Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is Northwest ConneCT doing?

Northwest ConneCT is a non-profit corporation headquartered in Sharon, Connecticut. We are devoted to orchestrating a universal, affordable, reliable, and future proof broadband network for the northwest corner of our state.  The only network satisfying these four requirements requires fiber optic lines all the way to every home and business.  We are doing this to promote economic development, facilitate digital education, ease the digital divide, secure future telemedicine features for every home, and enhance the general well-being of our region.

 Covid has demonstrated, with trumpets blaring, that broadband has become a necessary utility, as important to life as roads, electricity, clean water, and sewer systems.  Any necessary utility strives to be universal, affordable, reliable, and as durable in time as possible.  Broadband now should be considered no differently.  Yet 35% of homes in the northwest corner do not have “broadband” now and many with “broadband” have services that collapsed with Covid.

We have relied on broadband over the last twenty years on legacy telephone and television cables that were already paid for by other services.  Equipped with special modems, they have provided adequate levels of broadband to most homes in the area.  But their time has passed.  Neither copper medium can transport data at rates needed for some applications now, and for many more applications surely to appear in the next decade.  We need fiber optic lines, with basic capacities 10,000 times greater than cable network lines.  The problem is that cable companies for the most part cannot afford to upgrade their networks with no assurance of new revenues to justify the capital expense.

In our region (as in most areas of the country), a new network will require government subsidies or user fees way too high to justify the word “affordable”.  The central question, and perhaps the only real question standing in the way of building new networks, is how we find the money.  This will be the central question stirring the hearts of Nothwest-ConneCT until we have fiber optic networks here.

What is broadband?

“Broadband” refers to any high-speed data communications network connecting users in homes and businesses to remote resources such as the Internet, the Cloud, and corporate data centers. We all use one, probably every day, every time we access the Internet or get e-mail from our smart phone.

The word is something of a figure of speech.  Literally, “band” refers to a channel, like an FM “radio band”; think of it as a kind of digital road or pipe.  “Broad” suggests large or fast or substantial in capacity.  The word has been applied to whole data networks (which include switches and other things) to distinguish high capacity networks from older networks reached through dial-up modems.  The word “capacity” is important.  Broadband networks are characterized by their maximum data rates, not their actual data rates in use.  Many lines in cable tv networks are shared by more than 100 homes, with many homes sporting multiple users needing access at the same time.  During Covid a line nominally rated at 400 mbps could drop to as low as 5 mbps for any one user during some hours of the day.

In the late 1990s “broadband” was 200 kbps (thousands of bits per second); dial-up modems had peaked at 56 kbps.  In 2010 the FCC upgraded “broadband” to 10 mbps (millions of bits per second) downstream (from the network to you), 1 mbps upstream (from you into the network), reflecting the circumstance that most data came to the device for files, screen building, and video, with not much going back to the data center.  In 2015 the FCC upgrade “broadband” again, to 25 mbps downstream, 3 mbps upstream, the figure used today.  However, many applications today collapse at those speeds, particularly Zoom calls with video upstream as well as down.  Many CATV networks today supply, nominally, 1 gbps downstream and 25 mbps upstream, but these lines are still shared by many users, dropping actual rates considerably at times..

“Broadband” does not define the kind of communication links inside the network—they tend to be the most expensive part.  A broadband network may be fashioned from legacy telephone lines with special transceivers or modems (DSL), legacy cable television lines with special modems (DOCSIS 3.1), new fiber optic lines, satellite links, or wireless network links, each with their own kind of modems for converting between digital information and signals suitable to the medium.   In our region all connections entited to the FCC definition of “broadband” use legacy cable television lines, but they only connect 65% of homes; our DSL and satellite connections are too slow to qualify.

As we discuss in another FAQ, there are reasons to define “broadband” now as 10 gigabits per seeond (billion bits per second) on grounds that certain applications require such capacity now, and we should treat broadband like we do other utilities, rated by their maximum capacity not their minimum.  Only fiber opic lines can furnisth such speeds.

What do speed designations mean?

“bits per second” (bps) means the number of binary digits (bits) per second

“kilobits per second” (kbps) means 1000 bits per second

“megabits per second” (mbps) means 1,000,000 bits per second (million)

“gigabits per second” (gbps) means 1,000,000,000 bits per second (billion)

“terabits per second” (tbps) means a 1,000,000,000,000 bits per second (trillion)

Digital information represents data with strings of “bits” or “binary digits” that have only two logical states—1 or 0, on or off.  In most protocols and memory systems bits are fitted together into groups of eight, called a “byte.”  For example, alpha-numeric information is generally shaped according to a standard called ASCII that assigns a combination of bits in a byte to letters, numbers, and special characters—upper case M is “01001101”.

But things like video streams will look rather random even when organized in bytes.  A video stream typically (today) starts out as three bytes or 24 bits for every pixel on a screen to express color and intensity and some other things. (Some now use 32 bits or 4 bytes per pixel).  An HD screen (1920 x 1080 pixels) requires almost 50 million bits to paint a screen once.  If painted 30 times a second (interlaced scanning) the equivalent data rate is 1,492,000,000 bits per second (1.492 gbps); if painted 60 times a second (progressive scanning), the rate is 2.905 gbps.  Some video games and high quality video entertainment can go as high as 120 scans a second.  However, networks are not this fast yet.  All video signals sent to homes are radically compressed, with loss of information in the process.  Standard video requires around 1.5 mbps, HD video between 3 and 7 mbps, 4K video between 16 and 30 mbps, and 8K video around 90 mbps.  Video today is 75% of Internet traffic, split between standard and HD (most YouTube video is standard).  These signals are “real time,” meaning they cannot be delayed much in the network, else buffers at various places in the network run out of material, or get overrun.  When Netflix stops streaming, the little wheel of dots whirling around, it usually means network congestion has caused buffers in the network to have nothing or too much.

