Saturday, January 31, 2009

Cisco's Chambers: Time to broadband the U.S. economy

From an op-ed piece by Cisco chief John Chambers published earlier this month in the San Jose Mercury News:

Imagine what the United States could accomplish if our broadband speeds were not just competitive, but leading-edge. Imagine what broadband could do for health care: A medical specialist in Cleveland, Ohio, could do a virtual house call via high-definition video to a homebound retiree in Henderson, Nev. We have the technology now, but we need the connectivity. Imagine applying that same technology to education and changing the very nature of the way students learn — or the way we train workers.

Our economic challenges are too dire to merely rely on Band-Aids. It's time to broadband our economy. The innovation, the productivity and the growth that is possible with a proper broadband infrastructure is nearly limitless. The time to act is now. Doing so will not only help stabilize and stimulate a recovery but create the foundation for long-term prosperity and competitiveness.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Thy neighbor's broadband

In the three years this blog has been in existence, by far the top Google search phrase that directs readers to it goes along the lines of "My neighbors can get high speed Internet/DSL/cable but I can't/why not?"

The common question ultimately reveals the hodge podge, Balkanized deployment of premises-based wire line broadband Internet access that's about as maddening as not being able to get telephone service when the folks next door can. Or them getting electricity while you're left off the grid.

The high frequency of the Google query directed to this blog also calls into question the widely repeated myth that broadband black holes can only be found deep in rural Iowa or Nebraska when in fact they turn up most anywhere in the United States.

The common Google search term also points up the technological shortcomings of DSL over copper, which is very sensitive to and degrades with distance, as well as the severely proscribed footpoints of cable deployments based on the number of dwellings per an arbitrary linear metric suitable only for neighborhoods laid out along urban gridlines.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

AT&T slows Project Lightspeed/U-Verse deployment

AT&T will decelerate build out of its hybrid fiber/copper Project Lightspeed infrastructure that delivers the telco's bundled U-Verse offering, TelephonyOnline reports today.

The publication cites comments by AT&T executives in a conference call Tuesday discussing the company's Q4 2008 earnings and citing Lightspeed/U-Verse as a drag on profits.

Under the scaled back deployment, AT&T has decided to delay its goal of passing 30 million homes from 2010 to 2011, according to TelephonyOnline, and concentrate on the former BellSouth territory in the southeastern U.S. AT&T acquired in late 2006.

Last month, AT&T also pushed back the deployment of VDSL copper pair bonding technology to extend the severely limited range and throughput of U-Verse. The new target date is sometime this year, the second delay after a planned late 2007 deployment was scrapped.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Unclear on the concept

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association is creating a 22,000-square-foot main street-themed exhibit space that it says will be the centerpiece of its exhibit floor. The exhibit will demonstrate "The many ways in which high-speed broadband service has and will continue to improve the lives of Americans."

The effort, announced Tuesday, matches the centerpiece that broadband deployment has become in the new Obama administration's economic stimulus package.

It also comes as Congress is debating how to dole out over $8 billion in grants for broadband. Satellite operators are fighting for their share of the money, arguing that satellite-delivered broadband will be the only way to reach some rural enclaves.

Like those rural areas on the edge of the Arctic Circle? Talk about unclear on the concept. I think I'll launch some of those digital dirigibles and apply for funding too. And let's not leave out BPL while we're at it.

Congress should reject telco whining over broadband requirements in economic stimulus measure

Economic stimulus legislation on a congressional fast track that would allocate $6 billion (House version) and $9 billion (Senate version) for broadband telecommunications infrastructure build out to underserved areas is unsurprisingly eliciting whining from the big telcos.

Industry representatives and think tanks that front for them complain the measures' minimum connectivity speed requirements for wireline and wireless service to underserved areas as well as open access requirements would not dispose them to applying for broadband infrastructure grants, loans and loan guarantees.

