Friday, December 24, 2010

The post-broadband era begins

As 2010 draws to a close, we are also seeing the closure of a chapter of the early Internet era and the beginning of a new one. The first chapter opened in the early 1990s when the few people who connected to the Internet did so with narrowband "dial up" connections using the Public Switched Telephone Network (PSTN). By the end of that decade, dialup evolved from 1200 and 2400 baud connections to 56Kbs connections as well as ISDN offering Internet connections of up to 128Kbs. At the same time, "broadband" began emerging with DSL and Internet services offered by cable companies.
We are now beginning a new chapter where throughput speeds that defined an Internet connection will be less relevant than the services and applications people use when they access the Internet. If the connection can't support them, it no longer will be considered bona fide Internet-based service. From a practical standpoint, that means dialup and satellite connections are now obsolete since they cannot provide end users a full Internet experience due to the inherent physical limitations of their technologies.

Also being rendered obsolete as bandwidth demand grows exponentially, particularly with the explosion of video content and mobile Internet:

-- The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's definition of a "broadband" Internet connection as 4Mbs down and 1Mbs up.
-- The term "broadband black hole" and dubious efforts to "map" these locations. These areas will simply be regarded as disconnected from the Internet, similar to the "off the grid" term applied to those locations lacking electric power service.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

FCC ruling heralds regulatory end of "broadband" era

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission's decision this week barring providers of fixed premises wireline Internet connectivity from selectively rationing (or blocking) bandwidth based on the source and/or content marks the regulatory beginning of the end of the "broadband" era. Whereas broadband once defined a premium telecommunications service offered at a premium price, the FCC is effectively declaring that an Internet connection is an Internet connection regardless of what information or content consumers receive from it. ISPs cannot devote greater bandwidth to some information or content (for example, their own proprietary content) while affording less bandwidth to other information or content.

This is the right decision that recognizes the Internet as a de facto common carrier telecommunications network similar in that regard to traditional voice telephone service. The large national legacy telcos and cable companies warned before the FCC adopted the ruling that it would discourage capital investment in their infrastructures, which the FCC noted early this year continue to leave an estimated 7 million U.S homes offline.

There's no evidence the business case for more network investment by the large national legacy telcos and cablecos would have been improved had the commission come down on the other side of the issue. Their business models are constrained by the need to pay their shareholders generous dividends as they have done for decades and by high labor costs to modernize and build out their plants outside of densely populated urban and suburban areas.

Monday, November 08, 2010

NTIA report reinforces outdated notion of "broadband adoption"

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is issuing a report today that continues to promote the outdated notion that Internet connectivity is separate and distinct from other types of Internet delivered telecommunications such as voice and video. It does so by parsing out "broadband" usage among various demographic groups.

Unfortunately, it's about as useful as reporting distinctions among these groups in their landline long distance calling patterns. Whether they make long distance calls or not, all use telecommunications infrastructure serving their premises. It's the same with the Internet as it replaces the publicly switched telephone network (PSTN) for voice calls and even cable TV for video. "Broadband usage" is no longer a meaningful metric.

If the calendar read 1999, the NTIA's report would be timely rather than more than decade out of date. Back then, "broadband" and "high speed Internet" was an emerging service option offered by legacy telephone and cable companies. Customers paid about $50 a month for the service over and above their usual monthly service charge.

Accordingly, discussing adoption of this service in terms of demographics and income would have made sense then since some groups of people would find this premium service more appealing and affordable than others -- especially since Internet applications such as websites and email were at the time only just starting to reach most consumers.

However, at a time when the Internet provides multiple services that formerly required separate, proprietary cable and telephone systems to deliver and can do so over a single tiny fiber optic strand connected to every home and business, reports like the one being issued today by the NTIA are increasingly irrelevant. It would be more far more useful and relevant if the NTIA and others instead studied how to hasten the build out of fiber optic infrastructure so that no homes and businesses are left offline.

Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Blair Levin perpetuates false distinction among IP-based services

Blair Levin, in another recent interview looking back on the U.S. National Broadband Plan he lead authored for the Federal Communications Commission before becoming an Aspen Institute fellow this summer, perpetuates a false distinction among Internet Protocol (IP)-based telecommunications services. IP-based services include Internet applications such as web browsing, email and e-commerce as well as Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) and video, also known as Internet Protocol TV (IPTV).

In an interview with Marguerite Reardon of cnet news, Levin does so by differentiating VOIP and IPTV from Internet applications. Levin -- as do many incumbent legacy phone and cable companies -- continues to describe the latter as "broadband." That term was appropriate in the mid-1990s when "broadband" denoted a premium service offered by telephone companies over their single purpose, proprietary copper cable plants. But as fiber optic cable technology increasingly obsoletes metal wire for delivering multiple IP-based services, the term is no longer relevant.

Levin reinforces this artificial split by talking about "broadband adoption." That too was relevant in the 1990s when broadband was being offered as a premium service, requiring customers to sign up for or "adopt" it. Today, it no longer is when Internet applications, voice and video can be delivered to consumers over a single fiber "pipe."

Further reinforcing the bogus notion of "broadband adoption," Levin elaborates that "broadband" requires consumers to be literate whereas voice and video do not. Therefore, Levin implies, we first need to improve the literacy of Americans to drive "broadband adoption" before the nation revamps its outmoded telecom infrastructure with fiber. Here's what he told Reardon:

Even though there are a lot of low-income people who may not be able to afford multi-channel video (cable TV), there is still a high proportion of people subscribing to the service. And people are not leaving in huge numbers. The big difference between TV and broadband is that to watch TV, you don't have to be literate. The same is true of phone service. You don't need to be literate to use a cell phone, so penetration of those services is higher. But to use broadband for things, such as getting access to public services, health care, job training, etc., a basic level of literacy is necessary. It requires a skill set. And teaching people those skills is a serious effort. So price is a piece of it, but literacy and relevance are also aspects too.

This is so much sophistry. Moreover, even if one accepts Levin's false dichotomy between Internet applications on one hand and voice and video on the other, it would argue for a bigger push to deploy fiber optic telecom infrastructure since video requires the "fat pipe" bandwidth fiber can provide.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

National Broadband Plan overly reliant on wireline, author says

Blair Levin, the Aspen Institute fellow who served as lead author of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan before leaving the FCC this summer, told PCWorld last week the plan is flawed because it places too much emphasis on making landline Internet protocol-based telecommunications service accessible to all Americans.

"One of the problems we were running up against and that we should've been clearer about is that the conventional wisdom says the primary metric for measuring the validity or power of a national broadband plan is the speed of the wireline network to the most rural of residents," Levin is quoted as saying. "That way of looking at the problem is entirely wrong, is profoundly wrong -- almost every word in the sentence I just uttered is wrong. And we should've done a better job of explaining that."

