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Small Town Volunteers in Massachusetts Begin Pole Inventory

Volunteers in Shutesbury will fan out this weekend to perform a "pole inventory blitz" reports the GazetteNet.com. The town of approximately 1,800 people sits near Leverett and faces many of the same difficulties with connectivity. 

Shutesbury and Leverett were working together a few years ago hoping to develop a solution to bring infrastructure to both communities. The two communities approached Verizon and Comcast asking for better connectivity, but their requests led to nothing. Eventually, Leverett became frustrated and broke out on their own. They are now deploying their own fiber network.

One of the first steps in determining the feasibility and costs to deploy a fiber network is accurately evaluating assets. Many local communities do not have an up-to-date inventory of utility poles or what entities own those poles. In Lake County, Minnesota, Frontier Communications asserted ownership of utility poles in the town of Two Harbors after fiber had been strung on those poles. Unfortunately, the county's records had not been revisited in some time and Frontier was able to produce records put ownership in question. The project was significantly delayed; planners eventually moved more fiber underground to avoid many of those poles. Pole inventories and due diligence, as in Shutesbury, help avoid delays and unanticipated cost increases. (Read all about Lake County's project in our recent report, All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models For Exanding Fiber Internet Access)

Most Shutesbury residents use Verizon DSL, satellite, or dial-up and the community knows it needs better access. In an effort to obtain connectivity that will ensure fast, affordable, reliable services in the future, Shutesbury is taking inspiration from its neighbor. The city does not have any specific plans for a municipal network but is realistic about lack of interest from private investment.

The committee originally formed to work on the issue with Leverett began meeting again last April and has organized volunteers to get the process started. On November 8th, 60 volunteers will go out in teams of 3 in order to accurately collect information on utility poles in the 27.2 square-mile town. They will use a special iPad app developed by one of the Shutesbury Broadband Committee Co-Chairwomen, Gayle Huntress.

Asha Strazzero-Wild, another co-chairwoman of the Broadband Committee told the GazetteNet that the community is painfully aware of the lack of connectivity in Shutesbury:

“Everyone who’s involved in this is saying we need broadband and we need it yesterday.”

Verizon Engaged in IP Transition With No Rules: Where is the FCC?

Public Knowledge, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), and a long list of other public interest groups, recently filed a letter with the FCC urging the agency to launch an investigation. Specifically, the alliance asks the FCC to look into reports that Verizon is forcing customers to move from copper lines to fiber IP-based service. From the letter:

The Commission must begin investigating this issue quickly, lest inaction send carriers the message that abandoning customers in violation of their legal obligations is acceptable. Delay will only lead to carriers hanging up on more customers at a time when basic communications service is more important than ever.

In California, New York, New Jersey, and DC, large corporate carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, and Frontier are not maintaining traditional copper lines. Public Knowledge and TURN note in their letter that in Maryland, the state's Office of the People's Counsel found that "Verizon routinely migrates customers from the copper network to unregulated services with inadequate procedures for customer notice and consent."

We noted last summer that Verizon faced criticism for transitioning residents in the Catskills and in New York City to VoiceLink without disclosing the full limitations of the service. This was the tip of the iceberg. Verizon has failed to repair copper lines when requested. People in some areas of New York City have been told they must upgrade to FiOS in order to get phone service. There are even some customers who have been told they cannot order stand alone telephone service.

Because IP-based services are not yet regulated, carriers will not be obliged to provide services to everyone or to maintain communications infrastructure as they must with copper lines. 

The full text of the letter [PDF] and exhibits [PDF] provide details on Verizon's purposeful neglect of existing copper lines, customer service tactics to push customers on to IP services, and more about the company's nation-wide strategy. From the letter:

The problems that have garnered public attention so far are geographically widespread, and the Commission must take seriously the likelihood that these problems are occurring in many more states, leaving an unknown number of people with substandard basic communications service. This state of affairs is unacceptable. The Commission must now assert its leadership in this area, work with states where consumers are being denied adequate basic service, investigate places where customers are losing reliable basic voice service, and ensure that our country is living up to its commitment to provide basic communications service to everyone.

