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Bob Frankston: It’s Time to Move From ‘Broadband’ to ‘Infrastructure’

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The success of the internet demonstrates that we now depend on network operators to assure that services like telephony work. The carriers are pushing back on neutrality because their business model is threatened by a level playing field. We should be encouraging innovative internet-native business models rather than working to preserve an industry threatened by innovation.

The debate over network neutrality is framed within traditional telecommunications policy. As such it considers the internet to be just another service like phone calls or cable television. The internet is different. When we used dialup modems we did internetworking as users. With DSL and cable modems the telecommunications (and cable) companies got into the business of providing “internet”.

Whether we used our own modems of dial-up or the carriers supplied the modems, raw packets themselves are a commodity whose value comes from entirely what we do with them.

France’s Minitel is about providing services, not just transport

Of course, the telecom providers wanted to use their facilities to provide valuable services. The regulators were properly concerned about the very real conflict of interest in having the facilities owners competing with their customers. The internet was shoehorned into this framework despite the fact that it wasn’t really a service.

France’s Minitel information service was one of the most successful efforts to provide smart services. The price (or rate) you paid was tied to the phone number for that service. It was very successful because it broke from tradition in its approach. But Minitel couldn’t compete on a level playing field with the internet and the web in particular.

Cable TV isn’t considered a network service like Minitel. But with everything becoming digital, cable content too, is increasingly moving to the open internet.

The carriers are left with just dumb pipes. With network neutrality they have little opportunity to earn money with the revenue from services in transit across those pipes. Not even a service so basic as more reliable delivery. Furthermore, there is no differentiation – all pipes are the same. This means competing pipes are like competing electric grids – it doesn’t make economic sense. We have a single grid that supports competition by providers of content – electricity – using a common infrastructure. There is also competition from other energy sources.

Everyone is increasingly adept at programming around the network

The problem, with or without, neutrality, is that we’re increasingly adept at programming around the network. The packets don’t depend on reserved paths or pipes – they can each take a different path and are assembled at the end points.

Instead of trying to bring back Minitel we need to look forward to expanding the level playing field.

It means understanding that we no longer need networking as a service. We simply need a way to get packets forwarded because we implement the services (like phone calls – as with Skype) in our own computers.

This “not-an-network” approach is also called the end-to-end argument. That means services can be implemented at the end points (outside the network) without depending on network operators along the path. And if we don’t depend on network operators, they can’t charge for services.

This profound change isn’t obvious because we still buy broadband services from a provider just like we did in the days of dial up modems. We even call them cable modems.

Internetworking Boston (home) with Seattle (Microsoft)

In 1995 I was at Microsoft, based in Seattle but was working from home in Boston. I had long been building my own networks using the same principles as the internet. I was fortunate to learn about the technologies as they developed and to work with some of the designers first hand. I knew that a local network wasn’t even a network. It was just a shared wire (or radios). The networking was done entirely in the connected computers.

But I didn’t want to just dial up and connect one computer to an online service. I wanted my home entire network to be interconnected with the rest of the internet (and to Microsoft’s campus network). At that time, you were supposed to get a separate account for each computer just like you did for each phone line. After all, that’s the way dialup modems worked. I took a different approach because I was interconnected to a network and all the computers would share a single connection.

At that time the term broadband was used for a fat pipe that the provider would use to sell services. This is why AT&T paid a high price for my local cable company – MediaOne. They expected to make money just as Minitel had. By selling phone calls, cable TV, meter reading and to gain a new revenue streams from ecommerce, meter-reading and whatever else they could offer.

By using the intelligence in my computers all I needed was one shared connection and all AT&T saw was just a jumble of packets that all looked the same. And because I was working at Microsoft I was able to get this capability built into Windows. Users no longer needed a network professional to setup a home network. They could just buy what they need at any computer store!

While I can’t claim all the credit I do assume that this contributed to AT&T being bought by SBC. Today’s AT&T is really SBC.

