Technology Futures newsletter

Open Access to be highlighted at Broadband Communities Summit in April

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/10/2012 - 08:58

Open Access networks will be a main highlight at the Broadband Communities Summit in April. This conference was formerly called "Broadband Properties Summit," but the focus of the conference has been widened considerably to include community-owned and municipal networks. In addition to a complete track on Open Access Networks, there is also a full track on Economic Development (in the context of telecommunications), which should be of interest to planners, developers, and local government officials.

More information is available here.

Is social media harming the development of our youth?

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/15/2011 - 12:09

A new ( study suggests that a slight majority of adults think social media is harmful to the social development of today's youth. With the ever-increasing use of social media by young people, Poll Position wanted to know if Americans think social media is helpful or harmful to the social development of today’s youth.

In a national telephone survey of registered voters, 53% said it is harmful, 20% said it is helpful in the social development of youth, 17% said it is not making a difference either way and 11% did not offer an opinion.

Men and women shared similar views on the question with 53% saying social media is harmful to the social development of young people.

Among men, 22% said it is helpful, 17% said it is not making a difference and 9% had no opinion.

Among women, 18% found social media helpful in the social development of young people, 17% said it is not making a difference, 13% did not have an opinion.

By a smaller margin than the national average, young people in the 18-29 year old age group found social media more harmful than helpful with 47% choosing harmful versus 35% who thought it was helpful to the social development of today’s youth. Sixteen percent said social media is not making a difference and 3% did not offer an opinion.

Anecdotally, I see a problem constantly with young people in the workforce who do not know how to communicate in an appropriate way. Many of the younger people I interact with simply won't pick up the phone to discuss a business issue, and instead rely on email, which is often a time-consuming way to identify a problem and propose a solution. I also see an over-reliance on texting and email for urgent information requests. Neither email nor texting is a synchronous communications medium. And when I'm in a business meeting, my attention is on the meeting, not on incoming texts and email. I rarely ever check email or texts during a meeting--if I'm with customers, it is just plain rude.

I have lost count of the number of times someone has emailed me for information that they need within an hour or two, and instead of calling me or talking to our receptionist to determine if I am available, they start sending ever more frantic emails--three or four in the space of an hour, demanding to know where I am and why I have not answered them.

There is a broader issue afoot here than arrested development of social skills, and that is our technology makes it more difficult to escape work. We are expected to read email, respond to texts, and answer phone calls in the evening and on weekends, just because we can. Our ubiquitous connectivity adds stress and strain to our lives. Let's all take a deep breath and slow down a bit.

Happy birthday, iPod!

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 10/24/2011 - 08:07

The iPod is ten years old today. The iPod was the brainchild of Steve Jobs. There were plenty of other MP3 music players at the time; most of them were much less expensive and smaller than the iPod, but the iPod was easy to use, both from the interface of the iPod itself, but key to the music player's success was the way the iPod synced with iTunes on your computer--a layer of complexity was completely eliminated, and that made all the difference.

The emergence of the iPod was also the death of the music store, but it was neither Jobs nor Apple that was the death of that anachronism, it was the inevitable march of history, or as Schumpeter calls it, "creative destruction." Ancient Greeks decried written language as the ruination of memorization. In the Middle Ages, the printing press was seen by some as a loss of control over knowledge. Time and technology move on. As we speak, tablet-based devices like the iPad are completing the creative destruction of most paper-based materials, especially magazines and newspapers. I think there will always be a place for some paper-based books, but really, paying less than ten bucks for the latest best seller in ebook format is much better than chopping down trees, making energy-intensive paper, and then engaging in the energy-intensive process of printing and hauling millions of tons of those books around. That's also true of music--music used to require enormous amounts of energy to deliver to the buyer, because music was heavy; it had weight. Today, we buy music as a stream of weightless photons.

What else has changed? In the old days, ten years ago, when music was still heavy, you needed a well-designed road system for the trucks and cars that hauled music around. Today, you need a well-designed digital road system to haul music, books, magazines, movies, TV, health care, business services, and hundreds of other emerging services. Is your community building those digital roads?

Why broadband still matters

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/05/2011 - 08:12

Now that the broadband stimulus money has been distributed, and the Google fiber initiative has taken root in the two Kansas Citys, a lot of communities seem to have lost interest in broadband initiatives. The cable companies have done a fairly good job of keeping up with demand, and the telephone companies continue to cling to their share of the broadband market by competing on price rather than on bandwidth.

But this apparent "Remain calm! All is well" approach is the calm before the storm. And the storm is coming to us in a huge cloud. In the past week, Amazon and Apple have rolled out new cloud-based initiatives that will stream content everywhere, all the time. If cloud storage seems like a gimmick, it is not. It is the answer to the utter uselessness of trying to keep all our media content, personal and business, on local hard drives. Music, pictures, movies, and what we used to quaintly call "TV" are driving this problem. Even though you can buy a two terabyte hard drive for $150, you can fill it faster than lickety-split with purchased video. And then you have to figure out how to back it up. Backing it up with a second drive is a good start, but suppose your house or business burns down? Both drives are gone, as is all your data.

