Voters Resoundingly Approve Broadband Measure in Estes Park, Colorado

On February 3rd, voters in Estes Park voted 92 percent to reclaim local authority to establish a telecommunications utility. The result follows a greater trend in Colorado where eight communities made similar decisions last fall. Each of these elections has happened during Comcast's merger review, which may have discouraged them from their usual tactics to oppose competition.

The Estes Park Trail Gazette reports that a series of meetings will be scheduled to inform residents and businesses and to obtain feedback for planning. The community is working with a consultant to determine the next step.

As we reported last November, the community has struggled with communications infrastructure since 2013 flooding wiped out private networks that served residents and businesses. Estes Park wants to make better use of its share of the fiber optic network deployed by the town and the Platte River Power Authority in 2004. Before the town can take any action, state law dictates an election.

"The Town of Estes Park is happy with the results of this election," said Estes Park Town Administrator Frank Lancaster. "Broadband service is critical for any community moving into the future, and technological challenges are greater for a smaller community like Estes Park.

"This will allow us to look at a number of alternatives that can improve the service to residents, guests and businesses as well as allow the town to partner with our local internet providers to help them become more successful and to provide a higher level of service to their customers."

Broward County Saves with Fiber Network in Florida

In 2014, Broward County completed its transition from an expensive leased data, video, and voice communications system to its own fiber network. The southern Florida county is now saving $780,000 per year with plenty of room to grow. With the transition to an IP-based telephony system, the County also saves and additional $28,000 per year.

Pat Simes, Assistant CIO of the county, recently contributed a profile on the project to Network World.

In 2009 when the network was too slow to be effective, county staff knew they had to act. Costs were increasing 15% each year as the number of lines grew and the demand for bandwidth increased. The County also had to provide funding to reach locations that the carrier's network did not serve. The situation made it difficult to budget; there was always a need to fund unexpected expansions and increasing service.

Several groups in Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) began working together to develop a way to improve systems for both groups:

Working together the teams developed a 3-year strategic initiative to upgrade Broward County to a 10 GigE core network infrastructure.   Part of the plan called for reducing complexity and duplication of infrastructure, so the County also decided to converge the voice and data networks and, with voice and data traversing the same circuits, network redundancy would have to be increased because a single line outage could cause a location outage for both critical services.

As Broward County developed the new network, they faced an 18 month deadline. The contract with the incumbent was set to expire and the parties would then move to a month-to-month arrangement. That plan would increase the County's costs by 50%. Martin County, located north of Broward, faced a similar situation when they set to develop their county-woe network. Read more about Martin County's incredible savings in our report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network.

Fortunately, the ETS Team was able to share conduit space with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to cut costs and reduce deployment time. Martin County struck up a similar working relationship to dramatically reduce time and expense.

After a six-month design phase and a four-year construction period, the County's 41-mile underground fiber optic backbone now provides voice, video, and data. The network provides 10 gig capacity to 21 county facilities. The County spent approximately $2.5 million to build the fiber network.

One of the most important characteristics of local government will always be accessibility to constituents; reliable telephony is a must. Broward County knew that the new network would mean a phone system change. ETS chose an IP-based system, which was half the cost of a non-IP based system.

County staff now engage in video conferencing and have access to soft phone technology, allowing them to make phone calls over the Internet. The IP system is scalable to tens of thousands of phones as the county's needs grow. 

The IP-based system cost a total of $2.3 million, which included telephones, applications, licenses, voice mail, call centers and servers for 30 locations. The system costs $100,000 per year as compared to the legacy system, which was $700,000 per year.

We have encountered a number of other agencies that found significant savings by using publicly owned infrastructure for telephony. Notably, Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Texas. AISD partnered with several other Austin area agencies to eventually deploy the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN), completed in 1998. AISD faced an estimated $3 million cost for telephones in 1988. Their $18 million contribution to the project paid for itself in less than 3 years.

Broward County has positioned itself to save millions over time, ensured a reliable system, and controlled its telecommunications costs. Florida has state barriers limiting how the county can use its fiber for economic development or to improve residential service but if that situation changes in the future, Broward County has a valuable economic development tool already in place.

