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FCC to Investigate Barriers to Community Networks

We are supportive of the announcement today from the Federal Communications Commission. We salute the FCC for beginning to examine how state level barriers against municipal networks deter investment in the networks both communities and the nation desperately need.

From the statement:

The Commission will look for opportunities to enhance Internet access competition. One obvious candidate for close examination was raised in Judge Silberman’s separate opinion, namely legal restrictions on the ability of cities and towns to offer broadband services to consumers in their communities.

The FCC has a history of encouraging states not to pass such laws (Commissioner Clyburn, previous FCC Chair, former Commissioner Copps) and the National Broadband Plan made recommendation 8.19: "Congress should make clear that Tribal, state, regional and local governments can build broadband networks."

Even if communities choose not to build their own networks, having that capacity changes the dynamic of the big cable and telephone companies - something Franklin D. Roosevelt described as the "birch rod" in the cupboard (regarding municipal electricity):

But on the other hand the very fact that a community can, by vote of the electorate, create a yardstick of its own, will, in most cases, guarantee good service and low rates to its population. I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility something like this: a "birch rod" in the cupboard to be taken out and used only when the "child" gets beyond the point where a mere scolding does no good.

With the recent network neutrality decision from the Circuit Court, the FCC has a very clear path to ensure all local governments can decide locally whether such an investment is wise, rather than being preempted by a state legislature that may have been misled by powerful lobbyists.

We are calling on our readers, local governments, and all concerned citizens to applaud the FCC decision to examine these barriers. One thing you can do to help is to reach out to Senators and your representatives in DC. Make sure they know you support a local decision-making process rather than one-size-fits-all rules dictated by those in the capital.

If you want more background on Section 706 and municipal networks, listen to our recent podcast interview with Harold Feld.

We are also cheered by the continued stated committment of the FCC to preserving the open Internet and hope this process will achieve that end. We continue to believe that properly classifying Internet access as a telecommunications service and appropriate forbearance for unnecessary regulations is the best approach for safeguarding the Internet. However, we recognize the intense pressure by some of the most powerful corporations in DC not to take that route. Our work is cut out to ensure there are no loopholes that would damage the Internet.

In Fear of Comcast Warner Cable

It is hard to say just how bad of an idea it is for us to allow Comcast to buy Time Warner Cable. This is not just about consumers having to pay more, which they do every time we allow massive consolidation, but about access to information.

I can't help but think back to our conversation with Barry Lynn on monopoly a few weeks ago. People get so focused on consumer prices and a narrow view of competition that they miss important impacts of consolidation.

One impact is moving Comcast from the seventh biggest DC lobbyist to the fourth.

This consolidation is a recognition that the private sector simply will not provide meaningful competition for Internet access. Communities need to recognize what a do-nothing approach means: relying on a distant cable monopoly for the most important services of the 21st century.

If I had to guess what will happen - Comcast will buy Time Warner Cable but have to sell off some pieces to get approval. Comcast will grow larger and more powerful, making future mergers even more difficult to stop despite more and more evidence that these firms are strangling our economy. We can stop it - but will we? Specifically, will we force our representatives in DC to stop it?

Stay tuned to the organizations that are covering it well - Free Press, Karl Bode, Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and many others.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

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 15 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Kansas Community Benefits from Community Owned Networks

Even though the Kansas cable lobby have temporarily retracted their competition-killing telecom bill, we still want to highlight the benefits of preserving full home rule, local authority by focusing on a number of communities, including Chanute, Ottawa, and Erie.

Chanute

We have reported on Chanute's municipal network for years. The community leveraged its electric utility assets and incrementally built an extensive publicly owned gigabit fiber network. Over several decades, the community expanded its network to serve schools, libraries, local government, and businesses. Chanute took advantage of every opportunity and created a valuable asset with no borrowing or bonding.

Several business, including Spirit AeroSystems, chose to locate in Chanute because of its incredible fiber network. Spirit brought approximately 150 new jobs. The network also retained jobs when incumbents refused to provide needed upgrades to local businesses. Rather than leave town, the businesses connected to the City's network and increased their productivity. 