If Levin could go back and rewrite the plan, landline and wireless technology would be framed synergistically, working in conjunction with each other to make a more complete telecommunications infrastructure that meets the National Broadband Plan's objective of expanding service availability to all Americans.

On this point, I agree with Levin. Until the last and middle miles of the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure can be fully upgraded to fiber, wireless has an important but interim role to play since it can be deployed more quickly than wireline plant. That's a very important consideration given that the FCC reported in late July that between 14 and 24 million Americans "still lack access to broadband, and the immediate prospects for deployment to them are bleak."

However, if Levin sees wireless connectivity as a replacement for fiber, I disagree. Wireless telecommunications is largely designed for mobile use and not to serve premises. Wireless also lacks fiber's ability to handle the exploding demand for bandwidth. There is no field-proven wireless technology that matches fiber's capacity to accommodate that growth.

As Tim Nulty, who believes fiber to the premises can pencil out even in rural areas, put it in a 2008 interview, fiber optic plant is to wireless as jumbo jets are to helicopters. "Think about 747s and helicopters,” Nulty told The Progressive magazine. “Helicopters are marvelous when they’re used for what they’re good at. But you don’t use them to fly thousands of people between Boston and Chicago. For that you need 747s.”

America's badly needed revamp of its telecommunications infrastructure should not be based on the expectation that wireless technology will overtake and render fiber wireline plant obsolete and cost ineffective. Hope is a good attitude, but does not a plan make.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Making fiber to premises a reality requires consumers to think like business owners

Much has been written on this blog and elsewhere about market failure and the urgent need for alternative business models to speed deployment of fiber to the premises telecom infrastructure. Most of it has been centered on market economics and technology.

However, a fundamental change in thinking must occur if these alternative business models are to come to fruition and bring the services people need now and in the future as bandwidth demand grows exponentially. People must think of themselves as not just consumers but also as owners.

Consumer cooperatives were formed in the U.S. a century ago to provide voice telephone service where investor owned telcos could not make a business case to provide service. Now that the telephone network is being replaced by the Internet, the time is at hand for the revival of this business model.

While coops offer significant structural cost savings that can make the business case pencil out for deploying an open access fiber to the premises network, those advantages cannot be realized until consumers think of themselves not just as a consumers but also as a business owners since a coop is a business, albeit owned by its customers. Being an owner requires doing diligence and assuming some degree of risk and not just asking what the coop may be able to provide them personally and at what price.

Without this shift in thinking, consumers will continue to be at the mercy of the incumbent telcos and cable companies and what services they choose to provide (or not provide as is often the case) and forced to pay whatever they want to charge for them in order to earn a return for their shareholders. Rather than benefit remote shareholders who could care less who gets fiber to the premises in their communities, it's time for consumers to say "enough" and take control of their telecommunications service.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Burgeoning telecom bandwidth demand emulates Moore's Law

In 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon E. Moore successfully predicted semiconductor processing power would double about every two years. A trend similar to Moore's Law is now occurring in fiber optic capacity. And just in time as this New York Times article notes, pointing to burgeoning demand for Internet bandwidth:

The need for core network improvement is pressing, said Stojan Radic, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of California, San Diego. “We are looking at a point soon where we cannot satisfy demand,” he said. “And if we don’t, it will be like going over a cliff.”

Demand is continually growing, somewhere below street level, as details of our e-mail, bank balances and national security zip along on light waves. And consumers can’t get enough video clips on YouTube, television shows on Hulu, and movies streamed to them by Netflix that they watch on their computers and TVs.

This has implications for telecommunications services, which in theory could deliver a better Internet experience and new applications with far more bandwidth. While technological advances will allow more bandwidth to move along the fiber of the Internet backbone and middle mile distribution networks, this increased capacity hits a major bottleneck at the so-called last mile that connects to customer premises.

This segment of the network is still largely made up of metal wire designed for the single purpose of delivering analog phone service or cable TV. The business models of the telcos and cablecos don't allow them to make the capital expenditures necessary to upgrade the last mile to fiber, creating an urgent need for alternative providers that can devise viable business models that can make the fiber connections for consumers.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Ratepayer advocate urges reform of California subsidy fund

The Division of Ratepayer Advocates (DRA) of the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) recommends an overhaul of the CPUC's California Advanced Services Fund (CASF). The fund was established in December 2007 to subsidize advanced telecom infrastructure in high cost unserved and underserved areas of the state. Up to $100 million was allocated from a 25 percent surcharge on intrastate long distance calls, with the CASF surcharge offset by an equal reduction in the California High Cost Fund-B surcharge created to subsidize deployment of basic voice telephone service.

DRA's Sept. 13 petition was filed 12 days before California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed into law urgency legislation that would extend the CASF to 2013 and appropriate an additional $125 million to the fund.

DRA wants the following reforms implemented:

• Transparency. Applications for CASF funding should be open to the public and subject to a public comment process.

• Affordability/Adoption. The program should cap monthly rates at affordable levels for at least two years, prohibit installation or connection charges, and require funding recipients to demonstrate how they will ensure that customers adopt and can afford their broadband offerings.

• Speed. The CASF minimum speed should mirror the FCC's 4/1 standard except in rare cases.

• Cost control. CASF projects should not exceed benchmark per-household costs based on what it costs in the market to install broadband.

• Open access. The Commission should require all CASF recipients to share their networks with third party providers.

• Audits. The Commission should audit each CASF funding recipient and allow public access to audit data.

DRA's petition can be viewed here.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

"Opening the pipes" isn't a feasible or global solution to America's rotten telecom

Scientific American joins The Economist and other publications in describing the current state of next generation Internet protocol-based telecommunications service in the U.S. -- commonly known as broadband -- as "awful" in an editorial this week. Scientific American's solution also mirrors those proffered by others: using the force of law to compel investor-owned telcos to allow service providers to buy access to their systems.

There are a couple of big problems with this. First, as long as the fiercely protective and territorial telcos own the infrastructure or "pipes" as they were termed several years back by then-AT&T honcho Ed Whitacre, they will be in charge of who gets to sell services over them and at what price. And one can be assured the telcos will litigate the issue to death for decades if necessary to slow down the process as they did following the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Second and perhaps most importantly, this is not a global solution to what ails U.S. telecom infrastructure. The reason: the so-called "pipes" don't even run through much of America, forcing residents to use outmoded, early 1990s era dialup or lousy, relatively low value satellite Internet connections. Additionally, in the majority of the nation, the pipes to the extent they are comprised of aging copper cable to will soon be obsolete and unable to transport the exponentially growing volume of digital content. They need to be changed out and replaced with fiber optic cable in order to accommodate future growth.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Blair Levin stuck in the failed paradigm of investor owned telecom infrastructure

Blair Levin, who exited as executive director of the Omnibus Broadband Initiative at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission in May to become a fellow at the Aspen Institute, has penned a white paper issued last week by the think tank calling for retasking the Universal Service Fund (USF) from subsidizing basic telephone service in high cost areas to defraying the cost of deploying advanced telecommunications infrastructure.

