Entries in Broadband (16)

Monday
Oct032011

With Google Apps, NeoNova Brings Cloud to Rural Telcos

Last week, Google (Nasdaq:GOOG) made headlines when it boasted that its Google Apps customers achieved 99.984% uptime last year, equating to less than 5 minutes of downtime per month and making it more reliable than Microsoft for cloud-hosted services. But more than just competing with Microsoft, Google's reliability is also attractive to rural telcos as they consider converting to Google Apps in order to boost their value and service to customers. With Google Apps, rural telcos are able to offer their customers email through their own telco-branded domain, and provide access to other cloud services like Google's website hosting and document sharing software, as well as Postini virus protection. And some telcos are converting, thanks to NeoNova Network Services, which acts as an authorized reseller of Google Apps to independent and rural telcos and ISPs. Thirteen of NeoNova's independent telco customers have migratied to Google Apps this year, with 27 in total since NeoNova became a Google reseller in 2010.

As Tom Dominico, business manager for Sebastian Corp., says, “It’s hard for companies our size to work directly with Google.” Sebastian Corp. is a rural telco in California, and it operates an ISP business that recently turned to NeoNova Network Services to convert to Google Apps. Based in Morrisville, N.C., NeoNova has been making headlines this year for its role in bringing cloud services to rural telcos and their customers. According to Jane Foreman, “Customers come to NeoNova because we have integrated Google Apps with our subscriber management tool, NovaSubscriber. This tool enables ISPs and service providers to add value to the Google suite of products.” NovaSubscriber allows the telco to have “multi-tier administration support, parent/child relationships with email, archive, account deletion and suspension capabilities, password management, Single Sign On (SSO) management and a suite of customized data migration tools,” Foreman said.

One of NeoNova's most attractive selling points, for ILECs and RLECs alike, is its 24-hour, 7-days-a-week call center, trained specifically to help Google customers with their services. To help telcos transition to Google more smoothly, NeoNova also provides staff training, marketing programs, network design and implementation and project management. The company bills on a per-subscriber basis.

When asked how it benefits telcos to go through NeoNova, Foreman said that “converting end user customers to Google is more than flipping a switch and giving them an email address. When a user is converted by the telco, they open more than a new email address, they open a whole new set of tools that can help them manage their online life.” In the case of Google Apps, customers have access to what Google deems a “suite” of “communications and collaboration,” including Gmail, Google Calendar, Google Talk (IM), Google Docs, Google Sites, and Postini (spam and virus filtering, offered as a separate service).

In addition to Google Apps for residential customers, Foreman said that many of its telco customers are also planning on converting to Google Apps for their business operations as well. As a result, NeoNova will soon offer Google Apps for Business so that small-to-medium companies can enjoy fully managed cloud services.

Of course, migration to the cloud, in general, or to Google Apps, specifically, is nothing new. One of Google's most attractive features is that it offers integrated cloud services that work with a large variety of wired and mobile devices—something that has been useful to state and city governments especially. Back in July I profiled Wyoming's decision to adopt Google Apps for Government for its executive branch; Wyoming was the first, but soon other states followed suit. We've also profiled colleges and universities that have turned to the cloud for data storage, web hosting, file sharing, email, and so on.

But NeoNova's work with rural and independent communications providers brings Google's cloud services to telcos in a way we haven't seen before. Foreman agreed it's a pivotal time for rural telcos, as they look to retain customers and promote additional “value-added” services for their subscribers. Foreman said these independent providers “must now deliver not only high-speed access to broadband, but also the same level of high quality services as the larger Tier I Telcos.” Google Apps is now being used by more than 40m people worldwide, so Foreman believes that adoption of its platform allows rural and small town communities to access the same high-level services as urban users, and to do so without extra investment in hardware or infrastructure on the part of the telco.

For Cass Communications, which deployed Google Apps through NeoNova in February, the need to improve service without a large investment was crucial. It was also important to retain the company's local branding, and Google allowed the Illinois-based telco to do just that. Cass ceo Gerald Gill said that, “To expand our in-house solution would require a large investment in both manpower and hardware... [But] by working with NeoNova to roll out Google with our branding, we will save time, money, and offer the powerful services of Google to our customers.” Telcos who roll out Google Apps are also able to retain their domain branding (for example: me@mylocaltelco.com), something that Foreman says keeps the “local touch” while providing excellent service.

