Boulder Chamber Supports Ballot Measure to Restore Local Authority

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce has come out in favor of ballot measure 2C, which would restore the City of Boulder's authority to provide telecommunications services to its residents. From the Chamber's website:

City of Boulder 2014 Ballot Measure 2C – Affirming the City’s Right to Provide Telecommunication Services

Colorado State Bill 152 precludes cities from offering broadband services without an exemption provided by a vote of the people. Boulder currently has over 100 miles of fiber-optic cable providing high-speed Internet capabilities to city offices, the University of Colorado and the federal labs.  If 2C passes,  the City would be granted the authority to expand that network to residents or businesses.

The Boulder Chamber has taken a leadership role on 2C, stating: “[P]artnership with the private sector may well represent the fastest, most seamless path to providing service to our residents and students, and to attracting and retaining the companies that drive our innovation economy. And there are partners in the community who could leverage such an opportunity.”

Local business communities are often the first to benefit from the cheaper, better, faster service when municipalities expand their networks. As the Chamber's statement notes, Boulder already has over 100 miles of fiber installed but is blocked from leveraging those assets by SB 152, which effectively outlaws community networks unless voters pass a referendum restoring local authority. Because deep-pocketed incumbents typically spend heavily to defeat such referenda and public agencies are blocked from lobbying on their own behalf, support from local groups like Chambers of Commerce are crucial.

Boulder stands to join the ranks of Longmont, Centennial, Montrose, and other Colorado communities that have voted to restore their local authority. So far, despite the obstacles and incumbent spending, every Colorado municipality that has put the issue on the ballot has passed it - eventually. 

First Muni Fiber Net in Maine - Community Broadband Bits Episode 115

By building a fiber line to allow some local businesses to get next-generation Internet access, Rockport became the first municipal fiber network in the state of Maine. Town Manager Richard Bates joins us for episode 115 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the financing behind the network and their partnership with local Internet Service Provider, GWI, to improve access to the Internet.

Bates also explains how they had to ask voters for authorization to use a tax-increment financing approach to paying for the network to spur economic development. Nearby communities have been watching to see what happens.Read our story about this network here.

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

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 6

Chairman Wheeler chose the 1776 start-up incubator office as the backdrop for his comments Thursday that outline a new agenda for big telecom: Competition, Competition, Competition.

IDG News Service Grant Gross reported on the chairman's comments.

"At the low end of throughput ... the majority of Americans have a choice of only two providers," Wheeler said. "That is what economists call a duopoly, a marketplace that is typically characterized by less than vibrant competition."

Wheeler unveiled a new broadband competition agenda, which charges the FCC to:

  • Protect competition - including generally opposing merger efforts...
  • Encourage competition - including opening up new spectrum...
  • Work to create new competitors - in a place where "meaningful" competition is not available.

Time magazine's Haley Sweetland Edwards wrote that critics will believe it when they see it: 

But it seemed to some consumer advocates to be disingenuous in a climate where the FCC is widely expected approve of a massive planned merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable in the next six months.“The real proof will be in the agency’s actions and not just its speeches,” wrote advocacy group Free Press’ policy director, Matt Wood, in a prepared statement.

The Switch's Brian Fung noted that Wheeler kept specifics to a minimum but, 

"He emphasized that the FCC would continue extending broadband to rural areas by supporting "whomever steps up to the challenge" — a veiled reference to competitive entities, such as city governments, seeking to challenge large, incumbent ISPs."

Last week’s FCC deadline for Chattanooga, TN and Wilson, NC petitions made for a treasure trove of broadband-related media hits last weekend and into this week.

First things first, we've said it before and we'll say it again. Allan Holmes with the Center for Public Integrity wrote a must-read. "How Big Telecom Smothers City-Run Broadband" is insightful, in-depth, and really explains how we've gotten to where we are now in this national fight. 

