The Dalles Pays off Its Network Debt Ahead of Schedule

Of the more than 400 communities around the country that have built and benefitted from community networks, the town of The Dalles in Oregon may have a case for the title of “most bang for the buck.” Their commitment of $10,000 12 years ago to leverage a $1.8 million “QLife” fiber optic network has lead to a massive, $1.2 billion dollar investment from Google in the form of a huge data center, employing nearly 200 people and generating millions in tax revenues for the local community. And at the end of September, the QLife board of directors announced that they had paid off the loans used for network construction more than three years ahead of schedule. 

We covered part of The Dalles’ network story two years ago: a small city of just 13,000 was told by Sprint in 2000 that it would have to wait 5 to 10 years for broadband Internet access. Meanwhile, local manufacturing was declining and employers were overlooking the town due to its outdated infrastructure. Before building the QLife network, The Dalles had no access to the major long haul fiber pathway that happened to run right through town. As city manager Nolan Young told Andrew Blum in an interview for his book “Tubes,” it was like “being a town that sits next to a freeway but has no on ramp.” 

The city decided enough was enough, and partnered with the county and the local public utility district on a plan for a $1.8 million, 17 mile fiber optic loop through the community that would connect anchor institutions and offer middle mile access to private providers. 

The nascent network faced opposition from a local telecom in the form of a lawsuit, which scared the public utility district away from the partnership. It had another setback when a private partner declared bankruptcy, saddling the public agency with an $800,000 loan. The city and Wasco County pressed forward with their partnership, however, and secured half of the needed $1.8 million in state and federal grants while covering the rest with loans. The city made a one-time contribution of $10,000. QLife pursued a cautious strategy, building in successive phases only after enough subscriber revenue commitments were in place to cover the requisite loan payments.  

The city’s small investment has paid off many, many times over. Major network construction was completed in 2003, and in 2005 Google announced they would locate a major new data center in the town, bringing 150 jobs and a $600 million investment. Pleased with their easy access to major fiber optic infrastructure and seeing massive growth in the demand for cloud-based applications, Google announced last year that they would double down on The Dalles, investing another $600 million and creating dozens more jobs to grow their already huge facility. 

The benefits of the network aren’t limited to a single major employer. Schools, a community college, a hospital, and a network of medical offices all use QLife’s fiber directly for fast, reliable, and secure data services. Seven different telecom and internet providers also lease fiber from QLife, increasing the competition and service quality available in the area.

Even Sprint, the incumbent who told the city to wait a decade for broadband, started upgrading their own network six months after QLife construction began. QLife and Google have even partnered to provide free WiFi throughout downtown and many of the surrounding areas. Now, with their debt retired ahead of schedule, the network is running an operating surplus in the hundreds of thousands that could be put to any number of good uses. 

Of course, not every town that builds a fiber optic network will immediately get a $1.2 billion data center. The Dalles had several factors working in their favor when wooing Google, including cheap hydroelectric power from Bonneville Power Administration dams along the Columbia River and long haul fiber optic lines running right past their doorstep. However, City leaders were smart enough to see the opportunities in front of them and determined enough to persevere in the face of opposition. Their bet has paid off immensely.

Verizon CEO: LTE Cannot Replace Fiber

Verizon Wireless CEO Dan Mead is not doing any favors for Comcast as it pursues approval to acquire Time Warner Cable. In August, he came out and publicly stated that no, LTE is not equal to fiber. The Verge quoted Mead, who was refreshingly honest about technical limitations and Comcast's motivations for making such outrageous claims:

"They're trying to get deals approved, right, and I understand that... their focus is different than my focus right now, because I don't have any deals pending," Mead said, a reference to the fact that Comcast is looking for ways to justify the TWC buy. "LTE certainly can compete with broadband, but if you look at the physics and the engineering of it, we don't see LTE being as efficient as fiber coming into the home."

A number of other organizations also try to educate the general public about the fact that mobile Internet access is not on par with wireline service. For example, Public Knowledge has long argued that "4G + Data Caps = Magic Beans." 

Our Wireless Internet Access Fact Sheet dispels common misconceptions, shares info about data caps, and provides comparative performance data between wireless and wired connections. While mobile Internet access is certainly practical, valuable, and a convenient complement to wired connections, it is no replacement. Wireless limitations, coupled with providers' expensive data caps enforced with overage charges, can never replace a home wired connection. Doing homework, applying for a job, or paying bills online quickly drives families over the typical 250 GB limit.

