Four small communities in southern Mono County could be getting gigabit class fiber to the home service by the end of 2015. The California Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to consider a resolution to spend $4.7 million on an FTTH project for the Aspen Springs, Chalfant, Crowley Lake and Sunny Slopes areas at its 26 June 2014 meeting.
The project was proposed last year by Race Telecommunications, one of five the company submitted in the current round of applications to the California Advanced Services Fund. Two projects – in the Tehachapi area and in Boron, both Kern County – were approved last year. The other two – in California City and Mojave – were pulled following a successful challenge by Charter Communications, the incumbent cable company. Previously warned that an application was coming, Charter upgraded its cable modem service in those two cities, making CASF funding for FTTH systems impossible.
The Mono County project encompasses 727 homes, for an average subsidy of $6,400 each. That’s higher than Race’s other two approved projects, but far less than the tens of thousands of bucks per household approved for CASF-funded projects in Fresno and Madera Counties.
The plan is to spend some of the money building a backbone connection to the Digital 395 middle mile system that runs through Mono County – also built, in part, with CASF subsidies. The incumbent cable company, Suddenlink, initially challenged the project but later withdrew the protest after determining it wouldn’t be able to leverage Digital 395 to upgrade service in those areas, as it did in nearby Mammoth Lakes.
…will start with new residential construction projects and new and existing neighborhoods in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Omaha. In all Cox locations, the company will begin market-wide deployment of gigabit speeds by the end of 2016.
It’s no coincidence. A clear pattern is emerging: in markets where Google or one major incumbent says it’s deploying FTTH (OK, fiber-to-the-something that’ll deliver a gigabit, honest), another telephone or cable company will also stake a claim. So far, Google has only led into markets, and we’ve yet to see one where Google and both incumbents have dangled the promise of a gig.
Undoubtedly, that’s partly because the dominant U.S. cable company – Comcast – has shied away from gigabit promises, but it’s also because of fear of becoming embroiled in a three-way competition. Duopoly works because existing broadband demand can support two winners, but add another and you risk ending up with three losers.
It’s a fractal game of hopscotch. One player tosses a marker onto the map and jumps to it. Another follows. Once there, they’ll repeat the process, neighborhood by neighborhood, development by development and, perhaps soon, street by street.
The number of people that can actually get a gigabit is still diminishingly small compared to the total U.S. market, but competition is forcing incumbents into pushing existing plant into the hundreds of megabits range, which is a significant – and arguably sufficient – improvement for residential service. Those upgrades – whether by Google or AT&T or others – are still limited to cherry picked homes on the high potential side of the divide, but the game is only a couple of years old.
Due to the Microsoft end-of-support for its Windows XP Operating System on April 8, 2014, a mass computer replacement effort has been underway across the City. As a result, thousands of old computers will be salvaged through the City’s e-waste recycling. Under the guidance of the Offices of the Mayor, Council President and Innovation Technology and General Services Committee Chair, the City is working on the design and implementation of a digital inclusion pilot program to take advantage of these salvaged computers.
It’s an odd juxtaposition: asking for a city-wide fiber network on the one hand, and giving out thousands of computers that probably lack the horsepower to do very much with it. There’s a plan to work with non-profit outfits to refurbish the computers, though. It raises an interesting question: which operating system will be loaded in to replace Windows XP?
Some flavor of Linux is one potentially disruptive possibility. As libraries and schools have learned, the usability gap between open source software and shrink wrapped commercial packages has narrowed to the point that there’s little practical difference when it comes to basics like word processing, graphics and spreadsheets. It’s also an option for other public sector IT departments that lack the budget to upgrade immediately.
When Microsoft made the decision to pull the plug on XP, someone must have looked at the risk-benefit trade-off of creating a mass OS switching opportunity away from Windows. We’ll know if they didn’t, or if they miscalculated, if the next bold move out of Redmond is Office for Linux.
The City of Los Angeles has taken the next step in its quest to have gigabit class fiber optic service available to every home and business. An official request for information (RFI) has been released for the Los Angeles Community Broadband Network (LACBN), with a 30 June 2014 deadline for responses. It’s only a preliminary step towards formally requesting proposals for the project. It’s also optional – not responding won’t keep anyone out of the running when the time comes.
At some level, the city wants Internet access available to all residents for free. The RFI points to free service and hardware offered elsewhere (without giving examples) and states that the network should ensure that “minimum levels of services and equipment are available to all”.
