Be Your Own Fiber Net

Posted by Sam Churchill on

I’mma do the things that I wanna do
I ain’t got a thing to prove to you
I’ll eat my candy with the pork and beans
Excuse my manners if I make a scene
Weezer: Pork and Beans

Google’s Public Policy Blog says a trial experiment in Ottawa, Canada is trying out the consumer-owned model for fiber on a downtown neighborhood of about 400 homes.

A specialized construction company is already rolling out fiber to every home, and it will recoup its investment from individual homeowners who will pay to own fiber strands outright, as well as to maintain the fiber over time. The fiber terminates at a service provider neutral facility, meaning that any ISP can pay a fee to put its networking equipment there and offer to provide users with Internet access. Notably, the project is entirely privately funded. (Although some schools and government departments are lined up to buy their own strands of fiber, just like homeowners.)

The main challenges with this model are economic, rather than technical. Most importantly, ownership has to be made appealing and affordable to consumers.

The construction company is using conservative estimates that only 10% of homeowners will sign up and there will be a per-customer cost of $2700. If you assume 50% take-up, then the per-customer cost drops to $1100. Both figures might seem like a lot, but people pay for a variety of improvements to their home — like remodeled kitchens, or a deck — that also cost large sums.

This model faces other significant obstacles as well and it may only be possible in certain circumstances, if it’s practical at all. But the only way to really figure that out is to experiment. Cable television started out as CATV — community antenna television, an experiment by individual entrepreneurs and rural towns to deliver broadcast signals across longer distances. The Internet started as an experiment in the research community before becoming the worldwide network we know today.

Last night in Portland, The Nonprofit Technology Network (NTEN), officials from the City of Portland and members of the Personal Telco Project, gathered to discuss the history, progress, and future of fiber in Portland.

Willamette Week newspaper overviewed the Portland Community Fiber Network Project which is now undergoing a request for information phase.

Brendan Finn, the chief of staff from Commissioner Dan Saltzman’s office and Mary Beth Henry from Portland’s cable and franchise office spoke about the city’s role in stimulating a fiber optic network that would be available for every citizen in the city of Portland.

“Until you have that [fiber] infrastructure, you’re not going to be competitive as a city,” said Brendan Finn. Mary Beth Henry overviewed The Institutional Network (I-Net) which was built in conjunction with the city’s cable tv franchise. The I-Net currently has fiber connectivity to over 270 public facilities and serves over 20 public agencies. It connects schools and city departments but is not available to the general public.

Henry also overviewed Portland’s Integrated Regional Network Enterprise (IRNE – pdf). Their agreement with Comcast provides an interconnection of this local network used for voice and data communications between city departments.

Portland is now creating a Request For Interest. That will gauge the interest of private partners on their $500 million fiber plan. Portland hopes their fiber approach will gather supporters, both in the private and public sector, who see advantages in working together. They would share the infrastructure cost and compete with each other to deliver fiber to the home.

Ashland, Oregon built one of the first municipal fiber networks. Tacoma Washington’s Fiber network (the “Click” network), has been operational for ten years. Neither have been free of controversy. Seattle and San Francisco are now developing proposals for their own fiber networks.

Portland officials were told by Qwest that the phone company would not string fiber to the home for ten years or so. “We don’t have ten years”, said Mary Beth Henry.

She is concerned that Verizon’s FiOS (which is not allowed into the Portland region due to franchise considerations), will make Portland a less attractive place to do business then Portland’s adjoining cities.

Mary Beth Henry told Dailywireless today:

We start with the consultant next week. I expect that it will take at least 4 months. We want to do our homework and make sure we get it right. Additionally we are coordinating efforts with Seattle and San Francisco so we want to take advantage of information sharing and scheduling synergies.

We do plan to ask City Council to adopt a broadband resolution (we are in the process of writing it), probably in September, that will continue the momentum to pursue universal, affordable, high capacity bandwidth within the City.

Portland has always thought that the open access model, whereby the infrastructure is built by an entity and then multiple companies could offer services over that infrastructure, is the ideal model. That being said, we don’t have a recommended financing model at this time. That is part of what we hope will come out of the RFI.

There are many different models out there UTOPIA, Alberta, Canada [Alberta SuperNet], Amsterdam, some cities in Sweden, etc. Each has pro’s and con’s. I think we will learn what we can from the different models and then propose a uniquely Portland model based on the best practices from around the world and input from the Portland community.

The Asian region now accounts for more than 27 million of the world estimated 32 million fiber to the home connections.

PersonalTelco‘s president Michael Weinberg and secretary Russell Senior, expressed strong support of the city’s initiative. PersonalTelco’s Mississippi Neighborhood Project was seen as a good grass roots community model. It provided businesses and some homes along a ten block section of North Portland with free WiFi and was funded with a $14,000 grant from the Fred Meyer Memorial Trust.

Will FTTH pay for itself? Some skeptics are saying it may not.

Yours truly (Sam Churchill), from the audience, expressed some skepticism. Fiber to the tower was my plea. I think wireless — especially Mobile WiMAX — has a good chance of delivering a more cost/effective “broadband” solution than either DSL or Cable Modems.

No, it’s not 100 Mbps. But it might be a first step.

If a variety of wireless companies — using different technologies — could share in a joint fiber backbone, then everyone might deliver more cost/effective solutions — with more support from private industry. Fiber to the premises might be step two.

Whatever. It makes sense to have city officials actively pursue these studies. The RFI should help indicate whether the city-sponsored fiber initiative can be a practical reality.

See Dailywireless: Municipal Fiber: Fits and Starts, City Fiber Networks, Universal Access to All Human Knowledge – at 100Mbps – Free, Google’s 700 MHz Plans, National Broadband Policy?, Go Networks Beamforms Champaign.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Friday, August 1st, 2008 at 9:16 am .

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