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A skeptical eye finds more broadband opportunities

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The California Public Utilities Commission collects a mountain of data from Internet service providers, and does a good job of sorting it out and publishing it in a very accessible way. But as a state regulatory agency, the CPUC can’t arbitrarily decide which claims it’ll believe and which it’ll discount. So it runs tests.

Ryan Dulin, the head of the CPUC division that regulates telecoms companies and manages broadband infrastructure subsidies through the California Advanced Services Fund (CASF), demonstrated how that works for mobile broadband, running a speed test on his Verizon service during his presentation at a broadband conference for local government officials. The result was 4 Mbps download and 1.5 Mbps upload speeds. Which is just a teeny bit different from the service report Verizon submitted to the commission, claiming it delivers somewhere between 10 Mbps and 25 Mbps download speeds in Riverside, where the event – organised by the California Emerging Technology Fund – was held this week.

It highlighted the need to drill further down into the data and do on-site verification, if local agencies and independent Internet service providers want to pursue CASF-subsidised broadband projects. When my turn to speak came, I showed how a couple of analytical techniques that I’ve helped develop – along with colleagues from several regional broadband consortia – that highlights where local broadband gaps and opportunities can be found.

One was the broadband report card analysis I initially ran for the East Bay Broadband Consortium, which grades the broadband infrastructure in neighborhoods, cities and counties on an A-B-C-D-F scale. The other was a broadband opportunity heat map, which highlights areas that are eligible for CASF funding according to population density – from red, which means lots of potential customers, down to green which means not so much. The Central Coast Broadband Consortium was the first to use that technique to identify broadband development priority areas.

The key is to focus on primary wireline network operators – incumbent cable and telephone companies, mostly – and ignore, at least initially, what wireless companies and resellers claim to deliver. That helps policy makers and entrepreneurs figure out what’s actually on the poles and in the ground, and set priorities for broadband investment.

Broadband grades depend on copper and glass

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Examples of how the grading was done.

The grading system I developed to rate and compare the broadband infrastructure available to communities east of San Francisco – Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties – focuses on primary, consumer wireline networks because those are the base upon which all service is built…

Even wireless systems must connect to wireline networks at some point, usually directly after the first “hop” from a subscriber. Consequently, the level of broadband connectivity in a region is primarily determined by the quality and extent of wireline facilities.

Although there is independent fiber available in limited areas – central business districts of large cities, for the most part – broadband companies that serve commercial customers generally rely on the core infrastructure built by the large, consumer-focused incumbents.

The grading criteria was first set by looking at service claims made by primary providers throughout California. Some – AT&T for example – file reasonably granular reports to the California Public Utilities Commission about what level of service to expect in a given census block. Those reports might tend to be on the optimistic side at times, but they give a fair picture of what’s available on the ground. For example, high download speeds – 10 Mbps or better – combined with substandard upload speeds (less than the CPUC’s 1.5 Mbps minimum) usually points to Uverse service installed on top of elderly copper plant.

Other carriers – most notoriously cable companies – simply claim to offer their highest level of service over their entire footprint in a community, unless they don’t offer broadband service at all. It’s not a complete fabrication: in theory the system might be able to deliver, say, 100 Mbps to any given home, but capacity issues and variance in the quality of the plant severely limit their ability to do so reliably or universally or to large numbers of customers. And cable companies tend to ignore business districts, where it’s harder to sell lucrative television packages.

Overall, the average Californian community has access to basic telco-grade DSL service and theoretically fast cable modem service. So a “C” means that there are at least two wireline, consumer grade broadband providers in a community (or census block – that’s the basic geographic unit used), one claiming 10 Mbps download and 6 Mbps upload speeds or better, and the others meeting the CPUC’s 6 Mbps down/1.5 Mbps up minimum. Upload speeds are an important element in the grading scheme, because providers will squeeze upstream bandwidth to eke out faster downloads on poor plant.

If two providers claim to hit the 10 up/6 down level or faster, the infrastructure was rated better than the statewide average – a “B” – and where the claims were superior – two providers advertising at least 25 down/6 up – an “A” was awarded.

If a community only has one wireline broadband provider but the speeds meet the CPUC’s minimum, then its infrastructure was judged barely passing: a “D”. If there was no wireline service at all or if what was available failed to meet the minimum, the infrastructure in a community (or census block) was given an “F” for failure.

Census block grades were averaged and weighted by population to generate a community’s report card. The full results are here.

Download the full version of the East Bay Broadband Report Card, including appendices (9.5 MB)

Download the East Bay Broadband Report Card only (2.1 MB)

Download the high resolution version of the East Bay Broadband Report Card, including appendices (81.1 MB)

Cities matter to broadband investors

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Just looking the same isn’t enough

The quality of your broadband service depends on whether or not you live in an incorporated city. A study I recently completed for the East Bay Broadband Consortium – East Bay Broadband Report Card – found that broadband infrastructure is generally worse in unincorporated communities than in adjacent and economically similar cities.

