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Chris Mitchell Hosts March 18th Webinar: Tech in The City

On March 18th, our own Chris Mitchell will host a webinar that you don't want to miss. Tech In the City: A Conversation About Community Broadband Access will be an engaging discussion about municipal networks in light of the recent Verizon v. FCC decision. The court delved into the FCC's authority, clearing up ambiguities from past decisions.

The event, presented by the Media Action Grassroots Network (MAG-Net)'s Community Media Cohort begins at 11 a.m. Pacific / 2 p.m. Eastern. From the event announcement:

Earlier this year, a court order ruled against the Open Internet also known as network neutrality. However, this same order reaffirmed the FCC's role ensuring that communities and cities can create their own broadband infrastructures.

In the last decade hundreds of communities across the U.S have started their own community broadband networks via local governments, cooperatives, or other nonprofit arrangements. But cable and telephone companies, like Comcast and Verizon have a history of redlining in low-income, rural, historically marginalized communities. Led by cohort leader and community broadband expert, Chris Mitchell of Institute for Local Self Reliance, we will have a dialogue about what we can do to protect the future of community broadband networks.

RSVP for the event and spread the word!

Westminster and Chanute Pass Resolutions Supporting FCC's Authority to Remove State Barriers

In light of the recent announcement, community leaders in Maryland and Kansas are rallying behind the FCC as it considers its authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. In a show of support, the Westminster Mayor and Common Council passed Resolution 14-01, a statement in support of restoring and preserving local authority to build networks. Twelve hundred miles away in Chanute, the City Commission took the same action with Resolution 2014-17.

Readers will remember Westminster as the central Maryland town that has carefully progressed forward in realizing better connectivity. The community recently approved a fiber pilot project as a way to test the water. Our contact in Westminster, Dr. Robert Wack, reported that interest in the network has blossomed even before the start of construction. The network has already attracted one new employer from New York.

Our 2012 case study, Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage, tells the story of how the community incrementally built a world-class network. Without borrowing or bonding, Chanute's next-generation fiber network has enhanced education, economic development, and saved millions of taxpayer dollars.

This legislative session, Chanute has contended with threatening state legislation that could derail their expansion plans. The community is very close to a project that would offer fiber services to every premise in town.

Westminster Seal

Westminster's resolution, passed unanimously on February 24, reads:

RESOLUTION NO. 14-01 RESOLUTION of The Mayor and Common Council of Westminster

SUBJECT: STATEMENT IN SUPPORT OF THE FCC RESTORING AND PRESERVING LOCAL AUTHORITY TO BUILD NETWORKS

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the availability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City of Westminster supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

Local Authority

Chanute's resolution was very similar with special attention focused on local authority:

Preserving Local Control and Restoring Community Determination for Broadband Deployment

WHEREAS, local governments, being closest to the people are the most accountable level of government and will be held responsible for any decisions they make; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide opportunities to improve and encourage innovation, education, health care, economic development, and affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, the City of Chanute, has ensured access to essential services by providing those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. Chanute’s infrastructure investments have included electricity production and distribution, gas distribution, water treatment and distribution, wastewater collection and treatment, sanitation and landfill, streets, parks, and other vital community services; and

WHEREAS, local government leaders recognize that their economic health and survival depend on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable, high speed internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made at the state level to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the ability of local government to provide important services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that the City Commission of the City of Chanute, Kansas, supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential telecommunications infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

ADOPTED by the Governing Body on February 24, 2014.

Communities know their futures depend on the ability to bring fast, affordable, reliable access into their community. Because local leaders recognize that large corporate providers seldom build past low hanging fruit, a growing number now invest in their own infrastructure.

New Hampshire's Bill Would Allow Munis to Bond for Open Access

A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town.

We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly passed the house.

Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called Fast Roads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it.

Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins.

Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.

People often hear, for example, that 95 percent of the state has access to broadband, she said. But that’s only by including all New Hampshire Internet speeds, some of which fall below the speed considered fast enough to be broadband, which is 4 megabits per second (Mbps). Most of the state, more than half, doesn’t have access to speeds that meet the 4 Mbps threshold, she [Carole Monroe, Executive Director of Fast Roads] said.

...

So far, there are four providers on the network, which passes through 19 towns, including Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Keene, Marlow, Richmond, Rindge and Swanzey. Now that construction is complete, FastRoads is working to add more providers to the list, as well as looking for ways to expand its network to more residential areas.

FastRoads also included two areas of “last mile” construction, enabling 1,300 residents and businesses in specific areas of Rindge and Enfield to connect directly to the FastRoads fiber, though a service provider has to bring the connection from the cable box on the street into the home.
So far, about 180 residents or businesses are using the network, Monroe said.

For Rindge resident Tim Wessels, the FastRoads network has made a “world of difference.”
Before it, he paid $130 a month for a satellite and two DSL circuits. Combining all three, he had a download speed of just over 3 megabits per second.

Now, Wessels pays $70 to one Internet service provider for 20 Mbps of download and upload speed.