Add to that the fact that everyone now wants everything available on every computing device they own, which typically comprises, for many people, FOUR devices: a smartphone, a laptop, a tablet, and a desktop computer. And the portable devices will never have enough storage to keep everything on the device itself. So the cloud is not a typical IT solution in search of a question. We know what the question is, and the cloud is the answer. But streaming everything to everyone all the time is going to create, over the next several years, exponential increases in demand for bandwidth. And that's when the copper-based DSL and cable modem networks will run out of steam.

Communities that have not made plans to ensure a modern fiber-based infrastructure that also supports ubiquitous wireless mobility access will be at a severe disadvantage from an economic development perspective.

Oh, and one more thing. There is another sleeper in the battle for streaming content....Rhapsody (the music service) just bought Napster to try to fight Spotify. Spotify is a streaming music service that is huge in Europe but only recently began operations in the U.S. So the music industry is still undergoing a massive reorganization that is focused on streaming any song every recorded to anyone, at any time, anywhere. And it is going to be a battle of Titans, with Apple, Amazon, Rhapsody, Spotify, and even tiny Microsoft with its Zune music service all going head to head.

Disintermediation and the Passafire Phenonmenon

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 09/26/2011 - 10:19

Passafire is a Savannah, Georgia based band with some roots on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Their most recent album, Start from Scratch (, has zoomed to the top of the iTunes reggae charts to take the number two spot behind perennial number one Bob Marley. What is interesting about this is that the band does not have a contract with a major record label (and "record" is an anachronism these days). Passafire ( has their own Web site, sells CDs online, but relies primarily on iTunes for their music sales. Oh, yes, and they actually play music in affordable venues. In short, these guys love music, and are able to make a living doing it, because the middle man, the record labels, have been cut out.

Even ten years ago, the members of Passafire would all have been working day jobs and loading a beat up van on Friday and Saturday nights to play a few local gigs. It is only Apple, with its visionary iTunes music store, that has allowed the band to connect with millions of fans in a way that was impossible just a few years ago.

And while some moan about the loss of jobs due to disintermediation, what the whiners forget is that iTunes has created tens of thousands of new jobs, and I would bet that the net jobs in the music industry has increased, and is spread far more equitably around the country, starting with what must surely be thousands of jobs at Apple just running the iTunes store. Then you have all the musicians that can actually market to a worldwide audience via iTunes, increasing their income and for some of them, turning their love of music into a full time job.

Bring the disintermediation on; it creates more opportunity by decentralizing economic power. Next up: the disintermediation of the TV and telephone industries.

Danville, Virginia's investment in fiber is paying off

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/18/2011 - 08:55

Back in 2006, with the help of Design Nine, the City of Danville made the decision to open their city-owned fiber for commercial use. The first customers were connected in 2007. The self-funded project has grown slowly, has spent carefully, and manages more than one hundred and fifty miles of fiber with just two dedicated staff. The City had an early advantage because Danville is an electric city--they own many of the utility poles, and electric utility line crews have done much of the construction and maintenance work. Some specialized work, like fiber splicing, is still outsourced.

This article in ( Virginia Business highlights the slow but steady changes that the municipally-owned fiber have brought to the community.

The Danville Medical Network is an nDanville initiative, and more than 50 medical offices, facilities, and the hospital are linked via city-owned fiber, saving easily many tens of thousands of dollars a month.

The White Building renovation into a massive data center is directly a result of the availability of nDanville fiber at the site.

A new supercomputer will be housed in the Tobacco Warehouse district; superbly renovated historic tobacco warehouses and office buildings all have access to nDanville fiber.

The Ikea plant relies on nDanville fiber for one of their redundant fiber links to keep the plant running.

EcomNets, the green PC manufacuturer, uses nDanville fiber.

nDanville's early focus has been on serving businesses, and every lot in all five business parks in the area are passed by nDanville fiber. Many other commercial areas of the City are also passed by nDanville fiber, and all the substations in the 500 square mile electric service area are managed with nDanville fiber. But ( the project has just announced their first fiber to the home initiative, starting with a 250 home pilot project.

The City of Danville, which once had the highest unemployment in Virginia, now looks like the best place for a technology business in the Commonwealth. What other Virginia community can offer:

A community-owned fiber network that can deliver business class services affordably at ANY bandwidth anywhere on the network.

Some of the finest Class A office space in the state, in beautifully renovated historic buildings, with apartments, condos, and downtown nightlife in walking distance.

Community owned fiber that passes every business parcel in every single business park, with a wide choice of service providers.

