One Doesn’t Build Universal Service on Internet Time

by Andy Oram
June 16, 2000

Several months ago, Massachusetts residents opened their newspapers to an unusual surprise: a firm hardly anyone had heard of was awarded a contract to provide high bandwidth services to every community in the state. Most papers treated the contract as another in the familiar but ever-satisfying stories of an upstart technology company (Digital Broadband Corporation) beating out a tired old monopoly (Bell Atlantic). But as I investigated how it came to be, the story that I found more interesting was how a group of concerned state employees and citizens could come together and pull off a tremendously innovative initiative to benefit the public in a state notorious for secret deals and politics by obstruction.

Massachusetts is not the first U.S. state to try a comprehensive approach to bringing universal service in digital media closer to fruition, although the state was innovative in the type of deal negotiated: equal access for all municipalities across the board. The urge to use coordinated action in order to spread the digital revolution across the whole population has appealed to numerous municipalities, regional groupings, and states.

In this article I’ll summarize the progress of three statewide or regional efforts toward universal service. What unites them is the importance of a long-term relationship among people who are firmly rooted in their communities and respected by the local power structure. Creating a successful dot.com may require just a few months of frantic effort among a tight-knit group of technical experts, but bringing the Internet to the masses is an entirely different endeavor that rewards slow, old-fashioned consensus building.

Massachusetts

While densely populated and highly educated compared to most states, Massachusetts suffers from all the same digital divides, including a geographic one. The high-tech waves that have swept over the Boston area and the highways ringing it have barely touched the rest of the state. Compared to the overcrowded East, many inland communities are relatively far from high-speed lines and isolated by hills and forests.

The idea of wiring all the towns and cities in Massachusetts came to an agency within the state’s Department of Education and was carried out under the guidance of a non-profit called the Massachusetts Community Network (MCN), which has long experience in providing access to technology. I talked to a friend and colleague who works with both these organizations, Steve Miller, to find out who worked on the project, why they took the bold step of providing state funding, and how they pulled together the impressive political will to carry it off.

Many organizations in the state, particularly in the field of education, have worried about providing new opportunities for learning and work to poor residents and communities. When they decided just over a year ago to form a buying cooperative, the key players in the areas of public access and the use of technology in education had already gotten to know each other through years of moving about various organizations, government agencies, and projects. The kind of coalition they built was a slow brew based on the trust that comes from collaboration in many different areas. And their idea for a statewide broadband network emerged over time as well, a natural next step toward meeting their economic and social goals.

A huge number of organizations joined the coalition, whose steering committee included teachers, technical experts from the state’s IT Division and the private sector, the Department of Education, and MCN. Meeting every week for over a year, they worked together effectively because of the personal bonds that had previously built up among them.

Miller explained that their plan was a response to the “market failure” encountered by attempts to provide broadband access in rural and low-income areas. Companies simply can’t voluntarily provide access to hamlets in the Berkshire hills for the same price as they do to Route 128 (the famous “technology highway” that has gone through at two renaissances as homes for computer companies). The state has to smooth out the differences. “With this project we can get the vendor to offer the same price everywhere and do it on our time frame,” said Miller. “In a way, ironically, we’re trying to undo the social damage that the 1996 telecom deregulation bill created with its goal of eliminating cross subsidies.”

The state cooperative put out a request for bids containing two key points: first, that the vendor would provide T1-quality access to all official locations in all of Massachusetts’s towns and cities (such as public schools, public libraries, municipal offices, state offices, and National Guard units); and second, that all customers would pay the same rates. The state would provide some start-up money to make the local telephone central offices capable of handling DSL (if a T1 was not feasible, equivalent bidirectional service could be offered through SDSL) and MCN would get stock options in return. The cooperative’s hope, naturally, was that this initial investment in an information highway would pave the way for the winning bidder or competitors to follow up and provide further low-priced services to businesses and residences throughout the state.

From over 20 applications, the cooperative picked the best half dozen and preceded to enter into intensive negotiations with the vendors. Each one improved its offer as it went along. Most of the losing bidders were stuck with an uninspiring offer of ADSL with a lower guaranteed throughput than the cooperative wanted. Digital Broadband Corporation, a young corporation eager to make a big splash in the market, finally won with an offer to build the requested network essentially at cost. The cooperative hopes that further services (such as voice transmission and different Quality of Service offerings) will follow.

