in IT/AV Report, Fall 2005
Can SuperMAN Save
By Scott Lehane
Wide area networking update.
Philadelphia Mayor John
Street announcing Wireless Philadelphia’s plans to cover
the city with broadband wireless access.
These days, companies need reliable, affordable
broadband access to support their voice, video and data communications,
just as surely as they have access to electricity and water.
Indeed, affordable broadband service has become an important
consideration in choosing where to locate corporate headquarters,
factories and other types of major business institutions.
Many in the IT world are now beginning
to worry, with the US slipping to 13th in the world in terms
of broadband deployment (behind Korea, Japan, Singapore, Canada
and much of Europe). Just a few years ago, the US ranked third
in the world, but today it’s falling fast.
It’s often at the city or municipal
level that the economic effects of that decline are felt first.
Local government officials are starting to sit up and take
notice, by deploying their own broadband Municipal Area Networks
(MANs) to provide an incentive for businesses to come to the
region, or to stay.
Starts with the EDA
"It usually starts with the local Economic
Development Agency (EDA),” explained James Goldman,
executive vice president and CTO of West Lafayette IN-based
InfoComm Systems, as well as a professor and associate head
of the department of computer technology at Purdue University.
“What very often happens is either an existing company
tells the Chamber of Commerce or the Economic Development
Commission that they’re going to have to leave because
they can’t get affordable advanced telecommunication
services in this community, or a hot prospect that a community
would love to have situate in their town says, ‘Well,
I’m sorry, but we can’t consider your town because
you don’t have the type of advanced telecommunications
services we need at a reasonable price.’ So it’s
usually then that the powers that be wake up and say, ‘We
have to do something about this’.”
InfoComm Systems has worked with numerous
municipal governments and Fortune 500 companies to develop
and deploy MANs, including 20 communities in Indiana, Michigan
and North Carolina.
"One of the communities that we’ve
been working with the longest is Shelby County IN. They started
out with a fiberoptic community network and they have since
extended that to a new high-technology park called Intelliplex
Park,” said Goldman.
InfoComm Systems has developed what it
calls MetroMorphosis, an all-inclusive process for municipal
network development. “Although every community needs
a unique solution, the planning process that they go through
to reach that solution is fairly consistent,” explained
Goldman. “So we formalized that process, breaking it
into three distinct layers: strategic, tactical and operational....
By doing that, we allowed communities to do some of the work
on their own....We were coming into these communities and
they were at different stages of planning and frustration
depending on how much work they’d done on their own,
and we were able to say, ‘OK, it looks like you’ve
done a pretty good job here and there; how about we come in
and we’ll pick it up here?’”
Wireless Brotherly Love
The city of Philadelphia is forging ahead
with an ambitious plan to deploy a WiFi/WiMAX wireless mesh
blanketing the city with ubiquitous broadband access. The
goal is become the number one wireless city in the world.
It’s not just big business that stands
to benefit. “The Small Business Administration did a
study in March of 2004 that showed that telecommunications
costs were a higher percentage of the cost of doing business
for small businesses and that low-cost access to high-speed
internet capabilities would help spur economic development,”
explained Dianah Neff, chief information officer for the Mayor’s
Office of Information Services. “We estimate, based
on a study that was done by Innovations Philadelphia and E-Consultants,
which is an economic consulting company, that we could add
as many as 3000 jobs to the city of Philadelphia by providing
that lower cost of entry for new entrepreneurs to have access
to affordable telecommunications.”
The city, which is currently finalizing
its request for proposals, plans to deploy WiFi (802.11b)
transmitters on telephone poles and street lights, which will
serve as the front-end gateway to the network. For the back-end,
the transmission will be WiMAX, which offers a bigger pipe.
The Wireless Philadelphia executive committee estimates that
the network can be deployed across its 135 square miles for
approximately $40,000 to $60,000/square mile, giving city-wide
coverage for $7 to $10 million.
"To deploy a wireless network, it costs
about $20 to $200 per household passed, but to do DSL or cable,
it’s $700 to $1500; for fiber, it’s about $2000
to $3000,” Neff explained. “So, if your goal is
to provide low-cost, affordable broadband access, what’s
available today doesn’t meet those requirements.”
Optibase’s MGW 5100 carrier-grade
streaming platform is a key component in many telephone
companies’ plans to deliver video as part of their
The city plans to outsource the design,
installation and deployment of the network, as well as maintenance
and support of the infrastructure. It is forging several public/private
sector partnerships with companies, universities and institutions
that want to ride on the network infrastructure with their
own virtual private networks (VPNs).