The other index of value in assessing data rate requirements concerns sizes of files being sent.  A single compressed HD two-hour video requires about 6.3 billion bytes.  Such a file requires about 2.4 days to transmit at dial-up speeds of 30 kbps, about half an hour at 25 mbps, and about 14 seconds at 1 gbps.  If you have filled up a one-terabyte file on your computer and want to send it to someone, or a data center for back-up, it will take 3.7 days at 25 mbps, 2.2 hours at 1 gbps, and about 13 minutes at 10 gbps.  These size files will be commonplace in not too many years.  Fiber optics will allow you to be prepared; no other network will.

What is the right speed for “broadband.”

10 Gigabits per second symmetric (same in both directions).  Not 25 mbps downstream and 3 mbps upstream (current FCC definition), nor 100 mbps symmetric (current Tier 2 definition in federal infrastructure bill) or even 1 gpbs symmetric (Tier 3).  We should size the network by its maximum requisite capacity, not its minimum.

We build roads, sewer systems, water systems, drainage systems, and fire hyrdants based on maximum needs, not some minimum need, even if that maximum is seldom actually realized.  We should start thinking about broadband the same way.  Some users today need speeds above 1 gbps in both directions; the economic benefits of a new network lie here, in highly efficient working at home.  Some fiber optic networks provide these speeds today.  Many more people will have the same need as time passes.  CATV networks will never be able to provide such service. We need to cover the country with a network that delivers 10 gbps everywhere.  We need fiber optics everywhere.

Video entertainment constitutes 75% of Internet traffic today; it is hard to see that dropping down much in the future.  However, the economic drivers for new networks are more likely connected to working at home and conducting doctor visits at home.  Many people working at home now have speeds at the corporate office of 1 gbps symmetric, with increases over time all but certain as file sizes and demand on low display response times inevitably increase.  Future telemedicine machines will store vast arrays of data that, in an emergency, will need uploading as fast as possible to save a life.  Blockchains alone (which may have a huge role to play in future Electronic Medical Records) can reach staggering proportions.  Symmetric speeds of 1 gbps can only be realistically realized with fiber optics.  Current transceiver technology, with almost no price premium, can realize 10 gbps symmetric on a point-to point connection and 10 gbps down, 5 gbps up on shared connections.   It makes almost no sense now to build new networks that do not start with this capability.

We admit that such data rates will not be in common use or required by most users.  But users at these speeds will generally pay more for the service (meaning they help subsidize others) and they represent the sharp end of the economic arrow.  Knowledge workers, entrepreneurs, those working in Artificial Intelligence, health care systems, energy systems, and other expanding fields from home need the efficiency and comfort of a reliable, lightning fast network.  What we cannot determine beforehand is where they will be living.  So we have to build networks that provide such speeds for all.

What is fiber optics?

Fiber optics refers to thin strands of purified glass, smaller than a human hair, wrapped in a sheathing and often bundled with other strands in a cable that could hold more than 3000, that when fitted with transceivers on each end can carry modulated light signals as much as 20 miles without amplification.  Its principal virtue is speed, at least 10,000 times the maximum rate one can realize over copper-based wiring.  But fiber optics also emits no electromagnetic radiation, suffers no errors caused by electromagnetic noise, and lasts longer in suitable sheathing compared to copper based lines. It is the wiring of the present for interconnecting switches in the Internet and computers in data centers. 750,000 miles of fiber optic cabling sit in the ocean connecting continents.  It the wiring of present and future for residential broadband.

A modulated carrier requires frequency space around it to create a pipe for the signal after it is modulated.  The size of the pipe is usually proportional to the rate at which the carrier signal is modulated.  An 88.5 MHz FM carrier requires 15 kHz of bandwidth around it to transmit typical voice frequencies up to 15 kHz.  The physics of copper wire imposes limits on maximum bandwidth.  A relatively short coax line within a cable television network can transmit data at rates no greater than 10 gbps total, that must be divided up between download data, upload data, and broadcast television.

In the form most common for residential networks, fiber optics devotes channels in the infrared range with wavelengths around 1310 nanometers and 1550 nanometers (one for each direction), with 50 nanometer bandwidths around each.  Such pipes can transmit up to 10 trillion bits per second in theory with simple modulation.  The limitations arise largely from transceiver costs.  Simple transceivers (less than $200 each) deliver today 10 gbps in both directions; standards are in progress for speeds of 25 gbps and 50 gbps symmetric, with suitably inexpensive transceivers following.  (In backhaul systems like the Internet more expensive transceivers with more expensive wiring routinely realize 400 gbps, and undersea fiber optic cables now operate at 18 terabits per second.)

Fiber optics technology came into being in 1970 when Corning figured out how to manufacture glass with sufficient purity.  Transceiver technology followed, using laser or LED light sources.  Beginning in the early 1990s telephone and Internet companies begin installing fiber optics to connect their office and switching nodes together around the world; tens of millions of miles exist now in this “back-haul” system for the Internet and Public Switched Telephone Network. Some of that wiring is still “dark,” meaning not in use yet, so great is the capacity.  Fiber optics wiring also connects massive computer arrays together in huge data centers.   However, in the United States fiber optics has only recently become a medium of choice for the last mile into homes.  To date carriers have connected about 22 million homes out of some 128 million in the country with fiber optics.

Why do we need a new fiber optic network?

Let us count the ways.  Restoring our young population.  Economic development generally. Preparing for future in-home health care systems.  Repairing the digital divide in education.  Creating a network that optimizes digital education for all.  Bringing farms into high speed world that is becoming increasing necessary to reach markets and acquire information.  Improving homes values and sales.  Showing Connecticut how it can be done.  In general, fashioning for our region something that has, in a very short span of time, become as necessary as roads and electricity—broadband connectivity for all.

