Wireless Commons Part 2: The Possibilities of an Open, Unlicensed Spectrum

Publication Date: 
June 18, 2014

In the first part of this series, we discussed how spectrum could be better managed to allow far greater communications capacity, but only if the FCC abandoned its favored approach of auctioning spectrum to carriers for monopolistic use. In this part, we’ll discuss how devices could take advantage of a new approach to spectrum management and how it might help to circumvent gatekeepers, whether corporate or government.

With increased unlicensed use of the spectrum, an astonishing range of possibilities emerges. Mobile devices could communicate with each other directly, without reference to a central node controlled by a telecom company or monitored by a government. Access points could be strung together wirelessly to create decentralized ad hoc Wi-Fi networks, with each device forwarding data from every other, creating a seamless network throughout an entire neighborhood or city.Commotion Wireless is already attempting this with just the existing spectrum. 

While such networks already exist in a few places on a small scale, access to more unlicensed spectrum and permission to use stronger signals would allow them to grow, potentially creating a more decentralized and democratic way to share information and access the internet; an end-run around data caps, future “fast lane” policies, and other drawbacks of relying on one or two telecom oligopolists as a network owner and gatekeeper. 

Another exciting possibility for unlicensed spectrum use is in emerging Ultra-Wideband technologies. These allow devices to use a large swath of spectrum at very low power to send information in bits and pieces over short distances, somewhat similar to bit torrents, and could allow for nearly instantaneous exchange of gigabits of data. All of this is dependent, however, on access to parts of the spectrum with the right characteristics, such as low frequency TV bands that can carry signals especially far and penetrate obstacles like walls especially well. 

These technologies have political ramifications as well. Rather than having to make monthly payments to a national provider as you do with your cell phone, we would have different models to choose from. Some would be just a matter of buying the right device, just as we already do with computers. Imagine setting up a neighborhood-wide network just as easily as setting up a home Wi-Fi network. These possibilities are made both more enticing and more urgent by the huge growth in the demand for mobile data worldwide. The near ubiquitous status of increasingly high tech mobile devices, combined with the increased use of smart meters and other remotely controlled devices for homes and businesses, as well as the general growth in the size of audio, video, and other files all drive this trend. Mobile connections grew from 1% to 13% of total Internet traffic from 2009 to 2012, and Qualcomm expects mobile data usage to grow by a factor of 1,000 from 2012 to 2020. With these demands, it is increasingly important to find new ways to use the spectrum that are not mutually exclusive. In this environment, the allocation of exclusive broadcasting licenses for the vast majority of the system to incumbents who use those rights inefficiently makes little sense. The FCC has some choices to make about how it will meet these challenges. It could simply clear underused spectrum, chop it up, and auction it again for new one-time revenue. Clearing space on the spectrum through reallocation is expensive and time consuming, however, involving complex legal and technical maneuvering. What if rather than having Wi-Fi, the U.S. Treasury had a few extra billion dollars a few years ago? These are the real trade-offs currently being weighed and you better believe that the big wireless companies and their allies in Congress are working hard to prevent any major changes to the system they rule. There are smarter approaches. The FCC could create a framework for sharing licensed spectrum, retaining priority use for original license holders while also forcing them to allow intelligent devices that sense and make use of available frequencies to operate within their licensed space. Or they could clear more space to be used for unlicensed communications, currently restricted to a few tiny portions of the spectrum. More unlicensed space is the most likely approach to foster significant development of new wireless technologies, which are difficult or impossible to deploy while telecom companies control most of the airwaves. All of this is unlikely to happen in the current regulatory regime. Telecom companies have shelled out billions for exclusive licenses and made large investments in technologies that work within the current business model of spectrum ownership. They also covet the foreclosure value that their ownership provides, meaning the ability to shut out competitors by increasing the amount of spectrum they control. As a result, telecom corporations have little to gain by democratizing access to spectrum bandwidth.National elected officials, many of whom are not known for their technological savvy, must weigh the temptation of quick money ($20 billion from one auction in 2008 alone) in new license auctions with the difficult to conceptualize but potentially massive economic and social benefits of a more open spectrum. Unless they feel pressure from the ordinary citizens who stand to benefit from greater spectrum freedom, the status quo of expensive, centralized communications and suppression of innovation is unlikely to change. 

