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February 14, 2010

Google's $1b Gigabit Fiber to the Home Moon Shot

When President John F. Kennedy delivered his famous "We Choose to Go to the Moon"speech at Rice University on September 12,1962 he made it clear that the goal was to inspire innovation, ignite science as America's platform for progress, and mobilize a nation distracted by a whole host of domestic and foreign conflicts to come together and to assert common purpose. "We choose...to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win."

While it would have been even more dramatic had the announcement come from President Barak Obama, last week's Google blog launching the nation's first gigabit fiber to the home broadband roll out was as bold as it was audacious. Set aside the tired and predictable cynics, industry apologists, and inside beltway naysayers. The move was a stroke of genius. In one blog posting Google has provided framers of the so-called National Broadband Plan with our generation's moon-shot aspirational policy goal. The Google Gigabit Fiber to the Home broadband research project serves to re-frame and provide the most compelling platform yet for 21st century science, technology, and innovation. The posting encapsulates one of the country's most unique historic qualities, to frame 'the moon shot'. While Washington itself is paralyzed with snow and partisan gridlock, from the left coast comes a vision of a new era of innovation and a platform for leveraging advanced 21st century technologies to attend to the most pressing challenges facing America, including neighborhood safety, health and wellness, energy sustainability, and relevant education to prepare a 21st century workforce.

There have been thousands of articles published and blogs posted about the Google Fiber to the Home announcement in the past week (check out the growing list of links from the original posting). Over the next couple of weeks as City Halls across the land line up to submit proposals to Google (the deadline is March 26, 2010), it is time to provide some insights on how such a pilot could be architected and made into a sustainable program. Three and half years ago, in the middle of all the hype about muni wi-fi, Google entered the fray with a well publicized effort to light up its home town of Mountain View. By September 2007, along with others, I was prepared to announce the well deserved death of the first wave of muni-wireless. There was then, as there is now, the need to carefully architect a technical framework for end-to-end services that has a viable business logic for operating and maintaining the infrastructure beyond its first lighting.

There may well be multiple paths to such an undertaking. For the past five years other cities, states, and national governments around the world have been working on the challenge. The international gold standard for broadband is 1000 mb/s (1 Gig) for 21st century netizenship. Here are five lessons that I think would stand the test of more academic rigor and analysis.

(1) This is a design project that needs to be framed as our 30 year infrastructure plan for the future. Incremental design and incremental resource investments will be the death of the "think big" approach. Imagine if we had planned for a refilling stop on the way to the moon.

(2) Technical standards exist for making 1 gigabit (indeed, 10 and 40 gigabit/sec) networking work today. Think about the build-out of the national network of railways. With a commitment to a common rail gauge in the nineteenth century, it was possible to build out a series of regional networks that were tied together by a relatively modest investment in a national railway 'backbone' (as compared to trying to design, build, and operate from a clean sheet of paper). The lesson for today is that we need to agree on the common gauge, not the way to build it out. The national policy should be enable national backbones that allow neighborhood, local, regional, and mega regional optical networks to connect to one another and to end points across the Internet. Leverage common standards, keep the barriers to use and adoption as low as possible, maintain a commitment to openness and keep governance as light weight as possible. These principles should help this moon shot be launched.

(3) Don't leave the work to inter-state highway builders. Over the past 25 years, those building amazing network infrastructure have toiled at the 'core' of the network, connecting huge rings of connectivity to each other. There is an insatiable capacity of those building the inter-state backbones/highways to consume over 100% of all the available resources, whatever they are. The design constraint needs to framed 180 degrees the other way. Exactly the way Google imagines, start with the end of the network, hundreds, if not thousands, of communities connecting each residence at 1000 mb/sec. Each dwelling should have two fiber pairs that terminate at a panel joining power and other utilities entering the premise. The technical specifications need to be built on top of the requirements of the edge of the network. The very edge of the network is the single unit in a public housing unit in the inner city or a barn in the rural countryside. To be sure, building inter-state highways looks easy compared to the challenge ahead. The Apollo 11 moon landing in July 1969 was an order of magnitude more complex, yet leveraged, John Glenn's first orbit of earth in Friendship 7 in 1962.

(4) As tempting as it might be to imagine connecting a really creative, imaginative, desirable district, or an at-risk, needy, impoverished neighborhood at gigabit speeds, there are important technical considerations to layering connectivity. The challenge for wireless services or fiber to the home is the 'end to end' analysis of how the pieces of the network are built and connect to one another. There is rarely an economically viable long term plan that emerges from short cutting the end to end analysis. Communities that have large amounts of so-called middle mile capacity present the most cost efficient and technically viable approach to delivering fiber to the home. Think about this as a hub and spoke system like the airline industry is supposed to operate. The spokes are the the connectivity that carries the gigabit network to the very edge of the network (the last house on the last block or the furthest farm house). To efficiently build out this kind of next generation network, the challenge is to build hubs (let's call them middle mile hubs) that serve to aggregate all the activity on the spokes. In addition, the middle mile hubs connect to one another in what might be called an aggregation strategy. All that traffic needs to ultimately drain into very very big pipes to the Internet. The technical answer to pulling off this fantastic engineering challenge is a lot of fiber and leveraging next generation lighting technology that takes a single piece of glass (fiber optic) and shoots separate color light through the glass creating 32 or even 64 separate networks on a single piece of fiber capable of carrying 10-40 Gigs of network traffic.

