Looking For Last Mile
Try as I might, I can't get my mind off of broadband. I use the Web more and more in my
everyday life, and while the applications that might require megabits per second aren't
there yet (aside from the occasional MP3 or .PDF download), I could certainly use more
than just a 28.8 modem and a dial-up connection. So, I watch with increasing interest all
the posturing and promises coming from the various broadband players.
So far, posturing and promises are all I have seen. Neither cable modems nor DSL are
generally available in New Haven, Connecticut, my current place of residence. However, I
remain hopeful. I am only some 75 miles outside of New York City, directly along I-95. I
live within a short of walk of the Yale campus. If anyone in a small northeastern city is
going to get broadband access by the end of this year, it should be me.
There is more talk everyday regarding deployment of broadband, and increasingly, there
is similar talk about "last mile" alternatives. Indeed, Senator John McCain (R,
AZ) has made broadband deployment into a personal mission, and almost everything I read --
from industry mags to the New York Times -- mentions broadband in some way on a
regular basis. So what are the current options, and why so much noise and so little
First, the two main players haven't changed: RBOCs (Regional Bell Operating Companies)
and cable companies. These obvious contenders both have existing "last mile"
delivery mechanisms: twisted pair copper and coaxial cable, respectively. Action on the
cable side is clearly heating up, with AT&T outbidding Comcast in the potential
purchase of MediaOne with a bid of $58 billion. Meanwhile, Microsoft and AOL are also said
to be interested in obtaining MediaOne.
While this may not be the kind of competition that the drafters of the 1996 Telecom
Reform act envisioned, it is competition of a sort. In fact, one of the goals of the 1996
Act was to create several mega-providers who would then compete against each other in all
information service areas at once.
However, until these mergers are settled and the playing field is clear, it seems
unlikely that either of the two incumbents is going to announce a drastic rollout of
broadband. The RBOCs are faced with a network that needs upgrading, and they don't want to
invest the capital unless they alone can reap the rewards. The cable companies are in much
the same boat, except that they perhaps have a worse network and they currently don't have
to share the rewards with anyone else. Whereas the RBOCs are struggling to get out from
under regulation, the cable companies are desperately trying to keep things the way that
But what about innovation? Despite the slothful incumbents, there is still plenty of
room for creativity and excitement in the realm of broadband. Recently, I have heard
whispers suggesting that there may be ways to use the third set of wires running into your
residence to provide Internet access, telephony, and even TV/movies. What is this third
set of wires? Why, your electrical wires, of course.
At present, electrical wires carry pretty much only 60 Hz, 120V electrical current,
although some campuses use these same wires to carry information for their PA systems.
However, there is room in this wire for a good deal more to be carried -- that is,
information. If you are interested in how this can be done, and how far off a real
broadband-over-utility option (called carrier current systems) might be, you will want to
attend a tutorial being held on this very subject this week in Washington, D.C.
Here is the information: The Office of Engineering and Technology will present a
tutorial on "Data and Voice over Power Lines" in the Commission Meeting Room,
445 12th Street S.W., Washington, D.C., on May 5 from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. The public is
invited to attend without advance registration. For more information, please visit www.fcc.gov/oet/tutorial or contact Jack
Linthicum at 202-418-2441 or e-mail him at email@example.com.
The presentation will be given by Nortel Networks Nor.Web affiliate's Dan Middleton and
Jim McClanahan. For those who are interested but who can't attend, the presentation (audio
and slides) will be available on the FCC's Web site at www.fcc.gov.
But carrier current systems are not the only alternative to the cable/RBOC
"duopoly." Recently, there has been talk about a company called Time-Domain and
their claim to have an Ultra Wide Band (UWB) wireless technology that would allow
efficient transfer of information using rapid pulses rather than radio waves. These
fragmentary pulse transmissions result in less interference and power consumption than
traditional radio wave broadcasts. The transmissions take place mainly between 650MHz and
5GHz, and Time-Domain refers to the technology as "Digital Pulse Wireless." Due
to their discontinuous, sporadic nature, these pulses are indistinguishable from noise
unless the receiving device is matched to understand the pulses, adding a substantial
degree of security to the transmission.
Of course, this technology still requires proving and some refinement -- a USA Today article
discussing the company cites Time-Domain CEO Ralph Petroff as saying that determining
whether the technology could ever be used practically, say, in a mobile phone application,
is at least "three to four iterations" away. For more information on the company
and possible uses of this technology, please visit their Web site at www.time-domain.com.
There are certainly other possible solutions that hope to offer "last mile"
access, and I would love to hear about them as well. While the present administration
claims to be Internet-friendly, and while certain of our legislators have taken broadband
access issues to heart, there is no substitute for a knowledgeable populace. The Internet
and the telephone are both natural extensions of our desire to stay informed and in touch.
Maybe soon, instead of promises with little or no options, we'll be spoiled for choice.
Chris Donner welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.