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Layton Resident Breaks Down the Numbers on UTOPIA Service: Letter to the Editor

Thane Packer, a Layton resident, attended a community meeting this fall to learn what he could about UTOPIA. Packer is like many others who consider his costs for Internet, TV, and phone as an important factor in whether or not to support UTOPIA. After attending the meeting, he considered the presentation and what he described as "some very heated, and some very biased opinions."

He then examined his existing triple play costs and shared his findings in a letter to the Standard Examiner. The rest of his letter is reproduced below (emphasis ours):

The total bundled bill for home phone, Internet, and a TV package was $273.63. That is $93.25 per month for the internet and home phone plus $180 for TV. The telephone service is fine but the Internet is frustrating. The signal fluctuates, is spotty and unreliable.

In Provo, because there is competition from a fiber optic network, this exact same package, which includes, total Internet, home phone and the TV package is available from a provider for only $99.94 a month.

This means that even if I didn’t use a fiber network like the one in Provo the competition price from the provider would save me $178.69 a month. That means that without the competition from a fiber system like UTOPIA, the provider stands to make, (from me) a total of $2,144.28 a year and in 25 years (the pay-off time for the current bond, for which we receive nothing) is over $53,000

If I were able to switch to fiber system here in Layton a much better service would cost even less and I can certainly find a better place to use my $53,000.

So ask yourself this question. What is your current service costing you, how much extra are you paying, and what are you getting for it? For me the advantage of saving at least $178.69 a month and getting better service for it is obvious.

So please Layton, find a way to make this or something like it work for us. A very vocal minority should not be able deprive the rest of us from better cheaper service.

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part II here

In Part I of this story, we laid out the difficult situation the open access UTOPIA network finds itself in and how it got there. Part II gave the broad outlines of Macquarie’s preliminary proposal for a public-private partnership to complete and operate the network. The numbers we deal with here are mostly from the Milestone One report, and assumed the participation of all 11 cities. It should be noted that since five of eleven UTOPIA cities opted out of proceeding to Milestone Two negotiations, the scope and scale of the project is subject to change. The basic structure of the potential deal is mostly set, however, allowing us to draw some reasonable conclusions about whether or not this deal is good for the citizens of the UTOPIA cities.

Let’s first turn to why Macquarie wants to make this investment.  This would be the firm’s first large scale broadband network investment in the U.S., allowing it to get a foothold in a massive market that has a relatively underdeveloped fiber infrastructure. To offset network build and operation costs, it will also be guaranteed the revenue from the monthly utility fee, which my very rough calculations put between $18 and $20 million for the six cities opting in to Milestone Two (or between $30 and $33 million per year for all 11 cities) depending on whether the final fee ends up closer to $18 or $20 per month.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA puts Macquarie’s base rate of return between 3.7% and 4.7%, which is slim enough that they should have the incentive to make the network successful and truly universal, boosting their share of the revenue from transport fees in the process.

The monthly utility fee is a difficult pill for UTOPIA cities to swallow politically, and has allowed opponents to paint it as a massive new tax.  But this claim ignores the costs of the existing $500 million debt (including interest), which will have to be paid regardless of whether the network is ever completed or any more revenue is generated.

The existing debt adds up to about $8.50 per month per address over 30 years, without accounting for ongoing operating losses (or bond prepayment penalties if the network goes dark) or necessary network maintenance and upgrades. Without completing the network, there is no hope that it could return to self-sufficiency, meaning it would likely require operating subsidies in perpetuity.

Again, Jesse Harris has paved the way by doing an analysis of what is in the best interest of taxpayers from a purely self-interested perspective (ignoring indirect benefits of the network) here and here. As he sees it, it all depends on the take rate: if Macquarie can reach a 38% take rate in the newly expanded network coverage area, the entire deal will cost the same for taxpayers as simply selling off the network. A higher take rate would mean the cities actually spend less to get a completed network than they would to sell it off. But that’s only a narrow look at the balance sheet.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Opponents, especially those from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayer Association (UTA), have focused on the extra cost from the new utility fee to the small segment of the population that neither has nor wants a telecommunications connection. However, some studies have also shown that a fiber connection increases the value of a property, so there really may be some gain for everyone under this deal.

