iPad users crash cable TV system

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/16/2011 - 18:25

Someone asked me just today if we really will need all the bandwidth that fiber offers, with the unspoken inference that DSL and cable modem service seems to be working just fine.


I came back to my hotel after dinner and found this article: TimeWarner rolled out its new "watch TV on your iPad" service and it's network was promptly overwhelmed by people who thought, "Hey, what a great idea...just what I have been waiting for." The cable giant had to cut back the number of channels available to just fifteen (cut 50% from the original 30). So anyone who thinks 1950s-based copper networks are just fine, the second biggest cable company in the country had its network crashed by a very small number of iPad owners. What happens when everyone tries to watch TV on a tablet device? And no, DOCSIS 3.0 is not the answer to that question. Symmetric, active Ethernet fiber networks are the answer.

Lessons in disaster recovery, tsunamis, and meltdowns

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 03/14/2011 - 07:31

We will probably not know the full story of the nuclear reactor problems in Japan for many months, but one news story I read over the weekend suggests that the the Japanese are re-learning the lessons of the Katrina disaster. Apparently the Japanese reactors survived the initial earthquake and tsunami without much damage--but whatever was damaged caused the primary cooling pumps to fail. No big deal, as nuclear power plants have extensive back up and redundant secondary cooling systems designed to take over if the primary cooling system fails.

If the primary cooling system fails, the reactor is usually shutdown immediately, meaning no electric power. Even when the control rods are in, heat can continue to be generated for some time, hence the need for secondary cooling. So here is the scenario. Primary cooling fails. The reactor is shut down, and secondary backup cooling systems are activated. Apparently all this happened just as it was supposed to immediately after the earthquake and tsunami. The secondary cooling pumps are powered by large diesel generators, which apparently ran for about an hour, then shut down.

Why did they shut down? The fuel was contaminated by seawater.

So what was the lesson of Katrina the Japanese missed? In the New Orleans area, many telecom, radio, TV, and computer installations were thoughtfully built on upper floors of buildings so that they would be immune from flooding. But the generators and fuel tanks that were supposed to power all those systems in the event of a power outage were all installed at ground level, because it costs more money to put heavy, loud generators and diesel fuel on an upper floor. So the hurricane winds blew down power poles and the power went out first. No problem. Emergency generators started up, and everything kept running. Until the water came and flooded and the fuel tanks and generators.

One small ISP in downtown New Orleans stayed up and running throughout the entire flood because they had installed a generator on an upper floor. They managed to truck in 55 gallon barrels of diesel fuel once their initial supply ran out.

Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

How is your community's disaster recovery plans? Many areas of the U.S. are flood prone, but everywhere I go, I see generators now--which were very rare ten years ago. But those generators are all on the ground. Is that okay for your area? What about a ten year flood? What about a 100 year flood?

Wired towns shove cities out of the way

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 02/26/2011 - 15:44

Here is a study that indicates that smaller communities with the right broadband infrastructure are "...emerging as major economic centers." What about your community? Does it have the infrastructure to attract new businesses?

National Broadband Map now available

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/18/2011 - 16:23

The first iteration of the National Broadband Map is now available. This effort has been part of the broadband stimulus effort, and it will be updated regularly over the next three to four years as individual states provide more data to NTIA. The map zooms nicely, so you can get a pretty good local picture of what technology is available, and you can select which technologies you want to look at (e.g. fiber to the home, cable modem, wireless, etc.). With the exception of mobile wireless (i.e. cellular), you can quickly see that most of rural America is still poorly connected or not connected at all. What is particularly surprising is how few areas have high speed cable modem service (called DOCSIS 3.0). It is much less available than I expected. Oh, and Mac users.....this does not work with Safari, but Firefox is okay.

"This is like electricity was....This is a critical utility"

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/18/2011 - 15:15

That quote is from Brian Depew with the Center for Rural Affairs, in Nebraska. The New York Times has an article today about how rural areas of the U.S. are being left behind with respect to broadband. Depew goes on to say:

“You often hear people talk about broadband from a business development perspective, but it’s much more significant than that,” Mr. Depew added. “This is about whether rural communities are going to participate in our democratic society. If you don’t have effective broadband, you are cut out of things that are really core to who we are as a country.”

