The following stories have been tagged op-ed ← Back to All Tags

Op-Ed: Baltimore Makes Smart Move with Fiber Investment

On November 25, the Baltimore Sun ran this opinion piece by me regarding Baltimore's approach to expanding Internet access in the city.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently spoke the plain truth: “You can’t grow jobs with slow Internet.”

This simple statement is the best explanation for why Baltimore is examining how it can use existing City assets and smart investments in the near future to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access. It is also a slap across Comcast’s face.

The big cable and telephone companies have insisted for years that they already deliver the services residents and businesses need. But they also claim to offer reasonable prices that just happen to increase year after year with few customers having other options to choose from.

Baltimore’s reality is that Comcast does indeed offer speeds that are faster than many in rural Maryland can access. But they are not even in the same league as cities like Chattanooga, where every address in the community has access to the fastest speeds available anywhere in the nation, and at some of the lowest prices. There, as in hundreds of communities across the country, the local government built its own next-generation network.

Whenever a city announces the possibility of investing in a network, the cable industry public relations machine kicks into high gear. They argue that we have a plethora of choices for Internet access. The sleight of hand behind this claim is to include LTE wireless networks as a replacement for cable – something almost no household does because replacing your home wired connection with LTE will break your budget. According to bandwidth-management firm Sandvine, the average household uses more than 50 gigabytes of data each month. Between the data caps and overage fees from AT&T, that will cost over $500/month.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of community owned networks are doing exactly what they intended – breaking even financially while providing a valuable public service. Big cable companies argue that these networks have failed if they aren’t making big profits each year, a misunderstanding of public accounting. Community owned networks aim to break even, not make a profit.

When Windom, Minnesota, ended a year with a $50,000 deficit from a network that kept many local jobs in the community, few complained. Ask any local government official what is more important: 10 jobs or $50,000 in the general fund. No contest, especially when the accounting does not include the tens of thousands saved by a local government that no longer has to lease expensive voice and data connections for schools and municipal facilities.

Chattanooga is often cited out as the most successful municipal network after becoming the first US city with universal gigabit access and having helped created 6,000 jobs. But Thomasville, Georgia, and Spanish Fork, Utah, have operated networks for over a decade and generate more than a million dollars each year for the general fund from the telecommunications net income.

However, a few community owned networks have failed, just as thousands of privately owned telecommunications companies have disappeared or declared bankruptcy in a very difficult business. Provo is a favorite of the cable lobbyists, who generally neglect to note that it had to compete with one hand tied behind its back due to Utah state laws pushed by Comcast and US West (now CenturyLink). Some 19 states have created special barriers to discourage publicly owned networks.

Let’s be clear, very few expect Baltimore to suddenly build a citywide fiber optic network offering residential services in competition with Comcast.

Baltimore will likely take another path, expanding the fiber-optic network it already owns to better benefit community anchor institutions, local businesses, and potentially even residents. This is a very low-risk approach similar to what Seattle has done for years. Now Seattle has a partnership with a company called Gigabit Squared that is building a gigabit network out to tens of thousands of households.

None of these successes mean local governments should rush unprepared into a network investment. Nor should they be scared off by cable lobbyists trying to preserve what is effectively a monopoly. Building a successful network is a challenge, but so is trying to grow an economy while relying on yesterday’s technology at artificially inflated rates.

Idaho Town Calls for Fiber Investment; Cable and DSL Not Good Enough

This is the third time we have found an occasion to highight the community of Ketchum in Idaho. We previously noted their work on a strategic plan and that Cox cable was booted off the broadband advisory board after trying to sabotage the process with a push poll.

Now the local paper has editorialized on the "Need for Fiber."

While it is tempting to marginalize the need for such services as just a way for Johnny or Sally to download games or movies faster, increasingly the lack of fiber optic capacity is also limiting health care and advanced education options for residents, as well as impacting the growth of telecommuting and home-based businesses for which Ketchum has noticeably been successful in attracting in the past.

Now owners of home-based businesses are increasingly saying they can not operate effectively without fiber to the home, and telecommuters contend their employers will be less likely to let them work from home without fast, reliable fiber broadband.

This is all true and we wish we saw a hundred editorial boards recognizing it every week. The question is what the community can do about it given the challenge and potential expense. The answer from the Ketchum Keystone is smart:

Overcoming these obstacles will be very heavy lifting for any city government, but there are also remarkable opportunities and common sense strategies available including the use of the existing and soon to be retired water pipe grid, simple changes in building codes to require fiber-optic implementation, and government loan and incentive programs, all of which make the prospects for a sooner rather than later solution.

