FCC radically changes the broadband game


The FCC made it official: the benchmark for acceptable broadband service is 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up. FCC chair Tom Wheeler’s unctuous endorsement of the new standard at CES earlier this month turned into the new national standard yesterday…

Reflecting advances in technology, market offerings by broadband providers and consumer demand, the FCC updated its broadband benchmark speeds to 25 megabits per second (Mbps) for downloads and 3 Mbps for uploads. The 4 Mbps/1 Mbps standard set in 2010 is dated and inadequate for evaluating whether advanced broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a timely way, the FCC found.

Using this updated service benchmark, the 2015 report finds that 55 million Americans – 17 percent of the population – lack access to advanced broadband. Moreover, a significant digital divide remains between urban and rural America: Over half of all rural Americans lack access to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps service.

Wheeler’s rationale yesterday was…

Application and service providers, consumers, and the broadband providers are all pointing to 25/3 as the new standard. Content providers are increasingly offering high-quality video online, which uses a lot of bandwidth and could use a lot more as 4K video emerges. If you were to look at the ISPs marketing materials, most recommend speeds of 25 Mbps or higher if you plan on using multiple connected devices at the same time. Connections under 10 Mbps are marketed as “best for 1 device” and uses like sharing photos or downloading music.

Commissioner Ajit Pai – from the republican side of the panel – thought deeper thinking was needed, and dissented…

98.5% of Americans now live in areas covered by 4G LTE networks (i.e., networks capable of delivering 12 Mbps mobile Internet access). That’s 97.99 million more Americans than just two years ago. And that’s real, concrete progress towards universal—dare I say it—broadband service. Further, one can only smile at the irony of the Commission’s insistence in finding failure the very same month that Google announces expansion of the Google Fiber project to 18 new cities, companies like Dish introduce over-the-top video options that rely on broadband, and bids for AWS-3 mobile broadband spectrum approach $45 billion. At some point, the agency has to take “yes” for an answer when it comes to broadband deployment.

Regardless, 25 down/3 up is the new standard. The immediate effect might be to kill the proposed Comcast-Time Warner-Charter mega merger and market swap. Comcast’s effective monopoly looms larger when AT&T’s VDSL-based service is mostly taken off the table – it doesn’t make the grade. It’ll change the landscape for private investment and public subsidies too. That’s a story that’s yet to be written.

Surprise, Google’s fiber announcement didn’t make everyone happy


Maybe if they threw in some free beer?

Tuesday’s formal announcement that Google Fiber is heading for 18 cities in four southeastern U.S. metro areas is getting a generally warm and happy reception. But not universally. Grumbles are coming in two flavors: the who in the world needs all this sort – relatively rare so far – and the why not me variety, which is more common.

It has to be frustrating to want fiber to the home service and live in the next city over from one of the blessed. Charlotte, North Carolina is getting Google Fiber, but that’s as far as it goes, which means disappointment for those nearby, according to the Charlotte Observer

“I would love to see some real competition,” said Mint Hill resident Dan Van Atta. “I wish they would bring it to all of Mecklenburg County”…

Asked about expansion outside the city limits on Tuesday, Google Fiber expansion director Jill Szuchmacher said: “Right now we’re focused on the city of Charlotte.”

Down the road, in the Raleigh-Durham metro, an op-ed piece by an “IT worker…and aspiring law student” in the News-Observer says it’s a raw deal for everyone…

High-speed Internet doesn’t really improve the speed or, more importantly, the quality of how most of us do business –most of us don’t work for Netflix or engage in high-speed financial speculation. It also doesn’t make children learn faster or better – I somehow doubt that more HD streaming video will solve our education problems…The usefulness of computers, for the most part, has little enough to do with how fast they are. No one wants delivery vans and school buses that go 20,000 mph…

The upshot of the Google deal is that an enormously valuable piece of public infrastructure, which ought to be owned in common by the public, is handed over lock, stock and barrel to a private company based in California. This same company was deeply involved in the illegal, secret surveillance of all our Internet usage by the NSA.

I think that’s nonsense, but it’s a common enough way of looking at it, even here in California. The whole piece is worth reading: meeting, if not satisfying, those objections is a necessary part of getting community broadband systems built.

Answers to the three big questions Google Fiber ducked on the way south


Along with a posse of elected officials, Google held four press events in southern states yesterday to formally announce the metro areas and cities picked for fiber to the home builds:

  • Atlanta, Georgia and the nearby cities of Avondale Estates, Brookhaven, College Park, Decatur, East Point, Hapeville, Sandy Springs and Smyrna.
  • Charlotte, North Carolina.
  • The Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina metro area, including those two cities plus Carrboro, Cary, Chapel Hill, Garner and Morrisville.
  • Nashville-Davidson, Tennessee.

