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Cities in Kentucky and Massachusetts Want a Say In Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

As the feds continue to evaluate the wisdom of the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, local communities in several states are attempting to throw a wrench in the federal approval machine.

In Worcester, Massachusetts, the City Council recently refused to approve the transfer of the city's cable television license to Comcast. In order to sweet-talk the federal agencies concerned the merger may create too much market concentration, Comcast has worked out a deal with Charter Communications to transfer customers in certain geographic areas. Charter is the current incumbent in Worcester. 

According to a Telegam & Gazette article, the City Council does not need to approve the transfer for it to take affect. Nevertheless, the City Council voted 8-3 on October 14 to urge City Manager, Edward M. Augustus Jr., not to approve the transfer of the license. If Augustus makes no determination, the transfer will automatically be approved.

The city can only examine the transfer based on four criteria including company management, technical experience, legal experience, and financial capabilities. Management and poor customer service are the sticking points for Worcester:

District 5 Councilor Gary Rosen said the City Council should not welcome Comcast to Worcester because of its "deplorable and substandard" customer service across the country. 

"It's a terrible company," he said. "In my opinion, they should not be welcome in this city. Comcast is a wolf in wolf's clothing; it's that bad. They are awful, no doubt about it. Maybe we can't stop it, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't speak out." 

A similar scenario is playing out in Lexington, Kentucky. The community is the second largest city served by Time Warner Cable in the state. They are concerned existing customer service problems will worsen if Comcast becomes their provider.

The Urban City Council drafted two resolutions denying the transfer. The resolutions had first reading on October 9. Customer service is, again, a point of contention.

According to an October 9 Kentucky.com article, the city proposed including a fine for poor customer service as part of the agreement.  The fine is in the current franchise agreement, but TWC will not agree to carry it forward into the next agreement. The two parties have been working on a new contract since the previous one expired in 2012.

From an October 7 article in Kentucky.com:

Vice Mayor Linda Gorton said the city held two public meetings and also asked for public input regarding issues with the city's cable provider.

The city received "reams" of negative feedback from citizens, she said "It's everything from equipment, to service, to cost or the inability to understand how costs are set."

Council members also want to ensure that the local cable office be open some evening and weekend hours so customers can seek help. They also want to include an existing provision wherein the provider maintains a studio for public access television.

"We want to keep these terms in our current agreement," Gorton said. "For our citizens, we are working hard to get a good franchise agreement."

Back in Worcester, community leaders recognize their limitations:

Councilor-at-Large Frederick C. Rushton said there is no question there is a need for better cable television service in Worcester, but added that federal laws are unfortunately geared more in favor of cable companies than consumers. 

"We can make it sound like we are taking on the big boys, but in reality this will go nowhere," he said. "People want better service but I'm not sure the council floor is the way to get better service. We are just bit players in a big play. It may feel good to vote this, but it may very well end up having no effect." 

New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

Ellensburg Considers Muni Fiber Network Expansion

Last year, we covered this central Washington city’s first foray into publicly owned fiber optics. The local incumbent, Charter Communications, began charging the city $10,000 per month for services it had been providing for free for a decade as part of its franchise agreement. Ellensburg officials did some quick math and realized that they could save money building their own network.

They ultimately awarded a contract for $960,000 to build 13 miles of fiber connecting various public facilities throughout the city including the police department and Central Washington University. Thanks to Charter’s high rates, the direct cost savings alone could pay for the entire project in about eight years, leaving aside all the other direct and indirect benefits of public network ownership. 

Now, with the original construction project not even quite complete, Ellensburg is already considering expanding to serve residents and the local business community. According to the local Daily Recorder newspaper, the city council has unanimously voted to issue a request for qualifications from contractors for a long term strategic plan.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

The new strategic plan is expected to be finished before construction on the current institutional network ends. The construction plan for the institutional network was designed to be “future-ready,” with contingency funds set aside for possible later alterations or expansions. It seems those funds may be tapped sooner rather than later.

