Municipal Networks and the Future of Wi-Fi Hotspots

This is a guest post from Jacob Levin - an advocate for a new economy that regenerates people, place and planet. Growing up as the son of an FCC official, dinner conversations often drifted towards tales of how incumbent ISPs were unfairly leveraging their political and economic power to reduce competition. He's done policy research for Public Knowledge, One Economy Corporation and Skype, and has worked on research and development for Republic Wireless.

This work has led him to believe that community control of communications infrastructure is the only way to protect freedom of expression in a digital age. He's an aspiring peasant, and an active member of the Open Masters project, dedicated to creating effective learning communities for people pursuing learning goals outside of traditional education institutions.

This is not your parents’ Wi-Fi. The latest generation of Wi-Fi networks are not only faster and more reliable, they come with some backend changes that community networks can take advantage of. In particular, something called Hotspot 2.0 will allow authorized devices to seamlessly connect to secure Wi-Fi networks, much like mobile phones already do on cellular networks.

Hotspot 2.0 is a new initiative of the Wi-Fi alliance that will bring cellular-like roaming experiences onto Wi-Fi networks. As access points begin to support the Hotspot 2.0 standard, mobile devices will be able to automatically select appropriate Wi-Fi networks and provide stored credentials. No more manually searching through available networks and punching in passwords. The cable industry is betting heavily on Hotspot 2.0, with plans to provide credentials to cable subscribers that will allow them to roam onto any CableWi-Fi access point (including the routers they provide to their customers homes). This could allow cable companies to include mobile phone service in their bundles.

Any community fiber network can begin offering paid wireless service, or bundle wireless service in with existing internet, TV and phone service (like Cable is doing). They can put wireless nodes on top of telephone poles and/or ask wired subscribers to use routers that are pre-set to recognize municipal credentials.

But for those who don’t want to build or maintain a wireless network, Hotspot 2.0 will allow a wired network to offer a credential to its subscribers and establish roaming agreements with those operating wireless networks. For example, multiple communities with their own networks can allow free roaming across partner networks.

If the networks are comparable and there is a roughly similar mix of roaming, they may do it without charging each other. However, a metro center may ask a suburban county to pay in order to recognize the suburbs’ municipal credential, as generally, suburban residents spend more time in municipal areas than vice versa.

A community could create a program that ensured historically marginalized populations and those living in low income areas had a credential that would be honored by local businesses - to create more options for connectivity. Such a program would surely not be sufficient to provide optimal access but would be an improvement over the status quo.

The stunning success of Wi-Fi is leading to a problem in many communities. The more Wi-Fi operating on the same chunk of spectrum leads to inefficiency. But with HotSpot 2.0 and some coordination, neighborhoods could have better performance with fewer networks. FCC rules don’t allow anyone to forcible shut down a Wi-Fi router but a community network could reward those who cooperate with access to fiber backhaul, poles, etc., on favorable terms.

Here are some suggested preparations for the coming HotSpot 2.0 technology. Near-term actions:

  • Ensure new equipment has Hotspot 2.0 capabilities
  • Take inventory of private wireless networks in commonly trafficked areas

Medium-term actions:

  • Develop community network credentials
  • Approach local wireless providers about recognizing community network credentials
  • Create roaming agreements with other networks

Long-term actions:

  • Create credential to address digital divide issues
  • Take precautions to prevent tragedy of the commons

Local Media Sees Need for Municipal Network in Olympia, Washington

Local news editors seem inspired by the current network neutrality debate at the FCC. Newsrooms considering the prospect of paid prioritization are reassessing the value of municipal networks.

Not long ago, the Olympian ran an editorial offering the basics of municipal networks. Editors mentioned NoaNet, the statewide fiber project that brings access to a series of community anchor insitutions and approximately 260,000 people. The piece also acknowledges that port authorities and some Public Utility Districts (PUDs) offer fiber connections in several regions of the state. We have reported on a number of them, including Benton, Okanogan, and Chelan.