TURN wants Verizon customers to contact them, if they have experienced similar problems with the provider.

Crain's New York Business: New York City Conduit Jam Packed

Crain's New York Business recently published an article on the crowded conduit under New York City. The article complements the April 7 edition of This Week in Crain's New York podcast, hosted by Don Mathisen.

Empire City Subway (ECS), the crumbling subterranean network of conduit for telephone wires constructed in 1888, is so crowded underground construction crews regularly need to detour to reach their destination. Routes are no longer direct, adding precious nanoseconds to data delivery - a significant problem for competitive finance companies.

Verizon owns ECS and, according to the article, does not operate with competitors in mind:

But businesses that lease space in the ECS network for their own fiber-optic cable say that Verizon doesn't worry about keeping the system clear for others. Conduits are filled with cables from defunct Internet providers that went belly-up after the dot-com bust in 2000. Verizon itself left severed copper wire in lower Manhattan ducts after installing a fiber-optic network following Superstorm Sandy. (The company says the cables could be easily removed, if needed.)

Stealth Communications spent an extra $100,000 in March to re-route its fiber from Rockefeller Center to Columbus Circle. Conduit was so congested along the planned route, the independent ISP needed to go 6,500 feet out of its way. The re-route added almost two weeks to the project.

Crain's contacted Chris Mitchell from ILSR:

"It's foolish to think that we can just leave it to the market to use this limited space under the street efficiently," Mr. Mitchell said. "The fiber needs are tremendous, and if New York over time can expand access to a lot of fiber at low cost, we'll see all kinds of [innovation]."

He added that New York might be best served by the public-utility model embraced by Stockholm and Santa Monica, Calif., and under consideration now in Baltimore, in which the city builds a fiber backbone. Internet service providers lease access to that fiber at low cost and compete to offer specialized services as part of the "last-mile" connection to the home or business.

Possible solutions being considered include municipal fiber to lower income neighborhoods, requiring changes from ECS, and stringing fiber along aboveground transportation tracks. The ultimate goal is to create conditions that will increase competition

But something must be done to improve ECS, industry veterans say; otherwise, the conduits will only become harder to use. "The more you have to get around, the more cable you put in the street," said Brad Ickes, president of independent provider Optical Communications Group. (OCG and Verizon have been locked in a legal dispute since 2008.) "And then everything gets more congested, because everyone is going that way."

Community Fiber Is Not Just About the Fiber

The focus on community networks tends to linger on the technology - FTTH is much faster and more reliable than cable or DSL services. But community fiber is only partially about the superior technology, as evidenced by a recent story over at Broadband Reports - "Verizon has been Quietly Increasing FiOS Fees."

We don't see this behavior in Chattanooga, which has gone over four years without raising the fees for Internet access to telephone services. Community networks rarely increase their fees because the cost of delivering Internet and telephone services declines over time. Television prices go up, though less rapidly for community networks than big cable firms because the big firms demand a bigger margin.

Further, we see that Verizon has been sneaking its price increases into things like the router rental fee, as Comcast and most providers have long done. At one point, renting the Comcast modem cost me $2, then $5, now $7, and in some places $9 I hear. Per month. I bought my own now - took less than a year to payback. But my bill has gone up even more since then, so I didn't gain much.

Now Verizon is even charging for battery backup units:

In addition to price hikes, promotion cuts, the new gateway rental fee and the activation fee, Verizon also recently started charging users for the backup batteries in their ONT units, first charging users for backup battery replacement, then charging users to get any backup battery in the unit to begin with.

Anytime you hear someone arguing that munis should only be able to build their own networks where the private sector absolutely refuses, recall that community owned networks are not simply a consolation prize, they are often superior. Better customer service, lower rates over the long term, and more likely to invest in upgrades as needed - there is no good reason to condition this investment on the refusal of some other distant company to provide an inferior alternative.

