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Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies: The Reality of Lafayette's Gigabit Network

Publication Date: 
October 13, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

In just the last year the Lafayette Utility System (LUS) gigabit network has attracted 1,300 high-tech jobs. Chairman Wheeler praised the network for doing what many communities hope to do, but cannot because of state laws limiting municipal broadband networks. Critics are desperate to discredit the network, using false statements and misinformation.

The Reason Foundation released a paper by Steven Titch in November, 2013, to discredit LUS Fiber. Here we offer a point-by-point rebuttal of the report. Titch makes numerous claims that he does not support with any evidence. Much of the evidence he uses in support of other claims is out of context or erroneous. And even then, his worst criticism is that the network may struggle in the future but is not currently failing.

Our critical response to the Reason Foundation's report should be helpful to any community considering its own municipal network investment. This document includes common arguments and responses both for and against such networks.

Download or read the full report at ILSR.org.

All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access

Publication Date: 
September 23, 2014
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

Minneapolis, MN —In 2010 the Minnesota legislature set a goal: universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state by 2015. It is now 2015 and large parts of Greater Minnesota will not achieve that goal, even as technological advances make the original benchmarks increasingly obsolete.

But some Minnesota communities are significantly exceeding those goals. Why? The activism of local governments.

A new report by ILSR, widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable organizations on municipal broadband networks, details the many ways Minnesota’s local governments have stepped up. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access” includes case studies of 12 Minnesota cities and counties striving to bring their citizens 21st century telecommunications.

 

  • 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.

Read how these and other communities took control of their own connectivity and their community vitality. Some did it alone while others established partnerships; each chose the path they considered the best for their own community.

 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 19

This was a big year for local governments and many year-end discussions have noted the role of cities in expanding high quality Internet access. Among them, The Free Press' Timothy Karr:

The rise of homegrown Internet infrastructure has prompted industry lobbyists to introduce state-level legislation to smother such efforts. There are at least 20 such statutes on the books. But in June, the FCC stepped in with a plan to preempt these state laws, giving communities the support they need to affordably connect more people.

and Broadband Breakfast's Drew Clark:

...viewed from the vantage point of the future, the far more significant development will be the emergence of opportunities outside of Washington for high-capacity broadband networks. It’s a world in which cities and municipalities are playing the leadership role...

The most direct crystallization of our municipal broadband moment is the new non-profit coalition dubbed Next Century Cities. Launched less than two months ago in Santa Monica, it now boasts membership from 50 cities, representing 25 states. From Los Angeles to communities along the Pacific Northwest, from Lafayette in Cajun country to Chattanooga, and from patrician Boston to a city that got its start as a cow town, Kansas City, each of these 50 cities have different motivations and approaches to Gigabit Networks.

Almost 60% of the United States has access to 100 Mbps Internet connections, but only 3% can get a gig. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin and Anne L. Kim from Roll Call both take a look at a new report from the Department of Commerce this week. 

The ESA report titled, “Competition Among U.S. Broadband Service Providers,” finds that far more competition exists at slower speeds than at higher speeds (only 8% can choose from at least two 100 Mbps providers.) 

"This report gives policymakers a deeper understanding of what is occurring in the ISP marketplace," says U.S. Commerce Department Chief Economist Sue Helper. “We know that competition typically drives down prices. And we also know that increasingly, higher Internet speeds are required for optimal functionality of popular, high-bandwidth computing applications. As more and more commerce and information move online, we risk further widening the digital divide if access to affordable, higher speed Internet doesn’t keep pace.”  

Anders Bylund with Motley Fool posted an article this week about why AT&T might nervous about the days to come. Bylund asks whether municipal broadband projects like those in Chanute, Kansas, and Google Fiber’s entry into the market are rendering AT&T obsolete. 

“You might think that AT&T would shrug its shoulders over new competition in such a laughably small market. But the company sees this as the beginnings of a much larger threat: Allow one high-sped service at incredibly low prices, and other cities will surely follow. Soon enough, this tiny insurgent will have turned into a nationwide trend, putting enormous pressure on AT&T's existing business model.”

Small towns, larger cities, counties and cooperatives all over the United States are catching on. 

In Renville, Nicollet and Sibley Counties in rural Minnesota, residents have a lot to look forward to in 2015. Cassandra Sepeda with KEYC Mankato reported on RS Fiber’s growing momentum. The fiber-to-the-home initiative could reach more than 6,000 residents by 2016. The groups financial planner, and local business man, Phil Keithahn works from home and is definitely on-board:

"...That's what this does. It levels the playing field for people who live and work in rural America with people who are in the twin cities. So it's an economic development tool for south central Minnesota."

In Virginia’s rural Bedford County— a cooperative partnership could soon connect thousands of homes. Last week the county’s board announced they would collaborate with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative to get high speed Internet in the area.

“[Internet infrastructure] is a public utility build-out — the biggest one so far in this century — and it’s pretty much equal to the rural electrification that happened at the turn of the last century,” said Allen Boaz, who presented the advisory proposal to the supervisors.

“That’s how important I believe it is, and a whole lot of other people are with me.”

The county’s economic development director says that residents might be connected within six months.

And, speaking of development, 10 Connecticut communities are rolling forward with high speed Internet goals in mind. According to Brian Fung with the Washington Post, half of the state's population could some day be wired for high-speed, fiber-optic Internet. Stephen Singer with the Associated Press writes that while the cities have committed to wanting businesses to build and finance Internet service, they don't want to get into the business themselves: 

Among the goals are to create a gigabit-capable network for targeted businesses and residential areas with a "demonstrated demand" to drive job creation and stimulate economic growth. The call [out to a business or partner] also seeks to provide free or heavily discounted Internet service of between 10 and 100 megabits to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas and deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber networks in the United States.

Students in South Bend, Indiana are now fiber-connected. Metronet's grant program helped pay for the high-performing school to connect to Metronet's dark fiber network. Before the upgrade, students often had to do their Internet research from their own homes. 

McHenry County’s Northwest Herald, and Charleston, South Carolina’s The Post and Courier, put their support behind competitive Internet this week. In Charleston, the paper threw down on South Carolina’s 2012 law that prohibits public networks, saying that the state cannot afford to continue to be left behind in terms of speed and connectivity: 

“South Carolina communities with limited or inadequate bandwidth access stand virtually no chance of attracting industries that increasingly rely on high speed Internet connections to do business. Gov. Nikki Haley's record on job creation is strong, but her decision to sign the 2012 bill dealt a serious blow to the state's ability to attract investments.

Perhaps regulating the Internet under a labyrinthine federal communications code would indeed slow innovation and hurt the economy. But preventing competition - the inevitable effect of South Carolina's law - can be equally harmful.

Companies like Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T operate like monopolies in too many markets, and monopolies require rules to prevent actions that harm consumers and other businesses.”

The Star Tribune and MSP Business Journal are reporting that Chaska’s city-owned Internet service will be switched off next year. The city opted out of the wireless Internet offerings rather than pay the $3 million to upgrade. Since it launched in 2004, the city has seen a rise in competition, with more providers offering service. 

“We never wanted to compete with the private sector,” Podhrasky said. “We just wanted to make sure our residents had access to [wireless Internet] until there were more options out there.” He said the city concluded the time has come, with people now having a variety of choices, including bundled services at high speeds through cable modems at prices close to chaska.net’s."

The city will continue to provide its fiber service to the school district and one data center.

And Susan Crawford came out another good piece: “The 3 Big Myths that are holding back America’s Internet.”

TING!

Charlottesville, Virginia could soon be home to what one alternative wireless carrier calls, “Google Fiber lite.” Ting announced this week they will build their own 1Gbps fiber-to-the-premises when they purchase Blue Ridge InternetWorks to serve Charlottesville customers— and, as Sean Buckley with Fierce Telecom reports, they don’t plan to stop there. 

"We'll be on the lookout for the next town or city in which we can lay down roots," wrote [Andrew] Moore-Crispin, [senior content manager at Ting.] “Roots made of fiber optic cable and ultimately leading right to the home. If you'd like to see Ting Internet in your town, let us know on the Ting Internet page… We admire what Google is doing with and for gigabit fiber Internet access, but for the Internet giant, access is more of a side project," wrote Moore-Crispin. "Also, Google is a lot of great things but human scale isn't one of them."

Jason Koebler with Motherboard covered the story as well

"When we got into mobile, we just took the same business processing and billing and applied them to mobile, which was suffering from incredibly high pricing and a low level of service," he added. "We thought, where else can we take these things we've gotten good and apply them to?"

Hypocrisy Department

And Time Warner Cable is fighting to keep its Broadband expansion projects private.

"'As outlined in our appeal, disclosure of Time Warner Cable build-out plans, including details like completion dates and the areas and number of potential customers served, would clearly harm our competitive position,' Time Warner Cable spokesman Scott Pryzwansky said Monday."

Time Warner Cable and other private providers regularly demand this information from local government providers. This is a frank admission that local governments operate from a position of disadvantage relative to private sector providers.

GAO Report Warns of Potential for ISPs to Abuse Data Caps

Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report warning of the possibility and potential consequences of ISPs instituting data caps in their fixed line plans. In effect, this could mean applying something like the tiered service charges based on usage levels that we see in the mobile sector to broadband connections in the home or office. But whereas the vast majority of Americans have a reasonable range of choice between several major and minor carriers for mobile service, the GAO notes that the same is not true in the market for broadband, which could lead to ISPs using data caps (or usage-based pricing (UBP) in their parlance) in various harmful ways:

...providers facing limited competition could use UBP [usage-based pricing] to increase profits, potentially resulting in negative effects, including increased prices, reductions in content accessed, and increased threats to network security.

The GAO has provided the FCC with a copy of its report, and urged that the agency take action on the issue, including systematically tracking information on how many consumers are impacted by fixed providers instituting data caps and developing a voluntary code of conduct for the industry. According to Ars Technica, the FCC has taken a skeptical stance on the issue, despite Chairman Tom Wheeler’s outspoken concerns on the lack of competition in the fixed broadband market. Pointing to the small number of consumer complaints on the issue so far, the FCC asserted that “it is unclear that any action is needed at this time.”

Usage caps do not just affect sophisticated users with bandwidth-intensive jobs or hobbies that require them to transfer large design files or generate and share multimedia content. This has the potential to affect kids and adults doing homework or taking classes online, people who hope to cut the cord from traditional television providers, and telecommuters. From the GAO study:

Participants also expressed concern about difficulty tracking the wide range of devices accessing their fixed data allowance and that fixed UBP may negatively affect students, people working from home, and those with lower socio-economic status. 

Perhaps just as importantly as the specific levels, the existence of a cap or usage-based pricing policy creates an atmosphere where people think of data as a finite resource that should be used only sparingly, even if they may not be directly affected by specific limits:

Participants exhibited confusion over data consumption—for example thinking that low-data activities like online shopping consumed large amounts of data. 

These kinds of policies are in direct contrast with the connectivity environment we should be working to create - plentiful, cheap bandwidth for as many people as possible. 

Chris Joins Sarah Morris on Oregon Radio to Discuss Cost of Connectivity

This is the third year the Open Technology Institute (OTI) at New America Foundation studied the cost and quality of connectivity in the U.S. Once again, the results indicate we trail behind peer countries. On November 11th, Chris joined Sarah Morris, one of the report authors, to discuss the report's findings, municipal networks, and how Title II reclassification may change the landscape. They joined Dave Miller for the Think Out Loud program on Oregon Public Broadcasting. 

In addition to detailed data analysis on where the best speeds and prices are,  The Cost of Connectivity 2014 provides reviews of several other papers from sources such as Akamai, the FCC, and the American Enterprise Institute.

Some notable findings from the report:

  • The average cost of plans in nearly every speed tier studied for the report was higher in the U.S. than in Europe.
  • Cities considered speed leaders have consistently increased speed offerings on an annual basis. In places where the speed was not increased, as in Lafayette, rates decreased. Almost half of the speed leaders cities offer gigabit speeds. 

OTI made special note of the success of municipal networks in places where traditional providers are not willing to invest:

Although there are many examples of successful locally-owned networks, we focus on Chattanooga, TN; Bristol, VA; and Lafayette, LA, which now offer some of the fastest and most affordable high-speed residential products available in the country despite the fact that they have some of the lowest population densities among the cities we survey.

All three cities offer gigabit speeds that place them on par with Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, and Zürich in our speed leaders rankings, although the prices vary from city to city, and are ahead of the major incumbent ISPs in the U.S. In fact, the only other provider that offers gigabit speeds in the cities we surveyed is Google Fiber, which sells 1 Gbps service in Kansas City, KS, and Kansas City, MO, for the same price as EPB in Chattanooga, TN. By contrast, Verizon’s top tier is a 500 Mbps symmetrical connection that is available to some residents of New York, NY; Washington, DC; and Los Angeles, CA for about $300/month, which is significantly more than the cost of a gigabit in Chattanooga, TN (around $70/month) or Lafayette, LA (around $110/month) and comparable to the price of the gigabit package in Bristol, VA (around $320/month) but only half the speed.

In general, our research shows that these locally-owned networks tend to deliver better value to their customers when compared on a price-per-megabit basis to competing cable and telecom providers in their own cities.

The show runs just under 30 minutes.

Lake County Provides Gap Funding To Keep Project On Track

Lake County has faced a number of challenges since it began deploying its fiber network in 2012. The latest wrinkle comes as the Rural Utility Service (RUS) is late in distributing funds to pay contractors. The agency is administering the stimulus funds used to build the $66 million project. The Lake County News Chronicle recently reported that the County Board of Commissioners will pay $500,000 to cover expenses until federal funds arrive.

The Chronicle reports:

County Administrator Matt Huddleston said the County typically submits financial requirement statements (FRS) to RUS, and the federal agency usually processes the request for funds within 20 days. FRS 15 was filed more than 50 days ago and RUS still hasn't paid the County. A second, more recent FRS has also been delayed.

Commissioners were concerned delayed payments to contractors would further delay the project, scheduled for completion by September 2015.

After the original partner and the County dissolved their partnership and a threat of a lawsuit from Mediacom slowed deployment, Frontier asserted ownership of a number of utility poles within Two Harbors. According to the Chronicle, Lake Connections and the County recently made the decision to bury fiber instead of stringing them on poles as a way to avoid more delays.

Commissioner Rick Goutermont said he was hopeful after speaking to RUS officials on a conference call Monday that RUS would approve the new plan, the project would move forward and RUS would reimburse the $500,000 quickly.

"If we make some kind of movement in the form of some gap financing ... to keep the boots on the ground out there working on it, I believe that would send a stronger message to RUS of our commitment and that we want to move forward," Goutermont said Tuesday.

We documented Lake County's story in our report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. 

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].

GAO Report: Government Telecom Investments Help Local Businesses

The Government Accountability Office released a report today examining economic development and government-spurred broadband deployment. The report, titled Telecommunications: Federal Broadband Deployment Programs and Small Business looks at the effects of stimulus projects on opportunities for small business. 

According to the press release:

“GAO’s investigation confirms the success of the Recovery Act’s broadband programs," said Rep. Waxman.  “In rural and urban areas across the country, small businesses are benefitting from higher speeds and lower prices thanks to federal investment in this essential infrastructure.  Expanding broadband access and quality is critical for American competiveness in the 21st century global economy. These were public dollars well spent.”

The report reviews communities around the country where either federal dollars have been invested in networks or local governments have made such investments. The results were consistent with our findings over the years - municipal networks create a business-friendly environment and contribute to economic development. 

According to the report summary:

According to small businesses GAO met with, the speed and reliability of their broadband service improved after they began using federally funded or municipal networks.

Regarding competition, the GAO find that municipal networks spur competitor investments:

For example, following the construction of a fiber-to-the-home municipal network in Monticello, Minnesota, the two other broadband providers in the area made investments in their infrastructure to improve their broadband speeds. One of these providers stated that all of its networks undergo periodic upgrades to improve service, but upgrade schedules can change in order to stay competitive when there is a new service provider in a particular market.

Bandwidth Caps are Unnecessary and Counterproductive

The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation has released a report on data caps in the U.S. The report, Capping the Nation's Broadband Future, was authored by Hibah Hussain, Danielle Kehl, Benjamin Lennett, and Patrick Lucey.

The paper looks at the growing prevalence of monthly data caps by massive ISPs like Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others. Authors conclude that data caps are effectively discouraging Internet usage with restrictions and limits that can be expensive. From the summary:

As this paper documents, data caps, especially on wireline networks, are hardly a necessity. Rather, they are motivated by a desire to further increase revenues from existing subscribers and protect legacy services such as cable television from competing Internet services. Although traffic on U.S. broadband networks is increasing at a steady rate, the costs to provide broadband service are also declining, including the cost of Internet connectivity or IP transit as well as equipment and other operational costs. The result is that broadband is an incredibly profitable business, particularly for cable ISPs. Tiered pricing and data caps have also become a cash cow for the two largest mobile providers, Verizon and AT&T, who already were making impressive margins on their mobile data service before abandoning unlimited plans.

The increasing prevalence of data caps both on the nation’s wireline and mobile networks underscore a critical need for policymakers to implement reforms to promote competition in the broadband marketplace.  Data caps may offer an effective means for incumbents to generate more revenue from subscribers and satisfy investors, but making bandwidth an unnecessarily scarce commodity is bad for consumers and innovation.  The future is not just about streaming movies or TV shows but also access to online education or telehealth services that are just starting to take off. Capping their future may mean capping the nation’s future as well.

The paper also looks at the technical challenges of capping data usage. Additionally, the authors delve into the many ways data caps are turned into profit for a few big providers while harming users. This resource brings relevent data into focus along side long term policy implications and offers some advice:

Data Cap Myth

For the Internet to continue to serve as a catalyst for economic growth it is imperative that consumers and entrepreneurs not feel constrained online. In a recent speech, former FCC Executive Director and Chief of Staff Blair Levin highlighted the links between broadband abundance, innovation, and economic growth.

"When it comes to the wireline access network, instead of talking about upgrades, we are talking about caps and tiers. Instead of talking about investment for growth, we are talking about harvesting for dividends,” …  “[policymakers] should recognize that our progress demands an investment environment that creates the conditions that allows us to invent the future, not just harvest from the past."

An uncapped Internet environment gave rise to a host of innovative and popular applications. Broadband and bandwidth must continue to be thought of as an abundant resource, not a rationed commodity, to ensure the vibrant online ecosystem can continue to flourish.

Shortly after this report was published, the lead lobbyists for cable interests in Washington, DC, admitted that the bandwidth caps are not designed to solve any congestion problems, which Karl Bode covered with his usual smart analysis.

Except the argument that usaged pricing is about fairness has been just as repeatedly debunked. If usage caps were about "fairness," carriers would offer the nation's grandmothers a $5-$15 a month tier that accurately reflected her twice weekly, several megabyte browsing of the Weather Channel website. Instead, what we most often see are low caps and high overages layered on top of already high existing flat rate pricing, raising rates for all users.

Any argument that caps for wireline service are necessary is refuted by the fact that the fastest networks in the US, whether publicly owned, Google, or even Verizon's FiOS, see no need to cap monthly transfer amounts.

The big cable monopolists don't care about fairness, they care about boosting profits while investing as little as possible. Unfortunately, their overcharging lack of investment is harming every other industry in our country.

The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina

Publication Date: 
January 3, 2013
Author(s): 
Todd O'Boyle, Common Cause
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

In late 2006, Wilson, North Carolina, voted to build a Fiber-­‐to-­‐the-­‐Home network. Wilson’s decision came after attempts to work with Time Warner Cable and EMBARQ (now CenturyLink) to improve local connectivity failed.

Wilson’s decision and resulting network was recently examined in a case study by Todd O’Boyle of Common Cause and ILSR's Christopher Mitchell titled Carolina’s Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Internet. This new report picks up with Wilson’s legacy: an intense multiyear lobbying campaign by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink, and others to bar communities from building their own networks. The report examines how millions of political dollars bought restrictions in the state that will propagate private monopolies rather than serve North Carolinians.

Download the new report here: The Empire Lobbies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina

These companies can and do try year after year to create barriers to community-­‐owned networks. They only have to succeed once; because of their lobbying power, they have near limitless power to stop future bills that would restore local authority. Unfortunately, success means more obstacles and less economic development for residents and businesses in North Carolina and other places where broadband accessibility is tragically low.

It certainly makes sense for these big companies to want to limit local authority to build next-­‐generation networks. What remains puzzling is why any state legislature would want to limit the ability of a community to build a network to improve educational outcomes, create new jobs, and give both residents and businesses more choices for an essential service. This decision should be made by those that have to feel the consequences—for better and for worse.

This story was originally posted on the ILSR website.