Responding to "Crazy Talk" - Community Broadband Bits Episode #50

For our 50th episode, we're trying something new: Lisa and I respond to three common claims made by opponents of community owned networks. We owe these three particular arguments to the Executive Director of the trade association of Wisconsin telephone companies. Each of the clips we respond to come from claims he made at a workshop at the 2012 WiscNet conference.

We play a short claim by him and then Lisa and I respond to it. For this show, we look at claims that telephone companies already serve everyone with broadband, that the rapid iteration of mobile phone technology delegitimizes public sector investment in networks, and that public investment "crowds out" private investment.

These are very common arguments offered every time a community considers building its own network, but they are quite weak. As Joey Durel, Mayor of Lafayette, so often reminds us, the big companies don't win by having good arguments. They win by buying steaks and football tickets -- lobbying. Campaign contributions help too.

At any rate, let us know if you like this format and what questions we should consider the next time we do it. 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.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

This show is 12 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Leadership Panel Set For November Broadband Communities Conference

In November 2012, Broadband Communities Magazine hosted the first of its Economic Development Conference Series in Danville, Virginia. The second conference, scheduled for November 5-7, 2013, will bring another group of leaders together in Tinley Park, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

This year, the conference will focus on the Midwest with discussions about Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

As usual, our own Christopher Mitchell will speak there and will be generally available to discuss community owned networks with those who attend.

From the announcement:

We are assembling an outstanding multi-disciplinary roster of national, regional, and local experts who have extensive experience in using advanced communications capabilities to foster economic development and create jobs. We will examine what is working well, what is not, and what lies ahead, particularly as federal stimulus funding ends.

Our speakers will provide attendees a wealth of economic research, case histories, how-to materials, and other practical information that they can use effectively in their communities. We will address the latest "hot" topics, including Google Fiber, FirstNet, the Connect America Fund, the FCC's new Health Care Connect Fund, emphasizing their potential to foster economic development and job creation. We will also provide ample time for networking and learning about relevant cutting-edge products and services.

The leadership panel includes:

  • Jim Baller - Conference Chariman and President of Baller Herbst Law Group
  • Joel Mulder - Illinois Broadband Deployment Council, Illinois Municipal Broadband Association, and Senior Director of Business Development, G4S Technology
  • Gary Evans - Former CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications
  • James Salter - CEO, AEG
  • Susan Crawford - Roosevelt Institute Fellow
  • Lev Gonick - CEO, OneCommunity (as of July 2013)
  • Blair Levin - Executive Director, Gig.U
  • Diane Kruse - Former Chair, FTTH Council and President of Neo Fiber

You can register now until July 1 for the Special Early Bird Rate. The event will be at the Tinley Park Convention Center and the adjoining Holiday Inn offers a special rate for conference attendees.

In Idaho, Ketchum Sharing Strategic Plan, Seeking Survey Input

In March, Ketchum leaders hired Magellan Advisors to work with the city Broadband Strategic Planning Committee to create a plan to address the lack of high-speed Internet, especially in the downtown area. Brennan Rego's Idaho Mountain Express article reports the firm and the committee are now presenting their findings to the community in a series of meetings.

Community leaders now encourage members of Ketchum to complete a survey to get a better picture of the Internet situation. 

While there are no solid plans to build a fiber optic network at this time, Ketchum City Council is poised to make changes to development codes that would pave the way for efficient future installation. From the article:

The downtown core has some fiber optic lines, but not enough for all businesses and residents to tap into easily and efficiently. Councilman Baird Gourlay said at a council meeting Monday that the city does not plan to install fiber optic lines and administer a broadband network. Rather, he said, the city’s goal is to enact code changes that would require developers working on projects in the city that involve “digging up” the public right of way to pay to install fiber-capable conduit while the ground is open. He said the city would then “connect the dots” by installing conduit in remaining areas.

