Saturday, February 19, 2011

Obama administration should focus on community-run open access fiber, not 4G wireless

The Obama administration's recent announcement of its National Wireless Initiative to subsidize the build out of 4th generation (4G) wireless Internet to make it available to least 98 percent of Americans appears based on the assumption that cutting edge wireless telecommunications technology can play a central role in the nation's telecom infrastructure.

I'm not convinced. 4G wireless is only just emerging and remains unproven in terms of whether it can deliver sufficient bandwidth at the same time bandwidth demand is increasing exponentially. It's primarily designed for mobile use and portable devices such as smart phones and IPads that are gobbling bandwidth at such a prodigious rate that providers have a difficult time meeting the demand. That's why they ration bandwidth and penalize wireless customers who use more than 5 GB per month. The rationing is due to a more basic telecom infrastructure problem: the lack of adequate wire line infrastructure to "backhaul" or feed the distribution system that supports that huge and growing universe of wireless devices.

The administration's wireless initiative seems to suggest that people can "cut the cord" for Internet access just as they have done for wire line voice service, which requires far less bandwidth. 4G wireless, the administration apparently believes, can provide access to medical tests, online courses and applications that have not yet been invented.

That remains to be seen. What is certain now is wire line fiber optic connections to American households and businesses can deliver more than enough bandwidth for today's needs without the need for rationing plus plenty of additional capacity for those yet to be invented applications. The administration's telecom infrastructure efforts should focus on bringing it to the 24 million Americans that Federal Communications Chairman Julius Genachowski said remain disconnected from the Internet. "The infrastructure simply isn’t there," Genachowski explained.

The reason: It's simply not sufficiently profitable for investor owned providers to build it. Alternative, lower cost methods are urgently needed. The best and most rapid way to bring about these alternatives is to focus at the local level and provide local governments and consumer telecom cooperatives technical assistance grants and low cost loans to build open access fiber networks to serve their communities.

The administration's health care reform legislation allocates $5 billion in technical assistance grants to for new health insurance cooperatives to pool risk and purchase health coverage for their members. The administration should provide a similar amount of technical assistance funding for local governments and telecom cooperatives to help them plan and design open access fiber optic telecom networks.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Virtual workforce requires robust telecom infrastructure

While a recent survey found that less than 4 percent of U.S. private sector workers actually work from home, that figure could reach as high as 30 percent by 2019, according to TechCast, a George Washington University–based virtual think tank.

What's behind this coming workplace revolution? Quite simply, "work" no longer needs to be defined as a place you go. We're witnessing the emergence of a next generation workforce that is always-on and hyper-connected via broadband, with a proliferation of connected devices and access to on-the-go Internet-based applications and cloud-based services that make working from anywhere possible.

The above excerpt from a Reuters article goes on to point out various pluses of telework including reduced carbon emissions from less commuting and mutual benefits for employers (better productivity, lower office costs) and employees (greater work/life balance and job satisfaction). While not mentioned specifically, improved work/life balance could also yield big benefits in lower health care costs by freeing up time for exercise that would otherwise be spent commuting to and from the office.

In order for the virtual workforce to become a reality, workers will need advanced telecommunications infrastructure at their doorsteps that can support videoconferencing and other interactive applications. That means fiber optic connections offering symmetric upload and download speeds and scalability for future growth that is generally not offered by incumbent telco and cable companies.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Satellite Internet provider targets U.S. exurbs as growth market

The notion that being disconnected from the Internet is a problem largely confined to rural areas isn't true. The latest evidence comes courtesy of Arunas Slekys, vice president of corporate marketing for satellite Internet provider Hughes Network Systems.

Slekys told The Washington Post that Hughes' best growth prospects aren't necessarily deep rural America but the outer rings of metro areas where telcos and cable companies haven't built out their wireline infrastructures to provide premises Internet connections. "These aren't people sitting on a mountainside in Idaho," Slekys told The Post. "They're actually exurban. You can go 20 or 30 miles outside of D.C. and there are a lot of areas where you can't get terrestrial broadband."

Indeed. Ditto for other metro regions of the United States. Living in the exurbs often means no Internet, which won't help property values recover in despite their typically upmarket homes.

Slekys makes a excellent point about the extent of the problem in the U.S. But his company's solution is, frankly, not a solution. Even on an interim basis until terrestrial infrastructure is constructed to serve these offline areas. Satellite Internet connections are notoriously sluggish due to the high signal latency caused by the 46,000 mile round trip to the satellite and back to the Earth's surface and are prone to frequent drop outs. Then there are the dreaded FAPs, aka Fair Access Policies. This fine print in satellite providers' contracts allows them to slow your connection to dial up speed -- often for days on end -- if the connection is used too much or for applications that use a lot of bandwidth such as video.

So those of you in the offline exurbs, forget about streaming Netflix films on a satellite connection unless you want to spend some time in FAP jail with your Internet connection slowed to a crawl. And if you're an executive who lives in an upscale exurban property or a small business owner/consultant, forget about using your satellite connection to videoconference with your offices or to exchange large files. The connection isn't sufficiently robust and stable to support it.
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