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North Carolina and Broadband as Infrastructure

We dedicated a lot of coverage to Time Warner Cable's purchasing legislation to handicap communities from building competitive networks. Kara Millonzi, from the University of North Carolina School of Government, examined the new law and made a potentially interesting point.

Communities have a steep mountain to climb to build a self-financing community network in the state but if a community wanted to treat broadband infrastructure like the roads they manage, the law may not impact them.

As stated above, S.L. 2011-84 imposes some significant limitations on a municipality’s authority to provide cable and Internet services. With some exceptions, the limitations apply to a “city-owned communications service provider.” A city-owned communications service provider is defined as:

  • a city
  • that provides cable, video programming, telecommunications, broadband, or high-speed Internet access service (collectively, communication services)
  • directly, indirectly, or through interlocal agreement or joint agency
  • to the public
  • for a fee
  • using a wired or wireless network (communications network).

This definition is important because the new limitations only apply to municipalities that meet all of its elements. In particular, the Act’s provisions only apply to a municipality that provides the listed services “for a fee.” That means that the requirements do not apply to any municipality that provides the above-listed communication services for free to the public. Many local governments provide free Wi-Fi service in their downtown or other central business areas. (In fact, I am taking advantage of Town of Carrboro’s free Wi-Fi as I draft this post.) If a municipality uses its unrestricted general fund revenue to finance this service, or any other communications services, it is not subject to the new Act’s provisions. (Note that many local governments actually offer this service by taking advantage of excess capacity on their internal broadband networks.)

Though it is an extreme long shot, it would be fascinating to see a community build a network without charging a direct fee to access. It would also be fun to see Time Warner Cable hoisted on their own petard after pushing such self-serving and harmful-to-the-public legislation through an incredibly ignorant legislature.

Community Networks Provide Cable/Broadband Competition That is Otherwise Unlikely

You can also read this story over at the Huffington Post.

How can it be that the big companies who deliver some of the most important services in our modern lives (access to the Internet, television) rank at the top of the most hated? Probably because when they screw up or increase prices year after year, we have no choice but sticking with them. Most of us have no better options.

But why do we have so few choices? Government-sanctioned monopolies have been outlawed since the 1996 Telecommunications Act. Unfortunately, the natural tendency of the telecommunications industry is toward consolidation and monopoly (or duopoly). In the face of this reality, the federal government has done little to protect citizens and small businesses from telecom market failings.

But local governments have stepped up and built incredible next-generation networks that are accountable to the community. These communities have faster speeds (at lower prices) than the vast majority of us.

Most of these communities would absolutely prefer for the private sector to build the necessary networks and offer real competition, but the economics of telecom makes that as likely as donuts becoming part of a healthy breakfast. In most cases, the incumbent cable and telephone companies are too entrenched for any other company to overbuild them. But communities do not have the same pressures to make a short-term profit. They can take many years to break even on an investment that creates many indirect benefits along the way.

One might expect successful companies like AT&T and Time Warner Cable to step up to the challenge posed by community networks, and they have. Not by simply investing more and competing for customers, but by using their comparative advantage – lobbying state legislatures to outlaw the competition. As we noted in our commentary and video last week, massive cable and telephone companies have tried to remove local authority to build networks.

These companies frequently claim they are at an unfair disadvantage when they have to compete against a broadband network owned by the local government. This claim resonates strongly with some politicians, particularly those who happen to receive a lot of campaign contributions from big telco and cable companies -- as recently demonstrated in Wisconsin. They say they just want a "level playing field."

We decided to take a deeper look. We compared Time Warner Cable to Salisbury, North Carolina -- which built one of the newest community fiber networks – to see who is at a disadvantage.

TWC v Salisbury Fibrant InfoGraphic

Big companies like Time Warner Cable have some big advantages over any community that decides to build a network. Of course, communities do not build their own networks on a lark, they do it because they need fast, affordable, and reliable networks for economic development and maintaining a high quality of life.
But a better comparison goes beyond simply the scale of the competitors in order to complete a more meaningful comparison. For that, we created our “Level Playing Field” video, attached below.

There should be no doubt that massive incumbent cable and phone companies have a monopoly on the “unfair” advantages in telecommunications. Fortunately, community networks have a host of local advantages and often superior technology with which to invest in the networks they need. The question is whether Congress and the states will protect the right of communities to choose for themselves if a local community network is necessary.