Every community has a somewhat unique mix of challenges and assets. Communities with the asset of smart leadership will seize upon opportunities like maximizing joint projects between the water system, public works, and such. Communities without smart leadership may want to solve that problem first.

Ketchum has identified the problem, and that is a good first step. Until a community recognizes that the big cable and telephone corporations will not solve this problem alone and that communities have an essential role in the process, little progress is likely.

Muni Network Debate in Charlotte Observer

In a recent op ed in the Charlotte Observer, Christopher Mitchell delves into why North Carolina ranks last in per capita subscribers to a broadband connection. The state, through its legislature, is held hostage by large providers such as Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. David Hoyle, a retired Senator who admitted pushing bills written by Time Warner Cable, signed his name to an op-ed arguing cities should not have the authority to make their own decisions in this regard.

Readers know that Time Warner and CenturyLink (formerly EMBARQ) targeted Wilson's Greenlight, leading to restrictive barriers for any similar initiatives. In his opinion piece, Chris delves into how those providers create an environment that kills opportunity for the people of North Carolina and how local publicly owned networks could restore those opportunities.

The Observer edited the original piece for length, but we provide the full version:

If you think you’re being ripped off by the cable and telephone companies, you aren’t alone. These companies rank at the top of the most hated corporations in America, year after year. Given a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, North Carolinians have more reasons to be angry than most Americans.

Released last month, the FCC’s annual Internet Access Services [pdf] report shows North Carolina last among U.S. states in percentage of households subscribing to high-speed Internet connections as defined in the National Broadband Plan. 

seal-north-carolina.jpg

This news comes on the heels of State Representative Brawley announcing that House Speaker Tillis told him he had a “business relationship” with Time Warner Cable after Brawley introduced legislation opposed by the cable giant. But one alleged relationship does not explain how North Carolina fell to last place in that FCC ranking.

The deeper problem is power Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink have at the General Assembly. These companies successfully lobbied for two flagship bills that increased prices, limited competition, and generally hurt consumers and businesses throughout the state.

Back in 2006, the General Assembly bowed to industry pressure and passed a bill for statewide video franchising. Local governments lost their right to oversee companies offering television services or require them to build out to everyone. North Carolina was promised a new age of cable competition and lower prices.

Prices continued to rise – a 2009 study from the University of Minnesota actually noted that North Carolina’s prices were among the fastest rising in the nation. But even now, most families still have the same limited options for cable and Internet service.

Fed up and recognizing that the cable and phone giants would never allow competition to prosper, the City of Wilson took matters into its own hands by building its own next-generation fiber optic network. Completed by 2009, the network has been a success and Wilson is the first community in North Carolina to have universal access to a gigabit – about 100x faster than cable speeds.

Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lobbied against Wilson from the start and engaged in a multi-year effort in Raleigh to revoke the authority of any local government in the state to build a similar network. For five years, they worked with the now infamous ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push bills that would effectively ban local governments from building networks.

Follow the Money Logo

In 2011, the new Speaker of the House, Representative Tillis, ushered just such a bill through the House after receiving $37,000 from the telecom companies in the previous election cycle. Though he ran unopposed, he received significantly more from that industry than any other candidate, according to a  report from the National Institute for Money in State Politics called “Dialing up the Dollars.”

Strictly speaking, the bill was not technically a ban. We call these “leprechaun-unicorn bills” because a local government effectively has to find a leprechaun riding a unicorn to meet the standard necessary to build a network.

What it really did was revoke local judgment for state authority – something Republicans regularly decry in other circumstances. Opponents of the bill consistently argued that these decisions should be made at the local level, by those who will live with the consequences for better or for worse.

These two bills are essential to understanding why North Carolina has such poor access to the Internet and ever-increasing cable prices. Consumer protections typically come from the market (competition) or government (regulation). But these big companies are too powerful for other private companies to compete against and local governments have no regulatory power to protect consumers. Big cable and phone companies have little fear of competition and little motivation to invest in regionally or globally competitive upgrades.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking over 400 local governments across the nation that have invested in telecommunications networks and very few have regretted it. Just outside North Carolina, the cities of Bristol, Chattanooga, Danville, and a few others offer some of the fastest network connections at the lowest prices in the entire United States. If even 10 percent of these networks actually were failures, cable lobbyists wouldn’t have to spend millions lobbying states to revoke local authority to build them.

The General Assembly should return authority to local communities and trust them to make decisions. But as long as big cable and phone companies maintain their “business relationship” with elected officials, you can expect to see more decisions made in Raleigh rather than at the local level.

