Friday, June 29, 2007

X is the magic number / X est le chiffre magique

I had a talk with Laurent at work today and he put forward one of the most important questions:

How many users will the ISP require before they'll come and patch you into their network?

He suggested contacting the major ISPs here in France to see what their magic number (X) is. I think he's right. So much of the project will depend on whether they can make a business case for selling to 50 homes.

However, I've decided I'm going to put in the conduit/network whether or not we can find an operator who will build out to us and offer services over the fiber. My reasoning for this ties back to the overall goal of the the project. I consider this first and foremost a learning exercise and figure I'll learn either way. Second, I know that even if we can't get an operator to build out to us now they may change their minds down the road - particularly when faced with the prospect of digging up the roads to put their own infrastructure. That will save us trouble in the long run.

If we can't find someone to come in then I can also look into getting a 50-100 Mbps connection into the residence to share.

Hopefully operators would be willing to take a chance on the project because there are ways to improve the scale economies if we can show this works.

No single "best practice" / Non seulement un "best practice"

I've had several discussions offline the past 2 weeks with experts who have offered their advice. What I'm starting to understand better is that there is no single "best practice" for putting in a FTTH network. All cases are different and lend themselves to different network topographies, equipment and business plans.

I knew when I started that different housing layouts would require different topologies. What I hadn't counted on was the sheer number of parameters that factor into the decision. It's not like you can just say that you want to run fiber to the home. Will that be PON or end-run? Will the deployment be arial or underground? Even if you narrow that one down you're faced with what type of underground deployment (direct-bury or in conduit, etc). Then you get into questions about what kind of fiber... The list of decisions goes on and on. Luckily I'm getting very good advice from people who want to see more fiber rollouts.

All this leaves me in a bit of a chicken/egg situation. I can't convince people to sign up for the network until I know how much it's going to cost and where it will run. However, I can't easily make many of these decisions regarding the network until I have a feel for their level of interest either (and if they'll let me dig in their yards). It's tough to show up at someone's door and ask them if they're interested if you can't give them details. That's probably exactly what I'm going to have to do though.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Backyard vs. Street / Jardin vs. Rue

I've been having some discussions offline with several experts the past few days that have been really helpful. They've mainly been about the physical network components and topology. I'll summarize the discussions soon (along with my key findings) but one of the most interesting ideas has been where to put the conduit/cables.

I decided that I wanted to do the project when I heard that all households were being asked to pay roughly EUR 2000 to redo the roads in our "residence". I couldn't think of a better time to put down conduit in the streets to run fiber.

It's never quite that easy though. There are a couple of issues I've run into that I'd never thought about before in my life. For example, I've been going to bed at night thinking about how I could traverse the concrete curbs between the road and the sidewalk which are not scheduled for repair. There is also the question of how we'll dig the trenches too.

One of the options put forward is that I could consider actually running the network through the back gardens of the homes - rather than the streets. There are some interesting possibilities there but also some challenges.

My French friends have explained that France has a long socialist history where people band together. BUT, one area where this does not apply is in housing residences. I saw this in the meeting I attended and can imagine that there may be owners who wouldn't allow us to dig through their gardens.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Network topology / Topologie du reseau

I'm very interested in getting an idea on how much this broadband rollout is going to cost, particularly for the different stages. However, I've realized that the first thing I need to do is to decide on the topology of the network.

Here's a view of our residence from the air. I've marked the outline of the area I want to cover in red. The yellow lines represent where I'm planning on putting down the fiber once the street is open. The yellow star in the middle is where I'll locate the concentrator (right next to the cable company's box). Finally, the Yvelines Numeriques network and our France Telecom Exchange are in green. (You can get an idea of relative sizes by comparing things to the tennis courts at the middle right edge of the picture).

Saint Nom La Breteche FTTH Map

Here are the current questions I'm working on:

  1. Does it make sense to run a dedicated conduit to each home in the residence?
  2. What about the 24 apartments (12 in each building)?
  3. Would it be best to have the conduit run all the way to each home or simply go to a small box in the ground just beyond the sidewalk - which would then require further trenching the last few meters when they signed up?

I'll post what I find.

Involvement of ISPs / Participation des autres opérateurs

A friend of mine in the residence is good friends with a key technical person for a very large ISP here in France. The two of them spoke about the project and we got some good feedback.

