Sun Feb 8 02:50:13 CST 2004
BRIDGING THE CUMBERLAND GAP
Mar 18, 2002
Tired of getting nowhere in its dealings with Verizon, a local Maryland
government takes on broadband by forming its own telecom provider,
Allconet. By running the carrier like any other utility, this town is
hoping to form a template for other frustrated small communities--and
give the Bell company a run for its money.
Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachians is Cumberland, the county
seat of Allegany County, where a few local government engineers have
hatched a plan to bring broadband to the Maryland community. Frustrated by
their dealings with Verizon Communications and searching for an economic
development tool, the municipal governments have taken matters into their
own hands. They've decided to make broadband access a public utility,
bypassing incumbent carriers entirely. And they're doing it over the
The Allegany County Net, or Allconet, is a completely self-reliant
network provider that will ink its own agreements with ISPs to offload
traffic onto the public Internet. The county will build Allconet using
equipment from three vendors: point-to-multipoint base stations from
Alvarion (formerly BreezeCom), a Sonet ring from DMC Stratex Networks and
point-to-point backhaul equipment from Marconi. The county also plans
to become the local high-speed provider for its residents, running the
local broadband pipe as if it were a gas or water utility.
The local government spent years trying to negotiate terms with Verizon to
provide broadband infrastructure at reasonable prices, said Jeff Blank,
Allconet's supervisor of microcomputing and networking. But because of
its small size, the county made no headway. Faced with the closing of
its smokestack industries, Allegany County, like many other communities,
wanted to try its hand at luring high-tech and biotech businesses that
were fleeing the bigger metro areas on the Eastern seaboard. But without
any kind of data infrastructure in place, attempts were futile.
³We're 150 miles from the nearest major city,² Blank said. ³We're so
small, we're completely off the radar scope. The only thing for us to
do was build our own carrier-class network.²
That may sound like an overreaching conclusion, but Allegany
County is unique among its rural brethren. It already had a complex
broadband wireless network in place to serve its government offices
and schools. Built in 1996, the point-to-point radio network links 95
government buildings, creating a network of 4000 individual workstations
to include a computer in every school classroom. Compared with other
rural counties, many of Allegany's residents already were used to high
levels of bandwidth, especially its students.
With government offices already grounded in wireless through the
point-to-point network, the county's first thought was to lay fiber. But
it hit a stumbling block. Connecting the county's sparse, widespread
populace with fiber would have cost $180 million. By comparison,
the radio buildout will cost the county between $2.9 million and $5
million, most of which the county plans to raise through state grants,
Blank said. With that investment, Allconet will be able to offer 85% of
the county's population, 95% of its businesses and 100% of its business
parks broadband access.
For consumers, each base station will transmit 360° on the 2.4 GHz
unlicensed frequencies offering 3 Mb/s of capacity. For business
customers, Allconet will transmit from the same base stations using the
5.8 GHz frequency to offer up to 60 Mb/s of capacity.
The network would have the same reliability as any commercial network,
Blank said, from the self-healing capabilities of the Sonet ring to
diesel generators at every base station site for backup power. Blank and
three other engineers will run the network, each representing one of the
four government entities behind Allconet: the school board, the city of
Cumberland, county government and the public library.
Stratex officials, who are providing the radios forming the Sonet
ring, said they haven't seen a network like it yet. Used to dealing
with carriers and large enterprises working on much larger scales,
Stratex essentially is building the same carrier-class infrastructure
and self-healing architecture it would build for a major data carrier,
except it's for a small county government, said Stuart Little, director
of solutions marketing for Stratex, formerly Digital Microwave.
³They're literally breaching the digital divide,² Little said. ³We hope
this type of model will be effectively repeated.²
It looks like Little might not have to wait long for that
repeat. Neighboring counties have begun following Allegany's progress
closely, Blank said, especially when they heard Allconet will be able to
lease a DS-3 for $3500 per month, while its equivalent in the high-tech
corridor of northern Virginia runs $14,500. Maryland isn't alone,
either. Several other local municipalities in the U.S. have taken on
their communities' broadband needs. But most of them have opted to do
it using fiber.
³There are a lot of cities that are being overlooked for broadband, places
the RBOCs have chosen to ignore,² said Andy Fuertes, broadband wireless
analyst for Allied Business Intelligence. ³A lot of the cities want to
bring in new business but can't without broadband infrastructure. Some
of them feel it's their civic duty to provide broadband services to the
community, just like commerce or education.²
Fuertes said that while there is one other community in Roseville, Minn.,
that has deployed commercial services locally, Allegany County's network
is fairly rare. But he expects that more will follow their examples,
especially as broadband becomes more ubiquitous in metro centers while
rural and far suburban areas are left behind.
So far, Verizon appears to have ignored Allegany County's project,
but that hasn't impaired its funding requests in the Maryland
legislature. Analysts said Verizon's indifference is no surprise because
there's no profit for high-speed data in a small town like Cumberland. And
the Bell companies are unlikely to start paying attention any time soon,
said Abby Christopher, senior analyst for Ovum.
³It's simply a question of margins, and the fact is that the margins
aren't there in these rural counties,² Christopher said. ³From the RBOCs'
perspective, they have no reason to put in new COs or deploy DSL. And
what services they do offer are due to federal law. They're simply
following the letter of the law, but they aren't doing anything else.²
In the case of Allconet, the local government may just be taking pressure
off Verizon to provide more advanced services to rural communities,
especially if they can provide those same services with the help of public
grants, Christopher said. Under the Bush administration, there will
be even less pressure to cross that digital divide, she added. Despite
President Bush's promises to bring broadband to the masses, his public
policy initiatives have been to take regulatory pressure off of the
Allconet might become the model for tiny communities unable to gain ground
with their local exchange carriers. If those communities follow Allconet's
example using wireless technologies, it may have the additional benefit
of reviving the ailing broadband wireless industry, Christopher said.
Still, Allconet sticks by its belief that it has stood up to the
monopolistic might of Verizon. While he hasn't heard a complaint from Ma
Bell yet, Blank said the Bell company's attitude may change if Allconet
is successful. If the county excels at luring industry to its small
community, and if the county gets a sizable part of its population on
broadband access, Verizon may start getting nervous.
Said Blank: ³That's going to be a major loss of revenue for Verizon no
matter how you look at it.²
© 2002, PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc. All rights reserved. This article is protected by United States copyright and other intellectual property laws and may not be reproduced, rewritten, distributed, redisseminated, transmitted, displayed, published or broadcast, directly or indirectly, in any medium without the prior written permission of PRIMEDIA Business Magazines & Media Inc.
David Young On the Job Consulting
dyoung at onthejob.net Urbana, IL * (217) 278-3933
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