Steve Jobs: City's Role is Providing Broadband

I cannot help but comment on this story that I have seen in multiple places in the tech press. Steve Jobs, when presenting an impressive new headquarters for Apple, is asked by a City Council member if Apple would provide free Wi-Fi for the city.

His reply certainly fits our philosophy:

"I'm a simpleton, I've always had this view that we pay taxes and the city pays to do this kind of thing. Now if we can get out of taxes, I'd be happy to put up Wi-Fi.

Excellent answer. When it comes to broadband, there are absolutely appropriate, strong roles for local governments.

Muni Fiber Network Creates Opportunities, Savings in Pulaski, Tennessee

Publication Date: 
May 11, 2011
Author(s): 
Craig Settles
Publication Title: 
Fighting the Next Good Fight

Craig Settles recently interviewed Dan Speers, the Executive Director of the Pulaski-Giles County Economic Development Council, focusing on the publicly owned PES Energize muni FTTH network.

Craig started by asking how the network is used by local businesses:

There’s a printing operation here with their corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. They have to be able to send artwork all the time to headquarters. There’s a guy who works developing catalogue books that are published by an outfit in Canada. Before the network it would take him six hours to upload materials and now it’s done in minutes. One company has their offices on the north side of community and the manufacturing plant on the south side. They’re always sending large data files back and forth.

Hospitals here can upload and download files such as x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans immediately between other hospitals and doctors 75 miles away in Nashville. Patients don’t have to be transferred there, and they don’t have paper records that have to be carried by hand to specialists like they did in the old days. All of this saves lives and it saves money.

When Craig asked what the Obama Administration can do to expand broadband to "improve local economies," Speers asked for an end to state-created barriers to community networks and mentioned a Tennessee bill that would allow muni utility networks to offer services to communities outside their historic electric territories:

From a Tennessee perspective, first put us on a level playing field with the telcos. Allow municipalities to get into the business with none of the restrictions we have. We wanted to be able to wholesale our network services. Take Lawrenceberg, for example. They have no broadband and the telcos flat out refuse to build it there. We can expand our network over to them and they’d save $3 Million. But with the law the state legislature passed, we can’t serve them because they’re out of our area. If we shared head-in facilities, this would go a long way for economic development there.

Greenville: The Texas Muni Cable Network

If you the take a look at our community broadband map, you'll see that Texas has only one citywide wired network owned by the public: Greenville. The story behind it is the same story we hear from just about every other community - but they actually spelled it out on their history page.

In 1999, Greenville, Texas' economic development leaders were unable to attract certain businesses and on the verge of losing existing companies due to a lack of high speed Internet.

In response, Mayor Sue Ann Harting asked SBC for a commitment to deploy DSL. That request was denied. The city's cable franchise, Time Warner, also declined to commit to cable modem Internet deployment.

Greenville found itself in a situation similar to one that many towns had faced years ago when railroads changed transportation. If the railroad was not routed through a town, that town just might die. What would happen to Greenville if the information superhighway did not come through the city?

Incumbent cable and telephone companies, their lobbyists, and associated "think tanks" like to claim that communities are somehow "duped" into building publicly owned networks. The truth is that just about every community wants to avoid the hassle of building a network but incumbents refuse to invest sufficiently to keep the community competitive for economic development and a high quality of life.

They build networks when backed into a corner, not because they want to. Fortunately, all that hassle almost always pays off with far more benefits than problems over the long term as communities transition from depending on some distant corporation to solving their own problems locally.

In fact, the results are often like that of Greenville:

Greenville citizens were not willing to take that chance. They took destiny into their own hands by amending the city charter to allow their revenue-only supported, municipally-owned electric system to build a hybrid fiber coaxial system to make high speed Internet available to everyone. Digital cable TV was offered as an option on that same system.

Once the citizens had committed to this venture, the city's incumbent telephone and cable franchises found ways of deploying that high speed Internet that they had only recently declared not feasible in Greenville.

In 2001, citizens began connecting to the city's state-of-the-art system that accessed all 10,000 of the homes and business in Greenville. Public acceptance has been very good, with more than 4,500 of those homes and businesses (as of June 2005) now choosing the new municipal services after less than four years in business. Financially, this non-tax supported venture was seeing black ink earlier than expected.

Public acceptance readily came from slightly lower cost to the consumer plus faster Internet speeds and more cable TV channels than the incumbents offered. (The existing cable company wasn't even offering ESPN 2 in 2000). Consumers also welcomed the chance to have these multiple services placed on one bill with "one-stop" local customer service to handle all of the municipal services - one inclusive bill for water, sewer, garbage, electric and cable TV and Internet as options.

After the community built its network, the incumbent providers finally upgraded their services and undoubtedly lowered their prices. The local Chamber of Commerce has this to say about the public investments:

Greenville is fortunate to have its own non-profit, locally operated municipal electric, digital cable television, high speed Internet, water, and wastewater utility systems. 

Unfortunately, Texas is one of the four states that have made it all but impossible for other communities to copy Greenville's success. And as long as AT&T can dump millions into the Legislature, that law will be hard to change.

