Thursday, March 24, 2011

FairPoint PR Fumbles

One of the readers of this blog pointed out that the FairPoint coverage map at http://www.fairpoint.com/northern_ne/ne_service_map.jsp is indeed out-of-date subsequent to the big installation push at the end of 2010.  I can't swear that no updates have been made.  However, with respect to the town of Northport, with which I am personally concerned, and where at least parts of the town have excellent service up to 15 Mbps, there has been no change.

In terms of public relations, this is pretty dumb.  It turns on its head the old pattern, "Tell them what you are going to do, tell them you are doing it, tell them it has been done."  The new FairPoint pattern: "Tell them you may do it sometime, tell them you did a lot of something somewhere."

If finances are so bad as to require a choice between doing and telling the public in detail what you have done, then we all would prefer that network upgrade and extension take priority.  However, a financially healthy FairPoint also requires that attention be paid to promotion of new service availability so that the installation investment can come back more quickly in the form of a growing subscriber base.  Inattention to the online coverage map and other PR work way be penny-wise and pound-foolish, in other words.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Untangling Wireless and Wired Services

Some of the (technologically) innocent bystanders are confused.  They can't make sense of the technical and political discussions about broadband internet access in Maine.  Herewith I offer a bit of "disambiguation", as the folks at Wikipedia call it.  It is my attempt to simplify by categorizing the players and their promotional messages:

The Maine broadband problem lies in connecting a business or home user to information systems and services of his/her choice with sufficient speed and stability and at an affordable cost.  Not that the user has a choice of devices and the place(s) from which those devices must be usable.

In my view, this is really two problems:

Fixed location connectivity -- Internet access for homes, businesses and institutions.

Mobile device connectivity -- Network access for plain cell phones, ever-smarter smartphones, and netbooks, tablets, and laptops with 3G  and 4G modems.

The long-term answer to broadband service at fixed locations is wire.  This may be copper in the midterm, as long as optical fiber continues to be used in upgrading links to neighborhoods.  In a decade, however, fiber to the premises will make sense for a large number of customers.  High-bandwidth applications involving video are driving the evolution of internet services globally.  Only fiber can economically provide the capacity needed to meet business and home services expectations into the future.   Even though  mobile broadband technologies like 3G and 4G offer high nominal speed, the mushrooming demand for these services on mobile devices will certainly "outbid" fixed location used for new capacity as it comes available.

Fixed wireless service will remain as a fall-back for truly isolated sites fixed locations.  However, the economic viability of this service will decline as wired broadband fills in the gaps in lesser populated areas and current fixed wireless users switch over.

Localities that lack broadband now are more likely to get new DSL service from a phone company than new cable internet service, I think.  DSL requires high quality linkage from a phone company central office facility to the remote distribution nodes that serve neighborhoods (Remote Terminals).  This may mean running new fiber to that single location.  However, cable TV expansion requires new cable on every street and to the premises of every subscriber.  The difference in deployment cost has to be enormous.  While cable companies may derive additional revenue in return for the television services they are also able to sell to new customers, this too is likely to be dependent on customer demographics -- number of households per mile of new wire and disposable income of those customer. 

Of course, the situation may be reversed in special situations where an existing cable infrastructure can be easily extended to cover immediately contiguous streets without running new backhaul capacity.

Mobile devices require one of the mobile broadband technologies broadly categorized as 3G (faster, higher capacity) or 4G (even faster and higher capacity).  Because of the higher price of services based on these technologies, as well as low usage caps, they offer at most a stopgap, last-resort answer to the fixed location problem. 

What Maine needs is more broadband transponders on existing cell towers, more cell towers in areas with poor mobile coverage, and probably increased backhaul capacity that will allow cell providers to avoid local bottlenecks in getting to the Internet.  It could really use more competition in the hinterlands where Verizon and/or U. S. Cellular are the only vendors.

In short, Maine needs two robust service networks for two distinct sets of needs.  And it needs them everywhere there are people attempting to live and thrive, economically and personally in Maine.

We Got Ours!

It was Thanksgiving week, appropriately enough, when some anonymous staffer at FairPoint changed the DSL availability widget on the company website to signify that one could sign up for wired broadband in Northport.  I put in my order bright and early Monday, Nov 30.  I was up and running a week later, happy as a clam sifting sand at 7 Mpbs.  Finally!  For $39.95/mo compared to the $60.00/mo I had been paying for Verizon Mobile Broadband, sub-megabit download speed, and the 5 GB/month download cap.  (I could have gotten 15 Mbps for $49.95.  Given the rapidity of big downloads and the smooth performance of streaming audio and video work at 7 Mbps, however, I have no need right now for the faster service. )

I was sent a self-install kit ahead of time, and a technician.  The kit consisted of a Westell-branded black box encompassing the functions of DSL modem, router, four-port 100 Mbps switch, wireless access point.  Impressive.