Western Contra Costa County is an economically disadvantaged area, on the whole. The major city – Richmond – has a high crime and poverty rates, as do several of the unincorporated communities that surround it. But Richmond’s broadband infrastructure rated a solid “C” in the EBBC’s grading analysis, while grades in surrounding unincorporated areas ranged from a “C-” in North Richmond and East Richmond Heights down to a “D-” in Montalvin Manor. Broadband infrastructure grades go back up, though, in unincorporated cities that border those areas on other sides. San Pablo, El Cerrito and Pinole all scored a “C”.

As I concluded in the report

The implication is that the lack of a municipal government is an additional negative factor for economically disadvantaged areas, in regards to attracting investment by broadband service providers.

The study didn’t go so far as to identify the reason broadband is better in cities, but possible explanations include well-defined business districts that boost demand for broadband, generally better underlying infrastructure such as roads and utility service, and more stringent building codes and other standards, backed up by better enforcement. To one degree or another, those are all tools that cities can manage in ways that encourage (or discourage) broadband infrastructure development. Counties can too, of course, but it’s cities that have the greater resources and ability to do so.

East Bay Broadband Report Card published by Tellus Venture Associates confirms benefits of competition

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I’ve published the final report on regional broadband resources, prepared for the East Bay Broadband Consortium. The East Bay Broadband Report Card gives a community-by-community assessment of core broadband infrastructure in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties, on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay.

The top line conclusions are…

The best consumer-grade broadband service is in central Contra Costa County, in the City of Concord (A-). It was the only one of the forty cities studied that rated an “A” level grade. Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill received “B” grades, with a high “C” given to Berkeley and Alameda. The common characteristic amongst all five is competition. All five either have or recently had three competing companies building and operating core broadband infrastructure and providing consumer-grade service.

The bottom five cities – Rio Vista (D-), Moraga (D) , Orinda (D), Clayton (D) and Dixon (D) – share one or more of three key characteristics: population densities and income levels typical of rural areas, local resistance to construction and challenging terrain. These factors play a significant role in shaping residential broadband availability.

In between, a general pattern emerges. As a rule, the further a community is from central Contra Costa County and Berkeley, the lower the quality of its broadband infrastructure and service availability. On the whole, incorporated cities tend to receive better grades than nearby unincorporated communities, indicating that municipal governments can play a role in improving broadband access.

The report has details of how the grading was done, and how broadband infrastructure in the East Bay region compares to the rest of California and to U.S. and international benchmarks.

Download the full version of the East Bay Broadband Report Card, including appendices (9.5 MB)

Download the East Bay Broadband Report Card only (2.1 MB)

Download the high resolution version of the East Bay Broadband Report Card, including appendices (81.1 MB)

Transforming the East Bay with a 21st century broadband infrastructure

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Would you allow it?

“We just cannot do this without the right infrastructure and we’ll just have to go elsewhere. We don’t want to go elsewhere, but it is what it is,” said K.G. Charles-Harris, CEO of Emanio, a Berkeley-based business intelligence company that needs two things: fat broadband pipes and the talent it attracts. “As a business guy what’s important is to invest and grow, and to invest and grow you need people.”

He was speaking at an East Bay Economic Development Alliance meeting in Pleasanton, California on Wednesday, as a regional plan for broadband infrastructure development was presented by Sunne Wright McPeak, CEO of the California Emerging Technology Fund.

“The vision is to go from five megabits, which is the average download speed, to a hundred”, she said. “It increases economic competitiveness, it improves health and safety.”

Developed by the East Bay Broadband Consortium, the plan calls growing the availability of 4G mobile broadband, building broadband infrastructure ahead of demand rather than scrambling to meet it, and fostering better cooperation “between broadband providers and communities they serve”.

The meeting drew elected officials and economic development professionals from across the region. One step they were all asked to take was to ask their communities to sign a “Let’s Get Fast” pledge developed by EBBC that provides a common base of support for the plan, while allowing for a wide range of different priorities and approaches.

A broadband infrastructure report card, developed by Tellus Venture Associates for the EBBC, provided much of the basis for the plan and recommendations. Covering Contra Costa, Alameda and Solano counties on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay, the report graded the residential broadband service and underlying infrastructure on a city by city basis.

“What do you mostly see? Middle of the pack. That’s not going to support employers,” McPeak said. “Is a ‘C’ what your parents would have allowed you to bring home on your report card? Is it what you would allow your children to do?”

San Leandro is a model for the country, says FCC chair Genachowski

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“It’s a wonderful thing that San Leandro is doing here, and OSIsoft and Lit San Leandro,” said Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski. “You join a small but important number of communities that share your vision.”

