Local open access broadband makes cloud computing work

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/21/2009 - 12:40

Here is an interesting article about a study of current "cloud" computing services, which "seem to come up short. This really should not be a surprise. Businesses that think cloud computing services are going to be a panacea for their IT problems are going to be very disappointed.

First, cloud computing is just the latest IT industry buzz phrase, and is the latest in what is now a forty year history of selling old wine in new bottles. In this case, we are talking about very old wine indeed. Cloud computing is just the mainframe. And the mainframe was redefined in the early eighties as the mini-computer. And the mini-computer was redefined in the early nineties as client-server computing. And client-server computing became Web applications. And Web applications became Web 2.0. And Web 2.0 became cloud computing.

But all of those buzz phrases were and still are architecturally quite similar. The user is connected at a distance to a central repository of data. However, as the distances between the user and the data have grown, network latency, or how long it takes data to travel across the network between user and repository, has become a big problem. The Internet offers virtually no control over latency, for a whole variety of reasons, including the fact that the Internet was never, in its original design, intended for real-time transaction-based processing (cloud computing).

The answer is robust local, high performance open access broadband networks, which allow two things to happen--you can move the cloud closer to the user, and you can control and limit latency. Distributed cloud computing improves performance and reduces or eliminates the single point of failure that is being designed into some cloud environments. Apple, for example, is building a giant data center in North Carolina. But what happens if that facility loses power in a major storm? Apple and other cloud competitors like Amazon and Google do create redundant data centers, but a few massive data centers can't solve the latency problem the way putting cloud servers on local open access networks can.

Electric car infrastructure does not exist

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 08/14/2009 - 13:57

This Scientific American article discusses something I and others have been saying for years--the 100 year old electric grid we use for residential and business power was not designed for electric cars, which have extremely high amperage power draws. It is not so much that the grid can't handle one or two electric cars in a neighborhood; it can, and the load is not much different than things like welders or potter's kilns. But the grid was not designed for say 35% of residential homes plugging in their electric cars every evening at 5:30, at the very same time that residential electric use already peaks.

Part of the solution is broadband. Resilient, reliable fiber broadband connections to every home will enable electric providers to talk to home power controllers. The home power controllers will have enough smarts to turn the car charging on and off at the direction of the power company so that the load is balanced throughout the night, when electricity costs the least to generate.

That's right--broadband is part of the energy independence solution.

Why fiber cable route diversity and redundancy are important

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 07/29/2009 - 14:27

A submarine cable serving several African countries has been damaged. The cable is the only Internet route out of several west African nations, putting the entire country into a virtual Internet blackout, with slow, expensive satellite links the only way for data to move in and out of the countries. Here in the U.S., some counties and states are bigger than these countries, and route diversity is now a serious issue for relocating businesses.

Open access networks will become the "normal" way to design and build networks

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 07/07/2009 - 10:44

The NOFA (Notice of Funds Availability) for broadband stimulus funding was released last week; the document defines how to apply for those funds, and both private sector companies and communities can apply. On page 66, beginning at line 1470, the NOFA does something very important: it provides an explicit preference for networks that offer open access services (or open services) to end users. Here is the exact statement:

Reviewers will also consider whether the application proposes to construct infrastructure and implement a business plan which would allow more than one provider to serve end users in the proposal funded service area.

This means networks that offer competitive pricing from more than one provider get preference--this is huge, and could have important long term consequences.

The rules also do something else quite important on the same page (page 66, line 1463), where there is explicit preference for open access transport, which in telecom jargon is "interconnection." The rules say that companies that post their interconnection fees publicly and agree to nondiscrimination will get preference.

Why is the interconnection clause important? I have specific knowledge of one phone company that offered the exact same circuit/service to a community project at FIVE TIMES the fee they charge to other telcos. That is discriminatory pricing, and it is done to discourage competition and to keep community projects out of the "club."

When the dust settles on the broadband stimulus funding in a couple of years, these two little items buried on page 66 may turn out to be the most important part of the whole effort.

The problems with BPL

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 06/08/2009 - 16:38

I sat through a presentation by an electric utility on their BPL (Broadband Over Powerline) offering. The company is committed to being able to provide broadband connectivity to their rural customer base, which is terrific. They should be commended. But the service starts at 256 kilobits for $30 and ends at 3 megabits for $90. The system requires that the electric company install repeaters at least every 3500 feet, or about every half mile, throughout the entire service area--active electronics spaced more closely than DSL (another copper-based technology). And fiber signals can be transmitted tens of miles before needing repeaters. The firm has been testing the system for more than two years and is still not ready to offer it because it is susceptible to noise, which reduces the available bandwidth (fiber has no noise or interference issues). The representative called the system "very complex," and said, " looks simple, but it is very complicated, as we are finding out." What may save the experiment is that the firm intends to roll out smart grid energy conservation and meter reading services, and the savings there may help pay for the equipment and maintenance. But the local region will still have "little broadband" compared to other rural areas rolling out fiber (which also supports smart grid uses).

