Smart Conduit Considerations for Forward-Looking Communities

Local governments are often looking for low-risk options for expanding broadband access to residents and local businesses. There are not many. Seattle put some extra conduit in the ground as a part of a different project that was tearing up the streets but Comcast was the only provider interested.

The problem with a haphazard program of putting conduit in the ground is that while it benefits existing providers, it does very little to help new entrants. And conduit is inherently limited -- only a few providers can benefit from it and when used up, there is no space for more providers.

In short, more conduit may slightly improve the status quo but it does little to get us to a future where residents and local businesses have a variety of choices from service providers offering fast, reliable, and affordable access to the Internet.

Smart conduit policy can lay the groundwork for lowering the cost of a community network, which can get us where we want to be. It may take time, but will create benefits far more rapidly than private providers will be building next-generation networks in most of our communities.

John Brown, a friend from Albuquerque, New Mexico, has offered some tips for communities that want to develop smart conduit policies. Brown runs CityLink Telecommunications, an impressive privately owned, open access, FTTH network that connects residents, businesses, schools, muni buildings, etc.

We tend not to support privately owned networks because for all the great work a companiy like CityLink Fiber does, one does not know who will own it in 5, 10, or 20 years. However, we recognize that CityLink Fiber is a far better partner for communities than the vast majority of companies in this space.

The following comments are taken from an email he shared with me and is permitting me to republish. Direct quotes are indented and the rest is paraphrased.

Not all conduit is created equal. A 2 inch pipe will be sufficient for perhaps 2 providers. If conduit does not have inter-duct, it is much harder for multiple providers to share it. Inter-duct creates channels within the conduit that allows a provider to pull its fiber cables through without disturbing other cables in the conduit. However, using interduct reduces the amount of usable space in the conduit.

Conduit approach used in Seattle

So let's say you size this as a 4" pipe, and place (4) 1" inter-ducts in. That limits you to 4 providers, or 4 cables. Those cables are limited in size because of the 1" inter-duct size. You are at best going to get maybe a 144, or a 216 count cable. That is NOT enough for today/future.

Who maintains the conduit?

Can a service provider come along and intercept the conduit mid-way? How are the other provider cables protected? Who is responsible for that? What happens if it breaks?

These are a few conduits local governments need to be prepared to answer, courtesy of John Brown. Below, I add a few more.

Who can use the conduit? If you have space for four providers and one bank wants to get in that conduit to lay one fiber for their use, is that permitted? Can a single provider dominate all four channels? Are you reserving sufficient capacity for future local government and/or community network use?

In an upcoming post, I'll highlight an existing policy used by a community-owned network to prevent any provider from monopolizing dark fibers.

Australia Examines Telehealth Benefits from National Broadband Network

As Australia rolls out its National Broadband Network (NBN), an open access mostly FTTH network that will connect 90% of the population (with most of the rest connected with high capacity wireless), it is exploring telehealth opportunities:

“Expanding telehealth services to older Australians still living in their own homes will help health professionals identify potential health problems earlier, reduce the need for older Australians to travel to receive treatment and increase access to healthcare services and specialists.”

Australia has recognized that the private sector will not meet the needs of its businesses and residents and is therefore investing in a next-generation open access network and seeking ways to maximize its social benefits.

Israel appears poised to follow Australia's lead. And what is happening in the US? Well, AT&T admits that DSL is dying, has stopped expanding its supposed next-generation product, and is working state legislatures to prevent others from building the needed networks. SNAFU.

NATOA Asks Georgia to Preserve Local Broadband Authority

As Georgia's Senate considers revoking local authority over whether or not to build a community network, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers has written to the Committee, opposing SB 313 [pdf]:

Dear Senator Rogers:

The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) joins the growing chorus of business, consumer, and government groups and associations, such as the Georgia Municipal Association, in opposing the Broadband Investment Equity Act (S. 313). This bill will harm the state’s economic growth and do little if anything to promote competition or to bring advanced communications services to the citizens of Georgia.

