Communities across America have built their own broadband networks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, and fast networks. We tell their stories and defend their authority to build these networks.
Hunter Newby is back for his second appearance on Community Broadband Bits to discuss his thoughts on carrier neutral approaches to spur our economy with more investment in better networks. We just talked with Hunter in episode 104 on carrier neutral approaches to middle mile networks.
Now we discuss these types of approaches within communities - how to spur more competition without the owner of the infrastructure actually offering services directly. This has been a challenge historically, but we continue to see signs that this approach can be viable in the future.
The culmination of more than a year of discussion, funding searches, vendor selection, and research, Missoula has released the results of its broadband feasibility study. The study’s final report makes a range of recommendations, highlighted by the urging to invest $10.5 million from various sources to construct an open access fiber optic network connecting local businesses and over 50 key anchor institutions.
Beginning in early 2013, Missoula City and Missoula County governments collaborated with the Bitter Root Economic Development District to win a grant from the Montana’s Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, which they matched with local funds. The result was a $50,000 pot from which to finance the feasibility study.
The long-awaited final study results indicate a significant demand for affordable, reliable high speed connectivity in the Missoula area from both businesses and public institutions, especially in the unincorporated areas outside the central city. In a survey (page 31 of the report), a shocking 73% of Missoula businesses reported moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed. A further 38% said their connections were insufficient for their businesses needs, but the vast majority of those reported that they were unable to upgrade because the needed connections were either unavailable or the price was out of reach.
The total cost of the network, which would include over 60 miles of fiber, is estimated to be just over $17 million. That figure is a conservative estimate, however, as it assumes 100% of the network would be built underground and minimal existing assets would be used or shared (neither of which is likely to be the case when all is said and done).
The study recommends bringing in local anchor institutions as key network tenants, while making dark fiber available to third party service providers who can sell connections to local businesses, in what the Bitter Root Economic Development District refers to as a public-private partnership:
The proposed network would connect more than 50 public entities to each other including K-12 schools, the University of Montana, healthcare centers and city and county facilities. Businesses could also take advantage of the network and what the study anticipates would be much more affordable pricing. The study recommends working in cooperation with Internet providers in a public-private partnership.
As proposed, the city and county together would invest $10 million toward a $17 million system, with the local government funds leveraging other money, [Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin] Copple said. The local money would be paid through user fees, not taxes, and it would build roughly 60 miles of an “open access” fiber-optic network.
The report also made recommendations for outreach, education, and changes in city and county policy. Notably, it emphasized the need for “dig once” policies that ensure conduit is laid during unrelated construction projects and can be shared by different entities, eliminating the cost and disruption of tearing up streets multiple times to lay different lines. The report also recommended updating city and county building codes to account for broadband engineering requirements, as well as streamlining permitting processes and reducing fees for broadband projects.
The last few years have seen a race among Montana cities to increase their communications infrastructure through a variety of methods. Butte recently debuted a limited private fiber optic network run by Fatbeam, spurred by long-term contracts with public and private anchor institutions. Bozeman, as we’ve reported, kicked off their own broadband feasibility study and planning process in July.
This week’s rumblings on municipal broadband held more reverberations from last week's announcement that the FCC would take up formal proceedings regarding Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC petitions. The message for preempting state laws is being amplified, first Business Insider wrote this piece on How “Gig City” Chattanooga is putting Big Cable on the ropes:
"Ultimately what it comes down to is these cable companies hate competition," said Chris Mitchell, the director of community broadband networks for the Institute for Local Self Reliance.
As director, Mitchell watches over issues like municipal networks, net neutrality, and the consolidation of cable companies, advocating for the public. "It's not about [cable's] arguments so much as their ability to lobby very well," he said.
Q: What would you say to the people that believe it’s unfair for private companies to compete with a public utility?
A: It is unfair - they have way more money than we do.
We believe that this is critical infrastructure for our community to thrive and grow. Many people might consider things like roads as critical infrastructure, but we include this as one of those things.
If the private sector won’t bring it to local communities, local communities should have the right to build it for themselves.
And here, the mayor talks about the familial relationship the companies had with city leaders before they built their network:
Q: When establishing it, what were your interactions like with comcast, time warner, etc.? Did they try to stop it from happening? If so, how?
