December 6, 2020 — Panelists involved in open access networks across the United States got into a fiery debate over the best model to follow when constructing an open access network.
The exchange occurred during Thursday’s episode of Connect This!, a series sponsored by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, director of the group’s community broadband network initiative.
The panelists agreed that cities should be able to build and own their own fiber networks and that something must be done about legislation in place in 22 states that impeded, to varying degrees, forms of municipal-owned broadband.
But they disagreed sharply over whether it is the role of cities to light fiber, or provide service over, the fiber networks they build.
Dane Jasper, CEO and co-founder of Sonic, Northern California’s largest independent internet service provider, called for emerging networks, often materializing to solve issues relating to bad internet, limited choices, and poor customer service, to copy successful open access models.
“I’ve seen a vast majority of cities be convinced by salespeople that they need to light their own networks,” effectively acting as the internet service provider, said Jasper. Instead, he recommended that cities invest in dark fiber network assets and then invite ISPs to light them.
“UTOPIA Fiber’s model has worked,” said Jasper, championing the model of the largest open access network in the United States. The network, which is based in about a dozen cities in Utah, currently has more than 15 providers offering service.
Software-provisioned open access networks
“The difference between us and UTOPIA is that right now UTOPIA has a manual open access network,” said Jeff Christensen, President of EntryPoint Networks, who detailed the specific type of software-powered open access network he said drove powered the successful open access network in Ammon, Idaho.
Ammon partnered with EntryPoint to build a software-defined, automated open access network. Christensen said the city utilizes a radical definition of “open access,” saying that the network is open in the sense that it “is a set of resources open to innovation and open to subscribers putting what they want into the network.”
In this particular open access model, the network’s subscribers independently pay for the infrastructure, the maintenance and the operation of the network, and the network’s service provider. The city of Ammon manages the customer experience, although Christensen noted that because of the resiliency and quality of the network, “with this network you’re not going to get many calls.”
EntryPoint provides an automated interaction between the network’s subscribers and service providers, using software-defined networking technology. The automation further helps pinpoint issues within the network and helps maintain transparency to the subscriber, he said.
Critical reactions from other innovative providers
Jasper and Travis Carter, CEO of U.S. Internet, whose company utilizes a more traditional and vertically-integrated approach to offering access and service, cast doubt on the Ammon model throughout the conversation.
“There may be future innovation that requires Layer 2,” or the data link layer of the Open Systems Interconnection model, said Jasper, referring to the increased innovation EntryPoint promises, “but I’m skeptical.”
Carter said he would not want to rely on the city to manage his personal internet network, noting that he has had a pothole outside his house for two years that the city is supposed to fix.
Carter also said there was a problem in how easy it is for internet service providers to register to offer services on Ammon’s network with EntryPoint’s automated software.
As long as an individual has “some level of sophistication” they are going to be able to connect to EntryPoint’s software relatively easily, and hence offer services to subscribers on the network, agreed Christensen.
Carter noted that a single ISP could rather easily dominate the market by undercutting existing competitors. This is “precisely what happened with dial-up,” said Carter. All providers “came in charging $19 a month and one company came in at $9, and up-heaved the whole market.”
“Fiber-to-the-premise networks themselves are actually very simple, yet the Ammon model adds unnecessary complexity,” said Jasper.
Mitchell jumped in to defend EntryPoint, saying the network design will lessen ISP market power and give subscribers increased capabilities. “We are going to see innovative things only possible on this type of network,” said Mitchell.
But the panelists all agreed on the importance of present consumers with better internet service options.
UTOPIA’s Projects Proceeding in California and Montana, CEO Says
Both the GSCA and Yellowstone Fiber are using UTOPIA’s techniques to provide open access broadband over fiber.
HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 — UTOPIA Fiber’s open access model has found success in California, Montana, and Idaho as it continues to deploy across Utah, the company’s CEO said Wednesday.
“Right now, we are working with [Golden State Connect Authority] to identify various pilot areas for the project and have started preliminary engineering work to determine the initial project area,” Roger Timmerman said at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022.
During the press conference, Timmerman also pointed to UTOPIA’s expansion into Santa Clara, Utah, and its completion of its original 11 Utah cities by the end of 2022.
Timmerman was joined by partners Barbara Hayes of the Golden State Authority and Yellowstone Fiber CEO Greg Metzger as they delivered remarks on their joint ventures. The partnership will create the largest publicly owned fiber network in the US, and as it stands now, would span 38 of California’s 58 counties.
“California may be the world’s fifth-largest economy, but our state’s connectivity is decades behind,” Hayes said. “Investing in open access fiber will be transformative for California.”
Both Metzger and Hayes emphasized that their decision to partner with UTOPIA was largely informed by the company’s track record.
“We needed to have a partner who was successful and had done it before,” Metzger said. “For Montana, this is going to be a breath of fresh air.”