The editorial points out that the cities of Lacey, Olympia, and Tumwater have fiber and conduit they use for government operations. The cities share the fiber and conduit with the state Department of Transportation. The Olympian also notes that if a city wants to provide telecommunications services, its location is critical:

Republican Sen. Trent Lott championed a 1996 bill that prohibited states from blocking any entity that provides telecommunications services. Despite that far-sighted bill, big provider lobbyists have persuaded 20 states to pass legislation making open access difficult. 

As suggested by other editors, The Olympian advocates for a municipal approach to curtail damage that will result if network neutrality disappears:

If approved, individual consumers in the South Sound and other U.S. communities can expect slower speeds for smaller services, nonprofits and independent content creators. Why pay for the “HOT” lane, unless traffic is backed up on the main line?

...

If the FCC votes to effectively end net neutrality, residents of the South Sound do have a potential alternative that is gaining traction elsewhere: turning to local Internet service providers who ride on municipally-owned fiber optic networks.

Paid prioritization and the proposed Comcast Time Warner Cable merger may result in further degredation of broadband in American. On the bright side, more people realize that municipal networks are a better option.

Story Behind Westminster's Pending Open Access Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 100

For our 100th episode, we are excited to share a conversation with Dr. Robert Wack, city council member and driving force behind a planned open access fiber network in Westminster, Maryland. Westminster has just decided that instead of a fiber pilot project, they are going to move ahead with the first phase of a larger deployment.

Dr. Wack and I discuss how that came to be and how the network has already resulted in a committment from an employer to move more jobs into the community. We finish our discussion with a personal anecdote about the benefits of expanding the reach of telehealth applications.

Read more about Westminster and Carroll County.

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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

"We Should Build A Muni In Vallejo"

The Times Herald in Vallejo posted a letter to the editor in early May from Chris Platzer; we want to share it with our readers. There are approximately 115,000 people in Vallejo and people like Platzer are looking for ways to better connectivity options. In the article, Platzer suggests his community take advantage of several well-considered steps to deploy its own fiber network.

Platzer suggests the community begin with an investment to create a network to connect a series of public facilities. He notes savings from discontinued leased lines could then be reinvested to incrementally expand the initial investment. He suggests maximizing use of fiber and conduit planted years ago; fiber planted with state funds to create and intelligent traffic system.

This approach would allow Vallejo to build a vast fiber optic network without issuing debt. The plan should encourage extra fiber, so when high tech companies ask for access to its fiber, Vallejo can oblige.

As more businesses request access, i.e. Kaiser and the CHP call center, a city fiber network can develop various ways to meet these needs. It can lease dark fiber to businesses that want it, including other carriers that want to connect their customers. 

Platzer also notes that Vallejo could lease infrastructure to ISPs to generate revenue for the network and the general fund. A muni would open up other possibilities for  and improve access for the community at large.

The accumulated savings could fund many public amenities, including free WiFi through out the City. In addition to synchronizing all the traffic signals in the City, the addition of video cameras on the network would assist public safety, and drivers would have several ways of getting real-time parking information. The telecommunications services the city could make available (telephone, cable and broadband) to local residents and/or business would have a profoundly positive impact on the General Fund and do much to enhance Vallejo as a "digital" destination!

We published a case study on how Santa Monica built a network using this very model.

"Connect With the World" in Mount Vernon on October 9

Plan on spending Thursday, October 9 in Mount Vernon, Washington. Chris will speak with three other experts on creating a local environment attractive to the tech industry. 

The "Connect With The World" event will occur at Skagit Valley College's MacIntyre Hall from 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. PDT. Other speakers will be:

Mark Anderson: One of FORTUNE's “100 Smartest People We Know,” Mark is a frequently sought after speaker around the world. His long- running weekly newsletter, Strategic News Service (SNS), counts a stellar readership, including the likes of Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

Susannah Malarkey: Executive Director of the Technology Alliance, a statewide organization of leaders from technology businesses and research institutions dedicated to Washington’s long-term economic success.

