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Grover Beach Chooses Local Partner to Improve Local Connectivity for Businesses

After several years of considering options for a municipal network, the community of Grover Beach, California, is improving local connectivity options through a collaboration with private partner Digital West

According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the City struck a deal last fall with the local firm that will provide gigabit connectivity to local business customers. A city staff report states that Grover Beach will install and own a series of conduit that will house fiber owned by Digital West. 

The company, a data storage and web hosting firm located in nearby San Luis Obispo, will manage the fiber network. Digital West will lease conduit space from the city for 5.1% of its gross revenue from its operation of the private portion of the system. The initial lease is for a 10-year term. The company will also transfer ownership of some of the fiber to the city for public purposes. San Luis Obispo (SLO) County also wants to connect its facilities in the area and will contribute to the cost of the project. It appears as though SLO County will use the fiber provided to Grover Beach.

Grover Beach will contribute $500,000; SLO County will contribute $268,000; Digital West will contribute $159,000 to the total cost of $927,000 of the project. The parties agree that the city's contribution will be capped at $500,000. The staff report recommends an interdepartmental loan to finance the city's portion of the conduit installation.

Digital West has been an instrumental player in the city's quest for improved connectivity for several years. The company provides Internet service in SLO County and manages a private network offering connectivity, colocation, and cloud services to commercial clients. 

Grover Beach is also the location of the Pacific Crossing trans-Pacific fiber cable, connecting to Shima, Japan. In 2009, Digital West began working with Grover Beach to find ways to take advantage of the pipe. The city and Digital West have sence developed a Technology Master Plan and an Implementation Plan.

AT&T, Level 3, CenturyLink, and Verizon operate in the area, but Digital West plans to offer more affordable options. The city's vision includes providing more options for the numerous small businesses and to encourage more home based business. The staff report quoted Digital West estimated pricing at $100 per month for 100 Mbps and $150 per month for 1 gigabit service. Similar services in the area run between $250 per month and $500 per month according to the report.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 9

Susan Crawford’s latest piece on municipal broadband discussed a real problem that mayors of communities can have a definite impact in helping resolve: the digital divide.

Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In Massachusetts, WWLP’s Anthony Hill reported on the small city of Leyden, whose residents may finally be getting high speed Internet access. The city is supporting a $2 million project, which will be up for a vote by residents this coming spring. 

The Monroe Courier reported this week on how 25% of Connecticut towns could soon be a formidable force against big cable. The cities are joining together to demand better connectivity and to make the state the nation’s first Gigabit State. Our story on Connecticut here.

“The response from our state’s towns has been overwhelming,” Consumer Counsel Katz said.  “I’ve heard over and over that municipal officials are frustrated with available internet speeds and the cost to their towns of upgrading internet networks.  These 46 municipalities have made the decision to take control of the situation.  From the high school to the town hall to the library, the demand for faster internet speeds and greater bandwidth is ever-increasing. Businesses face the same challenges, and we know more residents than ever are asking the same question: How do we get faster, cheaper, more reliable internet? Partnering with the private sector to examine the best way to build and finance these Gig networks is the first step in making them a reality in Connecticut.”

From California’s Mendocino County, we found yet another reason why communities should consider municipal fiber: residents there are still dealing with damage inflicted after an AT&T broadband outage left people with out phone and Internet for nearly 45 hours! Adam Randall with the Ukiah Daily Journal reported that officials say the outage was due in part to AT&T’s refusal to upgrade its copper wiring.

“AT&T's unwillingness to address repair issues in Mendocino County in a timely manner is something that has continued to irk [chairman of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, Jim] Moorehead, along with other officials, including Congressman Jared Huffman.

Some of the affected customers are now experiencing landline outages, with the biggest concern being those who are not able to connect with 911 in case of an emergency, Moorehead said.”

Joan Engebretson wrote about North Dakota’s surprisingly high fiber-to-the-home percentage

…because North Dakota is so rural, 96% of the state (on a geographic basis) is served by one of 18 small rural telecom companies – and those companies have made deploying FTTH a high priority.

The small companies’ rural status also has enabled them to benefit from several USDA programs. According to a report released in late December, the USDA has invested more than $330 million in broadband in North Dakota since 2009…

Brian Heaton with GovTech covered Iowa governor Terry Branstad’s plan to “connect every Iowan.” 

