Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Independent New Englanders take control of their telecom infrastructure

Last year, 22 central Vermont towns took charge of their telecom infrastructure by forming a public/private partnership to deploy 1,400 miles of aerial fiber-optic lines to provide high-speed Internet access, phone and video.

True to their fiercely independent reputation, more New Englanders in a neighboring state are doing likewise. Forty seven Western Massachusetts towns plan to form a non-profit to plan and build a fiber optic network to serve a part of the U.S. that has been described as a "broadband ghetto." A key driver is a desire to provide an economic boost to the region.

Here's an excerpt from the Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle story:

"This wasn't a hard sell," noted David Greenberg, chairman of the WiredWest steering committee. "It's pretty much a no-brainer -- economic development is the driving force. Without this major initiative, Western Mass is going to be sinking fast."

Once the non-profit has been formed, financing options would have to be identified, and preliminary design and cost estimate work would start.

None of the cost of the project would be borne by the towns, Webb said.

Ongoing maintenance cost and debt service payments would come from money paid to the agency by the service providers, added Andrew Michael Cohill, president of Design Nine, a consultancy hired to help WiredWest through the next phase of development.

"This is a jobs creation and a business attraction project," Cohill said. "And the highest proportion of home-based businesses in the state are in Western Mass."

Monday, June 28, 2010

DSL reaches end of line as interim pre-fiber to the premises technology

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) was deployed by telcos starting in the late 1990s as an interim technology to bring Internet Protocol-based telecommunications services to customer premises before fiber optic connections could be brought to them.

Now DSL faces a crisis that dramatically shortens the days it can play this role. While DSL allows telcos to use existing copper plant designed for Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), that copper plant is aged and deteriorating quickly. DSL tends to work best over newer, more pristine copper. But there's not much of that (if any) being deployed these days. Meanwhile, DSL customers complain about connections that run slower than advertised or are prone to outages as DSL signals struggle across ancient pairs of twisted copper.

And since about 2008 and amid the current economic downturn, telcos have pared back their DSL rollouts. Verizon concentrated on fiber to the premises via its FiOS product offering, prompting customer complaints it was neglecting its copper plant and repairing it with bubble gum and duct tape.

Here's the crisis: Now that DSL has served its role as an interim IP solution on the road to fiber to the premises, the United States is not prepared to make the transition to fiber. Stunningly, this gap in the technology transition isn't addressed in the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan issued this past spring. Nor is there any indication the nation's two largest telcos are seriously addressing it. Verizon recently halted build out of its FiOS fiber plant. AT&T opted for a hybrid model of fiber to the node and copper to the premise for its U-Verse product. But the VDSL transmission technology that powers U-Verse suffers from far greater distance limitations than previous generations of DSL and greatly limits U-Verse's service footprint.

It will fall to smaller, locally owned and operated telcos, local governments and telecom cooperatives to pick up where DSL left off (or in many cases, left out for those not serviceable by DSL). The National Broadband Plan should recognize that DSL over copper is dead or dying and support efforts by these entities to deploy fiber to the premises with technical assistance grants and infrastructure construction grants and low cost loans.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cruel irony of incomplete telecom infrastructure plays near Wisconsin state capital

One of the cruelest ironies of America's incomplete telecommunications infrastructure is playing out not far from Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. The town of Berry, population 1,124, isn't large enough to attract investor owned providers. But at the same time, the incumbent provider, TDS Telecommunications, claims the federal government declined its request for subsidies for infrastructure improvements through funding earmarked for this purpose in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 because the town -- located just 20 miles from the capital -- isn't considered underserved, according to TDS Telecommunications.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Berry is has filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Public Utilities Commission saying TDS Telecommunications is failing to provide required service to the community. Community residents contend the poor level of service is making it difficult to work remotely from home and is making their properties less marketable.

The good people of Berry and their town leaders would be well advised to take matters into their own hands and begin working on a Plan B that could get them improved service faster than their PUC complaint, which could end up in the courts and take years to resolve even if they prevail. They should begin planning today to build publicly (or if that's not feasible cooperatively) owned fiber to the premises infrastructure.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On death bed, aged copper POTS plant dials 911

In a late December filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, AT&T pronounced its residential wireline segment in a "death spiral."

