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Advice for Starting a Community Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode #94

The Community Broadband Bits podcast this week focuses on what people can do to start building a grassroots effort for a network in their community. John St Julien of Lafayette, Louisiana, returns to the show to discuss what they did and ideas for others to follow.

John was last on the show for episode 19, where we focused more on the specific approach used in Lafayette.

We discuss the early challenges and ideas for how to engage others, who may be the best people to approach, and how to maintain a sense of progress during what may be a very challenging organizing effort.

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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

On the Media Talks Cable Consolidation, Municipal Networks With Crawford and Baller

The possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the FCC's recent announcement to review state barriers have created a significant buzz in the world of telecommunications. Two recent NPR interviews with Susan Crawford and Jim Baller provide insight into how the merger may affect consumers and why a new light is shining on municipal networks.

Crawford spoke with Brooke Gladstone for a recent interview for On the Media. The two addressed some of the consequences of the potential merger. Crawford also discussed the option of municipal broadband investment is an alternative gaining traction. As our readers know, Crawford authored Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Crawford joined us in a past episode of the Communiy Broadband Bits podcast.

Jim Baller, President of the Baller Herbst Law Group, also joined On the Media when he spoke with Bob Garfield. Baller and Garfield talked about the cable and telecom lobby's efforts to block municipal authority to build networks. Baller supplied a few of the many examples of successful communities that have blossomed as a result of their investment. We have interviewed Baller three times for our podcast.

 

Each interview is a little over six minutes.

The Challenge of Open Access - Lessons Learned Part III

To finalize our series on reflections from Seattle and Gigabit Squared, I discuss open access networks and how the requirement that a network directly pay all its costs effectively dooms it in the U.S. Read part one here and part two here. I started this series because I felt that the Gigabit Squared failure in Seattle revealed some important truths that can be glossed over in our rush to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

The benefits of public-private-partnerships in these networks have often been overstated while the risks and challenges have been understated. We have seen them work and believe communities should continue to seek them where appropriate, but they should not be rushed into because they are less controversial than other solutions.

Sometimes we have to stop and remember that we will live for decades with the choices we make now. It was true when communities starting building their own electrical networks and is still true today. I hope the series has provided some context of how challenging it can be without removing all hope that we can stop Comcast, AT&T, and others from monopolizing our access to the Internet.

In this final piece, I want to turn to a different form of partnership - the open access network. I think it follows naturally as many in Seattle and other large cities would be more likely to invest in publicly owned fiber networks if they did not have to offer services - that being the most competitive, entreprenuerial, and difficult aspect of modern fiber networks.

Chattanooga construction

The desire to focus on long term investments rather than rapidly evolving services is a natural reaction given the historic role of local governments in long term infrastructure investments. Fiber certainly fits in that description and as many have noted, the comparison to roads is apt. An open access fiber network allows many businesses to reach end users just as roads allow Fedex, UPS, and even the Post Office, to compete on a level playing field.

In an open access approach, the local government would build the network out to connect all residents and businesses but not directly deliver services. Instead, multiple independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would compete on the network for business, ideally specializing in different niches - some providing great video game optimizations and others focusing on meeting small business needs.

Unfortunately, there are reasons we have not seen this approach gain widespread traction. The model is more difficult than is readily apparent.

A large part of the difficulty comes from incumbent providers that refuse to use the fiber network. The cable and the telephone companies claim that they don't want to abandon their assets, but that is not the main reason they have refused to participate in these networks. The big cable and telephone companies know that they have terrible reputations and would be slaughtered in a competitive market - so they put great effort in ensuring that they face as little competition as possible. Allowing the open access market to develop would all but ensure mighty Comcast would have to compete against local providers that offer much better customer service, lower prices, and more.

From an economic perspective, an ideal open access network would be one physical fiber network on which all ISPs compete. With a take rate over 80 percent, the revenue would likely be sufficient to pay the costs of building the network, operating costs, AND the ISP costs. But because the cable and telephone companies have fought against open access, subscribers are often split among three different physical infrastructures (cable, copper telephone lines, and the fiber network), generating too little revenue to pay the costs of building the fiber network.

If a major metro area does a feasibility study to build a citywide open access network fiber, it will find that the network will almost certainly not pay for itself using a conventional private sector accounting system. The interest on the debt required to build the network accrues faster than revenue. Of course, the roads and bridges don't pay for themselves via user fees either, but we still invest in them.

Community BB Logo

In a recent podcast, we discuss how over the first five years, a network can save more in aggregate for the community that it costs to build. But those benefits acrue individually to households. Thus far, very few communities have used this approach - to raise monthly taxes by $3 to save $10 on household telecom bills, for instance. Leverett is a rare example of this approach.

That does leave another option - building an open access network incrementally, as Danville has done in Virginia and Palm Coast FiberNet in Florida, among others. This is a viable option for just about any community but comes with the difficult reality that connecting everyone could take decades. And there are still other gotchas.