The next step is to do the necessary, detailed engineering work, a process that’s expected to take several months to complete. Google is already taking online expressions of interest from residents in the four metro areas, and will be hiring local staff to see the projects through.

For the rest of us, that leaves three big questions, none of which were well addressed yesterday…

Why were those 18 cities in those four metros picked?

No specifics, but a typical answer, or at least as much answer as we’re going to get for now, was given by Michael Slinger, Google Fiber’s business operations director, at the Raleigh event

Last year we began working with these cities to explore the possibility of bringing a super faster Internet and TV service to their residents and small businesses. The local leaders you see beside me rose to the challenge. They brought passion, commitment and dedication to the fiber exploration process, and because of their hard work we’ve chosen the Triangle for this major infrastructure investment.

Another way to answer it: North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee don’t have, for example, stroppy environmentalists and coin-operated permit counters like California, or pole attachment problems like Texas, or tax overhangs like Oregon. Google has said time and again it will follow the path of least resistance.

What about Silicon Valley, San Antonio, Portland, Salt Lake City and Phoenix?

Google execs dodged that question yesterday. A typical comment came from Google Fiber general manager Kevin Lo, who was quoted in the San Antonio Express News as saying that the city is still in the running

“Super-fast broadband has been a big priority in San Antonio for years. This is a big reason why we included San Antonio in our announcement last February, when we kicked off an effort to explore bringing Google Fiber to nine metro areas across the country,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been working with city leaders, gathering information from local roads, underground utilities paths, even permitting processes. The cities have all been great partners throughout this entire process”.

Translation: we liked the answers we got in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. Yours, not so much.

Lo wouldn’t be pinned down to a time frame, explaining to USA Today “we are really focused on doing a great job in these cities”, and telling the Portland Oregonian “we aren’t saying no”. Which, as the Oregonian points out, isn’t yes either.

Clearly, there’s some deficiency – relative or absolute – that Google found in the five losing metros. Getting construction underway in the four winners will demand a lot of attention, leaving little time for do-overs. My guess is that Google will put the preliminary work it did in those five metros on a shelf, and get back to it sometime in the second half of this year. In the meantime, it’ll be up to the people in those communities to figure out what they need to do to get to yes, and then do it. They’ll have a second chance, but it will be brief and final.

We want to get on the we’ll-get-back-to-you list. How do we do that?

Google has offered no pathway for other cities and metro areas to join the list of prospects and hasn’t said it’s going any further than it already has. Wall Street has been kind so far, but if Google Fiber’s costs start looking significant – relative to the rest of the company – the company’s share price will tank. Google is approaching the point where it either goes big or goes home.

That said, there is a difference between a slim chance and none, so cities that want to join the parade need to look at Google’s checklist, review the publicly available materials that were submitted in response, and start putting their own policy, procedure and asset packages together. All the while keeping in mind that Google isn’t the only option.

Stay rational and deliver on broadband promises if you want more


Not everyone feels a need for broadband.

There are two things rural communities in California have to do, to ensure broadband development efforts meet both current and future needs: focus the conversation on concrete, rational needs and demonstrate that existing resources are well and enthusiastically used.

That was the message from Eric Brown, CEO of the California Telehealth Network, at last week’sEastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium’s conference in Ridgecrest. He was one of many state and local broadband leaders – and users – who talked about the future of eastern California’s economy, now that the Digital 395 fiber route is fully lit and increasingly serving businesses, organisations and consumers from Barstow to Reno.

The argument in Washington against building broadband infrastructure in rural areas is that “nobody is using what’s out there”, Brown said, pointing to promises to use Digital 395 made, and then broken, by both private organisations and public agencies. “I’m sitting down with congressmen who don’t think we need to invest in rural broadband”, he said. “Particularly from the southeastern part of the country”. Their worries are “objectionable content” and concerns that online terrorists will start recruiting kids out of local high schools.

That’s a world that’s far, far away from California (although Google seems to think that’s a good thing). And far, far away from reality. Whether you’re in California or the so called real world, rural communities are sprinting to keep pace with Silicon Valley, not rushing to retreat into the 20th century.

The conversation has to get back to the core challenge facing rural communities, Brown said. “They shouldn’t be taking about net neutrality, they should be talking about how to get you the bandwidth you need in the first place. Net neutrality is for urban folks who have more bandwidth than they know what to do with”.

Google Fiber hops to the southeast, no word for the west


The west end of an eastbound rabbit.

Today looks like the day we’ll find out where Google Fiber’s next cities will be. Rumors have been swirling for a couple of days and went from fuzzy to sharp yesterday when Google sent out invitations for press events in several cities, with no particular purpose stated. So far, it looks like the winners are going to be in the southeastern U.S.