While quality residential email service is certainly a key part of any ISP, the question remains whether it is enough to keep customers. And even if it does retain them, do services like Google Apps bring in additional revenue or just help the company stave off losses? Foreman replied that, “We believe a solid email platform does increase retention. Holding on to recurring revenue customers for longer is the key to profitability for telcos. Even more importantly, the solid platform is the basis for driving new revenue from additional services to the customer. Whether it is computer security, back up, gaming or other products, the stronger the base relationship with the customer, the more comfortable they will be in buying additional services from the telco.”

To date, NeoNova has converted independent telco customers in Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Ohio.

Tuesday
Sep202011

Tech Savvy U.S. Farms: A Promising Telecom Market?

USDA Report Details Internet Use and Availability on America's Farms

With so much attention focused on rural broadband these last few months, it's difficult to imagine why last month's “Farm Computer Usage and Ownership” report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture went virtually unacknowledged among rural telecommunications analysts. And yet, the USDA's detailed findings reveal an as-yet unsaturated sector in wireless and broadband technology: the American farm. In the last decade, the number of farms with an internet connection rose by 20%, and more than half of American farms now have access to the internet. But a closer look at the numbers reveals that, of those connected farms, only 11% connect through cable, 38% use DSL, 15% use satellite, 20% use wireless, and 11% still turn to dial-up. Availability is not equal regionally, either, with the West and Northeast enjoying the best coverage and the South suffering from the least opportunity to connect (a little more than half of farms there have computers with internet access).

For the communications provider industry, these farms represent an important “vertical” market, where clever partnerships, federal funding, and local investment can come together to meet sector-specific needs. In the next few months, I'll be taking a closer look at the ways precision agricultural and farming communications technologies are affecting the telecommunications provider industry. I'll also profile companies who are servicing these farms or expanding to provide service there, as well as farmers and other industry insiders who understand the promise of a technologically-connected agriculture sector. Then there's also the recent battle between the widespread use of GPS technology on farms and the potential interruptions from cellular service—as evidenced by the recent Lightsquared uproar we've been following.

The bottom line is that, in communities where internet connections are possible and have even become essential for agriculture, farmers are prepared to make good use of fast, reliable broadband, and they are often frustrated when DSL or dial-up are their only options. In July, RUS Administrator Jonathan Adelstein acknowledged the need to connect rural areas—farms among them—and even gave his rousing speech from a family farm in rural Iowa. Our Cassandra Heyne remarked that Adelstein's sentiments were part of a growing chorus of governmental leaders who hailed broadband as beneficial and even necessary to what I call the Rural Triumvirate: Education, Health Care, and yes, Agriculture. But too few of us in the telecom industry understand how farming communities represent an important vertical market, what they do with internet connectivity, and how investments (public and private alike) are revolutionizing an industry that's as old as this nation.

According to Mike Smith, a farmer who operates a small 40-acre farm in California, “The internet means survival to a lot of small farmers.” Smith says that he and other farmers in his area sell crops directly to customers online, adding “If you don't have a Web site, nobody's going to know about you.” Similarly, Alec Smith (no relation) says that pest control is one of the most important uses for the internet on his farm. He's able to upload pictures of diseased plants to plant specialists across the country, who email him back with suggestions on how to combat the disease or pests. In recent weeks other farmers in Oregon, Iowa, and South Carolina have attested to seemingly immeasurable uses for wireless and broadband on their farms—everything from measuring rainfall and crop fertilizer needs, to checking crop prices and trading agricultural commodity futures.

In fact, the USDA's report underscores what many in the agricultural community take for granted: that one of the keys to more productive and more profitable farming (along with successful farming communities, more broadly) is better Web access. About 40% of smaller U.S. farms are online, with 72% of the largest farms using the internet for farming technologies and farm-related business. The gap in service is a telling one, as precision agriculture technologies—many of which use internet connectivity to store and access data—are becoming the new norm and even proving essential to maintaining profitability and viability. Just this month Purdue University and Crop Life magazine published a survey of 2,500 agricultural dealerships, concluding that precision agriculture is on the rise on United States farms and stating that, in some cases, precision ag resources are now “so common place that they aren't thought of as unique anymore.” As precision technologies become more advanced, better connectivity is crucial.

When it comes to wireless, farmers are beginning to turn to their smart phones and similar mobile devices to check weather forecasts, research farm equipment before buying, get advice on pest control, and communicate with other agriculture specialists. According to PrecisionAg Editor Eric Sfiligoj, “the increasing use of iPhones and Blackberries among agricultural experts [is] one of the up-and-coming trends.” He writes that, “Based upon the evidence, the popularity of smart phones and tablets has grown substantially during the past 12 months, with multiple apps now available covering everything from commodity prices to weather reports. And more are on the way.”