The coming boom in server farms

Submitted by acohill on Sun, 05/24/2009 - 11:01

Here is a story about the state of North Carolina trying to entice Apple to place a 100 job server farm in the state. With unemployment in North Carolina nudging 11%, state officials are smart to try to attract Knowledge Economy businesses, and server farms are a growth industry. The massive amounts of data being stored "online" have to reside in a physical place, and the companies that are making a business out of this (e.g. Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and many smaller firms) have several requirements.

They have to spread these data centers out for security reasons--fires, floods, and terrorism can happen almost anywhere, so no reputable firm wants to store all its data in one place. So they have multiple data centers, each storing complete copies of all the data. Second, spreading the centers out helps speed data to and from its destination. Different data centers will deliver data to customers based on customer location.

When picking sites for these server farms, these companies are, of course, looking for tax benefits, but your community won't get on the short list unless you have local fiber, good fiber routes out to major Internet switchpoints, and reliable electric power.

All things that are relatively easy to get started on if you want businesses of the future.

Alcatel supports municipal broadband

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 05/05/2009 - 07:54

From the good folks in Wilson, NC, an excerpt from a letter that fiber equipment manufacturer Alcatel wrote in support of the right of communities to improve broadband services. Good for Alcatel. In part, it is probably a business decision, which makes it even more interesting--the company must know that municipal broadband efforts are good business.

Broadband Properties: Fiber and economic development

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 05/01/2009 - 10:18

I am back from three days at the Broadband Properties annual conference. As more communities make investments in broadband infrastructure, we are beginning to get some interesting data back on the economic impact.

In Anson, Indiana, a developer is putting duct and fiber to 1790 homes and 9 million square feet of commercial and retail space--all part of a master planned community. The investment has brought an Amazon distribution center and 1200 jobs to the community.

In Orlando, Florida, the Lake Nona planned community is building one of the nation's largest set of medical facilities, with more than 5 million square feet of specialty clinics, hospitals, and medical facilities. One million square feet of retail is planned, and 5400 housing units are being built. There will be fiber to every single premise.

In the rural Hill Country near Austin, Texas, the local telephone coop is building fiber to the home, and says that the initiative has retained 150 jobs and added 200 new jobs. The coop works closely with local economic developers, who are pushing hard to get the right telecom infrastructure to be able to meet any business need.

Economic developers in other parts of the country need to be asking: "How do our regions compare with these kinds of projects? How will we convince companies to come to our region when these other communities have world class telecom infrastructure?"

Nielsen: 2000% increase in video delivered by the Internet

Submitted by acohill on Thu, 04/23/2009 - 14:15

A new report by Nielsen says time spent watching video online has increased in the past five years by 2,000%. And the number of people watching video online is increasing by 10% per year, meaning in about seven years, everyone will be watching video on the Internet. TV is dead, dead, dead.

And as I have been saying for years, the Internet business model being used today by the incumbents and smaller providers is upside down and unsustainable--bandwidth by the bucket does not work when users are asking to refill the bucket faster and faster each day, week, and month. And charging to refill the bucket does not scale up, as the bandwidth quickly becomes unaffordable when watching lots of video.

The solution is to change the business model. It's not hard, and the incumbent providers would actually make more money after the conversion. But some of them are going to go bankrupt rather than admit they need to change.

Municipal fiber better, less expensive

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 04/22/2009 - 12:08

Here is a nice little table that compares the price of broadband in various places around the world. Stockholm's municipal fiber network has the best pricing: $11 per month for 100/100 megabits (symmetric). Compare that to some U.S. offerings like one incumbent's 50/20 megabit (asymmetric, less than half the capacity) service for $145.

The Wired Road opens for business

Submitted by acohill on Sat, 04/18/2009 - 16:22

Andrew Cohill, President of Design Nine, announced today that The Wired Road has begun full operations. An official ribbon-cutting takes place in Galax on April 20th, 2009 at 11 AM. The regional network is the largest integrated fiber and wireless open access, open services municipal network in the United States, and the high performance network will eventually provide services across more than 1,000 square miles of mountainous terrain in southwest Virginia. The project is a collaboration among three local governments, including Grayson and Carroll counties and the City of Galax. Crossroads Institute and Carroll County Public Schools are also partners in the effort. Design Nine provided the early planning, developed the financial and business models for the project, designed the network architecture, and provided comprehensive project management services to get the network built.

Planning for the project began in early 2007, and construction started later in the fall of that year. The first customers began using the system in mid-2008, and wireless residential and businesses customers can now request service connections. As an open access network, the project is unique among municipal broadband projects because all services are provided by private sector companies--the local governments are not selling any services to businesses and residents.