Muni FTTH Snapshot - Green Light - Wilson, NC

Publication Date: 
May 1, 2012
Author(s): 
Masha Zaga
Publication Title: 
Broadband Properties

The January/February issue of Broadband Communities Magazine (formerly Broadband Properties) added another network to the Muni FTTH snapshot series.  The place is Wilson, North Carolina, and the network is Greenlight. The City owns the network and provides retail serves to about 5,715 subscribers out of the town's 20,634 premises in the service area. Deployment started in 2007 and was completed about 18 months later, with services becoming available in 2008. In addition to optional triple-play for customers (voice, video and Internet), the network is used for security, public safety training, education, Wi-Fi hotspots are in place, and the City is testing smart grid technology for electrical distribution. Greenlight serves about 400 businesses, including some of the areas major employers.

Business Week Tackles Anti-Community Broadband Lobbying

Publication Date: 
December 1, 2011
Author(s): 
Alison Fitzgerald
Author(s): 
Brendan Greeley
Publication Title: 
Business Week

Brendan Greeley and Alison Fitzgerald have authored an in-depth exposé of the role the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) played in passing a law in Louisiana designed to cripple community-owned networks ... while falsely claiming the bill was about creating a "level playing field."

This article may not have been possible without the work done by the ALEC Exposed folks at the Center for Media and Democracy.

The aptly-titled "Pssst ... Wanna Buy a Law?" article starts with the background of one of our favorite community broadband champions: Joey Durel, the Republican City-Parish President of Lafayette, Louisiana.

In April of 2004, Lafayette announced their intention to do a market survey to get a sense of whether the community would be interested in a publicly owned FTTH network run by the public utility. By that point, it was not possible to introduce new bills at the Louisiana Legislature. Or at least, that is a technicality when it comes to the lobbying prowess of big cable and telephone companies (mainly Cox and BellSouth - one of the major companies that later became AT&T).

Worried about losing their de facto monopolies, they tapped State Senator Winnsboro to take an existing bill, delete all the words from it and then append their anti-community broadband (anti-competitive) language.

The lobbyist brought back to Lafayette a copy of what would become Senate Bill 877. It named telecommunications as a permitted city utility, then hamstrung municipalities with a list of conditions. It demanded that new projects show positive revenue within the first year. It required a city to calculate and charge itself taxes, as if it were a private company. Cities could not borrow startup costs or secure bonds from any other sources of income. The bill demanded unrealistic accounting arrangements, and it suggested a referendum that would have to pass with an absolute majority. It also, almost word for word, matched a piece of legislation kept in the library of the American Legislative Exchange Council. The council’s bill reads, “The people of the State of _______ do enact as follows … ”

According to Ellington, he substituted the bill after a lobbyist for several of the state’s cable companies approached him, concerned about Lafayette’s project. Ellington’s district did not have plans to run fiber. Nor did any other city or parish in the state. “We were just making sure that the field was level,” he says. “We weren’t trying to keep them from doing what they wanted to do, we just wanted to make sure the public entity couldn’t go in and shortstop the private entities.” Ellington is probably sincere about that. The lobbyist who came to him probably wasn’t. The bill was not designed to level the playing field. It was designed to keep new teams on the sidelines.

The story goes on to track this bill back to Utah in 2001 (when Comcast and US West (later Quest and now CenturyLink) wanted to outlaw communities from building their own networks -- often in areas the private companies had refused to offer access to the Internet anyway). ALEC serves to spread those bills around the nation. When enacting corporate agendas, legislators prefer to get their bills from a nonprofit (ALEC) as opposed from directly from the corporations. Nevermind that the same corporations still write the bills and fund ALEC. It is sufficiently removed for what passes for democracy in America.

LUS Fiber

The bill passed. Lafayette managed to remove some of the ALEC bill’s barriers to entry but, as Huval had predicted, the law embedded into Louisiana code a set of handholds for future litigation. BellSouth and Cox Communications called for a referendum in Lafayette, which the law only suggests. The city’s attorney determined that the petitions to force a referendum did not meet the city’s standards, and BellSouth sued. Lafayette lost on appeal, paid for a referendum, and BellSouth ran ads against approving the project. (According to KLFY, a local television channel, Cox paid for a phone poll that suggested a government-owned provider might ration television on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and weekends.) Lafayette tried to issue bonds, and BellSouth challenged them. By 2007, when the Louisiana Supreme Court upheld the bond issue, Huval estimates that the city had paid $4 million in legal fees, more than the cost of the original fiber ring. A spokesperson for AT&T, which now owns BellSouth, says the company has backed away from BellSouth’s aggressive approach. But the damage is done. As with Utah, no other city in Louisiana has attempted to follow Lafayette.

