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...

Maine Fiber Company Hits Wire Services

Can't help noting that the Maine Fiber Company news release that formed the basis of the firm's presentation to the ConnectME Authority, reported here on January 29, just hit the wire services on February 9.  How's that for latency?  Such sluggish coverage of such an important topic is part of the  reason for this blog.  Just saying...

Monday, February 1, 2010

What Is Three-Ring Binder Impact on Libraries & Schools?

My background is in library technology.  Former colleagues have asked whether the Three-Ring Binder Project (3BR) will help libraries libraries.  I think it probably will, but not directly and not immediately. It may have more relevance as a "next generation" platform by which libraries and schools gain access to connections much faster than those currently available. 

Some background... Currently, most public libraries and school buildings, some 1100 or so in all, have access to the Internet via the Maine School and Library Network.  It was developed in the 1990's, in part as a resolution of a telephone rate case before the Maine Public Utilities Commission and in part as an extension of  the "universal service principle" to public and educational access to online information.  Federal dollars have played a large part in sustaining the service.

MSLN links have evolved from 64 kbps Frame Relay to nominal 1.5 mbps links as use has burgeoned.  Some sites have left MSLN for locally available alternatives that provide even greater bandwidth at an affordable price.  Relatively few sites have the luxury of such alternatives, however. 

As time goes by, more and more information services with richer and richer content will migrate to the Internet.  This is inevitable and guarantees year over year increases in required network performance.  This climbing demand curve nicely intersects with the vastly increased bandwidth available to customers linked to the 3RB fiber network.  Fiber to the premises will likely be an option for many.  Without 3RB, fiber might be a far more remote possibility.

The key thing is this: 3RB deploys into rural Maine an infrastructure for advanced, high-bandwidth services that in most locations would not exist for many years.  HOWEVER, 3RB does not provide the services themselves.  Established and new telecommunications carriers will have the opportunity, on an equal and open access basis, to "light up" the dark fiber in the 3RB and run the "last-mile" links to libraries, schools, businesses and individuals.  Link speed and price will be set by these last-mile carriers.  Competing firms may well offer similar services for very different prices.  Some may offer special deals for non-profits, community institutions and/or schools.  Others may not. 

Whether or when it will make sense to move from MSLN to a 3RB-enabled service is an open question.  Same for the question of whether MSLN might somehow ride this new fiber in a few years.   As the network is built and last-mile carriers begin to offer services, the possibilities and the end-user costs will become much clearer. 

What we have right now is massive possibility and question marks.  To call this "uncertainty" is to take a "glass half empty" view.  I think the high probability of a big leap forward in connectivity in a year or two is truly a glass half, or perhaps 3/4 full. 

Friday, January 29, 2010

Maine Fiber Company Provides Three-Ring Binder Update

An update on the Three-Ring Binder Project was the highlight of today’s meeting of the ConnectME Authority meeting at Public Utilities offices in Hallowell.  Dwight L. Allison III, one of the major investors in the Maine Fiber Company along with Robert C. S. Monks, reported on what has happened so far, subsequent to the $25 million NTIA grant in December:

  • The Maine Fiber Company is up and running, with Allison and Monks as its two current board members. A new web site was launched yesterday
  • Receipt of federal money is expected soon.  Meanwhile, funds pledged by private investors have already begun to come in. (NTIA incorrectly understood that GWI would be the recipient rather than Maine Fiber Company.)
  • It is expected to take 2 to 3 years to complete the entire 1100 mile network.  The first section will be between Brunswick and Bath.  It could be operational by June.
  • Maine Fiber Company is a carrier of carriers.  It will sell access to dark fiber only.  It will be up to last-mile carriers to “light up” that fiber.
  • The dark fiber will be open to any vendor on an open, equal and non-discriminatory basis.
  • No single carrier will be allowed to consume more than 20% of the capacity of the network at any point.
  • Currently, plans call for running 288 fibers along the entire network.
  • Josh Broder has been named Maine Fiber Company President and will have major operational responsibility.  Tilson Fiber Technologies has been retained to assist in technical operation of the network.
  • Neither GWI nor the University of Maine System are investors in Maine Fiber Company, notwithstanding that they were official backers of the grant proposal.  The University will not be on the Board.
  • It is expected that an advisory board will be created consisting of carrier customers and others.
  • Should Maine Fiber Company fail to make good on its pledges, NTIA has the authority to come in and take over the project.
  • Maine Fiber Company is not legally a public utility.  Thus it does not have “attachment rights” for the utility poles to which the fiber need to be installed.  A bill has been introduced in the Legislature to grant the Project the same attachment rights, including the normal rate structure for use of those poles, that would be available to a vendor that is recognized as a public utility. 
  • The Project is subject to a potentially significant taxation issue that also applies to many other grant recipients around the country.  IRS may want to view the grant as income and tax it.  The tax would be greater than the total amount of private investment being made in the project.  It would probably call the viability of the entire project into question.  The Maine congressional delegation and others are involved in attempting to avoid this interpretation of tax laws.
  • Maine Fiber Company has met already with a number of prospective last mile carriers and would-be vendors of construction services. 
  • Public support is needed for the bill granting the Project pole attachment rights.
  • Typically, the pole attachment process involves “make-ready” by the owner of the pole before actual cable installation.  Make-ready is usually most expensive and time-consuming part.  Existing wires may need to be moved or, in some cases, an entirely new pole may need to be installed. 
  • Questions arose about pricing to the carriers who will light the fiber and provide last-mile connections to customers.  Allison mentioned some ranges with caveats that a large number of factors could affect final pricing.  
  • Once developed, official pricing will be publicly posted on the web site. 
  • Before discounts for really large purchases or commitments for a long time period, pricing might be in the range of $8.00 to $12.00 per strand per mile per month.
  • The company will also have an annual minimum charge, perhaps in the range of $25,000 to $50,000.