Cohill noted several other significant accomplishments, which include installing fiber in downtown Galax and deploying high performance wireless broadband to residents and businesses in portions of Carroll and Grayson counties that were completely unserved by broadband. Cohill said, “Residents that have been on dial up have been stopping work crews and asking when they can get wireless and fiber services. Everyone is anxious to get connected.” The fiber in Galax will provide connectivity not only to businesses but to organizations like the City government and the Chestnut Creek School of the Arts. The Twin County Regional Hospital has been using Wired Road fiber since January. The hospital’s switch to The Wired Road fiber got the institution a big increase in bandwidth with a sharp reduction in cost, and a local service provider was able to get the hospital’s Internet business for the first time.

Design Nine managed the entire network build out, which included vendor evaluation and selection, supervision of all the construction work, testing of the network, and installation of network management and monitoring software. Design Nine also developed a complete set of business, financial, and operations policies and procedures for the regional authority that was created to run the network.

Design Nine’s high performance design provides 100 megabit fiber connections and and multi-megabit wireless speeds. The project recently received additional funding that will expand wireless access in rural areas and will get fiber into every business park in the region.

About Design Nine – Design Nine provides visionary broadband network design and engineering services to clients, communities, and regions throughout the U.S. The firm has active projects in eight states, with several fiber to the home (FTTH) projects in build out or operations, including the first municipal open network in the U.S. Design Nine manages broadband fiber and wireless projects from beginning to end, including the initial assessment, design, construction, and operations phases. The company is one of the most experienced open access broadband network design firms in the United States, and offers a full range of assessment, planning, financial analysis, business design, and project management for public and private networks.

Report says more competition needed for wireline phone service

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/13/2009 - 09:09

This report from TURN (The Utility Reform Network) has some excellent information about competition (and the lack of it) in wireline telephone markets, based on a study done in California. It is a lengthy report, but the Executive Summary does a good job of summarizing the findings. They key result was that there is still too little competition for phone service, and that for a variety of reasons, many households can't just drop wireline phone service and use cellphones--meaning that cellphone service is not an adequate market counterbalance to monopoly telephone service.

Digital City Expo goes online

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 04/07/2009 - 10:41

In a break with the past, Benjamin Media's Digital City Expo is going online. The entire two day conference will be conducted via the Web, using webinars, chat, and live two way audio to put speakers and the audience in direct contact. It is a bold and interesting experiment, and potentially will give a much broader audience access to the conference and the information provided by presenters. Digital City Expo is the only broadband conference that focuses exclusively on community and municipal broadband, and with many new projects coming online, this year should bring a lot of good information to the conference Design Nine is a sponsor, and we will have a session on the economic development benefits of looking at broadband and energy as a way of attracting and retaining businesses.

Broadband Properties Conference in April

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 04/06/2009 - 16:12

The annual Broadband Properties Summit will be held on April 27-29 in Dallas-Fort Worth (at the airport). More information is available here. If you are interested in broadband technologies, this is an excellent conference. Design Nine will be there as an exhibitor.

Skype on iPhone

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 03/31/2009 - 09:02

Skype is now available for the iPhone. Sound quality for iPhone to iPhone connections on WiFi networks is excellent, and if you leave the Skype app running (in the foreground) you can turn the phone off and still get calls. However, if Skype is not the main app, you cannot receive calls, so there are still some limitations on the usefulness of it on the iPhone. But all that is set to change in June or July, when Apple releases the next major software upgrade for the iPhone, which is supposed to include "presence," or the ability of applications like Skype to sit in the background and still run--in the case of Skype, you could be browsing the Web or sending email and still receive incoming Skype calls.

Skype support for the iPhone is a big deal. There have been some helper apps that allowed Skype calls or used another third party VoIP service, but having your Skype phone book and preferences on the iPhone is very convenient, and at least gives you the ability to make phone calls via the Internet even when not in range of an AT&T cell tower.

When the software upgrade is released this summer and presence is fully supported, it will help sell more iPhones without a cell provider service contract. For some people, just having VoIP on the iPhone will be enough.

Southeast Broadband Conference

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 03/20/2009 - 15:15

Benedict College in Columbia, South Carolina has announced it's third Broadband in Cities and Towns conference on April 16th. The one day meeting will focus on the connection between broadband and community/economic development, and there will be a special focus on the potential for broadband stimulus funding to help smaller communities and Main Street economic renewal efforts. I'll be one of the speakers and am part of the Advisory Committee.

Community broadband disinformation

Submitted by acohill on Wed, 03/11/2009 - 10:53

This misleading article suggests an astroturf effort to discredit community broadband projects.

