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Seattle, Gigabit Squared, the Challenge of Private Sector Cable Competition

This the second in a series of posts exploring lessons learned from the Seattle Gigabit Squared project, which now appears unlikely to be built. The first post is available here and focuses on the benefits massive cable companies already have as well as the limits of conduit and fiber in spurring new competition.

This post focuses on business challenges an entity like Gigabit Squared would face in building the network it envisioned. I am not representing that this is what Gigabit Squared faced but these issues arise with any new provider in that circumstance. I aim to explain why the private sector has not and generally will not provide competition to companies Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Gigabit Squared planned to deliver voice, television, and Internet access to subscribers. Voice can be a bit of hassle due to the many regulatory requirements and Internet access is comparatively simple. But television, that is a headache. I've been told by some munis that 90% of the problems and difficulties they experience is with television services.

Before you can deliver ESPN, the Family Channel, or Comedy Central, you have to come to agreement with big channel owners like Disney, Viacom, and others. Even massive companies like Comcast have to pay the channel owners more each year despite its over 10 million subscribers, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for a small firm to negotiate these contracts. Some channel owners may only negotiate with a provider after it has a few thousand subscribers - but getting a few thousand subscribers without good content is a challenge.

Many small firms (including most munis) join a buyer cooperative called the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) that has many of the contracts available. But even with that substantial help, building a channel lineup is incredibly difficult and the new competitor will almost certainly be paying more for the same channels as a competitor like Comcast or Time Warner Cable. And some munis, like Lafayette, faced steep barriers in just joining the coop.

FCC Logo

(An aside: if we are going to pretend that competition can work in the telecommunications space, Congress and/or the FCC have to ensure that small providers can access content on reasonable terms or the ever-consolidating big providers will be all but unassailable by any but the likes of Google. Such regulations should include rigorous anti-monopoly enforcement on a variety of levels.)

Assuming a new provider can secure a reasonable channel lineup, it now needs to deliver that to the subscribers and this is more complicated than one might imagine. From satellite dishes to industrial strength encryption to set-top boxes, delivering Hollywood content is incredibly complicated.

When confronted with this challenge for its Kansas City network, Google evaluated all the options and decided the only option was to build its own technology for delivering television signals to subscribers. Google has the some of the best engineers on the planet and even they encountered significant challenges, suggesting that route is ill-advised for new companies. Even if Google were willing to share their approach, it was written for the Google eco-system and would need significant porting to work for other firms.

Several of the recent triple-play municipal FTTH networks used Mediaroom, a technology developed by Microsoft that was recently sold to Ericsson, which has strong connections with AT&T. All of which suggests that delivering television channels is not becoming easier for small, local networks.

From the tremendous challenges of securing television channels to the difficulty of delivering them to subscribers, investors are aware of the mountain a new entrant has to climb before even starting to compete with a massive firm like Comcast.

Longmont Power and Communications Logo

It remains to be seen whether a network delivering only Internet access (or with telephone as well) will succeed today, but most have believed that television is needed to effectively compete for subscribers (and generate enough revenue to pay for the network). Longmont is bucking that wisdom in deploying a gigabit and phone network throughout its footprint north of Denver and many are watching intently to see how it fares (our coverage here).

The main lesson from Part II of our Seattle Gigabit Squared analysis is the difficulty of a small firm competing against a massive cable company like Comcast and the subsequent reluctance of most investors to fund such firms.

This is not to say it is impossible for small entities to compete, especially entities that can handle a distant break-even point or justify its network by the many indirect benefits created by such an investment - including more jobs, lower prices for telecommunications services, and improved educational opportunities to name three (see our recent podcast on this subject). In most cases, the kinds of entities that are willing to include indirect benefits on their balance sheets in addition to cash revenues are nonprofit entities.

We strongly support the right of communities to decide for themselves how to ensure their residents and businesses have the connections they need to thrive in the 21st century. We also recognize that many cities, particularly the larger metro areas, would prefer not to directly compete with some of the most powerful firms on the planet, even if they are also tops among the most hated. Few local governments relish the opportunity to take on such a new challenge and understandably search for firms like Gigabit Squared that can assist them, reduce the risks of building a network, and shield them from charges of being godless communists by think tanks funded by the cable and telephone companies.

However, we are not optimistic that many communities will find success with this public-private-partnership approach. Indeed, with recent news suggesting that Gigabit Squared left at least $50,000 in unpaid bills behind, the risks of going with such a solution may indeed be greater than previously appreciated.

