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Chris Donner Acts Of Access

Associate Editor, CTI magazine

[May 4, 1999]

Looking For Last Mile Innovation

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 product?

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 they are.

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 jlinthic@fcc.gov. 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 lguevin@tmcnet.com.

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