Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Thoughts On Free Community Internet Service

this post originally appeared at my site TC Tech Notes: Free Internet*

(*there's no such thing as a free lunch)

Traverse City Light and Power is planning on becoming an ISP for the Traverse City area with a mix of WiFi, WiMax, and fiber to the premise (FTTP). See: Utility moves forward with free Internet

and: getting wireless broadband here – Feb 10

and: Traverse Bay EDC Regional Broadband Initiative Update (beginning on pg 15)

The service provider offering to help with this is Cherry Capital Connection.

They have set up a web site in conjunction with their partners: Coalition 4 Limitless Broadband

And they are offering help to many of the communities in northern Michigan due to the amount of money the federal government is offering to establish broadband in rural areas.

However, it seems that it wasn't too long ago that Traverse City was considering their own cable service to compete with Charter but a consultant told them it was crazy due to the costs and so the project was abandoned.

Now TCLP is considering entering into competition with the current broadband providers (basically Charter and AT&T) with a product coordinated through Cherry Capital Connection. It is easy to complain about Charter and AT&T, yet Charter offers a 25 Mbps x 3 Mbps cable modem and AT&T launched 3G cellular service last summer. And by the end of this year Charter will be offering 50-100 Mbps connections for most customers thanks to DOCSIS 3.0. By the end of next year Verizon will offer a wireless 4G service and AT&T will be right on their heels.

According to the TCLP report, the wireless service for the greater TC area would be based on WiMax. This immediately seems like a problem as the industry is moving to LTE for 4G service even though WiMax was first.

For more on this topic see:
GigaOm: LTE vs WiMAX: A Little 4G Sibling Rivalry"

NetowrkWorld: Cisco exiting WiMAX
"It's obvious now that mobile carriers are going to deploy LTE," says Laurence Swasey, principal of Visant Strategies. "There are no economies of scale with mobile WiMAX. Mobile WiMAX never materialized like many thought it would. Cisco is just staying on top of where the market is going."
Computerworld: LTE speeds faster than expected in Verizon trials

As the commercial wireless industry is planning on using LTE instead of WiMax I wonder about the cost and long-term viability of WiMax as a 4G service. The world's largest cellular manufacturer, Nokia, compared WiMax to Betamax. And if a company as big and dominant as Cisco is leaving the WiMax business should Traverse City be getting into it?

Additionally, other technical issues include:

- does Cherry Capital Connection have experience with fiber deployment? Do they have the engineers who are familiar with multimode, singlemode, GBIC's, SFP's, and attenuation? There is a reason Charter installed Munson's dark fiber - this is complicated work and needs experienced fiber engineers to deploy and maintain.

- will it be explained to city residents and visitors that they will need special equipment to connect to the WiMax service since WiFi enabled devices like laptops and iPhones won't work with WiMax? I think it is important to point out that if Traverse City chooses to use WiMax for community Internet, and all the wireless companies choose LTE, then when we buy our 4G iPhones and other Smartphones we won't be able to use the 4G service from TCLP.

- will TCLP be leasing or selling WiMax connection equipment so city residents can connect? Will there be any companies manufacturing this equipment five years from now?

- who will assist city residents with technical issues and who will fix the system when it breaks?

- who will pay for antenna removal if this venture fails? Portland, OR recently tried offering free wireless Internet in the city and after the project failed there was no one left to pay to dismantle the system. See: Portland set to dismantle, donate abandoned Wi-Fi antennas

And to be honest, the whole rush to get community Internet service just seems a little "off". For example, in the TCLP report, Wireless 2020 (the company whose model was used to select an Internet provider) is listed as an independent company and Rob Franzo as a consultant at Mitten Communications "in Traverse City". However, Mr. Franzo is listed on the Wireless 2020 web site as part of the team. The phone number he gives in the TCLP report is a number for C4LB so is there a conflict of interest there if the company he works for, Wireless 2020, selects a firm owned by his friend? And if you do a web search for Mr. Franzo's "Mitten Communications" nothing is found. Wouldn't a Communications company have a web site and a list of clients?

Overall this seems like another example where TCLP is rushing into a decision that is not in the best long-term interest of the community.

The fact is, anyone who wants fast Internet can get it. Mr. Moore may complain, but fiber will cost a lot more when it has to be run for one person versus simply plugging in another fiber to a Cisco switch - that is what happens in rural areas without economies of scale. As more businesses get fiber connections from Charter the price will plummet. Plus, with Charter coming out of bankruptcy and rolling out DOCSIS 3.0 for most customers it is likely that within two years anyone with a cable connection will be able to order 100 Mbps Internet service. Rather than complain about Charter why not complain about AT&T refusing to offer their U-Verse service in northern Michigan, or complain about Verizon not rolling out their incredible FIOS product?

Competition will bring improved Internet service, but I do not believe it is something TCLP should get into as if they choose the wrong technology then it is the city residents who will have to pay for the mistake making free Internet a huge loss.