“For Iowa to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace, we must connect every acre to high-speed broadband Internet,” Centers said. “Not only does that mean connecting agriculture to high-speed Internet, but it also means making sure Iowa’s schools have the ability to give our children access to educational resources available online and main street businesses can connect with the global marketplace.”

Google and Title II

The FCC’s decision on reclassifying the Internet as a utility could be music to Google Fiber’s ears.

TechDirt’s Karl Bode again weighed in on how ISPs use utility pole rights to block both private and municipal broadband projects:

Bureaucratic pole attachment rights negotiations are already sometimes annoyingly cumbersome, but they're also one of many ways incumbent ISPs thwart competitive efforts. Municipal broadband efforts in Utah, for example, were hindered by a litany of Qwest (now CenturyLink) lawsuits aimed at blocking local community ISP Utopia from having access to the company's poles. In Austin, where AT&T owns around 20% of the city's utility poles, Google Fiber ran into some initial obstacles getting pole attachment rights because AT&T argued Google wasn't officially a telecom company. 

And Martin Blanc with BidnessEtc continued to explain how the search engine giant would benefit greatly from reclassification as Title II.  

“[Google Director of Communications Law Austin Schlick] told the FCC in a letter last week that such reclassification will promote competition in the industry and induce more investment in the sector, and will also promote the provision of broadband Internet to more markets.”

Reid Schram with Epoch Times broke it down to Google's bottom line:

“Google is asking for this because as they’ve been trying to roll out their high speed Google Fiber service to different areas, they have run into major problems getting permission to access things like utility poles and cable carrying conduits. AT&T and Comcast have long been afforded ease of access to these key pieces of infrastructure, as they are classified as a cable tv provider, and thus a utility."

2015

A couple of writers this week commented that America’s slow-to-the-draw connectivity may be a good thing– it could serve as a wake up call for communities that want to take back their local authority. 

Bruce Kushnick predicted 2015 will include a lot of hair-pulling by cable and phone customers: 

... There is one shining light -- A wise friend of mine once said, "It has to get so bad that people actually notice." With 4 million people commenting about Net Neutrality, the so called "ISPs" being considered the 'most hated companies in America' in 2013 and Time Warner and Comcast being the most hated companies in 2014 -- out-stripping every other industry, or that the major media actually used the term "Title II"-- maybe, just maybe, the sheep have woken up from their slumber.

But, right now, for communications, the year 2015 looks like it will just suck to be a customer of America's telecom-cable trust."

The Washington Post’s Brian Fung reported on the proposed new definition of broadband: 25 Mbps. He said that Wheeler’s recommendation recognizes that the government is finally catching up to technology advancements:

“In 2012, the most recent year for which the FCC has published data, 94 percent of Americans already had access to download speeds of at least 3 Mbps. While that may have been enough for most people then, it represents the bare minimum now."

Top of the Dung Heap Awards 

Tech Dirt’s Karl Bode and Erika Rawes with The Wall Street Cheat Sheet listed the Top 10 WORST businesses in 2014. Spoiler Alert: SEVEN out of the 10 from Big Telecom. We could have been knocked over by a feather by shear surprise… not really.

"It’s frustrating. And although the customer service rep claims to “understand you are frustrated today,” there is only so much these reps can do, given they are trained to utilized the most inexpensive and cost-effective potential “solutions” for the business, as opposed to doing what’s easiest and most convenient for the customer.

On top of the fact that customer service reps are often trained to lean toward inexpensive solutions that drive customers crazy, most reps are also working for sub-par wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), customer service reps are paid median hourly wages of around $14.85 per hour and those on the lower end of the wage scale earn less than $9.50 per hour. However, in 2001, the median hourly wage for these representatives was $12.23 — or $16.31 in today’s money.

Not only have wages declined for these workers, automated systems and online systems have reduced the need for them. Sure, customers want human interaction, but they also want that interaction to be friendly and productive. This personal and friendly interaction is something so many businesses lack."

But you can take (some) solace in this: you may now find it easier to complain about that telephone and cable service! 

The FCC unveiled its new “one-stop shop” complaint site for filing and tracking complaints about robocalls and fraudulent charges. Teresa McUsic with SavvyConsumer gave a full list of where and how to complain early, and often.

Mendocino County Analyzes Losses From Communications Outage

In November, the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC) released a report documenting the results of an online survey to determine the effects of a summer communications outage. The Willits News reported that the survey revealed losses of over $215,000 in the county, although actual losses likely reach the millions.

