Fiber Optic ConnectArlington Moving Forward in Virginia

Arlington County, Virginia is taking advantage of a series of planned projects to create their own fiber optic network, ConnectArlington. The County is moving into phase II of its three part plan to improve connectivity with a publicly owned fiber network.

Some creative thinking and inter-agency collaboration seem to be the keys to success in Arlington. Both the County and the Arlington Public Schools will own the new asset. Additionally, the network will improve the County Public Safety network. Back in March, Tanya Roscola reported on the planing and benefits of the ConnectArlington in Government Technology.

Arlington County's cable franchise agreement with Comcast is up for renewal in 2013. As part of that agreement, the schools and county facilities have been connected to each other at no cost to the County. Even though there are still active negotiations, the ConnectArlington website notes that the outcome is uncertain. The County does not know if the new agreement will include the same arrangement. Local leaders are not waiting to find out, citing need in the community and recent opportunities that reduce installation costs. 

Other communities, from Palo Alto in California to Martin County in Florida, have found Comcast pushing unreasonable prices for services in franchise negotiations. Smart communities have invested in their own networks rather than continue depending on Comcast.

Like schools all around the country, Arlington increasingly relies on high-capacity networks for day-to-day functions both in and out of the classroom. Digital textbooks, tablets, and online testing enhance the educational adventure, but require more and more bandwidth and connectivity. From the article:

Through ConnectArlington, Arlington Public Schools will be able to take advantage of Internet2 for distance learning. At no cost, students will be able to communicate with teachers and access electronic textbooks and online courses from wireless hot spots.

The County wants to use the network to provide continuity and expansion of its essential telecommunications services. Additionally, according the the County's Spring 2010 Telecommunications Overview (check out the PDF - there are some informative maps here), the County and the School District want to reduce the uncertainty of continued dependence on Comcast.

ConnectArlington

Three projects, all happening within a relatively short period of time, came together to solidify the planning and enthusiasm for ConnectArlington. 

1) Upgrades to the County's Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), funded with a federal grant, will involve significant digging up of streets to make way for new conduit and fiber. The ITS construction provides an opportunity for ConnectArlington to install additional conduit for expanding the fiber network. ITS uses fiber optic cables to allow real time monitoring and control of intersections for immediate traffic control. Additionally, the fiber allows Emergency Vehicle Preemption technology (EVP). Thirty-one additional intersections will be added to the network and outfit with EVP. From a County Press Release:

"Emergency vehicle preemption technology is critical to saving lives by giving responders safe, speedy passage through intersections and cutting precious minutes off the time it takes to get patients to life-saving care at a hospital,” said Chief James Schwartz of the Arlington County Fire Department.

EVP gives emergency vehicles the right-of-way at signaled intersections with an automatic green light. The emergency responder is able to safely navigate the intersection, while drivers and pedestrians are clearly directed to cede the right-of-way via the traffic signals.

2) A public bond, dedicated to replacing the current microwave emergency system, will  connect six public safety radio towers with a new fiber backbone. ConnectArlington will also lay fiber along that route. From the Roscola story:

Arlington Logo

When fiber goes through the county's approximately 168 traffic signals, these signals will become routers on the network. That will allow police and fire personnel who set up command villages for an event to connect to the network through traffic signals.

They'll be able to access broadband and wireless for video, audio and data connectivity during events including the Marine Corp Marathon and ceremonies at the Pentagon.

3) Lastly, local electric provider Dominion Power will be upgrading its power grid. The County will co-locate dark fiber with Dominion's fiber, saving even more on installation.

ConnectArlington will be a series of fiber optic rings that overlap in strategic circles to provide paths that avoid any single failure points. Arlington's present system is a patchwork of County-owned facilities, lines leased from commercial providers, and Comcast's fiber-optic network, is a "star" or "spoke and hub" topology. With the new lay out, any failure will be remedied with data traffic reroute, providing redundancy.

