Saturday, January 28, 2017

Neither investor-owned ISPs nor "muni broadband" can meet America's urgent telecom infrastructure modernization need

How Broadband Populists Are Pushing for Government-Run Internet One Step at a Time | ITIF: To most observers of U.S. broadband policy, the regular and increasingly heated debates in this area appear to be about an evolving set of discrete issues: net neutrality, broadband privacy, set-top box competition, usage-based pricing, mergers, municipal broadband, international rankings, and so on. As each issue emerges, the factions take their positions—companies fighting for their firms’ advantage, “public interest” groups working for more regulation, free market advocates working for less, and some moderate academics and think tanks taking more nuanced and varied positions.

But at a higher level, these debates are about more than the specific issue at hand; they are subcomponents of a broader debate about the kind of broadband system America should have. One side wants to remain on the path that has brought America to where it is today: a lightly regulated industry made up of competing private companies relying on a variety of technologies. Another side, made up of mostly public interest groups and some liberal academics, rejects this, advocating instead for a heavily regulated, utility-like industry at minimum and ideally a government-owned system made up of municipal networks. The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF) firmly believes the former model—lightly regulated competition—is the superior one. But if we are to get broadband policy right going forward, it’s this broader strategic issue we need to identify and debate, not just narrow tactical matters.

Broadband networks are a critical part of America’s digital technology system and, as such, the issue of how to continue to drive investment and innovation in these networks is worthy of robust and sustained debate. But the broadband policy debate should be transparent about what it really involves: Is America better off with an ISP industry that is structured the way the vast majority of the U.S. economy is structured (private-sector firms competing to provide the best product or service at a competitive price, with the role of government to limit abuse and support gaps where private-sector competition does not respond), or do we want to transform this largely successful industry model into either a regulated utility monopoly model or government-owned networks? As we ponder this question, policymakers need to understand what the debate is fundamentally about and what is at stake as broadband populists push for each one of their thousand cuts.

Actually, neither leaving telecommunications infrastructure fully in the hands of the private sector nor relying on local "municipal broadband" builds will bring the United States modern, fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure rapidly enough to meet the ever growing bandwidth demand of Internet protocol-based services. The former because of sell side market failure due to slow and uncertain return on investment inherent in its customer premise subscription-based business model. The latter because state and local governments lack the capital and debt capacity to finance publicly owned telecom infrastructure with so many competing needs for aging infrastructure such as roads, schools and sewer and water systems as well as enormous public pension obligations.

Only the federal government has the resources and policy power to meet this critical infrastructure need of the 21st century as I posit in my 2015 eBook, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis. Telecommunications infrastructure like the highway system is fundamentally interstate and not municipal, connecting states to each other and the nation to the world. It's too important to be left to either the private sector alone or state and local governments that lack the resources to do the job.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Senate Democrats to propose $1 trillion infrastructure plan

News from The Associated Press: A proposal by two of Trump's financial advisers circulated just after the election calls for using $137 billion in tax credits to generate $1 trillion in private investment in infrastructure projects over 10 years. But investors are typically interested only in projects that have a revenue stream like tolls to produce a profit. Charging tolls for roads and bridges is often unpopular. A recent Washington Post poll found that 66 percent of the public opposes granting tax credits to investors who put their money into transportation projects in exchange for the right to charge tolls. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials and transportation industry lobbying groups want a hike in direct federal spending instead of tax credits. What is needed most, they say, is money to address the growing backlog of maintenance and repair projects, most of which are unsuitable for tolling.

This also applies to America's aging and obsolete telecommunications infrastructure. It should have been modernized with fiber optic technology all the way to customer premises starting a quarter of a century ago. Instead today, the nation remains on outmoded metal wire infrastructure designed for the pre-Internet days of telephone and cable TV service.

The financial points of this article also apply. Just as it won't for roads and highways, a for-profit business model isn't going to generate the low hundreds of billions of dollars needed to build the telecom infrastructure to accommodate the ever increasing demand for Internet protocol-driven bandwidth. There simply isn't enough return on investment given the enormous capital expenditure requirements. Ditto tax incentives.

Americans also understandably dislike a toll-based scheme that subjects them to the tender mercies of vertically integrated Internet Service Providers (ISPs) -- who because they own both the pipe that brings telecom services to customer premises as well as the services delivered over it -- enjoy hugely disproportionate market power. Just ask anyone who received a notice their monthly bill would be going up this year. Telecom infrastructure should be in the public realm and treated -- and funded-- as a public good.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Why aggressive federal intiative needed to modernize inadequate U.S. telecom infrastructure

Virginia “Broadband Deployment Act” would kill municipal broadband deployment | Ars Technica: Virginia lawmakers are considering a bill called the "Virginia Broadband Deployment Act," but instead of resulting in more broadband deployment, the legislation would make it more difficult for municipalities to offer Internet service.

The Virginia House of Delegates legislation proposed this week by Republican lawmaker Kathy Byron (full text) would prohibit municipal broadband deployments except in very limited circumstances. Among other things, a locality wouldn't be allowed to offer Internet service if an existing network already provides 10Mbps download and 1Mbps upload speeds to 90 percent of potential customers. That speed threshold is low enough that it can be met by old DSL lines in areas that haven't received more modern cable and fiber networks.