In August, an accident wiped out Internet, telephone, cell, and 911 services for eight communities along the coast in Mendocino County. AT&T aerial fiber optic cable was destroyed. Approximately 17,400 people lost access to 911 services. Depending on the location, 911 service was out for 24 to 45 hours.

Only about 6.5 percent of the people in Mendocino County participated in the survey according to the report. Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were directly impacted.

The article quotes the BAMC report:

According to the BAMC, the outage was lengthy because "the AT&T backbone fiber network was not configured to be redundant nor diverse with protection routing. This was not due to the lack of fiber in the surrounding routes. AT&T did provide diverse fiber and protection for their cable station, but elected not to provide the same for the surrounding community and emergency services."

Mendocino County has been working for several years on an initiative to improve connectivity along California's north coast. They are now part of a larger collaboration called the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The incident in Mendocino County is much like a similar event in 2010 in which Cook and Lake Counties in Minnesota were cut off in the same way. At that time, a single Qwest line was cut and, since there was no redundancy, 911 service, Internet, and many business services came to a screeching halt.

Yet another reminder of the risks that come with depending on distant mega-corporations for essential infrastructure.

California Law Offers New Way to Finance Broadband Projects

On September 29th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that may make building community networks in his state just a bit easier. The memorably-named “Assembly Bill No. 2292” allows broadband projects to be included among the types of public works that can be financed using Infrastructure Financing Districts (IFDs).

IFDs are entities formed by regional coalitions of city, county, or other governmental units. They are designed to provide upfront funding for infrastructure projects that have broad regional benefits (highways, water systems, etc.), and are paid for by earmarking the increased property or other tax revenue the projects are expected to generate over a specified future period (usually decades). 

The idea behind IFDs - capturing future value to provide upfront funding to the projects that will create that value - is much like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts in other states. We have seen communities in other states turn to TIFs for broadband networks build outs, perhaps most notably throughout Indiana

The text of the bill is all of three lines long, and simply amends the existing authorizing law for IFDs to explicitly allow infrastructure financing districts to be used for “public capital facilities or projects that include broadband.” While the old wording of the statute did not explicitly reject using IFDs for broadband projects, it did not explicitly allow it either.

Removing the uncertainty around the issue should help encourage local governments to consider network investments, especially since one of the major unpredictable costs is incumbent lawsuits. This change will slightly reduce the opportunity for incumbents to slow a municipal network with a lawsuit.

The bill was written and sponsored by Representative Rob Bonta, who represents parts of both Oakland and San Leandro in the Bay Area. It is no coincidence that San Leandro is a city seeing the benefits of robust fiber optic infrastructure, and San Leandro mayor reportedly pushed the idea to Rep. Bonta, who made the case for the bill as an economic development driver:

Broadband provides cities and counties with an opportunity to stimulate the economic climate by providing businesses with the competitive advantage of being connected to high speed fiber optic networks. AB 2292 will help boost local economies, create local jobs and increase access for schools, libraries and other public facilities to state of the art telecommunications networks. 

While AB 2292 shows a growing awareness of the need for more public investment in broadband, it is far from a silver bullet. The political process necessary to create an IFD is cumbersome and challenging:

IFDs have to be approved by all the local agencies that would be contributing tax revenue, local property owners have to be consulted and then it goes through a series of public votes, including two – to form the IFD and then to issue bonds – that require a two-thirds majority to pass.

These are huge hurdles to clear for any major public project, and the California legislature recognized this by creating a new category of Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) in this year’s session that are more flexible and lower the bar to a single public vote and 55 percent approval. Unfortunately, the bill creating EIFDs (SB 628) does not explicitly include or exclude broadband projects, falling into the same murky middle ground that the old IFD legislation did.

The end result of the California legislative session is a partial win for community broadband networks. They get new access to an existing financing tool, but only a taste of the new and improved system. The goal for the future should be clear: get next generation broadband projects definitively included in the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District statute, so more local communities can start to enjoy the benefits of fiber the way San Leandro and Santa Monica do today.    

City Net Brings 100 Gbps to Santa Monica, California

For one of the fastest municipal networks in the U.S., travel to Santa Monica and sample City Net. The City just announced network capacity and speed upgrades to 100 Gbps. City Net is available to many local businesses and connects key community anchor institutions.

