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Speed Focus Could Harm Telecom Industry, Plume CCO Says at Fiber Connect 2021

Companies disagree about what fiber providers should prioritize, and whether hard standards should be set.

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Photo of panel during Fiber Connect 2021.

NASHVILLE, July 28, 2021—Tyson Marian, chief commercial officer of smart home services provider Plume, said at the Fiber Connect 2021 Tuesday that the industry is misguided in focusing so much on speed.

“We are constantly marketing on speed,” Marian said on the second day of the conference hosted by the Fiber Broadband Association. “I think it is going to become a threat to the industry” because companies won’t be differentiating themselves beyond speed.

He said that 95 percent of Plume’s customers operate under 350 Mbps and are satisfied with their service. In a statement that echoed many of those made by wireless service defenders, “Gigabit speeds are a marketing thing.”

If providers get so wrapped up in speed, they may not pay enough attention to other aspects of their model, such as customer service, that may differentiate them from the competition, Marian argued.

Standards of service

Panelists in the conference’s segment on challenges and opportunities also wrangled over standards of service and whether hard rules should be established.

Matt Collins of communications service provider Calix said the industry needs to embrace standard setting by regulators, which he argued would be an important part of promoting healthy competition in the economy.

For example, the federal standard for minimum speeds is 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload.

But Marian said he is “weary of standards.” He argued that allowing providers to have the flexibility to offer precise services tailored to clients was crucial to an “open ecosystem,” for example allowing customers to purchase lower levels of service instead of a larger speed package they don’t need because the lower package has been phased out.

“Such a small group of people should not control the outcomes of an entire industry.”

As a child of American parents working abroad, Reporter Ben Kahn was raised as a third culture kid, growing up in five different countries, including the U.S.. He is a recent graduate of the University of Baltimore, where he majored in Policy, Politics, and International Affairs. He enjoys learning about foreign languages and cultures and can now speak poorly in more than one language.

Expert Opinion

Shrihari Pandit: States Can Enable Broadband Infrastructure Through Open Access Conduits

By creating open infrastructure systems, states can reduce the barriers to entry and foster increased broadband competition.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Shrihari Pandit, CEO of Stealth Communications

Now that the infrastructure bill has passed the Senate, we see key provisions included for broadband in America. In fact, a whopping $65B will go toward broadband funding — provided it passes the House this month. But, will throwing more money at broadband help to solve key issues like closing the digital divide and making broadband access more affordable for millions?

The short answer is: not necessarily. For years the federal government has provided subsidies to incumbent ISPs hoping they will solve key issues with broadband in America and still access to the internet continues to be a challenge. What we need is a radical broadband overhaul where we can level the playing field for smaller ISPs to compete in the marketplace and fill the gaps incumbent ISPs have neglected for years.

As the broadband infrastructure funding provisions emerge, it appears that states will have a major role in determining how to allocate these resources. And, they must make careful considerations to help connect the unconnected and meet the needs of their residents. As access to a robust digital communications network is so critical now – in an ongoing pandemic era – states also have to look ahead and ensure they are creating sustainable and long-term infrastructure in the public interest.

Creating open-access conduit systems

State governments should focus on enabling key infrastructure, namely conduits, rights of way and utility poles – as these are the biggest hurdles for ISPs looking to extend fiber. Sometimes referred to among pros as “layer zero”, the telecom market can be transformed with open-access conduit systems running across the country and extended locally. A conduit highway would be akin to the interstate in which fiber could be easily run between cities and towns across multiple states.

An open-access conduit system can help create a more approachable marketplace for new ISPs to enter and help to fill coverage gaps left un-served by incumbent ISPs. Easier and cheaper access to neutral utility poles would help to reduce the cost of broadband access and allow providers to easily pull their fiber optic infrastructure to homes, businesses, and wireless towers, especially vital for longer-distances in rural areas. In NYC, for example, there is a robust competitive marketplace enabled by a shared conduit system managed by Empire City Subway.

