Broadband Survey from Consumers Union

Take a few minutes to help an excellent organization, Consumers Union, to collect data about broadband.  Too much of our information about broadband comes from the big companies that have a vested interest in only spreading information that helps them.  Please fill out this survey.

Feel free to tell them that the Institute for Local Self-Reliance sent you.  

EC Fiber is Officially Live in Vermont

This has been a great month for communities building their own high capacity broadband networks in New England. Wired West in rural Massachusetts has formalized its coop of communities. Just last Friday, we wrote about the East Central Vermont Community Fiber network in beta. As of last night, EC Fiber is out of beta and officially live! Those interested can sign up at MyECFiber.net. Last night, they issued this press release:

SOUTH ROYALTON – Having completed its beta testing, and with the Phase I project nearly complete, ECFiber began connecting its first customers today. Eight customers have been beta-testing the system for the past two weeks, getting sustained 5Mbps symmetrical service.

The Barnard General Store, one of the beta sites, has been offering the experience to customers via WI-FI, and has been finding folks on their doorstep at all hours, trying out the system.

ecfiber-construction.png

“It’s been amazing,” says Kim Furlong, one of the store’s proprietors. “Because so much more of what we do is online, it is truly a joy to reap the reward of high-speed internet. Dial-up, and even satellite, is such a time-robber. Fiber is very different – you can be more efficient, and that is exciting. At the same time, I have some trepidation. People are going to relocate here more permanently because of what is available, and that is probably going to change the fabric of the community.”

According to Project Coordinator Leslie Nulty, 15 new accounts were opened within the first 24 hours after the doorstep delivery of information packets. Barnard Academy, another beta site, is also very excited about the service. They are planning an open house and community celebration of ECFiber’s arrival in mid-October.

Barnard was chosen for the Phase I project because of its proximity to the central office and its large number of unserved users. Pre-registrations topped 90% before the project started. Phase II, to build out the rest of the town of Barnard, is in the planning stages, with an informational meeting set for Thursday night at 7PM at the Barnard Town Hall.

Is Lafayettte Community Broadband Doing OK or Great?

Lafayette Doing OK, Doubles Capacity for Promotion

John at Lafayette Pro Fiber recently updated us all on LUS Fiber's financials. According to John, LUS Fiber is doing OK, not great, in its FTTH offering (probably the best deal in the nation for fast, affordable, and reliable connections). In reading deeper, it is clear that the impact of the community network on the public is GREAT, not just ok.

From John's writeup:

LUS estimates that the citizens of the community have saved 5.7 million dollars—in part direct saving from LUS' cheaper phone, video, and internet services and in part as a consequence of Cox lowering its prices and giving out special rates. Those special rates were discussed in the meeting with Huval pointing out that Cox had petitioned for and received permission to treat Lafayette as a "competitive" area. That meant that Cox could offer special deals to Lafayette users and, as we all know, has offered cuts to anyone who tries to leave. Those "deals." as Huval pointed out to Patin don't include the rural areas of the parish where Cox has no competition.

But it doesn't end there. LUS Fiber, due to anti-competitive laws pushed through the state's legislature to handicap public providers, is actually subsidizing the City -- providing more benefits to everyone, even those who do not subscribe to the network.

Again it all goes back to the (un)Fair Competion Act. One of the things in that act a concession that LUS Fiber would be able to borrow from LUS' other utilities just like any other corporation could set up internal borrowing arrangements. This is not a subsidy, it's a loan—with real interest. One of the efforts to raise an issue by Messrs Patin and Theriot centered around "imputed" taxes. Those are extra costs that Cox and ATT got the state to require that LUS include in order to force LUS to raise their price to customers (you!) above the actual cost. (Yes, really. See this. The idea was that LUS should have to pretend to pay taxes that it doesn't actually pay when setting its pricing—and include those fake costs when competing against Cox or ATT. PSC regulations (not the law) requires LUS Fiber to send those monies to the larger LUS. So LUS utilities is holding money LUS Fiber earned. LUS utilities loans it back to LUS Fiber—at interest. The net effect of this is to subsidize LUS' other utilities on the back of the new utility, LUS Fiber.

