Google Fiber Comes to Iowa

The City of West Des Moines recently announced a deal with Google Fiber to bring fiber to pass all 36,000 residents and businesses in the city. This is a unique business model that can best be described as open-access conduit.

The city says that the estimated cost of the construction is between $35 million and $40 million and that the construction of the network should be complete in about two-and-a-half years. The full details of the plan have not yet been released, but the press is reporting that Google Fiber will pay $2.25 per month to the city for each customer that buys service from Google Fiber.

What is most unique about this arrangement is that conduit will be built along streets and into yards and parking lots to reach every home and business. I know of many cities that lease out some empty conduit to ISPs and carriers, but the big limitation of most empty conduit is that it doesn’t provide easy access to get from the street to reach a customer. West Des Moines will be spending the money to build the conduit to serve the last hundred feet.

This business arrangement will still require Google Fiber to pull fiber throughout the entire empty conduit network – but that is far cheaper for the company than building a network from scratch. The big cost of building any fiber network is the labor needed to bring the fiber along every street – and the city has absorbed that cost. The benefit of this arrangement for Google Fiber is obvious – the company saves the cost of building a standalone fiber network in the City. It’s the cost of financing expensive networks up-front that makes ISPs hesitant to enter new markets.

From a construction perspective, I’m sure that the City is building fiber with some form of innerduct – which is a conduit with multiple interior tubes that can accommodate multiple fibers (as is shown in the picture accompanying this blog). This would allow additional ISPs to coexist in the same conduits. If the conduits built through yards also include innerduct it would make it convenient for a customer to change fiber ISPs – disconnect fiber from ISP A and connect to the fiber from ISP B.

The City is banking on other ISPs using the empty conduit because Google Fiber fees alone won’t compensate the city for the cost of the conduit. The press reported that Google Fiber has guaranteed the City a minimum payment of at least $4.5 million over 20 years. I’m sure the City is counting on Google Fiber to perform a lot better than that minimum, but even if Google Fiber connects to half of all of the customers in the City, the $2.25 monthly fee won’t repay the City’s cost of the conduit.

This business model differs significantly from the typical open-access network model. In other open-access networks, the City pays for 100% of the cost of the network and the electronics up to the side of a home or business. The typical monthly fee for an ISP to reach a customer in these open access-networks ranges between $30 and $45 per month. Those high fees invariably push ISPs into cherry-picking and only pursuing customers willing to pay high monthly rates. The $2.25 fee in West Des Moines won’t push ISPs to automatically cherry-pick or charge a lot.

Any ISP willing to come to the city has a few issues to consider. They avoid the big cost of constructing the conduit network. But a new ISP will still need to pay to blow fiber through the conduit. Any new ISP will also be competing against Google Fiber. One of the most intriguing ISPs already in the market is CenturyLink. The company has shown in Springfield, Missouri that it is willing to step outside the traditional business model and use somebody else’s network. I would have to imagine that other ISPs in the Midwest perked up at this announcement.

In announcing the network, the City said that they hoped this network would bring fiber to everybody in the City. Google Fiber doesn’t typically compete on price. Earlier this year Google Fiber discontinued its 100 Mbps broadband connection for $50. Many homes are going to find the $70 gigabit product from Google Fiber to be unaffordable. It will be interesting over time to see how the city plans on getting broadband to everybody. Even municipalities that own their own fiber network are struggling with the concept of subsidizing fiber connections below cost to make them affordable.

One thing this partnership shows is that there are still new ideas to try in the marketplace. For an open-access conduit system to be effective means attracting multiple ISPs, so this idea isn’t going to work in markets much smaller than West Des Moines. But this is another idea for cities to consider if the goal is to provide world-class broadband for citizens and businesses.

Dig Once Rules Coming

US Representative Anna Eshoo of California has submitted a ‘dig once’ bill every year since 2009, and the bill finally passed in the House. For this to become law the bill still has to pass the Senate, but it got wide bipartisan support in the House.

Dig Once is a simple concept that would mandate that when roads are under construction that empty conduit is places in the roadbed to provide inexpensive access for somebody that wants to bring fiber to an area.

