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Understanding the Lifeline Program - Community Broadband Bits Episode #49

The United States has long recognized that everyone should have access to a telephone and has established a variety of government programs to achieve that end. In recent months, the Lifeline program has come under attack and some have labeled it the "Obamaphone" program.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Sarah Morris joins us to explain how the program works. She is Policy Counsel for the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation. Additionally, Ana Montes with TURN (The Utility Reform Network in California) joins us to offer ground-level insight into the program.

As we work to ensure everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet, we should be aware of the programs that have been successful in expanding access to the telephone.

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 21 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

New York Times on Internet in America, Genachowski Legacy

Eduardo Porter has an important column today in the business section of the New York Times, "Yanking Broadband From the Slow Lane." He correctly identifies some of the culprits slowing the investment in Internet networks in our communities.

The last two paragraphs read:

Yet the challenge remains: monopolies have a high instinct for self-preservation. And more than half a dozen states have passed legislation limiting municipalities from building public broadband networks in competition with private businesses. South Carolina passed its version last year. A similar bill narrowly failed in Georgia.

Supporting these bills, of course, are the nation’s cable and telephone companies.

Not really "supporting" so much as creating. They create the bills and move them with millions of dollars spent on lobbyists and campaign finance contributions, usually without any real public debate on the matter.

Eduardo focuses on Google Fiber rather than the hundreds of towns that have built networks - as have most of the elite media outlets. Google deserves praise for taking on powerful cable and DSL companies, but it is lazy journalism broadly that has ignored the networks built by hundreds of towns - my criticism of the press generally, not Eduardo specifically.

FCC Logo

The person who deserves plenty of criticism is former FCC Chairman Genachowski. From the article:

According to the F.C.C.’s latest calculation, under one-third of American homes are in areas where at least two wireline companies offer broadband speeds of 10 Mbps or higher.

We have 20 million Americans with no access to broadband. The rest are lucky to have a choice between two providers and even then, most still only have access to fast connections from a single provider.

When the National Broadband Plan was unveiled, we were critical of it and believed it would do little to improve our standing. Even its architect, Blair Levin, is annoyed at how Genachowski failed to implement even the modest proposals put forth.

Back in the NYT piece, we find this:

Mr. Genachowski contends that broadband deployment is on the right track. He points to the growing number of high-speed broadband deployments like Google Fiber and municipal projects around the country, as well as to AT&T’s announcement that it will expand the footprint of its U-verse network — the number of homes to which service is available — to 33 million. This uses fiber part of the way and, AT&T claims, can attain up to 75 Mbps.

Absurd. First of all, the supposed AT&T expansion is playing with numbers. If anyone actually gets U-Verse from this new deployment, it will be fewer than 1.5 million people but we really have no way of knowing because neither the states or the FCC really keeps track of these deployments. They just take AT&T's word for it.

As for 75 Mbps, talk about cherry picking data. Most people live far enough away from the DSLAM or have old enough copper wires that they will not even come close to that number. And this is only for downstream - the upstream capacity remains a fraction of that. This is a fantasy in a fantasy but these numbers are repeated by media sources because they come from AT&T.

I'm rather surprised Genachowski did not also take credit for AT&T's pretend fiber press release in Austin or the overblown CenturyLink pilot in Omaha. Communities engaged in the hard work of building a network received scant attention until they had a ribbon cutting where Chairman Genachowski would appear suddenly supportive and trying to take some measure of credit.

FCC Revolving Door

Genachowski likely felt more comfortable with AT&T, CenturyLink, and a few other big corporations because they share his preference for press releases rather than doing the hard work that needs to be done. We look forward to seeing which of these firms he joins as a lobbyist of some sort ... after a stint at a nonprofit to make it less obvious, of course. Wouldn't want to be as obvious as former FCC Commissioner Baker.

Lest I go too far in attacking our former FCC Chairman, we do remain thankful that once in awhile he did stand up the big corporations and meekly request a reasonable concession.. Most recently, he spoke out against legislation in Georgia to revoke local authority to build networks. For years, FCC Commission and acting Chair Mignon Clyburn has fought to preserve local authority and we were pleased to see her get some backup from the then-Chairman. He didn't actually use his power to actually do anything, but it was nice of him to think of us.

As we move forward with the new FCC under Chairman-nomineer Wheeler, we hope to see real progress on expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access to everyone. Given his industry background, we cannot help but be nervous. And the utter disaster Obama has been for a public interest media and telecom agenda does not help either.

As this NYT article confirms, communities are smart to pursue their own strategies in solving this problem, not waiting for DC to sort anything out. And if DC can be bothered to take any action on telecom, it would be smart to start by removing barriers for communities that want to invest in themselves.

Christopher Mitchell to Join FCC Panel on Gigabit Communities

On Wednesday, March 26, Christopher Mitchell will be on the last panel at the Federal Communication Commission's Gigabit Workshop. The full agenda is here and starts at 9 AM EDT.

The entire event will be webcast via fcc.gov/live.

Mitchell's panel will begin at 2:20 EDT and discuss the ways communities can leverage local tools to build their own networks or to attract partners.

All of the panels are scheduled to spend a lot of time answering questions - remote viewers can submit questions to livequestions@fcc.gov. Please do!

FCC to Regulate Comcast, or Vice Versa?

If this merger is approved, I have little doubt that Comcast-NBCU will retain hundreds of attorneys and lobbyists to exploit gaps and loopholes in any conditions and regulations. Once we allow companies to become this powerful, the FCC does not regulate them. They regulate the FCC.

FCC Chairman Issues Statement Opposing State Muni Broadband Limitations

Last Friday, FCC Chairman Genachowski issued a statement discouraging states from creating (or maintaining) barriers to community owned networks. This statement came just days after Georgia began considering a bill to limit local authority in deciding whether a network were a wise decision.

As we’ve recognized in law and policy for many years, public-private partnerships are also essential for driving broadband deployment. Public-private partnerships like the Connect America Fund, which drives universal broadband deployment, and municipal and public -private projects like those in Chattanooga, Tennessee and San Leandro, California are also vital components of our national broadband strategy. Our Gigabit City Challenge and the important work of Gig.U to drive ultra -fast broadband centers for innovation can also benefit from innovative local approaches to broadband infrastructure. That’s why the National Broadband Plan stated that, when private investment isn’t a feasible option for broadband deployment, local governments ‘have the right to move forward and build networks that serve their constituents as they deem appropriate.’

If a community can’t gain access to broadband services that meet its needs, then it should be able to serve its own residents directly. Proposals that would tie the hands of innovative communities that want to build their own high-speed networks will slow progress to our nation’s broadband goals and will hurt economic development and job creation in those areas. I urge state and local leaders to focus instead on proposals that incentivize investment in broadband infrastructure, remove barriers to broadband build-out, and ensure widespread access to high-speed networks.”

This is a welome development as the FCC has long opposed such barriers (thank you Commissioner Clyburn as well for long speaking out on this issue) but the Chairman himself has not been as direct as this.

The Chairman regularly uses Chattanooga as an example of a tremendously successful network and again noted that community in this statement. This provides some explanation for what it means when private investment isn't a feasible option -- as Chattanooga already had DSL and cable Internet access from its incumbent providers.

Georgia's leaders need to pay attention to this fact because the ultimate question is not whether a community has DSL, cable, or wireless but whether its telecommunications services are meeting the needs of local businesses and residents.

That is the real test and can only be evaluated on a case-by-case basis by the community itself.

Hey FCC: Time to Expand Unlicensed Spectrum!

Remember that Washington Post story about bigger, free Wi-Fi networks? It went hugely viral with all manner of outlets picking the story up, unintentionally distorting it, and amplifying it.

Some good has come of it. For one thing, I was reminded that Ars Technica does a really good job of tech reporting, better than anyone else in my estimation. Cecilia Kang offered a follow-up story to clarify the original that should help more people to understand what is at stake.

But more importantly, we saw a lot of media coverage about something really important, whether we allocate future spectrum for everyone to use (much like Wi-Fi) or will we reserve it just for AT&T, Verizon, or another big corporation?

Harold Feld has a strong opinion on the matter:

This past week, we’ve had quite the discussion around Cecilia Kang’s WashPo piece describing a plan by the FCC to create a national WiFi network by making the right decisions about how to allocate spectrum between licenses for auction and what to leave available for the unlicensed TV white spaces (“TVWS” aka “Super WiFi” aka “Wifi on steroids”). As Kang describes, the FCC’s opening of sufficient spectrum for TVWS could lead to “super WiFi networks (emphasis added) around the nation so powerful and broad in reach that consumers could use them to make calls or surf the Internet without paying a cellphone bill every month.”

Needless to say, the article faced much pushback, despite a subsequent Washpo clarification to indicate the FCC was not, actually, planing to build a network. Amidst the various critics, there were some general defenders of the concept. My colleagues at EFF noted that increasing the availability of open spectrum for WiFi-type uses , and my friends at Free Press argued that such a free public wifi network (or, more accurately, series of networks) is in fact possible if the FCC makes enough good quality spectrum, suitable for broadband and usable out doors, available on an unlicensed basis.

