January 1, 2008
In late 2007 I wrote an essay [pdf] for FTTH Prism arguing that it makes increasing sense for municipalities and incumbent local exchange carriers (ILECs) to cooperate in bringing open-access fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) service to America’s small towns and rural areas.
As readers of this web site well know, such a cooperative model stands in sharp contrast to the typical reality faced by poorly-served communities wanting to connect their businesses and households to a community-owned fiber network. In virtually all such cases, the ILEC, though refusing to deploy its own FTTH network--or even provide high-speed DSL service to the entire community—will fight tooth and nail to stop construction of a community-owned fiber network.
In my essay I acknowledged that ILECs had yet to show any signs of shifting from their “kill all muni-nets” attitude to one that views open-access municipal FTTH networks as a means to better compete with cable without taking on the substantial capital investment associated with a FTTH upgrade. But I added that:
“it remains to be seen whether these [anti-muni-net] attitudes will withstand the mounting competitive pressures facing ILECs in the large number of markets in which they are not planning to deploy fiber-rich, video-capable networks. In these markets, the combination of cable VoIP and triple-play bundles, wireless replacement, and low-cost web-based services will increasingly turn what were once “high-margin” copper customers into either low-margin copper customers, or negative-margin non-customers.”
Among the trends I cited as pushing ILECs to reconsider their staunch resistance to muni-nets was the fact that, in markets where they don’t deploy their own FTTH networks, they will fall farther and farther behind in terms of broadband speeds, especially as cable operators ramp up their deployment of next-generation DOCSIS 3.0 technology.
In the face of this increasingly threatening competitive trend, I suggested that ILECs seriously consider leveraging their existing customer base and expertise to become retail providers on state-of-the-art muni FTTH networks, which can deliver much faster (and more symmetrical) speeds and better service quality than cable—even after the latter deploys DOCSIS 3.0.
Three years later, as expected, cable’s DOCSIS 3.0 upgrade is well underway, expanding the already significant cable-DSL speed gap into a chasm that, over time, will turn DSL into the equivalent of dial-up Internet service--an option no longer considered by anyone serious about using the Internet’s full capabilities (assuming they have another option).
In a recent paper entitled “The Looming Cable Monopoly,” law professor and open-Internet advocate Susan Crawford summed up the competitive implications of this trend:
Where Verizon FiOS service exists, there will be competition with cable Internet access service providers for high-speed Internet access at speeds that are necessary to carry out real-time video conferencing or watch high-definition video. Where FiOS is not installed, there will not be any competition, and consumers will have just one provider to choose from: their local cable monopoly. Most Americans—perhaps as many as 85% of us—will fall into this latter category.
So, in this majority of U.S. markets, ILECs face a choice. They can milk their heavily-depreciated copper plant by nickel-and-diming telephone customers with never ending rate increases and fees, while ceding the broadband market to “the looming cable monopoly.”
Or, ILECs can join community leaders and stakeholders at the negotiating table as responsible and forward-looking corporate citizens. As I argued in my essay, I believe this path can lead to win-win arrangements that bring the benefits of advanced FTTH networks to communities and to ILECs, and provide cable’s “closed” DOCSIS 3.0 networks with healthy competition in the form of “open-access” networks that deliver a choice of “fiber-grade” retail services offered by ILECs and other service providers.
With all the money being spent on broadband mapping and developing a National Broadband Plan, and all the money at stake in potential USF revisions, I’d suggest that the Federal government invest a little of that money to study how this open-access muni-fiber option might work most effectively for all involved. And I’d suggest my 2007 essay as one starting point for discussion.
As part of a broader revisiting of telecom regulation, such study should consider potential regulatory changes and/or incentives that could help motivate ILECs to “see the light” about the value of muni-fiber…to understand that municipal FTTH networks are not only in the public interest, but can also be in the long-term interests of ILEC shareholders.
Unless ILEC managements change their attitudes toward municipal FTTH (perhaps with some help from regulators), it seems increasingly likely that both underserved communities and ILEC shareholders will suffer at the hands of cable’s broadband monopoly--which, in the wake of the recently-announced Comcast-NBCU deal, looms ever larger.
But if ILEC managements, local leaders, and state and federal officials step up to the plate with creative long-term vision (including removing state-level anti-muni restrictions), the U.S. can promote healthy broadband competition in the areas that need it most, while regaining its global technology leadership and revitalizing its communities and economy.
A win-win opportunity is a terrible thing to waste, especially when so much is at stake.