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Locally Owned Networks Protect Privacy and Limit Consumer Surveillance

Since the story broke about the NSA domestic spying practices, debate among concerned citizens has revolved around the Big Brother surveillance model. Most of us shudder at the thought of our federal agencies from DC watching, noting, and recording our actions. However, there is another type of Internet surveillance that largely escapes notice and likewise threatens our liberty. 

Both types of surveillance are perversely encouraged by a poorly regularly market that allows big corporations to profit from violating our privacy.

We have long known that our online habits are being recorded and combined with other personal data that allows companies to show us personalized ads. But Free Press recently offering a compelling explanation for how this model can harm us. From the Dana Floberg article:

And about those “personalized ads” — this isn’t about Facebook learning you prefer Coke over Pepsi. This is about corporations targeting us where we’re vulnerable. This is about your Latina neighbor who sees ads for risky high-interest credit cards. This is about your cousin who just got laid off and now sees ad after ad selling him dangerous fast-cash offers and subprime mortgages. This is about your friend who lives in a rougher part of town and sees higher prices whenever he shops online. This is about all of us.

These ads aren’t personalized — they’re predatory.

Floberg goes on to describe how shopping sites alter prices based on income and location so more affluent shoppers can access better prices and coupons. These sites both use and reinforce stereotypes as they take advantage of the most vulnerable in our society.

Without laws to protect consumers, there is little we can do to stop this predatory behavior. Just as the market encourages corporations to violate our privacy to sell its goods, big corporations are also profiting in their work with law enforcement at all levels.

An AP article by Anne Flaherty notes that AT&T charges $325 to activate a wiretap and $10 per day to maintain it. Verizon charges the government $775 for the first month and $500 per month after that to continue it. It is hard to believe these charges are in line with actual costs. 

Meanwhile, the other massive providers are undoubtedly aware of what allegedly happened when Qwest CEO Nacchio refused to help the NSA illegally spy on Americans - the NSA cancelled a lucrative contract with Qwest. This provides a major disincentive to follow the law, particularly when they can expect retroactive immunity after violating the law for years.

What would become of any provider who dared to say "no" to the NSA? We found out when Xmission, serving consumers via UTOPIA said "no" - absolutely nothing happened. No fearful complicity at local Xmission. Xmission is focused on serving its customers, not Wall Street.

Massive corporations collect information from millions of customers; the more data, the higher the value. Even if a municipal network tried to collect and sell private data, the opportunity to profit would be limited because their reach is localized. 

Community owned networks, whose focus is on serving the community rather than maximizing profit, have no reason to collect and sell data. In fact, it is a revenue source to avoid. With a local customer base and more accountability, selling data would violate the trust that gives their brand a competitive edge. When it comes to protecting privacy, supporting smaller scale providers that are rooted in the community is a far better protection than anything Washington, DC, can or will provide.

AT&T and American Eagle spying image created by the Electronic Frontier Foundation and available via Wikimedia Commons.

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.

Community Owned Network in New Mexico Helps Save Lost Pets

We recently learned about Aztec, New Mexico's, free downtown Wi-Fi  so we decided to contact Wallace Begay, the IT Director, to find out more. This desert community of about 6,600 people not only offers the free service, but uses its fiber to serve government, schools, and even four-legged residents.

Begay tells us that in 1998 the city and school system coordinated to install the original fiber and the entities share ownership. The school wanted better, affordable connectivity for students while the city wanted economic development opportunities. Community leaders used E-rate funding and a Gates Foundation grant to construct the original fiber aerial route.

The town provides water, wastewater, and electric services through municipal utilities with its SCADA system. The public library and all ten Aztec Municipal School facilities connect to the fiber network. Municipal government facilities also use the network.

Even though the city is a co-owner, it took several years for municipal offices to get on the fiber network. Aztec City Council originally decided to install the fiber network as a way to bring in revenue by leasing dark fiber, not as a way to connect offices. When Begay started at the city in 2001, administrative offices still used dial-up connections. Twenty dial-up accounts (and the crawling speeds associated with them) added up to $500 each month.

