The telecommunications engineering industry is rife with acronyms and jargon, and it can be hard to sort out the truly important terms from those which are merely the trend du jour. Well folks, I have an important one for you to add to your vocabulary, and we at Foresite Group predict that it will be of increasing prominence in the years to come: Open Access Networks (OAN).
Before I explain exactly what that means, I’d like you to pair it in your mind with another dare-I-say overused term that has invaded our collective consciousness lately: disruption. The OAN model is relatively simple in concept: a network owner (usually, but not necessarily a public entity such as a municipality or Public Private Partnership) builds a lit network (either a Passive Optical Network or Active Ethernet), and any number of Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can provide service to customers across that network through a Software Defined Network gateway.
Sounds boring and technical Ben, what’s disruptive about that? Glad you asked! OANs stand the traditional model on its head. Until now, ISPs have had to pay for the construction of their own networks. If they want to enter a market, they have to expend large amounts of capital to plan, engineer, and construct a network in that market. Since the OAN model allows IPSs to use another owner’s existing network, it represents a rare triple win in which all parties concerned stand to benefit. The network owner gains a sustainable new source of revenue. The incumbent local exchange carrier (ILEC) and competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC) ISPs get much deeper market penetration with little to no investment in capital expenditure. But most importantly, the end users, consumers and businesses, get unparalleled customer service, speed, and affordability because the Open Access model creates a more robust marketplace that fosters greater competition than our current "free" market approach ever could.
OAN in the United States
You’re probably thinking that the OAN model sounds great, so what’s the catch? While tried and true in Europe for over a decade, with Sweden as the best known example, OANs remain an unfamiliar approach in the United States. Thanks to the competitive market that OANs create, Sweden has some of the highest internet speeds in the world, with 70% of the population having access to at least 100 Mbps, and 99.98% having access to at least 10 Mbps. While Scandinavia has a reputation for being an expensive place to live, the Swedes have very affordable rates for their internet access, even by US standards, and this in a place with one of the lowest population densities of any country in the world.
One reason cited for reluctance to embrace the OAN model in this country is that there are additional complexities involved in managing an OAN versus a traditional network, which at first glance can seem overly intimidating to potential network operators. The good news is that since this is a proven approach elsewhere, there are highly effective solutions with many years of success beneath their belts. For example, the rather elegant suite of solutions known as the COS Business Engine from our Swedish strategic partners at COS Systems, whose software is behind the success of OANs in Sweden. This key tool ensures database integrity over time as customers move from one residential address point to another, switch service providers, etc. In addition, it also accurately and seamlessly ensures proper billing from customer, to ISP, to network owner, and provides the groundwork for automated switch configuration and service provisioning through their open API.
Perhaps the biggest roadblock is regulatory in nature. Much of the country has laws preventing communities from taking it upon themselves to build their own broadband infrastructure. Four states have laws that prevent public ownership of broadband networks: Arkansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and Texas. Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Virginia have de facto bans, and 11 others have varying levels of restrictions. These laws exist to protect the vested interests of the incumbent carriers, essentially giving them control of markets all across the country, and preventing cities and towns everywhere from being able to bridge the digital divide and provide truly world class internet speeds to their citizens.
Because a gradual transition to OANs will be of great benefit to not only consumers, but to all the ISPs as well, we believe a sea change is coming in how we think about what it means to be connected in today’s world and how that informs the networks we build. At Foresite Group, we consider OANs to be a more progressive and sustainable model than the traditional one, wherein the ISPs are responsible for building and maintaining their own infrastructure or dark fiber leases.
So there you have it. What is Open Access? The silver bullet that will enable this country to bridge the digital divide and bring us quite literally up to speed with the rest of the developed world. So the next time you hear somebody say, “What’s an open access network?” you’ll know that the answer is a brighter, more connected future.
About Ben Lewis-Ramirez
Ben Lewis-Ramirez is a Project Manager for the Network Design Business Development team at Foresite Group in Austin, Texas. He has over 7 years of management experience in the engineering, construction, and arboricultural industries, and has worked in many facets of the OSP engineering industry from field engineering to network design engineering and project management. Ben has a passion for bridging the digital divide to bring broadband to under-served communities throughout the U.S.