Davis Strauss recently wrote an article for Broadband Breakfast that reminded me that good technology does not always mean a good ISP. There are great and not so great ISPs using every technology on the market. Mr. Strauss lists a few of the ways that an ISP can cut costs when building and operating a fiber network that are ultimately detrimental to customers. Following are a few examples.
Redundant Backhaul. Many of the BEAD grants will be built in areas where the existing broadband networks fail regularly due to cuts in the single fiber backhaul feeding the area. I hear stories all of the time of folks who lose broadband regularly for a few days at a time and sometimes much longer. Building fiber last-mile will not solve the backhaul issue if the new network relies on the same unreliable backhaul.
Oversubscription. It’s possible to overload a local fiber network just like any other network if an ISP loads more customers into a network node that can be supported by the bandwidth supplying the node. There are multiple places where a fiber network can get overstressed, including the path between the core and neighborhoods and the path from the ISP to the Internet.
Lack of Spares. Fiber circuit cards and other key components in the network fail just like any other electronics. A good ISP will have spare cards within easy reach to be able quickly restore a network in the case of a component failure. An ISP that cuts corners by not stocking spares can have multi-day outages while a replacement is located.
Poor Network Records. This may not sound like an important issue but it’s vital for good customer service and network maintenance. Fiber wires are tiny and are not easy for a field technician to identify if there are not great records that match a given fiber to a specific customer. There is an upfront effort and cost required to organize records, and an ISP that skimps on record keeping will be forever disorganized and take longer to perform routine repairs and maintenance.
Not Enough Technicians. Possibly the most important issue in maintaining a good network is to have enough technicians to support the network. The big telcos have historically understaffed field technicians which has resulted in customers waiting days or weeks just to have a technician respond to a problem. ISPs can save a lot of money by running a too-lean staff to the detriment of customers.
Inadequate Monitoring. ISPs that invest in good network monitoring can head off a huge percentage of customer problems by reacting to network issues before customers even realize there is a problem. A huge percentage of network problems can be remedied remotely by a skilled technician if the ISP is monitoring the performance of all segments of a network.
These are just a few examples of ways that ISPs can cut corners. It is these behind-the-scenes decisions on how to operate that differentiate good and poor ISPs. Mr. Strauss doesn’t come right out and say it, but his article implies that there will be ISPs chasing the giant BEAD funding that will be in the business of maximizing profits early to be able to flip the business. An ISP with this mentality is not going to spend money on redundant backhaul, record-keeping, spares, or network monitoring. An ISP with this mentality will hope that a new fiber network can eke by without the extra spending. They might even be right about this for a few years, but eventually, taking short cuts always comes back to cost more than doing things the right way.
We already know that some ISPs cut corners, because we’ve seen them for the last several decades. The big telcos will declare loudly that DSL network perform badly because of the aging of the networks. There is some truth in that, but there are other ISPs still operating DSL networks that perform far better. The rural copper networks of big telcos perform so poorly because the big telcos cut every cost possible. They eliminated technicians, didn’t maintain spare inventories, and invested nothing in additional backhaul.
I honestly don’t know how a state broadband office is going to distinguish between an ISP that will do things right and one that will cut corners – that’s not the sort of thing that can be captured in a grant application since every ISP will say it plans to do a great job and will offer superlative customer service.
Doug- As we ready RFPs to identify the best partner for our city’s broadband fiber network, these are great points to ask the ISP’s.