Specifically, Levin advocates $10 billion in USF funding subsidize infrastructure capable of supporting the FCC's current minimum throughput standard of 4 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up to nearly all premises by 2020. Levin also proposes using USF funding to support "the adoption of broadband by low-income Americans and other non-adopter communities."

Levin's paper is based on some fundamental flaws. Levin has confined his thinking to the investor owned telco paradigm whose market failure is responsible for the inadequate, incomplete and outmoded telecom infrastructure that plagues much of the United States today in rural, quasi rural and metro areas. This infrastructure needs a massive revamping and it won't happen with just $10 billion in USF subsidies. In an interim report on its National Broadband Plan released in September 2008, the FCC estimated it would cost as much as $350 billion to build next generation telecom infrastructure to serve 100 million American homes. Ten billion dollars by comparison would barely make a dent.

This isn't to argue for much larger USF subsidies to telcos. Instead of appropriating $10 billion to subsidize infrastructure that will be obsolete well before 2020, the U.S. should face the fact that incumbent investor owned telcos simply can't afford to deploy the next generation of Internet protocol-based telecommunications infrastructure in a timely manner. The business case just doesn't pencil out. AT&T essentially conceded this point in a Dec. 21, 2009 filing with the FCC, pointing to the "enormous" amount of capital necessary to complete the build out of required infrastructure to ensure all Americans have access to IP-based services just as basic telephone service is nearly universal.

Instead of Levin's failed private market model, the U.S. instead should support policies that treat advanced telecommunications infrastructure as a public infrastructure like roads and highways such as advocated by Andrew Cohill and others. Allowing the private sector to attempt to build this vital infrastructure is economically untenable.

Levin's proposed use of USF monies to support "adoption of broadband by low-income Americans and other non-adopter communities" unfortunately amplifies a cynical canard advanced by legacy telcos and their astroturf groups. The unstated goal is to lower expectations and keep the calendar fixed in 1999 when Americans were just beginning to adopt "broadband" and "high speed" Internet access in personal computing. The Internet protocol-based infrastructure America needs now and in the future isn't just about computers connecting to the Internet for email and viewing web pages. It will support voice, video, teleconferencing, telework, telemedicine and uses that haven't yet been conceived.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Time to relegate "broadband" to the history books

The term "broadband" is outdated and should be retired.

It came into wide use a decade and a half ago to denote a premium telecommunications service on the publicly switched telephone network (PSTN) that provided a faster, "always on" Internet connection compared to now obsolete "narrowband" dialup and ISDN service.

The Internet is now a de facto global telecommunications system providing Internet protocol-based voice and video communications in addition to early "broadband" fare of email and the World Wide Web.

Instead of broadband, we should simply refer to the Internet. The term "broadband' is out of place in the context of today's "Internet ecosystem" to borrow a phrase from the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan issued in March. (Which should be retiled the "National Internet Plan")

References to "broadband" also pose problems insofar as they spark debates over what bandwidth and speeds constitute "broadband." Its continued use also aids legacy telco and cable industry players who want to keep it around so they can incrementally charge a premium for "broader" bandwidth.

The incumbent legacy providers also like the term "broadband" because it keeps the calendar where they want it: around 1999 when the phrase meant only Web and email — and not the bandwidth intensive applications we're seeing in 2010 that their incomplete and outdated infrastructures are unable to deliver to all customers in their self proclaimed "service areas."

It also helps the incumbents conjure up (and dust off old) self serving studies purportedly showing many folks don't "adopt" broadband because they have little interest in the Web or email. Ergo, it's not critical telecommunications infrastructure should be available to all homes and businesses when in fact it should be.

It's time to say "bye" to "broadband."

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Richard Florida still doesn't get it

Richard Florida apparently hasn't gotten the memo that information-based work -- performed by what Florida calls the "creative class" -- isn't bound by geography in the Internet age.

In a post on The Atlantic blog this week titled Where the Creative Class Jobs Will Be, Florida wrote as follows:

The good news is that creative class jobs will continue to grow and provide high-wage, high-skill employment for a large and significant share of the American workforce. It's important to recognize that not all of these jobs require college degrees. Though nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of college graduates go on to do this kind of work, four in 10 creative class workers do not hold college degrees, according to analysis by my colleagues at the University of Toronto's Martin Prosperity Institute. The bad news is that creative class jobs will be geographically concentrated. (Emphasis added)

Wrong. The bad news is Florida is still thinking inside the box of a pre-Internet world where creative work could only be done in office buildings in metro areas.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Suck a bigger, faster satellite!

Satellite companies have been the also-rans of Internet providers. They serve a little more than one million customers, most in rural areas that have no other options. Their services can be painfully slow and cost twice as much as high-speed broadband. But two companies, WildBlue and HughesNet, are now in a race to change all that.

Both plan to launch satellites in the next couple of years that will dwarf their predecessors in space. WildBlue’s alone will have 10 times the capacity of its three current satellites combined. Such behemoths, the companies say, will enable them, at prices similar to what they now charge, to provide Internet service at speeds many times faster than they now offer — as fast, in some cases, as fiber connections.

Further, the companies argue, satellites can provide service more easily and cheaply per subscriber than their earthbound cable and phone company competitors, particularly to the 14 million to 24 million Americans who live in areas without broadband service.
Read more of this New York Times story by clicking here. (Registration required)
This is a crock and a travesty. Internet protocol based services via satellite will never measure up to terrestrial fiber telecom infrastructure and should never be offered anywhere outside of the polar and most remote regions of the globe.

The mere fact that satellite Internet connectivity is sold anywhere in the lower 48 United States is and should be regarded as a national embarrassment showing the rest of the world how far behind the information technology curve the nation has fallen.

Memo to HughesNet and Wildblue: sell your new and improved services to SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) in order to allow off world intelligent life to connect to the global Internet.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

FTTH Council prematurely buries open access networks

In a recent filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, the FTTH (Fiber to the Home) Council is urging the FCC avoid placing Internet protocol-based telecommunications services under common carrier requirements of the Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

In its 87-page filing, the FTTH Council contends doing so would inject a large degree of business uncertainty into what's arguably an already tenuous for profit business model and discourage private investment in the build out of fiber networks.

The FTTH Council also worries that the FCC's placement of IP-based telecom services under Title II would lead to the FCC declaring such services a monopoly -- not a hard stretch considering that high CAPEX costs make fiber networks natural monopolies. Once it has done so, the FCC would then require private companies to share its fiber facilities as phone companies were required to do with DSL under unbundling rules until the FCC reversed that policy in 2005 by deeming DSL an information service rather than Title II telecom service. Also once the FCC formally finds wireline telecom a natural monopoly, the FTTH Council warns, price controls will be put in place, further clouding the business case for for-profit providers.