Here are some specifics included in the bill:

  • This would apply to Federal highway projects, but also to state projects that get any federal funding. It encourages states to apply this more widely.
  • For any given road project there would be ‘consultation’ with local and national telecom providers and conduit would be added if there is an expected demand for fiber within 15 years.
  • The conduit would be installed under the hard surface of the road at industry standard depths.
  • The conduits would contain pull tape that would allow for easy pulling of fiber in the future.
  • Handholes would be placed at intervals consistent with industry best practices.

This all sounds like good stuff, but I want to play devil’s with some of the requirements.

The initial concept of dig once was to never pass up the opportunity to place conduit into an ‘open ditch’. The cost of digging to put in conduit probably represents 80% of the cost of deployment in most places. But this law is not tossing conduit into open construction ditches. It instead requires that the conduit be placed at depths that meet industry best practices. And that is going to mean digging at a foot or more deeper than the construction that was planned for the roadbed.

To understand this you have to look at the lifecycle of roads. When a new road is constructed the road bed is typically dug from 18 inches deep to 3 feet deep depending upon the nature of the subsoil and also based upon the expected traffic on the road (truck-heavy highways are built to a higher standard than residential streets). Typically roads are then periodically resurfaced several times when the road surface deteriorates. Resurfacing usually requires going no deeper than a few inches into the roadbed. But at longer intervals of perhaps 50 years (differs by local conditions) a road is fully excavated to the bottom of the roadbed and the whole cycle starts again.

This means that the conduit needs to be placed lower than the planned bottom of the roadbed. Otherwise, when the road is finally rebuilt all of the fiber would be destroyed. And going deeper means additional excavation and additional cost. This means the conduit would not be placed in the ‘open ditch’. The road project will have dug out the first few feet of the needed excavation, but additional, and expensive work would be needed to put the conduit at the safe depth. In places where that substrate is rock this could be incredibly expensive, but it wouldn’t be cheap anywhere. It seems to me that this is shuttling the cost of deploying long-haul fiber projects to road projects, rather than to fiber providers. There is nothing wrong with that if it’s the national policy and there are enough funds to pay for it – but I worry that in a country that already struggles to maintain our roads that this will just means less road money for roads since every project just got more expensive.

The other issue of concern to me is handholes and access to the fiber. This is pretty easy for an Interstate and there ought to be fiber access at every exit. There are no customers living next to Interstates and these are true long-haul fibers that stretch between communities.

But spacing access points along secondary roads is a lot more of a challenge. For instance, if you want a fiber route to be used to serve businesses and residents in a city this means an access point every few buildings. In more rural areas it means an access point at every home or business. Adding access points to fiber is the second most labor-intensive part of the cost after the cost of construction. If access points aren’t where they are needed, in many cases the fiber will be nearly worthless. It’s probably cheaper in the future to build a second fiber route with the proper access points than it is to try to add them to poorly designed existing fiber route.

This law has great intentions. But it is based upon the concept that we should take advantage of construction that’s already being paid for. I heartily support the concept for Interstate and other long-haul highways. But the concept is unlikely to be sufficient on secondary roads with lots of homes and businesses. And no matter where this is done it’s going to add substantial cost to highway projects.

I would love to see more fiber built where it’s needed. But this bill adds a lot of costs to building highways, which is already underfunded in the country. And if not done properly – meaning placing fiber access points where needed – this could end up building a lot of conduit that has little practical use for a fiber provider. By making this a mandate everywhere it is likely to mean spending a whole lot of money on conduit that might never be used or used only for limited purposes like feeding cellular towers. This law is not going to create fiber that’s ready to serve neighborhoods or those living along highways.

Getting Access to Conduit

innerduraFuturePathGroupThere is an interesting case at the California Public Utilities Commission where Webpass is fighting with AT&T over access to conduit. You may have seen that Webpass was just recently bought by Google Fiber and I would think this case will be carried forward by Google.

The right for competitive providers to get access to conduit comes from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In that Act, Congress directed that competitive telecom providers must be provided access to poles, ducts, conduits, and rights-of-way by utilities. A utility is defined as any company, except for electric cooperatives and municipalities, which owns any of those facilities that are used in whole or in part for communications by wire. Under this definition telcos, cable companies, commercial electric companies, gas companies, and others are required by law to make spare conduit available to others.