AT&T "Unlimited" iPad Deal

Amid hoopla over introduction of Apple's iPad tablet computing device one might easily miss a potentially important announcement about 3G network access for the device. AT&T, the only carrier currently authorized as a provider by Apple, offers a $15/month plan with a cap of 250 megabytes of data traffic and an unlimited plan for $30.  The latter is groundbreaking.  Users of other AT&T 3G devices have to pay $60/month with a cap of 5 gigabytes of traffic.  Moreover, iPad users can pay month to month -- no being locked into a 24-month contract!

Is this a harbinger of a decline in pricing of 3G services generally?  To the extent that some Mainers rely on mobile broadband, i.e. 3G, for modest near-broadband connectivity in homes and businesses, any move downward on the price curve would be welcome.

For much of Maine, though, the question is whether this AT&T move will eventually carry over into pricing of the much more far-flung Verizon Wireless 3G network.  And does "unlimited" stand a chance of re-entering the pricing structure.  We can hope...

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Is "Mobile Broadband" Really Broadband?

A year ago I moved to Northport, Maine and built a house where once my parents had an egg farm. The house sits in a broadband "hole", unfortunately. 

Several services are just out of reach.  We are about a mile beyond the range of FairPoint DSL.  Time-Warner has not seen fit to venture into town.  Fixed Wireless providers Blue Streak and Mid-Coast Internet both provide service in the vicinity.  We can't "see" their transmit antennas because of trees, unfortunately.  There is a point 500 feet away from the house where an antenna could be mounted.  Neither firm, however, will work with me to contrive some sort of ethernet repeater arrangement that gets the signal to the house.

So, the choices are satellite internet and Mobile Broadband from Verizon, the only cell provider that covers this area with high speed service.  Due to the higher start-up cost and reports of high latency and perhaps slower transmission on the satellite side, we went with Mobile Broadband.  I made a two-year service commitment and paid $50 for a little USB modem through which one connects to the Verizon EV-DO high-speed network.  This is a "3G" or "third generation" service.

To provide connectivity to the multiple PCs in the house I purchased a CradlePoint 3G wi-fi router.  An 18" outdoor antenna goes to the modem which is inserted in the USB port of the router.  Devices attach to the router wirelessly in some cases and by ethernet cable in others.  In terms of reliability, troubleshooting, etc. the setup is virtually the same as for DSL. Plus, when we travel I can take the EV-DO modem along and use it in my laptop.

I am torn.  On the one hand, I really like the service.  It is not super speedy -- 700 to 800 kbps down and 400 kbps or so up.  DSL at our former house in Bangor was sometimes twice that.  Nor is it super cheap -- $59.99 per month, in fact. However, the service is far better than the limited alternatives.  The single biggest frustration is the data transfer cap.  I am allowed only 5 gigabytes of data traffic per month, inbound and outbound added together.  If I exceed the limit I am charged $.05/megabyte.  In other words, if I go crazy with YouTube, upload a bunch of high definition photos or decide to grab a couple disc images for a Linux install, I will pay $50.00 per gigabyte for the "overage". 

This isn't a rate structure.  It is punitive pricing aimed at protecting the achilles heel of wireless broadband -- insufficient bandwidth.  Verizon wants to serve lots of customers and collect lots of monthly fees.  However, the greater the number of users on a given frequency band, the slower the service will be for all at times of peak usage.  Adding capacity required additional equipment and, in some places, additional electromagnetic spectrum.    The former can be expensive and the latter may not even be available in some areas.  So, heavy users are constrained by a heavy-handed cap.  I understand it.  And I hate it so much that I will be out the door at the first sniff of an alternative.

So, do I have broadband right now?  One definition popular with the telecommunications industry draws the line at 768 kbps.  By that measure, I have broadband about 60% of the time, except hardly ever during snowstorms or heavy rains.  In 2010, this speed is too low.  I can think of half a dozen uses that are only practical with speeds in the 1 to 3 megabit/sec range.  Moreover, the cap prevents one from substituting patience for speed.  If the cap were doubled, or maybe even tripled, Verizon Mobile Broadband would be a satisfactory semi-broadband alternative until better alternatives arrive.  In the meantime, one can pound sand. 

The bottom line?  In terms of speed, Verizon Mobile Broadband comes close to the low end of adequacy as a simple broadband service in the home.  When the data cap and the high overage charges are considered, however, it falls short.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Filling in the White Spaces -- Who Knew?

