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« Iowa Unwires Rest Stops | Main | Enormous Wardriving Maps of Seattle »

February 5, 2005

Palo Alto's Fiber Is Doing Fine

Palo Alto's fiber network: I admit that fiber-optic networks have little to do with wireless, but we're still playing clean-up from this week's flurry of activity around an astroturf report on municipal broadband. (Scan through the archives for more on that.)

One piece of email I received during this week from Jeff Hoel in Palo Alto long and interesting as relates to their fiber network. Palo Alto was one of the first cities to build their own infrastructure. They have not been cited in any of the reports or ancillary material that have disputed the efficacy of municipal networks and I was interesting in finding out more. Jeff has a lot of points to make and, with his permission, I reproduce his email in condensed form below.

(Note: Jeff writes about FTTH, which is Fiber To The Home. Many fiber systems are fiber/coax hybrids in which fiber is the backbone and drops to the home use coaxial cable to reduce expense and complexity.)

Jeff writes:

I'm a Palo Alto resident and an enthusiastic supporter of muni FTTH here. In your 2-1-05 article "Beat the TechBeat on Muni Wireless", you say:

The author conveniently ignores Palo Alto, an early fiber-optic deployer, and I have no idea whether that project was vastly successful or a huge failure. Based on what I know about the growth of Internet businesses around Palo Alto that have remained post dotcom bubble, it seems that fiber might actually attract business.

Here's what I think is going on in Palo Alto.

The city put in a dark fiber infrastructure in 1996. [1 (PDF)] [2] It's doing fine, in that it's making money and paying off its investment. But the service is expensive enough that only businesses can afford it.

The city put in a 66-home FTTH Trial system in 2001. It's doing fine, in that participants are happy to pay $85/mo for Internet service. During the first year, phone service was also offered, but after that it was dropped because the point had been proved that you could do it. RF analog TV was also demonstrated to work technically, but was never offered as a service because of the hassle of buying the content. The Trial cost something like $640k; nobody ever thought it would pay for itself eventually. I think the equipment chosen for the Trial is not the equipment we'd want for a citywide system, which is too bad, but we learned that the city can at least run an FTTH system.

The city funded FTTH consultants and staff to create a FTTH Business Case (2002), a FTTH Business Plan, phase 1 (2003), and a FTTH Business Plan, phase 2 (2004). Here is the best place to find pointers into this documentation [3]. I wish this documentation were more perceptive than it is.

In 2004, the city came to realize that there might be no attractive way to fund citywide FTTH, given California law. On 7-19-04, Council voted to "chill." [4 (PDF)] That is, they voted not to put FTTH to a vote of the people in November, and not to spend much staff time on FTTH, hoping that maybe some other California city would come up with a good idea for funding FTTH. They also voted to keep running the FTTH Trial, since its continuing operation seemed to be paying for itself.

I think that if a citywide FTTH system does not happen, then FTTH in Palo Alto will have been a failure overall. But it's too early to know what will happen.

The city's utilities department is looking at using wireless for reading hard-to-get-to meters.

By the way, where muni telecom has been successful, economic development was one of the factors considered. Historically, Palo Alto hasn't emphasized this point, but maybe it should.

If you want a FTTH success story, look to Provo, UT. [5]

If you want emerging FTTH success stories, look to UTOPIA and Lafayette, Lousiana. [6] [7] [8]


I work for a company called Surewest, we currently have 20,000 FTTH connect homes, and we are deploying Motorola Canopy for fixed wireless Internet access. The FTTH service is 10Meg Internet, 300 channels of IP video and three IP phone lines, the build is an on going process all over Sacramento.

I think it is a very successful deployment..


As a Palo Alto citizen I am in favor of a muni-operated communications deployment here in Palo Alto, but one that is quite different than has been proposed by our local utility.

My preference is for a hybrid (fiber/wireless) deployment similar to the proposed Lompoc development.

If one considers public (muni) communications networks from the point of consumer *use* - i.e. in optimal service of local communicative assets - it seems to me that the most rational way to move forward with is with hybrid (fiber/wireless) deployments.