Of these reasons the first must stand out.  Our region’s population of people aged 20 to 39 is one-half what it should be, and declining, in absolute and percentage terms.  It will take in the order of 8000 new jobs to correct the imbalance, a 25% increase over regional jobs today.  Furthermore, they should be well-paying jobs.  Given the transformation wrought by Covid for working at home, we can realize job growth without much collateral office building growth.  A network that gives people working at home speeds ten time greater than what they get at the office will be a magnet if it comes before everyone else also has it.

But other critical benefits also apply.  Slow upstream speeds from cable networks have often crippled video conferencing; Covid has made Zoom calls a standard feature of life that will surely persist in the new normal, and improving picture quality will drive data rates up.  Digital learning at home is with us now for ever; it should never suffer the handicap of slow speeds.  The future of telemedicine contains equipment and file systems that will take enormous memory and very high upstream data rates, way beyond what cable television networks can supply.

A benefit also accrues from a new attitude about networks, namely, that everyone should be connected to one, and use it.  Of the 35% of homes not connected to “broadband” in our region now, some are too far from the road to be connected without outrageous carrier charges, some cannot afford it, some don’t really know about it, some say they do not need it, or want it, a few find the whole idea intrusive, a breach of their right of privacy.  Some of these reasons cannot be overcome.  But homes too far off the road and homes with low incomes must be addressed.  A new network with a suitable business model and cooperation with municipalities can address these problems.

Why can’t incumbent carriers supply it?

Money.  It costs too much money compared to the likely low levels of incremental revenue.  We have one carrier who is planning to upgrade to fiber optics—Optimum, in eight towns in our region.  But other carriers seem steadfast in their sense that what they have now is good enough.  They all have monopoly position in the towns they serve, and the numbers just do not run (they probably do not run for Optimum short term, but their owner, a French company, feels the long term benefits from much lower operating costs will justify the expense).

 Residential telephone and data networks have always been subsidized in one way or another.  When ATT was a regulated monopoly, it built out residential networks where the largest expense was the wiring, lost money, but made enough more by over-charging for business and long distance services that they were profitable, all with the blessing of state regulators.  That model was lost when ATT was broken up in 1984.  Our cable television networks were built on video revenues, also with the blessing of regulators.  Broadband is lightly regulated, with internal subsidies now largely impossible for incumbent carriers.  The adventures in the residental market by Verizon and ATT, now connecting 9 million homes, have been sufficiently difficult financially that Verizon has given up building out new areas and ATT’s efforts are half-hearted at best; they put their money in mobile now.  As long as cable companies use legacy wiring, the most expensive part, their number run; building a largely new network cripples the business case.  Even with the status quo, Internet rates have grown over the last few years, from an average of $58 per month to an average of $63 per month, largely due (one supposes) to so much increase in traffic that back-haul networks have had to be expanded to handle the added burden.

Perhaps the most compelling sign of this condition is the federal government’s seeming intention in the new infrastructure bill to spend at much as $65 billion dollars for broadband infrastructure, an entirely unnecessary expenditure if carriers could afford it on their own.  Another clue is the number of federal broadband granting programs that insist upon public-private partnerships, an implicit recognition that the free market will not satisfy our broadband requirements.

Do municipalities have to be involved?

This may be the critical question for our region, and our country.  We believe the answer is yes.  Our Internet problems today have three dimensions: speed, access, and adoption.  In our region the current CATV carriers do not have networks that can migrate in speed, pass everyone in villages with thin housing footprints, or encourage (or subsize) low income households that cannot afford the $60 per month fee.  The federal government may provide some funding for towns such as ours, with CATV everywhere, but given the amount of money that seems available (not nearly enough) and the competition to claim it, our chances cannot be considered high.  Municipalities are the only assured resource for funding municipal networks (with or without carrier partners), insisting upon universal coverage, and constructing programs to significantly improve adoption.

 We may compare our problems to those of smaller towns in the early days of electricity.  Many had to form municipal electric utilities, often funded by the federal government during the Depression (see for a glimpse of the experience).  Six such electric utilities still exist in southeastern Connecticut; many more are around the country.  There are two differences though: (1) fiber optic networks are out of financial reach for private carriers in many urban and suburban areas as well as rural area; and (2) the technical requirements for data networks keep rising, with no end in sight, where electricity was and remains 110V at 60 Hz.

Federal subsidies to date have focused on fully “unserved” rural communities, none of which exist in Connecticut.  The broadband component of the new infrastructure bill, should it pass, may pay for a universal upgrade to CATV networks, to 100 mbps symmetric service, but will do no more than 25% of the country if devoted to fiber optics.  We do not need a CATV upgrade; we need fiber optics (as will the country over time).  There is no assured path to a local fiber optic network that does not go through some form of municipal funding with suitable private partners.  Even federal funding, should it materialize, will likely require municipal participation as a cost of winning competitive grant bids.

Even if, by some miracle, some communities can realize fiber optic networks (say, from on Optimum upgrade to fiber optics, a likely event), the problems of universal service and adoption will remain.  Private carriers are unlikely to connect those far from the road without a significant premium, in the tens of thousands of dollars; this is unfair and incompatible with broadband as a necessary utility.  Furthermore, private carriers are unlikely agents for adoption by those who cannot afford the service.  In both case municipalities will have to weigh in, either with money or with programs orchestrated through public and private agencies, to maximize actual connections and use of the network.

How much will a new network cost?

