Cable Access Gets Slammed, Time Porner Gets the Land

This is a guest post, authored by Jay April. Jay is a strong supporter of local authority and community media. He is a documentary filmmaker, video journalist, and new media innovator who now happens to find himself running a community TV and radio station in Maui, Hawaii.

There is a new land grab in Hawaii whereby the government is giving away valuable public land to private business without getting anything in return for the people. Sound familiar? It has happened before in Hawaii – with agriculture, with beaches, with water and now, with the public airwaves. This time the difference is that the land in question is in the form of public electronic real estate, the electromagnetic spectrum. These are the frequencies you pay for to watch cable TV, use the internet or talk on the phone.

Most people don’t know this, but in exchange for using public rights of way - airwaves, telephone poles, electric wires and underground conduits - cable monopolies like Oceanic Time Warner have to pay “rent” in the form of community access channels like Olelo on Oahu, Akaku on Maui, Na Leo on Big Island and Hoike on Kauai. Now, because of new technology, the frequencies or space these channels occupy have suddenly become extremely profitable to cable companies. (Not unlike how lands once granted to indigenous people by treaty became more valuable once minerals were discovered.) That is why Time Warner wants to take over this public property and move these channels to inferior locations while vastly reducing the amount of non-commercial electronic real estate. That is why, if you are an Oceanic Time Warner Cable subscriber, channels are disappearing from your channel line-up altogether, or re-appearing someplace else. So far, instead of holding your land in public trust, the state is falling for the Time Warner plan - hook, line and sinker.

Maybe that is not such a bad thing after all. Oceanic says this techy move will free up more space on the cable for them to bring us all kinds of goodies like High Definition (HD) channels, video on demand channels, enhanced services and the holy grail of faster, better and more affordable internet for all. That’s a good thing, right? We all want to believe. We really do. The thing Time Warner forgot to mention was…well…the several new adult services that have recently appeared as a result of moving your access channels to cable no man’s land.

Akaku Maui Community Television

On Wednesday, April 4, the naked truth behind this land grab was revealed at the State of Hawaii Cable Advisory Committee hearing in Oahu. The members, made up of appointees from each county, did not like what they saw. Let’s just call it, Oceanic Time Warner’s dirty little secret.

The meeting started out innocently enough. Director of the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs (DCCA) Keali’i Lopez, announced that she was inclined to grant a “waiver” Oceanic Time Warner had requested, to strike the definition of the word “channel” from contracts that govern cable operations on neighbor islands. This little change would allow the cable company to legitimize “after the fact” a contract violation it had already committed months ago, when it moved educational access channels from their current analog location (55 and 56) to an area on the cable dial, commonly referred to as “digital Siberia” (355 and 356)

This action allowed Time Warner to reclaim twelve megahertz (12MHz) of dedicated non-commercial spectrum for unrestricted commercial development. Former two-digit, full service, publicly owned, analog channels disappeared and were replaced by three-digit “digital channels” in hard to find locations. Replacement digital channels represent a tiny fraction - perhaps 10% or less - of their former electronic land value and are viewable only by subscribers who obtain special equipment.

In defense of DCCA Director Lopez, her motivations were perhaps well meaning, even altruistic. Who doesn’t want faster, better, affordable internet? Time Warner broadband speeds on neighbor islands are truly pa-thet-ic. Last time we checked on Maui, they were about 5 megabits down and less than 1 megabit up. Public testimony at the CAC hearing revealed, however, that even though a huge amount of dedicated public spectrum was taken away in December and in January, cable subscribers on Maui, Molokai, Lanai, Big Island and Kauai did not get faster, better, more affordable internet. What they got was a rate hike, a slew of expensive digital channels, and a big fat bunch of additional adult services like Playboy Interactive, Playboy TV on Demand, Penthouse on Demand, Hustler on Demand and Manhandler on Demand.

Time Warner Cable Logo

Putting the Porn Warner switcheroo aside, it was also revealed during public testimony that DCCA has no guarantee or quid pro quo from Time Warner to ensure that any of us will ever get faster, ubiquitous, more affordable broadband. On the contrary, Wall Street analysts at Sanford Bernstein are reporting that Time Warner has recently announced that they will be applying overcharging schemes to broadband customers, charging all customers usage fees to boost revenues and profits. The street predicts that these charges will become the rule and not the exception in the near future.

