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Cities in Kentucky and Massachusetts Want a Say In Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

As the feds continue to evaluate the wisdom of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, local communities in several states are attempting to throw a wrench in the federal approval machine.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the City Council recently refused to approve the transfer of the city's cable television license to Comcast. In order to sweet-talk the federal agencies concerned the merger may create too much market concentration, Comcast has worked out a deal with Charter Communications to transfer customers in certain geographic areas. Charter is the current incumbent in Worcester. 

According to a Telegam & Gazette article, the City Council does not need to approve the transfer for it to take affect. Nevertheless, the City Council voted 8-3 on October 14 to urge City Manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., not to approve the transfer of the license. If Augustus makes no determination, the transfer will automatically be approved.

The city can only examine the transfer based on four criteria including company management, technical experience, legal experience, and financial capabilities. Management and poor customer service are the sticking points for Worcester:

District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen said the City Council should not welcome Comcast to Worcester because of its "deplorable and substandard" customer service across the country. 

"It's a terrible company," he said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out." 

A similar scenario is playing out in Lexington, Kentucky. The community is the second largest city served by Time Warner Cable in the state. They are concerned existing customer service problems will worsen if Comcast becomes their provider.

The Urban City Council drafted two resolutions denying the transfer. The resolutions had first reading on October 9. Customer service is, again, a point of contention.

According to an October 9 Kentucky.com article, the city proposed including a fine for poor customer service as part of the agreement.  The fine is in the current franchise agreement, but TWC will not agree to carry it forward into the next agreement. The two parties have been working on a new contract since the previous one expired in 2012.

From an October 7 article in Kentucky.com:

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said the city held two public meetings and also asked for public input regarding issues with the city's cable provider.

The city received "reams" of negative feedback from citizens, she said "It's everything from equipment, to service, to cost or the inability to understand how costs are set."

Council members also want to ensure that the local cable office be open some evening and weekend hours so customers can seek help. They also want to include an existing provision wherein the provider maintains a studio for public access television.

"We want to keep these terms in our current agreement," Gorton said. "For our citizens, we are working hard to get a good franchise agreement."

Back in Worcester, community leaders recognize their limitations:

Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said there is no question there is a need for better cable television service in Worcester, but added that federal laws are unfortunately geared more in favor of cable companies than consumers. 

"We can make it sound like we are taking on the big boys, but in reality this will go nowhere," he said. "People want better service but I'm not sure the council floor is the way to get better service. We are just bit players in a big play. It may feel good to vote this, but it may very well end up having no effect." 

Muni Fiber in Rural Massachusetts - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 113

Though much of western Massachusetts has poor access to the Internet, the town of Leverett is in the midst of fiber build that will offer a gigabit to anyone who wants it. Peter d'Errico, on the town Select Board, has been part of the project from the start and Chairs the Broadband Committee. He joins us for Episode 113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

He and I discuss the great need for the project and inaccurate broadband maps that overstate availablility in the region. We discuss the role of the "municipal light plant" law that gave them the necessary authority to invest in the fiber.

But more interestingly, we talk about how they have structured the financing and prices for subscribers. The network will be repaid both with the revenues from subscribers and a modest bump in the property tax. The kicker is that many households will see their taxes increase a little but the amount they spend on telecom will decrease substantially, resulting in more money in their pockets each month.

We have written about Leverett often over the years, the archive is here. Read the Leverett FAQ here.

You can read a transcript of this discussion here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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 18 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference September 16 - 18

Join Chris in Springfield, Massachusetts for the Community Fiber Networks conference in September. The meet-up is part of Broadband Communities Magazine's  Economic Development series; Chris will present at the event. The conference will run September 16 - 18 at the Sheraton Springfield Monarch Place Hotel.

Jim Baller, Conference Chairman and Principal at the Baller Herbst Law Group notes:

During the last fifteen years, thousands of communities across the United States have sought to attract or develop advanced communications networks, recognizing that such networks can provide them and the nation multiple strategic advantages in the increasingly competitive global economy. In virtually every case, fostering robust economic development has ranked at or near the top of the list of considerations motivating these communities.