For the whole story on the war against Greenlight, you can download a copy of our case study, The Empire Lobbyies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina.

Moving From an Age of Internet Scarcity to Abundance

The Seattle Times has published an opinion piece I wrote about the need to move from Internet access business models based on scarcity to those based on abundance.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the speeds offered by modern cable networks. They aren't particularly speedy, but we are used to them. When we find ourselves stuck ong a slow DSL connection, perhaps at a friend or relative's house, we notice how long page loads take and we have to change the way we use the Internet as a result.

Some have said that the slowest network connection you will put up with is the fastest one you have become accustomed to. We can do better and we should. By embracing self-reliance and ceasing to rely on the national cable and telephone companies, we can build better, more affordable networks. Such networks will lead to more innovation, grow the economy, and improve quality of life.

CONSIDER your last electrical appliance purchase. Did you pause to think if your home could handle the increased electrical demand? No, because our electrical networks are built around the principle of abundance, not scarcity.

If the massive cable companies ran our electrical grid like they do their broadband networks, we would have to do without air conditioning, which puts a heavy strain on the grid during peak demand. In contrast, the cable networks get congested during periods of peak activity, failing to deliver the “up to” speed promised in their advertising.

Some new network builders are embracing a different approach, one that has major implications for the future of innovation: adopting a business model of abundance rather than scarcity.

Read the rest here.

Op-Ed: NC In Bottom of Broadband Barrel

Common Cause's Todd O'Boyle and myself have just published an opinion piece in the North Carolina News & Observer to highlight the foolishness of the General Assembly revoking local authority to build broadband networks.

Todd and I teamed up for a case study of North Carolina's most impressive fiber network, Greenlight, owned by the city of Wilson and then turned our attention to how Time Warner Cable turned around to lobby the state to take that right away from communities. That report, The Empire Lobbies Back, was released earlier this month.

An excerpt from our Op-Ed:

The Tar Heel economy is continuing its transition from tobacco and textiles to high technology. Internet startups populate the Research Triangle, and Charlotte’s financial services economy depends on high-quality data connections. Truly, next-generation Internet connections are crucial to the state.

It is deeply disturbing that the Federal Communications Commission ranks North Carolina at the bottom nationally – tied with Mississippi – in the percentage of households subscribing to a “basic broadband” connection. The residents and businesses of nearly every other state have superior connections.

Read the whole thing here.

Broadband is Essential Infrastructure for Communities

In August, we reported on the results of a report on UTOPIA by the Office of the State Auditor General of Utah. As you will recall, the results were less than favorable and presented more fodder for those opposed to municipal telecommunications infrastructure investment.

The same old arguments often rest on the financial investment in municipal networks - they are considered failures if they don't break even or make money. Pete Ashdown, founder of ISP XMission in Utah, addressed those arguments in the Salt Lake Tribune:

UTOPIA provides broadband service in 11 Utah cities. Today, communication infrastructure is no less critical than transportation, sanitation and clean water. Government is not a business, but the infrastructure it provides contributes to a robust business environment.

Consider how private businesses rely on government funded infrastructure. Why don’t entrepreneurs clamor to build the next generation of roads? Why don’t airline companies get off the public dole and build their own facilities? Why are sewer facilities so rarely handled by anyone else but the state?

Does effective infrastructure cost? Considerably. Does it make a profit? No.

For decades now, public service entities have contended with the argument that if they are "run it like a business" they will be more efficient, productive and even profitable. While lessons from the private sector may contribute to increased efficiency at times, government is NOT a business. Applying business tenets should be done sparingly and not in the case of critical infrastructure like electricity, roads, and yes, access to the Internet.

Gary D. Brown, who lives in Orem, shared a guest opinion through the Daily Herald and drew a similar parallel between UTOPIA's status and the business world:

When UTOPIA was first proposed, I was all for getting a fiber optic connection to every home and business in the at-that-time 17 cities. In my opinion, the original business model was sound; install fiber to each home/business and offer data, voice, and television services at the retail level.

Of course, the entrenched incumbent businesses, namely US West (it became Qwest and now CenturyLink), Comcast, and AT&T, who would face real competition, sent their lobbyists to the state legislature and after some intense lobbying, got the legislature to eviscerate the UTOPIA business plan by passing a law that prohibited community-based consortiums such as UTOPIA from offering services at the retail level.

UTOPIA will forever remain in the news because its financial struggles forced member communities to pay part of its costs through sales taxes. Though most community owned networks have not used tax revenues to support the network, we do support the right of communities to do so if they so choose.