According to data provided to Bloomberg Businessweek by the Sunlight Foundation, which posts government information online, state legislators who have signed on to sponsor the ALEC bill limiting municipal telecommunications have tended to receive donations from local cable and phone incumbents, as well as rural telephone associations. The pattern is consistent across states. In North Carolina, where the bill passed in May of this year after four attempts, these companies and groups consistently gave more money to the bill sponsors.

Noble Ellington hasn’t followed what became of his bill. “I just hope we fixed it,” he says, “so private industry and the city and parish were satisfied with what we did.” Terry Huval and Joey Durel both travel around the country now, talking to other small towns about how to get wired. Durel believes it’s going to get worse before it gets better. Huval is working with towns in nearby states but won’t say where. When a plan goes public, he explains, a bill—that bill—is not far behind. ALEC’s model bill on municipal broadband works because the idea of a city providing Internet access is alien to even most lawmakers. If a bill shows up at the right time, in response to one or two cities, it smothers an idea that hasn’t yet gathered many defenders. “I tell people this is not for the faint of heart,” says Huval. “If you don’t have the drive, don’t even start.”

We deeply covered the fight in North Carolina's legislature funded by Time Warner Cable. The bill in North Carolina was carried by ALEC members.

Most of the state laws restricting community broadband initiatives are included on this preemption map.

This is the kind of story that should be forwarded to elected officials. We are likely to see more of these cable and phone company attacks on local freedom next year than we have in any other year since 2005. We need to prepare and educate ourselves.

You can read our previous coverage of Lafayette here.

Atlantic Cities: How the Telecom Lobby is Killing Muni Broadband

Publication Date: 
November 2, 2011
Author(s): 
Emily Badger
Publication Title: 
The Atlantic

An excellent article drawing wide lessons from the referendum battle in Longmont between the community and Comcast.

The city of Longmont, Colo., built its own 17-mile, million dollar fiber-optic loop in the mid-1990s. The infrastructure was paid for by the local city-owned electric utility, though it offered promise for bringing broadband to local businesses, government offices and residents, too.

For years, though, the network has been sitting largely unused. In 2005, Colorado passed a state law preventing local governments from essentially building and operating their own telecommunications infrastructure.

Behind the law was, not surprisingly, the telecom lobby, which has approached the threat of municipal broadband all across the country with deep suspicion and even deeper pockets. Companies like Comcast understandably want to protect their corner on the market from competition with city-run non-profits. What’s less understandable is the route their interests have taken: Residents and state legislators from Colorado to North Carolina have been voting away the rights of cities to build their own broadband, with their own money, for the benefit of their own communities.

Daily Yonder on Wired West Massachusetts Towns

Publication Date: 
July 6, 2011
Author(s): 
Craig Settles
Publication Title: 
Daily Yonder

We have long followed the efforts of rural communities in western Massachusetts to form the Wired West network. They will soon wrap up the town meeting season and have a sense of how many local towns are a part of the initial project. But if you aren't already familiar with the project, the Daily Yonder offers a background article.

Midway through the broadband stimulus program in early 2010, several western Massachusetts towns recognized this danger and decided to form WiredWest to take matters into their own hands. These communities believe “control of the network needs to stay in the hands of the community,” states Co-Chair and spokesperson Monica Webb, of Monterey, MA. “Private providers just cherry pick the best subscribers and offer empty promises to the rest of us.”

WiredWest structured itself legally as a "cooperative of municipal light plants," a designation created by a 100-year-old law that enabled towns to distribute their own electricity. This designation allows towns to own telecom services within existing legislative guidelines and use municipal bonds to fund the network, and it grants individuals and businesses tax deductions when they donate to WiredWest. WiredWest also can provide Internet access service without being required to provide cable TV services. Hilltown Community Dev Corp. is a second community co-op in the area and it is designated as a fiduciary able to apply for grants on WiredWest’s behalf. Once WiredWest officially launches this month, it will have the legal authority to apply for grants, contract with providers, and take other actions.