Hybrid deployments stimulate more *use*; they reinforce each other's efficiencies in ways that either one alone cannot do. Togather, they more optimally help consumers achieve *all* their communicative goals.

When one considers the cost of deploying a wireless network alongside an FTTH network, with the concomitant advantages, it's practically a no-brainer.

There are powerful useage multipliers present within a hybrid model that few communications consultants have pointed to. Again, the Lompoc model is the most forward-looking of the bunch, but even it has some way to go before it could be considered a template for other communities.

HYbrid deployments are important because as wireless networks proliferate they will begin to provide competition for some of the services that are made available by municipal fiber networks.

This is an important consideration because if FTTH is deployed without wireless in municipal models, the FTTH utilities will find itself suffering excessive churn and disruption of their revenue models because they aren't operating competitive wireless infrastructure. Projected revenues from data and phone services would certainly be at most risk in this scenario - with some video service revenue threatened as well.

Another consideration is that local utilities are currently habituated to running traditional *utility* networks (water, power, etc.) that are not nearly as dynamic as communication networks. Communications networks change rapidly. As well, traditional utility networks are centralized, and not prone to aggressively reach out to develop business.

Municipalities must insist that their local utilties create strong internal incentives to leverage communications networks in an *active* way - via compelling business development propositions, with experienced personnel (not just network operations personnel) - in order to stay on top of the local competitive wave.

Finally, communities comsidering deployment of muni-run utilities must do a better job of determining what their community *goals-for-use* are *before* the deployment is made.

Currently, most muni FTTH deployments (there aren't that many of real significance, yet) have presented a plain vanilla operating and business model. For communities located in areas that are underserved by the better-known commercial carriers, this isn't a problem. However, when addressing the needs of citizens in large urban areas, or in places with many choices in communication services, it's important to be able to deliver what people need in ways that *powerfully* differentiate muni services from those provided by existing commercial vendors. To date, this approach has been ignored - thus making it easier for the big telco and cable companies to efectively propogate the FUD necessary to defeat local communication infrastructure initiatives, or seriously threaten those initiatives with aggressive pricing or service offerings.

Palo Alto (and many other communities) could be more successful in attempts to deploy muni communication utilities by seeking ways to comprehensively leverage local communicative assets that deny attempts by commercial carriers to make trouble.

Palo Alto and other communities need to reach out to constituent components of their respective communities - i.e. schools, libraries, public safety and health organizations, private enterprise etc. in ways that lead to a comprehensive understanding of what each group's communicative "goals-for-use" are. Discovery must be done on these goals, with every constituent organization brought to understand how the network will help fulfill "goals-for-use".

From here, a municipal communication utility should embed these goals in its strategic plan, for all to see. This leads to an immediate and basic understanding of benefits for all the players involved.

Again, if this component of pre-deployment diligence is properly completed, *and built into the strategic deployment of the information utility* the local constituencies involved will *understand, from THEIR needs and perspective" exactly what a muni communication utility can do for them. To date, this has not been done for any FTTH deployment that I know of.

Much can be done by the local informatio utility to illustrate how the cross-pollination of wireless and fiber modalities will create enormous economies and efficiencies for community groups, and individual community members.

Full understanding of benefits based on local community goals *authentically discovered& dueing pre-deployment diligence innoculates against pre-deployment FUD by commercial vendors, and their post deployment attempts to knock off the muni information utility with aggressive price and service offerings. Currently this isn't the case, thus the ease with which the "majors" have been able to spread FUD, or divide and conquer communities who are considering deployments.

Lastly, communities should consider scaling in fiber while running wireless networks full time. This would give local network operators time to ascertain how the network is used, and help citizens begin to cnage communication service behaviors.

I'm confident that many utilities in highly competitive communication markets can effectively run municipal communication networks, but they must first meet the above prerequisites to be sustainable in the long run.

Norton, Kansas was one of the first 'towns' to get FTTH. It is nice to have internet, digital cable, and phone on one bill. One thing they failed to prevent was the overheating of CPE Devices on the sides of the houses. Fixed Wireless is also a very good idea. Anyone having any luck w/ putting phone and cable on a canopy wireless link?