Fiber Referendum Fails in Siloam Springs

In an unsurprising result, voters in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, chose not to build their own FTTH network. The margin was 58% against, 42% for. According to that article, the opponents (bankrolled largely by national cable company Cox) outspent proponents by 3:1.

We previously covered this plan and were concerned that the number one reason identified for proposing the network was to diversify revenue for the local government. Quite frankly, that is a poor reason to go head to head against massive companies like Cox and CenturyLink.

The biggest benefits of community networks tend to be the hard to quantify -- aggregate savings to the community from lower prices from all providers in a competitive environment, increased economic development, better customer service from a local provider, etc. These networks are built to be financially self-sufficient, but we caution against expecting them to be a piggy bank for the local government.

Unlike the successful Longmont approach, where those advocating for the community network engaged others who had been through similar fights elsewhere, it seemed like Siloam Springs preferred not to ask for help. Meanwhile, Cox tapped its nationwide resources to oppose the network, with misinformation like this:

Siloam Springs Opposition

Download the full size flyer here.

Communities that want to build community networks should engage the wider community of community broadband supporters and be prepared for flyers like this one. And when seeking local support, make sure you find messages that resonate. Make sure you read about the grassroots movement in Lafayette in our recent report or how Chattanooga had hundreds of community meetings to explain its plan.

These networks face stiff opposition from entrenched opponents that want to be the sole gatekeepers to the Internet -- ensuring a real choice means doing real organizing.

HBC Steps Down from Managing FiberNet Monticello

In a surprise move, HBC has announced it will end management of FiberNet Monticello, though the actual time frame has not been announced. FiberNet Monticello is a FTTH network approximately 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis. HBC has been operating the publicly owned network, offering triple play services, since inception.

FiberNet Monticello has had a particularly rough road since citizens overwhelmingly voted to build it to create a locally owned alternative to cableco Charter and incumbent telco TDS. TDS landed the first blow against the network with a frivolous lawsuit. Though the courts tossed it out, the proceedings took a year and slightly added to the interest rate Monticello had to pay on its debt.

Since then, TDS invested in its own FTTH connections and Charter engaged in a vicious bout of predatory pricing in their attempt to drive competition out of Monticello.

Throughout it all, the City and HBC worked together to deliver the best broadband and customer service in the area. However, the network has not met its revenue targets (largely due to time lost from the lawsuit) and that has led to discussions about how to ensure the network would become financially self-sufficient as rapidly as possible.

HBC's performance in Monticello has actually been impressive given the anti-competitive tactics of Charter and TDS. If you want to know why we have no cable or broadband competition in America, look no further than the refusal of state and federal agencies to investigate predatory pricing tactics used to deny subscribers to FiberNet Monticello.

Regardless, elected officials in Monticello were not happy with the status quo (covering FiberNet shortfalls from the liquor store fund) and new management will offer an opportunity to chart a new course. Though HBC has decided to withdraw, FiberNet Monticello retains most of its staff and may even be better motivated to meet this challenge. From the City's press release (also below in full):

The City of Monticello would like to express appreciation to HBC for the key role they played in successfully developing and delivering high quality and reliable video, voice and internet service to the community. The HBC legacy in Monticello includes the development of a well-trained FiberNet Monticello staff and the establishment of a strong and loyal customer base, which provides a great starting point for moving forward with new management.

We have long supported the publicly owned, privately operated approach to broadband networks, but in our experience, the networks that have most succeeded have been operated by the owner.

The official announcement from HBC is as follows:

HBC Logo

Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC) has provided the City of Monticello, Minnesota, notification of its intent to end its management of the FiberNet Monticello (FNM) telecommunications system. The decision was conveyed Friday, May 25, in a letter to Mayor Clint Herbst from Gary Evans, HBC President and CEO.

Many matters regarding FNM are in flux and in the midst of those changes HBC had concerns about being able to continue to manage the project in accordance with HBC principles. According to Evans, this seemed a prudent time to end the agreement with FNM and free the city to negotiate with other prospective managers.

Evans said HBC is very proud to have participated in the launch of the system and to move it to a position where its subscriber number forecasts have been met. Achieving that position, Evans indicates, is a significant accomplishment, considering the number of negative factors that affected the system in its early operations. Included were a crippling law suit and subsequent appeals brought by telephone provider TDS, the economic downturn that struck in 2008 slowing growth in the community, accumulation of interest debt due to law suit delays, inadequate recovery of legal damages, and a series of predatory pricing practices by cable and telephone incumbents.

