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Call to Action: Tell Your D.C. Officials to Vote NO!

H.R. 4752 from Rep Latta (R-OH) will be brought up in the House, likely as an appropriations rider, some time within the next few days. In the past several months, the municipal network movement has made great strides. If passed, this bill's content can be a significant setback. We encourage you to call the D.C. office of your elected officials and tell them to vote NO on H.R. 4752, NO on any rider based on H.R. 4752's language, and NO on any amendment that restricts FCC authority.

Be very specific when it comes to municipal networks - local governments should be the ones to decide whether a network makes sense. These amendments are designed to strip the power from the FCC that would allow it to ensure local governments can make this decision.

H.R. 4752's language would prevent the FCC from regulating Internet service providers under Title II. There is also some indication that the House will consider an amendment on municipal broadband; constituents need to stop the rider and the amendment from moving forward. 

This bill was introduced months ago. According to OpenSecrets.org, its Republican sponsor has received more than $320,000 in campaign contributions from the communications sector since 2007. 

The Free Press has also spoken out against this bill, which would help destroy network neutrality and this lethal amendment.

Get the word out to your communities ASAP! Call your Rep's D.C. office and urge him or her to vote NO on this bill or on any similar rider and NO on any amendment restricting FCC authority. As you know, if the FCC is limited in this way, its authority to take other meaningful action to support municipal networks will be compromised.

When you call your Representative's D.C. office, ask first to speak to the staffer in charge of telecom. If you live in a community where you have benefitted from a municipal network or in a community that is exploring the option, share your experiences. Let them know that you not want Congress limiting FCC authority in this way.

Chattanooga Will Ask FCC to Preempt State Barriers in Tennessee

Since January, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals suggested the FCC has the authority to preempt state anti-muni laws, local communities have publicly supported the notion. Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) will join those communities when it petitions the FCC to preempt similar laws in Tennessee, reports The Center for Public Integrity.

Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communication at EPB recently told The Center:

“We continue to receive requests for broadband service from nearby communities to serve them,” Bailey said. “We believe cities and counties should have the right to choose the infrastructure they need to support their economies.”

Chattanooga, one of the publicly owned networks that have inspired FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, has proved itself as a strong economic development tool. According to the article:

A day after his meeting with Berke, Wheeler wrote in his blog, “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to pre-empt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

A number of other communities with municipal networks, or in the process of deploying them, have passed Resolutions that support the FCC:

In addition to communities with firsthand experience, the American Public Power Association (APPA) also passed a Resolution in June, urging Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to unequivocally support:

…the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar Resolution at its annual meeting in June, which read:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Soon after, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) joined together for a letter of support to Chairman Wheeler:

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

Fortunately, support is also coming from DC. In late June, a collection of Senate and House Members penned a letter to Chairman Wheeler, asking him to take action and begin the process. In a statement fully supported by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Members wrote:

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Local communities, regional coalitions, and federal leadership all recognize the importance of local Internet choice. The country is ready for the next step, Chairman Wheeler. We support you!

Wireless Commons Part 2: The Possibilities of an Open, Unlicensed Spectrum

In the first part of this series, we discussed how spectrum could be better managed to allow far greater communications capacity, but only if the FCC abandoned its traditional approach of auctioning spectrum to carriers for monopolistic use. In this part, we’ll discuss how devices could take advantage of a new approach to spectrum management and how it might help to circumvent gatekeepers, whether corporate or government.

With increased unlicensed use of the spectrum, an astonishing range of possibilities emerges. Mobile devices could communicate with each other directly, without reference to a central node controlled by a telecom company or monitored by a government. Access points could be strung together wirelessly to create decentralized ad hoc networks, with each device forwarding data from every other, creating a seamless network throughout an entire neighborhood or city. Commotion Wireless is already attempting this on a small scale with just the existing spectrum.

Such networks already exist in a few places, but access to more unlicensed spectrum and permission to use stronger signals would allow them to grow, potentially creating a more decentralized and democratic way to share information and access the internet; an end-run around data caps, future “fast lane” policies, and other drawbacks of relying on one or two telecom oligopolists as a network owner and gatekeeper.

Another exciting possibility for unlicensed spectrum use can be found in emerging Ultra-Wide Band technologies. These allow devices to use a large swath of spectrum at very low power to send information in bits and pieces over short distances, somewhat similar to bitTorrents, and could allow for nearly instantaneous exchange of gigabits of data. All of this is dependent, however, on access to spectrum with the right characteristics, such as low frequency TV bands that can penetrate physical obstacles like walls or trees especially well.

These technologies have political ramifications as well. Rather than having to make monthly payments to a national provider as you do with your cell phone, we would have different models to choose from. Some would be just a matter of buying the right device, just as we already do with computers. Imagine setting up a neighborhood-wide network just as easily as setting up a home Wi-Fi network.