While more and more communities are beginning to see the value of a publicly owned fiber optic network, patience is a must, as noted in the Roscola article:

"It's going to take time to realize the cost benefit out of this," said Belcher, who also directs the county's Department of Technology Services. "You're going to have to invest a lot of money that could go elsewhere. But you're putting it here because you see a value to be achieved, and that's significant."

Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Next Town to Consider Fiber Network

Tahlequah, Oklahoma, far on the eastern side of the state, recently decided to investigate the possibility of building a new network. On June 15th, the Tahlequah Public Works Authority Board approved the financing of a feasibility study on the options. According to Rob W. Anderson's Tahlequah Daily Press article:

“We budgeted $40,000 for this, and I really think it’ll probably take every bit of that, I’m guessing,” [TPWA General Manager Mark Chesney] said. “What we’re suggesting is that we go to some expert to get a proposal to tell us what a return on investment would look like, what our start-up cost would look like, how much of the market we could capture and a pretty good forecast of how long it would take to pay out on those kinds of things. That’s what a study would do.”

Chesney stated that the city wanted to know more about offering services with a fiber network, including Internet, cable, and voice. Chesney alluded to local dissatisfaction of services and the town's desire to expand economic development. The town is home to approximately 15,750 people.

We have reported on other Oklahoma communities, including Sallisaw and Ponca City, that now have publicly owned networks and provide a variety of services. Oklahoma, one of the states with a more friendly attitude toward community networks, does not have barriers in place to curtail development.

Sallisaw's DiamondNet offers triple play packages, like those mentioned in the Tahlequah meeting, for $105.95, $116.95, and 126.95. Things have worked out will in Sallisaw. Keith Skelton, assistant city director of Sallisaw, stated publicly in March that he expects the City to make a profit from the network by the end of 2012.

Ponca City offers free Wi-Fi to all its residents and now serves 11,000 clients. Additionally, Ponca City uses their fiber network for their electric utility smart grid and offers fiber-based broadband to local businesses.

Community Broadband Bits 2 - Wired West Podcast

In our second podcast, we have interviewed Monica Webb with the Wired West Initiative in rural western Massachusetts. Like our first podcast, this should be an excellent resource for those who are still in the early stages of community broadband and seeking ideas or inspiration.

We continue to be interested in 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 fifteen minutes long and can be played below on this page or you can subscribe via iTunes or via a different tool using this feed.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music.

Speedtests, SamKnows, and Fantasy vs. Reality at the FCC

Far too many people seem to think that when they go to Speedtest.net to test their connection, they get a number that has any bearing on reality. For most of us, it simply doesn't. This is true of other large tools for measuring connections. And it has important policy implications because the FCC contracted with a company called Sam Knows to measure wireline speeds available to Americans (I'm a volunteer in that project).

Sam Knows explains :

SamKnows has been awarded a ground breaking contract by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to begin a new project researching and collecting data on American fixed-line broadband speeds delivered by Internet Service Providers (ISP's) - until now, something that has never been undertaken in the USA.

The project will see SamKnows recruit a team of Broadband Community members who will, by adding a small 'White Box'’ to their home internet set up, automatically monitor their own connection speeds throughout the period of the project.

Unfortunately, SamKnows appears to be documenting fantasy, not reality.

To explain, let's start with a question Steve Gibson recently answered on his amazing netcast, Security Now (available via the TWiT network). A listener asked why he gets such large variation in repeated visits to Speedtest.net.

Security Now Logo

Steve answers the question as an engineer with a technical explanation involving the TCP/IP protocol and dropped packets. But he missed the much larger issue. Packets are dropped because the "pipes" are massively oversubscribed at various places within the network (from the wires outside you house to those closer to the central office or head end). What this means is that the cable company (and DSL company, to a lesser extent) takes 100Mbps of capacity and sells hundreds of people 20Mbps or 30 Mbps or whatever. Hence the "up to" hedge in their advertisements.

The actual capacity you have available to you depends on what your neighbors (cable) or others in the network (DSL) are doing. Dropped packets in TCP result often result from the congestion of high oversubscription ratios.

