Tullahoma Community Fiber Network Brings Jobs to Tennessee

Tullahoma's LightTUBe FTTH network, owned and operated by the Tullahoma Utilities Board, has attracted J2 Software Solutions to locate its headquarters in town [PDF]. Its CEO, Jerry Wright offers some background:

Wright said J2, which specializes in providing high-tech software to law enforcement agencies to handle dispatching, records management and other related functions, needed to have the highest speed, most dependable Internet service available.

He said TUB, through its LightTUBe broadband communications service, provides exactly what his company needs to thrive and expand.

"What LightTUBe has is top of the line," Wright said, adding that normal cable TV service and higher speed digital subscriber line, commonly referred to as DSL, were not adequate to meet the company’s volume and demand.

Sounds like confirmation of the story we we just wrote about AT&T's CEO admitting DSL is obsolete.

Congratulations to Tullahoma for making smart investments in its own future.

Oregon Town To Build Open Access Fiber Network Complement to Wireless Network

Sandy, a growing community of about 10,000 outside Portland in Oregon, is now building a FTTH network to expand on their successes offering city-run wireless broadband in 2003. They've done the whole wireless thing for 8 years but understand the future is high capacity, high reliability connections.

They are starting with a pilot program that seized on energy created by Google's gigabit initiative -- they held a "Why Wait for Google?" contest that asked neighborhoods to show their potential interest in a fiber-optic network.

When the Cascadia Village and Bornstedt Village won the contest, they were asked how they wanted to be involved:

What happens now? This is a pilot program, so we’re taking it step-by-step. We want the residents and property owners in Cascadia/Bornstedt Villages to be partners with us in making decisions on how this service will work. And we want it to be democratic: whatever we do, it will only be with the support of the majority of the residents and property owners who get involved.

The first thing we need to know is: how would you like to be involved? We have a lot of options, depending on your level of interest, and how busy your life is. On one end of the spectrum is simply asking us to keep you informed through e-mail or letters, and at the other end is your active participation (over a course of several meetings) in the detailed planning for the implementation of this pilot project. (Note: in the case of rental properties, we encourage both the landlord and the tenant to stay involved, and we have tried to mail this letter to both, based on available records).

This is a far cry from the massive cable and telco approach of "you will get what we give you when we offer it on the terms we decide."

SandyNet Logo

SandyNet is going to continue providing access to the Internet, but according to the FAQ, they will operate the network on an open access basis, encouraging independent service providers to offer dial tone and television services on it as well.

The Oregonian covered the SandyNet story -- nearby Portland has long considered a publicly owned network that the Oregonian has skeptically covered.

The plan is an underground deployment that could take 10 years. When we have previously seen communities consider such a long deployment horizon, it is because they plan to build the network opportunistically without issuing debt. But Sandy is considering financing the network with muni bonds. Regardless of when it is available, the goal is to offer 100Mbps at $40/month -- which would make it one of the most attractive broadband deals in the nation, indeed on the continent.

Sandy has also passed an ordinance requiring new developments to install underground fiber along with other utilities -- a rule we will take a greater look at in the near future.

AT&T CEO Admits DSL is Obsolete

In a Q&A following a speech at the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners, AT&T CEO Randal Stephenson candidly called DSL obsolete. This echoes not only our view, but that of hundreds of communities who have built their own networks upon realizing they cannot be competitive in the modern world with DSL.

Interestingly, AT&T still has millions of customers that use its DSL product. And it has announced its super-DSL offering called U-Verse is finished -- no doubt surprising many state-house policymakers that AT&T had convinced they would invest in communities.

The context of his comment was that DSL is no longer competitive with cable in broadband capacity (and often reliability) -- something we documented in our video comparing different types of networks. We would argue that U-Verse itself is not competitive with cable due to its greatly constrained upstream speeds -- even worse than cable networks typically experience.

So, to recap -- we have yet another admission from the private sector that it is delivering obsolete broadband services to our communities. How can there be any surprise that so many more communities are considering building their own networks to create economic develop, increase quality of life, and generally be competitive in the digital economy.

If AT&T can barely keep up with the investment necessary for our communities, how can far less profitable companies like CenturyLink and Frontier? They can't. But that doesn't stop them from advertising the hell out of their obsolete networks. Smart communities will choose self-determination rather than betting on last-generation networks run by distant, unaccountable corporations.

