Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

SHLB Coalition Offering October Symposium on Anchor Institution Broadband Deployment

On October 2nd in Washington, D.C., the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will be hosting a symposium on "School-Library Partnerships and Other Anchor Institution Broadband Strategies." Speakers will include FCC representatives, Obama Administration officials, and service providers such as One Community, among others. 

The SHLB Coalition is a group of public, nonprofit, and commercial institutions that "promotes government policies and programs to enable schools, libraries, health care providers, other anchor institutions and their communities to obtain open, affordable, high-speed, broadband connections to the Internet."  

For more details and registration information, see the attached flyer.

Calls Grow for Community Network in Syracuse

Last week, we noted some comments made by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner indicating her interest in a municipal broadband network and her promise to develop a plan for how to build it. Now it appears others in Syracuse are picking up her refrain. 

Two columns appearing recently in the Syracuse Post-Standard offered support for Miner’s idea: one from the paper’s editorial board, and another written by a former Republican candidate for mayor.  

Stephen Kimatian, a lawyer and former local TV station general manager, penned an enthusiastic op-ed in favor of Miner’s idea; this despite the fact that he was the Republican candidate for mayor that lost to Miner in 2009. If his Twitter feed is any guide, Kimatian is quite conservative and not a huge fan of Miner’s, but he appears to recognize the nonpartisan advantages of community network ownership:

Connecting broadband throughout the city of Syracuse makes a clear statement that we embrace the 21st century digital economy, we "get" it. The practicality of building a backbone of interconnectivity enables communication between all levels of government and citizens and sets us up for the many more uses to come. It builds a sense of community that we are all connected, from Eastwood to Winkworth, from the Valley to the North Side and that we have a stake in each other's neighborhoods…

Broadband also creates economic equality. Not every home is able to afford broadband and its data usage can be expensive. That means many students don't have the essential research tool of Internet access at home. By providing a common connection, we are putting the less advantaged kids on the same plane as everyone else.

….Broadband should be a utility just like water, gas, electricity and phones.

The Syracuse Post-Standard’s editorial board offered a bit more qualified support, but still lauded Miner’s goals and supported the effort to study broadband deployment: 

….[L]et's hand it to Miner for recognizing that affordable, high-speed Internet service is a necessity in today's world. A city without it is going to be left behind -- and so are its residents and businesses.

Let's also recognize that the for-profit Internet service providers that built high-speed networks have largely given up on some urban areas like Syracuse. Yet the industry fears municipal broadband enough to lobby furiously for state and federal laws banning it.

Should Syracuse step into the breach? It's worth study and debate.

Hopefully Syracusans have been reading their local paper and are primed for informed public discussion whenever Miner brings her plan for community broadband forward. 

Ellensburg Considers Muni Fiber Network Expansion

Last year, we covered this central Washington city’s first foray into publicly owned fiber optics. The local incumbent, Charter Communications, began charging the city $10,000 per month for services it had been providing for free for a decade as part of its franchise agreement. Ellensburg officials did some quick math and realized that they could save money building their own network.

They ultimately awarded a contract for $960,000 to build 13 miles of fiber connecting various public facilities throughout the city including the police department and Central Washington University. Thanks to Charter’s high rates, the direct cost savings alone could pay for the entire project in about eight years, leaving aside all the other direct and indirect benefits of public network ownership. 

Now, with the original construction project not even quite complete, Ellensburg is already considering expanding to serve residents and the local business community. According to the local Daily Recorder newspaper, the city council has unanimously voted to issue a request for qualifications from contractors for a long term strategic plan.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

The new strategic plan is expected to be finished before construction on the current institutional network ends. The construction plan for the institutional network was designed to be “future-ready,” with contingency funds set aside for possible later alterations or expansions. It seems those funds may be tapped sooner rather than later.

The Ellensburg Business Development Authority has been a major advocate of the city’s fiber network, pushing the city to expand it to new areas, offer service to businesses, and look into how it could compete with Charter Communications. As city councilmember Tony Aronica put it:

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”  

While nothing has been decided yet, Ellensburg’s discussion of expanding municipal network services is already turning envious heads in Spokane and other nearby cities. Ellensburg itself consulted with Tacoma, which has operated a city cable utility for years, in crafting its institutional network construction plan. It's always encouraging to see expertise and ideas spread from one local community to another, shortening the learning curve for small cities seeking to get out from under the local cable incumbent's thumb. 

