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Utah's Xmission Keeps Customer Data Private

We have not wirtten much on the NSA spying scandal but encountered a recent article in the Guardian that our readers can appreciate. Rory Carroll reports that Xmission, one of the local Internet service providers working with UTOPIA, has long refused to turn over private data to local, state and federal officials absent a proper warrant.

"I would tell them I didn't need to respond if they didn't have a warrant, that (to do so) wouldn't be constitutional," the founder and chief executive, Pete Ashdown, said in an interview at his Salt Lake City headquarters.

Since 1998 he rejected dozens of law enforcement requests, including Department of Justice subpoenas, on the grounds they violated the US constitution and state law. "I would tell them, please send us a warrant, and then they'd just drop it."

Xmission recently published a transparency report, which the Electronic Freedom Foundation referred to as "one of the most transparent we've seen."

We spoke with Pete Ashdown of Xmission last year in the third episode of our podcast and hold him and his firm in high esteem.

Unlike large, distant corporate providers focused on short term profit, local providers like Xmission understand the value of accountability and character. Big corporations are generally more interested in winning big government contracts than protecting the rights of their subscribers.

[Insertion by editor Christopher:] After all, what does Comcast care if I hate its assistance in shredding the Constitution, it isn't like I have another choice for high speed Internet access in my home.[end Insertion]

According to Ashdown:

The agency's online snooping betrayed public trust, he said. "Post 9/11 paranoia has turned this into a surveillance state. It's not healthy."

This is an important reason to build an economy with businesses rooted in local economies that are focused on local needs - they are far less likely to betray our trust because they actually face consequences for doing so.

MI-Connection Shows Solid Growth in North Carolina

Ever since the towns of Mooresville and Davidson purchased and began fixing the failed Adelphia franchise in their part of North Carolina, private sector purists have tried to portray their efforts as a disaster. MI-Connection has had some serious difficulties amid higher than expected costs, but just reported a promising increase in revenues.

At their monthly board meeting at Davidson’s Town Hall on September 22, Transition Manager David Auger said that, from July through September, the system had increased its voice customers by 48 percent over the first quarter last year, its video customers by 296 percent and its data customers by 2,248 percent. 83 days of the gains, said Auger at the time, were actual, and 9 were projected, since September was not yet over.

The final customer numbers, which the system released today, showed that the last few days of September growth activity exceeded projections: voice customers grew by 60 percent over the first quarter last year, video customers by 319 percent, and data customers by 2257 percent.

This network was targeted time and time again by Time Warner Cable and its allies in pushing the anti-competitive bill that has effectively stopped any investment in next-generation networks in the state by killing local authority to make broadband investments.

They regularly blamed the network's problems on the local governments owning it while providing no context -- the network was in terrible shape because its prior private-sector owner saw little reason to invest in it. The network is now far superior because the local governments care more about encouraging economic development and creating local jobs than producing a quick profit for out-of-state shareholders.

As MI-Connection continues to correct its problems, Davidson's government is remarkably open and transparent. You can read just about all the documents relating to the network, finances, and history here.

Citibank Finally Files Suit Against Burlington Telecom

After more than a year of expecting Citibank to file suit against Burlington, they finally did. Burlington Telecom, a muni FTTH network, now illustrates the worst case scenario for muni broadband. After the founder of the network left following disagreements with the Mayor, the Mayor's Administration ran the network into the ground (leading us to recently publish the report "Learning from Burlington Telecom: Some Lessons for Community Networks."

Burlington had financed its network with a municipal capital lease, rather than the more commonly used revenue bonds, meaning that the actual network secures the loan. In this arrangement, the network is technically owned by the lender (Citi) and Burlington leased it. So when Burlington decided to stop paying the lease for the network, it became Citi's problem.

And Citi had a lot of problems due to the games massive banks were playing having killed the economy. BT became just one more non-performing asset. They did nothing while the City continued to run the network without making lease payments. Now Citi is suing for the world (this is how these things work) but it isn't clear that Citi can actually get what it demands (the State has a say in whether the network simply gets shut down, which Citi is presently asking for). And if the network did get shut down, Citi would be in a worse position to recover any of its losses because the value of the network is far greater than the sum of its parts.

