Susan Crawford on National Public Radio

"Unless somebody in the system has industrial policy in mind, a long-term picture of where the United States needs to be and has the political power to act on it, we'll be a Third World country when it comes to communications."

Susan Crawford recently spoke with Dave Davies on NPR's FreshAir. During the conversation Crawford touches on a variety of interrelated topics that affect telecommunications in the U.S. The interview is worth a listen; Crawford and Davies discuss her book, Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age, and get into U.S. telecommunications policy.

Crawford discusses the recent U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit decision on network neutrality. Davies and Crawford also tackle the inteplay between the court decision and role of government in bringing access to more people:

I think the problem is actually much more profound than mere discrimination by a few cable actors when it comes to high-speed Internet access. We seem to currently assume that communications access it a luxury, something that should be left entirely to the private market, unconstrained by any form of oversight.

The problem is, that's just not true in the modern era. You can't get a job, you can't get access to adequate healthcare, you can't educate your children, we can't keep up with other countries in the developed world without having very high capacity, very high-speed access for everybody in the country. And the only way you get there is through government involvement in this market.

That's how we did it for the telephone. That's how we did it for the federal highway system. And we seem to have forgotten that when it comes to these utility basic services, we can't create a level playing field for all Americans or indeed compete on the world stage without having some form of government involvement.

You can listen to the 38 minute interview and read the transcript at the NPR website.

Vidalia's Broadband Initiative Moves Forward as Free Wi-Fi Comes to Town

Vidalia's plans to offer free Wi-Fi are becoming reality. The Natchez Democrat recently reported that the City launched its free Wi-Fi in its new municipal complex.

Vidalia received a $30,000 grant from the Telecommunications Development Fund (TDF) Foundation to invest in a wireless network to cover the complex. Apparently, visitors to the complex were often surprised to learn that there was no Wi-Fi available. From the article:

[Mayor Hyram] Copeland said the project came about after multiple teams coming to participate in tournaments at the recreation complex asked about Wi-Fi access.

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

The next step will be free Wi-Fi along the City's riverfront.

Even though federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to Louisiana were pulled back, Vidalia decided to press on with its broadband plans. The City has since cultivated several grant sources and is piecing together the funds needed to proceed with its estimated $9 million fiber network. Vidalia wants to develop a smart-grid and potentially provide fiber to every premise.

The community, with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, sees the presence of better broadband as critical to economic survival. From the article:

“Broadband is such a routine infrastructure for companies nowadays that they almost assume you have it, and us not having it could have hurt us in the long run,” [Concordia Parish Economic Development Director Heather] Malone said. “Now, we’ll be able to use this as a tool to recruit new businesses and offer it to our existing businesses.”

In Fear of Comcast Warner Cable

It is hard to say just how bad of an idea it is for us to allow Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable. This is not just about consumers having to pay more, which they do every time we allow massive consolidation, but about access to information.

I can't help but think back to our conversation with Barry Lynn on monopoly a few weeks ago. People get so focused on consumer prices and a narrow view of competition that they miss important impacts of consolidation.

One impact is moving Comcast from the seventh biggest DC lobbyist to the fourth.

This consolidation is a recognition that the private sector simply will not provide meaningful competition for Internet access. Communities need to recognize what a do-nothing approach means: relying on a distant cable monopoly for the most important services of the 21st century.

If I had to guess what will happen - Comcast will buy Time Warner Cable but have to sell off some pieces to get approval. Comcast will grow larger and more powerful, making future mergers even more difficult to stop despite more and more evidence that these firms are strangling our economy. We can stop it - but will we? Specifically, will we force our representatives in DC to stop it?

Stay tuned to the organizations that are covering it well - Free Press, Karl Bode, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and many others.

National Rural Assembly Webinar: Expressions of Interest for Connect America Funds

On January 30, the FCC announced it will begin a process that makes Connect America funds available for pilot projects aimed at expanding broadband in rural areas. Details about the process are still forthcoming, but the FCC asks interested parties to submit "expressions of interest" by March 7th. In order to assist possible applicants, the National Rural Assembly's Broadband Working Group will hold a webinar today, February 13th, at 1:30 EST.

From the webinar announcement:

The National Rural Assembly's Rural Broadband and Policy Group invites all rural stakeholders, to participate in a national webinar in cooperation with the Federal Communications Commission that will explain how to participate in the FCC's new experiment, the Rural Broadband Trials - a program that will fund projects to bring broadband to rural areas.

Participation in this first phase is not mandatory but encouraged. The results from the expressions of interest process will help the FCC determine how much funding will be needed.

You can register online for the free webinar.

Video: 

EPB Offering Services Local Businesses Need

EPB in Chattanooga offers a service to business clients that offers a good reminder that local service providers have to be able to offer a variety of business services because different businesses have vastly different wants and needs. In 2012, the publicly owned utility began offering telephone service with cloud characteristics.

