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Open Access

Differences in Approach to Open Access Showcased in Discussion About Lit and Dark Municipal Fiber

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Screenshot from the episode of ConnectThis!

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.

Former Assistant Editor Jericho Casper graduated from the University of Virginia studying media policy. She grew up in Newport News in an area heavily impacted by the digital divide. She has a passion for universal access and a vendetta against anyone who stands in the way of her getting better broadband. She is now Associate Broadband Researcher at the Institute for Local Self Reliance's Community Broadband Network Initiative.

Open Access

UTOPIA Fiber Completes Payson City Project and Publishes Results of Customer Feedback Survey

UTOPIA customers deep in red states favor net neutrality by a wide margin.

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A photo of a fiber installer courtesy UTOPIA Fiber

November 29, 2021 – UTOPIA Fiber announced the completion of a fiber-optic internet network in one of its original 11 cities of Payson, Utah, on November 22.

All 20,000 residents and businesses in Payson City, Utah, have access to UTOPIA’s all fiber, open-access model, according to UTOPIA Fiber. Payson is the eighth of the original group of 11 cities to finalize its broadband infrastructure deployments.

“The original cities were visionaries before their time,” said UTOPIA Fiber Chief Marketing Officer Kimberly McKinley. “We need to give a lot of credit to Payson. Back in 2002, 2004, when UTOPIA was getting off the ground, they saw the benefit of our model.”

“They saw the vision and where the future was headed almost 20 years ago.”

Today, UTOPIA Fiber is deploying broadband infrastructure in 17 cities across Utah and southern Idaho. UTOPIA Fiber Executive Director Roger Timmerman said that the three remaining original cities will have their projects completed by the end of 2022.

UTOPIA’s model is entirely funded through subscriber revenue, at no cost to taxpayers. Based on UTOPIA’s recent surveys, the subscribers in question view the service as a worthy investment.

Annual customer feedback survey

Also, on Oct. 27, UTOPIA Fiber released the results of their annual customer feedback survey. Among other statistics, UTOPIA Fiber reported that the number of customers working from home had increased by more than 230 percent since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Additionally, while legislators around the country squabble over how to define broadband – whether it ought to be 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 20 Mbps upload, or 100 Mbps symmetrical, nearly half of UTOPIA’s customers purchased speeds over 1 Gigabits per second, which is 10 times faster than 100 Mbps.

Customers need faster speeds to address the myriad services that simply did not exist in the past, many believe. For example, 68 percent of customers are subscribed to a streaming service that did not exist three years ago, and the use of home security connected to the internet rose by 71 percent since 2018.

And 83 percent of consumers stated that they were glad they had invested in UTOPIA, 76 percent stated it had improved their quality of life, and 75 percent said their community is better because of UTOPIA.

In addition to high levels of customer satisfaction, UTOPIA also found that consumers were strongly in favor of net neutrality policies, with 92 percent of respondents indicating as much.

“A few years back we saw an influx of customers that came over to the UTOPIA system because that our providers are net neutral,” said McKinley. “I think that that speaks to people who want more privacy and control over their user experience. I think that is what we’re seeing at UTOPIA Fiber.”

Despite being generally favorable toward the practice up through the Obama Administration, net neutrality was struck down in the U.S. in 2017 by the Trump Administration’s FCC led by Ajit Pai. Though conservatives have historically portrayed net neutrality as an example of government overreach, McKinley argues that Utah is an example of why this issue should not be a partisan one.

“[This data] shows that people do not want to be beholden to big telcos who have control of their entire user experience. I think our survey proves more than anything that this is a bipartisan topic, and this is not a blue versus red discussion,” she said. “[Consumers] just want better.”

UTOPIA Fiber is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Open Access

Bristol, Connecticut, Considers Using Rescue Plan Funds For Citywide Open Access Network

City’s technology staff has been working with a consultant to draft design recommendations for the fiber network.

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Bristol Mayor Jeff Caggiano, who won election on November 2 and was inaugurated on November 8.

November 10, 2021 – Across New England, local-controlled, publicly-owned internet infrastructure is on the rise — from Bar Harbor, Maine to the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In Connecticut, however, it’s a different story. The Constitution State is a municipal broadband desert.

That may be changing, however, as Bristol (pop. 60,000) inches closer to becoming the first city in Connecticut to transform itself into a fountain of community-owned connectivity as city officials consider whether to use its federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds to build a citywide open access fiber network. With $28 million in ARPA funds at its disposal, city officials have been in a months-long process of deciding how much, if any, of that money should be spent building fiber optic infrastructure.

The city’s chief technology staff has been working with a consultant to draft design recommendations for the network, which were anticipated to be presented to both City Council and the Financial Board in August or September.

“That plan has been completed but has not been presented to City officials as of yet,” City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith told ILSR in an email. “The consultants would like to present their plan in person to City officials and so we thought it might be more prudent to have them present it at an upcoming meeting of the Mayor’s ARPA Task Force. We are hoping that we can use some of the ARPA funds to fund a portion of this broadband buildout, especially in the areas of the City where we have a significant digital divide.”

