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Tuesday, September 25, 2007
American Fork Broadband Notes

Tonight's meeting, a small dose of basic economics, AFCNet as an example of infrastructure, and a little debunking of municipal wireless broadband.

Tonight's Meeting

The agenda for tonight's American Fork City Council meeting -- always check the amended agenda if there is one -- has two items of interest to those of us who are watching developments involving AFCNet, the city's municipal broadband system.

Item 8 is, "Consideration and action on entering into an executive session to discuss the sale of real property." This is one of the handful of reasons a city council can hold an executive session -- one without residents in the cheap seats, that is. Presumably, this item will lead to the public being excused from the room, then readmitted for subsequent items.

The only agendum involving the sale of real property is Item 9, "Review and action to authorize the Mayor to sign an Extended Letter of Intent with Surpha on the sale of the In-City Broadband Network." So we may reasonably assume that this is the subject of the executive session. In this case there is most likely sensitive corporate information, such as Surpha's business plan, which needs to be protected by an executive session.

The desire to extend the existing letter of intent suggests that negotiations are ongoing, which is to say that the parties -- Surpha and the City -- have not yet been able to agree on contract terms but still hope they will be able to agree.

I have not been able to get City officials to explain details on the record, but they have been eager to express optimism that there will be a deal -- a successful sale, that is. While I believe some officials would be pleased simply to divest the City of the broadband network and the attending budget and administrative troubles, I also believe the official optimism in some cases includes the expectation that there will be a working, even much-improved system citywide after such a sale.

Economics 101 (or Maybe 102)

In a sense, a good number of us who use AFCNet get considerably more than our money's worth: business-level service at residential prices (if you don't count business-level support, which we don't get). This is a boon for home-based entrepreneurs and telecommuters, but, as I keep hearing, it is also an advantage that is likely to disappear when the system becomes a for-profit operation. Where entrepreneurs are concerned, this constitutes a taxpayer subsidy of home-based business and of telecommuting. That isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially in its encouragement of economic growth. But it may be short-lived.

I don't particularly like the attitude that anything beyond conventional web surfing -- such as hosting a web site -- is necessarily a business use. I think a lot of users go beyond the typical usage without actually being a business. But if the system cannot continue to exist while indulging hobbyists, let alone subsidizing entrepreneurs, as it presently does, I suppose one bows to reality.

That reality likes to pretend it is purely economic, but it is actually involves both economics and a political ordering of priorities. In any case, when it finally intrudes, it will make American Fork a less attractive place to live, for some of us.

Case in point: your (dubiously) humble blogger. I host a few personal web sites, including this one, from an old computer in my basement, but they do not constitute a business. The sane way to do that hosting is with a "static IP address." I'll spare you the technical explanation, but it costs me $10 extra per month with AFConnect, one of the ISPs (Internet Service Providers) which inhabits AFCNet. I believe I've reported here previously that on several occasions I have asked ComCast representatives, who were hawking their residential service, if they could give me a static IP address. They fall all over themselves, and by the time I get an answer, it's from their supervisor's supervisor, because the rank and file ComCast guys (they always seem to be guys) don't know what a static IP address is.

ComCast's ultimate answer is, I have to buy a business package to get that static IP address, and you better believe it costs more than my current basic residential service plus $10.

An Infrastructure Case Study

The easiest thing in the world for elected officials to do is to procrastinate maintaining and rebuilding infrastructure. It's expensive, inconvenient, often unsightly, and -- how can I put this? -- the bridge isn't likely to fall down if we wait just one more year. As we saw recently and tragically in Minnesota, if you procrastinate for many years, very bad things can happen. But by then the original procrastinators are out of office and have their names on other bridges, buildings, and parks.

AFCNet is like a time-lapse study in decaying infrastructure. A bridge may last several decades, but AFCNet was built to last several years. So the process moves much more quickly.