Speaking from experience, my own family of three routinely surpasses 250 GB per month and we are not bandwidth hogs compared to many other families in our social circle. Fortunately for us, the "enforcement of the 250GB data consumption threshold is currently suspended," as I am reminded every billing cycle.

Considering Mead's experience in both wired and wireless, how could any of us question his perspective:

Before moving to Verizon's wireless unit, Mead held executive roles in the company's landline business, responsible for traditional telephone service and high-speed internet to the home. "We know both sides of that pretty well," he continued. "So that may be a little bit of a stretch, and the economics are much different."

State of Minnesota's Border to Border Broadband Fund - Community Broadband Bits Episode 119

Earlier, this year, the Minnesota Legislature established a "Border to Border" Broadband fund to expand Internet access to the least connected in the state. Senator Matt Schmit and Representative Erik Simonson led the effort to establish the fund that is now administered by Danna Mackenzie. All three of them join us this week to discuss the program.

We discuss the state of Internet access in Greater Minnesota and why these elected officials fought to create a fund to improve the situation. Then we move on to discuss the details of the fund with the Executive Director of the Minnesota Broadband Office, along with some lessons for other states that may be considering taking action.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Christopher Libertelli From Netflix Joins CLIC Board

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has announced that Christopher Libertelli of Netflix has joined the Board of Advisors. Libertelli joins a group of policy leaders, including ILSR's Chris Mitchell, to advance the rights of local communities to have authority over their own broadband decisions.

From the CLIC announcement:

Mr. Libertelli has been Vice President of Global Public Policy at Netflix since December 2011. During his time at Netflix, he has been a champion for a variety of internet policy issues including efforts to increase competition among internet providers. Prior to joining Netflix, Mr. Libertelli managed Skype’s government relations programs in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.

Netflix has been a strong and consistent supporter of local internet choice. 

Netflix has been very helpful in advocating for the right of communities to build their own networks if they so choose. They filed comments [pdf] in the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions and have been listing some of the larger municipal networks in their monthly speed rankings. We are very grateful for their assistance in these important matters.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 3, 2014

“The Times, they are a-changin” quoted Chairman Wheeler this week in St. Paul. And with it, must come faster Internet speeds if the United States is going to keep up in the competitive economy. Multichannel’s John Eggerton reported on Wheeler’s visit to the National Association of Telecommunications Officer and Advisors (NATOA) conference this week, where Wheeler channeled both Bob Dylan and Garrison Keeler. You can also read the full transcript of his remarks. 

Oh, dear US Representative Marsha Blackburn is at it again. This time with a letter to editor in The Tennessean. Blackburn provides the same arguments she presented previously. And yet, oddly enough, still no acknowledgment that the top donors to her campaign fund happen to be big telecom lobbyists. 

In other municipal networks news, Andrew Denney with the Columbia Tribune in Missouri covered the pushback his city is seeing from big telecom, after the city announced it might be interested in expanding its existing fiber network. 

“A CenturyLink spokesperson warned city officials that, “if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business.” 

Our own Christopher Mitchell responded in the same article:

The fundamental motive is to make sure they limit competition to their benefit,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 

Citizens Speak Out

ILSR cannot be in all places at the same time, so it’s important that people weigh in on these issues, comment, and contact elected officials. So we’re praising several people and organizations who have come out in support of these important issues.

As Megan Epler Wood writes in Burlington Free Press, 

“Local ownership is a viable means to protect Net Neutrality according to many leading experts. Municipal fiber networks not only foster competition with the ISPs, they create citizen empowerment. According to Christopher Mitchell director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self Reliance municipal fiber networks "ensure open access to the Internet regardless of what tolls the big cable companies charge."

Bill Nemitz’s message in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald couldn’t be clearer:

Don’t suffer with slow Internet, rural Maine!

The Dalles, Oregon editorial board staff weighed in on the success of their own community networks. The city paid off its fiber-optic network last month. 

“The plan to install a fiber-optic loop to bring better access to high-speed internet to The Dalles faced harsh skepticism at its beginning. But, time and again, that access has proved to be a valuable commodity. Its existence has provided an added attraction to help bring jobs and growth to the community, not least of which is the Google data center, which is in the midst of a massive expansion with more jobs promised.”