Although currently limited to boroughs of Manhattan and The Bronx, this carrier-neutral system allows multiple ISPs to run cables up and down streets with ease and provides a pathway to extend fiber access to additional NYC neighborhoods. Across the country, open-access models are proliferating, including Ammon, Idaho, as summarized in a recent report by Benton Institute for Broadband & Society.

Leveling the ISP marketplace

By creating open infrastructure systems, more providers can enter the marketplace and create increased competition as the barriers to entry are reduced. Previously, incumbent ISPs have received billions of dollars to close the digital divide, – the divide, as well as their market power, persist.

By creating infrastructure that brings additional private ISPs into the marketplace, states can give residents and businesses  more choices to meet their internet needs which is in the best interest of everyone. More competition also means that incumbent ISPs need to step up their game and offer the services they boast about – or they risk losing market share to private competition. In other words, a long-term, sustainable solution.

Embracing the public infrastructure/private service model

When considering a new infrastructure project, oftentimes, the burden of proof lies with the state. However, with the public infrastructure/private service model, the risk is shared between the state and the ISP. This model enables cities and counties to finance and maintain infrastructure while also managing rights-of-way. And, private or incumbent ISPs can ensure broadband access including cable, fiber optic, or wireless. This is a scalable option for communities that are unaware of how to operate communications networks but want to own and control core communications assets.

States have a major undertaking ahead as they consider how to utilize their infrastructure funding to boost public works projects. As broadband infrastructure development has been so crucial in the last year, creating an improved marketplace for ISPs through open-access infrastructure should be their priority in their long-term public interest.  And with a public infrastructure/private service model, the risk will be shared with providers.

Shrihari Pandit is CEO and co-founder of the New York City-area fiber provider Stealth Communications. 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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Springfield Considers First Municipal Fiber Network Among New England’s Big Cities

City is yet another in a growing field of municipalities aiming for a municipal fiber network.

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Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman

August 30, 2021–Springfield prides itself as a “City of Firsts.”

Located in central Massachusetts, 90 miles west of Boston, Springfield is where the nation’s first armory was located and where the first U.S.-made automobile was built. It’s also the birthplace of basketball and Theodor Geisel, better known by his pen name “Dr. Seuss.”

Last month, the city took its first step to explore whether it will become the first of New England’s five biggest cities to build a municipal fiber-to-the-home network.

Channeling Dr. Seuss, who famously wrote “only you can control your future,” city officials are in the process of issuing a Request for Proposals to conduct a feasibility study to explore if Springfield (est. pop. 154,000) will control its digital future by meeting “the growing demand for reliable and affordable Internet service.”

According to a press release issued by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office, “the study would review such items including but not limited to the current Internet equipment and infrastructure in place across the city, gauge public interest, provide a cost analysis on infrastructure investment, review and assess maintenance cost, possible revenue sources, and exploring potential public/private partnerships and collaborations for the benefit of consumers.”

Pandemic Exposed Digital Chasm

The city is currently served by Comcast Xfinity and Verizon DSL. But, according to City Councilor Jesse Lederman, a leading advocate for better broadband in Springfield, the pandemic exposed a growing digital divide in the city while surrounding communities are increasingly being served by fiber networks.

“The COVID-19 pandemic made a few things very clear,” Lederman told WAMC public radio. “The Internet has become an essential utility for residents and businesses. During COVID the Internet was really a primary way in which people were able to access education … to work, to conduct commerce, interact with local government, and access health care resources. And so we know we have to do more to ensure that our Internet access in Springfield is capable, that it is affordable, that it is high speed, and that it is accessible to all of our communities.”

The digital divide in the city has also become apparent to a number of leading community institutions. Margaret Tantillo, Executive Director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, a Springfield-based organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, has been one of those voices speaking to the importance of reliable and affordable high-speed Internet access.

“The digital divide has now become a chasm,” Tantillo told BusinessWest.com. “And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

In Springfield, Tantillo cited recent Census data that indicated 31 percent of households in Springfield have no Internet access whatsoever, while 37 percent of city households do not have a computer.

Lederman sees a municipal fiber network in Springfield as an essential tool for bringing digital equity to the city. “We need to make sure that if we move forward in providing this option to Springfield residents that we address that as well,” he said.

