Op-Ed Praises UTOPIA for Helping Utah

Kane Loader, the City Manager for Midvale and Chair of the UTOPIA board, penned a recent op-ed explaining why UTOPIA is important to readers. UTOPIA is a trailblazer in the US open access fiber-optic network space. After initial problems, the network is showing a lot of promise and has long offered some of the fastest speeds available in the US at the lowest prices.

Utah can lead the way in this digital future, and the cities of UTOPIA are proud to be part of the cutting-edge solution.

We are building this network not as a money-making operation, although our financial situation improves as our subscriber base grows. We are building this network for the same reason local governments built highways in the 19th century and airports in the 20th century: This infrastructure will be what connects our 21st century world.

Clearwire Validates Skepticism About Wireless as Last-Mile Solution

Clearwire, which brags that it built the first 4G network in the country, is under assault from its customers.

Customers began complaining in mid-2010 that Clearwire had begun to throttle their home Internet connections, sometimes as slow as 256Kbps. It wasn't clear (ba-dum ching) at the time as to what standard Clearwire was using in order to trigger the throttling—some users were told about monthly usage caps while others were simply told that there were certain times of day in which the network would be congested. Customers were frustrated at this lack of transparency, and complaints began piling up all over the Web.

We were told for years that WiMax would obviate the need for last-mile wired connections. Now we are told that 4G LTE will solve those problems - and gullible reporters gush about how fast their connections are in these early days as the network is built. This is akin to driving on a metro interstate at 3AM and wondering why anyone would ever complain about rush hour traffic. 4G networks will likely be much better than 3G (it is a higher number, after all) but it remains to be seen how well they perform in real world conditions when many devices can actually attach and congest them.

We remain skeptical of wireless as a solution to last-mile problems. Wireless does little more than take a high-capacity wired connection and split it among hundreds or thousands of users - while reducing its reliability.

Examining Virginia's Broadband Problems

The Roanoke Times recently published an extensive story about broadband, covering everything from what it is to why it is needed and who doesn't have it.

Aside from providing an excellent primer on these issues to those who are new to broadband discussions, Jeff Sturgeon writes about problems often ignored by the media, like the difficulties for companies and other entities can encounter when they need extremely high capacity connections:

Skip Garner directs the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which unites the powers of biology and information technology to advance medicine. It is at Virginia Tech. Garner said he, too, finds computing power a constraint. In spite of a 1 gigabit connection, "we are limited in what we could do," Garner said.

When the lab's DNA sequencers pile up data, "we will often put it on a 1-terabyte drive ... and FedEx it to our customers," Garner said.

An upgrade to 10 gigabits is coming. He expects it still won't be enough.

It might appear that new facilities would not have such problems, but even the 5-month-old Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute near downtown Roanoke is not satisfied with its Web service. While the speed is good at 10 gigabits, the cost it pays to service providers is staggering.

"It's in the tens of thousands of dollars a month," said Executive Director Michael Friedlander.

This is one world. Communities with their own fiber networks are another -- where these connections are not prohibitively expensive. And yet another world is the world of several rural Minnesota Counties, who cannot even get T.1 lines from incumbent phone providers. In Cook County, in 2008, a company was quoted $600,000 to install a T.1 line. Yes, $600,000 - I had to hear it twice to make sure I wasn't imagining it.

The article explores Design Nine founder Andrew Cohill's thoughts on improving broadband access. Cohill mentions Wired West, a network we have written about previously.

"We think it's got to be treated like essential public infrastructure," he said.

That way, access would be open to any service provider on equal footing. Just as anyone could launch a cab company or food delivery service over the road system, anyone will be able to use the information highway's new lanes. This creates competition, and competition lowers prices.

Cohill has seen it happen elsewhere. One of about 100 U.S. regions getting aggressive in this area is western Massachusetts, where 47 localities combined efforts to install fiber-optic Internet cabling to homes covering about one-quarter of the state, he said.

"Their vision is fiber everywhere. Fiber to every home, every business," Cohill said.