That's the only subsidy uncovered today.

You can't make this stuff up. Only in Louisiana.

Seal of Louisiana

Lafayette is also saddled with unexpectedly high programming costs due to Cox leaning on NCTC to prevent Lafayette from joining the coop. This means LUS Fiber has to pay higher prices than its competitors do to deliver the same television channels.

Even though Lafayette is offering the fastest broadband in the area, they are running an incredible promotion - everyone got bumped up a tier in August and September. If you are paying for 10Mbps symmetrical, you are getting 30. If you pay for 30, you get 50. And you get 100 if you pay for 50.

This is how community-owned promotions run -- they actually deliver the goods rather than only giving you a low introductory price that balloons after 3-6 months (followed by annual rate increases thereafter!).

If you wanted to judge LUS Fiber from the perspective of a private company, it would be OK. But if you account for all the benefits it is delivering to the community, it is doing great.

EC Fiber Starts Connecting Rural Vermont to Internet

The East Central Vermont Fiber-to-the-Home network is officially connecting people. This has been a fascinating project to watch, though undoubtedly frustrating from the thousands of people who just want a fast, affordable, and reliable connection to the Internet (though any one of the three would be an improvement for them).

They started trying to finance the network when the markets weren't interested in even lending water to Jesus. They seemed a lock for stimulus funding but that money instead when to a wireless project. The state begged them to apply for Vermont Telecom Authority broadband funds and then slammed the door when they complied. All in the shadow of Burlington Telecom. So they did what they now say they should have done from the start: financed it themselves.

They organized and came up with $1 million locally to start the project. In July, they announced Barnard Vermont would get connected first.

And now they are starting to turn those connections on. And regularly updating their blog, something I love to see! As of yesterday, they had 7 beta connections going and were planning to add 2 more. 3 in 4 of those asked if they want drops installed have already said yes.

We look forward to tracking their progress.

Learning from Burlington Telecom: Some Lessons for Community Networks

Publication Date: 
August 18, 2011
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell - Institute for Local Self-Reliance

In little more than a year, Burlington Telecom went from being a hopeful star of the community fiber network movement to an albatross around its neck. The controversies surrounding it have encouraged cable and telephone companies to use it as Exhibit A in their case against communities going into the telecommunications business. However, most of those criticizing Burlington Telecom have very little understanding of what went wrong and how it happened. Examining what actually happened helps to explain how these problems may be avoided, as the vast majority of existing community networks have already done.

[Download the full report]

In 2007, ILSR issued a case study on Burlington Telecom. The report argued that Burlington Telecom was a model for how communities could build their own next‐generation fiber‐to-the‐home broadband networks.

This report revisits and updates that report, analyzes Burlington Telecom’s situation (for better and for worse), and extracts useful lessons for other communities pursuing community fiber networks.

In preparation for this report, ILSR examined many documents, including those available due to the investigation of Vermont’s Department of Public Service. We interviewed many people from Burlington, including former BT employees, citizens active around the project, and City Council members. We discussed Burlington’s situation with a number of others intimately involved in community broadband networks around the country and posed questions directly to a representative of BT.

Attention Community Networks: The FCC Needs Information

We have long urged the FCC to include community networks in discussions around subjects like Universal Service Fund reform -- where communities are better poised to build the networks they need than private companies. The good news is that the FCC is now listening; the bad news is that they are listening during a short window in the middle of August. Doh!

Nonetheless, we urge as many of you as possible to file whatever information you can to inform the FCC. Public Knowledge and the Benton Foundation are coordinating a filing to make it easier on you -- a recent email copied below explains further. Please contact me or one of the people below if you have any questions - getting good information in front of the FCC is essential for them to make the right decision. From Public Knowledge and Benton:

In reforming this portion of the fund the FCC has requested addition information on the idea of communities “self-provisioning” their broadband service.  Specifically the Commission is considering requiring all fund recipients to open up their networks to self-provision communities at reasonable rate.  Right now this requirement would be limited to self-provisioners that are in areas where USF recipient may have facilities nearby BUT the USF recipient is not providing service to the self-provisioning community.

