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[ NNSquad ] Google Fiber Application Deadline Passes -- and Some Insights from the GCTIP Broadband Survey

                  Google Fiber Application Deadline Passes 
          -- and Some Insights from the GCTIP Broadband Survey


Greetings.  Google has announced that the deadline has passed for
applications related to their Ultra High-Speed Broadband Fiber
experiments, and as you'd expect the applications have been pouring in
( http://bit.ly/bvaymk [Official Google Blog] ).  But now that the
application window has closed, we can expect that communities will be
putting away the clown suits, changing their names back from
Googlesque variations to their original historic nomenclatures, and
otherwise returning more or less to "broadband normal" status for now.

Despite the explosion of creativity unleashed by the application
process, one might suspect that in the final analysis more mundane
logistical issues might tend to steer Google's baseline consideration
of the applicants.

All else being equal, it will be far easier to deal with communities
where aerial cabling can be employed, as opposed to having to dig up
streets and yards for underground installs, attracting the attendant
ire of residents who might be more concerned about their fancy flowers
than fiber feeds (where I live, AT&T had to get an easement order just
to force my neighbors to allow them in to service my phone lines that
terminated in an underground cable on their property!)  Still, Google
will probably want to do some underground installs to get a
representative feel for the issues involved, and where new housing
builds are concerned the cost differential may be minimal.

Even where aerial cable can be employed and local governments are
enthusiastic, rights-of-way may still be an issue, especially when the
pole infrastructure is owned by a dominant ISP who may view Google as
a potential competitor.

Urban and suburban areas will likely have a leg-up over rural areas as
usual, simply because the distances and costs involved per customer
served are so relatively high in rural locales.  Of course, if I were
Google I'd want to do at least some rural deployment even at very high
cost, again to get a good feel for the kinds of outlays and technical
issues entailed.

But in any case, the experiences and information that result from the
Google experiments with ultra high-speed fiber deployments will be
extremely useful for the entire broadband industry and consumers in
general, especially related to cost factors and other logistical
issues.  I look forward with great anticipation to future developments
associated with the project.

 - - -

Early this week I announced the GCTIP Broadband Survey 
( http://bit.ly/dyRszg [Lauren's Blog] ), and a steady clip of survey
forms have been arriving ever since, and are continuing to appear.

While I can't compete with the kind of application numbers Google has
been getting, I currently have over 1200 valid survey submissions from
around the world, with a heavy emphasis on U.S. broadband users.
These are scattered widely across urban, suburban, and rural areas,
and while the large, dominant ISPs appear in the percentages one might
expect, there are also very significant numbers of people subscribing
to small or medium-sized local wired or wireless (WISP) ISPs, some of
which, frankly, I'd never heard of up to now.

I'm not ready to do the hard-core number crunching on the surveys yet
(as I mentioned the survey is still open, and will be for some time),
there are key obvious trends in the submitted surveys that I wanted to
mention now because (to me at least) they're quite fascinating.

On the survey form ( http://bit.ly/cSWI6D [GCTIP] ) I included --
almost as an afterthought -- a "questions and comments" box.  I had
not expected many people to bother using it.

I was wrong.  A startlingly high percentage of persons chose to fill
in comments, sometimes in great length and detail.  Without a doubt
these comments (often but not always in conjunction with other data on
the form) provided the clearest insight into how these persons at
least felt about their broadband service.

Without getting hard numbers for now, here are some of my impression
from manual scanning of the submitted surveys to date:

  - I had expected the survey to mainly be submitted by extremely
    tech-savvy individuals, and while these were certainly represented,
    large number of persons self-identified themselves as "ordinary,"
    non-techie users.

  - While there are certainly some people who really hate their current
    ISPs, the majority of survey submissions tended to rate their current
    ISPs as at least "Adequate" -- even when they've included very
    specific gripes in the comments.  The form defaulted to "Perfect" for
    this category.  Very few "perfect" ratings were received, so people
    were clearly taking the time to make a selection for this

  - The overwhelmingly vast majority of submissions were marked to
    indicate that there is not sufficient local broadband competition in
    the local areas -- even when the submitters had indicated that their
    own current ISP is Adequate or better.  The form defaulted to "Yes"
    (sufficient competition) for this question.