Newspapers and websites in the Atlanta, Georgia area report receiving a message saying “You’re invited to join city leaders and Google for a press conference tomorrow, January 27 at 1 p.m. to learn more about what’s in store for the people of Metro Atlanta. We won’t be able to share any specific details until tomorrow’s event” (h/t to Fred Pilot at the Eldo Telecom blog for the heads up).

It’s a similar story in the Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham areas in North Carolina and in Nashville, Tennessee. Press conferences have been scheduled there over the next three days.

The Wall Street Journal is also identifying those four markets as Google’s picks, citing unnamed sources.

It’s been nearly a year since Google released a list of 34 cities in nine metro areas as fiber-to-the-home candidates. The four southeastern metros account for 18 of the cities, although there’s no way to tell yet if all made the final cut.

No news yet regarding the five Silicon Valley cities – San Jose, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and Palo Alto – but the Wall Street Journal article doesn’t offer much hope of good news anytime soon…

David Vossbrink, a spokesman for the city of San Jose, said a Google Fiber official told him Monday that Google would be announcing expansion cities beginning Tuesday. “The message was that these announcements should not be considered the end of the road for the other areas,” Mr. Vossbrink said.

Likewise, there’s no word on Portland, San Antonio, Salt Lake City or Phoenix.

FCC needs to recognise that paying for knowledge isn’t the same as buying service


Negative results can be a positive benefit.

Thirty-seven companies and other organisations were on the list of winning bidders vying to take part in the FCC’s rural broadband experiments. Of those, six are already off the list because they “either withdrew from consideration for rural broadband experiments funding or did not submit the required information by the Friday, December 19 deadline”, according to the FCC.

Another 15 have asked the FCC to waive some of the rules, in particular one that requires certification of technical plans by a professional engineer and another that asks for audited financial statements. Applicants and interested parties filed comments on those points, arguing both sides. No decision has been reached, yet.

On Friday, the FCC restated another rule: applicants need to submit a letter of credit – similar to a performance bond – that guarantees that subsidies would be repaid “in the event a recipient was not using such support to further the objectives of universal service”.

Requiring technical and financial due diligence makes sense: the money is supposed to be “used to build and maintain robust voice and broadband capable networks” that’ll operate for at least 10 years. It takes a lot do that. Dodgy operators need to be weeded out at the get go, and that’s particularly true given the preponderance of winners proposing fixed wireless systems.

Certified plans, audited financials and letters of credit are relatively easy for established and well run businesses to produce and are reasonably objective requirements. For many, it’s a simple way to prove they can do the job.

On the other hand, these are experiments and some of the companies are, well, experimental. The FCC should allow an alternative due diligence process for proposals or proposers that are out of the box. That alternative process should be rigorous, but it doesn’t need to lazily rely on a handful of bureaucratically safe documents.

A successful experiment is one you can learn from. Positive and negative results are equally valuable, so some of the experimental projects should fail. An experiment that’s so tightly controlled that it can only produce positive results is no experiment at all. It’s a sham.

Eastern California businesses challenged by booming bandwidth demand


You got a job to do.

“Five of you can take out my Internet and I have 93 rooms”, Dan Spurgeon, general manager of the Marriott Springhill Suites in Ridgecrest said. That’s despite his recent 50 Mbps upgrade, which he will soon need to re-double. He was one of several local leaders speaking at the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium conference in Ridgecrest on Thursday.

Rapidly growing demand for more bandwidth – 40% year after year according to Spurgeon – is a major challenge for businesses and government agencies in eastern California. The Digital 395 project is now lit, but last mile and enterprise facilities have to be upgraded to make full use of it.

The China Lake Naval Air Weapons Station in Ridgecrest, for example, is still doing teleconferencing via ancient ISDN circuits (as well as having modern, fat pipes). “Ageing fiber optic infrastructure” on the base is “nearing end of life, it was installed in the early 80s, the mid 80s”, said Justin French, an IT executive there. “We need to look at the next five to ten years”.

Fixing it isn’t just a matter of finding the money. It’s also about taking down barriers that block construction. “I don’t need red tape”, said Kishor Joshi, president of Pertexa, a health care IT consulting firm.

It’s a problem that needs to addressed in Sacramento, said Kimberly Maevers, president of the Greater Antelope Valley Economic Alliance, a local economic development organisation. “We have to demand [California Environmental Quality Act] reform so the IBEW and any other special interest group can’t come in and hold us hostage”.

The only option is to build, and use, better infrastructure, said Eric Bruen, who runs the Desert Valleys Federal Credit Union. “If you’re not moving as fast as your consumer, you will be left in the dust”.

Microsoft doesn’t offer a plausible proposition to the mobile world


The’s more to mobility than moving around the conference room.

This week’s coming out party for Windows 10 confirmed Microsoft’s slow shift from a shrink wrapped products company to a service provider.