Philadelphia expects to support some 200
to 300 VPNs on its network in addition to serving its own
internal communications needs, and overcoming the digital
divide by offering “broadband speeds at dial-up rates.”
"Only 58% of our households have internet
access and through the surveys that we did, we found that
76% of the respondents said that cost was the number one reason,”
said Neff. “Mayor John Street is committed to having
forms of free access in public spaces, so in our squares and
in our major parks such as Independence Park, there will be
free wireless access. But if you want to be able to use it
anywhere you go in the city or bring it into your home, there
will be a cost. We’re looking at $10 to 20/month but
until we select a final solution, we can’t tell exactly
what that cost is going to be.
"Also it will be an open network, so if
you’re a company that does business on the internet
and you want to use that infrastructure to deliver that service
into the home, then this is an economic stimulus,” she
But perhaps the biggest incentive for Philadelphia
is the money it can save on its own communications costs,
and the benefits that wireless broadband can bring to the
city’s field workers.
Schools, libraries, fire departments, police
stations, urban planners and engineers, social services, hospitals
and EMS workers will all be able to ride on the network’s
infrastructure. Currently, Philadelphia is paying millions
per year for leased T1 lines for some 400 remote facilities
scattered around the city, as well as slow-speed cellular
data services for field workers. Neff estimates that, in its
second year of operation, the network will be saving the city
about $2 million per year in reduced telecommunication expenses.
"If you have a water main break and you
need engineering drawings in the field, you could have access
to that over a broadband connection. You won’t have
to get in your truck and come back to the Public Works station
or the yard to print out copies. Now, that’s a tremendous
opportunity to reduce time and costs,” she said.
The network will also enable the police
department and security agencies to install surveillance cameras
in known trouble spots without having to run wires out into
parks and other remote locations. In addition, parking meters
and red-light cameras currently using land lines can migrate
to the network.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Worldwide, the Municipal Area Network is
poised to become a major competitor in the broadband market,
with major cities such as Albuquerque NM and Grand Haven MI,
New York, Taipei, Calgary and Adelaide planning to launch
some level of wireless service.
But when it comes to the last mile, “One
size does not fit all. It may be the perfect solution for
Philadelphia, but that’s not to say that it would necessarily
make any sense in Indianapolis or any other community,”
explained Goldman. “You really have to look at the requirements
and the current assets of every community and then decide
what solution makes the most sense for them.”
In fact, even most underserved rural communities
often have the assets in place to deploy a broadband MAN.
The major dark horse in the broadband market is the public-utilities
sector, enabling smaller communities such as Holyoke MA, Allegany
MD and Muscatine IA to enjoy the benefits of broadband.
Many of these public utilities have built
extensive high-end WAN infrastructures with dark or lit fiber
for their own voice, video and data communications, and can
use their rights of way to extend those services to local
businesses and residents: everything from cable TV over fiber-to-the-home,
to wireless broadband.
The utilities market is well
positioned to offer broadband services in many rural areas.
Lots of Opportunity
Kim Yackovich, director of business development,
State & Local Government, Marconi, explained that there
are many opportunities in this space for independent systems
integrators, contractors, consultants and engineers. “If
they’re looking for potential clients in this area,
the idea is to look for areas that are underserved by the
incumbent telecommunication providers, and talk to the local
utilities about whether they’ve thought about extending
services or even go right to the municipality. In particular,
you want to look for the rural communities that have attracted
"One of the reasons municipal utilities
are very well poised to do this is that, typically, they are
located in underserved areas. That was the whole start of
the public-utilities market. It was started about 100 years
ago with grants from the Federal Government to serve rural
communities with electricity, water and some type of telephony
services, and so by nature most of them are in rural areas.
Those areas are less attractive to carriers and, typically,
they don’t have the access to the services that a metropolitan
area has or they don’t have access to them at a reasonable
price,” said Yackovich.
Marconi provides municipalities and utilities
with systems integration services and technical support, as
well as the backbone hardware for ATM networking. It has helped
dozens of public utilities across the country get into the
broadband MAN market with voice, video and data.
"They all went about this in a similar fashion.
They started looking at the ramifications of electricity deregulation
several years ago and realized they’re going to be facing
a lot of price pressure as well as risking losing some of
their customers to competition,” said Yackovich.
‘What Are We Going To Do?’