State law says that losses from a public telecom venture cannot be carried by taxpayers, which is where we return to an interesting document prepared by the Mayor's Administration. As reported by Blurt:

In its lawsuit, Citibank notes that a letter written by attorney Joe McNeil on behalf of Burlington "expressly warranted to Citibank that at least 40 percent of Burlington's revenues were derived from sources other than taxpayers' funds and would be available to fund payments to Citibank, and further, that Burlington had the financial resources and ability to make all payments to Citibank for the full term of the agreement."

I read that document last year and remember being fairly surprised as it appeared to be incorrect from my non-lawyer reading of the law. This is just another case in which the Mayor's Administration played too fast and loose with essential infrastructure.

We have watched in dismay as Burlington Telecom transitioned over the past four years from a model community network to the worst case scenario. This situation proves only that community networks can suffer from bad management in some of the many ways private telecom companies can suffer from bad management (resulting in anything from bankruptcy to prison).

Communities can learn lessons from Burlington's situation -- chief among them that transparency is important. As with other public enterprise funds, the operation should be regularly audited and oversight must be in place to catch errors early, when corrections are easier and less costly.

Unfortunately, Burlington Telecom is in a very bad position presently. The actions of the Mayor's Administration made that position worse than it could have been. Time will tell if it can be saved. Given its important positive contributions to the city (millions of dollars in community savings, increased economic development), the City would benefit from its continued operation.

FCC on Net Neutrality: More Bush than Obama

Whenever the discussion of Network Neutrality comes up, we like to remind everyone that when the network is locally owned and accountable to the community, anti-subscriber discrimination is not a problem. That said, we are strong supporters of proper safeguards to ensure massive companies like AT&T cannot abuse their market power and discourage innovation.

As the FCC prepares to discuss a half measure to preserve parts of the open Internet, a number of us have been frustrated that while we cannot read the proposal, AT&T appears to be helping write it. Karl Bode's take:

[T]he question shouldn't be whether or not consumers can now view a neutrality proposal after it was hashed out in private meetings (predominately with only the largest, wealthiest carriers), it should be: why weren't consumers absolutely integral in crafting it? AT&T has met with the FCC half a dozen times in the course of three weeks and likely knows precisely what's in this plan -- do you?

We've written to FCC Commissioners to make it clear that they must not compromise on the future of the open Internet. You should too.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.

Rules Matter - Network Neutrality and Transparency

I was briefly checking out the Open Internet Workshop when I got into a short tweet-argument with someone I did not know. Bear with me as I recount the discussion then explain why I think it worth delving into for a post. This person caught my attention by tweeting, "Which means the Net is already open, right?"

I responded, "Yes Internet is open. Trying to keep it that way. Idea that net neutrality is 'new' is absurd."

Shortly thereafter, I got a response that fits a standard script: "Then how about proving actual harm first? Burden of proof to hand Net to govt is on you guys."

I responded, "Comcast, RCN, Cox block applications ... why must we wait for you to break the Net further to fix it?"

The final response was that the market forces will solve the problem and my "examples are outdated."

I later discovered that I was wasting time responding to someone from an astroturf think tank. Odds are that this person was simultaneously tweeting that cigarette smoking is not correlated with cancer and that burning coal actually cleans the air.

But this is a common argument from those who want to allow companies like Comcast and AT&T to tell users what sites they can visit and what applications they can use. Some "free market" advocate (who is actually defending firms with serious market power, the antithesis of a free market) says that no private network owner would violate network neutrality. Then, when presented with companies that have violated network neutrality, the response is invariably that those are "old" examples" or somehow not relevant.

To sum up:

Person A: No company would violate network neutrality.

Person B: What about Comcast, Cox, RCN, and the famous Madison River Communication?

Person A: Those don't count.

Aside from the absurdity, the larger problem is that we do not always know when companies are violating network neutrality. Comcast was violating network neutrality for at least a year before tech journalists successfully outed the practice. Over the course of that year, many subscribers called Comcast and asked why they were having problems with certain applications. Comcast lied to them and said the company was not interfering with them. When finally backed into a corner with incontrovertible evidence, it admitted it was.

These companies know that users have very few choices for broadband. In my case, I have a choice between slow DSL and comparatively faster cable. Though we may soon have access to WiMax in Saint Paul, the speeds will not be comparable to what I need for my communications. I have one option for relatively fast broadband. And that company has no problem lying to me about whether it interferes with my surfing.