Over the Top Video: A Peak or a Path Forward?

About six months ago, I was quite bullish on advances in over-the-top (OTT) video making it easier for communities to build fiber networks because they would no longer have to deal with the challenges of securing and delivering traditional cable television channels. I explored these challenges in a recent post.

OTT video includes Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, and similar services that deliver video content over your broadband connection, ideally to your television. Last summer, we were anticipating more devices and services that would expand OTT options.

In the time since, I have been disappointed. There have been advances - the Google Chromecast dongle works well (if you have a good Wi-Fi signal near your TV - no ethernet option unfortunately). But Chromecast works with a limited suite of video services.

Hulu works well enough, but seems to have fewer shows that I want to watch available on Hulu plus. Also, Comcast owns it and won't always be shackled by the temporary conditions it agreed to in order to secure permission to buy NBC Universal.

Aereo continues to be a very interesting model but will be fighting in the courts for awhile yet, creating an air of uncertainty over its future. Additionally, its business model hurts public access media (locally produced content), which often depends on franchise fees that Aereo and broadband providers don't have to pay. On the other hand, Aereo solves the problem of getting sports programming over the top and that is a big deal.

We had high hopes for an announcement from Intel that it would begin marketing a service offering television channels over the top but it ran into the steep barriers to entry we have previously noted. Now the Intel effort is dead to us: Verizon has purchased it.

Maybe Sony or Samsung or some other manufacturer will suddenly come out with a breakthrough, but given my experience with their user interfaces, I would be shocked if it were usable, to say nothing of desirable.

It is distinctly possible that we will see breakthroughs that make OTT video more accessible and therefore help to drive new investment in fiber networks that don't require large investments in cable head end technology and acquiring hundreds of channel contracts. But I think it more likely that we are going to see OTT content hold steady or even draw back - we may see still fewer popular programs available on Hulu in the near future, for instance.

Regardless, we should not assume that we are in the midst of a linear progression from little OTT video to much more. Given the massive power of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and the channel owners, we could well see a return to content only being available to those who pay ever-increasing fees to the local cable monopoly.

There is a reason Google decided it needed to offer television channels to get enough subscribers to make their investment worthwhile. Communities may not need the same high subscriber rates that Google wants, but it is a sign of where they think the market is staying.

Network Neutrality Decision and Importance of Community Owned Networks

In a decision announced a few hours ago, the DC Circuit of Appeals has largely ruled against the Open Internet, or network neutrality. These are rules established by the Federal Communications Commission to prevent massive ISPs like Comcast and AT&T from degrading or blocking access to certain sites on the Internet. Decision here [pdf].

The goal is to prevent these big firms from being able to discriminate - to pick winners and losers. For instance, Comcast could charge subscribers an extra $10 per month to access Netflix while not charging to visit similar sites that it owns. The rules were intended to prevent that.

However, the FCC has a history of decisions that have benefited big telecom corporations more than citizens and local businesses. Those decisions limited how it can protect the public interest on matters of Internet access.

This court decision decided that the way the FCC was attempting to enforce network neutrality was not allowed because of how it has decided to (de)regulate the Internet generally. In essence, the FCC said that it didn't want to regulate the Internet except for the ways it wanted to regulate the Internet. And the Court said, somewhat predictably, that approach was too arbitrary. Moving forward, the FCC has the power to enforce this regulation, but it will have to change the way the Internet is "classified," in FCC lingo - which means changing those historic decisions that benefited the big corporations.

Groups like Free Press are pushing to make this change because it will ensure the FCC has the authority it needs to ensure everyone has access to the open Internet.

The lesson for us is that communities cannot trust Washington, DC, to ensure that residents and local businesses have universal, fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. Communities should be investing in themselves to build networks that are accountable to the public and will not engage in anti-consumer practices merely to maximize their profits. Such behavior is inappropriate on matters of essential infrastructure.

