Wednesday, August 29, 2007

California PUC proposes broadband build out rules, wireless broadband reporting requirement

The California Public Utilities Commission has issued draft rules implementing the state's Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act's build out requirements for telcos and cable companies wishing to obtain a state franchise to offer broadband-based video services.

The draft rules require franchisees to include "clearly stated build-out milestones " that "demonstrate a serious and realistic planning effort." In addition, franchisees must "clearly state the constraints affecting the build-out" and "clearly delineate and explain" areas within the franchisee's service area that pose "substantially higher" costs.

The CPUC declined requests by consumer groups to require franchisees to provide data on the broadband transmission technologies they use and throughput speeds. However, under the proposed rules, it would require franchisees to provide data on the extent it is utilizing wireless broadband technology.

"The State and the Commission have a strong interest in making sure that unserved or underserved areas gain access to broadband services," the proposed decision states. "We believe areas currently unserved or underserved by broadband at this point will likely
be rural areas, or other areas that are high cost due to distance, terrain, demographics and density issues. It is thus important that the Commission gather data that will help us understand the extent to which wireless broadband is reaching these difficult-to-serve areas, and the degree to which consumers view these services as a means to satisfy their on-line needs. Accordingly, we will require subscriber data relating to wireless broadband to indicate whether the subscription is for a data-enabled wireless phone, PDA or other wireless hand-held device, or whether the subscription is for the use of a wireless data card. Wireless data cards are capable of providing either mobile or fixed broadband access to the internet from a customer’s personal computer, and may effectively substitute for wireline broadband access. Data about the adoption by customers of wireless broadband access for use with their personal computers will help guide our policies aimed at increasing investment in broadband infrastructure and closing the digital divide in our State."

Monday, August 27, 2007

White Spaces Coalition poised to move ahead with wireless broadband -- with or without FCC OK

The White Spaces Coalition, which seemed to be gearing up to take the Federal Communications Commission to court after the FCC recently panned prototype devices developed by the coalition to broadcast broadband signals in the "white spaces" between digital TV frequencies, appears to be shifting the burden back to the FCC.

There had been reports that the coalition, which is comprised of Microsoft, Google, Dell, HP, Intel, Earthlink and Phillips, had been mulling suing the FCC because it wasn't allowed to replace what it claims was a malfunctioning prototype that didn't assure government testers it wouldn't interfere with TV broadcasts.

Now it appears the coalition is preparing to move forward with or without FCC approval, according to this Broadcasting & Cable article. In short it looks like the coalition is telling the FCC if it has a problem with the devices, then the ball rests in its court to intervene.

Some commentators believe the coalition can't get a fair testing of its prototypes by the FCC because they say it's reluctant to approve a so-called "disruptive technology" that could threaten the existing duopoly of the telcos and cable companies and bring broadband where they aren't willing to go.

Well too bad. The telco/cable duopoly can no longer have it both ways, wanting to maintain territorial hegemony while at the same time leaving much of the U.S. mired in broadband black holes. The nation badly needs a "third pipe" to rapidly bring broadband to those who lack access.

Friday, August 24, 2007

Cable company in regulatory no man's land, SoCal city charges in lawsuit

This type of situation may begin to crop up frequently in California, where cable companies can opt to remain under local government franchise agreements or get a statewide franchise from the California Public Utilities Commission under new legislation that took effect this year, the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act.

According to the San Diego Union-Tribune, the city of Carlsbad believes Time Warner is operating outside the law because it doesn't have a franchise from the city nor has it received a statewide franchise. Nor has it even applied for one according to the CPUC's Web site.

Holding up a city franchise with Time Warner is Carlsbad's insistence on higher fees to fund broadcasts of city council and other government events.

It's probable there will be other such lawsuits brought by local governments over this and, more likely, when negotiations stall over buildout requirements in which the locals insist cable companies serve their entire communities instead of leaving parts in the dark on the wrong side of the digital divide. The likely targets include telcos and other cable players -- like Comcast for example -- that have so far not applied for or received statewide franchises.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

El Dorado County satisfaction survey omits broadband

El Dorado County, California officials have released the results of a telephone poll of 600 county residents in April assessing their satisfaction with living in the county.

