Reflections on European Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode 127

I was recently invited to speak in Brussels on the experience of U.S. cities and fiber optic investment. Videos from the seminar are available here. I took some extra time around the seminar to visit Amsterdam and then Bruges in Belgium. On this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Lisa and I discuss broadband in the European context.

We talk about how much people pay in Amsterdam for better services than we commonly get and note that most European cities have much better access to the Internet than do U.S. cities, with the possible exception of Brussels, which has poor access.

We also talk about how the incumbents in Europe are not so different from the incumbent providers in the U.S. and are trying to invest as little as possible while preventing meaningful competition. Some things are just universal...

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

More Muni Fiber Projects in Maine

Local communities in Maine are mobilizing to jumpstart economic development, expand educational opportunities, and improve Internet access. The town of Orono, located near the center of the state, announced earlier this month that it will working with nearby Old Town and the University of Maine to deploy an open access fiber network pilot project in an area they wish to promote as a technology park.

The news highlights connectivity improvements in Maine happening at the local level. In August, Rockport solidified its plans to bring fiber to its downtown with partner GWI. Soon after, South Portland announced a similar partnership with GWI to spur economic development. Sanford and Isleboro [PDF] have commissioned studies.

The Main Campus reports that Orono, Old Town, the University of Maine, and GWI have been in the planning phase for some time, but lacked funding to deploy:

“We tried to be the first on the map [with fiber-optics], but there were too many obstacles. Now we have the opportunity to do something,” said Orono Town Manager Sophie Wilson at last Monday’s Economic Development Committee meeting, where the opportunity was presented.

In early 2012, the town was in talks with Old Town and Maine broadband service provider GWI about connecting the towns and the University of Maine to the Three Ring Binder, an 1,100-mile long highway of fiber optic infrastructure that passes underneath Bennoch Road. In order to take advantage of the opportunity, the towns planned on coming together in a collaborative called Old Town-Orono Fiber (OTO Fiber) and applied for grant funding to go through with the project.

Although they weren’t able to receive the necessary funds in 2012, the town is in a better position this time around.

The Three Ring Binder, an open access dark fiber network owned by the Maine Fiber Company, was funded with ARRA stimulus dollars and private investment. The network went live in 2012 but providers have not built out last-mile connections as anticipated. To fill the gaps, these communities are taking matters into their own hands and investing in that last-mile fiber infrastructure.

The partners recently received a $125,000 grant from ConnectME Authority but will need to secure matching funds from the Northern Border Regional Commission. The Commission was created as part of the 2008 Farm Bill to support economic development projects in Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York. The pilot project will connect to the Three Ring Binder that runs near the park. Cost to the city is estimated at $25,000 - $30,000.

A new tenant, Eastern Maine Health, signed a lease contingent on the pilot project. Other entities are also interested in the location. 

According to Town Planner Evan Richert, Eastern Maine Health could potentially bring 150 new jobs to the area.

“It’s going to fill two buildings that have been vacant for two to three [or more] years and which have had quite a drag on the impression of our vitality [as a town],” Richert said.

“It’s also dragging the valuation down at the tech park, part of that $4 million loss in value [reported for fiscal year ‘14] was directly related to lack of rented space out there,” Wilson said.

Columnists from local press are opining about the state's poor connectivity. Bill Nemitz from the Portland Daily Press recently wrote about Wired West in Massachusetts, challenging readers to demand better from elected officials. Some of them already understand the need. Nemitz wrote:

As U.S. Sen. Angus King, a broadband cheerleader if ever there was one, put it in an interview Thursday, high-speed broadband is as important to rural Maine as stringing electrical wires to outlying homes and farms was back in the 1930s.

“We’ve absolutely got to do it,” said King. “It’s an economic death sentence for a community that can’t get broadband.”

In June, Bruce Segee, University of Maine professor of electrical and computer engineering, spoke with the Bangor Daily News about the pilot project:

“If [municipalities] want prosperity, [they] need to make something and bring people from outside to buy it,” Segee said.

