacities.

"We offer these proposals as a starting point — not the bottom line," the group states. "Our hope is to expand the public debate and the deliberative process on broadband stimulus proposals to include a wide variety of ideas that have been put forward or are coming soon. Though we strongly believe that principles of accountability, future-proof quality, and public service priorities must guide any final legislation, this set of ideas should serve as a foundation for policymakers and the public."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Another sign of the coming end of AT&T's U-Verse

In late September, this blog predicted AT&T will abandon its Project Lightspeed/U-Verse deployment sometime in the first half of 2010 as part of a general retreat from the wireline-based residential/home office market segment.

Another sign of the coming end of the U-Verse universe emerged this week when AT&T pushed back -- again -- the rollout of VDSL copper pair bonding technology to extend the range and throughput of its bundled IP-based U-Verse product. The new target date is sometime next year, the second delay after a planned late 2007 deployment was pushed back a year.

The obstacle is the same one that has plagued AT&T 's ADSL service: not enough good, clean copper in the telco's last mile cable plant, much of it put in place decades ago to support POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) and never expected to support advanced digital services like ADSL let alone U-Verse. Telephony Online explains:

Perhaps a more pressing limitation, however, is the simple requirement for extra pairs of existing copper, which are not in plentiful supply in AT&T’s network outside the territory of the former BellSouth, where extra pairs were deployed extensively in the 1990s to accomodate dialup and fax services.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Sacramento Bee: More than third of $500 billion federal economic stimulus package earmarked for infrastructure investment -- including broadband

The Sacramento Bee reports today that infrastructure investment will comprise more than one third of a $500 billion economic stimulus measure being drafted into legislation for approval by the Obama administration when it takes over Jan. 20.

The infrastructure investment is expected to encompass expanding broadband Internet access and creating "digital highways" for the 21st century economy, the newspaper reports quoting unnamed Democratic lawmakers and aides.

In a radio address one week ago, President-elect Obama pledged to renew U.S. broadband infrastructure, declaring it's "unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption."

Friday, December 12, 2008

Sacramento Bee: Internet access still a wish for many in rural areas

The Sacramento Bee is out with a story today that's likely to be familiar to folks all over the United States and not just in the Bee's Northern California circulation area. Your blogger is featured. Click here for the story. As for my recommendations re this issue to the incoming Obama administration, click here.

The difficulty getting good solid broadband Internet access isn't by definition a rural issue given that U.S. residential development isn't confined to only urban and rural areas. For much of Northern California, it's far more "granular" as demographers would say when the exurbs and quasi-rural areas are taken into account. Most of the Sacramento Bee's circulation area is considered part of the Sacramento metropolitan area.

It's also worth noting that some of those who have posted comments on the Bee's Web site at the online version of the story are located relatively close in, including one from Silicon Valley. Broadband black holes like their physical counterparts in space can be found anywhere. See also Silicon Valley’s shameful secret: lousy broadband at MuniWireless.

BTW, the article didn't include the name of my WISP (Wireless Internet Service Provider). For you El Dorado County and Amador County residents looking for service, it's Remotely Located.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

White paper calls on next president to form National Broadband Strategy Commission

When it comes to the proliferation of robust broadband access, the United States has relied too heavily on the private sector and has gotten less than impressive results, asserts the Benton Foundation in a white paper calling for increased public involvement by the federal government.

The paper urges the incoming administration to create a National Broadband Strategy Commission composed of members from the public, private, academic, nonprofit, and other sectors to produce "an ambitious, yet achievable, comprehensive National Broadband Strategy to deploy robust, affordable broadband to every household in America," by Jan. 1, 2010.

The commission should lay out a "roadmap and timetable" to provide all U.S. households access to "robust and affordable broadband" by the end of 2010 and "affordable access to modernized broadband networks that are as robust as those of any other nation" by the end of 2015, the foundation advises.

The foundation's recommendations are likely to be well received by President-elect Barack Obama, who said in an address last weekend that it's unacceptable that the United States ranks 15th in the world in broadband adoption.