What they want instead are tax breaks just as telcos received under the 1996 Communications Act that was to have brought broadband to all Americans in a decade's time. Bottom line: business as usual. Continued proprietary (and geographically limited and underpowered) DSL access over crappy, aging (depreciating from the telcos' perspective) copper cable, maintaining wireless Internet connectivity at or below the less than impressive capabilities of current deployments and continuing to tell millions of Americans to go suck a satellite or live in dial up purgatory.

Congress should reject these whiners that have led the U.S on a race to the bottom when it comes to advanced IP-based telecommunications services. The telcos propagated a broadband boondoogle with the 1996 Communications Act. Broadband access is too important to allow them to repeat the fiasco.

Maintaining open access requirements in the stimulus legislation will assist local governments and citizens by providing seed funding to form their own fiber cooperatives. That will allow them to break free of the telco/cable duopoly that has failed to provide them adequate broadband access for their current and future needs.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Tax cuts, expanded NTIA funding for broadband proposed

Provisions of economic stimulus legislation rapidly moving through Congress could be expanded to include tax cuts and tripling the amount of grants for broadband infrastructure.

Bloomberg reports today U.S. Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) will propose tax credits to encourage telephone, cable and wireless companies to expand broadband access. The Bloomberg item also states the Senate Appropriations Committee wants $9 billion for broadband grants administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), compared to $3 billion in the House Appropriations Committee's version of the stimulus legislation.

The broadband provisions of the economic stimulus measure will likely undergo more revisions before the bill reaches President Barack Obama, who has called for its enactment by mid February to shore up a flagging U.S. economy.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

President Obama reiterates need for broadband infrastructure in weekly radio address

President Barack Obama mentioned the expansion of broadband telecommunications infrastructure in his weekly radio address today urging swift enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The measure, which cleared Congressional committees this week on track for passage by mid-February, includes $6 billion in grants and loans to finance broadband build out.

Here's the relevant passage from the president's address:

Finally, we will rebuild and retrofit America to meet the demands of the 21st century. That means repairing and modernizing thousands of miles of America’s roadways and providing new mass transit options for millions of Americans. It means protecting America by securing 90 major ports and creating a better communications network for local law enforcement and public safety officials in the event of an emergency. And it means expanding broadband access to millions of Americans, so business can compete on a level-playing field, wherever they’re located.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The challenge facing WISPs

While fixed terrestrial wireless Internet service providers (WISPs) are well situated to pick up where DSL has derailed on the route to fiber to the premises (FTTP), their major challenge going forward is to provide users decent connectivity at an attractive price point. Especially as consumers and businesses become more frugal in the current economic contraction.

The challenge is evident in the case of one WISP that recently expanded into your blogger's area of El Dorado County, California. When I mentioned Central Valley Broadband in a Dec. 3, 2008 post, the WISP was offering 3 Mbs service to telco neglected SOHOs (Small Office/Home Office) at a relatively appealing monthly rate of $60.

According to the company's Web site, that's no longer the case. Now its best business plan offers 2 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up -- at the much higher price of $130 a month. A lower priced business plan at $90 a month provides throughput of 1 Mbs down and 512 Kbs up.

While some SOHOs might be willing to pay that price, it's likely to give pause to others and limit the company's growth prospects in the SOHO segment. Additionally, neither of these nominally businsess grade plans meet the minimum wireless connectivity standards of 3 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up established for California Advanced Services Fund subsidies or for grant funding under federal economic stimulus legislation curently making its way through Congress. Nor do any of the company's consumer plans, which start out at $40 a month for 512 Kbs down and 256 Kbs up and go up to $90 a month for 1.5 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up. The latter plan might barely support video downloads depending on the latency. But even if it proves adequate, late adopter residential users currently on dial up aren't likely to be motivated to pay nearly 100 bucks a month in order to watch YouTube and NetFlix video at minimum recommended throughput.

