Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is “Broadband”?

What is the Northern Michigan Broadband Cooperative (NMBC)?

What is a “cooperative”?

Why should I become an individual member of the NMBC?

Why should our community, township, county, school, or organization become a member of the NMBC?

Why should our small business or larger corporation become a member of the NMBC?

What membership options are available?

How does a “Letter of Support” or “Resolution of Support” help the NMBC?

Why is it so hard to deliver Broadband (Internet) in Northern Lower Michigan?

Some other countries seem to have Broadband everywhere, but I can barely get dial-up. Why is that?

How expensive is it to deliver Broadband (Internet) services?

Why did the NMBC decide to focus on 21 counties in Northern Lower Michigan?

Isn't the State of Michigan and the Federal Government doing something about this problem?

I've heard of other Broadband related projects that are underway. Aren't you simply duplicating existing efforts?

What is different about the NMBC that it expects to solve this problem?

Where will the NMBC get enough money to solve this problem?

When can I expect to have NMBC services available in my area?

I heard that entires counties downstate are offering free wireless Broadband services. Will the NMBC be doing that?

How much will Broadband services from the NMBC cost?

I hear that Broadband implies not only Internet, but delivery of video, phone, and other services. Will the NMBC be delivering those services as well?

I live miles from just about everything. Can you really deliver Broadband to my house?

Won't technological advancements cause anything you build to be obsolete in a mater of a few years?

I already have Broadband services available from the phone or cable company. Why is the NMBC important to me?

I don't even have good phone service, shouldn't that be a higher priority?

Doesn't the phone company have fiber all over the place? Why can't we just use that?

I heard about using power lines to deliver Broadband, and those lines are just about everywhere. Does that work and wouldn't that be the cheapest way to deliver service?

Can't the Cell phone system deliver Broadband?

What about Broadband via Satellite?

What else can we do to help the NMBC?

Where can I find additional information?

 



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What is “Broadband”?

Broadband is generally defined as a higher-performance network that is capable of supporting multiple applications simultaneously. In practice this normally means Internet, Voice, Video, and others. In particular situations, Broadband has a more specific definition. For example, the Federal government defines Broadband as a network providing at least 768 Kilobits per second (Kb/s) download (toward the user) and 256 Kb/s upload (toward the network) for the purpose of establishing a minimum performance for certain programs.

For reference, here's a table showing the approximate range of speeds for various common types of connections.

Dial-Up
Up to approximately 50 Kb/s
Typically about 15 to 30 Kb/s
ISDN
64Kb/s or 128 Kb/s download and upload
Federal definition
768 Kb/s download, 256 Kb/s upload
T-1
1,500 Kb/s (1.5 Mb/s) download and upload
DSL
500 Kb/s to 6,000 Kb/s (6 Mb/s) download
256 Kb/s to 1,000 Kb/s (1 Mb/s) upload
Cable TV and Wireless
1,000 Kb/s (1 Mb/s) to 10,000 Kb/s (10 Mb/s) download
500 Kb/s to 3,000 Kb/s (3 Mb/s) upload
Fiber
10,000 Kb/s (10 Mb/s) to more than 1,000,000 Kb/s (1 Gb/s)
upload and download

Note: The term “Download” refers to the speed at which you can receive information FROM the Internet, such as viewing Web pages, retrieving your E-Mail, and downloading files. The term “Upload” refers to the speed at which you can send information TO the Internet, such as sending E-Mail, sending pictures and videos to friends or social media sites, and updating information on a Web site you manage.

When evaluating the performance of a particular connection, the upload speed may be as important as the download speed, or in some cases even more important. Be aware that marketing information for Internet and Broadband services often only refer to download speed. It is important to know and compare both the download and upload speeds when selecting Broadband services.

 

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What is the Northern Michigan Broadband Cooperative (NMBC)?

The NMBC is a not-for-profit Michigan corporation organized as a “cooperative” for the purpose of solving the problem of rural Broadband availability in Northern Lower Michigan. The NMBC formed in response to long-term frustration that Broadband services were not available in many areas, that the lack of Broadband availability severely impacts the economy and quality of life in Northern Lower Michigan, and that the problem was not being solved in any other way.

 

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What is a “cooperative”?

A cooperative is an organization formed and operated by a group of individuals or other organizations who have come together to solve a particular problem or fill a particular need. Cooperatives are common in farming, distribution and handling of products, and marketing of products, where the ability of any individual or smaller organization to perform those tasks effectively is limited. In Northern Lower Michigan, the most common cooperatives provide electrical power distribution and delivery for their members.

A cooperative is formed and operated by, or on behalf of, its “members”. In most cases they operate as a corporation with a staff functioning under the direction of a Board of Directors elected by the overall membership. They are generally not-for-profit organizations, but their operation may result in profit to the membership as would be the case in a marketing cooperative.

In the case of the NMBC, the cooperative was formed to develop a network infrastructure for the distribution of Broadband related services and to deliver those services to members. The NMBC was not formed to deliver profit to the members, but rather to operate on a non-profit basis and to deliver quality Broadband services to the members at the lowest possible cost.

