Broadband battle shaping up in Denver
It's not news that Denver has long been considered the center of the cable universe. It's home to a host of MSOs and cable-centric businesses. The industry's most important research and development work is being done at CableLabs, located just west of town. And it won't be too long before ground is broken on the University of Denver campus for the National Cable Center and Museum.
You can now add the former Lowry Air Force Base to that list. The former military base, strategically located between downtown Denver and the city's sprawling Denver International Airport, may soon take on the mantle as the industry's largest open-air laboratory for broadband competition.
In one corner is Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), the incumbent cable provider which already serves 430,000 subscribers in metro Denver. In the other corner is US West Communications, the phone company that's already providing cable TV service in Omaha, Neb. and Scottsdale, Ariz. It's also the company that has just gone on record as saying it will roll out ADSL (asymmetrical digital subscriber line) technology for high-speed data service in 40 communities (including Denver), and VDSL (very high-speed DSL) for digital TV and Internet access service in metro Phoenix, Ariz. by year's end.
What makes this parcel of land so attractive? The 1,866-acre site is being re-developed by an inter-governmental organization, the Lowry Redevelopment Authority (LRA), into a multi-use community. When completed, it will feature well-planned residential (more than 3,200 homes and apartments), educational (a 156-acre Higher Education and Advanced Technology Center), high-tech commercial (a 185-acre Lowry Business Park) and open-space/recreational (800 acres) areas. And what's piqued the interest of the two broadband giants is that rare "greenfield" opportunity where the community's telecommunications infrastructure is being built from the ground up.Eliminating the weak link
To realize this goal, the LRA brought in Broadband Consulting Group Inc. (BCGi) to develop a technology master plan. The company has done similar work in other master-planned communities around the country, including Disney's Celebration City (Orlando, Fla.), Summerlin (Las Vegas, Nev.), Desert Ridge (Phoenix, Ariz.), DC Ranch (Scottsdale, Ariz.) and Mission Viejo/Ladera (Orange County, Calif.).
Tom Reiman, BCGi's founder and president, says the task involves three elements. The first two, drafting the plan itself and encouraging the infrastructure to support it, while vitally important, are really dependent on the third element—home wiring.
"That's a key element," explains Reiman. "As you know, the weakest link in the telecommunications chain is often the drop to the house and the wiring in the home. In fact, we're much more effective in delivering broadband services around the world than we are within the home.
"So, what I drafted and what has been adopted by the LRA is a structured wiring guideline (see page 95). Just like a builder has to adhere to guidelines like minimum setbacks and landscaping front yards, we've now embedded structured wiring obligations. That means every builder provides it. It's no longer an option."
Reiman's guidelines are not vendor specific. He has looked to some of the home automation standards like CEBus, and work coming out of Bell Labs and Microsoft to create a market for structured wiring that supports all services.
Reiman notes that as demand for his company's services has increased, so has the acceptance of his guidelines. "Three years ago, when I started doing really aggressive pre-wiring," says Reiman, "builders would look at me and say, 'Only engineers care about this.' Today, they're saying, 'How quickly can I install this?' You know, wiring systems haven't changed in 50 years. Now, they're changing."
The wiring guidelines being enforced in Lowry, says Reiman, are being implemented "in about 200,000 homes under plan" around the country. "We try to accommodate a lot of different delivery architectures," says Reiman. "But in the home, everything is home runned. Everything is category 5 (cable) for voice and data, and we have dual runs of RG-6 for two-way video.
"We put a conduit to the water meter and the electric meter, because we know AMR (automatic meter reading) is not the whole answer, but utilizing utility-generated data for true home automation is the real stuff. That could involve real time-of-use pricing and taking advantage of pricing signals. We want to make sure our homes are ready for that when the economics are available.
"We have to make sure that even though we may be at the forefront of technology today, we know that's pretty darn elusive. So, we're doing extra conduit from the property line. We're doing a number of things that we hope will assist in future-proofing these homes."The looming battle
The fact that all Lowry homes, businesses, schools and colleges will eventually have the capability to plug into a true high-speed telecommunications network has not been lost on either TCI or US West.
As the current franchised cable provider in Denver, in which 88 percent of the Lowry development lies, TCI is firmly entrenched—and intends to be the video provider of choice at Lowry, too. As the incumbent telephone provider, US West is locked in place and also intends to be the telephony provider of choice. But, when it comes to other services, that's when things get interesting.
In early April, US West sent a letter to the LRA requesting a video franchise. The LRA promptly deflected the request, deferring the decision to Denver franchise authorities. Such franchises must be approved by voters, and to top it off, TCI's franchise is up for renewal next year. At press time, a US West spokesman said the company was still very interested in being a video provider at Lowry, but was currently "examining its options."
If TCI were to offer telephony services, it would first have to settle not only on a strategy, but a technology as well. It's currently providing HFC telephony in Hartford, Conn. and reportedly keeping a close eye on IP telephony developments. For now, TCI is mum on the subject.
The LRA, says its Executive Director Thomas Markham, is not out to choose sides, but to get the best deal for its residents. "Our desire is not to pick companies," says Markham. "We're not trying to pick friends. We're not trying to pick enemies. But, we're very focused. We want to offer a full array of services to meet our technology master plan. We want the best deal for us. And we want the best deal for our constituents."
"So, LRA officials are working with both TCI and US West. The goal is to develop and offer the best basic telecommunications service—video, voice and data—available. And we're going to do it. We'll have one or both of them working with us."
BCGi's Reiman believes the Lowry development provides both opportunity and a measure of concern to any telecommunications service provider. "I think people have begun to realize that the technology is a cornerstone of the community," says Reiman. "I think we have really defined our goals and objectives very clearly. And we have two very aggressive companies, who both happen to be on their home turf.
"And as far as the concern goes, we've been really clear. If you can't meet our objectives, we're going to work with someone else. We're not going to disenfranchise anybody's rights. Whatever service a company is franchised to offer, they're obviously able to offer it.
"What we're going to do is bundle and package certain services to encourage what we think is a greater adoption of services from our 'preferred provider.' When people go through the buying experience at Lowry, they're going to recognize that working with us as they pick a bundled package of services is more appropriate and convenient than just waiting for someone to call them and offer them some sort of a disassembled service selection."
Sounds like a perfect case study. Stay tuned for further developments.