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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.

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.

UTPOIA The Latest Network to Offer Super Affordable Gigabit

As we recently reported, EPBFiber presented a birthday gift to its current and future Chattanooga customers - gig service for $69.99 per month. In Utah, UTOPIA is extending the list of like-minded publicly owned networks and dropping prices. UTOPIA just announced that gig service is now available for as little as $64.95 per month. According to the Free UTOPIA! website, seven providers are now offering gigabit speeds for $70.00 or less.The Deseret News also reported on the story:

In addition to the exceptional speeds, residential subscribers on the network will also be able to choose their provider based on the services and pricing that best meets their individual needs, explained Gary Jones, UTOPIA chief operating officer.“More residents in Utah have access and the ability to connect to the digital world at the speed of light than anywhere else in the country, and the prices and services being offered by our ISPs make it affordable for many more customers,” Jones said. “This new price is … not much more than most phone and cable companies charge for their basic 8 megabits per second service.”

The News also quoted XMission's Pete Ashdown:

"As the Internet becomes an essential conduit for work, school and entertainment, gigabit availability is essential,” said Pete Ashdown, CEO of XMission. “Only fiber allows this kind of bandwidth and speed."

Just a month ago, we reported that Xmission chose to increase speeds for subscribers of its 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps at no extra charge. As we monitor rates from networks around the country, we find that customers of municipal networks regularly enjoy free speed increases. EPBFiber increased speeds for residential customers for free about a year ago. Tullahoma's LighTUBe upgraded its prior highest tier from 300 Mbps to 1 gig service with no price increase earlier this year. The same cannot be said of the large cable and telephone corporations, which regularly increase rates instead. Publicly owned networks can focus on benefits to the community rather than financial rewards for only a select few.

Spanish Fork Discusses Stunning Success - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #60

The Spanish Fork Community Fiber Network (SFCN) is an incredibly successful HFC cable network in Utah. It delivers television, telephone, and Internet access at incredibly low rates to most of the community despite competition from Comcast. Located south of Provo, Spanish Fork has a population of 35,000.

Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director John Bowcut joins us for episode 60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss why they built the network in 2000. Funded with 15 year bonds, the network mortgage is nearly retired.

In the meantime, the network generates an extra million in revenue for the local government and keeps over $2 million in the community each year with its low rates that force competitors to keep rates lower than they otherwise would.

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 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

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

Xmission Increases Speeds for Free in the Land of UTOPIA

Customers subscribing to Xmission via UTOPIA just received a free upgrade. Subscribers to the 50 Mbps service are now receiving 100 Mbps at no extra charge. The Free UTOPIA blog ran the announcement along with this tip:

One thing to note is that if you aren’t seeing those speeds, you may need to upgrade your router. Most routers, even newer ones, don’t include a 1Gbps WAN port which often serves as a bottleneck. Older 802.11 a/b/g routers also create choke points on the wireless side. All said, that’s a pretty nice problem to have, isn’t it?

Indeed it is...

We reported on Xmission's decision to keep customer data private and we interviewed Pete Ashdown, founder of Xmission, and Todd Marriott from UTOPIA in Episode #3 of the Broadband Bits podcast. The two talked with Chris Mitchell about the services they provide and some of the challenges they have faced as a publicly owned network and a local provider.

This announcement is no surprise for our readers. We often report on free or modestly priced speed increases from publicly owned networks and providers that deliver services via publicly owned infrastructure. In contrast, the news is regularly speckled with stories about increased rates with no increase in speeds from the large national providers. 

Google Buys Provo Community-Owned Network

I just left the Broadband Communities Summit in Dallas, where I ran into many people doing great work to ensure everyone has access to affordable, reliable, and fast Internet networks.

Also while there, Google announced it had reached an agreement to offer Google Fiber in Provo by purchasing the municipal FTTH network. Provo has long been cited as a failure by critics of community-owned networks (even as it continued to attract jobs to the region).

Though Provo originally wanted to offer television, telephone, and Internet services directly using its trusted reputation in the community, the state legislature bowed to pressure from Comcast and CenturyLink (then Qwest) to limit local authority and tilt the playing field in favor of two distant corporations (that have still largely failed to invest in the networks needed by Utah communities). Provo was forced to use a wholesale-only business model.