Technology specialist for Crop IMS Jeremy Wilson states that “One of the most significant trends I have seen in the precision ag industry is the increased use of tablets or mobile tools.” These mobile tools allow farmers to be connected globally, even while in the cab of their tractors, so that information can be communicated in a much more timely manner. According to Wilson, “Once the equipment is connected, the sky is the limit to the new functionality that a precision ag manufacturer can design to improve the user experience for the operators.” In other words, precision ag allows the farmer to take to the field what “was once limited to the office where he had an Internet connection.”

The question that remains is what platform will farmers rely on for internet connectivity and when will these services expand to cover underserved areas? The answer likely depends on the region, the cost, the available funding, and the infrastructure already in place, which is why it will be useful to look at examples from across the country and investigate Adelstein's claim that, in rural areas, “recovery is underway.”

Monday
Aug222011

West Virginia and Appalachia: The New Broadband “Frontier"

Frontier Communications Boasts Improvements in Rural Broadband

West Virginia is a state of many contrasts, and when it comes to technology, the Mountain State is both forward-looking and caught in the broadband gap. This month, the state's flagship school—West Virginia University—was named one of the nation's “most wired” by Hospitals and Heath Networks Magazine for its technologically innovative healthcare facilities; WVU is also a founding member of Gig U, an initiative that seeks to bring ultra-high-speed broadband to campuses and communities to spur economic growth. On a state level, the West Virginia Small Business Technology Education and Competitiveness Initiative has worked to promote broadband in the region through WV Connectivity. And still, a recent survey of economic development professionals in West Virginia found that many areas continue to be unserved or underserved, with one respondent declaring, “Prospects don’t look here because of the lack of high-speed, affordable, reliable broadband…. Current speeds of up to 3 Mbps, while [they] may be suitable for residential use, are not suitable for business.”

Enter Frontier Communications (NYSE:FTR), which has taken some dramatic steps to improve rural broadband availability in the past year. Company executives at Frontier like to point to what could be a game-changing statistic for West Virginia: broadband access is up 1500 basis points since June of 2010; now 76% of West Virginians have access, as opposed to only 62% less than a year ago. Frontier projects that the current levels will increase, too, stating that by the end of next year, penetration rates should be 85%—a goal set by the FCC when Frontier purchased a large portion of rural lines from Verizon Communications (NYSE:VZ) in 2010. Of Frontier's new customers, 85k homes and businesses now have DSL broadband that previously did not have access to wired broadband.

It was just last May that the FCC approved Frontier's acquisition of 4.8m Verizon lines, most of which were in rural and smaller-city areas across the country, and 600k of which were in West Virginia. The sale totaled $8.6b and included “significant deployment commitments from Frontier” that would “advance the goals of the National Broadband Plan” in 14 states in the South, Midwest and West, according to the FCC. This past year, Stamford, CT-based Frontier built 305 remote broadband delivery sites and overall is investing more than $300m in rural broadband—a commitment that Frontier says will catapult West Virginia to one of the top five states in the nation for speed and connectivity. As a boon to local employment levels, Frontier also boasts that it has returned 250 jobs from overseas to a third-party provider located in West Virginia.

Frontier vp Dana Waldo calls rural areas “our niche, our business model,” and adds, “We are keeping our commitment to the state, to our customers and to rural America. We want to keep West Virginia competitive by helping home businesses expand and small businesses flourish. Our broadband will enhance the use of e-mail, movie downloads, photo-sharing and website creation and content choices.” Similarly, the company's general manager Mitch Carmichael states, “We're probably the most impactful corporate entities in West Virginia”—a dramatic claim in a state that has, for decades, struggled to create new development sectors and new employment opportunities.

And it's true that West Virginians have cheered Frontier's broadband improvement, with many citizens, educators, and small business owners praising the company for finally bringing faster internet to their homes, schools, and workplaces. But some subscribers are still frustrated with the reliability of their new service and others say that their Internet speeds and levels of their current service don't qualify as “high-speed” Internet. The majority of customers outside of West Virginia's cities, such as Charleston, Morgantown, Huntington, Wheeling, and Parkersburg, only have DSL speeds of 3Mbps. Steve Andrews, a Beckley, WV, resident recently complained, “This company’s idea of broadband access is up to 3Mbps DSL while nearby states like Virginia and Pennsylvania are getting fiber or cable broadband speeds ten times faster.” Andrews then added that, on most days, his broadband speed is more like 800kbps, not the advertized 3Mbps Frontier promotes.