If a utility allows even one pole or piece of conduit to be used for communications, including for its own internal purposes, then the whole system must be made available to competitors at fair prices and conditions. About half of the states have passed specific rules governing those conditions while states without specific rules revert to the FCC rules.

Webpass tried to get access to AT&T conduits in California and ran into a number of road blocks. It seems like there are a few situations where AT&T has provided conduit to Webpass, but AT&T denied the majority of the requests for access.

This is not unusual. Over the years I have had several clients try to get access to AT&T and Verizon conduit and none of them were successful. AT&T, Verizon, and the other large telcos generally have concocted internal policies that make it nearly impossible to get access to conduit. When a competitor faces that kind of intransigence their only alternative is to take the conduit owner to court or arbitration – and small carriers generally don’t have the resources for this kind of protracted legal fight.

But even fighting the telcos is no guarantee of success because the FCC rules provide AT&T with several reasons to deny access. A utility can deny access on the basis of safety, reliability or operational concerns. So even when a conduit owner is ordered to provide access after invoking one of these reasons, they can just invoke one of the other exceptions and begin the whole fight again. It takes a determined competitor to fight through such a wall of denial.

Trying to get conduit reminds me of the battles many of my clients fought in trying to get access to dark fiber fifteen years ago. I remember that AT&T and Verizon kept changing the rules of the dark fiber request process so often that a competitor had a difficult time even formulating a valid request for dark fiber. Even when Commissions ordered the telcos to comply with dark fiber requests, the telcos usually found another reason to deny the requests.

This is a shame because getting access to conduits might be one of best ways possible to promote real competition. AT&T and Verizon both claim to have many hundreds of thousands of miles of fiber, much of it in conduit. I am sure there are many cases where older conduit is full. But newer conduits contain multiple empty tubes and one would have to think that there is a huge inventory of empty conduits in the telco networks. The same is true for the cable companies and the large electric companies, and I can’t recall any small carriers who has ever gotten access to any of this conduit. I think some of the large carriers like Level3 or XO probably have gotten some access to conduit, but I would imagine even they probably had to fight very hard to get it.

I remember talking to a colleague the day that we first read the Telecommunications Act of 1996 that ordered the telcos to make conduit available to competitors. We understood immediately that the telcos would adopt a strategy of denying such access – and they have steadfastly said no to conduit requests over the years. I am glad to see Webpass renewing this old fight and it will be interesting to see if they can succeed where others have failed.

Congress Considering Mandate for Conduit

innerduraFuturePathGroupThere is a bill making its way through Congress that ought to be of interest to the carrier community. It’s called the Broadband Conduit Deployment Act of 2015. It’s a bipartisan bill being sponsored by Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-CA) and Greg Walden (R-OR).

In a nutshell this requires that all federally funded highway construction projects include the installation of empty fiber conduits in cases where it is determined that an area has a need for broadband in the fifteen years after the construction. I have no idea who makes this determination.

There are a number of cities and counties around the country that have had this policy in place and it works, albeit slowly. People don’t realize it, but most local roads get rebuilt to some degree every thirty years, and so every year about 3% to 4% of roads in an area ought to be getting rebuilt. That number varies according to weather conditions in different parts of the country and according to how heavily a road is used. Roads that carry a lot of overweight loads wear out a lot faster. But federal interstate highways are built to a higher standard and are expected in many parts of the country to last up to forty years. And there are now some stretches of interstate highways that are fifty years old.

One has to wonder about how quickly there might be benefit from such a policy. Certainly any conduit put into urban stretches of highway would probably be grabbed up. But in a lot of places it might be a decade or more until the new conduit provides any real benefit. Once you get out of urban areas conduit is mostly used for long haul fiber, and so have having a patchwork of conduits here and there isn’t going to get many carriers excited.

But over time such a system will provide benefits as more and more stretches of a highway get empty conduits. The same thing has happened in the cities that have this policy. They hoped for a quick benefit for broadband when they introduced this kind of ordinance, but it often takes many years until there is enough conduit available to get any fiber provider excited. The place where almost any empty conduit is of immediate interest is if it runs through neighborhoods, because saving any construction costs on the last mile matters to a fiber builder.