The technical friend explained that it would be very costly for us to try and tap into the Yvelines Numériques fiber backbone ourselves. That seems to be the message we're getting on all fronts. It's too bad. Nice network but too expensive for small-scale rollouts.

On the other hand, it sounded like he didn't rule out the possibility of a firm like his coming in and connecting into our small dark fiber network. That seems to be the way the project is evolving. Maybe the best way to move forward is to put the infrastructure in place in a way that makes it east for other operators to patch in and reach the end users. Bill WOODCOCK suggested making sure the conduit was ready and that there was space and electricity at the concentration point for other operators. I think that's excellent advice.

Any other comments, suggestions or experience welcome.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The association meeting / La réunion de l’association

Last night was the association meeting. It started at 8:30 PM and didn't end until about 12:30 AM. It was a very interesting introduction to how these associations work.

As with all good public meetings there had to be a bit of drama. We needed everyone in the residence represented in the room in order to vote on a particular issue that required unanimous agreement. The association leadership scrambled to get everyone there, including making last minute phone calls from the meeting, and finally succeeded. However, just then, someone got up, stormed out and went home without a word. We'll get to put that item BACK on the agenda for next year. :)

There was no decision on the roads either so we'll need another meeting on it probably in December. There are various rules about calling these meetings including the amount of notice you need to give people. I think they said they needed 3 months - but I'll check to make sure. The association made very good arguments for why the roads should be done now (e.g. more costly if we wait, possible significant tax hike). However, some of the residents wanted to have an architect come and give an expert opinion on what work was necessary before continuing. That means that I'll have some time to plan everything before the work actually has to be done. I see this as a good thing.

There were a few other things that struck me which will have an impact on the project. First, the residents who have lived there from the beginning (35 years) have a very different perspective on many of the issues than some of the younger couples now moving in. The longer-term residents seem less interested in fixing roads, replacing lamp posts etc. Second, I get the feeling that the EUR 2,000 required from each household to fix the roads will likely be much more difficult to pay for some households than others. There may be a income, as well as a generational division within the community.

From the discussions, I can tell it will be very difficult to get a large number of residents to pay up front to install the fiber. Probably the only way to get this off the ground is me putting it in and then renting lines back to the residents. I may have overestimated "willingness" and "ability to pay" from a good number of residents. That isn't to say that they won't pay for broadband or triple play over fiber. I believe most will. They just don't want the upfront risk for a network they don't really understand. Education may solve some of the problem but there are others who just simply won't connect. I'm still positive about the project though.

I did have time to speak to the people arranging the bids for the road work and told them that I'd like to have some trenching included in the overall bid - even if I have to pay the difference. Someone explained to me that putting in the trenches may be fairly easy and inexpensive once the road work had started. I'll have to look into that a bit more. There is also the question of whether we could use the existing ducts of Noos.

Even though we weren't able to come to a decision on the road I still feel there is sufficient support for the project to go forward.

Help from the Netherlands / Aide du Pays Bas

Today I received an e-mail from Dirk VAN DER WOUDE who is the broadband program manager for the city of Amsterdam. He passed along some great information that I'm going to start going through after the meeting this evening. I always figured the Netherlands would be one of the best places to look for examples. Dirk's information will be a big help.

One of the initial things he sent caught my eye in particular. It's a company in Sweden called Zitius which acts as a go-between for property owners and ISPs. From my understanding they operate and manage a network that allows 14 service providers to sell to any of the 50,000 homes they pass from one central location.

To me, it's a very interesting way to position themselves as a company. Certainly I think it would be great to get access to multiple providers via one pipe. I haven't heard of anything similar though here in France. There could be a market opening in areas with open-access fiber backbones for such a company to appear and cater specifically to local rollouts.

The interview Dirk passed along is from Benoît FELTEN’s blog (Fiberevolution). I don't know Benoît yet but I'm going to make an effort to. :)

The meeting with the residence association is tonight. This is going to probably be a make-or-break moment for the next year - particularly in regards to the work on the roads.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Discussions with James ENCK

This week I was able to spend some time speaking with James ENCK (of the universally revered EuroTelcoBlog) about fiber. I always look forward to talking with James because he really understands telecom markets and is such an entertaining speaker. In fact, I believe he's the only person I've ever seen get a standing ovation after a telecom presentation. :)

James examines telecommunication markets from a slightly different perspective than I do - as an investor. That's one of the reasons I was so interested to get his take on new fiber developments.