Another more disturbing part of the filing beginning at page 19 effectively asserts that if the FTTH business case can't work in the context of a regulated monopoly for investor owned FTTH providers, then it can't pencil out for open access nonprofit municipal or other community-owned fiber networks either. The FTTH Council's filing quotes Tim Nulty, former manager of the Burlington, Vermont muni fiber network, as dismissing the open access wholesale model in which network owners sell access to service providers as "a recipe for financial failure."

But in a footnote on p. 19, the FTTH Council lauds closed proprietary (non open access) muni fiber networks as playing an important role where legacy incumbent providers aren't meeting community needs. Moreover, the organization notes, open access community networks require subsidization. Well of course they do. So do investor owned networks in areas where it's difficult to make a business case for deploying fiber given the slow return on investment.

My impression is the FTTH Council is jumping the gun. It's far too early to pronounce open access fiber networks unworkable as the U.S. searches for a sustainable business model alternative to address market failure among legacy telcos and cablecos that has spawned innumerable broadband black holes across the nation.

Open access can work if people truly regard fiber infrastructure as a community asset like roads and other public infrastructure, recognize its importance to a community's economy by making it far easier for information-based businesses to operate and workers to telework at distant jobs. And most importantly, having a willingness to pay for that infrastructure in recognition of its inherent value.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Sunday, August 01, 2010

Internet access is the new dial tone, but millions of Americans are disconnected

Three years ago, then-U.S. Federal Communications Commissioner Jonathan S. Adelstein called on the nation to make broadband "the dial-tone of the 21st Century."

Adelstein's characterization is correct. Today, the Internet is the telecommunications network. Those who don't have access to it are disconnected and isolated.

The Huffington Post has posted a summary of Akamai Technologies' State of the Internet" report for the first quarter of 2010 showing which states are the most offline. (Hat tip to Jason Wilson) It wouldn't surprise me if these states find it toughest to help boost the nation out of a deep economic contraction, being sidelined in an increasingly Internet-based economy.

The governors of these (and other) states should ask the Obama administration to create a Work Projects Administration-like entity to embark on a crash program to construct locally owned and operated fiber networks to serve all Americans where they live and work. Achieving this goal is a stated administration policy. Moreover, given the administration's projected multiplier effect of a project like this in terms of job creation and economic activity, it could well end up being revenue neutral when increased tax revenues are factored in.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Telecom infrastructure upgrades could aid economic recovery

PALM COAST, FLA. -- The recession is claiming yet another victim: Americans' near-constitutional right to pick up and move to a better job.

Labor mobility has nearly ground to a halt in the past two years, and policymakers are increasingly worried that the slowdown is not just a symptom of the nation's economic struggles but also a barrier to overcoming them.

With many people locked in homes by underwater mortgages, only 1.6 percent of Americans moved between states in a one-year period that ended in March 2009 -- a labor stagnation not seen in half a century. Though household mobility has gradually declined for more than two decades, the recent sharp downturn has caused economists to worry that it could harm the already struggling recovery.

"In the past, people tended to move to where the jobs are," said Assistant Treasury Secretary Alan B. Krueger, who oversees economic policy for the department. "Now it is necessary to have more of a strategy to move the jobs -- and create new jobs -- in areas where the people are."

- - -

Bringing work to where people live also means they'll need affordable access to modern, Internet protocol based telecommunications services that will allow them to work remotely and teleconference with their employers and customers.

There's an added bonus. Constructing fiber to the premises telecom infrastructure is as Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance pointed out in a recent radio interview is very labor intensive, which means badly needed jobs.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Residents near two state capitols struggle with outmoded telecom service

Residents living near state capitols might expect to have access to modern telecommunications services given their proximity to their states' political power centers. Not necessarily so.

As noted on this blog recently, the town of Berry located near Wisconsin's capital, Madison, is a case in point. Ditto for some folks living just four miles from the Vermont statehouse in Montpelier, according to this item from ABC News.

Like their countparts several states away in Berry, the natives are restless and their patience worn thin after much talk and promises but little action. While telecom infrastructure upgrades aren't yet certain, it's clear more talk is on tap. Vermont gubernatorial candidates are raising the issue of lack of advanced telecom infrastructure in year's campaign, the ABC News article notes.

Rural electrification better model for driving expansion of next generation networks

Give a listen to Christopher Mitchell's interview on the public affairs radio program Minnesota This Week. Mitchell is director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Near the end of the interview, Mitchell advocated government loans and loan guarantees to telecom cooperatives similar to those made by the U.S. federal Rural Electrification Administration to electric power coops starting in the 1930s. Mitchell said this would be a better policy than subsidizing investor owned telcos.

Such subsidies, Mitchell suggested, don't provide sufficient incentive to and accountability of private providers to offer quality service and network upgrades. Since community based cooperatives don't have to earn a return for investors, they can concentrate solely on serving their members.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Local governments, coops better positioned than legacy providers to meet burgeoning bandwidth demand

Check out Lance Whitney's July 21 cnet News article that illustrates the growing conflict between burgeoning bandwidth demands of Internet video content and the incremental billing business models of the legacy telco and cable providers that ration bandwidth.

Faced with the explosive demand for bandwidth, the legacy providers are responding the only way they know how given their business models: charging more money for more bandwidth via tiered service offerings and rationing bandwidth with the use of caps.

This puts the legacy providers in a bad spot since incremental bandwidth pricing and punitive caps will only tick off their customers. What's worse is the legacy providers can't upgrade their infrastructures to accommodate the jump in bandwidth demand and leave room for future growth over the foreseeable. That's because they are owned by shareholders who have been with them for decades and expect a nice safe, utility company style dividend -- money that can't be allocated to capital expenditures.

The take away here is alternative providers such as local governments and consumer telecom cooperatives who don't have to pay those fat shareholder dividends are better positioned to deploy fiber to the premises infrastructure that can easily deliver the bandwidth needed today and leave headroom for tomorrow.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

FCC: 14 to 24 million Americans lack Internet access

Readers of this blog know from past posts on U.S. Federal Communications Commission reports on broadband infrastructure deployment know that it effectively ground to a halt in 2006 as legacy telco and cable companies reached the limits of their respective business models.

Four years on, the FCC has formally recognized this reality, noting in a news release today announcing its latest report under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that between 14 and 24 million Americans "still lack access to broadband, and the immediate prospects for deployment to them are bleak."

As with past 706 reports, the table titled Percentage of Residential End-User Premises with Access to High-Speed Services by State shows those states where telco DSL deployments stalled because of technological and business model constraints.

Click here for the full report.

El Dorado County co-op seeks fiber-optic Internet access

Nice article in today's Sacramento Bee on the telecom consumer coop formed by your blogger...