Report: AT&T pulling plug on Pahrump, Nevada WiMAX by year end

A few years back, AT&T rolled out an early market test deployment of WiMAX in Pahrump, Nevada. Now an AT&T customer there tells me AT&T will stop offering the service effective Dec. 31 and has opted instead for DSL and is deploying remote DSLAMs around the town about 60 miles from Las Vegas.

Apparently there wasn't enough bandwidth to handle the demand. "We had it for about two years, and the longer we had it, the slower it got," the AT&T customer reports, noting he generally got 384 Kbs to 768 Kbs downloads on WiMAX. He's now on AT&T's 6 Mbs DSL plan, so while the switch to DSL cost $5 a month more, it was a no brainer.

What's notable about this development is AT&T's new technology chief John Donovan said only four months ago that the big telco viewed WiMAX as a less costly alternative to replacing aging copper plant and installing remote DSLAMs in order to provide DSL, particularly in less densely populated areas.

I sent an email to AT&T spokesman Michael Coe Dec. 10 asking why WiMAX was scrapped in favor of DSL in Pahrump but received no reply, so readers will have to draw their own conclusions. AT&T has also deployed WiMAX in Alaska offering sub 1 Mbs throughput speed and in parts of the former Bellsouth territory AT&T acquired at the end of 2006.

If AT&T's version of WiMAX can't provide more than 1 Mbs, it is already essentially obsolete and calls into question AT&T's expectations that it will serve as lower cost broadband option compared to DSL.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Fixed terrestrial wireless supplanting DSL as interim premises broadband technology

When it was widely introduced starting nearly a decade ago, Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) was viewed by telcos as an ideal interim broadband technology on the road to Fiber To The Premises (FTTP) and a means to utilize their existing investment in copper cable plant over the last mile. But since telcos are many years behind where they should be in deploying FTTP, DSL became more of a permanent thoroughfare rather than temporary byway.

The problem is DSL has not been able to adequately fulfill that role due to technological limitations that restrict its range and require the use of near pristine copper that's in increasingly short supply as telcos' decades-old cable plants grow old and frazzled.

Now fixed terrestrial wireless is poised to take the place of DSL as the preferred transitional technology on the way to FTTP, starting in areas where DSL cannot due to its notorious handicaps. Over the past few years, a large number of mom and pop Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) offering fixed terrestrial wireless via over unlicensed spectrum have sprung up, exploiting DSL's far more limited geographical reach and providing a faster and less costly connectivity than satellite Internet. The big telcos have also incidentally picked up some fixed premises customers with their mobile wireless 3G broadband offerings, but don't represent a threat to the WISPs due to high latencies and bandwidth usage caps.

The proliferation of WISPs as a substitute for DSL is evident in this blogger's area of El Dorado County, California where one, Central Valley Broadband, is offering 3Mbs service to telco neglected SOHOs (Small Office/Home Office) located in telco broadband black holes.*
* (See 1/23/09 update)

Telcos and to some extent cable providers have effectively ceded these areas to the WISPs, leading to increased competition among them. More competition among WISPs is also driving consolidation. Central Valley Broadband announced in October it had acquired two WISPs serving Placer and El Dorado counties.

Going forward, I expect WISPs to continue to provide a more flexible and robust pre-FTTP premises broadband option than DSL. Since it will likely be many years before most all premises have fiber optic connections, the WISPs appear set for a good long run.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Russia shuns copper for broadband buildout

Light Reading Europe reports TTK, the state-owned Russian telco, is "embarking on a major push into high-speed broadband access, focusing on Russia's less well served cities and towns," noting that about 93 percent of Russia's 140 million inhabitants live outside Moscow.

Notably, those plans don't call for the use of metal wire-based cable plant used in most other nations, typically to provide underpowered DSL over copper. Instead, TTK's
Sergey Shavkunov told Light Reading, the company will use a mix of point-to-point fiber, GPON and WiMax as apppropriate.

 
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