Daily Yonder on Wired West Massachusetts Towns

Publication Date: 
July 6, 2011
Author(s): 
Craig Settles
Publication Title: 
Daily Yonder

We have long followed the efforts of rural communities in western Massachusetts to form the Wired West network. They will soon wrap up the town meeting season and have a sense of how many local towns are a part of the initial project. But if you aren't already familiar with the project, the Daily Yonder offers a background article.

Midway through the broadband stimulus program in early 2010, several western Massachusetts towns recognized this danger and decided to form WiredWest to take matters into their own hands. These communities believe “control of the network needs to stay in the hands of the community,” states Co-Chair and spokesperson Monica Webb, of Monterey, MA. “Private providers just cherry pick the best subscribers and offer empty promises to the rest of us.”

WiredWest structured itself legally as a "cooperative of municipal light plants," a designation created by a 100-year-old law that enabled towns to distribute their own electricity. This designation allows towns to own telecom services within existing legislative guidelines and use municipal bonds to fund the network, and it grants individuals and businesses tax deductions when they donate to WiredWest. WiredWest also can provide Internet access service without being required to provide cable TV services. Hilltown Community Dev Corp. is a second community co-op in the area and it is designated as a fiduciary able to apply for grants on WiredWest’s behalf. Once WiredWest officially launches this month, it will have the legal authority to apply for grants, contract with providers, and take other actions.

WiredWest early on took stock of its needs, learning how to recruit additional towns to join the coalition. “Of the 47 towns now in WiredWest, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Comcast are only in seven,” says Webb. “There are two or three WISPs, (wireless Internet service providers) but getting coverage into many places requires lots of towers and repeaters that makes this option expensive. Some towns can make the coverage-to-cost work, but others tried to no avail.”

Maryland County Builds Wireless Network on Fiber Stimulus Project

Harford County, in northeast Maryland, is planning to bond for an $8 million wireless network to service local government, public safety, education, health care, and both commercial and residential needs. It will be called the Harford County Metro Area Network - HMAN.

The current plan envisions a free tier as well as a low-cost tier intended for residential access.

The network builds on fiber connections built with stimulus dollars, likely the OneMaryland network that touches every county in the state. This project will make those connections available to far more people and businesses.

But the Baltimore Sun is asking some difficult questions - including whether it makes sense to use long-term bonds for wireless networks, where the technology may change significantly in a few short years.

The problem for Harford County is that while the wireless technology may change rapidly, the private sector is not meeting their needs and they need better access to communications now.

We are generally skeptical of solutions that envision wireless as the sole delivery mechanism for broadband to the home or business, given the much higher capacity and reliability of fiber-optic connections, but as long as the County is already building a network needed to ensure public safety departments and other local government mobile needs are met, it may certainly make sense to spend a little extra to offer residential and business access.

The Real Impact of the AT&T&T-Mobile Merger Isn't Funny

But that doesn't mean we can't use humor to illustrate the very serious impact of more consolidation in the mobile market!  Check out four short commercials prepared by Free Press and vote on your favorite.  Our favorites are below.

Video: 
See video
See video

Preserve Unlicensed Spectrum - White Spaces At Risk

If the future is wireless, we have to preserve unlicensed spaces. To explain: most wireless stuff uses licensed spectrum - where only a single entity has permission from the FCC to use a specific wavelength of spectrum. While this is great for those who can afford to license spectrum (companies like AT&T and Verizon), it is not particularly efficient because the rest of us cannot use those wavelengths even if AT&T and Verizon aren't (which is particularly a problem in rural areas).

Contrast that approach with Wi-Fi, which uses unlicensed spectrum. There are portions of spectrum where the FCC has said anyone can do anything. This is why we do not need permission to set up wireless networks in our house.

Last year, the FCC made a great decision to make "white spaces" wireless technology unlicensed -- which will allow more of us (again particularly in rural areas) to use white spaces without having to get permission. Because this decision creates a larger potential market, we would have more manufacturers interested in creating gear -- meaning more innovation and a lower cost to establish wireless networks (that are far more powerful than Wi-Fi allows).