HBC understands discussions about refinancing the system and discussions with other potential prospective managers are underway to help assure the continued growth of the network.
All the employees of FNM are City of Monticello employees except for the General Manager, Ben Ranft, who is employed by HBC. Ranft will be re-locating to the home office in Winona, Minnesota, when the details of the transition to new management are complete.

Evans, in leaving the door open to future cooperation, emphasized that HBC believes that the City of Monticello is dedicated to making the network a success.

And the Press Release from the City of Monticello:

Monticello Logo

With the current management contract for FiberNet Monticello scheduled to expire at the end of the year, the City has held discussions with FiberNet Monticello manager HBC regarding operation of the system and renewal of the management contract. The City has also been exploring other operation and management options.

The City was recently informed by HBC that they do not wish to renew the management contract and prefer to end the agreement before the expiration date, as allowed under the current agreement.

The City of Monticello would like to express appreciation to HBC for the key role they played in successfully developing and delivering high quality and reliable video, voice and internet service to the community. The HBC legacy in Monticello includes the development of a well-trained FiberNet Monticello staff and the establishment of a strong and loyal customer base, which provides a great starting point for moving forward with new management.

It is anticipated that a draft agreement for interim management services by another qualified and capable telecommunications company will be presented to the City Council for consideration at the next Council meeting.

Wireless is Driving a Fiber Optic Boom

During 2011, nineteen million miles of fiber optic cable were installed in the United States, according to CRU Group, a global research firm. That means all the fiber that was laid in the U.S. last year could be wrapped around the equator 763 times. It was the largest installation since the boom year of 2000. And the reason has a lot to do with wireless services.

When using 4G on that new mobile phone, your connection is mostly wired. It is wireless from the tower to your hand -- a distance of anywhere from a few thousand feet to a few miles. But probably for hundreds of miles, that connection is on fiber-optic lines.

Before a tower can offer 4G services, it needs a fiber cable, and that is driving a boom in connecting towers. In our recent case studies on Chattanooga, Lafayette, and Bristol, we noted that both Bristol and Chattanooga have connected towers with fiber optics for 4G wireless service from major carriers.

The boom in 2000 was famously short sighted, in part because it was almost all located in major corridors with other fiber cables -- no one was making the last mile connections to residents and local businesses.

Regardless of how much fiber optic lays out there unused, we need more -- but in the right places. A Wall Street Journal article by Anton Troianovski recently discussed the boom in new fiber investment, quoting Hunter Newby, Chief Executive of Allied Fiber:

"The notion there is a fiber glut is not true," Mr. Newby says, arguing that much of the fiber-optic cable that is available is simply not in the right place - not at suburban office parks and cellphone towers that need it.

Allied Fiber is building its own network between New York and Chicago with the intention of offering alternatives to established carriers, including Verizon and AT&T. Newby and Allied believe that other Internet companies, wireless carriers, hospitals, and possible anchor institutions will want the choices they don't have now. By extending their network to the right places, Allied sees opportunity.

These companies are cashing in on a major market failure. Unfortunately, they are likely to just pick the low-hanging fruit, serving the major community anchors but not having a business model to serve the whole community. Without the anchors, even the community itself will have trouble building a network that will cash-flow, to say nothing of the impossibility of other private companies doing it.

Communities should be building their own networks to connect their community anchors, regardless of whether they ever plan to connect a resident or local business. They can always change their mind in the future and in the meantime, the schools and libraries can access the highest capacity networks at a fraction of the price charged by private sector providers.

Regardless, the fiber boom is presently driving jobs across America as wired investment secretly powers the wireless that most are fixated upon. To accompany Anton's story, the Wall Street Journal released this video about fiber investment in Missouri:

Johnson City Teams up with BVU Authority for Broadband

We have been watching Johnson City, Tennessee, examine its options to improve broadband options in their community using extra capacity from fiber-optic investments for smart-grid implementation. Johnson City has been looking for a partner that would offer services to local businesses and perhaps residents.

We were concerned about that approach as a private-sector partner may be interested only in finding the most lucrative high-margin customers rather than seeking ways to serve the whole community.

We are now relieved to learn that Johnson City and BVU Authority have made an initial agreement and are working toward a final contract. BVU Authority originated in and continues to be based out of nearby Bristol, Virginia.

We have long covered BVU Authority and just recently published a case study about them.

BVU Authority should be an excellent match as they provide excellent business services (they are tremendous pioneers in this regard) and have a focus on serving the community as a whole. BVU Authority's investments in southwestern Virginia have led to strong job growth and we expect them to have similar success in northeastern Tennessee.