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Lessig Promotes Publicly Owned Broadband at Personal Democracy Forum

I have long been a fan of Larry Lessig's work, so I was proud to see him use our work as the foundation for his presentation at the 2011 Personal Democracy Forum.  He talks about the fundamental right of communities to build their own networks as well as Time Warner Cable's successful purchase of competition-limiting legislation in North Carolina.

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New Video: Community Fiber Networks Better than Phone, Cable Networks

Update: You can also watch the video over at the Huffington Post, in our first post as a HuffPo blogger.

While we were battling Time Warner Cable to preserve local authority in North Carolina, we developed a video comparing community fiber networks to incumbent DSL and cable networks to demonstration the incredible superiority of community networks.

We have updated the video for a national audience rather than a North Carolina-specific approach because community fiber networks around the country are similarly superior to incumbent offerings. And community networks around the country are threatened by massive corporations lobbying them out of existence in state legislatures.

Feel free to send feedback - especially suggestions for improvement - to broadband@muninetworks.org.

Without further ado, here is the new video comparing community fiber networks to big incumbent providers:

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Munis Tell Carriers: Forget You Guys

MHT, Mass High Tech -- the Voice of New England Innovation -- recently turned a spotlight on the difficulty of creating Ubiquitous high-speed broadband. Always refreshing to see others understanding the real impediments to expanding fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet in this country:

For Andrew Rollins, chief software architect for Cambridge mobile analytics software as a service company Localytics Inc., the answer is to go DIY — at least for municipalities.
“I think the most interesting thing that is happening today is that you are looking at municipalities that are saying (to carriers), ‘Forget you guys. We are going to do it ourselves,’” Rollins said.

That is happening because there is no real business incentive for broadband carriers like Verizon Communications Inc. or Comcast Corp. to make the investment in infrastructure required to reach everyone in the U.S. Add to that the deals they have struck to function as monopolies in many locations, and it adds up to companies that really want to hold on to the status quo, Rollins said. “Somehow you have to incentivize these guys to build out the infrastructure and I don’t think they are going to do it on their own. They’re already gouging the heck out of customers today so why bother making that infrastructure if you are already getting that money out of people.” 

They go to discuss the backwards approach from North Carolina:

“Down in North Carolina they have been actually going out of their way saying the community fiber-to-the-home and broadband networks are bad and can’t happen,” she said. “That’s not going to get us there. If you say to the communities that you can’t do it yourself, that’s not an environment in which we can achieve success, not just in 5 years but in 10 or 20 years.”

Well worth the read.

Global CIO: Consider the Benefits of Community Broadband Networks

Publication Date: 
June 2, 2011
Author(s): 
Jonathan Feldman
Publication Title: 
Information Week

Information Week has alerted Chief Information Officers (CIOs) that they need to pay attention to community broadband networks. Jonathan Feldman's column explains "What North Carolina's Broadband Battlefield Means to You."

The lessons have little to do with North Carolina and everything to do with the future of broadband Internet access. Community networks offer higher speed, more reliable, and more affordable connections to businesses and other entities than incumbent operators.

Feldman opens with a North Carolina business owner emailing him about wanting to duplicate Chattanooga's amazing broadband options and futuristic smart grid. Too bad North Carolina's Legislature just passed a bill to effectively prohibit NC towns from doing that.

MuniNetworks.org frequently decries the lack of choices among service providers, so it is gratifying to see Feldman make the same point:

Those of us who approve telecom budgets, whether in North Carolina or other states, know there really isn't a broadband marketplace. In contrast, we can choose among 50 providers of Web hosting services, and they're all trying to differentiate themselves based on quality and features. THAT'S a marketplace. What exists today in broadband telecom is essentially a choice between the telco and the region's cable operator.

And further on, a strong endorsement for communities that have made public broadband investments:

Unless you're a telecom carrier, you should be interested in doing business in a region where the government is building out next-generation broadband infrastructure. Whether you work for a large business that requires fiber optic capabilities (or "lambdas," which are virtual fiber pipes), or whether you simply need IP service, the lower price/performance levels of such regions are highly attractive.

Be aware of the telecom regulatory environment in any state your company is expanding into, especially as other states follow North Carolina's example. It may not be a make or break consideration, but it's one that you should bring up with your board when discussing site selection.

Feldman notes that these networks are not easy to build (a point that resonates with us - communities build these networks because they have to, not because they want to).