Some communities that wanted to build an open access network have found it can be challenging to find service providers that will operate on the network. Sometimes a local ISP can step up, as in Danville and in other cases, but not always. Until a network has thousands of potential subscribers, ISPs may not be interested in offering services. But incremental approaches will often start with just tens or hundreds of subscribers.

We have written elsewhere of how important it is to have at least one strong, trusted provider on the network. An important lesson from Provo, among other places, is the difficulty in recovering once a network has a bad reputation. A bad provider can ruin the name of a perfectly good network, especially as most people will not know whether to attribute any problems to the physical network or ISP.

UTOPIA Logo

All of that said, open access offers a tremendous promise. Networks like UTOPIA and Chelan PUD (Washington) have been unable to pay the capital cost of building the network solely from revenues but offer some of the fastest speeds in the nation at a fraction of the price we pay elsewhere. I recall the testimony of a local business to the Utah Legislature who basically said, "Yeah, my taxes went up a little -- but my monthly telecom bill went down a lot."

Nonetheless, nearly every municipal fiber network has been built and financed with the expectation that it would pay for itself - generally breaking even years after the high upfront investments have been made. Each community should be free to choose what expectations it has in building the network it needs to ensure a vibrant economy and high quality of life for everyone. Our role has been to help them understand that choice and push back on those who want to take it away. I hope this series helps in that effort.

Many of the municipal fiber networks that now directly provide services started with a hope of working with a local partner or building an open access network. As they considered their options, they found they effectively had to choose between doing nothing and venturing into a very challenging business.

There are few easy answers for communities stuck with subpar Internet access, or even for those that regard "par" as unacceptable. When Lafayette Mayor Joey Durel was presented with the idea of a municipal fiber network shortly after taking office, he was skeptical. But he ultimately decided they should examine it - saying "shame on us" if they didn't at least see what they could do. Maybe they would hit a brick wall... or maybe they would build one of the most impressive broadband networks in the country. That was good advice.

No one solution works for every community. Thus our guiding philosophy: communities should be free to choose for themselves the solution they prefer.

Construction photo courtesy of Chattanooga Electric Power Board

Jim Baller Returns for Vol 3 of Muni Network History - Community Broadband Bits Episode #67

We are excited to continue our history series with Jim Baller of the Baller Herbst Law Firm. This is Jim's third time on the program, having joined us for Episode 57 and Episode 63.

We continue our discussion with a recap of the events of 2004, including Jim's work with Lafayette to find a compromise to the ALEC bill that would have effectively banned municipal networks in Louisiana and the Verizon-led campaign to prevent Pennsylvania communities from following the muni fiber path of Kutztown.

We discuss several of the state battles over the years and the near passage of the Community Broadband Act by the U.S. Congress. Also, how some of the big telecom carriers started to invest in FTTH after the model was proved by community networks. We'll have Jim back for future shows as we continue charting the history of community owned networks.

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 23 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 Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Jim Baller Discusses Municipal Broadband History - Community Broadband Bits Episode #57

Jim Baller has been helping local governments to build community owned networks for as long as they have been building them. He is the President of and Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, DC. Jim joins us for Episode #57 of the Community Broadband Bits[/glossary] podcast to discuss some of the history of community owned networks.

Jim has a wealth of experience and helped in many of the most notable legal battles, including Bristol Virginia Utilities and Lafayette.

We start by noting some of the motivations of municipal electric utilities and how they were originally formed starting in the late 19th century. But we spend the bulk of our time in this show focusing on legal fights in the 90's and early 2000's over whether states could preempt local authority to build networks.

In our next interview with Jim, we'll pick up where we left off. If you have any specific thoughts or questions we should cover when we come back to this historical topic, leave them in the comments below or email us.

You can learn more about Jim Baller on his website at Baller.com.

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 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

New Yorkers Envious of Lafayette and Chattanooga? Yes.

In a recent New York Daily New article, Scott Stringer wrote about the Big Apple's tech employment trends. He noted that more tech related positions now come to the city but those jobs still tend to elude women and people of color. He suggests looking at New York's own workforce and offering better science and technology training. How do they do that? Improve curriculum, of course, but:

Ultimately, the new workforce is only as strong as the infrastructure that supports it. Today, fast, reliable Internet access isn’t a luxury — it is a core utility of the modern age.

Stringer notes the antiquated copper throughout the city and looks south for a model:

Lafayette, La., constructed a municipal fiber network in 2005, linking fiber to every home and business. In Chattanooga, Tenn., the city worked with the public electric company to build a fiber network that not only helped modernize the energy grid, but also linked 150,000 homes and businesses to a gigabit connection that is 20 times faster than connections in much of New York City.

London-based Foreign Direct Investment recently recognized Lafayette as one of the top 10 Small American Cities of the Future, in part due to its fiber infrastructure. Chattanooga has received multiple recognitions for it innovative municipal network.

Publicly Owned LUS Fiber Network Attracts Another Business to Lafayette

We recently learned that Tapes Again, a company that specializes in media reproduction and packaging, is moving to Lafayette, Louisiana, from Boulder, Colorado. The company is leaving its 20 year home to take advantage of LUSFiber's incredible network. According to a Business Brief from TheAdvertiser.com:

Tapes Again, a company started in Boulder, Colo., more than 20 years ago is moving to Lafayette next month. The decision to move is attributed to the bandwidth capacity available in Lafayette through LUS Fiber, according to a news release.

