Broadband

Staying connected: broadband and time off

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 08/11/2010 - 08:44

I went on a three day hike on the Appalachian Trail with one of my kids who is off to college in a few weeks. We had a glorious time hiking one of the most remote and isolated portions of the entire AT, which also happens to be one of the most scenic (right here in southwest Virginia). I had no laptop with me, no broadband access, and cellphone coverage so sketchy that we only managed a couple of quick text messages to the wife assuring her we had not fallen off a mountain.

For three days, I was off the grid, and it was wonderful. And nothing bad happened because I was not checking email three times a day. I need to do that more often, and I predict that in the near future, more of us will be deliberately planning and arranging "off the grid" broadband-free vacations. In past years, our beach trips have slowly become something less and less appealing to me because I seem to have to spend a couple of hours every day working. People call and say, "I know you are on vacation, but...." It's the "but..." that I have learned to dread. "...but could you just take a quick look at this document I just emailed?"

It was not that long ago that we measured response time to memos and reports in days and weeks, and now we measure it in hours. Just recently, I had someone call me up at 11 AM, quite upset, that I had not responded to an email they sent at 9 AM. On that particular day, I was out in the field and had had neither the time nor a broadband connection. But somehow we have come to assume 24/7/365 instant access to the 'net.

It's not healthy, and we should all take a deep breath and smell the flowers along a trail through the woods more often....without our cellphones and laptops.

WiMax: Death by LTE?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/06/2010 - 15:43

WiMax, which was going to solve everyone's broadband problems three years ago, may already be dead, without ever really being deployed in any meaningful way. This short article suggests that Clearwire is thinking seriously about switching from WiMax to LTE for its primary wireless deployment technology.

LTE (Long Term Evolution) is, depending a couple of different variants, a 3G or 4G cellular wireless technology that has much higher bandwidth than current 3G cellular wireless systems. As is usual, the makers of LTE equipment are touting very high (read: exaggerated) upload and download speeds that are always predicated with the handy phrase "up to..." But like all wireless technologies, you have to share that bandwidth with everyone else using the same tower/access point, so your mileage will vary greatly. A convenient rule of thumb for evaluating actual wireless bandwidth is to take the maximum "up to" number and divide by ten. The result is more likely what most users will see in practice.

Will LTE be an improvement? Very likely. But it means replacing your current wireless device with a new one, among other problems. Mobile phone manufacturers like these changes in technology, as it forces millions of people to buy new phones. But companies like AT&T are not even done building out adequate 3G networks using the "old" 3G technologies. The transition will be slow. And we will still all want fiber. Nobody is going to be delivering HD movies on demand over an LTE wireless network, no matter what the vendors claim the "up to" bandwidth is.

How smart is Boulder SmartGridCity?

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/06/2010 - 09:08

Here is an article that alleges that Boulder, Colorado's SmartGridCity project is in deep trouble. The article has a long laundry list of problems, but what jumped out at me is the list of so-called "partners." If you look at the SmartGridCity Partners page, you can see the root problem of this project is too many cooks. Just the administrative overhead of supporting this list of high priced consulting firms would sink any project. And the descriptions that accompany each partner reads like one of those buzz-phrase generators you find online. Here are a sampling of the buzz phrases:

So you have at least seven companies with seven proprietary and very likely incompatible technology "solutions" that are going to use taxpayer dollars to try to do a mash up of their stuff that will somehow save money. These kinds of efforts never work, in part because if you start with seven complex technologies, it is impossible to make them less complex by combining them. Fifty years of software development studies have shown this over and over again. It's not that different than Fred Brooks' mythical man month treatise, in which he showed that adding more workers to a software project already late just makes it later--in large part because adding more workers makes the development process more complex. The same principle is likely at work here. Adding more complex power management software to an already complex design makes it even more complex and, as study after study has shown, more error prone.

Here at Design Nine, we call ourselves "broadband architects" or "information architects." We work the way the traditional architect works--we do a clean, coherent high level design for our clients first, develop the financing and funding strategies needed to show the client how it will pay for itself, and then and only then do we go out to vendors.

My guess is that Smart Grid City ended up with seven or more "design" firms all trying to gain an advantage for their own stuff, and Boulder ended up with a mess. It's as if you wanted a house built, and instead of having an architect produce the design and supervise the construction, you told the plumber, the carpenters, the electrician, and the drywall guys to get together and come up with something. It's called "design by committee," and it is never pretty.