As with so many things on this subject, it depends.  The most significant variable is the ratio of homes to road miles.  In densely populated urban areas, the most expensive part of a network is the connection from the pole to the home.  In thinly populated areas the most expensive part, often by far, is the trunk wiring on the poles.  In dense urban areas with aerial wiring the cost per home can be as low as $1200.  In rural areas in our region, say Falls Village, the cost can be as high as $5800 per home.  However, in dense urban areas where all wire must be underground, the cost per home can also slide by $5000 per home.  But here is the good part.  If Falls Village (to pick on them again) were to install just the trunk wiring (a private partner supplying the rest), borrow the money at 2.5% over 30 years (possible because it is just durable, long-lasting wire), the cost per home would be  $15.22 per month, a small fraction of costs for roads and schools.  We can afford it.

Network costs divide between Capital Expense (CAPEX) and Operating Expenses (OPEX).  The risks in building any such network come down to collecting enough revenue to cover recurring OPEX and payments for debt acquired in CAPEX.  If the operating entity is private, then revenues must exceed these two figures by enough to produce an acceptable profit.  The networks themselves have several parts: (1) a home network, usually built around a WiFi router, with a modem for connecting to a last-mile line (wire or wireless); (2) the last-mile network, with wire or wireless, connecting homes or businesses to a back-haul network; (3) the back-haul network connecting the last mile network to the Internet, corporate data center, or other users; and (4) the Internet itself, a massive array of switches interconnected by fiber optic lines that spans the world.

There are many engineering decisions to make when designing a new network that affect costs.  However,  for our region we can focus on two parameters: (1) trunk (or what in the trade is often called “feeder”) wiring on poles or underground, and (2) the amount of undergrounding required for trunk and so-called “drop wiring,” the connection between the pole or underground termination and the home.   Aerial trunk wiring costs from $40,000 to  $75,000 a mile, depending on several factors. Underground fiber cabling runs between $150,000 to $250,000 a mile, and can be higher if required to be deeply buried under streets.  Aerial drop wiring (wire only) runs around $500 a home.  Underground drop wiring runs about $10 a foot, can be less if the trenching is easy, can be more with lots of rocks and after-installation repair of sidewalks and driveways.  Home electronics, including installation, also runs around $500 per home.  Back-haul electronics usually costs so little as a percentage of the rest that it is simpler to just multiply whatever comes out of the last-mile analysis by 1.1, to add 10%.  If you take the worst case of these numbers against road miles and number of homes you will very likely have a worst case cost if you know the undergrounding requirements.  That figure is often hard to obtain short of a real investigation, but some of that investigation can be done by broadband committees rather than require a real engineering study.

Northwest Connect has built a sample cost study using these parameters for every town in Litchfield County and three towns in Fairfield County.  The costs per home range from $   in Torrington to $       for Falls Village.  In the same analysis we provide debt costs for trunk wiring and a combination of trunk and drop wiring against three debt arrangements, with calculations of mill rate effects against 2020 mill rates for each town.

Is that really expensive?

Depends upon the perspective.  Compared to roads, sewer systems, and schools—other necessities—fiber optic networks are relatively inexpensive; it is only the American distaste for additional taxes that keeps the federal government from just doing it like they do with roads (less than 0.5% yearly budget increase).  But existing carriers with existing networks and existing customers would not see much if any revenue increase from overhauling their current networks.  Hence, the Return on Investment models do not pencil out.

A new 2-lane road costs between $2,000,000 and $5,000,000 per mile, the higher costs associated with urban areas.  They average another $32,000 per mile per year to maintain over 25 years, including repaving.  Constructing the trunk part of sewer systems ranges from $400,000 to $1,000,000 per mile depending upon many conditions.   Once installed, the pipe parts of sewer lines suffer few maintenance problems.  Aerial trunk or feeder wire construction of a fiber-optic network runs $40,000 to $75,000 per mile.  As it is just wire (usually) with 40 year or more life spans, the maintenance costs are less than $100 per mile per year on average, almost exclusively for lines damaged in storms.  Underground feeder cabling runs from $150,000 to $250,000 per mile, but costs nothing thereafter if not cut by some excavator on drugs.

The rest is also less expensive.  It costs around $1000 to connect, wire-up, and provide electronics in a home with aerial wiring (it will be more with underground wiring, depending upon distance).  That is a small fraction of the cost of driveways and garages, or indoor lateral connections and indoor plumbing incident to water and sewer infrastructures.  The network end, at least the local network component of the network end, runs a few hundred dollars per home connected.

We would not be having this discussion if communities had historically paid for telephone and cable television infrastructure; new wiring would be, like roads and sewer systems, a community responsibility and a necessity, so we would pay for it even if we did not use it.   But we have relied upon private carriers to supply such networks since they began in the 1880s (unlike most of the world who nationalized telephone systems after it became clear that they were necessary), who have built networks without government subsidies for the most part, hence we have a habit of mind that expects the same for broadband.  We fail to realize how “subsidized” residential services have been historically.  As a regulated monopoly, ATT moved mounds of dollars from high profit business and long distance revenues to shore up losses in residential service, all approved every year by state regulators who wanted universal and affordable telephone service.  That all came to an end when ATT was broken up in 1984 and the 1996 Telecommunications Act exchanged universal service for supposed benefits from competition and private investment.

Where will the money come from?

All residential data networks have been subsidized in one way or another, either from cross-subsidies within private carriers, or from government resources.  The federal government seems aware now that the future of residential broadband demands substantial federal subsidies, not just for rural communities; the current infrastructure bill provides $65 billion for broadband, with $55 billion devoted to new construction and $5 billion devoted to subsidies for low income households.  But these sums are far short of what is needed for a nationwide universal, affordable, reliable, and futureproof network, the network needed now by everyone.  State and local governments are going to have to help.

