Monday, November 23, 2009

Minnesota wants all state residents able to telecommute by 2015

Minnesota has established a functionality-based broadband goal: all residents of the state should be able telecommute -- work from home -- by 2015. That would require advanced telecommunications infrastructure able to allow them to video conference, according to Rick King, COO of Thomson Reuters, who chaired the Minnesota High Speed Broadband Task Force. That functional definition translates to download speeds of 10-20 Mbs and upload speeds of 5-10 Mbs, reports

The federal government and other states, particularly those with major commuter congestion and especially those like California looking to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, should look to Minnesota. It has taken a major step forward in defining what advanced telecommunications infrastructure should enable without getting caught up in the feeds and speeds debate over how "broadband" should be defined.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Fighting the future: Telco/cable duopoly resorts to astroturfing to preserve status quo

Here's a key passage from a screed by Tim Karr of Free Press deploring the use of phony grassroots "astroturf" groups by the telco/cable duopoly to cloak its self interested protectionism in populist-sounding righteousness:

On Internet policy, astroturf groups have pocketed millions from industry to fulfill Job No. 1: Lock in incumbent phone and cable companies' control over high-speed Internet connections in America. At present, these companies provide 97 percent of fixed connections into American homes, a status quo they are willing to spend untold sums to maintain.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Brigham City, Utah: Pioneering America's telecom future

America's brightest and most promising version of its advanced telecommunications future is playing out in Brigham City, Utah. Residents there aren't waiting for the incumbent telco and cable companies to build fiber infrastructure to reach their premises. In the pioneering spirit of the great American West where consumer cooperatives formed a century ago to provide telephone service, they're doing it themselves, reports App-Rising.

According to App-Rising, 1,600 residents have paid $3,000 to install fiber to their homes, which will give them access to various providers via one of the nation's first open access networks, UTOPIA.

The concept is right out of a working paper issued one year ago by the New America Foundation authored by Derek Slater and Tim Wu titled Homes with Tails What If You Could Own Your Internet Connection. Like those for solar power, the paper recommends state and federal tax credits to create incentives for homeowners to buy their own fiber.

This concept has great potential to fill in the great many broadband black holes found throughout the West. As the Federal Communications Commission prepares recommendations to Congress due in two months on government policy to expand broadband access, it should put this open access, consumer owned fiber to the premises model -- and tax credits to encourage its use -- on the top of its list.

It's the infrastructure, stupid

This Rollcall article by think tankers Robert Shapiro of the Georgetown Center for Business and Public Policy and Kevin Hassett of the American Enterprise Institute implies that broadband black holes are caused by a lack of Internet bandwidth. To fill in the holes, Shapiro and Hassett suggest, simply charge large bandwidth users more.

The problem with their analysis is that it assumes broadband black holes are a pricing problem. Wrong answer. It's an infrastructure problem. The holes are there because the business models of the incumbent telco and cable providers don't allow them to fill them. The investor-owned incumbents must earn a return on their capital expenditures within five years but they can only do so in selected parts of their service areas. Hence, limited availability of the advanced telecommunications infrastructure necessary to deliver Internet protocol-based advanced telecommunications services. The telco/cable duopoly has long charged business users higher prices to subsidize services to lower revenue residential customers. That pricing differential has done nothing to spur investment in investor-owned advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

What's needed to fill in the broadband black holes are alternative business models such as nonprofit consumer-owned telecom cooperatives formed a century ago when the investor owned telcos were unable to profitably provide telephone service to large parts of the nation. Local governments can play a similar role.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Report: Flood of comments on broadband stimulus requests indicate "significant incumbent challenges"

Telecompetitor is reporting Mary Campanola, outreach coordinator for the Rural Utilities Service, told a panel at the Telco TV annual conference and expo Nov. 12 that the agency has received 11,000 comments for the 2,200 applications it received for funding through its Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP). BIP provides grants and low cost loans as part of $7.2 billion set aside for broadband infrastructure subsidies in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

Telecompetitor quotes Campanola as saying 80 percent of all applications received at least one comment, which according to the interactive blog reveal "significant incumbent challenges" of proposed deployments aimed at providing broadband to areas designated as unserved or underserved.

