New Article on Economic Development and Fiber: "The Killer App for Local Fiber Networks"

Time and again, we share economic development stories from communities that have invested in fiber networks. A new article by Jim Baller, Joanne Hovis, and Ashley Stelfox from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) and Masha Zager from Broadband Communities magazine examines the meaning of economic development and the connection to fiber infrastructure.

Economists, advocates, and policymakers grapple with how to scientifically measure the link between the two but:

As Graham Richard, former mayor of Fort Wayne, Ind., observed, “From the point of view of retaining and gaining jobs, I can give you example after example [of the impact of broadband]. … What I don’t have is a long term, double-blind study that says it was just broadband.” But, “as a leader, sometimes you go with your gut.”

In addition to presenting examples from a number of communities such as Chattanooga, Lafayette, and Santa Monica, the article nicely summarizes key information from recent reports on links between broadband and real estate value, household income, and local economic growth.

As the authors note:

Communities increasingly recognize that fiber networks also provide critical benefits for education, public safety, health care, transportation, energy, environmental protection, urban revitalization, government service and much more. But only in revitalizing and modernizing local economies and creating meaningful, well-paying jobs do community leaders, businesses, institutions and residents consistently find common ground. In short, economic development and job creation can fairly be called the “killer app” for local fiber networks.

Worth reading and sharing!

Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Issues RFP

The Roanoke Valley in Virginia has taken a deliberate pace on the road to improving local connectivity. On December 10th, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) released an RFP for proposals for an open access fiber optic network.

The RVBA is seeking a partner to build the network that will remain a publicly owned asset but will be managed by a private partner. According to the RFP, the City of Salem Electric Department has fiber in place that will be integrated into the the network. The RVBA has already invested in design, engineering, and permitting of 42 miles of a fiber network to jumpstart the process. Construction should begin this year.

In November, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported:

The valley is often described as being caught in a “doughnut hole” for broadband service because it’s not a large enough area for the marketplace to drive creation of a truly high-speed network, but it’s too large to qualify for grants available to more rural locales.

The Times-Dispatch reports the estimated cost for the project is $4 million. 

National Press Follows President Obama to Cedar Falls, Iowa

On January 14th, President Obama visited Cedar Falls, Iowa, to share his strategy to expand high-speed connectivity to more Americans, encourage competition, and galvanize economic development. Obama's plan centers around community networks and he announced that the next step will be eliminating barriers in 19 states that usurp local authority to invest in publicly owned infrastructure.

From his remarks [C-SPAN Video below]:

Today, I'm making my administration's position clear on community broadband. I'm saying I'm on the side of competition. And I'm on the side of small business owners... I'm on the side of students and schools. I believe that a community has the right to make its own choice and to provide its own broadband if it wants to. Nobody is going to force you to do it, but if you want to do it, if the community decides this is something that we want to do to give ourselves a competitive edge and to help our young people and our businesses, they should be able to do it.

The Obama Administration, through the Department of Commerce, recently sent a letter [PDF] to Chairman Wheeler to request the FCC use its authority to end state barriers that block local public investment. The Hill noted the letter and the President's speech together put gentle pressure on the FCC to take steps to restore local authority. The Hill also gave space to the cable industry, naturally opposed to restoring local authority after millions of lobbying dollars invested in passing anti-competitive legislation.

InfoWorld also pointed out cable industry opposition to the Obama proposal, noting that they were ready to mount a strong offense and will likely join Congressional Republicans to fight any roll-back of state barriers. A decision from the FCC on whether or not to change state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee is expected in February.

As for the incumbents, there was no love lost between the President and the big players, as Multichannel News reported:

He said in many places big companies are "doing everything they can to keep out new competitors."

…they were at the whim of whatever Internet service provider happened to be around, and and when they had problems they got stuck on hold watching a spinning icon, waiting and waiting and waiting and wondering why rates keep getting "jacked up." Ouch. 

Other national outlets that covered the speech included the New York Times, the Washington Post, Ars Technica, Fierce Telecom, and NexGov. We came across so many stories we stopped counting.

Local coverage included stories from the Sioux City Journal, the Quad City Times, the Gazette, and the Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier. Mayor Jon Crews told the Courier:

“This is good for attracting companies that have higher wages for technical positions,” Crews said. “Obviously to be recognized by Google and the president of the United States in two months time is pretty awesome.”

