Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Fiber optic, New England town hall style

Residents of the Vermont towns of Jericho, Underhill and Westford will be polled by their selectboard members on whether the towns should take out a lease to expand fiber optic triple play services provided by Burlington Telecom to their communities.

This is an admirable expression of the American spirit -- folks taking control of their telecommunications destiny instead of hoping and waiting the big telco and cable companies will bring them broadband service.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Virginia legislature appropriates $1.6 million for fiber project

Some states are apparently tired of waiting for the private sector to act and are putting their own money on the line as in this project to build out fiber optic-based broadband for Virginia's Eastern Shore.

California bill would add broadband to lifeline service for low income residences

Sen. Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando) has introduced legislation that would require the California Public Utilities Commission to include broadband Internet access in the state's existing lifeline program that provides discounted POTS to low income households.

With telcos like AT&T offering DSL promo rates for residential customers who can get its underpowered DSL service for as little as $13 a month, Padilla's proposal would certainly appear within the realm of possibilities.

However, public policymakers and residential broadband providers should also consider more flexible pricing strategies that allow providers to cover increased deployment costs in less densely populated portions of their service areas outside of urban centers. As things currently stand, too many residences in these areas must choose between cheap but impractically slow dial up and costly services such as satellite -- more appropriate to extremely remote locations of the U.S. -- and T-1 lines which were never intended for residential customers. There's a price point in the middle for fast, reliable wire line broadband and the providers should offer services to meet it.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Digital Deprivation in a Land of Affluence

This story in today's New York Times illustrates that location and not necessarily socioeconomic status defines the digital divide -- this one in relatively affluent Connecticut.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Local public/private partnerships are America's best hope to close the digital divide

America's best hope for the rapid, widespread deployment of fiber optic based telecommunications systems that can serve up a "triple play" array of services -- broadband Internet access, voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and full motion interactive video -- lies with local governmental entities such as counties, municipalities and utility districts working in partnership with private telecommunications providers to form open access networks. It's already happening in places like Utah with The Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) and in rural Southern Oregon. Smart folks in these places realize they won't likely see fiber deployed in these areas for many more years if they wait on the big telco/cable duopoly, which for business reasons must concentrate on densely populated urban regions. They correctly realize they must take matters into their own hands. As UTOPIA's name suggests, the foundation of the private/public arrangement is the systems open infrastructure as contrasted to the wholly privately owned systems of the telco/cable duopoly. That model allows for creative deal making involving valuable public rights of way and the investments of private sector players.

These kinds of public/private partnerships at the local level must be encouraged and supported. Telcos and cable companies should set aside their need for hegemony over their markets and instead of fighting them, find out how they can help them along. They too can come out winners since these public/private fiber projects put in place proven, state of the art fiber optic technology for them, saving them money while opening up a big pipe for them to reach customers with advanced services they currently cannot offer. They might not have total ownership of the fiber infrastructure that results from these public/private partnerships. But access to fiber sooner rather than much later raises all boats, boats that in too many areas of the U.S. remain stuck in the mud without broadband access.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Half of U.S. homes projected to have broadband by year end

Blogger Mark Milliman says the U.S. has a long way to go as a broadband player, citing data released today from Parks Associates projecting that half of the nation's homes will have access to broadband by year end.

A telecommunications industry consultant, Milliman notes independent telephone companies and municipalities are looking for ways to bypass big telcos and cable companies and are building their own broadband systems.

The big duopoly providers are already many years behind where they should be on broadband and fiber optic deployment and will fall further and further behind the broadband demand curve as time goes on, but are too constrained by quarterly earnings pressures to mount a crash program to catch up. It's only natural that more nimble smaller players and local governments are moving to fill in the broadband black holes the big guys have left behind.

Analyst: Telcos are doomed copper dinosaurs

Barron's Online is out with a report today on a broadband market analysis by Sanford Bernstein analyst Craig Moffett, who believes the telephone companies remain too wedded to their copper cable-based infrastructures. Moffett believes their stance dooms them to broadband extinction in the long run, setting the stage for cable companies to walk over their copper carcasses.

