Extensive Fiber Route Snaking Its Way Across Michigan

The nonprofit Merit Network, Inc., of Michigan, started in 1966 as a way to provide networking help to the state's research and educational facilities across the state. Over the years, the organization has kept up with the times and is now spearheading the Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Healthcare - Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC II) project.

The project will bring connectivity to community anchor institutions and underserved rural communities in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The exentive fiber project is funded with two Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants totaling $103.2 million. When completed, Upper and Lower Michigan will house an additional 2,287 miles of fiber.

Matt Roush recently reported on the project, which is well underway in Monroe County in the southern part of the state. Roush brought news about installation of telecommunications huts, an early step in expanding the network into northern Michigican. From the article:

REACH-3MC will connect 105 community anchor institutions as the network is built and will pass 900 more over time. Led by Merit Network, REACH-3MC includes sub-recipients from the private sector to make broadband readily available to households and businesses that lack adequate service options in the 52 counties that make up the project service area.

For more details on the project, including a map of the proposed routes, follow this link to a PDF of the project overview.


Community Broadband Bits 18 - Dewayne Hendricks

Dewayne Hendricks is a serial entreprenuer, innovator, and wireless expert. Wired magazine labeled him a broadband cowboy back in 2001. And he is our guest on the 18th episode of Community Broadband Bits.

Our discussion focuses on the promise of wireless technologies and how a few entrenched interests in DC (the big broadcasters and wireless telephone companies like AT&T) are preventing innovative approaches that would dramatically improve the capability of all our modern technologies.

Hendricks is a prolific tweeter that comes highly recommended from us. And he has kindly recommended two papers readers may want to read following our conversation: David Weinberger's "The myth of interference" and Paul Baran's "False Scarcity" [PDF].

We look forward to inviting Dewayne back soon to discuss the Fiber versus Wireless debate. Let us know if you have any other questions we should ask when he returns!

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 26 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.

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

Oct. 24th Digital Dialogue on Community Networks

On October 24th, tune to the Media Action Grassroots Network for a discussion on community networks and their contribution to the areas that create them. MAG-Net will be hosting a Digital Dialogue at 10 a.m. PST / 1 p.m. EST. The presentation is titled Community Broadband as a Path to Thriving Local Economies and Neighborhood Development.

From the announcement:

In the last several years local communities, governments, non-profit organizations and neighborhood residents from across the U.S. have successfully launched community broadband initiatives.  54 U.S. cities own citywide fiber networks and another 79 own citywide cable networks.  These local initiatives, in rural and urban areas alike, have served as community scale infrastructures that have helped revitalize local economies. They are sustainable and allow participation and decision-making on the most local level.

For community media advocates it's not just about having access to broadband services, it's also about owning the infrastructure and gaining access, rights and power to media that provide marginalized community members with needed broadband access. Recently, city and state legislation have surfaced that would prevent community owned broadband networks, panelists will touch on the motives behind these bills and ways to fight them. This digital dialogue will feature advocates, experts and organizers who have been working on building community broadband networks, they will reflect on lessons learned, best practices, case studies and challenges.

The list of speakers includes:

To sign up for the hour-long event, register here.

If you would like more info, contact Betty Yu: betty@centerformediajustice.org


Gamers Lament Telcos Inability to Keep Up

"We have to worry about broadband when we should be thinking about making better games." - Eidos Presdent Ian Livingstone at the Broadband World Forum in Amsterdam, October 17, 2012.

Kyle Orland reports in Ars Technica on Livingstone's comments about the chemistry between broadband service providers and the gaming industry. While broadband speeds continue to increase slowly, strides in the gaming industry have outpaced the needed capabilities for network-based gaming.

Livingstone, speaking at the World Forum in Amsterdam, addressed his comments to telecommunications operators when he complained "You're kind of holding us back in many respects.″ Also from the Orland story:

But it doesn't have to be that way. Livingstone urged the delegates to increase their bandwidth capacity beyond what is needed at the moment. He drew an analogy to the London sewer system of the 19th century, which was designed at six times the necessary capacity to prevent the need for later upgrades.

Infrastructure should be sized for future uses, not present. And though we generally focus on the failure of U.S. providers, many people in other countries are also dealing with slow networks. The incredible investment of Australia's National Broadband Network (providing FTTH to over 90% of the population) is the exception, not the rule.

But many countries are figuring this out and developing plans for improvement... unlike a U.S. that sets policy based on what is best for AT&T and Comcast, not small businesses and residents.

Mary Lennighan from totaltelecom reports:

The gaming industry is currently worth $50 billion [internationally] and is predicted to grow to $90 billion by 2015. ″The games industry is big... it's the largest entertainment industry in the world,″ said Livingstone.