The law is silent on how this conduit would be made available. I’ve worked with getting rights to government-owned fiber before and it has always been difficult. The government owner of a conduit doesn’t have the same sense of urgency as a carrier who is trying to build a fiber route. If you have to wait too long to get access to conduit you’re probably better off finding a different solution.

But it’s step in the right direction and over time this will produce benefits in some places. I also don’t know exactly what kind of roads qualify as receiving federal highway funding assistance. Obviously all interstate highways meet that test. But I’ve sat through many city council meetings where I’ve heard that state highway projects sometime get some federal funding assistance. If so, then this greatly expands the scope and potential of the law.

Similar bills have been bouncing around in congress since 2006 and never passed for one reason or the other. The White House is in favor of this bill as one more piece of the puzzle in promoting more broadband. The White House tried to implement an abbreviated version of this idea a few years ago through executive order, but apparently the implementation of that has been very spotty.

Like many good ideas that work their way up to Congress, this bill is probably twenty years too late. If this had been implemented at the time of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 then we would already have conduit all over the country that would provide cheaper transport. But I guess you have to start somewhere, so I hope this bill becomes law.

Installing Fiber in Conduit

innerduraFuturePathGroupI thought I would take a break today from complaining about the FCC and instead talk today about how fiber is put into conduit. I know a lot of the people who read this blog are not technical and I figured some of you would want to know a little more about how fiber actually gets to where it’s going.

I’m looking specifically today about fiber placed in conduit. Conduit is used when fiber is installed underground in an environment where you want to either protect the fiber from damage or else be able to easily get to the fiber in the future. It’s possible to bury fiber directly, but most carrier class fiber routes use conduit.  There are three basic options for getting fiber through a conduit – pulling, pushing, and blowing.

In the first step of the installation process a conduit will be buried in the ground. Some conduit consists of a large empty tube that can hold multiple fibers. But today it’s becoming more common to use what is called innerduct conduit, which contains multiple smaller tubes inside of a larger conduit.

For long outdoor fiber runs the primary method used to install fiber in conduit is pulling. In fact, if you are installing large count fiber or heavier fibers, this is the only real option. Conduits made for this purpose come with factory-installed cords inside. The pulling process then consists of tying the fiber to the cord at one end of a run of conduit and then pulling out the cord from the opposite end. For long fiber runs the pulling is done with specialized equipment that can pull steadily and evenly to minimize any damage to the fiber. Fiber is strong, but it can be damaged during the installation process, which is why it’s essential before accepting a new run of fiber to first test it by shining a laser through to make sure the fiber survived the installation process. Damage from pulling is probably the number one cause of late fiber problems on long fiber routes.

In short fiber runs, such as inside of a central office or a home, the fiber can be pulled manually by hand. While fiber has a lot of flexibility, the fiber can be damaged by pulling it around tight bends or other impediments.

Pushing fiber is a technique that is only used for short runs of fiber. It’s exactly what it sounds like and you literally feed the fiber into one end of a conduit and shove the fiber through the empty conduit and hope there are no snags or bends that will limit your ability to make it the whole way through. Pushing fiber is the safest method to use since it puts the least amount of stress on the fiber. If the run is a bit longer, but still pushable, there are pushing tools that can apply steady constant pressure to force the fiber through the conduit.

Blowing fiber is perhaps the most interesting method used. Blowing fiber involves using equipment at both ends of the conduit to be filled. The machines force air into one end of the fiber, increasing air pressure, while at the opposite end of the fiber another machine draws air out of the conduit to produce lower air pressure. The difference in the air pressure draws the fiber through the conduit.

Blowing fiber can be used on longer routes as long as the fiber to be fed is not too heavy, perhaps 8 or 12 pairs of fiber. It’s vital when blowing fiber for longer distances to have conduit with very low-friction lining and no physical impediments.

Both pulling fiber and blowing fiber take specialized equipment and require following specific techniques to do it right to get the fiber through the conduit both quickly and safely. If you watch a fiber installation team and they are just sitting somewhere along the road, chances are that they are not being idle but are instead pulling or blowing the fiber through the conduit. All of these methods require knowledge and skill to do right without harming the conduit.