As it stands today, 2,100 miles of fiber have already been built, 70% of it underground. 40% of UTOPIA addresses are passed by the network (meaning they are able to purchase a connection upfront or on a payment plan), but only 10% are actually connected. Some cities are almost completely covered, others less than 20%. Some neighborhoods have one side of a street where connections are offered and the other where services are unavailable. The result of constant funding constraints, frivolous incumbent lawsuits, and poor planning, these pieces of stranded infrastructure can still be reclaimed and capitalized on with additional investment. 

Essentially, UTOPIA city taxpayers are on the hook either way. They can either get something for their troubles with the Macquarie deal (and maybe even end up paying less), or they can call it quits and pay to shut it down. They‘ve taken out a mortgage and built most of the house, but run out of money before they put a roof on. They can either restructure the debt and get on a payment plan to finish the roof, or they can watch the house rot and pay the mortgage for 30 years anyway. 

It is important to note that UTOPIA has a unique dynamic because the network has struggled financially (unlike the vast majority of community networks, most of which use a different business model and learned from the early mistakes of UTOPIA). We have not yet seen any communities proposing to establish a utility fee from the start, but it is an interesting proposition and we will explore it at length in a paper later this summer.

Media Roundup: Blackburn Amendment Lights Up Newswires

Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and her love for large corporate ISPs was all over the telecommunications media this week. She attempted to kneecap the FCC as it explores options to restore local telecommunications authority to communities. Blackburn introduced an amendment attacking local options as the House took up general appropriations bill H.R. 5016.

The amendment passed 223-200, primarily along party lines, with most Republican Reps voting with Blackburn and all but two Democrats opposing the amendment.

Democrats voting to support the amendment included Georgia's 12th District's John Barrow and Jim Matheson from Utah's 4th District. If either of these gentlemen represent you, take a moment to call their offices and point out their voting mistake.

Republicans that voted No were Mike Rogers and Mo Brooks from Alabama's 3rd and 5th Districts. Charles Boustany from the 3rd District in Louisiana and Chuck Fleischmann from the 3rd District in Tennessee (includes Chattanooga) also opposed the restriction. If these elected officials represent you, please take a moment to contact them and thank them for breaking ranks to support local authority.

Coverage this week was fast and furious.

Sam Gustin from Motherboard reported on Blackburn's efforts. Gustin checked in with Chris:

"Blackburn's positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns," said Mitchell. "In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices."

Mitchell says that he's sympathetic to the arguments against "preemption"—after all, he works for an organization called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—but points out that while Blackburn opposes the federal government inserting itself into state law, she apparently has no problem with the states telling cities and municipalities what they can and cannot do.

"The argument that Blackburn puts forth is not coherent," Mitchell said. "It's just politics."

Gustin and the International Business Times were only a few of the many reporters that connected the dots between Blackburn's campaign balance sheet and her concern for big ISPs. From IBT:

Blackburn’s top campaign donors include private telecommunications firms that do not want to have to compete with publicly owned ISPs. Her state is home to EPB, a taxpayer-owned power company in Chattanooga that also provides local residents some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world at market-competitive rates. EPB is now aiming to expand its services beyond Chattanooga.

However, to go forward with its expansion plan, EPB needs the FCC to enter the fray, applying its authority to preempt a Tennessee law backed by the private telecom industry that restricts the utility’s ability to move into new regions.

According to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, two of Blackburn’s largest career donors are employees and PACs affiliated with AT&T (NYSE:T)  ($66,750) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) ($36,600). Those are two of EPB’s private-sector competitors in Chattanooga. Blackburn has also taken $56,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the lobby for the big telecoms.

Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin also notes that EPB has turned away local communities that repeatedly request help in areas where broadband is not available. Tennessee law prevents EPB from serving beyond its electric service area. As Brodkin reports, Blackburn is not willing to look beyond the State Capitols.

