Friday, February 27, 2009

Telcos, cablecos have future role as middle mile and long haul IP connectivity providers

Bob Frankston has penned a thoughtful piece that encourages out of the box thinking when it comes to broadband Internet connectivity. He's dead on. We're at a transition point between yesterday's legacy single purpose, proprietary telco and cableco owned systems designed to dispense discrete services as billable events and the open architecture possibilities of the Internet that allow for customization according to need.

The two models are not compatible -- which Frankston says explains the artificial market scarcity of bandwidth delivered via the telcos (slow and costly 1970s-era T-1 lines that telcos are still selling, for example) and cablecos at a time where fiber to the end user is capable of delivering hundreds of megabits and even gigabits per second.

Instead of expecting telcos and cablecos to meet our Internet protocol-based telecommunications needs, Frankston suggests we view these entities as middle mile and long haul carriers. They would still have a critical role to play, serving locally owned and operated telecommunications entities such as municipal fiber systems and fiber cooperatives. Frankston has seen the future and I share his vision.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Irony abounds in comments by U.S. representative, telco and cable reps on broadband stimulus funding

A highly interesting item appears in today's PC World. It reports on a telephone town hall conversation yesterday between a Tennessee resident and her Congressional representative, Representative Marsha Blackburn (R). It's an encounter to which many U.S. residents will readily relate.

The hapless constituent is stuck on dialup just one mile inside a broadband black hole event horizon. Repeated pleas to an unidentified broadband provider to roll out broadband service produced nothing and the constituent's patience has worn thin.

Blackburn responded by asserting the market would deliver if only more folks in the displeased constituent's neighborhood demanded broadband. Thus, Blackburn reportedly said, the $7.2 billion in subsidies and loan guarantees in the recently enacted federal economic stimulus legislation for broadband deployment to rural and other underserved areas are unnecessary since the market will solve the problem. That's patently incorrect as petitions by residents and small businesses to providers -- so called demand aggregation -- don't convince providers to deploy broadband infrastructure that their proprietary algorithms reject as economically unfeasible.

Ironically enough, Blackburn was disabused of her misapprehension that a competitive market exists in the natural monopoly -- and a duopoly at best -- that is wireline telecommunications service by representatives of two prominent members of the telco/cable duopoly at a panel discussion hosted by the Free State Foundation.

Thomas Tauke, executive vice president for policy at Verizon, pointed to market failure where the costs of providing service go beyond what providers like Verizon are willing to pay. Many of the areas without broadband are "very expensive to reach," PC World quoted Tauke as saying. Accordingly, Tauke added, broadband infrastructure subsidies such as provided in the stimulus legislation are entirely appropriate. The broadband funding in the stimulus measure also drew positive comment from Joseph Waz, senior vice president for external affairs at Comcast, who told the panel its inclusion is "very heartening."

That adds another layer of irony insofar as the big telcos and cablcos have gone on record elsewhere complaining the broadband funding provides little incentive for them to build out their infrastructures, arguing tax breaks would get infrastructure build out faster than grants or loan guarantees. They also object to the open access provisions attached to the stimulus funding.

No antitrust issue in ISP suit vs. AT&T, U.S. Supreme Court rules

Reuters reports the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against several Internet Service Providers who brought an antitrust suit against AT&T in 2003 claiming the big telco's pricing policies on DSL service constituted uncompetitive market conduct.

The ISPs alleged AT&T and its predecessor, SBC Communications, maintained unreasonably high wholesale access charges to ISPs to deliberately thwart them from competing with SBC/AT&T for Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) customers as permitted under the line sharing provisions of the federal Telecommunications Reform Act of 1996. Ma Bell then lowballed prices on her own DSL offerings, making it impossible for the ISPs to compete on price, the ISP plaintiffs complained.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Stimulus measure's broadband funding could spell economic opportunity

NetworkWorld published a piece today examining the potential economic impact of the $7.2 billion earmarked for grants and loan guarantees to finance the construction of broadband telecommunications infrastructure.

The article discusses how broadband access may effectively stimulate entire towns and regions by supporting businesses and jobs that might not otherwise locate there. In the larger scheme, broadband has the potential to more evenly distribute economic activity and population across the United States among major metro regions and less populated areas.

Here's an excerpt:

Asked whether the stimulus plan could mean call centers such as those in Mumbai could start showing up in central Kansas, Settles said, "It depends on how fast the stimulus works, but there is pent-up demand in the U.S. for broadband. If a company wanted to expand a business, broadband could decide if they go to rural Kansas rather than Milwaukee and would be a driver to get a company to open a business in a smaller community with less overhead. Generally, it might still be cheaper to go abroad, but broadband would help companies afford to build not just call centers but IT service operations."