(5) Building a neighborhood gigabit fiber to the home project needs to be "mayor proof". We need our elected officials to embrace the vision of 21st century infrastructure that enables desirable jobs, education, health, and innovation. The challenge is so big, so important, so challenging that we can't leave it to our politicians alone to conceive, legislate, and implement this type of project. Think about this as creating a port authority for 21st century transportation in each cluster of communities across the country. The other reason that a community gigabit fiber optical network needs to be 'mayor proof' is that building out the network enables a fundamentally different infrastructure for decision making, community organizing, democratic and civic work. Many traditional centers of power, like some city halls (legislatures, regional commissioners), are poorly positioned to surrender their traditional forms of hierarchical power to unleash the real power of netizenship.

Back in November 2009, Case Western Reserve University announced a 104 household gigabit network research program led by a partnership of more than 40 community partners and a dozen leading technology vendors. A proto-type of a 21st century integrated public services platform, our 'beta block' project seeks to deliver (on an opt-in basis) neighborhood safety, health and wellness, science education, and energy sustainability to the 250 residents in Cleveland's historic Hessler Street. Connecting the 104 residences to a community anchor middle mile organizations (in this case Case Western Reserve University) serves as an archetypal and use case for four additional neighborhood gigabit fiber project being planned for distinct neighborhoods around our University Circle (see this short YouTube clip to learn a bit more about the current challenges and opportunities ahead in an inner city, urban context). Each of the proposed beta blocks will be wired back to a middle mile anchor institution. Perhaps unique, in Northeast Ohio some 1800 public sector institutions like K-12 schools, universities, health care providers, governments, museums and libraries leverage an award winning, 22 county, community non-profit Internet Service Provider built on gigabit fiber optics, called OneCommunity. The product of six years of collaboration and inspired technical leadership, OneCommunity is a model for building a regional community network as a 21st century community asset.

An architected smart home grid, these beta block projects will help undergird a 21st century sense of place and neighborhood as services are developed to attend to hyper local priorities. An "alpha house" is already up and online. Perhaps America's first inner city gigabit fiber optically connected home at 11300 Juniper Rd is now online. The upstairs of this University Circle coffee shop and meeting place is being retrofitted as a community visitor's center and technology demonstration facility. More than a dozen interactive HD video conferences can been conducted with health care professionals, peers or science mentors from NASA, the Great Lakes Science Center, or Case Western Reserve University, and public safety officers. Wireless enabled sensors send real-time data to health care professionals and will soon be mapped to electronic medical records. Wireless integrated medical cuffs and other devices enable real-time monitoring of key vitals associated with chronic health challenges in the inner city. Environmental health projects have been proposed to monitor air quality related to house-bound seniors. Those same seniors will be able to take weekly Tai-Chi classes from the comfort of their apartments with instructors from Case Western Reserve's 1:1 fitness without having to navigate a cold Cleveland winter. To be sure, the portfolio of applications that will ultimately evolve from our effort to design an integrated public services platform is likely to be much different from our first set of ideas currently being designed and to be reviewed by our IRB (institutional research board).

As the communities around University Circle in Cleveland think about how to respond to the Google moon shot challenge, think about building on our strengths. Cleveland is a mosaic of distinct neighborhoods and cultural communities. Let's design our future by embracing common technical standards, leverage our local middle mile assets, and challenging our technology leaders to join our civic, philanthropic, and other community leaders to help re-imagine, re-invent, and re-invigorate our region. Google's challenge is a clarion call to resist the temptation to design a 25 year graceful decline as the 'best we can hope for.'

Back in 1962, President Kennedy reminded his audience of how breathtaking the pace of change had been. The road ahead will be full of naysayers and predictable vested interests with tired cliches about what will we do with all that bandwidth and about how this is America and we believe in the exclusive ability of the marketplace as the provider of bandwidth. A slightly abridged extended quote from President Kennedy seems like an appropriate way to conclude this (very long) blog entry.

No [one] can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of [human] recorded history in a time span of but a half-century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power. Newton explored the meaning of gravity. Last month electric lights and telephones and automobiles and airplanes became available. Only last week did we develop penicillin and television and nuclear power. [We reached the moon at five minutes to midnight tonight. If we build out an internationally competitive Gigabit Fiber Optic network to address the most pressing needs of Americans and enable and unlock the potential for new inventiveness and discovery, we will have literally lit that fiber at a fraction of a second before midnight tonight]. This is a breathtaking pace, and such a pace cannot help but create new ills as it dispels old, new ignorance, new problems, new dangers. Surely [a new economy based on gigabit network services, including health and wellness, education, safety, and energy sustainability] promise high costs and hardships, as well as high reward.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
February 14, 2010

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