It is for the above reasons that we continue to believe most communities will be best served by building and operating their own networks, though some may choose to do so on an open access basis where multiple ISPs operate on the network.

That is where we will turn in the final segment of this series. Read that post here.

Washington Post Covers Big Longmont Referendum Victory

Last week, we were excited by the results of Longmont's referendum, but we sure weren't alone. The Washington Post's Brian Fung wrote, "Big Cable may have felled Seattle's mayor, but it couldn't stop this Colo. project.

Our regular readers know that Comcast succeeded in defeating the Longmont measure in 2009 but the electoral would not be swayed by false promises and lies the second time in 2011. This year's proposal asked voters to approve a revenue bond for $45.3 million to speed up a planned expansion, which voters approved 2:1.

Contrary to past experience, Comcast and allies did not launch a full frontal assault in Longmont this year to sway the vote. Fung's article looks at the math for a possible  explanation:

There are 27,000 households in Longmont. Even if the city were to connect all of the eligible homes [close to the fiber ring] to its existing fiber network overnight, it would still reach only 1,100 residences. Cable companies therefore spent over half a million dollars [in 2011] trying to prevent four percent of city households from gaining access to municipal fiber on any reasonable timescale. That's around $600 a home, or six months' worth of Xfinity Triple Play.

Even if the cable companies decide it was not worth the fight in Longmont, they have shown repeatedly that they have cash, will travel. Feung's article describes another 2009 election in which the cable industry spent large to prevent public investment in fiber:

In North St. Paul, Minn., a 2009 ballot measure to let muni fiber move forward was defeated by a resounding 34-point margin. Opposition to the fledgling network, PolarNet, was led by the Minnesota Cable Communications Association. In the weeks leading up to the vote, it and other opposition groups spent some $40,000 campaigning against the measure. MCCA alone contributed more than $15,000 to the effort over the same period.

Comcast also exhibits its willingness to spend money to seat industry-friendly candidates. We reported on coverage in Seattle where Comcast contributed heavily to Sen. Ed Murray who won the Mayoral race. Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn's policy initiative to bring better Internet access to the community threatened Comcast's position. Comcast denies it, but speculation abounds that McGinn's position on broadband motivated Comcast's direct and PAC contributions to Murray. 

From the Fung article:

But what Longmont's experience does show is how large the gulf is between an incumbent industry that can spend money on a massive scale to promote its interests and advocates of municipal fiber that often lack deep-pocketed allies. Those odds made the triumph of Longmont's municipal fiber backers all the more remarkable.

Election Day 2013 Community Owned Network Referendum Roundup

Starting with the good news, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly supported municipal network intiatives. Longmont voted 2:1 in favor of bonding to fast track network expansion. We have covered this issue in great depth recently. Read all of our coverage of Longmont here.

The local paper covered the referendum results in this story:

2B's passage means approval for the city to issue $45.3 million in bonds to build out the city's 17-mile fiber optic loop within three years.

Longmont Power & Communications has estimated that the payback time on the bond will be 11 years. If revenues from commercial and residential customers fall short, LPC's electric service revenues will be used to make up the shortfall, LPC staffers have told the Longmont City Council.

South in Centennial, voters supported restoring local authority to build a network by a 3:1 margin. We most recently wrote about this referendum here.

In Seattle, the mayor that campaigned on a citywide fiber network and backed off it but created a partnership with Gigabit Squared to bring gigabit fiber to 12 neighborhoods lost in his bid for reelection to the candidate that that was strongly supported with Comcast donations. However, the election does not appear to have turned on broadband issues:

McGinn’s fate was forecast two years ago, when voters slapped back his efforts to obstruct the Highway 99 tunnel project, opting to move ahead with the long-debated project. McGinn’s anti-tunnel agitating was viewed as a reversal from his 2009 election-eve pledge not to stand in the project’s way.

We continue to be disappointed in the lack of serious discussion in many races about how local governments can make meaningful improvements in Internet access for residents and businesses. We most recently covered the Seattle story here.

And finally, the disappointing news from Iowa. Though Emmetsburg received majority approval for its bond issue to build a fiber network, the 54% fell short of the 60% required for a general obligation bond. They planned to finance the investment with both a revenue bond and a general obligation bond. They will continue to seek opportunities to build the network despite this temporary setback.

Longmont Referendum: Haven't We Been Here Before?

November 5th probably seems like deja vu for the people of Longmont, Colorado. For the third time, the voters will respond to a ballot question that will impact their community's connectivity. Past referendums addressed whether or not the community could use its fiber ring for connecting businesses and residents.