  - While rural users are most likely to be the most upset about a
    lack of broadband choice (sometimes no wired or WISP broadband
    availability at all), there were similar complaints among many
    suburban and even urban residents.  Suburbanites complained that
    ISP builds were not coming to their area even though they were
    deployed nearby.  Apartment dwellers complained that the building
    owners had contracted with a single ISP and would not allow
    competing ISPs access to the building, even when such local
    competition existed.

  - Rather surprisingly, there is no obvious correlation between the
    speed of Internet service (but see below) that a given subscriber
    uses, vs.  their satisfaction or dissatisfaction with their ISP.  To
    be sure, there are many people who want higher speeds, but users of
    relatively low-speed broadband seemed to be as likely as much
    higher-speed broadband users to rate their ISP as Adequate or above.
    True, some users who could only get low speeds wrote nasty comments
    about their ISPs that would peel the paint off the wall, and of course
    there were a number of "We want our Google Fiber!" comments as well.
    Hell, I want it too.

  - Variations and inconsistencies (from day to day and/or from hour
    to hour) in delivered downstream and upstream broadband
    performance appear to be of much greater concern to many users
    than the absolute maximum speeds promoted by their ISPs.  Many
    users stated that they'd be completely happy for their purposes
    with the relatively low speeds that they received, if they could
    at least count on those speeds actually being available
    consistently at any given time.

  - Without a doubt the most common complaint on the surveys, far more
    than comments wanting higher speeds, were concerns about poor ISP
    customer service, both technical and non-technical.  Some
    respondents detailed experiences lasting months or years battling
    their ISPs over technical and/or billing matters, and expressed
    exasperation at not having viable competitive options.  Many of
    the technical matters described could have been easily fixed --
    but stretched out due to incompetent call center handling and lack
    of adequate escalation protocols.  In some cases, "simple" issues
    like inadequate ISP-provided default DNS services unnecessary
    hobbled performance that otherwise might have been fairly robust.
    In other cases (I've dealt with this myself) ISP refusal to
    believe that their equipment was at fault led to weeks or months
    of finger-pointing without problem resolutions.

  - Bundling of services by ISPs drives many subscribers absolutely
    crazy.  Over and over again users commented that they simply
    wanted to pay a fair price for straightforward Internet access
    service, and felt that there were being extorted by ISP pricing
    structures into also buying television and/or phone services that
    they did not want or need.

There's lots more but that gives the flavor for now.  I appreciate all
of the survey responses to date, and welcome additional survey
submissions ( http://bit.ly/cSWI6D [GCTIP] ).

Perhaps a main "take-away" from all this is that all the speed in
the world is unlikely to make for a happy subscriber if they feel that
they're being subjected to poor customer service and/or unfair
pricing.  Reliability and consistency of service may be more important
than absolute speeds per se in many cases, and any given subscriber is
likely to feel pretty good about their ISP if the subscriber feels
that they're getting good value for their money and have sufficient
broadband capability for what they themselves need to accomplish.  And
by contrast, high speeds don't necessarily buy a satisfied subscriber
if the customer service and pricing don't meet customer requirements
and expectations.

Lauren Weinstein
Tel: +1 (818) 225-2800
Co-Founder, PFIR
   - People For Internet Responsibility - http://www.pfir.org
Co-Founder, NNSquad
   - Network Neutrality Squad - http://www.nnsquad.org
Founder, GCTIP - Global Coalition 
   for Transparent Internet Performance - http://www.gctip.org
Founder, PRIVACY Forum - http://www.vortex.com
Member, ACM Committee on Computers and Public Policy
Lauren's Blog: http://lauren.vortex.com
Twitter: https://twitter.com/laurenweinstein