The business model of telecommunications and country’s needs for connectivity do not match

We have today’s regulatory system because the business model of telecommunications and the needs of the country for connectivity were not a good match. In the days of telegraphy and then telephony, the high capital costs and little differentiation required a regulatory agency to assure an orderly marketplace,

We start by recognizing that the moving of the intelligence outside of networks inverts the model. The internet is not something we get through a broadband pipe. Instead we turn the pipe around and originate the services from within our own homes (or offices). We use that broadband pipe and any other facilities as commoditized resources.

This means we need locally owned infrastructure that is more like sidewalks and roads than like train tracks. I’m careful to use the word infrastructure rather than utility to avoid the idea we’re consuming anything anymore than we consume sidewalks when we take a stroll. Water and electricity are metered by usage. It doesn’t make sense to talk about using up a supply of ones and zeros. There is no scarcity of “internet.”

We pay for sidewalks as a community; we should do the same for ‘ambient connectivity’

We pay for sidewalks as a community. We join together to pay for the paths in an apartment complex or as a city for paving the paths. Sidewalks are not strictly necessary. We have them because they facilitate walking and make the city a better place.

And like sidewalks, “ambient connectivity” is free-to-use. Today each innovative application like medical monitoring requires a separate negotiation with carriers who don’t get much revenue from devices that generate little traffic. We avoid depending on relationships with a myriad of carriers just to assure connectivity. With Ambient Connectivity we get to “just works” and unleash major innovation.

Imagine communicating without a monthly fee merely to connect. That monthly fee will soon seem as strange as paying just to cross the street.

As we transition to Ambient Connectivity we can continue to use the existing telecommunications infrastructure as just another wire. And that’s the crux of the problem for the providers – they are indeed just another wire with all the value being in applications.

During this transition we do need network neutrality more-than-ever in order to assure that the carriers don’t fight the future by abusing their stewardship of our vital means of communicating.

Companies like Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T are now in the media business

This is harsh for them but, it’s just business. Companies like Comcast and Time Warner have moved on and are now in the content business knowing full well that the networks are no longer the focus of their business. Verizon and ATT are following along. They may or may not succeed in this strategy. Time will tell.

The battle over network neutrality is framed in the existing regulatory framework which treats the internet as just another telecom service rather than something new. We must look ahead not backwards. We must seize opportunity to add trillions to the economy. Just think about what would happen if we just reduced everyone’s internet and cellular phone bills by perhaps $100/month and returned nearly a thousand dollars a year to every family in America while providing a level playing field for new businesses.

Editor’s Note: The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent the views of BroadbandBreakfast.com. Other commentaries are welcome, at commentary@broadbandcensus.com.

Bob Frankston has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum. More at frankston.com, https://rmf.vc/Bio and https://rmf.vc/InfraFAQ

(Photo of computer pioneer Bob Frankston by Dennis Hamilton used with permission.)

Bob Frankston has been online and using/building computer networks since 1966. He is the co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet program and the co-founder of Software Arts, the company that developed it, and is a fellow of the IEEE, ACM and the Computer History Museum.

Broadband's Impact

New York City Broadband Housing Initiative Gets First Completed Project

The initiative is part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan.

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BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird speaks at a press conference at Melrose Housing. Photo provided by BlocPower.

November 30, 2021 – BlocPower, Metro IAF, People’s Choice Communications, and pillars in the Bronx community in New York City gathered Monday at the Melrose Housing development to celebrate the first of five New York City Housing Authority community Wi-Fi projects completed by BlocPower.

Community members and other stakeholders were welcomed by Rev. Sean McGillicuddy, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church and leader at Metro IAF. “As the pandemic has shown us, internet is not just a luxury, it is a necessity,” he said. “We have internet now in Melrose Housing and we are celebrating with hundreds of Immaculate Conception Church parishioners.”

The build out to Melrose Housing and Courtland Avenue was part of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s $157 million Internet Master Plan, with a goal of connecting 600,000 additional New Yorkers considered underserved. A third of those underserved people are residents in New York City Housing Authority communities.

