Friday, September 29, 2006

Schwarzenegger signs AB 2987 into law

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office announced today the governor has signed into law the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006.

Your blogger's analysis of the legislation found it would
reinforce California's digital divide between urban and non-urban areas by not requiring telephone and cable companies to build out their digital networks to serve all customers, leaving many in El Dorado and other counties stuck in the early 1990s or earlier without access to wireline-based broadband Internet services. (On an interesting political note, many of these counties are in "red" California representing Schwarzenegger's Republican voter base)

Schwarzenegger however insists that AB 2987 will "help speed the spread of new and innovative technologies across the state." Perhaps it will after decades have gone by. In the meantime, much of non-urban California will slide into the telecommunications equivalent of third world nation status.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Internet boom leaves rural areas disconnected

Here's an excellent article in today's New York Times (registration required) that illustrates how the Internet boom is colliding with reality in rural areas of the United States that still rely on sluggish, impractical dial up Internet access that was state of the art when Bill Clinton was entering the White House in 1993.

The article details declining economies of scale as major telcos sell off land lines, inconsistent federal subsidies, and impatient capital that discourages private sector investment in rural telecom infrastructure.

Friday, September 22, 2006

"My neighbors get high speed Internet. Why can't I?"

For many El Dorado County residents, one of the most vexing aspects of the telecommunications infrastructure is its seeming arbitrariness. They rightfully wonder why folks just down the road — or in some cases immediate neighbors — have access to broadband Internet while they’re stuck with dialup or the undesirable choice of having to sign up for satellite Internet service.

It simply doesn’t make sense. It would be like those neighbors getting electric power while those who by the mere misfortune of their address must generate their own or live like the early settlers.

The reason is the county’s incumbent local exchange carrier, AT&T, relies on a less than robust technology to provide broadband to those able to receive it: Digital Subscriber Line (DSL). DSL transmits digital data over copper cables that were not designed to carry data but rather standard, plain old analog telephone service. Since copper cable — and particularly aged, pair gained cable that’s plentiful in El Dorado County — isn’t optimally designed to carry digital data, DSL data has a hard time moving over the cable. After just a few miles from the central switching office, the data stream falls apart and can’t deliver reliable broadband service.

In the telecom industry, DSL’s fragility is part of a bigger problem known as the “last mile problem.” In short, the last mile problem refers to systemic shortcomings in the nation’s telecom system. Telcos are able to build vast networks of major transmission lines and trunks, but they can’t seem to build a complete system that reaches all homes and businesses in their service areas. It’s a truly odd circumstance that begs serious analysis. Why, by comparison, is there no last mile problem in the electric power industry? Power distribution goes over high voltage transmission lines to substations and distribution systems that bring it to all consumers. One never hears of a “last mile” problem in electrical power systems despite physical parallels to wire line telecommunications systems. Why is that?

AT&T sinks fiber in Lake Tahoe

The Tahoe Daily Tribune (registration required) reports AT&T has laid fiber optic cable in Lake Tahoe between lake's north and south shores.

Durocher Marine also installed a new fiber optic cable for AT&T as a part of the project. Sierra Pacific and AT&T partnered in coordinating their work so that both cables could be installed simultaneously, minimizing the cost of installation and environmental impacts. The old power and phone cables were not removed from the lake because of their historical significance and because environmental studies of the project concluded it was best to not to stir up sediment by pulling them up, Matthews said.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Virginia governor signs executive order to promote broadband access, telework

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger take note of this item from NRTC Update:
A key success factor for the adoption of telework is the availability of affordable broadband level telecommunication services. Because of the critical role broadband plays in the deployment of advanced applications such as telework, widespread access to broadband services is critical to the economic well-being of the Commonwealth of Virginia,” the governor said in the text of the order. “At present, too many communities both urban and rural are not afforded access to broadband telecommunications and hence deprived of their ability to participate in enhanced social, education, occupation, healthcare, and economic development opportunities.”

Report: U.S. faces broadband availability crisis

Last week, I blogged (America stands at broadband crossroads) about market and policy failures that are holding the United States back from other nations when it comes to broadband (high speed) Internet access. I suggested that these failures might spawn a massive federal government program similar to the interstate highway construction project in the 1950s to rapidly bring the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure up to where it should be for America’s present and future needs and economic competitiveness.

Apparently I’m not the only one thinking along these lines. A report issued today by The Free Press, the Consumer Federation of America and Consumers Union, Broadband Reality Check II, concludes the U.S. now faces a broadband availability crisis in which a third of the nation’s households remain stuck with dial up access. Here are some excerpts:

It may be time for the government to think boldly and build a true “information superhighway” by deploying “dark fiber” to American communities nationwide — rural and urban, rich and poor alike. With the pipes built, private companies would then be free to “light” the fiber and provide broadband and other services. Competitive companies could pay the government a nominal rental fee for use of the dark fiber lines.