This is an excellent column, one we hope resonates with the many businesses that need faster, more reliable, and affordable access to the Internet. When massive companies like Time Warner Cable lobby state legislatures to preempt local authority to build networks, they are taking aim at all residents and local businesses. Businesses should recognize the benefits of breaking the duopoly that controls a key input for all commerce in the 21st century.

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Remember Michael Tiemann's letter to Governor Perdue, begging her not to let Time Warner Cable's anti-muni broadband bill become law (she instead agreed with Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T that they should control the future of IT in North Carolina). In that letter, he described the difficulty of working with TWC:

On Sunday May 15th you may have read about our latest investment in North Carolina, Manifold Recording. This was the feature story in the Arts & Living section, and the top right-hand text box on the front page. One of the most difficult and expensive line-items in this multi-million dollar project was securing a broadband link to the site in rural Chatham County. I spent more than two years begging Time Warner to sell me a service that costs 50x more than it should, and that's after I agreed to pay 100% of the installation costs for more than a mile of fiber.

Community networks are pro-business and it is long past time businesses should recognize their advantages. Let's hope we can make some progress in this area.

Poignant Videos from North Carolina H129 Legislation

Though the North Carolina fight is over, I wanted to include these two videos in our archive in case they are useful to those in the future who will undoubtedly cover the same ground.

One is the excellent local news video asking about the role of lobbyists and political contributions on the laws that get passed and the other captures an important moment from debates in the Legislature - thanks to NC Policy Watch for posting.

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Government Technology on TWC Bill in North Carolina

Government Technology has run an excellent article discussing the passage of Time Warner Cable's bill in North Carolina. We couldn't pass up reposting some of the quotes used in "Municipal Broadband Networks Slammed in North Carolina."

“Essentially this bill is a cable monopoly protection bill,” said Doug Paris, assistant city manager of Salisbury, N.C., another city with its own broadband service. “It protects Time Warner Cable and ensures they will continue to do what they’ve been doing for decades, which is serving where they want to serve and not serving where they don’t want to serve.”

And though it may be tacky to quote myself, I do quite like the quote…

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a nonprofit economic and community development consulting group, agreed and said that there is “almost no chance” another community in North Carolina will be able to build a new broadband network under the law.

“The Legislature, in passing laws like this, shows just how out of touch they are,” Mitchell said.


 
“It’s very clear to me that North Carolina’s legislators don’t understand the difference between a slow DSL connection and a modern, reliable fiber-optic connection. They don’t understand that what Time Warner [Cable] and CenturyLink are selling isn’t helping communities be competitive in the modern era.”

I hope communities and activists around the country have taken note of the power incumbents wield and are starting to talk to elected officials to educate them and build the relationships necessary to counteract all the money in politics.

After 4 Years, TWC Buys Its North Carolina Legislation

Last year, we put together a report with graphs showing how superior the community fiber networks are compared to incumbent operators like AT&T and Time Warner Cable. When we released the report, we noted that Time Warner Cable would almost certainly push legislation in 2011 to limit local authority to choose to build locally owned networks.

Sadly, we were right. On Friday, North Carolina's Governor Perdue bowed to the pressure of TWC, CenturyLink and other companies that want to limit competition. She refused to veto a bill written by those companies, for those companies, that will ensure local businesses and residents will have fewer choices and higher bills when they connect to the Internet.

In February, we dug into TWC's H129 to explain how it threatened the future of broadband access in the Tar Heel state. It was the first of more than 30 posts we wrote since, reporting very closely on its path through a legislature effectively controlled by big-money corporations.

North Carolina has become the first state in perhaps 5-6 years to enact new barriers to prevent communities from building their own broadband networks, even when the private sector has refused to invest. Advocates of the bill pretend it exempts rural areas with little broadband access, but that section was carefully amended by lobbyists to effectively apply to no one.

Below, you'll see the video we produced that shows the real threat TWC and CenturyLink were responding to - the embarrassment of offering anemic, overpriced services compared to networks like Salisbury's Fibrant and Wilson's Greenlight.

We hope that voters will remember whether their elected officials, including Governor Perdue, represented the people and small businesses of the state or simply parroted talking points from an industry that has dumped millions of dollars into the Legislature to buy new regulation to kill the only likely source of broadband competition.

nc-gov-perdue.png

Governor Perdue ignored more than 2,000 phone calls begging her to veto a bill she agreed could "have the effect of decreasing the number of choices available to their citizens."

Her concern?