With these two projects completed, Melrose and Courtland Housing can now provide internet to their more than 2,500 residents spread across 1,200 apartments and ten buildings.

“We are incredibly excited today to bring this much-needed, low-cost wi-fi alternative to Melrose and Courtlandt Avenue,” said BlocPower CEO Donnel Baird. “What began as the by-product of our efforts to convert New York City’s aging, urban buildings into smarter, cleaner more eco-friendly ones, installing community-owned urban wi-fi networks has now become an important part of BlocPower’s expanded mandate – to help close the digital divide in America’s underserved communities.”

P.C.C. technicians were able to install antennas on roofs and wi-fi nodes on each floor. To have a sufficient workforce to accomplish this task, BlocPower trained local New Yorkers through the company’s “Pathways: Civilian Climate Corps” program.

Going forward, P.C.C. will be responsible for maintaining, billing, and customer service. Melrose and Courtland residents will, in turn, elect a board to represent them in matters of data governance, use of proceeds, and quality of service issues.

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Broadband's Impact

Craig Settles Talks Telehealth, FCC Mapping Issues on States, Broadband’s Impact on Critical Infrastructure

Craig Settles talks about the need for telehealth and ubiquitous broadband in a recent interview.

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Craig Settles, author of broadband deployment guide Building the Gigabit City

November 29, 2021 – Craig Settles, market researcher and author of broadband deployment guide Building the Gigabit City, spoke with Broadband Breakfast Deputy Editor Sarah Stirland in a Sunday profile that emphasized the need for communities to prioritize telehealth in broadband planning.

The profile in Broadband.Money, a broadband grant funding service that allows ISPs and community networks to discover, apply, and win broadband grants, discusses how the pandemic has changed stakeholder interest in broadband’s role in telehealth. Before COVID-19, “[n]o one would talk about medical reminders, or remote sensors to help children keep track of their elderly parents,” he said in the Sunday profile. The new national focus on telemedicine offers a new opportunity to save lives by improving connectivity speed and delivering critical information to health professionals.

Now, Settles works with stakeholders to provide broadband strategies that match local communities’ lifestyle and business needs. Settles’ work combines community-empowerment and broadband deployment strategies to deliver telehealth services to places in need.

“Our job is to figure out what they’re going to want before they do,” Settles said. I think Henry Ford once said, ‘If I’d ask customers what they wanted, they would’ve told me a faster horse.’ People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

Settles will answer questions about broadband needs analysis and future broadband deployment in an Ask-Me-Anything session with Broadband.Money on Friday, December 3rd, at 2:30 p.m. ET. Settles’ work and analyses of when telehealth services makes sense can be found at his web site.

FCC mapping issues threaten broadband deployment

States and cities are unsure of where to put government broadband money because the maps are inaccurate, according to a Politico report Monday.

The lack of accurate nationwide maps that the Federal Communications Commission is working on improving is also threatening the efficient use of the $42 billion in broadband money going to states as a result of new infrastructure legislation signed into law two weeks ago.

Although the government won’t start distributing funds from the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act for at least another year, Politico reports, citing BroadbandNow data, that states and cities are already allocating $10 billion in federal relief without confidence in their ability to identify their communities’ dead zones.

The FCC’s maps, compiled from telecommunications providers, have drawn longstanding criticism from industry stakeholders, members of Congress, and the FCC itself because of its overreliance on the Form 477 method, which took data from internet service providers. Now, the problem has reached a new inflection point as states try to find coverage gaps — and even as the agency seeks other methods, including crowdfunded data, for better mapping.

Congress required that better maps should be used before the infrastructure money is spent, which could help states accurately fund the neediest areas when the $65 billion broadband package is made available.

In the meantime, towns and counties that need broadband funding most urgently will have to wait while states with more accurate data can better target funding. In Ohio’s Athens County, a speed test data from measurement company Ookla showed that at least 340,000 households in eastern Ohio had no home broadband, while the FCC estimated that, at most, 328,000 households in the entire state have connections too slow to fit its definition of broadband.