At the time, Qwest (not CenturyLink) was the provider in Aztec and could only offer microwave or copper connections. Connecting 13 facilities at 1.4 Mbps would have cost the city $1,200 each month. Begay used $500 from the electrical enterprise fund to purchase equipment and pay for tech labor to move municipal offices on to the existing network. The city electrical enterprise fund pays for expansions and updates. The network is now about 12 miles.

Begay is especially pleased about the 2004 expansion to the Aztec Animal Control facility, serving all of San Juan County. Before the expansion, Animal Control also used dial-up and spent a significant amount of time fielding calls from worried pet owners. Now, when a new animal arrives it is photographed and vitals are posted online. Staff spends more time working with animals rather than answering calls and more pets find their way home. Begay says Aztec Animal Control also teams up with local animal shelters to share video of potential adoptees to expand adoption possibilities.

Map of Aztec, NM near Four Corners

In 2010, new City Manager Joshua Ray, embraced the idea of providing free Wi-Fi. From a 2011 Farmington Daily Times article:

"Aztec has possibly the best fiber infrastructure for Internet in the entire southwestern United States, so we decided to capitalize on it and build a citywide Internet connection," he said. "I'm hoping we can eventually light up the whole city with free Internet."

"In other cities, you have to go hunt down the Starbucks or McDonald's to get free Internet," he said. "We'll have it throughout the city, and I think that will be incredibly attractive to businesses and tourists. It will really improve the quality of life for our citizens and visitors, and I think it will be an economic driving factor for Aztec."

With a New Mexico Certified Community Initiative grant and additional funds from the city, Begay purchased the equipment for the Wi-Fi network for around $75,000.

There are 19 hotspots, mostly along the business corridor. Begay says the community is considering expanding the range to reach residential areas. 

Begay told us Wi-Fi users sign on for two hour time blocks to discourage "squatters." The Wi-Fi offers up to 11 Mbps and many businesses downtown use it for Internet access and simple applications. They also appreciate the ability to offer access to patrons. Entrepeneurs in Aztec often contact the city to find out details about the Wi-Fi signal when choosing a location for a new business. Aztec sponsors several large outdoor festivals in Minium Park and the city provides free day-long access so vendors can serve customers and increase sales.

The city still intends to offer commercial dark fiber leasing and is vetting technical and legal requirements. Begay estimates Aztec will have pieces in place within three months and will be ready to sign up its first customer.

In Iowa, Indianola Networks Helps Local Businesses

The latest addition to our Community Broadband Network Map is Indianola, Iowa. The Indianola Municipal Utilities own a network that a private partner, MCG, presently uses to offer services to commercial companies. Come summer, the network will begin serving residents also.

Indianola is the county seat of Warren County and has a population pushing 15,000. Back in 1998, the city had a referendum before building a fiber ring. The utility first used its telecommunications capacity for SCADA applications and public safety communications but began using spare capacity to benefit local businesses after 2005.

Indianola describes its network as open access but the network only has one provider. Nonetheless, it serves 70 commercial customers and is presently expanding. It is not available on citywide basis yet and further rollout will be on an incremental basis over many years.

In the open access arragement, service providers have to come to an agreement with the utility on pricing and adequate levels of customer support.

The utility entered the broadband space because incumbent providers Qwest (now CenturyLink) and Mediacom were not meeting local business needs, a familiar story we hear from communities around the country.

Contrary to the common claims of big cable and DSL companies, the city was still willing to work with its telecom competitors -- but it was Mediacom that said it was uninterested in using utility ducts created when parts of town were transitioned from aerial utility service to buried.

In reaction to the competition, Mediacom dropped its business pricing for customers that agreed to long-term contract offerings. IMU (and partner MCG) once had a considerable advantage in pricing but Mediacom's new packages have eroded some of that difference. Fortunately, IMU has a better reputation for service and does not require long term contracts.