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Telecom caught at crossroads of change without a sustainable business model

IBM has issued a comprehensive outlook on the future of the telecommunications industry. To summarize, it describes an industry caught at the crossroads of change amid rapid growth of Internet protocol-based telecommunications without a sustainable business model. No surprise there since telecom as an industry -- like the cable industry -- is based on a closed, proprietary system put in place many decades ago to deliver voice or television programming over copper cable plant. It wasn't designed with the Internet in mind and thus doesn't have a cheap, easily executable upgrade path to put it in tech speak.

Moreover, neither telcos nor cable providers have a business model that will allow them to construct next generation, Internet protocol-based fiber to the premises infrastucture that can deliver multiple digital services to most all premises within their service areas. America's biggest telco, AT&T, admitted as much in a statement published in the New York Times yesterday directing customers not served by its wireline plant to its "broadband" satellite service.

Their corporate cultures naturally resist change. That's why they deploy battalions of lawyers, lobbyists, flacks and astroturf groups to defend the status quo and fight the future while preserving their conservative, risk averse business models based on the incremental billing schemes of the past -- even though these schemes are not a good fit with next generation telecom services.

Consequently, I believe we'll see a combination of the "Market Shakeout" and "Survivor Consolidation" scenarios in the IBM forecast come to pass. In fact, it could be aruged the "Market Shakeout" scenario in which "government, municipality and alternative providers extend ultra-fast broadband to gray areas, while private infrastructure investments are limited to densely populated areas" has been already playing out over the past several years.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Independent New Englanders take control of their telecom infrastructure

Last year, 22 central Vermont towns took charge of their telecom infrastructure by forming a public/private partnership to deploy 1,400 miles of aerial fiber-optic lines to provide high-speed Internet access, phone and video.

True to their fiercely independent reputation, more New Englanders in a neighboring state are doing likewise. Forty seven Western Massachusetts towns plan to form a non-profit to plan and build a fiber optic network to serve a part of the U.S. that has been described as a "broadband ghetto." A key driver is a desire to provide an economic boost to the region.

Here's an excerpt from the Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle story:

"This wasn't a hard sell," noted David Greenberg, chairman of the WiredWest steering committee. "It's pretty much a no-brainer -- economic development is the driving force. Without this major initiative, Western Mass is going to be sinking fast."

Once the non-profit has been formed, financing options would have to be identified, and preliminary design and cost estimate work would start.

None of the cost of the project would be borne by the towns, Webb said.

Ongoing maintenance cost and debt service payments would come from money paid to the agency by the service providers, added Andrew Michael Cohill, president of Design Nine, a consultancy hired to help WiredWest through the next phase of development.

"This is a jobs creation and a business attraction project," Cohill said. "And the highest proportion of home-based businesses in the state are in Western Mass."

Monday, June 28, 2010

DSL reaches end of line as interim pre-fiber to the premises technology

Digital Subscriber Line (DSL) was deployed by telcos starting in the late 1990s as an interim technology to bring Internet Protocol-based telecommunications services to customer premises before fiber optic connections could be brought to them.

Now DSL faces a crisis that dramatically shortens the days it can play this role. While DSL allows telcos to use existing copper plant designed for Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS), that copper plant is aged and deteriorating quickly. DSL tends to work best over newer, more pristine copper. But there's not much of that (if any) being deployed these days. Meanwhile, DSL customers complain about connections that run slower than advertised or are prone to outages as DSL signals struggle across ancient pairs of twisted copper.

And since about 2008 and amid the current economic downturn, telcos have pared back their DSL rollouts. Verizon concentrated on fiber to the premises via its FiOS product offering, prompting customer complaints it was neglecting its copper plant and repairing it with bubble gum and duct tape.

Here's the crisis: Now that DSL has served its role as an interim IP solution on the road to fiber to the premises, the United States is not prepared to make the transition to fiber. Stunningly, this gap in the technology transition isn't addressed in the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan issued this past spring. Nor is there any indication the nation's two largest telcos are seriously addressing it. Verizon recently halted build out of its FiOS fiber plant. AT&T opted for a hybrid model of fiber to the node and copper to the premise for its U-Verse product. But the VDSL transmission technology that powers U-Verse suffers from far greater distance limitations than previous generations of DSL and greatly limits U-Verse's service footprint.

It will fall to smaller, locally owned and operated telcos, local governments and telecom cooperatives to pick up where DSL left off (or in many cases, left out for those not serviceable by DSL). The National Broadband Plan should recognize that DSL over copper is dead or dying and support efforts by these entities to deploy fiber to the premises with technical assistance grants and infrastructure construction grants and low cost loans.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cruel irony of incomplete telecom infrastructure plays near Wisconsin state capital

One of the cruelest ironies of America's incomplete telecommunications infrastructure is playing out not far from Madison, the capital of Wisconsin. The town of Berry, population 1,124, isn't large enough to attract investor owned providers. But at the same time, the incumbent provider, TDS Telecommunications, claims the federal government declined its request for subsidies for infrastructure improvements through funding earmarked for this purpose in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 because the town -- located just 20 miles from the capital -- isn't considered underserved, according to TDS Telecommunications.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports Berry is has filed a complaint with the Wisconsin Public Utilities Commission saying TDS Telecommunications is failing to provide required service to the community. Community residents contend the poor level of service is making it difficult to work remotely from home and is making their properties less marketable.

The good people of Berry and their town leaders would be well advised to take matters into their own hands and begin working on a Plan B that could get them improved service faster than their PUC complaint, which could end up in the courts and take years to resolve even if they prevail. They should begin planning today to build publicly (or if that's not feasible cooperatively) owned fiber to the premises infrastructure.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On death bed, aged copper POTS plant dials 911

In a late December filing with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, AT&T pronounced its residential wireline segment in a "death spiral."

While the big telco was figuratively referring to the business prospects of the segment, the aged POTS copper cable plant is literally dying in parts of California and calling the paramedics.

Old lines no longer in active service are generating electronic farts that produce phantom 911 calls according to this Capitol Weekly article that reports on efforts in the California Legislature to fix to the problem. (Good luck with that).

Monday, June 21, 2010

Study finds teleconferencing cuts business costs, reduces carbon emissions

This study is right in line with my strong interest in utilizing advanced telecommunications infrastructure to shrink time and space and reduce the human and economic cost of physical travel. In a boom and bust economy that's been busted for the past three years, businesses are clearly interested in reducing travel expenses. If they can do so while reducing their carbon footprints, it's an added bonus.

Note this study only took into account corporate travel costs. But consider also the potential savings in time, money and fuel costs for small businesses (small businesses have travel expenses too) and for currently commuting employees of who could teleconference with managers and co-workers instead of idling on congested highways, stressed out hoping they can make a meeting at a distant office on time (while meanwhile contributing to the global obesity crisis).

This will take a massive revamp of telecommunications infrastructure to bring fiber to their homes. But it too could have an added bonus. With the time they save by avoiding a commute to the office, they could go to the gym or engage in their favorite form of exercise. Smaller carbon footprint, smaller belly, less stress, better quality of life.

