Municipal Fiber: Fits and Starts

Posted by Sam Churchill on

iProvo is the name of the Fiber to the Home service owned and operated by the city of Provo, Utah. It is the largest municipally-owned Fiber to the Home network in the United States. An iProvo RFP [pdf], was issued on April 18, 2007 to reorganize the system which has run into revenue shortfalls and cost increases.

Meanwhile, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA), a consortium of 16 Utah cities, deployed a fiber to the premises network to every business and household (about 140,000) within its footprint.

But all is not well on the fiber highway, according to Broadband Reports:

Last May, iProvo was sold to Broadweave for $40 million. The other, Utopia, has so-far underperformed, with fewer subscribers than expected despite carriers offering 50Mbps fiber (albeit with a 100GB cap) for $39.95. Here are current Utopia cities.

The Salt Lake Tribune reports that a new citizen-advisory board (U-CAN) has been formed to help get Utopia on track.

A costly lawsuit by Qwest aimed at preventing the project from using utility poles delayed Utopia’s launch by eighteen months. Network planners say incompetence at a federal loan program (RUS) also delayed promised funding. Local ISPs say Utopia officials hold some responsibilities too, by too tightly controlling the type of tiers that can be offered and not having a particularly effective business model geared toward staying competitive.

But the ISPs on iProvo competed with each other on a race to the bottom, and not with the phone companies. That’s because iProvo didn’t offer reliable telephone service. Phone and cable companies maintained their strong market share. There was a lot of finger pointing at iProvo over technical issues, said Steve Christensen, Broadweave CEO, chairman, and co-founder.

Municipal networks already have a tough road, given they’re up against private-sector companies with deep pockets who’ll go to any length to ensure these operations fail, says Broadband Reports. (see BR: Utopia Not So Picture Perfect)

New York City wants to provide faster and cheaper Internet access, especially to its low-income residents, using Fiber. A multimillion-dollar technology fund, financed by cable and communications companies, may be used to provide affordable fiber-optic cable connections to homes, especially the 400,000 residents of public housing, an aide to New York City Council member Gale Brewer said today.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and other members of the city’s 15-member NYC Broadband Advisory Committee will be hearing the recommendations of a private consultancy, Diamond Management & Technology Consultants, at a briefing tomorrow.

On Dec. 6 2007, a state panel, the New York State Council for Universal Broadband, was formed to develop strategies to allow all New Yorkers to get access to high-speed Internet service. Then Governor Spitzer set the target for affordable universal access @ 20Mbps statewide, with 100Mbps in metro areas, by 2015.

ConnectKentucky is funded 90% by the state and 10% by private businesses and foundations. The Wall Street Journal praised the initiative, saying “it shows how public-private partnerships, as well as a willingness by local governments to work with less-established telecommunications providers, can drive increased access to high-speed Internet service and spur economic development”. ConnectKentucky’s interactive maps show broadband coverage along with population density, allowing providers to spot gaps in service in areas.

But Jim Baller of the Baller Herbst Law Group, says CK/CN is too little, too late, and should not be held up as a national model. It defines “broadband” as 256 kbps, and it does not encourage communities to aspire to more than single-digit DSL or cable modem speeds, says Baller.

The City of Portland is set to mount a city-sponsored “fiber-to-the-premises” initiative (staff report), according to Portland’s Willamette Week newspaper. Commissioner Dan Saltzman is heading the charge along with David Olson, who runs Portland’s cable and franchise office.

“People are being kicked off of [Internet] providers because they’re using up too much bandwidth,” says Saltzman’s chief of staff, Brendan Finn. “Until you have that [fiber] infrastructure, you’re not going to be competitive as a city.”

In early August, the city will start looking for a partner to conceive what techies call a “fiber-to-the-premises” network, but what local boosters call a “community fiber network,” or CFN.

MetroFi pulled its wi-fi project in May after 17 months of fits and starts (mostly fits). Its wi-fi cloud was built on the cheap, by plugging wireless nodes into existing networks, and at little direct cost to the city.

“We learned a lesson from that,” Finn says. “You can’t just trust a private company to come in and do something. We’re going to be really careful this time.”

The CFN would put Portland into the telecom business—stringing mile after mile of high-speed fiber-optic cables over the city’s utility poles and into every home and business.

“It’s not the same kind of project, but the lesson to learn from [MetroFi] is these things don’t always pan out as promised,” says Bob Gravely, an Oregon spokesman for Qwest. “It is a huge undertaking.”