EFF Logo

Brian Fung, who offered our community networks map for his Washington Post article, delved into the history of the issue. He noted growing support in D.C. for local telecommunications authority. Multichannel News also reported on the opposition to the amendment voiced on the House Floor by New York Representative Jose Serrano. Serrano said:
Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. Any such amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leaders to determine if their broadband needs are being met.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote about consumer concerns - the lack of competition and state policy that maintains large corporate monopolies and duopolies:
Projects like community mesh networks and mayors’ attempts to bring fiber to their cities should never be illegal or stifled by misguided state laws. On the contrary, they should be encouraged. That’s because community and municipal high-speed Internet projects provide users more options.
Municipal and community broadband projects offer alternatives, so when companies like Comcast and Verizon are behaving badly, users have somewhere else to go. But right now there are 20 states that have laws that make it make it hard or impossible for communities to take their Internet into their own hands.
The National Journal also published a brief account.
Karl Bode at DSLReports.com summed up the legislative formula that brings us to this point in political time:
The underlying argument from Blackburn and friends continues to be that municipal broadband is the devil -- but letting local massive corporations write state telecom laws (laws that often completely eliminate your right to choose for yourself what your town does or doesn't do, while also resulting in less competition, higher prices, and worse customer service) is perfectly ok.
And my snarky favorite came from Brad Reed, who offered a little sarcasm at BGR.com with "Congresswoman bravely stands up for ISPs’ rights to deliver inferior service with no competition":
Either way, we’re still glad to see that some patriots in this day and age are still standing up to protect our freedoms from the municipal broadband menace. As certain historical figure might have said were she alive today, “Let them eat dial-up!”

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 2

This is the second of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part III here.

With the status quo untenable, no easy exit strategy, and political opposition mounting, UTOPIA appeared besieged in early 2013. Then along came Macquarie, which started studying the network and putting together a proposal for a partnership. The full Milestone 1 report from Macquarie is here,  but in case you aren’t prepared to read 100 pages the broad outlines are as follows:

  • Macquarie will invest $300 million of its own capital to aggressively finish the network build out in 30 months, finally reaching every address in every participating city without a connection fee (UTOPIA had been charging residents in some areas who wanted service around $3,000 to make the expensive last mile connections to individual addresses).
  • Macquarie would be responsible for network maintenance and periodic upgrades, as well as meeting performance benchmarks. Cost overruns in any of these areas would be paid by Macquarie.
  • Sharing of network revenue (from charging ISPs for transport) between Macquarie and UTOPIA, which could be used to pay down the existing bond debt.
  • At the end of a 30 year period of operations run by the public-private partnership, the network would revert fully to public ownership.
  • All homes would be eligible to receive "free" basic service, with 3 mbps download/upload speeds and a 20GB monthly data cap. For all other services, businesses and homes could choose from any of the 8 ISPs currently operating on UTOPIA, all of which offer affordable gigabit speeds. With a larger, complete network, it is likely that UTOPIA would attract new service providers as well.
  • Imposition of a monthly $18-20 utility fee, assessed to every address in the UTOPIA area over the next 30 years, regardless of whether or not they are network customers. This is why we put the "free" basic service in quotations. The utility fee would be structured with a 50% discount for apartments or other multiple-unit addresses, a 100% premium for businesses, and an option for each city to offer a hardship waiver for the indigent or discount for seniors.

In sum, this is a huge infusion of capital from a private company that could remove the risks associated with running, maintaining, and upgrading the network from the member cities, while potentially offering them a source of revenue to pay down the existing bonds. It also offers universal basic internet access, and the chance for everyone to purchase high speeds and premium services (voice and video) in a truly competitive market running on state-of-the-art infrastructure. The downside, of course, is the monthly utility fee, which is already proving contentious, as well as ceding control of the network to Macquarie for 30 years.
   
In the third and final article on this Macquarie series, we’ll look at the political implications and weigh the costs and benefits of the utility fee compared to what these cities are already paying.