Fiber-to-the-home or fiber-wireless hybrid networks would develop in competitive markets where multiple service providers compete on the basis of quality of service, rather than stifling competition through gatekeeper control over infrastructure.

A project on this scale wouldn’t be cheap, with some estimates as high as $1,000 per home, $115 billion to wire the entire nation. But the cost of not taking this path could be even higher. Some economists estimate the social surplus of a universally wired broadband nation at $350 billion. Regardless of the path U.S. policymakers chooses, it is imperative that we guide the market toward some big ideas for our broadband future. Absent that vision, we will continue to fall behind.

The report places blame squarely on the Federal Communications Commission, charging the FCC “has failed to adequately oversee the timely deployment of affordable broadband to every American, as they were mandated to do by the 1996 Telecommunications Act.” Consequently, Congress as well as state and local entities need to step up and solve this problem, it concludes.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

AT&T’s blighted neighborhood bad for El Dorado County

Imagine a neighborhood where the roads and streets are deteriorating, their paved surfaces eroded and ending at least two miles from most homes and businesses. After the pavement ends are badly rutted, pothole filled dirt roads with no funds budgeted to complete them. Such a community could well be deemed blighted, subject to local government comdemnation and redevelopment efforts.

This blighted neighborhood aptly describes AT&T’s existing wire line infrastructure in much of El Dorado County. The roads and highways of AT&T’s decades-old copper cable system are old and worn out. They’re in such bad shape they have a difficult time carrying reliable phone calls, especially when it rains and the potholes of poor connections grow larger. Nor can they transport broadband Internet access. Like the roads of our blighted neighborhood, once the pavement ends so does access to high speed Internet. Finally, like the byways in our blighted community, there are no funds budgeted to replace them.

It’s time for the residents and businesses of El Dorado County to call the county’s antiquated telecommunications infrastructure for what it is: blighted. AT&T should either make needed repairs and upgrades to bring the county’s dilapidated telecommunications infrastructure up to snuff, or sell her local holdings to make way for a more responsible landlord. Sign the petition urging AT&T to do so today!

Friday, September 08, 2006

Yes, we have broadband in Grizzly Flat

It's a story that seemed so improbable at first blush that it was difficult to believe. About a week ago in this space, I reported that I'd received several unconfirmed reports that AT&T has deployed broadband Internet access in Grizzly Flat.

Your blogger has now confirmed that broadband Internet service is indeed available on a limited basis in this remote El Dorado County community that lies deep on the far side of the digital divide that forms a three mile radius around central Placerville.

About two months ago, a notice was posted on the community's post office bulletin board advising that DSL service was available and residents began signing up. (Resident Ryan Snyder reports service extends only as far as the post office. Snyder, who lives beyond the post office, said he was told when the service was introduced to expect to DSL in a few weeks but says it's still unavailable.)

Bob Anderson, a 22-year resident of Grizzly Flat and owner of Short Circuit Computer Repair in Placerville as well as another Grizzly Flat resident confirmed the story.

Equally improbable is how it happened. Anderson tells me his understanding is AT&T ran fiber optic cable (yes, fiber) to bridge the 25 miles between its central office in Placerville and Grizzly Flat, where the fiber optic cable was then connected to a remote distribution terminal that feeds DSL service to local subscribers. Anderson says he's getting solid connections at 2.5mbs.

But why Grizzly Flat of the many El Dorado County communities with the misfortune to lie within the county's many massive broadband black holes? Anderson theorizes it was to bring distant medicine to the community's many elderly residents who are far from their doctors. With a high speed Internet connection, doctors and their patients can visit in real time video conferences and physicans can remotely obtain various diagnostic data.

AT&T's not commenting on the Grizzly Flat deployment to confirm Anderson's account. But he's a computer guy and thus brings some degree of technical credibility to bear.

Is this only a demonstration project? Or will Ma Bell lay in more fiber to bring the other numerous digitally dark communities of the El Dorado County into the light of the 21st century?

America stands at broadband crossroads

Much of America like El Dorado County remains stuck with an outdated telecom infrastructure better suited to the 1970s and 1980s than 2006 and beyond. Perceptive commentators are rightly beginning to ask deep questions to determine why that’s the case and why market competition hasn’t spurred more rapid deployment of advanced telecommunications services.

Al Senia suggests in America’s Network that the lack of a national telecom policy rather than fostering vibrant competition benefiting consumers amid minimal regulatory oversight is actually holding us back. Another article appearing in techdirt postulates a key reason is telecom infrastructure is an inherently uncompetitive monopolistic system just like roads and highways. We don’t see competition for thoroughfares because they are so expensive to build and maintain that the only the government can afford to run them.

