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Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 3, 2014

“The Times, they are a-changin” quoted Chairman Wheeler this week in St. Paul. And with it, must come faster Internet speeds if the United States is going to keep up in the competitive economy. Multichannel’s John Eggerton reported on Wheeler’s visit to the National Association of Telecommunications Officer and Advisors (NATOA) conference this week, where Wheeler channeled both Bob Dylan and Garrison Keeler. You can also read the full transcript of his remarks. 

Oh, dear US Representative Marsha Blackburn is at it again. This time with a letter to editor in The Tennessean. Blackburn provides the same arguments she presented previously. And yet, oddly enough, still no acknowledgment that the top donors to her campaign fund happen to be big telecom lobbyists. 

In other municipal networks news, Andrew Denney with the Columbia Tribune in Missouri covered the pushback his city is seeing from big telecom, after the city announced it might be interested in expanding its existing fiber network. 

“A CenturyLink spokesperson warned city officials that, “if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business.” 

Our own Christopher Mitchell responded in the same article:

The fundamental motive is to make sure they limit competition to their benefit,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. 

Citizens Speak Out

ILSR cannot be in all places at the same time, so it’s important that people weigh in on these issues, comment, and contact elected officials. So we’re praising several people and organizations who have come out in support of these important issues.

As Megan Epler Wood writes in Burlington Free Press, 

“Local ownership is a viable means to protect Net Neutrality according to many leading experts. Municipal fiber networks not only foster competition with the ISPs, they create citizen empowerment. According to Christopher Mitchell director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self Reliance municipal fiber networks "ensure open access to the Internet regardless of what tolls the big cable companies charge."

Bill Nemitz’s message in the Portland (Maine) Press Herald couldn’t be clearer:

Don’t suffer with slow Internet, rural Maine!

The Dalles, Oregon editorial board staff weighed in on the success of their own community networks. The city paid off its fiber-optic network last month. 

“The plan to install a fiber-optic loop to bring better access to high-speed internet to The Dalles faced harsh skepticism at its beginning. But, time and again, that access has proved to be a valuable commodity. Its existence has provided an added attraction to help bring jobs and growth to the community, not least of which is the Google data center, which is in the midst of a massive expansion with more jobs promised.”

We like the sound of that!

From success stories, to cities that are touching their toes to the water— Jeff Buchanan wrote this for The Isthmus in Madison, WI:

“Fortunately for consumers, there's an alternative: Cities are tackling the connectivity problem by building municipal fiber-to-the-home networks. Political and business leaders in Madison seem to agree that the status quo is unsatisfactory. But they're split in how urgently they want to address the problem, with city hall favoring a wait-and-see approach and a younger class of technocrats wanting to implement short-term, low-cost solutions immediately.”

And Hartford Business journal’s editorial staff said this week that high speed Internet is now a “must” investment, not just a want. 

“While the average Connecticut resident doesn't need ultra-high-speed bandwidth to play movies or download music, high-tech companies — particularly the increasing number of businesses that rely on big data — need it to compete. But Connecticut's lack of a fiber-optic cable network makes it difficult and expensive for businesses to access high-speed Internet, putting them at a competitive disadvantage.”

Another self-proclaimed proponent of private industry is baffled by Republicans stance against broadband competition. Mike Montgomery wrote about his support for allowing municipalities the chance to build broadband networks on HuffPo. 

“Broadband takes big investment, but it also means big money for providers. And while I'm among those who believe private industry is best suited to build and maintain networks, I also find the states' rights argument fairly ridiculous. After all, who better to know what a community needs than a local government? If elected officials recognize a need for better broadband access in their state, shouldn't voters have the final say as to who gets to build and maintain its broadband networks?”

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

This is what happens when Comcast decides you’re no longer making them enough money. They decide it’s time to pack up shop. Todd Shields reported in Bloomberg’s MSN Money that Comcast wants to relinquish its Detroit customers as part of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. But don’t worry, it would pick up two other markets…

“As it drops Detroit, Comcast would gain the nation’s top two markets, New York and Los Angeles. The $45.2 billion acquisition would enlarge Comcast by 7 million video customers. The castaways in Detroit, Minneapolis and elsewhere would belong to a new company, GreatLand Connections Inc., to be created in what the companies call a tax-efficient spinoff. The new company’s debt would exceed industry averages -- something that has raised concerns about service in those communities.” 

