Colorado's Unique Environment of Local Collaboration - Community Broadband Bits Episode 178

A few weeks back, Colorado voters overwhelmingly chose local authority and community networks over the status quo Internet connections. Approximately 50 local governments had referenda to reclaim authority lost under the anti-competition state law originally called SB 152 that CenturyLink's predecessor Qwest pushed into law in 2005.

This week, Virgil Turner and Audrey Danner join us to discuss what is happening in Colorado. Virgil is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose and last joined us for episode 95. Audrey Danner is the Executive Director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference. We previously discussed Mountain Connect in episode 105 and episode 137.

In our discussion, we cover a little bit of history around SB 152 and what happened with all the votes this past election day. We talk about some specific local plans of a few of the communities and why Colorado seems to have so many communities that are developing their own plans to improve Internet access for residents, anchor institutions, and local businesses.

Over the course of this show, we also talked about Rio Blanco's approach, which we discussed previously in episode 158. We also discuss Steamboat Springs and previously covered that approach in episode 163.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Social Media Muni Hotlists Now Available

Want instant updates on the world of community networks, broadband and Internet policy, or fiber-to-the-home? We have compiled several Twitter lists and a list of community networks' Facebook pages. Use these as resources to connect with advocates, to find new groups, or just to learn about community networks.

Subscribe to the lists of your choice on the left of each Twitter list. If you follow people, groups, or entities that you think we should add, let us know:

Community Networks
Check out this list if you want to get the low-down from local publicly-owned networks that tweet.

Advocates
Learn from other advocates. This list can serve as a resource of advocacy groups, advocates, and people who just like to talk about community networks, local ownership, free Internet, the digital divide, etc.

Broadband Gov & Officials
Follow this list for government Twitter accounts and government officials tweeting about broadband and Internet policy - get the latest on what government is doing or what government officials are thinking.

Broadband News
To keep-up-to-date, here's a list of journalists, researchers, and writers. Subscribe to get the latest tweets about broadband, Internet, and technology issues.

Internet Companies
For the really esoteric, learn about companies that work on topics related to fiber, broadband, and Internet issues in general.

If you have suggestions of people or organizations for these lists, message Hannah on Twitter at @HTrostle or send her an email at htrostle@ilsr.org.

Introducing Scott Carlson

Readers will soon be noticing a new author in the byline. Scott Carlson has joined the Institute for Local Self-Reliance as part of the Community Broadband Networks team and is already contributing stories.

Scott, our newest Researcher, has spent most of his career as a journalist working for among others, the St. Paul Pioneer Press as an award-winning business reporter and local editor for AOL’s Patch.com.

An honors graduate in journalism from the University of Minnesota and holder of a juris doctor’s degree from William Mitchell College of Law, Scott has a deep interest in public affairs and current events. He and his wife Betsy have two adult children. Scott’s hobbies include playing competitive amateur tennis, singing in church choir, and going to the movies. He believes a successful life is achieved by a daily commitment to optimism.

Welcome, Scott!

"Little Gig City" And Friends Go to Nashville to Fight for Local Authority

As the people of Tennessee wait for the court to determine their broadband future, state and local leaders in Nashville are hearing municipal network advocates and foes.

The bipartisan Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, anticipating state legislation aimed at removing state anti-muni laws next session, recently heard from advocates of municipal networks. Those in favor of keeping state barriers in place also took a seat at the table. The Commission includes state legislators and local community leaders. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering Tennessee's petition to vacate FCC's February decision to overturn state laws against local authority.

The Same Old Argument

The Tennessee Cable Association (TCA), representing large incumbent cable providers, repeated the same misinformation we have heard before - that municipal networks are "failures." Their lawyer pointed to debt as proof-positive that "these communities that have gone into this business have done very poorly," reported the Johnson City Press.

Chattanooga's EPB President Harold DePriest summed up the weakness of that statement when he said, “It’s the same reason you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, instead of a 5-year mortgage.” It's about long-term vision and planning.

A number of representatives from Tennessee communities served by municipal networks attended the meeting and presented the facts. Chattanooga's world-famous fiber network is often in the limelight, but smaller Tennessee towns with networks like Erwin and Jackson have benefitted from their investments and other communities, such as Cleveland, have plans to follow suit.