Orono, Old Town, South Portland, and Rockport have decided to stop waiting for providers to bring that "something" to their communities and do it themselves. The Daily News:

A desire to attract and grow businesses is part of the reason why Orono and Old Town have taken steps toward building fiber for homes. For Richert, “the economic development of small communities rests less [now] with big developments and real estate but more with startups and established small companies innovating with new products.”

There’s no time to wait for Internet service providers to step up and make the investment themselves.

“We can’t afford to wait,” Richert said. “We need to grow small businesses.”

Rio Blanco County Plans for Deployment in Colorado

Earlier this month, voters in several Colorado communities decided to approve ballot measures to reclaim local telecommunications authority. One of those places, Rio Blanco County in the northwest corner of the state, has already committed funds to develop infrastructure.

According to a recent article in the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, the county considers the issue so critical, it will dedicate $2 million in federal mineral lease revenues, and $5 million from the general fund to improve connectivity. County leaders say they will also seek funds from the Department of Local Affairs.

Rio Blanco County is planning an open access model. From the article:

[County Commissioner Shawn] Bolton said the county won’t provide broadband service itself, but instead will install infrastructure such as fiber lines.

“By providing infrastructure, then we can get the service providers to come here and provide the service at a competitive rate,” he said.

In March, the County, the County Seat of Meeker, several local school districts, and a list of other partnering entities, filed a Rural Broadband Expression of Interest [PDF] with the FCC. In their documentation, they noted that the private and public entities in the region had been working together to develop better connectivity since 2001. They named themselves the Western Colorado IT Cooperative (WCITC).

According to the Expression of Interest, fiber resources are now in place that connect a limited number of public facilities. The County Courthouse, the Rio Blanco County Road and Bridge, the Town of Meeker, its pubic library, and its schools all connect via the metropolitan area network (MAN). A medical center, also connects to the existing fiber network.

Population density is low in Rio Blanco County at approximately 2 people per square mile. Seventy-five percent of the county's 3,200 square miles is federally owned land. Most residents live in either Meeker or Rangley.

Community leaders in Rio Blanco County recognize that their geography and limited population will not inspire incumbents to build to serve local residents or businesses. They also realize they will need to take matters into their own hands. From the article:

“When it comes to putting broadband in our county, it’s not a good business model for anybody,” said County Commissioner Shawn Bolton.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 30, 2014

This week in community broadband, more communities are adding broadband to the list of essential utilities, and many of them are turning to Chattanooga as a model “gig city.”

As Times Free Press’s Dave Flessner reports, the great thing about Chattanooga's approach is that it’s not just about Internet. In fact, the broadband boom is really an unintended benefit of the city’s cutting edge smart grid, which keeps the city’s lights on and powers the economy as well. 

"What we're going to try to do is bring some of the brilliant people from Warner Bros., Fox, Disney and IBM down here to Chattanooga to help them get their heads wrapped around this notion that you've got to stop worrying about scarcity," [Annenberg Innovation Lab director Jonathan] Taplan said.

Last year, T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner, performed "The Wild Side of Life" from a Los Angeles studio with Chuck Mead, a founder of the band BR549 who was on stage in Chattanooga.

"They sang a song together over 2,000 miles apart," Taplin said. "That's the power of gigabit Internet. I think we're just beginning to think of the possibilities of what this thing can do."

And Android Authority’s William Neilson Jr. explores the desire for faster connections and more choices.

“Isn’t it amazing how much faster broadband speeds are in parts of the country where there are a number of broadband options available to residents? How many times am I going to write an article detailing a broadband provider telling a city that they don’t need “fast” speeds even though the city is universally angry at their lack of broadband options?”

Of course, we see the product of how increased competition brings better service even more clearly in communities that have municipal networks, not just in Google's Kansas City network. It is an outcome that all communities can achieve if they regain the authority to do so. 

