April 15, 1999

Be our guest: Town must choose best communications infrastructure

We need as a town to thank the Concord Communications Infrastructure Committee for tackling its large task, and particularly for presenting this complex subject to the town in an understandable way. I am gratified to see the Infrastructure Committee conclude what the Cable TV Committee targeted tentatively, well over two years ago -- the importance of residential fiber, possibly delivered by the town's Light Plant, with access for multiple suppliers of services.

But the town's decision process has to finish by this summer, before the November date currently in the charge to the Infrastructure Committee; and the history that led to a too-tight schedule suggests the most important lesson, about leadership. The selectmen need to engage the process as a group and with significantly greater grasp of vital pieces. Also, several of the Infrastructure Committee's conclusions should disclose more detail.

We need to finish the overall decision process by the time we pick a position for negotiating with Cablevision about re-licensing. If the town decides to build its own residential fiber network, that could reverse some of the negotiating positions we take for re-licensing -- video for the schools and the length of a new license are examples of two pertinent re-licensing issues. There is general agreement that the negotiating position must be settled by this summer if we are to re-license by September 2000, so the decision on a new infrastructure also needs to be settled by the summer.

In fact, meeting this deadline and coordinating with re-licensing could affect whether a Concord investment in a new fiber system fails or not. Though the Infrastructure Committee questioned whether Cablevision will rebuild the Concord system, there is repeated, recent evidence that Cablevision will rebuild the old Concord system, to cable modem quality, in about two years. With a rebuilt system Cablevision can and -- its history makes clear -- will fight any fiber investment by Concord. Each time Cablevision has faced attempts by its municipal franchiser to "self-supply," the company has vigorously defended its lucrative franchise. Since typically only one system or the other survives, in the history of wire- (in this case, fiber-) based local networks, Cablevision's whole investment is at stake and so is Concord's.

Some of the re-licensing covenants we negotiate directly affect our own ability to prosecute a hotly contested marketplace, if we build residential fiber (but the covenants should go the opposite way, if we do not self-supply) -- to make our summer deadline makes an enormous difference, bottom line.

How did we wind up with too tight a schedule? We needed two years, which finish by this summer -- a year for an expert group and a second year for consensus to build across town. The consensus is especially important since the funds required are at the same order as the amounts being discussed for school renovations. The selectmen were unable to act on a proposal to start the process in a timely way, proffered jointly by the Cable TV Committee and the Light Plant Board (an electronic copy, dated September 17, 1997, is at http://www.davidallen.org). After the Cable TV Committee worked another year, to produce another proposal, the whole schedule had less than a year, not two.

My experience with this schedule points to perhaps the most important lesson. Some town leadership reversed position abruptly, without consultation, and precipitated the loss of the needed year. (When the pattern of reversal was repeated twice over, I most reluctantly chose to step away from the process so that I could speak plainly, without my motives being impugned.) The lesson seems clear -- our choice of town leadership profoundly affects outcomes.

With the badly foreshortened schedule, we need the selectmen as surrogate for what should otherwise be a longer political process to reach some consensus. Unlike usual practice where one selectman shoulders the burden of detail on a given issue, the short time frame and the magnitude of the decision mean we need the differing viewpoints that each selectman brings.

From their response to the Infrastructure Committee presentation on March 29, the familiarization has yet to begin in earnest. Their query about starting with business customers (when the presentation targeted residential) or about subsidies (which at this stage are not relevant) or the query asking for description of a basic technology, signal that the selectmen need to commit to becoming familiar in-depth with the necessary vital pieces.

On the other side, the selectmen's emphasis on squaring with the Cablevision re-license by summer, and the query about whether a town survey will likely be an efficacious use of scarce time, were both encouraging signs.

The presentation to the Board of Selectmen March 29 was remarkable for the transparency which the committee brought to a quite complicated situation. Some of the nuance that was omitted will nevertheless also prove fateful for the effort.

A key query from the selectmen asked about the dangers of obsolescence. Though the committee reply reassured that fiber installed today would be right for at least a generation, Nortel I believe has recently announced a new kind of fiber, illustrating that obsolescence is indeed a serious issue. Since the fundamental conceptual challenge is to make investment choices "while swimming in a flowing [technological and social] stream," the selectmen need positive support and encouragement from the committee to adopt such a new mindset, rather than unfounded reassurance to stay with the old.

By the Infrastructure Committee's report, it had invested its research on parallel activity in other communities. Though Shrewsbury was mentioned, we did not hear why its residential fiber trial -- Shrewsbury has already tested that which Concord might build -- was disappointing. We need to know data that directly impinge, unvarnished.

Any physical upgrade for Concord is at least years away. But the demand for higher bandwidth access is acute in the present. The Infrastructure Committee needs to report that about half of Concord does today have a specific broader access option, DSL -- not incorrectly suggest that Concord homes offer no such capability. The committee Web site offers one discouraging reference to DSL; an offer of a counter-balancing reference has yet to be accepted. (Digital Subscriber Line uses existing telephone copper wire to provide Internet access that is up to 15 times faster than by a dial-up modem, but it is limited to a little over three miles as the copper runs, from the DSL provider's station on Monument Street.)

Though services might be competitively supplied in a new regime, the fiber transport will likely be monopoly. A town decision needs to understand that sober reality.

For the Infrastructure Committee's recommendations, their clear view of this complex situation is vital -- so also is an accurate view. Even more important is a Board of Selectmen working closely in tandem with an already hard-working committee, to make a too-tight summer schedule. Finally, in 2000 the town will choose two new selectmen. Not just by our vote, but especially by whom we recruit to that election, we determine whether we will enjoy both new leadership and integrity for the town.

David Allen was instrumental in forming the Infrastructure Committee over the last several years, as the then-chair of the Cable TV Committee.

This column is copyright, Community Newspaper Company, 1999.

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