Councilwoman Nina Jonas said installing conduit costs only 25 cents per foot [in coordination with other projects], whereas installing fiber costs $40 per foot [when done by itself]. She said the area’s Internet service providers could then compete to install fiber in the city-spearheaded infrastructure. [our clarification]

Readers will recall that a representative from Cox was recently ejected from a position on the Planning Committee. City Hall received complaints when Cox push polls inappropriately suggested cut backs in public safety would finance a municipal network. It appears that Ketchum leadership still wants to involve incumbents in the planning:

“One of the key aspects of [the plan] is to involve and incorporate service providers,” [John] Honker [from Magellan Advisors] said at the residents meeting, referring to local providers such as CenturyLink, Cox Communications and Syringa Networks.

Medina County Offices Will Connect With Community Network

The newly completed Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN) in Ohio will soon add Medina County government as the next customer.

The Medina-Gazette reports the County Commission recently voted unanimously to enter into a five-year agreement with MCFN and drop Armstrong Cable. County Administrator Chris Jakab says the county will save $600 per month. Currently Medina County pays $3,300 per month and the new monthly fee will be $2,700 per month.

Apparently, Armstong Cable did not take the news well. At the County Commissioners meeting, Armstrong questioned the decision:

Minutes after the commissioners unanimously approved changing service providers, Armstrong’s General Manager Karen Troxell disputed Jakab’s figures.

Troxell said the Armstrong bill is made up of a $2,474 fiber-optic lease and an $826 Internet fee. She said the new agreement only covered the fiber-optic lease. She said the county still would have to pay for Internet access, which would bring the total bill to more than $3,500.

“I think this decision needs to be rethought,” she told the commissioners. “Or I need an explanation as to why you’re willing to pay more money for these services.”

Jakab said Troxell was mistaken, saying the fiber network’s $2,700 fee includes a $300 fee for Internet access.

The community recently celebrated completion of its 151-mile network, owned by the Medina County Port Authority. Last summer, the Highland School District connected to the network when its contract with Time Warner Cable ended. The move saves the school district approximately $82,000 in annual connectivity fees.

Business and community leaders began planning for the network 10 years ago as a way to spur economic development and create a more competitive telecommunications environment. A Port Authority revenue development bond issue and a stimulus grant administered by OneCommunity paid for the $13.8 million project. 

Vermont's ECFiber to Expand This Summer

Good news for Vermonters who want connectivity from the East Central Vermont Fiber Optic Network (ECFiber). The community owned network recently raised another $430,000 from local investors who purchased tax-exempt promissory notes. As a result, the nonprofit can now expand another 20 miles. Approximately 100 more households and businesses will soon have access.

Twenty-three towns belong to the consortium; Montpelier is the largest. The network currently serves 325 customers via 50 miles of fiber. Warren Johnston reports in the Valley News:

“Before the fall, we’ll have people connected in Chelsea, Vershire, Thetford, Tunbridge, Royalton and Sharon, and a lot of the people in Strafford, along with service to several neighborhoods in Norwich, [ECFiber Chariman Irv Thomas] said.

The nonprofit has raised about $3.5 million through grants and investment loans from community members.

Although residents wanting service are not required to loan money to ECFiber, the tax-free notes promise a good return for investors, ranging from 5.3 percent to 7.65 percent, depending on the type of note.

Johnston also spoke with Wynona Ward, an attorney with Have Justice Will Travel, a nonprofit legal service for victims of domestic violence and abuse in Vershire: 

“It’s just wonderful. It’s like going from the horse-and-buggy age to the jet age overnight,” said Ward, who got the service on April 23. “I’ll always remember the date. It’s made such a difference in our lives.”

The new system lets all of the firm’s five computers to be online at one time, something that the old system would not allow. Clients and lawyers now can send photographs and case files to her office, which would have crashed her previous system.

“We used to plan an hour a week to do our payroll online. Now, we can do it in a matter of minutes. It’s a tremendous savings of time,” she said. The new system also gives firm members an opportunity to keep up with online training.