Ellis Smith offers a human element to this issue:

When Joyce Coltrin looks outside the front door of her wholesale plant business, her gaze stops at a spot less than a half mile away.

All she can do is stare in disbelief at the spot in rural Bradley County where access to EPB's fiber-optic service abruptly halts, as mandated under a Tennessee law that has frozen the expansion of the fastest Internet in the Western Hemisphere.

And Dominic Rushe of The Guardian quotes our own Chris Mitchell:

It’s a story that is being watched very closely by Big Cable’s critics. “In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us.” 

On Friday, USTelecom, which represents the Big Cable Duopoly wrote wrote a little blog post on the subject, The Inquisitr.com helped translate:

"If cities are allowed to expand their own broadband, it could force Comcast and Time Warner to stop practices like data throttling that squeeze businesses, such as Netflix that have grown successful playing by the rules. Netflix recently agreed to pay Comcast a toll to keep from losing additional customers over the black hat practice of slowing down content that users are already paying for."

The Verge's Jacob Kastrenakes covered the filing and blog post. He states that the industry giants argue the FCC simply doesn't have the power to preempt state law.

While USTelecom is right that some public broadband networks have turned into blunders, many have been incredibly successful and have actually proven to be legitimate competitors to private networks. 

AT&T filed its petition Friday as well, arguing that municipal networks should not be given tax breaks, but of course they make no such claim for companies like themselves. 

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin wrote about the doublespeak Tuesday:

“’Community broadband networks “should not receive any preferential tax treatment,” AT&T argued. Only private companies should be given special treatment, the company said. “Indeed, any tax incentives or exemptions should be provided, if at all, to private sector firms to induce them to expand broadband deployment to unserved areas,’ AT&T wrote.”

Several other journalists echoed his reporting.

IDG News Service's Grant Gross reported on several petitioners, including Todd Patton, of North Carolina:

"There is very little competition for broadband services in most areas today, leaving consumers at the mercy of a small handful of huge multi-national corporations like Time Warner Cable and AT&T to raise prices as they see fit," he wrote. "Municipal broadband offers consumers an affordable choice and often at higher speeds than the big corporations choose to offer." 

The Electronista and Brittany Hillen from Smash Gear noted that AT&T argues that allowing muni networks to exist would make private companies operate at a disadvantage.

Meanwhile, Sam Gustin from Motherboard spoke with one tech expert that noted the irony:

“You almost have to admire AT&T’s chutzpah in saying that, given the concessions they wrung out of communities over the years for promised AT&T broadband deployments that never even materialized,” said Lauren Weinstein, a veteran tech policy expert who supports community broadband initiatives. 

AT&T reported more than $18 billion in net income in 2013. . .

Brad Reed from BGR’s story got picked up by YahooNews. He wrote that AT&T argued it simply shouldn’t have to compete with municipal broadband networks in places where they offer 6Mbps or greater, “even if the municipal network would deliver speeds of 1Gbps or higher for it’s users.”

And DSLReports added a little history to the mix, reminding us of AT&T’s polls that insinuated that muni networks would result in pornography and government rationing of TV usage. 

AT&T wasn’t the only company that filed a letter to the FCC. Netflix also joined the preemption fray. The streaming giant filed its comments Tuesday, saying, 

"Federal preemption is appropriate when state laws unduly interfere with municipal broadband."

Because we follow the good, the bad, and the ugly, we have to mention some misguided politicians with the National Association of Governors. 

RBR.com (which regards itself as “The Voice of the Broadcasting Industry”) brought up claims that state sovereignty is the real issue, and the “FCC has no right to supersede any federal, state, or local law.” 

And Eric Boehm of Watchdog.org, an arm of the Center for public integrity noted:

“The local governments say they want to grow the taxpayer-funding, public Internet access to compete with Internet giants like Comcast.

Essentially, they are asking their biggest brother — the federal government — to back them up in a fight with their bigger brothers in state government.”