While the big telco was figuratively referring to the business prospects of the segment, the aged POTS copper cable plant is literally dying in parts of California and calling the paramedics.

Old lines no longer in active service are generating electronic farts that produce phantom 911 calls according to this Capitol Weekly article that reports on efforts in the California Legislature to fix to the problem. (Good luck with that).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Study finds teleconferencing cuts business costs, reduces carbon emissions

This study is right in line with my strong interest in utilizing advanced telecommunications infrastructure to shrink time and space and reduce the human and economic cost of physical travel. In a boom and bust economy that's been busted for the past three years, businesses are clearly interested in reducing travel expenses. If they can do so while reducing their carbon footprints, it's an added bonus.

Note this study only took into account corporate travel costs. But consider also the potential savings in time, money and fuel costs for small businesses (small businesses have travel expenses too) and for currently commuting employees of who could teleconference with managers and co-workers instead of idling on congested highways, stressed out hoping they can make a meeting at a distant office on time (while meanwhile contributing to the global obesity crisis).

This will take a massive revamp of telecommunications infrastructure to bring fiber to their homes. But it too could have an added bonus. With the time they save by avoiding a commute to the office, they could go to the gym or engage in their favorite form of exercise. Smaller carbon footprint, smaller belly, less stress, better quality of life.

Friday, June 18, 2010

U.S. fails to define clear policy goal on telecom

Instead of articulating a clear policy to encourage construction of next generation Internet protocol-based telecommunications infrastructure, the U.S. government is trying to figure out how to "regulate broadband."

It's a classic case of failure to clearly and properly define the mission. Over the long run, the consequences will be severe. The nation is already at least a dozen years behind where it should be in making the transition to next generation telecom infrastructure. Unless the course is changed, the U.S. will continue suffer from mission drift and fall further behind other developed nations on upgrading its telecom infrastructure from one designed primarily for standard voice telephone service to a high speed data network.

Meanwhile, it fiddles with arcane network management rules that mean nothing to the occupants of some seven million U.S. homes located outside cable company footprints or who are unable to subscribe to legacy telco DSL due to distance limitations -- or whose connections are so poor they limit what they can do with them. And wastes precious resources on creating useless maps of broadband black holes that only advertise to the world the pathetic state of American telecommunications infrastructure.

Dark fiber owners seek buyers -- but last mile will determine value

Today's Wall Street Journal reports dark fiber left dormant since the dot com bust of a decade ago is on the block, its owners hopeful that the transition to Internet protocol-based telecommunications that stalled around the same time will finally take off.

But now as then, the so-called last mile (or first mile as some refer to it) remains key since the dark fiber was put in place for long haul and in some cases middle mile infrastructure. Long haul and middle mile fiber standing alone do not a network make. It takes last mile fiber infrastructure to reach customer premises.

Potential purchasers of that dark fiber must assess the odds whether there will be sufficient last mile fiber to connect to. Reliance on legacy incumbent telcos and cable companies lowers the odds. They have largely upgraded and built out their networks to the extent their business models allow. Verizon, the sole legacy telco that was building fiber to the premises, recently pulled back to concentrate on wireless service in metro areas. But if local governments and telecom cooperatives crank up construction of fiber to the premises infrastructure to fill the gap left by legacy providers, the value of these dormant dark fiber assets will likely increase.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

WISP runs into opposition in Georgia

For many areas of the U.S., terrestrial wireless Internet Protocol telecom infrastructure offers an interim solution until fiber to the premises wireline plant can be built. Particularly for those areas that lie outside the footprints of telco DSL and cable service.

But terrestrial wireless service for homes and businesses has its downsides. Achieving decent throughput, adequate backhaul and attractive price points have posed challenges for many Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs).

In addition, wireless IP signals often can't reliably penetrate terrain, foliage and even municipal building codes as one wireless provider recently discovered to its chagrin. The Marietta Georgia planning commission turned down a request by American Broadband Communications LLC, for a variance that would allow the WISP to erect a 150-foot-high tower, the Parkersburg News and Sentinel reports.

