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Small City Fights Comcast Over Institutional Network

Reports have recently surfaced from The Detroit News and that a town in Michigan is now fighting Comcast over who owns their network.

The Backstory

Fifteen years ago, West Bloomfield, Michigan, population about 65,000, wanted an Institutional Network (I-Net) to connect all the important services, like emergency response, police, fire, and water, with a dedicated high-speed network. The town entered into a franchise agreement in order to share the construction costs with the incumbent cable company, which at the time was MediaOne. According to the township, MediaOne offered to contribute $400,000 to the cost of construction as part of that agreement.

The agreement was transferred to Comcast in 2000; Comcast acquired MediaOne in 2002. MediaOne and successor Comcast have provided "free high-speed bandwidth transport as well as interconnectivity" during the life of the network claims Comcast in a letter submitted to the court. The cable giant also describes the practice as a "benefit not provided by Comcast's competitors" and wants it to stop. The franchise agreement expired on October 1 but was renewed until 2025.

To The Courts

Comcast and the town are now fighting over ownership of the infrastructure. With Comcast demanding new fees, the town is bringing a lawsuit. Comcast, however, maintains that it owns the I-Net that the town uses for all its important communications. The Detroit News reports that the township is coming out swinging:

The township said it is illegal to use public funds for private commercial purposes and insists there was never any reference to a cable company ever retaining ownership of the I-Net and said it has paid all other costs including upgrades and maintenance of the system which is “imperative to public safety operations of the township and will impact the township’s budget which is currently being prepared for 2016.”


The township not only seeks a preliminary and permanent injunction against Comcast, it wants the company’s act declared a “wrongful conversion of township property” and to be awarded three times the actual damages plus costs and attorney fees.

In the past, these agreements made sense to small towns that needed economical internal communications. All across the U.S., towns signed onto franchise agreements with large providers that offered to build I-Nets and supply connectivity.

As original franchise agreements expire, ownership issues and rate changes are popping up. After years of dependency on big corporate providers in an environment where there is little or no competition, communities like West Bloomfield often find themselves at the mercy of companies like Comcast.

What Can Cities Do? Take Control

There’s another way though. Many towns have built their own I-Nets - often with better connectivity and more savings than franchise agreements offer. The infrastructure can be expanded for other public policy programs too, like economic development or residential Internet access. The “Institutional Networks” page is full of stories about communities that have built their own I-Nets. Rather than trusting big corporate providers, towns control their own infrastructure and are better able to predict connectivity costs.

Franchise agreements are expiring across the country. Big corporate providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable use this strategy to squeeze more dollars from institutional customers. Martin County, Florida, overcame a similar situation when Time Warner Cable tried to extract exorbitant fees as their franchise agreement expired. Rather than pay an increased rate of more than 800 percent, they chose to invest in a publicly owned fiber I-Net. The community is now able to control their costs with fast, affordable, reliable infrastructure that the community can expand. Read more about Martin County in our 2012 Report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network.

Other towns can expect to find themselves in the same situation as West Bloomfield, Michigan. Raising rates and demanding new fees, large providers put profit before the best interests of the community. With these franchise agreements expiring, there’s a chance for cities and towns to take back local control by building their own networks.

The time to act is now. To learn more about what to do at the local level, check out our Community Connectivity Toolkit.

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.

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.

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

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 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.

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. 


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. 

Lake Oswego Seeks Out Expert Advice: Video

Lake Oswego, Oregon, was pegged as a potential target for Google Fiber in 2014 but this town of 35,000 may not wait for the tech giant to bring fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. They may just do it themselves.

In order to get more information about municipal fiber networks, our Chris Mitchell visited during an October City Council meeting at the request of community leaders. The Lake Oswego Review covered the meeting.

According to the Review, the northwest community issued an RFP in June and received two responses. City leaders are still pondering the responses and feelings are mixed over whether or not to make the investment.

City Manager Scott Lazenby told the Council:

Just getting this network would put Lake Oswego on the map…I think increasing that level of service, especially for the demographics we have here — highly educated, many tech-oriented folks in our community — that would be a real service to make available.

Chris pointed out that the area is ripe with a number of high-tech companies and other entities that will find a fiber network attractive. “Not everyone has that regional connectivity that you have here,” he told the Council.

He also asked them to consider all the long term possibilities if Google does eventually enter into the market in Lake Oswego:

“When I think about relying on Google, if Google decides to get out of this business, the community has no say about who takes it over,” he said.

After discussion, the Council voted to negotiate an agreement with one of the RFP respondents for further review, contingent on a market study.

To view Chris's entire presentation to the Lake Oswego City Council, watch the video below: 

Ting! Holly Springs, NC to Get a Gig

While Google Fiber and AT&T focus on the large cities of the Research Triangle of North Carolina, the small town of Holly Springs is pursuing a third option. 

Holly Springs will be the third town to see Ting’s “crazy fast fiber Internet.” After a successful foray into the U.S. mobile service market, the Toronto-based company Ting has started to provide Internet service by partnering with local governments. Ting will offer 1 Gbps in Holly Springs by building on the town’s $1.5 million municipal fiber network. 