The Challenge Ahead

Of course, building a city-wide network will be challenging. “Certainly launching a municipal fiber network is going to be different then launching it in some of the other communities that we’ve seen in the Commonwealth and across the nation, essentially because of the size of the city of Springfield. We have 17 different neighborhoods across Springfield. Each of them is unique in terms of their infrastructure. We have a lot more multi-family dwellings and apartment buildings,” he added.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, credited Comcast for helping to connect families with school children during the pandemic. But, he told BusinessWest.com, “going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access. It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Sean Gonsalves, a senior reporter, editor and researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 17, 2021, the piece is republished with permission.

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Building Fiber Infrastructure Back Better: The Journey Taken by Tuttle, Oklahoma

When their connection to the World Wide Web was cut, Tuttle’s local leaders got to work.

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Screenshot of Tuttle City Manager Tim Young from KFOR News

August 27, 2021 – There’s an overwhelming tendency among regular Americans to conflate the basic infrastructure which surrounds us with permanence. Whether it’s the garbage truck predictably rumbling down the street at the same time every week, the water flowing from the tap, or our internet connection, we assume that the physical ties which bind us together will always be there.

And that’s because it mostly has, especially for community owned and operated infrastructure. When utility services are owned and operated by communities, they are by definition maintained by people who live locally for people who live locally. It’s hard to be taken by surprise and left without essential services.

But the odds tilt in the other direction when such services are delivered by outside firms. We’re seeing the consequences of this for electricity users in the wake of the Texas grid disaster last winter (as well as coming rumblings of heat-caused outages this June), but it’s a problem that’s been around longer than that for basic service providers of all types, where bankruptcies can leave whole communities high and dry.

The same consequences hold true when those firms are Internet Service Providers, beholden to interests outside of the cities and towns they serve. Tens of thousands of American households learned this very lesson last fall when AT&T announced it was leaving the DSL business and no longer making new connections to its aging infrastructure, even though those wires will continue to sit in the ground for decades to come. Buy a new house in this area, and if AT&T DSL was the only provider in town, and you’ve got few or no options.

But it happens with small providers too. Tuttle, Oklahoma (pop. 7,300) faced this reality a decade ago when the local cable company, providing the only universal wireline Internet service in the area, went bankrupt. “For a little while it got put on autopilot with nobody operating it,” City Manager Tim Young told KFOR News. “Then one day, right before an OU football game, the power got cut off and that was it for a cable service in Tuttle.”

The event left the city stranded without much warning. High-cost, high-lag, low-bandwidth satellite service from ViaSat was one option. AT&T offered DSL service in some parts of the downtown core, but the company “hadn’t upgraded its copper network in Tuttle in decades,” Young said in a recent interview.

The last choice was a regional Wireless Internet Service Provider named Rise Broadband which operated in the area. It had offered less-than-ideal service connecting government buildings for years (Tuttle got free service in exchange for providing access to the city’s vertical assets for hardware placement), but the problem for residents is that it was geared at rural areas around the town rather than the city proper. At the time, it was struggling to provide 3 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical service because of the overwhelming demand by residents and businesses (even today, it only covers about two-thirds of the city, with maximum download speeds of 50 Mbps for $60/month).

Smart growth provided a better option

As a suburbanizing community southwest of Oklahoma City, Tuttle needed a better option. The city is experiencing rapid growth which began almost twenty years ago, since a bridge was built over the Canadian River providing a direct path to the metropolitan area in 2004. Tuttle’s 2020 Comprehensive Plan [pdf], released in 2004 when growth began, emphasized that future resiliency and success “will be contingent on its ability to adapt to changing economic conditions in meeting basic needs for the continued health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the community” while also positioning itself for “new quality growth and development.”

The nearby Braum’s Ice Cream plant remains the largest employer in city limits, with construction, manufacturing, and warehouses also playing a significant role in the local economy. But other sectors which require reliable, high-speed Internet access also contribute significantly, including educational and health services, finance and insurance, banking, and technology jobs for workers in nearby Oklahoma City.

All of these realities meant that when the local cable company went bankrupt, the remaining options were insufficient for the long-term vibrancy of Tuttle.

