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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.

Big City Community Networks: Lessons from Seattle and Gigabit Squared

A few weeks ago, a Geekwire interview with outgoing Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn announced that the Gigabit Squared project there was in jeopardy. Gigabit Squared has had difficulty raising all the necessary capital for its project, building Fiber-to-the-Home to several neighborhoods in part by using City owned fiber to reduce the cost of building its trunk lines.

There are a number of important lessons, none of them new, that we should take away from this disappointing news. This is the first of a series of posts on the subject.

But first, some facts. Gigabit Squared is continuing to work on projects in Chicago and Gainsville, Florida. There has been a shake-up at the company among founders and it is not clear what it will do next. Gigabit Squared was not the only vendor responding to Seattle's RFP, just the highest profile one.

Gigabit Squared hoped to raise some $20 million for its Seattle project (for which the website is still live). The original announcement suggested twelve neighborhoods with at least 50,000 households and businesses would be connected. The project is not officially dead, but few have high hopes for it given the change in mayor and many challenges thus far.

The first lesson to draw from this is what we say repeatedly: the broadband market is seriously broken and there is no panacea to fix it. The big cable firms, while beating up on DSL, refuse to compete with each other. They are protected by a moat made up of advantages over potential competitors that includes vast economies of scale allowing them to pay less for advertising, content, and equipment; large existing networks already amortized; vast capacity for predatory pricing by cross-subsidizing from non-competitive areas; and much more.

So if you are an investor with $20 million in cash lying around, why would you ever want to bet against Comcast - especially by investing in an unknown entity that cannot withstand a multi-year price war? You wouldn't and they generally don't. The private sector invests for a return and overbuilding Comcast with fiber almost certainly requires many years before breaking even. In fact, Wall Street loves Comcast's position, as penned in an investor love letter on SeekingAlpha:

We're big fans of the firm's Video and High-Speed Internet businesses because both are either monopolies or duopolies in their respective markets.

Seattle Conduit

Seattle has done what we believe many communities should be doing - investing in conduit and fiber that it can use internally and lease out to other entities. This is a good idea, but should not be oversold - these kinds of conduit and fiber projects are typically deploying among major corridors, where the fiber trunk lines are needed. But networks require far more investment in the distribution part of the network, which runs down each street to connect subscribers. With this heavy investment comes the modern day reality that whoever owns the distribution network owns the subscriber - that owner decides who subscribers can take service from. (We have more conduit tips from previous Seattle coverage.)

Additionally, different conduit and fiber segments may be owned by various entities, including different departments within a city. This may introduce administrative delays in leasing it, suggesting that local governments should devise a way of dealing with it before a network is actually being deployed.

Even if a city wanted to lay conduit everywhere for the entire network (trunk and distribution), it would need to have a network design first. Different companies build different networks that require different layouts for fiber, huts, vaults, etc. Some networks may use far more fiber than other designs depending on the network architect preference. The result is a limit on just how much conduit can/should be deployed with the hope of enticing an independent ISP to build in the community.

In deciding the size of conduit and where to lay it, different types of fiber network approaches are either enabled or disabled (e.g. GPON vs Active Ethernet). In turn, that can limit who is willing to build a fiber network in the community. The same can be true of aerial fiber, attached to utility poles.

Investing in conduit and/or fiber along major corridors may go a long way to connect local businesses and some residents but almost certainly will not change the calculations for whether another company can suddenly compete against a massive firm like Comcast.

And paradoxically, beginning to connect some businesses with fiber and a private partner could make a citywide system less feasible. The firms that are prepared to meet the needs of local businesses may not have the capacity nor inclination to connect everyone. But without the high margin business customers among neighborhoods, a firm that wants to connect neighbors may struggle to build a successful business plan. Additionally, some firms may only be interested in serving high end neighborhoods rather than low income areas.

Community BB Logo

This is a major consideration in our continued advocacy for community owned networks. They have an interest in connecting businesses as the first step in connecting the entire community. An independent ISP may only find it profitable to focus on the businesses, though some ISPs share our values of ensuring everyone has access.

In the first Geekwire interview, Mayor McGinn returned to his original position when campaigning - that the City itself should be playing a larger role and investing its own resources rather than pinning its hopes on distant firms.

McGinn noted that “we haven’t given up on the private sector,” but said that if he were continuing as mayor, he’d start garnering political support to build a municipal fiber utility. That’s actually something the mayor considered back in 2010, after a consultant recommended that the City find a way to build an open-access fiber-to-the-premises communication infrastructure to meet Seattle's goals and objectives.

A feasibility study looking at one particular way of building an open access fiber network put the cost at $700-$800 million. However, there were other alternatives that they did not pursue, opting instead for a far less risky (and with far less payoff) public-private-partnership with Gigabit Squared.