Not only that, Moffett opines, the telcos are deploying fiber optic cable in densely populated urban areas where their legacy copper cable plant is in better shape and where DSL's short distance range works best. Good point. I've argued telcos should concentrate on changing out copper with fiber outside urban centers where their copper cable plants are the oldest and most deteriorated and cannot support widespread DSL service as is the case in El Dorado County. The telcos like AT&T and Verizon should reverse their current fiber priorities and put fiber in these areas first. They'll gain customers for broadband services they currently cannot offer there due to the limitations of copper while at the same time be able to continue to derive revenues from urban markets where their copper is newer, more reliable and better able support broadband over the interim until they fully replace copper with fiber throughout their service areas.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Goal of South Carolina resolution: statewide broadband

South Carolina lawmakers have approved a resolution calling for broadband Internet access in all areas of the state. The resolution would create the South Carolina Wireless Technology and Communications Commission. It comes as state governments respond to concerns that large areas of their states are on the wrong side of the digital divide and economically uncompetitive. The resolution follows similar state government initiatives in California, New York, Kentucky, Virginia, Nebraska and Vermont.

The South Carolina proposal pins its hopes for statewide broadband access on still emerging terrestrial wireless broadband technology as the cheapest and fastest way to deploy broadband access.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Bill would require California PUC to report on broadband access, competition

Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) has introduced SB 323 that would require the California Public Utilities Commission to annually report to the Legislature on the availability of broadband Internet access, including where broadband isn't available and where there are no competing providers.

Note to Sen. Kehoe: Consider amending your measure to provide for more specific geographic information, using multiple measures such as census tracts, assessors' rolls, electronic mapping, provider subscriber data and ZIP Code plus 4. (See previous post re Maryland's HB 1069. )

Measurements of broadband availability based on a single geographical parameter -- such as a five digit ZIP Code -- are too broad and easily miss large broadband black holes that can exist in a five-digit ZIP where some neighborhoods have access to broadband while others in the same ZIP code do not.

Maryland bill would require broadband statistics

Public Knowledge, a Washington-based consumer advocacy group, reports on its blog that legislation will be heard in a Maryland legislative committee next week that would require all broadband providers to report where they are providing service.

Providers would be required to show on a ZIP code-plus 4 basis where they are providing service, what portion of residents of the nine digit ZIP code subscribe to their broadband offerings and other information. PK hopes the legislation will become a model for other states and serve as an alternative to broadband deployment data gathered by the Federal Communications Commission widely criticized as lacking sufficient detail to guide public policymakers.

PK reports Verizon and Comcast have fired up their lobbying machinery to oppose HB 1069 by Herman Taylor (D-Montgomery County).

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Next generation fiber optic blows DSL away, promises to reshape telecom infrastructure

Copper wire-based DSL systems appear headed for extinction based on recent research of new generation fiber optic cable technology that clocked blazing throughput speeds (10 gigabytes per second downloads, 2.5 gbs uploads) on a loop length of up to 100 kilometers, or about 64 miles. That performance blows DSL, which delivers far slower speeds on much shorter loops of three miles or less, completely away.

Not only that, there's no need for remote terminals that are required to distribute copper-based DSL beyond its three mile technical distance limit. The requirement for numerous remote terminals has hamstrung DSL availability in much of El Dorado County and other locations outside of urban centers.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Time for a national conversation and new course on telecom

The year is still young enough for predictions for 2007. Here’s one based on the stories on this blog and elsewhere so far this year: The year 2007 is when the United States will realize that it’s time to have a serious national conversation on the future of the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure and how to get moving to bring it up to date to America’s current and future needs.

Recent reports indicate it continues to fail to meet promised upgrades by the telephone and cable company duopoly — much of it based on hopeful thinking, unrealistic goal setting and public relations spin — and is falling farther and farther behind the booming demand curve for high speed Internet-based services. Too much of the United States continues to be served by a 1970’s era “last mile” infrastructure that can’t deliver broadband digital services now and won’t able to be able do so anytime in the foreseeable future. Not in our lifetimes as one AT&T manager put it to a customer asking when AT&T’s much touted fiber optic-based “Project Lightspeed” upgrade would come to El Dorado County, California.

As a policy paper issued in January by the Communication Workers of America (CWA) aptly described it, the current telecom infrastructure is a “hodgepodge of fragmented government programs and uneven private sector responses to changing markets." Much of 2006 was wasted debating esoteric topics like “network neutrality” that did absolutely nothing to extend digital telecommunications services to a single home or small business in countless areas that are at least a decade behind where they should be today.

One probable conclusion of this national dialogue will be the existing telephone/cable company duopoly lacks the resources to upgrade and expand the nation’s telecom infrastructure rapidly enough to provide near universal service that is the hallmark of an advanced modern economy. Even if they undertook a crash program to do so — which quarterly earnings pressure from Wall Street and shareholders would prohibit — they would likely be unable to deploy updated infrastructure quickly enough and with sufficient bandwidth to meet the ever growing digital demands being placed upon their systems. They are too bogged down by their massive investments in their legacy metal wire-based local distribution systems that served them well for decades for voice phone service and analog television until the Internet began to take off in the 1990s. It’s time to chart a new course.