Usually, DSL devices are a "plug and play" exercise for the homeowner.  Just plug the box into a phone jack, put the supplied filters on the jacks used by voice phones and you're done.  This time, however, the technician was needed.  When the box failed to sync up with the network he tweaked the local RT.  While apparently necessary, this was not sufficient.  It turns out that the box is a new model that supports FP's new ADSL2 technology.  The sign-in process is different than for older DSL equipment.  My guess is that the process will be smoother for subsequent users.

Interestingly, the kit was supplied by a Pennsylvania-based corporate unit of Verizon. 

Unfortunately for others in Northport, the rest of the town that is outside the area served by our neighborhood remote terminal cannot yet get the service.  When I checked recently, the FP website had been updated to reflect that.  Apparently the work done so far on the other RT's in town was not by itself sufficient to make them fully operational.  We were lucky that our RT is just down the road from the Edna Drinkwater School, a Maine School and Library Network site to which FP had already deployed optical fiber.  We needed just a couple hundred yards of line for the RT link.  The RT's, if not already connected, will likely need several miles of new optical cable.  Still, the work already done indicates that the process of connecting the rest of the town is at least underway.

So, enough about my needs... 

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Eyewitness to Broadband Expansion


 

Bucket trucks.  I love the FairPoint bucket trucks.  This morning I found one of them directly in front of my house spinning fiber optic cable from pole to pole.  Two more trucks and half a dozen guys swarmed our local Remote Terminal - the phone company wiring cabinet down the road.  At least two other RTs in Northport are getting, or have already gotten the same treatment. 

For our little broadband deprived island in Waldo County, this is big stuff!  Anyone within 3 miles of one of these newly activated Remote Terminals should be able to get VantagePoint DSL, available at up to 15 megabits/sec.  No idea when FP will begin signing people up.  I hope/guess before the end of the year.  After all, with cable hung, the investment has been made.  The company has a clear financial motivation to start signing people up as soon as possible.

So, this is what meeting the "83% broadband coverage by the end of 2010" requirement, placed on FairPoint by the Maine Public Utilities Commission, actually looks like on the ground.  To those of you still waiting, I wish you bucket trucks in your near future.  

So please excuse this bit of geeky self-indulgence.  Future posts will be less focused on my own frustrated Internet needs, now close to satisfaction, and more the general and still spotty situation across the State of Maine.

I leave with you with a few other shots of my new friends from the bucket truck:








Wednesday, October 13, 2010

FairPoint Map, Pt. 2

FairPoint's difficulties in taking over Verizon telecommunications assets in Maine have not inspired confidence.  Thus when I saw the firm's map indicating areas where broadband was to be deployed by the end of 2010 I was not only encouraged, but also curious whether exansion was actually on track. 

 The short answer is "maybe" and "time will tell".  While this is a bit unsatisfying, the reasons for the ambiguity are instructive. 

FairPoint has pledged to the Maine Public Utilities Commission that it will roll out broadband service to at least 83% of its subscribers by the end of 2010.  The original target had been 90%, but was adjusted downward once already in recognition of time and expense involved. 

Accordingly, according to a FairPoint spokesperson, crews are rushing to install the necessary equipment in a large number of locations more or less at the same time.  Rather than make an upgrade in a given area in linear fashion, from step 1 to completion, work is going being done in an opportunistic manner.  As equipment comes in, as installers capable of doing particular tasks are freed up, work goes forward on corresponding projects.  In other words, workers are being kept busy doing what they can do on projects that are ready for them.  

Hence, the projects represented on the map cannot be neatly divided between those that are done and those that have not yet been started. Quite a few of them, according to my contact, are essentially "in progress".

Reading between the lines, my guess is that

a.  "End of 2010" will probably mean first quarter of 2011 for some areas

b.  A handful of areas in the "by the end of 2010" group of locations may slip substantially further and be replaced by other areas that turn out to be easier to install

c.  FairPoint is very much playing "catch-up" in respect to broadband deployment.  This is not what one would like business as usual to be.  Much as one would wish things to be more orderly, and much as one might attribute the current situation to FairPoint's own shortcomings, one has to root for the company to successfully meet its myriad obligations.

Come January, 2011, it will be interesting to see whether FairPoint has substantially fulfilled expectations for broadband deployment in 2010.  It will be a major indicator of whether the firm has swung into financial and technological recovery, or whether individuals and businesses in Maine will have to search elsewhere for that highspeed link to the future.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

FairPoint Broadband Coverage Map

Just discovered FairPoint's map of current, and planned broadband coverage.  I think this must have been added over the summer. 

The map is a real step forward in public relations.  It gives the frustrated under-served an inkling of progress being made.  I am attempting to confirm that the 2010 planned work is progressing on schedule.  Disclaimer: I have a large measure of self-interest in that my town, the Internet black hole of Northport, is apparently included in the 2010 plans...

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Three-Ring Binder Clears Legislative Hurdle

 On Tuesday, April 6, Governor Baldacci signed into law LD1778, An Act To Enable the Installation of Broadband Infrastructure.  The act establishes "dark fiber provider" as a category of public utility, making it possible for such a provider to interact with owners of utility poles and other telecommunications infrastructure through practices and procedures already in place for other public utilities.  It appears that this clears the last bureaucratic barrier to construction.