One of the complications in any prospective sale of AFCNet is that the cables originally strung citywide are nearing the end of their useful life and will soon have to be replaced, if the system is to continue. The system simply wasn't built to last. (It wasn't built to be profitable, either, but that's a separate matter.) It was built by SwitchPoint/AirSwitch as a demonstration of technology they hoped to sell on a much larger scale (a loss leader of sorts). Consequently, even to preserve the system, let alone to upgrade it to modern standards, will involve expenditures of millions of dollars to replace copper cable with more durable and more capable fiber-optic cable. (It's not just the cable, but that's the most obvious aging component.)

I'm not saying that building the system this way was necessarily a bad thing, or that the City could not have done far better in managing the system, or that the City should never have bought the system in the first place. I am saying that AFCNet illustrates a much larger point about infrastructure generally: It gradually breaks down and wears out -- more quickly in this case than in such things as bridges -- and procrastinating the costs of handling it properly today is begging for much larger costs down the road. In some cases, probably not AFCNet, it's begging for failures which are not just costly, but deadly.

The Wireless Mirage

There have been arguments, off and on, that AFCNet is antiquated because it is not wireless. Wireless is the wave of the future, especially where municipal broadband is concerned. Or so we thought, whoever "we" were.

Recent weeks have seen reports of serious, negative developments in wireless municipal broadband projects in several major US cities. Philadelphia, Chicago, Houston, San Francisco, and other cities decided years ago to provide free or low-cost basic wireless broadband to residents citywide, especially in poor areas. Earthlink and other major companies have been these cities' partners. But Earthlink is now backing away, because they have been unable to find a business plan that works for these systems. (Does that sound familiar?)

Here's an excerpt from a recent ZDNet article . (Forgive the dangling something-or-other in the last sentence.)

Over the past few years, blanketing cities with unlicensed Wi-Fi signals has been viewed as a cheap solution to bringing affordable or even free broadband access to cities. Politicians and community leaders have rallied around the technology as an economic development tool that could help bring low-income individuals into the bustling economy of the 21st century.

But as the economic reality of building a network primarily to serve up low-cost broadband access settles in at EarthLink, the company's top brass says the strategy isn't viable. And as a leader in this industry, cities are now scrambling to find alternative ways to finance their Wi-Fi dreams.

So some of those projects are now cancelled or on hold.

I'm not going to rehash my previous arguments about municipal broadband being a legitimate public utility, because the private sector cannot adequately serve the market. I don't think this development undercuts those arguments; in fact, it shows yet again that the for-profit sector has great difficulty making such systems work as profit-earning enterprises.

There are technical issues as well. Wireless WAN (wide area networking), which we're discussing, is less robust and reliable than wireless LAN (local area networking), which I use partially at home. I have a wire coming into my home, leading directly to a wireless router. But we still we use wired networking where it is convenient or where we need speed and reliability. We use wireless for portability, such as my laptop, or where speed and reliability aren't major issues. (Don't tell my children I said that last part.) Come to think of it, things at my office are much the same.

The bottom line is that, for fiscal and technical reasons, wireless municipal broadband is not -- at least not yet -- the wonderful comprehensive solution that some have thought.

David Rodeback comments (9/26/07):

The City Council approved the motion authorizing the Mayor to sign an extended letter of intent. And a city official recently mentioned to the DTM one detail: The City received an initial offer from Surpha which the Council members involved did not feel they could recommend favorably to the entire Council for it approval, and that there is now a revised offer, which needs a little more time. I suppose we might have suspected that anyway.

David Rodeback comments (9/27/07):

Today's Daily Herald reports on Tuesday evening's action and its background, under Barbara Christiansen's byline. It's not as if the headline, "City to sell broadband system," is actual news at this point, or that the sale is on the verge of being executed, but . . . whatever. I am not aware that the prospective deal with Surpha involves the fiber-optic lines in Utah and Salt Lake Counties, as the story seems to imply. I believe the deal involves only the city network.

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