“If we filed a grant application before, which can be 70 to 80 pages, we had to go to Hanover to use the computers. Now, we can do it from our office. And now, we’re also going to use social media to raise money. We never could do that before.”

Johnston also spoke with local educators at The Mountain School:

“We welcome the change. We love the remote, rural lifestyle, but it will be nice to have a better connection to the world. We’ll be able to update our website without having to drive to Hanover to do it. The better connection will also help our students, who are from all over the country, and the faculty members who live on campus,” [Director Alan] Smith said.

We watched ECFiber grow from a community idea to a community reality and look forward to watching it expand further. Despite interruptions from FairPoint that influenced a federal grant award to a less viable project, this community continues to find a way to do it themselves. To find out more the birth of this local project, listen to our podcast interview with one of the community leaders, Leslie Nulty.

Small Michigan Town Issues RFP for FTTH Network

The community of Sebewaing, located in the "thumb" of Michigan is moving closer to its own FTTH network, which will be the first new municipal FTTH project in the state.

Because of a state law impinging on local authority in Michigan, local governments must first issue an RFP and can build a telecommunications network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualified bids. If the community builds the network themselves, it probably must adhere to the RFP as if it were a private entity. This approach ignores the fact that a community operates a network with different incentives than a private company, so the two are not interchangeable. 

We wanted to know more about this effort, so we contacted Melanie McCoy, Superintendent of the municipal utility Sebewaing Light and Water. We discovered that the town of 1,700 residents, known for its beet farming, has several factors going for it. 

Communities with their own utilities already in place have personnel, equipment, and expertise which saves money and time. And because they already own the utility poles, they are often able to get started quickly rather than waiting for other firms to do "make-ready," which can take months as wires are shifted on poles. Sebewaing has a municipal fiber loop currently in place - another plus. McCoy tells us the fiber was installed in 2001 and 2002 at a cost of about $50,000.

Private Internet choices were limited to dial-up for about $20 per month or a T1 connection for around $1,000 to $1,500 per month. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water shared a T1 connection with local businesses.

Residents, business and government needed better connectivity and community leaders also realized the need to boost economic development. Sebewaing Light and Water leadership also wanted to increase efficiency with a SCADA system and considered a telecommunications utility a good investment. And looking toward the future, they knew installation of the fiber would position them favorabley for future investment. 

Sebewaing Map

Changes in community leadership, tight budgets, and legislative changes interrupted plans to connect the fiber to homes in Sebewaing. The community did the most they could with what they had, however, and connected city facilities to the fiber loop.

Within a couple years, local business owners who could not get the speeds they needed from incumbent cable and DSL providers, approached Sebewaing Light and Water asking to be connected to high-speed Internet.

In 2011, Sebewaing commissioned a feasibility study from Pulse Broadband based on the concept of serving 1,000 households with an open access model. The RFP calls for 1 gig capacity symmetrical service. McCoy estimates the network to be about 18 miles of fiber on the mostly aerial network in the service area. The project estimate is around $1 million and the city council plans to use funds from the city capital improvement fund.

McCoy notes that suppliers, consultants, and bandwidth suppliers have already approached the city with inquiries. Closing for the RFP [PDF available online] is late June, so look for updates later this summer.

Understanding the Lifeline Program - Community Broadband Bits Episode #49

The United States has long recognized that everyone should have access to a telephone and has established a variety of government programs to achieve that end. In recent months, the Lifeline program has come under attack and some have labeled it the "Obamaphone" program.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Sarah Morris joins us to explain how the program works. She is Policy Counsel for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. Additionally, Ana Montes with TURN (The Utility Reform Network in California) joins us to offer ground-level insight into the program.