As for a more big-picture assessment, a staff editorial for The Register-Herald in Beckley offered glowing praise for Frontier's work in the state: “Frontier has more than lived up to its promise and, based on the most recent information released by the telecommunications company, the expenditures and system improvements that have been made are far ahead of schedule. […] Significant work has been performed on the landline system that serves the vast majority of West Virginia, but the exponential growth and offering of high-speed Internet access to Frontier's Mountain State customers will, in all likelihood, lead to huge economic opportunities.”

Frontier's plan for West Virginia and other rural areas is only in its early stages. As per the company's FCC agreement, Frontier is committed to deploying fiber to hospitals, libraries, and government buildings, with its MetroEthernet connecting businesses and schools to high-capacity internet through “traditional copper.” In recent months, Frontier also stated that it is completing a fiber optic ring between Clarksburg, Charleston, Bluefield, and Martinsburg called ROADM (Ring for Reconfigurable Optical Add Drop Multiplexer), referring to the electronic equipment in each of the four cities. ROADM will allow 88 different frequencies, each with a bandwidth capacity of 80Mbps.

Friday
Aug052011

Texas College System Sets Progressive Standard for Cloud Adoption

Link Alander likes to say that he “stumbled” into cloud services... and he couldn't be happier with the results. As the Vice Chancellor of Technology Services for the Lone Star College System, he says he was a true skeptic when it came to the “marketing hype” surrounding cloud computing. But under his leadership the Houston-based community college system now boasts that it is 93% virtualized and running smoother than ever. Even course registration—previously the biggest challenge to the school's servers—proceeds without incident these days, thanks to the cloud's elasticity and efficiency.

“We now have a gigantic private cloud, and I mean gigantic. [There are] one thousand virtual servers, two main data centers, and six additional campus data centers,” Alander said. “And we also have a great hybrid cloud,” adding that the school utilizes Rackspace (NYSE:RAX) for Infrastructure-as-a-Service, Blackboard (Nasdaq:BBBB) for Platform-as-a-Service, and other additional software services via the cloud. A lot of people are unclear with what the cloud is, exactly, Alander noted, but he says it's simply the best way to handle bandwidth needs through resource pulling and elasticity. The result is “a much better IT service.”

At first, Alander and the CIO team at Lone Star set out to implement a more efficient and robust infrastructure that would meet the school's growing demands. Alander said that the school designed a five-nines system, and virtualization was necessary for that kind of reliability. The school initiated a massive VMware (NYSE:VMW) server push, so in the end the school found itself with its own private cloud. And the process moved fast. “In 2008 we set a policy of 'virtualization first,'” Alander stated. “We were only 5% virtualized at the beginning of 2009, and by the end of 2009 we were already 85% virtualized. Our target is 97%, and we're currently at about 93%, so it moves quickly.”

Lone Star's 90k students used to face service interruptions and delays, but now the college's 16 locations run smoothly with significantly improved capacity that, according to Alander, can “expand and collapse... [and] we can dynamically do this while we're allocating capacity so no one experiences outages or crashes.” He says that when the school replaced its “physical hardware box” in favor of VMware-based server virtualization, it also traded in its “set capacity” for elasticity and a great deal of flexibility. The move also pared down the school's 13 distributed IT sites into two major data centers and, overall, the cloud adoption saved the school at least $600k in capital expenditures.

But no matter how well-planned the private or hybrid cloud is, the result is only as good as the broadband network underneath it all. At Lone Star, the big business approach of AT&T (NYSE:T) just couldn't cut it, and Alander says that the college recently “dumped AT&T in favor of two other smaller, but much better providers.” The school selected, from a number of applications, tw telecom (Nasdaqa:TWTC) and Cogent Communications (Nasdaq:CCOI). The CLEC and ISP, respectively, both provide “exceptional service and responsiveness,” according to Alander, who added that they have “great service levels, and no issues with bandwidth or expansion... Our system is pretty rigid, since it operates on five-nines, so we have to have reliability. An important part of that is customer service and responsiveness, which we've really been impressed with.” Alander describes himself as “a bit leery at first,” when switching from AT&T, but credits his Director of Network Services, Sherry Walton, for seeing the promise of smaller providers.