Over the next few days, I will explore other lessons. A review of lessons from today:

  • Comcast and other cable companies have tremendous advantages that other would-be competitors in the private sector will generally fail to overcome
  • City owned conduit and fiber helps to encourage competition but is subject to significant limitations
  • Communities should invest in conduit in conjunction with other capital projects but should not inadvertantly weaken the business case for universal access

Update: The Gigabit Squared deal with Seattle is officially dead. Part II of this series is available here.

Ellensburg Pursues Its Fiber Project in Washington

Ellensburg is quickly moving forward as it make plans to build a publicly owned fiber optic network. The City Council approved a contract with Canon Construction  on December 16th, reports the Daily Record.

From the article:

Canon Construction of Milton won the contract to lay 13 miles of above- and underground fiber optic cables for the city with a $961,000 bid.

Multiple public organizations, including Central Washington University and Kittitas Valley Fire and Rescue, contract with the city for cable Internet services through the city.

We recently reported on the City Council decision to establish a telecommunications utility serving municipal needs. At the December 16th meeting, they also approved an ordinance needed to move ahead with the utility.

The community network will replace the Institutional Network supplied by Charter Communications. Charter and the City have been negotiating a new franchise agreement with little success. Charter wants to charge $10,000 per month to provide the service that it previously offered at no charge beyond the incredibly valuable access to the public's right-of-way. The City determined building a network was more economical and we suspect the City will also achieve greater reliability and have access to better technology than Charter would have installed.

Op-Ed: Baltimore Makes Smart Move with Fiber Investment

On November 25, the Baltimore Sun ran this opinion piece by me regarding Baltimore's approach to expanding Internet access in the city.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently spoke the plain truth: “You can’t grow jobs with slow Internet.”

This simple statement is the best explanation for why Baltimore is examining how it can use existing City assets and smart investments in the near future to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access. It is also a slap across Comcast’s face.

The big cable and telephone companies have insisted for years that they already deliver the services residents and businesses need. But they also claim to offer reasonable prices that just happen to increase year after year with few customers having other options to choose from.

Baltimore’s reality is that Comcast does indeed offer speeds that are faster than many in rural Maryland can access. But they are not even in the same league as cities like Chattanooga, where every address in the community has access to the fastest speeds available anywhere in the nation, and at some of the lowest prices. There, as in hundreds of communities across the country, the local government built its own next-generation network.

Whenever a city announces the possibility of investing in a network, the cable industry public relations machine kicks into high gear. They argue that we have a plethora of choices for Internet access. The sleight of hand behind this claim is to include LTE wireless networks as a replacement for cable – something almost no household does because replacing your home wired connection with LTE will break your budget. According to bandwidth-management firm Sandvine, the average household uses more than 50 gigabytes of data each month. Between the data caps and overage fees from AT&T, that will cost over $500/month.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of community owned networks are doing exactly what they intended – breaking even financially while providing a valuable public service. Big cable companies argue that these networks have failed if they aren’t making big profits each year, a misunderstanding of public accounting. Community owned networks aim to break even, not make a profit.

When Windom, Minnesota, ended a year with a $50,000 deficit from a network that kept many local jobs in the community, few complained. Ask any local government official what is more important: 10 jobs or $50,000 in the general fund. No contest, especially when the accounting does not include the tens of thousands saved by a local government that no longer has to lease expensive voice and data connections for schools and municipal facilities.

Chattanooga is often cited out as the most successful municipal network after becoming the first US city with universal gigabit access and having helped created 6,000 jobs. But Thomasville, Georgia, and Spanish Fork, Utah, have operated networks for over a decade and generate more than a million dollars each year for the general fund from the telecommunications net income.

However, a few community owned networks have failed, just as thousands of privately owned telecommunications companies have disappeared or declared bankruptcy in a very difficult business. Provo is a favorite of the cable lobbyists, who generally neglect to note that it had to compete with one hand tied behind its back due to Utah state laws pushed by Comcast and US West (now CenturyLink). Some 19 states have created special barriers to discourage publicly owned networks.

Let’s be clear, very few expect Baltimore to suddenly build a citywide fiber optic network offering residential services in competition with Comcast.

Baltimore will likely take another path, expanding the fiber-optic network it already owns to better benefit community anchor institutions, local businesses, and potentially even residents. This is a very low-risk approach similar to what Seattle has done for years. Now Seattle has a partnership with a company called Gigabit Squared that is building a gigabit network out to tens of thousands of households.

None of these successes mean local governments should rush unprepared into a network investment. Nor should they be scared off by cable lobbyists trying to preserve what is effectively a monopoly. Building a successful network is a challenge, but so is trying to grow an economy while relying on yesterday’s technology at artificially inflated rates.

