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Expert Opinion

Christopher Mitchell: Electric Grid Disaster in Texas Leads to Broadband Open Access Soul Searching

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The disaster in Texas resulting from an electric grid that was deliberately left exposed and likely to fail in rare cold weather events has received a lot of dramatic coverage, as well it should given the loss of life and damage to so many homes and businesses.

It also raised some questions in my mind regarding competition and designing markets that will be discussed below. Texas was a leader in allowing different electricity firms to compete in selling electricity over the same electric grid, an arrangement that has some similarities to open access broadband approaches.

In digging into that recent electricity history, I made another interesting and relevant finding that I discuss first as part of the background to understand the lessons from Texas. In 20 years of competing models between, on the one hand, municipal and cooperative structures to deliver electricity and, on the other hand, a largely deregulated and competitive market, the munis and co-ops delivered lower prices to ratepayers.

Electricity deregulation, Texas style

More than 20 years ago, Texas largely deregulated electricity markets. Residents still have a monopoly in charge of the physical wire delivering electricity to the home, but they could choose among various electricity providers that would effectively use the wire and charge different amounts, differentiating themselves via a variety of factors, including how the electricty was produced.

However, some areas continued to have monopoly electricity providers, including two of the largest public power providers in the nation, San Antonio’s CPS and Austin Energy, among others as well as several rural electric cooperatives.

For 20 years, Texas has conducted an informal test between unregulated market competition and local providers that are democratically accountable to their customers. The Wall Street Journal is the latest of many over the years to study the numbers and dispassionately annoint the munis and cooperatives the winners.

None of this was supposed to happen under deregulation. Backers of competition in the electricity-supply business promised it would lower prices for consumers who could shop around for the best deals, just as they do for cellphone service. The system would be an improvement over monopoly utilities, which have little incentive to innovate and provide better service to customers, supporters of deregulation said….

From 2004 through 2019, the annual rate for electricity from Texas’s traditional utilities was 8% lower, on average, than the nationwide average rate, while the rates of retail providers averaged 13% higher than the nationwide rate, according to the Journal’s analysis.

The findings are similar to a 2015 report from the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, covered by the Texas Tribune:

But from 2002 to 2013, the average household in deregulated areas paid a total of about $4,800 more than residents of cities — like Austin and San Antonio — served by just one municipal utility, or those served by electric cooperatives, the analysis said.

Not just a question of price

This isn’t the first time we at ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks team have looked at electricity. Given that many of the arguments against municipal broadband are identical to arguments against public power more than 100 years ago, we like to look at the 100+ years of empirical evidence that local governments can handle these responsibilities.

Many studies looking at prices and reliability have found public power to be at least as good as the big investor-owned utilities, and often better. Back in 2011, I wrote about Connecticut Light and Power compared to Norwich, Connecticut after a storm demonstrated the benefits of community ownership.

Norwich had far fewer customers lose power, and they regained service more quickly than the investor-owned utility. It led to the New York Times digging into the two companies’ budgets to seek answers.

In contrast to Connecticut Light and Power, Norwich’s electric unit last year increased operations and maintenance spending by 11 percent, to $2.9 million. Put another way, in 2010 Norwich allocated about $132 a customer to this line item in its accounts. Connecticut Light and Power reported maintenance, unadjusted for deferred expenses, of $96.5 million, or around $78 per client.

We generally see networks that are directly accountable to their customers doing a much better job, not just in price but all-around value.

Lessons for designing markets competitively

The competitive market was supposed to deliver far lower prices to consumers. As several have stated, including ILSR’s very own energy expert, John Farrell, what it mostly did was allow electricity companies to introduce the tricky and opaque billing practices common among the national cable monopolies to what had been a fairly transparent market.