And Emily Steel wanted you to know that if you oppose the Time Warner Cable merger, Comcast thinks you’re guilty of extortion. We’re not making this up!

Meanwhile, The Consumerist’s Chris Morran covered a new era in the most hated company in America’s customer service department. Charlie Herrin became the new VP for “customer experience.” And while he promised that “our customers deserve the best experience every time they interact with us.” Morran broke down some of the so-called “manure spreading” this way: 

“Without competition, Comcast has no reason to actually back up this “we love our customers” sentiment. What are you going to do, switch to slow DSL service from your local phone company that hasn’t maintained its copper wire network in years? Or maybe you can get wireless broadband and pay the same amount as Xfinity for 1/70th the amount of data each month.

In spite of what Comcast and Time Warner Cable would have you believe, those are not alternatives.”

Last week, the other “big guys” said that a lack of competition just isn’t a problem. In our office, we like to talk about “CrazyTown”, where Big Telecom (and other nonsensical creatures) live; Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica, and The Consumerist’s Kate Cox give them a message from “Planet Reality.”

Game Politics, Brad Reed of the Boy Genius Report, and Electronista all wanted to make sure that people knew about the ridiculous claims of Comcast.

Kate Cox also reported on how two of the three FCC commissioners who voted against Net Neutrality now “don’t think the proposed rule is the right fit.” Here’s to seeing the light, let’s hope it lasts.

Verizon/AT&T

Infoworld recently reported that Moldova, Latvia, and Estonia continue to run Internet circles around the United States in terms of download speeds— that’s according to the UN Broadband Commission’s Annual report. But still, AT&T is unmoved— claiming that the reason our speeds are so slow is because no one wants faster speeds:

 "Given the pace at which the industry is investing in advanced capabilities, there is no present need to redefine 'advanced' capabilities. Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions," AT&T said in a filing on the FCC's proposal to raise the definition to 10Mbps. Verizon made similar arguments.”

Google’s ALEC Problem

From the “All Things are Connected” File— Google announced last week that it is pulling it’s support of conservative lobbying group “ALEC” over “literally lying” about climate change. Motherboard’s Sam Gustin and Jason Koebler, DSLReports’ Karl Bode, and Nicole Arce from Tech Times, reported on the announcement, along with dozens of others. Why? Because ALEC, or the American Legislative Exchange Council has come out in opposition to net neutrality and municipal broadband— and is in support of Comcast’s Time Warner Cable merger. 

And though we’re glad Google might be jumping to the other side of the fence on some issues, Network World’s Colin Neagle explained that Google is probably *not* pulling its support of ALEC because of municipal broadband public opinion.

“… it’s probably no surprise to hear that Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable have all been ALEC members for years. It's in their interests.

But a Daily Beast report from August 2013 outed Google as a member of ALEC’s Communications and Technology Task Force, alongside several other tech companies, including Yahoo and Yelp. All three are also members of the Internet Association, whose stances on net neutrality and broadband are the polar opposite of ALEC's."

After the Daily Beast article unveiled Google’s affiliation with ALEC, dozens of activist groups pointed out the paradox in a public letter calling for the company to leave the organization. Google's only response came in a reply to Ars Technica’s request for comment: "we aren't going to be commenting on this letter."

So when a group like the Internet Association speaks out on a given issue, it doesn't necessarily mean that all of its member groups are giving it their full support. Some affiliations are more valuable in public, while others are only valuable in the dark.” 

Chris Visits Burlington to Talk About Local Telecom Challenges

Burlington Telecom customers love their local muni. Throughout the community's political, legal, and financial challenges, residents and businesses have rallied behind the ability to control their access locally. As part of their efforts to educate the community, Code for BTV and Keep BT Local brought Chris to town to discuss community ownership. The video of his presentation is now available online at Burlington's Town Meeting Television.

Chris discussed a variety of community ownership and said of Burlington:

"When it comes down to getting community support to raising capital and understanding the value of a cooperative, Burlington's about the best place in the country to be trying to do that."

Keep BT Local began officially organizing in late 2012. Their goal is to transform the municipal network into a cooperative structure on order to protect local interest in the service. The gigabit network has won awards, partnered with local nonprofits to improve digital inclusion, and offered local services such as computer repair, setting it apart from the distant corporate providers with no interest in local communities.

