Pipeline Publishing, Volume 3, Issue 4
This Month's Issue: 
New Frontiers 
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Last Mile Blues:
Taming the Most Unpredictable Frontier
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By Wedge Greene & Barb Lancaster

Taming the Most Unpredictable Frontier

A few years back one of the authors stuck their neck out and predicted that networks would soon be a thousand times larger, and that growth would have a significant impact on features, services – and on the OSS infrastructure.  The OSS community was urged to start planning OSS systems that could handle the growth.  Well, as we now all know, the “bubble burst”; growth of new networks and new services slowed dramatically, and the author got some grief for that prediction.  In this case, however, being right or wrong just swings on your definition of “soon.”  Networks are being reconceived, and soon they will be way more than a thousand times larger.  And yes, OSS infrastructures need to be reconceived to support the new networks, services and features – soon!

Looking more closely at how OSS capabilities will be impacted requires us to look much more closely at these new networks.  Just who will the dominant carriers be? Will we continue to see consolidation of big players to regenerate the giants of the past? Will broadband wireless access networks take off in the hands of residential and commercial communities? Or, will some other kind of service provider emerge and change the landscape yet again?  We can seek some clues from the not-so-distant past…

Not long ago everyone in the US communications marketplace was talking about the glut of long-haul bandwidth from overbuilding in the late nineties.  This overabundance was seen to be depressing the market for communications vendors (little need to buy new gear) and also depressing revenues for telecom suppliers (competitive over-supply driving prices down).   The then 10 gigabit backbone trials were just showpieces as there was not enough traffic to fill them up.  The Internet build out slowed when just about everyone was on the “highway” and the traffic flowed along just fine.  The industry turned inward and fed off itself.  And in the background dialup access gave way to ADSL and digital Cable – small broadband.  All those connected businesses and homes were just adjusting to how sweet that connectivity is.  They started to want more.  Today more folks want to be connected to that big broadband network, and cannot seem to get enough of it.  The situation has flipped from oversupply to throttled demand.  And when supply is limited, consumers get concerned – and some become activist.

The players in this new debate about metropolitan networks are residential consumers, business developers, last mile communications suppliers, wireless broadband suppliers, and local governments.  This emerging market ecosystem has reached sufficient mass to support its own trade journal (Last Mile Magazine: www.lastmileonline.com) and conference (Digital City Expo).  Basically, the network owners and business drivers for expansion are well understood for long haul and regional distribution networks.  No one doubts the long haul bandwidth will be there: big pipes drive efficiency in long haul; high density drives efficiency in regional distribution networks.  Long haul networks are being built with plenty of future capacity – this year 40 Gigabit networks are being deployed.  Regional distribution networks are being built in the US by the surviving carriers – at least 80,000 more fiber miles are planned before the end of the decade. 

"Not long ago everyone in the US communications marketplace was talking about the glut of long-haul bandwidth from overbuilding in the late nineties. "

That last mile of connectivity is still where getting connected slows down.  Contention exists about who builds, or will cough up the money to pay for, the last mile from the regional network to terminate at business and households.  The new “undiscovered horizon” is the lower density rural suburban boundary.  And in the city, it is the right-of-way in the tall shiny building.


Conflict: We are at a crossroads where two views of municipal communications supply and oversight are on the verge of strong conflict.  Since communications is a utility, should communications systems in towns and cities be treated like:

  • The electrical system, where incumbent carriers own right of way, have little competition, and effectively dictate their designs and terms without input from, and often over the top of, local interests?
  • The water system which is owned and maintained by the municipality which buys water from a larger supplier, stores and distributes it to local residents and reaps local revenue?

Not long ago, we could have put forth the cable franchise as the model for municipal communications.  Local municipalities licensed one or more cable carriers in their zone of control to deliver cable TV.  However, deregulation brought about by intensive, successful lobbying by RBOCs has eliminated the local municipality as a controller/participant in TV distribution.  Also, in winning the right to supply voice and data over cable TV infrastructure, cable companies became “de facto” regulated like, and in the same pot as, communications companies.

The vast majority of local municipalities seem to have no public policy on this as yet.  Mostly these fall into the fortunate category of having good (but not great) service from existing communications companies.  Others view the issues as too complex and costly to justify studying the issues and taking a stand.
Yet in the growing number of communities where the question is being asked, debate runs hot.  For municipalities, the key driver for soliciting communications infrastructure is the new discovery that connectivity, big broadband connectivity in particular, is an asset in competing for new business and development projects.  Municipalities see that new development follows big broadband rollout.   Studies  show  that lit  communities


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