A: There were two main interactions. Our last mayor asked big telecom if they would bring gigabit to Chattanooga - and they said NO.
Then, as if on cue, CenturyLink responded with their typical weak claims that “they’re getting to it,” and similar “the check’s in the mail, we swear” type announcements. First in Seattle, Denver, and then in Our Fair Twin Cities (Minneapolis/St. Paul). The giant claimed that soon, if not already, residents could be seeing 1 Gig speeds just like Chattanooga. But when we looked into it, CenturyLink’s site appeared to have no specifics or even potential locations where the fairy-Gigmother might eventually be working.
“Who gets CenturyLink's new gigabit-per-second service, and when, depends on a number of factors, the company cautioned. Fiber to homes requires the existence of nearby fiber infrastructure, and for now this is present only in parts of the Twin Cities.”
"But guess what: we don't have to rely entirely on the FCC to fix the problems with high-speed internet access. Around the country, local communities are taking charge of their own destiny, and supporting community fiber.
Unfortunately, those communities face a number of barriers, from simple bureaucracy to state laws that impede a community's ability to make its own decisions about how to improve its Internet access.
We need to break those barriers. Community fiber, done right, should be a crucial part of the future of the Internet.
The agent on this call did a lot of what we trained him and paid him — and thousands of other Retention agents — to do.
Watson also expresses that the call was "painful to listen to" and vows:
We will review our training programs, we will refresh our manager on coaching for quality, and we will take a look at our incentives to ensure we are rewarding employees for the right behaviors. We can, and will, do better.
Just a few days ago, over at the "Comcast Voices" blog, Tom Karinshak, Senior VP of Comcast's Customer Experience, vowed to investigate and wrote:
We are very embarrassed by the way our employee spoke with Mr. Block and Ms. Belmont and are contacting them to personally apologize. The way in which our representative communicated with them is unacceptable and not consistent with how we train our customer service representatives.
Regardless of whether one chooses to believe the response crafted for Comcast employees or the one posted to placate the general public, is this the company we want controlling our online access? If Comcast is allowed to merge with Time Warner Cable, we can expect more of the same.
With a meeting on July 17th of city officials, local residents, institutional stakeholders, and technology consultants, Bozeman officially began its process of creating a master plan for its Broadband Initiative. The process will be lead by Design Nine, a consulting firm based in Virginia, and will include a survey of existing assets and needs, feasibility studies, and public outreach, among other elements. The entire process is expected to take about 6 months, with the end goal being a road map for improving access and affordability for businesses and public institutions in the Bozeman area.
The Montana city of almost 40,000 was initially inspired to examine the issue of municipal broadband by former Montana State University Chief Information Officer (CIO) Dewitt Latimer, who had previously worked on the Metronet Zing open access network in South Bend, Indiana, an innovative public-private partnership involving the University of Notre Dame that we have covered before. Unfortunately, Lattimer passed away in early 2013. But the seed of an idea had been planted.
In March of 2014, the City of Bozeman issued an RFP for a design firm willing to develop a plan for how the city could expand internet access going forward. After receiving a surprisingly competitive group of 12 responses, City officials eventually chose Design Nine to undertake the comprehensive study and make recommendations.
The City was able to secure $55,000 in grants from state and federal sources to fund the planning process, and solicited a further $80,000 from supportive local institutions including Deaconess Hospital, the local school district, and several local Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts.
The business community has been a driving force for the initiative as well, with the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce committing $5,000 to the planning fund and expressing its enthusiastic support in a letter to the Mayor in April:
Affordable broadband access is essential to the health of our community. Technology firms, banks, businesses, and startups require fast, reliable, and secure connections to their clients. Broadband connectivity is presently only available at high prices or at disparate locations. We believe that increasing the availability of affordable broadband is essential to [the] well-being of this community and we are invested in making this critical infrastructure widely available.
The City’s own press release about the July 17th meeting highlights the competitive atmosphere among Montana cities as they strive to upgrade their communications infrastructure and foster economic development:
Several Montana cities are evaluating their broadband options. The Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute (MERDI) built a fiber optic ring in Butte utilizing a public-private partnership with Fatbeam. MERDI’s fiber ring lured a Bozeman-based internet security firm, Hoplite Industries, to uptown Butte. Missoula is about to release the results of their community broadband feasibility study. Livingston is also considering developing a broadband master plan.
