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Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part II here

In Part I of this story, we laid out the difficult situation the open access UTOPIA network finds itself in and how it got there. Part II gave the broad outlines of Macquarie’s preliminary proposal for a public-private partnership to complete and operate the network. The numbers we deal with here are mostly from the Milestone One report, and assumed the participation of all 11 cities. It should be noted that since five of eleven UTOPIA cities opted out of proceeding to Milestone Two negotiations, the scope and scale of the project is subject to change. The basic structure of the potential deal is mostly set, however, allowing us to draw some reasonable conclusions about whether or not this deal is good for the citizens of the UTOPIA cities.

Let’s first turn to why Macquarie wants to make this investment.  This would be the firm’s first large scale broadband network investment in the U.S., allowing it to get a foothold in a massive market that has a relatively underdeveloped fiber infrastructure. To offset network build and operation costs, it will also be guaranteed the revenue from the monthly utility fee, which my very rough calculations put between $18 and $20 million for the six cities opting in to Milestone Two (or between $30 and $33 million per year for all 11 cities) depending on whether the final fee ends up closer to $18 or $20 per month.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA puts Macquarie’s base rate of return between 3.7% and 4.7%, which is slim enough that they should have the incentive to make the network successful and truly universal, boosting their share of the revenue from transport fees in the process.

The monthly utility fee is a difficult pill for UTOPIA cities to swallow politically, and has allowed opponents to paint it as a massive new tax.  But this claim ignores the costs of the existing $500 million debt (including interest), which will have to be paid regardless of whether the network is ever completed or any more revenue is generated.

The existing debt adds up to about $8.50 per month per address over 30 years, without accounting for ongoing operating losses (or bond prepayment penalties if the network goes dark) or necessary network maintenance and upgrades. Without completing the network, there is no hope that it could return to self-sufficiency, meaning it would likely require operating subsidies in perpetuity.

Again, Jesse Harris has paved the way by doing an analysis of what is in the best interest of taxpayers from a purely self-interested perspective (ignoring indirect benefits of the network) here and here. As he sees it, it all depends on the take rate: if Macquarie can reach a 38% take rate in the newly expanded network coverage area, the entire deal will cost the same for taxpayers as simply selling off the network. A higher take rate would mean the cities actually spend less to get a completed network than they would to sell it off. But that’s only a narrow look at the balance sheet.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Opponents, especially those from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayer Association (UTA), have focused on the extra cost from the new utility fee to the small segment of the population that neither has nor wants a telecommunications connection. However, some studies have also shown that a fiber connection increases the value of a property, so there really may be some gain for everyone under this deal.

As it stands today, 2,100 miles of fiber have already been built, 70% of it underground. 40% of UTOPIA addresses are passed by the network (meaning they are able to purchase a connection upfront or on a payment plan), but only 10% are actually connected. Some cities are almost completely covered, others less than 20%. Some neighborhoods have one side of a street where connections are offered and the other where services are unavailable. The result of constant funding constraints, frivolous incumbent lawsuits, and poor planning, these pieces of stranded infrastructure can still be reclaimed and capitalized on with additional investment. 

Essentially, UTOPIA city taxpayers are on the hook either way. They can either get something for their troubles with the Macquarie deal (and maybe even end up paying less), or they can call it quits and pay to shut it down. They‘ve taken out a mortgage and built most of the house, but run out of money before they put a roof on. They can either restructure the debt and get on a payment plan to finish the roof, or they can watch the house rot and pay the mortgage for 30 years anyway. 

It is important to note that UTOPIA has a unique dynamic because the network has struggled financially (unlike the vast majority of community networks, most of which use a different business model and learned from the early mistakes of UTOPIA). We have not yet seen any communities proposing to establish a utility fee from the start, but it is an interesting proposition and we will explore it at length in a paper later this summer.

Hudson Issues RFP for Broadband Needs Assessment, Business Plan

Hudson, Ohio, located in the Akron area, recently released a Request For Proposals (RFP) for a Broadband Needs Assessment and Broadband Business Plan. The community of 22,000 hopes to connect all municipal facilities, connect business parks, and eventually implement an FTTH network.

A May 4 Hub Times article covered an April city council discussion to expand existing fiber resources throughout the city. Internet Service Manager Bill Hillbish described a plan to connect traffic, security cameras, and possibly provide Internet access to other entities in Hudson. The original plan was to spend approximately $47,000 for fiber and hardware to connect remaining municipal facilities with Hudson Public Power managing the expansion.