Cedar Falls Shows Long Term Muni Network Success: Community Broadband Bits Episode #75

Cedar Falls Utilities operates one of the oldest community owned networks in the nation. It started as a cable network in the 90's, upgraded to FTTH recently, and this year began offering the first citywide gigabit service in Iowa. CFU Communication Sales Manager Kent Halder and Network Services Manager Rob Houlihan join me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 75.

We discuss why Cedar Falls Utilities decided to add cable to their lineup originally and how it has achieved the incrediblely high take rates it maintains.

We also discuss the importance of reliability for municipal network and why they decided to transition directly to a FTTH plant rather than just upgraded to DOCSIS 3 on their cable system. Finally, we discuss its expansion into the rural areas just outside of town.

Read all of our coverage of Cedar Falls on MuniNetworks.org.

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 20 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network: Community Broadband Bits Episode #74

Last month, we unveiled a video teaser of our interviews in Glasgow, Kentucky over the summer regarding its municipal broadband network. This week our podcast features a few clips from those interviews with Billy Ray, the Superintendent of Glasgow's Electric Plant Board.

He offers more context on the history of their network, including how they became "savvy marketers" when faced with stiff competition from Telescripts - a cable company that cared nothing for Glasgow until they dared to build a rival system operated for community benefit.

He details how they began producing local content and the surprisingly most popular show they developed - what would eventually come to be known as "reality TV."

We thank Media Working Group, our partners in this documentary for the high quality interviews.

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 10 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

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

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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.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network

During the summer, I spent two days in Glasgow, Kentucky, to learn about the first municipal broadband network in the country. I believe it also became the first community in the US to have broadband access available universally within the town.

Working with the Media Working Group, we recorded several interviews with people there, including a lot of time with Electric Power Board Superintendent Billy Ray. Billy Ray has been a key proponent of local self-reliance and a pioneeer of community owned networks.

Below, we pulled out a few snippets of our interview talking about the origins of the Glasgow network. All of our stories about Glasgow are available here.

Video: 

Television Consumer Freedom Act Promises More Choices

On August 14th, Christopher Mitchell and I visited Senator Amy Kobuchar's office in Minneapolis. We arranged the meeting in coordination with Free Press and the Media Action Grassroots Network to talk with our Senator about the Television Consumer Freedom Act, also known as S.912.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are sponsoring this effort to scale back cable program bundling. ILSR and the Free Press recognize this as a good start to reforming our deeply flawed video market. We also see it as a foothold to inching closer to the wide ranging and affordable broadband we desperately need.

We met with Senate staff to present 594 Minnesota petition signatures in support of the legislation. Free Press has collected over 27,000 signatures from across the country asking Congress to pass the Television Consumer Freedom Act.

The bill provides options for consumers beyond today's restrictive bundled services. By offering channels a la carte, consumers can pay for what they want rather than being forced to pay for many channels they do not. Bundling also limits independent channels by crowding out capacity and creating onerous financial barriers for entrepreneurial media ventures. This bill will not eliminate bundling, but will require cable providers to also offer a la carte pricing. It is important to note that the cable companies themselves are often forced to bundle by channel owners like Viacom or Disney. This bill restricts that practice as well.

We also give two thumbs up for the sports fans' provision in the bill. From an LA Times opinion piece written by Senator McCain:

Another provision in the bill seeks to end the practice of sports team owners punishing fans by blacking out home games that don't sell out. It provides that games taking place in publicly financed stadiums can't be blacked out.

For an in-depth analysis of S.912's provisions, read Combating the Cable Cabal, from the Free Press.

Contact your elected officials through the Free Press call to action page or contact them directly. Elected officials respond best to visits, phone calls, and brief personalized emails. Let them know you want their support for S.912, the Television Consumers Freedom Act.

We Need Video Reform, Let D.C. Know What You Think

Time Warner Cable subscribers across the country who enjoy CBS programming are out of luck. The two media giants have reached an impasse in their fight over retransmission consent so several major markets are now missing out. CBS has also taken the fight one step farther, blocking TWC broadband subscribers from accessing CBS.com video content.

Public Knowledge as launched a campaign to end this viewer lock-out. From their recent call to action:

It doesn't matter whether CBS or Time Warner Cable is the bad guy here. The only one losing here is you, the viewer.

Some members of Congress are standing up to the media giants. The bipartisan "Television Consumer Freedom Act," [PDF] co-sponsored by Senators John McCain and Richard Blumenthal, takes the first steps at fixing this mess.

But an army of special interest lobbyists likes things the way they are, and they don't care that you are caught in the middle. For this bill to move forward, your members of Congress need to hear from you.

For more detail on how we got here, read Harold Feld's recent Policy Blog on the PK website. PK makes it easy for you to inform your D.C. represenation that you want video reform. 

You can also look up your U.S. Representatives and your U.S. Senators to contact them directly via phone or email.