Erwin Making Strides

Erwin Utilities sent fiber optic engineer John Williams who called out TCA for using the word "failure" and describing it as a mischaracterization. Williams noted that Erwin Utilities, who initiated a pilot project last March, is already serving 200 of 300 potential customers after only 7 months of operation. Customers in Erwin have access to symmetrical 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 1 Gbps connectivity along with telephone service. Internet access from Erwin Utilities is available for $49.95, $69.95, and $199.95 respectively; you can call Erwin "Little Gig City."

The fiber system was originally deployed to manage the electric utility smart meter system, so much of the infrastructure is already in place.

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Erwin has not incurred any debt to deploy its fiber pilot project, says Williams. The utility has taken an incremental approach, leasing out excess capacity from the electric system and using proceeds to build out one section at a time. For phase one, scheduled to start any day, Erwin Utilities only needs 15 percent of current electric customers with smart meters to sign up for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services for the network to pay for itself. They plan on offering FTTH across the entire service area within five years.

A small town like Erwin, population 6,000, does not have the density to attract large providers for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Their municipal utility has a plan to serve people which will not violate Tennessee's state restrictions, but Williams spoke before the Commission in support of removing those limitations:

I would argue that every municipal broadband deployment has been successful...The biggest thing we like to point out about municipal projects, specifically ours, is the availability to rural customers who may be underserved by existing services. In Unicoi County, only 75 percent is covered by a cable company, so 25 percent of our electric service area doesn’t have access to broadband.

A Cooperative Point of View

In addition to Erwin Utilities, Cleveland Utilities CEO Ken Webb and Ben Lovins, Senior Vice President from Jackson Energy Authority's Telecommunications Division (JEA) supported the notion of removing state prohibitions blocking Chattanooga, Erwin, and others from expanding to other areas. Also providing perspective was Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association's Mike Knotts, reported the Chattanoogan.

Knotts drew a parallel between the expansion of broadband today and the roll out of electrification in the 1930s in which rural cooperatives played in instrumental role. He suggested nonprofit entities with the ability to spread costs out over long periods of time, rather than private companies, would be the best option to get the job done once again:

That was the very simple magic that took, in 10 years, less than 10 percent of American farms being electrified to 100 percent — not much more in the secret sauce other than that.

Pilots and Plans: It's All About The Local

In addition to serving 18,000 customers, the JEA telecom division brings in annual revenue of approximately $30 million, according to Lovins. Small-businesses, students, and ratepayers are only a few of the many who benefit. Lovins went on to provide numerous examples of how the investment has improved the quality of life in Jackson.

The network has kept the town competitive when, in the late 1990s, the incumbent provider told community leaders there was no need to upgrade because Jackson didn't need high-speed connectivity. Lovins told the Commission, "All of this was achieved through local choice, no taxes and no government funding."

Cleveland's Webb advocated for striking down the law because it prevents the Chattanooga EPB from serving neighbors who want and need fast, affordable, reliable service.

Cleveland, also working on a pilot project, points out that access to connectivity is no longer a luxury. The community's pilot project aims to fill in gaps in service created by poor coverage from incumbents. According to Webb, he recently spoke with a local attorney who finally obtained adequate Internet access at office after 24 years of requests to the local incumbent. Cleveland leaders don't want to wait another 24 years to fill the gaps in service that plague local businesses.

Webb told the Commission:

Cleveland wants to offer its citizens the absolute best that we possibly can. … We don’t want to fall behind in Cleveland.

Legislative state barriers accomplish nothing except prevent better connectivity in urban and rural areas. Local communities feel the impact of local decisions. As the Court considers the Tennessee petition, they will understand local communities better if they take to heart the words of JEA's Ben Lovins:

Give local leaders the choice to work solutions that best fit their communities and that includes allowing our municipal systems to work together to help our neighbors.

Member Owned Networks Collaborate for Rural Georgia Libraries

A member-owned nonprofit network and a telecommunications cooperative are helping seven regional libraries in mountainous northeast Georgia improve services for patrons with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

Collaboration for Community

The North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN), in partnership with member-owned Georgia Public Web (GPW), recently launched 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband access speeds in seven library facilities in the Northeast Georgia Regional Library system (NEGRLS). Upgrades in some of the locations were significant. At the Helen library campus, the facility switched from a 6 Mbps download DSL connection to the new service.

The new initiative also enables the complementary “NGN Connect” service which includes hosted Wi-Fi service and a VoIP telephone system at each location. The upgrade extends from the cooperative's role in the Education Exchange, Georgia's only regional 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) private cloud for exclusive use by school systems launched last September.

