The deluge of data: Opportunity knocking?

Craig SettlesIt amazes me how many people in the industry will crap on opportunity when it comes knocking, rather then welcome it into the board room and transform it into a viable plan of action. Too bad corporate inertia stymies Darwinism from running its true course among the executive class so innovative thinking can take root.   

Three opportunities come to mind when I think of Helen Keller's quote, "Worse than being blind is being able to see, but having no vision:"

1)      AT&T's seeming failure to recognize a creative solution to the imminent tsunami of iPhone/iPad data traffic that's about to engulf its networks;

2)      incumbents gnashing of teeth about stimulus-funded networks overbuilding their areas;

3)      the bitter griping about the FCC's 4 Mbps speed goal for rural America.

Back to the Future

In 2006, at the height of the muni-WiFi craze, there was the requisite wailing and flopping about by incumbents protesting these projects. Into that deafening racket I inserted a blog post advancing the idea of cable companies partnering with communities to build WiFi networks to extend their wired services.

It got some media coverage, but no one else seemed to pick up on the idea until a couple of years later when Cablevision launched WiFi in a couple of markets. Guess what? They generated lots of new customers and retained existing ones. It's a safe bet that more markets are on Cablevision's radar for further expanding the idea.

So I'm going to give your folks a second chance to get ahead of the curve.

In case you haven't noticed the disgruntled users in the Twitterverse and elsewhere online, AT&T's network performance has taken a beating from iPhones' data consumption. The old-fashion, sadly predictable response is to slap a cap, tout tier pricing and flail like mad to get the ole copper mare to run like she used to. Geez, the rest of the free market is stampeding toward enticing people to use more data and you want them to use less? Oy!

If AT&T's CTO John Donavan is truly serious about moving heaven and Earth to improve their network service, he has to get the company to stop looking back to the obsolete but look forward to new opportunities. Such as muni wireless.

Uh-oh, somebody in Lobbyland just turned purple and knee-jerked into a Code Blue state. But work with me for a minute.

Is that opportunity knocking?

You're already tinkering around the edges of this idea with your "franchise strategy," getting Starbucks and McDonald's to offer free WiFi. The objective isn't ubiquity of access, but siphoning traffic flow to fatter pipes so massive data clots don't cause your infrastructure to stroke out. Dude, force the company to grow a pair and plunge into the future! Team up with communities, help them build a kick-butt WiFi network and offload a lot of that data traffic you know is coming.

Why do this?

1) Healthy, robust and secure WiFi is achievable. If I can surf the ‘Net via a McDonald's WiFi access point, I can surely do so from industrial strength access points hanging around town.

2) AT&T offloads much more data traffic than through fast food outlet coverage.

3) Investing in a network along with a multitude of local governments and their institutional stakeholders is cheaper than upgrading national infrastructure on your own nickel.

4) If you invest in infrastructure, share in some financial rewards. Municipalities have moved past those days when private companies' "free muni WiFi" nonsense clouded cities' broadband vision. Today communities accept that they need to run broadband networks in a way that private sector partners also win. 

5) And let's be real here. You may indeed move Heaven and earth, but not likely anytime soon in mid-size, small and rural markets. This strategy lets you play in markets you'd otherwise write off.

I hope all of you with plans to roll out iEverything killers and other gadgets encouraging huge data traffic are paying attention. If AT&T doesn't want to go a-courtin' with this strategy, maybe you have the vision to know an opportunity when you see it.

Those other opportunities?

Those who don't seem to miss an opportunity to complain about stimulus money overbuilding broadband on their turf, let me tell you about the opportunity you're missing. 2/3 of RUS' awards are for fiber networks. NTIA is handing out money to build middle mile networks.

Jiminy Crickets on a crutch! Stop the flippin' whining. These are fiber networks you can use for backhaul that you'd otherwise spend a lot of money building. This is open access infrastructure, people! That means anybody can play on them. People with creative product development and marketing talent can create and sell new services, re-package old services. Seize the opportunities for Pete's sakes, think outside the box and get stuff done!

Finally, who's leading a chorus of "4 Mbps, It Just Ain't Enough?" It ain't enough if you let that be the end goal. But it can be enough for one element of a multifaceted long-term strategy. Ponder this with me, friends. You go to Rural County, MT, do effective needs analysis and find you have two primary types of potential customers:

1) those (mainly residential) for whom 4 or 5 Mbps symmetrical is fine for most of their needs for the next 18 - 24 months;

2) those needing screaming fiber. Great. Bring in fiber for backhaul.

Have those needing fiber pay to extend the middle mile to their doorsteps. Use wireless (WiMAX, microwave, whatever) to satisfy residential customers. As new businesses and other power Net users start up or move to town, have them underwrite some of the costs for expanding fiber to their doorsteps. As the network grows organically and as the economy improves, introduce fiber services to residences. This leapfrog strategy is a practical, affordable option for economically scary times.

So, there you have it. Not all the answers, of course. I can't give you everything for free. I'm just shedding some light on a few seeds for those willing to think outside of the corner office to cultivate these into full blooming opportunities. Let's see if it takes two years again before another Cablevision steps up.  

Craig Settles, recently named one of Huffington Post's 16 Tech Titans on Twitter (@cjsettles), is a broadband industry analyst and consultant who helps organizations develop effective broadband strategy. His presentation "What's Next After Broadband Stimulus?" offers additional insights on uncovering new opportunities in broadband.