The Ellensburg Business Development Authority has been a major advocate of the city’s fiber network, pushing the city to expand it to new areas, offer service to businesses, and look into how it could compete with Charter Communications. As city councilmember Tony Aronica put it:

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”  

While nothing has been decided yet, Ellensburg’s discussion of expanding municipal network services is already turning envious heads in Spokane and other nearby cities. Ellensburg itself consulted with Tacoma, which has operated a city cable utility for years, in crafting its institutional network construction plan. It's always encouraging to see expertise and ideas spread from one local community to another, shortening the learning curve for small cities seeking to get out from under the local cable incumbent's thumb. 

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.”  

Montrose Moves Toward Muni Network -Community Broadband Bits Podcast #95

Nestled in a valley in the Colorado rockies, the city of Montrose has voted overwhelmingly to reestablish local authority over whether to build a municipal fiber network. With nearly 20,000 people, Montrose does have cable service from Charter and DSL from CenturyLink but neither service is meeting local needs.

Virgil Turner, Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement for the City, joins us in episode 95 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss the need for a better network and how the big cable and telephone companies have failed to meet local needs.

Montrose has all options on the table as it now plans to engage the public and determine how to move forward with possible investments to improve their access to the Internet.

View our other posts on Montrose here.

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."

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.

LightTUBe Financially Secure in Tennessee

Tullahoma Utilities Board's triple-play FTTH LightTUBe, began serving Tullahoma in 2009. The fiber network utility is paying off its city bond debt on schedule reports the Tullahoma News.

The network's income during the first four months of fiscal year 2014 is a positive $58,939. General Manager Brian Skelton spoke with Chris Mitchell in July 2013 and expressed confidence that that network will continue to operate in the black. The News reported on our podcast interview with Skelton and provided some recent updates:

With an estimated potential customer base of 9,000 in the TUB service area, LightTUBe services 3,201 fiber customers. That number is slightly ahead of goal (3,186) and represents nearly 36 percent market penetration against primary competitor Charter Communications.

Tullahoma deployed its network to encourage economic development. In 2011, we reported on J2 Software Solutions. The company located its headquarters in Tullahoma because LightTUBe offered fast, reliable, affordable service. 

According to the News article, expenditures on Internet service remain consistent while subscriptions grow. The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) only recently approved a $7 rate increase for video service due to an increase in the cost of television content. When content rates rose in the past, TUB chose to absorb the increase but the cost of content continues to increase for all providers. Since 2009, TUB increased Internet service speeds five times without increasing prices. From the article:

”LightTUBe is in a very comfortable position from a financial perspective. Our biggest concern at this point is the unreasonable price increases that we (and others in the video business) are seeing from many of our channel providers,” said Skelton.

That comfortable financial position appears to rest largely on the shoulders of LightTUBe’s Internet service.

While video and telephone services together generate enough income to offset the system’s net maintenance and depreciation costs, Internet services generate enough income to offset its additional customer service, sales, administration and debt costs.

Unlike the private providers it competes against, Tullahoma is limited in where it can offer service. State law prevents it from serving customers outside its electrical territory - something AT&T and Comcast lobbyists have preserved year after year by killing bills that would remove this damaging law. Across Tennessee, local businesses, residents, and anchor institutions are stuck with slower, less reliable connections despite desiring expansion from the nearby utility but they are denied.

Because Tennessee law prohibits municipal utilities from providing their fiber services outside of their electric service territory, LightTUBe cannot offer its 1G Internet to – for example – the Coffee County Joint Industrial Park, which is serviced by Duck River Electrical Membership Cooperative (DREMC). The joint park, located five miles northeast of Tullahoma and outside of TUB’s service area, has cable-based Internet service.

Charter Prices Inspire Washington City to Consider its Own Network

Ellensburg, located in central Washington, is considering the pros and cons of a municipal fiber network. A big pro for the community of 18,000 is the ability to predict costs rather than depend on Charter Communications. Charter wants to begin charging $10,300 per month for municipal connectivity it previously supplied at no cost in return for access to the public rights-of-way.

The Ellensburg Daily Record recently reported that the City Council unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance that will allow the city to establish a telecommunications utility. The city began using Charter's fiber optic network in 1997 as part of the city's franchise agreement. Educational institutions, public safety, and the county public utilities district also use the network. Ellensburg owns and operates its own electric and natural gas utilities. Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar was quoted:

“It’s clearly in the city’s best interest to just build it on its own and own it, compared to leasing it,” he said.

The community needs approximately 15 miles of fiber optic network to replace Charter's institutional network. The two parties are still negotiating and may still reach an agreement for a new contract although the article reports:

In June, Council directed the city to solicit vendor proposals for building a city network, and Dunbar said the city is close to granting the contract.

He declined to share a total cost because contract negotiations are ongoing, but said it makes more sense for the city to build the network now rather than pay in perpetuity, he said.

“A telecommunications network is like a 35-year endeavor,” he said. “If we would have done a lease, we could have bought two or three networks over 35 years.”

Local median KIMA TV recently covered the story:

We would go further and note the many more advantages of owning rather than leasing. When the city owns the fiber network, it can expand it to connect local businesses and/or residents who feel that Charter is not meeting their needs. The network can be expanded at low cost over time in conjunction with other projects, for instance as part of an effort to create a new commercial or industrial park. Owning provides much more flexibility than leasing, particularly with a massive and inflexible corporation like Charter.

Dublin, Georgia: Offering Connectivity to Businesses, Schools, Government Since 1999

Dublin, home to 16,000 people, is also home to a network that snakes through the city and parts of Laurens County. In addition to a natural gas utility that serves the region, the city provides connectivity to two area school districts and local businesses. We contacted Guy Mullis, IT Director for the City of Dublin.

The fiber optic network was installed in 1999 to provide connectivity for the two separate school systems in the community, Laurens County Schools and Dublin City Schools. The school districts needed better connectivity because dial-up was the only option at the time. The school districts could not afford the cost of installing their own fiber networks.

The City used its own funds to construct a network that is 85% aerial. Mullis was not an employee of the City at the time, but he estimates the network cost approximately $1.5 - $2 million. He also believes the funds were a combination of capital improvement funds and economic development funds. From the start, the plan has been to serve the schools but also to provide connectivity to spur economic development.

Eight city school facilities and six county school facilities use the network today for connections between buildings. Dublin City Schools have 10 Gbps speeds between facilities; Laurens County Schools have equipment in place for 1 Gbps connections between schools. Both school districts use the Georgia Technology Authority for Internet access.

Once the network was in place, AT&T and Charter Communications began building in Dublin. Mullis says he does not believe AT&T and Charter would have invested in Dublin in 2000 if not for the presence of the community network. He notes that AT&T begin installing DSL in areas of town within a year of the fiber network deployment. 

During the first few years, the City connected its network to the Internet with a 45 Mbps AT&T connection but needs quickly outgrew capacity. The City looked for alternate ways to connect to the Internet. City staff discovered that a major dark fiber backbone ran through Dublin from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida. The company that owned the line (the company has since been purchsed by Level 3) allowed Dublin to splice into the dark fiber to connect to Atlanta. The opportunity allowed Dublin to buy bandwidth at Atlanta prices rather than being stuck with massive markups by the few firms that can provide access. The City has since spliced another line to the backbone to achieve redundancy.

In 2006, the City received a grant through the Georgia Telecommunications Authority to expand wi-fi in the community. With matching funds, the community installed over forty wireless access points and now provide wi-fi hotspots within the City. The presence of the fiber network for backhaul helped secure the grant.

Dublin Wi-Fi Logo

Twelve Laurens County and Dublin City facilities connect to the network. The City also uses the network for voice between city facilities, saving significantly by avoiding dedicated phone lines to each building. When new companies consider moving to the community, the ability to work beyond agency silos is a positive factor, says Mullis. Businesses recognize that cooperative government helps them achieve their goals.

There are forty-five business customers including YKK fastening and architectural products and  Farmer's Home Furniture. The network serves a variety of businesses, including banks, CPA firms, law firms, and hospitals. Prior to the deployment, incumbents could not offer the high-speed connections businesses needed. Since the deployment, cable and DSL have come to Dublin, but the City's commercial customers stick with their City service. Mullis believes local businesses appreciate working with a local provider. When a customer calls with an issue, they know exactly who will address the problem. "They are going to talk to me," says Mullis.

The City currently supplies 200 Mbps for Internet traffic; business and government customers share the bandwidth. Businesses with multiple offices in the area like being able to use the network for local traffic rather than sending sensitive data across the open Internet.

We have reported on many Georgia communities in the past (e.g. MonroeLaGrange, and Thomasville). Unlike the states that surround it, the Peach State does not presently impose barriers on local communities that consider publicly owned networks.  In 2013, ALEC affiliated legislators sponsored sponsored HB 282 but failed to revoke local authority. We anticipate the fight will continue into 2014 and beyond.

AT&T and Charter did not get the job done in Dublin so the community took care of themselves. If large incumbents do not find value in a community like Dublin, it is of course their choice to limit investment. But they should not be able to prevent a community from investing in itself.

Rates Approved for Opelika Community Fiber Network

We have followed happenings in Opelika, Alabama, for three years as the community investigated the benefits of a fiber network. They contended with a Charter misinformation campaign and voted yes on a referendum. Construction began in 2012, Opelika Power Services (OPS) tested the network, and recently the Opelika City Council approved proposed rates. 

OANow.com now reports that the FTTH network and smart grid project is ever-so-close to offering triple play services to the city's 28,000 residents and local businesses. 

OPS offers three standard bundled plans, but customers can also customize. All three include voice:

  • Essential - $99.95 - 75 channels, 10/5 Mbps data
  • Choice - $139.95 - 132 HD & SD channels, 30/30 Mbps data
  • Ultra - $154.95 - 207 HD & SD channels, 30/30 Mbps data

Data offerings for customized plans range from 10/5 Mbps for $34.95 to 1 Gbps symmetrical for $499.95.

Voters approved the plan for the $41 million network in 2010. The project included a $3.7 million network hub that houses all OPS offices. The smart grid will help approximately 12,000 OPS electric customers save with efficient electric usage.June Owens, manager of marketing at OPS said it well in an August OANow.com article:

“Fiber is going to put Opelika on the map like never before,” Owens said. “Opelika should be very proud. Nobody in the state is doing a project like this. And there is not much outside the state of Alabama like this. This is 100 percent fiber to the home. Fiber to the house doesn’t require the electronics in the field – this eliminates problems in the field that you might have with other types of systems. It is truly state-of-the-art equipment at its best.”

While this project is certainly a landmark in Alabama, it is curious to see a community owned fiber network offering asymetrical services on the standard tier - with 10 Mbps download and 5 Mbps uploads. Though many community owned networks offer asymetrical packages, the vast majority were built more than 5 years ago. Most modern fiber networks have launched with the same upstream capacity as downstream.

Additionally, we have been accustomed to seeing community fiber networks launching with a faster standard tier in order to clearly differentiate themselves from competitors using older technologies like cable and DSL. Cable, and DSL to a lesser extent, can compete with 10/5 packages.

But we don't know the situation on the ground - it is not hard to believe that Charter's services are so bad that a reliable and affordable 10/5 will be warmly received by many households. We are curious to see how the marketing war plays out in Opelika and wish them the best as they roll out the network.

For more about Opelika's project, listen to Christopher interview Mayor Gary Fuller and Jennifer McCain from the Motive Group in Episode #40 of the Broadband Bits podcast. In addition to the story of the network, the two discuss the political challenges that inevitably accompany any large publicly funded project.