Cisco says broadband deployment will improve hard infrastructure

Cisco says that by adding broadband to the nation’s “critical infrastructure,” the United States will modernize our hard infrastructure.

More reliable connectivity will support our nation’s roads, bridges, and waterways, the company wrote to MarketScreener on Monday.

Cisco says digital networks, while using broadband connections, can “expand beyond broadband to support other forms of critical infrastructure.” Dubbed Operational Technology networks, or OT networks, digital systems will be able to monitor the nation’s hard infrastructure, like monitoring a switch to trigger a shutdown if a certain value in a water system is exceeded. Community safety commissions could also start monitoring bridges for unusual stresses, speeding awareness, and more efficient responding to maintenance needs. Further, public safety services could remotely change red-yellow-green light switches and alter traffic signals for emergency vehicles.

The company recommended that technology companies should leverage funding from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act to secure and use OT networks. “Doing so can help drive greater efficiencies, faster response times and potential costs savings. It can also create more efficient opportunities as future technologies come online,” Cisco said. “By expanding beyond broadband to deliver OT networks with automation, machine learning and other innovative services (like those that support autonomous vehicles), we can build a more inclusive infrastructure that benefits everyone.”

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Broadband's Impact

Sunne McPeak: Achieving True Digital Equity Requires Strong Leadership and Sincere Collaboration

Collaboration between community leaders will be essential in ensuring success of the Biden infrastructure bill in California.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Sunne Wright McPeak

This week, President Joe Biden signed the infrastructure bill, which includes $65 billion for expanding broadband deployment and access for all Americans.

The national plan is described as the most significant infrastructure upgrade in the three decades since the Cold War. “This is an opportunity to create an Eisenhower national highway system for the information age,” says a former White House National Security Council senior director.

For California – the nation’s largest state – it means a minimum $100 million for broadband infrastructure that is designed to expand high-speed internet access for at least 545,000 residents, particularly in unserved and underserved communities, according to the White House. The federal funding will support California’s $6 billion broadband infrastructure plan.

Closing the digital divide and achieving true digital equity requires strong leadership and sincere collaboration among public agencies, internet service providers and civic leaders to seize this unique opportunity to achieve strategic priorities in education, telehealth, transportation and economic development. The 2021 USC-CETF Statewide Survey on Broadband Adoption highlighted that a significant number of Californians will be left behind because they are unable to access the internet and other digital functionality needed for vital activities.

Now, the question is how to ensure the public’s funds will be used as effectively and efficiently as possible. California must implement a thoughtful, aggressive strategy that will maximize immediate impact and optimize return on investment. Separately, for several years, CETF has been calling for broadband deployment as a green strategy for sustainability; that urgency only grows in the wake of the COP26 climate meetings. As leaders begin to make historic investments, they should embrace these key principles for action:

  • Prioritize and drive infrastructure construction to the hardest-to-reach residents — rural unserved areas, tribal lands, and poor urban neighborhoods — and then connect all locations, especially anchor institutions (schools, libraries and health care facilities), along the path of deployment.
  • Require open-access fiber middle-mile infrastructure with end-user internet speeds sufficient to support distance learning and telehealth.
  • Strive to achieve ubiquitous deployment in each region to avoid cherry picking for more lucrative areas.
  • Encourage coordination among local governments and regional agencies to streamline permitting and achieve economies of scale.
  • Develop an open competitive process to achieve the most cost-effective investment of new dollars by optimizing use of existing infrastructure that ratepayers and taxpayers already have built.

To learn more, please contact Sunne Wright McPeak at sunne.mcpeak@cetfund.org

Sunne Wright McPeak is President and CEO of California Emerging Technology Fund, a statewide non-profit foundation with 15 years of experience addressing broadband issues to close the Digital Divide in California. 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 reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC. 

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