Our New Report Now Available for Your E-Reader

Our most recent joint effort with the Benton Foundation, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks, is now available for your e-reader:

On Amazon's Kindle

Barnes and Noble's Nook

Google Play

You can even find it for your iPad in the App Store

Each format is priced in the neighborhood of $2.99. As always, you can also find the report in PDF at no charge here.

We encourage you to support our work here at Muninetworks.org, save a tree, and get a copy of this compelling report.

Community Broadband Legislation Alert: South Carolina

Yesterday the South Carolina Senate voted in a second reading of H 3508, a bill that has been debated in the State Legislature since it was introduced in January of 2011. The bill, pushed by AT&T and ALEC, has been on our radar for quite some time.

We have watched this piece of legislation because it will have immediate and unfortunate negative implications for the people of South Carolina. Right now, the state has a miserable adoption rate with an average of 53 out of 100 households connected. Like many other states in the South, poverty, geography, and lack of interest from the major carriers have left South Carolina behind the rest of the country.

The bill will revoke local authority to pick up the slack where the private industry has failed. If this bill passes, South Carolina will entrust its future to AT&T, which has admitted it has no solution for rural broadband. And in the meantime, it is ripping off our schools and libraries, as revealed in a recent ProPublica article examining E-rate Program.

If you live in South Carolina, call your elected officials and let them know you are a constituent and you believe communities should make these decisions locally.

Find your legislator here. Tell them to oppose H.3508 and any efforts to limit local authority to make decisions about broadband.

Five Cities Denounce Verizon/Comcast Spectrum Deal

If you live in Boston, Baltimore, Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo, you won't be getting FiOS from Verizon. Absent any public investment, you will likely be stuck with DSL and cable... like 80% of the rest of us.

Not long after Verizon announced it would cease expanding FiOS, we learned that Verizon was coming to an arrangement with the cable companies that would essentially divide the broadband market. Verizon won't challenge cable companies with FiOS and the cable companies won't challenge Verizon's "Rule the Air" wireless domain.

For a while now, the FCC has reviewed a potential deal for a Verizon purchase of Comcast's wireless spectrum. The possible deal involves multi-layered questions of anti-competitive behavior, collusion, and corporate responsibility. 

Along with many other interested parties, such as the Communications Workers of America, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and  the five towns are publicly opposing the deal. They have expressed their derision to the FCC but whether or not they will influence the result remains to be seen.

From a FierceTelecom article by Sean Buckley:

Curt Anderson, chair of the Baltimore City Delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, expressed...outrage on the agreement the telco made.

"Under this transaction, Baltimore will never get a fiber-optic network, and the city will be at a disadvantage," he said. "The direct job loss will be the hundreds of technicians that would be employed building, installing and maintaining FiOS in the area. The indirect costs of this deal are even higher: the lack of competition in telecommunications will raise prices and reduce service quality.

And:

The deal, said Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, "is not in the best interest of those who need to get and stay connected the most and is "a step backwards in bridging the digital divide."

Though these five cities would indeed be better off with FiOS than under the status quo, they would be much better off if they considered building a fiber-optic network owned by the community. Think of it like FiOS, with faster speeds, lower prices, better customer service, and an actual responsibility to put local needs first.

Regardless, the federal government needs to take action against anti-competitive collusion that drives prices up and investment down.

Video: 
See video

Leverett, Massachusetts Approves Broadband Funding

We brought you news of Leverett, Massachusetts and their decision this spring to pursue a municipal fiber optic network. In April, voters approved a measure to develop the initiative, and this past weekend took the last step toward building the network. The town of 1,851, voted to raise their taxes to pay for a fiber-to-the-home network. The result was a resounding 462 for and 90 against.

The GazetteNET.com covered the story:

"We're expecting everyone in Leverett to have access to this network by 2014," said Peter d'Errico, a member of the town's Select Board and a leading supporter of the municipal fiber-optic system."

"This was clearly a mandate to proceed," said d'Errico. "There was vigorous discussion at every stage of the process and it's a sign that community is ready to take charge of its own services."

The Proposition 2 1/2 debt exclusion override ended in an 83.5% vote to support the project. The result satisfies the 2/3 majority requirement for a planned tax increase, as required by state law.

A little more than 39% of the town's eligible voters cast ballots. According to the assistant town clerk, D'Ann Kelty who monitors voter activity, the turn out was large for a single issue election.

The funding strategy is a 20-year bond measure and is expected to increase property taxes by 6%. Supporters note that a 6% hike in property taxes is less than what households will save in telephone and internet bills. They will be paying less for something far better than they now receive. According to residents, telephone service has been spotty for years, due to old copper wires that have not been replaced by providers. In a recent GazetteNET article before the vote:

"Beginning in 2009 or so, high speed providers decided that they weren't going to upgrade their landline cables in rural areas," said Richard Nathhorst, a member of the Broadband Committee and one of the drafters of the proposal. Though the state issued a court order last year to Verizon Telecommunications, the owner of the current lines, to improve service to rural areas, dissatisfaction remained high in town over frequent service outages and insufficient bandwidth access for many residents.