These possibilities are made both more enticing and more urgent by the huge growth in the demand for mobile data worldwide. The near ubiquitous status of increasingly high tech mobile devices, combined with the increased use of smart meters and other remotely controlled devices for homes and businesses, as well as the general growth in the size of audio, video, and other files all drive this trend.

Mobile connections grew from 1% to 13% of total Internet traffic from 2009 to 2012, and Qualcomm expects mobile data usage to grow by a factor of 1,000 from 2012 to 2020. With these demands, it is increasingly important to find new ways to use the spectrum that are not mutually exclusive. In this environment, the allocation of exclusive broadcasting licenses for the vast majority of the spectrum to incumbents who use those rights inefficiently makes little sense.

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The FCC has some choices to make about how it will meet these challenges. It could simply clear underused spectrum, chop it up, and auction it again for new one-time revenue. Clearing space on the spectrum through reallocation is expensive and time consuming, however, involving complex legal and technical maneuvering.

What if rather than having Wi-Fi, the U.S. Treasury had a few extra billion dollars by auctioning that space on the spectrum to a monopoly provider rather than creating a commons? These are the real trade-offs currently being weighed and you better believe that the big wireless companies and their allies in Congress are working hard to prevent any major changes to the system they rule.

There are smarter approaches. The FCC could create a framework for sharing licensed spectrum, retaining priority use for original license holders while also forcing them to allow intelligent devices that sense and make use of available frequencies to operate within their licensed space. Or they could clear more space to be used for unlicensed communications, currently restricted to a few tiny portions of the spectrum. More unlicensed space is the most likely approach to foster significant development of new wireless technologies, which are difficult or impossible to deploy while telecom companies control so much of the airwaves.

All of this is unlikely to happen in the current regulatory regime. Telecom companies have shelled out billions for exclusive licenses and made large investments in technologies that work within the current business model of spectrum ownership. They also covet the foreclosure value that their ownership provides, meaning the ability to shut out competitors by denying them spectrum. As a result, a few massive telecom corporations have little to gain by democratizing access to spectrum bandwidth.

National elected officials, most of whom are not known for their technological savvy, must weigh the temptation of quick money ($20 billion from one auction in 2008 alone) in new license auctions with the difficult to conceptualize but potentially massive economic and social benefits of a more open spectrum. Unless they feel pressure from ordinary citizens who stand to benefit from greater spectrum freedom, the status quo of expensive, centralized communications and suppression of innovation is unlikely to change.

Spectrum graphic courtesy of Wiki Commons.

Local Government Groups: "We Need Local Authority"

As the FCC considers the role of local authority in expanding Internet access, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is hearing from coalitions opposing state barriers on municipal networks. On July 3, Executive Directors from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) sent Wheeler a joint letter of support [pdf].

From the letter:

The diversity of cities and counties in America also reflect differing values and needs. As such, Local governments should have the flexibility to address broadband and Internet access in a way that meets the needs of the people they serve.

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

The letter was close on the heels of a parallel Resolution passed by the U.S. Conference of Mayors (USCM) at their June 22nd Annual Meeting. From the final Resolution:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Wireless Commons Part 1: Interference Is a Myth, but the FCC Hasn't Caught on Yet

This is the first in two-part series on spectrum basics and how we could better manage the spectrum to encourage innovation and prevent either large corporations or government from interfering with our right to communicate. Part 2 is available here.

We often think of all our wireless communications as traveling separate on paths: television, radio, Wi-Fi, cell phone calls, etc. In fact, these signals are all part of the same continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Different parts of the spectrum have different properties, to be sure - you can see visible light, but not radio waves. But these differences are more a question of degree than a fundamental difference in makeup. 

As radio, TV, and other technologies were developed and popularized throughout the 20th century, interference became a major concern. Any two signals using the same band of the spectrum in the same broadcast range would prevent both from being received, which you have likely experienced on your car radio when driving between stations on close frequencies – news and music vying with each other, both alternating with static. 

To mitigate the problem, the federal government did what any Econ 101 textbook says you should when you have a “tragedy of the commons” situation in which more people using a resource degrades it for everyone: they assigned property rights. This is why radio stations tend not to interfere with each other now.

The Federal Communications Commission granted exclusive licenses to the spectrum in slices known as bands to radio, TV, and eventually telecom companies, ensuring that they were the only ones with the legal right to broadcast on a given frequency range within a certain geographic area. Large bands were reserved for military use as well.

Originally, these licenses came free of charge, on the condition that broadcasters meet certain public interest requirements. Beginning in 1993, the government began to run an auction process, allowing companies to bid on spectrum licenses. That practice continues today whenever any space on the spectrum is freed up. (For a more complete explanation of the evolution of licensing see this excellent Benton foundation blog post.)