Craig Settles: Municipal broadband expert for journalists at CNN, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time Magazine and a host of business, technology and local media outlets.

Mount Vernon's municipal open access fiber network serves public entities and businesses within the City, in nearby Burlington, and in the Port Skagit area. The community began the project in 1995 and developed the network incrementally. We spoke with Kim Kleppe, Information Systems Director, and Jana Hansen, Community & Economic Development Director, in episode 38 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

For more on the event, contact Jana at (360)336-6214 or email her at:  janah@mountvernonwa.gov.

Princeton Voters Want to Bring FTTH to Their Rural Massachusetts Community

On May 13, Princeton voters decided to continue their municipal network planning. At the annual town meeting, 91.4% of voters passed Article 4 [PDF], authorizing a new Municipal Light Plant. A year ago, voters approved a measure to proceed with planning.

Princeton, a community of 3,300 residents and 1,270 households, has DSL access available to approximately 49% of residents. Satellite, dial-up, and wireless are the other options. 

Entrepreneurs rent office space in nearby communities with better connectivity. Real estate professionals bemoan bad Internet because it lowers property values. A 2013 survey revealed an overwhelming desire to take action. Residents and businesses want an FTTH option.

The Worcester Telegram reported that the community also voted to appropriate $17,000 to make-ready costs, possible legal fees, construction costs for telecommunications huts, and other possible network costs.

"Passing Article 4 will allow us to start negotiations with the vendor," said John Kowaleski of the Broadband Committee. "Without passing this article we will have to wait two years to approach this subject again."  

According to Selectman Stan Moss, the community continues to explore a variety of options. Community leaders have met with several providers to discuss public/private partnerships. Large corporate players, including Charter and Comcast, are not interested in working with Princeton.

The community is also considering a pilot project as a starting point. MassBroadband 123, the network of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will soon serve local schools and several public facilities in Princeton (it should be noted that MBI has been saying "soon" for a few years). The schools will transistion from T1 lines to the new MBI fiber. Community leaders hope to eventually capitalize on the infrastructure to reduce overall costs and expand the reach of Princeton's future infrastructure.

In Kansas, Chanute Explores FTTH Options

Last December, we reported on Chanute's decision to move forward with plans for a FTTH network. The community has a fiber and wireless network in place that serves utilities, public facilities such as libraries and schools, and several businesses. The network also provides free Wi-Fi across the community. As we discussed in our 2012 case study, Chanute developed its network incrementally over two decades with no borrowing or bonding.

In a City Commission work session on May 5, officials reviewed several options for an FTTH network. In a nutshell, the City is contemplating their involvement in the operation of the future network.

Utilities Director Larry Gates presented several options, reported the Chanute Tribune. Two choices stood out for the working group members:

Scenario C calls for the build out of city provided fiber optic-to-home broadband internet services. Service drops would only be provided to homes that want the internet services.

Under Scenario C, the initial investment would be about $10,926,842 to build the fiber core. The city would need $9,468,033 in funding to complete the project. The project would become cash-flow positive in two years, one month. It would take five years, nine months to pay back financing for the project. The 20-year net present value for the entire system would be an estimated $40,623,151.

Scenario D calls for a build out of the fiber optic-to-the-home system for private communications companies to pay a fee to the city to lease the network and provide services to residential customers. The city would seek private companies for voice, video and internet services.

Under Scenario D, the initial investment would be about $13,906,416 to complete the build out. The city would need $9,468,033 in funding to complete the project. The project would become cash-flow positive in one year, seven months. It would take eight years, 10 months to pay back financing for the project. The -20 year net present value for the entire system would be an estimated $25,667,301.

Under an altered Scenario D, the City would lease out the network for five years to a private company that would offer triple-play services to residents. At the end of the time period, the City would take over.

Several city officials expressed an aversion to city run video services.

“There is not much profit in video,” Gates said. “Provisioners are pretty much naming the price on that.”

“From a business standpoint, providing video is going to cost us more,” [Mayor Greg] Woodyard said. “We’re not going to be able to see a return on that investment.”

