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"Models for Building Local Broadband" Forum Archive Now Available

On September 19th, the Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center (UCIMC) hosted "Models for Building Local Broadband: Public, Private, Coop, Nonprofit." Christopher Mitchell was one of several panelists who discussed local broadband options and challenges.

The presentors live streamed to 138 attendees with 93 watching remotely various locations and 45 at the Media Center. If you were not able to attend or stream the live event, you can now watch the archived version. You can learn a little about the event and watch it at the UCIMC website, or watch the YouTube video here.

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Wally Bowen: Open Wireless is Essential Infrastructure

Once again, we are reprinting an opinion piece by Wally Bowen, founder of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network based in Asheville, North Carolina. The op-ed was originally published in the Asheville Citizen-Times.

Once upon a time, Internet enthusiasts made the following comparison: the Internet is to 21st-century economies what navigable waterways and roads were to 19th and 20th-century economies.

But what if our rivers and highways were controlled by a private cartel which set tolls and dictated the make and model of our boats and vehicles? It’s unthinkable, of course. Yet over the last decade, a cartel of cable and phone companies has gained this kind of control over more than 95 percent of Internet access in the US.

In response, many communities have built municipal broadband networks. The cartel, in turn, has persuaded legislatures in 19 states, including North Carolina, to pass laws prohibiting municipal networks.

Scholars call this the “enclosure” of the Internet, similar to the enclosure of rural commons by private owners in 18th and 19th-century England. This trend includes smart phones and tablets which are locked down and controlled by licensing agreements. By contrast, the personal computer is open to innovation. You can take it apart, experiment, and create new functionality. You can also download your choice of software, including free open-source programs.

The full impact of this corporate enclosure of the Internet is still to come, but evidence of it is growing. Consider e-books. When you purchase a real book, you enjoy “first sale” ownership. You can resell it or use it as a doorstop. You can do anything with it, except reproduce it. But when you purchase an e-book, your options are limited by a license that can be changed any time by the vendor without your consent.

With an enclosed Internet, we become renters rather than owners. Our freedom to experiment and innovate, while not totally lost, is governed by gatekeepers and licensing regimes.

But there is a way around the Internet gatekeepers: “open wireless” networks using unlicensed spectrum.

Most spectrum used for smartphones is licensed to, and controlled by, the telecom cartel. By contrast, the free Wi-Fi we enjoy in coffeehouses is unlicensed and free for anyone to use and experiment with. But this spectrum has a very limited range. In 2008, therefore, the FCC approved the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) for unlicensed use. Often called “Wi-Fi on steroids,” this superior spectrum has a far greater range and capacity than conventional Wi-Fi.

Last December the FCC approved the first TVWS device. This new technology can provide seamless coverage throughout a city like Asheville, thereby creating a viable alternative to the cable/phone company cartel. Here’s a sampling of what’s possible via “open wireless” technology:

* “Buy local” advocates use open-wireless to run mobile payment systems that keep money in the local economy and reduce the burden of credit card fees on local merchants.

* “Green energy” advocates use open wireless to transform the corporate “smart-grid” to a “micro-grid” that empowers local innovators and entrepreneurs to promote conservation and new sources of energy.

* A hospital in Ohio is field-testing a TVWS network for its emergency room. When EMS vehicles are in range, patient information and vital signs are automatically transmitted ahead to the ER staff.

These creative and local uses of the Internet were possible because of open-wireless technologies. No one had to ask permission of a network owner or pay rent to a license-holder.

For “Smart Cities” and local self-reliance advocates, open-wireless networks are essential community infrastructure. “Community wireless protects our freedom to innovate and problem-solve in ways that keep money and jobs in the local economy,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

Since 2003, the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) has operated an open-wireless network, but its reach and capacity have been limited. With the imminent arrival of the TV “white spaces” technology, MAIN is launching a $50,000 capital campaign to convert its wireless network to TVWS. This new technology is estimated to have a range of 15-20 miles with speeds of 10-15 megabits per second.