In the beginning, Lafayette, Louisiana created its own utility system. And it was good. Steve Stackhouse Kaelble goes back to the very beginning of municipalization of utilities in his research on public power this week:

Lafayette is just one community, but it provides a great illustration of the forward-thinking mindset that led many American municipalities into the utility business. In some cases, local leaders got a glimpse of the future and worked to bring it to their communities ahead of the curve. In other cases, they found that the profit-driven business model that works so well in much of the American economy had left them behind when it comes to certain kinds of services.

The fruits of these local efforts are America’s public power communities — places where local governments and other public entities have taken charge to deliver services their communities need to prosper.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is making her list and hoping for smarter sensors this Christmas. On Miner’s wish list: municipal broadband, and other essential smart grid infrastructure projects. The mayor requested close to a billion dollars in grant money from Gov. Cuomo for economic development in greater New York. It’s unclear if Syracuse is high enough on Cuomo’s list: 

Reality check: … [Miner is] well aware it's not terribly compelling to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on stuff you can't see. It's an "eat-your-peas'' approach that aligns with Miner's view of the role of government, versus the "shiny toys'' approach favored by Cuomo and the Buffalo Billion… Whether by accident or design, the mayor's plan leaves us wanting more. Think of it as an opening bid. Who's willing to push her vision farther?

And while all of these cities are moving forward with community broadband efforts of some kind, Jason Meyers with Light Reading spoke with the city’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Mattmiller and noted that despite Seattle’s reputation as a tech leader, it is lagging in the gigabit connecitivity. Mattmiller suggests that a public-private partnership is still desired, depending on how a new study turns out.

Bozeman, Montana residents are urging leaders to help drive down prices and improve Internet speeds this week. Kenneth Silvestri voiced his opinion in the Bozeman Chronicle.

We could continue to be beholden to the monopoly imposed by the telecommunications companies, or we can invest in our future by laying the groundwork for a technology infrastructure that serves the community and expands access.

Sahara Devi seconded that sentiment in Bozeman, and we hope you will do the same in your own communities. When lawmakers on both sides of the isle hear your views on competition, local authority, and economic development, it is hard to back down from taking steps to increase local choices and better connectivity. 

Wi-fi

New York City and Seattle are both looking into wi-fi neighborhoods, with varying success. Last week a Seattle councilwoman announced her backing of Wi-Fi in tent cities, which would help serve the city’s homeless population. This week, T.C. Scottek with The Verge dug in to NYC’s effort to connect parts of the city with Wi-Fi.

One of the biggest problems is that LinkNYC will be funded by advertising, and as the Daily News correctly points out, the poorest neighborhoods in the city aren't worth as much to advertisers as tourist-packed Times Square. That's a reality that makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone.

And “Mat Catastrophe” with Charleston City Paper lamented his city’s decision to let Comcast supply the bandwidth for the city’s new Wi-Fi-in-the-parks initiative. It seems Catastrophe is concerned that Comcast may not have the city’s residents real Internet interests at heart. 

… if you're hanging out in one of Charleston's lovely parks and you have a burning desire to do whatever it is you want with a free internet connection, by all means do so. But just don't believe for one second that it really makes the city more livable for any more than a small fraction of Holy City residents. And never forget that it's just another way that public money is siphoned into private hands.

If you want the City of Charleston to really make a name for itself, then you should support the idea of repealing the state law against municipal broadband providers and advocate for whichever mayoral and city council candidates are willing to take up that fight and move Charleston in the right direction in the 21st Century.

Corporate Monopolies and Mergers

Verizon claims it would *not* to sue the FCC to block net neutrality rules. But only if the commission promises it will not reclassify broadband providers as utilities. More and more citizens are making the connection between corporate monopolies and our poor broadband choices. Activists rallied in Brooklyn this week. Jay Cassano reported about the social justice argument for Waging Non-Violence.