 

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Why should I become an individual member of the NMBC?

The NMBC was formed to ensure the availability of Broadband services to all potential users throughout Northern Lower Michigan. This includes delivery of Broadband services to residential users as well as businesses and government entities. Since a cooperative operates in the best interest of its members, residential members are critical to the success of the NMBC and its objective to make Broadband services available to all potential users.

While NMBC related services may not be available to you as a resident at this time, or perhaps for a year or two, your individual membership in the NMBC pools your voice and your contribution toward the development of a ubiquitous Broadband network for Northern Lower Michigan. Membership also provides you with a vote and a voice in how the NMBC functions. In short, it is the members who make a cooperative what it is and your participation as a member strengthens the NMBC and brings our goal that much closer to reality.

 

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Why should our community, township, county, school, or organization become a member of the NMBC?

Most organizations, including community and government entities, use Broadband services in one way or another. The availability and costs of those services directly impacts the ability of the organization to function well and to communicate with its members, constituents, students, and employees and enables the delivery of services that further help to reduce costs and improve services. The absence of these services also directly impacts the quality of life, security, and health of the community.

Larger organizations and government entities often have multiple facilities and can directly benefit from good Broadband connectivity between those locations. Currently in Northern Lower Michigan, many of those locations do not have Broadband services available. The network the NMBC is building will provide multiple fiber-based paths throughout the area and therefore offer these multi-site organizations the ability to directly interconnect their facilities. The performance of these connections will enable cost reductions, service improvements, and better security through the consolidation of systems into central facilities while improving access to those services from other sites as well as by other organizations and users.

Note that if you have multiple facilities that each have their own separate Broadband/Internet connection, that any information you send between facilities travels from one location out through the Internet and then back from the Internet to the other location. This may be adding to the cost of your services since you would need to pay for adequate Internet performance at both locations. Multiple locations connected to the NMBC network will be able to send information back and forth directly without going through the Internet. This improves performance, reduces cost, and increases security.

If your organization does not directly use Broadband services, it undoubtedly benefits from the availability of those services throughout the community and therefore you should do what you can to see that those services are developed. Because of this, membership in the NMBC is not limited to those who would receive Broadband services. Some organizations, such as economic development and community groups, have a bona fide interest in the development and health of their communities. Membership by your organization in the NMBC as an advocate for Broadband development is just as beneficial to the NMBC as members who receive, or will receive Broadband services and to the community at large.

 

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Why should our small business or larger corporation become a member of the NMBC?

Small businesses and larger corporations benefit in multiple ways from the availability of viable Broadband services. Nearly all businesses of any size now require reliable Internet connectivity for even basic communications. Larger corporations often require a level of connectivity beyond the common consumer grade services and may need even greater capacity between facilities sufficient to support file-sharing, backup, corporate phone services, and other bandwidth-intensive applications. The NMBC's objective of developing a robust fiber-based network throughout the NMBC area would permit larger businesses, or even small businesses with more significant Broadband capacity needs, to locate almost anywhere in the area, and to communicate effectively with other Northern Lower Michigan locations or other businesses and organizations.

Another reason is the availability of good Broadband services for employees and their families. With many areas of Northern Lower Michigan lacking any Broadband connectivity whatsoever, the housing options for employees who need access to good Broadband connectivity are somewhat limited. This in turn limits the size and quality of the potential employee base for businesses and makes it difficult to retain employees.

 

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What membership options are available?

There are three general categories of membership in the NMBC including User membership, Advocacy membership, and Vendor membership.

User membership is intended for those who wish to receive services from the NMBC. User members include everyone from individual residences to large organizations with multiple locations. Your membership fee (your contribution into the NMBC) is proportional to the service you receive from the NMBC.

Advocacy membership is designed to permit economic development and other Broadband advocacy organizations who have a significant interest in the development of Broadband services to participate directly as a member of the NMBC, even if they do not receive services. The membership fee for these organizations is proportional to their voting rights in the NMBC.

Vendor membership is an option for service providers and other vendors of products and services who wish to play a participatory role in the development of the NMBC other than through the sale or purchase of products. The vendor membership fee is separate from any payment to or from these vendors for specific products or services, although services and products provided to the NMBC may be used to offset the membership fee. In a way, Vendor members are like Advocacy members except that they also interact with the NMBC in other ways. The membership fee for these organizations is proportional to their voting rights in the NMBC.

The membership fee schedule is reviewed periodically to ensure that the NMBC receives revenues sufficient to provide services to the membership plus enough extra funds to permit expansion of service throughout Northern Lower Michigan and to continue to develop and improve the service that is provided. The NMBC, being a non-profit corporation and a cooperative, does not send a portion of membership fees to investors as profit. Instead, the NMBC applies all funds received to providing services and solving the problem of Broadband availability in Northern Lower Michigan. In the event of a surplus of funds, the NMBC will either return those funds to the members in the form of reduced member fees or will use those funds to expand and improve services as directed by the membership.

 

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How does a “Letter of Support” or “Resolution of Support” help the NMBC?