NATOA has long supported community broadband networks because they offer the promise of increased economic development and jobs, enhanced market competition, and accelerated and affordable Internet access for all. Communities across America are ready and eager to bring the economic and social benefits of broadband access to their citizens. But private providers alone will not bring these advanced services to all parts of our country, especially to those communities that do not fit into the companies’ business plans.

As a result, hundreds of cities have launched community broadband initiatives, either with private partners or on their own, and many more are now in the planning stages. Communities should be encouraged to step forward to do their part to ensure the rapid deployment of broadband to all Americans, and they should have the freedom to choose what makes the most sense for their citizens. S. 313 will do nothing to encourage robust competition in the communications marketplace in Georgia.

Rather, S. 313 will tie the hands of local governments and hinder the deployment of advanced services to un- and underserved parts of the state, denying those communities the economic and social benefits that broadband services can provide. Rather than encouraging economic growth, S. 313 will simply drive more private investment capital – and good jobs – from Georgia to neighboring states, such as Tennessee.

Rather than erecting further barriers to entry, Georgia should be encouraging community leaders to develop networks that make sense for their communities, including public-private partnerships and systems wholly owned by municipalities.

Thank you for your consideration.

We Told You So: Subscribers Abandon DSL

We have long been arguing that the telephone and cable companies are not sufficiently investing in the connections needed by communities.

Quarter after quarter, companies offering DSL see decreases in their lines as subscribers jump to cable or fiber-optic alternatives (where available, which is not many places). Recall that AT&T's CEO himself believes DSL to be obsolete.

As this trend continues, most communities will find that a single cable company has a monopoly on high speed broadband access and those willing to settle for slower, less reliable alternatives will have a choice between DSL and wireless options. Susan Crawford has written about this, terming it the Looming Cable Monopoly.

The main reason is that cable is cheaper to upgrade to higher capacity connections than the telephone lines. Unfortunately, due to the reality of natural monopoly, the big cable companies will almost certainly continue to dominate in their communities. It is just too hard and risky for other businesses to challenge their market power.

This is why smart communities are evaluating all their options and determining if a long term public investment in fiber-optic infrastructure would generate enough benefits to justify the high upfront cost.

Media Coverage Roundup: Georgia AT&T Bill to Kill Community Broadband

In the wake of a bill in Georgia to revoke local authority and substitute it with state say-so over whether a community can build a broadband network, multiple outlets have covered the situation.

As usual, Stop the Cap! was quick on the ball, offering original in-depth commentary. Phil digs into the campaign cash history to find the real motivations behind this bill:

Rogers’ legislation is exceptionally friendly to the state’s incumbent phone and cable companies, and they have returned the favor with a sudden interest in financing Rogers’ 2012 re-election bid. In the last quarter alone, Georgia’s largest cable and phone companies have sent some big thank-you checks to the senator’s campaign:

  • Cable Television Association of Georgia ($500)
  • Verizon ($500)
  • Charter Communications ($500)
  • Comcast ($1,000)
  • AT&T ($1,500)

A review of the senator’s earlier campaign contributions showed no interest among large telecommunications companies operating in Georgia. That all changed, however, when the senator announced he was getting into the community broadband over-regulation business.

Phil also refutes the supposed failures cited by those pushing the bill. Not only do such stories misrepresent what really happened, some actually cite EPB's incredible 1Gbps service as demonstrating that munis are out of touch. What else would you expect from the Heartland Institute, which made its name fighting against the radical claim that cigarettes are linked to cancer?

Government Technology's Brian Heaton also covered the story in "Georgia Community Broaband in Legislative Crosshairs."

In addition, Mitchell [me] said that SB 313’s requirement of the public entity paying the same taxes or the same cost of capital as the private sector is another red herring. He said that while the provision looks reasonable on the surface, it would critically hamstring any effort to establish government-owned high-speed broadband services.

“That’s like telling me I have to pay the same taxes that another American would,” Mitchell said. “Are we talking about my middle-class neighbor, or Mitt Romney? Whose taxes am I going to pay a similar rate to? These are all issues that are left open-ended intentionally so that it’s uncertain for a community and they are more likely to end up in court, which is possibly the most devastating situation.”

Fierce Telecom riffed on the GovTech story here.