But now Congress is considering reversing that decision and licensing that spectrum to generate a few billion dollars of one-time revenue for the government -- at a cost of far more than billions of dollars of lost opportunities, particularly in rural America where these unlicensed white spaces are the only real opportunity to rapidly deliver broadband in the short term.

In short, keeping these white spaces unlicensed will be far better for rural economies, innovation, and productivity than a one-time infusion of cash into the federal government.

These decisions are going to made shortly, so I encourage everyone to check out Public Knowledge's Action Alert calling on us to contact our members of Congress to oppose this approach.

More Consolidation, Fewer Jobs, No Duh

We watch in frustration as the federal government, dressed as Charlie Brown asks AT&T, wearing Lucy's blue dress and smiling brightly, if she really will hold the football properly this time. "Oh yes, Charlie, this time I really will create all those jobs if you let us buy T-Mobile," says AT&T Lucy.

Over at HuffPo, Art Brodsky recently revisited AT&T's promises in California to create jobs, lower broadband prices, and heal the infirm if the state would just deregulate the cable video market -- which it did, 4 years ago. California upheld its end of the bargain -- wanna guess if AT&T did? Hint: Charlie Brown ended up on his back then too.

The answer comes from James Weitkamp (via Art's HuffPo post), from the Communications Workers of America, a union that all too often acts in the interests of big companies like AT&T and CenturyLink rather than workers:

"AT&T and Verizon have slashed the frontline workforce, and there simply are not enough technicians available to restore service in a timely manner, nor enough customer service representatives to take customers' calls. Let me share some statistics. Since 2004, AT&T reduced its California landline frontline workforce by 40%, from about 29,900 workers to fewer than 18,000 today. The company will tell you that they need fewer wireline employees because customers have cut the cord going wireless or switched to another provider, but over this same period, AT&T access line loss has been just under nine percent nationally. I would be shocked if line loss in California corresponds to the 40 percent reduction in frontline employees.


"Similarly, since 2006 Verizon California cut its frontline landline workforce by one-third, from more than 7,000 in 2005 to about 4,700 today. I venture that Verizon has not lost one third of its land lines in the state."

Note that AT&T, Verizon, and other massive incumbents like Comcast have been wildly profitable over this term.

The same trend holds in cellular wireless - as noted by the Wall Street Journal:

The U.S. wireless industry is booming as more consumers and businesses snap up smartphones, tablet computers and billions of wireless applications. But for the industry's workers, the story is less rosy.

In May, on the heels of a record year for industry revenue, employment at U.S. wireless carriers hit a 12-year low of 166,600, according to U.S. Labor Department figures released earlier this month. That's about 20,000 fewer jobs than when the recession ended in June 2009 and 2,000 fewer than a year ago.

While the industry's revenue has grown 28% since 2006, when wireless employment peaked at 207,000 workers, its mostly nonunion work force has shrunk about 20%.

This should not be a surprise. In fact, it would be shocking if the increasing consolidation of telecom created more jobs. The fewer firms in the market, the more they are likely to work together for mutual gain -- to the detriment of all the rest of us.

Rural voices are continuing to make this point, as Parul Desai recently did on the Daily Yonder:

If the merger goes through it is unlikely the two remaining larger carriers would try to compete on price.  AT&T has chosen to emphasize network improvements, speeds of service, and gains in network development that the merger will enable, rather than tout future pricing benefits. The company has indicated to stockholders that it plans to bring T-Mobile revenues per user up to match those of AT&T, suggesting that price increases may be inevitable. 

But for every Parul Desai, there is a massive organization already bought off by AT&T claiming all their members are clamoring for fewer choices and higher prices.

But that is where we are going - both in wireline and wireless. The only question is how long policy makers will pretend the telecom/broadband industry is characterized by competition at all. But the fiction of competition serves a purpose - it allows those policy makers to justify their refusal to regulate in the public interest. As long as they pretend telecom has competition, they can say there is no need to regulate because the market will prevent AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, et al., from raising prices too much and cutting back on investment.

We can do better - but it requires smart government policies on the national level as well as preserving local self-determination to choose if building a publicly owned network makes sense. Though we will not have competition in poles, wires, or towers, we can have competition in services -- telephone, cable television, and access to the Internet. We can... but will we?