Greater Minnesota Partnership Focuses on Non-Metro Need - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 136

Like many states, Minnesota has a major metro area that generally has higher quality Internet access than non-metro communities. The Greater Minnesota Partnership, a coalition of businesses, chambers, nonprofits, and cities from across the state, have made improving Internet access a major priority in their efforts to influence the state legislature.

This week, we talk with Dan Dorman, Executive Director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership. He is also a former Minnesota state Rep and remains a small business owner. We discuss the need to improve access even as major cable lobbyists fight in the capital to preserve the status quo. The Partnership believes state barriers to community networks should be removed.

Dorman offers a unique perspective as a former member of the Minnesota Legislature. He knows what it is like to be lobbied constantly by one side of the issue but rarely hear from the other. Fortunately, the Greater Minnesota Partnership is working to provide that other side as best it can.

We previously discussed the Border-to-Border fund in episode 119.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Supporters Rally Behind Wheeler, Chattanooga, and Wilson: "I Recommend Approval"

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler released a statement yesterday supporting the concept of local authority for community broadband infrastructure. Chattanooga and Wilson filed petitions to scale back state restrictions last summer. In his statement, Wheeler officially recommended the Commission approve the petitions. If approved, the petitions have the potential to liberate local communities from state restrictions. 

Along with a number of other organizations that advocate local authority, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance supports Chairman Wheeler who said:

Communities across the nation know that access to robust broadband is key to their economic future – and the future of their citizens. Many communities have found that existing private-sector broadband deployment or investment fails to meet their needs. They should be able to make their own decisions about building the networks they need to thrive. After looking carefully at petitions by two community broadband providers asking the FCC to pre-empt provisions of state laws preventing expansion of their very successful networks, I recommend approval by the Commission so that these two forward-thinking cities can serve the many citizens clamoring for a better broadband future.

Chris Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at ILSR.org and the editor of MuniNetworks.org said:

The Chairman's statement is a breath of fresh air. This approach will allow communities with little or no choice in providers to take control of their own connectivity. When local communities have the authority to invest in publicly owned infrastrucuture without state barriers, more businesses and residents have fast, affordable, reliable Internet access. Even just the possibility of a community network can incent large scale providers to improve their services. We are pleased to see Chairman Wheeler both talk the talk and walk the walk of restoring local decision-making authority.

A statement of support quickly followed from the Georgia Municipal Association:

Prohibiting government from providing this economic development infrastructure, or limiting its ability to do so, is counter to the wishes of the community and to the best interest of cities, states and our nation. 

Next Century Cities, the coalition of over 50 communities working to restore local Internet choice, recently delivered a letter [PDF] from 38 member cities to the FCC, urging the Commission to consider local autonomy. Deb Socia, the Executive Director, applauded the statement:

If we want truly next-generation broadband, then cities across the country need to be in the driver’s seat. That’s why they are looking to the FCC to uphold their ability to make the best choices for their communities and residents.

Public Knowledge wrote:

Every community should have the right to determine its broadband needs and the path of its digital future, including the ability to pick competition over monopoly for broadband services. Chairman Wheeler has taken an important first step by advancing these two petitions forward.

The Media Mobilizing Project, involved in efforts to improve connectivity in Philadelphia, stated that it strongly supports Chairman Wheeler's plan to restore local authority:

Philly, every city in PA, and every community nationwide deserves the right to explore high quality competition to our communications monopolies - to drive prices down, quality up, and access to everyone, poor and working people and beyond.  We look forward to Chairman Wheeler's continued leadership on this issue, and expanding options for our communities - who strongly believe that access to high quality communications is a human right.

From Common Cause:

"What a great step approval would be toward bringing broadband to every American,” agreed former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, now serving as special adviser to Common Cause’s Media and Democracy Reform Initiative. “We built this country with federal and community partnerships for vital infrastructure, and what's more vital than broadband for the 21st century?  A big high-five to Chairman Tom Wheeler and the colleagues who have joined him to push this move.”

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) also passed a "big high-five" to the Chairman:

CLIC applauds Chairman Wheeler for his leadership and recognition that local communities play an integral role in ensuring broadband competition for their residents. This is a big step forward and just the beginning — we look forward to working with the Chairman, the rest of the Commission and other stakeholders to remove barriers to better broadband around the country.

For more on the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions, we encourage you to listen to episode #120 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, in which we debunk a series of arguments against restoring local authority. 