Transparency matters. Communities cannot depend on these companies to provide the infrastructure they need. If my city owned the network and treated its customers this way, we would have the power to shake up the management and put local needs before profits.

Photo used under Creative Commons license - thanks to flickr's limonada.

Rules Matter - Burlington Telecom

As someone who has long researched and followed developments in Burlington Telecom (BT), the city-owned triple-play full fiber-to-the-home network in Vermont, recent developments between BT and the Mayor's office have been deeply disappointing. For those who haven't heard, BT is in the middle of a major controversy -- and it is hard to tell just what is going on (for background prior to current problems, read my Burlington Telecom Case Study and Fact Sheet).

I have wanted to comment on the situation for many weeks but have been waiting as each day seems offer another piece of the BT puzzle. I'll be offering more commentary about it in the future. However, I do not want to the let the current problems lend any credence to the idea that BT has failed. BT is caught in the middle of a political controversy around the Mayor but should continue providing the best telecom services available in the community.

BT has two main problems currently:

  1. It has not passed the entire city within the timeline to which it agreed in receiving its Certificate of Public Good (CPG)
  2. BT has, apparently, borrowed $17 million from the city's pool (used generally for short-term financing of projects) in contravention of its CPG which states that any money borrowed from the City must be paid back within 60 days.

    This CPG condition makes running a network more difficult for BT than it would for a company like Comcast - who can readily self-finance short-term borrowing. Across the U.S., communities have to deal with laws and regulations that benefit private companies over public networks.

    When the economy fell apart, BT was unable to refinance its debt to continue its expansion and chose to borrow from the City to continue connecting new customers. This was the right decision - the CPG did not anticipate such conditions and the terms for outside financing in late 2008 were wretched.

I say "apparently" borrowed above because it is far from clear if all of those funds actually went to BT. As Steve Ross explains here, it is not even clear if BT really required all that it borrowed from the City. Until the Mayor can produce a thorough explanation, I think it prudent to note that this is more of a political controversy surrounding the Mayor than a fiscal problem for BT.

The biggest problem is that Mayor Kiss (elected in 2006, after BT had initiated its residential services) and his Chief Administrative Officer (CAO), Jonathan Leopold, have decided to run BT as though it were privately owned.

After Tim Nulty, founding General Manager, left in 2007, the CAO became much more involved in the network and stopped sharing much of the network information with City Councillors and the citizen-oversight boards. These boards noted that they could no longer oversee BT properly as they were never allowed to see the documents and get information that Nulty had routinely shared.

To be fair, running a network like BT against a behemoth like Comcast is difficult under the best of circumstances -- which encouraged BT to hide any information that could be used to Comcast's advantage in competition. However, as a publicly owned entity, BT has certain obligations that it has failed to uphold. And this lack of transparency has led directly to the problems of recent months. (I do not want to cast CAO Leopold as a villain in this, evidence from Burlington suggests he has greatly helped the city in ways unrelated to BT but the utter lack of transparency on BT creates many questions).

Perhaps most troubling is not what information has been restricted from public consumption, but what information has been - and continues to be - denied to the City Council. See a recent article noting the Mayor's refusal to share its business model with the Council under any reasonable circumstances:

That may be why a key document requested for review — BT’s financial pro forma and foundation of its current business model — can only be viewed in Leopold’s office. Councilors are forbidden from taking notes or taking it home to read.

Nonetheless, BT has been a great success in many ways. As noted in several of the citizen forums in Burlington since this controversy began, the BT services have proven far more reliable to everyone and the speeds offered by BT to local businesses (unmatched by Comcast and FairPoint locally) have resulted in new businesses moving to town and expansion by existing businesses.

Further, the city-owned network has saved millions for the city since it replaced the leased lines Burlington used to rely on. The schools and city buildings have far greater access to bandwidth at a fraction of the cost, improving educational opportunities and making city services more efficient.

We are organizing our resources on BT currently and will launch a page that includes much more information about the situation. For all that it has done right, BT also offers many lessons for other communities that want to build a next-generation network.

In particular, municipally-owned networks must be balanced with an appropriate amount of both freedom and oversight from the City government. That the City Council cannot gain access to key documents and explanations is frustrating. Just as public power agencies are regularly audited, city-owned communications networks need oversight. However, as telecom is a fast-paced world, the network must have the freedom to act quickly on contracts and be able to hire salespeople based on commission, for instance. Communities developing a governance structure for their network should pay attention to Burlington.