In western Massachusetts, Cohill ran into Douglas Trumbull, the 68-year-old film director behind the special effects in such films as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Silent Running" and "Brainstorm."

At his home in the area, Trumbull wants a 300 mbps connection to support his continued work in the special effects business; his phone company-provided Web access is too slow. Trumbull said that if high-speed connectivity were available through the region where he lives, "he'd bring 100 more, very high paying movie jobs, technical jobs to western Massachusetts. Why western Massachusetts? He thinks it's a beautiful place to live. It's the same mountain chain as down here. So there's tremendous opportunities, but it's not about attracting another manufacturer," Cohill said.

And finally, the article returns to a network in their own backyard -- the Wired Road, a publicly owned open access network.

Fiber optic-based Web service from three providers is available at 60 buildings in downtown Galax over lines installed by a three-government authority. The Galax-based Wired Road Broadband Authority expects to finish this year with $3 million raised and spent out of a $42 million plan to connect every home, business and community institution in Galax and the counties of Carroll and Grayson, a region of about 54,000 people, that will want Internet services that require fiber.

Private telecommunications providers could not be counted on to do the work, because the payback would have been too low, said Mike Maynard, a Grayson County supervisor who chairs the Wired Road board.

"The only reason we're in this is to get people connected," Maynard said. "If we had to wait for private entities to invest $42 million in the region, I don't know that it would ever happen."

Exactly. Many communities are realizing they need to invest in themselves before anyone else will invest in them. Unfortunately, Virginia is one of many states that have created unique barriers to discourage community networks. We should be long past coddling monopolies with laws to restrict communities from building the networks they need. But in Virginia, we aren't.

Ask Me Questions on Rural America Radio Friday

 I just joined the community at RuMBA - the Rural Mobile & Broadband Alliance - and will be appearing on Rural America Radio to discuss rural broadband issues on Friday, March 18. You can call in with questions. Details from Rural America Radio here:

Listen here: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/luisahandem

Fiber Networks are admittedly the most powerful tools for delivery of high-speed Internet anywhere. How can communities take ownership of their broadband choices and funding so as to ensure the best outcome? From Minnesota to North Carolina, there is clearly a battle of words going on between private corporations and rural counties, municipalities and other underserved areas on decision-making. In this edition of Rural America Radio, showhost Luisa Handem interviews Christopher Mitchell,  a strong proponent of publicly owned broadband networks. He is the Director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative with the New Rules Project of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  He has been published in a number of online magazines as well as print publications. Mitchell is the author of last year's report on publicly owned broadband networks titled “Breaking the Broadband Monopoly: How Communities Are Building the Networks They Need.”

You may join the show by dialing 646-378-1746 to ask a question from 3:00-3:30pm CDT, every Friday.

Rural America Radio gives voice to rural residents and those who wish to promote the wellbeing and economic growth of rural communities across the U.S. We bring you the very best in talk-show programming related to rural American affairs, by deliberately focusing on the use of technology, especially high-speed Internet, and healthy living. Rural America Radio is a project of the Rural Mobile & Broadband Alliance (rumbausa.com).

 

Network Neutrality Opponents Totally Out of Touch With Reality

Public Knowledge produced and released this video revealing the increasing divide between reality and what opponents of network neutrality claim.

Video: 
See video

Minnesota Cable Companies Fight to Stop Rural Lake County From Getting Broadband

Lake County's County-wide FTTH network has encountered more than its fair share of troubles but residents are excited at the prospect of having broadband access to the Internet. While some of its troubles came from their own confusion and misunderstanding that led to the falling out with their consultants, National Public Broadband, they are now in the cross hairs of a powerful cable industry group - the Minnesota Cable Communications Association.

The Minnesota Cable Communications Association joined the fray at the end of February, sending a massive data request to Lake County and all the governments within the project area. County Attorney Laura Auron said she “objected to the characterization” the cable industry advocate group made about the project. The MCCA wrote that is was “deeply concerned about the shroud of secrecy” about the project, calling efforts to get the project in line with state and federal rules “opaque.”

