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Cortez To Expand Open Access Network

A recent vote by the Cortez city council cleared the way for a major expansion in the city’s open access network. By committing $1 million in local funds, the city unlocked a matching $1 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which disperses revenues from federal mineral leases in the form of a variety of economic development grants around the state.

This $2 million infusion will enable Phase II of the city’s network plan to go forward next year, making connections newly available to 400 businesses along two major highways. This builds on the existing Phase I network, which is capable of offering connections to about 650 businesses along Main Street. About 250 businesses have already signed on in Phase I, good for nearly a 40% take rate. The city plans to add 27 miles of fiber in 2015. 

The $1 million in local matching funds that enabled the Department of Local Affairs grant are pledged from a combination of sources. The network's own reserve fund will contribute $250,000, while the remainder will come in the form of interdepartmental loans from the city's general fund ($250,000) and equipment fund ($500,000). 

The city does not offer its own services over its fiber, favoring an open access model that lets independent service providers compete using its infrastructure. The network currently has seven mostly local ISPs competing for customers. The long term plan, as described by City General Services Manager Rick Smith in a Broadband Bits podcast back in May, is to build a fiber to the home network throughout the city. Smith sounds pretty determined to make that happen:

“Just because we live here in rural Cortez, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have access to affordable broadband. It’s a necessity in today’s digital age.” 

“It would probably take more than $10 million to finish out the entire city,” Smith said. “That could take at least five years, but we have a roadmap. We have a plan.”

Cortez has taken a gradual approach towards developing its fiber infrastructure, beginning with an I-Net for local anchor institutions in 1999. Over time, the town of less than 9,000 residents has become a regional fiber optic hub, thanks to several grants from the state, partnerships with neighboring governments, and smart local investments. Cortez serves as the nexus for the western half of the Southwest Colorado Access Network (SCAN), which connects public institutions in a five county region to backbone fiber. 

Cortez has also benefitted from good timing: it began leasing extra capacity on a few of its fiber optic lines to a handful of private companies in 2005. This allowed Cortez to be grandfathered in as an exemption to SB 152 which passed later that same year, meaning that unlike nearly all other Colorado municipalities, Cortez did not have to pass a referendum to use its fiber optic infrastructure to offer retail services. 

Using the Franchise to Organize Against Comcast - Community Broadband Bits Episode 124

We first became aware of the Media Mobilizing Project through our work with the Media Action Grassroots. MMP has been working in Philadelphia to organize low income neighborhoods to improve access to the Internet and media more generally.

Hannah Jane Sassaman is the MMP Policy Director and joins us this week for Episode 124 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss how Comcast and other cable companies are failing our communities and how MMP is using upcoming franchise re-negotiations to organize for better Internet access and other community benefits.

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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Layton Resident Breaks Down the Numbers on UTOPIA Service: Letter to the Editor

Thane Packer, a Layton resident, attended a community meeting this fall to learn what he could about UTOPIA. Packer is like many others who consider his costs for Internet, TV, and phone as an important factor in whether or not to support UTOPIA. After attending the meeting, he considered the presentation and what he described as "some very heated, and some very biased opinions."

He then examined his existing triple play costs and shared his findings in a letter to the Standard Examiner. The rest of his letter is reproduced below (emphasis ours):

The total bundled bill for home phone, Internet, and a TV package was $273.63. That is $93.25 per month for the internet and home phone plus $180 for TV. The telephone service is fine but the Internet is frustrating. The signal fluctuates, is spotty and unreliable.

In Provo, because there is competition from a fiber optic network, this exact same package, which includes, total Internet, home phone and the TV package is available from a provider for only $99.94 a month.

This means that even if I didn’t use a fiber network like the one in Provo the competition price from the provider would save me $178.69 a month. That means that without the competition from a fiber system like UTOPIA, the provider stands to make, (from me) a total of $2,144.28 a year and in 25 years (the pay-off time for the current bond, for which we receive nothing) is over $53,000

If I were able to switch to fiber system here in Layton a much better service would cost even less and I can certainly find a better place to use my $53,000.

So ask yourself this question. What is your current service costing you, how much extra are you paying, and what are you getting for it? For me the advantage of saving at least $178.69 a month and getting better service for it is obvious.