That approach is rarely used today by communities that seek to build out the entire community at once because it is very difficult to generate enough revenue to pay the full costs of the network.

Despite Provo's struggles, Google recognized a community it wanted to work with. From Google's blog post:

Provo started building their own municipal network in 2004 because they decided that providing access to high speed connectivity was important to their community’s future. In 2011, they started looking for a partner that could acquire their network and deliver an affordable service for Provoans. We’re committed to keeping their vision alive, and, if the deal is approved and the acquisition closes, we’d offer our Free Internet service (5 Mbps speeds) to every home along the existing Provo network, for a $30 activation fee and no monthly charge for at least seven years. We would also offer Google Fiber Gigabit Internet—up to 100x faster Internet than today’s average broadband speeds—and the option for Google Fiber TV service with hundreds of your favorite channels. We’d also provide free Gigabit Internet service to 25 local public institutions like schools, hospitals and libraries.

ILSR Logo

At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we strongly encourage communities to own the essential infrastructure upon which they depend and we are dismayed to see such investments fail to meet their own goals or be privatized as has now happened in Provo.

But we also recognize the authority of communities to decide for themselves what the best path is and we believe that in these two isolated cases, Google Fiber will be a boon to the communities over the short term and resolve ongoing problems.

We have concerns over the longer term, but understand how difficult this business can be, particularly when state laws undermine the capacity of local governments to use the business models that give them the greatest opportunity to succeed.

As long as the Utah Legislature continues to kowtow to Comcast and CenturyLink demands, there would not have been an opportunity of Provo to fix the problems iProvo developed as a direct result of the initial crippling legislation.

I had an opportunity to speak with Milo Medin, head of Google Fiber, after his lunch keynote (which I hope to comment further on shortly) and he once again reiterated his (and Google's) opposition to states that restrict local authority to build these essential networks. He and we are on the same page - communities should be free to choose between building their own networks or partnering with others... or even doing nothing, though both Google and ILSR counsel strongly against that option.

One of the reasons Google chose Austin was because it was ready to work with them. In fact, we have long believed that if AT&T hadn't convinced the Texas Legislature to revoke local authority from communities, Austin Utilities probably would have already made network investments to benefit the community. As Google continues to look for partners, it will ignore entreaties from local governments that have had their heads in the sand, hoping they could avoid taking responsibility for ensuring great Internet networks.

Broadband at Speed of Light Cover

We continue to be excited that Google's investments in fiber access networks have changed the paradigm regarding access to the Internet. Those efforts have awakened the media to the pioneering work already being done in communities like Chattanooga, Lafayette, Bristol, Morristown, and many others (including Clarksville now). And we will continue to advocate for communities safeguarding their self-determination by having a measure of ownership over the networks on which they depend.

There is no doubt that communities are foolish to depend on distant national cable and DSL companies to build the next generation of Internet networks.

And don't be fooled by these two quick annoucements -- Google takes many months to negotiate agreements with local governments like Austin, Kansas City, and Provo. I would not be surprised to see another announcement or two in 2013, but would be surprised to see more than a handful more. Communities need to make their own plans, not hope for an outside entity to rescue them.

For cities that don't want to get into offering services, we have been identifying communities that have made smart investments in partnerships with other providers or on an open access basis -- see Danville, Palm Coast, Mount Vernon, Indianola, Princeton (IL), Cortez, and many others on our map of community-owned networks.

American Crafts' New Muse is UTOPIA

If you are a 21st century crafter, you are probably prolific at finding inspiration online. You may be familiar with American Crafts of Orem for ideas or products. The company, founded in 1994, is now a customer of UTOPIA and reports significant bandwidth improvement after the switch from old T-1 connections. From the UTPOIA blog:

With a robust e-commerce presence, American Crafts has to rely on its network. According to Kris Barlow, IT Manager, before switching to UTOPIA, the firm used a single T-1 connection, along with two additional T-1 connections to connect a remote warehouse in Provo. “Our Provo location was using an iProvo connection at the time. By switching to UTOPIA, we could use a single fiber connection to our headquarters building which provided much faster Internet speeds—up to 10 Mbps on our service plan, as compared with traditional T-1 speeds.”

