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.
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