The 331-page El Dorado County Resident Satisfaction Survey contains a major design flaw. While it asked those polled if they had Internet access and subcategorized residents who have it, the survey failed to ask residents if they have broadband Internet access. If it had, it would have likely found high levels of dissatisfaction with the lack thereof in much of the county where residents are forced to use early 1990s era dialup or sub-optimal satellite Internet connections.

A quick perusual of this petition to AT&T signed by more than 200 county residents and their accompanying comments shows had the survey included broadband access, it would have likely borne out high levels of resident dissatisfaction.

At best, county officials dropped the ball by permitting the omission of this question from the survey. At worst, they've chosen to sweep this vital infrastructure issue under the rug by deliberately leaving it out.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Aging copper cable plant drives — and limits – DSL

AT&T is facing a broadband conundrum brought on by the company’s historical reluctance to invest in upgrading its aging copper cable plant.

In El Dorado County, California, for example where your blogger resides, there are few good pair remaining in large stretches of the cable that in some cases is reportedly three to four decades old. Demand for additional lines from existing and newly arrived residents and businesses taxes the cable’s capacity, resulting in two subscribers ending up on the same line as well as noise and static when summer heat expands the cable and when winter rains penetrate it.

In an ironic twist, Ma Bell’s cable capacity crunch is driving the deployment of Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) service to some neighborhoods, particularly where fiber optic trunk lines are nearby.

Last year AT&T deployed DSL to the remote El Dorado County community of Grizzly Flat, about 25 miles east of Placerville. What prompted this unlikely move was the lack of good pair left in copper cable in the community. The capacity shortage was being exacerbated by people ordering second lines in order to not tie up their phone line with dial up modems — their only option to access the Internet — and for fax machines. Since AT&T already had a fiber optic cable running to Grizzly Flat from Placerville to serve a school there, the company decided to reduce the demand for additional lines by placing a remote terminal in the community fed by the fiber and capable of supporting DSL. DSL runs over a subscriber’s existing phone line and doesn’t require a second line.

That solved one problem but led to another. DSL signals are notoriously weak and prone to attenuation over distance. They require “clean” copper cable in good condition in order to carry the DSL signal reliably. Aged, deteriorating cable on the other hand is a suboptimal carrier, which is exactly what AT&T faces in Grizzly Flat and elsewhere in El Dorado County. Consequently, some Grizzly Flat residents complained, they couldn’t get DSL service because DSL propagated over a shorter than normal distance and their homes were too far away to get service. Poor quality cable also limits customers to AT&T’s lower speed DSL packages since the cable cannot reliably support higher speeds.

A scenario similar to Grizzly Flat appears to be playing out in my neighborhood. DSL wasn’t even on the radar screen here until an infill lot was recently developed. The new resident needs a broadband connection for his home office and ordered up a dedicated T-1 business class data line. That turned out to be the proverbial straw that broke the back of the antiquated cable plant that has been barely able to support plain old telephone service (known in the industry as POTS).

Consequently, AT&T recently installed a remote terminal and may begin offering DSL in the near future pending further testing. As in Grizzly Flat, fiber is available and provides the “backhaul” connection upstream. However, an AT&T planner I spoke with is downplaying the remote terminal’s DSL capabilities. It’s salvage equipment (the faded graffiti on the side of the cabinet is a clue), is not AT&T’s standard DSL remote terminal equipment and may not provide the typical 14,000 foot range. Moreover, if testing shows the copper cable plant needs to be upgraded in order to reliably carry DSL, the planner warns, that would add to the cost of the deployment and increase the odds the bean counters at AT&T corporate will nix it.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Lack of broadband economic death sentence for small town America

Rural residents, some of whom remember living in the dark for decades while electrified city lights glowed in the distance, say they're being passed over again for services considered crucial to modern life.