After these and many other unsavory facts were revealed, several CAC members questioned the character of Oceanic Time Warner, a company that protects all local broadcast channels on analog and repeats them over again on digital; protects Oceanic owned channels such as OC 16 and dozens of non-local channels like QVC, MTV and Shop NBC by keeping them on analog - yet finds it necessary to kick your local Community Access Channels off these more profitable and desirable locations in order to steal the public’s bandwidth.

No one disputes that someday all channels will be digital. How that transition occurs and what happens to public electronic real estate in the process is an important discussion to have with cable subscribers and cable access providers on each island. Before the state gives it all away, we have a right to say how our land will be used.

To its credit, for the time being, the Cable Advisory Committee has taken a stand against the DCCA waiver of the definition of channel pending further review. It remains to be seen which is more obscene – the Time Warner lie itself or the state’s willingness to
believe it at the expense of neighbor island Public Access channels and Community Broadband development.

Greenacres Florida Connects to Palm Beach County Network

In June, the city council of Greenacres, Florida, voted to invest $42,550 to connect to Palm Beach County's fiber-optic network. Greenacres joins a growing list of Palm Beach County municipalities who have data-transmission agreements with the County. Other towns include Palm Beach Gardens, Jupiter, Juno Beach, West Palm Beach, Delray Beach and Riviera Beach.

Willie Howard of the Palm Beach Post covered the Greenacres story earlier this month:

Instead of paying AT&T and Comcast $33,360 annually for transmission lines, the city will pay Palm Beach County $8,400 annually.

"It's basically cost sharing as opposed to revenue generating," said Mike Butler, director of network services for Palm Beach County. "We're not in it to make money."

Thomas Hughes, Finance Director of Greenacres, estimates the savings to the City will amount to $124,800 over five years.

In addition to saving money, Greenacres will have the advantage of increased speed. Currently, AT&T and Comcast provide a 1.5 Mbps connections. The new arrangement will provide 10 Mbps from the County - six times faster at a little more than one third the cost. The City can also feel good about keeping the dollars local and will avoid the uncertainty in dealing with remote and giant AT&T or Comcast.

Palm Beach County sits just south of Martin County, where a municipal network saves the County and school district significant dollars for connectivity. You can download our recent case study on Martin County, Florida Fiber: How Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network, to learn more about that network.

For Independence Day, Lessig on Independence

Larry Lessig addressed the 2012 WiscNet Conference in Madison, talking about the importance of achieving the goals of the Founders of the United States in creating a system where those making the rules were independent of corrupting influences.

About 45 minutes long, and well worth watching in entirety -- especially if you have not seen a version of this excellent presentation elsewhere.

You can get involved at Lessig's RootStrikers.org. This is a key issue for community broadband because few corporations have as much power to corrupt the political system as the cable and DSL companies that want to revoke local authority of communities to build their own networks.

Vidalia, Louisiana Pursues Fiber Dreams

Vidalia, a Louisiana town with 4,300 residents, is a small town with a big idea. Vidalia one of the poorest regions in the country with an unemployment rate hovering around 9.4% so area leaders seek new ways to improve opportunity. The Vidalia Broadband Initiative aims to connect every home with a gig and provide 10 gig capacity for every business connection. 

From a June, 2011 Natchez Democrat story:

“We realize the importance of being connected to the Internet,” [City Manager Ken Walker] said. “And the only way to really meet the need to ensure adequate Internet access is through direct fiber optics to each building.”

Along with other communities in the region, Vidalia anticipated using part of a 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant for $80 million to build their network, estimated at $9 million. But the entire BTOP grant was revoked when it became apparent that the Governor's Administration intended to violate the rules of the grant by giving the new infrastructure to big carriers that had no intention of adhering to the open access rules. 

Vidalia decided to forge ahead and seek funding on their own. The community is seeking out a variety of funding sources, including UDSA Rural Utility grants. In the meantime, Vidalia is taking advantage of any and all opportunities to invest in fiber assets.

The town has its own electrical utility and wants to develop a smart-grid. The City has been actively involved with negotiations with a local telephone and data company to provide service, but is planning on an open access model hoping to encourage competition. The City's long term goal is to provide fiber to each home in Vidalia and give residents a choice of providers. Right now, there are two providers in the community and service is described as "often slow and interrupted."

This week, Rod Guajardo, of the Natchez Democrat, reported that the City began installing video surveillance cameras on its new municipal building. Municipal staff moved into the building in March. The new municipal complex was funded by a $6.94 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) loan and part of the construction included conduit and fiber for communications in and around the building. Connecting the building and installing fiber based based surveillance is one of the first of many steps Vidalia will take to get its network.

