Monday, March 24, 2008

Another paper chase diversion on the road to full broadband deployment

Rather than filling in their broadband black holes with updated infrastructure, telcos are instead proposing paper chase exercises that are little more than PR gimmicks designed to create the appearance they are actually doing something to end the digital divide.

Earlier this month, I blogged about mapmaking drills purportedly designed to show where broadband access exists and where it doesn't. (As if telcos don't know where their own infrastucture is deployed.)

The latest paper chase is called "aggregation of demand." It's a key element of the AT&T and Verizon-funded California Emerging Technology Fund's Strategic Action Plan presented today to the California Assembly Committee on Utilities and Commerce. The idea is driven by the bogus notion that telcos don't believe people really want broadband and need to be shown proof of demand before they offer advanced services, particularly in higher cost areas.

Grassroots-based efforts in Northern California petitioning AT&T to deploy broadband services in areas where it's not offered have already demonstrated that the so-called "aggregation of demand" tactic is a wasted effort that does nothing to prompt intransigent telcos to get off the dime and offer something better than early 1990s-era dial up.

One such petition in El Dorado County has garnered more than 200 signatories since it was started two years ago with no change in the dialug status quo.

Ditto a door to door petition in the Lake Tahoe basin by resident Patti Handal who along with 600 of her neighbors petitioned AT&T in late 2006 requesting DSL service. Patti and some of her neighbors did end up getting DSL last year, but only because last June's devastating Angora Fire burned out the existing ancient aerial infrastructure, forcing AT&T to upgrade it. Patti's still getting calls and emails from those who have signed and/or heard about her petition complaining about the lack of wireline-based broadband.

It's a wanker, mate: Aussie WISP abandons WiMAX

Hervey Bay, Australia WISP Buzz Broadband has pulled the plug on WiMAX, panning it as a "miserable" technological failure at an international WiMAX conference last week in Bangkok. quoted Buzz Broadband's
CEO Garth Freeman as saying WiMAX's non-line of sight performance was “non-existent” beyond just 2 kilometres from the base station, is hard to receive indoors and is plagued with high latency.

Buzz Broadband will instead use
an alternative wireless protocol based on the TD-CDMA cellular protocol with compression technology capable of throughput up to 38Mbps in the 3.5GHz spectrum. Buzz and other WISPs in Australia are targeting areas like Hervey Bay where about 80 percent of residents are unable to get ADSL because of the use of digital pairgain by incumbent telco Telstra and the exhaustion of existing DSL ports -- a dismal situation mirrored in much of the United States.

If the troubles down under with WiMAX spread, it could have implications in the northern hemisphere, where AT&T a year ago began trials of WiMAX in Ancorage, Alaska with a planned ramp up this year in its 22-state service area. They could also hit big WiMAX player Clearwire and could explain why the company has concentrated going head to head with wireline broadband providers in metro areas instead of targeting non-metro regions where WiMAX signals have to travel farther and can face more challenging terrain and dense foliage.

Airspan, Buzz Broadband's WiMAX equipment vendor, blamed the WISP for the problems, saying it elected to use lower cost equipment with less range and refused technical support.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Survey: All should have broadband access without regard to location

Americans should have access to broadband regardless of where they live, according to 80 percent of 451 readers of leading U.S. telecom publications in a survey commissioned by telecommunications network vendor Tellabs.

Respondents strongly support expanding broadband availability in the United States, especially in under-served rural areas. The lack of broadband availability, whether due to geographic or economic reasons, hurts productivity, according to nearly 90 percent of survey respondents. Eighty percent believe the U.S. should use at least some of the current Universal Service Fund to expand rural broadband.

Burlington Telecom head: Broadband infrastructure a natural monopoly that should be publicly owned

Here's a guy who really understands the economic big picture when it comes to broadband infrastructure: Tim Nulty, director of Burlington Telecom, which built a publicly owned broadband system serving the city of Burlington, Vermont.

Nulty sets out crystal clear guidance for public policymakers on broadband infrastructure: it's a natural monopoly that by its very nature can't foster robust market competition to ensure the needs of the public are met. Hence, Nulty says, it should be in the public rather than private sector like roads and highways. Nulty's observation has enormous implications for the current misguided notion being embraced by some states at the behest of AT&T that state regulation preempting local governments will lead to a competitive market for advanced services. AT&T's approach creates a duopoly of telcos and cable companies and a duopoly does not a competitive market make.

Here's an excerpt from a recent profile of Nulty appearing in Vermont's Business People magazine:

He likens his fiber-optic superhighway to a more commonly understood network. "Nobody thinks twice about the roads being in the hands of the public," Nulty says. "The thought that a private company could own the roads and charge whatever they pleased to anybody who goes on them is ludicrous anywhere in the world. That's what this is: the public roads."

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

FCC finally abandons useless 1996 broadband measurement standard, will require more detailed reports by providers

The Federal Communications Commission, which for years has been the target of justified criticism for failing to update how it measures broadband adoption as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, is finally getting up to speed with more than a decade of changing technology.

Instead of the much derided standard of measuring by ZIP Code and deeming the entire ZIP Code as having broadband service if it has just one subscriber with a data connection of 200kbs in just one direction, the FCC announced today it adopted an order expanding the number of broadband reporting speed tiers to capture more precise information about upload and download broadband speeds.

The next semi-annual report on broadband deploying covering the second half of 2007 and subsequent reports will also require broadband providers to report the number of broadband subscribers by census tract, broken down by speed tier and technology type, the FCC announced.

FCC broadband data for first half of 2007 show nation plagued by persistent telco broadband black holes

The Federal Communications Commission's semi-annual report on broadband deployment as required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 covering the first half of 2007 is out and the numbers aren't good. (See Table 14) They show virtually no improvement in the percentage of residences that can get high speed Internet from their telcos during the first half of 2007 compared to all of 2006.

On average, nearly 20 percent of Americans still are unable to get broadband from their incumbent telephone companies. In some states -- notably Vermont, Virginia, New Hampshire and Maine -- the number is even worse, with fully one third of state households cut off from the modern era of telecommunications. No state exceeds the 91 percent availability rate of Georgia, though Nevada and California come close with 90 percent and 89 percent, respectively.

Kentucky's figure of 87 percent also casts doubt on the claim of Connect Kentucky in an Aug. 9, 2007 news release that 94 percent of households in the Blue Grass State can get broadband and no households will be left in digital darkness by the end of 2007. The organization was the subject of a January expose by Public Knowledge's Art Brodsky, who debunked its overblown broadband access claims.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Seattle gets serious about building municipal fiber infrastructure

The Puget Sound Business Journal reports Seattle city officials, growing increasingly frustrated with the metal wire-based broadband offerings of incumbent telco/cable duopolists Qwest and Comcast, are preparing to issue a request for proposals to build a fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure.

According to the newspaper, in 2005 a city-commissioned task force recommended a fiber-to-the-premise (FTTP) system as the best way to provide Seattle's populace with high-bandwidth voice, video and data options.

Support building for California legislation allowing local governments to construct broadband infrastructure

Political support appears to be building for legislation that would authorize community service districts, a form of California local government, to construct broadband infrastructure.

Humboldt County Supervisor Supervisor Roger Rodoni is asking the county's supes to write a legislative committee in support of the legislation, according to The Eureka Reporter.

“With passage of this bill, Humboldt County would have opportunities to bring in multiple broadband services and help to prevent the gridlock we’ve had in the recent past because of our limited broadband service,” Rodoni was quoted as saying.

Lawmakers should broaden the scope of the legislation, SB 1191, to include all forms of local government in California considering a January 2008 report by report by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Broadband Task Force finding nearly 2,000 California communities lack high speed Internet access.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

WISP gets $35 million low interest loan from USDA, plans major expansion

One month ago, I blogged about Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) sweeping into America's heartland where wire line broadband providers refuse to go. One of the WISPs, Stelera Wireless, rolled out service in Floresville & Poth, Texas using recently auctioned spectrum offering average speeds of 1.5-2 Mbps down and 350-380 Kbps for uploads. According to Stelera's CEO Ed Evans, the company is the first in the nation to introduce this technology in support of a wireless network purely focused on broadband services.

Stelera announced today it has received $35 million in low interest loan funds from the US Department of Agriculture that will allow it to expand to 55 towns and cities that have 20,000 or fewer inhabitants.

The WISP plans to use the capital infusion to expand to serve locations in Texas, Kansas, New Mexico, Colorado, North Dakota, South Dakota, Washington, Oregon and Arizona. Larger markets will be included as growth continues, the company said.

A major potential roadblock to the company's growth plans could present itself in the form of expanded wireless options offered by cell phone providers that provide throughput speeds in the same range as Stelera's. Stelera and other WISPs will have to offer significantly higher average throughput speeds -- in the neighborhood of 5 to 10 Mbs -- and solid connections if they expect to have a competitive market advantage over these services.

Telco regulators should prohibit passive "soft" divestiture and require companies to upgrade or sell off assets

The two major telcos in the United States, AT&T and Verizon, have segmented their residential wire line markets into three groups.

The first segment is where the telcos are deploying their state-of-the-art infrastructure. For AT&T, it’s the company’s hybrid fiber-copper based VDSL “Project Lightspeed” rollout in support of its Internet/Video/Voice “triple play” U-Verse product bundle. For Verizon, it’s the telco’s FiOS fiber to the premises infrastructure that like U-Verse offers the triple play bundle but with far greater bandwidth and expansion capacity. This “prime” segment comprises only a small percentage of each company’s total residential lines.

The second residential wire line segment features “double play” offerings of broadband Internet and traditional analog POTS (plain old telephone service) delivered over copper cable infrastructure. Broadband is provided by legacy ADSL central office DSLAMs and remote terminals. This “preferred” segment comprises the bulk of the two telcos’ residential customer base.

Which brings us to the third and last market segment. Call it the “non preferred” orphan segment. It is in the words of one independent ISP being kept on life support, serviced only when necessary by makeshift “bubble gum and bailing wire” repairs. Traditional voice service can be spotty, particularly when it rains and afterwards when the sun expands and dries aging aerial cables. Broadband Internet access is nonexistent and residential customers are stuck using early 1990s era dial up technology. In many cases, DSL remote terminals have been installed but were never activated and are now considered obsolete, destined never to be “turned up” in telco parlance. While comprising about 20 percent of the telcos’ residential subscriber base, this third segment accounts for the bulk of repair costs and generates the most complaints to regulators.

This segment has been divested by the telcos, either actively or passively. An example of active divestiture is Verizon’s sale of large portions of its residential territory in several New England states including Maine and Vermont. AT&T, by contrast, has chosen the route of passive or "soft" divestiture. AT&T doesn’t want to service its tertiary residential market segment or upgrade the infrastructure within it in order to offer more services, but the company hasn’t made any efforts to spin off portions of it either. Consequently, the millions of unfortunate residents of this market segment are stuck in telecommunications limbo land where time stands still and the calendar still reads 1991.

Since these companies typically hold monopolistic positions in their third and least desired segments, regulators should prohibit the neglectful passive divestiture practiced most prominently by AT&T and give the telcos a choice: bring your services up to modern standards or sell and get out and make way for other providers who can offer better services.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mapmaking a diversion on the road to full broadband deployment

One of the biggest diversions to filling in America’s many persistent broadband black holes is the idea of geographically mapping broadband availability. It’s been a prominent activity of telco industry backed nonprofits and broadband task forces and working groups established by state governments with the goal of increasing broadband access. Those mapmaking efforts have in turn influenced some in Congress to propose mapping the entire nation.