Sallisaw: The First Muni Fiber Network in Oklahoma - Community Broadband Bits Episode 114

Sallisaw is one of many small municipal FTTH networks that most people are not familiar with. For a decade, they have been quietly meeting their community's needs with DiamondNet. For this week's Community Broadband Bits, we learn more about it in a conversation with Assistant City Manager Keith Skelton and Network Communications Supervisor Danny Keith.

Sallisaw built their network after incumbents failed to provide broadband in the early 2000's, becoming the first triple play municipal fiber network in the state. Nearly 2 out of 3 people take service from DiamondNet, which is operated by municipal electric utility.

They pride themselves on doing much more for the community than the incumbent providers do - particularly responsive customer service and creating lots of local content. They are also building a wireless network to serve people outside of town who currently have limited Internet access.

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

This show is 17 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Austin, Minnesota Releases Fiber Network Feasibility Study Results

Austin has been thinking about getting a gig for a while now. The city of 25,000 near Minnesota’s southern border had campaigned to be picked for the initial Google Fiber deployment, but was disappointed when Google selected Kansas City instead in 2011. As with some other cities around the country, however, the high profile Google competition got Austin thinking about the benefits of a gigabit fiber network, and how they might bring it to their residents. Last month, a committee tasked with bringing such a network to every premises in Austin released a feasibility study they commissioned, with generally favorable results.    

The study recommended further exploration of a universal fiber optic network, but found the idea to be generally feasible. The cost of such a network was estimated at $35 million, and would cover the entire footprint of the Austin Public School District, which extends to rural addresses well beyond the city limits. The study recommended universal fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for many of the same reasons we’ve been talking about it for years: its nearly unlimited data capacity and speed, future-proof and damage-resistant properties, and reliability.  

The study was commissioned by the Community Wide Technology committee of the Vision2020 campaign, a broader planning movement to revitalize the greater Austin area. The Technology committee has since launched the GigAustin website and campaign to advocate for a FTTP network.

The GigAustin team has representation from the Austin Public School District, the city public power utility, private companies and foundations, and other potential anchor institutions. Hormel, the food products giant headquartered in Austin (and the people who brought you the SPAM Museum), is a major employer in the area and their presence on the GigAustin team and support of the feasibility study is notable.   

This is no slam dunk, however. The study did not recommend a specific funding source, and there appears to be little appetite for significant public expenditure

Committee members say the project could be funded in large part by state and federal grants and don’t currently plan to seek local tax dollars to pay for Gig Austin.

...The FCC set $100 million aside for broadband projects on July 11. In addition, Minnesota created the Office of Broadband Development in 2013 and budgeted $20 million to it earlier this year.

Securing grant funding from outside sources is nice, but not always possible - particularly when much of the community already has DSL and cable available. Given that the Austin network alone is projected to cost $35 million, it is easy to see how quickly $20 million or even $100 million could dry up on a statewide or federal scale. There are also hopes in Austin for securing grants from private nonprofits, which also seems like a long shot to make a significant dent in project costs. It is worth noting, however, that the funding for the feasibility study itself came from private sources: the Blandin Foundation, Hormel Foundation, and Ag Star Financial. 

There also does not appear to be any consensus yet on an ownership model, with both public and private options on the table. The public power utility, while participating in the GigAustin campaign, does not appear interested in ownership:

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur said the company will likely partner with Vision 2020 and may contribute dollars to Gig Austin, but the utilities board may decide not to operate the fiber network.

“I don’t think there’s any interest in ownership,” he said.

While leaving the governance and ownership structures as an open question, the study did note that private providers were unlikely to build such a FTTP network any time in the foreseeable future (a finding that will surprise exactly no one). 

The next step in the process is a survey of Austin area residents to determine the level of interest in ultra high speed connectivity. The feasibility study estimated a take rate of 40-50% would be necessary for the network to be sustainable. The survey got under way in July, and should be completed in August or September.