The company's clients include musicians and others that have a need for media reproduction and packaging. Much of the company's interactions are through the internet, so the time that it takes to upload and download large files has a direct impact on daily production schedules.

While the presence of a high-speed network is often citied as one contributing factor enitcing businesses to move, less often do we see connectivity as the sole reason. Tapes Again is also changing its name to Lafayette Media Services.

Special thanks to the Lafayette Pro Fiber Blog for sharing this story.

Lafayette Republicans and Democrats Joined Forces for Fiber

Earlier this year, we published a case study that examined the LUS Fiber network and its origins. In it, we noted that both Republicans and Democrats backed the plan but here we focus on their resolutions in support.

Back in early 2005, Lafayette was preparing for a referendum on whether the city owned utility should issue bonds to build a FTTH network. Though Cox cable and BellSouth (now AT&T) were running a fierce campaign to scare voters, both Republican and Democrat parties in the community came together to support the community owned network -- both found ways of incorporating this important investment into their political philosophies.

In February, the Democrats were the first to pass a resolution supporting the city's fiber optic plan [pdf]. Recall that Joey Durel (the mayor then and now) is an ardent Republican.

We, the members of the Lafayette Democratic Parish Executive Committee, believe the project will enhance businesses, enrich our lives, and prepare our children for the future. With proper planning, future generations will see profits generated by this project stay in this community and improve businesses and lives for generations to come.

Improving local communities has been the traditional purpose of the Democratic Party. With that in mind, we commend City-Parish President Joey Durel for his bold initiative to make this plan a success.

A few weeks later, the Lafayette Republican Party endorsed the network [pdf] as well:

Lafayette Republican Party seal

... Whereas, the “Fibre Optic to the Home” service would create the potential for new economic opportunity for Lafayette, and in our opinion far exceeding the financial risk,

Whereas, we believe the LUS Plan represents an investment in infrastructure as opposed to direct competition between government and private business, which would violate a basic principle of Republican Philosophy,

Be it Resolved this 10th day of March, 2005, the Lafayette Parish Republican Executive Committee (RPEC), endorses and supports the effort by the Lafayette Utility System to make “Fibre Optic to the Home” services a reality for the citizens, institutions of learning and business’ of the City of Lafayette and beyond as time and resources allow.

With those resolutions, the parties released a joint letter of support and "Request for City Residents to Vote YES" on July just before the referendum.

Dear Lafayette Residents,

We all have a unique opportunity together, to make a decision for our city and ultimately our region by voting in favor on the LUS Fiber To The Home & Business Initiative in the upcoming Bond Election.

While our committees came to our conclusions differently - BOTH parties agree that this opportunity is good for Lafayette. This decision is landmark and we have the ability to set our community apart and distinguish ourselves for many years to come as a leader in technology innovation and implementation.

Because Fiber To the Home & Business is truly a “tide that will lift all boats”, create competition, lower costs, and improve Lafayette’s technological infrastructure, we ask that you make a concerted effort to get out and vote “YES”, whether you are voting absentee, from Tuesday, July 5th – Saturday, July 9th, or at the polls on Saturday, July 16th.

The referendum passed by a 62% - 38% margin. The grassroots organizing in Lafayette was unlike anything we have seen anywhere else, which is why we so often return to stories about LUS Fiber (see related stories).

On the Media Devotes Segment to Municipal Broadband Networks

You may recall that we reported on Johnston's last book, The Fine Print: How big companies use plain english to rob you blind. In this short interview from On the Media called "America's Lagging Internet," Johnston and Gladstone touch on how gigantic corporate interests and their political affiliates try to put a stop to municipal networks.

The two also discuss successes in municipal networks, proposed policy changes, and how we need to recognize that access to broadband is a key to our future economic health. Johnston stresses once again how our refusal to accept the value of broadband infrastructure contributes to our slow networks, our low adoption rates, and the lack of competition.

Worth listening to!

Community Broadband Bits 19 - John St. Julien from Lafayette

Today we invited John St. Julien, of Lafayette Pro Fiber fame, on episode 19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. John was an essential piece of the organizing effort in Lafayette's efforts to build its own community fiber network. In many ways, he has worked to ensure the "community" piece is emphasized over the "fiber" piece.

John and I discuss the organizing effort in Lafayette that led to their successful referendum in 2005, including some lessons for others who want to organize their own communities. We also talk about some of the lengths that big cable and telephone companies will go to stop communities. In the course of our discussion, we talk about a push poll that backfired on those trying to scare voters -- we made the full audio available here.

John will be back on a future show to offer more thoughts on how local activists can work within the community to encourage a local, publicly owned solution.

For background on the LUS Fiber network in Lafayette, we strongly recommend our Broadband at the Speed of Light report, which features a case study of the network. Also, four episodes ago, we interviewed Geoff Daily about his work to develop apps on the LUS Fiber network.

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 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.