Nearly all can get dial-up modem Internet service, the kind of connection that allows a user to link to the Internet for short periods of time, surf a few Web sites and check e-mail.

But dial-up connections are slow. A simple document exchanged in less than a second on a broadband connection can take hours with dial-up.

That slow pace makes running an Internet-based business from a rural area impossible, though that's exactly the type of business many people believe can help keep America's small towns from dying.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Broadband adoption slows; lack of access persists in rural areas

The Pew Internet and American Life Project is out with its latest survey of U.S. residential broadband that found the rate of broadband adoption slowing considerably as rural areas continue to remain left behind with just under one third having broadband Internet access at their homes.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Silicon Valley startup's big plans for wireless broadband blocked by FCC

Over the past year or so, this blog reported on venture capital-backed Silicon Valley startup M2Z's big plans to build a nationwide broadband network that would serve 95 percent of the U.S. within ten years.

But M2Z claims the Federal Communications Commission isn't giving the idea a fair hearing and has taken the FCC to court, Dow Jones News Service reports.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Startup hopes chipsets will expand reach of DSL

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) over copper is notoriously underpowered, only able to travel reliably no more than 14,000 feet from a telephone switch to subscriber, with throughput speeds degrading as the distance increases.

A Denver-based startup, Xtendwave, has gotten $10 million in private funding to develop computer chipsets for DSL modems and terminals that the company hopes will push the distance limit out to more than 20,000 feet. If the technology proves feasible, it could provide a boost to telcos that have literally hit the wall with DSL and have reportedly all but halted further DSL deployments since extending the service beyond existing footprints requires them to make extensive investments to upgrade their infrastructures.

Wisconsin offers tax incentives to encourage broadband expansion

Nine businesses will invest more than $80 million to install equipment providing broadband service. The projects will reach 261 communities in 63 counties.

Businesses included in the plan are Amery Telcom Inc., AT&T, CenturyTel Inc., DiscoverNet of Wisconsin LLC, Door Peninsula Internet Inc., Lakeland Communications, Midwest Fiber Networks, Northern Net Exposure and TDS Telecommunications Corporation.

DIRECTV partners with BPL player for Dallas "premiere"

DIRECTV announced a couple of months back that it was looking to partner with a broadband over power lines (BPL) provider in order to be able to offer broadband to its satellite TV subscribers.

Today, it announced the "premiere" of the service in the Dallas metro market in alliance with BPL player Current. The companies claim the BPL service, to be offered sometime later this year and early next, provides a faster symmetrical connection than cable but no specific throughput speeds are mentioned.

BPL is considered a dark horse among three possible "third pipe" alternatives to the cable/telco duopoly for providing broadband in unserved areas along with WiMAX-based fixed terrestrial wireless and a venture by a coalition of high tech companies including Microsoft and Intel to use portions of the TV broadcast spectrum to provide broadband over the air.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Microsoft wants FCC to reconsider white spaces prototype interference test

As reported last week here, the FCC has told the White Spaces Coalition to go back to the drawing board after its prototype devices to deliver wireless broadband over unused "white spaces" in the television broadcast spectrum failed initial testing to assure they wouldn't interfere with TV and wireless microphone signals.

The Washington Post reports one of the coalition's members, Microsoft, wants the FCC to reconsider because it contends a backup prototype worked without producing any interference. The Post reports the FCC is to meet later this week to discuss testing protocols.

This is a major story that deserves close attention because if the devices pan out, they could provide a desperately needed "third pipe" to break the stranglehold of the telco/cable duopoly that has left large parts of the U.S. unwired for broadband.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

America's $200 billion broadband boondoggle

Robert X. Cringely explains what went wrong with the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 and why the U.S. is falling farther and farther behind the rest of the developed world when it comes to broadband Internet access:

There are no good guys in this story. Misguided and incompetent regulation combined with utilities that found ways to game the system resulted in what had been the best communication system in the world becoming just so-so, though very profitable. We as consumers were consistently sold ideas that were impractical only to have those be replaced later by less-ambitious technologies that, in turn, were still under-delivered. Congress set mandates then provided little or no oversight. The FCC was (and probably still is) managed for the benefit of the companies and their lobbyists, not for you and me. And the upshot is that I could move to Japan and pay $14 per month for 100-megabit-per-second Internet service but I can't do that here and will probably never be able to.