This gets us into why Speedtest.net and Sam Knows deliver fantasy numbers. Large operators know where the Speedtest.net and SamKnows servers are and they find ways of prioritizing that connection. The result they give you is often the maximum line capacity that you could get, like travel times on roads at 2AM. Unfortunately, every other site you visit is gets stuck in rush hour.

I have access to a few very fast, non rate-limited servers and I can never come close to the transfer speeds that SamKnows or Speedtest.net tells me I am getting most of the time. SamKnows suggests that I am regularly getting 30Mbps or more downstream but I have never seen that in practice regardless of whether I am connected to a content distribution network or other site that is capable of sending very high throughput.

Recent SamKnows Results

Heck, I cannot make through a single show on Hulu to my TV at the 2Mbps stream without several pauses to buffer.

I pay Comcast for something like "up to" 30 downstream and 4 up. Speedtest.Net and SamKnows tell me that I am actually getting 6-9Mbps upstream, suggesting that Comcast is giving me more than I pay for. But when I upload a large file to a server in Utah, I find that Comcast only delivers between 2.5 and 3Mbps. If I go to my Comcast connection in an office across town, I find I can achieve around 4.5 Mbps regularly with the same file to the same server (we pay for upstream of 5Mbps there). This suggests my experienced speed is controlled by Comcast, not by the connections between Comcast and Utah.

Further, I tried the same test while I was in Lafayette, Louisiana. I uploaded the file to the same Utah server at 20Mbps on the muni fiber network from a friend's house (for which I believe he pays less than I do for my much slower connection).

SamKnows is telling the FCC that my cable connection is significantly higher than what Comcast really delivers, which I suspect is a systematic overstatement of real speeds for ISPs that are gaming the system. This makes cable and DSL companies appear to be doing a much better job than they actually are. It roughly doubles my real upload speed and doubles or triples my experienced download speed.

The problem is that cable and DSL companies can optimize their networks for known sites like Speedtest.net and the SamKnows servers. If we want to get a better sense of what cable and DSL companies are truly delivering, there is a solution -- and interestingly enough, it comes from a virus.

A few years ago, Steve Gibson described the Conficker computer virus in intricate detail. In order for a modern virus to be useful, it has to get instructions from the owner (to send Spam or do other botnet things). If the virus always looked for instructions at jerkstore.com, it would be very easy to isolate and destroy.

So Conficker used an algorithm to determine what domain it would check for instructions (probably ultimately going to something like wqerpvxvblkj.biz). On any given day, the virus would check a site out of a potential list of 50,000 -- making it very hard to predict what site it would check. The good guys could not register 50,000 sites every day to block it but the bad guys had only to register a few sites that they knew the algorithm would pick to check.

This is how honest speedtests should be done. If a company were receiving a large contract from the FCC to measure real-world speeds rather than fantasyland connections, it should scatter servers throughout the country and use an algorithm to prevent ISPs from knowing the difference between a user engaging in normal activities and a SamKnows router recording the actual speeds one would get going to a normal website.

Perhaps the ISPs would find additional ways to game this approach, using Deep Packet Inspection or some other tools but I think it would be dramatic improvement rather than making it so easy for companies like Comcast to present its fantasy to the FCC as fact.

Fantasy statistics are great for cable and DSL companies that are trying to convince DC that they are doing a great job and we have no need for policies that would give Americans a real choice in providers. If we are spending public money to gather data, let's get real data, not fantasies.

I would love to see the great folks at M-Lab do this, but I don't know if they have the capacity or connections necessary for a nationally distributed server setup hidden behind many hundreds of different IPs.

Addendum: I am aware of the "speedboost" or "turboboost" or "superamazingcoolfrigginawesomeboost" that some ISPs use and that alone should not account for any of the above discrepancies. By testing a variety of filesizes, one should be able to get accurate results regardless of such short-term enhancements used by ISPs.

