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From Sweden, a Perspective on Why Open Access Networks Are the Right Choice for Communities

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BROADBAND BREAKFAST INSIGHT: A good, basic summary of what an open-access network is, and why cities can benefit through the open-access approach. The best part of this piece is the discussion about why open-access is necessary for Smart Cities. Left unsaid are some of the more innovative approaches to financing open-access networks. Some of these were discussed at the Broadband Communities event earlier this year.

Guest Blog, Isak Finer, COS Systems: Why I Believe Open Access is The Right Choice for Communities, from Next Century Cities:

An increasing number of US cities are considering a deployment of fiber networks to ensure job creation, economic development, and quality of life for their residents. Community leaders realize that the younger generations and businesses of the future will not accept inadequate broadband access. What they also realize is that the incumbent providers will prioritize their investments to the bigger markets or the densest urban areas where the business case is the most favorable. It’s simply how the market dynamics work. For the US to reach its national broadband target and to stay competitive in an increasingly connected world, cities need to build networks. The right model for community networks is Open Access and this blog post will explain why.

What is an Open Access Network?

First, we need to agree on what the Open Access business model is, since there are more interpretations of the term than one could count. Some people consider a model where a network owner builds a fiber ring in the community and allows multiple providers to tap on to that fiber and build their own last mile network to the actual houses, as Open Access. We don’t encourage that approach since it won’t create enough choice for the end user, which is the very definition of Open Access.

The Open Access model described here is a 2 or 3-layer model where there are subscribers, service providers, an operations company, and a network owner. In the 2-layer model the network owner is also the operator managing their own network, while in the 3-layer model the network owner has contracted an external operations company to manage the day-to-day operations of the network.

The network owner will build the actual fiber infrastructure and maintain it. This is the ideal role for the city or community to be in, and often in mature open access markets this is a utility company since they are used to deploying cables or pipes in the ground. The most important thing to remember is to document the network properly so that it will be easy to locate e.g. a fiber cut in the future or how to do construction work without the risk of cutting the optical cables.

The operations company would manage and often supply the active layer equipment in the network. This means the routers and switches that control the actual internet traffic and keep track of which ports should be open or not, among other similar things. When a subscriber orders a service, it’s the operations company that will make sure that service is properly activated with the service delivered by the service provider that was chosen by the subscriber. Large operators often have systems that could automate this, so that the subscriber could get the service activated instantly.

The service providers are generally private companies who specialize in delivery of IP based services such as Internet access, VOIP (Voice over IP, replacing the traditional phone line), IPTV (replacing traditional TV) and other services getting more common today, such as home security, cloud storage, elderly care services, etc.

The very important difference in the Open Access network compared to traditional networks built by a service provider is that the subscriber has a choice. Since the Network Owner (the city) has built the network all the way to the house, they open the market to any service provider to sell services to the subscriber. If you’re not happy with your current provider you can just switch to another one. It’s even possible to buy Internet from one, TV from a second and VOIP from a third provider.

What about the money?

In the Open Access model the subscriber will buy the services from service providers, most commonly from a marketplace provided by the operations company where all the providers and services are published for subscribers to easily compare and choose what suits them best. Just like an Appstore, where all apps are easily available to the smartphone user. Subscribers would pay service providers directly and receive technical support from them as well. The service provider would in turn pay the operations company a fee for being allowed to deliver services over the network, normally a monthly fee per service. Then, if the network owner is a separate entity than the operations company, there is an arrangement between those two, that normally goes two ways. The network owner is paying the operations company money for operating their network, while the network owner is sharing the revenue from the service providers based on how much utilization (customers) there is on the network.

A pothole some network owners and/or operations companies have come across has been sending bills to the subscriber, for example a monthly fee that’s supposed to cover costs for maintaining the fiber infrastructure. This setup is very costly for numerous reasons. One is the cost for the handling of all those invoices, but the major issue is that it creates uncertainty for the subscriber about whom to contact when they have a problem. Because they get invoiced from multiple entities for their broadband related services, they might contact the network owner or the operations company with issues that should be handled by the service provider, and vice versa. This confusion will cause a lot of unnecessary communication between the different parties, perhaps sending the customer back and forth.

The customer should get one single bill from the service provider and all inquiries should go through the service provider. The operations company will need much less staff and focus on the more technical issues the service providers cannot handle.

Who will connect the farmer?

Everyone can agree that the farmers are quite important, since they provide the food we eat. But the farmers are as affected by the new digital era as everyone else. They collect their orders online, they pay their bills online, and have many high tech devices like milking machines that expect network access. Their kids also need to be able to do their homework which is has moved online. But the costs of building to these areas of low population density make a return on investment challenging. Private companies must make money to survive and in all honesty, would you be happy to see your retirement fund investing in companies who wasn’t trying to maximize their profit? No, many profit-maximizing firms will not build to rural areas. But the community has a different agenda. Communities recognize the importance of investments that create indirect benefits as well as direct benefits.

