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Spotlight on Advantages of Open Access Networks at Broadband Communities Summit

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DALLAS, May 5, 2017 – Open access networks are becoming more real for gigabit connectivity in the United States, according to panelists attending the Broadband Communities Summit here this week.

The conference was notable in having numerous, positive discussions of the “three-tiered” model: One entity owns the fiber infrastructure, a second entity operates the gigabit network, and a third entity sells retail internet access to customers.

Why split up ownership, network operations, and internet services?

Each of these three activities are fundamentally different. They are best served by different skill sets and different business models.

For example, financing fiber infrastructure can be realized more readily when it is understood as a long-term capital or real estate investment.

And network operations are utility-like. They are best served by government entities or by private-sector providers separate from actual internet service providers.

On such open access networks, there are generally multiple service providers offering a variety of packages of broadband services for business and retail customers.

Yet this concept of a three-tiered broadband network is still, panelists said, a bit of a novelty in the United States.

Unlike other places around the world, the vertically integrated giant can seem like the norm here. Incumbent communications companies generally own their own fiber, wireless and other assets. They operate their respective core network in their own proprietary fashion. And they try to provide customer service — internet connectivity, or the so-called “triple play,” or services like home security — to end users.

Recent marketplace developments have seen players like AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications seeking to integrate even further. They want to own “content” and entertainment. This development is likely to prove a detour on the pathway to the future of advanced broadband.

Indeed, bundling and vertical control are a remnant of the pre-fiber world. Telephone companies built copper network for the single-purpose telephone — and discovered they could add internet through DSL. Cable companies strung co-axial wires to sell television — and then realized that cable modems could squeeze out bandwidth for broadband.

Fiber-optic communication, however, unleashes a multitude of services and applications. But this flourishing can only happen if innovators fix the business model problems that limit ownership of and access to fiber utilities.

Ammon’s ‘Broadband Improvement District’

Ammon, Idaho (pop. 14,685), is one of those innovators. At the summit this week, Technology Director Bruce Patterson unpacked the elements of its own three-tiered network.

Residents opting-in to a “broadband improvement district” become a part of the gigabit network and pay an additional $17 a month on their property bill, over 20 years, to cover the approximately $3,000 cost of fiber infrastructure, he said. Ammon then bills customers an additional $17 a month for network operations. And the ISPs offer their service on the network, generally for an additional $20 month.

Patterson spoke on a panel of the Rural Telecommunications Congress on “Financing the Last Mile with an Essential Services Approach,” and others. Ammon’s working network may counter arguments that open access can only work in a large-scale urban market. Yet on the same panel, Sue Inches of Maine discussed how, on the Cranberry Isles, a community desperate for broadband was only able to entice an ISP to serve the community if it could guarantee exclusivity.

The United States ‘is completely different’ from Sweden

Another global broadband innovator is VenturaNext. The company is a large operator of gigabit networks in Sweden, where open access is the norm. Nearly 20 years ago, municipalities began investing in bringing fiber to homes and multiple dwelling units. The company began by partnering with lower-profile ISPs, and then larger and more prominent ones. VenturaNext operated the network, but consumers purchased broadband from a multitude of choices.

Now the company is expanding outside of Sweden. “Our biggest market is South Africa, where we are redefining broadband,” said Senior Sales Manager Robert Gure.

“We have 25,000 homes connected, and an automated provisioning system that is built into the network,” said Gure. “Because of the efficiency of the network, we can make money in a low-ARPU environment,” he said, referring to Average Revenue per User.

American communications companies tend to regard ARPU as a holy-grail metric for success. Yet Gure noted, ironically: “We are here trying to learn how to get this to work in the U.S., where it is completely different.”

Rio Blanco, Bozeman, and Kitsap lead the way

Gure was speaking on a session discussing open access in Washington State, in Rio Blanco County, Colorado, and Bozeman, Montana. The session was optimistic and future-oriented, including rhetoric about how some ISPS “see the tides changing” and will eventually begin to use networks like the Kitsap Public Utility District’s, according to its superintendent of telecommunications Paul Avis.