As the President noted in his speech, Google named Cedar Falls the best city in Iowa for e-commerce due to its municipal fiber optic network.

Marc Reifenrath, local business owner of a web design, development and digital strategy agency called Spinutech introduced the President:

In our early years it would have been easy to move our headquarters to another city, really anywhere. Thanks in part to its high speed internet, Cedar Falls has always made it easy for us to grow our business. Today, Spinutech has clients in all 50 states and eight countries. In talking with these clients, time and again it is proven just how fortunate we are.

Whether or not local authority is restored in the 19 states in question, it is important that local communities remember the role of vision, which the President pointed out in his speech:

Now, in Cedar Falls, things are different. About 20 years ago, in a visionary move ahead of its time, this city voted to add another option to the market and invest in a community broadband network. Really smart thing you guys did. It was a really smart thing you guys did. And you've managed it right here at Cedar Falls Utilities. And then a few years ago, you realized that customers were demanding more and more speed. All the movies, all the increased data, Instagram -- all this stuff suddenly is just being loaded up, and basically, you guys were like the captain in Jaws, where he said, “We're going to need a bigger boat.” 

 

A Transcript of the script is available at the C-SPAN video page in the transcript box below the video window.

SandyNet Now Offering Gigabit FTTH in Oregon

Back in September, SandyNet announced that its FTTH gigabit network was officially up and running. The utility will continue to expand and eventually bring the network to all 4,000 households. Light Reading recently spoke with Joe Knapp, Sandy's IT Director and general manager of the broadband utility about the new offering. With a population of 10,000, Sandy is in Oregon between Portland and Mount Hood.

The network is completely underground. Sandy is one of many communities that have developed smart conduit policies, reducing the cost and preparing the environment for deployment over a period of years.

You can listen to our discussion with Knapp on Sandy's conduit policy in Episode 17 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with City Manager Scott Lazenby about Sandy's conduit policies during Episode 48.

Like many other communities we study, Sandy invested in connectivity out of necessity. Knapp told Light Reading:

"We started out because we couldn't get a DSL line at city hall," says Joe Knapp, IT director for the City of Sandy and general manager of SandyNet. The utility first built a 900MHz wireless network, then WiFi, then a wireless mesh network to connect residents to broadband, he says. "That became so popular that we took about 40% of the market with wireless, but that was a hard thing to sustain."

The journey to FTTH was not an easy one:

"We started to realize that a lot of communities are doing this," Knapp says. "It took three years of beating my head against the wall to finally get it to happen."

Gigabit speeds are something to boast about, but Knapp says SandyNet will not go to extremes to push them:

"As a muni network, we view this as trying to benefit the community. I tell them to try the 100-Meg service first -- we're actually not pushing the gig that hard."

Pricing for gigabit service is $59.95 per month; 100 Mbps service is $39.95 per month. All speeds are symmetrical and there are no caps or contracts.

President Obama Speaks Against Barriers to Community Networks

When we started to hear rumors that the White House was investigating community owned networks, we were excited but not sure what to expect. I have to admit that seeing President Obama - the President of the United States - saying that Cedar Falls was smart to invest in themselves was much more powerful than I ever expected (see the video below).'

President Obama will visit Cedar Falls on Wednesday to address his plans to increase access to affordable, high-speed broadband across the country. Tune in at 3:40 Eastern to the White House Briefing Room to watch the live event.

The efforts of so many people to legitimize community networks are now paying off. Belittled by the big cable companies and their paid experts, we certainly were not destined to reach this point. But we are here - and everyone now recognizes that local governments can play an important role in ensuring we all have great Internet access.

The White House has released a fact sheet with some information on what the Executive Branch will do to increase competition and restore local authority.

Laws in 19 states — some specifically written by special interests trying to stifle new competitors — have held back broadband access and, with it, economic opportunity. Today, President Obama is announcing a new effort to support local choice in broadband, formally opposing measures that limit the range of options available to communities to spur expanded local broadband infrastructure, including ownership of networks. As a first step, the Administration is filing a letter with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) urging it to join this effort by addressing barriers inhibiting local communities from responding to the broadband needs of their citizens.

And the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisers have released a report discussing the important contributions of community owned networks [PDF]. You might see some familiar references in the report - we are excited to see our work contributing to national policy.

This is a great moment for everyone that has worked on these networks - from local government employees and elected officials to the activists and local business owners that have volunteered their time to make it happen in their community. This is a great moment for the principle of local self-reliance.

