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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.

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.

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.

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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

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.

Centennial, Colorado: Voters To Decide on Authority to Build Fiber Network

The people of Centennial, Colorado, will have the opportunity to vote this fall on the option to allow their city to provide indirect telecommunications services. Located south of Denver in the metro area, Centennial has over 100,000 residents. Recently, the City Council unanimously approved the following ballot question for the upcoming elections. The city press release shared the wording voters will see in November:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES?

As we note on the Community Network Map, Colorado requires a majority referendum unless incumbents refuse to offer requested services. This vote would not establish a utility or approve funding, but would allow community leaders to investigate municipal network possibilities. From a Villager article:

“I’m not sure we know exactly where this could go in the future,” District 4 Councilman Ron Weidmann said at the Aug. 5 council meeting. “But let it breathe and let it take shape. I think we need to give this thing a chance.” 

Over 40 miles of city-owned fiber run under major rights-of-way to manage traffic signals. Centennial hopes to utilize the excess capacity and work with private providers to bring connectivity to local businesses, municipal government, schools, libraries, and possibly residents. 

Like other Colorado communities, Centennial realizes its vitality depends on its ability to ensure better Internet access to existing and potential employers. Centennial's business community complains that the lack of high-speed connections hold them back. 

Many business leaders agree. Vic Ahmed, founder of Innovation Pavilion, a Centennial-based incubator for about 75 mostly high-tech companies, thinks the move would put the city on the technological map.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “The pipes are already in the ground and are absolutely underutilized. This would put us ahead by many years as opposed to other cities who first had to put the infrastructure in place. This would definitely put us at an advantage and bring positive attention to the city.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No High-Speed in Manchester: European Commission Rules Preempt Local Authority

Though we often discuss some of the ways European nations have surpassed the U.S. in Internet network investment, they also have some counter-productive rules that limit investment. The Manchester Evening News recently published an article about a plan to bring high speed Internet to a deprived area of 30,000 homes where access is either slow or absent. From the article:

European rules ban public subsidy being used to fund infrastructure where – in theory – a company could roll it out instead.

The Manchester Council planned to use public funding to bring the homes into the 21st century, but the European Commission blocked the plan. Because Internet providers say there is not enough demand for broadband access in the areas, they are not compelled to build there.

Sound familiar?

“Part of this involves trying to address the digital divide which means that some parts of Manchester have little or no high speed broadband coverage because commercial internet service providers, such as BT, Virgin and Talk Talk and others, claim there is not enough demand. We have tried hard to address this but it has become clear that Europe-wide regulations mean our hands our tied and we cannot help provide connections where the private sector is able, but not willing, to do so," [said Manchester Coun Nigel Murphy].

This serves as a reminder that Europe also has a variety of bad policy approaches that privilege massive corporations over local authority. We hope to see people there step to defend their rights to be locally self-reliant.

Muni Network Debate in Charlotte Observer

In a recent op ed in the Charlotte Observer, Christopher Mitchell delves into why North Carolina ranks last in per capita subscribers to a broadband connection. The state, through its legislature, is held hostage by large providers such as Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. David Hoyle, a retired Senator who admitted pushing bills written by Time Warner Cable, signed his name to an op-ed arguing cities should not have the authority to make their own decisions in this regard.

Readers know that Time Warner and CenturyLink (formerly EMBARQ) targeted Wilson's Greenlight, leading to restrictive barriers for any similar initiatives. In his opinion piece, Chris delves into how those providers create an environment that kills opportunity for the people of North Carolina and how local publicly owned networks could restore those opportunities.

The Observer edited the original piece for length, but we provide the full version:

If you think you’re being ripped off by the cable and telephone companies, you aren’t alone. These companies rank at the top of the most hated corporations in America, year after year. Given a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, North Carolinians have more reasons to be angry than most Americans.

Released last month, the FCC’s annual Internet Access Services [pdf] report shows North Carolina last among U.S. states in percentage of households subscribing to high-speed Internet connections as defined in the National Broadband Plan. 

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This news comes on the heels of State Representative Brawley announcing that House Speaker Tillis told him he had a “business relationship” with Time Warner Cable after Brawley introduced legislation opposed by the cable giant. But one alleged relationship does not explain how North Carolina fell to last place in that FCC ranking.

The deeper problem is power Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink have at the General Assembly. These companies successfully lobbied for two flagship bills that increased prices, limited competition, and generally hurt consumers and businesses throughout the state.

Back in 2006, the General Assembly bowed to industry pressure and passed a bill for statewide video franchising. Local governments lost their right to oversee companies offering television services or require them to build out to everyone. North Carolina was promised a new age of cable competition and lower prices.

Prices continued to rise – a 2009 study from the University of Minnesota actually noted that North Carolina’s prices were among the fastest rising in the nation. But even now, most families still have the same limited options for cable and Internet service.

Fed up and recognizing that the cable and phone giants would never allow competition to prosper, the City of Wilson took matters into its own hands by building its own next-generation fiber optic network. Completed by 2009, the network has been a success and Wilson is the first community in North Carolina to have universal access to a gigabit – about 100x faster than cable speeds.

Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lobbied against Wilson from the start and engaged in a multi-year effort in Raleigh to revoke the authority of any local government in the state to build a similar network. For five years, they worked with the now infamous ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push bills that would effectively ban local governments from building networks.

Follow the Money Logo

In 2011, the new Speaker of the House, Representative Tillis, ushered just such a bill through the House after receiving $37,000 from the telecom companies in the previous election cycle. Though he ran unopposed, he received significantly more from that industry than any other candidate, according to a  report from the National Institute for Money in State Politics called “Dialing up the Dollars.”