Financing broadband and the open access red herring

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 08/05/2010 - 08:17

A common theme, when discussing the financing of broadband, is to claim that the open access business model "has not been proven." True open access has only been around in the U.S. for about three years, and the opponents of open access are creating a double standard. Apparently, to "prove" open access works, communities that take that route have to be in the black within a year or two, and really, it would be better, apparently, if they were in the black on day one.

What's the double standard? The double standard is that private sector telecom companies take years to get into the black, and routinely run up billions in debt that won't be paid back for a long period of time. That's apparently okay--communities will be held to a higher standard, though.

There is a second, very sly argument running alongside the "prove it works" argument. It is this: "Open access is bad because it has not been proven." Okay...let's accept that premise for a moment and now let us ask the question that no one asks..."What business model should be used instead?" The business model that open access opponents want to use is the tired old monopoly triple play, which has, over the past fifteen years, failed utterly to get "big" broadband to U.S. residents and businesses.

So the open access opponents want everyone to use a "proven" approach: triple play, which has been proven not to work. Sly, no?

Open access projects like Utopia, nDanville, The Wired Road, and Palm Coast FiberNET are thriving--in those communities, increased competition has brought lower prices for telecom services, and the efforts are generating enough funds that all those communities continue to expand their networks to more customers.

U.S. Broadband: Still almost as good as Latvia

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 08/03/2010 - 09:58

Via an Akamai report (registration is required to get the report), Latvia has moved up to fifth place in the average bandwidth rankings worldwide. The U.S. is down at number 22, with a net negative drop of about 1% in bandwidth over the last quarter and 2.5% drop in bandwidth over the past year. According to Akamai, the average broadband connection in the U.S. is about 3.8 megabits/second, which would reflect the fact that the cable companies dominate the broadband marketplace in the U.S.

It is worth noting that the FCC just set a new standard for the definition of "broadband," which is 4 megabits down and 1 megabit up. This reflects the continuing focus on broadband as an "entertainment" service (that's what some cable companies call it) rather than a business service. With more people and businesses trying to work out of the home, symmetric bandwidth has become essential to economic development. The continuing acceptance of a bigger pipe into homes and businesses and a much smaller pipe upstream reflects a lack of understanding about business and job needs for broadband services, which need the symmetric bandwidth.

U.S. Broadband: Almost as good as, um, a lot of other places

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 07/23/2010 - 13:52

Via the Twitter feed BroadbandReport, a new study suggests that the U.S. ranks 23rd in the world in broadband deployment. Strategy Analytics, the company that developed the report, is using a new set of metrics that look at five different indices to come up with the ranking.

The U.S. will continue to rank low for years, as the market here is very different here than in the rest of the world. Most of other countries are much smaller, making the scale of the problem much smaller. South Korea, which ranks first in the study, is smaller than almost every state in the U.S. And most other countries take a government-heavy, top down approach to broadband, which works better in other places because there is really only federal government and local governments. Here in the U.S., we have a middle layer of government (states) that are largely autonomous. And I'm not arguing for a more extensive top-down approach in the U.S. Topography, geography, and local business conditions vary so widely in the U.S. that dictating a one size fits all approach is likely to have a lot of unintended consequences.

Fiber brings the data centers

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 07/22/2010 - 10:20

I had a conversation earlier this week with a well-connected business person who is in the business of building data centers. The two top criteria his firm uses to identify communities in which to locate data centers is power and fiber. What he told me is that for the size of data center he typically builds (50,000 to 100,000 square feet) they are looking for power from two separate sub-stations, and that power from two separate grids is even better. Few communities get fed from two grids, but it is more likely to be able to get power to some industrial/commercial sites from two different sub-stations. Even though these data centers have backup generators on-site, the 15 to 30 megawatts these facility use make dual feeds desirable.

Power is something all communities have, and if extra capacity is needed, it can usually be added easily if the funds are available to support new transmission lines and/or new transformers. Note that the lead time on large power transformers is one year or more, so a strategy of "If someone wants extra power, we'll just build it," may not be leading with your best foot forward, as they may move your community off the short list in favor of communities that have already addressed power.

So that leaves fiber as a key discriminator in relocation decisions. Planning and building local fiber infrastructure can take six to 12 months at a minimum, so if you want to attract data centers, you want open access fiber assets already in place and ready to use.

Some data points: the massive Google data center in rural Washington state was placed there because fiber assets were already in place. The fact that cheap power was available was a secondary consideration. Danville, Virginia won a new, large data center recently because they had both fiber in place and reliable power. Fiber gives communities a competitive edge for business attraction.

Google Fiber for Communities now has a Web site

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/14/2010 - 08:12

Via Jon Hunt's excellent Broadband Policy Watch Web site, Google has rolled out a Google Fiber for Communities Web site. There is not much new information; Google is still promising that they will select a community before the end of the year. Of interest is the focus on microtrenching. This is a technology that Design Nine has been using for several years. We particularly like the Teraspan products. We have used that very successfully in The Wired Road. The picture shows the slot you cut in the street, and then you drop the Teraspan duct which already has the fiber cable enclosed.

Open Access: The Third Way for Broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/06/2010 - 09:13

Broadband Properties has published my article The Third Way for Broadband. This provides a concise description of how and why open access business models work for broadband networks. Note that the open access business model is NOT inherently one that requires a community-owned network. A private sector broadband provider, including an incumbent (e.g. Verizon, Comcast, etc.) could also adopt this model and do very well financially.

nDanville generating jobs

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 06/11/2010 - 15:43

The nDanville fiber network is almost three years old, and is beginning to get national recognition here. Design Nine has been working with the City of Danville on this effort since 2006. We did the early business and financial planning, vendor selection, and open access network design. More about nDanville is available on their Web site.

The Internet and broadband are not the same thing

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/08/2010 - 15:03

Jeff Daily of App-Rising makes an important point in this article that I have been writing about for some time: "broadband" and "the Internet" are not the same thing. Broadband is the network, the transport system, the road. The Internet is just one of many services that can be transported over that road. Unfortunately, legislators don't always understand the distinction, and many incumbents are happy to feed the confusion to get state and Federal rules designed to prop up their monopolies.

New Zealand goes all out for open access

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/08/2010 - 14:53

Fiber everywhere is the simple goal the national government of New Zealand has set. In ten years, the government intends to have a minimum of 100 megabit fiber connections to 75% of homes and businesses in the entire country. They are doing this by going open access. It's a very simple model. The government will help underwrite the cost of privately owned fiber, but only if the network owner/operator agrees to provide unrestricted dark fiber and/or Layer 2 transport to any service provider. It's a time--tested model already being used in places in the U.S. like Utah and the City of Palm Coast, Florida.

Chattanooga launches nation's fastest broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 06/08/2010 - 08:51

Via the excellent Community Broadband Networks, the City of Chattanooga's Electric Power Board is going to roll out fiber-delivered Internet as part of the utility's triple play services (voice, video, and Internet). Customers will be able to purchase symmetric Internet access packages with speeds up to 150 megabit/second (again, symmetric). The importance of this kind of service can't be overstated, as it enables the delivery of business class services anyway in the electric utility service area. Chattanooga gets it--they want to keep the businesses they have and they want to attract new businesses, and they recognize that 21st century infrastructure is the way to do it. Cities and towns that keep ignoring the growth in community broadband projects are being left behind with respect to economic development, and it will become harder and harder to catch up.

The fight in North Carolina (and other states)

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/07/2010 - 08:21

The New America Foundation has an excellent summary of what has been going on in North Carolina. It should be of interest to anyone who thinks communities and regions have a right to determine their own economic future. The industry-financed fight in North Carolina may show up in any number of other states in the next couple of years as community broadband efforts not only mature but excel. The bad news for the last century incumbents is that more and more community broadband efforts are delivering world class broadband services at prices far below the monopoly providers, and worse, those networks are really starting to deliver on the economic benefits of increased business attraction and jobs creation.

AT&T iPhone, iPad service contract changes

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 06/02/2010 - 08:35

AT&T has announced changes to its U.S. data plans for iPhones and iPads. Most current iPhone users pay $30/month for an unlimited data plan. A bit pricey, but you know what you are paying every month, and you don't have to worry about surprise charges on your next month's bill (I've had an iPhone for two years).

Under the two new plans, there is no unlimited option for the iPhone. Instead, there are two plans that provide 200 Meg ($15/month) and 2 Gig ($25/month) of data. Overage charges are actually fairly priced, in my opinion, rather than some of the punitive charges we have seen from some cellular providers in the past.

iPad users have a choice of two similar plans, one that provides 250 Meg ($15/month) and an unlimited plan ($30/month). The big news is that AT&T will finally allow tethering, meaning you can use your iPhone as a cellular modem for your laptop while traveling. AT&T is going to charge an additional $20/month for this service. iPhone users have been waiting a long time for this, and I think the additional charge is fair. Tethering your laptop is going to use a lot more bandwidth than equivalent Web browsing and data on an iPhone. And the $20/month charge competes very favorably with the cost of buying a dedicated cellular modem service (these plans tend to run about $30/month).

I am ready to sign up for the tethering plan. Free WiFi services while traveling are often hard to find and if you do find one, performance is typically abysmal--slow when working, and often not working, especially in airports, where I most often want to try to get some work done.

AT&T is also promising easy to use tools to keep track of how much data you have used over the course of a month so that you can avoid overage charges. This is essential to keep from annoying customers. Mobile data access is increasing rapidly as more people have smartphones and pad computers, and the cellular providers have to do something to manage bandwidth. The big weakness of wireless broadband is that there is only so much spectrum to go around, and when demand uses up the bandwidth available from an access point, the wireless provider has only one option--a costly upgrade to the access point and/or adding more access points and more backhaul--all expensive.

Palm Coast FiberNET opens for business

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/14/2010 - 10:14

The City of Palm Coast, Florida formally opened its high performance fiber network on Tuesday. Design Nine provided the early phase planning, financial and business modeling, network architecture design, vendor evaluation, and equipment and contractor procurement. The open access network opened with two service providers and several business customers on day one.

Entire country of Australia goes open access

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/07/2010 - 13:19

Design Nine has been an advocate for open access for many years--long before it became fashionable. So it is nice to see that some places are finally figuring out that open access is the right way to do telecom. Via Ars Technica, the Australian government has announced a $38 billion (in U.S. dollars) plan to take fiber to most Australian homes and businesses. The government intends to operate it as a open access network, with private sector providers offering all the services. The article notes that the country has decided it will not impede economic development by allowing a single incumbent to make long term decision about how much broadband is enough.

Greenlight: Fastest, cheapest Internet access in North Carolina

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 04/23/2010 - 07:34

The City of Wilson, North Carolina has a city-owned fiber network called Greenlight that is offering 20 megabit symmetrical Internet access for $54.95 a month. I think this qualifies as the fastest and cheapest services in North Carolina. If you tried to buy that level of service via DSL or cable, you would pay several times that, if you could even get it.

But wait, there's more! They have symmetric service tiers all the way up to 100 megabits. Very few people would need that much, but as I have noted previously, Design Nine continues to talk to businesses who want their home-based workers to have symmetric connections of 20-50 megabits, primarily to support HD videoconferencing. So the City of Wilson has something very few other communities can offer in terms of business relocation--the ability to work from home or to run a business from home, with very affordable, high performance connections.

BPL pioneer Manassas throws in the towel

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/19/2010 - 08:39

One of the earliest deployments of broadband over power lines (BPL) was the City of Manassas, Virginia. But last week, the city voted to turn off the system. Manassas is an electric city, with its own electric utility department, which made it relatively easy for the city to try out the new technology several years ago. But the BPL service reached only a handful of households and businesses (a little over 500, or less than 4%) and was not able to compete with DSL and cable modem options.

The fundamental problem with BPL is that it is relatively expensive, and when you are finished with a BPL deployment, what you have is broadband over copper, with limited bandwidth and no easy way to upgrade. Kind of like DSL and cable modem services. Fiber becomes more compelling by the day, as the demand for capacity increases as video in all its forms becomes a more common application and as the cost of fiber networks continues to fall. Why spend a substantial portion of the cost of a fiber network on a very limited copper-based system?

The fundamental problem with BPL, from a community perspective, is that it does not enable economic development and jobs growth the same way that fiber does. If your economic development strategy is, "Come to our community, because we have anemic BPL," you are in trouble, because there are plenty of other communities competing with you that have already decided to go straight to fiber.

Interesting comment on community broadband

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/29/2010 - 15:34

Here is an interesting comment on the Lafayette, Louisiana fiber network.

All of this is just the tip of the iceberg. There is much more to come, and much of those are things that I don't even envision myself. If we go back to the early days of electricity in the 1890s, I'm convinced that Thomas Edison never envisioned the microwave oven or the TV-- much less the computer. This fiber capability, this infrastructure, is in its infancy and that's why Lafayette is going to be on the front edge of that development.

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