Friday, June 18, 2010

U.S. fails to define clear policy goal on telecom

Instead of articulating a clear policy to encourage construction of next generation Internet protocol-based telecommunications infrastructure, the U.S. government is trying to figure out how to "regulate broadband."

It's a classic case of failure to clearly and properly define the mission. Over the long run, the consequences will be severe. The nation is already at least a dozen years behind where it should be in making the transition to next generation telecom infrastructure. Unless the course is changed, the U.S. will continue suffer from mission drift and fall further behind other developed nations on upgrading its telecom infrastructure from one designed primarily for standard voice telephone service to a high speed data network.

Meanwhile, it fiddles with arcane network management rules that mean nothing to the occupants of some seven million U.S. homes located outside cable company footprints or who are unable to subscribe to legacy telco DSL due to distance limitations -- or whose connections are so poor they limit what they can do with them. And wastes precious resources on creating useless maps of broadband black holes that only advertise to the world the pathetic state of American telecommunications infrastructure.

Dark fiber owners seek buyers -- but last mile will determine value

Today's Wall Street Journal reports dark fiber left dormant since the dot com bust of a decade ago is on the block, its owners hopeful that the transition to Internet protocol-based telecommunications that stalled around the same time will finally take off.

But now as then, the so-called last mile (or first mile as some refer to it) remains key since the dark fiber was put in place for long haul and in some cases middle mile infrastructure. Long haul and middle mile fiber standing alone do not a network make. It takes last mile fiber infrastructure to reach customer premises.

Potential purchasers of that dark fiber must assess the odds whether there will be sufficient last mile fiber to connect to. Reliance on legacy incumbent telcos and cable companies lowers the odds. They have largely upgraded and built out their networks to the extent their business models allow. Verizon, the sole legacy telco that was building fiber to the premises, recently pulled back to concentrate on wireless service in metro areas. But if local governments and telecom cooperatives crank up construction of fiber to the premises infrastructure to fill the gap left by legacy providers, the value of these dormant dark fiber assets will likely increase.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

WISP runs into opposition in Georgia

For many areas of the U.S., terrestrial wireless Internet Protocol telecom infrastructure offers an interim solution until fiber to the premises wireline plant can be built. Particularly for those areas that lie outside the footprints of telco DSL and cable service.

But terrestrial wireless service for homes and businesses has its downsides. Achieving decent throughput, adequate backhaul and attractive price points have posed challenges for many Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISPs).

In addition, wireless IP signals often can't reliably penetrate terrain, foliage and even municipal building codes as one wireless provider recently discovered to its chagrin. The Marietta Georgia planning commission turned down a request by American Broadband Communications LLC, for a variance that would allow the WISP to erect a 150-foot-high tower, the Parkersburg News and Sentinel reports.

Marietta should like other U.S. local governments concerned about tall towers springing up in residential areas like Lafayette (Louisiana), Ashland (Oregon) and a muni consortium in Utah find a way to get fiber to homes and businesses, either directly or in partnership with private providers or nonprofit telecom cooperatives.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Incumbents mount new challenges of proposed ARRA telecom infrastructure projects

The Obama administration's policy to support build out of Internet Protocol telecommunications infrastructure with grants and low cost loans is once again running into stiff resistance from legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies.

As they did in a previous round for funding requests for $4.2 billion set aside for this purpose in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the incumbents are challenging numerous projects proposed for funding under the current funding round of USDA's Rural Utilities Service (RUS) Broadband Initiatives Program (BIP). The challenges are permitted under provisions of the Act that allow incumbents to delay or block proposed projects in their service areas by claiming they already provide advanced telecom services. A searchable list of BIP applicants and incumbent challenges is posted here.

Unlike in the first round of ARRA funding last year, the RUS has not posted details of the challenges. Listed are only the service areas of the proposed projects and the name of the challenging incumbent provider. Incumbent challenges of ARRA telecom infrastructure projects administered by the National Telecommunications and Information Agency's (NTIA) Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) have not yet been posted by the NTIA.

Google 1 Gigabit fiber stimululates interest in fiber infrastucture

When Google announced early this year it would build 1 Gbs fiber in a test market somewhere in the United States, it sparked a lot of interest. One outcome and side benefit is Google's gigabit fiber project got locals thinking about fiber-based advanced telecom infrastructure and how to do it themselves knowing that Google isn't going to deploy it everywhere.

Baltimore is one place that realizes that. Baltimore Mayor Stephanie C. Rawlings-Blake wants to explore how to expand high-speed fiber-optic Internet service to city residents with or without Google's help, according to this Baltimore Sun article, and has established a panel to look into it.

"We can't sit here and wait for a gift from Google to fall on us from the sky," said Tom Loveland, the city's volunteer Google czar. "This is our future we're talking about here. Those of us involved in the conversation have seen what other cities have already accomplished. These folks managed to get themselves wired without Google. If they can do it, we can do it, too."

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Emotion rather than logic drives incumbent opposition to local telecom infrastructure improvements

In a recent email exchange with Craig Settles, I've attempted to plumb the paradox of why incumbent legacy telco and cable companies will as Settles put it "rush in like storm troopers" before local providers can activate their own Internet Protocol (IP) telecom infrastructures. Infrastructure built by local governments and consumer cooperatives because it doesn't pencil out for the shareholder-owned incumbents to construct. The result: a plethora of "broadband black holes" and underserved/overpriced areas due to incomplete infrastructure that extends only as far as the incumbents' business models allow.

The question that vexed me is why the incumbents would come in on the heels of community-based provider deployments when they've already concluded there isn't enough business to make it worth their while to expand and upgrade their plants in the first place. Particularly for take rates south of 30 percent and a shift to Internet-based video content that makes consumers less inclined to purchase pricey 300 channel TV packages that are among incumbents' most profitable service offerings.

Settles explanation: there is no logical, business M.O at work in this circumstance. Telcos and cable companies that normally operate in a logical, numbers driven mode (for example, cable providers don't deploy infrastructure unless it strictly falls within a pre-approved, set ratio of occupied premises per linear mile) suddenly turn illogical when a community-based provider emerges with an alternative and typically nonprofit business model that avoids obstacles that limit the incumbents' ability to expand their footprints.

Since incumbents tend to regard their service areas as proprietary, exclusive franchises regardless of how much -- or how little -- they actually provide IP-based services, they view community-based providers as interlopers invading their turf. That provokes an illogical, emotion driven response.

"It's nothing about logic," Settles explains "It's often paranoia -- if one community builds a better network than what we offer, other communities will follow suit and sometimes a case of whose belt is longer. Incumbents seem to prefer to destroy a community network rather than figure out how to adapt services to leverage that network." In other words, a classic pissing contest in which a large, distant corporation attempts to impose its corporate will upon local residents -- who know their needs best -- for the sake of preserving its own pride.