As the telecom cartel tightens its grip on the Internet, MAIN and its partners envision Internet access for Asheville and WNC that protects civil liberties and preserves the freedom to innovate for local inventors and entrepreneurs. To learn more or to get involved, visit: http://www.main.nc.us/TVWS.

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of MAIN. In 2010, he was diagnosed with ALS. He will be stepping down as executive director later this year, but will continue working on community broadband policy and advocacy.

Nonprofit Approaches Solve The Rural Broadband Problem

Wally Bowen has again penned an op-ed that we gained permission to reprint. The original ran in North Carolina's Durham News Observer.

President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address that he wants to upgrade the nation's "critical infrastructure," including our "incomplete high-speed broadband network that prevents a small business owner in rural America from selling her products all over the world."

The Green Bay Packers know how to tackle this problem.

Green Bay, Wis., population 104,000, and its National Football League franchise have much in common with communities left behind in today's broadband world. In 1923, the Packers faced a similar crisis. How to keep the team in Green Bay despite being in an "uncompetitive" market.

Green Bay took a page out of the playbook of rural electrification. It converted the franchise into a community-owned nonprofit. The move permanently tied the Packers to Green Bay and lifted the burden of generating profits for outside investors. In short, Green Bay found a business model in scale with its market.

Rural electrification via a community-ownership business model began more than 100 years ago when for-profit utilities bypassed rural areas. This self-help solution has deep roots in rural America, where nonprofit cooperatives have long provided essential services for local economies.

Yet the congressionally mandated National Broadband Plan omits nonprofit networks as part of a universal broadband strategy. Blair Levin, a former FCC official and Raleigh attorney, is the Plan's lead author. According to Thomas Friedman in a Jan. 3 column in The New York Times, Levin now believes that "America is focused too much on getting 'average' bandwidth to the last 5 percent of the country in rural areas, rather than getting 'ultra-high-speed' bandwidth to the top 5 percent in university towns, who will invent the future."

Levin leads Gig.U, a consortium of major research universities - including UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State - promoting "ultra-high-speed" Internet access. He has every right to advocate for Gig.U, but doing so at the expense of under-served rural communities raises concerns about his work with the National Broadband Plan.

Universal access to electricity was made possible by the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, later amended to help launch rural telephone cooperatives. Today, more than 1,400 electric and telephone cooperatives ensure universal access to electric power and telephone services in rural America. The vast majority of these networks are private nonprofits.

But the Broadband Plan rewrites this history, attributing rural electrification not to cooperatives, but to municipal governments. This revisionist history is likely due to the lobbying clout of incumbent cable and telephone companies, who would have us believe that only two rural broadband options exist: "government-owned" networks or private, for-profit carriers.

Meanwhile, the incumbent carriers have passed anti-municipal broadband laws in more than 20 states, including North Carolina. Indeed, the only community-based, self-help option mentioned in the Plan is municipal ownership, a straw man which the Plan immediately knocks down with this caveat straight out of a telecom lobbyist's policy brief: "Municipal broadband has risks. Municipally financed service may discourage investment by private companies. Before embarking on any type of broadband buildout . . . towns and cities should try to attract private-sector broadband investment" (NBP, Chapter 8.19).

Of course, anyone who has experienced life-without-broadband in rural America knows that the problem is not in "towns and cities"; it's in sparsely populated unincorporated areas where municipal broadband is not an option.

This blind-spot also appears in the Plan's call for a new Connect America Fund to disperse more than $15 billion in rural broadband subsidies over the next decade. These monies come from the $1-$2 monthly Universal Service fee paid by all telephone subscribers.

However, this CAF subsidy is only available to incumbent carriers. Existing, or planned, community-owned networks are not eligible for CAF support. Why does the Plan rely solely on incumbent carriers that have long argued that their for-profit business model doesn't work in sparsely populated rural areas?

No one would confuse the Green Bay Packers with a government-owned enterprise. Rural cooperatives and community-owned entities like the Packers belong to the private sector; they are not, as the telecom lobbyists would have us believe, "government-owned." Rural cooperatives have succeeded because, like the Packers, their nonprofit business model is in scale with the communities they serve.

