Burlington Sells Burlington Telecom, Continues to Operate the Network

In November, Burlington's City Council approved the much anticipated settlement with Citibank. Burlington Telecom, a nearly citywide gigabit FTTH network owned by the city, was run into the ground by a previous mayor. That Mayor's Administration hid major cost overruns from the public for years, resulting in a challenging situation for the community. In the the world of municipal broadband, this is a significant anomaly.

The City found itself owing CitiBank some $33 million with no clear path on how to pay it. After years of arguing in court, the situation is largely resolved. Early in 2014, Citibank and Burlington reached a settlement [PDF] in which the the city would pay $10.5 million and a share of BT's future value in exchange for Citibank to drop its $33 million lawsuit. The obligation will include funds contributed by the city's codefendant, McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan P.C. law firm.

BT revenues, net cash flow, and the city's insurance carrier will contribute to the city's obligation, but the lion's share will be paid for with bridge financing from a local source. Trey Pecor, a Burlington business owner, has secured funding and created Blue Water LLC. The city will transfer ownership of the network to Blue Water in exchange for $6 million and will continue to lease the network from Blue Water at about $558,500 per year for a maximum period of five years. The goal is to find a partner to purchase the network. At that time, Blue Water and the city will divide any proceeds from the sale. 

As part of the agreement, the City Council and the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) needed to approve the terms. The PSB is the state entity tasked with regulating utility rates and related financial matters in Vermont. On November 3rd, the PSB approved the transaction unanimously [PDF of the Order].

A Vermont Digger article reported that several organizations, including the Center for Media and Democracy, the Regional Educational Television Network and Vermont Community Access Media, requested a six month public engagement process before the deal be approved. The groups, known as Burlington Access Management Organizations (BAMOs) were concerned that a distant corporate owner that may purchase network, will not be community-minded in its decisions. The BAMOs also requested that three to five people with experience in telecom, alternative corporate structures, and public engagement, be added to the Advisory Board. From the VTDigger article:

The Public Service Board did not agree to the request. The board said it would be premature to impose conditions on a prospective sale, and that any future owner will be expected to comply with the same public access obligations the city must meet now.

“While the conditions requested by BAMOs may provide a useful mechanism to explore issues in connection with a prospective future sale of BT’s Assets, the Board declines to impose such conditions,” the PSB wrote.

Unfortunately, the PSB missed the fundamental point - the required public access obligations are quite small. Burlington Telecom, like most municipal fiber networks, went above and beyond the bare minimum required by law. The only way to ensure Burlington continues providing great customer service, high quality connections, and additional services to the community is by making it sure it is accountable to the community, not distant shareholders.

We cannot help but be disappointed at the continued pain caused by the failure of Mayor Kiss's administration to be honest with the people of Burlington - a reminder of how important transparency is for local governments.

We strongly support the efforts of local groups to ensure that when the network is next sold, it is to a locally rooted entity that will ensure the high level of service BT has delivered will continue.

The PSB did grant the city's requested reprieve from a condition that the network connect every address in Burlington. There are still approximately 3,250 addresses that BT does not reach, often in areas with underground utilities or condos where the owner is not cooperative. In order to make the system more enticing to potential buyers, the PSB removed the obligation from the utility's certificate of public good.

On November 17th, the City Council approved the settlement along with bridge financing documents, which will allow the process to move forward. The Council also decided to expand the BTAB and approved operating guidelines. WPTZ reported that there were local residents attending the council meeting who spoke out against the sale, but the Council voted to approve unanimously. From WPTZ:

"Given the circumstances that we were faced with over the past five years, this settlement is the best solution, the best possible outcome from our saga with Burlington Telecom," said Karen Paul, a Burlington city council member.

Local coverage on the City Council settlemet approval from WPTZ:

Video: 
See video

Minnesota Border to Border Broadband Video and Materials Now Available from Blandin

Our friends at the Blandin Foundation recently sponsored another Minnesota Border to Border Broadband conference. Video and materials are now available

In addition to the archived video of the November 19th event in Brainerd, Minnesota, Blandin on Broadband's Ann Treacy provides links to summaries of each session, some of which also have PowerPoint presentations or video available for viewing:

Interest in rural broadband projects has risen sharply in the past two years. In 2013, the state legislature set aside $20 million in grant funding for rural broadband projects; applications have recently come due.

A Star Tribune article reports that entities seek approximately $44.2 million in total for Minnesota projects. Sen. Matt Schmit, the lead author on the grant funding bill also spoke at the conference and told attendees:

“Above all, I think what we wanted to do was prove there was interest out there — that there’s a need."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 5, 2014

After successfully fighting a Kansas state law proposed in February that would have outlawed community networks entirely, the city of Chanute is being required to follow an outdated 1940s law that requires them to ask permission to move forward with a bond initiative that would fund a high speed Internet network to businesses and residents. And, AT&T is officially intervening in the city’s efforts. 