Indianola, Iowa

One of the biggest benefits to the community is the high-capacity connections at schools, libraries, and public buildings. Schools connect to each other at a gigabit, allowing them to centralize network operations and cut costs. The municipal and county governments gain the same benefits.

Todd Kielkopf, IMU General Manager, told me "You can't put a price tag on what the savings have been."

When I called a local business, EDJE Technologies, that uses the publicly owned network, the owner candidly told me "Qwest is not good enough for us."

Communities like Indianola are smart to invest in broadband to benefit local businesses. It may anger the cable and DSL companies that are used to a non-competitive environment, but it is the only way many local businesses will gain access to the connections they need to be competitive in the digital economy.

Longmont Referendum Take Two: It Starts With a Debate

As we previously noted, the city of Longmont, Colorado, is preparing for a referendum to allow the City to offer telecommunications services to local businesses and residents using a fiber ring it built long ago. This is due to a 2005 law (the "Qwest" law) that was pushed through the Colorado Legislature by incumbents seeking to prevent competition.

That law has succeeded -- most Colorado communities can only choose between slow DSL from the incumbent telephone company and comparatively faster services from the incumbent cable company. And when Longmont last attempted to pass a referendum to share its fiber infrastructure with local businesses, Comcast and Qwest swamped the town with unprecedented sums to confuse residents -- leading to the referendum failure with 44% voting yes.

But after the referendum passed and people had time to better understand the issue, many who voted against it realized they had been duped. We have seen the same dynamic elsewhere -- in Windom, MN, for example, where the second referendum succeeded. WindomNet has since saved a number of jobs and is expanding to eight other underserved rural communities around it.

Longmont built its fiber ring in the late 90's but it still has a lot of unused capacity that could be used to attract economic development if the publicly owned power utility were authorized to offer services to businesses. Without this authority, the community has a valuable asset that they are forced to leave unused -- even as local businesses could benefit greatly from it.

The Longmont Times-Call outlined the situation in July:

Without that vote, the city can't let homes or businesses use that fiber without a vote, thanks to a 2005 state law. It's a fight the city's lost once before in 2009, when opponents -- including the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association -- spent $245,513 to urge the measure's defeat.

This time out, there's a different tack. The city has been underlining in discussions that the measure would "restore its rights" to provide telecommunications service. And it's stressing that no high-dollar project is on the table -- the first words of the ballot measure now read "Without increasing taxes ...

But Comcast and CenturyLink (previously Qwest) don't want to see their duopoly threatened by a new entrant that will create new competition. So they are again trying to swamp the referendum.
The incumbents have already started their FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) campaign. The anti-competition group called "Americans for Prosperity" (that is the short name, the full name is "Americans for the Prosperity of a few Massive Corporations at the Expense of Everyone Else - or AFPMCEEE) is mobilizing its base to oppose the City. Funny how groups that support the most powerful corporations never seem to run short of funds.

The incumbents (and their hired minions) are robo-calling many citizens with misleading claims to scare people into opposing the referendum. They are framing it as the city using tax dollars to compete with private businesses to deliver cable services. They may or may not be aware that the City is not going to use tax dollars (ahem, the fiber loop is already built!!) but they will undoubtedly continue using these lies to scare voters.

The question is whether people will be swayed by these annoying calls, emails, and glossy mailers or by the debate they had last Friday night.

Note: We think having a debate is a great approach to airing pros and cons of broadband investments. We encourage you to record (video if possible, audio otherwise) to make sure people can revisit it as the referendum approaches. Many people are still not even aware of the issue and likely did not attend the debate but will later be curious.

Logo - Longmont Power and Communications

At the debate, pro-incumbent spokespeople from outside the community came into town to convince others that Longmont should let Comcast and Qwest decide what Internet access is available and on what terms. They made the same old arguments, claiming that "most" of these networks have failed. When pressed, they were unable to offer specifics beyond UTOPIA and Burlington Telecom -- networks that we have demonstrated are not representative of community broadband in general.