Karl Bode at DSL Reports asks if "Georgia wants to be a broadband backwater."

As noted, ISPs particularly love bills that require endless public hearings and votes, where deep-pocketed carriers can can out spend supporters by millions of dollars on (often incredibly sleazy) PR campaigns aimed at shouting these services down. That same money could be used to upgrade last mile connectivity, but isn't thanks to the uncompetitive markets these companies are trying to keep uncompetitive. The result? Continued slow speeds, high prices and poor service, all protected by the very government ISPs claim they don't want involved in the market.

And finally, Slashdot got the point of the bill wrong (ignoring many of the provisions of the bill) but did start a conversation about Georgia "Prohibiting Subsidies for Municipal Broadband. One of the commenters lives just outside one of the towns that Majority Leader Rogers cited as a bad example. This commenter disagrees with that assesment. Strongly.

Until the city implemented a broadband plan with cable TV, we had ONE choice for cable TV and virtually NO high speed internet especially in the county (Bellsouth/AT&T DSL is a massive joke to anyone who lived in the county and so was high speed internet connections). Suddenly, when the city decided "We want to attract more business to the area and also supply all of our schools with high speed internet services..." then WHOA! the local cable company went into overdrive. They started expanding their high speed internet services much faster and pushed them out into the county. They offered better bundle rates AND dropped their cost for cable TV alone. The move by the city _incentivized_ the local cable MONOPOLY to get off their ass and start offering the services to both city and county that they had been promising for a while and to bring their price down to a more competitive level.

And finally, the Augusta Chronicle covered the proposed bill and the increased campaign contributions from telco and cable companies to those pushing the bill:

The telecom companies have beefed up their lobbying forces this legislative session. Many lawmakers have received campaign contributions from them, including Rogers, who rejects any suggestion that they might have motivated him.

Unfortunately, the Augusta Chronicle again repeats the false claim that the public will be under the same rules as the private sector. The bill explicitly creates new rules that will only apply to public sector providers. It is right in front of them and they print blatantly false claims.

In Chattanooga, EPB Customers Rave, Comcast Customers Livid

Chattanooga's community owned EPB Fiber Network continues to get positive reviews from subscribers in the local paper. And Comcast's customers continue to complain. The Times Free Press Chattanoogan presents a tale of two providers.

The longer letter details the frustration in dealing with Comcast following the failure of their on-demand service. After Comcast didn't resolve the problem over the course of several phone calls, the subscriber was told she would have to pay $30 for a Comcast technician to come to their house, even if the problem was entirely caused by Comcast's network and/or equipment.

The second letter, from Leah, notes that she too suffered at the hands of Comcast's customer service but became EPB customers after a long absence from their home due to damage from the tornadoes of 2011. When they returned home, they went with the community network rather than Comcast.

This is how she reflects on her experience with EPB:

We have had one instance where we needed to contact customer service, and the problem was fixed quickly and easily by the most polite customer service rep I’ve ever dealt with.

Comcast came by recently to offer us a “substantial savings” if we’d make the switch back to them. My question was, why now? I was a customer for years and treated poorly as rates increased exponentially. Now the offer the discount? No thanks.

For the $5 extra per month that we pay for EPB, we receive better features, prompt and polite customer service, and an all around trouble free experience. Thanks EPB!

In Minnesota, Rural Fiber to the Farm Project Expands

A rural Fiber-to-the-Farm project that started in Sibley County has added three new towns to its potential territory due to the extremely high interest in fast, affordable, and reliable connections to the Internet. The current providers aren't getting the job done and few expect that to change given the cost of improving services.

An article last year reported on present difficulties for many in Sibley:

Soeffker, who farms with her husband in rural Sibley County, said the dish receiver they must use works fine in good weather but balks during heavy rain and snowstorms.

Meantime, her husband struggles with a lagging Internet speed of .6 megabits a second that falls short of meeting his business needs when he’s selling commodities.

The committee organizing the network set a goal for demonstrating the interest of something like 50% of the population in the target area. There has been some confusion as to exactly how many they should have before committing to the project but with just two mass mailings, they have received nearly 3,000 positive responses (of the over 8000 households that could be served). This is a very strong response.

