Category Archives: cable
The FCC and a large portion of the nation are wringing our collective hands about net neutrality. But the real issue is not “neutrality” but “affordability” and even “accessibility”. Clearly the future of the Nation depends upon the Internet, but a large portion of households and small businesses can’t afford Internet access at true broadband speeds. And, as cool new applications such as high-definition video develop, the gaps will only widen, and even more Americans will be left in the dust of the Net. Net Neutrality doesn’t mean much if you can’t afford a connection in the first place.
First of all, let’s recognize that providing Internet or broadband is not a competitive, market-driven business. It is a closely held, almost unregulated, monopoly (actually duopoly). Most areas of the United States have very little choice for Internet service providers. You can get DSL or dial-up from Ma Bell (the phone company), or you can get Internet from Ma Cable (the cable company). In a few places you can get Ma Wireless (Clear or Clearwire, also peddled by Sprint-Nextel).
Essentially this is a duopoly – Ma Bell and Ma Cable. And they make sure they don’t “really” compete – they keep prices high to keep profits high from their existing ancient outmoded copper cable networks. And they do everything they can to make the profit larger. You want more channels? You want HDTV? You want an extra modem or cable box? You want faster speeds? In every case, you pony up more bucks. Besides the certainty of death and taxes, there is the certainty your cable bill will rise 5% to 7% or more, year in, year out.
And where do those profits go? To create faster networks or fiber cable networks to help the United States dig our way out of the being in 15th place worldwide for broadband penetration? Hardly, Comcast wants to buy NBC so they will control not only the network, but more of the content flowing across it as well. No wonder Consumerist magazine rates Comcast the most hated company in America. But most cable companies are equally disliked.
Net neutrality is important. When most of the nation has very little choice in Internet providers, and those few providers want to maximize profits, they will be tempted to charge content providers for access. In other words, they might decide to charge Google so its search engine has priority for most users, and other search engines (e.g. Microsoft’s Bing) are slower. Or perhaps Fox’s, ABC’s, and CBS’s web sites will work a bit slower compared to NBC, which pays (or is owned by) an network provider to get priority access to the network. Worse yet, individual users who are on the leading edge, developing web content or Internet applications, may be using a lot of bandwidth. Ma Bell or Ma Cable are already deciding to cap the usage of such users, or charge THEM for priority access. This will stifle innovation. This is happening today, e.g. Frontier in Minnesota and cable companies across the U. S.
The FCC is addressing network neutrality, and is likely to take some action. I spoke on an FCC net neutrality panel in Seattle on April 28th. Most of the panelists supported FCC action to keep the network neutral. My presentation is here.
The real problem, however, is network accessibility and affordability.
The City of Seattle – and other cities and counties – can regulate cable TV to a limited extent. Therefore we can demand cable companies provide a low cost basic service – $12.55 in Seattle for Comcast, for example, and there’s even a discount to that low rate for low-income residents – more details here.
The State of Washington – and other States – can regulate telephone service, and require telephone companies to provide a low cost basic phone rate, e.g. $8 a month for 167,000 households.
But NO ONE regulates broadband/Internet access. Consequently ISPs can charge whatever the market will bear. So in our present monopoly or duopoly environment throughout the nation – that is little choice for most of us – prices are at $30, $40 or more for even moderate speed access. Higher speed access is $100 or more. And that means low-income, immigrant, seniors and other households cannot afford access to the Internet. So they and their children are denied what is probably the most important pathway to education, information, jobs and higher income – access to the Internet. Even middle income households or neighborhood businesses cannot get affordable truly fast (e.g. 5 megabits per second symmetric) broadband.
Elsewhere in the world, homes and businesses and get much higher Internet speeds at much lower costs. France and Japan, for example, have much lower prices than the US for really high speed broadband.
This is an economic development issue, it is making the United States competitive with the rest of the world for innovation in technology, it is a race and social justice issue.
The FCC, in the national broadband plan, has set a bold goal to bring 100 million households a broadband speed of 100 million bits per second by 2020. That’s a remarkable vision, and with active intervention by the FCC, network neutrality on that high speed network will be in place. But, in our nation with the Internet controlled by just a few providers, can such high speed networks really be constructed, and will the Internet access be affordable?
I think not.
I was honored to be in Lafayette, Louisiana, this past week for Fiber-Fete. Lafayette is just finishing a City-owned fiber optic network which reaches every home and business. Fiber-Fete was an international gathering to celebrate the innovative work led by Parish President (Mayor) Joey Durel and his team of people from business, non-profits, education, healthcare and government.