One of the themes to emerge from our discussion is how investors are starting to view telecommunication firms differently in general. There is a lot of talk in various telecom circles about the business moving towards a utility-type model with longer-term investing perspectives and predictable returns.

Now how I tie this idea back in with our network. We, as users and residents, are better at gauging demand than operators since we actually subscribe to the services and know our reservation prices. Operators, on the other hand, should be better at providing services than our small neighborhood (comparative advantage).

We can both benefit if our residence puts in the dark fiber once we determine there is sufficient demand. We may also be willing to pay a premium for the faster access than operators would be able to charge - given they typically have national pricing plans. This leads to our current stalemate situation. We may be willing to pay for better access but the operators figure it's not worth their while extending faster access to us at the national rates.

Our own fiber network helps resolve the stalemate by capturing some of the extra willingness to pay in the local network rollout in exchange for faster connections ahead of the market's current schedule. We can all win because there is less risk for the operator and faster connections for us.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Meeting with head of the association for our residence / Parler avec le president de notre residence

Saturday I walked down to talk to the head of our residence association about the fiber plan. He was very open to the idea of the project and we talked for about 30 minutes about what I think we should do. He said that he'd allow me a few minutes to make my case at the association meeting on June 13th.

In some ways it may be an uphill battle. The association has had trouble before convincing everyone that now is the time to redo the road. There seems to be a split among the younger residents (for the repairs) and older residents (against).

While we were talking he said that he could understand why I would want to put in the network but that the connection he has now is sufficient for their family. The mayor said the same thing when I met with him.

I think this highlights a challenge for all municipal or local rollouts. We don't appreciate what high-speed broadband can be used for when we haven't had access to it at home. It reminds me of a conference I attended a few years back where someone stood up and said that his software company of 10-15 people did just fine sharing an 64 kbit/s connection. There was an audible gasp in the room.

In these cases I typically explain how much bandwidth is required for one HDTV stream (10 Mbit/s). However, there are other applications I think will have an even larger impact on our everday lives. One of these will likely be teleworking. Sure, it hasn't panned out yet but all the new focus on reducing carbon emissions is bound to make it a more attractive option in the future.

Luckily the cable company Noos has done me a huge favor with the association president and others in the village. There is this rage directed at the company that lurks beneath the surface here among its subscribers. I've never seen anything like it with a company before. It's not just our village either. Noos was recently put under surveillance by the DGCCRF (Competition and Consumer Fraud Department of the Finance Ministry). The president of the association said that while his connection worked well that he had lots of difficulties with them over billing.

Noos is making selling this idea much easier.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Posts from the train

I've gone back to do some editing of posts for typos (not substance) which didn't come across clear the first time. I thought about correcting things I may have misunderstood at the time (not uncommon for me in English, let alone French) but decided against making the changes. I'd rather have this blog reflect the progression and that will mean correcting things I didn't understand in later posts. One example may turn out to be the reach of the Yvelines Numériques network. I assumed initially it went into Paris. Now I am fairly sure it doesn't. Big difference.

I also should explain that I write the posts on the train to and from work each day. Store and forward is alive and well. :)

Response from Yvelines Numériques / Réponse des Yvelines Numériques

Today I received an e-mail from the company running the Yvelines Numériques project (EIFFAGE Connectic 78). They explained that if I wanted to use their network I'd need to go through an ISP - which would then make the arrangements necessary for me to connect through the fiber backbone. I can understand that they would only deal with operators but the question is whether they will sell access to a new, small-scale operator.

I responded back just as I was leaving work with some information and a few more questions. I explained that we were in the process of speaking with ISPs about buying access through them or getting them to come patch into our network themselves. Then I put forward a few more questions:

  1. If talks with the large operators fail, would Yvelines Numériques be willing to work with us as a new (and small) ISP?
  2. Does your network terminate near or at an Internet exchange point?
  3. I've heard that your network may be underutilized. If that is the case would you consider selling access directly to municipal fiber projects (assuming there is access to an Internet exchange)?

