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The Birth of Community Broadband - Video

ILSR is excited to announce a new short video examining an impressive municipal broadband network, Glasgow Kentucky. Glasgow was the first municipal broadband network and indeed, seems to have been the first citywide broadband system in the United States.

We partnered with the Media Working Group to produce this short documentary and we have the material to do much more, thanks to the hard work of Fred Johnson at MWG and the cooperation of many in Glasgow, particularly Billy Ray.

People who only recently became aware of the idea of community owned networks may not be familiar with Billy Ray, but it was he and Jim Baller throughout the 90's and early 2000's that paved the way for all the investment and excitement we see today. 

I'm excited to be helping to tell part of this story and look forward to being able to tell more of it.

Video: 

Michael Powell said What?? Why Everyone Should Ignore the Cable Lobby

Stop and think for a second. Would you regard the electricity grid and water system as an abysmal failure or success? If you are lobbying for cable companies in DC, you apparently think they are monumental failures.

Michael Powell, former Chairman of the FCC must be dizzy after his trip through the revolving door on his way to heading the national cable lobbying association. From his remarks at their cable show [pdf]:

It is the Internet’s essential nature that fuels a very heated policy debate that the network cannot be left in private hands and should instead be regulated as a public utility, following the example of the interstate highway system, the electric grid and drinking water. The intuitive appeal of this argument is understandable, but the potholes visible through your windshield, the shiver you feel in a cold house after a snowstorm knocks out the power, and the water main breaks along your commute should restrain one from embracing the illusory virtues of public utility regulation.

Pause for a second and think of the last time your water rate went up. Think of what you were paying 10 years ago for water and what you pay now. Compare that to anything you get from a cable company.

His point seems to be that because more regulated utilities like water and electricity are not PERFECT, regulation has failed and we should just let the private sector handle that. Well, some communities have privatized their water systems and the results have been disastrous - see a company called American Water in David Cay Johnston's book The Fine Print and also explored here.

Let's imagine if electricity was not tightly regulated and the market set the rates. How much would you pay for illumination at night? A refrigerator? Probably 10 times what you do now if that was your only option. Maybe 100 times after a few Minnesota winter nights. Market-based pricing for electricity would at least encourage conservation and efficiency, I'll give it that.

Public utility regulation is far from perfect but the alternative is far scarier. There is no "market" for these services over the long term. There is monopoly. And unregulated monopoly means Wall Street sucking the resources out of Main Street - and using some of them to employ former regulators as chief lobbyists who argue that regulation doesn't work.

I'm not convinced that Tom Wheeler is the disaster that some are now claiming he is, but it is long past time that top regulators are chosen from among major donors and fund raisers from the winning presidential candidate. Frankly, Wheeler is a helluva lot better than the last guy and we could have done a lot worse.

We need to change the system, but in the meantime, no one should be listening to any fool that claims our electrical or water systems would be better off with less regulation. After all, it isn't that long since we tried it. Enron, remember?

Communities that wisely don't want to put their trust either in DC regulators or a few massive corporations that care only to meet Wall Streeet's desires should choose to be locally self-reliant. Build your own network and take charge of your future.

History of the Quickly Subverted 1996 Telecommunications Act - Community Broadband Bits Episode 89

If all had gone according to the plan behind the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we would have lots of competition among Internet service providers, not just cable and DSL but other technologies as well. Alas, the competing technologies never really appeared and various incarnations of the FCC effectively gutted the common carriage requirements at the heart of the Act.

Earl Comstock joins us today to explain what they had in mind when they spent years developing the goals and text of the Act. A staffer to Senator Stevens - and yes, we discuss the legacy of Senator "series of tubes" Stevens and you might be surprised when you learn more about him - Earl helped to craft the Act and then had to watch as the FCC and Courts misinterpreted it.

At the heart of our conversation is what they believed would be necessary to achieve the goals of expanding access to telecommunications service to all.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

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

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network: Community Broadband Bits Episode #74

Last month, we unveiled a video teaser of our interviews in Glasgow, Kentucky over the summer regarding its municipal broadband network. This week our podcast features a few clips from those interviews with Billy Ray, the Superintendent of Glasgow's Electric Plant Board.

He offers more context on the history of their network, including how they became "savvy marketers" when faced with stiff competition from Telescripts - a cable company that cared nothing for Glasgow until they dared to build a rival system operated for community benefit.

He details how they began producing local content and the surprisingly most popular show they developed - what would eventually come to be known as "reality TV."

We thank Media Working Group, our partners in this documentary for the high quality interviews.