No wonder Burlingtonians want to keep their network! This is an informative conversation that touches on a variety of topics including how to fire up potential cooperative members, strategies to entice community anchors, and promoting the unique characteristics of a local network.

The video runs about one hour and twenty minutes.

 

Chris Mitchell In Burlington, Vermont on September 19th

Members of the Burlington community are hosting a luncheon on Friday, September 19th, to discuss ways to help keep BT local. Chris, as one of the leading experts on municipal broadband, will be leading the discussion. We have followed BurlingtonTelecom's challenges and victories since 2008.

The event is titled "How Do We Keep Burlington Telecom Local?" and will be at the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy in Burlington. From the announcement:

Many Burlington residents and activists are concerned about the City of Burlington’s plans to sell Burlington Telecom to a private entity by 2017. While the City is committed to BT as a driver for economic and community development, it currently has no specific plans to retain a meaningful ownership stake in the new entity. 

The event is part of a series of community talks aimed at maintaining public input as the City prepares to move forward. 

A free discussion will begin at 11 a.m.; it will be followed by lunch for $15. You can now register online. For those who want to learn more about the network and keep up on the latest developments, CCTV of Vermont has put together a resource page detailing upcoming steps with news coverage, video, and court documents. 

Burlington's Civic Cloud Collaborative Wins Knight Foundation Award

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded a Knight Prototype Fund grant to the Civic Cloud Collaborative of Burlington, Vermont.

The Civic Cloud Collaborative is a group of eight organizations using Burlington's gigabit network to create civic and public spaces. The group describes the Civic Cloud project on their website:

The Civic Cloud will be available for the community to use as a platform for public, non-commercial Internet applications and digital creative works. Several applications will be deployed during an initial prototyping phase of the Civic Cloud. High-definition live streaming will be provided for community media outlets to webcast live public meetings and cultural events. WordPress websites will be hosted for several Vermont non-profits including rescue squads, food shelves, job banks and historical societies. A collection of volunteer-developed applications and a state-of-the-art website deployed to the Civic Cloud will help Big Heavy World preserve and promote Vermont-made music. Lakecraft, an educational, multi-user game aimed at youth and adults that gamifies the Lake Champlain Basin, will also be one of the first applications to run on the Civic Cloud.

Vermont Public Radio also reported on the award. From the article:

“We’re interested in it being a non-commercial space on the Internet,” said Bradley Holt, a Burlington-based developer who heads CodeForBTV, the local chapter of Code For America, an organization for public service software developers.

The cloud service, Holt said, will provide hosting capacity for local community organizations seeking to use the Internet to advance the public interest.

For more, check out the press release from Code for BTV, one of the collaborative members.

Burlington's Next Step: Become a Gigabit Community

Burlington has seen ups and downs over the past few years but a new chapter is about to begin. The non-profit U.S. Ignite and the City are partnering to create BTV Ignite. The initiative will develop a gigabit community infrastructure and the applications that use it. With help from U.S. Ignite, Burlington will join the growing list of gigabit communities.

An advisory committee is fueling interest in the project. Mayor Miro Weinberger describes the effort as a way to develop a tech friendly local economy and increase access for individuals and institutions. A recent Government Technology article quoted the Mayor:

“We believe we’re well on our way to being the first city in the country that provides gigabit access to every student from kindergarten through college and even graduate school here in Burlington,” Weinberger said. 

The City and its partner have developed five critical steps based on consultation with Kansas City, Chattanooga, and other gigabit communities:

1.    Develop Structure to Foster Applications-Driven Energy

Much like the KC Digital Drive in Kansas City, [Executive Director of U.S. Ignite Bill] Wallace said the mayor’s advisory committee must play a key role in helping drive development.

2.    Create the Most Robust Infrastructure

Wallace said this will be particularly necessary for schools, businesses and libraries.

3.    Embrace Technology Through Community Events and Hackathons

By setting up a continuous stream of events like community hackathons, digital sandboxes and a hacker homes network similar to one developed in Kansas City, the city will be able to focus more on app development for specific capabilities, like cybersecurity or the development of complex systems.

4.    Share Practices With Other Cities to Deploy Networks

This could also mean sharing practices on how to generate applications.

5.    Tap into Federal Resources

Wallace said looking to federally funded resources like the National Science Foundation will be important when building out the infrastructure and developing applications.