North Carolina and Broadband as Infrastructure

We dedicated a lot of coverage to Time Warner Cable's purchasing legislation to handicap communities from building competitive networks. Kara Millonzi, from the University of North Carolina School of Government, examined the new law and made a potentially interesting point.

Communities have a steep mountain to climb to build a self-financing community network in the state but if a community wanted to treat broadband infrastructure like the roads they manage, the law may not impact them.

As stated above, S.L. 2011-84 imposes some significant limitations on a municipality’s authority to provide cable and Internet services. With some exceptions, the limitations apply to a “city-owned communications service provider.” A city-owned communications service provider is defined as:

  • a city
  • that provides cable, video programming, telecommunications, broadband, or high-speed Internet access service (collectively, communication services)
  • directly, indirectly, or through interlocal agreement or joint agency
  • to the public
  • for a fee
  • using a wired or wireless network (communications network).

This definition is important because the new limitations only apply to municipalities that meet all of its elements. In particular, the Act’s provisions only apply to a municipality that provides the listed services “for a fee.” That means that the requirements do not apply to any municipality that provides the above-listed communication services for free to the public. Many local governments provide free Wi-Fi service in their downtown or other central business areas. (In fact, I am taking advantage of Town of Carrboro’s free Wi-Fi as I draft this post.) If a municipality uses its unrestricted general fund revenue to finance this service, or any other communications services, it is not subject to the new Act’s provisions. (Note that many local governments actually offer this service by taking advantage of excess capacity on their internal broadband networks.)

Though it is an extreme long shot, it would be fascinating to see a community build a network without charging a direct fee to access. It would also be fun to see Time Warner Cable hoisted on their own petard after pushing such self-serving and harmful-to-the-public legislation through an incredibly ignorant legislature.

Broadband Payback Not Just About Subscriber Revenues

Publication Date: 
January 6, 2011
Author(s): 
Joan Engebretson
Publication Title: 
Connected Planet

For years, telephone and cable companies have claimed there is little demand for better networks because they cannot identify a single "killer app" that needs 100Mbps or 1Gbps. Recently, I've heard from kindred spirits saying that the "killer app" is the network itself.

This is a smart response.

Imagine someone demanding we dismantle the Interstates unless we can identify a single use that makes them worthy. The proposition is absurd. There are thousands of ways the Interstates are used. Some -- like ensuring the military can move about the country quickly -- are quite important whereas others are important only to a few people (as when my family goes on vacation).

We are all better off because we have such a robust transportation system. Our markets are more efficient and we have greater freedom of movement. We all also bear the cost (whether it be through taxes, pollution, or other impacts … and yes, we bear that cost unevenly). Roads have been essential infrastructure for centuries -- few argue they should only be built where those along the path can pay for the full cost of doing so.

Access to the Internet is rapidly becoming as important as the roads have long been. Whether for economic development, education, health, or quality of life, a lack of fast, reliable, and affordable access to the Internet diminishes all.

For years, rural cooperatives have built telecommunications networks in rural areas where no private company would dare invest. Joan Engebretson explains why "Broadband Payback is not Just About Subscriber Revenues.".

Antique Phone

The upshot is that in doing a cost/ benefit analysis on telecom infrastructure investment, it’s important to take into account not only the direct revenues that the infrastructure generates but also the dollars that flow into a community as a result of the investment.

Imagine trying to sell a home today that only had party line phone service and think about the impact that would have on the value of the home. Now apply that logic to broadband. With two-thirds of U.S. households accustomed to having broadband connectivity, I’m already hearing that homes in areas with inadequate broadband coverage are becoming more difficult to sell. And that situation is only going to get worse as young people who never knew a world without broadband begin to buy homes.

The value of expanding communications (through increased access to the Internet) lies not the communication itself but in everything that communication allows. And that is a big universe.

Community networks are often demonized by massive cable and telephone companies for "failing" when they do not create profits in the first 3 years. But it hard to imagine a worse way of measuring success. The goal of the network is to increase economic development, ensure a higher quality of life, and generally produce a variety of indirect benefits that are extremely difficult to measure -- if anyone were even to try (most do not).

Few demand that local governments turn a profit on the roads they manage within 3 years of building them. It makes no more sense to make such a demand of community networks.

Antique phone photo used under creative commons license, courtesy of Sreenath H B.