Local Governments and Internet Access Debate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 185

For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are trying a discussion/debate format between myself, Christopher Mitchell, and Ryan Radia, Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. We have debated previously and prefer a style of seeking to flesh out the argument rather than merely trying to win it.

We start by discussing the role of incumbents in limiting competition and what might be done about it. Next we move to bandwidth caps. On both of those points, we have pretty significant disagreement.

We finish by discussing the role of conduit and poles, where we have some agreement. If you like this show, please do let us know and we'll try to have more in this style.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 19

California

Catching fiber by Kara Guzman, Good Times Weekly

“We’re solving our own market problems with a local company, through local government, to protect our community’s interests,” says Guevara. “This isn’t solely about technology. The Internet is access to the world and all the ideas and all the things to come that we can’t even foresee. 

 

Delaware

Newark, Del., to study municipal broadband options by Phil Goldstein, State Tech Magazine

 

Michigan

Charlevoix County to expand high-speed Internet to county transit by Jordan Spence, Petoskey News

 

Tennessee

Chattanooga, Tenn., utility's Smart Grid receives national environmental recognition by Dave Flessner, GovTech

 

Washington

Broadband adoption reaches a standstill in tech-savvy Seattle by Tod Newcombe, Governing

 

General

FCC Chair: 39% of rural America lacks broadband access by Chris Morran, The Consumerist

A big part of the problem with providing high-speed Internet to rural America is infrastructure. Many of these areas are served by old copper-line networks that telecom companies have repeatedly been accused of neglecting and allowing to fall into disrepair.

We still suck at bringing quality broadband to all Americans by Karl Bode, TechDirt

Big cable owns Internet access. Here's how to change that by Susan Crawford, Medium-Back Channel

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.

Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight

A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.

The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections. 

In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.

East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges

The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.

Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require  new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.

In Calhoun County, the district is even worse off: 2,500 students share a 3 Mbps connection on a T1 copper line. Students can’t take state-mandated online tests or even perform online research. Teachers can’t access media or lesson plans, let alone enter attendance. For this nonfunctional connection, the district paid $9,275 each month.

After class, 17 year old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

In addition to losing out because Clemmie and her classmates didn't learn how to use the Internet for research, a significant amount of public dollars was spent inefficiently on poor quality telecommunications. With better, more affordable options, Clemmie's school could have redirected those same dollars toward classroom learning needs.

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than half of rural districts reported that only one Internet provider operates in their area - which means no competition and high-prices. Now, the FCC is overhauling the E-rate program to empower schools to build their own networks. 

Community-Owned Networks: A Possible Solution

At MuniNetworks, we have collected stories on our Community Anchor Institutions page to draw attention to the ways local community networks save public dollars and bridge the urban/rural digital divide.

For instance, the schools in Ottawa, Kansas, save $3,000 a month for twice as much bandwidth they used to get. In Carroll County, Maryland, the school district saves $400,000 annually. In rural northern Georgia, schools have real-time virtual music collaborations; schools have live interactive science demonstrations online in rural southwest Georgia. These savings and opportunities would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community-owned networks.

Rural communities often do not have a large tax-base to draw upon to support school levies to afford the exorbitant rates that private carriers charge each year. But a community network is an investment that sometimes provides an opportunity to later expand from schools and other public buildings to bring connectivity to homes and businesses.

Improvement Is Not That Far Away

In the Education Week articles, the E-rate changes empowered Calhoun County, Mississippi. In February 2015, the county requested bids from private providers to either offer faster, cheaper service or to build a network the district could own or lease for itself. The possibility of competition - the possibility of a community network - the incumbent provider offered 1 Gbps for $600 a month per school building. The threat alone was enough to get better rates.


Image courtesy of Chris Carey, Pics for Learning.

Reedsburg Utility Commission Receives State Grant for Expansion

In April 2015, Wisconsin's Brett Schuppner from the Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) had a conversation with Chris about the utility's plan to expand the municipal fiber network. Funding is one of the biggest challenges but in December, the RUC learned that it a state grant will help move those plans forward.

WisNews recently reported that the RUC applied for $110,000 to bring the triple-play fiber network to Buckhorn Lake in Sauk County. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced on December 11th that the RUC will instead receive $69,300 which will allow the network to extend to an additional 105 homes and 40 properties. From the article:

Schuppner said an informal survey of members of the Buckhorn Property Owners’ Association suggests the utility commission will likely recover its out-of-pocket costs for the project not covered by the grant of about $40,000 from new users in the first year.

RUC began serving the community in 2003, expanding in 2011, and offering gigabit service in 2014. The community is located about 55 miles northwest of Madison and home to approximately 10,000 people.

