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New York Times Covers Fiber and Economic Development

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Kate Murphy shined a light on fiber's increasing role in economic development. Murphy discussed several of the same networks we have followed: Wilson, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Lafayette, LA; and Mount Vernon, WA.

Murphy acknowledged that successful companies are moving from major metropolitan areas to less populated communities out of necessity:

These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected.

Murphy notes that countries where governments have invested in critical infrastructure offer more choice, better services, and lower rates. She also points to successful local initiatives, often in less populated communities where large private interests have not invested:

Stepping into the void have been a smattering of municipalities that have public rather than private utility infrastructures. Muninetworks.org has a map that pinpoints many of these communities. They are primarily rural towns that were ignored when the nation’s electrical infrastructure was installed 100 years ago and had to build their own.

Murphy spoke with several business owners that moved from large metropolitan areas to smaller communities because they needed fiber. For a growing number of establishments, fiber networks are the only kind that offer the capacity needed for day-to-day operations. Information security firm, Blank Law and Technology, moved to Mount Vernon to take advantage of its open access fiber network. It helps when customer service representatives live in your neighborhood:

“We investigate computer malfeasance and have to sift through terabytes of data for a single case,” Mr. Blank said. “The fiber connection is the only reason we are in Mount Vernon and the customer service isn’t bad because all you have to do is walk down the street and knock on the door at City Hall.”

Seattle, Gigabit Squared, the Challenge of Private Sector Cable Competition

This the second in a series of posts exploring lessons learned from the Seattle Gigabit Squared project, which now appears unlikely to be built. The first post is available here and focuses on the benefits massive cable companies already have as well as the limits of conduit and fiber in spurring new competition.

This post focuses on business challenges an entity like Gigabit Squared would face in building the network it envisioned. I am not representing that this is what Gigabit Squared faced but these issues arise with any new provider in that circumstance. I aim to explain why the private sector has not and generally will not provide competition to companies Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Gigabit Squared planned to deliver voice, television, and Internet access to subscribers. Voice can be a bit of hassle due to the many regulatory requirements and Internet access is comparatively simple. But television, that is a headache. I've been told by some munis that 90% of the problems and difficulties they experience is with television services.

Before you can deliver ESPN, the Family Channel, or Comedy Central, you have to come to agreement with big channel owners like Disney, Viacom, and others. Even massive companies like Comcast have to pay the channel owners more each year despite its over 10 million subscribers, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for a small firm to negotiate these contracts. Some channel owners may only negotiate with a provider after it has a few thousand subscribers - but getting a few thousand subscribers without good content is a challenge.

Many small firms (including most munis) join a buyer cooperative called the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) that has many of the contracts available. But even with that substantial help, building a channel lineup is incredibly difficult and the new competitor will almost certainly be paying more for the same channels as a competitor like Comcast or Time Warner Cable. And some munis, like Lafayette, faced steep barriers in just joining the coop.

FCC Logo

(An aside: if we are going to pretend that competition can work in the telecommunications space, Congress and/or the FCC have to ensure that small providers can access content on reasonable terms or the ever-consolidating big providers will be all but unassailable by any but the likes of Google. Such regulations should include rigorous anti-monopoly enforcement on a variety of levels.)

Assuming a new provider can secure a reasonable channel lineup, it now needs to deliver that to the subscribers and this is more complicated than one might imagine. From satellite dishes to industrial strength encryption to set-top boxes, delivering Hollywood content is incredibly complicated.

When confronted with this challenge for its Kansas City network, Google evaluated all the options and decided the only option was to build its own technology for delivering television signals to subscribers. Google has the some of the best engineers on the planet and even they encountered significant challenges, suggesting that route is ill-advised for new companies. Even if Google were willing to share their approach, it was written for the Google eco-system and would need significant porting to work for other firms.

Several of the recent triple-play municipal FTTH networks used Mediaroom, a technology developed by Microsoft that was recently sold to Ericsson, which has strong connections with AT&T. All of which suggests that delivering television channels is not becoming easier for small, local networks.