Otherwise, the objectives are…
To the extent possible, every residence and business in Los Angeles should be passed by a fiber network that is willing and able to provide services to those homes and residences at competitive prices. Ideally, the network should offer Internet access to residences at 1 Gbps up and downstream, and similar or higher capacity services to businesses. It is the City’s preference that the network bring fiber to the premises, but given developments in wireless technology, the City is also open to allowing applicants to provide services to the home through a combination of wireless and fiber technologies — provided the network performance is similar. Existing 4G systems, however, would not be considered an adequate substitute for the LACBN.
No money is on the table. And critically, neither is there any particular access offered to the extensive electric infrastructure – 540,000 city utility poles, 295,000 joint poles, conduits and 525 miles of fiber – that’s owned by the city’s municipal electric utility. Instead, the RFI advises that “there are processes available through which entities should be able to obtain access to space on [utility poles]” and “should an entity be interested in using [city-owned] fiber, an agreement with the [Los Angeles Department of Power and Water] would be required”.
As I’ve written before, the LADPW infrastructure is the city’s crown jewel: with it, the city would have a compelling offer and leverage to demand the benefits it wants. But without it, the RFI is merely aspirational. Of course, the city could change tack after the responses come in. It would be politically and bureaucratically messy to include LADPW infrastructure, but it would demonstrate a serious intent to produce something other than a photo opportunity.
The specs also include requirements for network and consumer equipment neutrality. The preference is for an open network “that allows for multiple service providers and equal access to fiber infrastructure at reasonable wholesale cost”.
The city is offering to streamline permits, make some city property available and buy service from the network. The city does include a lot of good information in the RFI itself, and in the attachments – that alone is a sign of good faith. It’s all available on the city’s website, of course, but I’ve posted the documents on my server too and links are below.
“It’s like having a fancy sports car. It might go 200 miles per hour, but what good does that do if the speed limit is 60?” said Jim Schmit, CenturyLink’s vice president and general manager for Idaho, as quoted in the Idaho Statesmen. He was trying to explain that he’s not worried about the threat posed by Google Fiber or other gigabit competition, because homes and businesses don’t need that kind of speed.
He’s right in a limited sense, but he’s missing the trees for the forest. For the average residential customer, there’s little practical benefit to a gigabit, as opposed to, say 50 or 100 Mbps. As I have argued in the past, a gigabit, like a Lamborghini, is fun – if you can afford it – but it’s not going to get you to the supermarket any faster. For consumers, for now, it’s conspicuous consumption and not a way of meeting daily needs.
But extend the analogy to business users, and it proves the opposite: there’s a growing customer base that can make a profit from a gigabit. Most of the customers on the City of Palo Alto’s dark fiber network are big tech and telecoms companies, but there’s also a handful of law firms that are willing to pay a couple thousand bucks a month for a ripping fast connection. Part of that is image – a vital business tool for lawyers – and part is profit. It doesn’t take too many last-minute electronic filings at legal eagle hourly rates to cover the cost.
But for most industrial-class users, the proper analogy isn’t a sports car, but a tractor-trailer. A vehicle that’s completely impractical for consumers (not that it stops some people) is absolutely indispensable to business. Whether it’s big rig or gigabit traffic, if a city can’t handle it, it’ll be stuck with a pickup truck-class economy.
The U.S. senate just joined the house in approving a new $50 million ($10 million a year for five years) “Rural Gigabit Network Pilot Program”. It’s in the farm bill just sent on for the president’s approval (or not). Unlike current rural broadband subsidy programs, it allows grants in addition to loans and doesn’t particularly favor incumbents.
An eligible applicant is one that does “not already provide ultra-high speed service to a rural area within any State in the proposed service territory”. Ultra-high speed service is defined in the bill as “1 gigabit per second downstream transmission capacity”. Only rural communities – 20,000 inhabitants or fewer – where there’s no existing gigabit service are eligible.
Other than the gigabit program, though, federal rural broadband subsidies won’t change very much. Like the version passed by the house last summer, the compromise farm bill is heavily weighted towards the status quo: the core broadband subsidy program administered by the Rural Utilities Service (RUS) will continue at the $25 million a year level, only allow loans and will generally protect and fund incumbent service providers. It also lets incumbents challenge projects proposed by would-be competitors and sets a minimum service level of 4 Mbps down/1 Mbps up.
The rural gigabit community program will be worth watching. It’s not a lot of money – one fiber-to-the-home project can chew through $10 million in a hurry – but it’s more than nothing, which is what the federal government is doing now.