Again we note the double-speak. Boehm first argues that muni networks would be too difficult to compete with for private companies, and then calls them out as "boondoggles.” We encourage these organizations to at least try to get their stories straight before they hit the big red “publish” button. 

A couple of cities are announcing their interest in city-owned broadband. 

First posted in The Coloradoan and also covered by InnovationNews: Fort Collins city manager Darin Atteberry announced a Broadband Strategic Plan proposal as part of his 2015-2016 budget. 

Atteberry said the proposal is in response to citizen comments about slow Internet speeds in the city and new, next-generation high-speed Internet services becoming available across the nation.

More Syracuse officials are announcing their support of a city-owned network. Nader Maroun, a Syracuse Common Council member says Syracuse MetroNet has been actively involved in researching how a network could be run in the city:

Significantly, this municipal network would not involve any local public funding nor would it be built and managed by the city. Instead it would be created by a new nonprofit organization specifically tasked for this purpose. Since Dr. Nulty's study, we have been exploring ways in which such a network might be financed, built and managed.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 29, 2014

"When private industry does not answer the call because of market failures or other obstacles, it is appropriate and even commendable, for the people acting through their local governments to improve their lives by investing in their own future."

~ John McCain, 2005

Wait. What? Brendan Sasso from The National Journal brought up some excellent points this week-- some things we’ve been pondering for a good long while.

Why would so many republican lawmakers who claim to value self-determination and self-rule deny citizens the right to take on Big Telecom? Why would Republicans who rally for smaller government and healthy competition turn around and argue that the State should step in and bar citizens from having their basic broadband needs met?

That quote from Sen. John McCain was spoken when McCain and a bipartisan group of senators (Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman and Democrats Frank Lautenberg, John Kerry, and Russ Feingold) introduced a bill to block states from restricting local governments' ability to provide publicly run and funded Internet service. It can be explained pretty simply, According to Sasso: 

“President Obama has taken a position on the issue this time around. That’s why 11 Republican senators are “deeply troubled” that the FCC would "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers."

Municipal Broadband got a shot in the arm this week from the Center for Public Integrity as well. Allan Holmes wrote extensively about how Big Telecom spends millions of dollars in litigation, advertising and lobbying “instead of investing in improving infrastructure in these communities.” 

“On a scale of 1 to 10 on who is the most powerful lobbying presence in Tennessee, AT&T is a 12,” said a long-time lobbyist in Nashville who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about lobbying in the state. “They are the big horse in the race, and they are unstoppable.”

AT&T and its president of Tennessee operations Joelle Phillips didn’t respond to CPI emails asking for comment, but Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch definitely added his own thoughts. He outlines some of his concerns:  

“Increasing competition is good. Helping bring more American citizens onto the Internet at high speeds is good. And it is especially good to bring quick digital access to the world’s information to rural areas that are not currently served by private enterprise. As such, there is a place for municipal broadband in America.

More broadly, if citizens want to come together and build a service for themselves using monies that they elect to raise, they should be able to. I struggle to understand how that idea is controversial.”

The initial comments period for the Time Warner merger plan came to an end Friday. Before it closed, ILSR and 64 other reform groups made their voices heard. Value Walk staff reprinted our comments, the basis of the argument is this:

“The merger would give Comcast too much control over the future of the Internet and communications infrastructure and undermine the diversity of ownership and content in media.” 

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves…

Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

SHLB Coalition Offering October Symposium on Anchor Institution Broadband Deployment

On October 2nd in Washington, D.C., the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will be hosting a symposium on "School-Library Partnerships and Other Anchor Institution Broadband Strategies." Speakers will include FCC representatives, Obama Administration officials, and service providers such as One Community, among others. 

The SHLB Coalition is a group of public, nonprofit, and commercial institutions that "promotes government policies and programs to enable schools, libraries, health care providers, other anchor institutions and their communities to obtain open, affordable, high-speed, broadband connections to the Internet."  