According to David Fine, an official with the City’s Economic Development Department (which is overseeing Design Nine’s planning process), the city would be open to public ownership of fiber infrastructure if that ends up being a recommendation of the nascent master plan. The city has no interest in operating the network itself, however, and does not have a municipal electric utility that might fit easily into that role. From the City’s press release:
The City envisions a public-private partnership model in which broadband providers, anchor businesses, School District 7, the City of Bozeman, and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital collaborate to support a new community fiber optic network. The master plan will investigate options for public-private partnerships, viable business and financing models, and potential build plans. It will also explore regulatory options that can speed the deployment of broadband by the private sector.
Fine also emphasized the potential for direct public savings from a new fiber network. The city and county governments pay $70,000 and $50,000 per year, respectively, for their data connections from a private provider. The school district is charged $105,000 per year for internal ethernet connections, and another $50,000 per year for a shared gigabit connection to the broader internet. With recurring costs that high, it is not hard to imagine a capital investment in fiber infrastructure paying off in the long run through significantly lower monthly bills.
The local Deaconess Hospital stands to benefit from a new public network as well, as they strive to meet electronic records requirements. Their need for fast and secure connections has grown quickly in recent years, as they have expanded their footprint to various clinics around town and look to make telehealth and remote medicine a viable option for patients in a large, mostly rural state.
The problem is not that fiber is nonexistent in Bozeman. There are several firms in the area focused on cloud computing, including the tech giant Oracle. Large, well-capitalized firms that can afford to run their own fiber lines or exert serious leverage in negotiating prices can often meet their fiber needs. The problem is bringing affordable and adequate connectivity to small and mid-sized businesses, startups, schools, hospitals, and ordinary citizens.
For local news coverage of the plan, highlighting its importance for local businesses, watch the video below:
So I was reading Bill Schrier's article about CenturyLink's announcement about supposedly investing in a gigabit for some people in some cities. He includes a link where people can sign up for new announcements as they come. I already checked my address in Saint Paul but it isn't available. But I figured, sure, I'd like to know when it will be available.
CenturyLink's website apparently didn't get the memo about the press release...
And as usual, I have to give a hat tip to Karl Bode, who regularly notes these "fiber to the press release" announcements. If CenturyLink were really going to invest in something, it would have to disclose the new plan to investors. But it hasn't.
We reported back in June on Huntsville, Alabama's decision to undertake feasibility study to evaluate its options for increasing next generation fiber optic internet access throughout the city. AL.com is now reporting that Huntsville Utilities hopes to hear the results of the study within 90 days, allowing it to decide whether it will take steps to expand its minimal existing fiber infrastructure and offer connections to businesses and the public.
The sense of urgency in Huntsville is not surprising, given that it sits just South of the Tennessee border and a less than 100 miles from Chattanooga, the Gig City. News coverage in Huntsville on the possibilities of a future municipal fiber network make constant reference to Chattanooga's example, including this list of valuable lessons Huntsville can learn from its neighbor.
The scenario Huntsville fears is laid out in another AL.com article, featuring the story of Matt Barron, a young tech entrepruener who moved his startup from Huntsville to Chattanooga this summer. Barron describes the attraction of a city with a commitment to next generation infrastructure, above and beyond the advantages of speed:
"I want to live in the sort of city that puts a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "It might have nothing to do with the bandwidth. It has everything to do with the community and the people, the people that stand behind what is basically a human right, right now."
Barron sees the Internet as fundamental. People "can't even apply for a job without bandwidth," he said, and "you have the right to free speech, but speech happens largely on the Internet these days. So, it's a human right."
Chattanooga is forward-thinking enough "to even think about putting a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "Those are the people I want to be around."
It should be noted that Barron gave those quotes at the annual GIGTank event in Chattanooga, a conference designed to help startups and web-based firms, while surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and investors eager to capitalize on Chattanooga's network.