"So they asked themselves, ‘What are
we going to do to mitigate that risk?’,” she explained.
“One of the things they came upon besides competing
head-to-head in the electricity business is offering telecommunications
services, and that’s very attractive to them because
it also supports their mission of economic development for
their region, given that they are public entities. All of
them have multi-service voice, video, data networks in place
to support their electric and water distribution systems.
So some of them use that same network to deliver telecom services
and some of them have decided to build out a separate network,
but they can use their right of way, and therefore get a bigger
Yackovich explained that the US Department
of Agriculture’s Rural Utilities Service offers substantial
grants to deploy broadband services in rural parts of the
country, and Marconi offers a Grant Assistance Program to
help communities and consultants prepare and file the necessary
"They all start out selling business connectivity.
Typically, the first service they would offer is pure VPN.
Then they start offering voice services. They start offering
internet connectivity, broadband services and then expand
those services to the residential market,” she explained.
Most Advanced Network
Dalton Utilities in northwestern Georgia,
home to 80% of the US carpet manufacturing industry, began
to build its own ATM network in 1999 to support the 117-year-old
utility’s electricity, natural gas, water and wastewater
services. Recently, with consulting support from Marconi Broadband
Routing & Switching Services, Dalton Utilities reconfig-ured
the network to support a fiber-to-the-home broadband network.
The utility now delivers voice, cable TV
and internet services to residential customers over fiber
and serves the area’s Fortune 250 carpet manufacturers
with point-to-point data services over Internet Protocol (IP).
"With natural gas customers three counties
away and water production north of us at the Tennessee River,
we needed to connect all of our facilities to a central control
area,” said Chris King, telecommunications manager for
Dalton Utilities. “We knew that our large industrial
customers needed another means of data transportation than
the ILEC [incumbent local exchange carrier] provided. And
the incumbent wasn’t serving this area with the big
pipes that we needed anyway.”
James Salter, president of Atlantic Engineering
Group, the contractor that designed and installed the utility’s
fiber plant, said, “In the municipal last mile world,
you won’t find a more advanced network in America than
the one operated by Dalton Utilities.”
The utility’s network features 10
Marconi ASX-4000 multiservice backbone switches in the network
core. Designed to support more than one million virtual circuits
(VCs), each ASX-4000 switch provides voice, video and data
traffic management and signaling capabilities at rates up
to OC-48 (2.488Gbps). These switches enable the network to
support thousands of users, while enabling the utility to
define and support differentiated service offerings and set
Quality of Service standards for each.
"Our first customer was the county school
system,” King said. “Our second customer was the
largest carpet manufacturer in our area. Our third customer
was the city school system, and our fourth customer was another
carpet manufacturer. Then we won the city and county government
network. As a CLEC [competitive local exchange carrier], we
consistently outbid the incumbent ILEC for business. And now
our customer base ranges from five-employee operations to
Fortune 250 companies.”
Muscatine Power and Water (MP&W) in
Iowa is another key Marconi customer that, in addition to
electric and water services, has constructed a state-of-the-art
hybrid fiber-coaxial (HFC) system to support its municipal
area network (MAN).
‘Although every community
needs a unique solution, the planning process that they
go through to reach that solution is fairly consistent.’
The new communications system delivers
high-speed internet access along with an array of residential
services including cable TV and cable modems. MP&W plans
to roll out many additional business and residential services,
including local and long-distance telephone service, cellular
phone service, home security systems, video on demand, teleconferencing,
and real-time pricing of electric and electric/water remote
Other utility-based MANs that Marconi has
contracted for include Holyoke MA, King County WA and a wireless
MAN for Allegany MD.
"The potential market is huge. There are
about 1100 municipally owned public utilities in the US. And
now, more recently, you see the municipalities themselves
getting involved,” said Yackovich.
Empire Fights Back
But the incumbent cable and telecommunications
companies have monopolies to defend and they have begun to
take notice of this growing phenomenon. Although they’ve
been slow to roll out broadband services themselves, they
have mounted an intense lobbying effort to put a stop to the
deployment of MANs by going to the state legislatures.
Shortly after Philadelphia announced its
plans, the state of Pennsylvania passed a law banning municipalities,
public utilities and city governments from deploying municipal
networks that charge a fee.
"The telcos are the oldest, deepest pocketed
lobbying group. They’re pretty entrenched in politics
and they know how to do things,” said Neff. “So
this was all done in the dark of night. One of our attorneys
was watching C-SPAN at the close of the legislature and he
picked up on Bill 30 coming out of the House and moving over
to the Senate. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have been aware
of it and it could have been too late.”