Broadband Communities chose Springfield because there are multiple projects in the region, including MassBroadband123, Leverettnet, and Holyoke.

You can register online for the event and check out the agenda to plan your weekend.

Princeton Voters Want to Bring FTTH to Their Rural Massachusetts Community

On May 13, Princeton voters decided to continue their municipal network planning. At the annual town meeting, 91.4% of voters passed Article 4 [PDF], authorizing a new Municipal Light Plant. A year ago, voters approved a measure to proceed with planning.

Princeton, a community of 3,300 residents and 1,270 households, has DSL access available to approximately 49% of residents. Satellite, dial-up, and wireless are the other options. 

Entrepreneurs rent office space in nearby communities with better connectivity. Real estate professionals bemoan bad Internet because it lowers property values. A 2013 survey revealed an overwhelming desire to take action. Residents and businesses want an FTTH option.

The Worcester Telegram reported that the community also voted to appropriate $17,000 to make-ready costs, possible legal fees, construction costs for telecommunications huts, and other possible network costs.

"Passing Article 4 will allow us to start negotiations with the vendor," said John Kowaleski of the Broadband Committee. "Without passing this article we will have to wait two years to approach this subject again."  

According to Selectman Stan Moss, the community continues to explore a variety of options. Community leaders have met with several providers to discuss public/private partnerships. Large corporate players, including Charter and Comcast, are not interested in working with Princeton.

The community is also considering a pilot project as a starting point. MassBroadband 123, the network of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will soon serve local schools and several public facilities in Princeton (it should be noted that MBI has been saying "soon" for a few years). The schools will transistion from T1 lines to the new MBI fiber. Community leaders hope to eventually capitalize on the infrastructure to reduce overall costs and expand the reach of Princeton's future infrastructure.

MassBroadband 123 Complete in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) just announced that the 1,200-mile fiber network MassBroadband 123 is now complete.

According to the official announcement, the middle-mile network will eventually serve over 1,200 community anchor institutions. The open access network, constructed with $45.4 million in stimulus funding and an additional $40 million in state bond proceeds, lit up in March 2013. Schools, hospitals, and municipal government are some of the entities already connected.

Communities with a history of little or no middle-mile options will now have some level of connectivity via MassBroadband 123. The Commonwealth hopes to attract last-mile providers to connect homes and businesses, something we have yet to see succeed. We are afraid a more likely scenario will be a few providers seeking to connect the highest revenue customers with no intention to connect everyone, an outcome that would perversely make it more expensive to build financially sustainable networks in these areas.

A few places, like Leverett and Princeton, plan to invest in their own publicly owned infrastructure and will have the option to connect to the outside world through MassBroadband 123. This is an excellent approach that we applaud because it leads us to universal access.

According to a Bershire Eagle article, the state legislature plans to bring more funding to the initiative for last-mile connections:

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an interview that much investment is needed before individual homeowners and businesses can connect to the network.

The state Senate is poised to move on a bond bill which includes $50 million to be put toward the project's phase, Pignatelli said.

"The state has made a very big commitment in hopes that the private sector would step up," Pignatelli said. "The time is now."

In our experience, middle mile networks change the economics of the operating costs for fiber networks, not the capital costs. The high upfront capital costs are what deter investment and robust middle mile networks do little to change that reality, which is why communities are smart to step up and make the necessary investments.

An Increasing Call for Community Owned Networks

While Comcast focuses on increasing its market power rather than improving services in the communities it monopolizes, no one should be surprised that we are seeing a surge in interest for building community owned networks.

We've heard from many people who want to learn how they can start - more than we can always respond to, unfortunately. We are working on a resource to answer many of those questions, but it always boils down to 2 things: building a supportive network of people and getting informed. Get the word out - especially to local business leaders and anyone else who may be supportive.

There are many potential business models and financing opportunities, but some will work better than others in each community. That said, there are some basics that every community should be immediately considering.

The first is building a fiber network to connect anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, first responders, municipal facilities, and the like (see our Fact Sheet on savings from such networks). These networks should be constructed in such a way as to enable future expansions to local businesses, residents, and generally everything in the community or even beyond for rural areas. That means choosing the backbone routes carefully and ensuring that as much fiber is available as possible. Using conduit with channels and always leave at least one channel free to pull a future bundle (replacing a smaller count bundle that can then be removed to continue having a free channel).

Another smart move is to begin getting conduit and fiber in the ground as part of other capital projects, like street rebuilds, water main replacement, and the like. We will discuss how Santa Monica did this in an upcoming case study. In the meantime, there is no better resource than CTC Technology & Energy's recent report, Gigabit Cities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in your Community.

We have additional resources organized in two places: on MuniNetworks.org and on ILSR.org. If you can't find a piece of information you need, let us know.

Of the recent voices calling for at least consideration of a publicly owned network in their community, two recent ones stand out. Lev Gonick, head of OneCommunity in northeast Ohio (our coverage of them here) recently called on the region to take its future into its own hands rather than waiting for Google.

logo-onecommunity-2014.png

City Halls across the land are asking how they can attract Google Fiber and extend the Google brand to their city. Of course, we can and should invite Google to the North Coast.

We can wait for Google or we can continue building our own future.

OneCommunity, with the support of our hundreds of forward-thinking public benefit organizations, has built and now manages the largest community fiber optic network in the country. Built right here, our $200 million network has become a reference model for national programs and communities across the country aspiring to take their future into their own hands when it comes to broadband.

It is worth noting that this is no slap across the face of Google. Google has said many times that it is not going to build everywhere and that communities need to be proactive - which means either making investments to build their own networks or finding worthwhile partners. This is a slap across the face of incumbent cable and telephone providers that are not meeting local needs.

In Massachusetts, some in Cambridge are also making the case for local investments in a fiber network. Saul Tannenbaum calls for a community network to meet the needs of everyone in the community. In his well-reasoned piece, he writes:

Cambridge does have an established method of tackling complex, controversial planning issues. It appoints an external body, composed of residents, experts, and stakeholders who engage in a public process. In cases where the City has neither the expertise nor resources to address an issues, this is accompanied by an appropriation of funds to employ consultants. That's what should happen next.

City Manager Richard Rossi should appoint a commission composed of experts, residents and scholars, the innovation community and the social justice community and charge them with developing a municipal broadband proposal for Cambridge.

Those who want to know how their community should proceed should read the final third of his post (though it is all worth reading). This is especially true for communities without municipal electric utilities.

Finally, stay tuned for next week - when we release a case study on Santa Monica, one of the most successful municipal networks to have been built by a community without a municipal electric utility.

OpenCape: Local Ideas to Maximize Fiber Infrastructure

The OpenCape Network launched about eight months ago to bring better middle mile connectivity to Cape Cod. Reporter Sean Gonsalves explored other possibilities for the 350-mile infrastructure in a recent Cape Cod Online article.

Gonsalves spoke with OpenCape CEO Dan Vorthems. The network was funded with $32 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants and approximately $8 million in funds from the state, county, and private-sector partner CapeNet. It brings connectivity to 91 community anchor institutions from Provincetown as far west as Providence and Brockton. The idea for the network began with Cape Cod Community College and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Today, OpenCape is a non-profit with Board members from healthcare, higher education, public education, government, and the private sector.

Gonsalves and Vorthems touched on the high hopes for economic development that accompanied the network deployment. When the project began, the dream was to turn Cape Cod into a "Silicon Sandbar." The network is still in its infancy, but new jobs in the area are retail, service, and tourist related rather than high-tech. Residents of Cape Cod were hoping the network would bring better paying positions to meet the high cost of living in the area.

Gonsalves takes it one step further and proposes using the network for last mile connections:

Getting the Cape's big data users online opens up all sorts of possibilities. But [what] I wanted to know is when the Cape would get to the point where residential users could access this Internet autobahn capable of reaching speeds of a gigabit per second.

Once that happens, the Cape suddenly becomes a really attractive place for tech-savvy entrepreneurs, small business start-ups, and potential work-from-home employees who now spend hours commuting off-Cape. In the super high-speed tech world, they call that "the last mile."