Since RUS must check out each incumbent challenge, the BIP stimulus dollars will flow slowly. Campanola reportedly said just 18 applications that were due three months ago made it past the initial review phase. Those projects selected for funding will be announced starting in December with award notifications made on a rolling basis well into 2010, Campanola was quoted as saying.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Broadband demand vs. supply siders: Real debate or a diversion?

As in macroeconomics, an ideological split appears to be developing among supply siders and demand siders over government policy designed to make broadband available to all Americans.

The demand siders tend to hail from the telco/cable duopoly such as Kyle McSlarrow, the president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA). Policy should focus on the demand side, McSlarrow told a conference hosted by the Family Online Safety Institute. "[T]he way we need to think about this is to think about this in terms of broadband adoption. We have it a little backwards right now."

Demand siders got a boost last week with the release of a study by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation concluding the U.S. should create several programs to address demand for broadband in addition to subsidizing deployment of advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

Supply siders however question the need for government programs to stimulate broadband demand. IDG News Service reported at a recent California forum, some speakers suggested broadband adoption would continue to rise in the U.S. without significant help from the government. Connecting to broadband will eventually be like electricity, easy and inexpensive, Google cofounder Sergey Brin was quoted as saying.

I question whether the supply/demand side debate is real or contrived. The fact that the demand siders tend to be in the telco/cable camp raises my suspicion that their pushing the issue of adoption is more of a tactical move than substantial policy difference, aimed at diverting attention away from the problem of numerous broadband black holes. Last month, the Yankee Group issued a report noting about 12 percent of U.S. households, including those in some major metropolitan areas, have no access to broadband service, landing the U.S. at a dismal 15th in broadband penetration worldwide.

Even if we were to give the telco/cable duopoly the benefit of the doubt and accept a true policy split exists, I'd have to lean toward the supply siders. Unlike the far slower rate of adoption for basic telephone service, demand for and adoption of broadband has been explosive by comparison.

We also have to be careful not to frame the issue too narrowly. It's not just about high speed Internet connectivity but rather the larger migration to next generation, Internet Protocol-based telecommunications infrastructure than can provide not just fast Internet connections but also voice communication and TV/video -- both services that have very high rates of adoption in the United States.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Shifting telecom paradigm poses challenge as FCC crafts broadband plan

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is drafting recommendations due to Congress in a little more than three month's time on a national policy to ensure universal broadband access.

It's no easy task. The reason? We're in the midst of a paradigm shift away from yesterday's proprietary, closed single purpose telephone and cable systems to an open Internet-based system that can deliver everything these systems provided and so much more.

In fact, yesterday's closed telco/cable paradigm is itself the major impediment to universal broadband because its business model cannot easily accommodate that goal. Subsidizing it to expand broadband access using old models designed to expand access to the basic telephone service of yesteryear isn't likely to accomplish the goal of universal broadband access. The subsidies will prove to be too little, too late (such as this legislative proposal to expand the Universal Service Fund to include broadband defined as the soon to be obsolete speed of 1.5 Mbs), unable to keep up with the rapid advance of IP-based applications and their accompanying demand for ever greater speeds and bandwidth. It's like like subsidizing mainframe computing and keypunch machines in a new distributed computing age of powerful servers and microcomputers.

It is therefore essential that the FCC think outside of the box of the legacy telco/cable duopoly and look to innovative approaches and alternative business models as it prepares its recommendations. At the top of the list should be locally owned and operated open access fiber to the premises infrastructure. Whether these systems are operated by local governments, cooperatives or public/private partnerships, they can be more rapidly deployed and are thus more likely to expediently meet the goal of expanding broadband access to all Americans while simultaneously providing protection against technological obsolescence.
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