Lafayette’s fiber network boasts speeds of 10 megabits per second, both ways, to every home and business in the City, for $29 a month, and 50 megabits both ways for $58. Speeds of 100 megabits or even a gigabit per second are possible very soon. The FCC’s recently released national broadband plan set a goal for much of the United States to achieve such speeds by 2020. But Lafayette virtually has it now, in 2010.
During the conference, one of our breakout groups brainstormed a set of ideas for using this network to improve government and governing. Here are a few of our ideas.
A Mini-Connect Communication Device. The telephone is almost ubiquitous in American homes, with 95% or more of homes having a phone. Land-line penetration is dropping now, of course, as many people use only their cell phones or use voice-over-Internet connections via their computers. An essential device for future premises certainly seems to be a mini-comm, possibly modeled after the mini-tel which was widely deployed in France a few years ago. The mini-comm would be a voice telephone, videophone with a small screen, and potentially have connections for a TV and keyboard to allow it to be used as a web browser to connect to the fiber network. Such a device needs to be cheap and probably subsidized so every home, regardless of income, has one.
The mini-comm has many potential applications beyond phone, videophone and web browser. It would have batteries so it would function even during extended power outages due to natural disasters. It could be activated by government preceding or during such disasters to alert residents to an oncoming hurricane, or the need to evacuate, with further instructions on what to do. It might even have a wi-fi connection so that students who bring laptops home from school (school-issued laptops for all students are another great idea) have connectivity at home.
Video and Web via TV. Ideally, every television set in a home will eventually be internet-enabled with a built-in video camera and web browser. Certainly the latest generation of set-top boxes for cable TV have such functions built in.
Video 311 and 911. With the devices above, anyone who calls 911 with an emergency or 311 for non-emergency access to government services could also activate a two-way video function. For 911, this means the 911 center could view a burglary in progress or domestic violence situation, and help the responding police officers understand what is happening. For medical emergencies the 911 center might be able to activate monitoring devices and understand the known health issues of the caller, thereby better directing care over the mini-comm or to responding emergency medical personnel. Residents might be able to transact a variety of business over the phone/data link, including consultation about potential building plans and permits, more accurate understanding of utility billing issues (especially if smartgrid or automated water/gas/electric metering infrastructure is in place). And even for routine calls or complaints, we could put a “face” on government via a live video chat with a customer service agent.
Public health nurse or Probation Officer virtual visits. Public health officers, human services and probation officers often have an obligation to check upon or visit clients. With the mini-comm or other two way video devices, such visits might be conducted over the network. This would be especially useful if people are quarantined for pandemic flu or other diseases. But it could includes home health monitoring for seniors, and monitoring of people on probation or any reason, but especially for alcohol or drug abuse and sex offenses.
Enhancing public meetings. Public meetings of city/county councils and other public boards or commissions are almost unchanged from 250 years ago. To attend such a meeting, people travel to the meeting room, wait in line, and speak for a closely-timed two or three minutes. Essentially the public meeting becomes a series of usually un-related mini-speeches. With a fiber network, there are some opportunities to enhance such meetings. At a minimum, people who are unable to travel due to work or childcare or disabilities could participate remotely. But using tools such as Google moderator or Ideascale or Microsoft’s Town Hall, participants could also submit questions remotely, and then rank them. The top ranked (“crowdsourced”) questions could then be asked. Indeed, with high-quality video, the people who submitted the highest ranking questions could ask the question her/himself. Meetings could also be enhanced as viewers are able to see PowerPoint or video presentations, or link to web-based documents, at the same time they are watching the meeting.
Virtual Neighborhoods to visualize redesigning a town or do community or neighborhood planning. Lafayette has Louisiana Immersive Technologies Enterprise (LITE), where innovative uses for 3D imaging are on development and display. Using these technologies along with some existing data such as Google Maps “bird’s eye view”, Microsoft’s Photosynth and digital orthophotograhy, we could create virtual representations of neighborhoods. Neighborhood planning groups could use these technologies to visualize how their neighborhood would appear with certain changes such as a new apartment building, or a boulevard, or different proposed configurations for a park.
These are just a few of the ideas we brainstormed for government use of such high speed networks. Other Fiber-Fete workgroups addressed uses for education, libraries, utilities, energy, business and much more.