Opening such businesses in the U.S instead of abroad would certainly lessen "administrative hassles," he added.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Telco plans LTE for fixed premises broadband

FierceBroadbandWireless reports CenturyTel CEO Glen Post told the publicly traded telcos's quarterly conference call that it will deploy Long Term Evolution (LTE) aka 4G cellular broadband in 2010 as a platform to serve fixed premises customers in rural areas. CenturyTel serves small and mid-sized markets in 25 states, according to its Web site.

If this really occurs and isn't yet another of the vaporware technology claims common in the wireless broadband world, it could provide a superior interim fixed premises broadband pipe in broadband black holes until these areas can be wired for fiber optic cable plant.

Currently 3G cellular broadband plays that role in some areas lacking wireline delivered broadband. But it's more appropriate for mobile broadband than for fixed premises users given the tradeoffs of relatively slow throughput speeds, high latency and low bandwidth caps. Locally owned and operated fixed terrestial Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs), which also presently play a major role in bridging the broadband gap created by the limited technological reach of DSL and the limited service area footprints of cable companies, aren't likely to be competitive with 4G where it's deployed.

If it can deliver with good latency numbers, LTE could also offer better coverage than 3G since it will utilize 700 MHz radio spectrum that was purchased by CenturyTel Broadband Wireless and other telcos such as AT&T and Verizon in federal auctions conducted last year. The spectrum was formerly used for television signals and is noted for its robust ability to carry through rolling terrian and trees and buildings.

LTE will also potentially offer far higher thoughput -- in the range of 10-15 Mbps, according to Sidecut Reports. That's at least five times faster than what's currently available from 3G and WISPs.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

BPL an exercise in obsolescence

Broadband Over Power Lines (BPL) is a broadband last mile delivery technology that was declared all but dead in 2008. But BPL refuses to die despite a barely detectable pulse of just 256 Kbs at the low end and 1 Mbs when it's ticking along. Ten years ago that would have worked great for web browsing and email. But now it's a turkey that won't pack the bandwidth needed for fast growing applications like streaming video.

I.B.M announced in November it would pony up $9.6 million in a venture with a small company to deploy BPL via electric power cooperatives formed decades ago in areas of the U.S. skipped by private power companies.

Rather than engage in misguided and already outmoded technological ventures such as BPL, power companies and cooperatives should instead string fiber optic cable cable on their poles and towers and lease the fiber to coops, telcos and Internet Service Providers. Pacific Gas and Electric considered this idea more than a decade ago. It should dust it off and implement it and urge its industry peers to do likewise and avoid investing in BPL technology -- as PG&E wisely avoided -- that's already obsolete even before it's deployed.

Don't subsidize slow, outmoded AT&T DSL, groups urge California PUC

One of five AT&T broadband build out projects subsidized with 40 percent matching funds from the California Public Utility Commission's California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) has drawn criticism from community groups in California's North Coast area.

The groups, the Mendocino Coast Broadband Alliance, Redwood Coast Rural Action, Redwood Coast Connect and Humboldt Area Foundation protest the award of $15,200 in CASF funding to AT&T to finance the roll out of DSL technology to serve 97 homes over existing wire line facilities. The groups complain that won't deliver sufficient throughput in the affected areas including Albion, Little River, Caspar, Mendocino, Fort Bragg, Elk and Point Arena. The so-called Comptche project's DSL throughput of up to 1.5 Mbs for downloads and up to 384 Kbs for uploads is too slow, they say, urging the CPUC demand AT&T offer throughputs of 3 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up as originally specified in CASF funding guidelines adopted by the commission in 2007. Moreover, some of the groups say, a Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) could provide faster speeds over a shorter timeframe than AT&T's DSL project.

However in its resolution adopted Feb. 20 awarding funding for the project, the CPUC notes it "has no control over what applicants ultimately offer," and that the 3 Mbs download and 1 Mbs upload speeds are guidelines and not firm requirements. "We believe that broadband speeds below 3/1 still offer large benefits to communities that have no broadband service at all and does not hinder the possibility of upgrades by incumbents or competitors," the resolution states.