They also made the same farcical claims that we should loudly laugh at when we encounter them:

"Right now, there's robust competition in wired and wireless," he said. "I'm concerned that when the government gets in, it'll drive away companies instead of attracting them."

Robust competition in wired and wireless??? Longmont has 2 wired choices - crap DSL and slightly better cable. In wireless, we are about to see the market go from 2 big providers and 2 small to 2 big providers and 1 small. Robust???

Longmont Mayor noted that Longmont wants to partner with businesses:

Baum said the city had no interest in being a telecommunications company itself, but wanted to partner with private businesses -- including those opposed to the measure, such as Comcast -- to help connect Longmont homes and companies to the loop. Comcast already leases fiber all over the country, he said; by doing so here, it could bring down its cost of doing business.

"I'm a free-market guy," Baum said. "I'm a capitalist pig. We're trying to create competition here."

This is exactly right. Communities desperately want more telecom competition while Comcast and CenturyLink desperately want to limit it in order to maximize their profits. They pretend local governments will "scare" away private investment but we have seen far more investment from the private sector in communities that have built their own networks.

If Longmont is allowed to use its fiber to offer services to local businesses, Comcast and CenturyLink are not going to leave town! They will invest more in the network, cut prices, and compete.

The crowd supported allowing Longmont to offer services to the private sector:

"You say you want government not to interfere with business," audience member Bernie Stoecker said to Paige and Gifford. "What we've got right now is a state law that interferes with our business."
"How is it a risky bet if the infrastructure's here and we're not using it?" someone else asked.
"Think of the city as a landlord and owning a commercial building that has offices for rent, but there's a prohibition that says it can't rent space to businesses," Joel Champion said. "We're wasting an asset."

Geek News Central logo

Finally, Geek News Central has published an interesting story by Susabelle that explores the issue from the perspective of someone who recently moved to town:

Fortunately, I think people are a little smarter than they were a few years ago.  Every time they write that check to Qwest for $80 for Internet and basic home phone, they wonder if the city offered broadband, would it be a little cheaper?  Maybe a LOT cheaper?  Considering our municipal-run electric utility sells us electricity for about 6.9 cents a kilowatt hour, I can only imagine that the broadband cost might be pretty darned low.

And even if it isn’t, and Qwest or Comcast end up being more cost-effective, that’s great for them, and will keep them customers.  If they are worried about losing customers to a cheaper alternative, then maybe they should examine their pricing a little more closely and see if they can find a more competitive pricing structure.
I’m hoping that the people of my town don’t fall for the ridiculous counter-advertising that the tel-cos and cable companies will be spreading our way in the next month or so.  I hope they all look at that exceedingly cheap electric bill, do the math, and realize that our little city can give us a much better deal on broadband, the same way they are giving us a much better deal on electric service.

People supporting local authority to use the fiber ring for economic development have set up a website as a hub for information about their campaign - Longmont's Future. Check in there to get more information.

Also, Craig Settles interviewed Vince Jordan, CEO of a local service provider RidgeviewTel and supporter of the City in the referendum, on Gigabit Nation. (Audio to come.)

Longmont Considers Second Vote on Community Fiber Network

Colorado requires a referendum before a local government can build a broadband network as a result of a 2005 law pushed by Qwest to prevent communities from building next-generation networks. So when Longmont wanted to expand its fiber ring to offer residential and business services, they put it to a vote.

They lost with only 44% supporting the measure. But now, more people understand the issue and the community is considering voting again.

We saw the same dynamic in Windom, Minnesota. Almost ten years ago, Windom held a vote to build a muni FTTH network and it failed to gain the Minnesota-required 65% supermajority. After the vote, a number of people wanted to revote because they realized they had been conned by the incumbent phone provider (ahem… Qwest) and only truly understood the issue after the vote had occurred.