The most expensive part of building any network is the wire, not its material cost but the labor to install it.  This confounds the idea of affordable and universal, the long standing requirements of telecommunications or any basic utility or infrastructure; the actual cost per home varies tremendously depending upon housing densities and distance from a switching office, yet everyone pays the same fee.  (By “tremendously” we mean for a new fiber network around $1200 per home in dense urban areas with aerial construction to well over $50,000 per home in areas dominated by large farms.)   In this sense any residential network has a user base in which those close to a central office in dense urban areas are subsidizing those in the suburbs or rural communities if all pay the same subscription fee.  (As these fees do not tend to be large parts of the monthly parade of bills no one complains.)

But other subsidies have also been at work.  Residential services from ATT were heavily subsidized by ATT revenues from business and long distance services, all welcomed by state regulators who controlled ATT pricing.  When telephone and cable companies went into the broadband business they used wire already in place and paid for from telephone or television revenues.  The fiber networks put in play by ATT, Verizon, and others over the past decade offered television as well as Internet and telephone services; even with three revenue streams they did not produce enough profit in aggregation for any of these companies to expand beyond their original commitments to select urban areas.

Over the last few years the federal government has spent or promised to spend over $20 billion for rural or “unserved” areas of the country, the money going almost exclusively to existing carriers or electric utilities, the latter having everything needed to manage a network in place.  Some states have provided funding also for “unserved” communities; more than 20 small towns in western Massachusetts now have fiber networks funded in part by the state.  What has been missing from this equation is money for communities that are already served by a cable television company, that is, communities that are “served” according to the tallies and standards set by the FCC.  Covid has exposed these networks for what they are: old, inadequate, and for advanced applications incapable of upgrading enough to provide utility-level service.

So comes the infrastructure bill, now bobbing and weaving through Congress, with prospects for the whole package at the original price seemingly dim.  However, the broadband part of that bill has been linked by Republicans with roads and bridges as “necessary” infrastructures, suggesting that at least broadband will get through the shark-infested waters.  The current version promises $65 billion for construction, but not in a way that entirely favors fiber optics.  Some $10 billion goes specifically to 1 gbps symmetric services (Tier 3 in the bill), which can only be realized by fiber optics.  The rest goes to a hierarchy of standards, from 25 mbps symmetric (Tier 1) to 100 mbps symmetric (Tier 2).  CATV companies can accomplish Tier 2 without changing legacy wiring, meaning they can satisfy the bill’s requirements for under $500 per home, way less money than anyone proposing fiber optics.  This would be a terrible outcome, but the temptation to accept it at the FCC may be overwhelming.

Even if that is not the outcome, $55 billion is not enough to wire that part of the country without fiber optic networks now, even if in partnership with carriers who contribute significantly to the cause.  Either the federal government increases its contribution significantly, or state and local communities must fill in the gap (even presuming that every community gets a pro rata share of the federal, which given the nature of the bill is far from given).

This question, or problem, of community funding, is the only thing standing in the way of American marching toward a universal fiber optic future, even as every funding bill before Congress clearly states that as a necessary part of the country’s economic and community assets.  It is very frustrating.  The federal government could manage a collaboration with competing carriers that would cost less around 4% of what the government spends every year for interest on the federal debt, or about half of the interest on the federal debt increase during the last Republican administration before Covid struck.  It should be reflexive, automatic, a “no brainer.”

What is the perfect business model?

Treat broadband like we treat roads and sewer systems.  Federal, state, and local governments build out trunk wiring along poles or underground, leaving terminations for every parcel.  Then private carriers offer drop wire, electronics, back-haul, and services to prospective users.  Subsidies are provided for drop wire connections that exceed $1500.  A second subsidy program supports those whose incomes preclude subscriptions at normal rates.  This creates competition in many places with none today, satisfies the requirements for a universal, affordable, reliable, and future-proof broadband infrastructure, and fulfills the intention of otherwise inadequate legislation towards universal service and competition in the market.

Section 47 USC 1302 of the United States Code reads: “The (FCC) and each State commission with regulatory jurisdiction over telecommunications services shall encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications (that is, broadband) capability to all Americans . . .  by utilizing, in a manner consistent with the public interest, convenience, and necessity, price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment” (emphasis added).  Section 47 USC 254 sets aside fees collected from users for “Universal Service,” which money has supported the Connect America Funds I and II for broadband.

It is transparent that these gestures towards universal service are inherently and factually inadequate.  Competition in free markets with high capital costs for entry always exclude segments of the population.  About half of America suffers with but one monopoly broadband supplier now, and the rest of the country has but two, a telephone company and a CATV company.  There are rare communities like Chattanooga with a municipal fiber optic network, Comcast, and ATT, but Chattanooga received $110 million in federal stimulus funds in 2010; 10% of American homes had no broadband service access until FCC, USDA, and now American Recovery Plan funds were made available to local carriers for broadband infrastructure, each incident creating a local monopoly.

It would cost our governments approximately $240 billion to put wire on every utility pole and underground conduit to cover every home and business (we ignore for the moment how one would handle the trunk wiring already installed by private carriers).  Spread over the fifteen years it would likely take, the cost per year would $16 billion, approximately 0.2% of the current government spending.  Our federal governments spends close to $400 billion for interest on the federal debt; the last administration added $30 billion to that figure all by itself. Our governments spend $181 billion on roads every year, most just to keep the ones we have in service.  As wire only, the maintenance costs for the trunk wiring would run around $600 million, approximately $0.38 per home per month.  We can afford it.

Any other alternative will come at the expense of one of the key requirements for broadband or competition in the marketplace, which, if we take our own laws seriously, would be against the law.

What are realistic business models?

