Have you seen the light?

I don’t know about you but I’m still waiting for fiber optic connectivity to my house. If you’re one to dwell in the past you could check out “The $200 Billion Broadband Scandal” aparently written by someone with a strong dislike for the Regional Bell Operating Companies (RBOCs) but that’s unlikely to change where we are today.

Perhaps it’s time for a paradigm shift in communications facilities. Telephone companies are whining that it’s simply too expensive to install fiber connectivity to the premises and the payback is too slow. Of course these are the same companies trying to extort money from web service providers such as Google and Yahoo claiming they aren’t paying their fair share and the same companies which have scammed us in the past (see above). But what if the telephone companies didn’t own the fiber network? What if your local municipality installed the fiber from your house back to a central point, leased it to you and allowed you to make a service agreement with any ISP who would be responsible for “lighting up your fiber”, maintaining the circuit and providing access?

This is just the proposal made by Bob Cringely in a recent column. It appears that someone may have been listening too as the Register (and later Cringely) pointed out the Berkley, California city council tabled a proposal for citywide WiFi to expore a fiber optic proposal instead. If the council moves ahead with the fiber plan and it is sucessful this could result in a string of such projects nationwide, speeding fiber deployment from coast to coast.

It’s worthwhile to look at where this idea originated and some of the details. It seems Bob got the idea (via Bob Frankston one of the VisiCalc inventors) from Bill St. Arnaud, a Canadian researcher. In this presentation St. Arnaud outlines a proposal for muncipal fiber leased to customers. SUch proposals have existed in the past but are often fiercly fought by incumbant carriers worried about loosing marketshare. What makes this proposal different is that the city only installs the fiber loops from a common access point to individual subscibers, they do not provide any services. Customers are responsible for contracting with a seperate service provider to receive voice, data or TV service over the fiber. The idea is that incumbant companies, along with startups, would provide these services and have little to loose as they have not made the large invenstment in running cable to individual subscribers. Another benefit is that the local loop would not be owned by a company removing the need for an incumbant to lease local lines to a competitor as is now common practice in the telephony industry and increasing competitve choice by reducing the barrier to entry.

St. Arnaud further suggests that the customer’s contracted service provider would be responsible for maintaining the fiber (either itself or, more likely, subcontracted out) removing ongoing maintenance expense from the municipality. In addition, the municipality would be able to use fiber connectivity itself to connect various city, county and school buildings to a high speed data network. The presentation suggests that a fiber system such as this using either optical ribbon fiber or micro-conduits would cost only about $1000-1500 per subscriber at 25-40% take up. St. Arnaud also points to a similar installation in Sweeden which he claims has been extremely successful.

I would love to see how this idea would play out in the real world, and would love for my community to be the one to try it yet that seems unlikely. In the meantime I’ll monitor resources such as the Fiber to the Home Council and FiberFirst Minnesota for details about fiber connectivity proposals in my neck of the woods.

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