For WISPs hoping to pick up significant numbers of customers in the years before FTTP is widely established (and be perceived as a superior alternative to the crippled and costly connectivity of satellite Internet) their challenge is to offer services with both decent throughput and attractive pricing. Otherwise their growth prospects are severely constrained and self limiting.

Monday, January 19, 2009

FCC data show DSL availability hit wall in 2006; nearly 20 percent of U.S. homes continued to lack access in 2007

Newly released data show U.S. telco DSL availability hitting the wall in 2006 with virtually no increase during 2007. The data are contained in Table 14 of the Federal Communications Commission's semi-annual report on broadband deployment as of Dec. 31, 2007.

The data show show the percentage of residences that can get DSL from their telcos during the last half of 2007 -- about 80 percent averaged among all states -- barely budging compared to all of 2006. That leaves about 20 percent of telco customers stuck with circa early 1990s dial up or the substandard option of satellite Internet, a technology more appropriate for the Alaskan frontier than the lower 48 states.

That telco DSL availability showed virtually no increase over 2006 and 2007 starkly illustrates that DSL provided by incumbent telcos over copper cable is a failed technology for delivering high speed Internet access to Americans that should be abandoned in favor of fiber optic-based telecommunications infrastructure.

As with previous versions of the semi-annual reports required by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the same states remain in the cellar measured on lack of telco DSL access including Vermont (31 percent), Virginia (35 percent), New Hampshire (38 percent), Maine (31 percent), Michigan (29 percent), Mississippi (28 percent), Maryland (25 percent) and even New York (24 percent). DSL availability exceeded 90 percent or greater in just two states, Georgia and California.

Government funded info tech, telecom spending as potential economic elixir

This item in today's L.A. Times paints a bleak outlook for the U.S. economy during Barack Obama's four-year presidential term that begins tomorrow. Additionally, investment in information and telecommunications technology has remained weak since the 1999 dot com bust and the 2001-02 recession, the article notes, suggesting goverment spending in this sector could help stimulate the overall economy.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Broadband infrastructure provisions of U.S. economic stimulus legislation

The House Appropriations Committee has released a draft of the economic stimulus legislation titled the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 appropriating $6 billion in loans, loan guarantees and grants for the build out open access broadband telecommunications infrastructure.

Slightly less than half of the funds will be directed to the Rural Utilities Service prioritizing rural areas that received funding for electrification under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936. The Secretary of Agriculture would determine which rural areas lack sufficient access to high speed broadband service.

The balance of the funding would be directed to a State Broadband Data and Development Grant Program administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. (NTIA) $1 billion would be allocated to wireless and $1.85 billion to wireline broadband; up to 20 percent could be shifted between wireless and wireline.

Within 75 days of the proposed legislation's enactment, states desiring access to funding would be required to submit reports to the NTIA identifying areas with the greatest need for broadband infrastructure. States would be required to identify those areas that lack basic wireline broadband -- defined asymetrically under the measure as capable of providing throughput of at least (not "up to") 5 Mbs download and 1 Mbs upload -- and advanced wireline broadband -- defined asymetrically as 45 Mbs download and 20 Mbs for uploads. Both voice only and advanced wireless telecommunications infrastructure are eligible for funding, however 75 percent would be set aside for advanced wireless infrastructure in capable of providing broadband connectivity of 3 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up.

Lacking from the throughput requirements for both wireline and wireless broadband are latency standards, which should be a maximum of 50-60 milliseconds.

Notably, entities eligible for grant funding include private providers of broadband services, states, local governments and other entities as authorized by the NTIA. The measure requires the agency to adopt rules to prevent unjust enrichment of grant recipients including meeting build out requirements for proposed projects.