I will now go a step further than any of my colleagues. I will boldly state that, if the FCC produces a solid 20 MHz of contiguous empty space for TV White spaces in the Incentive Auction proceeding, or even two 10 MHz guard channels that could nationally produce two decent sized LTE-for unlicensed channels, then we will have exactly the kind of free publicly available wifi Kang describes in her article. Or, “Yes Cecilia, there really is free national public wifi. Don’t let the haters and know-it-alls tell you otherwise.” ...

MAG-Net Logo

I wrote a much shorter, far less impressive piece for the Media Action Grassroots Network that embraces a similar argument:

You know how you can buy a simple little device for as little as $30 now to set up your own Wi-Fi network that creates an easy in-home network? Imagine if your neighborhood could do that too!

Wi-Fi works in your home because the federal government, which manages how the public airwaves are divided for various uses, decreed that a small slice of spectrum would be unlicensed - sitting there for anyone to use however they wanted. But that spectrum is not suited for a neighborhood-wide network. ...

And we have seen others take notice as well, including the Baltimore Sun Editorial Staff:

The companies who oppose the FCC's plan argue that the agency's mission to serve the public interest would best be achieved through the revenues from an auction of the airwaves. The last such auction, in 2008, generated nearly $20 billion for the government. That's a substantial amount of money, to be sure, but the relatively small portion of the spectrum that the commission now proposes to leave open to unlicensed use would be worth only a fraction of that — a pittance compared to the economic activity that could be generated through the creation of new products and services to take advantage of the unlicensed spectrum.

FCC Logo

Therein lies the danger. The big wireless lobbyists are pushing Congress and the FCC hard to ensure that they get the licenses. Republicans in particular are arguing that we need the billions (perhaps 3-5?) of dollars that an auction would fetch for the treasury. This would be a terrible tradeoff.

I doubt that anyone has a handle on the value of Wi-Fi, but it is orders of magnitude higher than a onetime infusion of a few billion dollars. How much would you pay any given day to use Wi-Fi? Multiply that by over 200 million people. And this new spectrum could allow bigger networks than Wi-Fi supports -- an even greater potential value!

Verizon and AT&T know this, of course. They will gladly spend billions to ensure that we are stuck paying far more for services from them than we can build for ourselves if only we are allowed to use our spectrum to do so.

Write your elected representatives to support increased unlicensed spectrum.

Georgia Bill Aims to Limit Investment In Internet Networks

Stay updated on developments by following this tag.

The Georgia General Assembly is considering another bill to limit investment in telecommunications networks in the state, an odd proposition when just about everyone agrees states need as much investment in these networks as possible.

House Bill 282, the "Municipal Broadband Investment Act," purports to limit the ability of public entities to invest only in "unserved" areas. But as usual, the devil is in the details. This bill will be discussed on Wednesday, Feb 13 at 4:00 EST in the Telecom Subcommittee of the House Energy, Utilities & Telecommunications committee (Committee roster here).

We strongly encourage Georgians to write to members of this committee and explain that these decisions should be made at the local level, not by the state. Communities each face unique circumstances regarding the need for telecommunications investment and they can be trusted to make informed decisions after weighing the available evidence.

Many local governments have invested in modest networks to connect local businesses, but such investments will be prohibited in Georgia if residents in the area are already served with a connection of at least 1.5 Mbps in one direction. This baseline is far lower standard than the FCC's definition of "basic" broadband: 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Setting a low baseline hurts communities but rewards carriers that have refused to invest in modern networks.

This bill poses a dramatic threat to the ability of local governments to encourage economic development and provide the environment necessary for the private sector to create the jobs every community needs. See our fact sheet on how public broadband investments have created jobs.

Supporters of this bill will claim that it only restricts investment to areas that are most needing it. This argument is not only flat wrong, it comes mostly from those most interested in preventing, not encouraging, investment.

The bill will effectively prohibit any community investment because the cost of collecting the data and making the case that areas are unserved is prohibitive, particularly when the bar for what constitutes being unserved is set unrealistically low. The cost of collecting data at the census block level is high and communities are extremely unlikely to spend the necessary sums when there is no guarantee they will be able to take action on it.

Additionally, requiring a network to operate only in unserved areas is akin to requiring a health insurance plan to only accept terminally ill patients. A network requires a mix of densities and households in order to be sustainable. Should any community build a network under these circumstances, however unlikely, such a network would almost certainly require ongoing subsidization, which would then be used as evidence for why such a network should never have been built. Heads they win, tails we lose.

This bill is much sneakier than last year's broadside attack on community networks. Rather than aggressively challenging community broadband, this approach appears to be more reasonable, even as it creates the same result: greatly limiting the authority of communities to decide for themselves whether an investment is appropriate for encouraging economic development.

