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January 12, 2006

It’s Time to Worry About RBOCs – Unwire!

Myantenna You can see a thin white antenna on top of our house in Vermont.  It’s smaller than the old-style TV antenna it replaced.  It makes a great mast for my weather station.  And it provides broadband Internet access for a couple dozen of our neighbors here in Stowe Hollow who live both beyond the ability (or apparent desire) of Verizon to provide DSL and also an expensive distance from where cable runs.  They have small antennae which point to our house (I can always find my way home!)

Subantenna The antennae belongs to PowerShift, the local ISP.  They ran a land connection up here which attaches to my antenna.  The land line capacity, although still outrageously priced by Verizon, is affordable because of the number of families on the service.

I believe that wireless access will go a long way toward freeing us from the telco-cableco duopoly and assuring that we Americans (and others) have the Internet capacity we need both for entertainment and to keep from getting competitively flattened in a flattening world.  An unintended consequence of the abuse of duopoly power by telcos and cablecos will be the deployment of various wireless technologies even in places where they are NOT the best technical or economic solution.

The RBOCs, the former Baby Bells who swallowed their parent,  have an enormous incumbent advantage because of the copper wire they own which reaches almost every American home.  They had to be beat over the head before they realized that using this for DSL-based Internet access was a good idea.  But they finally caught on.

Moreover, because of their ownership of poles and conduits and the working relationship they have with towns and cities which allow them to tear up streets, they have an advantage when it comes to replacing that copper with higher-capacity fiber.  Perhaps most important, their lobbying capacity is used very successfully both to make sure they don’t have to share their facilities (which we paid for them to build) with competitors on reasonable terms AND to prevent anyone else from building out a comparable network.  Recently the RBOCs have been particularly active and somewhat successful in using their connections at the state level to get legislation passed prohibiting municipalities from building WiFi networks (I posted here previously on municipal WiFi and will post more on them soon).

Fortunately, the cable networks originally built for one way delivery of entertainment are now mostly capable of two way data and usually at speeds better than current DSL technology delivers.  And the cablecos also have franchises and pole rights and permits and the other things needed to allow network extension and enhancement.  Unfortunately the cablecos seem to have learned well from the telcos and may well be happy to maintain a lucrative duopoly for Internet access.  So far no major cableco or telco has broken ranks and promised consumers equal access to all Internet applications; no cableco wants to give up the “right” to advantage its own applications and content as they deliver it to you on the pipes you are renting from them.

But wireless bypasses the last-mile connections of the duopolists. And wireless is poised to get much better than it is today.  Telephony Online says: “The expectation of standards-based WiMAX gear in 2006 will only fuel the municipal wireless fire, as that will enable cities to provide higher-bandwidth services over longer distances. In its latest Digital Cities missive, Intel is projecting deployment of WiMAX in the coming year to replace current use of CDPD systems which are not interoperable.” (I posted on municipal wireless here and will post more on that soon.  Obviously the adoption of standards and improvements in wireless technology benefit users of WiFi whether it is publicly or privately deployed.)

Michael Parehk blogs about frequencies which SHOULD be made available for unlicensed applications like WiMAX.  These frequencies are going to be freed from television use because digital broadcast doesn’t have to slop all over the airwaves like its analog predecessor.  They are better frequencies – more immune from rain and snow and cordless phone interference – than the frequencies which have so far been made available for wireless data use.

Moreover, modern technology means that licensing of spectrum (which always means granting at least a franchise if not a monopoly) is no longer necessary.  Data can find its own clear path through the ether somewhat like cars do on a road or packets through the Internet.  If you’re politically active, this is an important issue as Michael explains.

But watch for the powerful telco lobby to try to keep all this spectrum away from competitive use.  It’s dangerous to use unlicensed spectrum, they’ll argue.  The real danger, says I, is that wireless bypasses the wired duopoly; we can live with that.

I posted earlier on the dangerous accretion of power by the RBOCs now that AT&T and MCI no longer exist to counter RBOC lobbying and the FCC has become RBOC friendly.

Jeff Pulver has been covering this subject for a long time and recognized the danger before I thought it was serious.  Read his latest on this threat here.

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