Given the very slow deployment of telecom infrastructure, it appears increasingly possible that private sector providers despite their substantial resources won’t be able to rapidly raise the billions of dollars of investment capital that will be necessary to expeditiously put the telecom infrastructure on a par with those of other nations that are now surpassing the U.S.

The nation may well need a huge national telecom infrastructure authority like the Eisenhower administration’s massive federal highway project in the 1950s to get us caught up. Otherwise, America may fall further behind and become economically uncompetitive with other nations, relegated to driving the telecom equivalent of the old Route 66 while the rest of the world travels on modern freeway systems.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Letter to Gov. Schwarzenegger requesting veto of AB 2987

Readers are encouraged to send this letter or a modified version to Gov. Schwarzenegger.

* * *

The Honorable Arnold Schwarzenegger
State of California

RE: AB 2987

Dear Gov. Schwarzenegger:

I urge you to veto AB 2987, the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act of 2006. While the legislation’s stated purpose is to expand modern digital telecommunications and market competition and consumer choice, it would not benefit large numbers of Californians living and working outside urban areas of the state.

Since the bill’s provisions require telephone and cable companies to only partially build out their digital networks, it locks in a flawed public policy of leaving less urbanized areas behind and undermines the decades-old public policy of universal common carrier access to telecommunications services.

AB 2987 would produce two separate but unequal Californias: one with access to modern, digital telecommunications services and one without. Residents of urban areas would be the winners and those outside these areas the losers under AB 2987.

There is no doubt that modern telecommunications services including broadband Internet access is critical to California’s economic well being by facilitating commerce and encouraging business and job formation. Such services also reduce impact on highways and the environment by reducing commute trips since they allow information work to be conducted remotely. Since most jobs are located in urban areas whereas housing development has spread far beyond these areas, Californians are traveling ever-longer distances between their homes and workplaces.

It is vital that all Californians and not just those in urban areas share in the benefits of modern, digital telecommunications services. Given the enormous impact of telecommunications policy on California’s economy, rather than sign AB 2987 into law, I suggest you instead direct the Public Utilities Commission or other appropriate body to study California’s telecommunications needs to determine the best policies and incentives to encourage the rapid deployment of digital telecommunications services that will benefit all Californians.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

More evidence AB 2987 won't benefit El Dorado County

The big telcos and cable companies pushing AB 2987 that’s now headed to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk claim consumers will benefit because it will increase competition and consumer choice. That’s not true for El Dorado County.

Take Verizon, for example. In a recent news release, the telco asserted the Digital Infrastructure and Video Choice Act “overhauls the state's outdated cable-franchising process and paves the way for new competitors such as Verizon to offer consumers a choice in video programming, better technology and increased value in a highly dynamic marketplace.”

The news release goes on to promise that if Schwarzenegger signs the bill into law, Verizon plans to accelerate the pace of its fiber network construction “to deliver the fastest broadband and best video service in many more communities across the state.” Does that increased competition mean Verizon will compete with AT&T in El Dorado County with its fiber optic-based system, possibly spurring Ma Bell to upgrade her creaky, aged copper cable-based system to fiber optic as well? Nope, says Verizon spokesman Jonathan Davies. Davies says that for the “foreseeable future, we will be concentrating on building the fiber network in our service territory.” In other words, where it’s not currently competing with AT&T for wire line-based telecommunications services. From this blogger’s perspective, that’s hardly the competition Verizon, AT&T and the cable providers promise consumers in their lobbying and PR for AB 2987.

Davies adds that Verizon hopes its fiber optic network will establish “a new standard for broadband capacity” to “encourage other carriers to upgrade their networks.” That’s also a fallacy. It might be plausible if there was true competition between Verizon and AT&T in places like El Dorado County. The fact is there is none. Only one telco (AT&T) serves El Dorado County. So the choice for county residents and businesses is whatever Ma Bell’s offering, which for too many is noisy, unreliable voice service, antiquated, circa 1993 dial up Internet access, or costly and inferior satellite-based Internet. Or simply do without and live in the 19th century. When there’s no competition, consumers lose and they’re losing big time in El Dorado County.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Broadband in Grizzly Flat?

I'm attempting to confirm with AT&T a report that Ma Bell has recently and rapidly (in the space of only two weeks) deployed wire line based broadband services, possibly as a test project, in the remote El Dorado County community of Grizzly Flat.

The story seems highly improbable, but nevertheless the tip comes from some good sources and deserves checking out.

If any readers know any details concerning this possible speck of light deep into the dark side of the county's digital divide, please share them in an email or post a comment to the blog.
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