Rural Broadband Funding Webinar

The FCC has made a $100 million fund available to organizations seeking to bring advanced telecommunications to rural America. The National Rural Assembly is hosting a national webinar to explain the criteria and application process. If you or your organization have a stake in expanding broadband in rural areas, you may want to consider this resource. From National Rural Assembly's Broadband Working Group press release:

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission launched the Rural Broadband Experiments - a $100 million funding initiative seeking  proposals that bring advanced telecommunications services to Rural America. Deadline to apply is October 12th 2014. For the first time, cooperatives, municipalities, nonprofits, anchor institutions, and Tribal governments will be able to access federal funding to bring broadband service to rural areas. This is a historic opportunity for entities committed to rural communities. 

On Thursday, August 28th at 1:00pm Eastern, join the Rural Broadband Policy Group and the National Rural Assembly on a webinar featuring Jonathan Chambers from the Office of Strategic Policy and Analysis and Carol Mattey from the Wireline Competition Bureau, to learn about the rules and process to apply for the Rural Broadband Experiments. 

You can sign up for the webinar here.

ILSR Co-Signs FCC Comment Endorsing More Open Spectrum

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has joined with Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and the Open Technology Institute, in submitting reply comments to the FCC last week as the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC). The issue at hand is the FCC’s proposal of new rules for how to govern the 3.5 GHz band, a range of the electromagnetic spectrum useful for many different types of communication. 

The PISC comment focused on the importance of getting away from the long-standing FCC policy of simply auctioning off big slices of spectrum for telecom companies to use exclusively, which inhibits innovation and enables a monopolization of the communications marketplace. Verizon and AT&T, who hold licenses to large swathes of the spectrum already, are lobbying to FCC to keep the status quo in place. PISC (and ILSR) support a more open arrangement, allowing multiple users to share the same underutilized spectrum segment, while still avoiding interference. The full text of the comment is available here. 

The language and policy of spectrum management can seem arcane to people unaccustomed to it, but how we regulate and use the electromagnetic spectrum has wide ranging consequences for almost all the technology we use in our daily lives. For a general primer on the importance and possibilities of a more open spectrum licensing policy, see the wireless commons articles we published earlier this summer.

You can view the full text of the PISC comment through the link below.

Muni Fiber in Rural Massachusetts - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 113

Though much of western Massachusetts has poor access to the Internet, the town of Leverett is in the midst of fiber build that will offer a gigabit to anyone who wants it. Peter d'Errico, on the town Select Board, has been part of the project from the start and Chairs the Broadband Committee. He joins us for Episode 113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

He and I discuss the great need for the project and inaccurate broadband maps that overstate availablility in the region. We discuss the role of the "municipal light plant" law that gave them the necessary authority to invest in the fiber.

But more interestingly, we talk about how they have structured the financing and prices for subscribers. The network will be repaid both with the revenues from subscribers and a modest bump in the property tax. The kicker is that many households will see their taxes increase a little but the amount they spend on telecom will decrease substantially, resulting in more money in their pockets each month.

We have written about Leverett often over the years, the archive is here. Read the Leverett FAQ here.

You can read a transcript of this discussion here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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

This show is 18 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 22

As we move closer to a FCC decision to restore local authority, more lawmakers are coming out to back Wheeler’s comments on using Section 706 authority. This week Senator Markey and Representative Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania issued a statement calling on Wheeler to take action. 

Wheeler will need that kind of support to remove state laws that restrict competition, as John Brodkin writes in his Ars Technica article. Matthew Berry, the chief of staff to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, spoke at the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization that already announced it would sue if Wheeler allowed the FCC to step in and overturn state laws:

“In short, under our constitutional framework, states are free to grant or take away powers from municipalities as they see fit. So the basic concept is this: city governments are appendages of state government, but state governments most definitely are not appendages of the national government."

Multichannel’s John Eggerton also warned that those opposed to preemption think the FCC is overstepping its authority: 

“Section 706 does not come close to containing the necessary clear statement that Congress intended to authorize the FCC to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects." 

But others (thankfully) disagree.

Kate Cox at The Consumerist summed up the preemption letter call-and-response between lawmakers and Wheeler:

"In his letter, the chairman agreed that, the state laws against municipal broadband “have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition.”

 Motherboard’s Sam Gustin followed the most recent letter as well:

He [Wheeler] also reiterated his earlier stance on pre-emption, saying, “I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I know that state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances,” though he diplomatically added, “I recognize that federal preemption is not a step to be taken lightly without a careful consideration of all relevant legal and policy issues.”