Blog Post

D.C.: We’ll see your 1 Gig, raise you 100 Gig

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.

3 Responses to “D.C.: We’ll see your 1 Gig, raise you 100 Gig”

  1. Lindsey Annison

    Are we perhaps missing a partnership model? Public + private + community as a mutual, where each constituent stands to benefit from co-operation?

    With projects such as LUS, as well as here in UK and EU, we have seen downright objectionable behaviour from telcos looking/fighting to protect their (shareholder) long and short term interests. This invariably results in either a battle (in court or with the regulator) or a worthwhile project folding under the pressure, costs etc.

    The middle mile infrastructure, especially when open access, should also simplify the connectivity and affordability for any ‘community’ (large, small, urban, rural, commercial or co-op, public, private and/or local) to begin to build first mile networks – sorry, ‘last mile’ is a telco phrase, last mile of theirs, first mile of ours!!

    At which point, the community/mutual has a far wider range of options than presently, where just the cost of backhaul vs ROI over 10-15 years writes off the chance of FTTH for all except the most determined communities (B4RN.org.uk is one of those who will JFDI, launching this week). Wireless should be the cloud on top of FTTH that allows every consumer within the network to be unfettered and mobile, on whatever device they choose. FTTH and wireless should not be either/or any longer.

    Maybe I’m just an idealist, but to me there is a FiWi Pie, where every player stands to get a slice. For some that slice is, finally, reasonable access (and I’m delighted to see Community Access Networks back as a phrase, as the organiser of the CANdo Awards back in 2004!); for others it is revenue; for yet others it is cost-savings (eg for councils and municipals, for private business and SMEs, consumers); and for yet others it could be a well-earned income stream by reducing the costs of the initial deployment.

    But you can only realise this utopian dream if people will work together. That means putting short-term profits, egos and politics on the back burner. Yes, for the greater good, but also because the profits (and customer unchurn) for FTTH with a wireless overlay are long term, higher than for asset sweating, and logically, the right path to choose.

    • Wow, you ask for a lot :-) Actually, the problem is short-term profit issue reinforced by the political pot-stirring done by those trying to protect those profits.

      The public private partnership riding on top of an open access network is indeed an ideal situation from the standpoint of consumers and every business except the large telecom & cable companies. Consumers and local businesses get the kind of broadband services that benefits their lives and potentially their economic well being. Local government benefits in a myriad of ways. Private providers get to offer services 1) without the cost of building the infrastructure, which generates ROI sooner, and 2) many private sector providers will benefit from a competitive environment.

      The rain that falls on this parade is, of course, the entrenched incumbents who myopically believe that smaller, local providers doing well can only means that the big companies lose. Since you can’t blow incumbents off of this position with dynamite, how well the first mile strategies work out, as has been the case throughout this broadband fight, depends on how much fight, political willpower and creativity consumers, local businesses and sensible service providers are willing to bring to bear.

      • Lindsey Annison

        Am I asking a lot?! It seems so simple to me, but then I’m a JFDI CANdoer, not an entrenched incumbent telco fixed in my ways ;)

        Maybe it does take a little rain for many flowers to bloom though….. After all, as the incumbents fail (almost globally) to deliver, we are seeing a huge upsurge in community first mile fibre networks (where community = large, small, urban, rural, partnerships etc). Yes, there is plenty of yadda yadda about wireless, and yes, the mobile operators have a big chance with LTE, 4G etc (my HSPA+ 3G dongle pulls 12 Mbps in this deeply rural area as I posted to Om on Twitter the other day) but the closer you get Fibre To The People, the better. The accounts will look more rosy, whether you plug wireless into that as an interim first mile solution or as an overlay. And if, as a telco, you can’t see that, and are too wrapped up in FTTC and sweating the copper, more fool you, is my humble opinion!

        This next phase will be very interesting as we all share info about how we are progressing with first mile networks, although at http://www.b4RN.org.uk we are building our own middle mile network too to escape the clutches of those myopic telcos you mention. Their loss ;)