This is a big part of the justification for an aggressive federal telecom infrastructure initiative to build and publicly own fiber optic connections to nearly every American home, business and institutions. While many have placed hope in state and local government "muni broadband" efforts, they won't scale and rapidly enough to address the nation's current and future telecom needs. The nation now faces an infrastructure crisis, getting further and further behind the demand curve as time goes on and the need for robust connectivity grows.

There are two reasons why these local efforts fall short. First and most importantly, existing state and local governments lack the many billions of dollars and debt capacity needed to finance the job. They're already strapped by deferred infrastructure maintenance such as for highways, roads, government buildings, and water and sewerage systems. Not to mention the yawning economic black hole of underfunded public employee pension obligations that sucks up state and local funds. In a similar vein, we don't read accounts of new special districts being formed to build and operate telecom infrastructure, with the locals signing on to tax themselves to pay for it.

The second is the legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies call the shots on telecom infrastructure and will do -- as the above story reports -- whatever it takes to keep control, even if it means keeping in place obsolete infrastructure and impeding technological progress with minimalist incrementalism. State and local governments are simply outgunned by boatloads of campaign cash and armies of lobbyists and propagandists intent on keeping the calendar set at 1999 in order not to disrupt their capital expenditure averse business models. Nor is there any real private sector threat. For example, Google Fiber got its ass kicked and then publicly mocked by AT&T when it ventured into the telecom infrastructure business to connect homes with fiber and forming public-private partnerships with local governments.

As I wrote in my 2015 eBook, Service Unavailable: America’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis, the United States requires an aggressive federal initiative to modernize the nation's aging and hugely inadequate telecom infrastructure so that it serves all Americans and not just some. Only the federal government has the authority and resources to make that happen and is justified in doing so given the essentially interstate nature of telecommunications.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

US Telecom head fundamentally misstates key obstacle to telecom infrastructure

The Next National Infrastructure Push Must Be Powered by Broadband - Morning Consult: Clarity. Broadband companies have invested more in America’s infrastructure over the last two decades than any other sector of our economy – $1.5 trillion and counting. Yet these same companies in recent years have suffered a case of Washington whiplash. On one hand, heady (and wholly accurate) talk about broadband’s importance to all citizens. On the other, increasingly regressive policy decisions that undermine that potential and are widely credited with 2015’s decline in capital investment in U.S. broadband networks. We need to reverse this troubling trend by establishing policies that encourage investment in new and better broadband.
This opinion from Jonathan Spalter,  president and CEO of the trade association USTelecom, is remarkable in that it fundamentally misstates what is a business problem as a public policy problem for telecommunications companies. The biggest obstacle facing the industry when it comes to investing in telecommunications infrastructure is its own business model. It's out of sync with the long term return on capital that comes with high cost telecom infrastructure, seeking lower risk short term gains. That's not public policy. That's just plain microeconomics.

Friday, January 06, 2017

As usual, AT&T decades late & dollar short, betting heavily on the come

Meanwhile, in terms of its fixed line activities AT&T confirms it is now marketing a 1Gbps connection to nearly four million locations across 46 metropolitan areas nationwide, including more than 650,000 apartments and condominium units. By mid-2019 the telco plans to reach at least 12.5 million locations across 67 metro areas with its fibre service. In addition, AT&T is conducting technology trials over fixed wireless point-to-point mmWave and technologies with a view to delivering greater speeds and efficiencies within its copper and fibre networks. Finally, the telco expects to launch a new fixed wireless internet (FWI) service in mid-2017 in areas where it has accepted Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Connect America Fund Phase II (CAF II) support. The operator expects to reach more than 400,000 locations by the end of 2017 across 18 states, most of which will get internet access for the first time. By the end of 2020 AT&T plans to reach 1.1 million locations in those 18 states.
It's mind boggling to consider the boldfaced sentence above that notes premises in AT&T service territory will get their first Internet access between 2017 and 2020. Those premises will be served by a bolt on adjunct to its mobile wireless infrastructure that will be obsolete even before its deployed and highly likely bog down during peak periods as its shared bandwidth becomes saturated with heavy, multi-premise demand. Had AT&T's predecessor SBC Communications and other regional bell operating companies stuck to their early 1990s plans to replace their copper networks with fiber to customer premises, they would have likely completed that task by 2008 to 2010. They didn't. Consequently, the quality of America's telecommunications infrastructure has suffered greatly, deficient for the needs of today and tomorrow.

This item from TeleGeography (excerpted above) also outlines AT&T's residential strategy that heavily relies on its mobile wireless plant as a successor to its VDSL-based U-Verse hybrid fiber/copper service that suffers from severe bandwidth constraints due to the aging copper cable plant service customer premises. The wireless link to customer premises is apparently going to replace the twisted pair copper. It remains to be seen whether AT&T can overcome the technological challenge of being able to deliver adequate bandwidth over the wireless link to customer premises. And equally critical, the economic challenge of having to invest considerable capital in fiber to backhaul all of the necessary radios that would essentially require nearly every premise to have one, similar to step down transformers for residential electric service. 
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