To keep the public informed, they have had numerous public meetings in each of the communities that will be involved. To be as open as possible, they would often have three meetings in a town per day -- a morning, afternoon, and evening meeting to accomodate everyone's schedule. As this project moves forward, no one can claim the group has been anything but open with the plan.

On January 19, they had a major meeting with over 100 people attending, including many elected officials from the towns. For over two and a half hours, they had five presentations and numerous questions. MPR's Jennifer Vogel was there and wrote about the project shortly afterward.

Participating communities--which include Renville County, Sibley County, Fairfax, Gibbon, Winthrop, Gaylord, Arlington, New Auburn, Green Isle, Buffalo Lake, Steward, Brownton and Lafayette--have been asked to decide by early March whether to continue with the project and release additional funds for marketing and administration.

Previously, the project included 7 potential towns. But some nearby towns in Nicollet County have expressed interest in joining and their density would make the project more viable. Most in Sibley have been dedicated to serving every household - town and farm alike. While the principle of equity is noble, it ultimately makes the project harder to finance due to the higher fixed costs required to serve the least dense areas. Bringing in a few more towns benefits everyone.

Unfortunately, the people around the those towns are frustrated that they are not slated for connections in the current plan -- see some of the discussions on their vibrant facebook page. They will have to draw the line somewhere but will undoubtedly be interested in expanding the network once they have built out in initial territory.

Minnesota law has a barrier to municipal networks and as a matter of law, it is not clear that it applies to a county-owned project. Under law, if a municipality wishes to own or operate a telephone exchance, it must have a successful 65% referendum -- an incredibly high bar given the imbalance of spending power in such contests. Incumbent providers can spend a lot to oppose a referendum whereas local governments cannot take a position and grassroots groups are limited in their financial resources.

Renville Sibley Fiber Network

However, as this network plans to neither own nor operate a telephone exchange, it should not have to pass a referendum. It seems as though the project is leaning toward a partnership with Hiawatha Broadband Communications, a well liked private firm from southeastern Minnesota. HBC already operates the muni-owned Monticello FTTH network.

While no financial plans are yet finalized, the most likely option appears to be non-recourse revenue bonds for nearly $70 million. These are bonds that are issued to private investors and will be repaid with revenues from the subscribers. If the network were to fail to produce enough revenue to make the debt payments, the towns and county would have the option of making up the difference from tax revenues but would be under no obligation to do so.

From Jennifer Vogel:

There would be some public obligation to the project, in the form of what McGinley called a "debt service reserve fund." In order to make the project appealing to investors, he said, the participating communities would be required to establish and replenish if necessary a $4.5 million rainy day fund that would cover any shortfalls. They also would have to cover the contributions of any communities that ducked out of the project down the road or couldn't pay into the fund.

If one town, Winthrop for example, decided not to ante up for the debt service reserve fund, other communities could cover the difference. As the network generates net income (perhaps 5-6 years down the road), the money comes back proportionally to those towns that created the reserve fund.

It bears noting that these people are not asking for any handouts. Whereas Frontier and other providers in the towns are incredibly unlikely to expand their networks absent taxpayer subsidies, the Sibley County Fiber Project will be locally self-reliant.

Poor State of US Broadband a Result of Poor Regulation

I recently stumbled across a great point regarding the spectacular failure of the US (mostly the FCC, but Congress should certainly share some of the blame) to properly regulate broadband connections to the Internet. US policy results in a few massive providers dominating the market. Fred Goldstein, a principal of Interisle Consulting Group, wrote the following:

In truly competitive markets that display some degree of commodity-like characteristics, large and small vendors tend to coexist. I'm drinking coffee right now, which is a good example. Maybe Maxwell House and Folgers (and their parent companies) have a large share of the market, competing on price for their swill. But there is plenty of room for others to differentiate their product. Dunkin and Starbucks have built huge chains on their own style of semi-premium product, while another couple of niches of premium and superpremium beans are easy enough to find. Food markets tend to be like this; check out any Whole Foods (a/k/a The Museum of Modern Vegetables) for a supply of priced-above-commodity products. I feel foolish for selling most (not all, thankfully) of my Whole Foods stock when it was in the dumps a couple of years ago.