Although there have been several redistributions over the decades, the basic architecture remains. Communications companies own exclusive licenses for large swaths of the usable spectrum, with most other useful sections reserved for the federal government’s defense and communications purposes (e.g. aviation and maritime navigation). Only a few tiny bands are left open as free, unlicensed territory that anyone can use. 

NTIA Spectrum Map

This small unlicensed area is where many of the most innovative technologies of the last several decades have sprung up, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and even garage door openers and cordless phones. A recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association concluded that unlicensed spectrum generates $62 billion in economic activity, and that only takes into account a portion of direct retail sales of devices using the unlicensed spectrum. 

On its face, the current spectrum allocation regime appears an obvious solution; an efficient allocation of scarce resources that allows us to consume all kinds of media with minimal interference or confusion, and even raises auction revenues for the government to boot. 

Except that the spectrum is not actually a limited resource. Thanks to the constant evolution of broadcasting and receiving technologies, the idea of a finite spectrum has become obsolete, and with it the rationale for the FCC’s exclusive licensing framework. This topic was explored over a decade ago in a Salon article by David Weinberger, in which he interviews David P. Reed, a former MIT Computer Science Professor and early Internet theorist. 

Reed describes the fallacy of thinking of interference as something inherent in the signals themselves. Signals travelling on similar frequencies do not physically bump into each other in the air, scrambling the message sent. The signals simply pass through each other, meaning multiple signals can actually be overlaid on each other. (You don’t have to understand why this happens, just know that it does.) Bob Frankston belittles the current exclusive licensing regime as giving monopolies on colors. 

As Weinberger puts it:

The problem isn’t with the radio waves. It’s with the receivers: “Interference cannot be defined as a meaningful concept until a receiver tries to separate the signal. It’s the processing that gets confused, and the confusion is highly specific to the particular detector,” Reed says. Interference isn’t a fact of nature. It’s an artifact of particular technologies.

In the past, our relatively primitive hardware-based technologies, such as car radios, could only differentiate signals that were physically separated by vacant spectrum. But with advances in both transmitters and receivers that have increased sensitivity, as well as software that can quickly and seamlessly sense what frequencies are available and make use of them, we can effectively expand the usable range of the spectrum. This approach allows for squeezing more and more communication capacity into any given band as technology advances, without sacrificing the clarity of existing signals. In other words, (specifically those of Kevin Werbach and Aalok Mehta in a recent International Journal of Communications paper) “The effective capacity of the spectrum is a constantly moving target.”

In the next post, we’ll look at how we can take advantage of current and future breakthroughs in wireless technology, and how our outdated approach to spectrum management is limiting important innovation.

Senators and Representatives Back FCC Move to Restore Local Authority

Citing the importance of Internet access to economic development, a number of Congressional Democrats are calling on FCC Chairman Wheeler to make good on his intention to remove barriers to community owned networks. Senator Edward Markey is the lead from the Senate and Representative Doyle in the House. And this Minnesotan takes pride in seeing both Senators Franken and Klobuchar signed on.

The letter [pdf] makes a strong case for local decision-making:

[L]ocal communities should have the opportunity to decide for themselves how to invest in their own infrastructure, including the options of working with willing incumbent carriers, creating incentives for private sector development, entering into creative public-private partnerships, or even building their own networks, if necessary or appropriate.

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Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Signing the letter included Senators Edward Markey, Al Franken, Amy Klobuchar, Richard Blumenthal, and Cory Booker as well as Representatives Mike Doyle, Henry Waxman, and Anna Eshoo. We thank each of them for standing up for local authority.

Yesterday, we gave a brief update of what has happened thus far on this issue. This is a very important moment, as so many communities have recognized that at the very minimum, they need a plan for getting next-generation networks.

Cable and DSL simply aren't good enough to compete in the modern economy but the big carriers have enough clout in state capitals to push laws limiting competition and enough power in DC to feel confident in their anti-consumer mergers. Given this dynamic, communities are smart to examine whether local investments will reduce their dependency on distant carriers with different interests - but they cannot do that where state law restricts local authority.

Given that the letter asks Chairman Wheeler to respond with a plan for restoring local authority, we should soon learn what the next steps will be in our efforts to ensure communities have all options on the table for improving Internet access to their businesses and residents.

U.S. Conference of Mayors Passes Resolution to End State Barriers

On June 22, Mayors from around the country gathered at the U.S. Conference of Mayors 82nd Annual Meeting. Members of the Standing Committee on Transportation and Communications voted to combine Resolution #115 "Net Neutrality" and #114 "Preserving a Free and Open Internet."