WiredWest early on took stock of its needs, learning how to recruit additional towns to join the coalition. “Of the 47 towns now in WiredWest, Verizon, Time Warner Cable and Comcast are only in seven,” says Webb. “There are two or three WISPs, (wireless Internet service providers) but getting coverage into many places requires lots of towers and repeaters that makes this option expensive. Some towns can make the coverage-to-cost work, but others tried to no avail.”

Keys to Muni Fiber Success Story in Wyoming: Powellink

Publication Date: 
June 8, 2011
Author(s): 
Craig Settles
Publication Title: 
Daily Yonder

The Daily Yonder recently ran a cleverly titled article by Craig Settles, "Wyoming Town Creates Broadband Bonanza." We have previously written about Powell and its unique public-private partnership approach to an open access muni FTTH network.

Craig offers some more details, including some of the planning:

The planning team went a step further. Broadband feasibility studies typical include asking constituents about their level of interest in Internet services. Powell’s team secured firm commitments from institutions such as schools and hospitals that would not only subscribe to the network but entice their customers to subscribe, too. They contacted businesses about moving or expanding operations to Powell.

With agreements and letters of intent in hand, Powell was able to give Tri-County Telecom (TCT) more credible revenue predictions. “We presented our data and potential institutional subscribers,” states Bray. “TCT then adjusted for what their real costs were and described how the buildout was going to look, what the real breakeven was (and based on what assumptions), when certain goals had to be met and how long it will take to reach certain milestones over 20 years.” Bray calls all of the TCT forecasts, “conservative.”

He also notes that Powellink broke even at the end of 2010, an impressively short period of time.

Global CIO: Consider the Benefits of Community Broadband Networks

Publication Date: 
June 2, 2011
Author(s): 
Jonathan Feldman
Publication Title: 
Information Week

Information Week has alerted Chief Information Officers (CIOs) that they need to pay attention to community broadband networks. Jonathan Feldman's column explains "What North Carolina's Broadband Battlefield Means to You."

The lessons have little to do with North Carolina and everything to do with the future of broadband Internet access. Community networks offer higher speed, more reliable, and more affordable connections to businesses and other entities than incumbent operators.

Feldman opens with a North Carolina business owner emailing him about wanting to duplicate Chattanooga's amazing broadband options and futuristic smart grid. Too bad North Carolina's Legislature just passed a bill to effectively prohibit NC towns from doing that.

MuniNetworks.org frequently decries the lack of choices among service providers, so it is gratifying to see Feldman make the same point:

Those of us who approve telecom budgets, whether in North Carolina or other states, know there really isn't a broadband marketplace. In contrast, we can choose among 50 providers of Web hosting services, and they're all trying to differentiate themselves based on quality and features. THAT'S a marketplace. What exists today in broadband telecom is essentially a choice between the telco and the region's cable operator.

And further on, a strong endorsement for communities that have made public broadband investments:

Unless you're a telecom carrier, you should be interested in doing business in a region where the government is building out next-generation broadband infrastructure. Whether you work for a large business that requires fiber optic capabilities (or "lambdas," which are virtual fiber pipes), or whether you simply need IP service, the lower price/performance levels of such regions are highly attractive.

Be aware of the telecom regulatory environment in any state your company is expanding into, especially as other states follow North Carolina's example. It may not be a make or break consideration, but it's one that you should bring up with your board when discussing site selection.

Feldman notes that these networks are not easy to build (a point that resonates with us - communities build these networks because they have to, not because they want to).

This is an excellent column, one we hope resonates with the many businesses that need faster, more reliable, and affordable access to the Internet. When massive companies like Time Warner Cable lobby state legislatures to preempt local authority to build networks, they are taking aim at all residents and local businesses. Businesses should recognize the benefits of breaking the duopoly that controls a key input for all commerce in the 21st century.

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Remember Michael Tiemann's letter to Governor Perdue, begging her not to let Time Warner Cable's anti-muni broadband bill become law (she instead agreed with Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T that they should control the future of IT in North Carolina). In that letter, he described the difficulty of working with TWC:

On Sunday May 15th you may have read about our latest investment in North Carolina, Manifold Recording. This was the feature story in the Arts & Living section, and the top right-hand text box on the front page. One of the most difficult and expensive line-items in this multi-million dollar project was securing a broadband link to the site in rural Chatham County. I spent more than two years begging Time Warner to sell me a service that costs 50x more than it should, and that's after I agreed to pay 100% of the installation costs for more than a mile of fiber.