The State of the Union theme was "An America Built To Last." Rural networks are "built to last" because they are owned and maintained by the people they serve. Absentee-owned networks, by contrast, may be minimally maintained and the last to be upgraded. It's a history that telecom lobbyists would have us forget.

Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN), a nonprofit broadband network in Asheville.

Local, Nonprofit Broadband Infrastructure Essential for Sustainability

Wally Bowen, of North Carolina's Mountain Area Information Network, recently gave an excellent presentation that explained the importance of broadband and media infrastructure that puts community needs before the profit motive.

In 1889, Statesville, N.C., opted for self-reliance by building its own municipal power system after failing to attract an investor-owned utility. Half a century later, said Bowen, most American farms still lacked electricity, so Congress passed the Rural Electrification Act of 1936 to help finance nonprofit rural electric cooperatives.

In the 1980s, Morganton, N.C. opted for self-reliance by expanding its municipal power system to offer cable TV, after years of complaints – including the 1982 blackout of the UNC-Georgetown national championship game – about its commercial cable provider.

Bowen cautioned that corporate interests often oppose local communities which “self provision” critical infrastructure. Morganton’s commercial cable-TV provider sued the city to block its cable venture. Only in 1993, after a decade-long legal battle, did Morganton win the right to self-provision cable TV. Today, Morganton’s municipal cable system offers broadband Internet access at competitive rates and with no contract.

Unfortunately, the North Carolina Legislature has made it much harder for local governments to build the necessary networks (as a favor to Time Warner Cable, which just happened to have given massively to many of the candidates). But Wally has an answer -- nonprofit approaches that have been inspired by rural electric cooperatives.

MAIN is making important investments in western North Carolina and should be recognized as making a difference in a region the private sector has largely abandoned.

Don't Sell the Public Airwaves to the Highest Corporate Bidder

During the recent budget negotiations, one plan called for taking valuable wireless spectrum that is intended to be used as a commons and auctioning it off the massive corporations to monopolize. Rather than enabling a whole new generation of wireless technologies that would create countless jobs and ongoing opportunities for innovation (some have described it as Wi-Fi on steroids), it would have created a one-time cash infusion while further consolidating the incomparable market power of AT&T and Verizon. Preserving as much spectrum as possible as unlicensed commons allows communities, small businesses, and activists to build the wireless networks they need because they cannot afford to license spectrum for their sole use.

Wally Bowen wrote the following op-ed urging a more sensible approach. Fortunately, the spectrum auction was dropped from the plan - but it will undoubtedly come up again. This was originally published in the Charlotte Observer on July 31 and is reprinted here with permission.

U.S. House Republicans are pushing a proposal to sell off some of the nation's most valuable real estate as part of a debt-ceiling deal, apparently unaware of the harm it will do our economy.

This real estate is a portion of the public airwaves so valuable that it's been called the "Malibu beachfront" of the electromagnetic spectrum. This lower-frequency spectrum, previously reserved for broadcast radio and TV, is far superior to "Wi-Fi" frequencies used for Internet access - and for innovative devices ranging from microwave ovens and cordless phones to garage-door openers and baby monitors.

This prime spectrum can deliver broadband speeds that support high-definition video for telemedicine in rural and other underserved areas. This spectrum is especially plentiful in rural America, and could help connect millions of low-income citizens to affordable broadband services. It could also spark a new wave of high-tech innovation and job-creation far greater than the Wi-Fi boom of the last 25 years.

Wi-Fi Logo

The genius behind the first wave of Wi-Fi innovation was unlicensed spectrum. Though these higher frequencies were once considered "junk bands" by radio engineers, designating them for unlicensed access gave innovators the freedom to experiment. It also gave investors incentive to take risks in launching new products.

Unfortunately, the GOP-backed plan would gut the huge market potential of this high-octane spectrum by selling it to the highest bidders: incumbent carriers more interested in shutting-out competition than in igniting the next great high-tech boom. Once auctioned, the spectrum would be licensed, creating enormous barriers-to-entry and disincentives for innovators, entrepreneurs and investors.