Map courtesy of Wikimedia commons

The Case for Municipal Broadband

Publication Date: 
May 2, 2005
Author(s): 
Carl Kandutsch
Publication Title: 
Broadband Properties

One the goals of this site is to catalog reports, articles, and all things related to publicly owned broadband. A number of older articles about muni broadband still resonate today -- As part of its May 2005 issue, Broadband Properties offered a pro and con view of municipal networks. Carl Kandutsch, a former FCC attorney, wrote "The Case for Municipal Broadband." Other articles from that issues are also available here.

The piece generally focuses on matters of economics and law, but in an accessible manner. The threat of private, monopolistic service providers -- particularly in rural areas -- is indeed a significant motivation and reason to embrace public ownership.

He also delves into debunking specific arguments against municipal ownership and argues that publicly owned networks are at a disadvantage relative private companies:

The municipal balance sheet must then be compared with that of private firms existing actually or potentially in the relevant market, taking into account the often huge tax breaks granted to private sector communication firms, the economies of scale conferred on incumbents from ownership of pre-existing infrastructure and nationwide or international service areas, the freedom to contract with any other entity on any terms within the limits of the law and so on.

And

Moreover, whereas private firms are permitted to operate behind closed doors, municipal utilities must comply with numerous open-records requirements, and must secure public approval for all significant decisions. The level of public scrutiny under which a municipal utility operates ensures that significant operational inefficiencies will be short-lived, and that utility officials are politically accountable for their decisions.

Comcast, Caps, and the Public Interest

While I try to keep postings on this site to the subject of publicly owned networks, I think it important to discuss the ways in which some major carriers routinely flout the public interest. Thus, a little history on how Comcast has acted against the public interest.

Most of the readers of this blog are probably aware that Comcast has been dinged by the FCC following its practice of interfering with subscribers legal content (and undoubtedly illegal content as well) by blocking and disrupting the BitTorrent traffic. BitTorrent is frequently used to transfer large media files because it efficiently breaks large files into many little pieces, allowing the user to download from a variety of sources concurrently - the file is then reassembled.

When Comcast detected BitTorrent connections, it would effectively hang up on them, regardless of the congestion level on the network at the time. The FCC (the Bush Administration's FCC) said it couldn't do that and Comcast is currently in the courts trying to tell the FCC that it can't tell Comcast what it can't do on its network.

Prior to a journalistic investigation that proved Comcast was doing this, net geeks had repeated asked Comcast if it were blocking the BitTorrent protocol. Comcast never admitted to anything, often claiming it did not "block" anything... as time would go on, Comcast would refuse to admit it was blocking anything - as if permanently delaying traffic was anything other than a blockage. "I'm not blocking you, try back in 20 million years."

Around this time, Comcast quietly changed its policy regarding the maximum amount of bandwidth subscribers could consume in a month. At the time, I thought it was a result of the FCC cracking down on the arbitrary policies frequently used by cable companies, but it turns out we can thank the State of Florida for forcing Comcast to enact a transparent cap on monthly usage.

Prior to the official cap, there was an unofficial cap. Every month, some number of people would be notified they were kicked off Comcast's service for using too much bandwidth - but no one knew how much was too much and, perhaps more importantly, how to keep track of how much bandwidth they were using. Discussions on geek-hangout Slashdot suggested a monthly cap of between 100 Gigabytes and 300 Gigabytes depending on the neighborhood. There was no limit documented anywhere and Comcast representatives refused to acknowledge any hard cap.

In stepped Florida's Attorney General, who reached an agreement with Comcast to create a transparent cap and fined them for their actions.

It turns out that Comcast's "network management" strategy was to take the top 1000 subscribers who used the most bandwidth over a month and disconnect them. Harold Feld had the best reaction:

Comcast is almost certainly telling the truth when it says the highest 1000 users were atypically intense bandwidth consumers. duh. Of course the top 1000 out of 14.4 million will be at the high end of the curve.

No, the more interesting question is what the hell kind of a system is it where Comcast simply goes after the top 1000 users no matter how much they actually use, and why Comcast would adopt such a policy if it wants to reasonably manage network congestion? It seems rather . . . inefficient and arbitrary. Unless, of course, one is trying to save money running a crappy network and generally discourage high-bandwidth use.