From the tremendous challenges of securing television channels to the difficulty of delivering them to subscribers, investors are aware of the mountain a new entrant has to climb before even starting to compete with a massive firm like Comcast.

Longmont Power and Communications Logo

It remains to be seen whether a network delivering only Internet access (or with telephone as well) will succeed today, but most have believed that television is needed to effectively compete for subscribers (and generate enough revenue to pay for the network). Longmont is bucking that wisdom in deploying a gigabit and phone network throughout its footprint north of Denver and many are watching intently to see how it fares (our coverage here).

The main lesson from Part II of our Seattle Gigabit Squared analysis is the difficulty of a small firm competing against a massive cable company like Comcast and the subsequent reluctance of most investors to fund such firms.

This is not to say it is impossible for small entities to compete, especially entities that can handle a distant break-even point or justify its network by the many indirect benefits created by such an investment - including more jobs, lower prices for telecommunications services, and improved educational opportunities to name three (see our recent podcast on this subject). In most cases, the kinds of entities that are willing to include indirect benefits on their balance sheets in addition to cash revenues are nonprofit entities.

We strongly support the right of communities to decide for themselves how to ensure their residents and businesses have the connections they need to thrive in the 21st century. We also recognize that many cities, particularly the larger metro areas, would prefer not to directly compete with some of the most powerful firms on the planet, even if they are also tops among the most hated. Few local governments relish the opportunity to take on such a new challenge and understandably search for firms like Gigabit Squared that can assist them, reduce the risks of building a network, and shield them from charges of being godless communists by think tanks funded by the cable and telephone companies.

However, we are not optimistic that many communities will find success with this public-private-partnership approach. Indeed, with recent news suggesting that Gigabit Squared left at least $50,000 in unpaid bills behind, the risks of going with such a solution may indeed be greater than previously appreciated.

It is for the above reasons that we continue to believe most communities will be best served by building and operating their own networks, though some may choose to do so on an open access basis where multiple ISPs operate on the network.

That is where we will turn in the final segment of this series. Read that post here.

Big City Community Networks: Lessons from Seattle and Gigabit Squared

A few weeks ago, a Geekwire interview with outgoing Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that the Gigabit Squared project there was in jeopardy. Gigabit Squared has had difficulty raising all the necessary capital for its project, building Fiber-to-the-Home to several neighborhoods in part by using City owned fiber to reduce the cost of building its trunk lines.

There are a number of important lessons, none of them new, that we should take away from this disappointing news. This is the first of a series of posts on the subject.

But first, some facts. Gigabit Squared is continuing to work on projects in Chicago and Gainsville, Florida. There has been a shake-up at the company among founders and it is not clear what it will do next. Gigabit Squared was not the only vendor responding to Seattle's RFP, just the highest profile one.

Gigabit Squared hoped to raise some $20 million for its Seattle project (for which the website is still live). The original announcement suggested twelve neighborhoods with at least 50,000 households and businesses would be connected. The project is not officially dead, but few have high hopes for it given the change in mayor and many challenges thus far.

The first lesson to draw from this is what we say repeatedly: the broadband market is seriously broken and there is no panacea to fix it. The big cable firms, while beating up on DSL, refuse to compete with each other. They are protected by a moat made up of advantages over potential competitors that includes vast economies of scale allowing them to pay less for advertising, content, and equipment; large existing networks already amortized; vast capacity for predatory pricing by cross-subsidizing from non-competitive areas; and much more.

So if you are an investor with $20 million in cash lying around, why would you ever want to bet against Comcast - especially by investing in an unknown entity that cannot withstand a multi-year price war? You wouldn't and they generally don't. The private sector invests for a return and overbuilding Comcast with fiber almost certainly requires many years before breaking even. In fact, Wall Street loves Comcast's position, as penned in an investor love letter on SeekingAlpha:

We're big fans of the firm's Video and High-Speed Internet businesses because both are either monopolies or duopolies in their respective markets.