The association demanded to see the county’s business plan and contracts for the project. It also asked all the cities and townships in the joint powers association, a requirement under the Rural Utilities Service rules for grants and loans, to provide all information regarding the fiber project discussed at council and board meetings.

MCCA exists to protect the interests of its members -- fair enough. Too bad for the folks in Lake County that have no access to the Internet. Because a portion of the project will give the resident of Silver Bay and Two Harbors an actual choice (disrupting the monopoly of Mediacom), MCCA is using a common tactic to delay and disrupt the project: massive public records requests. All the while, MCCA pretends its core mission is advocating on behalf of the beleaguered citizens of Lake County.

We commonly hear from publicly owned networks that they have to deal with constant data requests from competitors. This goes far beyond any reasonable amount as incumbent companies use the requests themselves as a time suck attack against publicly owned networks as well as mischaracterizing any detail they can in an attempt to smear the network.

Communities should be ready for this onslaught. From what we can tell, it never really stops. This is another reason community projects should live in public to the greatest extent possible. Secrecy is not really an option and can consume more energy than community networks can spare.

MCCA is correct that Lake County should act transparently, but its interest lies only in casting doubt and disrupting this potential network because it threatens the monopoly of an MCCA member.

Chanute, Kansas, Publicly Owned Fiber-Optic Network Serves Area Businesses

I continue to find it odd that more communities with publicly owned networks do not create official videos or other promotional material that is readily accessible on the Internet.  Videos discussing fiber-optic investments continue to be the exception to the rule. 

But it was a video promoting Chanute's fiber-to-the-business network that I stumbled across in a search for something else.  It turns out that Chanute has built a network with a variety of current and planned uses:

  • Smart Grid
  • Energy Management
  • Utility SCADA Systems
  • Interactive Distance Learning (IDL)
  • Free WiFi Hotspots
  • Telemedicine
  • College – using broadband for testing, building partnerships
  • City – meeting broadcasts, pool construction, public awareness, accounting, record-keeping, collaborations with other entities, security, emergency communications, and back up to the county 911 emergency operation center.
  • Real-time video surveillance of public assets – Chanute currently monitors over 40 high resolution video cameras connected to its community network. These cameras provide improved public safety and enhance security for the community’s public assets. The cameras can be configured individually for viewing by the City from various display terminals within the City’s emergency operations center, and at governmental, utility and public safety department offices. Video surveillance images from the school district and the local community college can be viewed by government officials.

They have also made significant wireless investments for redundancy:

We have a City-owned Broadband Wireless Network which also provides back up to the fiber system for critical facilities in the community. Most of the broadband wireless links are dedicated to the private use of the City to support its utility operations, video surveillance, and provide wireless backup in the event of a fiber segment failure. There is one commercial customer that uses this as a primary source for Internet connectivity. Chanute views these wireless assets as a mechanism to provide immediate access to the community’s network to support the short-term commercial needs of businesses in Chanute. The wireless links can be deployed rapidly, sometimes in less than 24 hours, until such time as the fiber infrastructure can be extended to the new network participant. The broadband wireless technologies utilized by Chanute include licensed and unlicensed frequency bands in the 2.4, 2.5, 4.9, 5.3, and 5.8 GHz ranges. The use of unlicensed frequencies has been coordinated with alternative broadband wireless providers that also operate within our community.

Video: 
See video

Comparing Broadband Services: Salisbury Fibrant and Wilson Greenlight to Incumbents in North Carolina

This is a video we have wanted to do for a long time. With H 129 threatening community networks across the state, we finished it. It uses information we published in a report about broadband in North Carolina in November, 2010.

Our full coverage of H 129 is available here.

Video: 
See video

Asheville Opposes Rep Avila's Attempt to Enshrine Time Warner Cable Monopoly

The continuing saga of H129/S87 in North Carolina has proved at least one thing, Time Warner Cable knows how to pull the puppet strings. The bill was written by Time Warner Cable and pretends to be about creating a level playing field while it effectively outlaws community networks (and some public safety networks) -- much to Time Warner Cable's financial benefits.

