Questions and answers arising from the FCTV interview with Chris Mitchell

On Sept. 3, Falmouth Community Network advocates Courtney Bird and Peter Cook had the opportunity to interview Chris Mitchell, a leading expert on community based broadband networks. The interview can by seen on FCTV and also on Youtube. We have received a number of questions arising for this program and respond to them below.

Why host TV shows instead of community events? Can’t you do some of both?

We can and will do both. The first meeting was a community event and we have met with various neighborhood groups. Live events, however, only reach the people who can attend, whereas recorded activities can be replayed and seen by a wider audience. It is particularly important to record meetings that including experts from outside our community.

What is the current speed of OpenCape fiber optic services that it provides right now?

OpenCape currently offers services over a wide ranges of speeds going from 20 Mbits/sec to 10 Gbits/sec. All speeds are symmetric, so the same up and down. For those few customers wanting higher speeds, OpenCape can combine 10 Gigabit channels up to 100 Gigabits. The network is designed so that the speeds can go much higher as demand arises.

With 5G services coming in out the next year or two they offer 20 Gigabit download speed and 5 Gigabit upload speed and data plans becoming obsolete why not wait for 5G to simply connect everyone’s devices instead of undertaking tens to hundreds of millions in infrastructure costs to lay new fiber?

There is currently a whole lot of hype and misinformation surrounding 5G and possible deployment scenarios. Many of the extremely high data rates mentioned are for future planned equipment operating under ideal laboratory conditions. Real world performance will be much poorer and will not be realized until much of the core network has been rebuilt and customers buy next generation (or two) equipment. Even then the speed that an individual receives will be very location dependent. 5G also requires the building of fiber optics deep into neighborhoods because every 5G antenna is connected to fiber optic cable and will cost money and take time.

No company has yet announced plans to deploy 5G services in Falmouth. While it is likely that some 5G services will come here eventually, historically the Cape has always lagged the metropolitan regions and never gotten the fastest possible services.

How is Comcast not serving the town as it should? How much of their network is coax instead of fiber optic?

For many people, Comcast service is adequate much of the time. Many businesses, including home based ones, struggle to get the services they need, especially with respect to uploading information. Comcast’s performance significantly varies by neighborhood, time of day and season. For the most part, Comcast has fiber in neighborhood nodes that serve coax distribution to about 100 houses.

You mention economic growth but what are those numbers? 2% growth? 10%? In what areas are there growth? How much money are we talking about?

This is a difficult number to predict precisely. What is know is that communities that have built their own community networks have experienced significant economic benefits both in terms of the stabilization and retention of existing businesses and through the attraction of new business. The value of homes and apartments that have access to fiber optic network typically increase by 3 – 5%. To better understand the economic impact that a community fiber optic network has, see articles on Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN For more general information economic impacts, please see discussions at Muninetworks.org and Fiberbroadband.org

What is considered high speed broadband compared to what Comcast offers?

The range of speed offerings that a community run network will offer is something that will be determined by the community in part influenced by the feasibility study that will begin in the next month or so. It is likely that the initial high end will be 1 Gigabit/sec (up and down), but there will also be lower speed options for people who don’t need or can’t afford these speeds. An important consideration is that the local community will determine the performance tiers and pricing based on local input and not some remote corporate entity.

Which services currently don’t have fiber optic services? You mentioned municipal buildings and police at 7:30ish but at 8:04 you mentioned these places already have fiber optic services.. I’m confused on this one.

There are approximately 45 locations in Falmouth that are currently connected to the OpenCape network. This includes several municipal buildings, all the schools, several of the libraries, the Woods Hole research institutions, the hospital and a number of small businesses. A joint project between the Falmouth EDIC and OpenCape will soon result in fiber optic connectivity being available to businesses along most of Main St, potentially adding another 100 – 150 businesses.

What is the cost to “lay the last mile”? You mentioned it’d give access to 22,000 people, but how many of those tend to switch over in these cases?