Community Broadband Praised for Helping Small Businesses

Writing for the American Express Open Forum, author Jack Shultz helped to compile a list of what he considers the best small towns for business in the U.S.

Ponca City made the list and was specifically singled out for the wireless network owned by the City:

This town has a very progressive economic development organization. They even have their own Youtube video promoting Ponca City as the place to locate your business. The city’s history has been shaped by the petroleum industry since Conoco Oil once had their headquarters here. Now, they highlight their fast-track permitting, workforce training, state and local incentive programs and a completely wireless community. [emphasis in original]

A local article in Ponca City News notes,

All residents in the city limits of Ponca City have access to free Wi-Fi adding to the ease of web-based business and small start-ups.

As we have noted many times, publicly owned broadband networks can play an important role in economic development strategies.

The Declaration of Internet Freedom

As we celebrate our Independence Day, we are supporting the Declaration of Internet Freedom, a new campaign that was launched this morning.

Preamble: We believe that a free and open Internet can bring about a better world. To keep the Internet free and open, we call on communities, industries and countries to recognize these principles. We believe that they will help to bring about more creativity, more innovation and more open societies.

We are joining an international movement to defend our freedoms because we believe that they are worth fighting for.

Let’s discuss these principles — agree or disagree with them, debate them, translate them, make them your own and broaden the discussion with your community — as only the Internet can make possible.

Join us in keeping the Internet free and open.

This is the beginning of a movement, that will be shaped by those who choose to participate. Join the conversation! Some of the sites discussing the Declaration of Internet Freedom include Reddit, TechDirt, The Verge, Center for Democracy and Technology, and Cheezburger.

Josh Levy discusses the backstory of this Declaration on HuffPo while Sascha Meinrath and Craig Aaron discuss the need for the Declaration at Slate.com.

We strongly encourage organizations, businesses, and individuals to sign on.

Seattle's Short History of and Bleak Future for Community Broadband

We have followed Seattle's on-again, off-again consideration of a community broadband network for years and have occasionally noted the successful cable network in nearby Tacoma.

Seattle Met's Matthew Halverson has penned a short, impressive article explaining the trials and tribulations of Tacoma while also exploring why Seattle's Mayor has abandoned his goal of a broadband public option.

Before the massive cable consolidation that has left us with a handful of monopolists, we had a larger number of smaller monopolists that abused their market power to limit competition. One of the worst was TCI, which refused to upgrade its awful services in Tacoma, which pushed Tacoma to build its own network. TCI suddenly decided it did care about Tacoma.

TCI wouldn’t go down easily, of course. For the next year, as the City built out its system, the cable giant took advantage of the utility’s biggest weakness: All of its plans, from the kind of equipment it would buy to its construction schedule, were public information. So when Tacoma Power put in an order with its supplier for, say, coaxial cable, it found that TCI had already bought every foot of it. “But we started in one area of town and luckily we were able to get just enough material,” says Pat Bacon, Click’s technical operations manager. “We just inched our way through it and, before you knew it, we were a presence.” By July 1998, Click had its first cable subscriber, and the first broadband Internet user signed on in December 1999.

A substantial portion of the article is devoted to the dynamics around open access between the utility and independent providers -- an important read for anyone considering the open access approach.

Halverson did his homework on this article and I think he got it mostly right. I think the FiOS-wired suburbs do present a larger threat to Seattle than suggested, but it certainly does not compare to the approaching-existential crisis faced by Tacoma fifteen years ago.

I wish I could disagree with his conclusion that Seattle is unlikely to get a community fiber network but unless the community rises up to demand it, elected officials are unlikely to see any benefit to making such a long term investment.

What if FiberNet Monticello Had Been Canned in 2008?

Monticello faced a number of key decision moments throughout the history of its FiberNet. Given the recent changes in management and decision not to make up the different between debt service and revenues, some may be wondering if proceeding with FiberNet was the smart decision.

It was 2008 and the economy hadn't entered its death spiral. Monticello had overwhelmingly voted by a 3:1 margin for the local government to bond for and build the network.

When Monticello was beginning to sell its bonds, the incumbent telephone company (TDS) filed a lawsuit against the City, with the extremely dubious claim that Monticello did not have the authority to do what other cities in Minnesota had done. Courts later tossed it, finding that the TDS suit had no merit and making TDS reimburse Monticello for some of its costs due to the frivolous suit.