We have covered the story of Leverett, where the community imposed a property tax increase on itself to pay for part of a new community owned fiber network. Communities that want to build networks entirely without tax subsidy should be free to do so, but those that want to pay for part of it with tax dollars should also have the right. That should be a local discussion, possibly a heated one. But it should not be decided in state capitals or Washington, DC.

Slate Commentary: Want to Pay Less and Get More?

Today, Slate published an opinion piece by me and Sascha Meinrath from the Open Technology Institute at New America Foundation talking about the important role of community broadband in solving the nation's broadband problem.

A snippet:

In the meantime, local communities are taking matters into their own hands and have created remarkable citywide fiber-to-the-home broadband networks. Many offer services directly to residents, providing a much-needed alternative to the cable and telephone companies. And by creating meaningful consumer choice among competitors, these networks are driving lower prices—spurring new investment and creating new jobs—and keeping more money circulating in the local economy.

Wally Bowen: Open Wireless is Essential Infrastructure

Once again, we are reprinting an opinion piece by Wally Bowen, founder of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network based in Asheville, North Carolina. The op-ed was originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Once upon a time, Internet enthusiasts made the following comparison: the Internet is to 21st-century economies what navigable waterways and roads were to 19th and 20th-century economies.

But what if our rivers and highways were controlled by a private cartel which set tolls and dictated the make and model of our boats and vehicles? It’s unthinkable, of course. Yet over the last decade, a cartel of cable and phone companies has gained this kind of control over more than 95 percent of Internet access in the US.

In response, many communities have built municipal broadband networks. The cartel, in turn, has persuaded legislatures in 19 states, including North Carolina, to pass laws prohibiting municipal networks.

Scholars call this the “enclosure” of the Internet, similar to the enclosure of rural commons by private owners in 18th and 19th-century England. This trend includes smart phones and tablets which are locked down and controlled by licensing agreements. By contrast, the personal computer is open to innovation. You can take it apart, experiment, and create new functionality. You can also download your choice of software, including free open-source programs.

The full impact of this corporate enclosure of the Internet is still to come, but evidence of it is growing. Consider e-books. When you purchase a real book, you enjoy “first sale” ownership. You can resell it or use it as a doorstop. You can do anything with it, except reproduce it. But when you purchase an e-book, your options are limited by a license that can be changed any time by the vendor without your consent.

With an enclosed Internet, we become renters rather than owners. Our freedom to experiment and innovate, while not totally lost, is governed by gatekeepers and licensing regimes.

But there is a way around the Internet gatekeepers: “open wireless” networks using unlicensed spectrum.

Most spectrum used for smartphones is licensed to, and controlled by, the telecom cartel. By contrast, the free Wi-Fi we enjoy in coffeehouses is unlicensed and free for anyone to use and experiment with. But this spectrum has a very limited range. In 2008, therefore, the FCC approved the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) for unlicensed use. Often called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” this superior spectrum has a far greater range and capacity than conventional Wi-Fi.

Last December the FCC approved the first TVWS device. This new technology can provide seamless coverage throughout a city like Asheville, thereby creating a viable alternative to the cable/phone company cartel. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible via “open wireless” technology:

* “Buy local” advocates use open-wireless to run mobile payment systems that keep money in the local economy and reduce the burden of credit card fees on local merchants.

* “Green energy” advocates use open wireless to transform the corporate “smart-grid” to a “micro-grid” that empowers local innovators and entrepreneurs to promote conservation and new sources of energy.

* A hospital in Ohio is field-testing a TVWS network for its emergency room. When EMS vehicles are in range, patient information and vital signs are automatically transmitted ahead to the ER staff.

These creative and local uses of the Internet were possible because of open-wireless technologies. No one had to ask permission of a network owner or pay rent to a license-holder.

For “Smart Cities” and local self-reliance advocates, open-wireless networks are essential community infrastructure. “Community wireless protects our freedom to innovate and problem-solve in ways that keep money and jobs in the local economy,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Since 2003, the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has operated an open-wireless network, but its reach and capacity have been limited. With the imminent arrival of the TV “white spaces” technology, MAIN is launching a $50,000 capital campaign to convert its wireless network to TVWS. This new technology is estimated to have a range of 15-20 miles with speeds of 10-15 megabits per second.

As the telecom cartel tightens its grip on the Internet, MAIN and its partners envision Internet access for Asheville and WNC that protects civil liberties and preserves the freedom to innovate for local inventors and entrepreneurs. To learn more or to get involved, visit: http://www.main.nc.us/TVWS.

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of MAIN. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. He will be stepping down as executive director later this year, but will continue working on community broadband policy and advocacy.