Building something back better

When their connection to the World Wide Web was cut, Tuttle’s local leaders rolled up their sleeves and got to work. Their first move was to solicit private ISPs to come to town and offer service. But they also began talking with publicly owned entities in the area. They spoke with officials in Sallisaw, a rural community about 180 miles directly east which had built a fiber network called DiamondNet to provide service to residents in town as well as a handful of surrounding communities starting in 2015. The city council also traveled to speak with engineers at the Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, which was embarking on a fiber-to-the-home project for its roughly 38,000 members scattered across seven counties. Finally, they looked nationally, noting the success of and learning lessons from municipal networks in Oregon and Colorado.

With few encouraging responses from private ISPs, local officials in Tuttle decided building and operating their own network was an undertaking at which they could succeed. The town already had an institutional network – in the form of a fiber star – in place, built in 2012 to connect the public works and public safety buildings at the same time as construction of a new city hall.

The first hurdle was dealing with a state law in Oklahoma which prevents municipalities of Tuttle’s size from taking on debt without a citywide vote. The answer to infrastructure projects like telecommunications is the establishment of a municipal trust to secure financing and development authority. Thus was born the Tuttle Development Authority, which solved the problem while also allowing the city’s other utilities (water, sewer, and natural gas) to proceed according to their preexisting plans without the additional debt burden of the upcoming Tuttle network.

From a pilot project to permanent

Once engineering and business plans were finalized, the city began with a small pilot project aimed at a few denser neighborhoods where an internal feasibility study had projected a high take rate among residents. It was immediately popular, Young and City Broadband Manager Laurie Koelsch said in a recent interview. So popular, in fact, that it led the city to speed up construction. Ultimately, Tuttle took on $10 million in debt via private lending, using revenues from its other utility system revenues as collateral.

With firm plans to forge ahead, the city’s public works formed a new construction department to coordinate digging around the city, and served as the first stop for the new fiber network. Construction began in 2017. By November 2019 the network passed 55 percent of premises, and 800 households had taken service. Originally projected to be a five-year project, Tuttle, Oklahoma’s citywide Fiber-to-the-Home network was completed in the late fall of 2020, after just 3 years, driven by strong residential and business demand.

The Gigabit Passive Optical Network passes nearly every premises in town with the exception of a couple of small areas being built right now. About 85 percent of the network ended up being buried. The remaining aerial fiber hangs on Oklahoma Electric Cooperative’s power poles (the other electric service provider in town, whose lines run parallel on the other side of the road, is Public Services of Oklahoma). Tuttle’s design called for strand counts ranging from as low as six to as high as 288.

The network has been a success with residents since day one, but it also hit an important milestone shortly after construction was finished last December: its financial break-even point. In response, the city council announced it was lowering prices for residents, Young said. From the start, the network aimed at a 50 percent take rate. Today it meets or exceeds that threshold in almost every area (hitting an average of 54.4 percent across its footprint), and sees take rates as high as 90 percent in parts of town. Today it passes 2,864 premises, with 1,557 taking service.

While neither AT&T nor the local WISP have responded, Tuttle Fiber did play a role in spurring the local electric cooperative to embark upon its own FTTH build for its members, which will benefit surrounding communities.

We wanted to be able to provide service to everybody – Laurie Koelsch, Broadband Manager

Local resiliency means community savings

The success of the network is a testament to the intergovernmental cooperation between the utilities. Tuttle Fiber serves as the IT department for the city; this also strengthens local resiliency while keeping expertise in-house. It connects all city buildings, simplifying intradepartmental as well as citywide services, and is a stark contrast to the old fixed wireless VoIP system which, Young said, was plagued by a lack of reliability and slow speeds. Today that’s no longer a problem, and staff transitioned quickly to working from home with the onset of the pandemic last year.

The network likewise links the city library and several healthcare facilities, not only solving existing connectivity problems for the local government but giving existing and new residents who decide to settle there, businesses, and community anchor institutions world-class Internet access for decades to come.