In this respect, the incumbents aren't actually fighting the local upstarts who would dare challenge their territorial hegemony. They're really fighting the future. The incumbents' perceived enemy isn't so much the community-based providers. It's the alternative business paradigm they represent and which fostered their creation.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Telco layoffs spotlight difficult transition from POTS to IP services

The telecommunications industry is undergoing great upheaval during the transition from POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) to wireless and next generation Internet Protocol-based telecommunications technology, producing mixed and seemingly paradoxical company news.

Case in point: Roseville, Calif.-based SureWest Communications. The fiber to the premises telco announced this week it would lay off seven percent of its work force due to weakness in the POTS side of its business at the same time the IP side of its shop is growing.

An obvious question is why not retrain or shift the downsized POTS workers to accommodate the growth in IP-based services? The answer: while demand for IP-based services is stiff and will only grow stronger, growth prospects in that segment are constrained by the inability of investor-owned telcos like SureWest to build out their IP infrastructures to reach more customer premises. Doing so requires more CAPEX than their business models can accommodate.

SureWest's big counterparts, AT&T and Verizon, have slowed their IP infrastructure buildouts. AT&T began hitting the brakes on its mixed fiber/copper Project Lightspeed/U-Verse buildout as general economic conditions deteriorated in 2008. Just before last Christmas, AT&T went as far as pronouncing its POTS business in a "death spiral." Verizon recently stopped expanding the footprint of its fiber optic FiOS plant and repositioned itself as an urban wireless provider.

The demand for IP services is strong, providing a potential growth industry at a time when jobs and economic activity are greatly needed. (Consider that most residential customers have retained their IP services during the current recession). But the legacy POTS carriers can't ramp up to meet it. That situation requires alternative providers such as local governments and consumer telecom cooperatives step up to meet the need.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

California report: Telemedicine may help meet post reform rise in demand

The California state Legislative Analyst's Office recommends Golden State lawmakers consider integrating telemedicine into California's health care delivery system. The suggestion comes in the last sentence of a report the LAO issued last week on the impact of the recently enacted Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act on state health care programs.

The report notes that as more people become medically insured when most of its provisions take effect in 2014, California's health care system may lack capacity to serve a greater number of patients. Telemedicine --videoconferencing with medical professionals and uploading patient data -- offers the potential to make it easier for doctors to consult with patients and possibly serve more of them.

Before telemedicine can be adopted as a lower cost and more convenient method for patients to access medical professionals, the telecommunications infrastructure must be upgraded and expanded to provide reliable, Internet protocol-based service delivered via fiber optic cable connections to residences. Much of that job will fall to community-based entities such as municipal and consumer-owned telecom cooperatives.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

App-Rising: FCC fudges on fiber

From the perspective of App-Rising, a recent Federal Communications Commission report addressing how to complete America's incomplete IP-based telecom infrastructure suffers from a major flaw. There's too much emphasis on DSL wireline technology intended to serve as a temporary stopgap on the road to fiber to the premises -- technology that will soon be obsolete and already suffers from poor reliability and high maintenance costs given the nation's aging copper cable plant.

The FCC also fudges on fiber by looking to mobile 4G wireless technology as a substitute for fiber to the premises. I agree with App-Rising that's also bad idea. This technology is intended primarily for mobile and not premises service. And unlike fiber, it's not a proven technology. Plus there's no indication 4G won't also become quickly obsolete, unable to scale up as premise bandwidth demand inevitably grows.

U.S. telecom market needs alternative business models, not more regulation

Telecommunications like other infrastructure such as roads, electric power transmission equipment, natural gas and water lines that serve homes and businesses is not a competitive market. It is a natural monopoly and at best a duopoly. Overlaid by market failure, represented by 7 million U.S. homes the Federal Communications Commission estimates are off the telecom grid because they are located outside cable company footprints or unable to subscribe to DSL due to distance limitations. Last October, the Yankee Group estimated about 12 percent of U.S. households, including those in some major metropolitan areas, lack access to broadband service.

This is perceived as a regulatory conundrum by regulators like the FCC. Too much regulation, the legacy telco and cable companies warn, will choke off infrastructure investment. The implication that will make the existing market failure worse. But would it really? The legacy carriers' own business models already severely limit network build out to neatly defined geographic and demographic market segments that can generate a return on investment in about five years.

The real challenge facing regulators isn't regulating the market. This is a market that needs stimulating and alternative business approaches that will solve the existing market failure and create a new telecom market to deliver the Internet protocol-based telecommunications services Americans need now and into the future.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Economic development goals pit local goverments against legacy telcos, cable companies

Local government economic development agendas are clashing with investor-owed legacy telcos and cable companies in North Carolina as the Associated Press reports in this item appearing in The Daily Reflector.

The locals want fiber optic-based infrastructure to attract employers and create jobs. The business models of the incumbent telco and cable companies preclude them from profitably providing it. But rather than accept that business reality and seek more profitable business ventures, they've engaged in disinformation by declaring telecom infrastructure -- a natural monopoly -- as a competitive market. Therefore, they've argued to North Carolina lawmakers, local governments should get voter approval before issuing bonds to cover the cost of municipally owned telecom infrastructure in order to level the "competitive" playing field.

That sounds reasonable on its face. But the incumbent agenda isn't driven by public interest by ensuring prudent expenditure of public funds. It's a self interested one aimed at introducing delay. Unfortunately for the incumbent investor-owned providers, that merely adds costs and does nothing to increase profits. That could depress their share values and potentially leave them open to shareholder lawsuits.

Friday, May 07, 2010

Recommended reading: "Breaking the Broadband Monopoly"

Just as bringing electric power to homes and farms was America's great infrastructure challenge in the early decades of the 20th century, building out telecommunications infrastructure is the challenge of the early 21st as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has observed.

Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has issued a call for Americans rise to this new challenge just as they did in the 1930s with the Rural Electrification Administration and local utility cooperatives. While noting that every generation believes it bears a bigger burden than those before it, Mitchell asserts building out telecom infrastructure while difficult can be done just as it was with electric power lines.

Mitchell like author Jack Lessinger suggests this build out like electrification of nearly a century ago will help fuel an economic boom. (Building telecom infrastructure publicly and cooperatively also fits into Lessinger's emerging socioeconomic paradigm where "what's in it for me" is being supplanted by a new ethic of "what's in it for us.")

I strongly recommend reading Mitchell's latest white paper, Breaking the Broadband Monopoly. It's a comprehensive and very current treatise on and making the case for locally owned and operated telecom infrastructure. The paper is loaded with examples of community projects, examples of how legacy incumbent carriers fighting the future have attempted to stymie them, and tips and traps to avoid for community activists and local governments looking to take control of their telecommunications destiny and build their own local networks.

Will FCC enforce USF build out requirement?

It remains to be seen to what extent this week's decision by U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski to subject Internet protocol-based telecommunications to some but not all requirements of Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 will achieve his goal of bringing a badly needed upgrade to the U.S. telecommunications infrastructure.