South Dakota

Half a continent away from crowded Massachusetts with its universities and Internet start-ups, one finds a very different terrain and population in South Dakota. Staring out across the vast distances that separate isolated farms and small communities, one can easily wonder whether it would ever be feasible to provide a profitable high-speed service. According to Chris Haar, Technology Coordinator for the Aberdeen Developer Corporation, part of the universal service hurdle is a psychological and learning problem. If the government can get the first fiber laid (or the equivalent wireless service) companies will realize the job is not all that formidable and the payoffs worth the effort.

Dakota Interconnect was at least partly a top-down project started by Tim Rich, mayor of Aberdeen. He brought it about not by fiat or law, however, but by assembling a coalition that included city and county government, public, private, and parochial schools, the local state university and private colleges, non-profits, the regional planning commission, a long-distance phone reseller, and two cable companies, one owned by the electric company. According to Haar, he “shut them in a room” until they came up with a plan.

Dakota Interconnect depended on building a few central facilities to create critical mass for investment, along with upgrades by existing cable companies to provide two-way broadband along the last mile. The 11 central facilities included the state university and a business incubator called the Smart Connections Center. (A business incubator provides space and broadband connections to start-ups along with centralized facilities such as videoconferencing.) In October 1995, Aberdeen kicked off Dakota Interconnect with a $900,000 grant from TIAAP, a U.S. Commerce Department agency that has provided critical aid to many innovative public communications projects. One and a half million dollars was also raised from other organizations.

Within two years, several key centers were connected through fiber-optic cable, numerous schools throughout the district had ISDN connections, and after a spirited PR campaign, several enthusiastic citizens were serving as guinea pigs for cable modem hook-ups. While Dakota Interconnect functions mostly within the city of Aberdeen, lines have been strung up to 100 miles away to rural schools and community buildings such as health clinics. The perennial example of a broadband demo—a videoconference between public school students—was carried off between a school connected through an ISDN line and a partner school in Finland. Health clinics have also engaged in teleconferences with a central hospital for diagnosis and treatment.

West Georgia

Like many universal access efforts, the West Georgia Telecommunications Alliance was prompted partly by an attempt to use the Internet in the schools. Dr. Terry Bailey, a math professor, was working with Harris Johnson of the Georgia Tech state university to let high school students dial in to the university so Bailey could teach them the C language on a Unix system. The professors couldn’t pull off this project, but it got them thinking about what it would take to link educational sites together in the region.

Another key figure giving impetus to the Cooperative was Martin Smith, president of a local company that makes coaxial cable. He knew that both his company and students in the region would benefit from high-bandwidth Internet connections.

When these citizens started to contact local businesses and government agencies, some common stories emerged. According to Smith, several businesses had approached the incumbent telephone company, BellSouth, in search of high-speed connections. Each was told, “There’s no demand for this service—you’re the only one who’s asked for it.” BellSouth was not being devious here; it simply didn’t keep records when someone asked for a broadband connection and no one there realized how many companies had actually requested it. Once community members saw they had a common need, they could take decisive action to satisfy it.

To build public support for more investment in networking, the group obtained a donated videoconferencing system from Intel and installed systems in banks and other central locations so people could get a taste of life with broadband. In order to sign a license for the system, the group took its first step to formalize itself and created a not-for-profit corporation. BellSouth kicked in a donation in the form of ISDN lines; AT&T and other companies also gave equipment. So far, however, the corporation runs entirely on volunteer labor and has received no government funding.

Thanks to the way the cooperative aggregates its members’demand, anyone in the three-county area can get an ISDN line for $92.50 a month—with none of the mileage charges that normally raise the cost of a line to $300 or $400 a month. About 25 miles of multiple strands of fiber are already in place, with another 80 miles anticipated.

As always, “the last mile is the hard part,” says Johnson. But the project can point to a small but notable success: residential developers are installing fiber to the curb and Category 5 coaxial cable throughout the apartments in three new developments. The coax lies inside conduits so the wires can be easily upgraded at any time in the future.

The geographic scope of the corporation is the three counties that Johnson represents for Georgia Tech, but he wants to expand it further and is gratified to see some interest from a fourth county. Johnson summarizes the goals as follows: “To meet the needs of all users, which includes everybody, but especially public and private schools, the state university, small businesses, manufacturers, and hospitals.”

Like the universal service activists in other areas, Johnson and his colleagues have discovered the value of banding together. Part of the benefit is purely economic: the bigger a consortium is, the larger market it will offer, and vendors like dealing with as large an entity as possible to minimize the overhead of of negotiation and logistics. But a large chunk of the benefit is social, too. And that is the final thread I found throughout all the projects in this article. In order to solve a technological problem, people are building a stronger community.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly & Associates. This article represents his views only. It was originally published in the online magazine Web Review.