Heartland Institute Hoopla

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/08/2005 - 06:46

According to most reports that I have seen, the Heartland Institute is an "astroturf" organization (the term refers to a group that has a hidden agenda--in other words, it's appearance is fake, like Astroturf).

I mention them because the Institute has been busy issuing reports saying that community broadband is bad for communities, and does so mostly by using scare tactics, suggesting that community investments "could" raise taxes, as one example. The problem is that there is no evidence that it does, and some data that suggests it lowers taxes because of increased economic development. That's what happened in Cedar Falls, Iowa. After they invested in fiber, they were able to lower taxes while nearby communities had to raise taxes.

Don't believe everything you read (even this column). The beauty of the Internet is that you have the option of doing your own research and developing your own sources of reliable information.

Snow-clogged network

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/28/2005 - 13:22

There are many advantages to working out of the home, but snow days are not one of them.

Normally, the neighborhood cable network is reasonably responsive during the day, because kids and parents are at work. I can get done what I need to do without waiting.

But with six inches of snow on the ground and more falling, schools and many businesses are closed, and apparently many people have headed for the Internet, completely bogging down the cable modem service. It's very pokey, with long waits for simple things like loading a Web page.

And that's a perfect example of why cable and DSL, over the long term, simply don't have what it takes to deliver broadband. If one snow day makes my neighborhood broadband service slow to a crawl, imagine what will happen as more and more users get on and do more and more high bandwidth stuff like Voice over IP and IP television.

We're thirteenth in the world in terms of broadband cacpacity and deployment, behind places like Finland, Norway, and South Korea. And here is where I remind you of my favorite suggestion for a community economic development slogan: "Our town--almost as good as South Korea." It is a pretty sad situation when it comes to that, and it has.

New York Times comes out against communities

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 02/20/2005 - 10:13

The New York Times (registration required) has a very biased article about Philadelphia's plan for citywide wireless broadband. The paper interviewed mainly opponents of the plan, and seemed to go to great lengths to interview those opponents, while trivializing successful community projects. Worth a read just to understand the anti-community sentiment out there.

It's unfortunate that the MSM (MainStream Media) is unwilling to make the effort to report both sides of the issue. I'm not arguing that the Times should be in favor of community technology projects, but rather that their reporting should strive to present both sides of the issue fairly.

Digital Cities Conference

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/18/2005 - 08:17

If you are interested in community broadband, you may want to take a look at the upcoming Digital Cities Expo, which will be in northern Virginia (Reston) in April.

The conference will have sessions covering the economic, legal, financial, technological, and infrastructure issues surrounding municipal broadband (Disclaimer: I'm one of the speakers).

Where the customers will come from

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 02/03/2005 - 09:47

This CNet article says that businesses are realizing the value of dark fiber, and are willing to pay for it.

Here is the money quote:

"....Ford [Motor Company] found that it would cost less to lay its own optical fiber lines than to subscribe to a service from the local phone company."

Bingo. That's exactly right. As more and more businesses require more bandwidth beyond one or two T1 lines, the high prices from incumbents are tipping the tables in favor of community projects. Medium and large businesses in your community can become anchor tenants for a community digital transport system (aka duct, fiber, and wireless). Ford is building their own, but it would be cheaper for them to join a community project.

Good news? Not if your state is one of several that have anti-municipal legislation pending that will take the right of communities to decide their own future away from them.

This article shows how wrong-headed that legislation is. Let's see....our state will outlaw efforts to lower business costs, and force our biggest employers to buy overpriced services from near monopoly providers. That's a great Knowledge Economy strategy.

Get your legislators on the phone, invite them to lunch, and give them a copy of this article. It's a good first step.

Southside Virginia builds high capacity regional network

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/25/2005 - 13:54

Here is an excerpt from a brochure about a project in Southside Virginia, a rural area that has traditionally relied on tobacco as a primary engine of its economy. Furniture and textile manufacturing were also mainstays for jobs and development, but over the past twenty years, all three have declined sharply.

The low cost of living, combined with the proximity to Greensboro and the North Carolina Research Triangle, may make Southside one of the best places to work in America, once this infrastructure is in place.

Also included as a service will be MSAPs in some locations, which create very high performance community intranets that support next generation multimedia services. The MSAP concept was pioneered by me while I was Director of the Blacksburg Electronic Village. Blacksburg has had an MSAP in operation since 1999, and Danville, Virginia also has an MSAP.

Note the emphasis on leasing capacity to "all interested providers," which includes incumbents, who, if they are smart, will realize they can lower their costs by leasing instead of overbuilding.

The Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative (MBC), a non-profit cooperative with funding from the Economic Development Authority (EDA) and the Virginia Tobacco Commission (VTC), has contracted to deploy an advanced open-access wholesale broadband network in Southside Virginia. The RBI is a 700-mile fiber-optic network with 48 strands of dedicated fiber backbone, Synchronous Optical Network (SONET) architecture, dual rings with 13 OC-192 backbone sites and 65 satellite locations providing low speed & high speed interconnect facilities (OC-3, OC-12, OC-48, STS, VT). In addition to the turn-key implementation of the RBI, MBC has invested in building a new state of the art Network Operations Control Center (NOCC) in South Boston, Virginia.

The RBI network will connect four cities, 20 counties and 56 industrial parks providing access to nearly 700,000 citizens and more than 19,000 businesses throughout Southside Virginia. The goal of this project is to promote economic development opportunities for the region, attracting technologybased business and industry. Network construction begins in January 2005 and will be turned-up in phases. MBC plans to have the entire network fully operational by December 2006. MBC will be selling/leasing fiber and services on a wholesale basis to all interested providers.

Northern Illinois grabs hold of the future

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/25/2005 - 13:47

Northern Illinois, which is surprisingly rural in nature despite being a relatively easy drive to Chicago, has grabbed hold of the future. Below is a press release announcing an ambitious regional project to get affordable, high capacity broadband throughout that area. In announcing the effort, an official connected with the effort said, "The communication infrastructure we're talking about will be as important as electricity, water."

Northern Illinois Technology Triangle Unlocks New Opportunities for Northern Illinois Communities

Rochelle Municipal Utilities announces plans for a multi-gigabit capacity fiber optic ring to serve local rural communities

Rochelle, IL - Today, Rochelle Mayor Chet Olson unveiled plans for a superior fiber-optic telecommunications network labeled the Northern Illinois Technology Triangle (NITT). The network will provide multi-gigabit capacity to the Northern Illinois region, connecting communities across Northern Illinois and opening new opportunities for growth in education, research and business.

The NITT is a joint venture between Rochelle Municipal Utilities (RMU) and the Illinois Municipal Broadband Communications Association (IMBCA). It will provide a looped broadband fiber network in a triangle along I-88 from Rock Falls to Naperville, with a section north to St. Charles, and from St. Charles along I-90 to Rockford, and then along I-39 from Rockford to Rochelle. The physical infrastructure will be implemented in three parts. IMBCA has already leased existing fiber along I-88 from Naperville west to Rock Falls and is now negotiating leases for existing fiber on I-90. Rochelle Municipal Utilities plans on installing the remaining leg of the triangle, from Rochelle to Rockford, where no fiber exits. The NITT is the first municipal utility fiber optic network consortium in Illinois.

Chet Olson, Rochelle's Mayor, said, "We're pleased to play a part in bringing about the Northern Illinois Technology Triangle. NITT is the beginning of a new era, not only for Rochelle, but for all communities in this region that choose to access this network. For my community, it means an opportunity to expand our economic base from manufacturing and rail service to technology services and support." The network ring is based upon fiber optic cable and will offer 33 (or more) wavelengths, each with the capacity to carry data at a rate up to 40 Gigabits per second. With just one Gigabit connection, a family can download their favorite DVD movie in less than one (1) minute, something which would normally take 13 days to download using a telephone dial-up connection.

New Hampshire plans for technology

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 01/19/2005 - 21:04

The northern region of New Hamphsire is taking control of it's economic future by developing a technology master plan for the region, as reported by the AP.

One of the drivers of the project is the need to be competitive from an economic development perspective. Design Nine is providing the coordination and guidance for the effort.

St. Paul to look for the common good

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 01/15/2005 - 07:57

The City Council of St. Paul, Minnesota has approved a study to consider the feasibility of citywide wireless broadband.

The three month study will look for "the common good" that might be gained from community-managed telecom infrastructure. This is, as far as I know, the first time the common good has been explicity acknowledged in this kind of study. It has been implicitly part of many other community telecom projects, but it's about time we started this particular conversation in more earnest.

What has dominated the discussion so far has been the "unfairness" of community telecom projects, all viewed through the lens of monopoly telecom providers. Using that yardstick, community water systems are "unfair" because someone might want to build their own, private water system. Public sanitation would be "unfair" because someone might want to get into the sewer business. Our legislators and government officials need to start thinking more clearly about these issues.

Lafayette, Louisiana beaten by BellSouth

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/11/2005 - 20:51

USA Today has an article about Lafayette, Louisiana, which has been trying to put together a community fiber project for the past year. The southern Louisiana community has apparently been beaten down by BellSouth, which has vigorously opposed the deal.