Yellowstone Fiber, formerly known as Bozeman Fiber, is a not-for-profit that will replicate UTOPIA’s open access model to provide broadband to the greater Bozeman region; it will own and operate the fiber but will rely on UTOPIA for assistance on the backend.
UTOPIA’s model of open access has long been a point of interest in the telecom industry. While some claim it will be a solution to the digital divide, other assert that it has merely created a “race to the bottom” where internet service providers are constantly pushed to undercut their completion. Timmerman and others have pushed back against the “race to the bottom” assertion, claiming that providers can find ways other than price to distinguish themselves from their competition, such as superior customer service. Additionally, they point to their recent track record as evidence that critics’ concerns that they can maintain a positive cash flow are unfounded.
Though UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, now has positive revenue and has served as a model for open access projects around the country, critics still point toward its more than $300 million in outstanding debt it accrued in its early days, before Timmerman was at the helm.
‘Worst Broadband City’ Brownsville Approves Open Access Fiber Project with Lit Communities
Lit Communities will operate the network, with subsidiary BTX Fiber as the last-mile provider. HMI Utilities is prime contractor.
BROWNSVILLE, Texas, April 1, 2022 — During a special city commission meeting on Wednesday, council members voted to approve a fiber project that will bring high-speed broadband to 100% of its citizens.
Elizabeth Walker, Brownsville assistant city manager, and Andres Carvallo, CEO and founder of CMG Consulting LLC, recommended that the council authorize two respondents, HMI Utilities with Lit Communities, for a combined proposal to maximize technical and financial capacity.
Brownsville, Texas, is a city of more than 182,000 people and is one of the cities with some have called the worst broadband city in the country. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance in 2018 listed Brownsville and a neighboring community as one of the top two worst connected cities in the country with a population of more than 65,000. For Brownsville, 47.1% of households do not have broadband of any type, NDIA found
Lit Communities, a fiber-builder that partners with municipal, county and other government entities, will operate the network, with HMI Utilities as the prime contractor. Lit Communities subsidiary BTX Fiber will be the last-mile provider on the network. However, the project will be an open network with multiple internet service providers.
Standard service on the network will be at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical.
The research for this project began nearly a year ago in April 2021 when Walker and Carvallo looked at different business models, like public policy only, public services, open access, infrastructure, municipal retail (business only and residential). They looked at these models in similar projects in Texas and across the country, including in places like Knoxville and Santa Cruz County. Eventually, they decided on an open access model.
Specifics of the Brownsville network
All citizens will have access to this broadband. “It is eight middle-mile fiber rings to address the full geography of Brownsville,” said Walker.
The city will own 100% of the middle mile and will be able to license it out in private-public partnerships to create revenue, as well as revenue from the last mile connectivity. To ensure affordability, there will be a cap on what providers can charge.
Affordability “is very important,” said Walker. “The crux of the consideration is just to not deliver access, but to make it affordable.”
This infrastructure will have a life expectancy of 50 to 100 years, said Walker.
Walker said that “evidence suggests that broadband services have a net positive economic and social impact to communities by enhancing key functions such as economic competitiveness, workforce development, training, educational capabilities, municipal operations, and smart city developments.”
This is part of the private-public partnership model of Lit Communities. The company recently partnered with Ohio’s Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative to install fiber on existing utility poles. In these projects, the municipality in question provides the capital necessary to build a middle mile or backbone network.
“We are not stopping with these initial groups of towns that we are looking at and working into right now,” said Rene Gonzalez, Lit Communities’ chief strategy officer. “It is just the beginning.”
Construction of Yelllowstone Fiber Network in Montana Begins Ahead of Schedule
The project will be Montana’s first open-access fiber-to-the-home network.
WASHINGTON, March 24, 2022 – Montana fiber provider Yellowstone Fiber announced Wednesday that construction has begun on a $65-million network based in Bozeman, well ahead of anticipated pace.
The network, operated in partnership with large Utah-based open-access network UTOPIA Fiber (a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast), will be Montana’s first high-speed all-fiber internet network as well as its first open-access fiber-to-the-home network.
The start of construction for the privately-funded network comes only six months after initial announcement of the project.
Not only will the network connect every address in Bozeman, but it will also extend “deep into Gallatin County,” according to the developer.
Businesses are expected to receive speeds of up to 100 Gigabits per second and residential properties will experience up to 10 Gbps to create what the city of Bozeman has called “the first true gigabit city in the state of Montana.” Pricing plans are expected to be announced this spring.
The first six internet service providers to provide services on the network will be Blackfoot, Global Net, Hoplite Industries, Skynet, Tri-County Telephone Associates, and XMission.
Montana is one of the least-connected states in the U.S. About a third of residents in Gallatin County, in which Bozeman is a city, lacks internet access.
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