They now have that authority. This year the question will be "when?"

Local incumbent providers grossly outspent municipal network supporters in 2009 and in 2011 with astroturf campaigns against referendums. Nevertheless, voters decided in 2011 to grant the local utility permission to use existing fiber resources to bring connectivity to businesses and residents. 

Since then, Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) began a slow build-out of fiber to businesses and homes within 500 feet of the existing loop. Local businesses, frustrated with poor service from Comcast and CenturyLink, jumped at the opportunity to have real high-speed connections. With a long list of businesses in queue for their connections, the City Council voted to use LPC reserve funds to connect businesses and residents to the loop. Clearly, the people of Longmont were ready for something better than the existing incumbent services.

Local blogger Steve Elliott connected to the service in September. To satisfy his curiosity, he ran speed tests immediately before and after he transitioned from Comcast service.

Comcast timed in at 26.08 Mbps download and 5.76 Mbps upload. LPC provided 89.99 Mbps download and 62.01 Mbps upload

From his post:

I also timed downloading movies on Netflix on my TV. Before, I could run upstairs, get an adult beverage and be back in my chair before the movie loaded. Now – if it takes 10 seconds – it’s a really long movie. 

Thumbnail of comic strip

After a month with LPC fiber and new computer system, Elliott ran more speed tests. Results topped out at 739.66 Mbps download and 534.75 upload for LPC Fiber.

Elliott also compared prices:

Comcast: $71.95 per month ($863.40 per year)

LPC Fiber $49.95 per month ($599.40 per year)

We compared Comcast to Longmont fiber in this entertaining comic strip.

Elliott is not the only Longmont resident who wants to connect to LPC fiber. Calls to "get it done" from residents and businesses did not fall on deaf ears at the May Longmont City Council meeting. The Council voted unanimously to bring fiber to every resident and business that wants it. Next, community leaders and LPC investigated financing. The reserve fund, developed from years of dark fiber lease revenue, could pay for the expansion but the project would drag out over a decade.

Rather than see the project finished in more than ten years, the community can become entirely connected within three years with a $44 million revenue bond issue. LPC will use $35.4 million as capital to build out the network and the remaining as reserve for debt-service. State legislation sponsored by USWest from 2005 imposed the referendum requirement on local communities; the voters must decide. USWest became Qwest became CenturyLink.

The Times-Call reproduced the 2B Ballot Question language:

"Without raising taxes, shall city of Longmont debt be increased in an amount not to exceed $45,300,000 by the issuance of revenue bonds for the purpose of financing fiber optic system capital improvements to provide high-speed broadband service, including but not limited to internet, voice and video services; and shall the bonds be paid solely from the city's electric and broadband utility enterprise revenues and be sold in one series or more at a price above, below or equal to the principal amount of such Bonds and with such terms and conditions, including provisions for redemption prior to maturity with or without payment of a premium of not more than 3%, as the city council may determine?"

Friends of Fiber in Longmont

Unlike past referendums, gigantic telecom providers have not spent large amounts of cash to fuel misinformation campaigns this time. Local citizen group, Friends of Fiber, is prepared to face-off against Comcast and CenturyLink. From a Times-Call article:

"It's as baffling to us as it is to you," said Scott Converse of the pro-2B group Friends of Fiber, which had been expecting to see another large push by the telecom companies. So far, he said, the only "anti" activity anyone in the group had seen was a telephone poll in September by Frederick Poll, a Virginia-based firm.

"We're wondering if maybe there's going to be a push near the end," Converse said. "I can't imagine why they're waiting."

The silence is welcome but a little eerie.

The City provides a PDF brochure on Ballot Question 2B that addresses many common questions. For more about the measure and the benefits springing from the network, listen to Chris' interviews with LPC's Vince Jordan. In the Broadband Bits podcast, Episode #10, Jordan describes the challenges LPC Fiber faced. Episode #68 deals with the upcoming referendum. Chris talks with Jordan and George Oliver from Friends of Fiber.

Update: In a letter to the editor, George Oliver wrote:

We have been providing our own electricity for more than 100 years and our rates are among the lowest in the nation. The same will be true if we expand our own fiber network. Because Longmont Power & Communications is a not-for-profit agency of the city, our low rates and network availability will help to retain and attract businesses to our city. This is the kind of visionary investment that will pay big dividends down the road.