Helping Rural Georgians Help Themselves

Donna Unger, director of member services for NGN, explained NGN’s mission for the project:

I've often heard libraries build communities, it's very fitting that we are here today celebrating the new 100 Mbps connection to the Northeast Georgia Regional Library System provided by NGN Connect. This is what we're about, NGN's foundation was built upon the communities in which we serve. It's becoming more critical for libraries, government, education and businesses alike to have reliable and affordable bandwidth to meet the daily demands of the ever-changing dynamics of today's digital world.

NEGRLS Director Delana L. Knight highlighted the initiative’s benefits:

Offering free access to this important resource is another way that our local public libraries are empowering our communities by providing support for job seekers, students, as well as almost limitless educational and entertainment opportunities for all citizens.

The 21st Century Library

At a time when our economy depends so heavily on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, centralized libraries with high-speed Internet access remain vital to those still lacking it at home. GPW and NGN display a manner common among publicly owned networks - they are concerned less with profit than with serving their communities. Paul Belk, NGN's CEO, explained the philosophy behind this approach:

The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our schools...as a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.

Read more about the NGN and listen to Chris interview David Muschamp of GPW in episode 156 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

While 6th Circuit Reviews Appeal, Organized Attack Begins In House

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals considers the FCC's decision to roll back Tennessee and North Carolina anti-muni laws, elected officials opposed to local authority are mounting an assault to head off possible enabling legislation. Their first target is the House of Representatives.

Poison Pens

South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper, Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slattery, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, and Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange all sent letters to the Chairman of the House Energy & Commerce Committee, Fred Upton (R-MI). Their letters express derision at the thought of allowing local communities the ability to make decisions for themselves when it comes to ensuring local businesses and residents have the Internet access they need.

Communities with publicly owned networks such as Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have prospered compared to those relying only on the large incumbent cable and telephone companies like Comcast and AT&T. Data suggest access to publicly owned networks contribute to local prosperity. Nevertheless, these elected officials have chosen to support big ISPs rather than their own constituents.

Elected Officials Protecting Campaign Interests

When the FCC released its Opinion and Order scaling back state restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, legislators backed by ISP powerhouses took up arms. They introduced bills, wrote editorials, and delivered speeches that put profits of AT&T and Comcast before the rights of Tennesseans and North Carolinians to have fast, affordable, reliable Internet access.

Tennessee Governor Haslam and North Carolina AG Roy Cooper each filed an appeal, to reverse the FCC's decision and keep the laws limiting competition in place. Those appeals have been consolidated and are being considered together in the Sixth Circuit.

According to Stop the Cap!, advocates for better local connectivity have observed the way telecomunications legislation is passed in Tennessee:

Haslam’s critics contend the governor has delegated his own power to protect the interests of large telecommunications corporations operating in his state — companies the critics claimed wrote and lobbied for a state law that established anticompetitive broadband corporate protectionism in Tennessee. Among Haslam’s top campaign contributors are AT&T and Comcast — Tennessee’s two largest telecommunications companies.

Haslam is not the only state leader to speak out who has a vested interest in keeping restrictions in place.

As Stop the Cap! notes, all four of these prominent politicians received considerable campaign contributions from powerhouse ISPs with an interest in limiting competition.

For a quick rundown, we collected some links:

Early Attack

The latest assault is an effort to head off federal action to guarantee local Internet choice. In addition to the FCC Order in February, Senator Cory Booker introduced such a bill last January with the support of Senators McCaskill and Markey. The issue has gained more attention over the past year as word spread of the benefits experienced in Chattanooga, Wilson, and other cities with publicly owned networks.

Big incumbent providers write checks to state lawmakers with one hand as they write legislation with the other. This is just one of the many problems with massive monopolies cornering the market in essential services: they have all the access they need to stifle competition. As long as this is the preferred campaign finance method, voters are the only ones who can punish elected officials who put big corporate interests ahead of local needs.

Doing a Thoreau Job on Broadband - Concord, MA

Concord, Massachusetts, has a strong literary history with famous authors like Thoreau, Emerson, and the Alcott sisters, but all puns aside, the town also has a long-standing community broadband network, Concord Light Broadband

Years ago, the community voted to build its own network from their electric utility, and they have just now transitioned to high-speed fiber optics.