Building this infrastructure would increase competition and address local concerns about the lack of reliable, affordable, high-speed internet access.

“With the covid pandemic, it catapulted it to the top (of concerns),” Smith told the Bristol Press. “We have a digital divide issue in Bristol that is quite large.”

Currently, there are no fiber options available in Bristol, with Comcast, Frontier, Viasat, and HughesNet offering only cable, DSL, and satellite. And while, BroadbandNow reports that Comcast’s highest service tier offers gig speed connectivity in the region, we know that privately-owned infrastructure does not mean universal access. It’s not accessible if you can’t afford it.

The city has been surveying residents about their interest in having the city facilitate more options for internet access, with more than 500 respondents as of August.

In Bristol’s 2022 Capital Budget Summary it says:

“The City continues to pursue the feasibility of a potential city-wide network and has appropriated $250,000 of ARPA funds to evaluate an open access fiber broadband network for internet service providers to use to provide services to businesses and households of Bristol. The 2021 appropriation of $100,000 is being used to provide an overall plan and feasibility study to see if this network is sustainable and if the community wants it.”

“The city built its own fiber network to connect all its buildings and the schools,” the City Chief Information Officer Scott Smith told the Bristol Press. “We already run one connected to the poles. We’re looking to try and use that as much as we can and expand that fiber out into the neighborhoods around the schools and around the city buildings with the ultimate goal of reaching the whole town.”

While the timeline is unclear, the fact that the city is seriously considering how to create a more competitive broadband market is unmistakable.

“We’re not going to become an ISP. We’d ask Internet Service Providers to compete over the infrastructure. The competition would bring down prices,” then-Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu told the Hartford Courant earlier this year. (Zoppo-Sassu lost her reelection bid for mayor this month to Republican challenger Jeff Caggiano, who was inaugurated on November 8, 2021.)

Municipal broadband networks are virtually non-existent in Connecticut, though Plainville started construction on an Institutional Network (I-Net) this summer. If Bristol follows through with building an open access fiber network and is successful, it would provide a powerful example for other communities in the state and potentially inspire local governments in other parts of the state to follow suit.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Maren Machles, a reporter for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on October 29, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

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Open Access

British Telecoms Are Aligning with Emerging U.S. Position on Open RAN Adoption

Open RAN adoption is said to save telecoms money and boost security, as providers are forced to move off Huawei.

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Howard Watson, chief technology officer of BT Group

October 18, 2021 – Howard Watson, chief technology officer of telecommunications company BT Group, spoke on Wednesday at the Broadband World Forum about the future of the UK’s network infrastructure, including removing Huawei’s equipment from their networks and developing open radio access networks for wider use.

Speaking at the opening session titled “Building an innovative converged network infrastructure for the UK,” Watson discussed the challenges and possibilities for offering fast, secure broadband and offered O-RAN as a solution for wider connectivity.

Watson discussed utilizing open RAN to facilitate greater interoperability between vendors’ equipment, as it opens the market to more technologies due to its open configuration. The concept advocates for a more open radio access network than provided today, which is held by fewer vendors.

The Federal Communications Commission has pushed for ways to develop open RAN to minimize network security risk, as the movement has gained significant momentum since Huawei was banned over the past 18 months. FCC Acting Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has described open RAN as having “extraordinary potential for our economy and national security.”

“When customers go back into the office, the infrastructure they left behind must have key growth” Watson said, referencing the shift in office culture toward remote work during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Expectations of customers change,” Watson said, adding that “they expect broadband to be always on, they expect high bandwidth.” Above all, “they expect investment no matter the cost.”

BT is seeking to deploy to 90 percent coverage in the UK by 2028.

On the sidelines of his keynote address, Watson noted BT’s progress in limiting Huawei products to 35 percent of an operator’s fiber access footprint by 2023. The UK government requires that Huawei’s equipment must be removed entirely by the end of 2027. The UK considers Huawei a “high risk” vendor for its network infrastructure.

However, BT is waiting for Huawei’s equipment to grow old before replacing it, Watson said. “Our intention is to ensure that we get the full economic life out of the Huawei [products] that we have deployed,” he said. He said BT believes the products can be used until 2031 or later.

“We’re in talks with government about that timeline” Watson said.

Panel discussion about European fiber investment

Watson said that “densification” happens in areas that are fiber rich, so “providing fiber to smaller cell sites is naturally an evolution.”

He said that BT is looking at a range of alternatives including Wi-Fi solutions to getting 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) capability to household through open architecture-based solutions.

In addition to Watson, a panel focused on the investment parameters for fiber investment featuring officials from Macquarie Group and Eurofiber.

The panel focused on investment challenges and strategies for broadband infrastructure investment and  discussed an opportunistic vision for broadband deployment. Speaking of more mature market with a history of broadband adoption, Macquarie Managing Director Oliver Bradley asked how providers could transition to more efficiency and maximizing the value of an existing network.

Among the principal drivers for investment include co-investing and deregulation, he said.

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