The service saves money by limiting the need of small businesses to commit to capital investment and personnel costs while offering the capabilities that larger firms with larger IT staffs have. A TimesFreePress article on the service from 2012 reported:

"We looked at an average business that had nine sets and eight lines, and it comes to about $320 per month, instead of thousands of dollars in up-front costs," [Katie] Espeseth [EPB's head of product development] said.

When businesses install them on their own, the systems and devices require employees to maintain, at a time when many companies are looking to streamline their IT departments.

"It really takes the burden of installing and maintaining your telephone equipment off your own employees and puts it with our company," said Espeseth. "In Chattanooga, if a small business can take the capital they were going to spend on a new phone system and invest it in their business, it makes sense to spread that cost out over time."

EPB did their homework and now provides a service that small businesses need at affordable rates. Understanding the needs of local businesses and offering a range of options is key to the success of local providers.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

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 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Chris Mitchell to Speak at Fiber Event in Stockholm Feb. 21

On Friday, February 21, 2014, Christopher Mitchell will be speaking in Stockholm at the Stockholm Waterfront Congress Center. The event, titled Fibre: The key to creating world-class IT regions, will begin at 8:30 a.m. in Sweden (1:30 a.m. CST for viewers in the U.S.) and will be livestreamed.

Chris will be providing an update on fiber efforts in the U.S. He will join a distinguished line-up of speakers including Benoit Felton. Felton joined us for Broadband Bits podast episode 21 to talk about his work in Stokab.

From the announcement:

The 21st century has presented a major shift into the digital age and enabled us to make fundamental progress in areas such as connectivity and sustainability. Access to the digital age is to a great extent made possible thanks to high-speed connectivity through fibre infrastructure.

Experience and international rankings show that fibre roll-outs and open networks are crucial in order to fully exploit the possibilities a connected society offers – stronger regional development, increased growth and sustainability. We can also see that when public and private sectors cooperate competitive, affordable and sustainable infrastructures have been accomplished.

Community Fiber Is Not Just About the Fiber

The focus on community networks tends to linger on the technology - FTTH is much faster and more reliable than cable or DSL services. But community fiber is only partially about the superior technology, as evidenced by a recent story over at Broadband Reports - "Verizon has been Quietly Increasing FiOS Fees."

We don't see this behavior in Chattanooga, which has gone over four years without raising the fees for Internet access to telephone services. Community networks rarely increase their fees because the cost of delivering Internet and telephone services declines over time. Television prices go up, though less rapidly for community networks than big cable firms because the big firms demand a bigger margin.

Further, we see that Verizon has been sneaking its price increases into things like the router rental fee, as Comcast and most providers have long done. At one point, renting the Comcast modem cost me $2, then $5, now $7, and in some places $9 I hear. Per month. I bought my own now - took less than a year to payback. But my bill has gone up even more since then, so I didn't gain much.

Now Verizon is even charging for battery backup units:

In addition to price hikes, promotion cuts, the new gateway rental fee and the activation fee, Verizon also recently started charging users for the backup batteries in their ONT units, first charging users for backup battery replacement, then charging users to get any backup battery in the unit to begin with.

Anytime you hear someone arguing that munis should only be able to build their own networks where the private sector absolutely refuses, recall that community owned networks are not simply a consolation prize, they are often superior. Better customer service, lower rates over the long term, and more likely to invest in upgrades as needed - there is no good reason to condition this investment on the refusal of some other distant company to provide an inferior alternative.

Being a Gig City: Incubating Small Businesses

This is the first in a series of posts examining a premier Gigabit Community - Wilson, North Carolina.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 85% of all jobs originate from companies with fewer than 30 employees, and 87% of businesses which started through business incubators have succeeded after five years. So Wilson, North Carolina, focused its "Greenlight" gigabit beam on its local business incubator, the Upper Coastal Plan Business Development Center. "Greenlight is driven by three guiding principles," said Will Aycock, the network's General Manager. "Supporting the economic health of the community, improving the delivery of city services, and enhancing the quality of life for the citizens of Wilson." Providing access to symmetrical gigabit speeds has allowed the community's small business incubator to take its services to the next level, to give budding entrepreneurs access to the future today and in a uniquely affordable way.

According to Greg Goddard, Executive Director of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Government, access to gigabit speeds has meant "Taking our incubation to the next level." Historically their business incubator has attracted "low tech" entrepreneurs: consultants, counselors, state associations, childcare and healthcare providers, people who need work space after normal office hours, even Chic Fil-A administrators, for employee training. The incubator provides a full suite of services including a receptionist, copy and fax machines, phones, 24 hour secure entry, kitchen, meeting rooms, training classes, access to experts, parking, and now, symmetrical gigabit speeds, all for an affordable price. "An 8' by 8' cubicle with those full-suite services leases at $275/month," he said. The goal is to stimulate budding internet-age businesses.