New Comic: Longmont Fiber Crushes Comcast's Cable Outhouse

Longmont Power and Communications, a city-owned utility north of Denver in Colorado, is slowly rolling out a FTTH network to local businesses and residents that are in close proximity to its existing fiber loop. They are offering a symmetrical gigabit of Internet access for just $50/month.

Longmont Fiber Comic Strip

Download this comic as a pdf. Sign up for our one-email-per-week newsletter with ongoing coverage of community owned networks.

The local newspaper notes that some local businesses have already signed on, including a clinic:

Jurey said the city's network is three times faster than the speeds the clinic got before at a cost savings of $1,600 a month.

On November 5, citizens will decide a referendum on whether to expedite the building by issuing revenue bonds without increasing local taxes. A brochure explaining pro and con is available here [pdf]. Approving the bonds means building the network to everyone in a few years while not approving it will mean building the network over several decades.

We recently did a podcast with Longmont Power and Communications Broadband Services Manager Vince Jordan and a local citizen campaigning for the referendum. Listen to that show here.

Read the rest of our coverage about Longmont here.

Longmont Prepares to Vote on Fiber Bonds - Community Broadband Bits Episode #68

As Longmont prepares to vote on November 5, we are paying special attention to question 2B, which will authorize the city utility to issue revenue bonds to finance the FTTH network already being built. The successful referendum from 2011 gave the City authority to build the network and this referendum, if successful, will finance a rapid expansion rather than the present incremental approach that will take decades.

We have a double interview today, with Vince Jordan rejoining the show from Longmont Power and Communications. He previously spoke with us on episode 10 but today he just gives us the facts about the network and scenarios of what will happen depending on how the city votes.

The second interview is with George Oliver, co-founder of the grassroots group Friends of Fiber that is advocating for people to vote yes on question 2B. George explains the benefits of passing this debt, namely that area residents and businesses will gain access to a world class networks without increasing any taxes.

Friends of Fiber is on Twitter and Facebook. Read our other stories on Longmont here.

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 30 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.

Longmont Friends of Fiber Rallies Supporters, Preps for Referendum Fight

Longmont's City Council and municipal power and communications utility are getting serious about bringing fiber to the people. We reported earlier this month about the decision to allow voters to decide how fast they want that next generation network. Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) already plan to expand the existing network to households and businesses but face a long, slow time table over many years if they expand incrementally without bonding. The City Council will ask voters if they will authorize a $44 million bond issue to pay for capital costs, interest and debt-service reserve.

Many in Longmont recall the ferocious opposition they faced during the two previous referendums. The cable industry (mostly Comcast) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during each campaign, saturating citizens with a deceitful advertising campaign.

Once again, local citizens are forming their own group to support the measure. A Scott Rochat Longmont Times-Call article reports that the group, Friends of Fiber, recently met in Longmont's TinkerMill "hackserspace" to plan initial strategy. The main take-away for participants was "we need more people."

The group does not want to be taken by surprise by the same astroturf groups that spent $250,000 dollars to defeat the referendum question in 2009. While a second referendum passed in 2011 despite even more astroturf spending, Friends of Fiber are taking no chances and mobilizing now. Both of those referenda dealt with the authority to operate the network, not finance an expansion.

From the article:

[Organizer Scott] Converse said the group had to be ready for just as big a fight now. One tactic will be borrowed from the national political campaigns; creating software that will scan the Internet for negative references to the bond issue so that the group can respond quickly.

Vince Jordan, LPC Telecom Manager, note that the utility has updated the original service offering from $59.95 for 25 Mbps to $49.95 for residential 1 gig service. From the meeting:

"I'll be a guinea pig," one man in the crowd said to chuckles as he asked to be connected. "I'll dig the trench if you'll let me."

Longmont to Vote a 3rd Time on Fiber Network

The Longmont community will soon have the chance to decide how quickly they want ubiquitous FTTH. On July 23rd, the City Council unanimously approved a proposal to ask voters in a referendum if they want to bond for funds to speed up construction of the LPC fiber network. Absent bond financing, the network will expand much more slowly over many years.

Readers will remember the 2011 referendum to allow the electric utility to offer broadband services to the people and businesses of Longmont. At the time, Comcast spent over $300,000 via the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association to fund an unsuccessful Vote No astroturf campaign. The community approved the measure with 60% of the vote. There was an earlier referendum in 2009 that ended in a victory for Comcast following a successful astroturf campaign. Records showed a similar infusion of cash to sway the vote. 

