Tag Archives: feasibility study

The problem with FTTH is there’s no problem

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It’s not about finding a mass market solution. It’s about finding a sufficiently acute mass market problem.

The struggle to develop a general fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) or premises (FTTP) business model for city-wide deployments doesn’t result from a market failure. Quite the contrary. It’s evidence that the laws of supply and demand are in full effect.


Demand, meet supply.

People generally get the broadband service someone else – a business or government agency mostly – is willing to give them for the price they’re willing to pay. FTTH market research tracks closely with actual results. If you ask consumers if they’d like faster broadband, they say yes (who wouldn’t?). But when you test price points, they’re generally pleased with what they’re paying now and don’t perceive enough additional value from higher speeds to motivate them to pay more.

From the point of view of a city or other prospective overbuilder, it’s a competitive market. AT&T, Comcast and the rest do a fair job most days meeting most customer expectations. They leverage that complacency to fiercely defend their turf. Successfully, for the most part.

Cities are good at filling broadband infrastructure gaps where immediate economic demand exists, either directly or by bringing a private partner to the table. Lit San Leandro, Palo Alto’s dark fiber and Mountain View’s WiFi system are good examples. But those are specific solutions in largely unique business circumstances that also suit the particular political character of each city.

There won’t be a market-driven case for FTTH until a sizable fraction of the residents and small business owners in a community have a problem that 1. they’re willing to pay an extra, say, $50 a month to fix, and 2. can’t be solved to their satisfaction by existing technology and service providers.

Adding institutional IT budgets to the kitty is not as helpful as some FTTH backers, such as Gigabit Squared, think. An organization with an IT budget hefty enough to make a difference is really looking for wholesale service. Big IT systems need big pipes and budget accordingly. That’s helpful, maybe decisive, for funding a middle mile project, and there are examples where it’s done the trick.

You need a significant fraction of the available homes and businesses ready to spend more now, to tip the balance for an FTTH business case. Until the economic demand (i.e. marginal willingness to pay) develops, the Gigabit Squared model will only work if it leverages political demand: grants, direct tax money, cross-subsidies from other municipal utilities or other public support, in healthy quantities.

Seattle passes the fiber (50 mega) buck

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The unveiling of Gigabit Seattle yesterday is just the first step on a long road to building a fiber to the premises (FTTP) service for residents. The City of Seattle and the University of Washington have endorsed a plan by a consulting firm – Gigabit Squared – to “begin raising the capital needed” for a demonstration project.

Gigabit Seattle coverage

It’s not small change. The 200 miles of fiber needed to reach 50,000 homes and businesses in 12 neighborhoods will cost something like $50 million to install and light up. In round numbers, the Seattle demo looks remarkably similar to plans for building an FTTP network in Palo Alto: similar mileage, existing city-owned dark fiber network, urban terrain, prevailing wage rules, environmental standards and university-leaning demographics. Depending on the assumptions made, construction costs would be around the $40 to $60 million range.

I did an extensive analysis of the costs, potential revenue and overall FTTP business case for the City of Palo Alto earlier this year. Specifically, I looked at whether or not it could be built and operated solely on the basis of subscriber revenue, including up front charges. The short answer is no. The long answer is hell no.

On the other hand, if you build it with money that doesn’t need to be paid back for a couple of generations, then it’s possible. Not certain, though. Depending on the assumptions, such a network might generate enough revenue to pay operating costs. Or might not.

Either way, the City of Seattle won’t be picking up the tab. “The City’s only costs are for existing staff,” says the FAQ on the City’s website. “There is no additional City money going into this project, and there is no risk to the taxpayer.”

In fact, the City of Seattle is expecting to be paid for the dark fiber it’ll be contributing. It’s up to Gigabit Squared to find the money. And as Esme Vos points out, “they are an engineering and consulting firm, not a traditional ISP” with a track record to show investors and cash flow to smooth out the bumps.

So far, the only source mentioned is a $200 million kitty that gigabit Squared says it has raised in partnership with Gig.U, a consortium of U.S. universities. Gig.U is led by former FCC staffer Blair Levin, who headed up development of the National Broadband Plan. That money is intended to be split amongst at least six projects, of which Seattle is the second announced (first was Chicago).

Even though details on the cash are vague, Gigabit Seattle has surprisingly firm plans. Initial engineering work is scheduled to begin in the next two or three months, with project completion by the end of 2014.

That’s for the demo project, which will only reach 12 Seattle neighborhoods out of more than 100. According to the city’s FAQ, Gigabit Seattle has set a benchmark of a 15% take rate. Once 15% of the potential subscribers in the first 12 neighborhoods sign up for service, the network will be rolled out to the rest of the city in phases. That’s not an impossible figure to hit. Palo Alto’s research shows there’s a fair chance of getting to 15% even with a $100 per month price tag.

But first they need to find the cash to build it, and it won’t be easy if they have to show a plausible timeframe for an investment grade return on investment.

Best Practices Highlight Wireless Broadband Feasibility Study for the City of Oakland

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Download the Oakland Wireless Feasibility Study

Like nearly every government agency in California, the City of Oakland was faced with increasing demand for public services and a decreasing budget. An evaluation was needed of the potential for wireless technology to make municipal staff more efficient and allow them to stay in the field longer, and to provide Internet service to residents, either directly in their homes and businesses or indirectly through community anchor institutions. This evaluation needed to focus specifically on Oakland’s diverse population, needs and terrain.