AT&T Stumbles in Purchase of "Grassroots" Support

Public interest advocates in the telecom arena have long been frustrated with a parade of large, powerful non-profit organizations blindly supporting the positions of powerful telecom companies that just happen to make large donations to those non-profits.

A story this week confirmed the worst of our suppositions: these groups often have little idea of what they are supporting. The Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation seemed pretty enthused about the AT&T T-Mobile takeover a few weeks ago. Odd for GLAAD to be excited about its constituency paying higher prices for wireless services, but whatever.

Until a few days ago, when we got a look behind the scenes -- AT&T wrote their statement and it was simply signed by the organization's President -- who apparently had no idea what it was about. But he knew that AT&T gives big money to the org. He has since resigned.

Around the time that we learned of the GLAAD shenanigans, we learned how super excited Cattle Ranchers are for the AT&T takeover of T-Mobile. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest this merger will do anything for rural residents but increase the prices they pay. There is no shortage of spectrum in rural areas so T-Mobile offers nothing AT&T cannot do on its own.

And while the Cattle Ranchers are clamoring for higher monthly prices from AT&T, the single best hope for rapidly expanding wireless broadband access in rural areas - the unlicensed white spaces - is being quietly killed. Ironic, ain't it?

I have long supported the efforts of the Media Action Grassroots, which works to organize and educate people about essential issues in telecom and media. They work with real people and represent real people's interests all the time, not just when it doesn't conflict with a big donor. We need to support organizations that support our values, particularly when it is inconvenient to do so.

Update: More of the media is finally starting to take notice of the obvious: eWeek.

Munis Tell Carriers: Forget You Guys

MHT, Mass High Tech -- the Voice of New England Innovation -- recently turned a spotlight on the difficulty of creating Ubiquitous high-speed broadband. Always refreshing to see others understanding the real impediments to expanding fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet in this country:

For Andrew Rollins, chief software architect for Cambridge mobile analytics software as a service company Localytics Inc., the answer is to go DIY — at least for municipalities.
“I think the most interesting thing that is happening today is that you are looking at municipalities that are saying (to carriers), ‘Forget you guys. We are going to do it ourselves,’” Rollins said.

That is happening because there is no real business incentive for broadband carriers like Verizon Communications Inc. or Comcast Corp. to make the investment in infrastructure required to reach everyone in the U.S. Add to that the deals they have struck to function as monopolies in many locations, and it adds up to companies that really want to hold on to the status quo, Rollins said. “Somehow you have to incentivize these guys to build out the infrastructure and I don’t think they are going to do it on their own. They’re already gouging the heck out of customers today so why bother making that infrastructure if you are already getting that money out of people.” 

They go to discuss the backwards approach from North Carolina:

“Down in North Carolina they have been actually going out of their way saying the community fiber-to-the-home and broadband networks are bad and can’t happen,” she said. “That’s not going to get us there. If you say to the communities that you can’t do it yourself, that’s not an environment in which we can achieve success, not just in 5 years but in 10 or 20 years.”

Well worth the read.

Keys to Muni Fiber Success Story in Wyoming: Powellink

Publication Date: 
June 8, 2011
Author(s): 
Craig Settles
Publication Title: 
Daily Yonder

The Daily Yonder recently ran a cleverly titled article by Craig Settles, "Wyoming Town Creates Broadband Bonanza." We have previously written about Powell and its unique public-private partnership approach to an open access muni FTTH network.

Craig offers some more details, including some of the planning:

The planning team went a step further. Broadband feasibility studies typical include asking constituents about their level of interest in Internet services. Powell’s team secured firm commitments from institutions such as schools and hospitals that would not only subscribe to the network but entice their customers to subscribe, too. They contacted businesses about moving or expanding operations to Powell.

With agreements and letters of intent in hand, Powell was able to give Tri-County Telecom (TCT) more credible revenue predictions. “We presented our data and potential institutional subscribers,” states Bray. “TCT then adjusted for what their real costs were and described how the buildout was going to look, what the real breakeven was (and based on what assumptions), when certain goals had to be met and how long it will take to reach certain milestones over 20 years.” Bray calls all of the TCT forecasts, “conservative.”

He also notes that Powellink broke even at the end of 2010, an impressively short period of time.

New Broadband Networks Increase Tension in Vermont

We have previously covered the East Central Vermont Fiber Network and their local frustrations at receiving little state or federal support in building a next-generation network. The feds and state government seem too heavily influenced by those with lobbying clout -- leading to subsidies to build lesser networks that local do not want.

They want real Internet, not another wireless promise that fails to deliver. A story from Vermont Public Radio discusses increased tensions as the networks struggle over a few community anchor tenants to help finance the rest of the network. Here, Loredo Sola of EC Fiber explains the problem:

SoverNet will own the infrastructure but is required to provide bandwidth at wholesale cost to providers who extend the service outward.

Loredo Sola is skeptical. He says he's already lost one institutional contract to the SoverNet project. He says that's forced E.C. Fiber to scrap its plans to serve smaller users in the area.