Ten other entities across the state also received grants. RUC anticipates construction to begin on this expansion early this year.

Task Force in Rural Connecticut Explores Community’s Appetite for Fiber

The newly formed Utilities Task Force in the City of Redding, Connecticut, is exploring the potential of bringing fiber connectivity to this rural town of about 9,000 people. Redding is about 65 miles northeast of New York City and just 25 miles north of Stamford.

As part of their feasibility analysis, the task force sent a survey to residents and businesses to gauge interest in bringing a fiber network to Redding. While the analysis is still ongoing, task force board member Susan Clark expressed optimism. “I’ve been energized by how many people have shown interest in this,” Clark told the News Times.

The task force believes if the survey reveals strong interest in the community for the nascent project, private Internet providers would be more inclined to help the community build the network. Community leaders hope that a new fiber network would attract new residents such as “knowledge workers” who depend on reliable, highspeed Internet access that allows them to work from home.

A second member of the task force, Leon Kervelis, told the The Redding Pilot that the task force has hopes the proposed network, if built, could eventually grow beyond Redding: 

“It’s not intended to be a single town project…we’d get several towns together in a conglomerate, and that municipal conglomerate decides procedures and financing for the infrastructure,” he said.

Kervelis also explained the task force’s proposed plan for how to pay for the network, saying residents and businesses would pay a small surcharge on their property taxes, a far cry from current rates:

“The benefit would be significant,” he added. “Some people are already paying $120 a month to the cable company. Compared that to an [estimated] $10 to the town of Redding. For businesses and residents, this would drastically cut the cost of communicating rapidly and instantaneously. This would be a vast improvement over the services currently available in town.”

Clark said she originally got her inspiration to pursue a fiber optic network project in Redding after learning about the state’s CT Gig Project. The project involves “a coalition of municipalities, state officials, and other interested parties committed to bringing high-speed, low-cost internet to all residents and businesses in Connecticut.” 

We wrote about the development of the CT Gig Project in early 2015. For more information on the goals and current happenings with the CT Gig Project, you can visit their website here.

High-Speed Broadband Access Becomes Lifeblood for Modern Healthcare

More than ever before, innovations in healthcare technology are saving lives. A series of 2015 stories from around the nation highlight the importance of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in using those technologies to serve patients in both urban and rural settings.

Broadband Speed and Medical Crises

The first story comes from Craig Settles, an expert on broadband access issues. In his line of work, Settles is constantly thinking about, talking about, and writing about the many virtues of broadband technology. But Settles explains that after recently suffering a stroke that required rapid medical attention, he gained a new perspective on the issue.

When someone suffers a stroke, they have three hours to get serious treatment or they often will not recover from its debilitating effects. I was lucky, but...while I worked through my recovery and rehab, a thought hit me: The process of my recovery would have been limited -- if not actually impossible -- had I been living in a small, rural or even urban low-income community without broadband.

Better Broadband, Better Medical Care in Rural West Virginia

The Charleston Gazette-Mail profiles the importance of broadband access at the St. George Medical Clinic in rural West Virginia. The clinic is wedged inside of a deep, wooded river valley, where geographic and topographic challenges interrupt access to reliable, high-speed broadband. In other words, the exact type of rural community Settles had in mind when he wrote about his frightening medical emergency.

But St. George Medical Clinic is different. With assistance from FCC funding, St. George recently laid a 12 miles of fiber optic line that delivers the hospital broadband access, essential to an increasing number of modern medical services. As the article explains:

Prior to installing the fiber optic line, Paul Wamsley, the clinic’s director, said his staff had to work with a DSL connection that only provided speeds of one to three megabits per second (Mbps). But with the new setup, the clinic’s staff and its customers are able to access a patient portal, where they can obtain their medical records, make payments, schedule appointments, request medication and ask for a referral — all online.

As the article also notes, the fiber broadband access at St. George Medical Clinic is the exception, not the rule, when it comes to broadband availability at rural medical facilities in West Virginia. Medical professionals say their patients miss out on access to new healthcare innovations that are not possible in facilities with persistently poor broadband access.

The 10 Gig Doctor

Feature stories appearing in both the Chattanooga Times Free Press and The Chattanoogan tell the story of Dr. Jim Busch, who in October became the first person in the world to get a 10 gigabit broadband per second connection at his home. With 10 gig connectivity, the radiologist and can quickly send and receive massive diagnostic files, enabling him to perform important medical work from home. Dr. Busch pays $299 per month through Chattanooga’s renowned EPB network. 