BellSouth has claimed it is "unfair" for communities to offer a service the company could offer, even though it provides only DSL in the community, a pale shadow of the robust fiber network the city was planning.

At the risk of boring my regular readers, there are two ways to approach community telecom projects. One is to regard telecom infrastructure just like roads. Communities build the roads, but private companies (like BellSouth) deliver services (like dialtone or TV programming) to customers. The other approach is to regard telecom infrastructure like the municipal water or electric system, in which the city itself provides the customer services.

The latter is certainly more efficient, but given that many of our elected leaders still don't take any of this very seriously and given that we have a ridiculously complex regulatory environment, I think the former approach (a public/private partnership) is the only alternative.

Rightly or wrongly, communities that are trying to create public monopolies in this area are losing. The telecoms are outspending them and are buying whatever laws are needed to prevent community investments. But communities must invest to stay viable in the global economy, and Lafayette knows that. From the article:

"The future of Lafayette shouldn't be left to the whim of the big telecommunications companies, insists City Parish President Joey Durel. Installing fiber-optic cable, he credibly argues, is no different from laying down sidewalks or sewer lines.

In fact, the "triple play" plan mirrors the action Lafayette's city fathers took a century ago when they realized the private power companies were passing them by in favor of larger, more lucrative markets in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. To survive, they built their own municipal power system.

Rio Rancho, NM provides a model for citywide wireless

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/04/2005 - 11:27

Here is an excellent article full of details about the citywide wireless project in Rio Rancho, New Mexico. Rio Rancho is a fast-growing suburb of Albequerque. Here is the quote that shows that Rio Rancho leaders "get it."

"We see it as an economic development tool—today's business needs good quality access, Palenick said [the city administrator].

That's exactly right. It's an economic development tool, just as water and sewer were (and still are) economic development tools in the Manufacturing Economy of 40 years ago. It's not some esoteric luxury for a few privileged residents, WiFi is part of a package of services that can both bring businesses to a community and/or help existing businesses lower costs and expand services and markets. It can also help fuel the growth of home-based entreprenueurial businesses and startups.

Indian state builds fiber to every town

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/04/2005 - 10:53

Yet another former third world country has broadband projects underway that leave U.S. efforts in the dust. Andra Pradesh, a state of India, has embarked on an ambitious but entirely doable project to build a statewide network consisting of a 10 gigabit per second backbone, 1 gigabit Ethernet trunks to a thousand locations, and 100 megabit fiber connections to every town in the state. More than 40,000 government offices will get fiber connections, and will be able to deliver government services via town kiosks and other public Internet locations.

Even more interesting, the official tourism site offers 24 hour chat service to online visitors and potential tourists. What about your community? Unfortunately, in the United States, we have the telcos busily trying to usurp the right of communities to develop community infrastructure, with the legislation in Pennsylvania as a perfect example--PA towns now have to ask Verizon's permission to chart their own destiny.

WiFi and cellphones: Dueling technologies?

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/22/2004 - 11:03

Esme Vos at MuniWireless thinks that the real reason behind Verizon's fevered opposition of community wireless in Philadelphia is that Verizon is terrified of cheap VoIP over WiFi.

I'm inclined to agree. I've been saying for a while that the whole cellular marketplace is in deep trouble. The cellular companies are frantically trying to lash overpriced and relatively low bandwidth (a few hundred kilobits) data services onto a system never designed to deliver data (just like they are frantically trying to squeeze more data onto legacy copper systems). Meanwhile, WiFi already delivers megabit data services effortlessly, and VoIP works pretty well in a well-designed WiFi network.

Why would you settle for inadequate and expensive cellular if cheap WiFi services are available throughout your area?

Like the problem that the cable and phone companies face with their outdated copper systems, the cellular companies face the same discontinuity with cellular--how do make the jump (i.e. copper to fiber, cellular to WiFi) without losing your customer base and your investments in the old system?

A company that understands competition and has a corporate culture of competition would figure that problem out and be determined to compete. But the phone companies have decided that rather than reform their own outdated corporate culture, they'll simply make it illegal for communities to chart their own future.

What's the root problem here? It's lawmakers who are not adequately informed about the community and economic development issues at stake. Which is why I've always said broadband is not a technology issue, it's an education issue. Communities and regions need to make sure their elected leaders are educated on these issues.

Want to get started? It's easy. Organize a local "Take a lawmaker to lunch" program and have a rotating group of folks who are well-versed with the issues take lawmakers to lunch once a month. In a year, I guarantee you will have had a significant impact.

'96 Telecom Act a "nuclear winter"

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2004 - 12:51

Holman Jenkins, an editorial writer for the Wall Street Journal, has an article (p. A21) about DSL and the future of that technology. Jenkins calls the '96 Telecom Deregulation Act a "DSL nuclear winter." That's probably a bit strong, but hardly anyone on either side of the linesharing issues of the telephone companies would say the law was crafted properly.

The original law forced the phone companies to share their copper lines with competitors, and it was only this fall that the FCC relaxed those rules. Again, no matter what side of the issue you are on (phone company or community), the outcome of the original ruling was to stall broadband investments by the incumbent phone companies.

As so many Federal initiatives ("We're from the government and we're here to help you..."), unintended consequences kicked in, big time. While the phone companies dithered, moaned, and complained, the cable companies upgraded their systems and captured 75% of the current broadband market, leaving DSL (the phone companies) with a paltry 15%.

Since the FCC changed the rules to free the phone companies from line sharing at wholesale prices, DSL costs have fallen dramatically--by as much as 50% in a lot of markets, and the service is generally priced below cable modem service.

But from a community perspective, the news has been bad and still looks bad. The marketplace, because of all this, has been effectively re-monopolized, but instead of a regulated public monopoly (pre 1996), communities are stuck with marketplace monopolies by the phone and cable companies.

To make things worse, in places like Pennsylvania, Verizon says it must be consulted before communities start their own broadband services. Even worse, lawmakers like Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell (D) thinks it is just fine to give a private company control over the future of rural communities.

The solution is for communities to stay away from the service end of the business. Treat broadband infrastructure just the way communities manage roads--build digital roads, but let private companies deliver the services while paying a use fee.

BellSouth eyes video

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/06/2004 - 13:14

According to a CNet article, BellSouth plans to provide higher capacity broadband to most of its customer base in the next five years.

Video is driving the plans. The cable companies have not only captured about 75% of the broadband market, compared to the phone companies' paltry 15%, but the cable companies can offer the fabled triple play--voice, data, and video.

The phone companies are terrified. VoIP is sapping traditional landline customers all over the country, and most of those VoIP users are getting that service over cable broadband, not DSL broadband. So the telephone companies want to offer the same thing--voice, data, and video--but their weak point is the 100 year old design of the telephone infrastructure. Most phone users in this country are still getting their dial tone the way Alexander Graham Bell designed it, but those copper cables won't haul video all the way from phone company video head ends. So BellSouth has decided to go with fiber to the node (i.e. fiber to the neighborhood), and deliver the first mile (last mile) connection over copper.

This may sound like great news, but most communities are still stuck with the same two monopoly service providers they had twenty years ago; that's not choice, and two oligarchies aren't likely to drive prices down. Continuing to overbuild private networks does not level the playing field and will not attract real competition.

Iowa says it will be first in broadband

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:57

Iowa has what many other communities won't take the time to get--a clear, concise vision for the future. A consortium of Iowa communities and businesspeople have decided on a very simple goal--to have the best broadband infrastructure in the country.

Even better, based on the news article, they are doing it exactly the right way--with community investments in the transport layer (e.g. dark fiber) and leasing it to access and service providers who will deliver the services.

This approach is a win-win-win. Governments win because their investments are modest and manageable, and access fees provide a stable source of revenue to support the system. Private sector broadband providers win because they get access to more markets at lower cost, because the local governments are bearing part of the cost of infrastructure. Consumers win because the community investments expand the marketplace, create more competition, and lower the cost of broadband.

Don't forget that local government, schools, libraries, and health care providers are all users of broadband. Community investments lower costs for all users, public and private--don't discount the value of secondary savings from those initial public investments.

Philadelphia to fight ban on municipal wireless

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/22/2004 - 09:32

The City of Philadelphia has been much in the technology news lately because of its ambitious plans to offer wireless broadband throughout much of the city. It's now back in the news with its announcement that it will fight a statewide ban on municipalities offering Internet access and related services.

On the one hand, these legislative attempts to throttle community projects are almost always the handiwork of the incumbent phone companies, who typically are nonpartisan in their strategy--they give money to all legislators, who then too often pass bills favoring these companies. A cynic might view this as selling out the electorate.

On the other hand, I don't believe local governments ought to be in the service business for broadband. It's not the same as water or electricity, and the fact that the community has municipal water and/or electric service does not, in my opinion, necessarily justify going into the broadband business.

As I have said repeatedly, I view more it like roads. Communities build and maintain roads, but they don't own the cars and trucks (or the businesses) that use those roads.