Barlow also notes how the switch has allowed the company to consolidate headquarters and warehouse locations. Reliablity has also been a key improvement:

“In the three years that we've had UTOPIA service, I can remember only two or three service interruptions, all of which were resolved within the same day and were not related specifically to our connection,” he says. “Using the UTOPIA network has allowed us to drastically reduce the fee that we pay for Internet service when compared to the T-1 connections we were previously using, all while also drastically increasing the bandwidth of the connection.”

Because UTOPIA is open access, the company could keep the same phone provider, as it is an ISP on the UTOPIA network. The switch was seamless:

“This allowed for us to simply add the UTOPIA service to our current provider’s bill and allowed us to avoid the hassle of establishing a new account with a new provider,” Barlow says.

UTOPIA, For Better And Worse, Profiled

Since 2008, we have followed and reported on the peaks and valleys that is UTOPIA. Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a series on the regional network. The coverage includes a sampling of the bitter and sweet of the complex relationship between the pioneering network, the state, and the customers it serves.

As many of our readers know, UTOPIA is mired in debt and endless political controversy as Comcast and CenturyLink fund "think tanks" to attack it.  Tony Semerad from the Tribune talked to our own Chris Mitchell:

"When you build a network like this, it takes a minimum of several years of spending a lot of money before you start to get it back from your customers,’’ said Christopher Mitchell

As Christopher goes on to note, a large debt from the beginning to create an open access network is not a favorable situation. Additionally, past management made choices that still negatively impact the network. Constricting legislation at the state level prevents the network from expanding to a more profitable retail market, weakening it even further. Also from the article:

State law requires UTOPIA to operate as a wholesaler, a limitation conceived at UTOPIA’s inception when telecommunications giants such as CenturyLink and Comcast, now called Xfinity, grew wary of plans by Spanish Fork and Provo to get into the cable television business and lobbied state lawmakers for protections.

Some communities express derision at the situations they face regarding UTOPIA, having been left with debt and not yet received the ubiquitous access they anticipated. Some communities, who are still waiting for better subscriber numbers, already see improved economic development and remain patient. Connected communities vary in their satisfaction and level of support:

Layton » Mayor Steve Curtis believes UTOPIA fiber-optic lines already are luring business to his Davis County city and benefiting residents. The grid is built out to a small portion of Layton, one of eight municipalities that have signed on for a second round of UTOPIA bonds. "A lot of legislators don’t understand UTOPIA and haven’t taken the time to know it," Curtis said.

...

Payson » In spite of promising subscription rates among residents and a belief in UTOPIA’s value to the community, the Payson City Council chose not to back the newest round of borrowing. "It just came down to budget,’’ City Manager David Tuckett said. "We didn’t have the money."

logo-utopia_new.png

While overall subscribership is lagging, customers share one common trait - they love what they get and the prices they pay. Another article in the series quotes current UTOPIA customers:

"It’s great,’’ Eric Eide of Murray said. "It’s very reliable. It’s high-speed. Whenever I check, I get the speed that is advertised."

"It’s pretty steady. I don’t notice any tail-off in the afternoons or evenings. It’s always the speed I pay for. We watch a lot of stuff on Netflix, and I don’t experience any stuttering," Phil Windley of Lindon said.

...

UTOPIA’s primary advantage is that it can deliver much higher download and upload speeds for lower prices than competitors, according to those who use it. For $35 per month, for example, a UTOPIA customer through the ISP XMission can get up to 50 megabits per second of both download and upload speeds. By comparison, Comcast charges $73 per month for 30 megabits-per-second download speed (the upload speed also is slower). UTOPIA also offers up to 1 gigabit (1,024 megabits) per second of download speed for $300 per month.

Getting more for less is always good, but the network and the state are at a crossroads. Some want to sell the network, others want to legislate tighter controls, still others want to give momentum a chance to build under present management (which has resolved many of the problems of previous management). 

The idea of disbanding the network leaves us somewhat incredulous. No one would wish for the present situation, but abandoning UTOPIA would leave the municipalities still responsible for the debt while also removing any incentive for Comcast and CenturyLink to be competitive. In short, such action preserves all the negatives from the status quo while ending the benefits.