We think that small, independent or community based ISPs are just the kind of folks the FCC envisions to be “self-provisioning” an unserved community.  Public Knowledge and the Benton Foundation are working together to document input from current “self-provisioners” to help answer some of the questions in this proceeding.  If you are interested in participating you can either file a comment on your own by August 24, 2011 or work with PK and Benton’s attorneys to put together a coordinated filing.

Note: You can file confidential information with the FCC in the proceeding using the procedures outlined in this document.

If you are interested in working with PK and Benton please answer the following questionnaire with as much detail as possible and email to Amina Fazlullah or John Bergmayer by August 24th 2011

The FCC needs data on how various kinds of small, independent, community-based, or other ISPs serve their customers.

  • How much does it cost you to serve your average customer?
  • What are your main costs (equipment, backhaul, customer support...)?
  • What is your main source of funding (payments from customers, grants, etc)?
  • What kind of entity are you (a sole proprietorship, a nonprofit, a corporation, etc)?
  • How many people do you employ?  Are they based in your local community or elsewhere?
  • Is it cheaper for you to serve your average customer, than it would be for an outside carrier to serve that same customer?
  • What are the characteristics of your area that make you well-suited to serve it?  
  • Are there features of the geography or population distribution that call for custom solutions? 
  • Does your service require customer support of a level that larger carriers might be unsuited to provide?
  • If you were to make use of a small fund that enabled you to purchase extra equipment, what would you buy first?  How many extra customers would this help you to serve?
  • If you were to make use of a small fund that enabled you to purchase extra equipment, what would you buy first?  How many extra customers would this help you to serve?
  • Do other providers serve your area?  If so, how does your service compare with theirs?
  • Please provide whatever other information you think would be relevant to the FCC in deciding whether to direct funds to organizations like yours.

NATOA, September, and Gigabit Communities Conference

I just booked my ticket for NATOA's annual conference in San Francisco in September - the theme is Gigabit Communities.

This conference has some great supporters of community broadband networks, including Joanne Hovis, Jim Baller, David Isenberg, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, among others. People from a number of communities that have already built networks will also be there. Representatives from some of the big cities that have come closest to making investments will also be there - Portland, Seattle, and San Francisco.

Be sure to check out the agenda and drop by if you can!

Chattanooga Pairs Wireless with Wired

Chattanooga, with the nation's most impressive broadband network (stretching into rural areas even outside the metro), is spending $30 million to put a Wi-Fi wireless network on top of it. At present, it is primarily for municipal uses:

For now, city government plans to retain exclusive use of the network for municipal agencies as it tests it with applications including Navy SEAL-esque head-mounted cameras that feed live video to police headquarters, traffic lights that can be automatically adjusted at rush hour, and even water contamination sensors that call home if there’s a problem beneath the surface of the Tennessee River.

Much of the wireless network is being funded by state and federal grants -- Chattanooga is turning itself into a test bed for the future city, at least for communities that recognize the benefits of owning their own infrastructure. Chattanooga can do what it wants to, it does not have to ask permission from Comcast or AT&T.

The goal for the city’s wireless network is to make the entire city more efficient and sustainable, said David Crockett, director of Chattanooga’s Office of Sustainability.

As Bernie Arnason notes at Telecompetitor, Wi-Fi is increasingly needed by smartphones because the big cellular networks cannot handle the load. The future has wireless components, but without Wi-Fi backhauled by fiber-optics, the future will be extremely slow and unreliable -- traffic jams for smartphones.

A more recent story from the Times Free Press notes that Chattanooga is wrestling with how to handle opening the network to residential and business use.