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 10 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network

During the summer, I spent two days in Glasgow, Kentucky, to learn about the first municipal broadband network in the country. I believe it also became the first community in the US to have broadband access available universally within the town.

Working with the Media Working Group, we recorded several interviews with people there, including a lot of time with Electric Power Board Superintendent Billy Ray. Billy Ray has been a key proponent of local self-reliance and a pioneeer of community owned networks.

Below, we pulled out a few snippets of our interview talking about the origins of the Glasgow network. All of our stories about Glasgow are available here.

Video: 

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

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

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

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

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

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

Crap Cable Threatens Cloud Services

For my money, the best headline of last week was "The U.S.'s crap infrastructure threatens the cloud." The rant goes on to explain just how crummy our access to the Internet is.

As a patriotic American, I find the current political atmosphere where telecom lobbyists set the agenda to be a nightmare. All over the world, high-end fiber is being deployed while powerful monopolies in the United States work to prevent it from coming here. Some of those monopolies are even drafting "model legislation" to protect themselves from both community broadband and commercial competition.

He nails a number of important points, including the absurdity of allowing de facto monopolies to write the legislation that governs them. However, Andew Oliver's article is a bit muddled on the issue of "monopoly." I have argued with several people that the term "monopoly" has historically meant firms with large market power, not the more stringent definition of "the only seller" of a good. It is not clear how Oliver is using the term.

Because of this confusion, you can come away from his piece with the firm idea that it is primarily government's fault we have a duopoly of crap DSL and less crappy cable. He repeatedly says "state-sponsored monopolies." However, no local or state government may offer exclusive franchises for cable or telecom services and the federal government hasn't officially backed monopolies for decades.

This is a key point that many still fail to understand - a majority seem to believe that local governments bless monopolies when local governments actually are desperate for more choices. This is why they fall all over themselves to beg Google to invest in their community or they build they own networks (over 400 communities have wired telecom networks that offer services to some local businesses and/or residents).

Poor laws and regulations have helped the massive cable and telephone companies to maintain their status - that is why they spend so much on lobbying and political contributions at all levels of government. They want to and have successfully corrupted the process, neutralizing the power of government to protect consumer interests and prevent a few firms from dominating the market.

wall-street.jpg

What is missing from the conversation is Wall Street's role. Wall Street abhors competition, particularly for something as essential as Internet access because rigorous competition drives down profit margins. Wall Street puts a massive premium on consolidation and preventing competition. It wants a few firms to control this market so they can regularly increase fees and increase shareholder value (at the expense of the rest of our economy).

It isn't JUST federal and state government policy that is rewarding the duopoly, there are a host of reinforcing factors. And while government did indeed establish monopoly for the phone system 100 years ago, it resulted in a fantastic universal service network - so those who might argue a government sanctioned monopoly was never a good idea have a high burden to prove it.

As to how we have moved from a monopoly service model to having choices... well, lobbyists have been paid a lot specifically to mangle that process to benefit a few corporations. Our government has been corrupted and we have to live with the effects every day. But even without government, we would almost certainly we stuck with a monopoly, perhaps even worse as we would lack the few consumer protections we still have.

I was heartened to see the Obama Administration block the AT&T - T-Mobile merger as it suggests that there is a spark of hope for antitrust rules to prevent further consolidation. Stopping consolidation is the first step to having real choices because massive corporations amass not just economy of scale advantages over rivals, but find it much easier to influence the rules in their favor and to disadvantage competitors.

Returning to a fact from Oliver's article, he pays $1500/month for 30 Mbps symmetrical fiber. If he lived in Monticello, he would pay $100/month for that business connection. Community owned fiber is not merely about the technology, it includes numerous other benefits including radically lower prices that help local businesses to succeed.

Photo courtesy of JSquish via Wikipedia Commons

Iowa Municipal Utilities on Gigabit Nation

We were glad to hear our friend, Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities join Craig Settles on his Gigabit Nation Internet Radio show. Listen below to learn more about what local utilities are doing to help their communities thrive in the digital age.


Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network Saves Millions for Taxpayers

Austin, Texas, with a little over 820,000 people, is home to several centers of higher ed, the Southwest Music Festival, and a next generation network known as the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN).

It was also the second metro area selected by Google for the Google Fiber deployment. But before they got Google Fiber, a local partnership had already connected key community anchor institutions with limitless bandwidth over fiber networks. The network measures its success in terms of cost avoidance, and averages out to a savings of about $18 million per year combined for its 7 member entities.

