Public or Private Ownership? Community Broadband Bits Episode 132

Ever since the last time I spoke with Blair Levin on Episode 37, I have wanted to have him back for a friendly discussion about public or private ownership of next generation networks.

Though Blair and I entirely agree that local governments should be free to decide locally whether a community broadband network investment is a wise choice, he tends to see more promise in partnerships or other private approaches whereas we at ILSR tend to be concerned about the long term implications of private ownership of essential infrastructure.

In what may be the longest interview we have done, Blair and I discuss where we agree and how we differ. We weren't looking to prove the other wrong so much as illustrate our different points of view so listeners can evaluate our sides. Ultimately, we both believe in a United States where communities can choose between both models -- and some may even seek solutions that incorporate both.

Blair Levin was the FCC Chief of Staff when Reed Hundt was Chair and was instrumental in forming Gig.U. In between, he did a lot of things, including being Executive Director for the FCC's National Broadband Plan. He is currently with the Metropolitan Project at Brookings.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 37 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."

"Getting Started on Broadband" Webinar from Blandin on January 7th

The Blandin Foundation will be holding another informative webinar on Wednesday, January 7th. The event is titled "Getting Started on Community Broadband" and runs from 2 - 3 p.m. CST. You can register online for the free event.

However, we think it might better be called "Broadband in the Community" or something else because the focus is not on "community broadband" as that term is used in the vast majority of situations. This will likely be a good webinar for people new to broadband but will almost certainly not be focused on community networks.

Blandin Foundation consultant Bill Coleman and his guests will touch on comparisons between wired and wireless technologies, provide information on resources and tools for community broadband initiatives, and explore options to improve connectivity in your community.

From the Blandin on Broadband blog webinar announcement:

Two important trends are driving more communities to consider community engagement in broadband availability for the first time. First is the fact that broadband as a necessary element of everyday life is not a theoretical discussion anymore.  Almost everyone wants broadband so that they can participate fully in 21st Century life.  What might have been hyperbole ten years ago is now undeniably true.  Lack of broadband lowers property values and impacts quality of life.  No doubt about it.  Second, the availability of state and federal fund to address rural broadband issues seems to be growing.  Unprepared communities will soon see the funds flowing to their better prepared neighbors, thus motivating communities to get busy and play catch up.

This event is part of the Blandin Community Broadband Program (BCBP) Webinar Series and will be archived with past webinars. The series focuses on providing resources for rural community leaders where adequate connectivity is often lacking. In addition to community broadband initiatives, webinar topics also cover issues such as adoption, legislative changes, and access to grants. From the BCBP website:

BCBP webinars are designed to provide rural Minnesota leaders with information they can use to help transform their communities into tech savvy places to live, work and visit. Communities serious about attracting tourists, new businesses, entrepreneurs and young people must consider technology and Internet access as an essential amenity for community economic growth and vibrancy.

Athens, Ohio Learns from Neighbors and Considers Fiber Investments

Recently, we ran a story on the Columbus suburb of Dublin, which has a growing fiber optic network that has paid huge dividends in public savings, economic development, and facilitating technology research with the Ohio State University. Apparently others are taking notice of Dublin as well: Athens, a city 90 miles to the Southeast, has its city council discussing how to get fiber in the ground and the possibility of a public WiFi network. 

After meeting representatives of Dublin’s economic development department at a conference in November, Athens mayor Paul Wiehl came away impressed enough to start a discussion with the city council about how the Dublin model of extensive conduit networks and fiber access for businesses and public buildings might be adapted to Athens.  Athens is a college town, home of Ohio University, which may mean that like Dublin (which is only a few miles from the Ohio State University) it could be well positioned for research partnerships using fiber optics.

While specific plans have not yet been worked out, 

[Mayor] Wiehl said that the city's public works director, Andy Stone, recently has been looking at ways to incorporate fiber-optic line capacity into city infrastructure projects. The lines likely would be maintained by the city, and probably would run only to local businesses, who would pay the city for use of the Internet service.