Oddly, House members pushing this auction plan - inappropriately called the "Spectrum Innovation Act" - acknowledge unlicensed spectrum's market advantage. But their mechanism for providing unlicensed spectrum is bizarre.

The bill would allow companies - and presumably the public - to place bids for this spectrum either as licensed or unlicensed. This never-before-tried auction would then pit the highest bid for licensed spectrum against the sum of all bids for unlicensed use. If the latter exceeds the former, the U.S. Treasury would reap the proceeds and the nation's economy would reap the rewards of the next unlicensed Wi-Fi boom.

But common sense should red-flag this auction scheme as unworkable. Even if companies and concerned citizens attempted to coordinate bids for unlicensed use, laws against collusion would have to be set aside. And why would smaller firms risk their money if they can assume larger firms like Google and Microsoft will do the heavy-lifting? Clearly, this proposed auction scheme is cover for a cynical spectrum-grab that would rob us and future generations of this prime electromagnetic real estate.

Let's hope lawmakers come to their senses quickly and dismiss the lobbyists pushing this self-serving scheme.

The amazing array of wireless devices developed over the past 25 years proves that unlicensed spectrum attracts investment, spurs innovation and unleashes the power of competitive markets. Unlicense this next-gen spectrum and let the innovators and job-creators get to work.

Wally Bowen, Tim Karr: Block the Broadband Power Grab

Wally Bowen, the Founder and Executive Director for the Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, North Carolina, wrote the following op-ed with Tim Karr of Free Press. Wally gave us permission to reprint it here.

North Carolina has a long tradition of self-help and self-reliance, from founding the nation's first public university to building Research Triangle Park. Befitting the state's rural heritage, North Carolinians routinely take self-help measures to foster economic growth and provide essential local services such as drinking water and electric power.

Statesville built the state's first municipal power system in 1889, and over the years 50 North Carolina cities and towns followed suit. In 1936, the state's first rural electric cooperative was launched in Tarboro to serve Edgecombe and Martin counties. Today, 26 nonprofit electric networks serve more than 2.5 million North Carolinians in 93 counties.

Strangely, this self-help tradition is under attack. The General Assembly just passed a bill to restrict municipalities from building and operating broadband Internet systems to attract industry and create local jobs. Although pushed by the cable and telephone lobby, similar bills were defeated in previous legislative sessions. But the influx of freshmen legislators and new leadership in both houses created an opening for the dubiously titled "Level Playing Field" bill (HB 129).

No one disputes the importance of broadband access for economic growth and job creation. That's why five cities - Wilson, Salisbury, Morganton, Davidson and Mooresville - invoked their self-help traditions to build and operate broadband systems after years of neglect from for-profit providers, which focus their investments in more affluent and densely populated areas. Not coincidentally, all five cities own and operate their own power systems or have ties to nonprofit electric cooperatives.

(While the bill does not outlaw these five municipal networks, it restricts their expansion and requires them to make annual tax payments to the state as if they were for-profit companies.)

How does a state that values independence, self-reliance and economic prosperity allow absentee-owned corporations to pass a law essentially granting two industries - cable and telephone - the power to dictate North Carolina's broadband future? This question will be moot if Gov. Beverly Perdue exercises her veto power and sends this bill where it belongs: to the dustbin of history.

However, if the bill is signed into law, its passage could embolden the cable/telco lobby to take aim at the state's many independent, nonprofit broadband networks, primarily in the most rural areas. These networks, with little fanfare or publicity, have made real progress in addressing the rural broadband crisis over the last decade.

These nonprofits include traditional rural electric and telephone cooperatives as well as more recent start-ups such as Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN) and ERC Broadband, both based in Asheville. MAIN launched in 1996 to provide dial-up Internet access via a local call in some of the region's most remote communities. Prior to this, many mountain residents had to call long-distance to reach the Internet.

