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

Broadband Breakfast Staff

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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.

Broadband's Impact

Multilingual Digital Navigators Crucial For Inclusion

Digital liaisons who speak multiple languages can help guide multilingual communities for the digital future.

Derek Shumway

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Screenshot taken from the Net Inclusion webinar

April 19, 2021 – Encouraging multilingualism among digital navigators will help facilitate better inclusion in digital adoption, experts said last week.

Speaking Spanish is a huge plus for digital navigators in Salt Lake City, Utah, for example, as many of its focused neighborhoods needing to be connected to broadband speak the language,  said Shauna McNiven Edson, digital inclusion coordinator at Salt Lake City Public Library.

Edson and other panelists spoke last Wednesday at the 2021 Net Inclusion Webinar Series hosted by the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, a digital inclusion advocacy group on what skills are needed to become a digital navigator.

At the Salt Lake City Public Library, progress is there but challenges persist for digital inclusion and navigation. Edson said there were about 450 participants in its library program’s group for digital inclusion. However, only about 5 percent of participants, or 22 people, have adequate broadband at home. Seventy-five percent of members said they needed help finding a computer or internet-enabled deice, and 10 percent of its 450 members have contacted the library’s support staff for It issues.

Digital navigators are crucial because they connect community members with the skills and resources they need to become digitally literate and help them get adequate broadband. Navigators can be volunteers or cross-trained staff who already work in social service agencies, libraries, health, and more who offer remote and socially distant in-person guidance. 

Compared to the rest of the country, Salt Lake City is highly connected, said Edson. Every community has a unique demographic make-up, and if the communities who need access to broadband mostly speak Spanish or English or even Mandarin, there should be community anchors with highly trained digital navigators to help the underconnected.

Andrew Au, director of operations at Digital Charlotte, said digital inclusion should include adult education. Every library and public institution that offers internet services should have digital navigators available and onsite to guide individuals in their communities and offer continuing education resources to keep digital skills literacy up, he said.

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Broadband's Impact

Mentorship Instrumental To Women Involvement in Telecom Industry

Experts advise mentorship and encouragement to get more women in the industry.

Derek Shumway

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Photo of Mitsuko Herrera, center, via Montgomery County, Maryland

April 19, 2021 – A group of women were asked to rate gender equality in their workplace on a scale of 1-10. Their average score? About a four. The solution? More mentorship early in their lives.

The women, experts in network companies, spoke at the event, “Women in Broadband: Achieving zero barriers,” hosted by fiber network company Render Networks last Wednesday.

Kari Kump, director of network services at Mammoth Networks, said that in the broadband industry, she rates it a four, and in government jobs, a bit higher at five. Kump said she sees lots of women in marketing positions and non-technical managerial positions that “may oversee tech.” She said the worst gender equality in her view is at the construction site, where women “pay the bills” in the office rather than being out on site.

What’s causing gender inequality? The problem starts long before the job interview. Mitsuko Herrera, from planning and special projects for Montgomery County, said in her current work, only 2 out of 25 colleagues are women.

“The opportunity may be there, but we don’t see a lot of qualified women in the industry,” she said. Even before they reach college, women and girls need to have opportunities for engagement across various industries. Having mentors at an early age would greatly increase women participation and influence at work. In the workspace, praising women privately is just as important as praising them publicly, said Herrera. Women need to know they are supported at all times with all people.

Having better representation at the table is crucial because diverse perspectives affect industry and society for the better, said Laura Smith, vice president of people and culture at Biarri Networks. “The groups making decisions should reflect society,” she said.

And even if there is diversity, it’s not enough to have women at work for diversity’s sake—you also need to listen to that diversity and not ignore it.

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Broadband's Impact

Partnerships And Trust Go Long Way To Securing Financing For Broadband Projects, Panelists Say

Broadband Breakfast panelists wrestle with the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure projects.

Tim White

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Screenshot taken from Broadband Live Online event

April 16, 2021 – Financing broadband projects requires real human relationships among everyone involved, said Broadband Breakfast experts Wednesday.

The weekly panel addressed the challenge of financing broadband infrastructure. Billions of federal dollars are making their way to expand internet access across the country, including the $9.3 billion Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, the $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit program and the $7 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund. There is significant funding to be spent, but it’s not always as simple as receiving a check in the mail from the government.

Getting the necessary funds to build broadband networks — whether they are private service providers like Comcast, electric co-ops or municipal-owned networks — often requires financing with banking institutions or other means of funding.

“You really want to strike a deal with someone that you can trust, who you think has your community’s interests in mind,” said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. “Human relationships are important, and often are a precursor to striking any of these sorts of deals.”

He mentioned unique ways that companies and communities can collaborate to build broadband networks.

For example, he referenced some long-term agreements in Minnesota between localities and CTC – Consolidated Telephone Company. The localities would pay for and own fiber-to-the-home networks that are operated by the CTC. “That can really help for operators that have the capacity to do more work, but may be at their lending or borrowing limits,” Mitchell said.

Internet Service Providers “can work with a community that would take on the debt in order to build the network and then offer, whether that’s exclusive, whether that’s permanently exclusive, or timed-exclusive, that’s one way,” Mitchell said.

Partnering with anchor institutions

Another method is for providers to partner with communities or schools to build networks that are owned by the company but paid for by the community or school with state or federal funding, such as the company Clearnetworx in Colorado.

“ISPs sometimes have to build those relationships and have creative ideas to make these things happen,” Mitchell said.

“When I think about the creation of MBC back in 2004, I think it was really all about leadership and relationship and good timing,” echoed Lauren Mathena, director of economic development and community engagement at Mid-Atlantic Broadband (MBC). On grant processes and getting the necessary financing, she said “the biggest thing is building those relationships and keeping that determination, and if you haven’t started, start today, because it is a process.”

Many smaller banks often lend out for broadband projects, sometimes even banding together if they hit their limits, because they see it as a wholistic community development, explained Tim Herwig, district community affairs officer at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

“A lot of these banks are locally-owned, the bank president, the members of the board, sit in the pew at church next to customers,” Herwig said. “Their kids go to the same schools together, they eat in the same restaurants, they go jogging down the same streets, right? They have a deep sense of corporate community responsibility. They see broadband as a gateway to the financial security and future of the communities where they serve,” he said.

High cost challenges

“The big challenge in a lot of these markets for rural operators is the economics of providing service in high-cost areas just don’t pencil out,” said Jeff Johnston, lead communications economist at CoBank, a private bank that focuses on services in agriculture and infrastructure for rural areas.

In addition to getting the upfront funding to building the infrastructure, there is also the operating costs to consider, and for some areas that’s not feasible without extra support, he said. “It’s one thing to get support up front to build a network in a high-cost area, but there’s on going expenses to managing the network,” he said.

Johnston also mentioned financial issues that may occur in federal reverse auction programs such as RDOF. “They’re great programs, first of all, but I also think operators going into these reverse auctions don’t overextend themselves,” he said. “Be realistic in what you think you can do operationally and financially.”

For MBC, which operates in Virginia, they pair funding with state and federal programs, such as the 1998 national tobacco settlement through the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission, Mathena said. “We’ve been able to pair state and federal grant applications together, so that we’re using state dollars to help build that match, so that’s not just coming from MBC’s revenue,” she said.

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