Seattle Conduit

Seattle has done what we believe many communities should be doing - investing in conduit and fiber that it can use internally and lease out to other entities. This is a good idea, but should not be oversold - these kinds of conduit and fiber projects are typically deploying among major corridors, where the fiber trunk lines are needed. But networks require far more investment in the distribution part of the network, which runs down each street to connect subscribers. With this heavy investment comes the modern day reality that whoever owns the distribution network owns the subscriber - that owner decides who subscribers can take service from. (We have more conduit tips from previous Seattle coverage.)

Additionally, different conduit and fiber segments may be owned by various entities, including different departments within a city. This may introduce administrative delays in leasing it, suggesting that local governments should devise a way of dealing with it before a network is actually being deployed.

Even if a city wanted to lay conduit everywhere for the entire network (trunk and distribution), it would need to have a network design first. Different companies build different networks that require different layouts for fiber, huts, vaults, etc. Some networks may use far more fiber than other designs depending on the network architect preference. The result is a limit on just how much conduit can/should be deployed with the hope of enticing an independent ISP to build in the community.

In deciding the size of conduit and where to lay it, different types of fiber network approaches are either enabled or disabled (e.g. GPON vs Active Ethernet). In turn, that can limit who is willing to build a fiber network in the community. The same can be true of aerial fiber, attached to utility poles.

Investing in conduit and/or fiber along major corridors may go a long way to connect local businesses and some residents but almost certainly will not change the calculations for whether another company can suddenly compete against a massive firm like Comcast.

And paradoxically, beginning to connect some businesses with fiber and a private partner could make a citywide system less feasible. The firms that are prepared to meet the needs of local businesses may not have the capacity nor inclination to connect everyone. But without the high margin business customers among neighborhoods, a firm that wants to connect neighbors may struggle to build a successful business plan. Additionally, some firms may only be interested in serving high end neighborhoods rather than low income areas.

Community BB Logo

This is a major consideration in our continued advocacy for community owned networks. They have an interest in connecting businesses as the first step in connecting the entire community. An independent ISP may only find it profitable to focus on the businesses, though some ISPs share our values of ensuring everyone has access.

In the first Geekwire interview, Mayor McGinn returned to his original position when campaigning - that the City itself should be playing a larger role and investing its own resources rather than pinning its hopes on distant firms.

McGinn noted that “we haven’t given up on the private sector,” but said that if he were continuing as mayor, he’d start garnering political support to build a municipal fiber utility. That’s actually something the mayor considered back in 2010, after a consultant recommended that the City find a way to build an open-access fiber-to-the-premises communication infrastructure to meet Seattle's goals and objectives.

A feasibility study looking at one particular way of building an open access fiber network put the cost at $700-$800 million. However, there were other alternatives that they did not pursue, opting instead for a far less risky (and with far less payoff) public-private-partnership with Gigabit Squared.

Over the next few days, I will explore other lessons. A review of lessons from today:

  • Comcast and other cable companies have tremendous advantages that other would-be competitors in the private sector will generally fail to overcome
  • City owned conduit and fiber helps to encourage competition but is subject to significant limitations
  • Communities should invest in conduit in conjunction with other capital projects but should not inadvertantly weaken the business case for universal access

Update: The Gigabit Squared deal with Seattle is officially dead. Part II of this series is available here.

Ellensburg Pursues Its Fiber Project in Washington

Ellensburg is quickly moving forward as it make plans to build a publicly owned fiber optic network. The City Council approved a contract with Canon Construction  on December 16th, reports the Daily Record.

From the article:

Canon Construction of Milton won the contract to lay 13 miles of above- and underground fiber optic cables for the city with a $961,000 bid.

Multiple public organizations, including Central Washington University and Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue, contract with the city for cable Internet services through the city.

We recently reported on the City Council decision to establish a telecommunications utility serving municipal needs. At the December 16th meeting, they also approved an ordinance needed to move ahead with the utility.