A 2019 Houston Chronicle article, “Analysis: The Murky and Confusing Texas Electricity Market” sheds some light:

But the shopping site became overwhelmed with offerings. Some companies offered more than 30 plans that were hard to distinguish from each other. Several retail electric providers began offering multi-tiered electricity plans with low teaser rates designed to catch the attention of shoppers, only to have those who signed up learn too late that using one kilowatt hour above a certain threshold would send the advertised price soaring by as much as 10 times.

Other companies offered “free nights and weekends” plans that could cost consumers more because of much higher weekday rates. One company offered a $600 bill credit for a two-year plan that would ultimately cost customers twice as much as another plan offered by the same company.

It is worth nothing that Texas was not solely seeking lower prices, but also incentives to encourage customers to shift their electricity use away from peak times, especially in the summer. Some companies have achieved those goals, but reading the investigations suggests that the bulk of energy in the market has been expended trying to fool potential customers with opaque pricing.

What this means is that rather than technical or other useful progress, the main innovation was in the form of legalized fraud or trickiness. Companies often competed in how they could fool people into signing up, though they would pay more. This is one of the biggest complaints people have today about telecommunications bundles that are hard to understand and often change price without adequate warning.

Open access broadband networks

As more municipal networks explore and iterate on open access models, proponents need to consider some of the recent lessons learned from Texas. To date, most ISPs on open access networks are earnest, small local companies with a variety of reasons to enter the business, though maximizing wealth extraction has not been one of them.

To my knowledge, I don’t see these shenanigans on UTOPIA despite it passing 120,000 premises. But what happens when open access networks pass 2 million potential users? Or 10 million?

I hope this issue won’t even arise, in part because I would expect the local ownership of the network to produce more accountability than a state or federal agency. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some rules regarding transparency of pricing or some mechanism to ensure the competition on these networks doesn’t devolve to harmful games.

These cable pricing dynamics aren’t just annoying. They are particularly pernicious for the lowest-income households that don’t have the time, and sometimes the literacy, to spend hours digging into complex pricing. Returning to the case of electricity and the Houston Chronicle’s “Murky” story:

“Too many Texans are still overpaying for power,” said Fred Anders, founder of Texas Power Guide in Houston, a website that helps consumers find the lowest cost plans. “And very likely a disproportionate share of them are people who can least afford to overpay and have less time and awareness to navigate the minefield of gimmicks in the electricity market.”

That story also has the interesting nugget that very few people are actively switching providers, which is supposedly the best way to keep prices low. A fatigue seems to set in rather than the kind of enthusiasm that might be expected from the heartiest fans of markets.

This reality is an important reminder when it comes to internet access: I believe people generally want “competition” when they are frustrated with their provider. I don’t think a survey of the subscribers to EPB in Chattanooga or NextLight in Longmont or US Internet in Minneapolis or Sonic in California would reveal much desire for more local competition because users there are happy to pay a fair rate for reliable and straightforward service.

I don’t think people want to spend their time trying to save another $2/month on internet access by checking in on the deals each week to change providers. If that would be all that open access could offer, I will be disappointed. Of course, it may be that for communities that do not want to offer retail service, offering the possibility of choice will result in better outcomes than if they chose a contract with a single ISP, so there are many factors to consider.

People want something that works transparently at a reasonable price. My enthusiasm for open access is very much tied up with the possibility of specialized niche services. Services that we have trouble imagining today because nearly all Americans are locked behind networks owned by corporate monopolies that are not open to innovation. Ammon’s genius is not merely the financial model but the courage to open so much power to users and ISPs. Time will tell if they do anything special with it.

I believe that valuable innovation will come from open platforms, but think the Texas lessons offered a chance to explore why as well as some potential hazards along the way.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, this piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

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.

Expert Opinion

Leo Matysine: The Impact of C-Band on Advancements in Mobile and Fixed Broadband

As technology is more advanced and connected to everything, the need for higher capacity networks will continue to grow exponentially.