Fast Roads was assisted with an award from the federal broadband stimulus programs.

Utah Senate Bill Attacking UTOPIA on the Fast Track: SB190

UPDATE: According to Pete Ashdown, the amendment has been pulled. Stay vigilant, these things rarely just go away.

We reported earlier this month that UTOPIA was once again facing legislative attack at the state level in the form of HB60. While the House has focused on other issues, the Utah Senate is launching its own attack. SB190 has also put UTOPIA in the crosshairs and events are happening quickly. Time to contact your elected officials, Utah!

According to Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA.org, SB190 as originally crafted, could have curtailed a pending deal between UTOPIA and Australian firm Macquierie. From Harris' February 19 story on the bill:

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Since its introduction, the bill was heard in the Senate Business and Labor committee. There was broad and fierce opposition and Sen. John Valentine, the sponsor of the bill, amended it. The changes made the bill palatable to Macquarie and it passed through committee to the Senate Floor on Feb. 24.

After the bill passed through the committee, Valentine introduced a floor amendment that will prevent new cities from joining the network. Harris now reports:

His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

The bill is now awaiting a vote on in the Senate. It is imperative that you contact the Senate, especially your own elected offical, to voice your opposition to the bill in its current form.

These types of end runs around legislative procedure are common place. In my own limited experience working at the state legislature, I have seen contentious sections of proposed bills added or removed to make a deal, only to be added or removed later on the floor and during conference commitee. In places that do not have a full time legislature, changing proposed legislation on top of a deadline is an effective way to take advantage of the clock to achieve an unpopular goal. It is important to remember that legislation is fluid until the gavel comes down sine die.

KKFI in Kansas City Interview Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle on Kansas Legislation

On February 13, KKFI Community Radio from Kansas City, Missouri, interviewed ILSR's Chris Mitchell and Todd O'Boyle from Common Cause. Tom Klammer, host of the "Tell Somebody" show covered Kansas legislation SB 304 aimed at preventing municipalities from investing in their own broadband networks.

Chris and Todd co-authored our 2013 case study, The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina. They reviewed the events in Wilson, North Carolina, home of municipal network Greenlight. As in Kansas, powerful cable company lobbyists attacked municipal networks in North Carolina through the state legislature.

Klammer writes on the program website:

Recently Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause brought my attention to a Kansas Senate bill, authored by a cable industry lobbyist, which would outlaw community broadband in Kansas.  Subsequently I came across an article online written by O’Boyle’s colleague Christopher Mitchell who wrote that the bill in question, if passed, would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks that we have seen in any state.

You can listen to the interview from the program website. The interview is a little under one hour.

Big Incumbents At It Again In Kentucky; Mimi Pickering in the Richmond Register

Yet again, lobbyists from AT&T, Windstream, and Cincinnati Bell are lobbying state elected officials under the false guise of improving communications in Kentucky. In a Richmond Register opinion piece, Mimi Pickering from the Rural Broadband Policy Group revealed the practical consequences of Senate Bill 99.

Republican Senator Paul Hornback is once again the lead sponsor on the bill. As usual, backers contend the legislation moves Kentucky communications forward. Last year, Pickering and her coalition worked to educate Kentuckians on SB 88, that would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement. We spoke with Pickering about the bill in Episode #44 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They had a similar fight in 2012.

In her opinon piece, Pickering describes the practical effect of this policy change:

It would allow them to abandon their least profitable customers and service areas as well as public protection obligations. But it is a risky and potentially dangerous bet for Kentuckians. Kentucky House members should turn it down.

Everyone agrees that access to affordable high-speed Internet is a good thing for Kentucky. However, despite what AT&T officials and their numerous lobbyists say, SB 99 does nothing to require or guarantee increased broadband investment, especially in areas of most need.

AT&T Kentucky President Hood Harris claims that current Kentucky law prevents the company from investing in new technology. As Pickering points out, AT&T refused to build in unserved areas when offered federal funds. Those funds came with minimum obligations; AT&T was not interested.

The bill appeared to be on the fast track to passage, breezing through the Senate Economic Development, Labor, and Tourism Committee only ten days after being introduced. According to the Kentucky Herald-Leader, AARP, the Kentucky Resources Council, and several smaller cable and Internet service providers expressed opposition to the bill:

"We are not giving up our land lines. We want to hang onto them even as we get our cellphones because we think the land lines are more dependable," said Jim Kimbrough, president of AARP Kentucky.

...

Smaller cable companies and Internet providers told senators they worry the bill lacks language to protect them from unfair competitive tactics by AT&T once it's freed of even more PSC regulation, following earlier phone deregulation measures that passed in 2004 and 2006.

Pickering knows quick passage is dangerous. From her opinion piece:

How is this good for Kentucky? There is no good reason for the General Assembly to rush thorough the AT&T-backed legislation and surrender the rights and protections guaranteed to us under our long-standing communications laws.

SB 99 is bad news and big trouble for all of us, unless of course you are one of these telecommunication giants.

FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

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 15 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Kansas Community Benefits from Community Owned Networks

Even though the Kansas cable lobby have temporarily retracted their competition-killing telecom bill, we still want to highlight the benefits of preserving full home rule, local authority by focusing on a number of communities, including Chanute, Ottawa, and Erie.

Chanute

We have reported on Chanute's municipal network for years. The community leveraged its electric utility assets and incrementally built an extensive publicly owned gigabit fiber network. Over several decades, the community expanded its network to serve schools, libraries, local government, and businesses. Chanute took advantage of every opportunity and created a valuable asset with no borrowing or bonding.

Several business, including Spirit AeroSystems, chose to locate in Chanute because of its incredible fiber network. Spirit brought approximately 150 new jobs. The network also retained jobs when incumbents refused to provide needed upgrades to local businesses. Rather than leave town, the businesses connected to the City's network and increased their productivity. 

Former City Manager J.D. Lester referred to municipal broadband as “the great equalizer for Rural America,” saying: “You don’t have to live in Kansas City to work there.” (See our case study Chanute's Gig: One Rural Kansas Community's Tradition of Innovation Led to A Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage [PDF])

Kids in Chanute have access to connectivity other schools can only dream about. The local community college has expanded its distance learning program with higher capacity broadband. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are all over town; money otherwise sent to distant providers stays in the community. Chanute has invested in a WiMAX wireless system that serves public safety all over the region, not only in town. Their other utilities use the network for automatic metering and SCADA applications, saving energy and allowing customers the chance to reduce utility bills.

Chanute Logo

In addition to savings public dollars by reducing the cost of municipal connectivity, the broadband utility generates $600,000 and contributes 5 percent of that to the general fund.

Community leaders recently began planning for a FTTH expansion to bring fiber Internet to every home in town. If SB 304 finds its way into the books, those plans will be derailed and residents will be left with slow cable and DSL access.

Erie

Erie, southeast of Chanute, also utilizes Chanute's extensive fiber network for affordable school connectivity. When it was time to upgrade, Erie approached incumbent Cox. Cox's proposal for 100 Mbps to the high school alone was $5,000 per month. With its microwave network, Chanute is able to provide Internet service to the Erie community where already fiber connects the school facilities. Chanute serves Erie's high school, grade school, administration offices, and the bus barn where students learn auto mechanics. Like Chanute schools, Erie is guaranteed 100 Mbps but able to burst up to 300 Mbps when capacity allows. Erie pays only $5,100 per month and 80% of its connectivity fee is reimbursed by the federal E-rate program.

Ottawa

Inspired by Chanute's success, nearby Ottawa launched its fiber network in 2013. Ottawa joined forces with its school district and county government. Ottawa used an existing patchwork school district and county fiber, linking them together as a community network backbone. Each entity retained ownership of their resources but shared fiber strands with the City.

Ottawa businesses were dissatified with services from incumbents who were not interested in upgrading. Choices were expensive and slow T1s or an uber expensive DS3. Multiple appeals to incumbent AT&T yielded no results.

Schools, the area community college, and a farmers' cooperative connect to the network for better capacity and lower prices than AT&T will offer. The school district has cut its connectivity fees in half from $6,000 per month to $3,000 per month, by switching to Ottawa as a service provider. They now receive double the speed they used to purchase because the community network takes a much different approach than AT&T. From our April 2013 article on Ottawa:

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.

UTOPIA Again Targeted by Bill in State Legislature

Kansas is not the only place where the cable and telecom lobbies are attacking publicly owned networks. Jesse Harris from FreeUtopia.org reports that State Rep. Curt Webb has introduced HB60, aimed at UTOPIA. From the story:

As the bill is currently written, UTOPIA wouldn’t just be prevented from building to people willing to pay for it. They could also be required to shut down any existing services and be prohibited from maintaining their backbone that links cities together. It would effectively be a death sentence on any network that isn’t entirely within member cities AND can connect to an exchange point to reach ISPs and the rest of the Internet.

FreeUtopia also reports that the bill does not affect cable, DSL, wireless, or any other technology. Harris writes:

Naturally, I had to follow the money and it explains a lot. Rep. Webb has taken contributions from CenturyLink and the Utah Rural Telecom Association. 

As an observation, I take issue with the state's fiscal note on HB60. It reports that enactment of the bill "likely will not result in direct, measurable costs for local governments." The fiscal note also concludes that "enactment of this bill likely will not result in direct, measurable expenditures by Utah residents or businesses."  

If this bill ends UTOPIA in certain areas, affected government, residential, and business customers will lose the competitive rates they now enjoy - direct and measurable! See Pete Ashdown's comment on Jesse's story - he runs XMission, a beloved local ISP that uses UTOPIA to connect to some subscribers.

This bill is another example of how cable and telephone company lobbyists are not just trying to shut down municipal networks, but any possible public private partnerships. This is emphatically not about tax dollars, as Jesse rightly notes:

These extensions help lessen the burden on taxpayers as a whole by shifting more of the costs onto subscribers, but it doesn’t cost any city a red cent.