And still, with all the benefits of cloud technology, Lone Star's model of virtualization is a rarity on most college campuses. Alander calls Lone Star's approach “extremely progressive compared to other schools” and notes that the college “operates their IT services as a business” to keep pioneering forward into new technology. Part of this “pioneering” spirit included an honest conversation about data security in the cloud. “For me, personally, it was something we definitely had to address—and hybrid clouds are more of a concern than private ones, because of the control factor,” Alander stated. But through redundancy and strong contracts with their partners, the school felt they had everything in place to assure security and reliable backups. The process even includes an extra measure of redundancy that Alander calls “extracts,” referring to their system of sending a hard drive out once a month to get a full backup shot of the system.

Ultimately, the cloud has given Lone Star incredible room for growth. Previously the school had 20 TB of storage on an SAN and another 10 TB in a disaster recovery site; now, Lone Star has 400 TB through EMC's new VMAXe storage.

Lone Star's IT department has even helped other colleges and businesses who have sought advice for how to implement cloud services and make their networks more efficient and robust. And to Alander, working together and sharing information—whether about successes or failures—is part of the game. He says that, for those wanting to go the route of virtualization, the most important thing is to create a seamless network for users: “To truly make it a cloud, the customer can never know where service resides. You have to create a group of federations—one log on, one authorization. It doesn't matter where it resides. Make it seamless to the customers. That's what adds value.”

Wednesday
Aug032011

Rural LECs to Invest $192m in Broadband Infrastructure

Projects Viewed as Drivers of Rural Economies

Montana citizens were the largest benefactors from the last week’s round of financing provided under the USDA’s Telecommunications Infrastructure Loan Program. Fairfield, MT based 3 Rivers Telephone Cooperative was awarded a $70m loan to fund the expansion of high speed Internet and television access to Montana residents. Seven additional rural telcos landed rural development loans totaling around $122m, a good portion of which will be used for cable and fiber optic build outs.

3 Rivers will use the funds to build a fiber optic network and also upgrade its buildings and equipment. The 1,700 miles worth of cable will improve service for 3 Rivers’ 17k customers around Great Falls, Big Sky and Ennis. The co-op views the investment in cable infrastructure as integral to the rural economy.

“This will help push out broadband to rural Montana with fiber to the home,” said Mike Henning, 3 River’s interim general manager. “It helps the ranchers. It helps the farmers. It helps rural Montana. It will keep the rural economy going.”

The loan program, administered by USDA Rural Development's Rural Utilities Service (RUS), has been successfully utilized by Montana telcos over the past two years. In 2009, Triangle Communications used a $47.9m infrastructure loan to upgrade its current copper cable network to a high speed fiber optic cable network, while a $38m loan awarded in 2010 to a Triangle subsidiary financed a fiber optic cable project in Fort Benton.

In addition to 3 River’s fiber optic build out, the latest round of financing will also fund cable and fiber builds in Kansas and Oregon. Kansas-based Wilson Telephone Company will spend its $14.3m allocation to build a fiber network across its territory that spans 1,000 square miles and encompasses 1,500 households. Molalla Telephone company, an Oregon telco, will use loan proceeds to expand its FTTP broadband network to 85% of its customer base—about 4k households.

In Wisconsin, Baldwin Telecom will utilize its loan to build infrastructure that will allow for higher Internet speeds in the northwestern part of the state. A strong supporter of the loan program, Wisconsin Senator Herb Kohl believes that the lack of broadband access can be detrimental to rural citizens.

"Technology has become a necessity for employers, entrepreneurs and schools. In today's economy, the lack of access to broadband services can be defeating. That's why this funding is critical to assure that people in all corners of our state can capitalize on their ideas and ambitions,” said Kohl—also Chairman of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Subcommittee, which helps budget for the USDA loan programs.

With billions of stimulus dollars dedicated to expanding broadband access, a round of $192m loans may seem marginal by comparison; however, seeing the loans on a per capita basis brings perspective to the scale of these investments. 

Maintaining only 529 broadband connections, Texas based Coleman County Telephone will spend near $42,609 per broadband connection to upgrade its infrastructure and expand broadband to the rest of its 1,900 customers. Iowa-based IAMO Telephone Company, which has around 1,100 subscribers, received $13k per customer to invest in broadband. While 3 Rivers received by far the largest allocation of funds, it will spend $4,032 per customer on its projects—a sizable amount for sure, but still the lowest investment per customer of the recipients.

The loan per customer data highlights what we already know—developing infrastructure to deliver quality communications services to unserved and underserved areas is a costly proposition. But as Senator Kohl and 3 River’s Mike Henning suggest, the impact of not providing broadband services to rural areas could prove even more costly to those communities and their rural economies.