Video: 
See video

Gigabit Muni Fiber Partnership: Westminster and Ting

Westminster's city council just voted unanimously to establish a partnership with Ting, reports the Carroll County Times. Known primarily as a mobile service provider, Ting wants to offer Internet services via the new municipal fiber optic network. Ting announced earlier this month that it would soon begin offering Internet service in Charlottesville, Virginia as well.

In their own announcement about the partnership, CTC Technology & Energy's Joanne Hovis described the arrangement:

The City will fund, own, and maintain the fiber; Ting will lease the fiber and provide all equipment and services. Ting will pay the City to use the fiber—reducing the City’s risk while enabling Ting to offer Gigabit Internet in Westminster without having to build a fiber network from scratch.

CTC has worked with Westminster since the beginning to analyze the community's situation, assets, and challenges. 

We have watched Westminster's idea blossom into a pilot project and then go full bloom to a planned 60-mile network when demand dictated nothing less. The project has been community driven and community minded. It comes to no surprise to us that a straight shooting, consumer minded provider such as Ting would be the partner Westminster would choose.

Dr. Robert Wack, city council member and local project leader told the Times:

"From the very beginning, it was obvious that they [Ting] understood what we were trying to do," said Council President Robert Wack. "We got a lot of feedback from other responses that was questioning to flat-out skeptical."

Ting considers the arrangement an organic step for them. From the press release:

It all feels like a really nice model for how this stuff should work. The city of Westminster builds a fiber network underneath the streets, driveways, hills and valleys they know best and ultimately owns their own future. We do pretty much exactly what we have been doing for our mobile customers for three years. Most importantly, the people of Westminster, Maryland will join the ranks of Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Chattanooga and, soon, Charlottesville, Virginia with blazing fast, video streaming, photo uploading, economy driving, job creating Internet to boast and enjoy.

For more on the project, listen to Chris's interview with Dr. Wack in Episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We will feature Ting in an upcoming episode of Community Broadband Bits.

Update: Motherboard has a story with a great quote from Dr. Robert Wack: 

"We want to blow this thing up, and we want disruptive services at disruptive pricing," Robert Wack, Westminster's city council president, told me. "We've got Comcast and its usual suite of services, Verizon DSL, with its patchy service areas, and dish and satellite services. Nobody is happy with any of it, and none of it has the capacity we need to take this city into the future."

Error - we previously wrote North Carolina rather than Virginia. This is Charlottesville, Virginia.

Howard County Fiber Encourages New Jobs, Competition in Maryland - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 133

While at the Broadband Communities Economic Development conference in Springfield last year, I had the good fortune to catch a panel with Chris Merdon, the CIO of Howard County, Maryland.

Howard County has become an Internet Service Provider, not just to itself, but to private firms as well. To improve Internet access for businesses, it is both leasing dark fiber to existing providers and directly offering services to businesses and buildings.

We are grateful that Chris could join us for a Chris2 interview! We discuss how and why Howard County chose this strategy and how it is benefiting the community.

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 19 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."

Missouri Bill Creates New Barriers to Community Networks

Republican State Representative Rocky Miller began the new legislative session with a bill designed to yank authority from local communities that need better connectivity.  Even though the state already preempts local authority to sell telecommunications services and requires a referendum for cable, there is a current exemption for "Internet-type services." HB 437 [PDF] removes that exemption and would make it all but impossible for a local community to ensure they had access to the same types of services now available in Kansas City.

The bill prohibits communities from offering services if there are any private providers with no regard to the type or quality of those services. There can be no mistake that bills such as these are aimed directly at communities contemplating building their own gigabit networks because the existing service providers have refused to invest in the needed infrastructure.

Cities like Columbia, Nixa, and Carl Junction have taken proactive steps to encourage investment economic development growth that this bill would prevent. In Springfield, the city would have more than 1,000 fewer jobs without the city-owned SpringNet, which we have covered multiple times.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) released this statement about the bill:

The state of Missouri is the latest legislature to attempt to erect barriers to the deployment of broadband networks that are critical to the future of its local economies and the nation, via House Bill 437. High-bandwidth communications networks are the electricity of the 21st century and no community should be stymied or hampered in its efforts to deploy new future-proof communications infrastructure for its citizens – either by itself or with willing private partners. It is ironic that while the International CES show in Las Vegas spotlighted hundreds of new devices and applications that require big bandwidth, legislation would be introduced in Missouri that would impair the development of networks that enable that bandwidth.

The hundreds of communities, companies, and private citizens that make up the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) urge the Missouri legislature to reject this ill-informed effort to tie the hands of Missouri’s own communities.

Over the past year, the community of Columbia contended with incumbent CenturyLink's efforts to block its attempt to improve connectivity for local businesses. Consultants recently found that 84% of local businesses do not get the Internet speeds they need. While Columbia Water & Light now offers dark fiber, the consultants suggested developing an open access fiber network for commercial customers.

Miller's district includes Jefferson City, one of the communities where CenturyLink announced it would offer limited gigabit services.

HB 437 is not scheduled for a hearing yet, but we are watching and will post relevent updates.

Update: Missouri removed the referendum requirement for municipal cable in 2010. It is unclear but cities do not appear to have the authority to offer cable services in any circumstance presently.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 9

Susan Crawford’s latest piece on municipal broadband discussed a real problem that mayors of communities can have a definite impact in helping resolve: the digital divide.

Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In Massachusetts, WWLP’s Anthony Hill reported on the small city of Leyden, whose residents may finally be getting high speed Internet access. The city is supporting a $2 million project, which will be up for a vote by residents this coming spring. 

The Monroe Courier reported this week on how 25% of Connecticut towns could soon be a formidable force against big cable. The cities are joining together to demand better connectivity and to make the state the nation’s first Gigabit State. Our story on Connecticut here.

“The response from our state’s towns has been overwhelming,” Consumer Counsel Katz said.  “I’ve heard over and over that municipal officials are frustrated with available internet speeds and the cost to their towns of upgrading internet networks.  These 46 municipalities have made the decision to take control of the situation.  From the high school to the town hall to the library, the demand for faster internet speeds and greater bandwidth is ever-increasing. Businesses face the same challenges, and we know more residents than ever are asking the same question: How do we get faster, cheaper, more reliable internet? Partnering with the private sector to examine the best way to build and finance these Gig networks is the first step in making them a reality in Connecticut.”

From California’s Mendocino County, we found yet another reason why communities should consider municipal fiber: residents there are still dealing with damage inflicted after an AT&T broadband outage left people with out phone and Internet for nearly 45 hours! Adam Randall with the Ukiah Daily Journal reported that officials say the outage was due in part to AT&T’s refusal to upgrade its copper wiring.

“AT&T's unwillingness to address repair issues in Mendocino County in a timely manner is something that has continued to irk [chairman of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, Jim] Moorehead, along with other officials, including Congressman Jared Huffman.

Some of the affected customers are now experiencing landline outages, with the biggest concern being those who are not able to connect with 911 in case of an emergency, Moorehead said.”

Joan Engebretson wrote about North Dakota’s surprisingly high fiber-to-the-home percentage

…because North Dakota is so rural, 96% of the state (on a geographic basis) is served by one of 18 small rural telecom companies – and those companies have made deploying FTTH a high priority.

The small companies’ rural status also has enabled them to benefit from several USDA programs. According to a report released in late December, the USDA has invested more than $330 million in broadband in North Dakota since 2009…

Brian Heaton with GovTech covered Iowa governor Terry Branstad’s plan to “connect every Iowan.” 

“For Iowa to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace, we must connect every acre to high-speed broadband Internet,” Centers said. “Not only does that mean connecting agriculture to high-speed Internet, but it also means making sure Iowa’s schools have the ability to give our children access to educational resources available online and main street businesses can connect with the global marketplace.”

Google and Title II

The FCC’s decision on reclassifying the Internet as a utility could be music to Google Fiber’s ears.

TechDirt’s Karl Bode again weighed in on how ISPs use utility pole rights to block both private and municipal broadband projects:

Bureaucratic pole attachment rights negotiations are already sometimes annoyingly cumbersome, but they're also one of many ways incumbent ISPs thwart competitive efforts. Municipal broadband efforts in Utah, for example, were hindered by a litany of Qwest (now CenturyLink) lawsuits aimed at blocking local community ISP Utopia from having access to the company's poles. In Austin, where AT&T owns around 20% of the city's utility poles, Google Fiber ran into some initial obstacles getting pole attachment rights because AT&T argued Google wasn't officially a telecom company. 

And Martin Blanc with BidnessEtc continued to explain how the search engine giant would benefit greatly from reclassification as Title II.  

“[Google Director of Communications Law Austin Schlick] told the FCC in a letter last week that such reclassification will promote competition in the industry and induce more investment in the sector, and will also promote the provision of broadband Internet to more markets.”

Reid Schram with Epoch Times broke it down to Google's bottom line:

“Google is asking for this because as they’ve been trying to roll out their high speed Google Fiber service to different areas, they have run into major problems getting permission to access things like utility poles and cable carrying conduits. AT&T and Comcast have long been afforded ease of access to these key pieces of infrastructure, as they are classified as a cable tv provider, and thus a utility."

2015

A couple of writers this week commented that America’s slow-to-the-draw connectivity may be a good thing– it could serve as a wake up call for communities that want to take back their local authority. 

Bruce Kushnick predicted 2015 will include a lot of hair-pulling by cable and phone customers: 

... There is one shining light -- A wise friend of mine once said, "It has to get so bad that people actually notice." With 4 million people commenting about Net Neutrality, the so called "ISPs" being considered the 'most hated companies in America' in 2013 and Time Warner and Comcast being the most hated companies in 2014 -- out-stripping every other industry, or that the major media actually used the term "Title II"-- maybe, just maybe, the sheep have woken up from their slumber.

But, right now, for communications, the year 2015 looks like it will just suck to be a customer of America's telecom-cable trust."

The Washington Post’s Brian Fung reported on the proposed new definition of broadband: 25 Mbps. He said that Wheeler’s recommendation recognizes that the government is finally catching up to technology advancements:

“In 2012, the most recent year for which the FCC has published data, 94 percent of Americans already had access to download speeds of at least 3 Mbps. While that may have been enough for most people then, it represents the bare minimum now."

Top of the Dung Heap Awards 

Tech Dirt’s Karl Bode and Erika Rawes with The Wall Street Cheat Sheet listed the Top 10 WORST businesses in 2014. Spoiler Alert: SEVEN out of the 10 from Big Telecom. We could have been knocked over by a feather by shear surprise… not really.

"It’s frustrating. And although the customer service rep claims to “understand you are frustrated today,” there is only so much these reps can do, given they are trained to utilized the most inexpensive and cost-effective potential “solutions” for the business, as opposed to doing what’s easiest and most convenient for the customer.

On top of the fact that customer service reps are often trained to lean toward inexpensive solutions that drive customers crazy, most reps are also working for sub-par wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), customer service reps are paid median hourly wages of around $14.85 per hour and those on the lower end of the wage scale earn less than $9.50 per hour. However, in 2001, the median hourly wage for these representatives was $12.23 — or $16.31 in today’s money.

Not only have wages declined for these workers, automated systems and online systems have reduced the need for them. Sure, customers want human interaction, but they also want that interaction to be friendly and productive. This personal and friendly interaction is something so many businesses lack."

But you can take (some) solace in this: you may now find it easier to complain about that telephone and cable service! 

The FCC unveiled its new “one-stop shop” complaint site for filing and tracking complaints about robocalls and fraudulent charges. Teresa McUsic with SavvyConsumer gave a full list of where and how to complain early, and often.

Hagerstown, Maryland Issues RFI for Gigabit Network

Hagerstown, population 40,000, recently released a Request for Information to field ideas to develop existing infrastructure for residents and local businesses.

According to the press release:

"The interest in our City and the potential shown for our market from industry professionals working with municipal broadband initiatives has been very promising. We look forward to moving ahead in collaboration with private partners to bring affordable technology to Hagerstown," says Mayor Dave Gysberts.

The RFI identifies five goals:

Goal 1: Create a 1 GB and/or greater fiber network in a targeted commercial corridor known as “City Center Hagerstown” to foster innovation, drive job creation, and stimulate economic growth

Goal 2: Establish free wireless networks in parks and public spaces across the City, with primary focus on the following areas: City Park, Pangborn Park, Hellane Park, Wheaton Park, and Fairgrounds Park.

Goal 3: Evaluate the opportunity to expand wired/wireless services to areas beyond our City Center urban core to include underserviced residential areas, business parks, and/or target commercial areas.

Goal 4: Provide connectivity opportunities from the proposed fiber paths for the existing City Police camera surveillance system including expansion into other developing areas of the City.

Goal 5: Establish a presence within the community in the form of co‐location facility and/or business branch office space in which to conduct business.

According to the RFI, the city is seeking entities that will finance the majority of the network themselves or identify sources of funding. View the full RFI on the city website.