For more details and registration information, see the attached flyer.

Calls Grow for Community Network in Syracuse

Last week, we noted some comments made by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner indicating her interest in a municipal broadband network and her promise to develop a plan for how to build it. Now it appears others in Syracuse are picking up her refrain. 

Two columns appearing recently in the Syracuse Post-Standard offered support for Miner’s idea: one from the paper’s editorial board, and another written by a former Republican candidate for mayor.  

Stephen Kimatian, a lawyer and former local TV station general manager, penned an enthusiastic op-ed in favor of Miner’s idea; this despite the fact that he was the Republican candidate for mayor that lost to Miner in 2009. If his Twitter feed is any guide, Kimatian is quite conservative and not a huge fan of Miner’s, but he appears to recognize the nonpartisan advantages of community network ownership:

Connecting broadband throughout the city of Syracuse makes a clear statement that we embrace the 21st century digital economy, we "get" it. The practicality of building a backbone of interconnectivity enables communication between all levels of government and citizens and sets us up for the many more uses to come. It builds a sense of community that we are all connected, from Eastwood to Winkworth, from the Valley to the North Side and that we have a stake in each other's neighborhoods…

Broadband also creates economic equality. Not every home is able to afford broadband and its data usage can be expensive. That means many students don't have the essential research tool of Internet access at home. By providing a common connection, we are putting the less advantaged kids on the same plane as everyone else.

….Broadband should be a utility just like water, gas, electricity and phones.

The Syracuse Post-Standard’s editorial board offered a bit more qualified support, but still lauded Miner’s goals and supported the effort to study broadband deployment: 

….[L]et's hand it to Miner for recognizing that affordable, high-speed Internet service is a necessity in today's world. A city without it is going to be left behind -- and so are its residents and businesses.

Let's also recognize that the for-profit Internet service providers that built high-speed networks have largely given up on some urban areas like Syracuse. Yet the industry fears municipal broadband enough to lobby furiously for state and federal laws banning it.

Should Syracuse step into the breach? It's worth study and debate.

Hopefully Syracusans have been reading their local paper and are primed for informed public discussion whenever Miner brings her plan for community broadband forward. 

Ellensburg Considers Muni Fiber Network Expansion

Last year, we covered this central Washington city’s first foray into publicly owned fiber optics. The local incumbent, Charter Communications, began charging the city $10,000 per month for services it had been providing for free for a decade as part of its franchise agreement. Ellensburg officials did some quick math and realized that they could save money building their own network.

They ultimately awarded a contract for $960,000 to build 13 miles of fiber connecting various public facilities throughout the city including the police department and Central Washington University. Thanks to Charter’s high rates, the direct cost savings alone could pay for the entire project in about eight years, leaving aside all the other direct and indirect benefits of public network ownership. 

Now, with the original construction project not even quite complete, Ellensburg is already considering expanding to serve residents and the local business community. According to the local Daily Recorder newspaper, the city council has unanimously voted to issue a request for qualifications from contractors for a long term strategic plan.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

The new strategic plan is expected to be finished before construction on the current institutional network ends. The construction plan for the institutional network was designed to be “future-ready,” with contingency funds set aside for possible later alterations or expansions. It seems those funds may be tapped sooner rather than later.

The Ellensburg Business Development Authority has been a major advocate of the city’s fiber network, pushing the city to expand it to new areas, offer service to businesses, and look into how it could compete with Charter Communications. As city councilmember Tony Aronica put it:

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”  

While nothing has been decided yet, Ellensburg’s discussion of expanding municipal network services is already turning envious heads in Spokane and other nearby cities. Ellensburg itself consulted with Tacoma, which has operated a city cable utility for years, in crafting its institutional network construction plan. It's always encouraging to see expertise and ideas spread from one local community to another, shortening the learning curve for small cities seeking to get out from under the local cable incumbent's thumb. 