The Future of the Internet, by TNR and Vint Cerf

In a recent editorial (May 24 issue), The New Republic argued that the Obama Administration was doing a decent job on Internet policy and obliquely referenced an article discussing carrier opposition to community broadband. The op-ed begins,

Politicians aren’t always especially thoughtful about, or even familiar with, information technology. George W. Bush used the term “Internets” during not one but two presidential debates. The late Alaska Senator Ted Stevens famously referred to the World Wide Web as a “series of tubes.” And John McCain drew ridicule in 2008 when he conceded that he was still “learning to get online myself.”

Much worse than these gaffes, however, are some of the policies that have been promoted by lawmakers and candidates who seem to fundamentally misunderstand the importance of a free and open Internet. In recent years, we have seen politicians accede to the interests of giant telecom companies rather than support net neutrality; propose anti-piracy bills that threaten Internet freedom; and, as Siddhartha Mahanta recently documented at TNR Online, block poor communities from receiving broadband access.

Good to see this issue being discussed outside of the standard tech circles. Especially when outlets like the New Republic explicitly call for more wireless subscriber protections:

There are, of course, ways in which the administration has disappointed. Even when the White House has done the right thing on Internet issues, it has not always acted as speedily or as forcefully as it might have. Moreover, it has not always done the right thing. Particularly striking was the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) decision, in late 2010, to exempt mobile carriers from new rules protecting net neutrality. The FCC’s step blocks Internet service providers from slowing down or preventing access to the content of their competitors—but it only applies to wired, not wireless, providers.

While many of us are hopeful that the government will take a stronger hand in preventing carriers from disrupting the open Internet, Vint Cerf (one of the fathers of the Internet) rightly warns us that overall governance of the Internet itself should remain free from national government control.

Vint Cerf

At present, the I.T.U. focuses on telecommunication networks and on radio frequency allocations rather than the Internet per se. Some members are aiming to expand the agency’s treaty scope to include Internet regulation. Each of the 193 members gets a vote, no matter its record on fundamental rights — and a simple majority suffices to effect change. Negotiations are held largely among governments, with very limited access for civil society or other observers.

There is no need to change the way the Internet is presently governed. As Vint notes,

The Net prospered precisely because governments — for the most part — allowed the Internet to grow organically, with civil society, academia, private sector and voluntary standards bodies collaborating on development, operation and governance.

Public interest groups, like ILSR, have been advocating regulations like network neutrality that would preserve the way the Internet has long functioned. It is the big carriers like Comcast and AT&T that want to change how we access the Internet in order that they can make more money serving as gatekeepers to the net.

Moving Internet governance to the ITU is a different policy discussion that also threatens to change how the Internet is accessed, often to the benefit of governments that want to preserve their power. They want to be the gatekeepers, often in order to consolidate their own power and break up pro-democracy movements.

The key to preserving Internet freedom is removing gatekeepers (and I would include both Apple and Facebook in this list, with Google as a possible addition depending on the circumstance).

If you want to learn more about these issues, the best place to start is with videos from the recent Freedom to Connect conference. And plan to join us next year.

Below is a video from Vint Cerf's opening keynote. We'll feature more presentations from Freedom to Connect in future posts.

Video: 
See video

Bloomberg: The Case for Publicly Owned Internet Service

Susan Crawford's op-ed in Bloomberg makes a tremendous case for publicly owned broadband networks.

She notes the importance of broadband and the failure of big cable and DSL companies to meet the growing needs of communities, just as the electrical trusts were insufficient to electrify much of America.

I'm a bit biased because she cites our work:

Today, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for community broadband initiatives, is tracking more than 60 municipal governments that have built or are building successful fiber networks, just as they created electric systems during the 20th century. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, the city’s publicly owned electric company provides fast, affordable and reliable fiber Internet access. Some businesses based in Knoxville -- 100 miles to the northeast -- are adding jobs in Chattanooga, where connectivity can cost an eighth as much.

Though I encourage readers to read the full column, I love the conclusion:

Franklin D Roosevelt

Right now, state legislatures -- where the incumbents wield great power -- are keeping towns and cities in the U.S. from making their own choices about their communications networks. Meanwhile, municipalities, cooperatives and small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally competitive networks these days. Both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S., and the cable companies’ services greatly favor downloads over uploads.

Congress needs to intervene. One way it could help is by preempting state laws that erect barriers to the ability of local jurisdictions to provide communications services to their citizens.

Running for president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized the right of communities to provide their own electricity. “I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility a birch rod in the cupboard,” he said, “to be taken out and used only when the child gets beyond the point where more scolding does any good.” It’s time to take out that birch rod.