Building the new railroad

Roseville, Calif. may be the first railroad town of the broadband era.

Roseville, Calif. is an unlikely place to view the merits of fiber-to-the-home deployment. My brief visit there showed a region marked with its former glory as a turn-of-the-century railroad town. Maybe the city's history represents a metaphor for the transformation of its long-staid Roseville Telephone Company, renamed SureWest Communications in 2001, into the builders of the modern railroad.

Who knows if SureWest's fiber gambit will pay off. At a price of $12 million, the investment was a steal. And just like what Baby Bell Verizon believes will become the leading edge of communications infrastructure, the slow roll-out of fiber means greater risk for an unexpected technology to render it obsolete.

Just look at what happened in France. Geoff Ralson, Yahoo's chief product officer and the big-picture thinker of the company's executive team, brought up France's Minitel as an salient example about the dangers of investing too heavily on an unproven technology.

In the 1980's Francois Mitterand pushed for a national deployment of the Minitel, a precursor to the Web that linked information and transactions on a national network. The project fared well in its early years and amassed up to 6 million terminals. But the rise of the Web and the plummeting cost of PCs has forced Minitel, controlled by France Telecom, to shift gears and address the Internet age. Now these Minitel terminals seem like artifacts of the Commodore 64 days.

Look at the floundering of push technology as another example.

I don't think fiber will go the way of the Minitel simply because it's an infrastructure that can handle proven technologies and consumer appetites, such as video programming and phone service, alongside a much faster Internet. Maybe this investment will help SureWest rekindle Roseville's former glory.

 

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