Most concretely, the merger could result in higher prices for broadband Internet service, which would hit those who are economically disadvantaged the hardest.

'The merger could really negatively affect people who already have trouble accessing the Internet right now,” said Kevin Huang, campaign manager at Fight for the Future. 'When it comes to cable and Internet, the cost of service is crucial. It’s incredibly important for marginalized communities to participate in the 21st century ecology, but the prices for reliable Internet services have been going up.'”

Sebewaing Bringing Better Connectivity to Residents, Businesses Via Fiber in Michigan

If you live in Sebewaing, you can now purchase FTTH connectivity from Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) via their municipal network. Earlier this week, we discussed the network with Sebewaing Light and Water Superindendent Melanie McCoy.

The first village in Michigan to offer gigabit service issued its RFP in summer 2013. Like many other small communities, the 1,700 inhabitants in Sebewaing were limited to dial-up. T1 service (1.5 Mbps)  was available to businesses but lines cost from $1,000 - $1,500.

Commercial connectivity via the new infrastructure now begins at $75 for symmetrical 50 Mbps service. SLW also offers symmetrical 100 Mbps for $130 and advertises customized packages if those options are not adequate. SLW will also waive the $125 installation fee if a business signs up before the end of the year.

Residents also receive free standard installation if they sign up before the end of 2014. They can pay as little as $35 per month for symmetrical 30 Mbps service, $55 per month for 50 Mbps symmetrical, or $105 per month for 100 Mbps symmetrical service. 1 Gbps/100 Mbps service costs $160 per month.

SLW has already signed up a commercial gig customer. The Bay Shore Methodist Camp & Family Ministries holds events that often cater to hundreds of children and adults. They need a high capacity connection for Wi-Fi to serve a large number of devices.

Sebewaing's original plan was to build an open access network but after careful consideration and legal analysis, it decided to provide retail services. SLW purchases bandwidth only from Air Advantage, a wireless provider specializing in the "thumb" of Michigan. The utility also offers voice services via the network.

According to a September Tuscola County Advertiser article, customers were signing up for service as SLW was finishing deployment. We checked in with Melanie McCoy, SLW Superintendent, who told us 328 people have added their names to a sign-up list. At this writing, they have connected 130 premises, mostly residents. SLW has not invested in marketing but when installers are out, residents see them and immediately call the utility to request service.

According to McCoy, unanticipated high demand has been one of SLW's biggest challenges. They underestimated the amount of time it would take to perform each installation and a few customers have grown impatient. Nevertheless, they have received glowing reviews from customers who are connected.

Speed is certainly an important factor in attracting customers so quickly, but McCoy told the Advertiser that the people of the community also value affordability and accountability:

McCoy said she’s pleased that Sebewaing residents and businesses will have access to gigabit speed, and they’ll have better prices and better service because of the “local” factor. Customers won’t have to deal with a large urban conglomerate for their service. 

Estes Park, Colorado, to Ask Voters to Reclaim Authority in February

The recent Colorado elections in Boulder, San Miguel County, Yuma County, Rio Blanco County, Wray, Yuma, Red Cliff, and Cherry Hills Village have inspired Estes Park. According to a recent Trail Gazette article, the northern town will hold a special election in February to ask voters to reclaim telecommunications authority. Approximately 5,800 people live in Estes Park.

The local Estes Park Economic Development Corporation (EDC) adopted a resolution in August urging the town council to take the issue to the voters reports the Trail Gazette. The council voted unanimously to support that idea.

"This resolution resulted from an extensive investigation into how to achieve a key goal in the Town's 2014 strategic plan: 'to encourage optimal use of the Platte River Power Authority's and Town's fiber optic infrastructure,' " [EDC's David] Batey said.

"We must take back the Town's right to decide the best way to provide competitive broadband," Batey said.

"Like electricity a century ago, broadband is a foundation for economic growth, job creation, global competitiveness and a better way of life," stated the EDC.