City officials wanted no part of another referendum but community champions eventually prevailed and they had a second vote that authorized the community to build the network.

We'll see if Longmont follows suit. An article discussing the re-vote notes that Comcast and Qwest have dumped unprecedented sums into preventing the community from having a new choice:

The first attempt at getting that approval didn't go so well in 2009. According to city records, opponents -- including the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association -- spent $245,513 to defeat that ballot measure, the largest amount ever spent on a Longmont city election. By contrast, the city legally couldn't campaign on its own behalf, and the explanations that were out there didn't explain well, according to Longmont Power & Communications director Tom Roiniotis.

The cable and phone companies created an astroturf group called "No Blank Check" that then used standard fear, uncertainty, and doubt tactics to spread misinformation around the community. A quarter of a million dollars is a drop in the bucket to stop the only real threat of competition these companies face anymore -- locally owned community networks.

The situation in Longmont has attracted the interest of the Boulder Weekly, which focused on the opposition of Qwest and Comcast:

According to city records, opponents spent nearly $250,000 — the most ever spent on election ads in Longmont’s history — on the “No Blank Check” campaign, which painted the initiative as a tax guzzler that would reduce funding for local police officers and firefighters. According to reports, the primary campaign contributor was the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association (CCTA), which counts Comcast among its members.

Public safety departments in Longmont should talk to their counterparts in Wilson, North Carolina, who recently testified about the many tremendous advantages they have from owning their own fiber network.

Longmont Power and Communications

Roiniotis says the “No Blank Check” claims were misleading, to say the least, because any city-owned telecommunication service would operate as a self-funded enterprise, relying solely on the fees it collects instead of tax dollars.

“We run it just like a business, but we’re nonprofit,” he says.

If anything, Roiniotis says, it would make money for Longmont’s emergency services, because it would send 8 percent of its revenue to city coffers in the form of a franchise fee.
“It was actually just the opposite of what No Blank Check was saying,” Roiniotis told Boulder Weekly. “They were saying we were going to have to lay off police and firefighters. Nothing could be further from the truth. That’s never been proposed. In fact, telecommunications would actually generate money for those departments. But they had models dressed up as firefighters, looking very sad."

The article goes on to quote Comcast and CenturyLink who say that communities never succeed at building a networks… failing to mention that their best networks cannot even come close to matching the impressive networks built by Chattanooga, Lafayette, Wilson, Salisbury, Monticello, North Kansas City, and a number of other communities. CenturyLink -- with its pathetic last-generation DSL service -- wanting to educate local governments on how to build a network is like Coyote offering tips on stride to the Road Runner.

Like others, Longmont has credited the Google gigabit initiative as a rallying and organizing cry to reorganize and build the network they need.

The proposed question this time around is:

Shall the citizens of the City of Longmont Colorado re-establish their City's authority to provide all services restricted since 2005 by Title 29, article 27 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, described as "advanced services", "telecommunications services" and "cable television services," including any new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, utilizing community owned infrastructure including but not limited to the existing fiber optic network, either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners, to potential residential and commercial subscribers within the City and the service area of the City's electric utility enterprise?

The challenge of any ballot initiative on broadband is to explain to voters what is at stake. These technologies are intimidating and confusing to most voters - particularly as those who don't vote on a measure are often counted as nays.

Short History of Powellink Muni Fiber in Wyoming

I wrote this short case study of the Powell network in Wyoming for our Breaking the Broadband Monopoly report but it never got published on this site. As we noted a year ago, Powell bought its system back from investors last year.

The city of Powell started talking about a fiber network in 1996 but did not make progress for almost ten years. They developed a plan to build a FTTH network and lease it to an outside operator. The incumbents declined to partner with the City and later spent considerable effort to derail the City’s efforts. However, the City found a local cooperative, TriCounty Telephone (TCT), willing to offer triple-play services on the City’s network.