Muni network restricted by state law

Holly Springs, with a population of almost 30,000, has worked hard to improve its connectivity. In mid-2014, they completed a 13-mile fiber Institutional network (often called an “I-Net”) to connect the municipal buildings and other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. 

Unfortunately, when business and residents wanted to connect to the network, a North Carolina state law prevented the town from providing Internet services directly.  As it became obvious that Google Fiber would not pass through the town, leaders worked with a consulting company to try to draw in a private Internet service provider (ISP).

Ting! Innovative Partnerships

The locked-up potential of that fiber helped attract Ting. The municipal network's unused fiber will function as a backbone for Ting to deploy its own last-mile infrastructure, which will provide connectivity directly to homes and businesses.

Ting has had success with small towns. The first Ting town was Charlottesville, Virginia, where the company bought a local ISP’s existing fiber network, improving the speeds and prices. Most recently, Ting partnered with the city of Westminster, Maryland, to expand broadband access. The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors dubbed it 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year” and presented the partnership with an award in September. Check out our podcast conversations with Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster and Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows (parent company of Ting).

Local networks are the solution

Construction on the Holly Springs network is likely to begin in early 2016. Although not all public private partnerships prove successful, Ting’s approaches support the philosophy that communities should be empowered to make these decisions locally. Noss explained in the press release [PDF]:

The problem of slow, expensive and unreliable Internet access is national but agreements like the one reached with Holly Springs further demonstrate that the solution is local.

Grand Junction Asks "Fiber? Where?"

While other communities in Colorado are just starting to reclaim local control over their broadband futures, the city of Grand Junction has moved forward. In April, the people overwhelmingly overturned SB 152 – the state law that prohibited them from pursuing the best broadband solution for their community. Now Grand Junction is investigating its options.

The city council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) are in the process of hiring a consulting firm to develop a broadband strategic plan for the city of 60,000 and seat of Mesa County. One of the main tasks is to determine where to locate the fiber backbone of the proposed municipal network.

Where Will the Fiber Go?

In September, months after the vote, the city agreed to enter into a contract with the consulting firm. The city will pay for the majority of the cost – up to $83,000. According to DDA meeting minutes from September, the Authority will pitch in up to $16,000 [pdf].

The study will take two or three months and will look specifically at the pros and cons of a fiber backbone deployment through downtown Grand Junction. The downtown area houses many banks and businesses, as well as both city and county government buildings. Fiber would provide much needed high-speed connectivity for those facilities, reports the Daily Sentinel. Available office space, ideal real estate for tech firms, is also plentiful in downtown Grand Junction.

Next Steps

After the consultants complete the study, the city may choose to issue bids for Requests For Proposals (RFPs) from contractors interested in constructing the network. The DDA has a $1 million line of credit backed by the city and will take responsibility for the cost of installing fiber in the downtown area.

The hope is to encourage tech start-ups to come to Grand Junction, as the DDA Board Chairman Jason Farrington explained

“Any company that needed to play in that (world wide web) sandbox would have Grand Junction as a place to relocate.”

SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown, USA

Publication Date: 
November 9, 2015
Hannah Trostle
Christopher Mitchell

Many of the most beautiful communities in the United States are in remote areas where incumbent cable and telephone companies have decided not to offer modern, high-quality Internet connectivity. Sandy, Oregon, is one of them. Some 10,000 people live there among the lush green forests and beautiful vistas of the “Gateway to Mount Hood,” 25 miles east of Portland. But Sandy decided to build its own gigabit fiber optic system and now has one of the most advanced, affordable networks in the nation.

A new report by The Institute for Local Self-Reliance details the rise of SandyNet, Sandy's publicly owned high-speed Internet service. "SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown USA" charts the growth of this community network.

Sandy, Oregon joined nearly 100 other local governments that have municipal fiber-to-the-home networks to give residents and businesses access to world-class Internet connections. However, the overwhelming majority of municipal fiber networks were built by local governments that already owned their local electrical grids. As Sandy does not have a municipal electric utility, it pioneered a low-risk incremental strategy to build its telecommunications utility, SandyNet.

The city started by reselling DSL and building a modest wireless network. Now it offers symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps for $39.95 or 1 Gbps for $59.95. Sandy’s experience offers lessons for local governments across the country.   

Click here to read and download the full report.

Click here to watch our short documentary about the Network:

Gig City Sandy: Home of the $60 Gig

Maine Model for Muni Fiber - Dark and Open - Community Broadband Bits Episode 176

An interesting confluence in events in Maine have resulted in what some are calling the "Maine model" of fiber optic networks that are available to multiple Internet Service Providers to encourage competition and high quality services. The CEO of GWI, Fletcher Kittredge, joins us this week to explain this model and where it is currently being implemented.

GWI is a local firm, rooted in Maine and focused on delivering high quality services with great customer support. It is working with Rockport (which we wrote about here and podcasted on here) and Islesboro (podcast here) as well as others.

Fletcher starts by telling us more about Maine's Three Ring Binder network and then goes on describe the dark fiber model, benefits of that approach, and how he thinks about public vs private ownership of the open access physical assets.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

Note: This podcast was posted a day late due to the very poor Internet connectivity at a retreat center in Minnesota. Thanks CenturyLink for a reminder why communities cannot rely on the national carriers to invest in modern infrastructure.

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

This show is 22 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

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