We like the sound of that!

From success stories, to cities that are touching their toes to the water— Jeff Buchanan wrote this for The Isthmus in Madison, WI:

“Fortunately for consumers, there's an alternative: Cities are tackling the connectivity problem by building municipal fiber-to-the-home networks. Political and business leaders in Madison seem to agree that the status quo is unsatisfactory. But they're split in how urgently they want to address the problem, with city hall favoring a wait-and-see approach and a younger class of technocrats wanting to implement short-term, low-cost solutions immediately.”

And Hartford Business journal’s editorial staff said this week that high speed Internet is now a “must” investment, not just a want. 

“While the average Connecticut resident doesn't need ultra-high-speed bandwidth to play movies or download music, high-tech companies — particularly the increasing number of businesses that rely on big data — need it to compete. But Connecticut's lack of a fiber-optic cable network makes it difficult and expensive for businesses to access high-speed Internet, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.”

Another self-proclaimed proponent of private industry is baffled by Republicans stance against broadband competition. Mike Montgomery wrote about his support for allowing municipalities the chance to build broadband networks on HuffPo. 

“Broadband takes big investment, but it also means big money for providers. And while I'm among those who believe private industry is best suited to build and maintain networks, I also find the states' rights argument fairly ridiculous. After all, who better to know what a community needs than a local government? If elected officials recognize a need for better broadband access in their state, shouldn't voters have the final say as to who gets to build and maintain its broadband networks?”

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

This is what happens when Comcast decides you’re no longer making them enough money. They decide it’s time to pack up shop. Todd Shields reported in Bloomberg’s MSN Money that Comcast wants to relinquish its Detroit customers as part of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. But don’t worry, it would pick up two other markets…

“As it drops Detroit, Comcast would gain the nation’s top two markets, New York and Los Angeles. The $45.2 billion acquisition would enlarge Comcast by 7 million video customers. The castaways in Detroit, Minneapolis and elsewhere would belong to a new company, GreatLand Connections Inc., to be created in what the companies call a tax-efficient spinoff. The new company’s debt would exceed industry averages -- something that has raised concerns about service in those communities.” 

And Emily Steel wanted you to know that if you oppose the Time Warner Cable merger, Comcast thinks you’re guilty of extortion. We’re not making this up!

Meanwhile, The Consumerist’s Chris Morran covered a new era in the most hated company in America’s customer service department. Charlie Herrin became the new VP for “customer experience.” And while he promised that “our customers deserve the best experience every time they interact with us.” Morran broke down some of the so-called “manure spreading” this way: 

“Without competition, Comcast has no reason to actually back up this “we love our customers” sentiment. What are you going to do, switch to slow DSL service from your local phone company that hasn’t maintained its copper wire network in years? Or maybe you can get wireless broadband and pay the same amount as Xfinity for 1/70th the amount of data each month.

In spite of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable would have you believe, those are not alternatives.”

Last week, the other “big guys” said that a lack of competition just isn’t a problem. In our office, we like to talk about “CrazyTown”, where Big Telecom (and other nonsensical creatures) live; Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica, and The Consumerist’s Kate Cox give them a message from “Planet Reality.”

Game Politics, Brad Reed of the Boy Genius Report, and Electronista all wanted to make sure that people knew about the ridiculous claims of Comcast.

Kate Cox also reported on how two of the three FCC commissioners who voted against Net Neutrality now “don’t think the proposed rule is the right fit.” Here’s to seeing the light, let’s hope it lasts.

Verizon/AT&T

Infoworld recently reported that Moldova, Latvia, and Estonia continue to run Internet circles around the United States in terms of download speeds— that’s according to the UN Broadband Commission’s Annual report. But still, AT&T is unmoved— claiming that the reason our speeds are so slow is because no one wants faster speeds:

 "Given the pace at which the industry is investing in advanced capabilities, there is no present need to redefine 'advanced' capabilities. Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions," AT&T said in a filing on the FCC's proposal to raise the definition to 10Mbps. Verizon made similar arguments.”