Unfortunately, too many well intended policymakers and broadband advocates have fallen into the misguided notion that in order increase broadband access, it must first be known where the broadband black holes are.

But rather than speeding broadband deployment, the mapping proposals have slowed it by creating an unnecessary way station on the road to full broadband deployment. They’ve produced disputes among telcos and cable companies who believe the maps will reveal their deployment strategies to competitors. (Not true, but that’s beside the point) Then there are debates among the providers and the mapmakers over the degree of granularity. Should the maps be drawn based on five-digit ZIP Codes, ZIP plus 4 or census tracts?

These mapping exercises are essentially busy work that distracts from the real task at hand: the need to deploy broadband infrastructure to eliminate those areas lacking it as rapidly as possible. Plus they give the telcos and cable companies an excuse to avoid further deployments until the scope of the maps is agreed upon and the maps are drawn up. When they’re completed, we end up with some nice pretty maps to look at but new no actual broadband deployment. Cynics might understandably suggest that’s a stall tactic on the part of the providers.

The maps also create a platform from which the providers can mount more empty promises of broadband deployment like AT&T's bogus Project Pronto. I recall attending a community meeting with AT&T’s predecessor entity SBC Communications in 2002 at which the telco displayed a large wall map showing a goal of broadband deployment to nearly 100 percent of its service areas by 2006. Here it is 2008 and Project Pronto turned out to be Project Punt.

The telcos and cable companies know where they've deployed broadband infrastructure. Public policymakers typically do not. Since local elected officials already represent a given geographical area, it’s very easy for them to poll their constituents on their Web sites, by mail and town hall meetings to ask them if they have broadband. Those living in broadband black holes will give them an earful. No mapping required.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Australians pull plug on BPL

Broadband Over Power Lines has short circuited in the land down under, reports. The problem is the same that afflicts DSL only on a larger scale: rapid signal degradation over distance, necessitating signal boosters:

The case for BPL wasn't helped, either, by rollout costs that would have quickly spiralled due to the need for a repeater station to be installed every kilometre along Australia's tens of thousands of kilometres of transmission lines.

Throw in the need for utilities to manage the telecoms infrastructure and enlist a carrier partner -- one that would also want a cut of the pie -- and it's clear that BPL, despite its promise and technical feasibility, is no longer compelling enough to be attractive for Australian utilities.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

U.S. broadband forecasts sweep pathetic state of access under the rug

A couple of reports are out this week that would lead their readers to believe that U.S. broadband access and speeds are “exploding” as one tech press account put it. Or about to.

Don’t believe it. It’s essentially telco/cable duopoly propaganda designed to make the number of people who have access to advanced services appear to be large and growing fast. The apparent goal is to sweep under the rug the ugly reality that very large numbers of Americans are still accessing the Internet the same way they did when a young former Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton was assuming the presidency and are likely to do so for some time. Only now, some have option of using satellite, a crippled and costly alternative that’s not much better than dialup and doesn’t provide true broadband connectivity.

One of these reports was issued this week by research firm Parks Associates. It projects by 2012, close to 33 million U.S. households will have broadband services with speeds of 10 Mbps or higher, capable of streaming high-definition video. The U.S. Census Bureau projects there will be about 177 million households by 2012, meaning many folks won’t. “If high-bandwidth broadband services fail to reach mass-market consumers, the United States may lose its competitive edge in the next round of technology innovation,” the report warns. "Such a scenario would be unpleasant.” Based on these numbers, it appears the U.S. is in for a lot of broadband unpleasantness.

Also this week, another research outfit projected that by 2011, of those who can get service at this speed, more than 9 million U.S. households will subscribe to telco-provided Internet Protocol TV service. The Yankee Group’s report, From Gorillas to Guerrillas, IPTV Changes Everything, sharply departs from reality in suggesting that IPTV technology will change the stodgy, accounting and lobbying driven Bell System culture that still rules telcos.