Unfortunately, Athens’ city leaders may be overly enamored with the idea of citywide Wi-Fi. DubLINK launched a citywide WiFi network several years ago, but like nearly every other citywide WiFi system in the country it has not been able to deliver reliable high speed connections blanketing the entire city due to technological limitations. WiFi can still provide considerable value if deployed intelligently in specific public spaces as a supplement to other forms of access. But if Athens officials are expecting a cheap and easy answer to providing robust home access over a wide area, they are likely to be disappointed. 

Still, Athens offers an encouraging example of how good connectivity policy ideas can spread from one community to another. Dublin’s example has helped to put fiber investments on the agenda and in the minds of city leaders in Athens. Where the discussion goes from there will be up to the locals. 

Rock Falls to Expand Business Fiber Network

The community of Rock Falls, Illinois, recently decided to move ahead with a project to develop a municipal broadband utility, reports SaukValley.com. At a City Council meeting in early December, members unanimously voted to accept the findings of a feasibility study and move on to develop a formal business plan and preliminary engineering design. From the article:

Alderman Glen Kuhlemier said the table has been set for this project, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of what has already been done.

"To go backward is untenable after the foresight of the past," Kuhlemier said.

Rock Falls has an advantage because it already has substantial fiber resources in place. In the 1990s, the municipal electric utility installed fiber to connect substations. Thinking of the future, the electric utility installed ample fiber, which will significantly reduce the cost and burden to establish a network for business connectivity.

Rock Falls is no stranger to improving local connectivity. In the past, they used excess capacity to connect the city's schools and municipal facilities, reported American Public Power Magazine in 2010. The electric utility partnered with Essex Telecom, an ISP located in nearby Sterling, leasing some of their excess capacity to Essex so they could serve commercial customers.

The plan proposed by consultants would expand the network to connect half of the 350 businesses in the community. The consultanting firm estimates the deployment would cost $700,000 and the city would break even in 7 years.

Rock Falls, population approximately 9,200, is located on the Rock River in the northwest corner of the state; Sterling is immediately across the river. The community's municipal electric utility uses the river to generate hydroelectric power and customers pay rates 10-30% lower than those offered by neighboring investor-owned and cooperative utilities.

In recent years, the population has started to decline. Community leaders intend to jumpstart economic development with the added investment in fiber infrastructure.

SpringNet Sells Underground Colocation Facility

SpringNet has spurred economic development in Springfield, serving small businesses but also providing high-speed data to big employers such as Expedia. The network has steadily increased revenue over the years, even though it serves only commercial and public sector customers.

Demand for services has lead to the need to expand so SpringNet is opting to go lean. In 2002, the utility developed SpringNet Underground, a secure data and colocation center. The venture has been successful, says General Manager Scott Miller, but SpringNet sees investing the fiber network paramount and recently sold the facility. Bluebird Network purchased the facility for $8.4 million and will continue to serve the existing customers.

OzarksFirst recently ran the story:

Year in Review, Expectations for 2015 - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 131

For our final Community Broadband Bits episode of 2014, we review some of the notable events and news we covered and we discuss some predictions for 2015.

Lisa Gonzalez and Rebecca Toews join me in this discussion.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Let us know if we should try something like this again next year or for the 4th of July... or if we should stick to our knitting! Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 26 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."

ECFiber and ValleyNet Seek Managing Director

Recently, we reported that ECFiber in Vermont plans to expand in the near future. To fund that expansion, the consortium will seek out new, larger scale funding to meet the increased demand. ValleyNet, Inc., the company that manages the FTTH network for ECFiber is now searching for a Managing Director. The full posting is listed below and can be viewed at the NTCA Rural Broadband Association Job Center.

In keeping with the community goals of the network, we found value in this particular specification:

Community Foundation: In view of the above, the MD must fully appreciate and embrace the concept of a community-owned public utility and be able to relate successfully to:  the individual towns; their governing bodies (“Select Boards”); the ECFiber Governing Board and its members; and with the citizens themselves.  Although ECFiber is required by law and constitution to be entirely self-supporting and to “pay its own way”, it is not a purely “profit-maximizing” institution.  Balancing the needs of the community with the commercial discipline required to fund all its activities without resorting to taxpayer funding sources is a basic requirement of the MD’s position. 