An April Tribune article reported on an outreach meeting held by City Commissioners. Brian Inbody, president of local Neosho Community College shared his experience with the network:

“It is as necessary to us as electricity, water and gas,” Inbody said. “We save about $30,000 year over what we were paying through AT&T to provide that service."

Local schools Superintendent James Hardy also spoke to the value of the publicly owned fiber infrastructure:

“If we didn’t have fiber, we couldn’t have school anymore,” Hardy said. “When we’re buying text books and we have text book rotation, half of what we pay for a text book is web-based material. When those teachers turn on their smart boards that are hooked to a computer, everything they are pulling down is off websites, because everything is web-based.”

At the public meeting in April, commissioners addressed concerns about a five percent franchise fee that commenced in December 2013. The network serves public telecommunications and utility operations and now needs relacement equipment. The franchise the fee will cover the costs.

“We were talking about being short money for equipment,” [Senior City Commissioner Tim] Egner said. “We were trying to figure out a way, without raising mill levies, how to come up with this money. With the franchise fee you’re going out over a larger area. You’re going outside the city. With the franchise fee, you can choose how much electricity you use. You can choose how much gas you use.”

The lack of upgrading maintenance has caught up with the city, Egner said.

“When we cut mill levies,” Egner said, “we had to adjust. We had to stop buying things. We stop putting money back for equipment. At some point that catches up with you. So, we had to figure out the best way to do it.”

The working group will meet again later in May to continue the discussion.

Governing Looks at What the Comcast - Time Warner Cable Merger Could Do to Munis

The debate surrounding the proposed Comcast Time Warner Cable merger continues. The Department of Justice and the FCC ruminate over the deal while the media speculates about the future.

Governing recently published an article on potential side effects for the municipal network movement. Tod Newcombe reached out to Chris for expert opinion.

From Governing:

Partially thanks to Comcast and other cable giant's lobbying, 19 states have already passed laws that ban or restrict local communities from setting up publicly owned alternatives to the dominant provider in the area. Municipalities that pursue publicly owned broadband often cite several reasons for their efforts, ranging from lack of competition and choices in the area to a desire for faster speeds at lower costs. But Mitchell fears the lobbying power of a combined Comcast-Time Warner would choke off what little leverage remains for local governments when it comes to gaining state approval to build publicly owned broadband networks.

Unfortunately, the cable company cyclops borne out of this deal would create a ginormous lobbying monster. Comcast and Time Warner Cable wield significant political influence separately; a marriage of the two would likely damage the municipal network movement. The Center for Responsive Politics reports Comcast spent over $18 million in 2013; Time Warner Cable spent over $8 million.

Chris told Governing:

"Judging by the amount of opposition to the merger, I think people are seeing that we're at a tipping point and that there are ways they can make investments at the local level and control their own destiny," said Mitchell. "A lot of people and local businesses understand that the Internet is really important and that we can't trust it to a few corporations. But I don't see that level of understanding from most elected officials yet."

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

"Localism Over Consolidation: An Exploration of Public Broadband Options" May 28th at New America Foundation in DC

New America Foundation's Open Technology Institute will host "Localism Over Consolidation: An Exploration of Public Broadband Options" from 9:30 - 11 a.m. on May 28th. Chris will be participating in the discussion; if you can't make it to DC, the event will be live streamed.

Conversation will focus on different approaches to improve connectivity and community strategies to make those approaches successful.

From the event page:

Today, more and more communities are thinking of broadband as a local issue. Even large cities like Baltimore, Seattle and Los Angeles have recently begun public discussions about ways to improve broadband services and what role the local government could play in that improvement. Current technology policy debates about net neutrality and the potential Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger mean it is more important than ever that local governments play a more active role in ensuring their communities do not get left behind in the digital age.

Joining Chris:

Sarah Morris, Senior Policy Counsel at the New America Open Technology Institute will moderate. You can sign up for the event and livestream on the 28th at the event page.