Our most favoritest headline of the week about this story comes from Brad Reed with BGR: “AT&T wants to know why a town is building a 1Gbps network when it already offers 6Mbps DSL." Yah, Chanute, what gives?!

Dion Lefler with the Wichita Eagle reported this week that the city has been ordered to follow a 1940 state law requiring it to get permission to sell bonds that would fund a project to provide the town’s 9,000 residents with high speed Internet. 

Chanute officials say the law requiring commission permission to expand is outdated, because it was written in the days when the telephone company was a monopoly… “AT&T is the incumbent telephone company and Cable One is the incumbent cable TV operator,” the city’s filing to the commission said. “Neither of those providers offers the level of service throughout Chanute’s utility service area that Chanute will be able to offer its citizens as a result of the investment planned for Chanute’s network. As such, there will not be a duplication of existing services, even if such a consideration were still relevant today.

Kate Cox with the Consumerist goes further:

AT&T has a long track record of very vocally opposing even the mere idea of municipal broadband projects. The company has worked hard and spent lots of money helping enact state laws that prohibit public broadband expansion.

They have also argued that not only should public fiber projects be banned any place that they (or anyone else) already serves, but that those projects should be banned anywhere they might choose to do business later on.

And Jon Brodkin with Ars Technica noted the real cause for AT&T’s worry: the city would charge people just $5 more per month for Gig service than AT&T does for its bargain-basement 6mbps service. Yikes!

Wendy Davis with MediaPost covered the story as well:

If the new network moves forward, residents would have every reason to defect from AT&T in favor of the new service -- unless AT&T can step up its offerings.

So far, AT&T hasn't shown an inclination to do so in Chanute. While AT&T plans to expand its fiber optic network to dozens of cities, Chanute isn't one of them, according to advocacy group Public Knowledge. That organization today issued a public call for AT&T to avoid putting up obstacles to a new fiber network. “No one should deny rural America the choice of building high-speed broadband networks in a world where the Internet is so vital to a community’s growth.

MSMolly with FireDogLake offered her insight this week on the delicate balance ISP’s walk when it comes to regulation:

AT&T isn’t opposed to government handouts, though, as long as they are flowing to the private sector. The company argues that community broadband networks “should not receive any preferential tax treatment,” and that only private companies should be given special treatment. AT&T said, “Indeed, any tax incentives or exemptions should be provided, if at all, to private sector firms to induce them to expand broadband deployment to unserved areas.”

AT&T has been going state by state paying asking state lawmakers to get rid of most remaining consumer protections, such as those requiring continued 911 access to the elderly, so it can get out of DSL markets it doesn’t want to upgrade.

But AT&T isn’t all bad, right? I mean last week we reported that the telecom giant would back down on its threats to halt fiber rollouts, that’s good, right?

Thomas Gryta with the Wall Street Journal and Brian Fung with the Washington Post say that while AT&T might have said it would pull its investments in fiber if they didn’t get more certainty from the FCC about net neutrality, what they really meant was...

The issue is complex for AT&T. As a major Internet service provider, it has a deep interest in how the Internet is governed, but the company also needs approval from the commission for its pending acquisition of satellite broadcaster DirecTV.

In other words, “We didn’t mean to ruffle any feathers before the FCC approves our merger.”

Community Broadband Communities

The Slog’s Ansel Herz is at it again. He is frustrated that Seattle has not yet invested in a municipal fiber network. The city’s chief tech officer, Michael Mattmiller says the study he’s commissioning on muni broadband will likely not be complete until April (these things cannot be completed overnight!).

The threat of competition is giving cities all over the country more power in franchise agreement talks. Bill Neilson with Broadband Reports cites Lawrence, Massachusetts; Lexington, Kentucky; and New York City for using their franchise talks to get more from incumbents, or head for the door. 

After being told for years that previous franchise agreements would magically increase local jobs and improve customer service (which never occurred on either front), some cities are now demanding guarantees in writing before agreeing to a franchise agreement. Now, some cities are also demanding that franchise agreements be reduced in years so that cities may see just how well the cable providers are acting during the agreed upon years.

Residents in Torrington, CT are one step closer to fiber in their city. The council approved using part of $1.7 million in Nutmeg Network grant money set aside to fund a fiber optic connection for community anchors. The network would run alongside its existing AT&T connection.