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The catalyst for ERC Broadband's launch in 2003 was the possible loss of the National Climatic Data Center, which was looking to relocate to a community with more abundant and affordable broadband access. This homegrown fiber network helped keep NCDC and its high-paying jobs in Asheville. ERC's success helped spawn a second nonprofit fiber network, PANGAEA, serving Polk and Rutherford counties. Likewise, the Eastern Band of the Cherokee and a local software firm in Franklin joined forces to launch a third fiber network, BalsamWest, to serve the mountain counties west of Asheville.

This corporate assault on North Carolina's heritage of self-help and self-reliance is all the more bizarre because these out-of-state cable and telephone carriers have begun using the state's nonprofit networks, both rural and municipal, to supplement their network capacity and reduce their bandwidth costs. Common sense dictates that this corporate power-grab should end with a stroke of the governor's pen.

FCC Commissioner: Blocking Local Broadband Authority "'Exactly The Wrong Way to Go"

FCC Commissioner Copps spoke at the SEATOA Conference in Asheville, North Carolina, on Tuesday. He went out of his way to condemn legislation that would preempt the authority of local governments to build broadband networks, echoing a similar statement from his colleague, Commissioner Clyburn.

But he started with a discussion about the importance of broadband access to the Internet:

Getting broadband out to all our citizens is not just something that would be nice for us to do. It is something essential for us to do if we want to provide individuals the opportunity to live productive and fulfilling lives in the Twenty-first century and something equally imperative if we want our country to have a competitive edge in this challenging world.

But he moved on to highlight the importance of communities having the right to build their own networks, should they deem it necessary:

When incumbent providers cannot serve the broadband needs of some localities, local governments should be allowed--no, encouraged--to step up to the plate and ensure that their citizens are not left on the wrong side of the great divide. So it is regrettable that some states are considering, and even passing, legislation that could hinder local solutions to bring the benefits of broadband to their communities. It's exactly the wrong way to go. In this context, too, our previous infrastructure challenges must be the guide. The successful history of rural electrification, as one example, is due in no small part to municipal electric cooperatives that lit up corners of this country where investor-owned utilities had little incentive to go. Those coops turned on the lights for a lot of people! You know, our country would be a lot better off if we would learn from our past rather than try to defy or deny it.

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We strongly support his comments, while emphasizing that an incumbent that simply provides DSL or cable services must not be construed as necessarily serving the broadband needs of communities. Many of the best broadband networks in this country were built by local governments who overbuilt existing DSL and cable systems -- precisely because these last-generation networks were not providing sufficiently reliable, affordable, and fast access to the Internet for all businesses and residents.

His comments, made in North Carolina, come as H 129 sits on the Governor's desk. This was a bill pushed through the legislation by Time Warner Cable explicitly to limit the authority of local governments to build broadband networks. Its language purports to exempt rural areas without adequate service but was deceptively written in such a way as to actually exempt no areas.

If Governor Perdue does nothing, the bill will become law on May 18 20. We cannot help but fear this is the Governor's plan absent more attention, so we continue to join many others in calling for the Governor to veto this job-killing favor to massive incumbents like Time Warner Cable (who just happens to have donated over $6.3 million to North Carolina politicians over the past four years.

Contact Governor Perdue and encourage her to veto this bill.

Wally Bowen and Tim Karr just published an op-ed calling on the Governor to veto the bill:

How does a state that values independence, self-reliance and economic prosperity allow absentee-owned corporations to pass a law essentially granting two industries - cable and telephone - the power to dictate North Carolina's broadband future? This question will be moot if Gov. Beverly Perdue exercises her veto power and sends this bill where it belongs: to the dustbin of history.

Below, we have again embedded the video we created to highlight the impressive community fiber networks already operating in North Carolina, offering the best services available in the state.

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Responding to Broadband "Goals" in Obama's SOTU Address

Wally Bowen, the Founder and Executive Director for the Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, North Carolina, wrote the following piece after President Obama's State of the Union Address.  He gave us permission to reprint it below.

Last night in the State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to help “win the future” by, among other things, rebuilding America's infrastructure.

On broadband Internet access, the president was unequivocal: wireless broadband is the way forward (item #1 below).

