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Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 21, 2014

Tennessee officials are raising the “Gig City” rally cry. Last week, public and private sector leaders gathered in Chattanooga to make sure the FCC knows where they stand on removing restrictions to community broadband in the state. GovTech’s Brian Heaton covered the rally.

“What needs to [happen] is removing the restriction of the electronic footprint, so anybody who wants to provide accessible, high-speed broadband will not be encumbered by unnecessary regulations,” [Tennessee Sen. Janice] Bowling (R) said.

Public officials again stressed the need to increase connectivity beyond the city’s borders in order to develop the area’s economic future.

Longmont, Colorado is one of this week's darlings of community broadband. Trevor Hughes reported on USA Today about the city connecting residents to its fiber optic network. The public network highlights the problems communities face when private networks fail to provide service as promised.

“Longmont knows all about the failings of the private marketplace. Twice the city partnered with private companies to provide high-speed Internet to residents over the past 15 years, and twice the private companies failed. Now city workers are picking up where those private ventures failed, using low-cost government loans to help pay workers to bring the service from the network that "last mile" to peoples' homes.

"It was the private sector that failed here," Roiniotis said. "We tried. We reached out to the private sector to build this network. "If we had waited long enough, there's a chance a cable company would have eventually done this. We decided, no we don't want to wait."

In Madison, city leaders are recognizing the necessity of Internet access in helping to close the digital divide. The city is looking into expanding connections from city government centers to low income areas and the city's public schools.

“We are working in the 21st century with 21st century learners,” says Cindy Green , the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction. That requires access to and ability to navigate technology with ease.

“The instruction drives every decision that we make and the technology is a tool that gives students and teachers access to things they could not access in the classroom,” says Beth Clarke, director of instruction technology and media services.

And, high speed broadband received a major “go ahead” in Princeton, Massachusetts this week as well. The Local News Telegram reported about the 442-to-51 vote in favor of getting the city ready for its own network.

Net Neutrality

Adi Robertson with The Verge covered Sen. Ted Cruz’s ridiculous headline-grabbing “Obamacare for the Internet” talking point. When Cruz argued that public utilities are not “bold, innovative, and fair” he missed the point, as Robertson explains: 

“The problem is that "bold, innovative, and fair" aren't words that come to mind when you think of today's unregulated ISPs. In fact, Ted Cruz's nightmare scenario doesn't seem like a radical departure from what we've got right now. If its merger with Time Warner Cable goes through, Comcast will run over half the wired broadband market, and the "innovation" that net neutrality would prevent has so far involved blocking the BitTorrent protocol and giving its Xfinity video app a boost on the Xbox. Real competition — from Google Fiber or even municipal broadband projects — is what's actually led to, well, competition.” 

However, the best response to Ted Cruz may be from the occasionally crude but generally quite hilarious, The Oatmeal. And in this case, a good reminder of how campaign finance corruption leads to these kinds of crazy statements.

Another Gig in Tennessee: Jackson Energy Authority Announces Network Upgrade

One of the earliest and largest community fiber-to-the-home networks in the nation is about to get an upgrade. Jackson Energy Authority (JEA), a public utility in Western Tennessee, has announced that all 18,000 of its subscribers will be able to receive symmetrical gigabit services within three years, with the first upgraded connections expected to come online in early 2015. The pricing for a gigabit connection is not yet finalized, but will be under $100 per month according to Senior VP of Telecommunications Ben Lovin. 

JEA built out its FTTH network way back in 2003, when DSL was still considered fast and iPods and cellphones were just beginning to find their way into most people’s pockets. At a cost of $54 million, the network was funded mostly through revenue bonds. It has offered triple play services (voice, internet, and television) for ten years, achieving take rates of up to 70%

Because of the age of its equipment, to enable the gigabit upgrade JEA will have to replace the optical network terminal (ONT) at each premises - the point where the network fiber connects to the actual house or building. JEA will also have to replace some of the network equipment in its central offices. The total cost is expected to fall between $8-10 million. Unlike the original network build out in 2003, however, the upgrade will be funded through regular cash flow and will not require borrowing. 

JEA provides all utility services under one umbrella in the city of Jackson: water, heat, electricity, and telecommunications. Its investment in ubiquitous fiber has allowed it to implement smart grid technology, managing outages and power flows more securely and efficiently. 

Jackson, Tennessee is also a member of Next Century Cities, the collaborative effort between communities and elected leaders across the country to share informational resources and promote fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

"Envisioning a Gigabit Future" Reminder and Livestream Info

Chattanooga is a destination of choice for gigabit seekers and advocates for local choice, especially on Tuesday, November 18th. Next Century Cities and the Southeast Tennessee Development District will convene a field hearing titled "Envisioning the Gigabit Future." If you are not able to attend, the event will be live streamed.

Register to stream the event at http://conta.cc/1yRvAjG.

As a reminder, the event will be at The Church on Main in downtown Chattanooga from 9 a.m. - 12:30 p.m. EST.

Speakers will include Mayors, elected officials, and a long list of other local leaders with firsthand experience in bringing high speed access to their communities. 

There is still time to register online to attend.

EPB Working with Department of Energy to Improve Smart Grid

EPB estimates local businesses have saved approximately $50 million by reducing lost productivity due to power outages by 60 percent over the past two years. Those figures are impressive but Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) will be working with EPB to raise them even higher.

The Times Free Press recently reported that ORNL will send engineers to Chattanooga to optimize the use of data from the EPB smart grid. The goal will be to increase efficiency even further and to use their discoveries to help other U.S. electric utilities.

"We have to have a more reliable electric system," DePriest said after signing an agreement Monday to work with the Oak Ridge lab on electric grid improvements. "Electricity is essential to our modern way of life and we have to figure out ways to use all the data we are gathering in a quicker and more usable manner."

EPB's smart grid now gathers data in 15 minute increments whereas many utilities that have less sophisticated capabilities only collect data once or twice a month. EPB's system quickly discovers problems that can balloon into costly mistakes if not detected early.

As more people use solar, wind, or geothermal power, providing electricity or purchasing electricity from consumers becomes more complicated. 

"We need to continue to innovate and get better," said Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary for DOE's electricity delivery and energy division. "Chattanooga has been a leader and we hope this will help us find ways to make our electric grid more efficient, more flexible and more reliable."

"Envisioning a Gigabit Future" on November 18th in Chattanooga

Next Century Cities and the Southeast Tennessee Development District will host an event on November 18th in Chattanooga entitled "Envisioning a Gigabit Future" at The Church on Main.

The field hearing runs from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. EST. Participants will hear from panelists who will discuss how and why gigabit infrastructure is quickly becoming a critical component to local community vitality.

From the invitation:

Chattanooga is one of America's first - and leading - truly "gigabit" communities. Although the city's investment and commitment has yielded dividends for the city itself, this is not just an issue of local or parochial concern. The potential for gigabit and next-generation broadband to improve America's communities is a national question, with national implications. 

For example, Tennessee is one of about twenty states that restrict community broadband choice, prompting Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina (another such state), to petition the Federal Communications Commission to remove these restrictions so that Chattanooga and Wilson can expand their highly successful networks.

Speakers and panelists will include:

  • Mayor Andy Berke, Chattanooga, TN
  • Senator Janice Bowling, Tennessee State Senate (16th District)
  • Mayor Gary Davis, Bradley County, TN
  • Harold DePriest, President and CEO, EPB
  • Jonathan Taplin, Director, Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California
  • Tony Perez, Director of the Seattle Office of Cable Communications and President of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors
  • Aldona Valicenti, Chief Information Officer, Lexington, KY
  • Rick Usher, Assistant City Manager, Kansas City, MO
  • Beth Jones, Executive Director, Southeast Tennessee Development District

You can register online for the free event.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 24

On this week’s community broadband media roundup, we have more reverberations from Next Century Cities, a forward-thinking coalition of cities that promises real progress in establishing or restoring local authority for broadband networks. For the inside scoop on the launch, we suggest taking a look at Ann L. Kim’s Friday Q&A with Deb Socia, the executive director of the organization. 

Here’s an excerpt: 

Q: So when you say you work with cities that are either looking to get next generation broadband or already have it, what does that entail?

A: …We are working with elected officials and also employees, like CIOs and city managers and so forth, and the goal is to really help them figure out their pathway. This is pretty hard work and we recognize that there’s always a local context and so we don’t advocate any one way to do this work, but we help cities think about it.

So [are] you gonna work with an incumbent provider, are you gonna build your own, are you gonna work with a private non-profit? How are you gonna make it happen? What are the alternatives for you? And how can we best support you?

Multichannel’s Jeff Baumgartner covered the launch in Santa Monica as well. The bipartisan coalition offers members collaboration opportunities and support for those communities that face incumbent pressure when they announce plans to move forward with publicly-owned broadband programs. According to China Topix’s David Curry, neither Comcast nor Time Warner Cable have made announcements about gig networks, “with Time Warner Cable even go as far as saying "customers don't want 1Gbps Internet speeds", a statement ridiculed on the Web.”  

Rest assured, there will be much more coverage on this organization’s work in the weeks to come. 

San Francisco is catching on to the “Dig Once” strategy, an idea that is known to help build public fiber networks incrementally, and at a huge cost-savings to communities. According to Marisa Lagos with the San Francisco Chronicle, City Supervisor David Chiu is pushing an ordinance that would require public and private agencies that dig up the streets for other work allow the placement of city-owned conduits that can be used for fiber. 

[Chiu] hopes it will allow San Francisco to help bridge the “digital divide” by eventually letting residents and businesses access fast, inexpensive, city-owned broadband service…

“Quality broadband service is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for our economy and our education system. You need access to high-speed broadband to compete, just as you needed access to water, roads and electricity in the 20th century,” Chiu said, noting that the United States lags behind smaller countries “when it comes to speed and reliability.”

The Chamber of Commerce, Comcast and AT&T have agreed to stay neutral on the bill, which will most certainly help it move forward.

“There was a time we thought everyone would have free electricity because of nuclear power,” [Chris Mitchell] said. “I think everyone will be paying for high-quality Internet access for the foreseeable future. But the installation of city-owned fiber will allow San Francisco officials to make sure no one is left without high-speed access, if private companies only build out some areas of town, for example.

“This small step will really enable San Francisco to have more freedom in the future to be creative,” Chris Mitchell said. “It won’t be acceptable for some kids to have access to great Internet service and some not to, so this is important to have.”

Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has saved an estimated $50 million for local businesses due to the smart grid over just the previous 2 years. Now, they’re partnering with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to improve efficiency for renewables like solar and wind. The partnership will allow Oak Ridge to help EPB gather and analyze data to find out where abnormalities and problems might arise. 

"Mid-sized Southern cities in the U.S. are not generally thought of as being ahead of the technological curve," [Mayor] Berke said. "The Gig changed that. We are now ahead of the curve, with other cities looking to us as a leader in the Innovation Century."

Arkansas K-12 educators are asking lawmakers to help them get faster broadband connections. Ryan Saylor with The City Wire explains how the cable and telephone company networks may be cost-prohibitive for public institutions, and why the state’s education board is hoping to tap in to public networks. The Arkansas Education Association’s president, Brenda Robinson says the schools are stuck between being mandated to provide digital learning courses and not having the resources. Current law prohibits schools from using more efficient publicly owned networks.

 “[O]ur state will not be able to fulfill our constitutional obligation of providing an adequate education for our children and the next generation will find themselves on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.'”

Net Neutrality

“If the Internet is to remain an open, accessible platform for the free flow of ideas, we need strong rules of the road in place to guarantee those protections.”

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, made a strong statement for Net Neutrality this week when he wrote a letter directly to Comcast Executive VP David Cohen asking him to come out much more strongly in favor of Net Neutrality. Sam Gustin of Motherboard had the story: 

Leahy’s letter could increase the pressure on the Federal Communications Commission, which is evaluating whether the proposed merger advances the public interest, to require Comcast to make a strong net neutrality commitment as part of the deal.

It also demonstrates how closely net neutrality is intertwined with concerns over consolidation in the broadband industry. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the two largest cable companies in the country, and a union between them would create a broadband colossus with immense market power.

And then, Leahy went further. In The Capital’s Eric Hal Schwartz covered Leahy’s second letter, this time to the leaders of AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable as well. 

Leahy said he is worried that the FCC's upcoming rule changes to net neutrality will let ISPs arrange deals for websites to pay for faster user access. That's something Leahy said he is committed to stopping and he wants the ISPs to make a legally binding promise that they won't ever engage in that practices, regardless of what the FCC rules.

Which brings up an excellent question, says GovTech’s Brian Heaton. What does the FCC’s authority on Net Neutrality really mean? 

Christopher Libertelli From Netflix Joins CLIC Board

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has announced that Christopher Libertelli of Netflix has joined the Board of Advisors. Libertelli joins a group of policy leaders, including ILSR's Chris Mitchell, to advance the rights of local communities to have authority over their own broadband decisions.

From the CLIC announcement:

Mr. Libertelli has been Vice President of Global Public Policy at Netflix since December 2011. During his time at Netflix, he has been a champion for a variety of internet policy issues including efforts to increase competition among internet providers. Prior to joining Netflix, Mr. Libertelli managed Skype’s government relations programs in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.

Netflix has been a strong and consistent supporter of local internet choice. 

Netflix has been very helpful in advocating for the right of communities to build their own networks if they so choose. They filed comments [pdf] in the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions and have been listing some of the larger municipal networks in their monthly speed rankings. We are very grateful for their assistance in these important matters.

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

Local Tennessee Communities Rally Behind EPB

As the FCC contemplates the fate of the Chattanooga EPB's ability to expand to surrounding communities, some of those Tennessee communities are publicly announcing their support. The Town of Kimball and Marion County, both part of the Chattanooga metro area, have passed resolutions asking state legislators to reconsider Tennessee's anti-muni law.

The Times Free Press reports that Kimball's Board of Mayor and Alderman unanimously and officially asked their state officials to introduce legislation enabling local authority. They requested action as early as the next legisaltive session.

Marion County passed a similar resolution in August - also unanimously. According to Kimball's City Attorney Bill Gouger:

"It is a situation where there are providers out there who would like to extend fiber-optic cable and high-speed Internet-type systems throughout our county," Gouger said. "The simple fact is, right now, our state laws make that really difficult to do, if not impossible."

County Mayor David Jackson is reaching out to the other municipalities in Marion County to increase support. From the article:

High-speed Internet access is "very important" for the entire county, said Jackson.

"It would, hopefully, give us another edge in getting new industry and other businesses to our county," he said. "It [quality Internet access] is very vital. We've got some industries now that are really struggling because they have limited Internet access."

Gouger said commercial and industrial developments are making high-speed Internet access a "requirement" for setting up shop in rural areas like Marion now.

"If we can't get those types of things throughout our county, it's going to disqualify us from some future growth," he said. "That's the whole purpose of this resolution."

ILSR Submits Comments to FCC in Support of Restoring Local Authority

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently submitted comments on FCC petitions filed by Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We have been following the proceedings that may prove to be the tipping point in the movement to regain local telecommunications authority.

Our organization collaborated with eight other groups and two D.C. Council Members to provide detailed comments for the Commission's consideration. Our group supplied examples of the benefits munis bring to local communities. In addition to providing connectivity where the incumbents fail to meet demand, our comments point out that municipal networks encourage private investment. We provide concrete evidence of both.

With our partners, we also addressed the fact that state restrictions like the ones in North Carolina and Tennessee are not needed. Local communities must go through a rigorous, transparent process everywhere before investing. State legislative barriers are the product of intense lobbying from the cable and telecommunications giants.

As we point out to the Commission, municipal networks are an important tool to bring ubiquitous Internet access to the U.S.:

The FCC is tasked with ensuring high speed access is expanded to all Americans on a reasonable basis and to remove barriers to broadband deployment. Local governments have proved to be an important tool in expanding access to high speed Internet access. Both Chattanooga and Wilson have neighbors that publicly want the local municipal network to expand access to them. Both Chattanooga and Wilson are prepared to invest in connecting their neighbors. Restoring authority to local governments, so they may decide for themselves if a municipal investment or partnership is an appropriate way to expand high speed Internet access, will result in a more rapid deployment of high speed Internet access.

We also filed comments alone to provide the FCC a small sample of the support people and organizations have shared with us. Even before the comment period, we heard from local governments and organizations that passed resolutions in favor of local authority, members of the business community that support local authority, and media outlets that endorse local decision making.

From our closing comments:

ILSR stands with local businesses, residents, media outlets, and many others in encouraging the FCC to grant this petition, restoring the capacity of local governments to invest in next generation Internet access or partner to the same effect, if they so choose. We have worked with communities across the nation and recognize that this is not a partisan issue at the local level. It is about jobs, education, and quality of life. Restoring the right of communities to invest in fiber networks will result in faster deployment of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet networks.