Christopher Talks with Santa Cruz's KSCO 1080 AM

Michael Zwerling, of Santa Cruz’s KSCO 1080 AM, was looking for an expert on broadband so he contacted our own Christopher Mitchell. The June 2 conversation involved questions from Michael, his co-host, and listeners and covered municipal and community broadband, accessibility, WiFi networks, and more. The interview runs about 1 hour.

 

Legislative Alert: Oppose California's SB 1161

Sean McLaughlin from the New America Foundation and Access Humbolt alerted us to HB 1161, an AT&T and ALEC driven bill to scale back state regulation of Internet services. Sen. Alex Padilla (D-SD20, San Fernando Valley) is a co-author of the bill, introduced in February and moving steadily forward.

Sean tells us:

On Monday, the bill passed CA Assembly's Committee on Utilities and Commerce with only one brave NO vote (Asm. Huffman is also leading candidate for US House for the new CA-2 district).  Next stop is Assembly Appropriations Cte. but it will quickly move to the Assembly Floor - NOW is the time to alert all Assembly Members in California to stop this juggernaut.

Access Humbolt's press release is an excellent analysis and tells us why this bill needs to be stopped:

"While the Bill strives to be self-limiting and makes hopeful assumptions about the benefits of unfettered industry, it neglects to address three profound and overarching realities:

1. In the future all telephone or voice service will be IP enabled communication service;

2. Federal oversight over IP enabled communication services including Internet access services remains highly uncertain; and,

3. Competition is not sufficient in IP enabled communication services to protect consumers, nor to ensure universal access to an open internet.

SB 1161 removes State expertise and local knowledge from public policy making that is necessary to secure universal access to an open internet. And further, this Bill will impede State and local efforts to develop broadband services for public safety, public education, public health, public works and public media. Clearly, a more thoughtful approach is needed.

If the Bill is adopted as proposed, local community investments to support broadband deployment and adoption will suffer, causing increased costs and reduced benefits from State and Federal universal service programs for remote, rural, low income and other people in our community who are least served.

By prohibiting independent oversight of the State’s expert agency, and discounting knowledge assets of local jurisdictions, SB 1161 will cause direct fiscal harm to schools, libraries, health care providers, tribal and state agencies, public safety, public works, public media and other community anchor institutions."

You can sign on to the Free Press campaign immediately. If you are a Californian and want to make a personal impact, use their district finder to find contact info for your elected officials. Be sure they know you are a constituent. Phoning is most powerful.

For an in-depth look at the legislation, check out the Communications Workers of America's position statement [pdf].

Farmington, New Mexico Exploring Fiber Options

Farmington, New Mexico, currently has 80 miles of fiber and has decided to consider the best way to get the most out of the investment. The City uses the fiber network strictly for its Farmington Electric Utility System but sees potential in maximizing the power of the unused strands. Earlier this year, they commissioned a study from Elert & Associates to investigate the technical possibilities. Front Range Consulting reviewed the financial pros and cons.

In February, both experts provided options to the City Council. While offering triple play services is a possibility, both firms recommended leasing available fiber to existing ISPs instead. Expanding to a triple play offering would require  a $100 million investment to connect the 32,000 current Farmington Electric Utility System's customers.

Dick Treich, from Front Range Consulting, commented on the pushback to expect from Comcast and CenturyLink, if the City decided to pursue triple play retail services. From a February Farmington Daily Times article (this article is archived and available for purchase):

"They won't sit still for that," Treich said. "First they will challenge the legality of whether you can get into that option, possibly tying you down in court for a long time. They will also start the whole argument of public money being used for starting a private business. It would be a two-pronged attack."

The City Council also pondered the option of leasing fiber, which would require a $1.5 million infrastructure investment. Also from the article:

"Five companies have expressed interest," said Assistant City Manager Bob Campbell. "Assuming that those companies would each use approximately 10 miles of fiber, (they) would provide $170,000 annually leasing dark fiber."