The community network will replace the Institutional Network supplied by Charter Communications. Charter and the City have been negotiating a new franchise agreement with little success. Charter wants to charge $10,000 per month to provide the service that it previously offered at no charge beyond the incredibly valuable access to the public's right-of-way. The City determined building a network was more economical and we suspect the City will also achieve greater reliability and have access to better technology than Charter would have installed.

Charter Prices Inspire Washington City to Consider its Own Network

Ellensburg, located in central Washington, is considering the pros and cons of a municipal fiber network. A big pro for the community of 18,000 is the ability to predict costs rather than depend on Charter Communications. Charter wants to begin charging $10,300 per month for municipal connectivity it previously supplied at no cost in return for access to the public rights-of-way.

The Ellensburg Daily Record recently reported that the City Council unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance that will allow the city to establish a telecommunications utility. The city began using Charter's fiber optic network in 1997 as part of the city's franchise agreement. Educational institutions, public safety, and the county public utilities district also use the network. Ellensburg owns and operates its own electric and natural gas utilities. Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar was quoted:

“It’s clearly in the city’s best interest to just build it on its own and own it, compared to leasing it,” he said.

The community needs approximately 15 miles of fiber optic network to replace Charter's institutional network. The two parties are still negotiating and may still reach an agreement for a new contract although the article reports:

In June, Council directed the city to solicit vendor proposals for building a city network, and Dunbar said the city is close to granting the contract.

He declined to share a total cost because contract negotiations are ongoing, but said it makes more sense for the city to build the network now rather than pay in perpetuity, he said.

“A telecommunications network is like a 35-year endeavor,” he said. “If we would have done a lease, we could have bought two or three networks over 35 years.”

Local median KIMA TV recently covered the story:

We would go further and note the many more advantages of owning rather than leasing. When the city owns the fiber network, it can expand it to connect local businesses and/or residents who feel that Charter is not meeting their needs. The network can be expanded at low cost over time in conjunction with other projects, for instance as part of an effort to create a new commercial or industrial park. Owning provides much more flexibility than leasing, particularly with a massive and inflexible corporation like Charter.

NoaNet and Benton PUD Finish Expansion in Washington, Celebrate Completion of Fiber Network

South central Washington's Benton PUD and the Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) recently finished a 50-mile fiber-optic expansion [PDF of the press release]. The new construction brings high-speed Internet service to the Paterson School District. The District serves 110 kids in grades K-8.

A $1.8 million Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP) award paid in part for the expansion of the 100% underground network. The network includes 230 miles of middle-mile connectivity across rural Benton County. 

The recently completed NoaNet project totaled $140 million for 1,831 fiber miles over three years. The open access network hosts 61 last mile providers and ten Washington State Public Utility Districts (PUDs) belong to the nonprofit.

In a Yakima Herald article on the network completion, Governor Jay Inslee noted:

“It is underground, but its results are above ground,” he said. “In every place, it reaches about 500 communities from Asotin to Zillah and places between.”

Video: 
See video

Election Day 2013 Community Owned Network Referendum Roundup

Starting with the good news, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly supported municipal network intiatives. Longmont voted 2:1 in favor of bonding to fast track network expansion. We have covered this issue in great depth recently. Read all of our coverage of Longmont here.

The local paper covered the referendum results in this story:

2B's passage means approval for the city to issue $45.3 million in bonds to build out the city's 17-mile fiber optic loop within three years.

Longmont Power & Communications has estimated that the payback time on the bond will be 11 years. If revenues from commercial and residential customers fall short, LPC's electric service revenues will be used to make up the shortfall, LPC staffers have told the Longmont City Council.

South in Centennial, voters supported restoring local authority to build a network by a 3:1 margin. We most recently wrote about this referendum here.

In Seattle, the mayor that campaigned on a citywide fiber network and backed off it but created a partnership with Gigabit Squared to bring gigabit fiber to 12 neighborhoods lost in his bid for reelection to the candidate that that was strongly supported with Comcast donations. However, the election does not appear to have turned on broadband issues:

McGinn’s fate was forecast two years ago, when voters slapped back his efforts to obstruct the Highway 99 tunnel project, opting to move ahead with the long-debated project. McGinn’s anti-tunnel agitating was viewed as a reversal from his 2009 election-eve pledge not to stand in the project’s way.