Strictly speaking, the bill was not technically a ban. We call these “leprechaun-unicorn bills” because a local government effectively has to find a leprechaun riding a unicorn to meet the standard necessary to build a network.

What it really did was revoke local judgment for state authority – something Republicans regularly decry in other circumstances. Opponents of the bill consistently argued that these decisions should be made at the local level, by those who will live with the consequences for better or for worse.

These two bills are essential to understanding why North Carolina has such poor access to the Internet and ever-increasing cable prices. Consumer protections typically come from the market (competition) or government (regulation). But these big companies are too powerful for other private companies to compete against and local governments have no regulatory power to protect consumers. Big cable and phone companies have little fear of competition and little motivation to invest in regionally or globally competitive upgrades.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking over 400 local governments across the nation that have invested in telecommunications networks and very few have regretted it. Just outside North Carolina, the cities of Bristol, Chattanooga, Danville, and a few others offer some of the fastest network connections at the lowest prices in the entire United States. If even 10 percent of these networks actually were failures, cable lobbyists wouldn’t have to spend millions lobbying states to revoke local authority to build them.

The General Assembly should return authority to local communities and trust them to make decisions. But as long as big cable and phone companies maintain their “business relationship” with elected officials, you can expect to see more decisions made in Raleigh rather than at the local level.

For the whole story on the war against Greenlight, you can download a copy of our case study, The Empire Lobbyies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina.

Silverton, Colorado, Breaks Ground in First Phase of Regional Network

In 2010, Silverton, Colorado, decided to build a fiber-optic loop for savings and better connectivity in rural San Juan County. At the time, Qwest (now CenturyLink) provided a microwave connection to the town of around 630 residents. After taking state money to connect all the county seats, Qwest decided to take fiber to everyone except Silverton, much to the frustration of local residents. We wanted to catch up with happenings in this former silver mining camp.

We spoke with Jason Wells, Silverton Town Administrator, who told us that Silverton's loop is part of a regional effort, the Southwest Colorado Access Network (SCAN). Silverton's loop broke ground in April and it will cost $164,000. Silverton and San Juan County contributed $41,000 and the remainder comes from a Southwest Colorado Access Grant. Wells says public institutions will be hooked up first, then downtown businesses. Connecting the schools will come later.

The community is limited by its remote geography. At 9,300 feet above sea level, the town is one of the highest towns in the U.S. and still served by microwave technology. Wells hopes future expansion will include wiring Silverton to Durango, the closest SCAN community. Durango connects municipal and La Plata County facilities with its municipal fiber and leases dark fiber to local businesses, private providers, and community anchor institutions.

Wells connected us to Dr. Rick K. Smith, Mayor of participating Bayfield and General Manager of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCCOG). Dr. Smith shared some history on the SCAN project.

The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments officially formed in 2009 and the first items on the agenda was establishing better connectivity in the region. Fourteen town and county jurisdictions belong to the Council to capitalize on the benefits of cooperation and coordination. Each community receives oil and gas state mineral funds and at the time each wanted to use the money for local broadband infrastructure projects. The group decided to join forces and create a regional network.

In 2010, the SWCCOG received $3 million from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Member communities matched with another $1 million in total. Each community will own the fiber assets and, while they are prevented from selling services to the private sector by state law unless they pass a majority referendum, they still hope to leverage their assets to attract private providers.

Silverton's fiber loop is at the top of the project list because it is geographically remote and private providers cannot justify the expense of building to such a small market. SWCCOG sees Silverton as an opportunity to prove their case and entice companies to serve businesses and link to outside networks. FastTrack Communications, located in Durango, has expressed interest in tapping into the Silverton market when the loop is complete. Plans estimate completion by the end of 2013.

Dr. Smith strongly recommends a regional approach for other communities considering broadband infrastructure investment. He credits much of their current success to collaboration between the SWCCOG member communities. Just as crucial, he says, is collaboration with private companies like FastTrack. Smith notes that SWCCOG invited large providers to participate two years ago and 25 or 30 seemed interested. Over the next two years all bowed out except a handful of local providers.

Holly Springs, North Carolina, Looking to Save with Municipal Network

The Town Council of Holly Springs, North Carolina, just voted to pursue municipal network infrastructure. The Holly Spring Sun reports that the proposed network would include Town Hall, a local business park, the wastewater treatment plant, and school facilities. Wi-fi would be available in parks and public facilities. Holly Springs is about 25,000 people in the center of the state near Research Triangle Park.

The City is pursuing a plan focused on cost-savings for community anchor institutions - North Carolina law effectively prohibits local governments from connecting businesses or residents. However, local governments can still serve schools, libraries, public safety, and the like. We have previously released a fact sheet with some of the savings other communities have seen from these investments.

Council members expressed concern over the current cost of service from private providers and expected hikes in rates:

“It’s going to continue to be more expensive for us,” said Councilman Tim Sack said, for something “that’s going to be less than what we need and more than we can afford.”

The cost for the project could range from $1.3-$1.5 million for a connection to all town facilities, [IT Director Jeff]Wilson said.

WUNC reports that CTC Technology and Energy will design the network. Joanne Hovis, CTC President, noted that the town will not offer services but building the infrastructure will hopefully encourage competition. 

From WUNC:

Holly Springs mayor Dick Sears says the council believes the town can break even by shifting funds from its current Internet service.

"I think we all felt that, yes, this would be a pay-for-itself kind of an option to take, so we're in-the-works process. But at the same time, we heard enough good news during that presentation that we want to continue the process," Sears says.

More specifically, from the CTC report,

[I]f the Town invests in its own fiber, in the “worst case” scenario, the cost of financing this infrastructure would be comparable to continuing to pay for leased services. CTC projects a cost savings between $922,000 and $1.1 million resulting from the Town building 1 Gbps circuits to each of its facilities.