Some incumbents may be fearful of the stimulus funding because it will enable many community projects to meet build out goals much more quickly than originally planned, and to show that they can be financially viable.

There is a mixture of disinformation and truth in the short article, combined skillfully to paint with a very broad brush.

The disinformation part is the phrase "taxpayer funded." We actually don't ever recommend funding these efforts with tax revenue, and I know of very few community projects that have taken that route.

The "truth" part is the that community WiFi projects, as a whole, have not done well and cannot meet future capacity requirements. But by not differentiating between fiber projects (e.g. Danville, Lafayette, LA, The Wired Road) and modest but inadequate WiFi efforts, they cleverly manage to make it sound like all community projects are the same, and that all have failed.

nDanville's first year of operations as an open access, open service network has collected only one complaint: service providers want the project to hook up customers faster!

The Wired Road has cut costs dramatically for the Carroll County Public schools and increased bandwidth to individual schools by as much as 60 times. The local hospital has received one of the first fiber connections, and cut their Internet costs in half and tripled their bandwidth. The first residential wireless customers are being added this month, and sixty buildings in downtown Galax will get fiber next week. Lafayette, Louisiana has begun offering superb "future proof" fiber connections to residents and businesses after winning a long legal battle.

Well planned community efforts are going to reshape the telecom landscape, and the incumbents are worried. They need not be, as they can always come on open networks and compete to keep their existing customers and try to win new ones.

Webinar on Open Networks

Submitted by acohill on Tue, 02/24/2009 - 11:03

I will be conducting a webinar tomorrow on open networks. The sponsor is the Fiber To The Home Council, and the link to the program and additional information is here.

If you have been interested in open access and open service networks, I'll be providing a half hour overview of the business, financial, and technical issues related to making these a success, and there will be a thirty minute question and answer session.

If interested, you do need to register. It will be on Wednesday, February 25, 2009, at 2:00pm EST.

Blacksburg Electronic Village: "Most Wired Town in America"

Submitted by acohill on Mon, 02/23/2009 - 08:55

The folks at Handshake 2.0 have reminded me that it was exactly thirteen years ago that Blacksburg made the cover of USA Weekend, a widely circulated Sunday supplement. The Blacksburg Electronic Village (BEV) project was just a little more than two years old. We had turned on Internet access in October, 1993, and became the first general purpose ISP in the world. Long lines at the BEV office were common for the next several years as people eagerly registered to get Internet access. As Director, I had to work in uncharted territory; in the early days of the project, nearly everyone thought we were crazy because we claimed that in the near future, every household would have a computer, which seemed far-fetched enough at the time--a good 386 PC still cost several thousand dollars. But even goofier, we claimed that all those computers would be hooked to the "Internet," which we affectionately call today "the Intertubes."

The BEV project had a lot of firsts. We had the first residential broadband in the world, with half a dozen apartment complexes offering real Ethernet connections in every bedroom in 1994. It created a massive change in living preferences in Blacksburg, as students, faculty, and professionals tried to move to those early adopter apartment complexes. My group ran the community broadband network, which included the first business park to offer Ethernet/Internet access as an amenity, the first library in the world to offer free public Internet access, the first school system with broadband to every school and to every classroom, and arguably the first e-commerce in the world. In Blacksburg in 1995 you could order groceries online, and the local florist shop taking flower orders from all over the world. The Town of Blacksburg was the first local government online, starting with a Gopher site that quickly transitioned to the Web.

What was interesting was how many people told us the stuff we said was coming would never happen. Real estate agents told me repeatedly that they would never put home listings online, but a local Blacksburg firm eventually did just that and almost immediately sold a house--the first first house in the world sold via the Web. I met with local banks and urged them to put account access online. They listened solemnly and all came to back to a second meeting and told me that they had spoken with their IT folks and had been assured that it was "impossible" to put bank accounts online--not only was it technically infeasible but it was too big a security risk.

Today, I still have a sense of deja vu as I work with communities and economic developers on broadband issues. We are rapidly moving beyond "broadband = Internet" and towards a much more interesting and robust vision of broadband as a high performance network capable of delivering not just one or three or four services but hundreds. The telcos and cable companies were big skeptics of the Internet back in the nineties, and today they still remain deeply skeptical of the expansion of the network beyond just delivering the Web and a bit of email. Some smaller phone companies, especially in the mid-West and south, have really stepped up and are aggressively pursuing this new vision. And communities and regions like Danville, The Wired Road, and the The Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority are building public/private partnerships to create the next generation broadband networks--successors of the Blacksburg Electronic Village.

Broadband For All: Sensible Policy Goals for Broadband

Submitted by acohill on Fri, 02/20/2009 - 16:38

This handout summarizes some basic policy principles that ought to guide local, state, and national broadband policy.

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