Participation with the NMBC may also take the form of an expression of support, which is an excellent option for individuals and organizations who are not able to participate financially. The NMBC, in an effort to fulfill the stated objectives, needs to qualify for grants, loans, and other considerations from various public and private agencies. A significant aspect in qualifying for these funds is the ability to show community support for the NMBC and its objectives. Letters and resolutions of support are therefore valuable to the NMBC and we encourage all persons and organizations, even if they are already members of the NMBC, to support our efforts in this way.

 

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Why is it so hard to deliver Broadband (Internet) in Northern Lower Michigan?

The short answer is that Northern Lower Michigan is a “perfect storm” of low user densities and difficult terrain for the distribution of services. If it were easy and profitable to build and deliver Internet and Broadband services in Northern Lower Michigan, we would certainly not have this problem. That we do still have the problem is evidence that these difficulties exist and that we may need to seek other solutions.

If we had either more potential users to provide a better revenue base for providers, or had flat treeless terrain that would enable lower-cost wireless technologies, the problem would not exist. If that were the case, providers would be clamoring to install services and compete in an easily accessible market. Fortunately, Northern Lower Michigan is an area blessed with beautiful lakes, tree covered hills, cozy river valleys, and few larger cities. Unfortunately, the very things that make Northern Lower Michigan such a great place to live and work also make it a horrible place to build Broadband services. It's simply not possible to put up a few antennas to beam Internet services direct to everyone's home and it's expensive to run new wires or cables to areas with relatively few potential users.

This is the reason that Broadband services are not available throughout much of rural Northern Lower Michigan, and it's not that some haven't tried. In some areas the incumbent phone carriers have extended Broadband services around the larger cities, but as for-profit corporations they must return a profit on the services they provide and they apparently don't see a sufficient business model to extend their services farther into the rural areas. Other smaller providers, such as the several wireless Internet providers, have offered services in some limited areas, but again, if it was lucrative for them to extend into additional areas, they certainly would have done so by now and several would not have already gone out of business trying.

 

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Some other countries seem to have Broadband everywhere, but I can barely get dial-up. Why is that?

Yes, there are other countries with significant penetration of very high-quality Broadband services. In some cases, Japan for example, they are geographically small and therefore require much less effort to reach a high percentage of potential Broadband users. In other cases, Canada is one, there is a national commitment to Broadband distribution such as there has been for power and telephone services here in the United States.

If the United States were small geographically, which it isn't, or of there was interest in outright funding of rural Broadband development through taxation, which there doesn't appear to be at this time, our problems would be just a matter of construction. However, without such a commitment to build services throughout the country at public expense, and with limited revenues available to commercial providers, little progress has been made. Fortunately, we do have phone service in most areas of the country, but for many, that simply means slow dial-up Internet service.

 

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How expensive is it to deliver Broadband (Internet) services?

The cost of delivery for Broadband (Internet) services depends on many factors. Of those, the most significant are the cost to build lines from sources of Internet “Backbone” connectivity, the cost to build lines to distribution points in the rural areas (“Middle Mile”), the cost of connections from those distribution points to the end user's home and businesses (“Last Mile”), the wide array of equipment needed to support the routing and management of Internet traffic, and general operational expenses. Those costs also depend on the type and quality of services being delivered, wherein the better, faster, and more reliable the service is, the greater the cost.

So, how much can it really be? If we happen to be close to good quality Internet Backbone connections, the terrain is flat and pretty much devoid of high trees, and the objective is services adequate for the current needs of residential users, then we may be talking some hundreds of thousands to a few million dollars to cover much of a county. If on the other hand the terrain is hilly and covered with forests, and the objective is to build services adequate for 30-50 years into the future for everyone from individual residents to large organizations, costs could range in the hundreds of Millions of dollars or more for the same size area.

Obviously these very rough but realistic costs mean that quality rural Broadband isn't something one can build on a whim. This is why there's been little Broadband development in rural Northern Lower Michigan. Commercial providers need to see a return for their investment in a reasonable amount of time, and these significant costs make that difficult where population densities are relatively low.

 

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Why did the NMBC decide to focus on 21 counties in Northern Lower Michigan?

The 21 northern-most counties in the lower peninsula of Michigan share many common characteristics beyond a general lack of rural Broadband. In most of these counties, the terrain is hilling and there are extensive forests, making it difficult and expensive to build Broadband services. These counties also share similarities in the way they associate and in the scope of larger collaborative projects. In addition, there are common threads of communications throughout these counties driven by associations between various organizations. Lastly, a number of projects that are either underway or contemplated, and that involve the use of Broadband services, cover these counties either in part or entirely. These 21 counties therefore seemed bound technical and socially, and together were a logical choice for a larger effort to solve the problem of rural Broadband availability.

Another consideration is basic to the concepts driving the NMBC. A key factor identified as a potential solution to rural Broadband availability is the aggregation of needs and resources into a common solution. Clearly the cost of Broadband delivery to residents in low population rural areas exceeds any expectation of fees that they can reasonably be expected to pay. This is the primary reason commercial Broadband development has been slow or nonexistent in those areas. The NMBC anticipates solving that problem by not only providing services to rural residents, but also to a range of public and private organizations throughout these rural areas as well as the full range of served users in the larger communities.

The key is that these public and private organizations not only need Broadband services for themselves in the rural areas, but also directly benefit from their members, students, faculty, and constituents, having good Broadband services. Further, users in the more populated areas that may now have available Broadband services benefit from rural availability through lower costs and better services to these institutions and the potential for improved Broadband services that would result from a more comprehensive area-wide network and from the overall economic benefits that result.

While taking on Broadband development for a 21 county area is a daunting task, the NMBC feels that it will take this kind aggregation over an area that large to fully realize the benefits of this approach. Besides the economic considerations of aggregation, there are additional technical benefits resulting from a network designed to cover these 21 counties including vastly improved performance and reliability. When you add all of these factors together, the 21 county target of the NMBC really starts to make sense.

 

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Isn't the State of Michigan and the Federal Government doing something about this problem?

Yes, the State of Michigan has attempted to encourage the development of rural Broadband services. Governor Engler introduce the “Link Michigan” initiative which resulted in an array of local and regional studies to investigate the problems and search for solutions. It was one of these studies conducted by the North East Michigan Council of Governments that resulted in the creation of Allband, a rural phone and Internet services cooperative that has since been developing services in areas where there wasn't even phone service.

In 2005, the State of Michigan passed legislation forming the Michigan Broadband Development Authority. That Authority was tasked with financing Broadband development projects, particularly for rural areas, in an effort to solve the problem of Broadband availability and pricing. In 2007, the supporting legislation for the Authority was repealed, mostly due to a lack of performance and significant costs. While there were some loans provided by the Authority, it did not offer any real advantage over working through conventional lending institutions and therefore did little to solve the problem.

The State of Michigan has been active more recently in association with the potential to bring American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (Stimulus) funds designated for Broadband development into the state. The State attempted to coordinate application of ARRA Broadband funds into a collaborative project that would have developed a common state-wide backbone infrastructure into every county of the State and which would then enable rural Broadband development. After considerable discussion with Internet providers, telephone and cable companies, and the Federal government, there has been no specific solution adopted based on this concept. The ARRA Broadband funds are still working through the process and a number of applications have been submitted by Michigan companies and organizations. As of today (September 2009), none of these funds have been awarded.

While there have been other smaller initiatives, and additional legislation in 2005 called the “Metro Act” which helps to provide for better access and development of the “right of way” used for Broadband development, there has been little rural Broadband development that has resulted. At this time, we are aware of no State initiatives underway to solve the problem of rural Broadband availability.

The Federal government is making available through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (stimulus legislation) $7.2B for rural Broadband development. Of those funds, some $3B will be applied to projects that stimulate Broadband use, while the remaining funds will be applied to actual Broadband infrastructure development. This seems like a lot of money, but if distributed evenly across all States and territories of the US, the average funds available to an individual State is less than $100M. If that is then equally divided across Michigan's 83 counties, the funds available per county are only in the range of $1M, which is clearly not enough to solve the rural Broadband availability problem.

It's also not yet clear how those funds will be distributed. In the first round of applications for Broadband stimulus funds, nearly 2,200 proposals were submitted, including some 33 proposals by the NMBC. These proposals will be evaluated over the last few months of 2009 and some may be awarded by the end of the year. Not knowing which will be accepted, or exactly how those decisions will be made, it's impossible to say how much of those funds will flow into Northern Lower Michigan. One thing is sure, while it will be nice to see some assistance directed to the NMBC area, it certainly won't be enough to solve the problem. The NMBC, does hope to receive some support from these stimulus funds which would accelerate development of the NMBC network.

 

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I've heard of other Broadband related projects that are underway. Aren't you simply duplicating existing efforts?

There are a number of local and regional efforts in progress to address the problem of rural Broadband availability. These range from local community networks to efforts to build services across multiple counties. The NMBC is one such effort. None of these efforts have resulted in a deployment of Broadband services in truly rural areas of Northern Lower Michigan other than by Allband in some limited areas that did not even have phone services.

The likelihood that one, or more, of these efforts will result in any significant rural Broadband development, depends both on funding and on support. Since it's apparent that commercial providers are not inclined to commit their own funds to the development of large-scale rural Broadband services in Northern Lower Michigan, whether these services are built will depend on the funding support projects receive. If one or more of the proposals for Broadband “stimulus” funds associated with commercial providers are approved, there may in fact be commercial rural Broadband development taking place. If not, other means of support may be required for that to happen.

The NMBC anticipates that it will receive funding assistance at some level for its Broadband projects. In addition, the NMBC anticipates funding development through a combination of membership, service revenues, and long-term loans and grants. How rapidly the NMBC will be able to deploy rural Broadband will largely depend on how much support it receives in the way of membership and service commitments. Considering that there are limited dollars available and that there are limits to potential service revenues, it's unlikely that multiple projects that duplicate efforts are likely to be funded. The level at which the NMBC will receive funding in the way of grants, and revenues from users, is of course directly related to the support the NMBC receives from the community as a whole. If the NMBC is seen as a best viable solution, it will be the most likely to be built.

It should also be noted that there can be differences in the nature of various projects. Some projects may focus on more rapid development utilizing “fast-start” technologies that offer a more rapid relief for some areas without service, but that don't offer the longevity or robust nature of the technologies selected by the NMBC. As such, it's entirely possible that both types of projects may be underway at the same time and there still be no actual duplication of efforts in relation to their relative goals.

 

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What is different about the NMBC that it expects to solve this problem?

The key to Broadband development in rural areas of Northern Lower Michigan is finding a means to pay for it. For-profit corporations are often not in a position to dedicate large sums on long-term projects that may take many years of development before any reasonable profit is realized. In the absence of out-right subsidies to offset that problem, these corporations are not likely to undertake rural Broadband development here, and are more likely to focus on higher-profit areas. This is mostly why we do not have good Broadband services here at this time.

The NMBC, however, is formed as a non-profit cooperative. As such, there is no intention of turning a profit for investors. In fact, NMBC investors are largely members who support the cooperative simply to solve the problem of rural Broadband availability. Such an organization is therefore better positioned to undertake very long-term projects where the pay-down for capital costs covers many years.

The NMBC also seeks to fund rural Broadband development by aggregating into the cooperative a wide range of users and advocates, even if they already have services available or for some reason don't actually need services themselves. In effect, the NMBC wishes to pool resources between areas that already have services available and those that don't in an effort to fund services to the lower density areas on the thought that all of us understand the benefit to our communities as a whole that results from good Broadband availability. A non-profit cooperative, as opposed to a commercial provider, is more likely to attract this spectrum of user members in addition to participation by other advocates who would like to support the effort and more likely to attract the participation of other projects that wish to pool resources for a more robust common solution.

 

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Where will the NMBC get enough money to solve this problem?

The NMBC intends to fund the construction and operation of its network and services primarily though user fees and membership and assisted by various grants, gifts, and sponsorships. Also, the long-term viability of the network technologies and designs coupled with the availability of long-term low-interest loans will permit the NMBC to stretch payment for this infrastructure out over many years, and thus reduce the average monthly cost for that construction to levels that fit within rational monthly membership and user fees. While the actual cost for development of a large-scale and robust 21 County network may be daunting, the ability to pay that back over 30 or more years makes funding it possible, provided that the developed infrastructure will be viable for at least that long. This is one reason the NMBC plans to focus mostly on more costly fiber-based services, which will be viable and able to support our need for many decades.

Funding sources, such as the USDA Rural Utility Service Broadband Infrastructure Loans, are configured specifically to assist with such long-term development. The requirement for that being that the organization receiving the loan show an ability to pay the loan back over time. The NMBC believes it has that ability to do that and will be working to justify that in detail to the USDA over the coming months.

 

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When can I expect to have NMBC services available in my area?

That depends on where you are and how successful the NMBC is in attracting membership, qualifying for available grants, and in receiving the desired long-term loans. Considering that the NMBC plans to build-out more robust fiber-based services, and that those services are both more difficult and costly to deploy, you may have to wait a while for construction to extend to your area.

Certain areas will be targeted earlier because they either represent a greater need, or because building there will have a more immediate impact on larger-scale services to government entities, community organization, and larger businesses. Services to those types of users tend to be considerably higher capacity and therefore merit greater service fees for the same effort than for lower-density rural residential users. Those greater fees are a key to building and paying for the overall network that will be required to serve the rural residential users. An additional benefit of services to those types of users earlier is that doing so helps enable and stimulate the services those organizations provide to the community, which in turn stimulates economic growth.

In some cases, it may be appropriate for the NMBC to use other “fast-start” technologies, such as wireless services, to offer services in certain key areas while the long-term development takes place. A limiting factor on this is that most such “fast-start” technologies are not viable in certain types of terrain or do not scale well to serve large areas. Still, there may be good reasons to bring specific areas on-line earlier to either benefit the community as a whole or to enable faster development of the long-term goals.

One means to reduce the impact early-on is for the NMBC to help develop “Broadband rooms” at the township level. These locations are more likely to be located on primary NMBC network paths and therefore will have services well before many residents in the surrounding areas. For Broadband challenged users, it may be faster to drive a short distance to a local Broadband services at these locations than to deal with a sluggish dial-up connection. Communities may also qualify for various types of grants and assistance to help establish these facilities.

To be more specific, it may be several years at least before NMBC services are available in many rural areas and it might be several years beyond that before the more distant and difficult areas become served. Of course the more support there is for the NMBC, the more members who join and contribute, the more grants the NMBC receives, and the faster the NMBC is able to obtain long-term funding, the sooner the NMBC may be able to reach your area.

 

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I heard that entire counties downstate are offering free wireless Broadband services. Will the NMBC be doing that?

There have been several projects downstate, and in other areas of the country, where entire counties were to be served by wireless Broadband services. In some cases, entry-level services were intended to be free to all residents of the county in exchange for those counties offering the provider access to infrastructure and based on the concept that the providers would be well positioned to sell higher-level services at some cost. Unfortunately, these efforts have been largely unsuccessful. Three specific projects in Oakland, Washtenaw, and Macomb counties have all failed to materialize past initial test locations in areas that already had other services available. The reasons why are in fact similar to the reasons that wireless services have not already been built throughout much of Northern Lower Michigan, some of which have been described under other questions above.

In reality, it's simply not practical to build wireless services across entire counties in Northern Lower Michigan without deploying a large number of wireless access points and using equipment that would generally cost more than most users are willing to spend. It's also not likely that Northern Lower Michigan is ready for a resurgence of the larger antenna towers at homes and business that would be required to access the service. Even if that were possible, and the costs were reasonable, there are concerns that those services would not be reliable or robust enough to support the larger organizations and public services that also need rural Broadband and that most of the equipment would need to be periodically replaced to keep up with demand.

While it's not likely the NMBC will be building wireless Broadband services that extend over entire counties, it is possible that the NMBC and its members may determine that certain specific areas should have some type of free-access wireless services to support mobile users and traveling visitors and that certain localized areas may be sufficiently served by some type of wireless service.

 

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How much will Broadband services from the NMBC cost?

The actual cost of services to an NMBC member will depend primarily on the level of service that member requires, and the overall costs incurred by the NMBC to build and maintain all NMBC services. Being a non-profit cooperative, the NMBC will periodically evaluate all costs it incurs, the funds needed for continued development, and other needs for funds, and will adjust the cost of services and other fees to all members proportionally. Based on those evaluations, and the level of service a particular member is receiving, that member will be asked to pay to the NMBC a specific amount per month of services received. In this respect, the cost of services from the NMBC is kept to the minimum necessary to achieve the objectives set forth by the membership, and that may vary over time. Eventually, the capital loans needed for major development of the NMBC network and services will be paid down to the point where the bulk of costs are operational, maintenance, and necessary upgrades to systems and equipment, further reducing costs to members.

The NMBC has specific member cost targets it intends to meet and that are important to the overall viability of the NMBC. The NMBC mission statement refers to “affordable rates”, which means that the effective rates charged to members for services should be roughly equivalent to the common rates paid for similar services in other areas where they are available. It's also important for the cost of services in the NMBC area to be sufficiently competitive with those of major markets nation-wide and with other rural areas so that Northern Lower Michigan can effectively compete for economic development and retention of businesses and residents. In real terms, this means that basic Broadband Internet connectivity in rural Northern Lower Michigan should start in the range of $20 to $30 per month for individual residences, and start in the range of $40 to $60 per month for basic Broadband Internet services for businesses and organizations (based on current market price expectations).

 

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I hear that Broadband implies not only Internet, but delivery of video, phone, and other services. Will the NMBC be delivering those services as well?

Yes. In fact this is critical to the viability of the NMBC's plan for rural Broadband development. The broad definition of “Broadband” is a “higher-performance network that is capable of supporting multiple applications simultaneously”. The nice thing about Broadband networks is that once they are built and providing one type of service, there is little or no cost to add distribution of additional services. The only significant exception is the cost to produce those services and feed them into the network and for any customer premise equipment required to receive those services. Offering additional services is therefore a means to reduce the cost per services delivered to the end users and to build a larger revenue base on which network development can take place.

Internet access is actually only one of the thee basic communications services often delivered to homes and businesses. The other two are voice phone and TV news and entertainment services. Combined, these services are referred to as “converged services” or in some cases “triple-play”. If the NMBC provided only Internet access over a relatively expensive fiber-based network, it would be difficult to pay off the cost of that infrastructure, even over many years. By adding phone and TV services, which a fiber-based Broadband network is fully capable of supporting, the NMBC can spread the cost of the infrastructure into revenues from all of these services. and therefore the cost of the services reducing the overall cost of services to NMBC members.

This “convergence” also helps rural areas in that it permits the delivery of more robust and reliable voice and TV services than might otherwise be available over copper phone lines or via broadcast or satellite TV services. The obvious side-effect for our visually pleasing areas of Northern Lower Michigan is a reduction in outside TV antennas and satellite dishes.

One thing to note here is that it takes a robust network infrastructure to support this level of “convergence”. Again, this is another reason that the NMBC chooses fiber as the primary technology for Broadband delivery throughout our 21 counties. Most other technologies, including DSL and wireless, are simply not able to deliver the bandwidth required to support full “converged” services.

 

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I live miles from just about everything. Can you really deliver Broadband to my house?

The proper answer to this question is “one way or another”. In areas with user densities down to only a few users per linear mile, it may still be possible for the NMBC to justify the cost of fiber construction. Below those densities, and particularly where there are no other demands for Broadband services, such as remote research or public-safety facilities, it may simply not be practical to deliver services via fiber. In those cases, the NMBC may be able to deliver service to your location using special long-haul wireless services or other technologies. As a last resort, the NMBC may opt to negotiate for satellite Internet services and use the purchasing power derived from bundling other difficult to reach user areas to help reduce costs.

 

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Won't technological advancements cause anything you build to be obsolete in a mater of a few years?

If some new technological advancement were to suddenly appear that could easily solve the problem of rural Broadband availability, we could all consider the problem solved and declare victory. As much as we'd like for that to be the case, it's not likely to happen. There are currently no emerging technologies or research that represents any expectation that this type of break-through is in the foreseeable future. We expect, however, there to be enhancements to current technologies that will provide progressively better services utilizing the same or similar infrastructure to what we have available now.

Historically, there has been one particular “shining light” (so to speak) Broadband transport technology that has shown a propensity for vast improvements in performance and services at minimal additional cost. That technology is fiber optics. By simply replacing the electronics at each end of the fiber periodically, improvements of several orders of magnitude have been realized and are expected to continue well into the future. More than simply increasing performance, the distance signals can travel over fiber continues to improve with advancements in the electronics driving the fiber.

Currently, distances of 20 to 30 miles and bandwidths to 1 Gigabit/sec (one billion bits of data per second) are common and will be the target transport level for initial deployment by the NMBC. At the same time, advances in electronics are making even 10 Gigabit/sec services over fiber readily available and research has pushed throughput to many times that level. In essence, “Moore's law” applies to fiber optics, with improvements in technology doubling fiber capacity every nine months, and there's no end in sight. No other available Broadband technology can claim anything close. This is yet again why the NMBC is confident that focusing on fiber for network construction is the right decision.

 

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I already have Broadband services available from the phone or cable company. Why is the NMBC important to me?

Even if you currently have good Broadband service, the NMBC is important to you because ubiquitous rural Broadband availability in Northern Lower Michigan means better communications with the rest of your community, lower costs of services for the institutions your tax dollars and tuition support, and better public safety. Most importantly, good rural Broadband availability means economic development for Northern Lower Michigan, retention of jobs, and the development of communities where our children will want to remain and live as they become adults.

Closer to home for those living in areas with existing Broadband services, the NMBC will ensure that Broadband costs are kept reasonable through competition with other providers. Additionally, development of a robust and extensible fiber network by the NMBC continues to push the envelope of available Broadband performance and, through competition, demands the same from the other providers.

Lastly, the design and nature of the network planned by the NMBC will result in a more reliable and fault-tolerant Broadband network. Taking advantage of the rural fiber construction to complete multiple simultaneous paths between critical locations, the NMBC will end up with a network that is fully redundant. This ensures that any breaks or failures with the fiber circuits affect few, if any, end user services and takes Broadband service reliability to a new level for our area.

 

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I don't even have good phone service, shouldn't that be a higher priority?

It is a high priority. In fact, basic and advanced voice phone services are a key component of the NMBC plans. When you receive your NMBC Broadband connection, you will have received a connection to high-quality voice phone services.

One thing to note here is that the cost of delivery of normal voice phone services over copper phone lines is now actually more expensive than the cost of fiber construction to the same locations. Therefore, if you don't have good phone service now, it doesn't make any sense to build anything other than fiber, which is what the NMBC plans to do.

 

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Doesn't the phone company have fiber all over the place? Why can't we just use that?

The incumbent phone companies, and even cable TV providers, do have a good deal of fiber-optic cable in Northern Lower Michigan. Most of the phone company fiber provides transport for voice and data services between phone company offices and some of it provides transport to remote distribution points for rural phone lines. The cable TV company's fiber is used to transport their services between communities where they have services and in some areas direct to the end users. To say that there's already fiber throughout the rural areas is however not accurate. Many locations in Northern Michigan are miles from phone company and cable TV service fiber lines.

The answer to the other question, whether this fiber can be used for rural Broadband delivery, needs to include the question of “at what cost”. The companies that own those fiber runs do not generally sell that fiber outright and rarely will they sell access to unused strands of fiber. Instead, they prefer to sell services over those lines at a monthly cost. The cost of contracting that fiber for rural Broadband delivery would be prohibitive, unless they are convinced to provide significant discounts—but why would they?

 

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I heard about using power lines to deliver Broadband, and those lines are just about everywhere. Does that work and wouldn't that be the cheapest way to deliver service?

It does seem that since power lines reach virtually every residence, organization, and business in Northern Lower Michigan that if there were a way to effectively deliver Broadband services across them, that might be the preferred option. Well, there is a way to do that, but there are technical limitations and concerns that make that option less attractive. In fact, there have been some tests of Broadband over Power Lines (commonly called “BPL”) not to far from here in Michigan and Canada, and a number of deployments across the US and elsewhere in the world. Unfortunately, many of those projects have been either stalled or completely shut down and there doesn't seem to be much hope that the situation will turn around any time soon. In fact, of the nearly 2,200 proposals for Broadband stimulus funds submitted in the first round, it appears that only three or four organizations are contemplating BPL related projects.

To explain the problems with BPL we need to start with how it works. BPL sends Broadband signals down power lines using radio frequency signals (1 to 60 MHz). While the power lines effectively conduct these radio frequency signals, those same cables also make great antennas. Because of this, some of the BPL signal radiates away from the power line as radio waves and can interfere with actual radio services that normally use those frequencies. The radio services common to those frequencies include government, amateur (Ham), foreign broadcast, CB, aircraft, marine, public safety and a wide range of other public and commercial uses. By law, BPL signals are not permitted to interfere with those services, but there have been considerable problems with them doing just that.

The opposite is also true. Radio services that use the frequencies on which BPL operates may be received by the power lines, just as any other antenna would pick up those signals, and in the case of closer and more powerful radio signals, may actually interfere with the operation of the BPL system, causing those services to be unreliable.

The Federal Communications Commission, which is responsible for establishing rules for all radio services, and for systems that may unintentionally radiate radio waves, attempted to establish standards for what constitutes harmful interference to radio services from BPL systems and set rules to define how BPL could coexist with those services. Subsequently, the Federal courts determined that the FCC did not use all necessary data in evaluating the potential impact of BPL interference to radio services and ruled that the FCC must start over evaluating the potential for interference and once again try to establish rules. The FCC only recently (July 2009) started this process over again. Until that process has worked its course, it's hard to say what the outcome will be and whether BPL systems will be permitted to operate in a manner that makes them cost-effective.

 

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Can't Cell phone systems deliver Broadband?

Potentially, they could, but in practice there are limitations. The Cell phone networks are currently designed to deliver voice phone as a primary service. More recently, they have also added data services and are expanding those to the point where the data services are closely comparable with true Broadband service. For many users, that would be sufficient, but there are other limitations as well. Cell pones use radio spectrum in a way similar to other wireless Broadband services. That radio spectrum is similarly affected by hills and vegetation, which make reliable Cell phone service difficult and expensive to deliver since they would need a separate site for nearly every valley in Northern Lower Michigan. This is why there are numerous areas of Northern Lower Michigan where cell phone services are intermittent at best.

This leads back to the cost of service. The more cell phone towers that have to be built to cover problem areas, and the more equipment that needs to be attached to those towers to serve increasing demand, the more the cost to deliver services goes up. Cell phone service isn't particularly cheap, but it is reasonable to use for voice calls, considering the alternatives, and is an excellent choice for mobile data services where the costs of that service can be rationalized by some need. The question is whether there's a business case to build sufficient additional towers and add the equipment to provide more reliable Broadband-like services to the remaining areas.

Cell phone networks are also not designed to support the higher-capacity requirements of larger organizations and businesses, so for these organizations to receive adequate Broadband services, there would still need to be another infrastructure in place to serve them. Additionally, there's characteristics of cell phone communications that make some types of applications difficult to use over cell phone based data services. For all these reasons, the USDA Rural Utility Service does not consider cell phone data services to be “Broadband”.

As with many things related to Broadband, there's a financial trade off with coverage and performance. Apparently this balance doesn't lean toward the Cell phone providers upgrading their towers and systems sufficiently to provide Broadband-like services throughout our rural areas at this time. If it did, they would already be inclined to build those services.

 

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What about Broadband via Satellite?

Broadband services via satellite offer many in very rural areas some hope of receiving some level of Broadband service. There are, however, limitations and problems associated with Broadband delivery via satellite. One in particular is that all current consumer Broadband services by satellite use “geostationary” satellites to deliver the service. Those satellites revolve around the earth at approximately 22,000 miles above sea level, which is a special distance that causes them them to orbit at exactly the same rate at which the Earth rotates and they therefore appear to always be in the same position in the sky. The problem with this is that light, and satellite signals, travel at approximately 186,000 miles per second and the distance up to and down from the satellite therefore takes a bit over a quarter of a second to traverse. This means that any request your computer makes for data from another computer on the Internet will take at least one half second (up to the satellite and back down for the request, and again up to the satellite and back down for the response). Add to this the other delays associated with the satellite data delivery systems and normal delays on the Internet, and you have total delays that are long enough to make Internet use less effective, and in the case of some protocols, difficult or impossible.

Satellite signals also suffer from the effects of weather. At times heavy rain or snow can make these signals unreliable or even render them useless. Because of this, there will be a certain number of days per year where satellite Broadband services will be interrupted. In Northern Lower Michigan there's a further problem. Due to the angle the signals need to travel to reach the satellite, some desired user locations are actually blocked by hills or trees.

Lastly, satellite systems and services are not inexpensive and for that reason alone are more applicable as a last option for Broadband services.

 

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What else can we do to help the NMBC?

At this time, the best thing to do is consider becoming a member of the NMBC or to support the NMBC through the donation of services, products, or funds. Even a simple letter of support helps when the NMBC applies for grants and loans. And of course, spread the word about the NMBC and our mission to solve the problem of rural Broadband availability in Northern Lower Michigan.

The NMBC will soon offer an array of options for membership based on your expected use of Broadband services from the NMBC. While you may not be able to receive service from the NMBC soon, or perhaps for a year or two, the NMBC can put your membership dollars to good use building the network and systems we will need to eventually deliver services to nearly everyone throughout 21 counties, and eventually to you. Your contributions to the NMBC will be credited to the cost of the services delivered to you when those services are available in your area, so you are really paying for your own service while also helping to solve the overall problem of rural Broadband availability in Northern Lower Michigan.

Lastly, if you have skills, experience, or even just time, we'd be glad to let you help out.

 

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Where can I find additional information?

Additional information is available through the NMBC Web site at the following URL.

http://www.northernbroadband.org
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