I'm very much in favor of municipal and local government investments in broadband, ESPECIALLY in underserved communities, but I think the way to do it is to keep the delivery of access and services in the private sector, where jobs are created and taxes are paid. It's a little more work and effort at the outset to make sure you have the right business and administrative model, but over the long term, making the private sector a partner is going to have a much better outcome.

Historic meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 11/11/2004 - 10:13

I had the privilege of attending what I think was a historic and potentially revolutionary meeting in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Tuesday. The provincial government had convened an all day conversation about the broadband needs of rural communities, and how to best get affordable broadband connections to those communities.

It was Garth Graham, one of the real pioneers of the community technology movement, who grabbed me after lunch and pointed out that as far as he knew, it was the first time ever that four different groups of people met in the same room to talk about rural broadband problems. Represented at the meeting were:

It was a remarkable meeting, with open, frank, and stimulating dialogue from all four groups. The fact that it happened, that so many people attended (over 50 people), and that there was such honest speaking, listening, and understanding, suggests that we have truly turned a corner in beginning to identify and actually implement community telecom solutions that have a chance of meeting both public needs (the common good) and private needs (increasing shareholder value).

The group agreed that more meetings were needed to hash out details, but there was remarkable consensus that the problem is largely one of policy, administration, and management, and that this is not a technology problem, in the sense that it is NOT a matter of just picking wireless, or fiber, or Gigabit Ethernet, or so on. All parties agreed that communities and regions need some new and yet to be determined entity to help with telecommunications issues (infrastructure, access, services, policy, regulation).

ADSL2+ increases the digital divide

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 11/01/2004 - 09:09

A flurry of articles like this are talking about ADSL2+, a new standard for DSL service over old copper phone lines. ADSL2+ is not only too long as an acronym, it offers too little, and ironically increases the digital divide, in my opinion.

In short, the new service will provide increased bandwidth over copper phone lines, but only if you are about one and a half miles from the telephone switch, as opposed to the three miles of the current DSL offering. ADSL2+ also will go further than the old three mile limitation, but only at low data rates--about four times dial up speeds.

So a few subscribers may get DSL service where they could not before, but only at much slower than "normal" DSL. And a few subscribers may get much faster service, but only if they are very close to the telephone central office. And it's important to remember that the distance rule of thumb is not line of sight, but cable feet; not only that, the ability to deliver DSL is highly dependent on the quality of the copper cable. In many rural areas, DSL just does not work on older cable plant, even inside the distance limits.

It's hard to see how this benefits anyone, even the phone company. It further segments their own customer base and prevents them from offering the same set of services to all customers. For example, some ADSL2+ customers might be able to get a single channel of high quality high defintion TV (HDTV), but others will not. How you market that is a mystery to me--"HDTV--it might work in your area, but maybe not!"

The phone companies are still very fixated on market share, rather than on offering good services in a competitive marketplace. So in their minds, anything that continues to allow them to lock customers up over copper is good, even if it's bad. Does that make sense to you? It doesn't to me either, but that's their strategy until they can figure out a way to justify running fiber to neighborhood.

County Administrator: Broadband is necessary

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 10/31/2004 - 09:27

In the Northern Neck of Virginia, broadband is being viewed (appropriately) as a critical economic development issue.

One of the most interesting items in the article is near the end, where an independent ISP that has been reselling DSL via Verizon infrastructure for some time is now in trouble. For a long time, Verizon said there was not enough business in the Northern Neck to justify the investment. So this independent firm sold DSL. Now that the market has been opened by its competitors, Verizon has stepped in and begun selling DSL for less that it charges for wholesale circuits to its competitors.

Verizon has every right to do that, and I don't think communities ought to waste time and effort trying to "get" telcos and cable companies to behave differently. They have to answer to shareholders, not the community.

But the article highlights clearly what communities are facing: a marketplace monopoly (rather than a regulated monopoly) in which the community has only one or two large broadband providers that are able to act in cartel-like behavior, setting prices and services options because of lack of competition. If affordable broadband is an economic development issue (and I think it is), then the community places its economic future in the hands of the big telecom providers unless the community itself makes some investments to level the playing field.

In the last paragraphk, the article quotes the county administrator of Westmoreland County, who worries about investing in the wrong technology. It's a valid concern, but it's not an excuse for doing nothing. And that issue is managed in two ways: communities need to plan for telecommunciations, just like they plan for everything else. Secondly, communities should invest in things that don't become obsolete quickly--telecom duct, fiber, tower sites, antnennas, and colocation facilities. Fear of the unknown (otherwise called ignorance) is putting the economic future of communities at risk. But ignorance is easily correctable--as I've said for nearly a decade--this is an education problem, not a technology problem.

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