From Electric to Broadband

Concord is one of only forty Massachusetts municipalities with an electric utility and in the early 2000s, their electric thermal storage system needed an overhaul. The technology, based on the phone system’s network, was becoming obsolete. The electric utility chose to overbuild the existing system with fiber optics in order to create a smart-grid to automatically read electric meters. Concord recognized the opportunity presented by a fiber network backbone spread throughout town.

It only made sense to look at broadband options; the only thing left to do was to build out the last-mile, the section of network that connects to the home or business. They estimated the cost for the smart-grid and last-mile to be $4 million and would finance it through municipal bonds. 

Once Bitten, Twice Shy of Big Incumbent Cable Companies

Large incumbent cable companies had not served the community well and the people wanted better connectivity. Massachusetts’ state law requires a town to vote at two consecutive town meetings to establish the authority to build a broadband network through the electric utility, commonly referred to as Municipal Light Plant or MLP. The MLP is the town department responsible for the transmission and supply of electricity to the residents and businesses in the town. As communities have started to develop their own municipal Internet networks, the MLPs have also taken on a similar role with regard to connectivity. After establishment of an MLP is approved, then the community votes again on funding for the initiative.

In 2003, the people of Concord began considering what they could accomplish with a municipal network, and they held the first vote at the Annual Town Meeting. The resolution passed by a 2/3rds majority vote. The second Annual Town Meeting was scheduled for April 2004.

In February 2004, the New England Cable & Telecommunications Association (NECTA) and the authors of the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI - Suffolk University) report organized a campaign against the proposed network. (BHI is better known for its misinformation campaigns in the area of clean energy.)

In response, a grassroots effort developed to counteract misinformation disseminated by NECTA and BHI. After an intense campaign (detailed in an American Public Power Association case-study), the town voted in favor of the network again. This time, it was an even more resounding "no" to big telecom -- only 12 people voted against the proposed network. 

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The Network

After experimenting with a Broadband over Power Line initiative in 2007, Concord turned its efforts to a fiber optic network to obtain a more robust backhaul system. In 2010, Concord Municipal Light Plant (CMLP) issued $4 million in Bond Anticipation Notes, which are a short term way of financing a project. Eventually the town issued a municipal bond; the amount requested by the CMLP when bonds are issued are typically repaid through each projects' revenues.

Schools, businesses, and municipal government services acted as anchor tenants, ensuring that the new network, ConcordNet, would have business. In March and April of 2014, ConcordNet began pilot projects for the high-speed residential system which has symmetrical upload and download speeds.

The network is now citywide and serves over 400 subscribers about 7,600 residential subscribers out of the town's population of approximately 17,700. Unlike many other networks, ConcordNet does not offer triple-play, a bundled service of TV, phone, and Internet. Entering the video market seemed too difficult according to the Chief Information Officer Mark Howell. Instead, they chose to focus on data. They also collaborate on initiatives through the Berkman Center at Harvard to encourage cooperation among other municipal networks.

ConcordNet is accountable to the people that own it and is thus far accomplishing the goals of better connectivity and creating savings gained through the smart-grid. The community is benefitting and thinking ahead to find the next use for their fiber investment. 

Wally Bowen, Rural Broadband Advocate, Passes

We received the sad news today that Wally Bowen, one of the leading advocates fighting to bring affordable broadband to rural communities, especially in Appalachia, recently passed away.

In addition to many other contributions, Wally served as founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, North Carolina. He spoke on media reform at a number of venues, including the Aspen Institute, the New America Foundation, and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA).

Having collaborated with Wally, Chris understood his passion and dedication and gave this tribute:

Wally Bowen was an inspiration in many ways. He worked tirelessly to improve Internet access in the rural mountains of western North Carolina and for media justice. When I began working in this area, Wally was already a champion of community networks and incredibly welcoming.

Over the years, I always respected him and even enjoyed our occasionally friendly disagreements because I always knew we was thinking deeply about these issues and cared so very much about connecting people that the market was leaving behind.

Because we respected Wally's work, over the years we published a number of his pieces. We already feel the void left by the loss of Wally Bowen but are encouraged by the positive results he left behind.

Other coverage celebrating Wally Bowen:

Harold Feld's Tribute to Wally: In Memoriam: Wally Bowen — Internet Pioneer, Community Activist, and A Hell of God Guy.