Agreed Brit Fontenot, director of economic development for Bozeman: “The service providers are part of the solution to the problem. We need to make sure we are educating them on the value” in becoming ISPs on fiber utilities.

The Rio Blanco broadband project is also a three-tiered open access network. The county is the owner of the network, and it is offering fiber to the home in the cities of Meeker (pop. 2,429) and Rangely (pop. 5,297), plus fixed wireless services for rural residents. The county put out a request for proposals for a private company to operate the network under a contract. It includes a sharing of 60 percent of the system’s revenues with the county.

Blake Mobley, the project’s information technology director, cautioned against imposing a rigid definition upon the advanced and open networks. He called his network a “hybrid” variant.

“We are a modified form of open access [in that] we have selected two small wireless internet service providers” to offer retail services over the fiber network, said Mobley. Additional ISPs may be allowed on the network in the future, but for now access is limited to two providers.

“Otherwise, you run the risk of watering the market down so that none of them can be profitable,” he said.

Bozeman’s network, by contrast, hasn’t yet been constructed. But this open network has already attracted six ISPs willing to offer services. Unlike Rio Blanco, “our network is smaller, and our efforts are concentrated” on Bozeman itself, said Fontenot.

“The fact that six providers came in very early in the process demonstrates the long-term potential” within even in a small community, said Andrew Cohill, president and CEO of Design Nine, and the panel’s moderator.  Cohill, who has worked on open access projects in Danville, Virginia, and Palm Coast, Florida, concluded that “there is no minimum scale for open access.”

Open access in the ‘middle mile’

Yet another entirely different session, on Thursday, centered on “History and Future of Open Access Networks in Michigan.” That session drilled into the efforts of the Merit Network, an open access research and educational network that provides “middle mile” connectivity, as well as a fiber to the home project in Holland, Michigan.

“We have six providers on our network today,” explained Pete Hoffswell, broadband service manager for Holland’s Board of Public Works. He also believed that other, more traditional ISPs “will come around and join our open access system.”

Open access for residential users in the U.S. is just beginning. But open access is much more prevalent on middle mile networks bringing backhaul connectivity to individual communities. This was encouraged by open access requirement in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program.

“We’ve been operating a collaborative, resource-sharing network for 23 years, but not until BTOP did we realize that we were open access,” said Elwood Downing, vice president of business development for Merit Network. As more and more people realize that “the infrastructure is there,” open access is likely to continue to expand, he said.

Breakfast Media LLC CEO Drew Clark is a nationally respected U.S. telecommunications attorney. An early advocate of better broadband, better lives, he founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for better broadband data in 2008. That effort became the Broadband Breakfast media community. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over news coverage focused on digital infrastructure investment, broadband’s impact, and Big Tech. Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Clark served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative. Now, in light of the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, attorney Clark helps fiber-based and wireless clients secure funding, identify markets, broker infrastructure and operate in the public right of way. He also helps fixed wireless providers obtain spectrum licenses from the Federal Communications Commission. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

Education

Metaverse Can Serve as a Supplement, Not Replacement, For Educators: Experts

The virtual world where avatars can meet as if they were in real life can be a companion for education.

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Screenshot of the Brookings event Tuesday

WASHINGTON, June 29, 2022 – Experts said at a Brookings Institution event said Tuesday that while the “metaverse” can go a long way toward improving education for some students, it should serve as a supplement to those educational goals.

The metaverse refers to a platform of 3D virtual worlds where avatars, or virtual characters, meet as if they were in the real world. The concept has been toyed with by Facebook parent Meta and is being used as a test for the educational space.

“The metaverse is a world that is accessible to students and teachers across the globe that allows shared interactions without boundaries in a respectful optimistic way,” Simran Mulchandani, founder of education app Project Rangeet, said at Tuesday’s event.

Panelists stated that as the metaverse and education meet, researchers, educators, policymakers and digital designers should take the lead, so tech platforms do not dictate educational opportunities.

“We have to build classrooms first, not tech first,” said Mulchandani.

Rebecca Kantar, the head of education at Roblox – a video game platform that allows players to program games – added that as the metaverse is still emerging and being constructed, “we can be humble in our attempt to find the highest and best way to bring the metaverse” into the classroom for the best education for the future.