In 2011, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named GAATN the Community Broadband Organization of the Year. Today, GAATN also serves the  City of Austin, the Austin Indepedent School District (AISD), Travis County, local State of Texas facilities, Austin Community College (ACC), the University of Texas at Austin (UT), and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

GAATN's bylaws prevent it from providing service to businesses or individual consumers. Texas, like 18 other states, maintains significant barriers that limit local public authority to build networks beyond simply connecting themselves. As a result, local entities must tread lightly even if they simply want to provide service for basic government functions.

Austin Logo

Decades ago, Austin obtained an Institutional Network (I-Net) as part of a franchise agreement with a private cable company, Cablevision. At that time, AISD used the I-Net for video and data transmission, with frequent use of video for teaching between facilities. In the late 80s, the district experienced large growth, which required adding facilities and phone lines. Phone costs for 1988 were estimated as $1 million and the 10 year estimate was $3 million. In 1989, AISD hired a telecommunications design company to conduct a study and make recommendations. JanCom recommended a 250 mile fiber network connecting schools. The network was expected to pay for itself in 10 years when only considering the cost of phone.

During this time period, Cabelvision sold off its assets in the Austin area to Time Warner Cable. TWC kept rising the cost of mainentance of the old coaxial I-Net until estimates reached $500,000 per year to keep the failing technology alive. The network repeatedly went down. Connected entities were still using modems to transfer data and the amount TWC wanted to upgrade the I-Net was out of the question.

In what would become a lasting collaboration, AISD approached the City of Austin about sharing the cost and ownership of a new fiber network. The proposal was received enthusiastically and soon two additional partners came on board. AISD, the City of Austin, Travis County, and ACC developed an interlocal agreement to construct, own, and manage a fiber network that would eventually serve schools, libraries, local government facilities, and several higher ed institutions.

The group quickly determined the school should be the entity to contract for the construction. Texas law allowed more flexibility for schools when dealing with contractors. The school was also to be the financial administrator of the GAATN organization and the member with the largest share of the network.

In 1991, the group released an RFP for construction of a new network and Southwest Bell won the contract with a bid of $18 million. Original construction, which begin in 1994, consisted of 8 rings and 2 superrings, each consisting of 114-strand fiber optic cable. After some problems, due to Southwest Bell's low quality work, construction was completed in 1998. The initial network was 345 miles long and has since expanded to 371 miles. Three points of presence (POPs) have been in place since day one of the network, including POPs to Level Three, AT&T, and CenturyLink. Approximately 30% of the fiber is currently lit and providing service to members.

Austin School District Logo

The original members used a combination of bonding, loans, and money on hand to build the network. While the City of Austin has been a member since the beginning, all of its contribution is in-kind. Donating access to rights-of-way, network management, and maintenance, the city receives 12 strands wherever the network is expanded. The network is 80% aerial and 20% underground. As the network expands, the installation type varies depending on current construction, geography, and cost. Routes are often adjusted to pass city facilities to allow the city optimal use of the network. All members of the network take advantage of the 10 Gbps interconnectivity.

Wayne Wedemeyer, Director of UT Systems Office of Telecommunication Services, describes one of the biggest challenges in developing GAATN. Reaching a high level of trust between all the members and memorializing that trust into the agreement  was difficult. Since each member had such specific missions and goals and all were very diverse, attaining the necessary collaborative balance took over two years. Wedemeyer also describes the arrangement with the City as a "stroke of genius." The automatic grant of five strands to the city streamlines rights-of-way negotiations.

UT provides Internet service to AISD, ACC, Travis County, the City of Austin, and LCRA. UT is able to purchase Internet service at educational rates and then sell it to the other members at cost. Wedemeyer says UT "exploded" in the ways it uses interconnectivity once GAATN was up and running. In addition to their tech incubator, UT uses GAATN's 10 Gbps to connect to its Applied Research Laboratories, dedicated to national security. Distance learning at UT and ACC have expanded significantly and AISD has plenty of bandwidth for virtual classroom activities. LRCA uses GAATN fibers to transfer wholesale power to a 50 county region.

The original $18 million investment in GAATN has been returned several times over. For AISD, the largest contributor and the entity that owns the most number of fibers, the network paid for itself in 2-3 years. In 2011, AISD saved almost $5.8 million by using GAATN instead the private market. The city of Austin saved $4.7 million, ACC saved $437,000, Travis County avoided almost $3.4 million, and the State of Texas saved $883,000. UT avoided almost $1.3 million in connectivity and LCRA saved almost $1.1 million. GAATN is a win for local and state taxpayers and for the entities it serves.