What is an Open Access Network?

  • 2
  • February 13, 2017

Published on January 31, 2017
Ben Lewis-Ramirez
Business Development Project Manager at Foresite Group

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 here at Foresite Group, we predict that it will be of ever 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 builds a lit network (can be either a PON or Active Ethernet), and any number of ISPs can provide service to customers across that network through a Software Defined Network (SDN) gateway.

Sounds boring and technical Ben, what’s disruptive about that?

Glad you asked!

It represents a rare triple win wherein all parties concerned stand to benefit: The network owner, usually, but not necessarily a public entity such as a municipality or PPP, gains a sustainable new source of revenue. The ILEC and CLEC ISPs get much deeper market penetration with little to no investment in capex. 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.

Sounds too good to be true, 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. 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.

So it’s a proven model in low density rural settings, are these networks hard to operate?

One reason cited for reluctance to embrace the OAN model in this country is that there are additional complexities involved in managing an OAN vs 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.

Ok, so that’s covered, any other barriers?

Perhaps the biggest roadblock is regulatory in nature. Much of the country has laws on the books preventing communities from taking it upon themselves to build their own broadband infrastructure. Four states have laws on the books 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.