He was delivering a keynote speech at an event last Wednesday celebrating Lit San Leandro and the partnership with the City of San Leandro that made it possible. The video from that event has been posted. You can watch the entire program here. His speech is right here:.

Fiber optic infrastructure and wireless spectrum is the way to win “the global bandwidth race” that Genachowski thinks will determine the economic winners and losers of the future. He said there’s been a big change in the percentage of the country that has access to networks that offer service of at least 100 Mbps, growing from 20% to 80% in the past four years.

“We need the U.S. to have a critical mass of business and residential subscribers for super fast Internet, one gigabit Internet,” he said. “One gig or multi-gig networks will lead to innovation that we can’t even imagine. If we build fast networks innovation will come.”

He urged local communities to adopt best broadband practices, such as “dig once” policies, where fiber optic lines are installed any time a trench is dug, for water or electric lines or any other reason. No surprise, San Leandro is already on track to do that.

“This is a model for the country,” Genachowski told San Leandro leaders. “It’s so rewarding to me personally to see what we saw here today.”

Bay Area cities offer FCC chair a glimpse of the future

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FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski sees a gigabit city in San Leandro.

Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) visited San Leandro today, taking a look at the economic progress kindled by the Lit San Leandro project and delivering a keynote speech to local leaders, business people, city staff and proud residents. I’ll have more on his remarks later.

I was fortunate enough to be invited as one of the opening speakers. My assignment was to give some background on efforts in the Bay Area and around California to develop our economy by developing broadband infrastructure:

Here in the Bay Area, we are surrounded by the fattest Internet pipes on the planet. We have the world’s greatest concentration of innovative, high technology – revolutionary – talent, companies and jobs.

But we’re just getting started.

Most communities in the Bay Area, most companies and people, can’t touch those fat broadband pipes yet. That’s how it was here, in San Leandro, when the Lit San Leandro project began two years ago. The main lines of the Internet run right through the middle of town. But there was no local access, no onramp here.

Businesses struggled to get any kind of Internet access, affordable or not. Upgrading broadband infrastructure in older commercial and industrial districts is not a priority for incumbent service providers.

One of those businesses was OSIsoft. They’re here today to tell their own story, so I won’t spoil it. But Pat Kennedy saw a solution and worked with the City of San Leandro to implement it. Pat and the Lit San Leandro team made it happen. The City, though, deserves a lot of credit too. The business development team recognized the opportunity and worked across departments and with the City Council to find ways to say yes to it.

That’s the key. Recognizing the opportunity and embracing it. Part of that job is making sure that everyone’s interests are acknowledged and protected. It’s also to move ahead without getting bogged down in the process and move ahead with a clear view of the benefits for all. And that’s what the City of San Leandro did.

Thanks to some far-sighted work by legislators in Sacramento – more of that gets done than commonly recognized – the California Public Utilities Commission created a network of regional broadband consortia across the state. In just a year, those community based groups, groups that pull together public agencies, educational institutions, non-profits and private companies with capital to invest, those groups have generated dozens of new broadband projects.

The East Bay Broadband Consortium is one example. I recently worked with them to assess connectivity in this region. We developed a grading system and came up with a city by city and county by county report card. Two things stood out.

First, in most communities, businesses need help to get the broadband speed and quality at the affordable prices that our centers of high tech excellence take for granted. Whether it’s finding incentives for incumbent carriers to upgrade existing facilities, or partnering with entrepreneurs to build new gigabit fiber networks, or even dipping a toe into the municipal broadband business, cities have a vital role to play and valuable resources to offer. Not the least of which is leadership. As we have here in San Leandro.

Second, the cities with the highest grades are the ones with the deepest history of competition between telecommunications service providers. Central Contra Costa County cities scored A’s and B’s because they have three carriers that compete with each other in a number of ways, including investing in new fiber optic lines, putting private capital into upgraded broadband infrastructure.

Here in Alameda County, the cities with the highest grades are Berkeley and the City of Alameda. A private company, Sonic, has invested in building competitive broadband facilities in Berkeley. In Alameda, the city took the lead, built its own system, spurred fierce competition and stepped out of the business when the time was ripe. The infrastructure that was built by the city and its competitors is still there, still serving the residents of Alameda, still providing homes and businesses with some of the best Internet service available in the East Bay.

Other cities have followed their lead. The City of Benicia is working to turn what was a major twentieth century industrial park into a twenty first century job engine by bringing in better broadband infrastructure. In Oakland, there’s an ongoing effort to bridge the divide between businesses and homes that have superior Internet access and those that don’t.