Anant Agarwal, a professor at MIT and chief open education officer for online learning platform edX, stated the technology of the metaverse has the potential to make “quality and deep education accessible to everybody everywhere.”

Not a replacement for real social experiences

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, senior fellow of the global economy and development at the Center for Universal Education, said that while the metaverse brings potential to improve learning, it is not a complete replacement for the social experience a student has in the classroom.

“The metaverse can’t substitute for social interaction. It can supplement.”

Mulchandani noted the technology of the metaverse cannot replace the teacher, but rather can serve to solve challenges in the classroom.

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Education

Fiber Broadband Companies and Consultants Tout Their Work for Social Good

Fiber providers, equipment companies and consultants discussed their work in communities in a session at Fiber Connect

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Photo of Ritchie Sorrells of GVTC Communications, Hu Meena of C Spire, Ji Soo Song of Education Department's Office of Educational Technology and Keven Morgan of Clearfield by Drew Clark (left to right).

June 16, 2022 – Leading fiber broadband platforms are hoping to positively impact future generations beyond fiber deployment through education programs for youth, scholarship awards, and traditional community service events, said panelists at Fiber Connect event Tuesday.

The panel discussion, according to promotional material for the panel in advance of the session at the conference, “represented a new level of commitment based on the belief that operators have a responsibility to make the communities they serve even better.” The showcase panel was a way for the Fiber Broadband Association to highlight the work of providers, equipment vendors, consultants and government officials.

Companies are particularly focused on how to influence following generations for good. C-Spire is working with schools in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education, and it provides programs for youth to learn coding and participate in coding challenges hosted by C-Spire.

Working with the state of Mississippi, fiber provider C-Spire made computer science education available to all K-12 students in the state and donated $1 million for teacher training. C-Spire also provided more than $3 million in scholarships for higher education.

GVTC Communications, a consultant to the telecom industry, works with local nonprofits, churches, schools, and businesses to donate full thanksgiving meals to families in need every year since 2012.

Listening to the needs of the community is essential to make an impact, agreed the panel. “When you have listening as your core value, you find out things that you can really make a difference in,” said Kevin Morgan, chief marketing officer at Clearfield, a provider of equipment for fiber builds.

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Education

Education Executives Tout Artificial Intelligence Benefits for Classroom Learning

Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited, an event heard.

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Screenshot of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation event

WASHINGTON, May 25, 2022 – Artificial intelligence can help fill in gaps when teacher resources are limited and provide extra help for students who need individualized teaching, experts said at an event hosted by the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation on Tuesday.

As policy makers weigh the options for a structure for AI in the classroom, panelists agreed on its benefits for both teachers and students. Michelle Zhou, CEO of AI company Juji Inc., said AI technology in the classroom can be tools and applications like chatbots for real-time questions during class, and post-class questions at home for when the teacher is not available.

Lynda Martin, director of learning strategy for strategic solutions at learning company McGraw Hill, said AI provides the extra help students need, but sometimes are too shy to ask.

When a teacher has a high volume of students, it is difficult to effectively help and connect with each student individually, Martin said. AI gives the teacher crucial information to get to know the student on a more personal level as it transmits the student’s misconceptions and detects areas of need. AI can bring student concerns to the teacher and foster “individualized attention” she added.

Privacy and security concerns

Jeremy Roschelle from Digital Promise, an education non-profit, raise the privacy and security concerns in his cautious support of the idea. He noted that there needs to be more information about who has access to the data and what kinds of data should be used.

Beside bias and ethical issues that AI could pose, Roschelle cautioned about the potential harms AI could present, including misdetecting a child’s behavior, resulting in potential educational setbacks.

To utilize the technology and ensure education outcomes, Sharad Sundararajan, co-founder of learning company Merlyn Minds, touched on the need for AI training. As Merlyn Minds provides digital assistant technology to educators, he noted the company’s focus on training teachers and students on various forms of AI tech to enhance user experience.

There is an “appetite” from schools that are calling for this, said Sundararajan. As policy makers contemplate a strategic vision for AI in the classroom, he added that AI adoption in the classroom around the country will require algorithmic work, company partnerships, and government efforts for the best AI success.

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