UTOPIA at a Crossroads: Part 1

This is the first of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward.

At the end of a month of public meetings, hearings, and city council votes, just over half of the cities that make up UTOPIA have chosen to take the next step in their negotiations with the Macquarie Group. The massive Australian investment bank has put forward an offer to become a partner in the troubled network in exchange for a $300 million capital infusion to finish the long-stalled FTTH buildout.

Of the 11 member cities that have debt obligations for the network, six (comprising about 60% of all 163,000 addresses in the UTOPIA area) have voted to proceed to “Milestone 2,” which means digging into details and starting serious negotiations on the terms of a potential public-private partnership. Macquarie outlined their opening proposal in their Milestone 1 report in April.

Macquarie has about $145 billion in assets globally, and is no stranger to large scale infrastructure projects. Their Infrastructure and Real Assets division has stakes in Mexican real estate, Taiwanese broadband networks, Kenyan wind power, and a New Jersey toll bridge, to name just a few. For their UTOPIA investment, they would be working with Alcatel Lucent and Fujitsu, highly capable international IT companies. So there’s some serious corporate firepower across the negotiating table from the UTOPIA cities - and in this case, that’s not actually a bad thing.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA has an excellent overview of the whole messy history of UTOPIA and the limited options the network’s member cities now face. While the network offers true competition, low prices, and gigabit speeds through an open access FTTH network, UTOPIA has faced a slew of setbacks over the years, from incumbent lawsuits and astroturf activism to mismanagement, poor expansion planning, loan disputes, and restrictive state laws. As a result, the network remains unfinished, with just over 60,000 of 163,000 addresses having been passed by fiber, while member cities are on the hook for about $500 million in long term debt and interest payments to go with annual operating losses in the realm of $2.4 million.

The UTOPIA cities have some choices to make. They could simply shut the network down, eliminating the operating costs - but also depriving the area of its best chance at ubiquitous and affordable high speed internet access, losing the revenue from current customers, and doing nothing about the long term debt. This would essentially guarantee that the cities would continue to make bond payments for the next 30 years while receiving nothing. It would also leave the many local businesses  that depend on the network’s reliable speed high and dry.

Or the cities could choose to sell the network, as nearby Provo did with its fiber network after state restrictions requiring an infeasible business model took their toll. Any proceeds from a UTOPIA sale would be dwarfed by the outstanding bonds, however, leaving the cities with most of the debt left to pay and little to show for it, handing over control of a local infrastructure asset to the highest bidder. This did not work out especially well in Provo, where the public sector held onto the network’s debt while a private provider (Broadweave) struggled to operate it. They have had better luck with a subsequent sale to Google, but still retain the public debt without community ownership. This is a fate UTOPIA cities should avoid if at all possible.

Stay tuned for the rest of this series. In Part 2, we’ll break down the main points of the preliminary Macquarie proposal. In Part 3 we’ll weigh the pros and cons, showing why this deal has the potential to make the best of a difficult situation for UTOPIA-area residents and businesses.

FreeUTOPIA Destroying Myths About Macquerie in Utah

Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA recently published a piece correcting the many fantastic errors disseminated by the Utah Taxpayers Association. The group continues to spread lies to poison a proposal from Australian company Macquarie that could reinvigorate the ailing network. We spoke with Harris and Pete Ashdown, from Xmission, about the proposal in episode #85 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

As can be expected, the arguments are nothing new, but the Utah Taxpayers Association still finds a way to take it to new extremes. Harris' post is worth the read because it offers truths to correct misinformation.

After correcting several points, Harris writes:

Really, their diatribe just goes on and on like that. A lot of it is basic fact-checking stuff that’s flat-out wrong, but they know those kinds of statements will rile people up and get them too angry to consider the real facts.

The best thing you can do right now is to make sure you show up at city council meetings, let your elected officials know you support the deal, and make sure you counter any of the flat-out false talking points the opposition will be trotting out time and time again. We’re really close to having this thing in the bag, and we can’t let up until the ink dries on the final agreement.