Wally Bowen: Open Wireless is Essential Infrastructure

Once again, we are reprinting an opinion piece by Wally Bowen, founder of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network based in Asheville, North Carolina. The op-ed was originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Once upon a time, Internet enthusiasts made the following comparison: the Internet is to 21st-century economies what navigable waterways and roads were to 19th and 20th-century economies.

But what if our rivers and highways were controlled by a private cartel which set tolls and dictated the make and model of our boats and vehicles? It’s unthinkable, of course. Yet over the last decade, a cartel of cable and phone companies has gained this kind of control over more than 95 percent of Internet access in the US.

In response, many communities have built municipal broadband networks. The cartel, in turn, has persuaded legislatures in 19 states, including North Carolina, to pass laws prohibiting municipal networks.

Scholars call this the “enclosure” of the Internet, similar to the enclosure of rural commons by private owners in 18th and 19th-century England. This trend includes smart phones and tablets which are locked down and controlled by licensing agreements. By contrast, the personal computer is open to innovation. You can take it apart, experiment, and create new functionality. You can also download your choice of software, including free open-source programs.

The full impact of this corporate enclosure of the Internet is still to come, but evidence of it is growing. Consider e-books. When you purchase a real book, you enjoy “first sale” ownership. You can resell it or use it as a doorstop. You can do anything with it, except reproduce it. But when you purchase an e-book, your options are limited by a license that can be changed any time by the vendor without your consent.

With an enclosed Internet, we become renters rather than owners. Our freedom to experiment and innovate, while not totally lost, is governed by gatekeepers and licensing regimes.

But there is a way around the Internet gatekeepers: “open wireless” networks using unlicensed spectrum.

Most spectrum used for smartphones is licensed to, and controlled by, the telecom cartel. By contrast, the free Wi-Fi we enjoy in coffeehouses is unlicensed and free for anyone to use and experiment with. But this spectrum has a very limited range. In 2008, therefore, the FCC approved the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) for unlicensed use. Often called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” this superior spectrum has a far greater range and capacity than conventional Wi-Fi.

Last December the FCC approved the first TVWS device. This new technology can provide seamless coverage throughout a city like Asheville, thereby creating a viable alternative to the cable/phone company cartel. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible via “open wireless” technology:

* “Buy local” advocates use open-wireless to run mobile payment systems that keep money in the local economy and reduce the burden of credit card fees on local merchants.

* “Green energy” advocates use open wireless to transform the corporate “smart-grid” to a “micro-grid” that empowers local innovators and entrepreneurs to promote conservation and new sources of energy.

* A hospital in Ohio is field-testing a TVWS network for its emergency room. When EMS vehicles are in range, patient information and vital signs are automatically transmitted ahead to the ER staff.

These creative and local uses of the Internet were possible because of open-wireless technologies. No one had to ask permission of a network owner or pay rent to a license-holder.

For “Smart Cities” and local self-reliance advocates, open-wireless networks are essential community infrastructure. “Community wireless protects our freedom to innovate and problem-solve in ways that keep money and jobs in the local economy,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Since 2003, the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has operated an open-wireless network, but its reach and capacity have been limited. With the imminent arrival of the TV “white spaces” technology, MAIN is launching a $50,000 capital campaign to convert its wireless network to TVWS. This new technology is estimated to have a range of 15-20 miles with speeds of 10-15 megabits per second.

As the telecom cartel tightens its grip on the Internet, MAIN and its partners envision Internet access for Asheville and WNC that protects civil liberties and preserves the freedom to innovate for local inventors and entrepreneurs. To learn more or to get involved, visit: http://www.main.nc.us/TVWS.

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of MAIN. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. He will be stepping down as executive director later this year, but will continue working on community broadband policy and advocacy.

The Future of the Internet, by TNR and Vint Cerf

In a recent editorial (May 24 issue), The New Republic argued that the Obama Administration was doing a decent job on Internet policy and obliquely referenced an article discussing carrier opposition to community broadband. The op-ed begins,

Politicians aren’t always especially thoughtful about, or even familiar with, information technology. George W. Bush used the term “Internets” during not one but two presidential debates. The late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens famously referred to the World Wide Web as a “series of tubes.” And John McCain drew ridicule in 2008 when he conceded that he was still “learning to get online myself.”

Much worse than these gaffes, however, are some of the policies that have been promoted by lawmakers and candidates who seem to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of a free and open Internet. In recent years, we have seen politicians accede to the interests of giant telecom companies rather than support net neutrality; propose anti-piracy bills that threaten Internet freedom; and, as Siddhartha Mahanta recently documented at TNR Online, block poor communities from receiving broadband access.