I was happy to hear back from them and they did offer a phone contact - which is not available on the website. I may call them on Monday since my spoken French is likely somewhat easier to understand that my written French.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Brainstorming with Laurent / Brainstorming avec Laurent

One of the best people I've found to bounce ideas off of is Laurent at work. He's French, very smart, and someone who calls it like he sees it. He's also been such a wonderful resource in how to maneuver through the French bureaucracy. Laurent is the one who pointed me in the direction of speaking with the mayor and then the conseil général.

At the end of lunch today Laurent took a few minutes to sit down with me and go over the meeting with the mayor and the best way to proceed from here. He had many of the same feelings initially that the mayor repeated. Networks can be difficult beasts - even for engineers and I'm just an economist.

I found that putting together my arguments for Laurent helped me solidify some of the elements of the project myself in my head. He posed some pretty tricky questions about how I'm going to bring in Internet connectivity to reach the fiber network and I struggled to come up with answers.

One of his key points is that the small number of homes just isn't going to be attractive enough to competitive operators (such as Free) for them to come in and install their own equipment in our "residence". I think Laurent probably has a very good point here. However, I'm looking through the papers from the residence again on the train ride home and there are a totally of 26 homes and 24 apartments we could connect easily. That means 50 households in one swoop for a provider - particularly if there is just who chooses to take us up on the offer to come in.

I figure that 50 units would be comparable to a large apartment building and that could be seen as very attractive to an operator. That works out to EUR 1,500 a month (EUR 18,000 per year) in revenue at EUR 30 per household for broadband (the going rate in France). Assuming that EUR 10 per customer went to paying for and maintaining the local network there would still be EUR 12,000 per year of revenue left for the operator. I'll have to calculate how much their equipment and backhaul costs would be to get to but I think we'd be able to make a good case.

Should have said: "ensure unbundling"

You know, there was something I really wanted to mention to the mayor but forgot before I left. He mentioned that France Telecom wanted to upgrade the exchange. I should have told him that he should insert the requirement that in exchange for more land that they would need to build a space large enough to accommodate other operators and allow them to take unbundled local loops.

There's a good possibility that this would be required anyway by the ARCEP but I wanted to make sure that this exchange "upgrade" included the options for other operators to enter in and put in their own equipment.

Speaking with our mayor / Reunion avec notre maire

Today I met with the mayor of our village, Jean-Pierre GAUGENOT. I got lucky on two counts. First, he's an "informatician" (IT person) and second, he speaks English extremely well. That allowed me to jump into English when there were things I was having difficulty explaining.

It turns out he has a meeting with France Telecom scheduled for June 12th to discuss the future of their exchange in St Nom La Breteche (St Nom). I guess the municipality owns the land where it is currently located and France Telecom wants more land to expand. They've promised that they'll increase the size of the exchange (it's just for business connections now) and will give everyone in the village access to 8 Mbit/s connections with it. I quickly jumped in to say that wasn't enough.

He knew a lot about the fiber optic network from Yvelines Numeriques that passes by the town and said that he had given them the permission to build through. He wasn't sure that there was actually anyone using the network though. He mentioned that he would suggest they simply sell the network off to a private company. I figure there's little chance of that happening.

He bought up some very good points during our discussion that I'm going to have to eventually deal with.

  1. A private individual or even a "residence" isn't going to be able to get a permit to cross a city street. I'd have to start a small company in order to even apply. He made it seem as if that may not be very easy.
  2. There would be issues about who would be responsible for maintaining the network after it was built. He had concerns that it would be difficult to support when there were problems. I agreed and figuring out how to fix problems with the network when they pop up will be a key element of getting this off the ground.
  3. He also suggested that pushing changes here in our village isn't easy. He said that the people love the way St Nom is right now and the best municipal projects are the ones that don't change anything.

It's a bit difficult for me to judge his reaction from the meeting. By the end of the meeting though he seemed interested in the idea and offered several good suggestions on how to proceed. I took that as a good sign.