A state of the art, 600,000 square foot data center coming online right in downtown Danville.

Beautiful historic homes and churches throughout the community.

Some of the lowest cost of living indexes in the region.

City leaders have taken the slow and steady approach on a wide variety of economic revitalization initiatives, but it is fiber that has, quite literally, connected the dots for Danville.

Worst Practice in community broadband networks

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/27/2011 - 09:27

Broadband Properties has published its March/April 2011 in parallel with the Broadband Properties 2011 conference in Dallas. My article on "worst practice" in community broadband networks can be found on page 122 of the magazine, and is available online in the electronic edition.

Fiber 2.0: The coming Balkanization of American telecom

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/27/2010 - 07:57

A few months ago, a competitive telecom provider ran fiber down the main road near my home. Yesterday I figured out why; a crew was running a fiber drop to the bank branch on the corner. All over America, it is the dawn of Fiber 2.0. Fiber 1.0 took place in the late nineties, when an enormous amount of capital was spent on fiber too far in advance of the marketplace for demand. Along with the rest of the dot-com ventures, Fiber 1.0 was a bust. But today, the market for bandwidth continues to grow along a nice smooth curve, with the demand doubling every two years, and we have fifteen years of data to back this up. While the incumbents are busy trying to convince us they can meet this demand with 1950s copper cable plant, smaller telecom firms are busy spreading bits of fiber through communities to cherry pick the more profitable business customers. These companies tend to have no interest in full fiber build outs, and instead just want to lock up a portion of the local business market. Fiber is still costly enough (mostly for the labor to put it in) that once a customer like a local bank is captured by one of these smaller fiber firms, no other provider will gamble on the expense of building a second fiber cable to the same location: the first fiber provider in essentially creates a small monopoly. Nice work if you can finance it.

The tragedy is that as communities are chopped up among two or three small telecom firms, a Balkanization occurs. In effect, the incumbent duopoly (the phone company and the cable company) is replaced with a cartel--a handful of providers who have a vested interest in limited competition. Prices come down a little, but then freeze at the new cartel price point. The end result is that it becomes more challenging financially to build a single community-owned shared, high performance network; not impossible, but more difficult because key anchor tenants like schools and large businesses have already been cherry-picked with long term contracts.

Best regards,

Andrew Cohill
President, Design Nine

Let's give community broadband projects a fair chance

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/20/2010 - 08:50

Chris Mitchell has a short but pointed note about the fallacy of the "leave it to the private sector" policies that have received so much attention, mainly because the incumbents have pushed that approach vociferously over the past fifteen years. But Mitchell points out that it has largely failed, with many fewer ISPs than in the late nineties, and overall, fewer telephone and cable companies as the big telecom giants gobble up the smaller ones.

Mitchell's final point is the most important one: to maintain some balance and to encourage real competition, there needs to be the opportunity to form and run community-owned networks that are "structurally accountable" to the community itself. Telecom and broadband services have become essential economic development infrastructure, and communities need to be able to control their own destiny. I don't subscribe to the notion that the incumbents are bad. I don't subscribe to the idea that they should be regulated out of existence. What I do believe is that community-owned broadband networks ought to be given a fair chance to prosper without the regulatory dead weight of prohibitions, restrictions, and statutory limitations on access to capital. The incumbents have had fifteen years to provide a modern fiber-based infrastructure to American homes and businesses, and they have, by their own admission, declared, "we can't do it." Fine.

Let's take them at their word, and unleash American innovation and enthusiasm to try something different, like open access networks, which have network neutrality baked in when owned and managed by a neutral third party like a community or regional consortium. Open access projects like Utopia have fifteen providers on the network, including three TV providers--that's real network neutrality and real choice, without the need for excessive regulation and complicated rule-making.

Best regards,
Andrew Cohill
Design Nine, Inc.

Broadband for America: The Third Way

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 08:47

A shortened version of my white paper on open access has been published by Broadband Properties magazine, and can be found in the current issue. The full version of the paper is available in PDF format on the Design Nine Web site.

The paper looks at open access broadband and explains why it works, who benefits, and why it has a more robust business model. It is written for community leaders, service providers, and network operators, and tries to dispel the confusion surrounding open access networks.

Perhaps the most mis-understood facet of properly designed open access networks is the issue of competition and government involvement. Unlike some communities that have adopted a traditional triple play business model that competes directly with the private sector (and tends to attract expensive lawsuits), the open access business model keeps local government out of the business of selling broadband and telecom services, and is, in fact, incumbent friendly. In communities that have relied on Design Nine to help them design their networks, the cost for Internet access and phone service have dropped sharply for businesses--as much as 70% in some cases. This frees up business capital for job creation and business expansion, and low costs for broadband access and fiber availability is bringing new businesses and jobs to these communities.

If you have questions, feel free to call me for more information.

Best regards,
Andrew Cohill
President, Design Nine


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