At that meeting, the City Council also discussed using the network to connect local businesses and, eventually, residents. Apparently, local businesses are not happy with the incumbent provider: 

Some Council members wanted the work completed sooner than the five-year forecast by Hilbish. Hanink suggested 2016 instead of 2019.

"The business community is screaming for Internet connectivity and speed," said Council President Hal DeSaussure. "We can use it as an economic development and business retention tool."

Economic Development Director Chuck Wiedie said businesses were frustrated with Windstar, which was slow and lacked customer service.

"Our businesses need the Internet," Wiedie said.

At a later City Council meeting, Members delved deeper into the possibility of using fiber for more than an I-Net. From a June 22nd Hub Times article:

Interim City Manager Scott Schroyer June 10 asked for direction for the broadband infrastructure work. The city wants to circle the city with fiber to provide communications for all its city facilities. Council members suggested offering the broadband service to businesses and residents.

Broadband would provide a competitive advantage for economic development for attracting businesses, said Council member Dennis Hanink.

"I'd like to see us try to get to the business parks within a couple years," Hanink said.

At that meeting, Schroyer said the City would seek assistance from a consultant to create a financial and business plan. On July 9th, Hudson released its RFP.

For the past decade, Hudson has incrementally expanded a fiber network to connect major buildings and facilities (see page 3 of the RFP for a map of existing fiber). Some of the facilities include public safety buildings, town hall, schools, and utility buildings. The proposed project will connect remaining electric substations and the City Cemetery.

Through the RFP, Hudson hopes to determine the best way to complete its network for municipal purposes and explore a possible open access network. Hudson expects infrastructure recommendations, business plan possibilities, and needs assessment review. Proposals are due August 15.

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 2

This is the second of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part III here.

With the status quo untenable, no easy exit strategy, and political opposition mounting, UTOPIA appeared besieged in early 2013. Then along came Macquarie, which started studying the network and putting together a proposal for a partnership. The full Milestone 1 report from Macquarie is here,  but in case you aren’t prepared to read 100 pages the broad outlines are as follows:

  • Macquarie will invest $300 million of its own capital to aggressively finish the network build out in 30 months, finally reaching every address in every participating city without a connection fee (UTOPIA had been charging residents in some areas who wanted service around $3,000 to make the expensive last mile connections to individual addresses).
  • Macquarie would be responsible for network maintenance and periodic upgrades, as well as meeting performance benchmarks. Cost overruns in any of these areas would be paid by Macquarie.
  • Sharing of network revenue (from charging ISPs for transport) between Macquarie and UTOPIA, which could be used to pay down the existing bond debt.
  • At the end of a 30 year period of operations run by the public-private partnership, the network would revert fully to public ownership.
  • All homes would be eligible to receive "free" basic service, with 3 mbps download/upload speeds and a 20GB monthly data cap. For all other services, businesses and homes could choose from any of the 8 ISPs currently operating on UTOPIA, all of which offer affordable gigabit speeds. With a larger, complete network, it is likely that UTOPIA would attract new service providers as well.
  • Imposition of a monthly $18-20 utility fee, assessed to every address in the UTOPIA area over the next 30 years, regardless of whether or not they are network customers. This is why we put the "free" basic service in quotations. The utility fee would be structured with a 50% discount for apartments or other multiple-unit addresses, a 100% premium for businesses, and an option for each city to offer a hardship waiver for the indigent or discount for seniors.

In sum, this is a huge infusion of capital from a private company that could remove the risks associated with running, maintaining, and upgrading the network from the member cities, while potentially offering them a source of revenue to pay down the existing bonds. It also offers universal basic internet access, and the chance for everyone to purchase high speeds and premium services (voice and video) in a truly competitive market running on state-of-the-art infrastructure. The downside, of course, is the monthly utility fee, which is already proving contentious, as well as ceding control of the network to Macquarie for 30 years.
   
In the third and final article on this Macquarie series, we’ll look at the political implications and weigh the costs and benefits of the utility fee compared to what these cities are already paying.

UTOPIA at a Crossroads: Part 1

This is the first of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward.