The town and the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) share ownership of a fiber optic network between Estes Park and nearby Loveland. The ring was installed about 10 years ago for operation of the PRPA Transmission and Substation Electric System. Flooding in 2013 eliminated the other telecommunications infrastructure connecting Estes Park to the outside world, so there is no redundancy.

The City leases several of its fibers to Level 3 for a little over $1,600 per month but connectivity in town varies. Some areas rely on dial-up while others have DSL. There are also several smaller Wi-Fi providers working in the area.

Estes Park is well known as a tourist destination and like other rural areas we have reported on, resort areas often do not have access to fast, reliable, affordable networks. As visitors increasingly expect to be connected 24/7, remote and geographically challenging regions need to rely on themselves to bring better connectivity to businesses, guests, and residents.

The community received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. The purpose of the grant was to help the flood disaster area develop a economic diversification and industry job retention and recovery strategy. Part of that strategy involves developing better connectivity - a key to expanding beyond tourism as an economic base.

Thusfar, the community has earmarked $80,000 for a broadband study and $50,000 to develop a technology incubator co-working space.

Michigan's First Gigabit Village - Community Broadband Bits Episode 126

The small village of Sebewaing has become the first gigabit village in the state of Michigan. Superintendent of Sebewaing Light and Water utility Melanie McCoy joins us to discuss the project on episode 126 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

With approximately 1,800 people, Sebewaing has cracked the code for a small local government to deliver gigabit services to the community. In the show, we discuss previous telecommunications investments by the village and how they financed the gigabit fiber deployment.

We also discuss how Michigan law, designed to discourage municipal networks, delayed the project and increased the costs as well as the annoyance to many residents who long ago became impatient with how long it took to begin turning on the Internet service.

Read our full coverage of Sebewaing here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 14 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

North Georgia Town Considering Fiber for Business

The City Council of the city of Commerce is considering using its existing fiber resources to offer connectivity to local businesses. At a November 3rd work session, Council members reviewed the plan and, according to the Main Street News, members voiced support for the idea.

“We’ve been actively working on this for months,” [City Manager Pete] Pyrzenski told the council. “We’ve been counseled on, we’ve talked through the options… this is a pretty viable utility for Commerce.” 

“We are ready to pull the fiber,” Pyrzenski declared. “Our role is to supply the fiber. We’re not going to get into cable TV, not going to get into telephone, just high-speed Internet.”

“Businesses have been looking for an alternative,” noted Mayor Clark Hill.

Windstream now serves the community of 6,500 but there have been significant complaints and there are no other options in this north Georgia town.

The city will need to invest $70,000 for equipment and legal fees. The network plan will use an existing line and will run additional fiber to expand the reach to more commercial customers. At this point, the city estimates a 5 - 10 year payback but that period may be reduced if local businesses respond positively. The city will fund the deployment with an interdepartmental loan from their municipal electric utility. Commerce also owns a municipal gas utility.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 21, 2014

Tennessee officials are raising the “Gig City” rally cry. Last week, public and private sector leaders gathered in Chattanooga to make sure the FCC knows where they stand on removing restrictions to community broadband in the state. GovTech’s Brian Heaton covered the rally.

“What needs to [happen] is removing the restriction of the electronic footprint, so anybody who wants to provide accessible, high-speed broadband will not be encumbered by unnecessary regulations,” [Tennessee Sen. Janice] Bowling (R) said.

Public officials again stressed the need to increase connectivity beyond the city’s borders in order to develop the area’s economic future.

Longmont, Colorado is one of this week's darlings of community broadband. Trevor Hughes reported on USA Today about the city connecting residents to its fiber optic network. The public network highlights the problems communities face when private networks fail to provide service as promised.

“Longmont knows all about the failings of the private marketplace. Twice the city partnered with private companies to provide high-speed Internet to residents over the past 15 years, and twice the private companies failed. Now city workers are picking up where those private ventures failed, using low-cost government loans to help pay workers to bring the service from the network that "last mile" to peoples' homes.