Portland has an RFI for a Portland FIBER-TO-THE-PREMISES system. The fiber project will require the city to incur debt upward of $500 million—more than the city’s annual general fund budget—plus hiring 86 employees with annual salaries totaling $3.4 million. The plan calls for the debt to be repaid over 15 or 20 years through fees from companies that want to use the network.

“Nobody’s ever hid the ball about what it would take to do this,” says David Olson, who runs Portland’s cable and franchise office. As Olson sees it, the alternative—to do nothing—leads to doom. “Portland could become the technological bedroom suburb of Gresham and Beaverton,” says Olson.

Members of the Personal Telco Project, the Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN) and the City of Portland are gathering this Thursday to discuss the history, progress, and future of municipal wireless. This is a great opportunity to hear about efforts like MetroFi and Personal Telco, as well as how you can get involved in improving your neighborhood’s networks.

Fiber to the neighborhood might cost one tenth as much and get broadband closer to fiscal reality with broad support from a variety of private interests. Everyone in the pool.

I wouldn’t bet against wireless for the last mile — who knows what will be feasible and cost/effective in 3-5 years. For starters, consider that Clearwire has some 120 MHz in their pipe. That’s ten times the capacity of cellular data — and cheaper to deploy than DSL.

A public/private partnership with city-sponsored, net-neutral, fiber backbone to neighborhood hubs might make sense as a first step. Fiber to the cell tower. That could initially open the last mile to 700 MHz (white space and licensed), 2.1GHz (“free” munifi), 2.4GHz (unlicensed wifi), 2.6GHz (licensed wimax), 3.65 GHz (lightly-licensed), 4.9GHz (licensed) public service, 5 GHz (unlicensed wifi/wimax) and 60 GHz (unlicensed).

Who’s got an underutilized, ubiquitous fiber network that covers your entire state? That would be your Department of Transportation.

The U.S. government should take a look at South Korea, says Telecom Magazine, where the government subsidizes and encourages broadband growth. The United States lacks such a policy.

A new alliance of industry leaders, from both sides of the political aisle, called the Internet Innovation Alliance, is coming together to try to get a national broadband strategy on the top of the next U.S. president’s agenda.

Alberta SuperNet is one of the largest private IP networks in the world, a high-speed, high-capacity broadband network linking government offices, schools, health-care facilities and libraries, including approximately 4,200 connections in 429 communities. Prior to the SuperNet, there were only seven service providers operating outside of Alberta’s two largest metropolitan centres. There are now 81.

According to the ITU’s “Digital Opportunity Index: the Top 20 Countries” survey, Korea takes the top spot with household broadband penetration of 89.4 percent. The U.S. is number 20 with broadband penetration at 55%. The U.S. is in 15th place among developed nations, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development. It was ranked 4th in 2001.

Only 10 percent of Americans still use dial-up Internet service at home, according to the latest findings from the Pew Internet and American Life Project.

Broadband is still too expensive (or scarce) for many Americans. Of the 10% of U.S. households that still use dial-up access, more than a third say they use it because they can’t afford faster service. And another 14% still use dial-up because it’s the only option available to them.

Among other findings of the Pew study:

  • 27 percent of Americans, mostly low-income elderly adults, say they do not use the Internet at all.
  • 10 percent of Americans have dial-up Internet service, which is slower, down from about 30 percent four years ago.
  • 34 percent of Internet users said they’ve gone online while away from home using a wireless connection on their laptop computer. Of those, 64 percent said they used a free service.
  • 35 percent of dial-up users say that the price of broadband service would have to fall.
  • 19 percent of dial-up users said nothing would convince them to get broadband.

The 2008 broadband subscriber numbers represent an overall growth rate of 17 percent, compared with 12 percent the year before.

Respondents told Pew they paid an average of $31.50 a month for DSL (down 50 cents from last year), while average cable Internet charges fell almost 12 percent to $37.50. Dial-up customers reported paying an average of $19.70 per month, 9 percent more than last year.

Related Fiber Optic stories on DailyWireless include; U.S. Broadband Penetration: 55%, Broadband 2.0, City Fiber Networks, Muni Fiber for Portland?, The Dallas: Wired, Free MAN in Hood River, Oregon MuniFiber: the Bad & the Good, GoogleNet?, Oregon Fiber for Google, DailyWireless Testifies for Muni Broadband, Universal Access to All Human Knowledge – at 100Mbps – Free, Bill to Free 2155-2180 Mhz, Free 2155-2175 MHz!, Seattle: Fiber For All,

Posted by Sam Churchill on Tuesday, July 29th, 2008 at 9:58 am .

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