Dr. Busch explains the value of the service to his work:

‘"In my field, fiber optic speeds save lives. Instead of waiting as much as a week or more to get results because radiologists would have to physically go to each location, our patients can get their results in hours or even minutes.  When something is seriously wrong catching it as early as possible can be the difference between life and death."

Broadband and the Future of Medicine

Thanks to recent research and development, medical professionals are continuously improving their treatment of patients through the use of a wide variety of cutting edge devices and by employing Internet-based platforms to facilitate more efficient lines of communication. But these devices are only possible because of the high-speed broadband networks that are at the heart of modern digital data transmission demands. 

Small and mid-sized communities with municipal networks often find hospitals and clinics are the first entities requesting better connectivity. In fact, more than a few networks were built when strong support from the local medical community tipped opinion in favor of a project. 

The medical future is now for communities with access to high-speed broadband. Patients served by clinics with insufficient access to the technology should not have to wait simply because of where they live. Large corporate providers may find no financial justification for developing high-speed networks in sparsely populated rural areas but quality healthcare is a right that cannot be defined by geography. Local communities of every size and location deserve the authority to develop infrastructure to ensure that right.

Fifteen Fun Facts about NoaNet - Fifteen Years of Accomplishments

Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) was just a dream back in 2000, but, fifteen years later, it’s one of the largest networks in the state of Washington. NoaNet is celebrating fifteen years of accomplishments, so we compiled fifteen fun facts everyone should know about this community network.

1. One of the first Open Access networks in the U.S.
Back in 2000, people in rural Washington watched as the dot-com and telecom boom passed them by. Frustrated that large ISPs refused to build infrastructure near them, the people created NoaNet and allowed anyone to use it through Open Access. This type of design encourages multiple service providers to share the infrastructure and local communities own the network.

2. Almost 2,000 miles of fiber
You know that amazing, next-generation technology that Google is rolling out in select cities across the U.S.? Yeah, people in Washington started using fiber optic cables fifteen years ago to bring high-speed Internet to their communities. Now, NoaNet extends almost 2,000 miles through both rural and metro areas.

3. It’s a giant Institutional Network
With all that fiber, NoaNet connects 170 communities and around 2,000 schools, libraries, hospitals, and government buildings. It serves as a middle mile network, connecting the public institutions of small towns to the greater Internet. 

4. 40% of Washington government traffic, by 2007
And that’s just within the first seven years!

5. 61 last mile providers
From NoaNet’s infrastructure, private providers bring connectivity the last mile to homes and businesses. Having publicly-owned middle mile reduces the capital costs of building last mile infrastructure - that means more providers can compete with one another and better prices for everyone. Currently, there are over 260,000 customers!

6. More than $130 million
BTOP stands for the federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program. In 2009, NoaNet received more than $80 million to provide connectivity for unserved and underserved people throughout Washington state. In 2011, NoaNet received a second grant of more than $50 million to increase connectivity to educational, healthcare, and tribal facilities.  

7. NoaNet was featured on our podcast… Twice!
In Episode 159, Chris interviewed Dave Spencer, Chief Operating Officer of NoaNet. And then, Spencer returned in Episode 164 to answer more details about how the network operates.

8. First in the Northwest to have 100 Gigabit per second (Gbps or Gigs) backbone
Between 2013 and 2015, NoaNet upgraded from 1 Gig to 100 Gigs. It’s the high-capacity fiber backbone for the Pacific Northwest - so think big.

9. NoaNet live-streaming NFL
Nothing is better than football, except for maybe high-speed Internet. So imagine football and high-speed Internet together. In 2015, NoaNet live-streamed coverage of the NFL. 

10. 10 current members
The members of NoaNet are several Public Utility Districts (PUDs) - locally controlled and rate-payer owned nonprofits: Benton County PUD#1, Clallam County PUD #1, Energy Northwest, Franklin County #1, Jefferson County PUD #1, Kitsap County PUD #1, Mason County PUD #3, Okanogan County PUD #1, Pacific County PUD #2, Pend Oreille PUD #1

11. It’s technically a municipality...
These 10 Public Utility Districts came together through a very particular Washington law - the InterLocal Agreement - to create NoaNet. Basically, it’s a nonprofit mutual corporation and subject to the same opportunities and restrictions as the Public Utility Districts.

12. Statewide, but locally-owned
NoaNet reaches across the state but is attuned to local needs. Being controlled by local Public Utility Districts, the network doesn’t lose sight of its primary goal: rural connectivity.