It remains unclear whether Representative Avila, who is championing this TWC power grab, truly knows what she is doing or is simply ignorant and blindly trusts the TWC lobbyists actually running the show.

After Legislators received a torrent of phone calls opposing TWC's bill, Rep Avila promised to negotiate with communities to find some middle ground and ensure the legislation at least grandfathered existing community networks. Instead, she turned the meetings over to TWC to run -- rather than negotiating, they set their terms. She has made multiple public claims about being reasonable but in private, she has made it clear that this is Time Warner Cable's bill.

Communities are dead set against this bill, noting the many ways in which it creates unique barriers for their networks while giving a free pass to TWC. Hardly shocking as TWC wrote the bill and is calling the shots via Rep. Avila (whose own district opposes the bill).

Now Asheville has passed a resolution against the bill [pdf], fearing its passage would derail their public safety network. The staff report explains why:

The stated purpose of the bills is to protect jobs and promote investment in North Carolina. The mechanism for protection is structured as restrictions on local government on engaging in what governing boards deem to be public-purpose communication and/or broadband projects. While one might assume that the bill’s target of communications services that deliver broadband and other services “to the public, or any sector of the public, for a fee” would rule out Asheville, this is not necessarily the case. The City of Asheville owns and operates assets that support a public safety radio system, a critical need for our officers in the field. Over the lifetime of the communications system, the City has leased surplus communications system assets to the private sector in order to underwrite a cost savings plan for the operations of the system, thus saving citizens from an additional tax burden.

Restrictions of the bills include limiting permanent or temporary subsidy of a broadband enterprise fund by other enterprise funds, as well as making cities liable for taxes that, normally, only private telecommunications corporations would have to pay. The bills state that cities “shall not subsidize provision of communications services with funds from any noncommunications service”, and would rule out a private/public partnership (such as a potential partnership with Google Fiber) or grant funding (such as ARRA or other Federal funding). Such restrictions would significantly harm Asheville.

The restrictions also forbid the financing or leasing of real property (which could be rights-of- ways for a communication network or tower sites) per NCGS 160A-19 and 160A-20. Asheville’s ability to build new public safety telecommunications towers, or relocate them, would be affected. Finally, the bills apply these restrictions to interlocal agreements. While the bills exempt facilities that are “within the city's jurisdictional boundaries for the city's internal governmental purposes,” it is not always clear-cut what an “internal governmental purpose” is, and whether a city that partners with a county or other local government would be subject to these restrictions. It is worth noting that not all of the City of Asheville’s critical public safety telecommunications towers are within the City’s jurisdictional boundaries.

And its fiscal impact:

These bills could have a negative fiscal impact in two ways. First, the City’s ability to accept grant dollars or engage in communication system interlocal agreements would likely be negatively impacted because of the City’s practice of underwriting public safety communications expense with leases to the private sector. Second, if City Council wished to engage in broadband economic development activities to boost the tax base, such as a public- private partnership to build a high speed broadband system similar to Google Fiber, such an action would be significantly more difficult to accomplish than it is today.

Not mention, this bill will kill jobs. There is no evidence that community networks have resulted in a single lost job in North Carolina, but we know it has created many jobs as well as improving the business climate by creating competition and lowering broadband prices.

This bill would also reverse the dramatic improvement in schools in Salisbury due to their community network. Without building their own networks, schools will have to continue relying on last-generation, overpriced connections from… companies like TWC and CenturyLink! Shocker that they are pushing so hard for it to pass!

Quite simply, this bill is a dramatic overreach -- Rep Avila is using the power of the state to overrule local communities to benefit TWC (as well as others, like CenturyLink). This Representative may not understand the impact of her legislation, but TWC does -- that is why they wrote it so expansively.

The bill is going to be discussed next week in the Finance Committee. Stop the Cap! has provided a list of committee members and links to their contact info. Folks in NC need to reach out and tell them to oppose the bill! Continue trying to get resolutions passed in counties, communities, grassroots organizations, etc (download a sample resolution [rtf]). Also, sign the petition and pass it along to friends, family, and neighbors.