Despite this, the FCC says America has the highest broadband deployment rate in the world and President Bush has set a goal of having broadband available to every U.S. home by the end of this year. What have these guys been smoking? Nothing, actually, they simply redefined "broadband" as any Internet service with a download speed of 200 kilobits per second or better. That's less than one percent the target speed set in 1994 that we were supposed to have achieved by 2000 under regulations that still remain in place.

Mass. telecom czar: Broadband black holes "unacceptable"

Q You just took the helm of the new Department of Telecommunications and Cable. What is the plan?

A I have three hot priorities, one of which is broadband. The idea that in the 21st century we still have communities with no broadband is just unacceptable, and we have to fix it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Connecticut AG wants to force AT&T to serve entire state with IPTV

Now here's a turnabout. Over the past two years, AT&T has lobbied states for laws that allow them to go around local governments and get statewide "video franchises." Looking out for their constituents, most local governments (unlike El Dorado County, California) naturally want advanced broadband telecommunications services including video available for all of their residents. But Ma Bell and other telcos -- as well as the cable companies -- instead want to pick and choose winners and losers when it comes to determining who will get service.

Connecticut isn't one of the two dozen or so states that put a statewide franchise law on the books. Nevertheless State Attorney General Richard Blumenthal worries that AT&T will work with the locals to leave much of the state on the wrong side of the digital divide and has petitioned the state's Department of Public Utility Control urging it to require Ma Bell to get a statewide franchise.

"Because AT&T serves virtually the entire state, the company needs to apply for a statewide license requiring it to eventually provide IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) service to all households, Blumenthal said in a press release. AT&T, which already offers IPTV in a few communities, had wanted to provide the service without state regulation and only in selected areas, according to Blumenthal's office.

Don't let the references to cable or video franchises and IPTV confuse the main issue. This issue isn't about TV or video competition. It's all about broadband buildout and closing the widespread digital divide.

Clearwire is missing market opportunity to fill in broadband black holes

A couple of weeks back, I blogged that the big WiMAX players like Clearwire aren't likely to fill in America's many broadband black holes where neither cable nor telco broadband is available.

Here's more evidence: The reports today Clearwire is sticking to more populated areas of Nashville. There are more customers to be had there of course but there's also lots of broadband competition from the wireline telco and cable broadband providers. While there are fewer prospective subscribers outside the city limits, Clearwire shouldn't neglect these areas since they face little competition other than satellite Internet, which it can easily outperform from a price/performance standpoint.

Read this lamentation from one prospective Clearwire subscriber who like your blogger is situated on the dark side of the digital divide by only about a mile:

One group of people who may be disappointed with Clearwire is rural residents who don't have access to broadband through AT&T or Comcast. Clearwire is sticking mostly to major population centers in the Nashville area with its service.

George Reynolds hopes Clearwire gets to his house in west Nashville on the Cumberland River.

"Broadband is available on Charlotte (Avenue) and that's one mile from my house,'' he said, adding that he has been trying to get AT&T to give him broadband service for about three years.

Monday, August 06, 2007

AT&T rolls out WiMAX in Alaska -- could it be harbinger of broad-based fixed wireless expansion?

As part of its "commitment to broadband innovation," AT&T announced today it is deploying fixed terrestrial wireless broadband service in Alaska this year, starting in the Juneau area. Throughout the U.S, AT&T says it has deployed 22 fixed terrestrial wireless trials and "limited deployments" in U.S. communities to date, of which eight ended up as "active commercial deployments." According to AT&T's news release:

The new service uses WiMAX wireless technology, which enables delivery of broadband services to homes and small businesses with speeds that are similar to landline technologies such as DSL. With a range of up to several miles from a central tower, WiMAX technology is emerging as an alternative broadband solution for a range of locations where deployment of landline-based technologies is impractical or impossible.

