MUSH networks: what are they and why are they so important?

Canadian director says Government's Digital Strategy is a step in the right direction

The man who introduced the Government to the idea of MUSH networks says the Digital Strategy is an "important first step".

Bill St Arnaud, senior director of Canada's advanced network project, Canarie, says he's seen the Digital Strategy and is impressed with its contents, although "none of these initiatives are perfect".

Last week the Government announced it will spend tens of millions of dollars building 15 MUSH networks in cities and towns throughout New Zealand as part of its Digital Strategy.

MUSH (municipal, university, school, hospital) networks are also called "condominium fibre", in part because the companies that build them are typically providers of utilities to the building market, according to St Arnaud.

"They're water companies, sewer companies, electricity companies. They're not interested in running a telco, they're interested in digging trenches."

The basis for a MUSH network in Canada is simple: find an anchor tenant, such as a school, university or hospital, and offer to build a fibre optic network centred on their campus. Once they've signed up the MUSH network is built connecting to local peering exchanges, if they exist, or to the incumbent telco's network at an exchange. The school is typically given two or three strands of fibre in the pipe and the rest, six or seven or more depending on how many are laid in the first place, are sold to commercial users. Once the company has reached a pre-determined income level, the school will typically receive a rebate on their network costs.

"That's the most difficult part for schools to understand. They're getting broadband access at rates much faster than they've ever been offered by an incumbent and then they're offered money on top of that. Nobody offers schools money — they just don't understand it."

St Arnaud says schools soon get used to the cash coming in, however.

St Arnaud told the Telecommunications Users Association (TUANZ) conference on broadband, held in Napier last year, that MUSH networks helped deliver far more than Project Probe's 512kbit/s network speeds.

"One school district expected to spend C$1.44 million [NZ$1.6 million) on DSL services. To lay dark fibre connecting 100 schools cost C$1.35 million and the initial pay-back period was 16 months. After that the schools had unlimited bandwidth on their own network with relatively low maintenance costs".

The Minister of Communications and IT, David Cunliffe, attended the conference and has included MUSH networks in his Digital Strategy. The government will help build 15 "open access fibre networks" in partnership with local and regional councils by 2009. This year's budget will see $24 million allocated to the project.

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