As we work to ensure everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet, we should be aware of the programs that have been successful in expanding access to the telephone.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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 21 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Rest in Peace, Senator Frank Lautenberg

Today, we are deeply saddened at the news that Senator Frank Lautenberg has just passed away. Senator Lautenberg's death is a loss for the nation as well as for our efforts to ensure communities have the authority to build Internet networks if they believe it a wise investment.

The Senator and his staff have long been a friend to local authority on these matters, making it a priority to find ways of defending and expanding the rights of local governments to build networks.

Our condolences to his family, friends, and staff. Thank you for all you have done to help our country live up to our dreams.

National League Of Cities Webinar on Local Broadband Solutions June 13

The National League of Cities will be presenting a free webinar on June 13 on local broadband solutions. The event, titled Local Broadband Initiatives: Finding a Model That Works for You, is scheduled at 2 p.m. EDT.

The speaker line up includes three leaders in policy, law, and implementation:

  • Jim Baller, President, Baller Herbst Law Group, Washington, DC
  • Joanne Hovis, President, CTC Technology and Energy, Kensington, MD and President, National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, Kensington, MD
  • Deborah Acosta, Chief Innovation Officer, City of San Leandro, CA

NLC describes the discussion as:

Broadband, or high-speed internet, service providers can take many forms, ranging from national franchises to local providers to city/county governments to a combination of public and private partners working together.  This webinar will give participants a better understanding of what the landscape of local broadband initiatives looks like in terms of public-private models, how and where local governments fit into these partnerships, and how they are financing and leveraging these initiatives to get the most benefit for their communities. 

You can register for free

Accusation of Corruption in Favor of Time Warner Cable in North Carolina General Assembly

Veteran North Carolina legislator Rober Brawley resigned as Chairman of the state Finance Committee, reports local WRAL. According to WRAL's @NCCapitol blog, the Republican from Iredall read his resignation letter during a recent floor debate. He criticized Speaker of the House Thom Tillis, questioning Tillis' ethics and accusing him of special legislative favors specifically for Time Warner Cable.

One bone of contention was a bill introduced by Brawley to expand the service area for the municipal cable network MI-Connection in Mooresville. From the letter as quoted in the article:

"You slamming my office door shut, standing in front of me and stating that you have a business relationship with Time Warner," Brawley wrote. "MI Connections is being operated just as any other free enterprise system and should be allowed to do so without the restrictions placed on them by the proponents of Time Warner."

Stop the Cap covered the background of that bill in its article about this accusation:

House Bill 557, introduced by Brawley, would have permitted an exception under state law for the community-owned MI Connection cable system to expand its area of service to include economic development sites, public safety facilities, governmental facilities, and schools and colleges located in and near the city of Statesville. It would also allow the provider to extend service based on the approval of the Board of County Commissioners and, with respect to schools, the Iredell County School Board.

In 2010 - 2011, Tillis received $37,000 from the telecommunications industry including a $1,000 contribution each from AT&T, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. At the time of the contribution, Tillis had already won an election in which he ran unopposed and session was just about to start. He is a darling of ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council which exists to help corporations rewrite state laws in their favor.

Shortly thereafter, lawmakers passed HB 129 and created insurmountable barriers for local communities interested in building publicly owned telecommunications networks. Other Republican lawmakers who supported the bill received significant contributions from the same clique. We now know Tillis is willing to honor his "business relationships."

Brawley is no stranger to controversy. He introduced a bill this session that would have eased many ethics reforms passed in recent years. Included in the proposed changes was a repeal on a ban of gifts from lobbyists and relaxing requirements that lobbyists disclose those gifts. Earlier this year, Brawley stated to an @NCCapitol reporter:

"I believe in the integrity of people, including legislators and, in over 30 years of serious involvement, have not seen any situation that these [ethics] laws would have prevented or improved."

For those of us who have watched the way Time Warner Cable and others have corrupted the political process in many states, these allegations come as no surprise but are noteworthy for who is making them and the specific allegation of a "business relationship" between Time Warner Cable and the Speaker of the House.