Several facts are certain. Lafayette is the center of innovative Cajun culture plus great Cajun food and music. And this mid-sized city in Louisiana, is leading the nation with this innovative network. In ten years, the applications developed and tested there will be used throughout the nation.
So the FCC has published its national broadband plan. This plan has many implications for cities and counties and local government. It has implications for public safety and general government, for consumers, for business, for wired and wireless networks.
Here’s my take on it:
Q: Is this plan really radical or different?
A: The FCC has charted a brave new vision for the United States with this plan. For example, in this plan the FCC has set a goal of “one hundred squared”, that is, connecting 100 million households with 100 megabits per second. This is radical because it cannot be accomplished with existing copper wire networks such as the telephone networks or cable TV networks. Such speeds require fiber optic cable to every home and business, a radical change. The speeds copper can carry are quite limited. But fiber cable lightwave signals theoretically, have no upper limit on speed. Incidentally, there are about 114 million households in the U.S.
Q: A 100 megabits per second – a 100 million bits per second – is “geekspeak” . What does it really mean for consumers at home or small business?
A: Let me give you one specific example. Many homes and businesses are buying and installing flat screen TVs, and most of those are HDTV – high definition. That’s cool, and the quality of the image is very detailed. But the signal is one way – you “watch the TV” – you don’t really “interact” with it or use it for communications like you use a phone. At the same time, you can buy a video camcorder – even a cheap one like a Flip phone – that takes HDTV video. Now, let’s suppose you could put the video camcorder next to the HDTV and connect them – all of a sudden you would have a video telephone or a video conferencing setup. You could make video phone calls. You could attend meetings with video. You could attend class at a high school or community college or a university, and actually interact with the teacher or professor – ask questions and participate. You could visit your doctor to talk about a health problem, or work from home. You could visit your local appliance store or clothing store and talk to the owner and have the owner demonstrate what you want to buy. You could play really cool interactive video games. And think of the implications for quality of life – with this sort of video, grandparents could have dinner with their kids and grandchildren every night via a video phone. They could see their grandchildren from hundreds or thousands of miles away, or from an assisted living or nursing home. But all of this requires super fast networks for both high quality and almost zero latency – no delay, just like the voice phone network. And this requires fiber with 100 million bits per second or more. To each home or business.
Q: What are the implications for large cities like Seattle?
A: Seattle has been a leader in thinking about these networks. We’ve already installed fiber cable connecting every public school, all our college campuses, every fire station, police precinct and every major government building. We have done extensive planning for a fiber optic cable network to every one of the 300,000 homes and businesses in Seattle. We are a high tech community and we value education. We need such a fiber network for jobs, education and quality of life. Mayor Michael McGinn is very committed to the idea, and a number of departments are working together on a business plan to make it happen. The visionary goals set by the FCC’s broadband plan – 100 million bits per second to 100 million homes – validate that we’re following the right path, and we need to move rapidly to stay ahead of other cities in the United States and around the world.
Q: How can we learn more about this Seattle plan?
A: To stay abreast of it or support it, go to http://www.seattle.gov/broadband .
Q: What are the implications of the FCC plan for suburban and rural communities?
A: Suburban communities can be wired with fiber, just like the FCC’s plan envisions and Seattle intends to do. Some Seattle area communities such as Kirkland and Woodinville already have fiber networks installed by Verizon. In rural communities installing fiber to farms and small towns may not always make economic sense, although in some visionary places like Chelan County, the local PUD is doing it anyway. But the FCC has envisioned an alternative for rural communities – high speed wireless broadband. Today’s wireless networks are usually called “3G” or 3rd Generation. Fourth Generation – 4G – wireless networks will be available in a few places by the end of 2010. These faster networks require a lot of spectrum. You may recall that, in June, 2009, all TV broadcast signals became digital – every TV in the nation had to have a wired cable connection or a digital antenna. The FCC mandated this digital transition to take spectrum away from UHF TV use and give it to telecommunications companies to build 3G and 4G networks. The FCC’s broadband plan calls for adding another 500 megahertz of spectrum to be dedicated to new, faster, wireless networks. The FCC will try to convince TV broadcasters to give up even more of the 300 MHz of spectrum now used for TV. And the government itself controls another 600 MHz of spectrum, some of which could be used for wireless broadband.
Q: The nation faces a number of threats – terrorism, disasters (like earthquakes and hurricanes like Katrina) and even local disasters like the shooting of four Lakewood, Washington, police officers in 2009. Will the FCC’s national broadband plan help with this problem?