The same thing happens in many fields. Apple itself sells computers above commodity price levels. There's a whole "high end" audio business catering to those who like to show off how much they can afford to spend. The automobile industry has mass-market commodity cars and several premium tiers.

Internet access in the US lacks that because the natural monopoly on outside plant is not properly regulated. If it were treated here by EU norms, then any number of ISPs could access the wire. Some would just be cheap; some would offer premium help desks among their services. That doesn't happen, however, when the usual number of "competitors" is two. Even more so when those competitors agree that they should divide up markets between themselves rather than overbuild, or (heaven forbid) let outside information providers onto their facilities.

The wire should be regulated. ISPs shouldn't.

Amen. Physical connections are a natural monopoly. Even if the economics supported many physical providers, having so many would be terribly inefficient. Much better to have networks that are owned by the community and have independent service providers competing to deliver services -- just like the roads.

SEATOA Conference Coming Up in Chattanooga

The SouthEast Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors has its annual conference in Chattanooga this year - March 12 and 13th. The conference includes a tour of EPB's Gigabit network (the largest muni network in the nation) and its PEG operations.

This conference will undoubtedly be buzzing about the legislation in South Carolina and Georgia that aims to shut down community networks just like North Carolina did last year.

Deena Shetler, the associate Chief of the FCC's Wireline Competition Bureau will be giving the keynote. Give it a look if you are in the neighborhood.

NATOA Encourages South Carolina Senate to Preserve Local Authority

With AT&T again pushing a bill in South Carolina to revoke local authority to build community broadband networks, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisers has sent a letter to the Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee [pdf] opposing H3508. The bill will be considered by that committee on Thursday, January 26. South Carolina already restricts local authority to build networks but this bill would essentially close off any possibility of doing so.

Dear Senator Rankin:

The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) joins the growing chorus of business, consumer, and government groups and associations in opposing H. 3508 (Government Owned Communications Service Providers). This bill will harm your state’s economic growth and do little if anything to promote competition or to bring advanced communications services to the citizens of South Carolina. Hamstringing local government efforts to provide fiber networks will simply result in the further flow of millions of investment dollars to neighboring states such as Tennessee.

NATOA has long supported community broadband networks because they offer the promise of increased economic development and jobs, enhanced market competition, improved delivery of e-government services, and accelerated and affordable Internet access for all. Communities across America are ready and eager to bring the economic and social benefits of broadband access to their citizens. But private providers alone will not bring these advanced services to all parts of our country, especially to those communities that do not fit into the companies’ business plans.

As a result, hundreds of cities have launched community broadband initiatives, either with private partners or on their own, and many more are now in the planning stages. Communities should be encouraged to step forward to do their part to ensure the rapid deployment of broadband to all Americans, and they should have the freedom to choose what makes the most sense for their citizens. H. 3508 will simply make it more difficult for public broadband providers from building the advanced broadband infrastructure necessary to stimulate local business development, work force retraining, and employment in economically depressed areas.

Among other things, the bill’s definition of “broadband service” – 190 kilobits per second (“kbps”) at least one direction – is extremely low. In its 2010 Sixth Broadband Progress Report, the Federal Communications Commission raised its decade-old minimum broadband speed threshold from services in excess of 200 kbps in both directions to services enabling actual download speeds of at least 4 Mbps and upload speeds of at least 1 Mbps. But even this threshold is viewed by many as too slow to support the applications available in the marketplace today, as well as rapidly emerging technologies and applications for teleworking, distance learning, and telemedicine. Unfortunately, even with this minimum threshold speed, South Carolina, according to a recent FCC Internet Access Services report, has the fifth worst level of broadband in the United States (out of 44 states with data reporting) with only 17% of households having that level of access available.

Rather than erecting further barriers to entry, South Carolina should be encouraging community leaders to develop networks that make sense for their communities, including public-private partnerships and systems wholly owned by municipalities.

Thank you for your consideration.