Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vint Cerf, Google, Municipal Broadband & Lafayette

(If you're only perusing this for the "& Lafayette" skip the windup and run to the bottom.)

Vint Cerf, internet pioneer and VP at Google, recently voiced support of high-speed municipal fiber-optic networks.
Some operators contend that municipal networks create competition between the government and private companies. "That's nonsense," Cerf said.
Indeed; Cerf links network neutrality—a position he has pushed as Google's "Internet Evangelist"— to control of the shared resource of the internet:
Operators may simply not want to invest in their networks to bring higher bandwidth to users, he said. "That comes back to the municipal argument. Citizens that want the capacity should be able to decide among themselves to put the resources in place to get that kind of capacity," he said....

"I still think it's not a bad idea to have legislation that says don't discriminate unfairly simply because you happen to have control over this shared resource," he said.
Who owns the network is indeed the crucial question. The current owners won't agree with Cerf that the network is "shared;" they are certain it is theirs. With public ownership the shared nature of the net is unambiguous and net neutrality is simply not a contentious issue—owner-operators are free to do what is technically the most advantageous to the community.

While the endorsement of a major name in the networking world is significant in and of itself these remarks in Spokane come at an interesting juncture locally and nationally.

Locally Seattle is considering following its neighbor Tacoma and building a municipal fiber-optic network. Such a network would be the largest in the US if built. The discussion in Seattle has see-sawed between politicians wanting to "invite" private investment and tech advocate who advocate a municipally-owned system.

Nationally Google has become one of the staunchest opponents of the expansion of the vertically integrated business model of carriers like Cox, Comcast, and cellular owners who already have an exclusive lock on much of the content carried over their network and owners like AT&T who would like to emulate that model.

Google's main thrust in this battle has been to try and force open the wireless marketplace. It recently upped the ante by bidding in the recent 700 megahertz FCC auction thereby making sure that at least some of that bandwidth would be more open than any cellular airwaves have been to date. It has put considerable resources into the "Android" open cell phone architecture in the attempt to pressure cellular carriers to reshape their network policy so that users can use their cell phones to access data and content as freely as they use their laptops.

But perhaps most significantly Google has followed the down-home maxim: "Money talks where BS walks" with a half billion dollar investment in the recent tech alternative "Clearwire" consortium of Sprint, Clearwire, Comcast, Time Warner, Intel, and Google. The group hopes to put together a national WiMax network using Sprint and Clearwire's spectrum to force an open regime in the wireless mobility arena. That's a lot of money to spend--especially when you are allying yourself with the cable companies whose networks currently represent the acme of closed networks on the wireline side.

This story is one of an alliance of convenience and necessity. The three-sided alliance benefits all. The telecom companies are strapped for cash to exploit their spectrum; the tech companies desperately need open networks to keep their business models running at full tilt, and the cable companies need a wireless play to offset the phone networks ownership of the cellular marketplace. The players need each other's money, spectrum, and credibility to create a markeplace suited to their strengths.

The tech giants are spending billions to establish an alternate vision of how the world could be—in part by pulling Sprint and Clearwire into their internet-centric orbit. Intel wants space for new technologies...and most immediately for the WiMax chips it is currently fabricating and which the teleco's reasonably see as a threat to their business model. Sprint and Clearwire are looking exit a loosing battle against the Verizon/AT&T closed cellular behemoth. If you are losing, change the game: the internet-open network model looks like a good bet for the also rans of cellular. Google has built its business on having unfettered access to individual customers. Verizon/AT&T is very clear about wanting to move the sort of control they have over applications in the cellular part of their business to their landline-based internet offerings. The needs and benefits for the players are easy enough to see.

One of the "needs" of the spectrum owners is one that Sprint recently came up against hard: the need for substantial backhaul from its local cell sites. Not consistently having enough bandwidth to push modern services out over its newly constructed Xohm WiMax network was the central reason Sprint delayed its nation-wide launch. Allying with the big cable companies, who have more capable last-mile networks deployed into every nook and crany of the densely populated regions that are the first targets of Sprint and Clearwire's now merged networks is a huge help in actually getting that network properly launched. Which brings us to the implications for Lafayette.