The bill leaves it to the Federal Communications Commission to define broadband ‘‘unserved" and "underserved" areas as well as what constitutes open access broadband infrastructure. I would suggest that it be defined to mean the opposite of the proprietary broadband infrastructure owned by the large telcos and cable companies that has been only partially built out, leaving gaping broadband black holes and lack of access to modern IP-based telecommunications services. As World Wide Web creator Vint Cerf observed in 2008, these providers have impeded the expansion of broadband since they have large amounts invested in legacy infrastructure that was never intended for broadband and IP-based services.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Economic stimulus measure includes $6 billion down payment on U.S. broadband infrastructure

The House Appropriations Committee today released an outline of the economic stimulus funding bill being readied for President-elect Barack Obama's signature after he takes office next week.

The American Recovery and Reinvestment Bill of 2009 will include $6 billion in grants earmarked for broadband and wireless services in underserved areas of the nation "to strengthen the economy and provide business and job opportunities in every section of America with benefits to e-commerce, education, and healthcare." The summary of the stimulus measure estimates that the $6 billion investment in broadband will produce a $60 billion multiplier effect for the nation's struggling economy.

This is just for starters. Blair Levin, a technology advisor to the incoming president, told the State of the Net Conference in Washington Jan. 14 that the $6 billion being set aside for broadband in the stimulus legislation represents only a portion of the incoming administration's planned efforts to boost broadband deployment in the U.S.

Update 1/16/08: For details on how the funding is parsed out, here's what I've obtained from the actual draft legislation.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fiber infrastructure build out -- not throughput speed-- should be focus of planned stimulus funding

The Washington Post reports today a debate is brewing over how broadband should be defined under the incoming Obama administration's goal to fund new broadband telecommunications infrastructure as part of its planned economic stimulus package. Specifically, the debate is over what level of throughput defines broadband.

Throughput speed is not the issue. Building out fiber optic infrastructure over the local access network -- the so-called "last mile" -- is. Fiber provides a proven, future proof technology that can accommodate the rapidly increasing demand for bandwidth needed by video and other bandwidth-intensive applications. Art Brodsky of Public Knowledge correctly observes in the Post article that providing stimulus funding to telcos for increasingly obsolete metal wire-based broadband services would turn into a wasteful boondoggle.

History supports Brodsky's warning. The bell companies that today comprise AT&T, Verizon and Qwest were to have built out their networks with the tax incentives provided more than a decade ago under the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to provide fiber connections to all homes and businesses by 2006. They didn't. Consequently, the U.S. suffers with incomplete telecom networks that leave millions unable to get decent Internet access more than a decade after the law's enactment. Repeating this error would ignite a race to the bottom and leave the U.S. even further behind other developed nations when it comes to broadband Internet access and modern IP-based telecommunications services.

Rather than large telcos and cable companies, economic stimulus funding should be directed to local entities including for profit companies, nonprofit cooperatives and local governments to construct fiber optic infrastructure over the critical but long neglected last mile.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Minnesota muni fiber project prime example of where broadband infrastructure stimulus funding should go

Blandin on Broadband tipped me to this municipal fiber project whose $18.5 million bond financing goes before North St. Paul, Minnesota voters next month.

It's a prime example of where the new Congress and the incoming Obama administration should be directing economic stimulus infrastructure funding. Federal funding would help reduce the financial risk of these municipal fiber projects by helping them cover their start up costs sooner while creating badly needed jobs and stimulating electronic commerce.

North St. Paul City Manager Wally Wysopal has the right idea in suggesting this isn't simply about filling in broadband black holes but instead is putting in place vital telecommunications infrastructure that can meet the city's needs going into the future. This approach is far superior to simply playing catch up by wasting stimulus funding on rolling out increasingly obsolete copper cable-based DSL that should have been more widely deployed years ago under the incentives and tax breaks of the 1996 federal Telecommunications Act.

"The idea here is to become the best-connected small town in Minnesota," Wysopal told the Pioneer Press. "We're not getting into this for the sake of providing lower rates for cable or telephone but to provide a service that's superior to anything that's being contemplated today."