Free Press: Mourning Wally Bowen, a Leading Light in Bringing Communications to All

Daily Yonder: Wally Bowen: He Put Rural On The Map – And On The Internet

Wally was honored at the 2015 Parker Lecture.

Resource Central: TN and NC Appeal FCC Decision to Restore Local Authority

Nine months ago, the FCC voted to peel back laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that eliminate local authority and discourage expansion of broadband investment. As was expected, both states filed appeals and those appeals were consolidated for review by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit covering Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee.

It has been a long and arduous journey for the parties, their attorneys, and local authority advocates. In order to help MuniNetworks.org readers stay informed of the parties and their arguments, we gathered together a collection of resources related to the original Order and the Appeal. 

Downloads of briefs are available as attachments here.

Upper Arlington, Ohio Forges Ahead with Public Partners on City-wide Fiber-Optic Network

The City Council of Upper Arlington, Ohio on Oct. 26 approved several contracts that will enable the community to build a municipal fiber-optic network to key anchor institutions for an estimated $2.5 million.

Upper Arlington’s project will provide high-speed Internet service for the city’s buildings, the Public Library, Upper Arlington city schools, and most city parks according to a news report from the Upper Arlington News. The 30-mile fiber network will serve about 40 locations around the boundaries of the city (population 34,000).

Besides establishing better connectivity between the three public partners’ buildings, the network is expected to provide opportunities for commercial companies to lease telecommunications services. The network would allow the city to lease some of the 288 fiber strands to commercial companies, such as other Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Financing and Break Even

Under the cooperative arrangement, the library will contribute $17,616 annually, the city $68,484 per year and the school district $177,900 each year until the project is paid off. “These costs are derived from the amounts that each entity is currently paying for leased broadband connectivity between their facilities,” Upper Arlington Assistant City Manager Dan Ralley told us. 

The period anticipated to pay off the network construction is nine years with the school district and library able to extend the parties’ shared-services agreement for an additional 15 years after. The extensions would occur in three five-year segments.

Cost savings, broader bandwith

Ralley says the primary benefits of the new city fiber-optic network will be significantly lower long-term bandwidth and broadband access costs.  For example, the city of Upper Arlington expects to save about $1,280 a month for Internet service by building its own fiber network. Over 10 years, the city’s savings would total about $150,000.

And the municipal network will be a boon for the Upper Arlington public schools. In an Oct. 19, 2015 staff report, Ralley said:

Upper Arlington Schools’ available bandwith capacity is a growing concern given the current and future 21st century learning initiatives that are premised upon the use of technology. With increased bandwith between buildings, the potential for ubiquitous computing is possible along with more collaborative learning tools delivered through online learning management systems.

Network will enable access to two major data centers

Another benefit: the new network will enable Upper Arlington to “gain direct access to two different data centers located on the periphery of our community,” Ralley told us. Those are “the Ohio Supercomputing Center and a private facility owned by Expedient that will allow us to locate our servers in a carrier neutral facility that has redundant power feeds and lower broadband access costs,” he noted. 

“Expedient can provide the City an internet connection of 30 Mbps which is burstable to 100 Mbps at a much lower cost than our current provider,” Ralley said in his Oct. 19 staff report. 

New network incentive for economic development

Not to be overlooked, Upper Arlington’s new fiber-optic network is also expected to boost the community’s desirability for economic development.

“The number of businesses that are looking for access to affordable, high bandwith is increasing,” Ralley said in his staff report. He added:

While Upper Arlington does not have a large number of businesses that would typically utilize fiber optic data connections, we have attractive commercial development areas where access to available fiber can be used to attract businesses that require large bandwith. The City could leverage the community fiber optic network for economic development incentives or use it to help lower the cost of operating a business in UA, thereby providing a competitive advantage.

In one case, the city will be providing dark fiber to a new Ohio State University Medical facility that is currently under construction, Ralley told us. That arrangement is a condition of a $500,000 grant that the state of Ohio has given Upper Arlington to build its fiber-optic network. Dark fiber, fiber-optic cable currently not in use, is particularly important for medical centers because it offers more control over network quality and allows for very fast networks at affordable budgets. 

Also the city will be entering into an IRU (Indefeasible Right of Use) with the fiber construction contractor Thayer, that will enable them to market and sublease fiber strands by other third parties, he said.

Given the direction of the Upper Arlington broadband network, the community will be getting a system that will have many potential benefits but little risk with the city serving as its anchor tenant.