Financing the deal took more time than expected because the City was unwilling to commit public money directly or even as a backstop if the network fell behind on debt payments. While the City worked on the financing, cable incumbent Bresnan and telephone incumbent Qwest tried to convince the state legislature to abolish Powell’s authority in this arena. The legislature did create new obstacles for cities building such systems but Powell was grandfathered in.

In late 2007, the City agreed to an arrangement where TCT would exclusively lease the network and make up shortfalls in debt payments if required for a period of six years. After that period, the network would be open to other service providers as well and it would be the City’s responsibility to cover any shortfalls if needed. If the City chose not to appropriate in that situation, the investors could take the network. Estimates suggested a 33% take rate would allow the network to break even by the fifth year but most expected a higher take rate.

In early 2008, Powell completed the $6.5 million bond financing. As is more common in small builds, they immediately connected a line to the home rather than waiting for the subscriber to sign up. They trenched a fiber to the side of every house regardless of whether they were taking service, putting the fiber in a box on the side of the house. If the occupant signs up, a crew only has to install electronics rather than bringing a line down from the pole. This approach increases the capital cost slightly but can significantly decrease operating expenses as residents subscribe.

powell-sign-community.png

TCT began offering services in early 2009, creating a price war. Bresnan and Qwest significantly lowered their promotional prices in response to the network, ensuring that even residents who do not subscribe to the new city owned network will benefit from it. Bresnan has lowered its prices considerably, offering deals to Powell customers that are unavailable in nearby communities without competition. Incumbent providers often engage in what appears to be predatory pricing – a matter we discuss below in Obstacles to Community Ownership.

Powellink, built with the slogan “Our Fiber, Our Future,” offers much faster speeds than Qwest and Bresnan, both of whom are limited to asymmetrical connections that leave upload speeds at 1Mbps or less. TCT, whose network can offer 100Mbps symmetrical connections, does not fool around with promotional rates and long-term contracts.

Responding to critics of the City’s investment, Powell’s mayor noted that small communities like Powell always have to wait for companies to get around to them:

"It was 10 years ago when people at Qwest said they would be bringing us a fiber-to-the-home system," he said. "I found a letter from 1997 saying, 'It's coming soon.' Obviously, 'soon' for us is different for them."

The network has attracted jobs that require these high speeds – teaching English to students around the world using tele-presence applications. The company intends to hire 100 people, a major economic development win in a community of 5,000.

Powell’s City Administrator, Zane Logan, argues that building a modern network offers much more bang for the buck on the matter of economic development. Some communities work out tax breaks and other advantages for a company that announces it will create a certain number of jobs. In Powell, they instead focused on providing great infrastructure. They started by upgrading the public power system to ensure the highest reliability. Then they built an impressive network, offering speeds rarely available in even the densest urban areas of the U.S. and at prices below existing packages. Now, as Powell expands, developers will pay the majority of costs to expand the network in newly built neighborhoods in the same way they connect sewer systems.

Powellink Photos, courtesy Ernie Bray.

Seattle Mayor Uses City Conduit to Connect Pioneer Square

In the campaign for Mayor, Seattle Mayor McGinn frequently proposed the city getting more involved in improving broadband access. Since becoming mayor, he has accomplished little in this area, perhaps due to a City Council that is not convinced it should get involved in broadband.

But the mayor held an event in Pioneer Square to announce a new initiative to start using City assets to expand broadband access:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn today laid out a proposal to encourage broadband Internet in a four-block area in Pioneer Square, allowing telecom and cable companies to lease some of the conduit that the city is now placing under First Avenue South. McGinn said it is a small, incremental step in a larger plan to bring high-speed Internet to the parts of the city that need it, tapping into some 500 miles of “dark fiber” that’s not being utilized.

Pioneer Square, with a mix of commercial and residential, currently has very poor access to the Internet:

Jeff Strain, the founder of Undead Labs, a 20-person game developer in Pioneer Square, said that fiber-optic cable would dramatically improve his company’s ability to create cutting-edge games.

