Tomorrow, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is expected to put the finishing touches on its policy to encourage the electronic power industry to emerge as a competitor to the existing broadband duopoly.
While there are undoubtedly a number of privately owned electric utilities which will look at the broadband-over-power line (BPL) technology, it's the public sector that might get the biggest boost from the Commission's action. We expect that Net Neutrality could also be part of the discussions.
Around the country, those duopolists have been busy over the past couple of years persuading state legislatures to prohibit local jurisdictions from offering their own services, putting onerous conditions on them or, as in the case of Lafayette, La., taking the jurisdiction to court for attempting to build its own system.
Clearly, building a new fiber infrastructure is quite an undertaking. Some jurisdictions are doing it, either alone or in conjunction with others. In Utah, the Utah Telecommunication Open Infrastructure Agency (UTOPIA) brought together 14 cities to build their own fiber infrastructure. Their project, though, operates as a wholesaler, selling access to other service providers. Think of it as a jurisdiction building roads or, come to think of it, a super highway.
Seattle, which has a municipal electric utility, is exploring the possibility of doing a similar project. The city issued a Request for Interest in May, and 28 companies responded. The city then picked 11 for further discussions. As with the Utah project, Seattle contemplates its role as a wholesaler, with multiple providers able to use the city's broadband network.
These are the types of projects that are giving officials around the country thoughts about jump-starting economic development through telecommunications. In the Washington area, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments is looking at a regional approach to municipal broadband development. Even our subway system, Metro, is trying to figure out what it can do with the infrastructure it has, which includes miles and miles of fiber to which local buildings are already connected.
BPL presents another frontier for the 43 million people who receive service from municipally owned utilities. If they don't want to build a system from scratch, the technology is developing that will allow the use of the existing electrical infrastructure to fill in when the free market duopoly can't or won't put in the types of facilities that local officials think is necessary. BPL isn't cheap to build. At the moment, the technology is limited. An existing municipal system in Manassas, VA, offers only data speeds between 300 kbps and 700 kbps – far below those offered currently by cable and telephone company.
But as we all know, technology has a certain way of developing. There are already reports of new technologies capable of carrying 200 mbps over power lines. That might be a ways away, but it's a great incentive for cities to take a look at a project.
The Commission tomorrow (Friday, Nov. 3) is expected to classify BPL as an information service, as it has classified broadband service from telephone and cable companies. But even so, cities have some leverage to make their wishes known for certain conditions they want. The Seattle proposal has this interesting item in its fiber to the premises network:
“Non Discriminatory Bit Transport. It is vital to the future of the Internet that network owners not discriminate in terms of bit transport or unnecessarily mediate between users and content or application providers. This should not be construed as a prohibition on quality of service guarantees but the network partner must provide similar treatment to all providers of like services. We believe that preferential treatment by network owners or operators of data streams will distort the evolutionary path of the Internet, stifle creativity and innovation and ultimately abridge the ability of the Internet to be a medium for the free dissemination of diverse thought and opinion.”
Now, there is no way that a municipality could require Net Neutrality from a service provider on the network, because the FCC lifted Federal regulations on broadband and preempted everyone else. Cities and counties carry a lot of weight, and certainly have some advantages going for them. They own the rights-of-way and many utility poles. They run the permitting processes. You get the idea. As attorney Jim Baller notes that the city could require Net Neutrality as part of a negotiation with a private company in return for say, favorable access to municipal facilities, whether offered over dedicated facilities or BPL.
That would be progress, and set a good example for recalcitrants in other parts of the business.