The bottom of this post has links to more information about the bill, but the upshot is this: We need more competition in broadband, not state legislators giving more power to Time Warner Cable!

Asheville Grown

As an example, we are providing Asheville's resolution here. It is a bit shorter than the one from Rockingham County, but again shows the tremendous opposition to Avila's TWC bill.

RESOLUTION OF THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF ASHEVILLE TO OPPOSE HB-129 AND SB-87, “LEVEL PLAYING FIELD/LOCAL GOV’T COMPETITION”

WHEREAS, the City of Asheville owns and operates a vital public safety communications system; and

WHEREAS, the City may, from time to time, need or desire to lease unused portions of the communications system, and use the proceeds to underwrite the costs of building and constructing the system; and

WHEREAS, the ability to operate a telecommunications system is a potentially important public service that local governments should be able to provide to their citizens; and

WHEREAS, the Southeastern Telecommunications Officers and Advisors Association as well as the North Carolina League of Municipalities strongly opposes these bills; and

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF ASHEVILLE THAT:

1. The City strongly opposes House Bill 129 as well as Senate Bill 87.

2. The City Manager, with the assistance of the City Attorney, is authorized to convey this resolution to the North Carolina General Assembly and to submit written comments as appropriate in support of this resolution.

3. This resolution shall be effective on and after its passage.

Read, approved and adopted this 8th day of March, 2011.

Image from AshevilleGrown

FairPoint Undermining Broadband Access in Vermont

In an op-ed, Tom Evslin discusses FairPoint and their opposition to a middle mile stimulus grant that would improve broadband access around the state. FairPoint had taken over Verizon's New England lines a few years ago. Verizon had a reputation for poor service but FairPoint took that to new levels before reorganizing under bankruptcy (yet another high-profile private sector failure).

FairPoint fought a middle-mile project in Maine and was eventually bribed into silence by the Legislature. Having learned the only lesson one can learn from such an experience, they are now fighting a middle mile project in Vermont.

Unfortunately FairPoint, the successor to Verizon for landlines in Northern New England, wants Vermont to choose between protecting a badly flawed FairPoint business plan or improving the economic future of Vermont’s rural areas. The choice is stark: use the federal “middle mile” stimulus grant already awarded to the Vermont Telecommunication Authority (VTA) to bring fiber closer to rural Vermonters and make wholesale backhaul and institutional broadband affordable in rural areas of the state or forfeit the grant and leave these areas without adequate business, residential and cellular service.

Vermont should move forward with its stimulus project to expand open access middle mile connections across the state. Appeasing FairPoint yet again is not only bad for Vermont's many underserved, it would further embolden FairPoint in its fight against any competition, public or private.

The VTA was formed to improve broadband access while not providing services directly. There is no reason it should not invest in these middle-mile networks. Quoting again from Evslin op-ed:

Now President of FairPoint in Vermont, Mike Smith said yesterday in an interview broadcast on WCAX that he never meant that the VTA should build fiber networks and provide middle-mile (backhaul) service. He thought it would be directing its efforts to cellular and to retail service. However, Act 79 which Mike was instrumental in getting through the legislature authorizes the VTA “to own, acquire, sell, trade, and lease equipment, facilities, and other infrastructure that could be accessed and used by multiple service providers, the state and local governments, including fiber optic cables, towers, shelters, easements, rights of way, and wireless spectrum of frequencies; provided that any agreement by the authority to sell infrastructure that is capable of use by more than one service provider shall contain conditions that will ensure continued shared use or colocation at reasonable rates“.

Moreover, the Act also says “Nothing in this chapter shall be construed to grant power to the authority to offer the sale of telecommunications services to the public.” In other words, the legislature specifically authorized VTA to be a wholesale provider and specifically forbad it to be a retail provider. The Legislature and the Governor meant the VTA to enable retail service by providing wholesale infrastructure.

FairPoint has been a disaster for Vermont - capitulating to its demands now will only reward it and ensure Vermont's citizens have no other option for the communications services they need.