″Games are now moving from a product to a service,″ he explained, with revenues from network sales expected to surpass those from packaged, physical goods next year.


″The message is: build bigger pipes and we'll try not to fill them,″ he said. ″ISPs, please do not rest on your laurels.″

Gamers living in Chattanooga, Lafayette, and other areas with community-owned networks can take advantage of next-generation games but are nonetheless limited by the reality that the whole industry won't invest commit to building games that depend on such high capacity networks until they are more widely available.

No community has built a network just to benefit gamers, just as no town builds roads just for the pizza delivery companies. But the full range of benefits from faster, more reliable networks are many and rarely considered when investment decisions are made.

UTOPIA Makes Red Cross More Efficient, Cost Effective

In 1881, Clara Barton started the American Red Cross as a way to offer relief to victims of disaster. Coordinating relief in the face of crisis will always be challenging, but now UTOPIA, the publicly owned, open access FTTH network in Utah, makes it easier and more economical. The change will allow the regional Red Cross to dedicate more funds to helping people, rather than for administrative costs.

The Murray, Utah, Blood Services location is now using an in-house video conferencing system with bandwidth supplied by UTOPIA. From the UTOPIA blog:

“The UTOPIA network definitely has the bandwidth and reliability we need for video conferencing,” says Travis Weaver, Technical Support Analyst at the American Red Cross. “UTOPIA has made in-house video conferencing possible for us. This switch saves us money because doing it in-house is cheaper than paying for the service and it allows for long distance, face-to-face meetings without the cost of travel.”

Weaver also considers the open access an added benefit. The organization is able to work with one of their current providers, easing billing and negotiation. The organization clearly appreciates UTOPIA's presence:

Weaver feels the infrastructure UTOPIA provides is critical. “I believe in the need to continually invest in the communications infrastructure of our municipalities,” he says. “Failure to do so will not let us keep pace with the rapidly accelerating network communications global community. Having access to UTOPIA in Murray City has certainly opened up our capacity to meet the communication needs of our organization by using leading-edge technology.”


Old Snake Oil in New Bottles: Ideological Attacks on Local Public Enterprises

Publication Date: 
October 1, 2001
John Kelly, Director of Economics and Research, American Public Power Association

We are engaged in a rare event - we are moving offices. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance pre-dates our initiative and has been in this location for over 20 years. During the packing and sorting, we have encountered a curious collection of treasures. 

In keeping with this air of nostalgia, we want to present a report from 2001 by John Kelly, who was Director of Economics and Research at the American Public Power Association at the time he wrote the piece. The title caught our attention but the content kept our interest. We want to pass it on as recommended reading.

"Old Snake Oil in New Bottles: Ideological Attacks on Local Public Enterprises in the Telecommunications Industry" (PDF format) is a critique of a Progress and Freedom Foundation (PFF) report titled "Does Government belong in the Telecommunications Business?" (PDF) Kelly confirms that the arguments and fallacies advanced by the private telecommunications industry and its lobbyists have not changed in 11 years. The past 11 years have also seen the same slanted arguments and the same shaded research that, even after repeatedly being discredited, arise again and again.

The arguments truly are "snake oil." From the report:

One dictionary definition of "snake oil" describes it as "a liquid substance with no real medicinal value sold as a cure-all or nostrum...." This definition aptly describes the content of the PFF report. Its claims are not solid ones and can be easily refuted. Essentially, it views the elimination of government enterprises from the telecommunications industry as a cure-all, or nearly one, for the competitive problems that exist in the industry. This solution has no real value, and is counterproductive; it would exacerbate the problem of a lack of effective competition in the industry. The problem is a lack of effective competition, not public enterprises.

As a refresher, PFF was a non-profit founded by Newt Gingrich with backing from some of the telecommunications industry's biggest guns along with a long list of gigantic corporate sponsors. Before closing in 2010, the organization was viewed as a diversionary tool to avoid campaign finance limits. The organization described itself as a "think tank" but Kelly debunks that claim in his report.

Kelly repeatedly tears holes in the paper and its methodology. Contradiction, tiny and selective samples, and misapplied economic theory riddle the paper, giving Kelly so many opportunities to criticize, he has to pick and choose the best ones.