At the end of a month of public meetings, hearings, and city council votes, just over half of the cities that make up UTOPIA have chosen to take the next step in their negotiations with the Macquarie Group. The massive Australian investment bank has put forward an offer to become a partner in the troubled network in exchange for a $300 million capital infusion to finish the long-stalled FTTH buildout.

Of the 11 member cities that have debt obligations for the network, six (comprising about 60% of all 163,000 addresses in the UTOPIA area) have voted to proceed to “Milestone 2,” which means digging into details and starting serious negotiations on the terms of a potential public-private partnership. Macquarie outlined their opening proposal in their Milestone 1 report in April.

Macquarie has about $145 billion in assets globally, and is no stranger to large scale infrastructure projects. Their Infrastructure and Real Assets division has stakes in Mexican real estate, Taiwanese broadband networks, Kenyan wind power, and a New Jersey toll bridge, to name just a few. For their UTOPIA investment, they would be working with Alcatel Lucent and Fujitsu, highly capable international IT companies. So there’s some serious corporate firepower across the negotiating table from the UTOPIA cities - and in this case, that’s not actually a bad thing.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA has an excellent overview of the whole messy history of UTOPIA and the limited options the network’s member cities now face. While the network offers true competition, low prices, and gigabit speeds through an open access FTTH network, UTOPIA has faced a slew of setbacks over the years, from incumbent lawsuits and astroturf activism to mismanagement, poor expansion planning, loan disputes, and restrictive state laws. As a result, the network remains unfinished, with just over 60,000 of 163,000 addresses having been passed by fiber, while member cities are on the hook for about $500 million in long term debt and interest payments to go with annual operating losses in the realm of $2.4 million.

The UTOPIA cities have some choices to make. They could simply shut the network down, eliminating the operating costs - but also depriving the area of its best chance at ubiquitous and affordable high speed internet access, losing the revenue from current customers, and doing nothing about the long term debt. This would essentially guarantee that the cities would continue to make bond payments for the next 30 years while receiving nothing. It would also leave the many local businesses  that depend on the network’s reliable speed high and dry.

Or the cities could choose to sell the network, as nearby Provo did with its fiber network after state restrictions requiring an infeasible business model took their toll. Any proceeds from a UTOPIA sale would be dwarfed by the outstanding bonds, however, leaving the cities with most of the debt left to pay and little to show for it, handing over control of a local infrastructure asset to the highest bidder. This did not work out especially well in Provo, where the public sector held onto the network’s debt while a private provider (Broadweave) struggled to operate it. They have had better luck with a subsequent sale to Google, but still retain the public debt without community ownership. This is a fate UTOPIA cities should avoid if at all possible.

Stay tuned for the rest of this series. In Part 2, we’ll break down the main points of the preliminary Macquarie proposal. In Part 3 we’ll weigh the pros and cons, showing why this deal has the potential to make the best of a difficult situation for UTOPIA-area residents and businesses.

Whitewater Weighs Options for Municipal Broadband

Whitewater, Wisconsin, a city of just under 15,000 people that sits midway between Madison and Milwaukee, is considering its options for establishing a municipal broadband utility. As reported by the local Daily Union newspaper, members of the city council, the community development authority, other local bodies, and the public met this week to hear a feasibility presentation and discussion with Anita Gallucci, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in broadband utilities.

Whitewater already has some public fiber optic infrastructure, having gone live with their gigabit-capable Whitewater Unified School District network last fall. The network joins up with a larger fiber backbone on the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, and has allowed Whitewater schools to increase their connection speeds by 1,200 percent while holding costs steady. The city is now looking at options for how to expand the opportunity brought by such high speed access to the broader community.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two topics: the legal landscape for municipal broadband utilities in Wisconsin, and the varying levels of success that other Wisconsin cities have had with their own networks. On the legal front, Gallucci affirmed that “municipalities can get into the broadband business if they choose to do so,” but then went on to outline the hurdles created by Wisconsin law that make the process more challenging. From the Daily Union article:

Gallucci said that first, the city must prepare a formal report or feasibility study. The report must cover a three-year outlook which addresses revenues derived from constructing, owning, or operating the utility including such things as equipment, maintenance, and personnel requirements.

Given the upfront costs associated with building out a fiber optic network, a report focusing on a three-year outlook is unlikely to cast a favorable light on the project. Like any other significant investment in public infrastructure, municipal networks may take more than three years to break even. If we used that benchmark for roads, we wouldn't have many.

