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Summary:

One of the benefits of D.C.’s 100 gigabit network is that it should open eyes to the importance of middle mile infrastructure, but it’s not clear how many last mile projects will spring up to connect to it. How DC-CAN resolves this could influence federal policy.

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Last Wednesday was a pretty good day for Washington, D.C. residents and business and, yeah, even the Federal government. The city-owned 100-gigabit, middle-mile DC Community Access Network (DC-CAN) opened for business.

One of the benefits of this project is that it should open eyes to the fact that a few billion dollars in broadband stimulus money was committed to middle mile infrastructure, but it’s not clear how many last mile projects will spring up to connect to them. How DC-CAN resolves this issue could influence some Federal policy decisions, since the network is essentially a test bed in their own front yard.

Last mile could be the hardest

Thousands of miles of middle mile networks are being built with the expectations of stimulus grant recipients that local communities can entice service providers to build last mile infrastructure to provide connectivity to businesses and homes. The Feds committed that money partly because private sector companies weren’t willing to spend it, given the low prospects for great ROI. How do we know the private sector now won’t say, “Thanks for the middle mile money, but we can’t afford to build last mile either.”

The broadband stimulus program did fund a fair number of last-mile projects too. However, it doesn’t seem like a lot of them are in the same areas as the middle mile projects. This leaves Washington, D.C. and communities across the country looking at these great digital highways being built just over the rise and wondering, how do we get there from here?

DC-CAN should look at how other communities tackled this challenge. Santa Monica, Calif. built a significant citywide middle mile network for city use, as City CIO Jory Wolf describes on Gigabit Nation. This city identified various business needs and attracted close to 200 private, mostly wireline providers by showing them opportunities to make money by meeting those constituents’ needs using the network. The much smaller Powell, Wy. is a model for small rural towns, similarly winning over a service provider by making a strong business case.

Cities such as with extensive concrete and steel structures such as D.C. has could follow the path Chattanooga blazed by linking strands from its fiber network to wireless access points to create a mesh network delivering 16 Mbps symmetrical access. This network is for government use only, but other cities could invite providers to offer services on such a network. Smaller communities where there are fewer highrise structures alternatively could surround themselves with a fiber ring linked to stimulus-funded middle mile infrastructures, then bring in wireless ISPs (WISPs) to build a network to deliver fixed wireless services to businesses and residents who need them.

Heather Burnett Gold, newly appointed president of the Fiber to the Home Council, said in this Gigabit Nation interview that there is a case for avoiding wireless altogether. “Fiber is future-proof, plus the cost for building out fiber has dropped significantly and continues to drop in communities where high price tags often dampen the political will to commit the funds.” While definitely a true and logical statement, the politics of last-mile wiring of urban areas in general and low-income communities in particular makes this an endeavor ripe for serious conflicts.

Wireless network provider RidgeviewTel’s CEO Vince Jordan says, “in many cases, communities will have to underwrite much of that last mile buildout and cost justify it through local government’s use and/or the utility’s use of the network. Removing the CapEx cost barrier  makes it viable for wireless providers to offer services. Being a much less expensive technology in terms of up-front expense, wireless can be a good stepping stone for the cost-conscious because even when you move to fiber, both individuals and businesses want mobile Internet access. That technology will still be used.”

DC-CAN’s middle-mile 100 gigabit network is an awesome step for better broadband access by all of the city, including the Federal government (it’s somewhat ironic watching FCC live Webcasts slow to a crawl due to overloaded broadband connections). But it’s only the first step. Now the city must effectively entice service providers to tackle the last mile, or gather the political will to build its own last-mile network to the homes and businesses needing cheaper, better broadband.

Craig Settles, host of radio talk show Gigabit Nation, is a broadband industry analyst and consultant who helps organizations develop effective broadband strategies. Follow him on Twitter (@cjsettles) or via his blog.

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