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The Author of this Expert Opinion is Leo Matysine, Co-Founder of MatSing

When consumers think of 5G, often their minds automatically think mobile connectivity. The official C-Band launch this past January brought the idea of increased spectrum connectivity into the limelight. While this had been something anticipated by the telecommunications industry for years, finally seeing it come to fruition allowed the mainstream media to become invested in the benefits this 5G spectrum could offer.

When 5G was first introduced five years ago, it caught the attention of many who soon learned the challenge in speedy implementation due to strict infrastructure requirements. The introduction of C-Band provides a solution, enabling 5G upgrades while simultaneously addressing the coverage and capacity needs.

This heightened implementation will allow users to start seeing improvements across the board, but not just in the form of mobile connection. Outside of the benefits for mobile carriers, the advancements C-Band provides will enter in a new era for fixed broadband access especially in rural communities.

The need for fixed broadband was magnified during the pandemic as users need for internet access from home drastically increased. This exposed the digital divide rural communities are facing, causing it to gain traction with the White House. As a result, a new infrastructure bill aimed at improving the underlying network infrastructures was developed as fiber-to-the-home and fiber-to-the-premise in rural settings have proven to be too expensive and impractical for wide implementation.

C-Band provides an alternative option allowing for wireless fixed broadband access through antennas. The mid-band frequency spectrum (1GHz to 6GHz) can provide rural users, both businesses and households, with options in providers and services they’ve been unable to experience previously.

C-Band also allows for higher speed and capacity

On top of the fixed broadband perspective where C-Band frequency spectrums are enabling rural connectivity, it allows for higher speed and capacity. The spectrums being utilized in the past while generating mobile coverage, had disadvantages in capacity and experience.

The mmWave spectrum (24GHz +) can transmit data at hyper speeds but only from limited distances, requiring line-of-site installations, whereas sub-1GHz offers the opposite. The mid-band spectrum C-Band falls under acts as a perfect balance, transmitting data at high speeds and capacities while providing the coverage needed to cover vast areas. Deployed with lens antenna technology, the additional capacity can be enabled with fewer antenna locations as compared to other antenna types, leading to financial advantages.

From a more localized vantage point, C-Band is now being integrated into marquee venues and stadiums. Within these smaller spaces, improved bandwidth and superior performance is essential given the concentrated number of users seeking connection and the inherent need for more content sharing. In order to support the mobile experience fans now expect from these venues, carriers and venue owners have turned to C-Band deployments.

Deployed atop the 4G/LTE foundation, the C-Band antenna builds off this functionality while adding the increased speed and capacity accustomed to the mid-band spectrum. Several venues will see increased results with these implementations allowing fans to experience a more reliable and overall better experience at their game days or concerts in the upcoming months.

Looking ahead, these milestones only mark the beginning of where C-Band implementation will take the telecommunications industry. As technology continues to become more advanced and connected to everyone and everything, the need for higher capacity networks will continue to grow exponentially.

Leo Matysine is the Co-Founder and Executive Vice President of company MatSing, the worlds leading manufacturer of large size, light weight RF lenses. MatSing introduces a new age of antenna design for the Telecommunications industry. 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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Expert Opinion

Patrice Williams: Reimagining the Future of Work With Digital Plus Human Efforts

‘Digital workers can help in the end-to-end automation of business processes by mimicking human behavior.’

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The Author of this Expert Opinion is Patrice Williams, Business Development Representative at Vuram.

Organizations across geographies are fast-embracing the hybrid and remote working models as they are embracing their digital transformation journeys to navigate the new normal. Adopting a digital workforce is essential to overcome a series of challenges, while it cannot replace humans. The future of work will witness humans operating side-by-side with software robots to pursue business goals and tackle future challenges.

The inclusion of a digital workforce allows organizations to function seamlessly around the clock while addressing labor shortages, learning gaps, upskilling requirements, workforce flexibility, effective crisis management, and profitability.

Who are digital workers?

The digital workforce is a variety of robotic and automated solutions that work in tandem with humans to accomplish tasks that are complex, time-consuming, repetitive, and mundane. They perform complex tasks end to end so that humans can focus on creative, critical, and high-value-added activities. The digital workforce comprises technologies like robotic process automation, cognitive computing, artificial intelligence, machine learning, and more.