Marietta should like other U.S. local governments concerned about tall towers springing up in residential areas like Lafayette (Louisiana), Ashland (Oregon) and a muni consortium in Utah find a way to get fiber to homes and businesses, either directly or in partnership with private providers or nonprofit telecom cooperatives.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Incumbents mount new challenges of proposed ARRA telecom infrastructure projects

The Obama administration's policy to support build out of Internet Protocol telecommunications infrastructure with grants and low cost loans is once again running into stiff resistance from legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies.

As they did in a previous round for funding requests for $4.2 billion set aside for this purpose in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the incumbents are challenging numerous projects proposed for funding under the current funding round of USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP). The challenges are permitted under provisions of the Act that allow incumbents to delay or block proposed projects in their service areas by claiming they already provide advanced telecom services. A searchable list of BIP applicants and incumbent challenges is posted here.

Unlike in the first round of ARRA funding last year, the RUS has not posted details of the challenges. Listed are only the service areas of the proposed projects and the name of the challenging incumbent provider. Incumbent challenges of ARRA telecom infrastructure projects administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency's (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) have not yet been posted by the NTIA.

Google 1 Gigabit fiber stimululates interest in fiber infrastucture

When Google announced early this year it would build 1 Gbs fiber in a test market somewhere in the United States, it sparked a lot of interest. One outcome and side benefit is Google's gigabit fiber project got locals thinking about fiber-based advanced telecom infrastructure and how to do it themselves knowing that Google isn't going to deploy it everywhere.

Baltimore is one place that realizes that. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake wants to explore how to expand high-speed fiber-optic Internet service to city residents with or without Google's help, according to this Baltimore Sun article, and has established a panel to look into it.

"We can't sit here and wait for a gift from Google to fall on us from the sky," said Tom Loveland, the city's volunteer Google czar. "This is our future we're talking about here. Those of us involved in the conversation have seen what other cities have already accomplished. These folks managed to get themselves wired without Google. If they can do it, we can do it, too."

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Emotion rather than logic drives incumbent opposition to local telecom infrastructure improvements

In a recent email exchange with Craig Settles, I've attempted to plumb the paradox of why incumbent legacy telco and cable companies will as Settles put it "rush in like storm troopers" before local providers can activate their own Internet Protocol (IP) telecom infrastructures. Infrastructure built by local governments and consumer cooperatives because it doesn't pencil out for the shareholder-owned incumbents to construct. The result: a plethora of "broadband black holes" and underserved/overpriced areas due to incomplete infrastructure that extends only as far as the incumbents' business models allow.

The question that vexed me is why the incumbents would come in on the heels of community-based provider deployments when they've already concluded there isn't enough business to make it worth their while to expand and upgrade their plants in the first place. Particularly for take rates south of 30 percent and a shift to Internet-based video content that makes consumers less inclined to purchase pricey 300 channel TV packages that are among incumbents' most profitable service offerings.

Settles explanation: there is no logical, business M.O at work in this circumstance. Telcos and cable companies that normally operate in a logical, numbers driven mode (for example, cable providers don't deploy infrastructure unless it strictly falls within a pre-approved, set ratio of occupied premises per linear mile) suddenly turn illogical when a community-based provider emerges with an alternative and typically nonprofit business model that avoids obstacles that limit the incumbents' ability to expand their footprints.

Since incumbents tend to regard their service areas as proprietary, exclusive franchises regardless of how much -- or how little -- they actually provide IP-based services, they view community-based providers as interlopers invading their turf. That provokes an illogical, emotion driven response.

"It's nothing about logic," Settles explains "It's often paranoia -- if one community builds a better network than what we offer, other communities will follow suit and sometimes a case of whose belt is longer. Incumbents seem to prefer to destroy a community network rather than figure out how to adapt services to leverage that network." In other words, a classic pissing contest in which a large, distant corporation attempts to impose its corporate will upon local residents -- who know their needs best -- for the sake of preserving its own pride.

In this respect, the incumbents aren't actually fighting the local upstarts who would dare challenge their territorial hegemony. They're really fighting the future. The incumbents' perceived enemy isn't so much the community-based providers. It's the alternative business paradigm they represent and which fostered their creation.

 
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