In a late-breaking story, he also says he has evidence that CenturyLink is behind this astroturf campaign. Not at surprising, but we should not sit idly by while powerful corporations try to undermine our republic.

Resort Town In Utah Seeks Partner to Expand Economic Base with FTTH

Park City wants to be one of the first resort communities to employ an FTTH gigabit network. Currently, over 22 million visitors come to the northern ski town each year bringing approximately $500 million in tourist spending. The community of 7,600 permanent residents seeks to diversify its economic base. According to a recent Park City News article, community leaders see broadband as an essential tool. 

Utah, one of the states that impose barriers to community networks, imposes de facto wholesale-only requirements on municipal networks. Park City's April Request for Proposals [PDF] clearly states that they seek a private partner to own, operate, and manage a network across the city. Proposals are due May 16.

Park City has smaller segments of fiber in place now for internal operations. The company securing the project will have access to that fiber for the network. The City also plans to allow access to existing conduit, rights-of-way, and city-owned poles as part of the new network. Park City does not operate its own electric utility.

Four years ago, Park City competed to attract Google Fiber, which eventually went to Kansas City. In the spring of 2013, city leaders developed a broadband roadmap. At the time, community leaders began contemplating the economic development benefits associated with better connectivity. From a May 2013 Park City News article:

Leaders want to create a diversified economy stretching beyond the sectors tied to the resort industry. Doing so, they say, would make the economy less susceptible to warm, dry winters that do not attract skiers in large numbers.

Technology upgrades, they say, are important as officials attempt to attract new businesses to Park City not tied to the resort industry.

GovTech Reports on Broadband Legislation in Five States

Broadband is a topic of interest in several state legislative chambers this session. In a recent Government Technology article, Brian Heaton focused on five states where community broadband is particularly contentious. In some cases, legislators want to expand opportunities while others seek to limit local authority.

We introduced you to the Kansas anti-competition bill in January. The bill was pulled back this year but could be back next year. When the business community learned about the potential effects of SB 304, they expressed their dismay. From the article:

Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 as a “job-killer” that restricts communications services expansion in the U.S.

Minnesota's leaders introduced legislation to expand broadband. Efforts include financial investment earmarked for infrastructure:

Senate File 2056 – referred to as the Border-to-Border Infrastructure Program – would take $100 million from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. A companion bill in the House, HF 2615 was also introduced.

As we reported, there is bipartisan support for the bill in the House, but the Senate and Governor have not prioritized SF 2056.

New Hampshire's legislature wants to open up bonding authority for local communities that need help:

Legislation is making its way through the New Hampshire Legislature that would give local government expanded bonding authority for areas that have limited or no access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Sponsored by Rep. Charles Townsend, D-Canann, HB 286 passed the House earlier this year and is up for a hearing in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on April 23.

Heaton also reports on the Utah bill that targeted UTOPIA. The bill concerned potential private partners and appears defeated, but broadband advocates remain alert.

The agency [UTOPIA] has 11 member cities, but communities located outside the limits of member cities can pay to have the network built out to them.

HB 60 would prevent that from happening with specific language that targets only municipal fiber networks – potentially including a Google Fiber rollout in Provo, Utah. That means other forms of broadband such as DSL or cable would be exempt.

Tennessee is especially busy this session. Lawmakers introduced a collection of legislation aimed at enabling local communities to develop community networks. All appear stalled in committee or forgotten by leadership. Heaton spoke to Chris Mitchell about action in Tennessee:

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a national expert on community broadband, told Government Technology that he wasn’t surprised that the bills stalled. He explained that for years, broadband advocates have tried to remove some of the barriers to network expansion in the state, but to no avail.

“The ironic result is that the federal government may be subsidizing obsolete DSL because the state will not allow local governments to expand next-generation community fiber networks even when they are not subsidized in any way,” Mitchell said.

“Many of the elected officials still don't [have] enough pressure on them from constituents to stand up to AT&T and Comcast,” he added. “Those two firms have a lot of power in the [Tennessee] Legislature.”

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.

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.