Now Comcast has a transparent cap - 250 GB/month - that we still have no way of really knowing how close we come to it (nearly all of us don't come close). Was that so hard? Apparently. Meanwhile, they keep claiming that network neutrality requirements would leave them unable to exercise reasonable network management. How would they even know what reasonable network management is?

Though defining the public interest may be difficult, it is easy to show what is against the public interest: Comcast calls you and tells you that you have to use less bandwidth each month. You ask how much you can use and they say they cannot tell you but you need to use less.

Fortunately, we now know how much is too much. If only we could tell how much we were using...

Photo used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Titanas on flickr.

FCC Chair: We Need Network Neutrality

The Chair of the Federal Communications Commission has taken a stand for network neutrality - the founding principle of openness of the Internet. In short, network neutrality means the entity providing you access to the Internet cannot interfere with the sites you choose to visit - it cannot speed them up or slow them down in order to increase their profits. See video at the bottom of this post for a longer explanation.

FCC Chair Julius Genachowski recently spoke at the Brookings Institution [pdf] on the importance of an open Internet. He started by noting many of the ways we depend on services delivered over the Internet:

Even now, the Internet is beginning to transform health care, education, and energy usage for the better. Health-related applications, distributed over a widely connected Internet, can help bring down health care costs and improve medical service. Four out of five Americans who are online have accessed medical information over the Internet, and most say this information affected their decision-making. Nearly four million college students took at least one online course in 2007, and the Internet can potentially connect kids anywhere to the best information and teachers everywhere. And the Internet is helping enable smart grid technologies, which promise to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by hundreds of millions of metric tons.

However, because most Americans get access to the Internet from large, absentee-owned profit-maximizing companies who are often de facto monopolies, we have to beware the gulf between community interests and the narrow interests of these companies.

A second reason [for network neutrality rules] involves the economic incentives of broadband providers. The great majority of companies that operate our nation’s broadband pipes rely upon revenue from selling phone service, cable TV subscriptions, or both. These services increasingly compete with voice and video products provided over the Internet. The net result is that broadband providers’ rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers in competition and choice.

For this reason and others, the Chair suggested adding two new "freedoms" to the four Internet freedoms [pdf] already recognized by the FCC (freedom to access content, use applications, attach personal devices to the network, and obtain service plan information).

The fifth freedom expands on the first two - to access content and applications. Under these rules, providers will be explicitly prohibited from interfering with legal content - something that is currently less clear (which is why Comcast is suing the FCC over its power to enforce this rule).

The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination -- stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes. Nor can they disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider. The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed.

And the sixth freedom expands on our previous freedom to obtain service plan information - it expands the required transparency of Internet Service Providers.

The sixth principle is a transparency principle -- stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices. Why does the FCC need to adopt this principle? The Internet evolved through open standards. It was conceived as a tool whose user manual would be free and available to all. But new network management practices and technologies challenge this original understanding. Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users -- with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world.

Note that these are not yet rules, they are potential rules that have to go through the FCC process - something that should be a given as 3 of the 5 FCC Commissioners support Genachowski on the matter and even President Obama has praised the idea.

The LA Times also endorsed the idea, further explaining why it is necessary:

Lobbyists for phone and cable TV companies argue that there's little evidence of ISPs playing unfairly or violating Powell's four freedoms. Yet when the FCC moved to stop Comcast from surreptitiously interfering with a legal file-sharing application last year, Comcast sued, claiming the commission had no power to enforce the principles. It's paradoxical that the government should have to regulate the Internet to preserve its unregulated essence. But with so little competition in broadband service, the major phone and cable companies have the power and the incentive to stop worthy but disruptive innovations in the name of "managing congestion." The FCC should set clear rules that enable ISPs to keep data flowing from all legal services and applications, not just favored ones.

Network Neutrality is a necessary but insufficient rule to protect subscribers. Service providers must not be allowed to interfere with user freedom to boost corporate profits but this is just a small part of the problem outlined by Genachowski above: the divergent interests of profit-maximizing companies and the communities that depend on broadband infrastructure. Community networks are far less likely to interfere with subscriber freedoms, something that will not change even as corporate lobbyists chip away at regulations protecting subscribers from companies like AT&T and Comcast.

Photo used under Creative Commons license from AdamWillis.

Video: 
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