Adopting digital workforce

Globally, when businesses started operating remotely, adopting digital workforce technologies helped organizations to continue operations uninterrupted by functioning seamlessly round the clock and achieving speed and efficiency.

Aided by hyperautomation technologies, the digital workers can help in the end-to-end automation of business processes by mimicking human behavior to perform actions that were previously, typically done only by humans. Following are some of the use cases:

Chatbots are increasingly being used across industries, including healthcare and banking. They can streamline customer support by handling volumes of simple customer queries around the clock, bringing down the costs, and adding efficiency. Interestingly, chatbots are predicted to save $8 billion by 2022 and save 2.5 billion hours by 2023, according to a study by Juniper Research.

Chatbots add efficiency to the new normal set up when people are working in different locations and are reimagining roles focusing on quality and cognitive skills. When integrated with the IT helpdesk, the bots can empower employees to resolve simple issues on their own, thus removing the burden on human employees.

With AI and natural language processing capabilities, these bots can understand the simple language of the users and help them with the right answers. They can help a new joiner complete the onboarding formalities, like filling out forms and helping them with instant answers to common questions about company policies, roles, responsibilities, etc.

The process of onboarding customers is different across industries, be it retail, corporate, banking, or healthcare. Irrespective of the industry, it is one of the most important and complex tasks with compliance checks, stringent regulations, documentation, security, and much more.

For instance, let’s take the bank. It involves several key steps like evaluating the customer’s profiles, recording customer data, performing background checks, fulfilling legal obligations, opening the account, interacting with the customer for any support, and finally, the account becomes operational.

AI can transform business experiences in a post-COVID world

In a post-COVID world where social distancing and other hygienic protocols are at the forefront, AI can transform the banking experience for customers. Digital onboarding can reduce time and costs while addressing the prominent challenges and ensuring compliance. In a digital environment, form fillings can be done automatically with OCR, conversational AI and a virtual assistant can support customers at any time and machine learning can be used to verify customer data across all the documents.

Fighting fraud by detection across stages is a critical part of financial institutions that handle volumes of unstructured data. Manual efforts in identifying, analyzing data, user profiling involves more effort, time, and prone to errors. RPA bot infused with AI and machine learning capabilities can curb financial frauds by monitoring every activity in the process loop and immediately notifying any concerns.

For example, credit scoring can be monitored effectively in the insurance claims process with the bots reviewing customer claims, matching them with the existing data, and monitoring the customer behavior to raise any abnormal behavior patterns. When trained, the bot can prevent money laundering by raising alerts of potentially fraudulent transactions.

Intelligent document processing helps organizations that process or handles several types of documents daily to reap the benefits of intelligent document processing. The process automatically reads, extracts, and analyzes from structured and unstructured data like online forms, resumes, email messages, invoices, text files, audio files, video files, and a lot more.

Functions like opening emails, downloading and reading attachments, filling forms, copying/pasting documents, extracting data from social media channels or other forums, reading/writing databases, and collecting and recording data, can be carried out with the help of intelligent document processing. Organizations can effortlessly search, extract, and analyze data for decision-making.

As the future of work is exploring ways to support the human workforce to perform at their highest potential while creating a happy working environment, the digital workforce can benefit the process in numerous ways.

Contrary to the popular myth that robots will replace human roles, the technologies will complement human efforts by adding quality, efficiency, and job satisfaction to perform better in the new digital workplace. Further, technology will enable businesses to overcome human limitations to maximize human potential nurturing a supportive working environment with more inclusive work culture.