Burlington hopes to secure a Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) rack for its University of Vermont campus. The rack would come from the National Science Foundation and would allow UVM access to researchers at over 40 other universities.

The initiative also aims to create 60 next-generation applications and 200 "community test beds" where the new applications can be developed and eventually deployed.

At an October 15th event to announce the partnership, Wallace and Mayor Weinberger address the ongoing lawsuit between community owned Burlington Telecom and Citibank. The Burlington Free Press covered the event:

“We were aware of that, but basically the capability is there, and that makes Burlington a logical and very attractive candidate to become part of US Ignite,” Wallace said.

“There is some uncertainty about where the dispute with Citibank, CitiCapital is going, but we think it’s time to move forward with this conversation,” Weinberger added. “We think the high likelihood is that these resources are going to exist in this community for a long time to come.”

Video: Burlington Telecom Coop Effort Moving Ahead

In December, 2012, a group of local residents decided to engage in an effort to turn beleaguered Burlington Telecom into a coop. The effort has advanced and the organization, Keep BT Local, continues to gain pledges. To date, the organization has collected pledges in the amount of $108,000 for equity and $156,000 in loan pledges.

Keep BT Local is ultimately shooting for membership pledges from about 4,000 residential and business customers. The goal has been to collect $250,000 worth of pledges to move forward with incorporation this month.

Local Chanel 17 carried a discussion on the effort to get more info on the business plan. Alan Matson and Don Schramm, who head up the Steering Committee talked with host, Matt Kelly, about the venture and took calls from viewers.

In addition to a discussion about the the heart of what is "local," the group discussed the business plan and where challenges may arise.

The discussion is about 30 minutes long.

Coop Status for Burlington Telecom? Maybe.....

Burlington Telecom may be headed for some changes. Due to the mismanagement of the prior Burlington Mayor Administration, the network took on an unsustainable amount of debt and damaged its reputation. Some of the plans to make the network sustainable again involve privatizing it. Unfortunately, as we have seen with public power privatizations, such an action typically results in worse services and higher prices due to the loss of local control.

Operating under the name Keep Our Telecom Local, a group of local residents and business leaders want to ensure BT remains owned by the community by turning it into a cooperative. At a December 13 public meeting, the group of about 50 volunteers gathered and talked strategy. According to a Burlington Free Press article on the meeting, attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss specific issues and plans.

The next step will be efforts to increase publicity for the movement and the creation of a business plan. Currently, a committee is forming to determine the best way to file for a Vermont Certificate of Public Good. Another committee is looking into formation of a board of directors.

Most municipal networks do not have to contend with the problems that have plagued Burlington Telecom. But even with all of the problems faced by this publicly owned network, the community still sees great value in rescuing it rather than abandoning it. The Burlington community appreciates the incredible value of keeping their broadband resource local. From the article:

Don Schramm, one of the organizers of tentatively named Green Mountain Broadband Fiber, said it makes sense to pursue a Third Way.

“Keeping our telecom locally owned means that the jobs stay here, the money spent stays here, the profit stays here — and most importantly, the control stays here,” Schramm said. “We will have a broadband cooperative responsible to our community needs, not the profit wants of out-of-state owners.”

We applaud the community for recognizing the value of this great asset, the importance of local control, and their efforts to keep BT local.

Burlington Telecom Announces a Gig and Computer Repair Services

We have covered happenings at Burlington Telecom, both positive and negative, extensively. We are glad to report some interesting new developments of this Vermont municipal network. BT is rolling out faster connections and using its competitive advantage in customer service to offer some computer repair services. Joel Banner Baird at the Burlington Free Press reported:

Without cash reserves and promotional enticements available to BT’s commercial competitors, the fiber-optic Internet/phone/cable provider will focus on its strength in customer service, said interim General Manager Stephen Barraclough.

As our readers know, BT is in the midst of a pending lawsuit with Citibank, wherein the financial giant says the city still owes it $33.5 million. The network's troubles, including misuse of public funds by the previous Mayor, have hurt its ability to generate income and Burlington's credit rating has suffered.

While fixing PCs certainly won't pay mounting legal fees, it will make life easier for customers. Details include a $25 diagnostic fee and a rate of $45 per hour plus materials. More about the service is available on the PDF of the official anouncement.