Tuttle is ten miles wide, with the city hall situated in the downtown which is the extreme west side of the city. Many of its buildings – including fire stations and animal control – as well as much of the new residential growth and development are on the east side of Tuttle. Having a robust fiber network in place not only allows for instantaneous and robust communication, but sets a foundation for future growth. The network is beginning to explore the extra value, flexibility, and capabilities of using the network for smart-city services for its traffic signals, cameras, the installation of remote locks at parks, the deployment of public Wi-Fi, improved SCADA systems, and water/wastewater monitoring. In fact, a new wastewater plant is currently being built and Tuttle is bringing fiber as part of the project to communicate with lift stations and obviate the need for 24/7 staffing with real-time remote monitoring.

At present, Tuttle Fiber only offers Internet service. It does not connect the local elementary, middle, or high schools, which get their access via a single statewide network. It also doesn’t currently have a low-income tier, but network officials are looking into options down the road. Installation, maintenance, and most operational services are done by the city, with the exception of a second help desk which operates during the holidays and overnights maintained by an outside contractor.

Current Tuttle Fiber subscribers can choose a symmetrical 100 Mbps connection for $55/month or symmetrical 1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) service for $85/month. One-time installation fees run $240, which can be paid at the start or in monthly installments for two years. This fee goes directly to the costs of the drop and Optical Network Terminal (ONT) that completes the network connection on their residences, with the city shouldering up to $1,000 per home of the remainder. For their investment, residents also get a free gigabit-capable router for in-home ethernet and Wi-Fi connections. Businesses have symmetrical 25 Mbps, 50 Mbps, and 1 Gbps tier options for $65, $100, and $200/month, respectively.

There have been challenges along the way, Young and Koelsch shared. Building telecommunications infrastructure isn’t exactly the same as other city services; there are some unique construction, legal, and operational considerations to be made, and all of it requires planning and forethought to execute well. “It was definitely a learning curve for us,” Young said, but one he’d do all over again. Part of the network’s success can no doubt be traced to Young and Koelsch’s desire to see small Oklahoma communities succeed. Koelsh was born in the nearby town of Yukon and earned her Bachelor’s degree in Computer Information Systems from Oklahoma State before joining Tuttle in 2017. Young was born just ten miles northeast, in Mustang, earned degrees from the University of Oklahoma and the University of Texas at Arlington, and has been in city management and community development for the last 20 years.

I believe more municipalities should take on projects like this. Fiber’s no different than water, sewer, and streets. You’ve got to have your connection to the information superhighway. When you’re a for-profit company, you don’t have any incentive to upgrade your systems unless you have competition. As a municipal government, we’re not here to make money. Our focus is to provide the best possible system for our residents and so we are always willing to upgrade and invest in those systems. – Tim Young, Tuttle City Manager

A future-proof network for the community

Today, the state of Oklahoma ranks near the bottom nationally for broadband access, according to the Oklahoma Policy Institute. Almost a quarter of the state lacks wireline service at the FCC’s minimum speed standard of 25/3 Mbps, and more than 150,000 students did not have the service necessary to learn remotely during the Covid-19 pandemic. Households in rural areas are twice as likely to have no connectivity options, as are those earning less than $20,000/year: 40 percent of the latter have no Internet access (including via smartphone), compared to just 6 percent of those households making $75,000 or more. Residents of Tuttle are among the just 1 in 4 who have access to fiber service from a provider.

Tuttle, Oklahoma’s leap to action when its cable provider went bankrupt and left them stranded was not an inevitability. The city could have lobbied the local WISP provider to increase coverage and invest in more hardware to boost speeds, but the capacity, reliability, and speed (not to mention local accountability) of the resultant network can’t compare to municipal fiber. All of this sets this rapidly growing community on a path to fast, affordable connectivity for decades to come.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Ry Marcattilio-McCracken, senior researcher for the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. Originally appearing at MuniNetworks.org on August 17, 2021, the piece is republished with permission. Another version of the piece was originally published by the National League of Cities.

Oklahoma broadband map from Brian Whitacre, Professor and Jean & Patsy Neustadt Chair in the Department of Agricultural Economics, via Oklahoma State University Extension, “Broadband Access Across Oklahoma During Covid-19” (2021).

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