In the recent meeting, some Council Members expressed concern over the city bonding to invest in the telecom business. The Longmont Times Call reported on the meeting:

"We're again a government playing in the private world of capitalism," [Councilman Brian] Bagley said. "What if we don't know what we're doing?"

City Manager Harold Dominguez noted that even if voters approved a bond, the city could still take on a partner. If it passes, he said, the city would have a pretty good idea of how big a piece of the market it could get. And implementation wasn't a huge risk, he said, because the city already knew it could provide the service; it had been doing so for itself, the school district and a few other large users for years.

"Based on the information we've received, yes, we can do it," Dominguez said.

Finance Director Jim Golden outlined several options, including sales tax bonds, utility bonds, and certificates of participation, which use existing city assets as collateral. After discussion, Council agreed that the revenue bonds from the electric utility was the best option. If the voters approve the referendum, the City will bond a total of $44 million for capital costs ($35.4 million), interest, and debt-service reserve.

Plans are already set to bring FTTH to all of Longmont, the referendum will determine when residents can expect to connect to LPC. Councilman Gabe Santos commented:

With or without the bonding, he said, the voters had already given the city permission to get to work.

"If it doesn't pass, we're still going to roll it out," he said. "It's just going to take a long time. We have established the right to do this."

You can watch the archived video of the July 23rd meeting from the City website. The Council took up several issues that night which are listed on the Index. Broadband financing was item D of General Business. Click on the heading and the video will jump to the discussion.

Longmont Leaders Understand Need for Network

Longmont, Colorado, kept its eye on the prize. City leaders' vision, to bring high-speed connectivity to residents, businesses, schools, libraries, and government facilities began many years ago and the community faced multiple challenges. Citizens knocked down legislative barriers through referendum, fought corporate misinformation campaigns, and contended with tough economic times. Throughout the ordeal, community leaders held fast and now the vision is becoming a reality.

Current Mayor Dennis Combs inherited the project but he understands what the vision will bring to the community. In a recent article in the Boulder County Business Report, Combs focuses on economic development, education, and lifestyle as primary driving factors and says:

These are just a few reasons why it’s important for Longmont to realize its vision of being a connected city. If the city moves forward and deploys this network, it will join a number of elite communities around the country where citizens can work, learn, and live using the latest technologies available.

After ample opportunity to invest in the network Longmont residents and businesses asked for, Comcast chose to spend significant resources repeatedly trying to block a municipal network.

Fortunately, Combs and previous leadership took action to fix the lack of connectivity rather wait forever for two providers that did not want to invest in the community. Longmont's vision would never be this close to reality without leaders and citizens who chose a path of local self-reliance.

Longmont City Council Approves Fiber Network

Longmont, Colorado, will move ahead with plans to offer fiber connectivity to the entire community. After presenting this business plan to the City Council, members voted unanimously on May 14th to support the measure. Scott Rochat from the Times-Call attended the meeting.

Residents stepped forward to express their opinions and all but one urged the council to "get it done."

From the Rochat article:

The plan projects a four-tier price structure. For residential rates, that's proposed to range from $39.95 a month for 10 megabit-per-second upload and download, to $99.95 for 100 mbps.

The study estimates that 35 percent of homes would choose to get their Internet service from the city, still leaving plenty of the field for the existing providers.

"Competition is good," Councilman Alex Sammoury said. "Just because we're a government entity doesn't mean the free market doesn't apply to us. If someone can do it better, more power to them."

The plan proposes to have the city provide Internet directly and work with a private partner for phone service.

Video service would not be provided, Roiniotis and the Uptown consultants said, because Internet video has eroded the market for traditional television.

Vince Jordan, LPC Manager, began the presentation and stressed economic development, education, and lifestyle.

Representatives from Uptown Services reviewed recommendations and the business plan. They answered about 3 hours of questions from council members, including skeptical members who want to avoid becoming the next Provo, Utah. Neil Shaw and Dave Stockton from Uptown Services provided some perspective between the two communities. They pointed out the large number of successful networks in states across the country.

Longmont had been prepared to incrementally expand the network using the cash on hand from the many years of dark fiber leasing. Such an expansion could be done without borrowing but would take a long time (more than ten years, likely) to get to everyone. This is the approach Danville, Virginia, has been using.

Instead, Longmont is now developing a plan to finance the rollout of the network to everyone over a few years, estimated to cost $41 million. A future discussion will examine whatever financing strategy is recommended and approve it before it can move forward.

To view the discussion, zoom ahead to about 14 minutes in to the video below.

Video: 
See video