Wireless symbol

“I want to be innovative,” he said. “I want to do more than just turn it on in the parks.”

It’s a popular idea with technologists, tourism officials and the general public, who would gain the ability to surf around the city at speeds greater than typical cellular speeds.

Bob Doak, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said allowing tourists to log onto the Internet via Wi-Fi “would be tremendous.

Unfortuately, state laws designed to "protect" some of the most powerful corporations in America, AT&T and Comcast, have limited the utility's options when it comes to offering services to the public.

The reason it’s a legal gray area, according to Tennessee state Sen. Bo Watson, is due to a legally “defined service area” that grants companies such as AT&T, Comcast and EPB specific regions and defines the capabilities they can offer.

Comcast and AT&T have proved incredibly powerful in the Tennessee Legislature, preventing any efforts to encourage more competition among broadband providers in the state by loosening restrictions on public entities to invest in their own networks. In the courts, where they have to argue on a level playing field with opponents (checking their unrivaled lobbying clout at the door), they have done much worse -- losing lawsuit after lawsuit intended to disrupt publicly owned networks.

All of us who want access to better broadband networks have to make sure our elected officials are voting for community needs, rather than for increased profits for Comcast and AT&T.

For those who want to learn more about the history of Chattanooga's incredible network, a good start is this interview with Craig Settles on Gigabit Nation.

Listen to internet radio with cjspeaks on Blog Talk Radio

With this wireless overlay, Chattanooga could have an incredible connected future - where anyone can get a great connection to the Internet anywhere in the city from a network that is designed top-to-bottom with the idea of maxmizing benefits to all -- businesses and residents alike.

KeyWifi and Expanding Access to the Internet

One of the benefits of community ownership is the public should be more open to trying innovative strategies to maximize benefits from the network than a private corporation is because the corporation only cares to maximize profit. And the larger the corporation, the higher the tendency to avoid innovation to minimize any potential risk.

When the folks at KeyWifi developed an entrepreneurial approach to sharing Wi-Fi connections, they began approaching community networks as a natural partner. For those community fiber networks that don't want to build a wireless network on top of it, this could be a middle ground to get some of the benefits from such a network - particularly for small businesses that do not use their connections in the evening, as outlined toward the end of the TED talk below:

TonkaConnect Initiative Shelved, More Education Needed

The TonkaConnect project of the Lake Minnetonka Cable Commission, comprising many suburbs west of Minneapolis, is going to pause after some of the city councilmembers of communities within the project were unsupportive.

“I think [the LMCC executive committee] realized that if a municipal fiber network is ever going to be built, the cities need a considerable amount of time spent in educating and understanding the significance of building such a system,” said a memo from Sally Koenecke, LMCC executive director.

The $81 million proposal sought to provide 25,000 households in communities from the 17 member cities with Internet, phone and cable fiber optic services.

I have occasionally offered technical advice to this ambitious project and have watched as Mediacom and other incumbent providers spread rumors and lies to disrupt it. These companies will stop at nothing to preserve the limited competition they rely upon to maintain their market power.

“I’m personally against spending any money on the fiber optic project,” said Orono mayor Lili McMillan. “What I want to do is send a message. I don’t feel government should be in this.”

To be clear, if Lili McMillan doesn't want the government to build a next-generation network, they will have to continue relying on Mediacom cable and slow, unreliable DSL services. Their choice. Their incumbents do not have the capacity or interest to build a next-generation network themselves but they do have the capacity and interest to prevent any other party from doing so.

As Ann Treacy notes at Blandin on Broadband, this is not necessarily the end of the line and may actually serve to increase the desire of people in those communities to take action:

Unfortunately I think that having interest if the price is low enough might not be enough to motivate a community through the perils of community supported fiber. But I always remember the folks in Monticello saying that each set back in winning over the residents just made them stronger in the end. They were talking about the super majority referendum required for them to pursue their community network – but the same may apply here. You need full community support and interest to see a community network to fruition.

I am including a video they produced to explain the project below.

Video: 
See video