Windstream Logo

We understand that Windstream is the main lobbyist pushing this bill forward in an attempt to protect the networks they have refused to upgrade to modern standards. Windstream is just one of several large telecommunications companies that does not have the capacity to invest in the next-generation networks demanded in the 21st century economy. For instance, see this recent story from Missouri about Windstream:

“People feel they are paying for a service they are not getting,” Rep. Fitzwater told Windstream. “I get emails every day, letters, telephone calls. McAllister Software is a major employer, employing around 140 people. They are vital to the local economy, and they need internet service. There were about 45 hours last year that they had to shut their doors because they had no internet. There are other businesses in town that are affected by internet speeds. The other day there was a water main break and school was closed; some of the businesses had to shut down because of reduced internet speeds because the kids were online playing games.”

Even as Windstream cannot provide the necessary speeds, they are pushing a bill to make it harder for others to step in and provide the necessary services. This is why the bill uses a 1.5 Mbps standard, DSL often provides that below-basic level of service but does not support common applications or business needs.

In short, this is a bill that will only hurt the residents and businesses of Georgia, taking away one of the only methods a community can ensure it is ready for the digital economy.

The Five Fundamentals for Future Telecommunications - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #32

Harold Feld, Senior Vice President of Public Knowledge, is back on Community Broadband Bits to discuss five fundamental rules necessary to ensure we have a great telecommunications system that benefits everyone. Harold first appeared on our show in episode 23.

Harold explains the Five Fundamentals here and includes a link to their full filing [pdf].

In short, the fundamentals are: Service to all Americans, Interconnection and Competition; Consumer Protection; Network Reliability; and Public Safety. The comments also include some thoughtful words about the balance between federal, state, and local governments in ensuring these five fundamentals.

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 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Discussing the FCC's Gigabit Challenge

Last week, I joined Craig Settles on his Gigabit Nation show to discuss Chairman Genachowski's Gigabit Challenge along with Jim Baller, Masha Zager of Broadband Communities Magazine, Gary Evans of Hiawatha Broadband Communications, and Arkansas Senator Linda Chesterfield.

I take a more moderated stance in this discussion than I have previously, in part because we do need to take advantage of this opportunity and because we cannot expect the FCC to suddenly act in our interests when a Congress dominated by big corporations can so quickly punish them for such actions. I think the discussion is worth a listen, though it is 90 minutes.

Listen to internet radio with cjspeaks on Blog Talk Radio

Taking Advantage of Chairman Genachowski's Gigabit Challenge

On Friday, I wrote a harsh, quick response to FCC Chairman's Genachowski's so-called gigabit challenge announced in a guest column on Forbes.

Since then, I have learned more about the 1 Gbps Challenge and I have to reiterate my frustration with it. We need the Chairman to reduce barriers to community-owned networks, not just recognize their successes. I'm not the only one reacting this way - Karl Bode has a thoughtful response as well.

Let me start by giving some credit: Thank you for recognizing that the cable and DSL companies are failing to deliver the networks communities need. This announcement should be used to pressure the existing providers to invest in their networks. It is another important piece of evidence that communities having to choose only between cable networks and a slower DSL option are being left behind.

But we need to also recognize that pressuring the existing providers to do better is not a solution in itself. Our slow, overpriced networks are the symptom of a problem, not the problem itself. The problem is that the massive cable and DSL companies are unaccountable to most of the communities they serve. Begging for more investment is better than doing nothing, but solves few problems.

I have a challenge for the FCC Chairman: Use your power to make it less of a challenge for communities to build the networks they need. For too long, you have sat silently by as massive telecommunications firms made it all but impossible for smaller entities - public and private - to build competing networks. When the FCC Chairman finally gets around to supporting communities with definitive action to reduce the many unnecessary industry-created barriers to competition, that will actually be praise-worthy.

Communities are smart to find ways of building their own networks, whether by owning and operating or finding partners to help. Nearly all the communities in the U.S. that have gigabit (and symmetrical at that!) connectivity today are served by networks owned by the community. This includes Chattanooga, Morristown, and Bristol in Tennessee; Lafayette in Louisiana; Bristol, Virginia; Burlington, Vermont; and the communities in Utah served by UTOPIA. Also, Chelan Public Utility District offers up to 1 Gbps connections in many communities in Washington State.

This is why we have to remove unnecessary barriers to public investment in their own networks and encourage communities to take responsibility for their own future. As Harold DePriest asked when announcing that Chattanooga would build its own FTTH network, "The issue is, does our community control our own fate, or does someone else control it?"