Governor Patrick expressed his intention to bring better connectivity to underserved communities in his State of the Commonwealth address in January. There are a good number of underserved communities in Massachusetts, especially on the western side of the state, so Vorthems does not anticipate large amounts of state funding to find its way to Cape Cod.

There is a group working to optimize the asset that is already in place. From the article:

In the last few years, an ad hod group called Smarter Cape Partnership — comprising Open Cape, the Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Cod Technology Council and the Cape Cod Young Professionals — have been working to establish plans to develop shared work spaces for technology oriented start-ups.

"We've been approached by a number of organizations who are interested in doing fiber-to-the-home projects here," he said. "It's a very exciting time."

New Case Study of Leverett, Mass, Muni Network

We first reported on Leverett in the spring of 2012. Leverett, a small town of 2,000, also attracted Susan Crawford's attention. Crawford and Robyn Mohr recently wrote a case study on the community's efforts to build its own fiber network. The Berkman Center for Internet & Society released the paper on December 16, 2013.

Readers will remember that Leverett, tired of being dismissed by large providers, decided to build a FTTH network to each home in town. Construction of the network, funded by a modest tax increase, is now underway.

The report, Bringing Municipal High-Speed Internet Access to Leverett, Massachusetts offers these main findings, as reported on Crawford's blog:

LeverettNet is a last-mile fiber to the home network that will be operated by a publicly controlled Municipal Light Plant entity. The MLP will operate independently of Leverett’s political infrastructure, but will be required by state law to charge subscribers no more than the cost of providing service.

The network will connect every household in Leverett. Although every residence and business will be linked to LeverettNet, individual homeowners will have the discretion to decide whether to subscribe.

LeverettNet was planned to take advantage of MassBroadband 123, a publicly funded fiber network recently built to connect towns (but not individual homes and businesses) in Massachusetts.

Long-term leadership, planning, and community engagement by Leverett’s public officials prompted the citizens of Leverett to approve a modest property tax increase in return for the long-term benefits of a FTTH network.

Although LeverettNet has opted for a tiered set of access plans, had it decided to deliver 1Gbps to every home and business in Leverett the cost of service to subscribers—including Internet access and phone service, state and local taxes, access fees, network operation fees, and maintenance fees—would have been $61.30 per household per month.

In Western Mass, Holyoke Gas and Electric Brings Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode #65

Holyoke Gas & Electric has been connecting community anchor institutions and local businesses in Western Massachusetts with fiber networks for years. Rather than using exception access to the Internet as a competitive advantage over more poorly connected neighbors, the Municipal Light Plant (in the parlance of Massachusetts law) is helping nearby towns to establish their own networks.

I met Senior Network Engineer Tim Haas in a lunch with people building community owned networks in Leverett and Princeton in late August. He joins me for episode #65 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Holyoke approach, its network, and enthusiasm for assisting others in the region to improve access to the Internet.

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 17 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 Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Leverett On Track for Fiber Network in Massachusetts

We have followed developments in Leverett since we first learned about the small town's decision to build its own next generation infrastructure. The community has faced some challenges but is determined to get its residents connected.

After an overwhelming vote to support a bond measure and minor tax increase to fund the network, Leverett encountered delay when the State attorney general ordered a new bid in April. According to a GazetteNet article, a technical glitch on the bid form allowed bidders to exclude themselves from parts of the project, affecting the overall bid. Leverett awarded the first bid to G4S, but two other firms submitted complaints prompting the review.

After reviewing revised bids in May, Select Board awarded the $2.27 million contract to Millennium Communications Group. The GazetteNet reports that Millennium met with town officials in June to answer questions and examine the bid in detail.

The GazetteNet spoke with Select Board Member Peter d'Errico: 

“When this is up and running, Leverett’s going to have state-of-the-art, worldwide telecommunications capability,” d’Errico said. “It’s comparable service to what Google is providing in Kansas City, and it means that Leverett will also become a desirable place for all kinds of people who work in the mediums that require that level of technology. I see it as having economic benefits for the town, cultural benefits for the town and when you add in things like telemedicine, it means that it’s more than lifestyle, it’s quality of life.”

Scheduled completion date is December 2014.