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Broadband Update: Progress and Prognostication

Howard Baldwin - PhotographBy Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist

The beginning of a new year is always time for taking stock and looking forward. In an area as vibrant as broadband telecommunications, there’s plenty to recap from 2012 and look forward to in 2013 – both good and bad.

Similarly, as Broadband Breakfast’s Drew Clark noted in its top-ten-events roundup, the wireless standard LTE became available to some 400 million people between AT&T and Verizon, and Comcast completed the rollout of the next version of its cable modem technology, DOCSIS 3.0, bringing speeds of 100 megabits per second potentially to 52 million subscribers.

Richard Bennett, senior research fellow of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation (ITIF), adds that the upcoming availability of vectored DSL running at 100 megabits per second might give the cable companies a run for their money.

Regulatory Issues

Broadband Breakfast also cited the first phase of the FCC’s overhaul of Universal Service Fund in 2012, with the creation of three funds totaling approximately $300 million. Subsidy targets included mobile broadband and remote service areas.

Going forward into 2013, however, Bennett worries that regulation may go too far, citing recommendations from Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly in the New Guilded Age, the new book by tech policy expert Susan Crawford. “She alleges that broadband is in crisis, and I’m troubled by her suggestions that broadband networks be hyper-regulated. It’s trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Also in 2013, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski to step down, Bennett predicts. Finding a replacement with Genachowski’s skills will be difficult. “You need an environment where people aren’t being racked by monopolistic pricing but you also need  investment to flow. Genachowski has generally been able to strike a fair balance between policies that encourage investment and policies that keep prices low.”

New Municipal and State Deployments

Joining marquee municipal deployments in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Lafayette, Louisiana, are planned rollouts in the state of Illinois through Gigabit Squared, an economic development group focusing on digital ecosystems, as part of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge.

Gigabit Squared also committed $200 million to what’s known as Gig U, the University Community Next Generation Innovation Project, whose goal, according to Drew Clark, “is to leverage the bandwidth needs of the communities around world-class universities.” The latter is led by Blair Levin, who was instrumental in developing the FCC’s 2010 National Broadband Plan. Ditto Google’s fiber deployment in Kansas City, Mo. and Seattle’s deal with Gig U.

quest-for-gigabit-broadband

Looking forward, however, Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, expresses concern about those efforts. “These three initiatives have done very good things in terms of offering communities opportunities for better networks,” he says. “But I fear that these arrangements take the wind out of the sails of communities developing their own networks.”

Mitchell acknowledges that it’s “difficult and risky” for a municipality to develop their own broadband network, and that going with Gigabit Square or Gig U is easier. “No one denies that. But when municipalities own their own network, it means you know they’ll own it in the future.”

With the other, privately owned options, he worries that they will develop as monopolies. “Investors put a premium on monopolies. What happens if Wall Street offers quadruple the value of a network to buy the owner out?”

Technology Shifts

Research firm Analysys Mason suggests that 2013 will be the beginning of ‘the big switch-off’ – with fixed operators getting rid of copper networks and PSTN, while wireless providers will start phasing out their 2G networks.

Martin Geddes, an Edinburgh-based telecom consultant, worries about that transition because of the dual need of quantity and quality. “All-IP networks are not a panacea. They don’t deliver all the outcomes we need,” he says. “We live in a quantity-obsessed world when we need both quantity and quality.” In 2013, he warns, we need to think more about providing both efficiency and effectiveness in the telecom networks.

Jim Hayes, executive director of the Fiber Optic Association, sees increasing use of point-to-point EPON (Ethernet passive optical network) technology, citing its use in San Diego’s new central library and the Dubai airport. “You don’t need cable trays or racks, just single-mode fiber to a four-port switch. It’s the simplest network you’ve ever seen – low cost and low power consumption.”

Fiber Moves Forward

Bennett notes the fiber glut created by the turn-of-the-century Internet boom has finally been depleted. “We’re back installing fresh fiber, and we’re going to see a lot of activity in the ‘middle mile’ and aggregation networks,” he says.

Google’s work in Kansas City is just one example of fiber’s resurgence. However, the FOA’s Hayes notes that Chattanooga spent the last year making fiber-to-the-home available. “They had originally installed it as the foundation of its smart grid, thanks to subsidies from TVA to help cities upgrade their electrical grid and get FTTH at the same time.”

Caveats Aside

Given when they cite caveats, pundits and prognosticators are optimistic about the broadband landscape. There’s vibrancy across the board, whether among vendors, wireless carriers, wireline broadband network operators, or government agencies.

“My favorite thing about 2012 was the movement toward the Internet of abundance,” exults Mitchell. “So much more access became available. Broadband is getting closer to the experience users have with electricity.”

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