Saturday, June 11, 2022

Regional open access fiber as the telecom regional airports of the 21st century

As the U.S. continues to debate the role of public and private ownership and operation of advanced telecommunications infrastructure, a California local government official offers simple aeronautical analogy to progress beyond the debate and bring ubiquitous connectivity to nearly every American doorstep.

Just as local governments own and operate regional airports, regional open access fiber infrastructure can serve as the airports for internet service providers operating as the airlines. Like airlines that rent terminal space at airports, the ISPs would rent access to the infrastructure to deliver service to their customers.

Calaveras County, California Supervisor Jack Garamendi’s concept makes a lot of sense. Investor owned vertically integrated providers cannot afford to bring fiber connections serve all homes, businesses and institutions in their nominal service areas. That’s because their investors expect relatively short term returns on capital investments incompatible with the long term investment horizon for infrastructure. Hence, the nation is handicapped with partially deployed infrastructure with only about a third of all homes having access to fiber connections that should have reached nearly all of them by 2010 with better policy and planning.

Now Garamendi is working to build what amounts to a regional airport system serving 38 California counties as president of the Golden State Connect Authority (GSCA). As a joint powers authority and governmental entity, the GSCA plans to access the public bond markets to finance the fiber. That’s more patient capital that’s compatible with fiber infrastructure serviceable for decades – much like airports. California legislation enacted in 2021 appropriates continuous funding to help secure the bond debt.

The GSCA is modeling itself on and working with the State of Utah’s Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), a group of 11 Utah cities that joined together in 2004 to build, deploy, and operate fiber infrastructure connecting all homes and businesses.

According to Garamendi, the GSCA plans to ramp up deployment of fiber rapidly, starting with more densely settled areas. “We’ll go fast and we’ll pick up speed,” he said at an Electronic Frontier Foundation event this week.

Let’s hope so. The GSCA must avoid only partially deploying like the large corporate investor-owned telephone companies that serve limited, more densely developed areas. Great numbers of residents and small businesses in GSCA counties have coped with lack of landline connections for many years – even in not so thinly populated exurban areas at the outlying edges of metro counties, forced to rely on high cost, low value wireless services.

The GSCA won’t be able to bring fiber to every location, Garamendi noted, given some are in very remote rural areas of the Golden State. But access to patient capital will allow it to go much farther than the far less patient capital of investor-owned providers that naturally cherry pick areas conforming to their stringent rate of return and profitability standards. 

State and regional public telecom entities like UTOPIA and the GSCA offer the nation a badly needed self sustaining model to build and operate fiber networks to provide near universal service and affordable access. Such self sustaining business structures are particularly needed in the absence of coordinated, sustained federal policy and funding designed to ensure fiber connections reach all American homes and small businesses.

Regionalism isn't new for telecom infrastructure. Telephone companies were structured as interstate regional bell operating companies formed upon the divestiture of AT&T in 1982.

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