Chattanooga Fiber and a city that gets it

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/15/2011 - 15:10

The City of Chattanooga, Tennessee was recently selected by the Intelligent Community Forum as one of the Top 7 Intelligent Communities worldwide for 2011. This article by Robert Bell of ICF provides some of the back story and the amazing success of Chattanooga over the past couple of decades.

By the late sixties, Chattanooga, once a thriving manufacturing town, had the dirtiest air in America and was beginning to lose jobs. Despite heavy investments in urban renewal in the eighties and nineties, the city was not attracting jobs. But over the past ten years, as the City-owned electric utility began to invest in fiber, companies and jobs started to follow, and the pay off has been huge. Chattanooga won a Volkswagen manufacturing plant in part because of the city's investment in fiber. The city fiber is also being used to provide Smart Grid electric metering, which will lower utility costs for businesses and residents.

Bandwidth boost for southwestern Virginia

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 01/31/2011 - 09:10

The Roanoke Times ran an article yesterday (Sunday) in the business section on two stimulus projects building fiber in the Blacksburg-Roanoke region. The two middle mile projects are not linked to any comprehensive last mile efforts, which is also the challenge for many stimulus-funded middle mile projects in other areas.

An honest speed test

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 01/11/2011 - 15:56

Virginia Tech has an excellent speed test. Try it and see how your connection rates.

Isle of Jersey to get Gigabit to the home

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 12/27/2010 - 11:23

The tiny Isle of Jersey will be getting Gigabit fiber to the home as part of an initiative by the incumbent Jersey Telecom to replace all copper-based services with fiber over the next five years. Maybe some U.S. incumbents should make a trip to Jersey (in the English Channel just off the coast of France) to learn how to construct a business case that allows dumping 100 year old copper technology for something a little newer.

Demystifying what appears to be a conundrum

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 12/23/2010 - 11:08

Bob Frankston, who is smart enough to know why X.400 never worked the way the policy wonks thought it would, has an excellent and very readable short paper called Demystifying Networking that is one of the best overviews I have read on broadband, where we came from, and where we want to go. Take a few minutes and read it in its entirety.

More on Burlington Telecom (BT)

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/22/2010 - 10:16

The always excellent Muni Networks has an article that sheds additional light on Burlington Telecom. The article includes a response from Tim Nulty, who helped start the BT venture.

Nulty sheds some light on the early take rate targets; BT had financial plan pegged to meeting take rate projections, and the network was meeting those take rates. The financial pro formas Nulty was using shows that BT was on track not only to cover operating expenses but to begin paying back the borrowed funds. But inexplicably, after Nulty left, the marketing effort that was in place and was meeting take rate targets was dropped. Predictably, the number of new customers being added also dropped, and at that point, the project began sliding downhill financially.

This is Nulty's side of the story, and there are still several other points of view. But Nulty's explanation rings true and sheds some light on what may have happened. A good marketing effort is critical, and it has to be sustained over time. Community networks that take a field of dreams approach to marketing, "If we build it and then just sit back and wait for customers" will have trouble meeting financial targets, just as any other business.

Community-owned telecom infrastructure cannot be treated like sidewalks--you build and let it sit for thirty years. Governing boards and senior staff have to have a solid business plan and demonstrated experience managing substantial business enterprises. A community broadband network cannot be treated like a typical nonprofit-- which typically have a narrow mission and no paying customers.

Burlington Telecom the new "proof" that community broadband does not work

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2010 - 15:40

More information about the financial problems of the city-owned Burlington Telecom (Burlington, Vermont) venture are emerging. Opponents of community broadband will be eager to hold this up as the latest "proof" that community-owned telecom does not work.

What is odd about arguing that communities should stay out of telecom is that the alternative being proposed is basically, "Stick with the 20th century business models that have failed utterly to meet broadband needs in the U.S." So some pioneer community broadband projects have had problems. Anyone remember Adelphia? Anyone remember the hundreds of other cable companies that have failed or been bought up because they were struggling financially?

The opponents of community broadband have nothing, nothing to offer except "stick with what we know has failed." As opposed to, "Let's try some new models and learn what works." It is a very feeble argument.

Projects like Burlington Telecom and Utopia (which is now back on track and so not mentioned so much anymore) are providing valuable best practice information for other community projects. What can be learned from the BT effort?

