From the Ether

SAN MATEO (01/31/2000) - Cable television modems (CTMs) and digital subscriber lines (DSLs) are leading in the race to deploy residential broadband. But we all know the eventual winner will be fiber to the home (FTTH).

So why not just leapfrog all that monopoly-owned legacy local-loop copper wire technology and go directly to fiber? Sooner rather than eventually.

Last week, Ephraim Schwartz scooped me on the secret SpectraDyne consortium. He revealed that Sierra Pacific Power Company (www.sierrapacific.com) has been installing fibers along its rights of way to residential customers in Southern Nevada.

Sources say that this summer, which would be a lot sooner than eventually, Sierra Pacific (along with Hewlett-Packard Co. and Oracle Corp.) will roll out FTTH Internet at 10Mbps for $13.95 per month -- way faster and way cheaper than CTMs and DSLs.

Telephone, television, and videoconferencing would be offered for additional fees based on routing and connection time. Initial provisioning would be at 155Mbps. Some 30 other public utilities are now in discussions with the group.

It's interesting that a power company -- also a residential copper-based monopoly -- is installing local-loop fiber. And public utilities are the last companies I think of as dynamic competitors. But let's hope that at least half of this Sierra Pacific FTTH secret is true.

Ownership issues, not technology, are pacing deployment of FTTH, says Brian Reid at Lucent Technology Inc.'s Bell Labs in Palo Alto, Calif. His solution is not to leave FTTH to cable, telephone, or power monopolies, all of which Palo Alto has, but to have Palo Alto or perhaps some independent agency operate a new FTTH monopoly, giving citizens open access to competitive Internet services.

I lived in and around The People's Republic of Palo Alto for 22 years and can confirm your suspicions that it's not a typical town. It's home to Stanford University, or as we in Maine call it, the Bowdoin of the West. It sits atop Silicon Valley. More than 80 percent of Palo Altans use the Internet from home.

Thanks to Reid and his city comrades, Palo Alto already has a $2 million, 15-mile fiber-optic ring which gets high-speed Internet within a mile of almost all its citizens. The next step, long in coming, is an FTTH trial in one or two neighborhoods.

According to Michael Eager, president of Palo Alto Fiber Network (www.pafiber.net), the city has been cautious about pursuing the proposed FTTH trial. And the trial has been steadfastly opposed by -- surprise! -- the local telephone monopoly.

Contrary to a story in The Wall Street Journal Jan. 20, Palo Alto proponents say their FTTH trial will sign up plenty of citizen subscribers.

They'll have to pay $1,200 for fiber installation plus $45 a month for 10M-bps, or $2,400 plus $100 per month for 100M-bps, plus Internet service provider charges. These prices are high compared to CTMs, DSLs, and SpectraDyne fibers, but, ahem, they're nothing compared to the costs of Palo Alto home ownership.

Palo Alto's cable monopoly, which offers CTMs, is being acquired by AT&T. And there are DSLs galore, including from Palo Alto's telephone monopoly, now owned by SBC. So, citizens of Palo Alto have lots of broadband Internet access.

But copper broadband can't compare to fiber's 10M-bps,100M-bps, or 1T-bps. So hurry up, Palo Alto, and try FTTH.

The Wall Street Journal was right to question whether there's demand for FTTH broadband. I say build it, and they will come.

To those who say CTMs and DSLs mean we don't have to dig up the streets to install FTTH, I say the obvious: We are digging the streets up anyway.

CTMs vs. DSLs vs. FTTH -- let's root for FTTH.

Technology pundit Bob Metcalfe accesses the Internet from home painfully at 56K-bps. He suspects there's a lot more going on with FTTH and hopes to hear about it from you at metcalfe@idg.net.

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