We continue to be disappointed in the lack of serious discussion in many races about how local governments can make meaningful improvements in Internet access for residents and businesses. We most recently covered the Seattle story here.

And finally, the disappointing news from Iowa. Though Emmetsburg received majority approval for its bond issue to build a fiber network, the 54% fell short of the 60% required for a general obligation bond. They planned to finance the investment with both a revenue bond and a general obligation bond. They will continue to seek opportunities to build the network despite this temporary setback.

Broadband is Complicated Piece of Seattle Mayor Race

Seattle will choose its new mayor today in a race that was thrust into an unexpected media spotlight following the Washington Post story on Comcast contributions to the challenger. We covered it early from the perspective of how Comcast wants to send a message to other mayors that may challenge its effective monopoly.

However, it bears noting that mayoral candidate Murray was mostly caught in the crossfire. He had been silent on broadband issues (which should raise some eyebrows given its importance to economic development, education, and quality of life) but after the WaPo story, he proclaimed that he supported the gigabit challenge to Comcast.

Just because Comcast wanted to buy the challenger doesn't necessarily mean that Murray was for sale or would do Comcast's bidding in office. But we are now learning that Comcast has bought 12 meals for Murray as part of their lobbying effort. If nothing else, these stories should be a good reminder of who calls the shots in American politics. As long as we encourage firms to spend big money on elections, the biggest corporations will continue to have far more influence over our government than we do.

Back to Seattle - lest one think this is a clear cut case of pro-competition Mayor McGinn vs. Comcast puppet Murray, a prominent tech blogger in Seattle sets us straight regarding the nuance and complications of such a simple analysis. Brier Dudley starts be reminding us that most people are voting on issues aside from Internet access and continues with:

McGinn simultaneously abandoned years of city planning to build a citywide broadband network and bring fast, affordable service to everyone.

Instead, McGinn opted to part out the city’s fiber-optic network assets, offering pieces here and there to telecom companies. That approach basically makes it impossible for anyone to use those assets for a citywide service, reaching everyone. Most likely it will result in cherry-picking of lucrative pockets of the city.

The city said it couldn’t afford to build its own broadband network. Then McGinn miraculously found enough financing capacity to fund a new basketball arena.

I would add that McGinn seemed more enthusiastic than some of the City Council, notably Bruce Harrell, when it came to a city owned fiber network. Additionally, the city owned electric utility has refused to cooperate beyond basic efforts on expanding access to this essential infrastructure.

Brier Dudley finishes with gusto, including this:

McGinn cast himself as the alternative to Comcast broadband four years ago, promising to bring better broadband to everyone. But after taking office, he chose to partner with Comcast and other telecom companies. This ended hopes of using the city fiber-optic network assets as the foundation of a municipal broadband network that truly would have given residents an alternative.

The article is more anti-McGinn than I think is warranted given the challenges any big city faces when it comes to broadband, but this is certainly closer to the truth than any simple claims that there is an easy choice for better Internet access.

The question for everyone outside Seattle is this - what are you doing to make Internet access a political issue to force candidates to stake out a solid position on the matter? In my Saint Paul, Minnesota, broadband is not even a tiny issue, where our Mayor is the brother of Comcast's top lobbyist in the state and he has killed any efforts that could challenge Comcast's dominance. We need to do better at making this an issue in all elections.

Comcast Sets Sights on Seattle Mayor; Payback for Encouraging Competition

In a reminder of the power embodied in massive corporations like Comcast, Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is facing a challenger buoyed with sizeable contributions from the nation's largest cable and Internet company.

Why is Comcast so interested in defeating Seattle's mayor? Payback and a warning to others. Lest any other big city mayors think it would be wise to help create competition to Comcast's effective monopoly, know that Comcast will finance your opposition.