In the end, Kelly comes to the same conclusion we find to be true:

This simple but central economic notion is played out in the decisions cities make in choosing between public or private telecommunications services. Consequently, the cost to consumers is not, essentially, a function of the income or operating efficiency of the utilities serving them but of the prices they are paying and of the prices they would likely pay under the best practical alternative. This might seem to make the correct calculation of the true economic costs especially difficult. But it is much less so when done by the actual decision makers, the customers themselves. This fact argues strongly for laws, regulations and institutions that put the power of decision making into the hands of those who can best ascertain the relevant economic costs -- consumers. And the societal institutions best equipped to do this are local communities and their local governments.

In the critique, Kelly reviews the situation in Hawarden, Iowa, the first community in the state to create their own network. The private sector had practically abandoned the rural community. What little interaction residents had with telecommunications companies left them dissatsfied. The communty voted to build an "all-purpose network," which serves them today and has contributed to its quality of life and economic development. Hawarden is another example of how local decisions shape the success of local communities.

The Incredible Incompetence of Comcast

What happens when economies of scale are taken to ridiculous proportions? The wretched customer service of Comcast, AT&T, Etc.

We recently had to move our Institute for Local Self-Reliance office within Minneapolis due to our old building being razed shortly for student condos. Given the paucity of choices, we are stuck with Comcast as our ISP (the other option is a slower, less reliable CenturyLink DSL connection).

Dealing with Comcast for the move has been a reminder why communities are smart to build their own networks. They can ensure a much better customer experience because they are not so unmanageably large. In telecommunications, some scale is desirable because key costs are somewhat fixed. Regardless of how many subscribers a network has, it has to advertise, do tech support, keep the network functioning, and more. Spreading those costs across a wide base makes sense.

But when you take it to the levels of national carriers, you end up with customers having to call India to talk to a living human. After enough complaints, some of those jobs have come back to the US, but customer satisfaction remains elusive because of the difficulty of managing tens of millions of customers on probably hundreds of different internal systems -- most of which do not talk to each other.

To ensure continuity of service for our office, we installed business-class service at our new location before we moved. We were told that on the day of the move, we could switch our static IP from the old location to the new with just our account number and the MAC address of the Comcast modem already installed in the new location.

On that day, I called Comcast with that information and was told I needed to have our "new" account number. I said that we didn't know anything about a "new" account number as we were moving our service and they specifically told us that we only needed the Mac addy and the account number we have long used.

Comcast Anchor on Economy

The Customer Service Rep could not tell me the new account number. I asked if he could find it with several different pieces of unique information I did have and was told no. It was not possible.

Frustrated, I said, "screw it," and just plugged old Comcast modem into the network, wondering if it would magically work with the correct static IP. And Lo, we were back on the Internets. All of them. Problem temporarily solved.

Of course, because Comcast's network is a last-generation cable product, it shares bandwidth among many users. We often achieved something close to the advertised speeds at our old location but our new location must be more heavily oversubscribed because the connection is noticeably slower.

After settling in, we called Comcast to figure out what equipment to send back to them and make sure we were only being charged at the new location.

Helpfully, when we supplied our "old" account number to the CSR this time, they were able to instantly tell us what the "new" account number was. Any illusion of progress was shattered when they insisted that they had already turned off service at our new location because they thought we were moving out of the location we had service at for 7 days to the place we had service at for years.

Of course, if they had actually terminated our new service, we would not have been able to call them over our VoIP phones, so we were reasonably sure they just had no idea what they were doing. As a side note, we originally tried to use Comcast VoIP service, but the lag was so terrible and their service so miserable, we switched to an independent VoIP company that does a much better job.

While they were trying to figure out how many ways they had screwed up (keeping us on hold for over 30 minutes), their network hiccuped and we lost the call. So we called back. They eventually got their act together enough to tell us we had to change the modem configuration, which resulted in lost connectivity briefly.

When it came back on, the modem worked but our router did not. It took another hour of us troubleshooting what the Comcast CSR had told us before it all worked again. For now. We are honestly expecting to show up for work soon to find no Internet connectivity and a note from Comcast saying that they transferred our service to someplace in Florida.

Comcast reality

Update: Sure enough, they shut down our service the day after I wrote this. In the midst of a staff meeting we were doing over Skype, we lost our connection. After a few minutes isolating the problem to Comcast's network, we called them. They informed us that we hadn't paid our bill by its due date. Again, we were confused because our bill was due on Oct 28th ... does Comcast employ precogs now? (If you don't get it, start reading Philip K Dick or watch Minority Report.)

Apparently Comcast's accounting system reset our bill due date to IMMEDIATELY NOW and shut down our service after noticing it hadn't been paid. Not that they bothered to notify us in any way. But after getting someone on the phone at Comcast, they were able to work it out. We only lost about 1 hour of staff time between two people - way below average when dealing with this wretched company.