Resolution #115 was of particular interest to community broadband advocates because it called on the FCC to preempt state laws erecting barriers to local authority.

The final product, officially approved by the USCM, retained the language supporting Chairman Wheeler's intention to help smooth the road for publicly owned networks:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Resolution #115 was introduced by Mayor Paul Slogin of Madison, Wisconsin.

Update: Restoring Local Authority to Build Community Networks

It has been a busy few weeks for those of focused on restoring local authority to communities over the matter of building Internet networks. But for those of you who are just wondering what is happening, we haven't done the best job of keeping you in the loop.

A few weeks ago, we noted the blog post by Chairman Wheeler in which he again affirmed his intent to restore local decision-making authority to communities.

Some are wondering if Chairman Wheeler will take action or is just making empty threats. After years of the previous FCC Chair specializing in all talk, no action, it is a good question to ask.

From the information I have been able to gather, I believe Chairman Wheeler is very serious about removing these barriers. And so do the big cable and telephone company lobbyists. They have been spreading their falsehoods in op-eds and convincing a few Congressional Republicans to attack a straw man they created.

Eleven Senators signed a letter to Chairman Wheeler on June 5, in which they claimed he was poised to "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers." This is nonsense on multiple levels. As we have carefully explained in our fact sheet on financing municipal networks [pdf], the vast majority of municipal networks have used zero taxpayer dollars. This argument is simply a dodge to hide the fact that the big cable and telephone companies want to prevent any possibility of competition.

On June 12, some sixty Republicans signed a similarly misleading letter to the Chairman. What is particularly galling about both letters is that they justify their opposition to any FCC action because the states are closer to the people than "unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington, D.C."

Can you hazard a guess who is closer to the people and more trusted than elected officials in the state capital? A big gold star to anyone who answered "local governments." That's right, the very people who should be deciding this matter and the elected officials that Chairman Wheeler wants to re-empower to make important decisions for their community!

Both letters are framed that the Chairman is forcing local governments to go into competition with the existing industry. He is proposing to ensure only that the state cannot block local governments from making that choice merely because the cable and telehpone companies spend millions of dollars lobbying the legislature with no countervailing force.

And it is worth noting that some states, including North Carolina at the behest of Time Warner Cable, have not only prevented local governments from building their own networks but also effectively banned communities from investing in infrastructure that third parties could use to compete with the big carriers.

Fortunately, this false framing from the industry is not the only recent development. We have seen the formation of CLIC - the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, which you should be a member of.

We have seen letters from local ISPs and Mayors (some of which will soon be posted here) to Chairman Wheeler explaining the importance of encouraging investment in next-generation networks. This from Mayor Bruce Rose of Wilson, North Carolina.

This approach has also produced strong enduring results. The City of Wilson’s credit rating was upgraded by Moody’s and Standard and Poor’s in late 2008, shortly after the Greenlight service launched. I am proud to note that Moody’s recently maintained our Aa2/A1 bond rating after 6 years of operating this broadband network, in a report which emphasized the highly responsible nature of our city’s implementation of this Gigabit network, and its projected long term stability.

The upshot is that we have an FCC Chair who wants to restore local authority but an industry that is going to respond to any effort along those lines with lies and smears. Nothing we aren't used to, but we need to get organized. Join CLIC, pass resolutions, and write letters.

KGNU From Boulder Interviews Chris for Independent Colorado Radio

KGNU from Boulder recently interviewed Chris on It's the Economy. This 27 minute interview is a crash course in all the intertwined topics that have the telecom policy crowd buzzing.

Host Gavin Dahl asked Chris about SB 152, the 2005 Colorado statute that constricted local authority and has prevented communities in that state from investing in telecommunications infrastructure. As many of our readers know, the Colorado communities of Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial, have held elections to reclaim that authority under that statute's exepmtion. The two also discussed legislative activities in Kansas and Utah inspired by big cable and telecommunications lobbyists. 

The conversation also delved into gigabit networks, network neutrality, the Comcast/Time Warner mergers, legislative influence, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement about local authority.

In short, this interview packs a tall amount of information into a short amount of time - highly recommended! 

You could also read a transcript of the interview here.

APPA Adopts Policy Resolution Supporting Municipal Broadband Services

As the FCC considers its next move in the question of local telecommunications authority, a growing number of organizations are expressing their official support. The American Public Power Association (APPA) recently passed a resolution supporting the doctrine that local communities should not be precluded by states from investing in telecommunications infrastructure.

The APPA official resolution, approved by members on June 17, urges Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to officially support the ability for public power utilities to provide advanced communications services. The resolution states:

That Congress should state in clear and unequivocal language that it supports the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

You can read the entire resolution, calling for updates to the Telecomunications Act of 1996, at the APPA website.