Google’s ALEC Problem

From the “All Things are Connected” File— Google announced last week that it is pulling it’s support of conservative lobbying group “ALEC” over “literally lying” about climate change. Motherboard’s Sam Gustin and Jason Koebler, DSLReports’ Karl Bode, and Nicole Arce from Tech Times, reported on the announcement, along with dozens of others. Why? Because ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council has come out in opposition to net neutrality and municipal broadband— and is in support of Comcast’s Time Warner Cable merger. 

And though we’re glad Google might be jumping to the other side of the fence on some issues, Network World’s Colin Neagle explained that Google is probably *not* pulling its support of ALEC because of municipal broadband public opinion.

“… it’s probably no surprise to hear that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable have all been ALEC members for years. It's in their interests.

But a Daily Beast report from August 2013 outed Google as a member of ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force, alongside several other tech companies, including Yahoo and Yelp. All three are also members of the Internet Association, whose stances on net neutrality and broadband are the polar opposite of ALEC's."

After the Daily Beast article unveiled Google’s affiliation with ALEC, dozens of activist groups pointed out the paradox in a public letter calling for the company to leave the organization. Google's only response came in a reply to Ars Technica’s request for comment: "we aren't going to be commenting on this letter."

So when a group like the Internet Association speaks out on a given issue, it doesn't necessarily mean that all of its member groups are giving it their full support. Some affiliations are more valuable in public, while others are only valuable in the dark.” 

Louisiana Municipal Association Passes Resolution in Favor of Restoring Local Authority

The Louisiana Municipal Association is the latest organization to officially support the FCC's ability to restore local authority. The group represents 305 village, town, city, and parish members. Their Executive Board unanimously passed the resolution on July 30 and recently shared it with the FCC:

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local governments have ensured access to essential services by banding together to provide those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. This involvement has included electrification, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the ability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the Executive Board of the Louisiana Municipal Association convened at its regular business meeting on July 30, 2014 does hereby unanimously support FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

In the LMA letter to Chairman Wheeler, Executive Director Ronnie C. Harris wrote:

Communities of every size across the State of Louisiana, as in other state in  our nation, are facing overwhelming problems within this arena as they strive to bring advances in technology to their rural areas to keep up with our rapidly changing world.

Even though Louisiana is one of the states that impose restrictions on local authority, LUS Fiber in Lafayette provides fast, reliable, affordable services to an adoring public. In addition to helping shrink the digital divide, the network contributes significantly to economic development in the area. Within the past year alone, three additional tech companies have been drawn to Lafayette, bringing significant job growth. 

Opponents of restoring local authority argue there are a number of reasons why tech companies have found Lafayette attractive. It is true that the community is well known for its rich culture, beautiful environment, and mild climate. Nevertheless, without LUS Fiber, those companies would be missing an integral tool for business.

If the FCC chooses to restore local authority in North Carolina and Tennessee under section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, perhaps other Louisiana communities will ultimately be able to benefit.

Read about LUS Fiber in our case study, Broadband At The Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. You can also hear Chris interview John St. Julian from Lafayette in Episode 19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They have a revealing discussion about local efforts to invest in a municipal networks and struggles the community had to overcome to realize its vision.

October Events in Washington State All About Community Broadband

Two events in October will bring Chris and other telecommunications policy leaders to the State of Washington. 

On October 8th, the Seattle Citizens' Telecommunications and Technology Advisory Board is hosting Lunch & Learn: Chris Mitchell on community-owned networks and municipal broadband in Seattle. The free event will be held in Seattle City Hall at noon; you can register online at the website.

There will also be an evening forum, also located in City Hall, that runs from 6:30 - 8:30 p.m. You can still register online for the free evening session, titled Exploring Municipal Broadband in Seattle with Chris Mitchell.

As our readers know, Seattle has pursued better connectivity for some time and the idea of publicly owned infrastructure is not a new idea in the Emerald City. Chris will be presenting his thoughts on the possibility of a municipal network.

The next day, Chris visits Mount Vernon for the Connect with the World event. The October 9th conference focuses on creating a tech friendly environment for economic development, better educational opportunities, and improved healthcare. The full agenda [PDF] is available online and registration is still open. The program runs from 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. at Skagit Valley College.

Mount Vernon's open access network provides an infrastructure for several ISPs. The network slashes the community's telecommunications costs and attracts employers in fields such as healthcare, aerospace, and engineering. The network also serves the communities of Burlington and the Port of Skagit.

Chris Visits Burlington to Talk About Local Telecom Challenges

Burlington Telecom customers love their local muni. Throughout the community's political, legal, and financial challenges, residents and businesses have rallied behind the ability to control their access locally. As part of their efforts to educate the community, Code for BTV and Keep BT Local brought Chris to town to discuss community ownership. The video of his presentation is now available online at Burlington's Town Meeting Television.

Chris discussed a variety of community ownership and said of Burlington:

"When it comes down to getting community support to raising capital and understanding the value of a cooperative, Burlington's about the best place in the country to be trying to do that."

Keep BT Local began officially organizing in late 2012. Their goal is to transform the municipal network into a cooperative structure on order to protect local interest in the service. The gigabit network has won awards, partnered with local nonprofits to improve digital inclusion, and offered local services such as computer repair, setting it apart from the distant corporate providers with no interest in local communities.

No wonder Burlingtonians want to keep their network! This is an informative conversation that touches on a variety of topics including how to fire up potential cooperative members, strategies to entice community anchors, and promoting the unique characteristics of a local network.

The video runs about one hour and twenty minutes.

 

Columbia Takes Next Step Toward Municipal Network Infrastructure

A consultant report recommends the City of Columbia tap into its existing fiber resources to develop an open access municipal telecommunications network. The City recently issued a request for proposals for a business plan to press forward with the recommendation, reports the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Last year the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri jointly hired a firm to conduct a survey and analyze existing connectivity. An August Tribune article by Andrew Denney reported that the the community was found lacking in reliable connectivity. The survey indicated that 84% of businesses reported "moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed." The survey also revealed 84% of businesses contend with Internet speeds "insufficient for their business needs due to reliability and speed issues." The reasonable conclusion is that commercial Internet access in Columbia is too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable for local businesses.

The Columbia Water and Light Department (W & L) now leases its dark fiber to approximately 30 entities, reports the Tribune. The leases bring in approximately $876,000 per year. The consultant recommends expanding existing resources in order to entice more providers who want to serve last-mile customers.

The report also examined continuing the W & L dark fiber leasing program without significant changes and expanding the dark fiber leasing program by adding last-mile deployment. Maintaining the current dark fiber program will not require capital but won't stimulate the area's economic development possibilities either.

Expanding the dark fiber program would improve the broadband infrastructure situation because providers would be able to offer leases to customer premises rather than only within the middle-mile network. This type of change would not improve affordability because it would not increase competition.

The August Tribune article reported:

[The consultant] suggests if the city decides to light up its fiber network, it would be able to enter into public-private partnerships with service providers but remain a neutral party to providers. The network would increase competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over the city’s network, the consultants’ report said.

More recently, the Tribune reported:

[The consultant] estimates that the city would be able to develop a broadband network to serve businesses and organizations based in the “downtown core” for a price ranging between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the firm suggested could be paid through debt instruments like loans and bond sales.

At an August 18th City Council meeting, CenturyLink area operations manager Kevin Czaicki addressed the Council before they voted to instruct staff to move forward. In true incumbent fashion, Czaicki told the Council that a network would create financial challenges for the city. The Tribune reported:

Czaicki also said that, if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business. “This violates the spirit of the law, if not the rule,” Czaicki said.

Last August, CenturyLink announced some properties in Columbia and Jefferson City would obtain access to gigabit service. Once again, the prospect of a municipal network appears to inspire private investment.

“We would be paving a road that currently, in our opinion, does not exist now,” [W & L Assistant Director Ryan] Williams said.

Read the PDF of the report Executive Summary online for more details.

Connecticut Communities Want Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Episode 118

While in Springfield, Massachusetts for the Broadband Communities Municipal Broadband and Economic Development event, I met several of the people that have been working on an initiative that aims to bring better Internet access to many in Connecticut. Two of them, Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and Broadband Policy Coordinator Bill Vallee join me this week for episode 118 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Three cities have already issued an RFQ to begin the process of evaluating what options are available to them in improving Internet access for their residents and businesses. New Haven, Stamford, and West Hartford kicked the initiative off but others may soon join.

We also discuss how Connecticut has greatly simplified the process of pole attachments to encourage investment from any interested provider.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"