"It was the private sector that failed here," Roiniotis said. "We tried. We reached out to the private sector to build this network. "If we had waited long enough, there's a chance a cable company would have eventually done this. We decided, no we don't want to wait."

In Madison, city leaders are recognizing the necessity of Internet access in helping to close the digital divide. The city is looking into expanding connections from city government centers to low income areas and the city's public schools.

“We are working in the 21st century with 21st century learners,” says Cindy Green , the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. That requires access to and ability to navigate technology with ease.

“The instruction drives every decision that we make and the technology is a tool that gives students and teachers access to things they could not access in the classroom,” says Beth Clarke, director of instruction technology and media services.

And, high speed broadband received a major “go ahead” in Princeton, Massachusetts this week as well. The Local News Telegram reported about the 442-to-51 vote in favor of getting the city ready for its own network.

Net Neutrality

Adi Robertson with The Verge covered Sen. Ted Cruz’s ridiculous headline-grabbing “Obamacare for the Internet” talking point. When Cruz argued that public utilities are not “bold, innovative, and fair” he missed the point, as Robertson explains: 

“The problem is that "bold, innovative, and fair" aren't words that come to mind when you think of today's unregulated ISPs. In fact, Ted Cruz's nightmare scenario doesn't seem like a radical departure from what we've got right now. If its merger with Time Warner Cable goes through, Comcast will run over half the wired broadband market, and the "innovation" that net neutrality would prevent has so far involved blocking the BitTorrent protocol and giving its Xfinity video app a boost on the Xbox. Real competition — from Google Fiber or even municipal broadband projects — is what's actually led to, well, competition.” 

However, the best response to Ted Cruz may be from the occasionally crude but generally quite hilarious, The Oatmeal. And in this case, a good reminder of how campaign finance corruption leads to these kinds of crazy statements.

Vidalia Moves Ahead With New Technology Center, Big Pipe Across the Mississippi

When we last checked in with Vidalia, the Louisiana town of 4,300 had implemented free Wi-Fi in its new municipal complex. In October, the community began constructing the Vidalia Technology Center (VTC), as reported by MyArkLaMiss.com

The VTC will be at the site of former city hall office. The new facility will serve as entrepreneur incubation space in addition to housing infrastructure for the city's future fiber network. With Senator Mary Landrieu's help, Vidalia secured a $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build the VTC. The City is providing 35% matching funds.

The current key to better connectivity in Vidalia is a connection across the Mississippi River. The Natchez Democrat reports that the City obtained a permit to run a fiber backbone across the U.S. 84 Mississippi River bridge. Apparently, the Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) does not normally allow the installation of utilities on bridges it controls. 

The City has been working on obtaining permission for almost two years. Another Natchez Democrat article reports:

According to minutes from the Mississippi Transportation’s Oct. 28 meeting, “the … rules require the city to provide justification of a hardship in writing and explain why alternative routes are not viable, which the City of Vidalia has done."

A connection across the Mississippi has been a significant obstacle for Vidalia as it planned its municipal network. While connecting facilities within the community may not have been a problem, without a connection to the outside world, the municipal network was not nearly as valuable.

Community leaders plan to eventually bring gigabit fiber service to every premise in Vidalia, a place where reliable connectivity for residents, businesses, and anchor institutions is lacking. The network will also encompass smart-grid technology. They also see the critical nature of economic development possibilities. From the MyArkLaMiss.com story:

The mayor says the center is necessary to bring modern technology, as well as more business and more industry to Vidalia.

Mayor Copeland says they were losing young entrepreneurs who couldn't operate their businesses without the right connectivity.

"Young entrepreneurs now can come to Vidalia and connect to the world  with the high speed internet system that we're going to have in Vidalia," he said.

...

"We will be able to tell the industries coming to Vidalia, we will be able to furnish you and connect you to the world," he said.

You can watch the MyArkLaMiss.com story here: