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Knoxville Downtown Wondering 'Where Is All the Broadband?'

Knoxville Metro Pulse reporter Paige Hunton published a story last month about a common complaint from downtown residents and businesses - "Downtown Knoxville's Internet Access Kinda Sucks. Can It Be Fixed?" The problem worked its way from local talk to twitter and city leaders have met with residents and business owners to publicly discuss options.

This is a perfect example of what happens to a community that refuses to take responsibility for ensuring local businesses and residents have access to the essential infrastructure they need. Knoxville's approach to improving its Internet access is akin to crossing one's fingers and hoping really hard for the best.

Hunton' describes modern day disaster in the downtown area comprised of an inconsistent patchwork of AT&T DSL, Comcast, and a very limited amount of private provider fiber optics. Some areas have no access, others have no choices. While the city tries to encourage downtown commerce with tax credits for developers and a new entrepreneur center critical high-speed connections are missing.

City officials say the downtown area has a limited amount of aging conduit, discouraging private providers and cost prohibitive to expand. Likewise, old buildings with substandard internal wiring discourage investment from private companies.

Hunton tells the story of Ian Blackburn, a former colleague that now works for a downtown employer impacted by the lack of high-speed broadband downtown. After outgrowing its T1, the company went with 6 Mbps through AT&T DSL. AC Entertainment soon outgrew DSL:

"On one occasion in our DSL days, we had to download a video spot from an artist management site, make a few edits, burn it to disc, and get it to FedEx that day. The browser was estimating over an hour remaining for the download, which would miss the FedEx cutoff point. I remotely logged into a server in my living room, started the download, jumped on my bike, pedaled home, burned the file to a DVD, and was back in the office inside of 20 minutes,” he says. “The problem got solved, but that’s a ridiculous way for a company to have to operate. You can’t do business if you can outrun your Internet on a bicycle.”

AC Entertainment Logo

The building that houses AC Entertainment is now served by Windstream via AT&T fiber optic cables, but many other businesses must contend with pokey DSL as the best option. City and business leaders are considering wireless for the short term:

“It’s not a perfect solution. You always want physical wiring wherever you can get it. But if you can’t get it, wireless Internet is a great option,” Blackburn says. “[Knoxville doesn’t] need fiber-to-the-door like Chattanooga has. A WISP [Wireless Internet Service Provider] will do, and it’s something we can do now while we’re looking to the future for more substantial infrastructure improvements.”

Hunton also talked with Eric Ogle, a researcher at the University of Tennessee's Hoawrd J. Baker Jr. Center for Public Policy. Ogle studies Internet access and community development. Ogle did not rave about Knoxville's tepid approach to ensuring broadband downtown:

“Additional broadband options in Knoxville at a lower cost would force Comcast and others to lower their costs to become more competitive. We see it all the time, when an incumbent provider enjoys a local monopoly and they suddenly get new competition, their pricing drops,” Ogle says. “So it would be no surprise if Knoxville started talking seriously about deploying a city-wide network, companies like AT&T and Comcast would increase their efforts here.”

For the time being, though, [Knoxville’s Chief Policy Officer Bill] Lyons and [Knoxville Downtown Coordinator Rick] Emmett do not sound keen on serious city involvement in the private broadband market.

“I don’t think we missed any economic activities,” Emmett says, compared to Chattanooga’s network build-out. “That’s the point of this [strategy] is trying to draw in some business.”

That attitude, Ogle says, could be a major mistake in the future.

“I’m a believer that the best way to undermine investment in the future is to fail to provide the needed infrastructure of today,” he says.

Knoxville officials don't think they missed any economic activities? Perhaps they should visit the WBIR archives for examples of companies that deliberately chose to expand in Chattanooga rather than Knoxville specifically because of Internet access. Knoxville may not want to build its own network due to the dirty tricks commonly employed by carriers like Comcast and AT&T, but they had better come up with some sort of a plan.

Verizon Plans to Abandon Copper Wires In Islands Damaged by Sandy

Victims of Sandy are still recovering from the killer storm that ripped through the east coast last year. Two places hardest hit by the "Frankenstorm" were Fire Island, New York and the Barrier Island in New Jersey. In addition to homes and property, residents lost phone and Internet communications when telephone wires went down. They are still waiting to be reconnected.

Our readers know about the huge fight that has embroiled consumer advocates and the leading telephone providers in the past few years. AT&T and Verizon seek deregulation to escape the "carrier of last resort" obligation that requires maintenance of traditional copper lines for telephone service. AT&T and Verizon want to shed that responsibility in favor of wireless service that is less expensive to maintain, even though it does not support the range of uses today's copper networks do. 

Verizon is the incumbent telephone provider in Fire Island and Barrier Island but decided it will not repair damaged lines. It wants to instead deploy its inferior Voice Link wireless service on the island.

The Voice Link technology basically attaches to your house and uses Verizon's cellular network to connect the telephones in your home. Homeowners can continue to use their home phones, but the quality tends to be worse than on a proper wired telephone network. 

Under federal law,  telephone providers are obligated to replace or repair downed copper lines unless they substitute with a "line improvement," such as fiber-optic lines. Voice Link cannot be described as a "line improvement" - the only benefit it provides is that it costs Verizon less to build and maintain. 

Public Knowledge Logo

Jodie Griffin from Public Knowledge recently pointed out some of the many shortcomings of Voice Link, as revealed on Verizon's own Terms of Service. The people most harmed by this scaled back service include the people who, in one way or another, are most vulnerable. Harold Feld, also from Public Knowledge, addressed what he sees as the most critical changes and who those changes most affect:

1. Voice Link will not allow you to receive collect calls, use calling card minutes or other forms of cheap long-distance provider, and requires you to have a separate international plan to make international calls.

Who gets hurt most. Immigrant communities, anyone with a loved one incarcerated or who otherwise needs to make a collect call. Since Voice Link also does not support any data plan, anyone who used to subscribe to VZ DSL and depended on Skype or other VOIP product is equally out of luck. Again, given the tremendous use of Skype by immigrant communities to call relatives back in their country of origin, this hits them particularly hard.

 2. Voice Link will  not work with life alert systems or security alarm systems.

Who gets hurt. The elderly trying to maintain independence. Anyone with a burglar alarm or fire alarm system that does not have independent wireless connections.

 3. Voice Link will not work with DVRs or Fax machines.

Who gets hurt. Any consumer that owned this kind of equipment and stuck with Verizon because they wanted to keep using it.

 4. Voice Link will not work with credit card machines or other electronic payment processing.

Who gets hurt. Small businesses, especially when combined with losing their fax service to take orders by fax.

 5. 9-1-1 calls may fail due to congestion on network or for other reasons, including Verizon negligence in routing the call.

Who gets hurt.  Well, any of those elderly whose Life Alert no longer works, for a start.

Voice Link also cannot be used for Internet access, which whittles down an already short list of providers. 

FCC Logo

Verizon appeared to be circumventing the process until a June 7th request to the FCC. The telecom giant received permission from the New York Public Service Commission (NYPSC), and immediately began nurturing a plan to follow suit in other locations. Harold Feld, from Public Knowledge, wrote about Verizon's long term plans on his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:

Since the NYPSC gave Verizon permission to deploy Voice Link instead of copper on Fire Island (at least on an interim basis), Verizon has moved full speed ahead to deploy Voice Link in other areas where Sandy destroyed the infrastructure, and is gearing up to deploy Voice Link in Florida to replace copper with Voice Link in something called “Project Thunder,” no doubt in anticipation of the active hurricane season predicted by the National Weather Service at NOAA.

Verizon's action is shifting U.S. communications policy without moving through the proper (however flawed) channels of the FCC, shifting the balance away from the public interest. If the FCC allows Verizon to move forward unilaterally, AT&T will certainly follow suit. In a later post, Feld wrote:

In some ways, this is a little thing impacting only a few communities. In other ways, it is a very big deal. If there is a single moment to point to and say “This is it! This is The Day We Started To Shut Down The Phone Network,” that day is today. With this little routine barely noticed filing for an administrative procedure that impacts a handful of communities.

While the FCC will ask for public comment on Verizon's application, we should contact them now to express our concern about this situation. The public deserves a policy and a process for replacement of old copper lines. That policy needs to include improved service - not a more limited communications mechanism - and needs to be in place now rather than during natural disaster recovery.

AT&T and ALEC Take Aim at Connecticut for Third Year in a Row

StopTheCap! reports there are three bills in the Connecticut General Assembly that, if passed, will leave little or no protections for customers of plain old telephone service who encounter difficulties with service. AT&T and ALEC back these bills for the third year in a row.

Such bills are not new to our readers who often see our reports on large corporate providers that use state legislators as vehicles to shed regulations. Phil Dampier from StopThe Cap! summarizes all three bills:

HB 6401: House Bill 6401 strips the Public Utilities Review Authority (PURA) of their ability to regulate Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telephone services. An emerging market, this bill creates deregulation for the sake of deregulation.

HB 6402: House Bill 6402 eliminates the right of regulators to oversee AT&T to make sure it has some form of accountability to the public. The section on annual audits has been gutted, making it impossible to protect the public from rate-fixing. More importantly, it includes a provision to allow AT&T to end service to any customer it wants upon 30 days’ written notice. [PDF of the Nonpartisan Bill Summary available from the Connecticut General Assembly]

SB 888: Senate Bill 888 has an ALEC-drafted provision that allows cell phone towers to be built on public lands on a presumption that the will of telecommunications companies is in the interest of the public good.

As we saw in Kentucky, concerned citizen groups will not take the change lying down, joining forces to form the Don't Hang Up on Connecticut coalition. AARP Connecticut leads the charge to motivate seniors and their families, a group traditionally dependent on landlines. George Gombossy, from the New Britain Herald, spoke with John Erlingheauser, AARP's advocacy director:

Erlingheuser said his organization is particularly concerned with three elements of the proposal: Allowing AT&T to stop providing any of its services with a 60-day notice to the Public Utilities Regulatory Authority.

Limiting the state’s quality of services standards “which cover such things as responding to trouble reports and service outages.” And a halt to annual audit of AT&T’s business in Connecticut in which the company reports on its investments in infrastructure and modernization.

The three, he said, will result in AT&T spending less on traditional phone system and more on its cellular and Internet-based systems.

Connecticut Seal

The list of supporting legislators and AT&T lobbyists includes ALEC chairs on both the federal and state level.

The New Haven Register also reported on the measure:

“If AT&T is allowed to drop service in unprofitable areas at their sole discretion, if they’re allowed to let service outages drag on for weeks with no consequences, if they’re allowed to jack up rates — of course they will,” Daniel Ravizza of Connecticut Citizen Action Group said in a statement. “‘Trust me’ is not a good enough guarantee for Connecticut consumers.

We interviewed Harold Feld twice for the Broadband Bits podcast and he talked about the transition to new voice technology and his expectations from AT&T. Feld described AT&T's business practices and history of investment, or lack thereof - that history that supports Ravizza's concern.

We will be following this story and hope to soon report on the coalition's success. For more on how Kentucky citizens stopped similar legislation, you can listen to Christopher interview Mimi Pickering and Tom FitzGerald in episode #44 of the Broadband Bits Podcast.  

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.

Kentucky Preserves Basic Telephone Protections Despite AT&T Predation

Earlier this year we reported on SB 88 in the Kentucky legislature. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback and authored by AT&T, would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement and reduced consumer protections. A similar bill in 2011 was also defeated by a coalition of public interest groups.

This is one of a series of bills crafted by AT&T and ALEC that has been explained in great depth by the National Regulatory Research Institute in their 2012 review [pdf] as well as by Bruce Kushnick in this report [pdf].

Advocates on the side of consumers, including ILSR, were happy to see the bill defeated in the House. Though AT&T will undoubtedly be back again in future years, this victory shows the massive corporate carriers are vulnerable. In addition to blocking harmful deregulation, this is an example of how an organized coalition can protect the public interest.

I spoke with Mimi Pickering, Director of the Appalshop Community Media Initiative in Whitesburg, Kentucky. She described how local groups defeated the bill with the facts. Appalshop teamed up with nonprofit Kentucky Resources Council (KRC), AARP Kentucky, the AFL-CIO, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and several other groups. The coalition explained the complexities of the proposal and spelled out what could happen to landline service without consumer protections.

Appalshop Logo

KRC is an environmental advocacy group that helped stop SB 88 by providing critical research to educate the public and lawmakers. In Episode #44 of our podcast, Pickering and KRC Director Tom FitzGerald describe the coalition's work. KRC put the bill on its "Ugly" list early in the session and Fitzgerald dedicated significant time to analyzing the bill and spreading the word about its pitfalls. 

In a January Kentucky.com opinion piece, Fitzgerald described in detail how passage of the bill would affect households directly and indirectly. Pickering says his ability to translate legislative jargon was critical to the victory. By spelling out the likely outcomes for legislators and citizen groups, KRC and FitzGerald gave lawmakers the facts they needed to make informed decisions.

AT&T relied on a campaign of fear and misinformation. In contrast with FitzGerald's analytical opinion piece, AT&T Kentucky's President Mary Pat Regan penned a fluff piece about SB 88. She claimed the proposal would encourage competition and that residents already had abundant choice. Kentuckians, especially those in rural communities, knew better. Throughout, AT&T claimed that failing to pass the bill would result in Kentucky falling behind technologically.

Kentucky Resources Council

Kentucky media picked up on the story, perhaps anticipating an interesting replay of the 2011 battle. Kentucky Tonight with Bill Goodman, televised an interview with FitzGerald, an AT&T attorney, Ron Bridges from the AARP Kentucky, and the executive director of Citizens for a Digital Future (CDF), an astroturf group supporting the group. Pickering believes exposure from the show increased momentum and contributed significantly to the campaign.

CDF, an organization claiming to represent senior citizens, ran an aggressive robocall campaign to push the bill. FitzGerald investigated the roots of CDF and found their leading national member was AT&T. He describes another member organization, 60 Plus, as "Rove-esque."

The robocall strategy back-fired when legislators of targeted districts in eastern Kentucky took offense. The calls named legislators who opposed the bill and claimed they were trying to impede progress in Kentucky and circumvent the legislative process. Chairman of the House Tourism Development and Energy Committee and Speaker Pro Tem Larry Clark from eastern Kentucky knows how hard it is to get cell phone service in rural areas. He was particularly annoyed by CDF/AT&T's "heavy-handed" threats.

AT&T Wants to Gut Consumer Protections

AT&T and its allies also refused invitations to resolve problems with the bill. FitzGerald wrote several versions of a compromise proposal but AT&T would not give workable solutions the time of day. In the end, obstinance hurt their position.

When AT&T promised to increase its investment in Kentucky, FitzGerald looked at the numbers they supplied. He found no evidence for an increase beyond what they were already slated to invest. Lawmakers did not appreciate the wiley attempt to fool them.

Pickering, FitzGerald, and other leaders of the coalition used facts, education, and a willingness to cooperate to shed light on AT&T's dark motives. With a little media coverage, the strategy defeated millions of lobbying dollars. We know AT&T and other powerful telecommunications giants will continue to push for similar deregulation. However, this struggle in Kentucky can definitely be called a VICTORY for the public interest. 

Kentucky Coalition Takes Down AT&T Bill to Remove Consumer Phone Protections - Community Broadband Bits #44

Episode #44 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast expands on our story exploring a major victory over bad AT&T-driven legislation in Kentucky. We welcome Mimi Pickering of Appalshop and Tom FitzGerald of the Kentucky Resources Council.

We discuss why the AT&T-authored bill to gut consumer protections was bad for Kentucky and how a terrific coalition of public interest groups, unions, and others were able to protect the public interest. This was the second time they have defeated a similar bill, offering important lessons to those of us in different states that have not yet abandoned basic consumer protections for the telephone just because AT&T told our legislature they were unnecessary.

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 36 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 Mount Carmel for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

In Kansas, Ottawa Launches Own Fiber Optic Network

Ottawa, located in east central Kansas, recently launched its own municipal fiber network. The community of 13,000 in Franklin County watched nearby Chanute build and establish its own broadband utility. Ottawa plans a similar incremental strategy. Both communities boast strong farming traditions and host industrial employers that could not get what they needed from the existing providers.

I spoke with Chuck Bigham, IT Director for the City of Ottawa, who gave me some nuts and bolts on the network. I also touched base with City Manager Richard U. Nienstedt, both are heavily involved in the establishment of the network.

Like in Chanute, local leaders have long nourished a vision for better connectivity. In recent years, they realized the vision was not only attainable, but necessary for the community to thrive.

Approximately seventeen miles of fiber, installed by USD 290 and Franklin County in the 1990s, was already in the ground when the project began. Students and staff connected to the Internet and linked the 8-10 school district facilities via its fiber network. These pre-existing resources became the backbone of Ottawa's new utility. Cooperation between the City Municipal Utility, USD 290, and Franklin County facilitated the configuration of the new network. Ottawa now provides business Internet access, expanded educational opportunities, and a higher level of service than was previously available.

Two years ago, the City and its Chamber of Commerce reached out to major businesses to determine the need for broadband. They found businesses in Ottawa were connected through existing providers, but were unhappy with price and level of service. The community's industrial park seemed especially disadvantaged. Businesses needed better upload speeds than the existing T1s, which ran up to $600 per month. While DS3 connections were available, they were unaffordable and there was no level of service between the two options. Businesses could not convince AT&T to offer something they could afford and, as Bigham noted, the telecom giant appeared to be "milking the cow."

Map of Ottawa, Kansas

This is a common complaint among communities - the big national telephone and cable companies often refuse to upgrade their level of service because the lack of alternatives for local business connectivity means the firms cannot switch away from the existing provider.

The City approach USD 290 and Franklin County and proposed a partnership. The City would use several available fibers on the existing infrastructure to serve as the community network backbone. The School District and the County would still own the fiber asset already in place, while the City would own any added segments and the routers and switches to make it work. The City and its utility would support and manage the network 24/7. The school board and county commission approved the proposal in the fall of 2012.

The School District now pays the City $3,000 per month with monitoring and network support from the City all day, every day. USD 290 gets double the bandwidth it used to get from AT&T, when it paid nearly $6,000 per month for a DS3 connection. Paying less, but getting double, seems like a very smart investment.

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.

Over the course of ten years, Ottawa has spent less than $500,000 on its next-generation community owned network. All the revenue from the network goes back into maintenance and upgrades. City government facilities and two electric substations, which used to connect only to each other, now link to the main power plant via fiber.

Neosho Community College's Ottawa Campus connects to the network. Ottawa Cooperative Association recently joined the network to take advantage of the fast upload speeds needed to send data rich reports and get timely information on grain prices. The Coop previously had a slower DSL connection. Bigham and Nienstedt both expect to see more business customers when the network expands to the Northeast Ottawa Industrial Park, the next expansion project.

Nienstadt tells us via email:

Our main emphasis has been to use it [the network utility]  as a recruiting and retention tool and be able to say that, "We have your broadband needs solved and you do not have to worry about that issue when locating in Ottawa, Kansas."  Most assuredly, some of the businesses have been able to benefit from lower broadband costs since we  started surveying and talking about a fiber optic utility.  That, quite frankly, was one of our goals.

"Level Playing Field" Padded With Public Dollars to Private Providers

Municipal broadband networks have been gaining traction across the country. It's easy to see why: In many rural and low-income communities, privately offered broadband services are nonexistent. In its 2012 Broadband Progress Report the Federal Communications Commission counted nearly 20 million Americans (the vast majority living in rural areas) beyond the reach of broadband.

The Free Press' Timothy Karr's words are supported by the growing number of pins on our Community Network Map. We connect with places nearly every day where municipal networks fill the cavernous gaps left by the massive corporations. Large cable and telecom providers do not hide their aversion to servicing rural areas, yet year after year their lobbying dollars persuade state politicians to introduce bills to stop the development of municipal networks. Karr reviewed recent efforts to use state laws to stifle community owned networks in a Huffington Post article.

As readers will recall, this year's front lines were in Atlanta, where HB 282 failed. We hope that loss may indicate a turning point in advancing municipal network barriers because the bill lost on a 94-70 vote with bipartisan opposition. If it had succeeded, Georgia would have been number 20 on a list of states that, thanks to ALEC and big corporate sponsors like AT&T, Comcast, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable, have decided to leave their citizenry begging for the private market to come their way.

Time and again, the supporting argument goes like this:

"A vote 'yes' for this bill means that you support free markets and free enterprise," [Rep Hamilton, the Chief Author of HB 282] said [on the House Floor].

A 'no' vote means that you want more federal dollars to prop up cities, Hamilton said.

But Karr points out that some policy makers are starting to question that argument, with good reason. From his article:

"They talk about [the companies] as if they are totally free market and free enterprise, but doesn't AT&T get some tax breaks?" [Rep. Debbie Buckner] asked. "Didn't Windstream get some stimulus money? Isn't that government money?"

Indeed, phone and cable companies have been on federal welfare since their inception. A 2011 Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy study shows AT&T and Verizon receiving more than $26 billion in tax subsidies from 2008 through 2010. The FCC's 2012 report on Universal Service Fund subsidies shows nearly $3 billion in federal payments to AT&T, Verizon and Windstream.

In 2010, Windstream, Corp. -- a telecommunications company with services across the South -- applied for $238 million in federal stimulus grants to improve its service in 16 states. More than 16 million taxpayer dollars went to upgrade the company's services in Georgia.

So, while AT&T, Verizon, and Windstream continue to work with legislators and lobbyists who advance bills that maintain an environment rife with corporate welfare, rural Americans get nothing for their contributions. As the word spreads and more people learn about the benefits of community networks, we anticipate more people will recognize their value. In addition to saving public dollars, increasing connectivity, and spurring economic development, local networks are accountable to the communities they serve, unlike the big corporate ISPs, who are accountable to shareholders.

"The private companies have not been there for us," said Rep. Buckner, who represents rural parts of Talbot and Meriwether Counties. "And if they say they're going to come and be there for us, we don't know how long it will take them to find us."

Kentuckians Once Again Fighting to Keep Landlines

Last year, we reported on the failed SB 135, which would have eliminated the "carrier of last resort" requirement in the state. The bill, sponsored by Republican Senator Paul Hornback would have let AT&T decide who could receive basic telephone service and would have limited consumer protections.

Last year's bill did not become law, but a progeny, SB 88, has already passed in the Kentucky Senate and was received in the House on February 15th. (We'd like to report what committee will hear it first but the Kentucky Legislative web has not yet published that information.) Senator Hornback is again the chief author of the bill, crafted by AT&T and its ALEC pals.

The Kentucky Resources Council (KRC) provides an analysis of SB 88 and a prognosis on how it would affect Kentuckians. KRC must be feeling deja vu, as are many organizations looking out for rural dwellers who depend on their landlines. These bills continue to be introduced year after year as large telecommunications companies spend millions of lobbying dollars, also year after year.

WMMT, Mountain Community Radio in Whitesburg, Kentucky, recently reported on the legislation. Sylvia Ryerson spoke with Tom Fitzgerald from KRC, who discussed the analysis. From KRC's report on the legislation:

At potential risk is the opportunity for existing and new customers, to obtain stand-along basic telephone services from the incumbent telephone utility, or “Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS)” as it is called. Those most adversely affected by this loss of access to basic, stand-alone, telephone service are those least able to obtain affordable and reliable alternatives – those who live in rural, lower density areas, and the poor in dense, urbanized areas who have no affordable alternative priced as low as POTS.

Kentucky Resources Council

The main concerns with the bill include:

Removal of power from the Public Service Commission to hear and resolve complaints about local exchange service. This would affect voice service, operator assistance, directory assistance, and accurate 911 assistance. Restoring lost service is often a waiting game for rural customers served by AT&T. With no where to go, customers can lose their connection to family and the outside world for even longer periods. As with many other provisions of this bill, the elderly are the biggest casualty. Healthcare matters are  often handled over the phone, including my dad's pacemaker monitoring.

In areas where there are more than 5,000 households, offering basic stand-alone service would be at the provider's discretion. Service could be terminated without prior regulatory approval if there are any other voice services offered to the customer, even if that service was from an affiliate. This lack of competition would likely lead to cost increases for people who cannot afford them. Another scenario would be the company's requirement for customers to bundle services, forcing those least able to afford it to purchase services they do not need or want just to get telephone service.

In communities where there are fewer than 5,000 households, the current providers (AT&T, Windstream, or Cincinnati Bell) could cease to offer stand alone landline service of there was available voice wireless service, even if that service was less effective for 911 purposes. Again, the "forced bundle" would be an issue.

They could also petition to be relieved of the obligation to provide basic telephone service if they meet certain criteria regarding the availability of voice services from other providers in the area. For example, if there is a broadband provider "capable" of providing voice services (contrasted with one that actually "does provide" voice services) the provider could be relieved of the obligation. Again, that "capable" provider does not have to offer the service as a stand alone, but may require bundling.

Providers can use any technology they wish if they decide to continue the "provider of last resort" obligation, which will make that obligation completely deregulated. This tactic is the backbone of the private sector's efforts to deregulate. For more on this strategy, we encourage you to listen to our conversation with Harold Feld on the 23rd episode of the Broadband Bits Podcast.

Telephone

For more detail on the bill, and all its shortcomings, take a few moments to review the detailed analysis by KRC. The full text of the bill, its amendments, and the status, are available on the Kentucky General Assembly website.

So what could be gained for Kentuckians by passage of such a bill?

From a Courier-Journal report by Joseph Gerth:

Proponents of Senate Bill 88 say the bill would allow companies like AT&T, Cincinnati Bell and Windstream to sink more money into expanding wireless broadband communications rather than costly old, outmoded land lines.

History shows us, however, that promises made by regulated companies today often end up as foggy memories tomorrow. We have seen time and time again how dergulation given in exchange for promises results in a breach of the social contract. This is known as Kushnick's Law:

"A regulated company will always renege on promises to provide public benefits tomorrow in exchange for regulatory and financial benefits today."

Rather than wait to be taken advantage of again, we encourge you to call the toll-free legislative message line 1-800-372-7181 and leave a message that will be delivered to all legislators. This is especially critical if you live in Kentucky, but legislation like this will march across all states if it passes here or elsewhere. 

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.” ...

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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.

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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.