Patrice Williams is the Business Development Representative at Vuram, a hyperautomation services company. Vuram has received several prominent recognitions, including the Inc 5000 list of fastest-growing private companies in the United States, HFS hot vendor in 2020, and Rising Star- Product Challenger in Australia by ISG in ISG Provider Lens 2021 report. Williams has more than 20 years of experience as an operational manager and working in a multinational working environment, and has led Vuram’s hiring activities and people management. 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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Digital Inclusion

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk: Three Keys to Building Transformative Broadband Plans

‘While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.’

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Samantha Schartman-Cycyk, President of the Marconi Society

This week, I am thrilled to join state, local and tribal leaders from across the U.S. as we convene in Cleveland, Ohio, for the Broadband Access Summit. As a local and long-time advocate for digital inclusion, I am proud that the Pew Charitable Trusts and Next Century Cities selected Cleveland, one of the least connected cities in the country, as the site for a timely conversation about how we can effectively spend the unprecedented levels of federal funding for broadband infrastructure.

While the federal government’s infrastructure funding creates unique opportunities, it also exposes challenges that states and tribes must get in front of to ensure that funding is sustainable and implementation is effective.

The good news is that digital equity is finally front and center—where it belongs—and it has taken nearly twenty years of advocacy and practice to get us to this point.

Following are three key lessons I have learned to ensure efforts to expand connectivity are community oriented and sustainable.

1. Bring in local leadership—now

Across the country, areas that have a dedicated local leadership responsible solely for digital equity and inclusion are outpacing their counterparts. Someone, or ideally a team, needs to wake up every day thinking about what digital equity means in their community, how to make a reality in a way that supports key priorities, and where the true needs are. We have seen benefits in cities such as Detroit and Seattle, who have taken this approach.

We must support these leaders with accurate data. At the Marconi Society, a nonprofit that champions digital equity, I helped launch the National Broadband Mapping Coalition to help leaders from rural communities and urban ‘digital deserts’ identify broadband gaps. The NBMC has developed a no-cost mapping toolkit to help educate and guide communities.

2. Plan for sustainability while you have strong funding

We need to anchor digital inclusion efforts to long-term state programs to solidify funding and reinforce the intersectional impact of digital inclusion. Typically, digital inclusion programs blossom within the period of investment but falter when funding runs out, only to peak again when new grants or federal money become available.

This process wastes resources, relationships, and time, resulting in stop-and-start programs that aren’t able to address residents’ needs nor build momentum.

For example, a state like Maine with an older rural population is likely to prioritize services that allow for aging in place and telemedicine care for seniors. States like Utah or Texas, with relatively young populations, might place a higher priority on education and K–12 STEM pipelines. This alignment will allow state leaders to prioritize and bake sustainability into their broadband plans, create digital equity programs that support their priorities, and incorporate data collection into their work.

3. Create the workforce your state will need

In order to implement strong broadband plans that create true digital equity, state and local governments need a pipeline of people who understand the unique intersection of technology, policy, and grassroots digital inclusion work needed to bridge the digital divide. As of last year, nearly 20 states did not even have a dedicated broadband office to begin this work. With funding already being dispersed to states, we are at a critical moment.

To help create this workforce, the Marconi Society conceptualized and is developing the first-ever “Digital Inclusion Leadership” professional certificate with Arizona State University. The program will launch in Fall 2022 and will include top-ranked professors and leading industry experts as teachers and advisors.

I believe that this interdisciplinary workforce will continue to be in high demand as states integrate digital equity into their long-term priorities.

After years of helping to lay the groundwork for the current burst of funding and activity around digital equity, I can say that our work has only just begun. We have the gift of beginning with knowledge and funding that can be truly transformative. The digitally equitable future we are fighting for is closer than it has ever been before—let’s make sure we get this right.

Samantha Schartman-Cycyk is President of the Marconi Society, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing digitally equitable communities by empowering change agents across sectors. Over her 20-year career, she has built forward-thinking programs and tools to drive impact on digital inclusion at the local and national levels, through projects with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), community training, and data collecting efforts. The Marconi Society celebrates and supports visionaries building tomorrow’s technologies upon the foundation of a connected world we helped create. 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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