In trying to sort through it all, we realized we have received three different bills over the past two weeks and though the lovely CSR suggested we had a credit on our old account, we cannot find evidence of that anywhere. No worries, we'll just waste more staff time trying to sort out Comcast's mess from what should have been a simple move.

Throughout it all, the Comcast customer representatives have been very helpful - much like I imagine demons in hell might be. "Oh, we are very sorry, but management policy is for you to burn for all eternity. I wish there was something I could do about it, but I just work here. Can I help you in any other way?"

So why are communities smart to build their own networks? Because they can make sure local businesses, residents, and nonprofit organizations don't have to depend on this kind of pathetic service.

Rural Broadband Stimulus Project in New Mexico Threatened, Saved

A last mile broadband project in Taos, New Mexico, encountered a temporary snag and appears to be back on track. The situation highlights the potential conflict created between federal and state entities. State officials acted to show their support and now expect the project to continue.

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) was awarded a $45 million grant and an accompanying $19 million loan from the American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) stimulus funding. The project is expected to span about 3,000 square miles of New Mexico and will include smart grid technology in addition to high speed broadband to rural communities. From a story on the USDA website:

The Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) “fiber-tohome” project will allow greater bandwidth, providing the quality necessary for applications such as telemedicine, teleconferencing and video sharing for education, business and entertainment. Once completed, the co-op’s project will make broadband service available to 29 communities, reaching about 20,500 households, 3,600 businesses and 183 community institutions, including hospitals, schools and other government facilities. Two Native American pueblos will also receive broadband service once the project is complete.

In September, 2011, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) included as part of a rate order that KCEC spin off its broadband business into an independent company.  J.R. Logan covered the story in the Taos News:

The PRC's original order stated that Kit Carson must create a separate Internet subsidiary to protect electric ratepayers from potential losses, or explain why such a separation was not feasible.

According to the article, KCEC received communication from the RUS looking for clarification on whether or not the order was entered and would be followed. The RUS wanted a definitive answer because divestiture would violate the terms of the agreement between KCEC and the RUS. The entire project was in jeopardy.

RUS Logo

According to another Logan article, feds froze funding last week for the project, which began construction in July. One hundred jobs halted immediately. With the potential loss of an additional 300 future jobs, the state PRC chose to act right away.

Jackie Jadrnak covered an October 16 hearing of the PRC for the ABQJournal North. The commission decided unanimously to remove the requirement for the spin off, hoping to save the project and get the money flowing again.

New Mexico’s utility regulators today removed an obstacle that had blocked funding for a just-started $64 million broadband project in northern New Mexico.

“We’re going to put this to rest,” Commissioner Patrick Lyons of the Public Regulation Commission told a crowd of people, who overflowed the hearing room into the hallway and lobby and cheered the commission’s actions. “We need to send the RUS (Rural Utilities Service) a message that we support this.”

If the project had been scrapped, the coop would likely have had to reimburse the $12 million already spent on the project. The project status looks to be restored and the community appears to be moving beyond this bump in the road.

Help Get the Word Out About Community Networks

What will we be talking about that the National Conference for Media Reform in Denver, April 5-7 of 2013? Lots of things, but let's make sure Community Networks are on the agenda!

The National Conference for Media Reform (NCMR) is a great gathering of enthusiastic people who want to build a better media that reflect the values of all America, not just corporate America. Free Press organizes the event every other year.

For the next 10 days, we can vote on what sessions we want to see at the conference -- and the process is very easy. Jump over to voting.freepress.net, fill out a simple 3 entry form, click on the confirmation email that is immediately mailed to you, and select the sessions you want to see.

There are a ton of great proposals, but we are really hoping to see a few sessions on community broadband, so we have a few recommendations. Given the importance of the Internet to distributing media, we need to make sure this conference has a strong suite of sessions discussing how we can improve universal access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks.

Our top recco is a session we proposed ourselves, Community Broadband Creates Jobs, Choices, and Cost Savings.

Below are some additional sessions we are also excited to see. Regardless of which sessions are picked (some may be combined), we hope to see you at NCMR!

Community Broadband Bits 17 - Joe Knapp of Sandy, Oregon

Sandy has run a wireless network for over eight years and has just announced a partnership with i3 to bring FTTH to everyone using i3's technology to run trunk fiber lines through existing waste water and storm water pipes. We previously wrote about Sandy here.

Joe Knapp, the IT Director for the city of Sandy and the General Manager of SandyNet, is our guest on this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast - episode 17. He discusses how Sandy began offering broadband access to itself, residents, and businesses and how they expanded to fiber originally. And toward the end, he gives us the low-down on how the partnership with i3 is structured.

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 30 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.

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