The above scenario also explains why the “dark fiber middle mile” version of Open Access won’t work. Even with a fiber ring, the service providers would only build where they are able to make a quick return, leaving farmers even worse off because cherry-picking off the middle mile would result in less overall revenue for a business model that would connect everyone. Having local government build an open access fiber network to everyone will avoid this problem.

Why Competition is key to success

As in all industries, competition will drive the price down and quality up and competition is only created if the end customer can actually make a choice between different providers. Research from my home country of Sweden, with the most mature open access approach anywhere, shows that there is a clear correlation between the number of service providers and the price of service. Especially when you go from one to two and three providers, but even the ninth and tenth provider will help to push the price down.

In the lowest cost community networks, a 100 Mbps symmetrical Internet service costs approximately $25. In Sweden the hundreds of Open Access community networks have been key to the vast build-out of high-speed broadband and especially fiber networks. Sweden has a population density of only 57 people per square mile (US has 90) but according to PTS (Sweden’s FCC) still 99.99% of the population has access to at least 10 Mbps broadband, 73% to 100 Mbps  and 79% have access to fiber (within 45 yards of a fiber line). These numbers are for 2016 and increasing rapidly as both private and public network owners are now competing fiercely to reach the last customers with fiber first. So at a national level the build-out of strong community networks also pushes the private telecom giants to build more and faster and provide higher speed services at competitive prices, which benefits the country as a whole.

The Open Access model is also an enabler for the city to control the subscriber price on an aggregate level. If the city wants to subsidize Internet services to increase adoption they can simply lower the cost to the service providers to sell services on the network, which due to competition will drive the end customer price down and lead to higher utilization.

Why Open Access is necessary for Smart Cities

Today there is a big trend towards IoT (Internet of Things) where a lot of different devices and machines are connected. It could be everything from the heating system in your house being accessible to control and monitor via an app in your phone, to the utility placing smart meters in every home, or street lights that are connected to be able to allow much more sophisticated management of traffic, enabling free passage for emergency vehicles. All these smart services that will benefit the community and residents will be easy to implement if the city owns a citywide fiber network, but consider what happens when the entire network, or big parts of the network (in the case where the city only builds the fiber ring) is owned by private providers.

Let’s say you have five different profit-driven providers owning the infrastructure. This means you need to negotiate five different agreements to be able to deploy the services and still you might not be able to do a city wide roll-out, since the private providers will only have built their network in areas where they reach their ROI targets. As a city you might be forced to build those “worst” areas just to be able to deliver those smart services to all who need them and thereby force you into being a network operator anyway. With an open access network reaching every desirable end-point you’re ready for any smart service application the future may hold.

Yes, the private service providers will be able to make money

There is a fear that open access would lead to great service for subscribers but push the prices so low that ISPs will not have enough margin to profit. The answer is yes and no. No, those companies who don’t adapt to the competitive nature of the Open Access networks won’t make money. If you don’t deliver capacity and speeds as promised and don’t have excellent customer service (things not as important if you own the infrastructure and the customers have no other provider to turn to) you probably won’t be very successful in the long run. Also trying to lock customers in with long contracts or using data caps will be a hard sell in a competitive environment.

For those providers who focus on delivering high quality of both service and support at a reasonable price, there is the chance to also be very profitable. By focusing on service delivery, customer care and billing and not having to spend resources on capital intensive construction and maintenance of the physical infrastructure, they can build a highly specialized organization.

It’s also easy for new entrants, since there are no large investments as would have been the case if you are to build your own infrastructure. In Sweden there are numerous nationwide service providers who started with just a few guys in a basement, today creating jobs for hundreds of young, service-minded people. Even though the price for broadband in Sweden is lower than in the US, the profit margin among Service Providers on Open Access networks in Sweden is looked upon with envy by companies in other industries.

Conclusion

Open access is the right choice for cities who consider building their own network infrastructure. It’s important that the network is built all the way to the subscribers’ property. This way the digital future of the city is in their own hands. They can decide which providers are allowed to sell services on their network and adopt smart city services as they please. It will also give more power to the subscriber since there is competition at the subscriber level. This will make sure services are delivered with quality and at reasonable prices. The affordable prices will increase adoption and subsequently create the benefits the new broadband enabled services will bring to the community as a whole.

Reprinted from Next Century Cities: Guest Blog, Isak Finer, COS Systems: Why I Believe Open Access is The Right Choice for Communities | Next Century Cities | Broadband Internet & Infrastructure

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Health

Digital Literacy Training Needed for Optimal Telehealth Outcomes, Healthcare Reps Say

Digital literacy should be a priority to unlock telehealth’s potential, a telehealth event heard.

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Photo of telehealth consultation from Healthcare IT News

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2022 – Digital literacy training should be a priority for providers and consumers to improve telehealth outcomes, experts said at a conference Tuesday.

Digital literacy training will unlock telehealth’s potential to improve health outcomes, according to the event’s experts, including improving treatment for chronic diseases, improving patient-doctor relationships, and providing easier medical access for those without access to transportation.