Alaska's Statewide Broadband Task Force is up and running. The group is committed to bringing 100 mbps speeds to every household in Alaska by 2020. Carey Restino with the Arctic Sounder has the story:

"We have reached a point in the development of modern communications wherein the Internet is firmly woven into our fabric of everyday life. America is in a race to the top in order to compete in the globalization of trade and development," the report concludes. "Alaska is part of this race. The same factors that make broadband deployment difficult in Alaska — geographic remoteness, lack of roads, high costs — also mean that Alaska, more so than other states, has the most to gain from making sure that affordable and reliable high-speed broadband is available to all its residents. Very soon, social pressure will be too great for government and civil society not to act, whether collaboratively or alone. A clear plan is in the best interest of the state."

Despite its relatively small dollar amount, communities in Minnesota are competing for the state's $20 million broadband kitty. Jenna Ross with the Star Tribune:

[Ron] Brodigan, owner of the Snowshoe Country Lodge on Sand Lake [near Two Harbors], gets Internet service with download speeds of 5 megabits per second — “almost adequate,” he said. Once the county’s fiber-to-the-premises project reaches him, he expects to pay $80 a month for 30-megabit service. “It’s going to be a boon when we get it,” he said. “But it’s been setback after setback,” he said, referring to challenges from cable companies and other delays. But, he added, “they’re really humping now.”

"Stop Mega Comcast" Coalition; Philly Comcast Subscribers Speak Out in New Video

As days go by, an increasing number of organizations, companies, and individuals go on record opposing the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. The DOJ has already spent significant time analyzing the proposal and the FCC has been taking comments for months. On November 3rd, a new coalition, "Stop Mega Comcast," announced that it was jumping into the fray. 

Engadget reports that the group includes both consumer groups and competitors, including Dish Network and Public Knowledge:

"This much power concentrated in the hands of one company would be frightening even for the most trustworthy of companies," Public Knowledge's CEO Gene Kimmelman said in a statement. "And Comcast is definitely not that."

Certainly the people of Philadelphia could attest to the fact that Comcast is "not that." As we reported in episode #124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, the Media Mobilizing Project is working in Comcast's hometown to compel the cable giant to give back to a city it has already taken so much from.

Hannah Jane Sassaman described for us how the community is using franchise negotiations as leverage for better prices, better services, and more accountability from Comcast. Their project, CAPComcast, recently released this video wherein people straight from the Comcast service center describe their frustrations with the incumbent.

Video: 
See video

Video Available: "Maximizing Fibre Infrastructure Investment in Europe"

Video of "Maximizing Fibre Infrastructure Investment in Europe" is now archived and ready to view. Our own Christopher Mitchell presented as part of this afternoon seminar on telecommunications policy.

The event, sponsored by the Swedish Association of Local Authorities (SALAR) and Stokab (The City of Stokholm IT infrastructure company) was held in Brussels on Wednesday, November 19th. Chris presented an update on private and public fiber network investment in the U.S.

The video is now archived and ready to view:

We also recommend Benoit Felton's presentation on the Stokab model:

You can watch video of the entire event at the Bambuser website or below.

Community Connectivity Toolkit Launched

If your community is hungry for better connectivity, you may be interested in starting a community network initiative. Getting started can be a daunting task so we developed the Community Connectivity Toolkit.

The Toolkit includes broad suggestions for steps you should take as you investigate solutions for your community. We also include resources to help you educate yourself through case studies, fact sheets, and other media. We touch on common stumbling blocks and ways to counter them. The toolkit suggests policies that will prepare your community for better connectivity. 

The Community Connectivity Toolkit helps you ask the right questions and gives you a starting point where you can find information to learn, share, and prepare. If you have suggestions for how to improve the toolkit or questions that you want answered that are not in it, please let us know.

"Ask Us Anything" Event on Organizing For a Network and Open Access on Dec 17

Last month, we held our first "Ask Us Anything: An Open Talk on Muni Networks" event for people interested in learning more about municipal networks. We were pleased by the turn out and by the quality of questions participants threw our way. We will hold our second "Ask Us Anything" event on December 17th at 2:00 p.m. CST.

This time, we will try narrowing the conversation a bit with focus on organizing a network in the first 30 minutes and open access approaches in the last 30 minutes. We hope that you will send us a question when you register and encourage you to bring more questions to the event.

You can register at GoToWebinar.

If you were not able to our first "Ask Us Anything," it is now archived and available to view.

Princeton Voters Authorize FTTH Make-Ready Funds in Record Turn-Out

On November 18th, 90% of voters at Princeton's special town meeting approved a measure to fund $1.2 million in make-ready costs bringing the community one step closer to fiber connectivity. The number voters who attended the meeting broke the previous attendance record set 15 years ago by 30%.