The company will not execute that strategy quickly enough or effectively. To be a universal platform for desktop and mobile computing means mobile telecoms carriers and manufacturers will have to make a major shift away Android and adopt the Windows operating system and all the cloud services that surround it.

It’s true that there’s grumbling about Android. Samsung continues to develop the open source Tizen operating system and is introducing it into product categories that are still in the early adopter stage and lack a market consensus on standards – smart TVs are a good example. But that discontent is driven by Google’s role in managing the open source Android platform, and not particularly by defects in the system.

If smart phone manufacturers or carriers are queasy about Google’s arm’s length control of Android, do you honestly believe they’re going to rush into Microsoft’s embrace? Even if Windows was the ultimate mobile operating system – and it’s not by a long shot – it’s still a closed, proprietary system owned and developed by a company with a poor record of playing well with others.

One of the (relative) innovations announced on Wednesday was a plan to provide Windows as a service – manage the operating system on user devices in real time, at least to the extent of pushing out updates. There’s no reason it would stop there, though. The concept works great for a vertically integrated company like Apple, but would be a nightmare for third party manufacturers.

Tying a world of cloud services to the OS is even more problematic. The pitch to carriers and manufacturers becomes: hey, if you put Windows on your phones, you won’t have to worry about the hassle of selling all those pesky add on services and upgrades. Right.

One stop shopping for computing services might appeal to the corporate and institutional IT managers with whom Microsoft already has a relationship. The Samsungs and T-Mobiles of the world won’t be interested.

Praxis picked to build and run FTTH network in California’s Owens Valley


“We’re in contract negotiations with Praxis now, and we hope to have a contract by February 10th”, Brandon Shults, the information services director for Inyo County, announced yesterday at the Eastern Sierra Connect Regional Broadband Consortium’s annual conference in Ridgecrest. He was talking about the 21st Century Obsidian Project, an ambitious effort to build a fiber to the home system down the western half of Inyo County – in other words, the Owens Valley.

Praxis is the company behind the Digital 395 middle mile fiber project, which runs north to south through the project area. It was one of two companies that submitted plausible responses to the request for proposal Inyo County floated last year. Responsibility for putting the funding together, and then building and running the system would fall to Praxis, but not ownership or end user service. According to the RFP

It is required that the network be an Open Access network. At the time of this request the County expects a three-layer model: the County will own the infrastructure; the selected respondent will manage, operate, and maintain the network; and services will be provided by third-party retailers.

There’s just under 8,000 homes in Inyo. All but a relative handful are in the project area, with the town of Bishop accounting for about two-thirds.

The RFP left the problem of paying for the system up to the bidder…

The County is aware of potential funding from sources such as the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), the venture capital fund Govtech, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), the iBank, locally issued bonds and crowd-sourcing such as that facilitated though various frameworks (funded.com, croudfunded.com, indiegogo.com, etc.) and other sources.

The County anticipates that respondents will have experience developing business cases as well as identifying and securing funding for projects of similar constitution. The County expects that the selected respondent will work with the County to articulate business cases and identify and secure funding whether from the County, the respondent, or a combination thereof.

Shults didn’t give any details about the funding or the business model under discussion. The contract hasn’t been finalised, so that’s to be expected. Praxis has come through on long shot proposals before: Digital 395 was nearly completely paid for by grants, about $80 million from the federal stimulus program and about $30 million from the California Advanced Services Fund.

Glimmers of power innovation at CES, but only glimmers


Next year, you won’t be able to see it.

With power now the primary limiting factor for improvements in wearable devices, smart phones and other mobile devices, expect incremental improvements in capabilities and performance this year, but nothing radically game changing. New energy sources are nowhere near commercialisation, judging from what was on display at CES.

One positive development was the announcement of the merger of two of the three wireless charging standards organisations – Alliance for Wireless Power (A4WP) and Power Matters Alliance – and an expression of willingness on the part of the third – the Wireless Power Consortium (WPC) – to think about joining in. Rethink Wireless has great summary of it all. I spoke to reps from A4WP and WPC at the show, as well as device makers, and the most commonly cited barrier to adoption of wireless charging was the lack of a clear standard. Only about 2% of the mobile handsets made last year featured wireless charging capabilities.

I only found a couple of companies pitching novel power sources. The Paper Battery Company was showing what a rep described as super duper capacitors made partly out of paper. Not a battery replacement, but that kind of technology could work in tandem with bursty sources to smooth out supply.

The coolest energy gizmo, though, was shown by a French company, Enerbee. It was showing a small generator that runs on random motion, the first step towards a truly tiny one that can power wearables. The company is working on a proof of concept device that combines its generator technology with an automatic watch movement. 1 spin produces 1 millijoule, enough for a low power Bluetooth pulse. A software developer kit is due out in March.