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The Fiber of Society

Hunter Newby of Allied Fiber

Hunter Newby argues that his dark fibre project is the key to making LTE work and explains why the Pixar movie Cars is a prophetic warning about what could happen to those places that miss the boat on fibre.

Hunter Newby is a man on a mission. As founder and chief executive officer of Allied Fiber, he believes that the widespread availability of fibre connections will not be vital only for the roll-out of next generation mobile networks but could play a crucial part in rescuing the US economy as a whole.

It’s a bold vision and at its core is Allied Fiber’s planned network of dark fibre-optic cable that, if things go to plan, will eventually cross the entire United States. As a ‘carrier neutral’ network, Allied Fiber’s aim is to lease its infrastructure to all those, from enterprises to university to governments, who wish to gain access to fast backhaul connections, but without the huge costs associated with deploying their own network.

The plan is currently at the Phase One stage, which will cover New York to Chicago and will take six months to complete once the order for cable is placed, which according to Newby will happen “soon”.

“[Allied Fiber is] an open access fibre network for the country, and any operator network types can append themselves to it such that they do not have to bear the cost and time and burden of building the superstructure themselves”, Newby explains. “[They] can tend to building out the smaller bits which are of course important, as if the full connections are not made, it’s not made”.

Newby says the lack of fast backhaul is a real problem for networks rolling out LTE. Indeed, he does not believe that LTE will really deliver on its promises worldwide if operators do not address the backhaul issue head on. “LTE does not work if you do not have fibre to the towers. It just doesn’t. I mean, when you have a certain number of subscribers you reach a mathematical impossibility.” Newby likens it to, “musical chairs, where you have a couple of people that are going to have a real connection and the rest of the people are going to get knocked down to 3G or 2G.”

Fibre, says Newby, is the ‘dark’ secret part of the puzzle that operators are not sufficiently focussed on—and that this is holding up LTE deployments.

“So many areas in the US are not fed with fibre—certainly not with neutral fibre. A cable company in a particular area might have fibre but it’s their own and they do not lease it as dark to others, which is monopolistic. And that is causing massive delays in rolling out LTE in the United States”, he says.

Newby is clearly frustrated over the system in the United States, which he feels is all too often ready to pull the trigger on legislation that blocks the creation of network infrastructure to protect the interests of local incumbents to the detriment of the wider community.

As a case in point Newby explains the situation in the state of North Carolina. The state government produced a report stating that fast broadband was necessary, only for the local incumbents to successfully lobby the Governor to introduce legislation which blocked competitors from building out their own fibre infrastructure. At the same time, the state cast the definition of broadband down to a mere 768Kbps.

Newby is incensed by this intervention. “How can that happen? Go ask the morons in North Carolina. I’ll tell you why it’s happened. It’s because that is the speed they can support, so that becomes the nefarious definition [of broadband] because now they will be able to stand up in front of a grand jury and say with a straight face that the state has 98 per cent coverage. That’s a lie. The word broadband doesn’t mean anything at that point. It’s functionally not broadband. It’s a joke. They did it to protect their turf.”

So what’s Newby’s solution? He’s going to go and build a fibre network support system anyway. His message is that Allied Fiber enables all those networks, whether coming from public or private land to access the system directly, thus circumventing the need for obtaining the licenses and permits that are usually required when dealing with public land.

“I will tell you that the only way that this is going to get resolved is by doing it. As soon as you document that you want to do something that will challenge the status quo in a given region and ask for permission, then that invites them to retort, and lobby and legislate you to death.

“The reality is that fibre to the tower is in high demand across the United States. The municipalities possess the power and authority to create a local fibre system very much like water and sewer pipelines and the streets by using those same assets and rights of way that they already have. The mobile operators and wireless backhaul providers that serve them will lease this municipality fibre, and mobile broadband services will become available at speeds greater than 768k/128k with the added benefit of mobility over any fixed line service.”

Newby expresses admiration for countries round the world that are doing right by their citizens. He picks out Australian National Broadband Network, which with the backing of the government is looking to push 1Gbps fibre out to 93 per cent of the population. It’s an attitude towards connectivity, be it fixed or via wireless LTE networks that he feels ought to be emulated.

“Governments have come to the conclusion that ‘broadband’ has become to be understood globally as the path to prosperity and enlightenment,” he states. “I mean in Finland broadband is a birthright, for God’s sake. The government made it a birthright! If you’re born in Finland you’re entitled to a megabit of broadband. That’s incredible. These are sane, rational, logical people and they’ve taken it to that extreme.”