“IPTV will also forever transform how telcos operate,” Yankee Group declares in a bout of apparent wishful thinking. “It will take the service providers from being highly centralized, giant corporations to become decentralized, flexible entities that can respond much more rapidly to the specific needs of the communities they serve. The phone company of the past—the 800-pound gorilla—is dead. IPTV will transform telcos from the market-dominating gorillas they once were, to street fighting guerrillas."

That assessment is so out of touch it’s laughable. The telcos and especially the dominant player, AT&T, behave like arrogant, aloof government bureaucracies, not unlike the old Soviet phone company where customers had to wait five years just to get phone service. Consider the many folks who are stuck with POTS-based dial up that AT&T has been telling for years "We'll get to you when we get to you" and "Maybe and that's final" when they've asked (and often begged) for advanced services. They don't even have DSL let alone IPTV and aren't likely to see the latter for many more years — all the while relegated to early 1990s era dialup and satellite. And forget about the myth this problem is confined to rural areas; there are plenty of folks within metro areas who are still on dialup.

To suggest the entrenched, centralized, top-down telco culture can change in just two years' time to a "guerrilla marketing" culture simply defies common sense. It will likely take at least a decade and likely far longer. Only a major external event like another government ordered divestiture would likely alter that timetable.

Fed up with dial up, 20 Vermont towns give green light to fiber infrastructure

Residents of 20 Vermont towns have had it with dial up Internet access that was state of the art when Bill Clinton was starting his first term as president and are sick and tired of waiting for an alternative from an unresponsive telco/cable duopoly.

In nearly unanimous voting Tuesday, March 4, the townspeople approved nonbinding resolutions to create a subscriber-funded fiber optic infrastructure provding Internet, telephone and cable television opportunities in central and southern Vermont.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Qwest bullish on residential broadband, plans $1.8B FTTN deployment

Dow Jones reports today that Denver-based telco Qwest Communications International plans to spend $1.8 billion to build fiber to the node (FTTN) infrastructure serving 1.5 million homes in its top 23 markets.

Qwest joins AT&T in adopting the lower cost FTTN fiber/copper hybrid architecture, which AT&T is deploying as Project Lightspeed in selected areas to support its triple play IPTV video/Internet/voice bundle marketed under the brand name U-Verse.

By contrast, the nation's second largest telco, Verizon, has opted for a costlier Fiber To the Home (FTTN) architecture that offers residential customers higher throughput speeds, greater potential for expanded service offerings, and reduced risk of technological obsolescence.

Qwest estimates the FTTN deployment will run about $175 per home -- far less than FTTH. Qwest says about 60 percent of its upgraded homes will have speeds up to 7 Mbs.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Broadband black holes in Brooklyn?

Surprisingly so, according to this item on the New York City Broadband Advisory Committee appearing today in the Queens Chronicle:

The committee working to bring high speed public Internet access to New York City will be holding a hearing in Queens on Monday, March 3 at 1 p.m. The New York City Broadband Advisory Committee will convene at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City. The public is invited to attend and testify.

The committee, headed by Councilwoman Gale Brewer from Manhattan and including Councilman James Sanders from Springfield Gardens, will hear testimony from local officials and Queens residents about the accessibility and affordability of high speed Internet in Queens.

The committee has held hearings in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn already and was surprised to learn that some areas of Brooklyn have no cable or Internet access, according to Brewer. Sanders speculates that the same situation probably exists in parts of Queens.

Somerset County PA commissioner warns of broadband access crisis

From the Somerset County (PA) Daily American:

Somerset County has a way to go in its quest to connect every resident and business using broadband as the tool.

County commissioners are not daunted by the task, making it a priority for 2008. Last fall, while running for a third term of office, Commissioner James Marker made the first campaign promise in his eight-year career as a commissioner, stating he would do everything possible to achieve a high-speed Internet connection in the county.

His mind has not changed since he took office in January. If anything, it has intensified, he said. If the county does not meet the challenge soon, “we will have to face a real crisis,” Marker said.
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