13. Next-Generation Jobs
It’s reinventing what it means to live and work in rural areas:

“NoaNet's roots included creation of a virtual corporation, a new rural employment opportunity where we retain the most talented staff and let them live where they want.  NoaNet leadership and staff embraced remote telecommuting and use of the technology advances to execute NoaNet's vision-mission and purpose of building a regional non-profit telecommunications carrier.”
Rob Kopp, Chief Technology Officer

14. New Technologies
Unlike large corporate companies that often refuse to innovate in rural areas, NoaNet is investing in new technologies like data centers to ensure that rural communities don’t get left behind. 

15. Future-Focus
And NoaNet is not going to stop any time soon:

"In the early days, the NoaNet mission to bring affordable broadband to rural communities throughout WA was dismissed by many as dreamy-eyed with a short life expectancy. The success of NoaNet has been the fulfillment of hopes by its supporters for a better opportunity to achieve broadband parity with metro areas in formerly remote areas of the state. Rather than looking back on the many small communities literally connected to economic hubs, the NoaNetteam continues to focus on those still to be served. The mission is not yet complete."
Tom Villani, Special Accounts Manager

Sources: NOANet Timeline, Community Broadband Bits Podcasts, NOAnet BTOP funding

North Carolina Organizes for Local Internet Choice - Community Broadband Bits Episode 184

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has its first local chapter with the formation of CLIC-NC. Catharine Rice, who is both part of CLIC-NC and the Project Director for CLIC, explains what is happening on episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

We remind listeners what CLIC is and the goals of CLIC-NC more specifically. We also discuss the interesting comments of NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is both challenging the FCC's authority to remove North Carolina's anti-muni law and supportive of removing the law via the state legislature.

Catharine has long been involved in the effort for Local Internet Choice and put up an incredibly strong fight to stop anti-competition bills advanced by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others over multiple years in North Carolina. She was the guest on our 5th episode of this show.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

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.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Op-ed: Next-Generation Networks Needed

The Knoxville News Sentinel published this op-ed about Tennessee's restrictive broadband law on January 9, 2016.

Christopher Mitchell: Next-Generation Networks Needed

Four words in Tennessee law are denying an important element of Tennessee's proud heritage and restricting choices for Internet access across the state.

When private firms would not electrify Tennessee, public power came to the rescue. In the same spirit, some local governments have built their own next-generation Internet access networks because companies like AT&T refused to invest in modern technology. These municipal networks have created competition, dramatic consumer savings and a better business climate in each of their communities.

The four words at issue prevent municipal electric utilities from expanding their successful fiber optic Internet networks to their neighbors, a rejection of the public investment that built the modern economy Tennessee relies upon.

Current law allows a municipal utility to offer telephone service anywhere in the state, but Internet access is available only "within its service area." This limit on local authority protects big firms like AT&T and Comcast from needed competition, and they have long lobbied to protect their de facto monopolies. To thrive, Tennessee should encourage both public and private investment in needed infrastructure.

These municipal systems have already shown they can bring the highest-quality Internet services to their communities. Chattanooga's utility agency, EPB, built one of the best Internet networks in the nation. Municipal fiber networks in Tullahoma, Morristown and more have delivered benefits far in excess of their costs while giving residents and local businesses a real choice in providers.

Many of these networks are willing to connect their neighbors — people and businesses living just outside the electric utility boundary. If Chattanooga wants to expand its incredible EPB Fiber into Bradley County with the consent of all parties, why should the state get in the way?

Consider that Tennessee metro areas almost always have at least one high-speed Internet option. Those with municipal networks have a real choice in providers. Nashville is slated for Google Fiber. But there is no such hope on the horizon in rural areas, despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on subsidies to providers like AT&T.

While AT&T's lobbyists scheme to prevent competition, the federal government subsidizes AT&T operations with more than $500,000 per month in Tennessee alone. So much for the "private" sector.

When it comes to municipal networks, taxpayer dollars are rarely used. Private investors often finance municipal networks by purchasing long-term bonds and are repaid by the revenues from the network. The Tennessee Valley Authority strictly oversees municipal utilities to ensure they are not cross-subsidizing telecom services with electrical ratepayer revenues.

To the extent municipal networks affect taxpayers, the taxpayers benefit. EPB just announced that in 2015 alone, its payments in lieu of taxes exceeded $19 million to the 17 jurisdictions in which it operates.

When local businesses connect to municipal fiber, more of their money stays in the community. Compare that to how much communities without a real choice send to AT&T and Comcast headquarters in distant states. And thanks to the competition, residents and businesses pay less. Morristown estimates a $3.4 million annual aggregate savings from lower bills.

The state should encourage communities to be more self-reliant and to build resilient regions rather than taking the side of distantly-owned monopolies. The state should be focused on how to encourage investment in next-generation Internet networks, not limit it.

 

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter: @CommunityNets.