The Internet Freedom Declaration of 2007

Universal Affordable Access

Broadband Internet access should be universally available and affordable. Rural or urban, rich or poor, every American must be able to access the information superhighway at fair prices and speeds that rival the rest of the world. Like the public highways, the information superhighway must be considered a key piece of public infrastructure -- an indispensable part of our society that provides economic and social opportunities to all.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Satellite Internet fails to live up to expectations

This item is from Jericho, Vermont courtesy of the Burlington Free Press. The satellite Internet service leaves something to be desired and no, it's not been nuked like in the TV series set in Jericho, Kansas.

Kyle Houchens of Jericho runs a design business from his home. He often sends and receives large computer files over his satellite Internet connection, which promised to be fast. However, Houchens has found it slower than he expected and unreliable.

Vermont governor proposes state telecom agency

The governor's plan starts with creation of the Vermont Telecommunications Authority, overseen by an executive director and a nine-member board of directors.

The authority isn't looking to get into the business of providing Internet service. It would, however, be able to bond for up to $40 million to help others provide service.

That money would be invested in infrastructure such as fiber-optic cable or small towers to bring broadband and cell phone service to unserved or under-served parts of the state. The bond would be paid back through revenues generated from leasing infrastructure to cellular and Internet service providers.

Geographic market failure, inconsistent regulatory policy stymie U.S. broadband access

The existing large telecommunications providers invest their money where there is maximum return on investment, which results in a patchwork of coverage throughout the U.S. Telecom providers maximize profits and spend millions of dollars lobbying to create laws that decrease competitive challenges, while having little incentive to provide new services to less population-dense areas of the country, or to increase speed and lower costs for those who already do have service. This state of affairs stands in marked contrast to the situation in those nations that are truly broadband leaders.

In the absence of widespread government initiatives and incentives to roll out broadband services in rural areas, telecom providers have made the decision to maximize profits by rolling out service in those areas that have the highest population density and lowest cost of build-out per customer. The free market wins in the short term, quarterly profits are maximized, but the customers in less-profitable geographic areas lose, and the nation as a whole loses out over the long term, falling behind other nations with more farsighted policies.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

More "get ready, it's coming" talk on Project Lightspeed

Can Project Lightspeed escape the gravitational inertia of AT&T's many massive broadband black holes? Engine room, get me maximum warp (spin) drive. Here's the latest "get ready, it's coming" promise from AT&T via CEO Edward E. Whitacre Jr.:

Regarding AT&T's Project Lightspeed, which will extend fiber-optic cable into neighborhoods and add video services to telephone and high-speed Internet options, Whitacre said the company plans "a big time ramp up" in the next couple of months. He did not elaborate on the plans for the project, which he acknowledged has been a "little bit behind" in its rollout.

Monday, February 12, 2007

FTC to look into ISP broadband speed claims

About two weeks ago, I predicted that an Australian regulator's concerns over Internet Service Provider claims of providing throughput speeds of "up to" X mbs" when actual connection speeds are far lower would spread to the U.S.

Sure enough, it has. The Federal Trade Commission will be look into the issue in a workshop this week, ars technica reports.

Verizon policy exec calls for federal grants, loans to extend broadband access

Tom Tauke, Verizon's executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications wants the feds to emulate Kentucky's nonprofit program to expand broadband access to nearly everyone in the state. Tauke also called for federal grants and loans to speed deployment of broadband access and reform the Universal Service Fund to better support high speed Internet service in high cost areas. The U.S. needs to look at broadband incentive programs "sooner rather than later," he said.

Tauke also said the nation needs to come up with a better way to determine exactly where broadband is available and where it's not, suggesting like consumer advocates the FCC's current methodology of using ZIP Codes as measurement units is flawed.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Cooperative research project proposed to study "acute and growing problems facing the Internet" in U.S.

Internet access in the U.S. is at crisis point and researchers say they need more complete and reliable data to point the way forward. The goal of the the COMMONS Project is to gather "substantial real-world data on Internet traffic at the national level raise the intellectual merit of the entire field of Internet science through increased standards of data collection, curating, and sharing in the research community."
On December 12-13, 2006, the Cooperative Association for Internet Data Analysis (CAIDA) held a workshop to discuss and ultimately propose a collaboration among researchers and networks to simultaneously solve three acute and growing problems facing the Internet: a self-reported financial crisis in the Internet infrastructure provider industry that poses a severe threat to broadband growth and U.S. competitiveness; a data acquisition crisis which has deeply stunted the field of network science; and a dilemma within emerging community, municipal, regional, and state networks, who need (additional) broadband connectivity but face severely limited provider, service level, and usage options.

Project Lightspeed appears headed on failed course of Project Pronto

Near the start of the current decade, AT&T (then SBC Communications) announced an initiative called Project Pronto. The goal was to speed up the deployment of high speed Internet services — Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) over copper cable and twisted pair — to 80 percent of the phone company’s service area by 2002 and throughout its entire service area by last year. Both deadlines were missed, with about one in five customers still unable to obtain any broadband services from the telco.

AT&T’s latest initiative is dubbed Project Lightspeed. Unlike the failed Project Pronto, Project Lightspeed — AT&T’s scheme to offer a so-called triple play menu of services including telephone, broadband and IPTV (Internet Protocol TV over phone lines) contains no self imposed deadlines. That’s a good thing because it’s moving well below the speed of light, BusinessWeek reports this week.

AT&T wants to make all three digital services run over its existing copper cable, and industry analysts are questioning whether copper — designed to carry low bandwidth analog voice services — can provide enough bandwidth to accommodate the huge bandwidth needs of high definition IPTV. AT&T "competitor" Verizon doesn’t think copper is up to the job and is instead committed to doing triple play over fiber optic cable to the doorstep. By contrast, AT&T finds itself caught between its desire to keep up with Verizon and the cable companies in the market for triple play services and its reluctance to let go of its legacy copper cable plant, a reluctance that ensures an early death for Project Lightspeed and make AT&T an also ran in the triple play game.

In a competitive market — the kind of competitive market envisioned by the federal telecommunications reform legislation enacted in 1996 — the stage would appear to be set for Verizon to eat Ma Bell’s lunch. The problem is there is no true competitive market for residential telecommunications services. Verizon refuses to compete in AT&T’s service area and vice versa. So there’s little pressure on AT&T to upgrade its aging copper cable-based system to fiber. Meanwhile, AT&T residential customers suffer, with large numbers unable to obtain even a “double play” of voice and broadband service promised years ago by the not-so-pronto Project Pronto let alone the triple play of Project Lightspeed.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

More than 20 percent of local phone company customers can't get DSL

Local telephone companies didn’t offer DSL in more than 20 percent of their service areas last year, according to recently released data compiled by the Federal Communications Commission. The data are contained in Table 14 of the report, High Speed Services for Internet Access as of June 30, 2006.

States with the highest DSL penetration among incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) include Florida (88 percent), California (86 percent) and surprisingly, Louisiana with 87 percent. Even less densely populated states such as Nevada and North Dakota exceeded the national average of 79 percent, with 85 percent and 86 percent respectively.

The states with the lowest DSL availability offered by ILECs were New Hampshire with 59 percent; Vermont with 60 percent; Virginia, Arkansas and Michigan with 66 percent; and Maine, 67 percent.

The ILEC measurement provides a more accurate picture of broadband availability than cable modem since telephone service, unlike cable, is available to nearly all U.S. households and businesses. The FCC data also show satellite Internet connections, offered as a last resort option in areas where neither phone nor cable companies provide broadband, remain unpopular with just 495,365 subscribers nationwide.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Finally some common sense on broadband -- courtesy of Nebraska Rep. Lee Terry

Finally, a public policymaker displays some practical common sense and fairness when it comes to filling in America’s many broadband black holes: allow broadband providers to charge customers in areas that cost more to serve higher rates for service.

In addition to ending a federal requirement that high-speed Internet rates be equal regardless of population density, Nebraska Republican Congressman Lee Terry’s draft bill would also require the Universal Service Fund, created to subsidize voice telephone service in higher cost areas, be updated to include broadband, according to this ars technica report.

Terry, a member of the Congressional Rural Caucus, is on the right track policy-wise. Broadband Internet access should be universal and allowing USF funding to help make it so is sound policy. It’s also equitable to allow higher costs to deploy wire line-based broadband to be recovered in the form of higher prices.

Achieving universal broadband access is a high cost proposition and will require multiple funding sources. Terry’s bill strikes a reasonable middle ground that’s vitally needed in finding a way to make broadband universally accessible. Otherwise, everyone living outside of densely populated urban areas will remain stuck in the early 1990s with cheap but impractical dial up Internet access or the costly and undesirable option of satellite, which is best left to television programming.

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