The importance of fast mobile networks is not just to enable those in remote areas, whether in rural Australia or the mid-west of the US, to download Angry Birds to their iPhone. Newby is looking at the bigger picture and how it relates to the economy of the US as a whole.

“The governments realise that it must be done in order to retain populations. It’s been very well documented that people will leave towns, cities and states if there isn’t broadband availability. Business will leave countries if they can’t get access to affordable broadband, and if the companies leave, the people leave. It’s all tied together.”

By way of another example Newby describes a small US railroad that was built after the discovery of a new coal field. The railroad wanted people to relocate to mine the coal but that didn’t happen—because of the lack of mobile coverage.  “They were complaining that the wireless coverage was terrible. There wasn’t any, basically. The people had phones that operated where they were from and here there were no bars—it just didn’t work”.

To deal with the issue the railroad company asked the big carriers to boost network coverage, which they agreed to, only to find that the local spectrum was owned by a local carrier—one that was unwilling to give it up to the big carriers. As a result, the network did not get built and eventually, as people would not stay, the coal shipments stopped. Similar stories, Newby says, are being played out all over the world.

“There are places in the world where things work, and there are places where they don’t. Where would you choose to be, to live? It would have to be where they work. If GDP increased by a half a per cent or a percentage point because of wireless broadband it would be a serious needle mover, and I know for sure that it’s going to do that, and more.”

And even if there is some kind of nominal coverage, without fibre to the towers mobile broadband is a dead duck, he says. “There are smartphones coming out of Korea that Samsung makes that will do 10Mbits/s. How can you have one device that exceeds the backhaul capacity of the entire tower by five times? What does that mean? You can only have .2 of a person on the tower?”

With the proliferation of devices, it’s an issue that’s only going to get worse. “How can a county go to 150 per cent [device] penetration rate? 200 per cent? It just means that everyone’s got two devices. Some people have three”.

Newby pulls no punches when he says that the reality of network performance is a long way from what the marketing people at the major mobile operators would have customers believe. “Are we seriously talking about trying to roll out 4G in the United States? We can’t even support the 3G! How’s that going to work—how it LTE going to work? South Korea and Japan are challenged with infrastructure builds, and upgrades to the antennas and backhaul to support 4G and they have a very small geographic area to contend with. We’re not even close!”

When fibre does come though, Newby is positive it will be a massive boon for the US economy and for moving the country forward. “In countries and states where it does get built out, you’re going to see a massive increase in output….transportation, shipping, electricity, smart grids. You’re going to see a GDP growth because you’re going to see a reduction in operating expenses due to the efficiencies driven into the system.”

But he warns that those places that don’t connect to fibre will get left behind. “If you don’t do it and your neighbour does, you don’t you can count the days until you will lose. It goes back to the question of which town got a train stop when the railroads were deployed. It was that town that flourished—the town that got passed by, died. It’s like when they build the i95 (a major highway on the Eastern Seaboard). People stopped coming to towns to fill up with gas, stopped staying in the hotels and stopped eating in the restaurants”. Newby likens it to the animated Pixar movie Cars. “They made it into a cartoon – but it’s true! Without fibre infrastructure your town will die. It will become embalmed, it will become a fossil. Just like that town in Cars.”

Despite the current obstructions and blockages in deploying network infrastructure Newby is confident about the prospects for the industry as a whole and says that the LTE community just needs to keep pressing ahead.

“It’s a force of nature, just as the water flows downhill it always finds the path of least resistance. When you encounter a natural obstruction you overcome it. When you’re faced with an unnatural obstruction, government intervention, incumbent pressure, you might not be able to overcome them, so you take a big step back and change course as trying to fight that is very time and resource heavy. So go to know where you know you can deploy and go there.”

The reason it will work in the end he believes is because the demand from customers is out there. “Anyone that has a mobile phone in their pocket wants it to be faster and better, and are willing to pay, a little bit more, and be subscribers—until the day they die.”

No surprise then the Newby is enthused about his role in the industry, and thinks others should feel the same. “It’s a great market, it’s phenomenal. It underpins evolution society and civilisation. You can’t be in a better place”.

Hunter Newby will be a keynote speaker at the fourth annual LTE North America Conference, which takes place in Texas, US, November 8-9 2011


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