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Geoff Daily

App-Rising.com covers the development and adoption of broadband applications, the deployment of and need for broadband networks, and the demands placed on policy to adapt to the revolutionary opportunities made possible by the Internet.

App-Rising.com is written by Geoff Daily, a DC-based technology journalist, broadband activist, marketing consultant, and Internet entrepreneur.

App-Rising.com is supported in part by AT&T;, however all views and opinions expressed herein are solely my own.

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June 26, 2007 12:59 PM

UTOPIA's Open Network: Unlimited Promise or Unrealized Potential

For the first writeup following my trip last week to the UTOPIA project, I want to take a moment to consider what is arguably its most revolutionary and controversial aspect: its open access network.

Rather than retailing services directly to end users, UTOPIA sells wholesale access to its network to service providers, who then handle the customer acquisition, billing, delivery of services, etc.

For a list of the service providers currently riding UTOPIA’s Community MetroNet, check out the table on this page.

Let’s pause to look at this concept from a historical perspective.

Before the Internet, we lived in a one pipe, one service world where cable offered cable TV and telcos offered telephone services over their respective wires.

Today we’re in the midst of an increasingly competitive multiple pipe, multiple service world where cable companies and telcos are racing to upgrade their networks and deploy triple play services, new last-mile access entrants like wireless and BPL can be seen on the horizon, and a broadband-powered Internet is churning out viable competitors to traditional telephone and TV services.

Open networks like UTOPIA take all this to another level by enabling a fiber-powered one pipe, many service world where competition relies less on the limitations of last-mile access technologies and more so on the merits of the actual services.

Opening up access to private networks is something large network operators have historically resisted, most notably during their fight against local loop unbundling, which forces ILECs to sell discounted access to their networks to competitive DSL providers.

In many ways, I understand their reluctance. If I had spent a ton of money to build a road, I wouldn’t want to be forced to allow other companies to put up tollbooths that would compete with my own, especially if my whole business model was built on the premise that I’d be dealing directly with consumers rather than staying in the background as a backend wholesaler.

Yet there’s also another parallel to consider: what is the entire Internet if not a giant, decentralized open-access network through which a multitude of services compete over the same broadband pipe?

So what I see UTOPIA building is a network that combines the principles of openness on the Internet with the capacity of an all-fiber infrastructure. Through this, there’s a tremendous opportunity to establish a next-generation vision for how the Internet can operate, where applications—which can extend far beyond the traditional “services” of telephone and TV—come out of the cloud and into the network, thereby introducing a new paradigm for competition in communications services and new levels of quality of service.

But while this seems like a utopian vision for America’s broadband future, during my trip to Utah I also learned that it is one that’s still in a very early stage of development.

For one, the underlying premise of “if we build it, they will come” as it applies to service providers has not yet been fully realized. Other than the Internet services offered by AT&T;, no other major service provider has deployed on UTOPIA’s network, the service providers who have come on have focused primarily on the traditional triple play rather than innovative new services that leverage the capabilities of this network, and there have not been any significant commercial deployments of cutting edge bandwidth-intensive broadband applications in-network.

Another challenge for UTOPIA has been getting consumers to understand the advantages of its open architecture and the ability to select from multiple service providers over the same pipe. Some of this has to do with the fact that it’s a rather radical new concept, though another part of it stems from UTOPIA’s decision to rely primarily on its service providers to market the network, who don’t necessarily have a strong incentive for letting people know they can switch to a competitor’s service whenever they want.

And UTOPIA must also face the realities of being a new model that has reached less than 50,000 homes, which limits the energy service providers and applications developers can devote to it when much larger markets are available through the major network operators and over the general Internet.

But these are all problems with potential solutions. Living proof of the innovation that open networks foster can be found in Vasteras, Sweden, a city of 80,000 people where the deployment of an open fiber network has led to a vibrant marketplace of more than 100 different services. UTOPIA is starting to take a more active role in educating residents about the value of open fiber networks. And as UTOPIA continues its buildout across 14 cities, additional cities opt-in to the UTOPIA consortium, and DynamicCity—the company that’s helped UTOPIA design and deploy its network—finds other communities willing to take the plunge, the viability of this new marketplace will only increase.

What will the future hold for open access networks? In all honesty, I have no idea. It’s an idea that holds a lot of promise, but it’s also one that simply cannot take hold over night. So for the foreseeable future, all eyes will continue to be on UTOPIA as they strive to prove the viability and realize the promise of open fiber networks.

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