Even if the FCC now gets this right and protects the public interest, that may last only as long as this FCC is in power. Communities that trust the FCC to protect them in this matter of incredible importance to their local economy may find that with a new administration, companies like Comcast have a free hand to again insert themselves as a tollbooth between subscribers and the Internet.

As a final word, this is nothing new. In putting together the Standard Oil monopoly, Rockefeller knew the value of cutting special deals with the railroads to benefit his firm at the expense of any potential competitor. When the Schuylkill Canal was built in Pennsylvania, the state decreed that the canal owner could not have an interest in mining, because the ownership of the canal meant it could disadvantage any competitors that needed to use it to ship their materials.

Network neutrality is a common sense regulation so long as we have to deal with monopolies like Comcast - we cannot stand to let Comcast or any other firm impose itself as a gatekeeper between us and anyone with whom we want to communicate or do business.

Addendum: Thanks to Harold Feld for noting that the opinion reinforced the FCC's Section 706 authority, which we believe could be used by the FCC to strike down state laws that limit local authority to build networks:

As we explain in this opinion, the Commission has established that section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 vests it with affirmative authority to enact measures encouraging the deployment of broadband infrastructure.

Read our further coverage of how this decision impacts muni networks.

Will Alexandria Consider A Municipal Network?

Alexandria, Virginia's City Council is talking about broadband. In a recent DelRay Patch article, Drew Hansen reported that Councilman Justin Wilson recently addressed the Del Ray Citizen's Association to advocate for a plan to improve local connectivity. From the article:

“We’re still dealing with severe budget issues and dropping $300 million on a huge broadband system is not a reality,” he said. “But the first thing we need is a plan.”

According to the article, Alexandria has traveled down this path before with attempts to work with private providers:

In the late 2000s, the city saw a deal with EarthLink to bring free municipal Wi-Fi and competitive service to consumers fall through when the CEO suddenly passed away. Then Verizon made a decision not to build any new FiOS networks as Alexandria was looking for a provider, leaving the city in the lurch.

As is often the case, Verizon is not convinced Alexandria is worth the investment:

“I reached out to Verizon a few months ago and they didn’t even want to meet,” Wilson said. “I think that shows where we are. The city is going to have to be more aggressive. I think we’ve reached the end of big infrastructure build and we’re seeing some new models.”

Wilson raised the possibility of conduit installation in Alexandria in preparation for fiber installation. The community will soon be updating sewers in parts of town. 

“We have a responsibility to our residents to create competition,” Wilson said. “If the private sector doesn’t do it, there are some things we can do.”

Lakeland Dark Fiber In Depth - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #58

In Florida, Lakeland is one of several communities that has built a dark fiber network in a low-risk bid to expand connectivity for anchor institutions and to spur economic development. City of Lakeland Fiber Optics Supervisor Paul Meyer joins us for episode #58 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Meyer explains why Lakeland began offering dark fiber leases and how it has benefited the community - most notably by allowing ultrafast communications at low rates. The network has expanded several times over the years in conjunction with other projects, including bringing smart traffic management to more intersections.

In addition to saving money for municipal buildings and the school district, the network has helped the hospital take advantage of modern technology and helped to lure new businesses to the community. This interview complements our previous story about Lakeland's 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 22 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.

Locally Owned Networks Protect Privacy and Limit Consumer Surveillance

Since the story broke about the NSA domestic spying practices, debate among concerned citizens has revolved around the Big Brother surveillance model. Most of us shudder at the thought of our federal agencies from DC watching, noting, and recording our actions. However, there is another type of Internet surveillance that largely escapes notice and likewise threatens our liberty. 

Both types of surveillance are perversely encouraged by a poorly regularly market that allows big corporations to profit from violating our privacy.