A: Public safety communications were problematical on September 11th in New York City, in the Katrina Hurricane and in other disasters. The public cell phone networks won’t reliably operate in such disasters or, sometimes, even in daily emergencies like power outages. The FCC has allocated 10 Mhz of spectrum in the 700 Mhz band for a nationwide public safety broadband network. In the national broadband plan, the FCC proposes putting money where its mouth has been – the FCC is proposing $6.5 billion in grants to create the public safety network. The City of Seattle is one of only 17 communities nationwide who have asked the FCC for permission to use this spectrum and build such a network. In their plan, the FCC includes a method for setting standards and operating procedures which will allow cities like Seattle, San Francisco, New York and Boston to build. And these municipal or regional public safety wireless broadband networks will interoperate with others nationwide. In fact, under the FCC’s plan, the public safety networks will also interoperate with networks being constructed by AT&T and Verizon and T-Mobile. So if a police officer or firefighter can’t get a strong signal from the public safety network the officer could get signals from a commercial network instead.
Furthermore, Seattle has proposed that other government agencies – our electric utility, Seattle City Light, our water utility, Seattle Public Utilities, our transportation department, and others, also be allowed to use this network. In both daily emergencies and major disasters such “second responders” are vital to public safety and must interoperate with police and fire to keep the public safe. The national broadband plan recognizes this need as well.
Q: Practically, why do we need a public safety wireless broadband network?
A: I’ll give one specific example – video. On October 31, 2009, a Seattle police officer was brutally murdered by an unknown assailant – Christopher Montfort was ultimately charged with the crime. How did the police find Montfort? I’ve discussed this in more detail in this blog entry, but essentially, every Seattle police patrol vehicle has a video camera which records video of traffic stops. The recording goes to a computer in the police vehicle. It took several days for the police to review all the video footage of traffic stops from Seattle police cars. They noticed, in the background of several such stops, a uniquely shaped vehicle cruising by, which was traced back to Montfort. With a wireless broadband network, such video could immediately, in real time, be transmitted to dispatch centers and other police officers. Furthermore, police and firefighters could receive mugshots, building plans, hazardous material data, and video from a variety of sources to improve their response to both daily incidents and larger disasters.
Q: Are there other implications of the plan?
A: Several are worth mentioning and there is a bit more detail in an analysis here.
- The FCC has recognized that cities and counties need to be able to control their own streets, utility poles and rights-of-way, and receive fair compensation for their use by companies who build broadband networks, while allowing private companies better access to rights of way to build networks.
- The FCC has recommended to Congress that it pre-empt laws in 18 states which prohibit cities and counties from building broadband networks. In most places, there is no competition for broadband – there are only one or two providers, usually the cable TV company and the phone company, with older, slower, networks. In places where the city or county has built a network – like Tacoma – consumer costs are significantly lower for phone, cable TV and Internet access.
- The plan calls for strengthened cybersecurity measures to protect broadband networks, consumers and businesses from hackers and other cybersecurity threats.
- The FCC plans to revamp the Universal Service Fund (USF) to help subsidize broadband adoption.
In summary, the FCC’s plan is visionary. Certainly it was carefully crafted with many competing interests interests in mind. And it doesn’t really provide any good mechanism to encourage competition between private providers. Such competition would reduce costs to users. Nevertheless, if it is followed, will materially improve the economy, safety, and quality of life for the people of the United States.
The nation’s e-mail and blogging and twitter engines worked overtime on Wednesday February 10th when Google announced its intent to fund ultra-high-speed Internet access for 50,000 to 500,000 people nationwide.
This ain’t your grandma’s “broadband” connection. And it ain’t the 100-squared broadband envisioned by FCC Chair Julius Genachowski in a speech on Tuesday February 15th – 100-squared is 100 megabits per second to 100 million people by 2020 – a pretty bold vision in and of itself.
Google wants to provide one gigabit (one billion bits or about 120 million bytes) per second to homes via fiber optic cable. At a gigabit per second, a very high quality movie would download in 8 seconds flat, compared to an hour or more with a fast cable modem or DSL connection.
Google published an RFI and is seeking responses from cities who want Google to come and build. The City of Seattle announced very quickly its intention to apply and jump on the bandwagon. Of course we have a visionary Mayor, Mike McGinn, who is publicly seeking, as a priority for his administration, to build a fiber network to every home and business in Seattle.
So what is Google trying to do here? Is it being a altruistic corporation, hoping to better the lives of average citizens while fulfilling its pledge to “make money without doing evil”?