Community networks are pro-business and it is long past time businesses should recognize their advantages. Let's hope we can make some progress in this area.

Muni Snapshot: Palm Coast FiberNET

Publication Date: 
June 1, 2011
Author(s): 
Masha Zagar
Publication Title: 
Broadband Properties

We noted Palm Coast FiberNET when it opened for business but haven't had a chance to revisit it until now. Broadband Communities has featured it with a Muni Fiber Snapshop in the 2011 May/June issue.

The network, available for business use in some areas, has 22 customers, including the city's largest employer. Without this muni investment, that employer would have had to leave town due to the non-competitive alternatives from incumbent providers. Two service providers operate on the muni network, offering data and voice services as well as computer backup.

Schools and medical facilities are also benefiting from much lower prices for the telecom services they need.

Remapping Debate Covers Community Network Successes

Publication Date: 
May 25, 2011
Author(s): 
Jim Lardner
Publication Title: 
Remapping Debate

Remapping Debate, an organization dedicated to "the full spectrum of domestic policy issues," has turned its focus on community broadband networks in an article called "Wave of the Future?" The article notes the tremendous success of Bristol, Virginia, in creating jobs. Most are well aware of the 700 jobs created by CGI and Northrup Grumman due to the network, but there are other success stories too:

Fiber has helped Bristol and the surrounding counties hold onto existing businesses as well as attract new ones. Alpha Natural Resources, a coal giant, pointed to the BVU service as a key factor in its 2009 decision to keep the company’s corporate headquarters in Bristol after a merger with Foundation Coal, a rival based in the more cosmopolitan Baltimore-Washington corridor. BVU’s fast service (up to 30 megabits for downloads and 10 megabits for uploads) will allow Alpha management to maintain close electronic watch over a combined network of mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Wyoming.

The article goes on to discuss Chattanooga. Once again, we knew that its muni fiber network had already led to many more jobs from Amazon and Homeserve, but we learn more about exactly how the network has improved health care:

Chattanooga’s fiber network has been a foundation for high-tech business startups. One new company, Specialty Networks, allows doctors spread across many area hospitals and offices to get quick image analysis from radiologists specializing in the cancers of various regions of the body. In the past, according to Dr. Jim Busch, the radiologist behind the venture, eye, nose, and throat doctors would get initial readings from radiologists who did not necessary understand the particular subtleties of cancers affecting those areas. Now a single head-and-neck expert reads the images for just about all of greater Chattanooga’s ENT doctors. “The relatively inexpensive nature of all this bandwidth has been great for patient care,” Dr. Busch told Remapping Debate.

The rest of the article discusses other benefits of community networks and policy options for moving forward. Recommended reading.

Muni Fiber Network Creates Opportunities, Savings in Pulaski, Tennessee

Publication Date: 
May 11, 2011
Author(s): 
Craig Settles
Publication Title: 
Fighting the Next Good Fight

Craig Settles recently interviewed Dan Speers, the Executive Director of the Pulaski-Giles County Economic Development Council, focusing on the publicly owned PES Energize muni FTTH network.

Craig started by asking how the network is used by local businesses:

There’s a printing operation here with their corporate headquarters in Los Angeles. They have to be able to send artwork all the time to headquarters. There’s a guy who works developing catalogue books that are published by an outfit in Canada. Before the network it would take him six hours to upload materials and now it’s done in minutes. One company has their offices on the north side of community and the manufacturing plant on the south side. They’re always sending large data files back and forth.

Hospitals here can upload and download files such as x-rays, MRIs, and CT scans immediately between other hospitals and doctors 75 miles away in Nashville. Patients don’t have to be transferred there, and they don’t have paper records that have to be carried by hand to specialists like they did in the old days. All of this saves lives and it saves money.

When Craig asked what the Obama Administration can do to expand broadband to "improve local economies," Speers asked for an end to state-created barriers to community networks and mentioned a Tennessee bill that would allow muni utility networks to offer services to communities outside their historic electric territories:

From a Tennessee perspective, first put us on a level playing field with the telcos. Allow municipalities to get into the business with none of the restrictions we have. We wanted to be able to wholesale our network services. Take Lawrenceberg, for example. They have no broadband and the telcos flat out refuse to build it there. We can expand our network over to them and they’d save $3 Million. But with the law the state legislature passed, we can’t serve them because they’re out of our area. If we shared head-in facilities, this would go a long way for economic development there.