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Responding to "Crazy Talk" Volume 4 - Community Broadband Bits Episode #72

We are back with the fourth volume of our responding to "Crazy Talk" theme on the Community Broadband Bits podcast. The source of this week's crazy talk is a public relations executive for Time Warner Cable, following an interview I did on WUNC in North Carolina.

Lisa Gonzalez, myself, and our colleague John Farrell react to some of the claims made to discuss what you should know about community owned networks and broadband policy more generally.

We talk about misleading statistics, lies about how local governments fund networks, and whether Time Warner Cable or local utilities pay more in taxes.

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 Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Postcard to Welcome FCC Chair Tom Wheeler

As part of the Media Action Grassroots Network, we are releasing this postcard and have tweeted it to welcome FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and suggest an action the FCC should take.

Mag-Net Wheeler postcard

Denver Suburb Seeks to Take Back Local Authority

Centennial is asking its voters to reclaim local authority this election. City leaders want to make better use of an existing fiber optic system but a 2005 Colorado state law pushed by a corporate telephone company precludes it. If the citizenry reclaims its local authority through referendum, the City can take the next step toward providing indirect services via its fiber network. 

We contacted City Council Member Ken Lucas to find out more about the ballot question. Centennial is a relatively young city that was incorporated in 2001 and has about 100,000 residents. Lucas told us that this ballot question is not only about using their fiber resources. The community of Centennial considers this a critical step toward maintaining a business friendly environment.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided grants to install the existing network for traffic control, security cameras, and public works monitoring. The City contributed only approximately $100,000 to the network, valued at $5 million. Traffic and public safety now use only two strands of the network that runs through the center of town. City leaders want to use the remaining 94 strands to improve access in the community. To see a map of the fiber and open conduit in Centennial, check out the City's PDF.

Approximately 94% of Centennial businesses and 85% of households are within one mile of the fiber backbone. Residents and business owners can now choose between Comcast or CenturyLink and rates are high. Lucas tells of one business owner who asked Comcast to provide 1 Gbps service to his building. Comcast offered to lease a line to the business at a high rate, but the customer would still have to pay $20,000 for installation.

Community leaders want to encourage more competition and, if they eventually develop the fiber, will explore open access models. Centennial knows their authority to invest in fiber infrastructure will influence economic development. City leaders want to attract high tech jobs to the Denver suburb.

The incumbents have not yet launched an expensive astroturf campaign or lobbied heavily against the ballot question as we saw previously in Longmont. This is the ballot question language:

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 WITH PRIVATE BUSINESSES, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES? 

Centennial does not want to compete with Comcast or CenturyLink - it wants to encourage other providers to compete with each other. Many communites express the same desire to improve telecommunications for their citizens without delivering the services themselves. However, many have found that they have to take an active role in order to ensure a real choice between slow DSL and modestly faster cable, each owned and operated by distant corporations.

Lucas told us that plans to use the fiber are far down the road. For now, the community wants to recapture the power the state preempted in 2005.

WUNC Radio Show Explores Muni Network Restrictions in North Carolina

WUNC, a public radio station out of Chapel Hill in North Carolina, covered community owned networks and broadband availability on its recent "State of Things" midday program. I was a guest along with a local resident and a public relations executive from Time Warner Cable to discuss North Carolina's broadband compared to other states and its law that effectively bans local governments from building networks.

The discussion is good, though I certaily could have done a better job. Ultimately I thought the host did a good job of bringing in each guest to make their points, though Time Warner Cable was totally unprepared to talk about how North Carolina can expand access. Instead, they talked about the cable giant's requirements to invest in networks in rural areas.

We are going to follow up on these points but for now wanted to make sure you have a chance to listen to the show. Our coverage of the bill discussed in the radio show is available here.

Mark Creekmore Takes on Windstream - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #69

Earlier this year, Mark Creekmore transitioned from a frustrated DSL customer to a champion for better Internet access in Georgia. A concerned citizen and tech consultant, Mark joins us for the latest Community Broadband Bits podcast. He discusses his history with Windstream and the steps he went through to improve his Internet access.

Along with this interview, you can read a how-to guide he wrote on DSL Reports.

Mark documented the times his connection speeds fell, his calls to tech support, and their inability to deliver what they promised. Finally, he helped the CBS Atlanta affiliate to cover Windstream's failure to deliver service in this video.

CBS Atlanta News

We became aware of Mark as he became aware of Windstream's efforts to revoke local authority from local governments to build networks that would deliver the services that Windstream would not. Read our coverage of those legislative fights from 2013 and 2012.

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 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 Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

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.

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.

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.

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. 

seal-north-carolina.jpg

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.

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.