We have long known that our online habits are being recorded and combined with other personal data that allows companies to show us personalized ads. But Free Press recently offering a compelling explanation for how this model can harm us. From the Dana Floberg article:

And about those “personalized ads” — this isn’t about Facebook learning you prefer Coke over Pepsi. This is about corporations targeting us where we’re vulnerable. This is about your Latina neighbor who sees ads for risky high-interest credit cards. This is about your cousin who just got laid off and now sees ad after ad selling him dangerous fast-cash offers and subprime mortgages. This is about your friend who lives in a rougher part of town and sees higher prices whenever he shops online. This is about all of us.

These ads aren’t personalized — they’re predatory.

Floberg goes on to describe how shopping sites alter prices based on income and location so more affluent shoppers can access better prices and coupons. These sites both use and reinforce stereotypes as they take advantage of the most vulnerable in our society.

Without laws to protect consumers, there is little we can do to stop this predatory behavior. Just as the market encourages corporations to violate our privacy to sell its goods, big corporations are also profiting in their work with law enforcement at all levels.

An AP article by Anne Flaherty notes that AT&T charges $325 to activate a wiretap and $10 per day to maintain it. Verizon charges the government $775 for the first month and $500 per month after that to continue it. It is hard to believe these charges are in line with actual costs. 

Meanwhile, the other massive providers are undoubtedly aware of what allegedly happened when Qwest CEO Nacchio refused to help the NSA illegally spy on Americans - the NSA cancelled a lucrative contract with Qwest. This provides a major disincentive to follow the law, particularly when they can expect retroactive immunity after violating the law for years.

What would become of any provider who dared to say "no" to the NSA? We found out when Xmission, serving consumers via UTOPIA said "no" - absolutely nothing happened. No fearful complicity at local Xmission. Xmission is focused on serving its customers, not Wall Street.

Massive corporations collect information from millions of customers; the more data, the higher the value. Even if a municipal network tried to collect and sell private data, the opportunity to profit would be limited because their reach is localized. 

Community owned networks, whose focus is on serving the community rather than maximizing profit, have no reason to collect and sell data. In fact, it is a revenue source to avoid. With a local customer base and more accountability, selling data would violate the trust that gives their brand a competitive edge. When it comes to protecting privacy, supporting smaller scale providers that are rooted in the community is a far better protection than anything Washington, DC, can or will provide.

AT&T and American Eagle spying image created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and available via Wikimedia Commons.

Verizon Caught Forcing Customers to Take Voice Link Service Across New York

The war over keeping copper alive rages on in New York with more stealthy antics from Verizon. Stop the Cap! now reports that, rather than wait for a hurricane to take out the copper lines in the Catskills, it will quietly shift seasonal home owners to VoiceLink as they request reconnection. Stop the Cap! also published a letter [PDF] from the Communication Workers of America (CWA) who allege Verizon has also been installing VoiceLink in the City.

We recently visited this drama with Harold Feld from Public Knowledge on Broadband Bits podcast #52. He and Christopher discussed the issue as it applies to Fire Island in New York and Barrier Island in New Jersey. Verizon has permission from the New York Public Services Commission (NYPSC) to use the VoiceLink product in place of copper wires on a temporary basis as a way to get service to victims of Hurricane Sandy. Seven months is a long time to go without phone service.

Our readers know that VoiceLink short changes users, especially those that rely on phone connections for Life Alert, want to use phone cards, or want the security of reliable 911 service. Feld also noted in his Tales from the Sausage Factory blog, that Verizon was rumored to be making secret plans to expand VoiceLink well beyond the islands, regardless of the limitations of the NYPSC order. 

It appears the rumors were true and only scratch the surface. The letter from CWA District 1 President, Chris Shelton, to the NYPSC relates how members engaged in work for Verizon were trained to install VoiceLink and that the company installed the product in a variety of locations in New York City. One location was a residential building in Manhattan. Reportedly, when elderly residents discovered it would not support Life Alert, they resisted. Verizon counters that it offered VoiceLink as a temporary substitute without charge to the residents, not that it attempted to force the product on residents as CWA alleges [PDF of Verizon's Letter]. According to Verizon, the residents' copper connections were up and running again in June. CWA goes on to allege that Verizon continues to shift staff from copper related positions to installing VoiceLink in Buffalo and Watertown [PDF of Shelton's letter].

