The Industry

Seattle Tackles MDU Broadband


Our industry takes it as general wisdom that urban areas have better broadband than rural areas, and as a general premise it’s true. But within urban areas, the segment of the community with the widest range of broadband coverage are apartment buildings. I think you can go to every big city and find some apartments with gigabit speeds while other apartment buildings have little or no broadband.

There are several reasons for the wide variance in broadband coverage. First, landlords have always had a say about what carriers they will allow in their buildings. I’ve seen numerous cases of landlords that include slow broadband into the rent and don’t let faster ISPs into their building. Some buildings don’t have broadband due to what can only be described as redlining where ISPs avoided poor or troubled neighborhoods. Finally, some older apartment buildings are expensive to rewire due to the way they were originally constructed.

The City of Seattle is tackling the issue in an interesting way. Over half of the living units in the city are in MDU’s (multi-dwelling units), meaning apartments, condominiums, and townhouses. In 2019 almost 81% of new units built in the city are in MDUs. The city views the ability of MDU tenants to have the same broadband quality and options as single family homes as a digital equity issue.

The city has been gathering facts about MDU broadband for several years and came to understand the wide variance of broadband in different buildings. They found that MDUs routinely don’t have the same broadband options as nearby single-family homes. The city conducted a survey in 2017 that found that 95% of MDU tenants have access to broadband of at least 25/3 Mbps. However, the survey found that few tenants in the city have a competitive choice between multiple ISPs at speeds of 100 Mbps or faster. The tenants who have the choice of multiple fast ISPs were the most satisfied with their broadband. The city concluded from the survey that choice was just as important to MDU tenants as broadband speeds.

Probably the most important finding of Seattle’s research is that there is a wide variance among landlords in terms of understanding their broadband options. They found landlords who know very little about broadband up to landlords that have sophisticated tech plans. The city found that many landlords have relied on the advice from ISPs – which clearly can be self-serving and not in the benefit of landlords and tenants.

The city concluded that one way that they could help improve MDU broadband was by helping to educate landlords. The Seattle Office of Cable Communications launched an initiative they call B4B – Build for Broadband. Their goal is to create awareness of the importance of broadband for landlords and to provide educational content for the many landlords that can’t afford telecom planners and consultants.

The city has undertaken an initiative to provide information about broadband to landlords. They’ve started a series of webinars covering topics of interest to landlords. I should disclose that I helped the city with a webinar that compared wired and wireless technologies. The city is also gathering other information for landlords on their website.

This initiative makes a lot of sense in Seattle since it has one of the highest percentages of MDU residents in the country. However, any city that has MDUs could consider something similar. I’ve done broadband feasibility studies for cities that have between 20 to 50 MDU complexes, and inevitably they are as widely disparate as the ones in Seattle. There usually are a few that have little or no broadband and a few that have been wired with fiber and that offer gigabit broadband.

Cities are often surprised by the wide variance in broadband availability and speeds at different MDUs. Cities are also often surprised to hear that even if they find a broadband solution for improving broadband for single-family homes and businesses, that the solution will not necessarily apply to MDUs. I know of many fiber overbuilders that skip past MDUs due to the cost of rewiring the buildings, the reluctance of landlords to let them in, or the marketing challenge of keeping up with tenant churn.

It’s not hard for smaller cities to take an inventory of the state of broadband in their MDU community. It’s normally as simple as to visit each apartment complex to find out what’s available to tenants. While smaller cities are not going to undertake an educational process with the scope of Seattle’s, cities can assist MDUs with poor broadband to find a better solution. Sometimes it’s as easy as helping to match competitive ISPs and landlords. It might mean getting landlords talking to each other. One thing is for sure – no solutions can be found until the problems are identified.

Regulation - What is it Good For?

Open Access for Apartment Buildings

San Francisco recently passed an interesting ordinance that requires that landlords of apartments and multi-tenant business buildings allow access to multiple ISPs to bring broadband. This ordinance raises all sorts of regulatory and legal questions. At the most recent FCC monthly meeting the FCC jumped into the fray and voted on language that is intended to kill or weaken the ordinance.