It should be noted in passing that several amendments were crucial to the passage of the measure.  In particular, the introduction of a Broadband Sustainability Fee was crucial to getting backing from FairPoint.  "An entity that purchases, leases or otherwise obtains federally supported dark fiber from a dark fiber provider is subject to the following broadband sustainability fees:  A. During the first assessment period, a monthly fee equal to $3 multiplied by the number of miles of federally supported dark fiber strand purchased, leased or used by the entity during the month; and B. During the 2nd assessment period, a monthly fee equal to $2 multiplied by the number of miles of federally supported dark fiber strand purchased, leased or used by the entity during the month."

The fee will be collected by Maine Fiber when it bills last mile providers and remitted to the ConnectME Authority, which operates under Public Utilities Commission auspices.  ConnectME may retain up to 5% of the fee for administrative and other uses.  The remainder is to be distributed to local exchange carriers, e.g. FairPoint and/or other local independent phone companies. 

As one outside the negotiations that came up with this compromise, I have a few observations:

a.  This sure looks like a FairPoint tax.  Given various frustrations with the company, one cannot help being irked at first blush.  Particularly as the $3.00, and later $2.00, monthly fee will be passed on in some form to purchasers of last mile services.

b.   While it is really hard to come up with a widely acceptable formulation, it is the case that a last-mile provider riding on the Three-Ring Binder fiber has avoided some backbone costs that FairPoint has already expended, or will expend in the future, in order to eventually compete for the same customer.  If a playing field leveler of some sort is called for, at least this one is relatively simple.

c.  For all its ineptitude, FairPoint still constitutes indispensable infrastructure for the lives of many Mainers. 

d.  Hopefully, this accommodation with FairPoint's viewpoint will put an end to the time-wasting and self-defeating sniping that the company has been doing against the project from the beginning.

e.  The most important thing is for the Three-Ring Binder to roll out as soon as possible, and for last-mile vendors to get their ducks in a row and enter the fray of offering consumer service.  Let the wild rumpus begin!

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Can't See The Broadband for the Trees

Maps can be wonderful things.  They visually summarize facts and relationships that would take a long time to describe in detail without the visual representation.  Maps can help us spot trends and develop plans based on those trends.  So, it is no surprise that mapping broadband is of interest to those who seek to understand and improve the availability of that service in rural areas.  Who has access to what variety and quality of broadband from which vendors?  Who does not have access?

It sounds like a relatively cut and dried set of questions.  It is not.

In Maine, the James W. Sewall Company has been retained by the ConnectME Authority to create and maintain such a service map.  Work has begun on obtaining information from the several dozen firms offering internet service in Maine.  The process is slow.  Non-disclosure agreements have to be agreed upon that protect the firms' customer information.  Ambiguities in the data need to be resolved. 

A big ambiguity that I find irksome involves fixed wireless internet service providers and trees.  Most if not all such services in Maine currently use frequency bands that are incapable of penetrating trees and foliage.  Where I live, both Blue Streak and Midcoast Internet should be available to us.  We probably will fall within a map area indicating that we have access to these services.  Yet we don't.  Those pines at the north end of the property that stop the coldest winter winds also fully block a fixed wireless internet option.

In a state richer than any other in trees, I think this situation cannot be rare.  When the first version of the map appears in a few months one will have to be suspicious of any representations that fixed wireless fills the gap.  Perhaps further down the line some of the GIS (Graphical Information Systems) data for forest vegetation can be overlayed onto the map to give a better representation.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

LD 1697 Killed in Maine Legislature

On Feb 23, 2010 the Utilities and Energy Committee of the Maine Legislature unanimously voted "ought not to pass" on LD1697 "An Act To Protect Universal Service", sponsored by Representative Stacey Fitts.  The bill sought to set new rules with respect to University of Maine System provision of telecommunication services to UM campuses and related sites.

The intent was, at least in part, an attempt to head off what was seen as unfair competition between governmental organizations and private communications providers -- in particular FairPoint.  Misconceptions of the role of UMS in the roll out of the Three Ring Binder Project also seemed to be at work.  Discussions within the Committee, comments from affected parties made to the Committee, and extended discussions involving UMS and FairPoint representatives appear to have clarified matters for all concerned.

Maine is a small and a poor state.  There is far more to do in provision of high quality telecommunications infrastructure than any of the parties can manage on their own, now and especially as needs expand in the future.  There is room for everyone's best efforts in rolling out services to Mainers with no current broadband options, and regularly improving services to those already with modest link.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

A Word About Ads

You may have noticed a few text ads tucked in and around Maine Broadband News posts.  I hope you do not find them intrusive.  I am experimenting with Google's ad service, without much anticipation of financial payback.  As a writer and a retiree I am not at all philosophically opposed to the concept of being paid for writing. 

My first principle, however, is to write whatever I wish without any consideration of what is being advertised.  If any of the inserted ads appear inappropriate, please contact me.  I think I can exclude particular advertisers if I wish...