“What we are able to get in Pioneer Square is about half the speed of what you’d be able to get in your home,” said Strain. “So, it is not really suitable for the sort of media rich businesses that we are trying to build down here.”

The Mayor's site explains that Jeff Strain was considering moving his company to a location with better access.

We’ve heard from Pioneer Square businesses that internet speeds there are just not what a 21st century economy needs. Jeff Strain, who founded a game development company called Undead Labs, worries that he might have to move his company from Pioneer Square if the “barely adequate” internet service isn’t improved. He needs high-speed, high capacity internet access to upload his content.

seattle-mcginn.png

Yet another reminder that simple DSL and even cable networks do not offer businesses the connections they need to take advantage of modern technology.

More background from the Request for Proposals:

The City of Seattle, through the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), is installing conduit between South Jackson Street and Cherry Street along 1st Ave South in Seattle’s Pioneer Square District. The installation is part of an ongoing street project led by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Seattle City Light Department (SCL). The City is installing the conduit to provide conduit capacity requested by King County Metro for future fiber installation to serve signal cabinets. Only part of the standard four inch installed conduit will be needed for King County Metro purposes. The City has determined that after reserving space for current and future governmental uses there will remain excess capacity in the conduit which can be leased to private parties. As further detailed in RFP Section 5, the City will install three or four inner ducts in the conduit, leaving two inner ducts available for lease to an ISP(s).

The city appears ready to select one or two ISPs (which must have more than 3 years of experience) to move forward with this project. Mayor McGinn said the City would look into offering services itself if the private sector does not step up.

This 22 minute video below explains Seattle's approach, with Bill Schrier demonstrating the conduit and inner ducts being installed.

The City has 500 miles of fiber-optic cable, much of which could be leased as dark fiber -- a topic McGinn suggested will be addressed in the future.

Mayor McGinn has called on the City Council to pass an ordinance that will allow the City to lease space in city-owned conduits. We have some reservations about this timid approach -- it is far from clear that leasing conduit space to a few additional providers will ensure universal, affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet over the long term. That said, it will almost certainly be an improvement over the status quo. But what happens when Comcast buys whatever company builds these connections?

Seattle may want to consider a stronger role -- perhaps starting to build an open services network on which independent providers would compete for customers. It would require greater investment and risk than this approach, but it offers more long term rewards. If we had to guess, the City Council is the bottleneck and will only agree to this "small policy step," in the words of Mayor McGinn.

McGinn also noted that policy conversations in Beacon Hill, a neighborhood with very poor access to the Internet, almost always start with that topic. Comcast and Qwest are not meeting Seattle's needs. The question is whether the City Council will continue to prevent the community from solving its own problems with smarter investments.

Photo of Seattle used under creative commons license from flickr

Cortez, Colorado, Also Launches Open Access Network

On the heals of our story announcing a new open access community fiber project in Idaho, we have learned of a similar project in Cortez, Colorado. Cortez is the county seat of Montezuma County in the extreme southwest of the state and has approximately 8,000 residents.

Much of Colorado has long suffered from Qwest's refusal to invest in modern networks -- though a more charitable take on it would be to say Qwest's inability because it simply does not have the capacity to invest in the kind of networks communities now need to take advantage of modern communications technologies.

In the late 90's, Qwest's services in Cortez were served by microwave links incapable of meeting local needs and Qwest refused to invest in a better connection due to an insufficient business case. In the words of Rick Smith, Director of General Services for Cortez (and in charge of the network), the city then decided "to take its destiny in its own hands." They began building their own network.

The initial phase was an I-Net, built with the City's capital funds, to connect schools and other public facilities. They were able to later expand that under Colorado's Beanpole Project, a program that sought to aggregate community traffic in an attempt to lure more private sector investment in networks.

Along the way, they began leasing some dark fiber to private companies that needed better telecommunications options. When Qwest pushed through a bill in 2005 to limit local authority to build networks (click on Colorado on the Community Broadband Preemption Map), Cortez was grandfathered, leaving it with more authority to invest in this essential infrastructure than most communities.

A press release details the financing for this latest phase:

Southwest Colorado Council of Governments secured the initial funding for this project which came from a state grant of one million dollars from oil, gas and coal leasing rights. The City of Cortez provided the 25% match for the grant funds. The funds are being funneled back into developing the economy and growth of Cortez and the surrounding area by offering potential large employers or data center providers the bandwidth and technology to grow their business from Colorado.

The Cortez Journal reported on the new network and local enthusiasm:

Ernie Young, a technical supervisor for Baja Broadband in Cortez, spoke at a Cortez Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday, saying the proposed network is comparable in technological capability to networks in major metropolitan areas.

"It's really impressive to see how far advanced this community is going to get with this fiber-optic (network) that is going to be put in as a backbone," Young said.

Young believes the network will draw businesses to Cortez by offering information infrastructure capable of supporting satellite businesses, software companies and video conferencing.

The local Chamber of Commerce is fully supportive of this public investment:

Cortez Chamber of Commerce Logo

Chamber of commerce Executive Director Dena Guttridge agreed.

"Everybody is keeping an eye on little Southwest Colorado," Guttridge said. "Here we are right on the verge of launching this amazing project. I don't think people really understand what we're doing in this area. This is huge. We have the potential of having the fastest, most capable Internet in the state, and all over the Southwest."

From what we have heard, many nearby communities (including from nearby states) have been sending people to see what Cortez is doing and start investigating how they could duplicate it.

Cortez is not immediately building the network out to all residents and businesses -- trying to build a universal open access network in a single phase is very difficult to finance. This phase will connect local businesses and will be expanded when opportunities allow for it. It is likely that this network will start by offering only data and phone services. Delivering television services require more investment and fewer providers are able to do it for smaller networks like Cortez and Ammon, Idaho.

The Cortez Community Network Fiber Project web site has a significant amount of information as well as Frequently Asked Questions to help people to understand their approach.

They list some great principles for the network, including Universal access, geographic equality, level playing field, community control, symmetrical and unlimited bandwidth. These principles are each elaborated on. Stating and defining these principles is a smart move for any community network.

Though Qwest has not been able to build a next-generation network in Cortez, it has attempted to lock its customers into long-term (3 year) contracts in order to make life more difficult for the public network.

Minnesota's Northeast Service Cooperative Middle Mile Network Breaks Ground

Thanks to Minnesota Public Radio for an update on stimulus broadband projects in NE MN. A massive non-profit middle-mile project called the NorthEast Service Cooperative will finally provide redundancy and modern connections to an area long neglected by Qwest.

Hundreds of miles of fiber optic cables will bring faster Internet access to the Arrowhead region of Minnesota by the end of this summer. Ground for a broadband network stretching 915 miles was broken yesterday. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and other politicians were on hand to tout the long-term economic significance of this federally funded project.

Soon, entire counties will not have to fear disastrous meltdowns from Qwest's inability to offer reliable services, as when they went 12 hours without any telecommunications, meaning police could not run background checks or run plates, credit cards and ATMs went offline, and border security had to use Canadian comms.

Northland News offered greater coverage as well as a video that would not embed here for reasons unknown.

The 915 miles of fiber optic network will stretch across eight counties in the Arrowhead Region and bring world class web speeds to the area.

State lawmakers were also on hand at the ceremony and say this type of technology is pivotal to economic development.

"I want this to be the next step in people realizing that economic diversification on the Iron Range can be done because we are wired, we're ready to go, and we have a work force that is second to none," said state Sen. David Tomassoni.

We have to wonder how many of these legislators will support removing barriers in Minnesota law to communities building their own networks.

Note that the the NE Service Coop is a middle-mile network and that Frontier will be using it to improve their services.

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