Wisconsin cities must also go through a public hearing and vetting process before voting on final authorization of a municipal utility. There is a shorter route on the books in Wisconsin, but one that effectively gives incumbents a veto:

Gallucci said that cities do not have to follow these steps in very specific circumstances, such as serving an area of the city that does not otherwise have service access; but cities must notify private companies (for example, AT&T, Verizon, or Charter Communications) of that project. However, if those companies say they currently, or plan to in the future, serve those areas, then the steps need to be followed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if a city like Whitewater were to approach AT&T or Verizon and ask if they have any “plans to expand in the future” that might preempt the building out of a public network.

Wisconsin law is more obliging towards open access networks, according to Gallucci:

She said the steps could be avoided if the city acts as “a wholesaler of broadband services.” By this, she said, the intention would be to build the infrastructure and private companies would use those fibers to provide service.

“That would require the city itself to not provide any service to the end-user,” she explained.

While the legal environment in Wisconsin is generally unfavorable towards municipal broadband utilities, the meeting also highlighted some recent success stories. Reedsburg, which we wrote about here, was touted as the only Wisconsin city offering a “triple play” bundle through its broadband utility. Also mentioned was Sun Prairie, as fellow city seriously considering a FTTH network.

The next step will be for the Whitewater Community Development Agency to bring the issue before the City Council, which the city manager expected to happen “in the very near future.”  

Chanute City Commission Approves FTTH Plan

Chanute City Commission decided on June 9th to take the next step to bring ftth to the community; Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue and finalize funding to deploy a municipal network.

The City's current fiber network provides connectivity to schools, hospitals, electric utility and municipal facilities, the local college, and several businesses. Chanute has worked since 1984 to incrementally grow its network with no borrowing or bonding. Plans to expand the publicly owned infrastructure to every property on the electric grid began to take shape last year.

At a work session in May, Director of Utilities Larry Gates presented several possible scenarios, associated costs, and a variety of payback periods. The favored scenario includes Internet only from the City, with video and voice to be offered by a third party via the network. Residential symmetrical gigabit service will range from $40 - $50 depending on whether or not the subscriber lives in the city limits. Commercial service will be $75 per month. Advanced metering infrastructure will also be an integral part of the network.

The Commission authorized the pursuit of up to $14 million to get the project rolling.

FreeUTOPIA Destroying Myths About Macquerie in Utah

Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA recently published a piece correcting the many fantastic errors disseminated by the Utah Taxpayers Association. The group continues to spread lies to poison a proposal from Australian company Macquarie that could reinvigorate the ailing network. We spoke with Harris and Pete Ashdown, from Xmission, about the proposal in episode #85 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

As can be expected, the arguments are nothing new, but the Utah Taxpayers Association still finds a way to take it to new extremes. Harris' post is worth the read because it offers truths to correct misinformation.

After correcting several points, Harris writes:

Really, their diatribe just goes on and on like that. A lot of it is basic fact-checking stuff that’s flat-out wrong, but they know those kinds of statements will rile people up and get them too angry to consider the real facts.

The best thing you can do right now is to make sure you show up at city council meetings, let your elected officials know you support the deal, and make sure you counter any of the flat-out false talking points the opposition will be trotting out time and time again. We’re really close to having this thing in the bag, and we can’t let up until the ink dries on the final agreement.

In a late-breaking story, he also says he has evidence that CenturyLink is behind this astroturf campaign. Not at surprising, but we should not sit idly by while powerful corporations try to undermine our republic.

Story Behind Westminster's Pending Open Access Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 100

For our 100th episode, we are excited to share a conversation with Dr. Robert Wack, city council member and driving force behind a planned open access fiber network in Westminster, Maryland. Westminster has just decided that instead of a fiber pilot project, they are going to move ahead with the first phase of a larger deployment.

Dr. Wack and I discuss how that came to be and how the network has already resulted in a committment from an employer to move more jobs into the community. We finish our discussion with a personal anecdote about the benefits of expanding the reach of telehealth applications.

Read more about Westminster and Carroll County.

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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

"Connect With the World" in Mount Vernon on October 9

Plan on spending Thursday, October 9 in Mount Vernon, Washington. Chris will speak with three other experts on creating a local environment attractive to the tech industry. 