Free Wi-Fi in Wilson

And it has, even for young entrepreneurs elsewhere in the state. For a tech entrepreneur like Dan Holt from Wake Forest, renting space at this Wilson-based incubator lets him be part of the future, and to experience the possible which is impossible at his home in Wake Forest only 30 miles away. Dan is a self-described techie for a local Raleigh defense subcontractor but he likes to be known as founder of the Wake Forest Fiber Optic Initiative.

Dan wanted to put together research for his town government on why they needed to establish a fiber to the home network in Wake Forest. That search led him to Wilson. "They are the only Gigabit City in North Carolina. It's 30 minutes from my home. Not every town has an incubator where you can rent a cubical or office space affordably, giving you access to things like a receptionist, mailroom, fax machine, office space, and gigabit fiber internet. If I were to branch out into any major city, it would be in the $1000's of dollar range, just for the internet service alone. They are passionate" about their Gigabit network in Wilson. "They are mentoring the rest of the state."

Having access to Gigabit speeds in Wilson's business incubator has allowed Dan to connect servers and to mirror "what normal life would be if I had Gigabit access in my Wake Forest home." "The future is all about video," he reiterated. "I have several computers tied into virtual machines I can load up with Netflix and run at the same time." In Wilson, he said "It works." "You can connect easily to places that can take advantage of these upload speeds: DropBox, Google Drive, YouTube, sending large files through Microsoft Exchange. Some websites can't even take advantage of these speeds. The bandwidth at their end is not there."

Wake Forest Gigabit Logo

According to Dan, Wilson is set for the future because of its Gigabit network, and he wants the same for Wake Forest. "If you look at South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, there are no networks like this and it won't stop at 2 gig, it's going to 10 and then multiples." He continues, "As time goes on, as more folks find out about Wilson, the City is going to lure alot of people in from around our region, and from other states. If you look at the broadband maps out there, Virginia is the only state close to DC that comes anywhere near this capacity."

When asked if he'll move to Wilson, Dan responded "As a techie, in a heartbeat," but he owns his home in Wake Forest. For now, his Gigabit City incubator has provided him the ability to explore a public/private relationship with the Town of Wake Forest, a place where he could take his Mayor and IT Director and show them what is possible. He would, he added with a virtual wink, like to show Wilson's gigabit capability to his defense industry boss.

In July 2013, Wilson was honored to be North Carolina's first Gigabit City (community-owned). Folks keep asking us "What is it like to be a GigCity?" We plan to release a series of vignettes on how our gigabit infrastructure contributes to why Wilson is a great place to live, work and play in the 21st Century. For more information, contact Jerry Stancil at jstancil@wilsonnc.org (252) 293-5313.

March 7th Deadline for Connect America Fund Expressions of Interest

We reported last month on a decision from the FCC to make Connect America funds available to expand broadband. At the time we did not have much detail on the measure, but on January 30th, the FCC released its official statement. The agency reached a unanimous decision to open up Connect America Fund dollars for experimental projects.

The FCC restructured the Universal Services Fund (USF) in 2010 to create the Connect America Fund. Until now, those funds were only available to large incumbents. Because some incumbents did not want to be bound terms associated with the funds, they did not take the money and so a portion of it has not been distributed.

In the January 30th announcement, the FCC stated that it will open up funding to entities other than large incumbents in experimental processes, including nonprofits, cooperatives, municipal and tribal governments, and private businesses. The FTTH Council reported:

Specifically, the Commission’s order outlines a call for multiple pilot projects to examine how best to make the technology transition while preserving consumer welfare and promoting the widespread deployment and use of broadband networks. As part of those projects, the Commission, informed by recommendations of the FTTH Council, will be using “test beds” to experiment with different models of bringing next-generation high-speed broadband to rural areas. 

Interested parties must first file an expression of interest, describing how they would invest the funds. In keeping with the original goal of the Connect America fund, the FCC hopes to hear from organizations with rural broadband project plans. According to a Daily Yonder article on the process:

[Jonathan Chambers, the chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis] said the initial “expression of interest” isn’t a complex document. The FCC wants to hear who is interested in applying for support, what homes or institutions they want to serve and an estimate of the cost to get the job done.

Once they have that information, the commissioners will consider the next steps in creating the funding stream, Chambers said. A background report on the funding experiment asks rhetorically whether the FCC should fund the program at $50 million or $100 million and whether the funding should be spent in one year or over several.

March 7, 2014 is the deadline to submit expressions of interest. The FTTH Council is holding a webinar on February 6, at noon Eastern to share tips on filing an expression of interest. If you are unable to sign up for the webinar, it should soon be archived and able to view.

Information is also available on the January 30, 2014 FCC meeting report. Flip to page 31, paragraph 86 for more specifics on the report and order. Page 38, paragraph 105 provides detailed information on the expression of interest.