Good to see this issue being discussed outside of the standard tech circles. Especially when outlets like the New Republic explicitly call for more wireless subscriber protections:

There are, of course, ways in which the administration has disappointed. Even when the White House has done the right thing on Internet issues, it has not always acted as speedily or as forcefully as it might have. Moreover, it has not always done the right thing. Particularly striking was the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision, in late 2010, to exempt mobile carriers from new rules protecting net neutrality. The FCC’s step blocks Internet service providers from slowing down or preventing access to the content of their competitors—but it only applies to wired, not wireless, providers.

While many of us are hopeful that the government will take a stronger hand in preventing carriers from disrupting the open Internet, Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the Internet) rightly warns us that overall governance of the Internet itself should remain free from national government control.

Vint Cerf

At present, the I.T.U. focuses on telecommunication networks and on radio frequency allocations rather than the Internet per se. Some members are aiming to expand the agency’s treaty scope to include Internet regulation. Each of the 193 members gets a vote, no matter its record on fundamental rights — and a simple majority suffices to effect change. Negotiations are held largely among governments, with very limited access for civil society or other observers.

There is no need to change the way the Internet is presently governed. As Vint notes,

The Net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance.

Public interest groups, like ILSR, have been advocating regulations like network neutrality that would preserve the way the Internet has long functioned. It is the big carriers like Comcast and AT&T that want to change how we access the Internet in order that they can make more money serving as gatekeepers to the net.

Moving Internet governance to the ITU is a different policy discussion that also threatens to change how the Internet is accessed, often to the benefit of governments that want to preserve their power. They want to be the gatekeepers, often in order to consolidate their own power and break up pro-democracy movements.

The key to preserving Internet freedom is removing gatekeepers (and I would include both Apple and Facebook in this list, with Google as a possible addition depending on the circumstance).

If you want to learn more about these issues, the best place to start is with videos from the recent Freedom to Connect conference. And plan to join us next year.

Below is a video from Vint Cerf's opening keynote. We'll feature more presentations from Freedom to Connect in future posts.

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Senator Lautenberg Asks FCC Chair About Muni Broadband Barriers

Free Press caught and isolated an excellent question from Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) to FCC Chairman Genachowski during recent hearings. The Senator notes that many Americans do not have sufficient access to broadband but 19 states have enacted barriers to make it harder for communities to build their own.

FCC Chairman said he thinks innovative municipal solutions should be encouraged and that he looks forward to working with the Committee to address the obstacles. 

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Thurman, New York - White Space Test Case

Thurman, New York, like many other rural communities, has little or no access to broadband. Many of the 1,219 residents still use dial-up. According to a recent town survey, less than 25% of the population has connections that could be described as high-speed. Thurman, however, will soon be tapping into an uncommon source for connectivity - so called White Spaces.

In a recent PostStar.com article, Jon Alexander reports that the community is now moving forward with a plan based on using the unused radio spaces between television networks to provide access. It was only recently that the FCC approved the method. The Town Board just approved a resolution to dedicate $20,000.00 in state economic development grants. The funds, about two-thirds of grant funding, will be used to test out the technology in the northern and western sections of town. If the experiment proves successful, additional funding for a build out will need to be allocated.

Thurman, which lies entirely in the Adirondack Park, has been largely ignored by private telecom investment. With such a sparse population, the Town is used to being overlooked. In fact, Federal surveys often show Thurman as uninhabited. Town Board Member Leon Galusha told Alexander, “Believe it or not, people do live here.”

Because the geography of Thurman is hilly and tree-covered and the town's population is spread out, the town is a perfect place to test the White Spaces technology. White Spaces do not require line-of-sight, as in some wireless technology, and vegetation or walls do not interfere with the signal. The technology is becoming more popular in Europe, but has only been used sparingly in the U.S. In order to use the White Space, the town will need access to Frontier Wireless' fiber optic lines, which run through town.

Because the technology is so new, and Thurman could prove to be a test case for other small towns,  the move has attracted attention from state officials. Talks with the Governor's staff and a presentation at one State Rep's broadband symposium have put Thurman in the spotlight. Town Supervisor, Evelyn Wood, tells Alexander:

“A lot of people are watching,” she said. “That’s why we have to do this right.”

More Information about Community Wireless Approach in Mount Pleasant, DC

We previously noted a grassroots wireless initiative in Mount Pleasant that the Open Technology Institute is assisting and we are now cross-posting more details that they recently published. Thanks to Preston Rhea, who published this interview with one of the first volunteers to install a node.

I recently wrote about a local effort to build a wireless community network in Mount Pleasant, Washington, D.C.In April I chatted with Bill Comisky, the first neighbor-link in the Mount Pleasant Community Wireless Network (MtPCWN), a grassroots approach to providing wireless access to the neighborhood. Bill discussed why he installed an Internet-connected mesh router on his roof, his skilled observations and recommendations for the network, and what he hopes to see the network support for the neighborhood in the future.

