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.