& Lafayette...
You'll notice that none of the cable partners has a presence in Lafayette. That is because Cox, in a smart and aggressive move, is going it after the wireless arena without the compromise implied by partners. It no longer needs Sprint or Clearwire or any other carrier's spectrum and has not joined the coalition. (It was a member in an earlier incarnation.) That is because Cox recently invested heavily in the aforementioned 700 mhz wireless auction and won good spectrum in an arch from Gonzalez through Baton Rouge and across the Atchafalya to Lafayette. That roughly corresponds to the unified Baton Rouge-Acadiana market that Cox now operates. You can be confident that Cox is planning a wireless rollout of its own to compete with AT&T — and differentiate itself from Eatel & Lafayette's more capable fiber to the home landline systems. The new spectrum is still being freed up from its previous owners but 700 mhz offerings can be looked for in 2010. The time for LUS to act to secure its own wireless offering ahead of the rollout of Cox's new network and AT&T's 4th generation services is right now. First to market is worth a lot. As is maintaining a set of services that matches and outclasses the opposition. The incremental cost of adding a WiFi network capable of being upgraded to 802.11n-k-r-y is truly minimal, perhaps 5% on top of the fiber investment. LUS is aware of the potential and already has a test of 70 WiFi nodes running.

Because the Clearwire coalition will have no local cable company to rely on—and with whole coalition organized in opposition to the likes of AT&T—the new group will need to find a lot of high quality backhaul in Lafayette and the parish. LUS' fiber network should be the obvious candidate. If LUS is really smart they'll seek a more extensive deal after attracting the coalition's attention with something it needs.

But Lafayette amounts to only a tiny side-deal in this battle of giants. Why in the world should the coalition go out of its way to cut a special deal in Lafayette? Maybe they won't. But they should. Because it is not about Lafayette: it is about municipal broadband and the consumers —citizens— owning the crucial last mile and "next mile" infrastructure. And visibly encouraging Lafayette is a cheap and effective way to encourage that sort of ownership to spread.

Spend a billion or two on Communities
The Tech folks and Sprint/Clearwire surely understand that their alliance with each other is one of genuine parallel interests but that their alliance with the cable companies is one where only their short-term interests are aligned. People as smart as Vint Cerf understand that in the long run the interests of cable companies lies is in extending their tight control of content to the internet and the interests of tech companies lies in continuing the open internet and letting the destruction of the broadcast/cable model proceed apace. In contrast communities could be long-term allies with whom their true interests are permanently aligned. Encouraging communities to build and own their own broadband infrastructure is something that both Google and Intel have both visibly supported. They've committed to spending billions on an infrastructure that fortifies them against the telcos' intentions but leaves them dependent upon cable companies which share the same long-term goals. It'd be wise for them to lay a foundation for moving away from the cable companies when the inevitable day comes that their divergent interests become practical obstacles.

So what could these companies do to help out a community? Let's make one of those lists bloggers are famous for:
  • Sprint could partner with the muni network and provide a cellular tie-in for the muni's bundle that would help it compete against quadruple play offerings from the telephone and cable companies.
  • Clearwire could offer cut-rate wireless locally (though the municipality that owns fiber should really do this itself).
  • Intel could offer money and technical support.
  • Google has by far the most to offer:
    • An on-network google cache that would lower costs and speed up the internet for local users
    • Google email for the community--ideally with community addresses rather than generic google ones
    • Google apps for the community--ideally run of the local server for unmatchable speeds; an amazing way to help bridge the digital divide by bringing down costs
    • YouTube in HD....
    • Use the partner communities as a testbed -- Lafayette with its 100 megs of intranet bandwidth would make a unique playground for trying out the sorts of ideas that Google is famous for.
Spending a little money...and even more, spending some prestige and thought on supporting municipal efforts could do as much to sustain and create the internet Vint Cerf and other wise tech types want to see as any other partnership they might undertake.

Worth pondering.

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