Opening the paying field

When we went looking for an apartment here a couple years ago, we had two primary considerations in addition to the usual ones: walking distance from a Red Line subway stop, and fiber-based Internet access. The latter is easy to spot if you know what to look for, starting with too many wires on the poles. After that you look for large loops among the wires. That means the wiring contains glass, which breaks if the loops are too small. The apartment we chose has other charms, but for me the best one is a choice between three high speed Internet services: Comcast, Verizon FiOS and RCN. Although Comcast comes via coaxial cable, it’s a HFC (hybrid fiber-coax) system, and competes fairly well against fiber all the way to the home. That’s what Verizon FiOS and RCN provide.

fiber

We chose Verizon FiOS, which gives us 20Mb symmetrical service for about $60/month. The 25 feet between the Optical Network Terminal box and my router is ironically provided by old Comcast cable TV co-ax. (Hey, if Comcast wants my business, they can beat Verizon’s offering.)

My point is that we live where we do because there is competition among Internet service providers. While I think competition could be a lot better than it is, each of those three companies still offer far more than what you’ll find pretty much everywhere in the U.S. where there is little or no competition at all.

The playing field in the skies above sidewalks is not pretty. Poles draped with six kinds of wiring (in our case electrical, phone, cable, cable, fiber, fiber — I just counted) are not attractive. At the point the poles become ugly beyond endurance, I expect that the homeowners will pay to bury the services. By the grace of local regulators, all they’ll bury will be electrical service and bundles of conduit, mostly for fiber. And they won’t bury them deep, because fiber isn’t bothered by proximity to electrical currents. In the old days (which is still today in most fiber-less places), minimum separations are required between electrical, cable and phone wiring — the latter two being copper. In Santa Barbara (our perma-home), service trenching has to be the depth of a grave to maintain those separations. There’s no fiber yet offered in Santa Barbara. At our house there the only carrier to provide “high” speed is the cable company, and it’s a fraction of what we get over fiber here near Boston.

All this comes to mind after reading D.C. Court Upholds Ban on MDU Contracts: FCC prevents new exclusive contracts and nullifies existing ones, by John Eggerton in Broadcasting & Cable.¬† It begins, “The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Monday upheld an FCC decision banning exclusive contracts between cable companies and the owners of apartments and other multiple-dwelling units (MDU).”

The rest of the piece is framed by the long-standing antipathy between cable and telephone companies (cable lost this one), each as providers of cable TV. For example,

Not surprisingly, Verizon praised the decision. It also saw it as a win for larger issues of access to programming:

“This ruling is a big win for millions of consumers living in apartments and condominiums who want nothing more than to enjoy the full benefits of video competition,” said Michael Glover, Verizon senior VP, deputy general counsel, in a statement. “In upholding the ban on new and existing exclusive access deals, the Court’s decision also confirms the FCC’s authority to address other barriers to more meaningful competitive choice and video competition, such as the cable companies’ refusal to provide competitors with access to regional sports programming.”

Which makes sense at a time in history when TV viewing still comprises a larger wad of demand than Internet use. This will change as more and more production, distribution and consumption moves to the Internet, and as demand increases for more Internet access by more different kinds of devices — especially mobile ones.

Already a growing percentage of my own Internet use, especially on the road, uses cellular connectivity rather than wi-fi (thanks to high charges for crappy connectivity at most hotels). Sprint is my mobile Internet provider. They have my business because they do a better job of getting me what I want: an “air card” that works on Linux and Mac laptops, and not just on Windows ones). Verizon wanted to charge me for my air card (Sprint’s was free with the deal, which was also cheaper), and AT&T’s gear messed up my laptops and didn’t work very well anyway.

In both cases — home and road — there is competition.

While I can think of many reforms I’d like to see around Internet connectivity (among citizens, regulators and regulatees), anything that fosters competition in the meantime is a Good Thing.

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8 comments

  1. Don Marti’s avatar

    Dan Williams explains mobile broadband cards. (I would check for good Linux support in a hardware product even if I were buying it to run with another OS. Bad or missing Linux support is often a warning sign of poor-quality workarounds, dependence on third-party code that the hardware vendor doesn’t understand, or general customer inattention.)

  2. Jared Goralnick’s avatar

    Can’t agree more. I’m probably going to switch to FiOS in the next few months…I’m very lucky in the DC area to have many choices.

    Unfortunately one of my co-workers (just a couple hours away) doesn’t have any choices. Well, I guess he chooses between dial-up and…satellite. So he has satellite, which is pathetic in both its latency and its overall performance (especially during storms). Not to mention that it’s *really* expensive…and things tend to break.

    I know that his situation is unusual, but I hope in the process of competing and working with state and federal departments, options open up for the parts of this country that are still completely off the high speed grid.

  3. john’s avatar

    I need to switch over to Fios. I hate the fact that cable companies have more than id say 80% of the boardband market in souther california.. Fios brings in a breath of fresh air, from a market with non-existence competition. This hopefully will get the cable companies like Time Warner back on the ball and actually reduce their ever increasing pricing structures for services that are already in place.

  4. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Doc, the posting above shows an unwarranted prejudice toward fiber and does not even mention wireless. Why? Not only does wireless offer strong competition for any other medium — it has no need for cables on poles, so there is nothing unsightly to bury. And you can’t knock it down with a truck before you’ve buried it or cut it with a backhoe afterward. Finally, it’s worth remembering that both cable and fiber are nothing more than wireless inside a very expensive tube. I say, cut the cords!

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Brett, my post was primarily about competition using examples from what’s available in places where I live. (Near Boston and in Santa Barbara.) But you’re right that I was wrong not to mention wireless. It might be a good solution in Santa Barbara.

    And I’ll cop to a prejudice toward fiber. I think we should have far more fiber infrastructure running out as close as possible to the end points. I think that would give independent enterprises like yours far more backhaul choices to work with.

  6. Brett Glass’s avatar

    Each technology has its best uses. Fiber is a great technology for long haul transport of data — stretches of 40 miles or more. In short, it’s useful for the backbone and in many cases for the “middle mile.” (I, as a last mile provider, do have excessively high costs because I cannot tap into it locally, due to market concentration and refusal to deal.)

    But wireless is far better for the last mile in most locales — not just in Santa Barbara. It’d be great for you in the Boston area.

  7. Jacksonville Bail Bonds’s avatar

    Referring to wireless cards. I remember when companies like Verizon and At&T used to offer data plans with limits and one with unlimited usage, then they changed it. That’s why I no longer have one. I think it’s a rip off.

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