The unstated cause of the debate: AT&T's aged copper cable plant that cannot support higher throughput as well as the company's reliance on underpowered DSL technology that has very limited range over copper cable due to signal degradation.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Broadband provisions of U.S. economic stimulus legislation

Here are the broadband grant funding provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 signed into law today by President Barack Obama, taken from a summary of the bill prepared by the House of Representatives:

Provisions on Broadband Infrastructure

The Conference agreement creates a new Broadband Technology Opportunities Program within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (“NTIA”) of the Department of Commerce. The new grant program will distribute $4.7 billion to fund the deployment of broadband infrastructure in unserved and underseved areas in the country, and to help facilitate broadband use and adoption. An additional $2.5 billion in loans and grants will be administered by the Rural Utilities Service.

The Conference agreement combined portions of both the House and Senate bills. The main provisions of the NTIA program include:

  • Grant Recipient Criteria. Any entity is eligible to apply for a grant, including municipalities, public/private partnerships, and private companies, so long as the entity can comply with the grant conditions. Applicants must put forth 20% of the proposed project’s total cost, subject to a financial hardship waiver.
  • Grant recipients must agree to abide by a set of conditions, including adhering to a build out schedule, to interconnection and non-discrimination requirements as established by NTIA, and to the principles contained in the Federal Communications Commission’s Broadband Policy Statement. The Conference agreement does not require that grant recipients meet certain broadband speed thresholds, although the NTIA is expected to consider and support the highest possible broadband speeds in awarding grants.
  • National Broadband Plan. The Federal Communications Commission is required to develop a national broadband plan within one year.

Monday, February 16, 2009

NPR story on U.S. broadband access illustrates major flaw in media coverage of issue

NPR's Morning Edition has a story out this AM on the $7.2 billion set aside for grants to subsidize broadband telecommunications infrastructure that Congress sent to President Barack Obama. Unfortunately this NPR story like others in the mainstream media paint the U.S. broadband landscape with far too wide a brush and reinforce the myth that lack of broadband access is confined to rural areas.

Due to the technological limitations of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) over copper cable offered by telcos and the limited footprints of single purpose cable company plants built decades ago solely to provide TV, broadband black holes can be found most anywhere in the United States: in urban centers, suburbs, exurbs, quasi-rural as well as rural areas.

Homes and small businesses in one part of these areas may have access to broadband while those adjacent and just one or two miles away -- and oftentimes in even closer proximity -- don't. As noted by this blog recently, the Google search phrase that brings the largest number of hits and visitors to it goes along the lines of "My neighbor can can high speed Internet access but I can't/why not?"

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

California broadband nonprofit hopes for share of federal economic stimulus dollars

The California Emerging Technology Fund (CETF), a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps fund projects to improve broadband access in California using $60 million in seed funding provided by AT&T and Verizon as a condition of the telcos' recent M&A activity, is hoping to get additional funding from the federal economic stimulus legislation.

Expected to be finalized this month, the legislation calls for between $6 billion and $9 billion (House and Senate versions of the legislation, respectively) in grants, loans and tax credits to fund the build out of wireline and wireless broadband telecommunications infrastructure. The administration of President Barack Obama has characterized the broadband stimulus funding as a down payment toward the administration's overall goal of providing universal access to broadband throughout the U.S.

"We want California to be poised to take optimum advantage of the stimulus package," CETF President and CEO Sunne Wright McPeak said at the CETF's Sacramento Regional Broadband Roundtable hosted today by the Sacramento Area Council of Governments as well as several other local institutions. "We want this region to be well deployed."

If it receives federal stimulus funding this year, CETF's role subsidizing the deployment of broadband infrastructure could overshadow that of the California Public Utilities Commission. The CPUC's $100 million California Advanced Services Fund provides a 40 percent match to subsidize broadband infrastructure build out but has not attracted the level of interest hoped for by regulators.

The 3-hour roundtable discussion was attended by about 70 people representing a wide variety of individuals and organizations with an interest in expanding broadband access, applications and adoption.

El Dorado County was well represented by Carol Anne Ogdin representing El Dorado County Supervisor Ray Nutting, Woodrow Deloria of the El Dorado County Transportation Commission, Jason Harm of the El Dorado County Office of Education, Tom Straling of the El Dorado County IT Department and your blogger.

I was pleased at McPeak's obvious zeal to get broadband infrastructure deployed as quickly as possible to enable the various applications and associated beneficial impacts discussed at the event including reducing transportation demand through telework and online commerce -- a clear benefit in this era of constrained transportation funding and strapped county budgets -- and allowing remote medical consultations for individuals living in rural areas who lack easy access to medical providers and specialists. McPeak and her staff clearly understand a salient point raised by Ogdin: that it's far cheaper (and greener) to move bytes than bodies.

 
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