"We can't rely on private companies to support cutting-edge digital access in sparsely populated areas like ours," said Peter d'Errico.

A private company will install and run the network, which will belong to the town.  Some homes still use dial-up, others have unreliable satellite, and some have no access at all. Each home in Leverett will be connected to the ftth network.

"Right now, we're paying for services and maintenance that we aren't getting from the private sector," [d'Errico] said. "Municipal networks aren't a new thing. This is a well-known strategy that we're using to get our costs down, even by the conservative estimate that we used in the proposal."

"We think of the Internet as a consumer device, but in fact it adds so much value as a professional tool and a creative tool as well," said Peter d'Errico. "There are a lot of people in Leverett who move information or market their artwork for a living, and they need this resource available to them. We're going to be able to attract them and keep them here."

Susan Crawford Presentation at Freedom to Connect

Susan Crawford was one of the featured presenters at Freedom to Connect 2012 and her presentation was noted by Tech Dirt:

To support her thesis, Crawford presented some stunning numbers. In the last two years, Comcast market share has grown from 16.3 million subscribers to 18.5, a 14 percent growth. Time Warner Cable has grown 10 percent, from 9.2 to 10.7 million customers. Meanwhile, DSL subscribers have plummeted: AT&T and Verizon market share is down 22 and 21 percent respectively.

So, while it's good to be Comcast, it's not good to be an American citizen. Without competition, there's no drive to improve the service. The average speed of an Internet connection in the United States is around 5Mbit/s. An astoundingly low number if you look at other western countries. South Korea, for example, has an average of 50Mbit/s. And faster connections are starting to be implemented around the world.

Video: 
See video

Wireless, Fiber, the Speed of Light, and Wall Street

A few weeks ago, I read that Wall Street traders had invested $300 million in a new fiber optic line between Chicago and New York City to shave a few milliseconds off the existing route in order to gain a massive advantage for their computer trading algorithms.

This investment, which could have brought real value to hundreds of thousands or even millions of people in the form of better broadband connecting residents and local businesses was instead squandered on a practice that adds no value to markets. In fact, we might argue it actually distorts markets.

But I bring it up here after reading a fascinating development from Anton Troianovski of the Wall Street Journal. Wall Street traders are now building microwave towers to shave milliseconds off the fiber routes.

"Self," I said, "How can it be that microwave relays are faster than fiber optic lines?" Turns out that these wireless shots can be created in straighter paths, which means the signal has to travel farther in the fiber routes. Once again, it turns out the speed of light can be a limiting factor.

But microwave networks can be faster than their fiber-optic counterparts. Signals shot in a straight line between microwave dishes within sight of each other don't have to negotiate the mountains, buildings and other obstacles that lengthen the trip by cable. Because of their height, cell towers are prime locations for the dishes.

On the downside, microwave networks are less reliable than cables, because signals can be disrupted by bad weather and other interference. They also can't carry as much information.

So I figured this was a good weekend story because of the wireless/fiber angle but also because it is a reminder that Wall Street invests narrowly for its benefit. Extracting value from the market by having a 1 millionth of a second advantage over everyone else provides no value for the rest of us. This is not a system that is rationally allocating capital, it is a system that allows vampires to suck the life out of us. And that is a very good reason to find ways of being self-reliant.

UTOPIA Scapegoated as Area Cities Increase Taxes

Jesse Harris has posted an interesting update on the present UTOPIA situation, where a number of cities are heaping perhaps too much blame on UTOPIA for rising local taxes.

A lot of cities have been talking property tax hikes lately, and the most certain thing about all of the proposals is that elected officials are going to look for someone or something to blame. In UTOPIA member cities, blaming the fiber network has become the easy go-to solution, especially since so many mayors and city council members weren’t involved in the original decision. The problem, however, is that this blame is completely paving over a deeper problem of city tax structure that’s boring, doesn’t fit the anti-UTOPIA narrative, and is a much larger problem for city budgets. Let’s take the examples of West Valley City, Orem, and Taylorsville, the latter of which is not a UTOPIA member city. In all three cases, they’ve called for large (as a percentage) property tax increases to make up for lagging sales tax revenues. So if UTOPIA is the cause of property tax increases, why would a non-member city need to more-or-less do the same thing?

The discussion in the comments offer some additional news about UTOPIA's efforts to expand its subscriber-base by giving residents the option of "leasing" a last mile connection if they cannot afford to pay for it outright in areas where UTOPIA is presently not able to extend its network all the way to the home.

Communities seeking alternative ways of financing networks that simply issuing lots of debt upfront should examine the different approaches UTOPIA has pioneered.

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: