Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Municipalities, telco coops essential players in fiber to premises deployment

Verizon issued a news release Monday pointing to a study commissioned by the Fiber to the Home Council suggesting that once the U.S. housing market begins to thaw, homebuyers will be hot for fiber. Or as another study issued last November by Google described them, "Homes with Tails."

As the only telco committed to a full fiber to the premises strategy for both brownfields and greenfields with its FiOS product, Verizon clearly has an interest in promoting the concept. The problem is Verizon like other big telcos as well as cable companies have segmented their markets such that locales where fiber would be most the desirable real estate amenity -- such as those that are home to exurban and semi-rural telecommuters and small businesses -- are least likely to see it. The only way these places can expect to get fiber to the premises in the foreseeable future is to start municipal fiber projects and fiber telecommunications cooperatives.

Both types of entities are also good candidates for some of the $7.2 billion in broadband infrastructure subsidies contained in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law in February as well as likely follow on funding promised by the Obama administration.

Cableco's wireless rollout targets urban mobile market -- not wireline coverage gaps

Here's a CNET article on Comcast's addition of wireless "High-Speed 2go” Internet service. The rollout shows that the nation's biggest cable company sees this offering as a mobile adjunct to its existing premises oriented wireline services -- and not a means to fill in gaps where its cable network isn't fully deployed.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Telco wireless broadband's role is mobile, not premises solution

Here's a great article that ran a couple of days ago at App-Rising putting wireless broadband into proper perspective. Namely that its primary role is to serve as a mobile form of connectivity. Technologically when it comes to delivering bandwidth, it currently cannot come close to competing with wireline and particularly fiber optic for premises service.

The article also links to recent household survey results showing that mobile broadband is viewed more as a luxury whereas premises broadband as a necessity with few willing to cut the cord but far more willing to forgo mobile broadband to save money.

Finally, the piece points up where the real inadequacies lie in the U.S. telecommunications: its wireline infrastructure. These inadequacies have themselves hampered mobile broadband services such as those offered with the iPhone that become saturated due to insufficient wireline backhaul capacity.

While the App-Rising article is written in the context of telco delivered mobile broadband, it should be mentioned that fixed terrestrial wireless broadband provided by Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs) plays an important role in serving premises as an interim solution. It provides connectivity to those located in unserved areas where no wireline broadband exists and will likely continue to do so until fiber is extended to these premises. But like telco mobile broadband providers, WISPs also suffer from technological and cost limitations for their wireline backhaul, making it difficult for them to offer appealing price points and a range of robust throughput tiers.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

British broadband deployment strategy stuck in the self limiting box of DSL

When it comes to ensuring universal broadband access for its citizens, the biggest challenge facing the Brits is thinking outside of box of DSL as this Telegraph story today illustrates.

The UK government is bumbling by setting the bar way too low (prescribing a minimum download speed of 2Mbs) and basing its broadband deployment strategy on DSL over copper, a technology intended to serve only as an interim solution from the 1990s and to the middle of the current decade until fiber optic to the premises is build out. It's a vastly underpowered and arguably obsolete technology that itself is responsible for the formation of gaping broadband "black spots" as they are called in Britian. That's because DSL signals attenuate and quickly fade not far from central telephone exchanges, meaning those just a few miles away are left without service.

Our friends across the Big Pond should consult with American broadband experts like Tim Nulty, who is working to bring fiber to the premises in that part of the U.S. known -- ironically -- as New England. Nulty served as director of a publicly owned broadband system serving the city of Burlington, Vermont and now runs ValleyFiber, a nonprofit organization focused on bringing municipal fiber to nearly two dozen Vermont towns.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The underlying conflict driving muni, coop fiber

The saga of the planned City of Monticello, Minnesota municipal fiber network clearly points up the fundamental conflict between privately run advanced telecommunications providers and municipal fiber projects such as Monticello, which as this story reports successfully withstood a lawsuit by TDS Telecommunications aimed at blocking the project.

Privately held providers are primarily accountable to their investors and shareholders. In the case of costly telecommunications infrastructure requiring extensive capital expenditures that can crimp investor returns over the short term, their interests are directly at odds with those of consumers and businesses desiring more and better value services necessitating those capital expenditures.

Given these starkly conflicting agendas, it's no wonder we're seeing alternative models of constructing advanced telecom infrastructure emerge such as muni and cooperative fiber projects that are accountable to their constituents and members. These alternative models will be particularly viable in areas where existing providers have built incomplete local access networks that leave numerous broadband coverage gaps -- which describes much of the United States.

Thanks to Ron Britvich for the link to the story.

What it's like inside a real rural broadband black hole

When it comes to the shortcomings of U.S. broadband infrastructure, mainstream media tend to paint with too broad a brush by describing the issue in stark urban and rural terms as if American settlement patterns were still like those of the 1930s and 1940s.