Huntsville itself has a history of being a tech- and innovation-friendly environment, having served as the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center since 1960. Marshall is a rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research facility, and played a crucial role in the Saturn, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. With a community full of rocket scientists, doing the math on a municipal network for Huntsville shouldn't be too hard.
The effort to restore local authority in deciding whether or not to build a municipal fiber network is full speed ahead.
On Monday, the FCC responded to petitions from Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC by opening up formal proceedings on the matter, and requesting people weigh in on the issue. Reporters from the Washington Post to GovTech covered the story.
“[In 1933] Roosevelt launched the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) and the Rural Electrification Administration... ‘TVA went in with the notion of, 'Let's make power cheap enough that the average person can afford it, and let's make money by selling on volume — not on massive margins," said Harold DePriest, chief executive of the public electric utility in Chattanooga, Tenn. "That worked for TVA. And at the time, it forced the private power companies to reduce the rates.’"
GovTech’s article, while it questions whether municipal networks are the answer, raises a powerful point: If ISP’s were getting the job done, cities wouldn’t have to come in and set up networks.
“EPB officials [in Chattanooga] say the FCC is required by Congress to remove barriers to Internet accessibility. The point of EPB’s petition is to remind the FCC of that and solicit the agency’s help in changing current state law.
Joyce Coltrine, for one, is on board... She says Internet providers have snubbed her and her neighbors for years. She says broadband is not available in her slice of the county… Coltrine told commissioners that Internet hot spots and 4G data packages are too expensive and spotty to rely on for dependable connections. Her frustrations were affirmed by an “Amen” from the crowd and other murmurs of agreement.”
After months of discussion and a blog post that stated Chairman Wheeler’s support of a community’s right to fair and open competition, The consumerist’s Chris Morran put it bluntly: “Put Up or Shut Up”.
“... waiting for incumbents to get around to upgrading aging copper networks in many areas seems a strategy already doomed to failure. These companies exist to make money, and if they could have done that building gigabit networks in smaller cities and towns, it would have happened by now. So if not a muni-backed network, then what?”
"...Clearly these members of Congress have a lot of funding coming to them from big players," she says. "The Communications Act is actually preventing people from participating in the digital age in these cases. In un-served and under-served markets, there should be exceptions to this rule."
The FCC anticipated that communities would step forward to ask them to overturn the state limits. Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin makes clear that the petition is focused on the specific communities that filed the petition:
“These petitions will be handled on a case-by-case basis, so don't expect the FCC to make a single declaration that preempts all state laws inhibiting municipal broadband. ‘The FCC has the authority to take broader action through rulemakings—but that is not what is happening here,’ an FCC spokesperson said.”
The public comment period for the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions ends August 29. the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has posted instructions on how you can have your voice heard.
Sanford, a city of about 21,000 in far southwestern Maine, is weighing its options for a limited fiber optic network. The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council has been the driving force behind the project, hiring Tilson Technology Management of Portland earlier this year to develop a Broadband Plan for Sanford.
The Growth Council began exploring broadband issues only after realizing late last year that they had been left out of Maine’s “Three Ring Binder,” a federally-funded high capacity fiber backbone running through much of the state in three loops. Wary of being left behind economically by neighbors with better communications infrastructure, the Growth Council hired Tilson to evaluate their options.
The resulting report has not been made publicly available, but according to an op-ed by James Nimon, the Growth Council’s executive director:
Tilson has completed their assignment and provided “Good,” “Better” and “Best” alternatives, with the conclusion that the implementation of the Broadband Plan’s ‘Best’ scenario, which connects all the key CAIs [community anchor institutions] in Sanford, “has the potential to provide impressive public economic benefits, including adding between $47 and $192 million to the Sanford-Springvale region’s economic output over the next ten years.”
The anchor institutions to be connected include municipal buildings, local schools, a mill yard, a hospital, and industrial parks. According to a recent Sanford News article, the costs projected by Tilson range from $362,000 for the most limited deployment to $961,000 for the “best” alternative.
The city and the Growth Council will now begin the process of exploring federal, state, and private partnership funding opportunities, in an effort to bring the advantages of a high speed fiber network to their community.
If companies always agreed with regulators' rules, there would be no need for regulators. The very point of a regulator is to do things that companies don't like, out of concern for the welfare of the market or the consumer.