The entertainment, tech, and healthcare industries have a strong presence in Santa Monica and City Net officials expect them to be among the first to take advantage of the upgrade. Other area businesses are applauding the upgrade. From the press release:

Jeremy Foint, IT Manager of Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel overwhelmingly approves, “With the annual American Film Market campus, tech expos, and Fortune500 corporate events convening in Santa Monica, it’s comforting to know Loews can accommodate the most demanding network requirements. I know CityNet will take care of us.”

We dug deep into the story of this publicly owned network for our case study, Santa Monica City Net: In Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. We also spoke with CIO Jory Wolf for episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Santa Monica took a measured approach by reinvesting funds they saved when they ended leased services. They now offer dark and lit fiber. The community has won numerous awards.

Business, Education Call on Culver City to Invest in Muni Fiber in L.A. County

Last fall, Culver City hired a consultant to develop a design and business plan for a possible fiber network project. Recently, prominent business leaders and parents of local school children have publicly expressed their support for a municipal network.

Culver City, also known as "The Heart of Screenland" is situated in west L.A. County, surrounded primarily by the City of Los Angeles. Approximately 39,000 people live in this community that is beginning to draw in the tech industry. In addition to Disney's Maker Studios, Apple owns Culver City's Beats Electronic, known for high-tech headphones. Culver City wants to stay current to compete with Santa Monica, home to a number of tech businesses that connect to its publicly owned City Net.

The L.A. Weekly reports billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of NantWorks, has encouraged city leaders to move forward with the project. His specific request is that five business districts be included in the network deployment. NantWorks, located in one of those districts, provides cloud-based operating systems to support telehealth. According to the article, Soon-Shiong is rallying other business leaders:

Soon-Shiong has been encouraging other business owners in the area to support the plan, which is expected to come before the City Council sometime in October.

"He feels this is key," said Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for Soon-Shiong. "He’s talked to various city officials and told them how important he thinks it is, not only to his business, but to attracting additional businesses to Culver City."

Local elected officials report positive feedback as the city reaches out to determine interest in the project:

"We're still attempting to gauge the degree of interest," said Councilman Andy Weissman, though he added, "I'm confident it's going to happen."

The business community is not the only sector in Culver City seeking better connectivity. The Front Page Online recently published an op-ed from the group United Parents of Culver City. Regarding Soon-Shiong's statement about the importance of the project, the President of the parents' organization writes:

We agree.

We will take it a step further: This is key to the future of our schools, too.

...

Parents interested in technology issues are well aware that bandwidth limitations have created problems in our district. Those problems only will grow worse as technology becomes more integrated in the classroom environment and as online testing becomes more prevalent.

Fiber Infrastructure Helping Turn San Leandro into Tech Hub

San Leandro, a Bay Area city of about 85,000 bordering Oakland, is in the news for its fiber optic infrastructure policies. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News describes how this post-industrial city is turning itself into a center for tech jobs and investment through cheap rents, streamlined permitting, and the ease and low cost of fiber connectivity for businesses in some areas of town. 

We featured San Leandro in an episode of our Broadband Bits podcast last year, when Christopher spoke with San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta and a Lit San Leandro consultant Judi Clark. Acosta and Clark gave the details on San Leandro’s innovative public-private partnership, which combines smart public investments in conduits and “dig once” concepts with private investment in the actual fiber optic strands themselves. The city has been able to access fiber for it’s own needs at minimal cost, while some businesses have access to up to 10Gbps connectivity, either through privately provided lit fiber or leasing their own dark fiber. 

As the Mercury News article notes, the fiber assets have begun to pay off. Several technology parks have taken up residence in the area, including a hub of 3-D printing companies, sharing space and ideas while taking advantage of incredible data transfer speeds. One entrepreneur quoted in the article describes the office park, located in a former car factory, as “the world's largest cluster of 3-D desktop printer companies.”

The article also notes the growing awareness of San Leandro’s economic comeback, and the role played by fiber optic infrastructure: 

"San Leandro is establishing itself as a city-scale lab for innovation. Only months ago, (it) was a relatively unknown Bay Area city," said Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global.

Lit San Leandro, the private company that worked with the city to do the initial fiber runs, is apparently also in talks with other Bay Area cities on potential similar projects. However, it is worth noting that there is no plan for connecting residents and this model may in fact make it more difficult to expand residental gigabit access.

The business case for residential access is always hard but is improved when high margin businesses can be connected at the same time. But when high margin businesses have their needs met first, there is little incentive for a profit-maximizing firm to invest in connecting lower margin customers, a phenomenon called cream-skimming in economics. 

Communities should understand there is no magic bullet in solving the problem of expanding high quality Internet access. Lit San Leandro is seeing success but may not be the best model for all communities.

Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

Conduit Policy the Foundation for Affordable Gig Service in the Bay Area

Smart conduit policy, implemented in 1999, is now paying off in Brentwood. The Bay Area community of 52,000 recently reached an agreement with Sonic.net to bring fiber to the community via city-owned conduit. The partners anticipate a fall 2015 project completion.

The City requires all new development be constructed with conduit to the premise via a joint trench. Over the past 15 years, the amount of conduit has expanded to approximately 150 miles reaching more than 8,000 homes and all commercial construction. Brentwood has grown exponentially in the past 15 years. Between 2000 and 2010, its population more than doubled as it transitioned from farms to suburbs.

A number of other communities have implemented similar conduit policies to improve connectivity options. Mount Vernon, Washington, and Sandy, Oregon, are only a few towns where conduit policy for new development has facilitated fiber deployment. 

We checked in with Kerry Breen, Assistant Finance Director for Brentwood, who offered more details on the partnership. Sonic.net will pay to lease the conduit, connect City facilities, provide dedicated fiber to the City, fill in any gaps in the conduit network, and maintain the network. The ISP will also develop a pilot program to install conduit in a pre-1999 subdivision containing 250-500 homes. 

Sonic.net will connect public facilities that are adjacent to existing conduit. If the City wants to connect facilities situated in other areas, it will pay Sonic.net to complete the connections. Brentwood will save approximately $15,000 per year immediately because Sonic.net will provide gigabit service to City Hall at no charge.

The company will also pull fiber through traffic conduit and connect City traffic signals at no extra cost in these locations. If Sonic.net ultimately provides Wi-Fi, the City will have access at no charge, increasing efficiencies and reducing costs for municipal employees that work in the field such as city inspectors or public safety personnel.

In May, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the agreement. The Contra Costa Times reported on the proceeding:

"This basically takes Brentwood from being a bike path or footpath in technology to being a superhighway in technology," Vice Mayor Joel Bryant said before council members voted. "I'm very, very excited about this. This is an opportunity to improve the quality of life for our residents, the quality of businesses we are able to attract."

Business customers will enroll on a per-desk basis, paying $39.95 per month per desk for gigabit service. 

Residential customers with existing conduit who agree to pay a one-time connection fee will receive free broadband service (although not gigabit speeds) for five years. Residential gigabit service will cost $39.95 per month, which includes phone service. Homes that are not on the conduit network can purchase 20 Mbps service via copper for $39.95 per month.

In areas of town where 30% or more of eligible residential customers take services from Sonic.net, schools will receive free gigabit service. Sonic.net is taking an approach much like Google Fiber, developing an interest list to determine where to deploy. Interested residents can sign up online; Sonic.net will begin connecting customers within nine months.

"We Should Build A Muni In Vallejo"

The Times Herald in Vallejo posted a letter to the editor in early May from Chris Platzer; we want to share it with our readers. There are approximately 115,000 people in Vallejo and people like Platzer are looking for ways to better connectivity options. In the article, Platzer suggests his community take advantage of several well-considered steps to deploy its own fiber network.

Platzer suggests the community begin with an investment to create a network to connect a series of public facilities. He notes savings from discontinued leased lines could then be reinvested to incrementally expand the initial investment. He suggests maximizing use of fiber and conduit planted years ago; fiber planted with state funds to create and intelligent traffic system.

This approach would allow Vallejo to build a vast fiber optic network without issuing debt. The plan should encourage extra fiber, so when high tech companies ask for access to its fiber, Vallejo can oblige.

As more businesses request access, i.e. Kaiser and the CHP call center, a city fiber network can develop various ways to meet these needs. It can lease dark fiber to businesses that want it, including other carriers that want to connect their customers. 

Platzer also notes that Vallejo could lease infrastructure to ISPs to generate revenue for the network and the general fund. A muni would open up other possibilities for  and improve access for the community at large.

The accumulated savings could fund many public amenities, including free WiFi through out the City. In addition to synchronizing all the traffic signals in the City, the addition of video cameras on the network would assist public safety, and drivers would have several ways of getting real-time parking information. The telecommunications services the city could make available (telephone, cable and broadband) to local residents and/or business would have a profoundly positive impact on the General Fund and do much to enhance Vallejo as a "digital" destination!

We published a case study on how Santa Monica built a network using this very model.