The plural here is vital.  Absent a federal mandate and public ownership of the trunk wiring, no other single business model will fit all circumstances.  (1) Of course the most common model today, with or without subsidies, is a private carrier alone in one of several shapes: legacy telephone companies, legacy cable television companies, cooperatives of electric utilities or small telephone companies, and new entrants just for broadband such as Google (terrestrial fiber-based) and SpaceX (Low Earth Orbit satellite system).  (2) The second most common model is a municipal utility, either standalone or within a municipal  electric utility.  Some twenty towns in western Massachusetts have adopted this model, but all had state funding and none had cable television companies within their borders.  (3) A third may be found in just two cities we know of that own the wire and contract with private parties for electronics and services.  They both expect to recover capital costs from network revenues.  (This is sometimes referred to as the “Westminster Model” after Westminster, MD, the first city to adopt this model.)  (4) Oddly enough, the model we propose for most towns in our region has no example we know of elsewhere in the country.  It is a variant on the Westminster Model: the municipality owns the trunk wiring and contracts with private parties for the rest, but pays for the trunk wiring through property taxes given that network revenues would likely not cover the costs and still keep the network affordable.

 This is a complex topic.  It is also tbe critical nexus between municipal needs and municipal funding to satisfy such needs should such funding require general obligations rather obligations that can be requited through network revenues.  We are not going to dilate on the details here.  They may be found in the general Plan segment of the web site.

How do we connect everyone?

Networks may be measured by “access” and by “adoption.”  The former refers to cables passing homes close enough to make a final connection just through drop wire from a pole or street-side termination to a home or business.  The latter refers to the homeowner actually ordering and paying for an Internet service.  As most of our homes are passed by a CATV coaxial cable, we must pay critical attention to the problems of adoption.  We may separate the problems of adoption into three types: (1) homes too far from the road for aerial drop-wire installation with owners unwilling to pay the outrageous fees charged by cable companies for undergrounding to their homes; (2) people who cannot afford the $60 or so monthly fee; and (3) people who just do not want to be bothered with Internet connections for one reason or another.  The issue for any community given that broadband is now a necessary utility is how to significantly improve the adoption of Internet access among the first and second categories.  Answers to each will involve subsidies, either from government funds or from over-charging those who subscribe already to compensate for undercharging others.

According to our survey of 2018, 35% of homes in our adopted region are not connected to a CATV network.  That is roughy 27,000 homes without broadband.  We know some are not connected because they are too far from the road and are unwilling to pay a CATV company what often seem like outrageous connection fees (which they are compared to the known costs of undergrounding cables from a pole to a home).  However, the town with the least percentage of connected homes is Torrington.  While Torrington has a large number of homes requiring undergrounding, the preponderance of homes opting out are likely doing so for financial reasons.

We hold that any necessary utility should be universal (accessible to everyone), affordable (even if subsidies are required to make it so), reliable (meaning both in the sense of up-time and performing to some minimal acceptable standard), and future proof (meaning requiring the least amount of future changes, updating, replacement, or maintenance costs consistent with acceptable original costs).  We believe that universal is best achieved by wiring every home to a new network regardless of distance from the road and building into the combination of subsidies and recurring revenues the costs incurred thereby.  This was the model adopted a century ago by telephone companies who charged the same rate for all users regardless of distance from a central office when the wire was the most expensive part of the network.  Wiring everyone during initial installation also saves around $250 per home for aerial wiring and $750 per home for underground wiring, the extra costs associated with truck rolls and on-site mobilization required for one-at-a-time installation.

Those on the sidelines for want of suitable income present a more difficult problem.  (1) Discoering who they are, compared to those who opt out for other reasons, requires house calls in some cases, phone calls at least, and just getting cell phone numbers (most will not have land-line phone service today) is far from trivial.  Privacy issues likely interfere with accessing the rolls of family and welfare agencies who know those on the economic margins by person and name.  (2) We have no common instrument yet for finding durable subsidies for broadband, as we have for school lunches, food stamps, housing subsidies, and Medicaid.  (3) When we do construct such a program, we then have the problem of convincing people who have little experience with the Internet that they need the Internet to function now in our society.  It is hard to see the social good arising from providing nothing more than less expensive video entertainment services to people.

Nevertheless, broadband must be added to the other safety nets we offer people in America.  We could set up separate agencies for such a purpose.  But it seems more effective to tie this work to other family-related social services and through them address the problems; most already see the downsides of families now disconnected from the Internet and its manifold necessary features for life today.  The federal government will likely provide funding for broadband to low income homes.  It will likely not be enough.  In Connecticut we are unlikely to see such funds from the state.  So some combination of increases in user fees and tax-based municipal support must be on the boards to maximize adoption and use among low income households, along with community-based support organizations charged with the duty and trained to perform against those duties.

Are There Better Networks Ahead, like 5G or LEO Satellite


By any parameter—speed, latency, reliability, coverage, life cycle costs—Fiber to the Home is the only serious long term network option for stationary broadband.  Mobile networks and satellite networks will have critical parts to play relative to things that move, but they cannot come close to FTTH otherwise.  Speed tops the list.  A single strand of fiber can deliver more data than the entire spectrum one might use in wireless networks (0 to 100 GHz), which spectrum is not available except in very small slices to commercial wireless services, which slices are carefully patrolled by the FCC.  In any one instance what little spectrum they have will not realize more than 10 gbps compared to the capacity of that single strand at 10 terabits per second, which wireless service is shared by at times hundreds of users, diminishing the effective available bandwidth to any given user.

Well-designed fiber networks have no electronics in the weather—just passive wiring that will last forty or more years.  Electronics in the weather fail, need replacement every six or seven years, and require power, usually from a nearby electric line which, when it goes out, shuts the electronics off after the battery back-up runs out.  CATV networks in the northwest corner were out for six days in the last storm-caused power outage, and mobile service was not much better.