Friday, January 09, 2009

Obama calls for U.S. broadband build out

Here's the relevant passage from a speech U.S. President-elect Barack Obama delivered Thursday on his proposed American Recovery and Reinvestment Plan:

To build an economy that can lead this future, we will begin to rebuild America. Yes, we’ll put people to work repairing crumbling roads, bridges, and schools by eliminating the backlog of well-planned, worthy and needed infrastructure projects. But we’ll also do more to retrofit America for a global economy. That means updating the way we get our electricity by starting to build a new smart grid that will save us money, protect our power sources from blackout or attack, and deliver clean, alternative forms of energy to every corner of our nation. It means expanding broadband lines across America, so that a small business in a rural town can connect and compete with their counterparts anywhere in the world.

The President-elect raised the issue again two days later in his Saturday, Jan. 10 radio address:

We’ll put nearly 400,000 people to work by repairing our infrastructure – our crumbling roads, bridges and schools. And we’ll build the new infrastructure we need to succeed in this new century, investing in science and technology, and laying down miles of new broadband lines so that businesses across our nation can compete with their counterparts around the world.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Study estimates tax incentives for fiber to the premises would create more than half million jobs over 3 years

The Fiber to the Home Council commissioned a study issued this week that concludes tax incentives to spur the deployment of fiber optics to the premises (FTTP) would generate more than 200,000 jobs in each of the next three years (2009-11) and increase economic output by more than $100 billion during the period. The report examines the economic impact of allowing builders of broadband infrastructure to fully depreciate their investments and authorizing private and public entities to issue bonds that feature federal income tax credits to help cover the outlay for the deployments.

The report's release is apparently timed in hopes it will be considered as part of a massive federal economic stimulus and infrastructure construction measure being readied by Congress for President-elect Barack Obama's signature soon after he takes office later this month.

The report cites data compiled by Morgan Stanley estimating the U.S. residential broadband penetration rate at approximately 56 percent of all households, projected to grow to 61.1 percent by 2011. Without the proposed tax incentives, an average of 7.3 million homes (equal to six percent of all households) will lack broadband access from 2009 through 2011 without the proposed tax incentives, the study concludes citing Morgan Stanley estimates.

What's odd about the study considering it was done for an organization promoting the use of fiber is that it also examines the effect of tax incentives directed at upgrading and building out existing metal wire-based cable and telco DSL infrastructure offering throughput of 5 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up.

As this blog recently asserted, federal incentives and funding should be targeted to local private and public sector entities with the specific goal of modernizing telecommunications infrastructure over the last mile. History has shown that tax and other financial incentives put in place as part of the federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 failed to provide adequate impetus for large incumbent telcos to build out broadband infrastructure to serve all homes and businesses, leading to the current problem of widespread and persistent broadband black holes.

Netflix and Blockbuster video over Internet still not ready for prime time, but a viable a la carte VOD alternative to cable, telco TV

Reuters reports today that Blockbuster is joining rival Netflix in offering video on demand over high speed Internet connections as an alternative to renting DVDs.

This is clearly where viewing films at home is headed. But over the foreseeable, it's going to be logistically constrained to a small market segment: those areas where broadband connections offer adequate bandwidth to support downloading of standard and especially high definition video content.

On line delivery of video on demand provided by these vendors also offers an alternative to those who don't wish to pay for video programming packages offered by cable and telco TV players and instead prefer to take their video a la carte.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Alabama governor announces initiative to boost broadband availability

Here's the news release issued by Alabama Gov. Bob Riley and an AP story based on the release. According to the AP story, the initiative -- funded mostly by federal grants -- will fund the deployment of both wireline and wireless broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas of the state.

Riley has apparently grown frustrated at the lack of broadband access in Alabama, which according to Federal Communications Commission ranked among the lowest of all states as of June 2007 -- the most recent period for which the FCC has released data -- measured on wireline-based telco broadband availability.
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