  1. He suggested that I try and partner with a big telecom provider to form a pilot FTTH project. He suggested contacting competitive operators to see if they'd be willing to help with the project as a model for future rollouts. I actually think that could be a good idea, particularly if I have to maneuver through a lot of red tape. I'm going to contact a few operators directly and ask them what they think.
  2. He suggested that I write a letter to our "Conseiller Général", Colette LE MOAL. She is the elected person over our larger region and is influential in the Departement. He recommended I spell out the project to her, telling her I'd already discussed it with him. He said they were good friends I can see how that could help. He mentioned that she may have someone better to recommend as the contact for our project at her level.
I'll go ahead with his ideas and try and move this forward quickly. I'd like to have a letter ready for Ms. LE MOAL before his meeting with France Telecom as well.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Possible backhaul problem

I was gathering up information to take with me to my meeting with the mayor this week when I ran across some pricing information for connecting to the fiber backhaul(Yvelines Numeriques). I read through their literature and realize that I may have a problem using their network.

Our Department had the right idea about creating a fiber optic backhaul network that runs throughout our area. We've seen similar rollouts work well all over the world. The government comes in, helps fund the backhaul, and then lets the private sector take over - typically with open access rules.

The only problem here is that they've seemed to have decided ahead of time who they want on the network - and new operators are not part of that group. Their own website states:

FRENCH: Le Conseil Général des Yvelines ne cherche pas à favoriser l’éclosion d’un nouvel opérateur de télécommunications. Il cherche en revanche à attirer les opérateurs existants.

[ENGLISH: The General Council of the Yvelines is not looking to promote the development of a new telecommunication operator. Instead, it is looking to attract existing operators.

Essentially the goal is to bring in existing operators to use France Telecom's existing copper lines to homes - not create new ones.

I believe that this reveals a lack of a longer-term vision when they developed the project. From what I understand they've had trouble attracting the big operators to come and rent capacity to reach the local exchanges. To make matters worse, a French colleague of mine explained that they're locked into the terms of the contract for the 20 years of the "concession".

This seems to be their plan. They built the network mainly to help with local loop unbundling. Operators can lease fiber backhaul to local telecommunication exchanges and then rent copper lines directly to homes from there. The costs are probably too expensive for smaller operators.

They gave some of the pricing on the web. The entry-level price for a fiber strand is EUR 0.70 per meter per year. I initially wanted to run a connection back into Paris but that would be over 20 KM - if they even go that far. I did a few calculations and figured that I'd really need a much larger subscriber base even make the backhaul pay for itself. The minimum cost of taking a fiber from our village towards Paris would be EUR 14,000 per year. We'd have to spread that among a large number of households to make it even start to pay for itself - and that doesn't include the other costs of our own network or transit at the Internet exchange.

I may need to start looking into whether it would be possible to either buy capacity from a larger player or have them come to us.

Appointment with the mayor of St Nom / RDV avec le Maire de St Nom

I was at work today and I received a call on my cell from the Mairie of St Nom La Breteche. I have an appointment to see him about the project in two days at 10 AM. I'm going to have to ask my boss to let me come in late.

I don't know what kind of information to take with me to the meeting. I thought about some reports that we've written (which are translated into French) but it will probably be better just to speak with him, ask about what is going on in the village and explain what I'd like to do.

Monday, June 4, 2007

DSL progress in St Nom? / Progrès de DSL à St Nom?

I rode the train home with two of my friends from the residence today (Patrick and Pascal). We talked about the project a bit and Patrick explained that France Telecom was working on building a large exchange (NRA) not too far from where we live, just across from the current (unused) exchange. The current exchange is very small (about the size of 2 refrigerators next to each other) and only serves business clients. However, he said that the new exchange is under construction just across the street from the current one and that it would be online in October. That would mean that our broadband options could increase dramatically around that time.

This is something I'd really like to speak with the Mayor about because it may have implications for the fiber project. Even if they did upgrade our DSL I think it would be crazy not to lay fiber down if we are re-doing the roads.

Patrick also explained that Noos, the cable company, has ducts in the street that maybe we could use. I figure it's probably going to be easier if we simply lay our own PVC pipe but it's something I'm going to look into. I was encouraged that both Patrick and Pascal seemed excited about the project.

The conseil général / Le conseil général

One of my good friends at work gave me a good introduction to how things work on a political level here in France. I have to admit that I'm a bit daunted by the prospect of trying to work through the French system to put in this fiber. However, my French friends are a huge help and have given me some very good leads.