They also inaccurately reinforce stereotypes that people in urban areas have access to broadband while those in rural areas often don't. Wrong. There are plenty of folks in the semi-rural America, the exurbs, suburbs and even some in Silicon Valley who lack wireline advanced telecommunications services due to incomplete infrastructure buildout over the last mile.

The difference is in rural areas, the broadband black holes tend to cover far larger geographical areas. Here's an excerpt from an article in USA Today that describes what it's like inside one of those truly rural broadband black holes:

"A lot of people think rural America is where the road narrows from four lanes to two lanes," says Cubley, who grew up on a farm in East Texas. "Rural America is where you drive off the gravel road to get to the farm house; it's where you have to get in a car and drive to visit your neighbors," he says. "Millions of people live that way. And they need broadband just like everybody else."

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Not just telecom: Coops may play integral role in health care reform

Cooperatives are likely to play a key role in ending the current patchwork quilt of broadband black holes as the U.S. moves toward a complete advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

Turns out they may also help lower costs and increase access to coverage in the nation's private health care system under a draft Senate omnibus health care reform bill introduced this week. The draft bill forgoes creating a government health plan to compete with private market HMOs and insurers and substitutes in consumer cooperatives per this excerpt from a June 19 Washington Post article:

The absence of a "public option" marks perhaps the most significant omission. Obama and many Democrats had sought a public option to ensure affordable, universal coverage, but as many as 10 Senate Democrats have protested the idea as unfair to private insurers. In its place, the draft circulated yesterday outlines a co-op approach modeled after rural electricity and telecom providers, subject to government oversight and funded with federal seed money.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Prospective FCC chair on defining underserved areas

A key task assigned to the Federal Communications Commission in the broadband infrastructure buildout subsidies in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is to define what constitutes "unserved" and "underserved" areas of the nation for the purpose of allocating funding.

There tends to be general agreement when it comes to defining unserved: locations stuck in 1993 and still relegated to dial up or at the tender mercies of substandard satellite Internet providers who charge a lot of money for usage capped, high latency connections better described as molasses net.

However, when it comes to underserved, there's less consensus and the debate tends to center on the level of throughput that defines broadband. Last year, the FCC set a low standard of 768 Kbs in one direction that's already too slow and outmoded.

Julius Genachowski, President Barack Obama's nominee to chair the FCC, offered a broader definition of underserved to the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee at his confirmation hearing Tuesday.

Underserved could be defined not only as substandard throughput speed, according to this IDG News Service report at Yahoo!Tech on Genachowski's testimony. It could also mean those areas where broadband adoption is low or where there are pockets of unserved areas in places that generally have broadband, Genachowski told the committee.

Under the latter "pockets" definition, much of the United States would be deemed underserved because of the incomplete, helter skelter deployment of broadband infrastructure over the past decade. In fact, these pockets are so numerous that accurate mapping of broadband availability wouldn't produce a usable map but rather something that looks more like a display of the moon's surface with the countless craters representing various sized broadband black spots. Or a disorganized "hodge podge" as the Communication Workers of America has described the nation's telecommunications infrastructure.

Underpowered DSL signals peter out and can't reliably provide service. Cable company cable runs suddenly and arbitrarily stop. Consequently, one premises may enjoy broadband access -- sometimes from both telco DSL and cable -- while another just down the street or road or even next door does not. For years, visitors to this blog have come to it after performing searches that go along the lines of "My neighbor can get broadband and I can't/why not."

The danger of attempting to define what "underserved" means is that the exercise lends itself to subjective, self serving interpretations that can further delay broadband infrastructure deployment that should have been in place years ago for many more years. Instead of defining the broadband deficits, the goal should be to define and focus on the nation's desired broadband assets. President Obama has done that by calling for ubiquitous broadband access. We should work backward from that goal.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Microtrenching gets increased attention as lower cost fiber deployment technique

As U.S. broadband infrastructure projects gear up for their share of the $7.2 billion set aside for them in the federal economic stimulus package, a relatively new and lower cost method of burying fiber optic cable in the middle and last miles called microtrenching is generating some buzz.

Here's a good article outlining the pros and cons of microtrenching. It's far less time consuming than conventional trenching since the trenches are more like discrete slots in the pavement near the curb instead of the wider and deeper trenches traditionally used for buried fiber runs.

Not only is the methodology of burying fiber improving, so is the fiber itself, according to the article. It mentions that LiteAccess Technologies is out with fiber that's placed in water and airtight microducts that are less likely to have to be dug up later due to water seepage or other contamination and require less signal attenuation-inducing splices.

Another article from New Zealand however raises questions regarding whether the technique is a suitable alternative to aerial fiber deployment in more rural areas where road surfaces are thinner, often chip sealed and resurfaced frequently.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

California PUC proposes supplementing US broadband stimulus funds

The California Public Utilities Commission has issued a proposed order that would allow it to supplement federal economic stimulus funds for broadband telecommunications infrastructure construction in unserved and underserved areas of the Golden State. Specifically, the proposed order would supplement $4.7 billion of the $7.2 billion broadband infrastructure stimulus funding to be distributed by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP).