The "Connect With The World" event will occur at Skagit Valley College's MacIntyre Hall from 10 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. PDT. Other speakers will be:

Mark Anderson: One of FORTUNE's “100 Smartest People We Know,” Mark is a frequently sought after speaker around the world. His long- running weekly newsletter, Strategic News Service (SNS), counts a stellar readership, including the likes of Michael Dell, Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer.

Susannah Malarkey: Executive Director of the Technology Alliance, a statewide organization of leaders from technology businesses and research institutions dedicated to Washington’s long-term economic success.

Craig Settles: Municipal broadband expert for journalists at CNN, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Time Magazine and a host of business, technology and local media outlets.

Mount Vernon's municipal open access fiber network serves public entities and businesses within the City, in nearby Burlington, and in the Port Skagit area. The community began the project in 1995 and developed the network incrementally. We spoke with Kim Kleppe, Information Systems Director, and Jana Hansen, Community & Economic Development Director, in episode 38 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

For more on the event, contact Jana at (360)336-6214 or email her at:  janah@mountvernonwa.gov.

In Kansas, Chanute Explores FTTH Options

Last December, we reported on Chanute's decision to move forward with plans for a FTTH network. The community has a fiber and wireless network in place that serves utilities, public facilities such as libraries and schools, and several businesses. The network also provides free Wi-Fi across the community. As we discussed in our 2012 case study, Chanute developed its network incrementally over two decades with no borrowing or bonding.

In a City Commission work session on May 5, officials reviewed several options for an FTTH network. In a nutshell, the City is contemplating their involvement in the operation of the future network.

Utilities Director Larry Gates presented several options, reported the Chanute Tribune. Two choices stood out for the working group members:

Scenario C calls for the build out of city provided fiber optic-to-home broadband internet services. Service drops would only be provided to homes that want the internet services.

Under Scenario C, the initial investment would be about $10,926,842 to build the fiber core. The city would need $9,468,033 in funding to complete the project. The project would become cash-flow positive in two years, one month. It would take five years, nine months to pay back financing for the project. The 20-year net present value for the entire system would be an estimated $40,623,151.

Scenario D calls for a build out of the fiber optic-to-the-home system for private communications companies to pay a fee to the city to lease the network and provide services to residential customers. The city would seek private companies for voice, video and internet services.

Under Scenario D, the initial investment would be about $13,906,416 to complete the build out. The city would need $9,468,033 in funding to complete the project. The project would become cash-flow positive in one year, seven months. It would take eight years, 10 months to pay back financing for the project. The -20 year net present value for the entire system would be an estimated $25,667,301.

Under an altered Scenario D, the City would lease out the network for five years to a private company that would offer triple-play services to residents. At the end of the time period, the City would take over.

Several city officials expressed an aversion to city run video services.

“There is not much profit in video,” Gates said. “Provisioners are pretty much naming the price on that.”

“From a business standpoint, providing video is going to cost us more,” [Mayor Greg] Woodyard said. “We’re not going to be able to see a return on that investment.”

An April Tribune article reported on an outreach meeting held by City Commissioners. Brian Inbody, president of local Neosho Community College shared his experience with the network:

“It is as necessary to us as electricity, water and gas,” Inbody said. “We save about $30,000 year over what we were paying through AT&T to provide that service."

Local schools Superintendent James Hardy also spoke to the value of the publicly owned fiber infrastructure:

“If we didn’t have fiber, we couldn’t have school anymore,” Hardy said. “When we’re buying text books and we have text book rotation, half of what we pay for a text book is web-based material. When those teachers turn on their smart boards that are hooked to a computer, everything they are pulling down is off websites, because everything is web-based.”

At the public meeting in April, commissioners addressed concerns about a five percent franchise fee that commenced in December 2013. The network serves public telecommunications and utility operations and now needs relacement equipment. The franchise the fee will cover the costs.

“We were talking about being short money for equipment,” [Senior City Commissioner Tim] Egner said. “We were trying to figure out a way, without raising mill levies, how to come up with this money. With the franchise fee you’re going out over a larger area. You’re going outside the city. With the franchise fee, you can choose how much electricity you use. You can choose how much gas you use.”

The lack of upgrading maintenance has caught up with the city, Egner said.

“When we cut mill levies,” Egner said, “we had to adjust. We had to stop buying things. We stop putting money back for equipment. At some point that catches up with you. So, we had to figure out the best way to do it.”

The working group will meet again later in May to continue the discussion.