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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.

Video: 
See video
See video

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.

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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.

Video: 
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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.

Lessig, Doc Searls, and Others Call on Gov Perdue to Veto TWC Bill

As readers know, we have devoted a lot of effort to educating everyone about Time Warner Cable's Bill in North Carolina to kill local authority to build broadband networks. As time runs out for NC Governor Perdue to kill this terrible legislation with her veto pen, we have seen many more calls on the Governor to act on behalf of local businesses and residents rather than on behalf of TWC and CenturyLink.

We've written more on this legislation than almost any other topic (all of it available here), so we want to highlight other recent posts.

Some notable recent calls to action come from Larry Lessig's Rootstrikers:

North Carolina has one of the nation's most impressive community broadband movements. Locally owned, state of the art networks are delivering fast, cheap Internet across the state. Big telecom companies--Time Warner Cable in particular--are not happy with their success. They've spent millions on lobbying state lawmakers. Now, the North Carolina legislature has passed a bill that bans competition from community broadband networks. Under this legislation, local communities would be held hostage to the corporate broadband networks that have given America second-rate networks everywhere.

Josh Levy of Free Press wrote the following in Ars Technica:

Predictably, the big cable companies view these municipal upstarts as major threats. Companies like Time Warner Cable and CenturyLink may be unwilling to extend their networks to communities like Cedar Grove, but they don't want anyone else doing it either—such an incursion would pose a threat to North Carolina’s de facto cable duopoly. Ironically, the weapon these traditionally regulation-shy companies have turned to in order to fight the municipal broadband effort is regulation.

Doc Searls also weighed in:

Here’s a simple fact for Governor Perdue to ponder: In the U.S. today, the leading innovators in Internet build-out are cities, not phone and cable companies. Look at Chatanooga and Lafayette — two red state cities that are doing an outstanding job of building infrastructure that attracts and supports new businesses of all kinds. Both are doing what no phone or cable companies are able or willing to do. And both are succeeding in spite of massive opposition by phone and cable companies.

And finally, Rick Yuzzi from ZCorum

In my opinion, a city should be able to set up a broadband business. It’s not likely to do so unless there is a compelling need in the community. If they do, and they provide a well run and profitable service, the service will survive. If it’s poorly run and a drain on city resources, citizens can vote with their dollars, as well as at the ballot box.

FCC's Clyburn at National Town Hall at NCMR

On April 8, 2011, FCC Commissioners Clyburn and Copps spoke at the National Conference for Media Reform, held in Boston by Free Press. The moderator asked Commissioner Clyburn about her comments calling on North Carolina to cease consideration of a bill advanced by Time Warner Cable to preempt local authority to build superior broadband networks.

The entire event is available via Free Press' Conference site but we isolated the comments about local authority here.

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.

Commissioner Clyburn Opposes North Carolina Bill to Preempt Local Authority

I recently learned that several state legislatures are considering bills that are contrary to the deployment objectives of the Broadband Plan. For example, in North Carolina, the state legislature is currently evaluating legislation entitled ‘Level Playing Field/Local Government Competition.’ ... This piece of legislation certainly sounds goal-worthy, an innocuous proposition, but do not let the title fool you. This measure, if enacted, will not only fail to level the playing field; it will discourage municipal governments from addressing deployment in communities where the private sector has failed to meet broadband service needs. In other words, it will be a significant barrier to broadband deployment and may impede local efforts to promote economic development.