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The Benefits of Open-Access Networks for Communities

Jeff Christensen, Jeffrey Denham, Bob Stovall, Peter Pizzutillo, Devin Cox, Pierrette Dagg


Open-access, open opportunity.
Networks should do more than offer a gateway to the internet. Here’s one way.

Imagine a highway exclusively accessible by General Motors vehicles. Imagine then that a competitor responds and builds a proprietary highway which is also exclusive to their vehicles: Fords or Lincolns and then Stellantis. This is unwieldy, inefficient, expensive, and preposterous.

But this is the way our telecommunications networks work today. You don’t need to give this much thought to understand the advantages of an information superhighway designed to carry all traffic as shared infrastructure – designed to serve the common good.

Digital networks are long past the point where it’s sufficient to merely provide internet access.

Any digital network today should:

  • Use fiber-optics as the foundation to make the network as future-proof as possible.
  • Switch from the scarce bandwidth model to a model that provides abundant bandwidth.
  • Provide free exchange of information while protecting privacy and security.
  • Leverage shared infrastructure to encourage competition and cost efficiency with agreed-upon standards and interoperability.
  • Enable the innovation essential for growth and long-term affordability. Communities increasingly will be expected to support the infrastructure underpinning products and features such as the “smart home,” the “smart city” and telehealth. They will have to be able to support such innovation in a way that is fiscally self-sustaining.

This isn’t about networks, however. This is about communities understanding how connectivity enables innovation and provides value to their residents, institutions, businesses—the entire community—through applications and services that are delivered across the network. By understanding what is possible, communities can understand their areas of strength, opportunities for improvements and, most importantly, make an informed decision.

One service provider, or many?

As the internet grew from a science experiment into an actual commercial system, it was not obvious that it would become a foundational infrastructure for society. Early on, however, the leaders of the telephone and cable TV industries recognized an opportunity—and few others understood the magnitude of their early advantage.

By leveraging existing infrastructure and consolidating their respective industries, the now-dominant telephone and cable companies took control of the on-ramp to the internet by using a model where they both owned the infrastructure and were the only internet service provider operating on the infrastructure.

This single-service provider model is now pervasive across the U.S.

The alternative to the single-service provider is an open-access model, where a single fiber-optic network is built and operated as infrastructure shared by multiple service providers. So Ford and GM and vehicles from all the other automakers can use the same highway, provided they follow the rules of the road.

Open-access networks allow multiple service providers to deliver services simultaneously and on equal terms. This gives customers a real choice in an industry where true competition is almost nonexistent. The lack of competition in ISP options is a major frustration for consumers and a key factor that preserves premium prices for the big ISPs.

But if you use the internet, you probably already noticed that on your bill.

To achieve an open-access state, the physical infrastructure is separated from the services running on the network along with network management functions. Until now, open-access networks have demonstrated value primarily by creating a marketplace for ISP services.

Another advantage is that an open-access network potentially alerts service providers to the possibility of an innovation threat from competitors. When a single ISP doesn’t own the infrastructure, it can’t leverage the infrastructure to protect its pricing and insulate itself from outside innovation. Open-access is more likely to foster innovation.

While on the topic of innovation threats, consider the ecosystem you’re probably holding in your hand now.

When Apple released the iPhone in June 2007, the leading cell phone maker was the Finnish juggernaut Nokia, with more than half of the market worldwide.

As the dominant player in hardware, Nokia thought it was all about controlling not only the phone but also the operating system. Of less concern, if any, was what was emerging beyond its corporate influence. Developments such as the application or “app.”

Apple, however, solidified its status through the iPhone shortly after this by being named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in December 2007. This momentum swing was generated in part due to the open-access concept of Apple App Web Developer, which allowed third parties to develop applications that could be used on the Apple operating system.

So, you remember Nokia? Exactly.

3 types of open-access.

Open-access operates in the United States in three distinct forms:

Under the dark-fiber approach, a community builds infrastructure to the curb. The subscriber then selects an internet service provider (ISP), and the ISP finishes the connection to the home with its own infrastructure and electronics. One community using this approach is Huntsville, Alabama.

A dark-fiber network increases choice, is less complicated than operating a lit network and enables public ownership of infrastructure.

But by giving up control over that final section of the infrastructure—that is, from the curb to the home—dark-fiber limits the usability of each strand of fiber. For the consumer, that means it’s impossible to connect to other services that may be available from a variety of service providers like telemedicine, education networks, or smart grid communications.

The dark-fiber model also may not scale easily due to difficulty in anticipating the required fiber count to meet demand. This can create significant complications for the network operator.

In contrast to dark-fiber, manual open-access takes the lit network past the curb, meaning the network operator controls both ends of the network. This approach allows consumers to switch service providers through a web portal, increasing choice. An example of this approach is UTOPIA, the largest network of its kind in the U.S., with more than 20,000 consumers connected.

However, operating a manual open-access network is more complex than a single ISP network. Humans must manage network tasks and any increase in the number of service providers operating on the network adds to network complexity.

Under the third model, automated open-access, the network operator places electronics at both ends of the network, and subscribers can select service providers in real time. To automate the various network management tasks, software-defined networking is used.

Under the automated model, multiple service providers can deliver services simultaneously and independently across a single wire. When a subscriber selects a new service provider, the switch is done using automation and therefore happens on demand.

This nimbleness creates a marketplace for services that includes ISPs and private networks for other services. The ability to switch providers on demand increases choice and competition. This network model also offers the ability to provide local network resilience via local communications if connections over the middle mile are down.

However, automated open-access is relatively new, having been rolled out in 2016. To date, Ammon, Idaho, is the only city with a full implementation. Early-stage deployments are underway in McCall and Mountain Home, Idaho; Nevada County, California; and Elkhart County, Indiana.

Regardless of the type of open-access network used, its promise is leaps and bounds beyond the status quo alternative of siloed ISP networks. A fiber-optic, open-access network allows a community to build one robust communications network that can serve all of its communication needs.

Open-access networks should lower costs for subscribers through increased competition and the possibility of network automation. Such a network is also more likely to advance community equity because lower costs are likely to improve access for all households.

So now everyone is in the digital driver’s seat on the same highway, headed into the future.

Interested in learning more? Join experts from Merit Network, ETI Software Solutions and EntryPoint on June 16th as they discuss the benefits of implementing an open-access network.

Register Today!