But the goal was never to win the lawsuit, it was to delay and harass. Monticello had to wait a year to begin building its network. Though TDS had previously maintained that its DSL was just fine for the needs of residents and busineses, it began pulling permits to significantly upgrade its DSL to a FTTH product. (TDS has steadfastly maintained, while investing more in Monticello than any other Minnesota community, that community networks result in less investment from incumbents.)

At any rate, Monticello had a decision. It faced an expensive court case and the City's action was apparently driving TDS to improve its poor network. Monticello could have backed down in the face of TDS' bullying.

And if it had? From what we have seen elsewhere, this is our best guess:

TDS Telecom Logo

TDS could have delayed its upgrades or changed its mind entirely when the economy tanked. If it continued with upgrades, it would likely have made some token investments but not lowered its prices because the threat of actual competition was removed. It certainly wouldn't have unveiled broadband tiers that were superior on speed and price to those in Minneapolis / St Paul metro area.

If they had unveiled a high-speed option like the 50/20 Mbps package, they likely would have priced it sufficiently high that few took it and then would have used that as evidence that their old, slow, unreliable DSL had been just fine.

People would have no choice of phone providers because Charter still does not offer telephone in that area. Prices for telephone, television, and broadband would all be much higher in Monticello - the same as we see in the majority of other communities where people can only choose between one DSL company and one cable company. Savings for many households from Charter's discounts range in the several hundreds to perhaps $1000 each year -- real money that would be at Charter HQ right now rather than in Monticello.

Local businesses that depend on reliable telecommunications would have been much less competitive - paying more than competitors in other communities (regionally or nationally) while receiving far less. Some of those businesses may have decided to move or expand to areas with modern infrastructure, recognizing that companies like Charter and TDS would never view Monticello as a priority for investment absent a community network.

People who have been hired by Charter and TDS in their respective marketing blitz (particularly the door to door sales people) would not be working for those companies. All the multiplier effects from the saved money, the people hired to build or upgrade the networks, and such, would not have happened. Media outlets would have fewer advertisements and event organizers would have had fewer sponsors.

Charter ad

TDS suddenly decided to provide free broadband to the Monticello area schools around the time that the City decided to build its own network so the schools could be spending more money on telecom charges if the City had backed down.

Because Monticello had the courage to stand up to TDS and is now home to some of the best broadband access in the entire nation, it has been featured in several press stories and received a lot of positive attention. Whether this has paid off with people choosing Monticello or businesses considering it, we do not know -- but we do know that many cities would be thrilled to have that attention.

We do know that due to the lawsuit, predatory pricing from Charter, and the upgrades from TDS, FiberNet Monticello was not able to generate sufficient revenue to cover its costs and debt service in the time frame predicted. To cover the gap, the City loaned the network between $3 and $4 million from the liquor store reserves. Now, the City is trying to negotiate with the bondholders to find a solution that works for everyone.

We continue to believe that Monticello made the smart choice in proceeding with its network, even in the face of all the adversity they have had. If it were possible to total up the many varied benefits to the community from the additional investment, choices, discounts, and multiplier effects, we believe it would significantly outweigh the negatives.

Fiber Optic ConnectArlington Moving Forward in Virginia

Arlington County, Virginia is taking advantage of a series of planned projects to create their own fiber optic network, ConnectArlington. The County is moving into phase II of its three part plan to improve connectivity with a publicly owned fiber network.

Some creative thinking and inter-agency collaboration seem to be the keys to success in Arlington. Both the County and the Arlington Public Schools will own the new asset. Additionally, the network will improve the County Public Safety network. Back in March, Tanya Roscola reported on the planing and benefits of the ConnectArlington in Government Technology.

Arlington County's cable franchise agreement with Comcast is up for renewal in 2013. As part of that agreement, the schools and county facilities have been connected to each other at no cost to the County. Even though there are still active negotiations, the ConnectArlington website notes that the outcome is uncertain. The County does not know if the new agreement will include the same arrangement. Local leaders are not waiting to find out, citing need in the community and recent opportunities that reduce installation costs. 

Other communities, from Palo Alto in California to Martin County in Florida, have found Comcast pushing unreasonable prices for services in franchise negotiations. Smart communities have invested in their own networks rather than continue depending on Comcast.

Like schools all around the country, Arlington increasingly relies on high-capacity networks for day-to-day functions both in and out of the classroom. Digital textbooks, tablets, and online testing enhance the educational adventure, but require more and more bandwidth and connectivity. From the article:

Through ConnectArlington, Arlington Public Schools will be able to take advantage of Internet2 for distance learning. At no cost, students will be able to communicate with teachers and access electronic textbooks and online courses from wireless hot spots.

