Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Project Lights Out

I grew up terribly disadvantaged. We had only three or four tv channels, no video games and certainly not a cell phone. Somehow we managed to have fun playing with dolls or jacks or any number of simple toys. There were a couple of games called “Telephone.” In one you sat around in a circle and whispered a common phrase into the ear of the person next to you and they whispered it as they heard it to the person next to them and so on and so on. By the time the phrase got back to you and you said it out loud it was completely different than what you had said in the first place. That game was good for a lot of laughs. The other “Telephone” game was the one where you tied two tin cans together with a length of twine and then tried to talk to each other as if you were on the telephone.

The second game was really low technology because as anyone knows twine is not really a good conduit for sound just as twisted copper wire is not a good conduit for rocket speed broadband delivery.

None of that seems to bother at&t or BellSouth though. They’re touting their Project Light Speed like it’s manna from heaven. According to them they’re rolling out fiber to compete with the cable guys but of course it’s only fiber to three thousand feet from the premises and the rest is plan old twisted copper wire, an enhanced DSL if you please. That’s kinda like trying to race a Lamborghini with two flat tires.

How it works is they connect fiber from their plant to humungous boxes, and I mean humungous. One of these boxes (DSL access modules or DSLAMS) measures 4x5x2 and when they combine them you get an even bigger box! These DSLAMS will be stationed at various points throughout the neighborhood to get them within the three thousand foot of the home requirement. at&t is aggressively courting San Francisco but one wonders where exactly will they put these boxes given the topography of San Francisco and the density of the housing, much of which without actual yards. I suppose the sidewalks will do just fine, people can step out into the street to get around them.

Once the box is in place they will connect the homes to this node with the copper wire. Homeowners will be able to access video programming a whole new way by selecting the channel, sending a signal up the copper wire through the box back to the central office to servers (yes, servers) and voila! programming will appear on the tv screen, assuming those servers don’t go down as servers are wont to do.

The speeds for data will be one to six Mbps downstream and a whopping one Mbps upstream, thus the “enhanced DSL” label. And unlike cable and FTTP that delivers all channels simultaneously, only a few channels will be available at once on this architecture. Oh and by the way, don’t have too many tv’s pulling down programming all at once it could put a strain on the system.

I applaud at&t for taking yet another run at the cable business but wonder why they have to completely disintegrate local government franchising so they can roll out a product that is already obsolete before they’ve thrown their first switch?

During a panel discussion I moderated yesterday at the South Eastern Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (SEATOA) conference, I asked the panelists to tell the audience what national franchising would do for them. The very nice gentleman from BellSouth said “This is the future for BellSouth.” He then went on to explain that people were moving from wireline to wireless, the cable industry had launched their triple play of voice, video and data and that they had lost five percent of their customers in the last year alone.

While I still was waiting to hear how national franchising would benefit our audience members, he went on to talk about how competition was good and that in most places they were entering, BellSouth is the third or fourth competitor in the market and people need competition. That got me thinking that if there are already two or three competitors in the market, competitors who went out and got franchises from local governments, would people really be so desperate to have BellSouth that they would throw away their rights to manage their communities through a national franchising scheme?

He did say that local governments have been cooperative and helpful in the franchising process and those who had not were the exception not the rule. That was certainly refreshing given how the Bells have filed reams of statements to the FCC citing the horrific “barriers to entry” by local governments. He also said that they were not opposed to municipal networks. What a relief to hear that given all the legislation opposed to municipal networks that have been backed by the Bell Boys!

There was a bit of a warning against requirements for build-out. It was purely economical and they needed to build in an economic way rather than be forced to serve all homes in a community. I guess that’s why Baltimore has been completely ignored and Philadelphia has been told straight up that the fone fellas won’t be building there. Which somewhat confuses me given the density of housing in Baltimore and Philadelphia, you can reach a lot of subscribers in a short distance, but I suppose they aren’t those “high value” subscribers I keep hearing about.

That takes me back to the first game of “Telephone” I mentioned, it’s human nature not to hear things right and then repeat them over and over as if they were gospel. Or maybe it’s human nature not to tell the truth in the first place, like what your real motivation is for destroying a franchising model that has served citizens and consumers well for over thirty years. I guess I am a wee bit appalled that all of this is taking place to accommodate a technology that will get us no closer to true broadband deployment than we already are. But hey! That's how "Telephone" is played.

To read more about the technical aspects of at&t and BellSouth's architecture (and to see those honking huge boxes! note the fellow on page 17 in the sweatshirt standing in front of the behemoth) go to:

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