Genachowski has described the challenge of replacing infrastructure designed many years ago to provide voice telephone service to an IP-based system that serves all Americans no matter where they make their homes and businesses as the "critical infrastructure challenge of our generation." That infrastructure challenge is greatest at the local level -- the so-called "last mile" of the system that connects to customer premises.

As explained by FCC General Counsel Austin Schlick, Genachowski's decision to apply Section 254 of Title II of the Act would support the FCC's plans to retask the Universal Service Fund (USF) that subsidizes service in high cost areas from POTS (Plain Old Telephone Service) to IP. As amended by the Communications Act of 1996, Section 254 requires the FCC to pursue policies to achieve access to advanced telecommunications and information services in all regions of the nation including those in rural and high cost areas that are "reasonably comparable" to services and rates offered in urban areas.

It's unknown at this point to what extent the FCC will as part of its plan to revamp the Universal Service Fund to help achieve ubiquitous access will enforce (or alternatively grant forbearance from) another provision of the Act designed to put teeth in the USF via a build out requirement. Title II Section 214(e)(3) empowers the FCC to "determine which common carrier or carriers are best able to provide such service to the requesting unserved community or portion thereof and shall order such carrier or carriers to provide such service for that unserved community or portion thereof." Notably, Section 214(e)(3) is absent from Schlick's explanation of the evolving FCC policy.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

California legislation would expand subsidy program

As the U.S. Federal Communications Commission considers retasking the Universal Service Fund that was originally formed to subsidize voice telephone service in high cost areas to advanced telecommunications infrastructure, California is considering urgency legislation to expand and make permanent its own similar subsidy program.

The California Advanced Services Fund (CASF) was established by the California Public Utilities Commission in December 2007 to subsidize advanced telecom infrastructure in high cost unserved and underserved areas of the state. Up to $100 million was allocated from a 25 percent surcharge on intrastate long distance calls, with the CASF surcharge offset by an equal reduction in the California High Cost Fund-B surcharge created to subsidize deployment of basic voice telephone service.

SB 1040 would leave the CASF in place indefinitely and expand its budget to $250 million with up to $25 million available in any given fiscal year. The urgency measure also liberalizes the use of CASF funds. To subsidize broadband infrastructure construction, $20 million would be allocated to grants and $3 million for loans.

One of the most important elements would be a new Regional Broadband Consortia Grant Account that earmarks $2 million in technical assistance grants to fund the cost of broadband deployment activities other than actual infrastructure construction. The money would be available to a wide variety of groups including local and regional governments, schools and colleges, health care providers, libraries and community-based organizations.

This is a critical element of the bill since many such entities that were interested in applying for broadband infrastructure grants and loans appropriated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 lacked adequate funding to retain experts to help them with the engineering and business planning work needed in order to prepare project proposals.

A California Senate floor analysis of SB 1040 notes the Senate Energy, Utilities and Communications Committee was told at a Feb. 16 hearing that four percent of Californians - 1.4 million people in mostly rural areas, do not have access to broadband service. Only about half of Californians have Internet access at speeds meeting the CPUC's definition of basic broadband of 3 Mbs down and 1 Mbs up.

SB 1040 is advancing without opposition and would become law immediately after being signed by the governor. The CPUC would then open a rulemaking proceeding to implement the new CASF provisions later this year.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Another downside to legacy copper plant: cable thieves

One of the best known weaknesses of legacy copper telecommunications plant is its limited carrying capacity compared to fiber optic cable. It also has another downside: it's vulnerable to theft by those hoping to sell the metal to scrap dealers as this BBC story illustrates.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Paradigm shift in telecommunications underway

As the legacy publicly switched telephone network (PSTN) becomes increasingly obsolete (it's in a "death spiral" according a pre-Christmas 2009 Federal Communications Commission filing by AT&T), regulators like the FCC are grappling with a paradigm shift in telecommunications.

The FCC's current regulatory framework is more oriented toward PSTN than the Internet that is rapidly replacing it. It too is growing outmoded, leaving regulators struggling to devise a successor.

And as FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has noted, the FCC also faces a major challenge in figuring out how to best address market failure that has left at least seven million U.S. households offline according to the FCC's own estimates. At a time when the PSTN is replaced by the Internet, if you don't have an "always on" terrestrial Internet connection, you don't have modern telecommunications service. As PSTN becomes obsolete, so does the PSTN means of Internet connectivity: dialup access that was state of the art nearly two decades ago.

This is truly a time of major transition in telecommunications. As with any major shift, there will be a tension between those who want to hang on to the old paradigm -- in this case the legacy single purpose "telephone" and "cable" companies whose business models are based on billing for incremental services delivered over closed, proprietary networks -- and those who want speed the shift toward alternative business models based on open access IP-based networks.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Fed up with circular debate over telecom market failure, British village acts to get broadband

While the UK government (just like America's) engages in a ridiculous circular debate over whether market failure has hampered the deployment of modern telecommunications infrastructure, the residents of Lyddington, Rutland have cried "bullocks!"and taken matters into their own hands.

No debate over market failure there, where according to this Telegraph article their petitions to the incumbent providers to bring them broadband got them nothing. So several local businesses are investing fiber optic cable that will bring the townspeople connectivity of 40 Mbs for £30 a month.

A key excerpt:

Dr Charles Trotman, head of rural business development at the Country Land and Business Association welcomed the project.

But he warned that not all local communities will be able to do it themselves and the next Government must put in place measures to ensure the whole country has superfast broadband.

"You cannot rely on the markets to do it because we know for a fact that large telecommunication companies will not invest in rural areas because there is no market return. If they are not willing to do it then someone has to do it and you have to have a central strategy set by Government"

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

FCC National Broadband Plan lacks sense of urgency

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) today gave voice to my own concern that the Federal Communications Commission's National Broadband Plan mandated by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 is more of a wish list than an action plan.

Particularly considering that according to an FCC estimate released when the plan was unveiled last month, 7 million U.S. homes are offline because they are located outside cable company footprints or unable to subscribe to DSL due to distance limitations. Last October, the Yankee Group estimated about 12 percent of U.S. households, including those in some major metropolitan areas, have no access to broadband service.

That's a big infrastructure problem reflecting the fact that the United States is easily a decade behind where it should be considering the rapid growth of the Internet and next generation, Internet-protocol based telecommunications.

Rockefeller's message to the FCC is a problem of this magnitude requires a sense of urgency to bridge the digital divide. I agree with him. As a representative of a state with sizable rural areas, Rockefeller wants the FCC to focus its plan on rural America where IP-based telecom infrastructure is the weakest and least developed.

I would include many metro areas as well, particularly neighborhoods where housing density and topography don't allow legacy wireline cable and telcos to profitably build out their systems. As I have stated repeatedly, the FCC's plan should help alternative entities such as nonprofit coops start up to rapidly construct this critical infrastructure where the legacy providers cannot afford to do so.
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