Ars Technica has a nice article about plans to make use of the unused "white spaces" between frequencies allocated to television broadcasters.  Despite broadcaster worries about interference and concerns of wireless microphone manufacturers who already utilize frequency white spaces, the FCC is moving forward.  An industry group is devising methods by which devices with geolocation capability can report their position to a database of frequency usage information that will return a list of allowable frequencies in that area.  Compilation is ongoing, apparently.  Today, Google offered to host one instance of the database for at least 5 years, and for free.  The intent is to have multiple synchronized instances of the database available. 

Will white space utilization open the door to new rural broadband services?  Stay tuned for future FCC action on this front. 

The Spectrum Wrangle

Spectrum, spectrum, who's got the spectrum?  And who wants it?

Rumbles from Washington suggest that wireless broadband, in various technological flavors, is an emerging driver of federal technology policy.  It is seen as a necessary part of bringing broadband goodness to parts of America, particularly rural America.  Where population density is low, stringing new wires can be much more expensive than using towers and end-user antennas.  It can be done much more quickly as well.  (Let's set aside for the moment the question of the quality of the connection -- nothing comes close to beating fiber to the premises so far.)

In areas with a wired broadband infrastructure, wireless broadband offers hope of competition that might enhance user choices and put a brake on service fees. 

And then there are the smartphones.  The millions and millions of smartphones whose "apps" consume incredible amounts of wireless bandwidth.

The telecommunication and technology firms that would benefit from expansion of wireless broadband need one thing with increasing urgency -- telecommunications spectrum.  They need to have new communications frequencies allocated to their use.  Even if one cannot see the wireless "pipes" that link transmitter and receiver, like real pipes each frequency has a practical limit to the amount of traffic it can carry within a given geographic area.  In many areas saturation is within sight.

Television broadcasters, despite reallocations resulting from the recent transition to digital technology, still hold claims to one of the largest blocks of spectrum not already in the hands of wireless providers.  In many cases, that spectrum is unused.  TV execs hope to use it in the future, though exactly how is yet to be determined in most cases.  That notwithstanding, the broadcasters see their spectrum as key to their future.  The wireless vendors see that same spectrum as essential to theirs.

You may have already seen television commercials warning of a threat to free over the air television from politicians in Washington.  This is the opening shot of broadcasters' efforts to head off the formidable lobbying efforts of the telecommunications lobby.  It should be an interesting wrestling match. 

I'm not entirely sure who I am rooting for.  Wouldn't it be nice, though, if some broadcasters got together and used part of their spectrum allocations to develop their own wireless broadband services business?  Just a thought...

Illogic in the New Year

David McClure's "Hands Off Broadband Expansion" opinion piece in the Jan 1, 2009 Bangor Daily News was breath-takingly wrong-headed. He proposes recent election results as a repudiation of Net Neutrality legislation currently under discussion in Washington.  To label this a logical non-sequitar is to be kind.  The recent election results in Virginia and New Jersey say lots about Virginia and New Jersey. To say that prospective net neutrality rules had any bearing on either outcome borders on self-serving fantasy.

"Net Neutrality", and McClure's arguments against it,  are about control.  To what degree should the owner of a telecommunications link control how its customers use it?

The question seems simple at first, but its complexity and significance grow as one considers some examples.

 Should a phone company be able to restrict, or charge more to users of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP) telephone links like Vonage or Skype?

How about a cable television company that wishes to block access to movies or television programming delivered over the Internet?

Should an Internet Service Provider be able to constrain services that compete with their own offerings?

Would it make a difference if, instead of assessing an end-user surcharge, the firm strong-armed providers of such services -- Netflix, Amazon, Google, Vonage, etc. -- access to the customers on its network?  Notwithstanding that such vendors already pay huge bandwidth charges to enable the sheer volume of their traffic to travel efficiently across the net.

Let's shake off the "spin".  The continuing growth in Internet traffic itself guarantees both a demand for expanded capacity and willingness of customers large and small to pay for it. From McClure's perspective, this should be ignored and connectivity providers should erect virtual tollbooths to extract additional funds from deep-pocketed Internet companies (Google, Microsoft, etc.).

That being said, there are also a few valid reasons for constraint on link usage. Well-documented violations of the law -- fraud, child porn, virus and worm propagation being just some of the activities that should be excluded. There may well be cases where excessive traffic volumes dictate moment to moment management actions that protect other users from service impairment. I have reservations about the potential of large amounts of high-definition video to choke an ISPs network with insufficient capacity to carry it.  These legal and logistical concerns, however, are much different from control for the purpose of revenue enhancement.

The Net Neutrality movement arose out of recognition that "toll-booths", deals to favor one content provider over others, and similar proprietary traffic management schemes, could prevent realization of the full potential of high-bandwidth global communication links. Broadband has become so important that its corporate providers must acknowledge some degree of responsibility. Finding the appropriate balance point between a pure "public utility" perspective and the greater vitality of entrepreneurial Internet services is difficult.  It is where we are now.  We should not be swayed from the nuances of the arguments by such broad-brush political arguments as those of Mr. McClure.