The County wants to use the network to provide continuity and expansion of its essential telecommunications services. Additionally, according the the County's Spring 2010 Telecommunications Overview (check out the PDF - there are some informative maps here), the County and the School District want to reduce the uncertainty of continued dependence on Comcast.

ConnectArlington

Three projects, all happening within a relatively short period of time, came together to solidify the planning and enthusiasm for ConnectArlington. 

1) Upgrades to the County's Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), funded with a federal grant, will involve significant digging up of streets to make way for new conduit and fiber. The ITS construction provides an opportunity for ConnectArlington to install additional conduit for expanding the fiber network. ITS uses fiber optic cables to allow real time monitoring and control of intersections for immediate traffic control. Additionally, the fiber allows Emergency Vehicle Preemption technology (EVP). Thirty-one additional intersections will be added to the network and outfit with EVP. From a County Press Release:

"Emergency vehicle preemption technology is critical to saving lives by giving responders safe, speedy passage through intersections and cutting precious minutes off the time it takes to get patients to life-saving care at a hospital,” said Chief James Schwartz of the Arlington County Fire Department.

EVP gives emergency vehicles the right-of-way at signaled intersections with an automatic green light. The emergency responder is able to safely navigate the intersection, while drivers and pedestrians are clearly directed to cede the right-of-way via the traffic signals.

2) A public bond, dedicated to replacing the current microwave emergency system, will  connect six public safety radio towers with a new fiber backbone. ConnectArlington will also lay fiber along that route. From the Roscola story:

Arlington Logo

When fiber goes through the county's approximately 168 traffic signals, these signals will become routers on the network. That will allow police and fire personnel who set up command villages for an event to connect to the network through traffic signals.

They'll be able to access broadband and wireless for video, audio and data connectivity during events including the Marine Corp Marathon and ceremonies at the Pentagon.

3) Lastly, local electric provider Dominion Power will be upgrading its power grid. The County will co-locate dark fiber with Dominion's fiber, saving even more on installation.

ConnectArlington will be a series of fiber optic rings that overlap in strategic circles to provide paths that avoid any single failure points. Arlington's present system is a patchwork of County-owned facilities, lines leased from commercial providers, and Comcast's fiber-optic network, is a "star" or "spoke and hub" topology. With the new lay out, any failure will be remedied with data traffic reroute, providing redundancy.

While more and more communities are beginning to see the value of a publicly owned fiber optic network, patience is a must, as noted in the Roscola article:

"It's going to take time to realize the cost benefit out of this," said Belcher, who also directs the county's Department of Technology Services. "You're going to have to invest a lot of money that could go elsewhere. But you're putting it here because you see a value to be achieved, and that's significant."

Tahlequah, Oklahoma, Next Town to Consider Fiber Network

Tahlequah, Oklahoma, far on the eastern side of the state, recently decided to investigate the possibility of building a new network. On June 15th, the Tahlequah Public Works Authority Board approved the financing of a feasibility study on the options. According to Rob W. Anderson's Tahlequah Daily Press article:

“We budgeted $40,000 for this, and I really think it’ll probably take every bit of that, I’m guessing,” [TPWA General Manager Mark Chesney] said. “What we’re suggesting is that we go to some expert to get a proposal to tell us what a return on investment would look like, what our start-up cost would look like, how much of the market we could capture and a pretty good forecast of how long it would take to pay out on those kinds of things. That’s what a study would do.”

Chesney stated that the city wanted to know more about offering services with a fiber network, including Internet, cable, and voice. Chesney alluded to local dissatisfaction of services and the town's desire to expand economic development. The town is home to approximately 15,750 people.

We have reported on other Oklahoma communities, including Sallisaw and Ponca City, that now have publicly owned networks and provide a variety of services. Oklahoma, one of the states with a more friendly attitude toward community networks, does not have barriers in place to curtail development.

Sallisaw's DiamondNet offers triple play packages, like those mentioned in the Tahlequah meeting, for $105.95, $116.95, and 126.95. Things have worked out will in Sallisaw. Keith Skelton, assistant city director of Sallisaw, stated publicly in March that he expects the City to make a profit from the network by the end of 2012.

Ponca City offers free Wi-Fi to all its residents and now serves 11,000 clients. Additionally, Ponca City uses their fiber network for their electric utility smart grid and offers fiber-based broadband to local businesses.