We introduced the central Massachusetts town of 3,300 in 2013. The community suffered from poor Internet connectivity negatively impacting its schools, real estate market, and economic development. Since then, the community voted to create a Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate funds to keep the project moving forward.

Community leaders have investigated several options and last fall entered into a relationship with the Matrix Design Group. According to the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF], Matrix will design, build, and operate the FTTH network for a period of 20 years. At the end of that time period, Princeton Broadband Municipal Light Plant has the option of renewing that relationship or purchasing the network for $1.

As their contribution, Princeton will provide rights-of-way, police details during construction, powered telecom shelters, and will pay for utility pole make-ready costs. According to an article in the Landmark:

The make ready work includes replacing approximately 80 utility poles, and moving telephone and electrical lines on 450 poles, providing housing for the electrical components needed to operate the system, and paying for police details during the make ready work.

The borrowing is expected to cost the owner of a home valued at $300,000, about $10 a month or $115 a year increase on their taxes for 12 years. Internet service plus telephone will cost $115 a month. Once a contract is negotiated with Matrix, construction on the make ready phase would start in January 2015 and the project would be completed by January 2016.

It looks like the network will offer Internet connections of 30-50 Mbps; currently options for residents vary from an average 1 Mbps download over Wi-Fi to 1 - 3 Mbps download DSL. According to the PrincetonBroadband.com summary of the deal, 4G LTE in town ranges from 2 - 18 Mbps download. It is not clear if people can purchase a connection faster than 50 Mbps with the current plans.

Princeton Broadband Logo

Preliminary subscription rates are $95 per month for Internet and $115 per month for Internet and voice; video will not be offered. The prices are comparable with what some Princeton residents pay now for much slower "up to" speeds though some do pay less for DSL currently. More detailed info on subscriber costs is also available on the PrincetonBroadband website.

Residents who subscribe during the initial fiber hookup will pay an early discounted installation fee of $250 - $350 if the house is within 250 feet from the road. Early subscribers are committing for two years from the date the network is live. Customers who subscribe later will pay $1,250 - $1,550 to connect.

In compliance with state law, the community must hold a second vote to approve a Proposition 2.5% debt-limit waiver. The town will need to pass the measure by a majority, at which time it will be able to proceed with funding for the make-ready costs. The second vote is scheduled for December 9th. Leverett went through a similar process.

While Princeton's approach minimizes financial exposure, they still carry some risks associated with private ownership of the infrastructure. The network could be sold to a different provider, for instance. From the PrincetonBroadband website:

But we should all be very careful with basing our vote on quibbles with the plan or dreams of a knight in shining armor just around the corner. There are no Plan B’s. There are no other suitors waiting in the wings. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon have even gone so far as to formally decline an offer to come into town. And, doing it ourselves would cost taxpayers over three times more than the Matrix plan would.

Compared to any imaginable alternative, the Matrix plan significantly reduces our tax burden, minimizes our town’s risk, maximizes services to the entire town (not just the most densely populated areas), and is future proofed for generations to come.

Princeton Voters

Voters at the November 18th Town Meeting display pink cards that represent their approval of the Princeton Broadband project. (Thank you to Stan Moss for the photo.)

"Ask Us Anything" on Organizing for a Fiber Network Ready For Viewing

On November 5th, we opened up the lines of communication for our first "Ask Us Anything: An Open Talk on Muni Networks" event. That event is now available on our YouTube Channel or viewable below.

We find many communities and their citizens are interested in exploring municipal networks as a possible method to improve connectivity but don't know how to get started. We approached the event with no agenda or expectations and spent the entire hour answering questions.

As we expected, participants asked about ways to grow support, what challenges to expect, and how to find resources to educate the community. There were many other questions that represented a broad spectrum of involvement in community network projects. This was our first attempt in this format and we are about to announce an invitation to a second discussion that will be held on Wednesday, December 17, at 3 PM EST.

Video: 
See video

Reflections on European Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode 127

I was recently invited to speak in Brussels on the experience of U.S. cities and fiber optic investment. Videos from the seminar are available here. I took some extra time around the seminar to visit Amsterdam and then Bruges in Belgium. On this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Lisa and I discuss broadband in the European context.

We talk about how much people pay in Amsterdam for better services than we commonly get and note that most European cities have much better access to the Internet than do U.S. cities, with the possible exception of Brussels, which has poor access.

We also talk about how the incumbents in Europe are not so different from the incumbent providers in the U.S. and are trying to invest as little as possible while preventing meaningful competition. Some things are just universal...

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 20 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 Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."