Sallisaw: The First Muni Fiber Network in Oklahoma - Community Broadband Bits Episode 114

Sallisaw is one of many small municipal FTTH networks that most people are not familiar with. For a decade, they have been quietly meeting their community's needs with DiamondNet. For this week's Community Broadband Bits, we learn more about it in a conversation with Assistant City Manager Keith Skelton and Network Communications Supervisor Danny Keith.

Sallisaw built their network after incumbents failed to provide broadband in the early 2000's, becoming the first triple play municipal fiber network in the state. Nearly 2 out of 3 people take service from DiamondNet, which is operated by municipal electric utility.

They pride themselves on doing much more for the community than the incumbent providers do - particularly responsive customer service and creating lots of local content. They are also building a wireless network to serve people outside of town who currently have limited Internet access.

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

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Austin, Minnesota Releases Fiber Network Feasibility Study Results

Austin has been thinking about getting a gig for a while now. The city of 25,000 near Minnesota’s southern border had campaigned to be picked for the initial Google Fiber deployment, but was disappointed when Google selected Kansas City instead in 2011. As with some other cities around the country, however, the high profile Google competition got Austin thinking about the benefits of a gigabit fiber network, and how they might bring it to their residents. Last month, a committee tasked with bringing such a network to every premises in Austin released a feasibility study they commissioned, with generally favorable results.    

The study recommended further exploration of a universal fiber optic network, but found the idea to be generally feasible. The cost of such a network was estimated at $35 million, and would cover the entire footprint of the Austin Public School District, which extends to rural addresses well beyond the city limits. The study recommended universal fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for many of the same reasons we’ve been talking about it for years: its nearly unlimited data capacity and speed, future-proof and damage-resistant properties, and reliability.  

The study was commissioned by the Community Wide Technology committee of the Vision2020 campaign, a broader planning movement to revitalize the greater Austin area. The Technology committee has since launched the GigAustin website and campaign to advocate for a FTTP network.

The GigAustin team has representation from the Austin Public School District, the city public power utility, private companies and foundations, and other potential anchor institutions. Hormel, the food products giant headquartered in Austin (and the people who brought you the SPAM Museum), is a major employer in the area and their presence on the GigAustin team and support of the feasibility study is notable.   

This is no slam dunk, however. The study did not recommend a specific funding source, and there appears to be little appetite for significant public expenditure

Committee members say the project could be funded in large part by state and federal grants and don’t currently plan to seek local tax dollars to pay for Gig Austin.

...The FCC set $100 million aside for broadband projects on July 11. In addition, Minnesota created the Office of Broadband Development in 2013 and budgeted $20 million to it earlier this year.

Securing grant funding from outside sources is nice, but not always possible - particularly when much of the community already has DSL and cable available. Given that the Austin network alone is projected to cost $35 million, it is easy to see how quickly $20 million or even $100 million could dry up on a statewide or federal scale. There are also hopes in Austin for securing grants from private nonprofits, which also seems like a long shot to make a significant dent in project costs. It is worth noting, however, that the funding for the feasibility study itself came from private sources: the Blandin Foundation, Hormel Foundation, and Ag Star Financial. 

There also does not appear to be any consensus yet on an ownership model, with both public and private options on the table. The public power utility, while participating in the GigAustin campaign, does not appear interested in ownership:

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur said the company will likely partner with Vision 2020 and may contribute dollars to Gig Austin, but the utilities board may decide not to operate the fiber network.

“I don’t think there’s any interest in ownership,” he said.

While leaving the governance and ownership structures as an open question, the study did note that private providers were unlikely to build such a FTTP network any time in the foreseeable future (a finding that will surprise exactly no one). 

The next step in the process is a survey of Austin area residents to determine the level of interest in ultra high speed connectivity. The feasibility study estimated a take rate of 40-50% would be necessary for the network to be sustainable. The survey got under way in July, and should be completed in August or September.