How did you hear about the network?

I heard about it when you posted to our street’s e-mail list in June. On that super-local list, people like to share things - tools, a cup of sugar, furniture - and it’s also neighborly to share wireless access. I worked with Sascha (Meinrath, Director, Open Technology Institute) on community wireless a few years ago, so it immediately caught my eye.

You’ve worked on this before?

I design antennas for a living, so I have a professional interest. In Chicago, I volunteered with the nonprofit Center for Neighborhood Technology installing wireless networks in underserved communities. Even though it was only a few years ago, the software and hardware were much less developed than they are today. The equipment cost several hundred dollars and we had to assemble it the hard way ourselves. Since then, things have gotten robust and cheap.

I asked for your advice at the beginning of the project about the technology considerations.

For low-cost technology, a wireless mesh network is a complicated system. It's difficult to estimate how radio waves will operate in an urban environment. You have to consider 2.4 GHz and 5 GHz for the WiFi frequency band - 2.4 GHz propagates better than 5 GHz through trees and around buildings, but it is also a congested frequency due to the routers in people’s homes. Those are decisions you have to make up front, because you can't reverse mid-stream and tell people to change their routers.

There was a question about whether these routers would just serve as backbones for a network, or also as access points themselves. The new systems include dual-purposed rooftop nodes, which can act as a backbone router and an access point--like what you see at a cafe or a library. So in hindsight, unlocked access points broadcasting at 2.4 GHz is a good idea because most people use 2.4 GHz on their laptops and phones.

Why did you choose to share your Internet connection as a gateway?

 My past experience makes me a good early adopter. I have the tech skills to troubleshoot if needed, which hasn’t come up yet! I work from home and I have a good Internet connection with more bandwidth than I really need or use. It's there, why not share it?

It's nice for people to have a stop-gap solution for Internet access. Everything you do requires a broadband connection - email, applying to jobs, connecting to your bank. If you don't have a broadband-capable phone, and you lose your home broadband, you have to go to the library. This is a critical service, and there aren't a lot of options. Comcast and Verizon--that’s the extent of ISP options on our street.

 

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What are your connection details?

My Internet bandwidth is 20 Mbps download, 2 Mbps upload. I have quality of service (QoS) rules to prioritize my traffic, but if someone on MtPCWN needs the bandwidth and I'm not using it, there is no cap. So far I have experienced no difference in my speeds.

Have you heard any feedback about the network?

I have heard from several neighbors. A while ago someone emailed asking about the network, since a router was accidentally unplugged (author’s note: it was my router!) and she relies on it for access. We were able to help her out with that. A few people have come to me on the street asking about the network and if they can use it. People ask questions about the cost, and the security. They are good questions - people should know what they are getting in to.

What local applications would you like to see on the network?

The Internet has made a ton of things accessible, but it's hard to get hyper-local content. A local radio station streaming over the network is like a very old radio station - you have to be in the geographic range to hear it. Nothing prevents people from doing this on the Internet, but the audience can get very diluted. You know that if you have listeners in a very local context, they will get your references. They have more of a chance for their voice to be heard by a relevant audience. It's like being in the local town square.

Photos courtesy of Preston Rhea from Flickr

Electric Cooperatives Expand Broadband in Missouri

Rural electric cooperatives were essential to expanding electricity throughout rural America after private sector business models overwhelmingly failed to electrify our farms over many decades. Electric coops embody the spirit of local community and local concerns. Cooperatives often have decades of experience with project planning and implementation. We have seen electric coops use their own existing resources as a starting point to expand broadband access to their community.

At the Calix Community Blog, there are two videos on electric co-ops, both in Missouri, that have taken on the challenge of providing broadband to their customers.

Co-Mo Electric Cooperative in Tipton, Missouri, applied twice for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) stimulus funding and were twice turned down. Members of the coop expressed their need for improved broadband as a way to improve the economic situation in this central Missouri community. The cooperative pressed on without stimulus funding and have extended their community footprint. Learn more from this Calix video, Co-Mo Electric Cooperative Finds Success With Fiber:

In northwest Missouri, United Electric Cooperative (UEC) is using ARRA funds to bring broadband to the community. The co-op, located in Maryville, serves residents in ten surrounding counties. UEC brought electricity to the area 70 years ago and is doing the same for broadband through their fiber optic network. Calix highlights UEC in another customer video, United Electric Cooperative Expands Broadband in Missouri:

Here is local coverage of the beginning of the Co-Mo project construction:

 

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