The City’s goals were:

  • Enhance economic development by enabling businesses to operate more effectively and by making Oakland a more attractive place to live, work, and visit.
  • Improve public safety by putting more police officers, fire fighters, inspectors and public works staff into the field, keeping them there longer and letting them work more efficiently.
  • Increase the effectiveness of public, private, and nonprofit organizations through improved access to state of the art broadband wireless technology.
  • Help overcome the digital divide.
  • Improve the quality of life for all Oaklanders.

Tellus Venture Associates was brought in to do a comprehensive feasibility study that would include public focus groups, workshops and a town hall meeting, close coordination with City departments and outside agencies, and a technical survey that included radio frequency modeling over the hills, canyons, flatlands and waterways within the city limits.

When we analysed the research data, the trends that emerged tracked closely with the best practices we’ve developed during seven years of municipal and community broadband experience. The result was a more refined list of those principles:

  1. No matter what the manufacturer says, the laws of physics still apply. No matter what the special interests say, sound business principles still apply. Don’t underestimate the public’s appreciation of physics and sound business principles, or overestimate its regard for manufacturers and special interests.
  2. City-owned and operated metropolitan area networks are a cost effective means of extending information technology infrastructure and resources to local government facilities and employees.
  3. Providing broadband connectivity to targeted community anchor institutions can be financially and technically feasible for cities, and is supported by public opinion.
  4. Providing universal, consumer-grade wireless Interet access is not financially or technically feasible for cities, and is not supported by public opinion.
  5. Cities can better promote digital inclusion by enabling and supporting a competitive broadband environment.
  6. Widespread public awareness and support precedes deployment of a successful municipal broadband system.
  7. Fiber optic and wireless technologies can be effective choices for network backbone segments, depending on capital and operating cost, timing, right-of-way, capacity and other considerations.
  8. Fiber optic and other landline technologies provide orders of magnitude more bandwidth and many more years of useful service life, with lower operating costs.
  9. Wireless technologies can be deployed faster and at much lower capital expense, and provide greater flexibility to change network topologies and service models to meet future needs.
  10. Wireless technologies have the unique ability to support municipal staff in the field, particularly public safety personnel, but should only be deployed after an independent evaluation of technology, terrain and available spectrum.

With these principles in mind, we assessed the Oakland public’s needs and priorities, designed a reference architecture that could meet those needs, and developed a business model that quantified the benefits, demonstrated the value proposition and identified the money to pay for it all.

Our findings were:

  • A point-to-point wireless broadband system serving specific community and institutional needs is financially and technically sustainable for the City of Oakland.
  • The cost of building and operating such a system can be met through identifiable cost savings, efficiency gains and budgetary choices based on the economic value of the benefits produced.
  • Public Internet access by way of community anchor institutions is financially and technically feasible, and universally supported by a diverse range of Oakland residents, organizations, agencies and businesses if it is implemented in a fiscally sound manner.
  • Enabling entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses on a pay-as-you-go, public-private partnership basis is also backed by Oakland stakeholders and supported by the financial and technical analysis conducted for this study.
  • Providing wireless Internet service to residences or individual consumers is not financially sustainable or technically feasible for the City of Oakland, and is opposed by nearly all stakeholders, who cite the widespread technical and financial failure of such systems in other cities.

The next step was to secure the funding. Some of it came from the cost savings created by replacing a large number of low capacity, leased land lines with a comprehensive wireless backbone, comprised of high capacity point-to-point links using licensed spectrum. Some of it came from money budgeted for expensive cellular data service. In other cases, savings in man-hours and increased productivity, including more and better field audits by tax officers, offset operating costs.

Finding the money to pay for the capital expense was a different problem. Bonds were not an option, given the uncertainty of future budgets. Some of the funding could be raised locally, through public-private partnerships, but not all of it.

Fortunately, the conclusion of the study coincided with the establishment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, also known as the federal economic stimulus program, which included $7.2 billion for broadband projects. With its emphasis on public safety, community anchor institutions and economic development, the broadband infrastructure plan created by Tellus Venture Associates for the City of Oakland was ideally suited to meet the program’s requirements.

The stimulus grant application had to wait until the second round of funding, because the first round emphasized rural projects and all but excluded urban areas from eligibility for broadband infrastructure funding. At the same time Google announced its own broadband grant program, which likewise tracked with the best practices we incorporated into the study. Both applications are now pending.

The final step will be to move ahead with construction of the system. Tellus Venture Associates prepared a draft Request for Proposal, which sets out the specifications for a municipal broadband system that would serve the City of Oakland. In some cases, such as providing broadband connectivity to public safety personnel in the field, the technology that would be employed is necessarily wireless. But in other cases, for example the core network backbone, wireless, fiber optic or other technologies are all possibilities. Those determinations, as well as any decision to release an RFP, will be made by City staff, once funding is secured.

Oakland Wireless Feasibility Study

Printable, high resolution version

City of Oakland staff report

Study presentation to Oakland City Council

City of Oakland wireless reference architecture

Oakland townhall meeting presentation