It’s no coincidence that the best and cheapest broadband access in the Bay Area is in Palo Alto and Santa Clara. As new industries – a new economy – grew, those cities built municipal fiber optic networks. As businesses have grown and created jobs, local fiber optic networks have grown to serve them. Resulting in even more business and more jobs. We’re starting to see the same here in San Leandro. And that’s just the beginning.

Chairman Genachowski, for gigabit cities, the future is right here.

Where consumer broadband leads, business follows

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Newark, California rates a solid “C” for residential broadband but drops to a red “D” or grey “f” in the working districts of the city.

There are two worlds of commercial and industrial grade broadband: the specialized business broadband companies and the major incumbent carriers. Analysis of commercial broadband availability in California’s East Bay region shows that many specialized providers want to compete, but can be limited in the scope of their services by basic infrastructure provided by the big guys.

The preliminary findings of the East Bay Broadband Report Card developed by Tellus Venture Associates were presented to the East Bay Broadband Consortium yesterday. On the one hand, ten companies offer business class broadband services in various parts of Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties. Typical service offerings range from 25 to 50 Mbps in the more heavily populated and industrialized area west of the Oakland/Berkeley hills to 10 to 25 Mbps to the east and north.

However, as detailed in a study we conducted for the City of Leandro, the fact that a company advertises a certain service level does not necessarily mean it’s actually available. Competitive carriers do install fiber optic lines in places where commercial demand is demonstrated – usually by a corporate purchase order – but to a great extent they depend on leasing lines from major carriers.

When those lines aren’t available, neither is the advertised level of broadband service. The report card clearly shows that many industrial and commercial districts in the three counties rely on substandard infrastructure that often receives a grade no better than “D”. Sometimes worse.

This variability in core infrastructure points to the need to evaluate business broadband availability on a block by block, and even parcel by parcel basis when pursuing economic development projects. It’s also an opportunity for municipally-backed dark fiber projects, like Lit San Leandro.

Report card: competition boosts broadband in California’s East Bay region

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Top and bottom of the chart.

The best residential broadband in California’s East Bay region is in the City of Concord. It was the only one of the forty cities studied that rated an “A” grade in research conducted for the East Bay Broadband Consortium (EBBC) by Tellus Venture Associates.

The neighboring cities of Walnut Creek and Pleasant Hill received “B” grades, with a high “C” given to Berkeley and Alameda. The common characteristic amongst all five is competition. Central Contra Costa County – Concord, Walnut Creek, Pleasant Hill – has three primary carriers competing to deliver broadband, telephone and television service to residences: AT&T, Comcast and Astound Broadband.

Berkeley is one of Sonic’s focus markets and the City of Alameda has a legacy of three competing carriers. Comcast bought out the municipal broadband utility there in 2008, but the infrastructure that resulted from several years of intense competition lives on.

The bottom five cities – Rio Vista, Moraga, Orinda, Clayton, Dixon – share one or more of three key characteristics. Rural surroundings, local resistance to construction and challenging terrain play a role in shaping residential broadband availability.

Big picture, the region is right around the statewide “C” average, with Solano County getting a C-, Alameda County a C and Contra Costa County a C+.

Mobile and commercial/industrial broadband availability was also analyzed. In general, mobile coverage in the region is good but not necessarily as good as carriers’ marketing claims would have you believe. Commercial and industrial class broadband is likewise widely available, although there are sometimes stark differences when it’s compared on a block by block and parcel by parcel basis.

The initial results of the East Bay Broadband Report Card study were presented this morning to the EBBC’s quarterly meeting meeting in Oakland. Detailed maps are available here. The final report is due next month.

East Bay broadband report cards due on Monday

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To late for the dog to eat it.

Tellus Venture Associates will be presenting the initial results of an in-depth analysis of broadband availability in Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano Counties at the East Bay Broadband Consortium’s quarterly meeting in Oakland tomorrow.

The research looked at literally hundreds of thousands of broadband availability reports submitted to the California Public Utilities Commission by Internet service providers. The data was initially broken into three categories: residential, commercial and mobile service.

Mobile and commercial broadband service availability was evaluated on a county by county basis. Overall, the results show generally good coverage for both types, although the area west of the Oakland/Berkeley hills was distinctly better than areas east and north. Specific gaps exist, which will be examined further.

The most extensive analysis was done on the residential data, which includes broadband availability reports from the major wireline carriers as well as competitive providers and rural companies. Data regarding adoption rates was also considered.

Residential availability in the counties was compared to statewide averages and then graded, census block by census block, on an A to F scale. Some surprising results came back, with some unexpectedly low grades for cities, and outstanding results for others.

One of the major findings of the study is competition matters. The best broadband service can be found in places that have benefited from a high degree of competition. The worst broadband service tends to be where competition is lacking.

The EBBC will release the initial findings following tomorrow’s presentation. I’ll post links to the material, and have some more specific things to say about it tomorrow afternoon.