Because CATV networks have electronic amplifiers and nodes in the weather, they cost around $1200 a year per mile to maintain.  With no electronics in the weather, fiber networks cost around $80 a year per mile to maintain (figures from Charter), the costs applied almost exclusively to weather related breakage.  Mobile networks, particularly 5G with millions of antennas connected to Core Networks through fiber optic lines, have the same problem as CATV networks, with so many active parts in the weather.  It is well understood that life cycle costs favor fiber optic networks by a large margin. It is far from clear that a fully-deployed, fully capable 5G network, with so many expensive antennas to pay for and install, is less expensive to construct per user than a Fiber to the Home network that has admittedly more fiber lines to install and pay for, but no antennas.

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite systems, coming soon (in trials now) seem promising as they enjoy redundancy (for reliability) and cover everyone within range of the orbits.  However, they have limited data rates (100 mbps downstream 20 mbps upstream now), limited spectrum for increasing data rates, and have channels that will be widely shared, cutting effective data rates down.  LEO satellites, while much closer to earth than geocentric satellites, still introduce 25 ms at least of round trip delay, making them unsuitable for certain applications requiring delays closer to 1 ms, such as remote Virtual Reality, next generation video games, next generation video conferencing,  and autonomous vehicles.  In addition, the current versions in trials require a roof-mounted antenna that has moving parts to track the satellite, at $500 each, and a reliability hazard.

Why do I need a new network?

Depends. (1) If you do not have a cable television connection today (in our region), you will need a next generation network to watch Netflix or any other form of HD video streaming, plus a host of other things that slow speeds make very annoying or impossible.  (2)  If you have cable television Internet service but have found its resources wanting, as have many in the last year, you will be delighted with a network with more resources than you will need.  (3) If you are happy in general with your CATV network and service, we can only say that sometime down the road you will likely not be, at which time, without a fiber network available, you can enjoy just being unhappy with nothing you can do about it short of moving.  (4) And should you decide to move, a fiber network will add 5% or more to the value of your home.

We do not gainsay the frustration of those, among whom you may number, who are perfectly happy with their cable television Internet service and don’t wish to have taxes raised for someone else’s benefit.  However, unless you have decided that the Internet is not part of your future, or your usage is limited to standard definition television and the occasional e-mail, we predict that applications will materialize that will force some reconsideration.  Cable television in our region stumbled and fell during Covid for many people because of bandwidth limitations.  All cable companies in our area have upgraded their service profile to include 1 gbps download speeds, but not by really upgrading their networks in any significant way.   Their lines are still shared by hundreds of people at times, the upstream rates have not improved significantly, and with the exception of Optimum they are not giving any thought to fiber optics to the home here. (or anywhere else we know of).

We must also say that we are not asking for any breaking of the bank.  Schools eat up more than 50% of the budgets in most communities in the northwest corner.  They support a minority, in some cases a small minority, of homes in the region. Yet we pay for them through property taxes, because they are necessary. The same holds for roads, both maintenance and repaving.  Towns with sewer systems have the same condition.  When linked with suitable private partners, the actual cost per home of a new network is very small relative to these other necessary utilities and services.  With the right business model a 2% to 3% increase in a mill rate may deliver the next generation network that over time will pay for itself given the likely improvement in young people moving into towns with such networks.

What have other communities done?

Of the estimated 22 million homes in America (out of 128 million total) with fiber optics connections, more than half have been wired by an incumbent carrier—Verizon, AT&T, CenturyLink, or Frontier—all in large urban areas.  On the other end of the scale, some 150 of the 1250 electric or telephone cooperatives in America have installed fiber optics networks with funds supplied by the federal government, with another 100 likely to be funded per year over the next decade.  A number of midsized municipalities with existing electric utilities have constructed universal fiber optic networks, led by the poster child, Chattanooga, all subsidized in one way or another through the utility.  Some number of rural towns, less then 200 in total, have cobbled together networks with state or federal subsidizes, using contractors for construction and O&M; several towns in western Massachusetts number among the fold.  Finally, there are the odd municipalities like Santa Cruz, CA, the towns involved with Utah’s UTOPIA network, Westminster, MD and Montgomery, AL, who have ventured into fiber optics with a private partner without subsides, hoping that network revenues will pay for the community portion of capital costs.  School is out on the prospects.

 As we have noted elsewhere, several different fiber-optic-to-the-home network models have been adopted by other communities, with about half the actual connections made with subsidies of one form or another, the other half constructed by private carriers—incumbent and new—with the total now around 22 million homes, or 17% of the U.S. home total.  That puts us way behind many other countries in Europe and east Asia (particularly China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore).  However, none of these countries have HFC networks capable of 1 gbps downstream passing 90% of the country, so the comparison is less about today—we are still probably better served than almost any other country—than tomorrow, when our cable networks will be visibly creeking around some rest home for the network disabled.

Four models for networks in America have been adopted.  The most widespread is the historical one, of private carriers constructing new networks over old ones (for incumbent carriers) or fashioned anew (for new entrants such as Google).  Verizon has wired New York City, Boston, Phiadelphia, a few towns in Connecticut, and most of New Jersey, but stopped there.  ATT claims fiber in San Francisco among other towns, but will not actually connect people in most areas of the city.  Google’s highlight reel starts in Kansas City, but the experience soured and they now cherry pick with partners.  Frontier has a new corporate charter to convert their network to fiber  It is now absolutely clear that these networks are not making enough money to justify their independent existence, the reason no carrier has continued after starting.  The second model, following Chattanooga, is a municipal network fashioned through a municipal electric utility (Chattanooga’s electric utility manages TVA).  It is  far from clear even in Chattanoogs—who received $110 million in federal stimulus grants—that the networks are earning enough to pay down their associated debt; Chattanoogo apparently does not separate the maintenance costs for their two networks, so cannot easily specify the exact allocations to the fiber network.