In an apparent bid to leverage the BTOP funds, the CPUC would supplement the 80 percent BTOP grant subsidy with 10 percent of the total project cost -- amounting to half of the 20 percent funding match for BTOP grant recipients. That means 90 percent of the cost of approved projects would be subsidized by the combined 80 percent BTOP grant and 10 percent CPUC funding under the proposed order.

The CPUC funding would be allocated out of the regulatory agency's California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). Created in 2007, the $100 million CASF is funded by a surcharge on intrastate long distance calls. As much as $80 million of CASF funding remains unrewarded, according to the proposed order. A likely reason according to proceeding documents filed by CPUC staff late last year, is applicants balked at the requirement they put up 60 percent of project costs, complaining the CASF 40 percent subsidy is inadequate.

Those seeking the CASF funding must act quickly. Priority will be given to project applications received by July 17 -- about two weeks after the NTIA is to publish its own rules for allocating the federal broadband stimulus funding. According to the proposed order, the CPUC will make those awards in September. Applications for a second round of funding will be accepted from July 18 to August 14 with funds awarded in October. As per current CASF rules, priority will be given to unserved areas lacking broadband access.

Current CASF rules restrict funding to registered wireline and wireless providers. Whether others such as local government entities, nonprofits and cooperatives would be eligible for the CASF funding depends on the enactment of authorizing legislation, AB 1012, currently pending in the California Senate after breezing out of the Assembly May 28 on a 78-0 vote. If enacted, the urgency measure would take effect immediately. If it is, under the proposed order the CPUC would require these other entities to meet the same application requirements as wireline and wireless providers including maps of areas to be served and financial and technical information.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Why telcos drag their feet on residential broadband

In the fall of 2007, Ralph de la Vega, AT&T's group president for regional telecommunications and entertainment made a pronouncement with profound implications that were largely overlooked in the mainsream media.

de la Vega told Investor's Business Daily that AT&T would ultimately shut down its existing voice network and replace it with a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) system in metro areas where U-Verse is being deployed.

Since U-Verse deployment has been delayed and scaled back, it calls into question the future of AT&T's wireline residential market segment. Essentially de la Vega pronounced the beginning of the end of the Publicly Switched Telephone Network (PSTN) and its replacement by the Internet with Next Generation Telephony.

That also means telcos' proprietary central office switches are on a fast track to obsolesence, destined to be replaced with Internet servers and field-based fiber optic distribution equipment. Industry observers like Bob Frankston are right to accuse telcos of foot dragging by creating artificial bandwidth scarcity and restricting broadband access in order to live in the copper-bound PSTN world for as long as possible. This is the unspoken subtext to the larger Strum und Drang on this blog and elsewhere over the pathetically poor state of broadband availability in much of the United States. It's typically explained as a simple return on investment problem, but there's more to it than that.

As the Internet wreaks massive disruption in mass media, it also threatens an end to the days of Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) delivered over twisted copper. Just as people are canceling their newspaper subscriptions, they are also ditching their residential land lines. And who can blame them when all they can get over them is POTS and perhaps DSL (an acronym that should mean Doesn't Serve Lots)?

It also explains why first tier telcos like AT&T are redefining the residential wireline segment as "personal wireless" services since this segment can remain proprietary if residential wireline moves out of the old proprietary, closed system scheme and into one where last and some middle mile infrastructure is owned and operated by small local providers, local governmental entities and telecom cooperatives.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Private market failure limits U.S. broadband reach

Market failure has constrained the ability of America's privately owned telecom infrastructure to deliver universally accessible broadband-based services, requiring government to fill the gap, said Jim Kohlenberger, chief of staff for the White House’s Office of Science and Technology at this week's Broadband Stimulus National Town Hall held in Washington. Kohlenberger's remarks were reported by BroabandCensus.com in a story posted today.

“Today’s broadband networks are far from ubiquitous,” Kohlenberger is quoted as saying, noting only 57 percent of Americans have broadband at home, "and even that isn’t homogenous.” The nation, he said, is "at a juncture where we can and must do more to bridge this opportunity gap.”

Friday, June 05, 2009

More signs of trouble for AT&T's U-Verse

AT&T continues to emphasize wireless as its future while deemphasizing the wire line market segment. As evidence, gigaom cites a June 4 report by UBS Research analyst John Hodulik that the big telco has slowed by nearly half deployment of its premier wire line product, U-Verse.

Hodulik projects AT&T's U-Verse buildout to reach an additional 4 to 5 million premises this year, down from 9 million new premises passed by the service -- which offers Internet connectivity, IPTV, and VOIP -- in 2008.

As predicted last September, I continue to expect AT&T to pull the plug on U-Verse sometime in the first half of 2010 as part of a general retreat out of residential wire line service in favor of more profitable wireless service. The Dallas-based company will likely blame unanticipated cost, technological and competitive market challenges for the move. In the residential and small business wire line segment, AT&T's future role will be a middle mile and particularly a long haul provider.
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