Some of Google’s motives are clear. They want to offer a competitive service and these networks are clearly “experimental”. This is all about Internet, not about offering phone or cable TV service, although, at a gigabit a second, you can watch HDTV video from websites and use video conferencing and telephone service until you are blind and hoarse.
They explicitly want to “see what developers and users can do with ultra high-speeds, whether it’s creating new bandwidth-intensive “killer apps” and services, or other uses we can’t yet imagine”. That implies to me that they want to connect high-tech businesses to other high-tech businesses and to their own employees in their homes as well as connecting other very tech-savvy users, students, and others who will push the envelope. This is probably NOT a network for serving low-income neighborhoods, bridging the digital divide, or connecting mom-and-pop businesses in neighborhoods.
Furthermore, Google would build networks to serve 50,000 to 500,000 “people” (not households or businesses). They want to serve multiple cities, so the chances any individual City would get service are pretty low (1 in 600 or maybe 1 in 6000). And in any given City, not many households would be served. If they do networks to serve 100,000 people, that’s probably about 30,000 households, and if they do this in five cities, it is about 6,000 households in any given place.
What other strings will be attached? . Google makes money selling targeted ads. They also like consumers to use their products, e.g. if you want to use Buzz you need a Gmail account and it undoubtedly will gather information about how people use these networks as aprt of the “experiment”.
Finally, I am certain Google is sending a message to the cable companies and telecommunications carriers here. Those companies thrive on making broadband scarce. As a scarce commodity and a duopoly service (as it is in many communities), they can charge more and keep hiking up rates. The put limits on how much broadband any given consumer can use. They undoubtedly would like to charge “content providers” – companies like Microsoft and Amazon and … yes … Google money to make sure the content of those companies gets priority and guaranteed delivery in an allegedly scarce and constrained bandwidth network. This is what the “net neutrality” debate is all about.
But Google (and lots of other people) know better. With fiber-to-the-home, speed is unlimited, the bandwidth is no longer scarce and the fat profits of the cable companies evaporate.
I’m certainly excited about the Google challenge. They are challenging the developers, the carriers, the cable companies and the FCC, to push the limits in its national broadband plan, due out March 17th.
Are there strings attached? No doubt. But this is a revolutionary proposal.
This morning the FCC will start a year-long process to craft a “National Broadband Plan for our Future”.
The agenda is here and here’s Ars Technica’s insightful view of the process. The meeting can be viewed live at 10:00 AM (EDT) here, and the video record should be posted at that site after the meeting is finished.
I’ve blogged a number of times about broadband and how I feel the only real “broadband” is fiber-to-the-premise. I feel the United States is in danger of becoming a “third world country” in broadband networks.
Here’s what I’ll tell the FCC Commissioners today (with a little luck, and FTP/Video technology willing):
Good morning Commissioners.
I’m Bill Schrier, Chief Technology Officer for the City of Seattle, and I bring you greetings from “the other Washington”.
Thank you for the opportunity to address the Commission on broadband and its effect upon economic development and jobs.
Mayor Greg Nickels of Seattle is the incoming President of the United States Conference of Mayors and has been an outspoken proponent of broadband – and specifically fiber to the premise – since 2005 when a citizen’s commission recommended creation of a symmetric, 25 megabits per second or faster fiber network.
We feel such a network will bring a fundamental change America’s economy – it will affect our way of working and playing as profoundly as did the telegraph, telephone, railroad, and original Internet.
We believe a fiber network is an investment which will last 50 years or more
We believe such a fiber network will carry two-way high-definition video streams. This network can convert every high-definition television set into a video conferencing station. And this addresses a fundamental human need – to actually see our co-workers and friends.
For the first time, working at home – true telework – will be possible because workers can connect with each other and see each other in real time. Whole technology businesses will collaborate on developing 21st century products. Students will be able to attend classes and interact with their classmates from home. Quality of life will improve as families scattered across a region can talk together while actually seeing each other.
Such a network can significantly reduce commute trips and travel. This, in turn, reduces our dependence upon imported oil and reduces the production of greenhouse gases.
You are launching this momentous task of creating a national broadband strategy. I urge you to think of fiber broadband with two-way video and similar applications as a fundamentally new economic network for America. I urge you to think in decades, not years. And, again, on behalf of the people of Seattle and Mayor Greg Nickels, thank you for listening.
I also had an ex parte meeting regarding the definition of “broadband” with FCC staff on March 31st. The public record of my statements at the meeting are here.