The third model involves creating a municipal utility devoted exclusively to data networking.  To protect carrier interests (and ignore broadband as a necessary utility), twenty states, mostly in the south, have outlawed such networks.  But in states like Massachusetts some twenty towns have done just that, created municipal netwoks owned by the municipality with private contractors for ISP and management services.  All received state subsidies and all were limping along without cable television in any form, hence essentially cut off from broadband except excrutiating DSL and satellite access; they have take rates above 80%.  We cannot ignore in this model, however, the UTOPIA system in Utah that began in 2002, staggered around with many missteps, looked near death in 2016 when it could not agree to a buy-out, but has rebounded and now looks alive and well, meaning paying down some levels of debt, adding towns and adding customers.  It faces hurdles—eternal life is not secured yet—but one marvels at their capacity to suruvive.

Finally, there is Westminster, MD, and Montgomery, AL, each owning the wire but working with a private partner (Ting and Google, respectively) for everything else.  Both cities expect to pay down debt from network revenues.

We cannot leave this subject without mentioning the failures, in Burlington, VT, in Provo, UT, in Vernon, CA, and others.  A study done on municipal networks through 2014 by the University of Pennsylvania showed municipal networks at the time generally running negative cash flows, with failures far more likely than successes as logical outcomes.  The towns mentioned here are in that report.  It was done too long ago to reflect upon municipal networks that had public funding, hence working with a much smaller debt level, which are transparently successful.

Will a new network save me money?

This is a question almost impossible to answer without knowing your habits and expectations.  Basic Internet service costs from a new network, suitably subsidized, will be in the range of current charges ($60 to $70 per month), with some likely reductions of we partner with a common carrier who, to be competitive, will be in the $45 per month range (as is Frontier now in Connecticut).  Higher speeds may invite cutting the cord, but you can do that now if you have cable television Internet above 100 mbps (almost certain now).  VOIP telephone will be in the same range as CATV telephone at $15 or so a month.  What you will get for the money you spend now is a vastly superior network that will serve you, your family, and anyone you sell your house for decades without worring about applications that speed past you present network.

Can we enhance our cell phone coverage?

Twenty-five percent of roads and homes in our region do not have cell phone coverage.  It is easy to say that this is unacceptable (it is), much harder to say what we can do about it.  The carriers own the spectrum used for wireless signal transmission, and require their own equipment  to connect antennas to Core Networks even if communities owned the antennas.  They have shown no interest in doing this (no incremental revenue to justify the incremental costs).  However, we are thinking about a 5G play that might bring them to the table, one in which we supply the fiber optics (the most expensive part, which we will use for our Fiber to the Home networks as well) and they supply the antennas.  Could be a win-win as they say.

Cell phone  companies know they cannot install 5G in rural regions of the country.  They are all but begging Washington for subsidies, with no success so far.  The problem is antenna density versus revenue.  To realize its stated long -term objective of 10 gbps peak data rates, 1 ms latency, and 50,000 devices per antenna, 5G cell phone networks must radically densify, by some estimates placing antennas 300 feet apart (or even closer if some early trial reports are correct).   While AT&T is presently crowing about 5G with antennas having ranges around 2 miles, they hide the fact that these antennas and frequencies are not 5G, really, but a kind of grown-up 4G, data rates in the low hundreds of megabits per second, but miles from the top of their mountain.

While the antennas themselves are expensive, the major cost for deployment is the fiber optics wiring required to connect each antenna back to a Core Network.  Suppose we offered to provide the wiring?  If we used the same wiring that we were installing for our own broadband networks with fiber to the home, the cost to us is small—many more strands in the cable, but that will add no more than 10% to our costs, a trivial amount if universal mobile coverage was the outcome.   Our region must have more than 100,000 mobile subscribers.  That must be interesting to someone.

Is mobile antenna radiation harmful?

If you hug an operating antenna for long periods of time, perhaps.  Otherwise, they are less harmful, if they are harmful, than the signals produced by your smartphone.  Indeed, the closer you are to a mobile antenna when using your smartphone, the lower will be the amount of radiation absorbed by your head and body.   Unless you are willing to give up your smartphone, you should be lobbying hard for small cell antennas on telephone poles to the extent necessary to provide universal 4G or 5G coverage in our region.

The science on low-frequency radiation is far from consistent or complete.  Many studies suggest harm at certain levels over sustained periods of exposure; many others suggest otherwise.   All but one of the epidemiological studies show no effect from the 700 billion smart phones and their antennas sold over the last decade.  As these studies usually involve high levels of self-reporting, they are all suspect, including the one from Sweden that does show an increase in cancers that could have been caused by radiation over the last twenty years.  These studies are all correlations at best anyway; establishing causes is much harder.   We are never going to test human beings in controlled studies (to find out what levels cause cancer and other maladies), nor can we ascertain now what effects radiation will have on long term prospects for cancers that may take decades to materialize.  Perhaps the best clue is that no government agency in the world has declared that the FCC standards for maximum transmit power levels from smart phones and antennas are too high.

Energy levels from mobile antennas drop rapidly as waves move from the antenna to a user.  The level thirty feet away is 1% of the original.  Mobile phones expect receive levels in a range from -40 dbm to -115 dbm (the former is 0.0000001 watt, or eight orders of magnitude below the 40 dbm (10 watts)  transmitted by a small cell antenna.  Meanwhile signal levels transmitted by a smart phone range from +30 dbm to below +10 dbm—1 watt to 0.01 watt.  The key dependency is receive power; the higher the received signal (the closer the antenna), the lower the transmit power, to save battery life.  So, if you want to continue to use your smartphone, you are probably in no real danger, but you will be better off with many small antennas close by than one antenna 20 miles away.

Have a question that’s not listed here? Fill out the contact form below and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
Northwest ConneCT