A more recent announcement puts Burlington among the few communities with citywide access to a gig. Burlington Telecom is in the midst of upgrades and will be offering 1 Gbps service and 40 Mbps service starting on December 1, 2012. Both options are symmetrical.

40 Mbps - $99.99 per month

1 Gbps - $149.99 per month when committing for one year; or $199.99 per month with a month-to-month arrangement

burlington-gig-sheet.PNG

View a PDF of the official announcement flyer.

A gig for $150 to residential connections is one of the best deals we have seen in the nation and is far superior to what FairPoint DSL or Comcast Cable offer in town.

Citibank Finally Files Suit Against Burlington Telecom

After more than a year of expecting Citibank to file suit against Burlington, they finally did. Burlington Telecom, a muni FTTH network, now illustrates the worst case scenario for muni broadband. After the founder of the network left following disagreements with the Mayor, the Mayor's Administration ran the network into the ground (leading us to recently publish the report "Learning from Burlington Telecom: Some Lessons for Community Networks."

Burlington had financed its network with a municipal capital lease, rather than the more commonly used revenue bonds, meaning that the actual network secures the loan. In this arrangement, the network is technically owned by the lender (Citi) and Burlington leased it. So when Burlington decided to stop paying the lease for the network, it became Citi's problem.

And Citi had a lot of problems due to the games massive banks were playing having killed the economy. BT became just one more non-performing asset. They did nothing while the City continued to run the network without making lease payments. Now Citi is suing for the world (this is how these things work) but it isn't clear that Citi can actually get what it demands (the State has a say in whether the network simply gets shut down, which Citi is presently asking for). And if the network did get shut down, Citi would be in a worse position to recover any of its losses because the value of the network is far greater than the sum of its parts.

State law says that losses from a public telecom venture cannot be carried by taxpayers, which is where we return to an interesting document prepared by the Mayor's Administration. As reported by Blurt:

In its lawsuit, Citibank notes that a letter written by attorney Joe McNeil on behalf of Burlington "expressly warranted to Citibank that at least 40 percent of Burlington's revenues were derived from sources other than taxpayers' funds and would be available to fund payments to Citibank, and further, that Burlington had the financial resources and ability to make all payments to Citibank for the full term of the agreement."

I read that document last year and remember being fairly surprised as it appeared to be incorrect from my non-lawyer reading of the law. This is just another case in which the Mayor's Administration played too fast and loose with essential infrastructure.

We have watched in dismay as Burlington Telecom transitioned over the past four years from a model community network to the worst case scenario. This situation proves only that community networks can suffer from bad management in some of the many ways private telecom companies can suffer from bad management (resulting in anything from bankruptcy to prison).

Communities can learn lessons from Burlington's situation -- chief among them that transparency is important. As with other public enterprise funds, the operation should be regularly audited and oversight must be in place to catch errors early, when corrections are easier and less costly.

Unfortunately, Burlington Telecom is in a very bad position presently. The actions of the Mayor's Administration made that position worse than it could have been. Time will tell if it can be saved. Given its important positive contributions to the city (millions of dollars in community savings, increased economic development), the City would benefit from its continued operation.

Learning from Burlington Telecom: Some Lessons for Community Networks

Publication Date: 
August 18, 2011
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell - Institute for Local Self-Reliance

In little more than a year, Burlington Telecom went from being a hopeful star of the community fiber network movement to an albatross around its neck. The controversies surrounding it have encouraged cable and telephone companies to use it as Exhibit A in their case against communities going into the telecommunications business. However, most of those criticizing Burlington Telecom have very little understanding of what went wrong and how it happened. Examining what actually happened helps to explain how these problems may be avoided, as the vast majority of existing community networks have already done.

[Download the full report]

In 2007, ILSR issued a case study on Burlington Telecom. The report argued that Burlington Telecom was a model for how communities could build their own next‐generation fiber‐to-the‐home broadband networks.

This report revisits and updates that report, analyzes Burlington Telecom’s situation (for better and for worse), and extracts useful lessons for other communities pursuing community fiber networks.

In preparation for this report, ILSR examined many documents, including those available due to the investigation of Vermont’s Department of Public Service. We interviewed many people from Burlington, including former BT employees, citizens active around the project, and City Council members. We discussed Burlington’s situation with a number of others intimately involved in community broadband networks around the country and posed questions directly to a representative of BT.