Wireless Philadelphia quickly mounted a
grass-roots campaign to get the city’s wireless plans
grandfathered but, according to Neff, “we won the battle,
but lost the war.”
Eleven other states have passed similar legislation. Indiana
has twice tried to pass a law, but failed both times.
For InfoComm Systems’ James Goldman,
“It’s not just for selfish reasons for my own
business, but I think it’s very bad for the economic
health of the states that it got passed in.”
For the incumbent telephone and cable companies, convergence
is going to be difficult enough without facing competition
from local governments and public utilities. Cable companies
such as Comcast and Cox have announced plans to deliver telephony
services bundled with cable and high-speed internet access.
Meanwhile numerous telcos, including SBC, Bell South and Verizon,
have plans to offer cable TV over DSL and HFC networks.
With both monopolies threatening to eat
each other’s lunch, broadband has become somewhat of
a sideshow. “The incumbents refuse to invest, but they
don’t want anyone else investing either,” explained
Until recently, the cable industry couldn’t
efficiently offer switched (and therefore any) telephony services,
and the telephone companies didn’t have the bandwidth
for cable TV offerings. Now, voice over IP (VOIP) allows cable
operators to offer voice, and advances in DSL and compression
technologies such as H.264 (MPEG-4), as well as the extended
penetration of fiber-to-the-neighborhood (FTTN), fiber-to-the-curb
(FTTC) and even fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) give the telephone
companies a chance to compete in the video distribution game.
"What we see right now in the market, is
that cable providers are starting to offer dial tone, which
poses a great threat to telco providers worldwide, not only
in the US. We see it all around the world. Telco operators
face an enormous threat because they are about to lose their
bread and butter,” said Amit Daliot, product marketing
manager for Optibase IPTV. “Comcast just introduced
a new challenge of providing telephone service to each one
of their cable subscribers by the end of this year, so when
you are Bell South and you hear such a thing, you are totally
freaked out; you have to do something now.”
Optibase’s MGW5100 carrier-grade
streaming server is a key component in many telcos’
plans to offer video as part of their triple-play services.
“SBC is already deploying IPTV triple-play services.
BellSouth just finalized the RFP for triple play and its target
is to start by the end of this year,” said Daliot.
North Dakota-based DakTel Communications
recently selected Opti-base’s TV streaming platform,
the Media Gateway 5100, to deliver triple-play voice, video
and data services to its subscribers in Jamestown ND over
FTTH (fiber-to-the-home), with funding from the Rural Utilities
"It’s a full community where the telephone
company has decided to stretch fiber to each one of its subscribers.
It’s really amazing. You have 4000 subscribers watching
150 channels at DVD quality over their fiber,” said
Start With a Clean Slate
But laying fiber direct to homes and business
is a very expensive proposition, even for the incumbents,
and even with government grants. A major part of the cost
is simply the expense of digging trenches and laying cables.
So the battleground for FTTH has centered
on real-estate developers who are starting with a clean slate,
rather than the more expensive retrofitting of communities.
FTTH is becoming increasingly common in high-end, green-field
planned communities across the US, where builders can write
clauses into homeowners’ agreements specifying that
residents must get bundled services from the central network.
This is a market that Optibase is also
approaching. “The subscribers are not allowed to bring
other services in, but they have everything and they’re
paying a fixed price per month,” said Daliot. “And
everything is high-end: it’s the best TV, the best high-speed
internet, the best telephone lines. The services are bundled
all together on a homeowner’s fee. So developers are
starting to offer fiber to the homes in these communities
in order to be more attractive in the market.”
Similarly, in new high-tech parks and corporate
real-estate developments, fiber is something developers are
planning for from the outset. Increasingly, they are contracting
with systems integrators to build in all the components for
converged triple-play service to every building. Whether those
services eventually are provided by an ILEC or CLEC, or by
some public agency or utility, is almost beside the point.
(Systems integrators, though, are usually
unlikely to get work from a telco, and quite likely to get
it from any of these other parties, so IT/AV Report readers’
preferences must be mostly apparent.) The race is on, and
we can be grateful to those cities that have been spurred
into action and thus make it a race. One that we all can win
simply by, for example, taking advantage of free WiFi in a
Scott Lehane is a Toronto, Canada-based
journalist and documentary film producer.