Update:

Bob Campbell, Acting Director of the General Services Department of Farmington, emailed us this update:

"...after the February meeting Council requested a study for the leasing of bandwidth, that report was presented to Council in May. Now staff will be making a presentation to Council in July asking Council to adopt a policy for the leasing of dark fiber. We hope to receive a favorable decision then in August/September we can issue an RFP for those interested in the City's dark fiber leases."

Florida County Saves Millions by Building its own Broadband Network

Publication Date: 
June 20, 2012
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

We have just released a paper revealing how Martin County saved millions of dollars by building its own fiber optic network to link schools and county facilities rather than leasing lines from Comcast.

The report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network, reveals how Martin County transformed the threat of a near ten-fold cost increase for its telecom budget into cost savings and new opportunities for economic growth.

Download the Florida Fiber Report here.

“Martin County is a model example of how local governments can cut costs, increase efficiencies, and spur economic development,” according to Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. “Local governments will need broadband networks in 10, 15, 30 years – they should consider owning the asset rather than leasing indefinitely.”

ILSR Broadband Researcher Lisa Gonzalez and Christopher Mitchell authored the report.

The new report highlights challenges the County faced, creative tactics used to reduce the cost of the investment, financial details on the incredible cost savings from the network, and how the new connections are already being used.

Though the County is not planning on offering services directly to residents or businesses over the network, the network has already allowed a local Internet Service Provider to expand its territory and offer some choices to people and businesses previously stuck only with AT&T and Comcast. Additionally, the network is leasing dark fiber to some entities.

Florida law makes it difficult for the community to offer services to residents and businesses by imposing additional regulations on public providers that are not imposed on massive companies like AT&T and Comcast.

If you want to stay current with stories like this, you can subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

Rural Reality: Waiting One Month for Basic Telephone Service in New House

Yesterday, we released our first podcast - a short discussion with Linda Kramer of the Sibley-Renville Fiber project in rural Minnesota.

When I happened across their Facebook page this morning, I found this perfect example of why the project is necessary (and they gave us permission to reprint it):

One of my friends moved from Fairfax to Gibbon two weeks ago. Her existing provider won't hook up service to her new home until June 29. This means nearly four weeks without basic telephone service for her family (and no phone at all while her husband has his work cell phone with him during business hours).

Once she gets the service hooked up, she needs to address a billing problem, as the amount she's being billed by this company is not the same as what she was promised when she signed the contract.

Excellent local customer service is one of the things many people are looking forward to with RS Fiber. Is this important to you?

Most of us in urban areas really hate our cable providers because of the poor service they provide. But at least they are relatively timely in the terrible service they offer -- unlike in rural areas where telco technicians may be responsible for covering many hundreds of square miles.

Hesitant though I am to promote anything Facebook-related, the people in Sibley have done a tremendous job of using Facebook to organize people and share stories about why their community-owned network is so important. If you are trying to organize a community for better broadband, take some notes.

First Community Broadband Bits Podcast - Sibley County Fiber to the Farm

In our excitement to produce this podcast, we forgot to credit Fit and the Conniptions for the intro/outro music. Much thanks for releasing their music under a creative commons license that allows us to use it for this purpose. If you like their sound, buy an album!

We have decided to start a podcast- a recurring audio program that you can listen to on your smartphone, iPod, computer, this web page, etc. We are calling it Community Broadband Bits and our plan is to offer short (10-15 minute) interviews with people doing interesting things to encourage community broadband networks.

As this is our first attempt at such a show, we hope you will send feedback and suggestions. Eventually, we will get on a schedule, likely releasing every other week for the first few months.

To subscribe with iTunes, click here.

If you simply want the audio feed for the show, it is http://feeds.feedburner.com/BroadbandBits

For our first show, we interviewed Linda Kramer with the Marketing Committee of the Sibley-Renville Fiber Project in rural Minnesota's Sibley County. In this ten minute interview, we discuss the need and demand for broadband in rural areas, as well as how the marketing committee has educated residents and demonstrated support for a County-owned fiber network.