There are a couple of components to this cost. The first is to build a “backbone” throughout the town. Fortunately for Falmouth most of this is already built as part of the OpenCape network and assuming an appropriate business agreement can be reached available to the town. The next component are laterals off of the backbone which will need to run down every street or at least deep into neighborhoods. The average cost of this type of construction is about $50,000/mile. For comparison, road construction usually cost $1 million/mile or more. Finally there the cost of running fiber into a house which typically is around $1,000 – $1,500. A more precise estimate of costs will come out of the feasibility study. It is also worth noting that the community network does not have to exclusively rely upon a single technology and that in some locations wireless or other options may be a better solution.

A network that covered all of Falmouth would reach about 22,000 residences and serve the 33,000 full-time citizens and a summer population that can exceed 100,000. “Take rates” for community networks vary but typically run in the 50 – 60% range where there is competition such as in Westfield, MA and much higher in community’s that previously lacked broadband service.

Did you call any previous towns that provided a community network and when did they break even? I’m not sure why this can’t be done before a feasibility study which costs $50k.

There are a large number of towns that have built and operate their own community networks. Several of the Falmouth organizers are familiar with a number of them. Chris Mitchell, who was interviewed in the TV program, arguably has the most comprehensive knowledge of anyone in the nation concerning the development and status of community broadband networks. The website, muninetworks.org , that he runs is a great source of information. Additionally, we recommend Susan Crawford’s very readable book, “Fiber: The Coming Tech Revolution—and Why America Might Miss It.” So yes, it is known that local networks can be and are successful. The point of a feasibility study is to gain an understanding of the local factors (social, economic, geographical and technical) that can critically impact the design and probably of success of the network.

How much of Falmouth has less than desirable internet capability?

That depends upon who you talk to and when. Many people are satisfied some of the time and extremely frustrated some of time. They also feel, quite correctly, that they have no input into affecting the quality or pricing of the service they receive. A community based network would give them a voice. There is also the matter of not only considering the present but preparing for the future. The Cape has long been on the tail end of technical upgrades and the community suffers because of this.

You mentioned in the library you see people come in for the internet because they cannot pay for high speed.. Yet you also posted pricing for what would be open cape and its within 5 dollars of what Comcast charges. So I’m not sure how that would fix that particular issue.

The pricing of Comcast residential services cannot be compared to the services currently offered by OpenCape as they are very different and targeted at different markets. The large for profit companies set their prices based upon corporate goals and shareholder demands. OpenCape, as a regional non-profit, offers reduced pricing to government, education and non-profits, but this does not offer services to individuals. A locally operated network can define its own pricing and service levels and chose to offer a robust service at little or no cost to people with limited ability to pay. Several municipal networks to this as part of their stewardship to their community.

Don’t most Comcast support technicians live locally?

Most Comcast service technicians live locally, but they are dispatched through a remote call center after a highly scripted diagnostic procedure by people who have limited awareness of local conditions. More critical, than where a technician lives, however, is where are the people that you can complain to when something goes wrong. In a community operated network it isn’t just that the support people are local, it is that the whole organization is local and can be made to be directly accountable.

While I do not disagree at all about download/upload speed the percentage of 32k Falmouth residents that need higher upload speeds of 10 Mbps is most likely less than 1%.

This seems like a highly subjective estimate. It is true, that currently, a significant fraction of people do not, on average, use or need more than 10 Mbps. There are those who do, and they have very limited options available to them. More importantly, however, that 10 Mbps is not guaranteed to be available to anyone at the time they need it. Both local and upstream saturation of the shared network infrastructure result in periods of no upload capacity (leading to an apparent brief outage of the network) or extremely limited capacity (leading to slow downs of both uploads and downloads). Internet communications rely upon two way handshakes to transfer data, and whenever one side of the path is clogged, the other side stops sending data. The more asymmetrical the upload and download speeds become, the more this will be a problem, especially in situations where there are multiple active high speed data streams, such a household of streaming video users.