Julia Skapik of the National Association of Community Health Centers said at the National Telehealth Conference on Tuesday that both patients and clinicians need to be trained on how to use tools that allow both parties to communicate remotely.

Skapik said her association has plans to implement training for providers to utilize tech opportunities, such as patient portals to best engage patients.

Ann Mond Johnson from the American Telemedicine Association agreed that telehealth will improve health outcomes by giving proper training to utilize the technology to offer the services.

The Federal Communications Commission announced its telehealth program in April 2021, which set aside $200 million for health institutions to provide remote care for patients.

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Digital Inclusion

W. Antoni Sinkfield: To Succeed in 21st Century, Communities Need to Get Connected Now

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community and understand its problems.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Reverend W. Antoni Sinkfield, Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary.

One of the primary responsibilities of being a faith leader is to listen to your community, understand its problems, and provide support in challenging times. Particularly during the pandemic, it has been hard not to notice that my parishioners, and folks across the country, are divided into two groups: those with access to the internet, and those without.

In 2022, digital inclusion is still something we strive for in poor and rural areas throughout America. The lack of reliable internet access is an enormous disadvantage to so many people in all facets of their lives.

To fully participate in today’s society, all people, no matter who they are and no matter where they live, must have access to the internet. Think of the remote learning every child had to experience when schools were closed, and the challenges that families faced when they didn’t have access to a quality connection.

It’s a question of plain fairness.

Politicians have been talking for decades about bringing high-speed internet access to everyone, however many families continue to be left behind. More than 42 million people across the country lack affordable, reliable broadband connections, and as many as 120 million people who cannot get online are stuck with slow service that does not allow them to take advantage of everything the internet has to offer.

People of color are disproportionately affected by lack of broadband access

Lack of broadband disproportionately affects communities of color, as well: 35 percent of Americans of Latino descent and 29 percent of African-Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.

Every person in rural towns, urban neighborhoods, and tribal communities needs and deserves equal and full economic and educational opportunities. Studies show that students without home access to the internet are less likely to attend college and face a digital skills gap equivalent to three years’ worth of schooling. Small businesses, which are the cornerstone of rural and urban communities alike, need broadband to reach their customers and provide the service they expect.

Simply put, having access to the internet in every community is vital to its ability to succeed in the 21st century.

Fortunately, we have an opportunity to take major steps toward a solution. Last year, Congress passed President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which provides $65 billion to expand broadband access and affordability. It is essential that we use this money to connect as many unserved and underserved communities as we can – and as quickly as we can.

Different places need different options to bridge the digital divide

As we bridge the digital divide, we must listen to those who have been left behind and make sure that we deploy solutions that fit their needs. Different places need different options – so it’s important that all voices are heard, and the technology that works best for the community is made readily available.

All people need access to broadband to learn, work, shop, pay bills, and get efficient healthcare.

When I talk to my parishioners, they speak about how much of their lives have transitioned online and are frustrated about not having reliable access. They do not care about the nuances of how we bring broadband to everyone. They just want to have it now – and understandably so.

This means that we must explore all solutions possible to provide high-speed broadband with the connection and support they need, when they need it, regardless of where they live.

Now is the time to meet those struggling where they are, stop dreaming about bridging the divide, and just get it done. Our government has a rare opportunity to fix an enormous problem, using money already approved for the purpose. Let’s make sure they do so in a manner that works for the communities they’re trying to help.

Rev. W. Antoni Sinkfield, Ph.D., serves as Associate Dean for Community Life at Wesley Theological Seminary, and is an ordained Itinerate Elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Broadband's Impact

Biden Delivers Remarks on Free Broadband to Qualified Households

Biden compared the value of broadband to telephone service, and drew parallels to the historic effort to connect the country.

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Screenshot of President Joe Biden delivering remarks at the White Hose Rose Garden

WASHINGTON, May 9, 2022 – President Joe Biden emphasized the essential nature of broadband during a public appearance on Monday.

Biden delivered remarks at the White House Rose Garden on the day’s earlier announcement that the federal government would work with both regional and national broadband providers to provide essentially free broadband to qualified households.

“Too many Americans simply cannot afford to get connected even if there is access to get connected. So, they go without high-speed internet, or they sacrifice other necessities in order to make it work,” Biden said.

“High-speed internet is not a luxury any longer – it is a necessity,” Biden said. “That is why the bipartisan infrastructure law included $65 billion to make sure we expand access to broadband internet in every region of the country.”

Biden also laid out the criteria for eligible households to take advantage of Affordable Connectivity Program, which when paired with the effort by ISPs to keep 100 Mbps download services under $30, provides free internet to consumers.

“If your household income is twice the federal poverty level or less – that is that’s about $55,000 per year for a family of four – or $27,000 for an individual – or a member of your household is on Medicaid or supplementary [social] security income or a number of other programs – you are eligible.”

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