One of the suggestions was that I start moving my requests from the mayor up through the conseil général (the higher governing body). One of my coworkers looked through the village web site and located the names of people up the political chain whom I should contact after the mayor. My friend Laurent explained that it would be important to get convince the Mayor that the project was worthwhile and then ask him to draft a letter to the conseil général, Colette LE MOAL.

I'll put together my information for the Mayor and then work on the best way to move this up the political ladder.

Calling the mayor / Appel au maire

Today I called the office of the Mayor of St Nom La Breteche (Jean-Pierre GAUGENOT) to make an appointment to see him. I didn't exactly know how to go about it so I talked to one of my French coworkers and he explained the process. My colleague said that it would be good to start with the Mayor to find out if anything else was going on in the city. It's important as well that he be on board with the project since we'd need his support to cross over any roads with the network.

The Mayor's office asked me some questions about what I wanted to speak to him about and then said they'd call me back on my mobile phone to make the appointment.

IP addresses as a barrier to entry / Les adresses IP comme barrière à l'entrée

IP addresses are something I tended to take for granted. However, today I looked into getting a range of IP addresses for the first time and came away from it a bit shocked by the prices. I figure I only need "one class C" set of addresses (254 IP addresses) but it looks as if I have to pay the same registration fee as all other ISPs to to be a member for a year. I may have it wrong but it seems as if you have to pay the same price, regardless of size.

RIPE: New Member Information

There is a EUR 2000 sign-up fee and then yearly dues of EUR 1300. Again, the system seems to favor companies with scale, rather than a start-up looking to connect a small number of houses.

I'm debating what to do on the addresses because the feeling is IPv4 addresses will all be gone shortly. It would probably be a wise decision to get some while they're still around.

On the other hand, EUR 3000 would buy a good amount of fiber or conduit. I'm going to hold off on the IP addresses as well until I figure out if I'm going to be running my own ISP or just providing dark fiber to others.

Friday, June 1, 2007

No word yet from Yvelines Numériques / Pas de nouvelle des Yvelines Numériques

I haven't heard back from Yvelines Numérique yet. They are one of the big wildcards here in the project. I need to splice into their network to get from our village to one of the Internet exchanges in Paris. The price they'll charge for a fiber pair will set this project in one of two paths.

If the price is affordable then I think I'll stick with the option of becoming my own small ISP. However, if we have to sign up for a 30 year contract with them (and pay it up front), then that may not be an option. In that case I'd probably put in the duct infrastructure and fiber but wait for another operator to come along and light it.

I'm hoping their lack of response isn't the result of my terrible French. I've been warned by several French friends that this project could be an introduction to the French bureaucracy as well.

Bill's advice on conduits, electricity and perserverance / Conseil sur des conduits, l'électricité, persévérance

Bill from PCH sent along the link to his presentation which covers a lot of good ideas for the project. His presentation is tailored to a large rollout but the ideas seem to be the same for the smaller type of rollout that I'm interested in. Regulating Communications Infrastructure for Growth (PDF presentation, 2 MB) Bill had some other great points in his e-mail that I think are worth repeating:
  1. "If the roads are going to actually be _open_, then you probably want to put in home-runs of conduit from each house to a street junction box (either on the sidewalk, or in a manhole, if you can afford that), so that all new communications utilities can share it, and then put in several bigger conduit from that box out to the edges of the community, where they can meet up with utility providers."
  2. "Having [the end runs] already in place (and if possible, power available from the electrical utility, in the box) will make you a lot more attractive for other people's deployments, as well. Once you've got the conduit in, copper and fiber are really easy, and you might as well do both. Moreover, you don't have to do all the houses at once. If only some of the neighbors want to do it, they can get copper or fiber pulled through the conduit later. All at once will be cheaper on a per-house basis, but if you can only get buy-in from a few of them, that's no problem either. The conduit is the most important part."
  3. "Don't underestimate how much work this is going to be. Pace yourself. Don't get upset with yourself if you're only halfway done, a year from now. This is the kind of thing that's vastly more expensive if you rush it, but can be economical if you wait for bargains and synergies."
This will be a longer-term project and there are still a lot of significant hurdles but the journey is going to be fun.