We have covered Seattle's various attempts at improving Internet access though we have admittedly not written much on its public-private partnership with Gigabit Squared. Gigabit Squared is a new firm that is starting to work with cities that have fiber assets to deliver services to residents and businesses.

The plan in Seattle is to create a large pilot project in at least 12 neighborhoods offering Internet service at speeds far faster than Comcast but at a lower price. Gigabit Squared is using city owned fiber to build its backbone network and working with the City to expand that network.

However, little has happened in the past 10 months since it was announced except some signs that Gigabit Squared was still trying to raise the necessary capital. We understand that some will start to get services early in 2014.

In the meantime, Comcast has donated heavily to Mayor McGinn's rival Ed Murray at a time when many expected the Mayor to already have a challenging race. From the Washington Post story:

Comcast's donations to political action committees (PACs) suggest Comcast has poured dramatically more resources into defeating McGinn. The Broadband Communications Association of Washington PAC, which received 94 percent of its 2013 contributions from Comcast, donated $5,000 to the group People for Ed Murray less than a month after Gigabit Squared's pricing announcement. That was the PAC's largest single donation. Unsurprisingly, People for Ed Murray has made significant expenditures supporting Murray's candidacy. The Web site of the Broadband Communications Association of Washington also lists [Comcast Executive] Janet Turpen as president-elect.

Comcast also donated $5,000 to the PAC called the "Civic Alliance for a Sound Economy," or CASE, whose largest expenditures were donations to People for Ed Murray, to the tune of $52,500 -- over half of the money spent by the group according to the most recent disclosures online. Their second largest expenditures was $10,000 to People for a New Seattle Mayor, a group opposing McGinn's reelection.

Neener neener neener

This is nothing new for Comcast and if anything, suggests a more modest approach than we have seen elsewhere. We have long covered the fight in Longmont where Comcast first broke records by spending $240,000 to defeat a referendum restoring local authority to build a network. Comcast then doubled down two years later for the same question, spending over $400,000 in the final tally and getting crushed in the process. That led to this great ad in the local paper. Now Longmont is building one of the most impressive fiber networks in the nation.

Seattle mayoral challenger Ed Murray's spokesperson has said he will continue to honor any agreement with Gigabit Squared though he has not made broadband policy an issue in the race and has no discussion about this important policy matter on his web site.

This issue goes well beyond Seattle, as Andrea Peterson rightly examines in her concluding words:

A loss for McGinn on Tuesday probably won't mean the end of Gigabit Squared's work in the Seattle metro area, though it could curtail Gigabit Squared's plans to expand to other parts of Seattle. More importantly, though, if Comcast's donations help Murray defeat McGinn, it will send a powerful message to mayors in other American cities considering initiatives to increase broadband competition.

For decades we have experimented by allowing a few firms to amass greater and greater market power without antimonopoly laws (often called antitrust) to protect the public interest. That experiment has failed. It is past time to recognize the danger than massive corporations pose to both our economy and republic.

Addendum: One thing is certain - those who want to claim that cities should embrace "public private partnerships" because they are less risky or somehow less controversial should pay close attention to this situation. Communities should do what is right for them, not what they think will be acceptable to a powerful giant like Comcast. Either way, Comcast will fight to preserve its monopoly.

Poulsbo Wireless Mesh Pilot Extends Internet in Washington - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #66

With a population of over 9,000 just across Puget Sound from Seattle, Poulsbo is a town with a lot of commuters and a vision for improved access to the Internet to allow more to reduce the physical need to travel. City Councilmember Ed Stern joins us for the 66th episode of Community Broadband Bits to discuss their plan.

We talk about the history of Noanet and Kitsap Public Utility District investing in fiber networks, only to have the state legislature restrict the business models of such entities in a bid to protect private providers (that have repaid that kindness by refusing to invest in much of the state).

Unable to achieve its vision for a fiber network, Poulsbo has since created an ordinance to increase the amount of conduit in the community for future projects and embarked on an open access mesh wireless project. See our full coverage of Poulsbo.

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 19 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.