Need the Statehouse Internet-Ready? Consider Your Electric Company

For most communities the information superhighway lies in the future a reality only in government white papers and marketing promises from telephone and cable TV companies

In today's brave new world of telecommunications, universal service means different things to different people. In a typical corporate office or university, it means an Ethernet wall plug sharing a faceplate with the telephone jack - around-the-clock Internet service fast enough to support video.

The cost? Around $25 per month. However, obtaining equivalent service for a home or small office would cost more than $1,000 a month. But that has not been the case in Glasgow. Rising wholesale electric prices provided the initial motivation for the project, which stimulated an interest in time-of-day load management.

Starting with a study in late 1986, the EPB completed a 120-mile broadband network in June 1990. The network is used to monitor and control electric transmission and distribution facilities, control outdoor lighting and read electric meters. As a direct result, the EPB estimates operational savings of $175,000 a year over the past five years. But from the beginning, the EPB staff realized that its network could do far more than manage electric facilities; it also could serve as a broadband information superhighway for the community.

Today, the network not only supports electric operations but also delivers cable TV to 2,500 subscribers, links 750 PCs and synchronizes Glasgow's traffic lights.The EPB began to offer telephone service as well, reaching a peak of 120 telephones. However, the few broadband telephone products available off-the-shelf ultimately proved to be neither affordable nor reliable. Now the EPB continues to support 80 telephones, primarily used within EPB facilities and Glasgow schools. The EPB has also brought true competition to Glasgow's cable TV market - making it one of the few communities with two cable operators.

The EPB has gained 50 percent of the market with a full range of offerings, including all of the standard cable stations, premium channels, pay-per-view, a digital music service and an extensive range of locally originated programming (including government hearings, Little League games and programs produced by students at the local high school).

But the most striking benefit is the availability of affordable, high-speed data networking. The system offers 4 megabit/sec metropolitan-area data service throughout Glasgow, including connectivity to the Internet. The cost is $24.95 per month - with 48 channels of basic cable TV service thrown in for good measure. Subscribers need an Ethernet card for their PC and a cable modem (available for purchase at $450 or for lease at $9.95 per month).

Currently, the network links 750 PCs in homes, businesses, classrooms and government offices. In addition, the network supports a multidepartment Geographic Information System and the local realtors' multiple-listing system.Off-the-Shelf Tech In Glasgow, advanced universal telecommunications service - at affordable prices - is a reality, not a dream or a marketing vision of an uncertain future.

Glasgow's system uses technology that has been around for 20 years - the network is similar to the broadband data/video/voice networks popular on college campuses in the late 1970s. The products used to build the network are available off the shelf. Glasgow's 120 miles of copper cable is similar to a typical cable TV system, with two notable exceptions. First, it is a midsplit system, compared with the subsplit systems favored by most cable operators.

Midsplit and subsplit indicate different ways of allocating cable frequencies to upstream and downstream traffic. A midsplit system allocates more channel capacity to upstream traffic. Kyle Jones, the EPB's telecommunications services manager, notes that the midsplit design is critical to making the system work with off-the-shelf cable modems.

Second, the system is bidirectional throughout. While most cable systems are capable of two-way transmission, many have not installed the plug-in amplifiers needed for upstream traffic. The EPB's cable-head end is identical to what one would find in any cable TV facility throughout the world.The data network consists of pairs of video channels dedicated for data traffic. One channel is used to send data upstream to the head end, where data is rebroadcast onto the downstream channel. At the head end, a Cisco router connects the network to the Internet via MCI's backbone network.

At a user's site, a Zenith Data Systems cable modem converts cable signals into an Ethernet interface, which can be connected to any standard PC Ethernet card. Similar cable modems are used to link traffic lights, via the network, to a central control station. Glasgow's network cost $2.8 million ($1.5 million for the broadband network and $1.3 million for cable-TV facilities). The system has provided operational savings for the electric utility almost from the beginning and is nearing profitability for its cable and data services.

And Glasgow does it all with a staff of 35 (electric operations included). If your city or town has a municipal electric company, you can do what Glasgow did (and one in seven electric customers are served by a public power company). Like Glasgow, you almost certainly will build a data network to support electric operations.

And like Glasgow's, your network will be able to serve a far broader range of needs than just internal ones. With an organization already in place for billing and customer service and prepared for around-the-clock maintenance and repair, the telecommunications business is a natural one for a public power company to enter.Glasgow was a pioneer, facing legal and anticompetitive challenges from the incumbent cable operator.

Today, Glasgow serves as a blueprint for other municipalities. Perhaps the real question is not, "can we do it?" but "should we do it?" Here, the answer is much like the reason for operating a public power company in the first place - in all but the largest markets, affordable, universal service will not happen without a public or cooperative utility.

Miles Fidelman is president of the nonprofit Center for Civic Networking, which is dedicated to applying information infrastructure to the broad public good. Readers are encouraged to submit topics or questions by e-mail to mfidelman@civicnet.org or by phone to (617) 241-9205.

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