Former City Manager J.D. Lester referred to municipal broadband as “the great equalizer for Rural America,” saying: “You don’t have to live in Kansas City to work there.” (See our case study Chanute's Gig: One Rural Kansas Community's Tradition of Innovation Led to A Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage [PDF])

Kids in Chanute have access to connectivity other schools can only dream about. The local community college has expanded its distance learning program with higher capacity broadband. Free Wi-Fi hotspots are all over town; money otherwise sent to distant providers stays in the community. Chanute has invested in a WiMAX wireless system that serves public safety all over the region, not only in town. Their other utilities use the network for automatic metering and SCADA applications, saving energy and allowing customers the chance to reduce utility bills.

Chanute Logo

In addition to savings public dollars by reducing the cost of municipal connectivity, the broadband utility generates $600,000 and contributes 5 percent of that to the general fund.

Community leaders recently began planning for a FTTH expansion to bring fiber Internet to every home in town. If SB 304 finds its way into the books, those plans will be derailed and residents will be left with slow cable and DSL access.

Erie

Erie, southeast of Chanute, also utilizes Chanute's extensive fiber network for affordable school connectivity. When it was time to upgrade, Erie approached incumbent Cox. Cox's proposal for 100 Mbps to the high school alone was $5,000 per month. With its microwave network, Chanute is able to provide Internet service to the Erie community where already fiber connects the school facilities. Chanute serves Erie's high school, grade school, administration offices, and the bus barn where students learn auto mechanics. Like Chanute schools, Erie is guaranteed 100 Mbps but able to burst up to 300 Mbps when capacity allows. Erie pays only $5,100 per month and 80% of its connectivity fee is reimbursed by the federal E-rate program.

Ottawa

Inspired by Chanute's success, nearby Ottawa launched its fiber network in 2013. Ottawa joined forces with its school district and county government. Ottawa used an existing patchwork school district and county fiber, linking them together as a community network backbone. Each entity retained ownership of their resources but shared fiber strands with the City.

Ottawa businesses were dissatified with services from incumbents who were not interested in upgrading. Choices were expensive and slow T1s or an uber expensive DS3. Multiple appeals to incumbent AT&T yielded no results.

Schools, the area community college, and a farmers' cooperative connect to the network for better capacity and lower prices than AT&T will offer. The school district has cut its connectivity fees in half from $6,000 per month to $3,000 per month, by switching to Ottawa as a service provider. They now receive double the speed they used to purchase because the community network takes a much different approach than AT&T. From our April 2013 article on Ottawa:

Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.

Kansas Anti-Competition Bill Authored by Cable Lobbyists

We learned a lot today about the anti-competition bill (SB 304) in Kansas to limit Internet network investments. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin discovered the source of the bill, the Kansas Cable Telecommunications Association:

That's a lobby group with members such as Comcast, Cox, Eagle Communications, and Time Warner Cable. The bill was introduced this week, referred to the Committee on Commerce, and scheduled for discussion for Tuesday of next week.

That hearing will now be delayed as the cable lobbyists strategize on a bill that less transparently serves only their interests. As usual, we see the cable lobbyists claiming that municipal networks use taxpayer dollars, despite the reality that most do not.

Much of what I see in Kansas points to Time Warner Cable being behind this - a lame attempt to stop Google Fiber using lobbying power rather than innovating and investing. However, the bill has tremendously negative implications for rural Kansas because local governments are often the only entities that care if their communities have the Internet access they need in the modern economy.

It stretches credulity to think Kansas would pass a bill that would prevent Google from expanding its network in the region. But we have seen a number of states (ahem, North Carolina) pass cable-authored bills that prevent communities from building fiber optic networks if they have anything faster than dial-up available in even part of town.

The cable lobby would consider it a win if they can still push a bill through that would kill municipal networks while allowing approaches like Google Fiber and Wicked (in Lawrence) to expand.

Fortunately, Google has a history of opposing restraints on local authority to build networks and it is part of a business coalition opposing this bill. As with most Americans, that coalition believes any decision on whether a network is a wise investment should be made locally, not in Topeka or in DC.

Craig Settles' had a Chanute official on the Gigabit Nation audio show to discuss the bill and impact on rural Kansas:


Online Internet Radio at Blog Talk Radio with cjspeaks on BlogTalkRadio

Others writing about this bill and negative impact on Kansas included Karl Bode at Broadband Reports, the Consumerist, Newspoodle, and Daily Kos.

And finally, Chanute created a video about this bill:

Video: 
See video

Kansas Legislature Introduces Bill to Limit Internet Investment

Get updates to this story here.

With Senate Bill No. 304 [pdf], the Kansas Legislature will consider a bill to revoke local authority to build networks. If passed, this bill would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks we have seen in any state.

The language in this bill prohibits not only networks that directly offer services but even public-private partnerships and open access approaches. This is the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies rather than just limiting local authority to deliver services.

The bill states that the goal is to

encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates; and ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Yet the bill does nothing but discourage investment, with no explanation of how prohibiting some approaches will lead to more investment or better services. It does not enable any new business models, rather it outlaws one possible source of competition for existing providers.

The bill contains what will appear to the untrained eye to be an exemption for unserved areas. However, the language is hollow and will have no effect in protecting those who have no access from the impact of this bill.

The first problem is the definition of unserved. A proper definition of unserved would involve whether the identified area has access to a connection meeting the FCC's minimum broadband definition delivered by DSL, cable, fiber-optic, fixed wireless or the like. These technologies are all capable of delivering such access.

However the bill also includes mobile wireless and, incredibly, satellite access. As we have noted on many occasions, the technical limits of satellite technology render it unfit to be called broadband, even if it can deliver a specific amount of Mbps. Satellite just does not allow the rapid two-way transmitting of information common to modern Internet applications. Mobile wireless comes with high costs, prohibitively low monthly caps, and often only works in some areas of a rural property. This is not a proper measure of having access to the Internet.

The second problem with the fake unserved exemption is the challenge of demonstrating an area meets it. If one suspected that a territory with over 90% of the residents did not meet the overly broad definition, one would have to engage in an expensive survey to prove it at the census block level. Data is not ordinarilly collected at that granular level - and even when it is, it is often based on unverified claims by existing carriers.

Even if anywhere in Kansas qualified as unserved under this definition, the cost of proving it would only add to the extremely high cost of building to such a low density population, breaking any business plan that could attempt it.

This is not the absolute most restrictive bill we have seen revoking local authority to build networks, but it is second. It does allow communities to build networks for public purposes, including schools, which is the differentiator in this case.

cover-chanute-gig-small-rotate.png

These types of bills make a mockery of our political system. Whether to invest in essential infrastructure (or how to) is a decision that should be made at the local level, where people know how their unique mix of assets and challenges relate to ensuring everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. There is no need for the state or federal authority to overrule local decision-making. The only reason we see it popping up in state after state (most recently Georgia) is because powerful cable and telephone companies want to ensure they face no competition - even in the most rural areas of the country.

This is not a matter of taxes. As we note in a recent fact sheet, most community networks have not used taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the cable and telephone companies have a history of benefits from the public sector, from ongoing subsidies to having built their networks originally as monopolies protected from competition.

For those new to this issue, I highly recommend our fact sheets on community networks, videos, and our interactive map of community networks.

We have covered many stories in Kansas over the years, including the network in Chanute that has helped many local businesses (see our case study) and a more recent investment by the city of Ottawa.

We will provide ongoing coverage as this bill moves forward.

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

The Challenge of Open Access - Lessons Learned Part III

To finalize our series on reflections from Seattle and Gigabit Squared, I discuss open access networks and how the requirement that a network directly pay all its costs effectively dooms it in the U.S. Read part one here and part two here. I started this series because I felt that the Gigabit Squared failure in Seattle revealed some important truths that can be glossed over in our rush to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

The benefits of public-private-partnerships in these networks have often been overstated while the risks and challenges have been understated. We have seen them work and believe communities should continue to seek them where appropriate, but they should not be rushed into because they are less controversial than other solutions.

Sometimes we have to stop and remember that we will live for decades with the choices we make now. It was true when communities starting building their own electrical networks and is still true today. I hope the series has provided some context of how challenging it can be without removing all hope that we can stop Comcast, AT&T, and others from monopolizing our access to the Internet.

In this final piece, I want to turn to a different form of partnership - the open access network. I think it follows naturally as many in Seattle and other large cities would be more likely to invest in publicly owned fiber networks if they did not have to offer services - that being the most competitive, entreprenuerial, and difficult aspect of modern fiber networks.

Chattanooga construction

The desire to focus on long term investments rather than rapidly evolving services is a natural reaction given the historic role of local governments in long term infrastructure investments. Fiber certainly fits in that description and as many have noted, the comparison to roads is apt. An open access fiber network allows many businesses to reach end users just as roads allow Fedex, UPS, and even the Post Office, to compete on a level playing field.

In an open access approach, the local government would build the network out to connect all residents and businesses but not directly deliver services. Instead, multiple independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would compete on the network for business, ideally specializing in different niches - some providing great video game optimizations and others focusing on meeting small business needs.

Unfortunately, there are reasons we have not seen this approach gain widespread traction. The model is more difficult than is readily apparent.

A large part of the difficulty comes from incumbent providers that refuse to use the fiber network. The cable and the telephone companies claim that they don't want to abandon their assets, but that is not the main reason they have refused to participate in these networks. The big cable and telephone companies know that they have terrible reputations and would be slaughtered in a competitive market - so they put great effort in ensuring that they face as little competition as possible. Allowing the open access market to develop would all but ensure mighty Comcast would have to compete against local providers that offer much better customer service, lower prices, and more.

From an economic perspective, an ideal open access network would be one physical fiber network on which all ISPs compete. With a take rate over 80 percent, the revenue would likely be sufficient to pay the costs of building the network, operating costs, AND the ISP costs. But because the cable and telephone companies have fought against open access, subscribers are often split among three different physical infrastructures (cable, copper telephone lines, and the fiber network), generating too little revenue to pay the costs of building the fiber network.

If a major metro area does a feasibility study to build a citywide open access network fiber, it will find that the network will almost certainly not pay for itself using a conventional private sector accounting system. The interest on the debt required to build the network accrues faster than revenue. Of course, the roads and bridges don't pay for themselves via user fees either, but we still invest in them.

Community BB Logo

In a recent podcast, we discuss how over the first five years, a network can save more in aggregate for the community that it costs to build. But those benefits acrue individually to households. Thus far, very few communities have used this approach - to raise monthly taxes by $3 to save $10 on household telecom bills, for instance. Leverett is a rare example of this approach.

That does leave another option - building an open access network incrementally, as Danville has done in Virginia and Palm Coast FiberNet in Florida, among others. This is a viable option for just about any community but comes with the difficult reality that connecting everyone could take decades. And there are still other gotchas.

Some communities that wanted to build an open access network have found it can be challenging to find service providers that will operate on the network. Sometimes a local ISP can step up, as in Danville and in other cases, but not always. Until a network has thousands of potential subscribers, ISPs may not be interested in offering services. But incremental approaches will often start with just tens or hundreds of subscribers.

We have written elsewhere of how important it is to have at least one strong, trusted provider on the network. An important lesson from Provo, among other places, is the difficulty in recovering once a network has a bad reputation. A bad provider can ruin the name of a perfectly good network, especially as most people will not know whether to attribute any problems to the physical network or ISP.

UTOPIA Logo

All of that said, open access offers a tremendous promise. Networks like UTOPIA and Chelan PUD (Washington) have been unable to pay the capital cost of building the network solely from revenues but offer some of the fastest speeds in the nation at a fraction of the price we pay elsewhere. I recall the testimony of a local business to the Utah Legislature who basically said, "Yeah, my taxes went up a little -- but my monthly telecom bill went down a lot."

Nonetheless, nearly every municipal fiber network has been built and financed with the expectation that it would pay for itself - generally breaking even years after the high upfront investments have been made. Each community should be free to choose what expectations it has in building the network it needs to ensure a vibrant economy and high quality of life for everyone. Our role has been to help them understand that choice and push back on those who want to take it away. I hope this series helps in that effort.

Many of the municipal fiber networks that now directly provide services started with a hope of working with a local partner or building an open access network. As they considered their options, they found they effectively had to choose between doing nothing and venturing into a very challenging business.

There are few easy answers for communities stuck with subpar Internet access, or even for those that regard "par" as unacceptable. When Lafayette Mayor Joey Durel was presented with the idea of a municipal fiber network shortly after taking office, he was skeptical. But he ultimately decided they should examine it - saying "shame on us" if they didn't at least see what they could do. Maybe they would hit a brick wall... or maybe they would build one of the most impressive broadband networks in the country. That was good advice.

No one solution works for every community. Thus our guiding philosophy: communities should be free to choose for themselves the solution they prefer.

Construction photo courtesy of Chattanooga Electric Power Board

Over the Top Video: A Peak or a Path Forward?

About six months ago, I was quite bullish on advances in over-the-top (OTT) video making it easier for communities to build fiber networks because they would no longer have to deal with the challenges of securing and delivering traditional cable television channels. I explored these challenges in a recent post.

OTT video includes Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, and similar services that deliver video content over your broadband connection, ideally to your television. Last summer, we were anticipating more devices and services that would expand OTT options.

In the time since, I have been disappointed. There have been advances - the Google Chromecast dongle works well (if you have a good Wi-Fi signal near your TV - no ethernet option unfortunately). But Chromecast works with a limited suite of video services.

Hulu works well enough, but seems to have fewer shows that I want to watch available on Hulu plus. Also, Comcast owns it and won't always be shackled by the temporary conditions it agreed to in order to secure permission to buy NBC Universal.

Aereo continues to be a very interesting model but will be fighting in the courts for awhile yet, creating an air of uncertainty over its future. Additionally, its business model hurts public access media (locally produced content), which often depends on franchise fees that Aereo and broadband providers don't have to pay. On the other hand, Aereo solves the problem of getting sports programming over the top and that is a big deal.

We had high hopes for an announcement from Intel that it would begin marketing a service offering television channels over the top but it ran into the steep barriers to entry we have previously noted. Now the Intel effort is dead to us: Verizon has purchased it.

Maybe Sony or Samsung or some other manufacturer will suddenly come out with a breakthrough, but given my experience with their user interfaces, I would be shocked if it were usable, to say nothing of desirable.

It is distinctly possible that we will see breakthroughs that make OTT video more accessible and therefore help to drive new investment in fiber networks that don't require large investments in cable head end technology and acquiring hundreds of channel contracts. But I think it more likely that we are going to see OTT content hold steady or even draw back - we may see still fewer popular programs available on Hulu in the near future, for instance.

Regardless, we should not assume that we are in the midst of a linear progression from little OTT video to much more. Given the massive power of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and the channel owners, we could well see a return to content only being available to those who pay ever-increasing fees to the local cable monopoly.

There is a reason Google decided it needed to offer television channels to get enough subscribers to make their investment worthwhile. Communities may not need the same high subscriber rates that Google wants, but it is a sign of where they think the market is staying.

Circuit Court to FCC: You Can Restore Local Authority to Build Community Networks

As we noted yesterday, the DC Circuit of Appeals has decided that the FCC does not have authority to implement its Open Internet (network neutrality) rules as proposed several years ago.

But the court nonetheless found that the FCC does have some authority to regulate in the public interest, particularly when it comes to something we have long highlighted: state barriers to community owned networks. For example, see North Carolina and recent efforts in Georgia.

States have been lobbied heavily by powerful cable and telephone companies to create barriers that discourage community owned networks. Nineteen states have such barriers (see our map with the states shown in red), largely because communities have nowhere near the lobbying power of massive cable and telephone companies, not because the arguments against municipal networks are compelling.

For those who remember a certain Supreme Court decision called Nixon v Missouri, the Court has once weighed in the matter of state barriers to community networks. In the '96 Telecom Act, Section 253 declares "No State or local statute or regulation, or other State or local legal requirement, may prohibit or have the effect of prohibiting the ability of any entity to provide any interstate or intrastate telecommunications service."

However, the Supreme Court decided in 2004 that Congress was insufficiently clear in its intent to preempt state authority - that "any" did not mean "any" but rather meant something else. In making this decision, it ignored a legislative history with plenty of evidence (see Trent Lott for instance) that suggested Congress meant "any" to mean "any."

ANYway, we lost that one. States were found to have the right to limit the authority of communities to build their own networks. But we have long felt that a different grant of authority gave the FCC the power to overrule state limits of local authority to build networks, Section 706.

Preemption Map

And this is where yesterday's decision comes in. Circuit Judge Silberman concurred in part and dissented in part - but more importantly for us, he explained Section 706. Read along with your own copy from here [pdf].

The statute directs the Commission to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans . . . by utilizing . . . price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”

As I said, we have long felt the FCC had the power to remove state barriers that limit local authority to build fiber networks under its section 706 authority but we did not know whether the courts would read it in the same way. In describing the difference between its authority to promote competition vs. its power to remove barriers to infrastructure investment, he notes:

An example of a paradigmatic barrier to infrastructure investment would be state laws that prohibit municipalities from creating their own broadband infrastructure to compete against private companies.

The footnotes cites this Wired article for further information. It's "kind of a big deal."

We now have a clear roadmap: Section 706 gives the FCC the authority to remove barriers to infrastructure investment and to promote competition. Restoring local authority to build networks achieves both. The Nixon v. Missouri decision is irrelevant, based on a different section of law. And we have plenty of evidence that when allowed to build their own networks, communities can do a wonderful job... that is what we have been documenting for years.