Sovernet is building a middle mile network connection community anchor institutions, but is an example of the exact wrong way to do it. Supposedly, the investment (the vast majority of which is funded by a federal stimulus award) will allow more ISPs to build more last mile networks as they have access to better backhaul.

But lowering the operating cost of a network does very little to make that network affordable to build. The high up front capital costs are what limit broadband in rural (and urban too!) areas. Compounding the problem is what Sola mentions above, Sovernet is taking the key anchor institutions off the board with its project so communities are actually left with a harder business case to connect themselves.

Groups like the Vermont Telecommunications Authority are so proud of having solved a short term problem, they have totally missed the fact that the longer term problem of making sure everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet is now much harder to solve.

When I first read about the WiscNet situation, I was interested to learn that it acted as an ISP but rarely provided the physical connections -- leaving opportunities for communities to build those connections themselves, using themselves as an anchor tenant.

Smarter programs, like the Building Community Capacity through Broadband project, result in the community owning the network. Communities have greater incentive to build out these networks to connect everyone because they understand the value of building infrastructure rather than just trying to maximize a profit from it.

WiscNet Under Continued Attack, Contact Elected Officials

As we feared, the compromise may have been compromised by the uncompromising power of AT&T lobbyists. Once again, we learn that they struck at the last hour and may have put local schools and libraries on the chopping block.

If WiscNet goes and stimulus funds are returned, local institutions will have to double and triple their telecom budgets just to continue receive adequate service. This is intolerable. Until we hear otherwise, we encourage people to continue contacting their elected officials [pdf] in Wisconsin to express their opinion on the matter.

Some more details here and here.

Update: The Assembly will now be meeting at 1:00 rather than this morning. Rumors abound that they are still discussing how to "compromise" on AT&T's attack on the schools and libraries.

Unfortunately, this afternoon, I'll be leaving for a short camping trip (AT&T is not going to ruin my trip) and I have some canned posts queued up, so I won't be able to cover what happens in Wisconsin immediately. For news on the stimulus grant impact, follow WI_Broadband and for news about WiscNet, follow ijohnpederson and his live blog.

2nd Update: To understand how AT&T has so much power in Wisconsin, check out who "donates" the most money.

Weekly Email Digest of Community Broadband Networks News

A general reminder, if you want to receive a weekly email digest with highlighted stories from the previous week, you can sign up here. We send it out every Monday.

Positive Update from Wisconsin on WiscNet, Stimulus Awards

The word from Wisconsin is mostly good. A deal has been struck that will spare WiscNet, though it will be studied for two years and then could be killed. But a fair, open study will allow WiscNet to clearly demonstrate its value -- WiscNet thrives in the light while AT&T thrives at secretive, last minute measures to gut its competitors.

Additionally, the stimulus grants appear to be safe. The Legislature apparently will not require them to be returned long after the recipients had begun implementing them. But again, there is some bad news in that UW Extension will be restricted from receiving federal grants in the future to build the networks otherwise unavailable to schools and libraries. So that is disappointing. Returning those funds would have cost a few communities $27.7 million over just 5 years.

However, nothing is settled until the Legislature fully votes on it (today and Thursday) and the Governor signs the bill. AT&T lobbyists don't get paid to create fair compromises and surely aren't finished scheming. So make sure you have made your thoughts on this matter known to your elected officials. The Rootstrikes make it easy. Don't forget to tell the Governor too -- the line-item veto is a powerful tool.

Some more details have emerged regarding the damage to local budgets that would occur if the Leg requires the stimulus awards to be returned, in the Superior schools, for instance:

"We would pay about five times more for the internet access than we already pay through Wiscnet," said Nordgren [Associate Vice Chancellor of UW Superior].

The Superior School District said they would also lose money, because they have already invested $300,000 in anticipation of the project.

"We utilized the funding from this broadband grant in order to purchase and update our website that was archaic," said Janna Stevens, Superintendent at the Superior School District.

logo-league-wi-munis.png

The Wisconsin League of Municipalities vociferously opposes language harming WiscNet [pdf]:

Finally, we strongly oppose JFC’s decisions to dismantle WisNet and to reject $37 million in federal dollars for promoting broadband service in rural Wisconsin. Many libraries and city halls around the state save taxpayers’ dollars by using WisNet as their Internet provider. This change benefits private Internet service providers at an additional cost to taxpayers. At a time when both the Administration and the Legislature are preaching government frugality, it doesn’t make sense to take away some of the very tools local governments use to reduce spending. We urge the Legislature to reverse these JFC amendments.

If there is one lesson we can take away from this fight, it is the need to build strong networks that can quickly respond to the tricks companies like AT&T can do in their power-center: state capitals and DC. This provision was obviously intended to benefit AT&T and a few other companies at the expense of all Wisconsin, particularly its schools and libraries. But WiscNet and defenders responded quickly and powerfully to the attack. And when they did respond, they did so with various arguments, including the cost to libraries and schools. If you can't tell a legislator how it impacts a budget somewhere, you probably aren't being heard.