There is a need to establish rules to prevent cities and towns from having an unfair advantage over providers in the private sector.

One might as well push for legislation to prevent ants from having an unfair advantage over children with magnifying glasses. Or for legislation protecting NFL running backs from the threat of middle-school linebackers.

While local governments may have one or two tools available to them that are not available to the private sector, massive companies will tens of billions of dollars in revenue have far more advantages than any local government. Additionally, incumbents naturally have multiple advantages over any overbuilder -- pro-competition legislation should seek to remove unfair incumbent advantages, not increase them.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this rough-and-tumble battle in North Carolina was the utter lack of discussion about what communities need for economic development, quality of life, and such. Whenever Representatives from rural areas tried to talk about what their communities needed, those pushing the bill (Avila was the worst) said that discussion should be held another time -- but it was always clear that this was the one broadband bill leadership wanted to succeed.

It was quite clear that to those in the legislature supporting TWC's bill, an unreliable, overpriced connection to DSL was no different than a far more reliable and affordable connection via a next-generation fiber-optic network. And even though AT&T is cutting future investment while imposing new limits on how much of their service subscribers can use, most of the legislature effectively said "more power to them." As long as TWC and CenturyLink can cut those big campaign checks, too many elected leaders have no interest in what is really necessary for North Carolina's communities to thrive.

We must learn from this struggle and move on to find ways of expanding affordable, fast, and reliable access to the Internet to everyone. This will now be harder in North Carolina, but voters can change that in coming elections, if they so choose.

As always, anyone interested in helping to defend and increase local authority to build networks, donate to make sure we can continue this important work. For those interested in a wider look at the threat of corporate power to democracy, check out Larry Lessig's Rootstrikers.org. Only by continuing to organize can we balance the massive power of corporations like Time Warner Cable.

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RedHat VP Calls on Gov Perdue to Veto NC Anti Community Network Bill

As time runs out on the future of affordable, fast, and reliable broadband in North Carolina, more are calling on Governor Perdue to veto H129, the bill pushed by Time Warner Cable to kill local authority to invest in essential infrastructure. If Governor Perdue does nothing, the bill will become law at midnight as Friday, May 20, draws to a close.

Get involved, join the call to action from Free Press or a similar effort from Demand Progress.

In the final hours, more have called on the Governor to veto the Time Warner Monopoly Act (which we have discussed ad nauseum here), including Michael Tiemann, a vice president from Red Hat, one of the most well known Gnu/Linux distributions.

The letter was published on Rootstrikers.org, a community dedicated to fighting all the corruption in politics that allows massive companies like Time Warner Cable to buy legislation.

Dear Governor Perdue,

We are strong supporters of your leadership and your campaign, and we would like to be heard on the important issue of community broadband. I know you are not afraid to use your veto pen, and so I ask you to veto H129, a bill that will take the future away from North Carolina and put it into the pockets of cable company monopolists.

On Sunday May 15th you may have read about our latest investment in North Carolina, Manifold Recording. This was the feature story in the Arts & Living section, and the top right-hand text box on the front page. One of the most difficult and expensive line-items in this multi-million dollar project was securing a broadband link to the site in rural Chatham County. I spent more than two years begging Time Warner to sell me a service that costs 50x more than it should, and that's after I agreed to pay 100% of the installation costs for more than a mile of fiber. As part of a revised Conditional Use Permit (approved last night), I presented to the Commissioners and the Planning Board of Chatham County data on the economic investment I made, and the fact that according to the statistics from the Rural Broadband Coalition, that such an investment was worth about $300,000 to the 100+ neighbors who live along the new fiber link that I paid for.

Such heroics should not be necessary, nor should they be so costly.

I spent 10 years in Silicon Valley, and I know how quick they are to adopt new technologies that help people start and grow businesses. Manifold Recording would have remained a pipe-dream without broadband. But not everybody can afford to pay $1000/month for the slowest class of fiber broadband. Community broadband initiatives reach more people faster, at lower costs, leading to better economic development. Take it from me: had I been able to spend the time and money on community broadband that I spent in my commercial negotiations, there would be more jobs in Chatham County today.

For more information, which I strongly encourage you to have someone on staff research, please review http://www.rootstrikers.org/story/community-broadband/ . There, you will see that "as goes North Carolina, so goes the nation." We cannot afford to ruin either our own prospects for an economic recovery led by new technologies and new business nor the prospects for an America recovery.