However, he did not mention the FCC's recent approval of “open Internet” protections that are widely believed to be unenforceable. Indeed, just a few days ago Verizon filed suit to invalidate these rules via a preemptive, knockout blow.

Congress is not likely to pass any meaningful net neutrality/open Internet rules. This means that the Internet is completely exposed to “corporate enclosure” by a handful of cable and telephone companies and their business partners (Apple, Google, FaceBook, et al).

Our only alternative for preserving an open Internet -- and the freedom to innovate and use applications of our own choosing -- is the creation of non-commercial, community-based broadband networks (item #2 below).

MAIN logo

Fortunately, Asheville and WNC are ahead of the game with our nonprofit fiber networks (ERC Broadband, Balsam West, French Broad EMC, et al.) and nonprofit wireless networks like the Mountain Area Information Network (MAIN).

The way forward will be difficult. While the commercial carriers have been somewhat tolerant of nonprofit “middle-mile” fiber networks, they view nonprofit “last-mile” providers of broadband service to homes and businesses as “unfair competition.”

Indeed, 15 states have already passed laws – pushed by cable and telco lobbyists – to prohibit “last-mile” municipal broadband networks. A similar law was attempted, but tabled, in the last two sessions of the N.C. General Assembly. This law will no doubt re-appear in the upcoming session.

Fortunately, MAIN is an independent nonprofit and card-carrying member of the private sector. While the big carriers cannot outlaw networks like MAIN, they will attempt to monopolize -- or block -- any federal subsidies for broadband deployment in underserved areas that might allow nonprofit networks to take root and grow.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Our online civil liberties, our freedom for grassroots innovation and small-business incubation, and our ability to bridge the broadband Digital Divide (item 3 below) will be seriously compromised if we fail.

As the recent Associated Press story details, our low-income citizens, rural neighbors, and people of color will suffer the most if we fail.

Photo, used under Creative Commons License, courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker

Understanding - and Rethinking - Broadband Regulation

Though we certainly support the FCC's reclassification of broadband to ensure companies like Comcast do not interfere with the open Internet, we focus on policy at the community level. We fully support the efforts of organizations and people in DC to work at the federal level.

But for those who are utterly baffled at the questions being raised the the last 15 years of Internet policy, I strongly recommend a recent op-ed by Wally Bowen: "FCC needs to rethink broadband regulation."

The stakes are high. The Internet's explosive growth – and the spectacular innovation it spawned – were enabled by common-carrier rules that still govern the nation's dial-up telephone networks.

Before 2002, online users were at the center of the Internet and World Wide Web, free to choose among competing ISPs, and free to roam and innovate. With the removal of common-carrier rules, the cable and telephone companies occupied the center of a broadband-driven Web, free to pick winners and losers among innovators (e.g. AT&T's exclusive iPhone deal with Apple) – and free to dictate when and where broadband access will be deployed.

In short, the definitive battle for the future of the Internet is underway.

Local Network Cookbook

Publication Date: 
June 2, 2009
Author(s): 
Wally Bowen

A Recipe for Starting a Local Broadband Wireless Network via Federal Stimulus Funding

Wally Bowen has created a "cookbook" with step-by-step instructions for creating a community wireless network. This is a solid introduction to wireless networks.

Federal broadband stimulus funding is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for local nonprofit organizations -- especially community media centers -- to become Internet service providers (ISP) and begin developing new revenue streams. It's also an historic opportunity for advocates of Internet Freedom. Creating community-based broadband networks would be a huge step toward creating the critical "third pipe" alternative to the cable/telco duopoly. The proliferation of these community-based networks would generate market pressure to force the major carriers to restore “net neutrality” protections for broadband users.

In short, this broadband stimulus opportunity opens the door to the possibility of a new “Jeffersonian Internet” comprised of a “network-of-grassroots-networks” where civil liberties and quality journalism are valued over Wall Street business models.

"Local Network Cookbook: A Recipe for Launching a Local Broadband Wireless Network" is aimed at helping nonprofit organizations -- especially those already using digital technologies -- move quickly to plan and submit a broadband stimulus funding proposal for one of the three application windows.