The BT auditors have said they don't see how BT can repay its debts, but they probably only did an analysis using the existing customer base. We run the numbers on community broadband ventures all the time, and modest increases in the customer base can make a big difference in paying off debt over ten or fifteen years. Auditors are not usually going to engage in speculative analysis, but it is incorrect to read too much into the audit conclusions. BT can overcome their problems with good, open management and a sharp focus on increasing their customer base.

Google Fiber announcement on hold

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 12/15/2010 - 15:18

A short note on the Google blog indicates that the community to be selected for the Google fiber opportunity won't be announced until "early 2011."

Skype busy destroying the phone company, melting down cable networks

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/30/2010 - 16:57

Skype has announced a new record of 25 million concurrent users, meaning 25 million voice and video calls simultaneously. It also means that all those Skype users are NOT using their cellphones or land lines to make voice calls. Skype video works extremely well if you have a good Web camera (good means you ought to spend at least $50-$75) and a decent Internet connection; if you have tried Skype video and found it fuzzy or blurry, it's probably your camera. The tiny cameras that come in laptop lids tend to have very poor quality compared to a good USB camera. But I digress. Those video calls that Skype users are making are stressing out the "entertainment" networks provided by the cable and phone companies. I put "entertainment" in quotes because years ago, when I was working out of the home and suffered a cable modem network outage, I was told that the cable modem service I was subscribed to was an "entertainment" service, not a business service, and it might take up to two weeks to repair the outage.

Today's cable and DSL networks were not designed to support symmetric bandwidth, which is what you need if you are going to do voice and video calls--especially if you are trying to do video calls.

But wait, I've saved the best for last. Think just a few geeks are using the Skype video service? You'd be wrong, because Skype says 40% of their calls in the first half of 2010 were video, not voice. Ruh-roh, as Scooby Doo would say, or perhaps the cable companies and phone companies are saying..."Ruh-roh...our networks are glowing cherry red, we can't supply the bandwidth, we have an antiquated network and a 1950s business model." This is going to become a national disaster before it is over, because the economic development plans of many communities are going to be disrupted over lack of decent bandwidth to run a business.

The communities that are building their own open access networks will have complete control of their economic future. If your community's essential infrastructure for attracting and retaining businesses depends on the cable and phone companies, you might want to practice saying, "Ruh-roh."

The beginning of the end for cable TV

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/30/2010 - 14:07

Comcast and Level 3 are having a public fight. Level 3 is a long haul network provider; the company owns thousands of miles of inter-city fiber and hauls all kinds of data traffic, including Internet traffic, for a wide variety of customers. But Comcast is groaning under the weight of Netflix and other video traffic, and the cable company wants Level 3 to pay more to drop traffic onto the Comcast network for delivery.

Comcast execs must be scared out of their wits. Cable TV subscribers are canceling their subscriptions, and its not just because of the poor economy. Cable TV and its fabled "500 channels" does not deliver much value any more. Worse, video on demand ventures like Netflix are hugely popular and are using enormous amounts of bandwidth--Netflix customers are using 20% of the total U.S. bandwidth in the evening. And Comcast, which has been making a nice profit on their broadband service for years, is all of sudden facing a flood of demand for their data service which is killing their old-fashioned HFC (Hybrid Fiber Coax) networks. The cable companies guessed wrong ten years ago. They guessed that this Internet thing would never really catch on, and that they could do some tinkering with their existing copper-based network to deliver both TV and Internet, and they went off and borrowed billions to be able to deliver digital content over a fifty year old network design.

They have not paid that money back yet, not entirely, but the billions in upgrades have already run out of steam. The only answer is to build fiber all the way to the home, but they don't have the money to do that. And worse, their customers have decided that they don't really need the TV service if the Internet works okay. Except all of a sudden, the Internet is slowing down for cable TV subscribers, just when everyone wants more--a lot more.

If you are even slightly tempted to feel sorry for the cable companies, the big incumbent phone companies are in worse shape, as they thought they could string their customers along with 100 year old copper twisted pair networks, and the DSL services are running out of steam even faster than the cable networks.

Short story: Telecom in the U.S. is a horrible mess and will be getting much much worse very quickly. Unless you live in a community where there is a community-owned fiber network (think Chattanooga; Powell, Wyoming; Jackson, Mississippi; much of Utah; parts of Virginia, and a few other places).