CWA Logo

Customers from the Catskills described their experience to Stop the Cap!:

“I got transferred twice and finally ended up talking to someone pushing something called Voice Link.”

...

“I called them back and told them they must be mistaken because I don’t own property on Fire Island and they told me it was no mistake and that they were preparing to distribute Voice Link all across the area and I was lucky to be among the first before they ran out,” the customer tells us.

From another customer:

“When I called to get my dial tone back, Verizon transferred me to a special repair representative who wanted to install Voice Link instead,” he tells us. “It was explained I would be better off with Voice Link and would get more calling features for less money and get national calling, free voicemail, and all of these other extras.”

The customer tried to turn the offer down, but Verizon made it difficult to refuse.

“You really had to argue with them and say no at least a dozen times,” our reader tells us. “The reason I said no is that I tried that same type of service from Verizon Wireless and it sucked. I raised my voice and they finally agreed to reconnect my phone.”

AARP recently expressed its displeasure at Verizon's shenanigans. Wireless Week reprinted parts of their statement [Google Docs]:

AARP Logo

State director for AARP in New York Beth Finkel said in a statement, "Under the cover of Sandy, this push by Verizon could well work towards advancing the company's corporate strategy of steering customers towards more expensive services, but that doesn't match up to protecting the needs and interests of consumers."

AARP’s primary concerns over the switch to Voice Link include compatibility issues with Life Alert and security systems, the possibility of premature and widespread abandonment of wireline services, limitation of Internet service options for Voice Link customers and the end of access to services like collect calling and “0” dial-in access for operators.

Verizon responded by accusing AARP for "crying wolf" and extolled the virtues of VoiceLink. Wireless Week also reports:

[Verizon spokesman John] Bonomo said that Verizon will maintain the copper network where it makes customer service and business sense to do so, adding that the vast majority of Verizon copper customers have no issues at all with their service. 

The complaints and the first CWA letter prompted New York's Attorney General to file an Emergency Petition with the NYPSC. The AG asked the NYPSC to stop Verizon from any more illegal installations and for sanctions:

Unlike Fire Island, wireline network damage from Superstorm Sandy cannot be used as an excuse for substituting Voice Link for wireline service in the Catskills, where the storm had limited impact. Instead, it appears that in the Catskills, Verizon has chosen to pursue the company’s business strategy in blatant disregard for the Commission’s Order.

The Commission’s May 16 Order could not have been clearer in limiting Verizon’s substitution of Voice Link for wire line service to western Fire Island, to enable evaluation of this unproven technology on a pilot basis.

Verizon’s provision of Voice Link outside the confines of western Fire Island is illegal, and its open defiance of the Commission’s May 16 Order must be met with effective sanctions.

NY Public Service Commission Logo

On July 9th, the PSC decided to extend the comment period to September 13. So far, the agency has received over 400 public comments.

Fortunately, New York is not one of the growing number of states to deregulate phone systems so the NYPSC still has authority to act. As Feld notes on his blog:

If New York eliminated its COLR regulations, as a bunch of other states have done, then Verizon would not need to provide service at all. You would take Voice Link and be grateful for it — peasant. As it stands, New York has a Public Service Commission that can investigate and decide based on local evidence and local factors whether anything needs to be done. For example, even if the NY PSC decides Verizon did not violate the terms of its tariff, it might want to provide some guidelines to make sure that these disputes about what kind of sales tactics are permissible do not come up again.

Whatever path New York chooses, other states will be watching. While many have relinquished their ability to act for their own citizens, states that still possess the power to regulate wireline service, and by extension the IP transition, need to take note. Verizon is choosing its business model over the well-being of its customers and not afraid to step on legislative toes to do it.