Initial deployments of WiMAX technology in Alaska will be used to provide portable wireless broadband for home and business-based access, enabling users to plug in to the service at multiple home or work locations within the service's range. As mobile WiMAX technology advances, the company will evaluate options to enable additional roaming and mobility service options for customers.

While comparing throughput speeds to DSL, AT&T did not provide actual numbers. The company appears to be pricing the wireless service similarly to DSL, stating in the news release that monthly rates start at $19.95.

This announcement out of Alaska could have implications for the lower 48 states. While apparently the company is still working out the bugs, it appears probable AT&T could ramp up its fixed terrestrial wireless broadband in order to give it another alternative to offer broadband to residential customers. AT&T clearly needs another delivery option to bring broadband to residential and home office customers outside of the limited urban areas where it's deploying its new hybrid fiber and copper U-Verse broadband IPTV (Internet Protocol TV) infrastructure.

Weak DSL signals degrade once they travel more than 14,000 feet from an AT&T central office and the company has reportedly stopped installing additional remote terminals to boost DSL beyond the 14,000 foot limit. That means those who don't already get AT&T's DSL aren't likely to be offered it in the future.

Beyond the 14,000 foot DSL limit, I suspect AT&T is finding there's not as much demand as it would like for its repackaged satellite Internet service, WildBlue. That's hardly surprising given customers are locked into a one year contract for slow throughput, high latency, steep upfront costs and a poor overall value compared to other broadband technologies.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Massachusetts launches bond-funded broadband initiative

The Boston Globe reports today that the Massachusetts Broadband Incentive Plan will be funded by $25 million in general obligation bonds to bring broadband to 32 Bay State communities that lack access to cable or DSL service.

It will be managed by a new division within the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and is designed to create a new incentive for private industry by underwriting part of the costs of providing service in rural areas. Ultimately, administration officials hope public/private partnerships will be formed to provide service, according to the Globe.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

White Spaces prototypes fail initial FCC testing

As reported on this blog some months ago, the Federal Communications Commission has been testing a prototype device developed by the White Spaces Coalition that uses different transmission technology to beam ultra-fast wireless broadband via unused "white spaces" in the TV broadcast spectrum between 44 MHz and 885 MHz. The coalition is comprised of Dell, EarthLink, Google, HP, Intel, Microsoft, and Philips Electronics.

A major objective of the testing is to determine if the prototype would interfere with TV signals and wireless microphones. Two prototypes tested apparently do enough of the time that the FCC told the coalition to go back to the drawing board:

This report determined that the sample prototype White Space Devices submitted to the Commission for initial evaluation do not consistently sense or detect TV broadcast or wireless microphone signals. Our tests also found that the transmitter in the prototype device is capable of causing interference to TV broadcasting and wireless microphones. However, several features that are contemplated as possible options to minimize the interference potential of WSDs, such as dynamic power control and adjustment of power levels based on signal levels in adjacent bands, are not implemented in the prototype devices that were provided. Given these results, further testing of these devices was not deemed appropriate at this time.

FCC Commissioner Copps: 700MHz spectrum auction rules stymie broadband competition

America’s broadband performance leaves a lot to be desired. To me, the culprit is clear: a stultifying lack of competition in the broadband market, which in the words of the
Congressional Research Service is a plain old “cable and telephone . . . duopoly.” A 22 MHz block of 700 MHz spectrum is uniquely suited to provide a broadband alternative, with speeds and prices that beat current DSL and cable modem offerings. Maybe this can happen yet in this spectrum, but by declining to impose a wholesale requirement on the 22 MHz C-block, the Commission misses an important opportunity to bring a robust and badly-needed third broadband pipe into American homes.
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