So please Layton, find a way to make this or something like it work for us. A very vocal minority should not be able deprive the rest of us from better cheaper service.

Community Fiber Networks And the Future of the Broadband Marketplace

We were glad to see Gigi Sohn, Special Counsel for External Affairs in the Office of the Chairman of the FCC, discussing how community broadband projects are going to play an important role in expanding high quality Internet access. 

The webcast comes courtesy of the Internet Society, which recorded this session at an event hosted by the newly formed Philadelphia Chapter of the Federal Communications Bar Association, co-chaired by Kevin Werbach, Walter Anderson and Brian Rankin.

Video: 
See video

Baltimore Residents Take the Initiative With CrowdFiber Campaign

A community group from Baltimore is taking their fiber campaign directly to the people. The Baltimore Sun recently reported that over 900 people have pledged more than $17,000 to the Baltimore Broadband Coalition. It seems the good people of Baltimore are tired of the city's on-again off-again romance with the idea of a municipal network.

According to the group's CrowdFiber site, the grassroots organization began in a church basement in the Roland Park neighborhood, quickly expanding to other neighborhoods.  There is no specific plan in place yet; the group hopes to use the campaign to first raise awareness of the problem. From the article:

"This is an advocacy effort to help to change what has been the city's plan, or lack of plan, on broadband," said Philip Spevak, one of the campaign's organizers. "Those numbers will help to motivate the city."

Members of the group are also visiting community meetings to help spread the word.

In a Sun commentary published shortly after the group organized, Spevak wrote:

Demonstrating demand alone is unlikely to change the broadband landscape. By adding communities to our campaign and extending the campaign to include the entire city, we hope to engage our city and state leaders to a greater extent. We hope our campaign will lead to a second phase where, in partnership with elected officials, there is a change toward more proactive public policy. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and Councilman William Cole understand that the availability of fast Internet is a necessity for economic revitalization. 

Spavek went on to explain their belief that the vision should be unique to suit the community, that Baltimore should locate and use its existing conduit, and that the city should adopt helpful dig-once policies. The group also wants the city to keep citizens, providers, and other stakeholders connected and reach out to federal officials.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has been vocal regarding her support for better connectivity. She has cited the need to jump start economic development:

"You can't grow jobs with slow Internet... people don't want to invest in communities where they feel like they are running through sludge, trying to catch up with other businesses,...People want to be on the cutting edge."

The Baltimore Broadband Coalition goes on to address high-cost, no choice, and a growing digital divide in the city:

  • In Baltimore, compared to surrounding counties where effective competition for Internet services exist, we pay more (as much as $1000 over two years) and the quality of services available is less
  • We face a monopoly for fast Internet services in Baltimore leaving us with little choice in the broadband market
  • Digital injustice - 20-40% of city residents do not connect to the Internet when connectivity is now essential for effective participation

In August 2013 the city commissioned a feasibility study to survey existing resources and provide options to improve connectivity. The current administration expects to see the results by the end of the year. The Coalition is not depending on the city to lead the way:

"I think if the city decides that it is not willing or it's not able to be a municipal broadband, that's not a showstopper at all for our campaign," Spevak said.


Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 17

This week, cities took the stage and made some very important moves to restore their local authority. From cities resisting big media mergers, to those choosing to join the new Next Century Cities initiative, it is a good time to be a part of municipal government efforts. 

Broadband Cities

Boulder, CO officials are looking ahead at their Longmont neighbor's gig network and exploring ways to make sure their own businesses are not left in the dust. Boulder’s chamber is pushing for an approval of ballot issue “2C”. Gavin Dahl of Boulder Weekly writes that the ballot question would open the way for the city to offer competitive gig services, helping the city keep existing businesses happy, and entice others to move in.

But according to Boulder News’, Erica Meltzer, opponents still seem to have their heads in the sand; The libertarian Independence Institute says if there was a market for fiber in the city, “some business” will find a way.  Maybe they think competitive, affordable Internet will just appear.

Meantime, Columbia, Missouri government officials may be facing an uphill battle. The city is exploring how to light its dark fiber infrastructure. Opponents say the plan goes against state restrictions on the city offering such services directly to customers. We believe the move would encourage competition among ISPs that would otherwise not be able to operate because of a lack of capital required to build fiber networks.

Cities choosing to keep ownership of their fiber infrastructures is often a sound decision, and North Kansas City, Missouri residents may soon be appreciating the city’s most recent announcement. In an effort to “give back” to residents, LiNKCity officials say that beginning in 2015 residential customers can get free Internet service. The decision is thanks to a unique partnership with a server farm company. 

From GovTech’s Colin Wood:

“I don’t think I’ve seen anything like this, in fact,” said Chris Mitchell, adding that he guesses DataShack intends to boost profits by gaining more local businesses as customers, and will do so by offering additional services like cloud-based storage -- services the city did not offer.”

Add Baltimore to the list of cities that are “fighting for fiber,” according to the Baltimore Sun’s Scott Dance. The Baltimore Broadband Coalition is working to convince citizens and city officials to explore municipal fiber. Harlem entrepreneurs are exploring how gigabit speeds can be a boon to businesses and startups, but also have a positive community impact:

"A lot of the broadband announcements were around wireless ... and that has a ways to go in terms of being effective…  it's important for the community to understand that broadband is essential to lowering crime, increasing education opportunities and closing the wealth gap."

Just outside of San Antonio, the community of New Braunfels, Texas is moving forward with a feasibility study. And not one but three Connecticut communities are taking broadband futures in their own hands. Mayors from New Haven, West Hartford, and Stamford are banding together to solve the state’s broadband problems. GovTech’s Colin Wood tapped Chris Mitchell for insight:

“I watch with a sort of nervous excitement. It’s exciting to see these cities working together and recognizing that they have a need. But I get nervous because I feel like they’re going to get responses to their RFQ, and the easiest thing to do will be for some ISPs to commit to only building out some areas of town. And I think that’s dangerous fundamentally.”

Next Century Cities

Solidarity and learning from city successes and challenges are core values of the newly launched Next Century Cities initiative. Mayors and city leaders from all over the country converged on Santa Monica, to support each other in their broadband efforts. From Sandy, Oregon to Morristown, Tennessee, 32 cities announced their commitment to six basic principles that will help lead communities to self-determination in their broadband endeavors.

Before heading to Santa Monica, one of the major voices for broadband, Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke, spoke on a panel in Boston to urge cities to move forward independent of federal programs. Do yourself a favor and head to twitter, type #NCCLaunch and read the stream of comments. Then head to the initiative web page, watch the webcast, educate yourself and urge your city officials to take action.

Comcast/TWC Merger

Franchise agreements between cities and Time Warner Cable may be key to blocking Comcast and TWC’s proposed merger. More and more cities are standing up and demanding real choice in their communities; this week several stepped forward.

According to Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin, city council leaders in Lexington, Kentucky say TWC’s refusal to address customer service complaints are the reason they are denying transfer of ownership. Consumer advocates like John Bergmayer hope others follow suit. 

"I suppose the broader question is whether a single municipality by itself can stop this merger. Maybe not, but it’s unlikely that any one town would be acting alone. If I were Comcast or Time Warner, I’d be looking nervously at my other franchise agreements in towns around the country, and at the states. Taken together these actions could imperil the merger—and might give the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] and DoJ [Department of Justice] even more incentive to act."

And city council leaders in Worcester, Massachusetts are attempting to block Comcast from entering the area this week as well, it seems “substandard customer service” is finally beginning to bite the company back. The Daily Dot’s Patrick Howell O’Neill has the story:

"It's a terrible company," City Councilor Gary Rosen 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."

Responding to Crazy Talk: Arguments Against FCC Restoring Local Authority - Community Broadband Bits Episode 120

Lisa Gonzalez and I have been wading though all kinds of crazy talk since the cities of Wilson and Chattanooga filed petitions with the FCC to strike down state laws that prevent them from offering Internet access to their neighbors.

In our first episode of Crazy Talk since way back in episode 72, we deal with claims that municipal networks often fail, whether the FCC has authority to restore local authority, and whether the state barriers in question are actually barriers at all.

In this episode, I refer to this article in The Atlantic regarding law schools.

Read the transcript 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 16 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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Wheeler Praises Lafayette's Network Deployment at NATOA Conference

At the 2014 Annual Conference of the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler praised Lafayette, Louisiana, home of muni LUS Fiber, during his keynote address. 

Wheeler addressed a variety of issues, including wireless broadband, the drive to increase competition, and a thoughtful transition to IP based 911 service.

While he did not address the pending petitions from Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Wheeler did express his admiration for LUS Fiber and the tough persistence of the local community:

However, I do encourage you to consider how local choice and competition can increase the broadband opportunities for your citizens. I love the story of Lafayette, Louisiana where the local incumbent fought the city’s fiber network tooth and nail, bringing multiple court challenges and triggering a local referendum on the project. Thankfully, none of the challenges managed to prevent deployment – sixty two percent of voters approved of the network in the referendum, and the Louisiana Supreme Court unanimously sided with the city – but they did delay deployment almost three years. When the network was finally built, the community experienced the benefits of competition, as the local cable operator decided to upgrade its network. Local choice and competition are about as American as you can get.

We were pleased to hear the Chairman acknowledge the spirit of the community and how their efforts have paid off. Just this year, the community and its network attracted three new companies and approximately 1,300 new permanent and seasonal jobs. Lafayette has focused on improving its tech workforce in order to complement its next generation network - two critical ingredients to creating the Silicon Bayou.

Read more about Lafayette and LUS Fiber in our report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next Generation Networks.

For the entire text of Chairman Wheeler's key note address, check out the transcript PDF online. You can also read more about the NATOA Annual Conference, held this year in St. Paul, Minnesota's Lowertown. 

Columbia Takes Next Step Toward Municipal Network Infrastructure

A consultant report recommends the City of Columbia tap into its existing fiber resources to develop an open access municipal telecommunications network. The City recently issued a request for proposals for a business plan to press forward with the recommendation, reports the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Last year the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri jointly hired a firm to conduct a survey and analyze existing connectivity. An August Tribune article by Andrew Denney reported that the the community was found lacking in reliable connectivity. The survey indicated that 84% of businesses reported "moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed." The survey also revealed 84% of businesses contend with Internet speeds "insufficient for their business needs due to reliability and speed issues." The reasonable conclusion is that commercial Internet access in Columbia is too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable for local businesses.

The Columbia Water and Light Department (W & L) now leases its dark fiber to approximately 30 entities, reports the Tribune. The leases bring in approximately $876,000 per year. The consultant recommends expanding existing resources in order to entice more providers who want to serve last-mile customers.

The report also examined continuing the W & L dark fiber leasing program without significant changes and expanding the dark fiber leasing program by adding last-mile deployment. Maintaining the current dark fiber program will not require capital but won't stimulate the area's economic development possibilities either.

Expanding the dark fiber program would improve the broadband infrastructure situation because providers would be able to offer leases to customer premises rather than only within the middle-mile network. This type of change would not improve affordability because it would not increase competition.

The August Tribune article reported:

[The consultant] suggests if the city decides to light up its fiber network, it would be able to enter into public-private partnerships with service providers but remain a neutral party to providers. The network would increase competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over the city’s network, the consultants’ report said.

More recently, the Tribune reported:

[The consultant] estimates that the city would be able to develop a broadband network to serve businesses and organizations based in the “downtown core” for a price ranging between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the firm suggested could be paid through debt instruments like loans and bond sales.

At an August 18th City Council meeting, CenturyLink area operations manager Kevin Czaicki addressed the Council before they voted to instruct staff to move forward. In true incumbent fashion, Czaicki told the Council that a network would create financial challenges for the city. The Tribune reported:

Czaicki also said that, if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business. “This violates the spirit of the law, if not the rule,” Czaicki said.

Last August, CenturyLink announced some properties in Columbia and Jefferson City would obtain access to gigabit service. Once again, the prospect of a municipal network appears to inspire private investment.

“We would be paving a road that currently, in our opinion, does not exist now,” [W & L Assistant Director Ryan] Williams said.

Read the PDF of the report Executive Summary online for more details.

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].