Chris also had an informative interview with Harold Feld on section 706 in episode #84. In that interview, published well before the Chattanooga and Wilson petitions were filed, the Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge dissected how the DC Circuit Court came to the conclusion that paved the way for the petitions.

Good stuff!

An Update on Utah's UTOPIA Open Access Network

For the facts on all things UTOPIA, we turn to Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA.org. In his latest post, he provides an excellent bullet list of the key factors in Macquarie's Milestone 2 proposal. An excerpt From his post:

  • The final cost per address is estimated at $22.60 per month. Macquarie estimates that re-working the deal to account for five cities bowing out trimmed the cost by $8.57 per month.
  • The revenue split is much more generous than I expected, allowing the cities to keep 75% of wholesale revenue after the first $2M per year. It’s expected to completely cover the debt service by 2021 with just a 24% take rate for premium services.
  • The basic level service has also been improved. Instead of 3M/3M service being included at no extra cost, it’s been bumped to 5M/5M. This matches Google Fiber speeds on the free tier. The data cap stays put at 20GB per month.
  • Almost all of the network revenues are being driven by Veracity, XMission, and SumoFiber. Other ISPs are very small by comparison.
  • The majority of currently connected users are in opt-out cities. This only reinforced that the votes there were “we got ours” selfishness.

Jesse has also managed to obtain a draft copy of the Milestone Two Report and has it posted for your review at his blog.

Recently, the network settled a long running dispute with the Rural Utility Service (RUS), reported the Standard Examiner. UTOPIA was awarded a $10 million settlement in a lawsuit filed in September 2011.

A November Salt Lake Tribune article reported that the RUS encouraged UTOPIA to seek federal loans in 2004 but took 19 months to approve the first payment, generating unanticipated expenses. Later, the agency withdrew promised funding with no formal reason. 

Local Authority Restrictions One of the "Worst Policy Ideas of 2014" According to Wonkblog

We are well into the new year; a look back at 2014 can be instructive if we strive to learn from our mistakes. A December article from the Washington post Wonkblog listed "11 of the worst policy ideas of 2014" and, of course, state barriers restricting local telecommunications authority was on the list:

Fed up with limited choices, high prices and shoddy service, many cities want to turn their back on large Internet providers by building their own municipal broadband service. Standing in their way are state legislatures, lobbyists for the telecom industry and even federal lawmakers who believe states should have control over what projects their cities invest in.

Fortunately, this is something that we can change - let's educate elected officials to ensure there are no new barriers and existing barriers are repealed!

Fourth Annual IAMU Broadband Conference: March 18th - 19th in Des Moines

Spring is the time for the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (IAMU) Broadband Conference in Des Moines. This year is it scheduled for March 18th and 19th at the Ramada Tropics and Resort Center downtown. Don't forget your swimsuit!

Chris will be presenting again this year. He has been there 2 out of the last 3 years and it is always a good time with lots of great energy. This year they are particularly welcoming people from outside Iowa as well - so put it on your calendar if you are nearby!

The agenda is still being developed but will include a variety of topics including the proliferation of the connected home, legislative and regulatory updates, and marketing for small broadband utilities. You can view a working agenda [PDF] at the IAMU website.

You can register now for special rates. Call 515-278-0271 and ask for the IAMU room block.

Seattle Grassroots Muni Initiative Kicks Off With Campaign Survey

Seattleites tired of waiting for incumbents to provide better services, have decided to launch a campaign to establish Internet access as a public utility. In order to get the campaign off to a strong start, the founding group has launched a survey to choose a name.

Seattle has significant fiber resources in place, an electric utility, and strong grassroots support. Unfortunately, incumbent Comcast has been trying to curry favor within City Hall. But given that Seattle has joined Next Century Cities, the City seems focused on exploring all of its options.

When Chris presented in Seattle, he strongly encouraged them to organize a grassroots effort to support a community network. Now, a group of community organizers, artists, tech workers, and students are taking the next step forward because:

A 2014 report by the city found that "nearly 20% of Seattle residents do not have any Internet access.” Entire neighborhoods still lack access to Internet speeds necessary to take part in the modern economy. Without access, residents may not be able to apply for jobs, utilize city websites, finish their homework, operate a small business, display art, shop online, or video chat with a doctor from the comfort of their homes.    

Even those with home access to Internet have too few options. The same city report showed that 45% of residents wanted better prices, and 33% wanted higher speeds than currently offered by the two dominant Internet providers: Comcast and CenturyLink.  

Some of the names they suggest are "Seattle for Homegrown Internet," "Connecting Seattle," and "Seattle's Own Internet." They also offer the chance for participants to offer their own ideas.

Seattleites, we encourage you to share your opinion by taking the survey. In addition to naming the campaign, your participation will help organizers gauge the level of interest. You can also connect with the group and let them know you are willing to volunteer.

According to a Brown Paper Tickets Blog post, the new campaign name will be revealed on February 13th at the launch day for new Puget Sound radio stations and World Radio Day.

Local channel 5 also covered the story:

 

Missoula Maps Local Fiber Assets, Encourages New Installation

Last August, we wrote and podcasted about the results of a broadband feasibility study for the City of Missoula, which recommended developing an open access network with approximately 60 miles of underground fiber through a public private partnership. The study also demonstrated a significant need for improved connectivity in the central business district, with almost 40% of businesses saying their connections were insufficient for their needs. The study also recommended a variety of fairly small policy changes to encourage the spread of fiber optics, such as a “dig once” conduit policy. 

Early in December, the Missoula City Council acted on at at least one of those recommendations by lowering the fee the city charges for excavating and installing new fiber optic lines in the public right-of-way by 75 percent. City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who has spearheaded the efforts for better connectivity in Missoula and appeared on our Broadband Bits podcast in August, described lowering the fee this way to the Missoulian newspaper

“It’s a gesture of good will to the service providers that we want to work with them,” said Copple, who chairs the city’s Economic Development Subcommittee. “It was a unanimous vote, and it shows Missoula is serious about business.”

The city also released a map, compiled by a third party, that shows all the privately-owned fiber assets in Missoula’s central business district. It is purposely unclear which company owns which segments of fiber, as the providers would only participate if their information was anonymized to protect their competitive edge. While certainly not present on every street, the map shows that there is a significant amount of fiber already in the ground. From the Missoulian:

“What this map shows is that we don’t need to build an entirely new network,” said Copple. “We need to piece together what’s there and solve the ‘last mile,’ or 100-foot problem in an open-access way.”

Connecting to the network can be expensive for Main Street businesses. When construction fees are considered, tapping into the network can run as high as $20,000, experts said, and monthly service fees can run as high as $1,500.

Having fiber in the ground is nice, but ultimately unhelpful if it is owned by private providers who do not make connections available and affordable. The director of the Bitter Root Economic Development District (one of the parnership entities overseeing the network planning process) said that an RFP will be issued this summer soliciting plans for addressing the problem. 

“We’ve continuously heard from the providers that there’s a lot of fiber in the ground in Missoula,” said Marcy Allen, director of BREDD. “The big obstacle here is that it’s not being utilized. We want to reduce the costs and incentivize the private sector to deploy that to their customers.”

Boston Globe the Latest to Support Local Authority

Yet another major news outlet has endorsed the President's position in support of local telecommunications authority. On January 26th, the Boston Globe went on record to endorse the concept, urging the FCC and Congress to work together to ensure local communities have the right to make their own connecitvity decisions.

The Globe suggested that, rather than allowing the FCC to take the lead with the Wilson and Chattanooga petition decisions, federal lawmakers take action:

A better approach would be for Congress to settle the issue itself, by preventing states from interfering with cities and towns that want to start their own Internet services.

The Globe Editors note that rural areas are the hardest hit by large corporate provider indifference, that it is those same parties that drive the state barrier bills, and that, "This status quo is bad for customers everywhere."

Globe Editors get behind a bill recently introduced by Cory Booker, Claire McCaskill, and Ed Markey that wipes out state barriers in the 19 states where they exist and prevents state lawmakers from enacting new ones. The Globe acknowledges that the support is lopsided today...:

But this shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and it isn’t one on the local level. Red states like Georgia, Kentucky, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Utah all have successful municipal Internet programs. Politicians tempted by campaign contributions from the telecommunications lobby, or skeptical of any proposal backed by President Obama, should remember that consumer protection is an issue that voters of all stripes support.