The FCC’s ruling says that a new ISP can’t share wiring that is already being used by an existing broadband provider. I call this an odd ruling because there are very few technologies that share wires between competitors – with most fast broadband technologies a new ISP must rewire the building or beam broadband wirelessly. This means the FCC’s prohibition might not make much of a difference in terms of overturning the San Francisco ordinance. The only competitive broadband technology that routinely uses an existing wire is G.Fast, and even that can only be used by one broadband provider at a time and not shared. I can’t think of any examples of a practical impact of the FCC ruling.

The FCC’s ruling is odd for a number of other reasons. It’s certainly out of the ordinary for a federal agency to react directly to a local ordinance. My guess is that the FCC knows that many other cities are likely to jump onto the open access bandwagon. Cities are getting a lot of complaints from apartment tenants who don’t have access to the same broadband options as single family homes.

The FCC ruling is also unusual because it violates the FCC’s overall directive from Congress to be pro-competition. The FCC order clearly falls on the side of being anti-competitive.

What I find most striking about this decision is that this FCC gave up authority to regulate broadband when they killed Title II regulation last year. I guess what they meant was that they are giving up regulating broadband except when it suits them to regulate anyway. It’s an interesting question if the agency still has the authority to make this kind of ruling. It’s likely this lack of regulatory authority that forced the FCC to make such a narrow ruling instead of just overturning the San Francisco ordinance. I always knew it wouldn’t be long before the FCC selectively wanted back some of their former Title II authority.

The MDU market has an interesting history. Historically the large apartment buildings were served by the incumbent providers. The incumbents often stealthily gave themselves exclusive rights to serve apartments through deceptive contractual practices, and the FCC prohibited some of the most egregious abuses.

For many years competitors largely weren’t interested in apartments because the cost of rewiring most building was prohibitive. In the last few years the MDU market has changed significantly. There are now wiring and wireless technologies that make it more affordable to serve many large apartment buildings. There are now numerous competitors operating in the space. Many of them bring a suite of services far beyond the triple play and also bring security, smart camera solutions to make tenants feel safe, smart sensors of various kinds, and WiFi in places like hallways, stairwells, parking garages and outside. These new competitors often require an exclusive contract with a landlord as a way to help cover the cost of bringing the many ancillary services.

There is another regulatory issue to consider. There have been several laws from Congress that have been tested in the courts that give building owners the right to keep ISPs off their premise – this applies to single family homes as well as the largest apartment buildings. It won’t be surprising to see building owners suing the City for violating their property rights.

Yet another issue that muddies the water is that landlords often elect to act as the ISP and to build broadband and other services into the rent. Does the San Francisco ordinance prohibit this practice since it’s hard for any ISP to compete with ‘free’ service.

Another area affected by the ordinance might best be described as aesthetics. Landlords often have stringent rules like requiring that ISPs hide wiring, electronics boxes, and outdoor enclosures or huts. It’s a bit ironic that the City of San Francisco would force building owners to allow in multiple ISPs and the myriad wires and boxes that come with open access. San Francisco recently got a positive court ruling saying that aesthetics can be considered for small cell deployments and it seems odd in MDUs that the City is favoring competition over aesthetics.

At the end of the day I think the City might be sorry that they insinuated themselves into an extremely complicated environment. There are likely dozens of different relationships today between landlords and ISPs and it seems like a slippery slope to try to force all apartment owners to offer open access.

I know cities have been struggling with the open access issue. They receive complaints from apartment tenants who want different broadband options. It’s not hard to understand why a city with a lot of apartment dwellers might feel compelled to tackle this issue. I know other cities that have considered ordinances like the San Francisco one and abandoned the issue once they understood the complexity.

The City made an interesting choice with the ordinance. The City elected to require open access to help foster consumer choice. However, it’s possible that the long-term results might not be what the City expected and the ruling could drive away the creative ISPs who elect not to compete in an open access environment.

It seemed almost inevitable that the City ordinance will be challenged by somebody – but the courts were a more logical place to fight this battle than at the FCC. If anything, the FCC has just clouded the issue by layering on a toothless prohibition against the sharing of wires.

The Industry

Big Telcos and Broadband

A recent article in Telecompetitor reports that analysts at Moffett Nathanson expect the big telcos to start making inroads into the near-monopoly for broadband currently enjoyed by the cable companies. The article focused specifically on AT&T, but some other big telcos like CenturyLink are also aggressively expanding fiber networks.

I would have to assume that the analysts got the following goals directly from AT&T because I can’t find any other references to these specific goals. But each of these is in line with statements made by AT&T executives over the last year. According to the article, AT&T broadband goals over the next few years are as follows:

  • Offer broadband speeds below 50 Mbps to 30 million passings using DSL;
  • Offer broadband speeds between 50 – 100 Mbps to 20 million passings using paired copper VDSL;
  • Offer ‘near gigabit’ speeds to 10 million passings using via 5G wireless;
  • Offer gigabit speeds using FTTH technology to 14 million residential passings and 8 million business passings.

The real news here is in the last two bullet points. AT&T accepted the goal from the FCC for passing 12.5 million customers with FTTH from the merger with DirecTV. It’s big news if they intend to extend that to 22 million passings. And the goal of using millimeter wave radios to reach another 10 million potential customers is something new.

If AT&T meets these goals they will be bringing serious competition to the cable companies. AT&T and the other telcos have been bleeding DSL customers for over a decade and handed the cable companies a near-monopoly on fast broadband in most urban and suburban markets. According to Moffett Nathanson the telco expansion will bring near-gigabit speeds on telco networks to 32% of the country.

It’s important to understand where the new AT&T broadband is being built. The majority of the new coverage is in three market niches – apartment buildings, new greenfield housing developments and business districts. AT&T’s expansion has largely focused on these specific market niches and is likely to continue to do so. AT&T is not proposing to duplicate what Verizon did with its FiOS network and bring broadband to older single family home neighborhoods. They are instead focusing on buildouts where the the cost of construction per customer is the lowest – the ultimate cherry-picking network.

This means that the AT&T coverage will bring the opportunity for gigabit broadband to a much larger footprint, but that’s not always going to bring customer choice. In the MDU market many landlords are still allowing only one ISP into their apartment complexes. As telcos like AT&T compete with the cable companies for this market the broadband speeds in apartments and condos will get much faster, but many customers will still only have the option to buy from whatever ISP that landlord has allowed.

I have to admit that this market shift to bring broadband to MDUs caught me a bit by surprise. Many years ago Verizon showed that there is a successful business plan for building fiber to older residential neighborhoods. In the northeast Verizon still carries significant market share in its FiOS neighborhoods, and customers consistently rate them as having better customer service than the cable companies. Other telcos like CenturyLink are copying the Verizon model and are building swaths of fiber in residential neighborhoods.

The traditional wisdom was that it is too costly to bring fast broadband to apartments. A decade ago bringing fiber to an apartment meant rewiring the whole building with fiber – and for many apartments that is prohibitively expensive. But there have been technology advances that have made this more feasible. For example, much of the ‘near-gigabit’ speeds can be achieved by using G.Fast technology over existing coaxial or telco cable in older apartments. There have also been big improvements for indoor fiber deployments that include small flexible fibers and techniques for installing fiber inconspicuously in hallways. Many buildings that seemed too costly to serve years ago now make economic sense. Finally, the potential to deliver backhaul to an MDU using millimeter wave radios is going to eliminate the need to build as much fiber.

The real big unknown is how successful any of these big companies will be with 5G. As I’ve been writing lately there are still a lot of barriers that might make it difficult for AT&T to use the wireless technology to cover 10 million passings. We’re going to have to wait to see some real deployments over the next few years to see if the technology works as promised and if the cost of deployment is as cheap as anticipated. But the one thing that these analysts have gotten right is that the big telcos are finally fighting back against the cable monopolies they helped to create by sticking with DSL too long. It’s going to be interesting to see how well they do in winning back customers that they lost over the last two decades.


G.Fast over Coax

There is yet another new technology available to carriers – G.Fast over coaxial cable. Early trials of the technology show it works better than G.Fast over telephone copper.

Calix recently did a test of the new coaxial technology and was able to deliver 500+ Mbps for up to 2,000 feet. This is far better than current G.Fast technology over copper which can handle similar data speeds up to about 800 feet. But telephone G.Fast is improving and Calix just demonstrated a telephone copper G.Fast that can deliver 1 Gbps for about 750 feet.

But achieving the kinds of speeds demonstrated by Calix requires a high-quality telephone copper network. We all know that the existing telephone and coaxial networks in existing buildings are usually anything but pristine. Many existing coaxial cables in places like apartment buildings have been cut and re-spliced numerous times over the years, which will significantly degrade G.Fast performance.

This new technology is definitely going to work best in niche applications – and there may be situations where it’s the clearly best technology for the price. There are a surprising number of coaxial networks in place in homes, apartment buildings, schools, factories and older office buildings that might be good candidates for the technology.

A number of telcos like CenturyLink and AT&T are starting to use G.Fast over telephone copper to distribute broadband to apartment buildings. Since as the incumbent telephone company they can make sure that these networks are available to them. But there might be many apartment buildings where the existing coaxial network could be used instead. The ability to go up to 2,000 feet could make a big difference in larger apartment buildings.

Another potential use would be in schools. However, with the expanding demand for broadband in classrooms one has to wonder if 500 Mbps is enough bandwidth to serve and share among a typical string of classrooms – each with their own heavy broadband demand.

There are also a lot of places that have coaxial networks that you might not think about. For example, coaxial wiring was the historic wiring of choice for the early versions of video surveillance cameras in factories and other large businesses. It would not be hard to add WiFi modems to this kind of network. There are tons of older hotels with end-to-end coaxial networks. Any older office buildings is likely to have coaxial wiring throughout.

But there is one drawback for the technology in that the coaxial network can’t be carrying a cable TV signal at the same time. The coaxial G.Fast operates at the same frequencies as a significant chunk of a traditional DOCSIS cable network. To use the technology in a place like an apartment would mean that the coaxial wiring can no longer be used for cable TV delivery. Or it means converting the cable TV signal to IPTV to travel over the G.Fast. (but that wouldn’t leave much bandwidth for broadband.) But still, there are probably many unused coaxial wiring networks and the technology could use them with very little required rewiring.

It’s more likely that the coaxial G.Fast could coexist with existing applications in places like factories. Those networks typically use MoCA to feed the video cameras, at frequencies that are higher than DOCSIS cable networks.

But my guess is that the interference issue will be a big one for many potential applications. Most apartments and schools are going to still be using their networks to deliver traditional video. And many other coaxial networks will have been so chopped up and re-spliced over time to present a real challenge for the technology.

But this is one more technology to put into the toolbox, particularly for companies that bring broadband to a lot of older buildings. There are probably many cases where this could be the most cost effective solution.

The Industry

The Vision of Next Century Cities

Next Century Cities is an organization comprised of 166 mayors of cities that have the mission statement to make sure that all of their citizens have access to fast, affordable and reliable Internet access. The members range from small towns to NFL cities. They recently published their 2017 Policy Agenda that highlights the issues that they think are the biggest impediments to meeting their broadband goals. These goals are worth some thought since they differ from the wish list of most other stakeholders in the industry.

Restore Local Authority. Cities want to have a hand in finding their own broadband solutions and they don’t want to be restricted by state or federal law from doing so. I would note that the vast majority of cities do not want to be a retail ISP, but they still want to have the ability to make the investments needed to meet their broadband goals. They want to be able to form meaningful public-private partnerships. And more than anything else they want the legal authority to find broadband solutions.

Competition in Multi-Dwelling Units (MDUs). Cities with any significant percentage of citizens living in MDUs are concerned that those citizens are often not getting the same quality broadband products or having the same array of choice as single family homes. For example, even where fiber has been built, overbuilders often skip MDUs that present construction or operational issues. Cities are also still concerned about the proliferation of exclusive contracts between MDU owners and ISPs.

Anti-Monopoly and Competition. Mayors are concerned by what they see as shrinking competition. In many cities the cable companies have won the broadband battle against the telco. Where there are no significant third-party fiber overbuilders the mayors see broadband becoming a monopoly product. The cities generally are against the mergers of gigantic ISPs.

High-Quality Low-Income Internet Access. Cities are still looking for ways to solve the digital divide. They understand that there is a significant percentage of the population that doesn’t have broadband because they can’t afford it. They are currently dismayed by what they perceive as the FCC walking away from the Lifeline program that can subsidize broadband service in low income households.

Small Cell/5G/DAS. Cities are grappling with how to best foster and physically accommodate the coming proliferation of wireless transmitters that will be spread through the community to distribute 5G and millimeter wave spectrum. They are anticipating a host of new wireless broadband products, but they have concerns about how to deal with numerous wireless providers wanting to utilize the same key locations.

One Touch Make Ready. Cities are in favor of regulatory changes that make it easier for fiber overbuilders to get onto poles or into existing conduits. The ‘one touch make ready’ concept would greatly speed up the process and reduce the costs of the pole attachment process. It would give a new fiber builder the ability to more easily move wires of existing carriers to speed up the construction process. In cities with numerous existing carriers on pole lines the cost and time involved in gaining approval and of implementing the changes needed to accommodate a new carrier can be numbingly slow.

Infrastructure Investment. Cities want to be included in broadband infrastructure spending that might come from any federal infrastructure plan. They fear that any broadband money will be aimed only at rural areas and the FCC still estimates that there are more than 10 million people in large urban areas that can’t buy bandwidth that meets the FCC’s 25/3 Mbps threshold. And while smaller rural towns and cities might have broadband that meets that test, they often have older networks that are far below the standards of metropolitan areas.

Summary. Of all of the various stakeholder groups involved in broadband infrastructure deployment, cities the most focus on getting quality broadband to everybody. That focus puts them into opposition with incumbent ISPs on some issues. Experience shows us that cities are often more aligned with new overbuilders, at least to the extent that those ISPs don’t want to only cherry-pick the most lucrative customers in the city. Because of various state restrictions, cities vary widely in how much influence they have over broadband. But cities everywhere are the ones that determine some of the key processes in broadband deployment such as permitting and local construction practices. And that means that their goals must be recognized by anybody wanting to deploy new broadband in cities.

Current News

Broadband Access to Apartment Buildings

Mark Ferrel of the Board of Supervisors for San Francisco has proposed an ordinance that would require multi-tenant buildings to provide access to broadband providers. This would apply to both residential and commercial properties.

You can understand why the city wants to tackle this issue. The nationwide percentage of families living in apartments is around 35%, but in San Francisco apartments represent 63% of housing units. And the percentage of families living in apartments is high in a lot of big cities – in New York City it’s 68%; in Seattle it’s 54%; in Atlanta it’s 56%.

Cities understand that bringing fiber to their city is not enough if it only benefits single-family homes and standalone businesses. As I wrote in a recent blog there are millions of urban households that don’t have access to broadband, and a lot of these situations are due to apartment owners that have excluded broadband providers. It’s fairly normal for apartment owners to have made deals years ago with service providers to serve their buildings on a revenue-sharing basis. The landlord may or may not include the triple-play products in the rent, but they get a kick-back from the service providers as a reward for exclusive access.

A few years back the FCC put some restrictions on cable companies and ISPs from entering into certain kinds of exclusive arrangements with building owners. It was a fairly common practice, for example, for an ISP to agree to wire a building for free, but then retain ownership of all of the wiring. In these cases the owner gave up all rights to the cable company or telco and it’s those entities that keep out competition.

I think there is a general impression that the FCC order forbade the cable companies from entering into all exclusive arrangements. But unfortunately it did not and it instead bans only certain types of arrangements – but not all. So I would expect at some point for this ordinance to be challenged at the FCC when it bumps into arrangements that are still allowed. But I think cities expect legal challenges when they tackle new ground.

This is also not going to be as clean-cut as Mr. Ferrel is hoping for. The ordinance grants access to multi-tenant buildings to any state-licensed ISP. Unfortunately, in many buildings there are physical restrictions to allowing even a second ISP. There might be very limited space for an ISP to put a rack of equipment. There are often issues with having enough space in the risers (the conduits that carry wires between floors).

And many apartments can’t accommodate having ‘open access’ where any ISP can gain access to the wiring for any unit from some central location. Unfortunately many apartments are not wired with ‘home run’ drops that go from a core to each unit, but instead often share the same cabling for multiple units.

There are often limited options for getting new wires to apartments. I can picture some really messy situations if multiple ISPs are granted access to the same buildings and each tries to string cables through hallways or other public areas. You can picture the same sort of clutter that we often see on urban poles with too many wires crammed into limited space.

But even with all of these issues, Mr. Ferrel is on the right track. The fact is that many apartment dwellers are being denied access to fast Internet due to arrangements made by the building owners. This ordinance is the first attempt I’ve seen for solving the lack of broadband and choice for a large percentage of urban households.

The ordinance tries to be fair to apartment owners and allows them to expect reasonable compensation for access to their buildings. Obviously that concept will need work to put into practice, but the ordinance doesn’t open up buildings to anybody to build without rules.

There is one thing the ordinance doesn’t tackle. What if nobody wants access to an apartment? A significant portion of urban apartments without good broadband access are low-income housing and ISPs and incumbents have been accused of redlining such customers for years. So this kind of ordinance can’t solve everything – but it’s a start.

The Industry

Another Municipal Model

City officials in San Francisco recently issued a report that takes a very different stance than most other cities that are looking at broadband issues. The city essentially rejects the normal demand-based commercial model for broadband and looks at a new structure that will bring broadband to everybody.

The report is authored by the office of supervisor Mark Farrell and reflects some of the recommendations from the San Francisco Municipal Fiber Advisory Panel. The report very correctly observes that today’s commercial broadband model leaves a lot of citizens without broadband. Numerous nationwide surveys have shown that the majority of households without broadband access today feel they cannot afford the market prices for service.

So the San Francisco report recommends that the City institute a $26 per month fee on all households – with a higher fee on businesses – to help pay for broadband to everyone. They further recommend a public private partnership model to operate the business and assume that tiered pricing will still allow for profitability for a commercial partner.

The numbers are based upon an estimate that it would cost $867.3 million to build a fiber network in the city and $231.7 million per year to maintain the network. In my experience in looking at other large cities, both numbers feel very high. One has to assume in an open access network where fiber was built to everybody that the ongoing maintenance expenses for a network would be far lower than that since much of those costs would accrue to the ISPs and not to the city.

The city is not the first place that has looked at paying for fiber using taxpayer money, but they are by far the largest. A few small communities like Leverett, Massachusetts have paid for fiber construction with tax levies. The city of North Kansas City built a network and essentially is giving free service to residents for the next ten years. And the Utopia system in Utah recently looked at the tax-payer funding model, although it looks like a lot of the communities involved are rejecting the idea.

It’s a very interesting concept that has a bunch of pros and cons. On the plus side this would certainly solve the digital divide if every household in a community had a fiber connection. There would still be the issue to solve of making sure that everybody has a computer, but that seems like an easier problem to solve than getting the fiber network built to everybody.

But I can foresee a few major hurdles in implementing such an idea in an NFL city, such as the following:

  • The City probably doesn’t have the right to insist that they can bring fiber into apartment buildings. The FCC has made it clear that building owners have the right to control the wiring and the access to services on their own property. Many of the apartment owners will already have made a long-term contractual arrangement and be doing revenue sharing with the local cable company or some other service provider.
  • One can envision multiple lawsuits from citizens and businesses that wouldn’t want the city solution or who won’t want to pay the fee. It’s one thing to do this in a tiny town like Leverett, MA where there was no existing broadband, but in a large city there are bound to be many who don’t want the city doing this.
  • This is such a drastic solution that it surely would invite legislative action and multiple lawsuits from the incumbent providers. California is one of the states that allows for municipal competition, but using direct tax revenues to compete against the existing broadband providers would raise legitimate concerns about unfair competition. One can envision attempts to pass state or national legislation that would outlaw the proposed business plan. ISPs would use every tool at their disposal to fight this for fear that it might work and could spread elsewhere.

As the report points out, cities have a broadband dilemma today. Even where there is fiber or good broadband today there are a lot of households that can’t afford broadband. The report estimates there are over 100,000 people in San Francisco that can’t afford the market price for broadband and another 50,000 that still use dial-up.

There is also the issue of carriers building to just some parts of a city. One only has to look at all of the east coast cities that have Verizon FiOS to see the result of allowing commercial broadband providers to cherry-pick in markets. These cities have some neighborhoods with fast fiber broadband and competition between the telco and the cable company (which many observe is not real competition). But they have many neighborhoods without fiber and none of these cities can formulate a business plan that can justify bringing fiber to the neighborhoods that Verizon bypassed as too expensive to build.

The San Francisco report was a little fuzzy on a few of the details, which is natural since those details can only be made clear through negotiations with carriers willing to operate on such a network. You have to give the city kudos for creativity. But I foresee a big uphill battle if they try to implement this. But it’s an idea that should work if it can overcome the opponents that will spend huge money to try to prevent it.

Technology The Industry

Broadband in Big Cities

I’ve often written about the issues with rural broadband, but today I thought I would take a look at the state of broadband in the large cities. As people read and hear about Google and other fiber projects I think the natural assumption is that the cities either have fiber or soon will get fiber. I don’t think that’s true.

Let’s look at a few of the larger fiber builders and what they have done with cities. First is Verizon FiOS. It’s a great service and I had it at one of my previous homes. But for the most part it’s not been built deep in the heart of the larger cities. FiOS has been a suburban and medium town product and you are far more likely to be able to get FiOS in a suburb than if you live downtown.

Google is currently building a few cities. Both they and AT&T have also released a list of possible candidate cities for fiber. But Google only builds in neighborhoods where enough customers sign to buy fiber. And AT&T’s fiber construction seems to be more press release for now than substance.

And nobody wants to talk about is that none of these providers builds to MDUs. Not FiOS, not Google, not AT&T, not the munis and pretty much not anybody else. Nobody has solved the inside wiring issues that come with multi-dwelling units, and so none of the big fiber providers are building to them. In some cities over half of the living units are in MDUs, and even when fiber comes, these residents don’t get it.

There are a few companies that are specializing in MDUs, but they either concentrate on student housing or on that small slice of apartment buildings that have already been wired with category 5 cable. And most apartments and condos are wired only with traditional coaxial cable and telephone copper. And then you have to layer the contractual issues on top of the wiring issues. The FCC took a stab a few years ago of fixing some of the more egregious abuses where cable companies had tied up the rights to the existing wire inside MDUs. But they didn’t close all of the loopholes and there are plenty of apartment complexes that are still contractually locked into allowing only the cable company.

But then one has to ask if any of this is all that bad, because the cable companies in the large cities have increased cable modem speeds and it’s hard to find a city that doesn’t have speeds of at least 100 Mbps available. But you have to look a little closer to see that is not as good as it sounds.

The faster cable modem products are expensive. In many cities the 100 Mbps products are around $100 or more per month, absent any sign-up specials. But that is not the only cost customers face. For example, I have Comcast and they wouldn’t let me buy a 50 Mbps cable modem without having to take some of their cable product. Cable companies don’t have to sell naked cable modems, and so there are a lot of households that just can’t afford the big packages that are needed to get the faster cable modem speeds. This goes back to the same categorization of broadband as an information service, and just like with net neutrality, the FCC doesn’t have the authority to force cable companies to sell naked cable modems. Finally, there are problems with cable modems in some MDUs. Some of them with older wiring will not allow the delivery of faster data speeds. Or, in some MDUs the internet comes with the rent and you get whatever the landlord will pay for.

There is some good news for cities in that over the next decade the cable companies are going to be able to offer speeds as fast as a gigabit. They have a lot of work to do on their networks to get to those speeds, but the technology to get there is already developed or on the drawing boards at Cable Labs. One has to wonder if the cable companies will upgrade in cities where they don’t have a real competitor. One has to think that the cable companies will be as judicious in handing out gigabit speeds as they today are handing out 100 Mbps speeds. It’s one thing to be in a market that has the potential for very fast data speeds, but it’s something else to be able to actually order it or to be able to afford it.

I am afraid that most cities are going to be at the mercy of the cable monopoly for decades to come. FiOS is no longer expanding. Google is going to go where they go, and that is not going to be everywhere, even in the cities where they do build.

There is some hope in the future for apartment buildings. I’ve reported before on a technology that uses ultrawideband that looks to be able to deliver gigabits of data over existing coax without disturbing the cable traffic. Think of it as DSL for cable systems. But the fast versions of that technology are still a few years away, and even that is going to require somebody to build a fiber to the front of an apartment.

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