Minnesota's Chaska.net to End Service in 2015

The rumors have been swirling for months now that the city of Chaska was considering putting an end to its municipal Wi-Fi service, Chaska.net. A recent Chaska Herald article confirms that city staff recommends the Council choose to end its residential service. If the Council follows the recommendation, the remaining business Wi-Fi customer, KleinBank data center, and School District 112 will still receive Wi-Fi service.

According to the article, the city explored the possibility of selling the system to the private sector, but the idea did not garner a favorable deal:

[City Administrator Matt] Podhradsky said that it appeared that the proposals were more of an attempt to gain access to the city’s water towers. “We started asking ourselves, ‘Should we be in the business of picking winners and losers?’” said Podhradsky. “We decided that’s just not the right direction for us.” 

City staff is recommending that the service end when the contract for support for the existing equipment ends in July. They also recommend that the last four months of service be offered free of charge. Customers will be notified by letter in early 2015.

The end of Chaska.net is bittersweet. When it was new, it was much celebrated as one of the first municipal Wi-Fi networks in the U.S. The past few years, however, have proved difficult. Waning subscriptions, competition from private providers, and old equipment have taken a toll. In order to replace the aging equipment, the city needs to spend $3 million. 

Podhrasky said the city is proud of what it accomplished with Chaska.net. “When you think back, there were a lot of cities that tried things and spent a lot of dollars to get something like this off the ground.”

He noted that the goal of the Internet utility was to provide high-speed service at an affordable cost until the market caught up. “We were a gap,” he said.

Today, that market has caught up. “It sort of feels like we completed our goal,” said Podhradsky.

Read more about Chaska's fiber network and Wi-Fi investment in our recent report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access.

CLIC Leadership on Gigabit Nation to Talk Breaking Down State Barriers

Jim Baller and Joanne Hovis, two leading voices in the drive to restore local authority, recently spoke with Craig Settles on Gigabit Nation. Baller and Hovis, the President and the CEO, of The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) spent about an hour discussing how CLIC is finding ways to help businesses, individuals, and public entities work with elected officials to retain or regain the right for local authority.

From the Gigabit Nation website:

Listeners gather insights to working with willing incumbents, developing public-private partnerships, establishing their own networks when necessary, or creating other inventive approaches that work for their communities. Both guests share their many years of experience in helping communities obtain the many benefits of advanced communications capabilities. Baller and Hovis formed CLIC to give voice to the wide range of public and private interests that support local choice and to provide communities practical advice and the tools necessary to prevent new state barriers from being enacted and to remove existing barriers.


Check Out Internet Podcasts at Blog Talk Radio with cjspeaks on BlogTalkRadio

Can you Satirize Poor Customer Service from Big Cable Companies - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 130

Given all the horrible experiences people have had over the telephone with massive cable companies, it isn't clear that one can design a skit to parody such a conversation. Each time someone calls one of these companies is a parody in and of itself. However, given that this is a holiday week, we decided to have some fun and record two such conversations using some of real interactions we have had.

The first call is reflective of many attempts we have had in trying to ascertain prices for common services from cable and telephone companies. The second call, starting at about 10:30 into the show, involves someone calling in to have a repair scheduled, this was inspired by and fairly closely mimics what he went through after a neighbor's tree fell on his cable line, severing it from his house.

Just before posting this show, a colleague shared a hilarious comic from Pearls and Swine covering cable sales practices.

Next week, we will have a year-end conversation that itself ends with some predictions for 2015. After that, we will back to normal guests and our normal format. Enjoy the holidays!

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Let us know if we should try something like this again next year or for the 4th of July... or if we should stick to our knitting! Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 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." We also use a dial tone sound in this recording from Sound Bible.