Investors are willing to bet on fiber

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 11/23/2010 - 14:45

Allied Fiber indicates it has raised the funds needed to build the first leg of a nationwide dark fiber and colocation network that will eventually be almost 12,000 miles in length. Allied called the current financing market "challenging," but was able to raise the money it needed to get started. The companies is planning colocation facilities (POPs) about every sixty miles along the entire length of the network, or in most towns and cities along the fiber routes.

Colocation facilities, along with fiber, are rapidly becoming the drivers of economic development. Communities that don't have fiber routes connecting to major networks like this one won't have be competitive from an economic development perspective because the local prices for broadband services will be higher than in communities that do have access to these networks.

Netflix uses 20% of U.S. bandwidth

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/27/2010 - 09:18

Netflix had an outage of several hours that prevented their customers from accessing any streaming content. This article discusses whether Netflix is spending enough on infrastructure, but what has also emerged is that Netflix customers using the company's streaming services are now consuming 20% of all the bandwidth in the U.S. during peak evening hours. As I and many others have been predicting for years, video in all its forms is now driving use of the Internet.

Economic developers who dismiss the Netflix bandwidth trend as "not our problem" do so at their peril (and at their community's peril), as business use of videoconferencing is already routine. A year ago, Design Nine staff were rarely asked to make use of videoconferencing by our clients, but over the past several months, it has become commonplace for us to augment on-site meetings with video-enabled distance meetings. Internally, we coordinate the activities of staff in remote locations via video instead of the phone, and some days my videoconference use is probably higher than my use of the phone.

Meanwhile, communities that ignore the bandwidth tsunami and let their local businesses try to buy overpriced bandwidth via fifty year old copper infrastructure are putting their existing businesses at a competitive disadvantage (essentially inviting them to leave for a community with better infrastructure) and driving away new businesses. Design Nine's bandwidth costs have doubled in the past year, largely because of lack of competition. We have good service, but costs are increasing because in our business park, there is essentially a monopoly. I've spoken to one business owner down the street who has looked seriously at moving his entire business to Northern Virginia because of the lack of competitive fiber services here.

Fiber 2.0: The coming Balkanization of American telecom

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/27/2010 - 07:55

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.

Community fiber needs owners

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/27/2010 - 07:44

Fred Pilot makes an excellent observation in his excellent blog: he says that getting fiber to homes and businesses requires a change in attitude on the part of those homeowners and businesses--a shift away from passively accepting whatever an incumbent monopoly provider offers and moving to an ownership attitude. Fred talks specifically about using a coop structure, but the point is appropriate for any community-owned network governance structure, as ultimately, the residents and businesses of the community end up taking control of their own economic destiny by building a community-owned network business.

Taking control of a community's economic future requires work--more work than just quietly paying the cable or DSL bill every month and fuming over the high cost and the poor service. It means some community leaders have to learn new skills and take on the work of managing a new kind of community infrastructure. But most communities can do this; the world's best fiber network can be built in any community for far less than the cost of putting in a public water and sewer system. Communities routinely borrow tens of millions for water and sewer and successfully manage those complex systems and pay back the debt. This is still America, and we still have the ability and know how to have the world's best infrastructure. The real question is why are so many communities willing to accept third world telecom services?

Incumbents continue to try to stop competition

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 10/20/2010 - 10:13

Stop the Cap! has an article about the incumbent fight to kill the nation's most successful open access network: Utopia. Utopia's open access network has thousands of subscribers and fifteen providers on the network, including three TV providers. I've actually had the opportunity to see the Utopia TV provider offerings, and the picture quality of an all digital TV channel delivered via fiber is incredible.

Has Utopia had problems? Some early financial issues developed because the first firm hired to manage the network made some decisions that have since been corrected. The management firm is long gone, and Utopia took network management and outside plant maintenance in-house almost two years ago, with excellent results. The incumbents in the area--Comcast and Qwest--have been invited repeatedly to come on the network and offer their service to their existing customers, but instead, the first seem to want to simply try to force the competition out.

The situation is unfortunate, but is being repeated in other areas of the country, where incumbents are choosing to try to force monopoly pricing onto communities instead of competing in the marketplace.

Disclaimer: The Utah Infrastructure Agency has been a client of Design Nine.

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