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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.

NYU School of Law Analyzes, Supports Net Neutrality Policy

Publication Date: 
January 7, 2010
Author(s): 
Inimai Chettiar
Author(s): 
J Scott Holladay

In 2010, the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law released a report titled Free to Invest: The Economic Benefits of Preserving Net Neutrality. The report, authored by Inimai Chettiar and J. Scott Holladay, is a great resource - substantial and very digestible - on what net neutrality really is, how it is (or is not) regulated, and the economic possibilities policy makers must consider when moving ahead.

The Institute looks at the economic relationships between content providers, ISPs, and consumers. In addition to the current economic structure, the report examines possible alternate pricing models that are contrary to our current net neutrality policies. We have extracted just a few excerpts and encourage you to get the full report.

There are five main findings that are examined in depth:

Internet Market Failure: The report explains how ISPs lose potential dollars under today's market structure. There is ample motivation for them to find a way to charge content providers based on delivery, and open up a whole new market far beyond our net neutrality policy.

The FCC’s nondiscrimination rule would prohibit an ISP from treating any content, application, or service in a “discriminatory” manner, subject to reasonable network management. This clearly bans pure price discrimination (charging different content providers different prices to access their subscribers). The regulation also bans ISPs from offering content providers a “take it or leave it” offer on access to their users. For example, an ISP like Verizon could not charge a website of a company like The New York Times a certain price for access to its subscribers by threatening to block the website from its network and therefore from its Internet subscribers.

Smart Policy Can Help: The authors of the report stress how the Internet must be viewed as a two pronged market - infrastructure to deliver the content and the content itself - and how both are equally important. Effective policy must recognize the delicacy of that balance.

The goal of any policy should be to maximize the value of the Internet, which means choosing a policy that addresses both the quality of broadband service and the quality of Internet content. Focusing exclusively on either of the two complementary goods may lead to overinvestment in one at the expense of underinvestment in the other, thereby reducing the total surplus in the market.

...it is far easier for the government to make up the shortfall for infrastructure investment; protecting content providers’ current surplus is the best policy option given the structure of the Internet market and the difficulty of directly subsidizing the creation of content.

Transferring Wealth Through Price Discrimination: If ISPs could discriminate among content providers and extract the full amount that each content provider would be willing to pay, content providers would be forced to share their proceeds with ISPs.

At its heart, net neutrality regulation is about who will get more surplus from the Internet market. Retaining net neutrality would keep more surplus in the hands of the content providers, and eliminating it would transfer some surplus into the hands of the ISPs.

If price discrimination is allowed and our policy of net neutrality is abandoned, ISPs will have more money to invest in infrastructure, but content providers will have less to invest in content. The report notes that investment has been shown to have a direct impact on a nation's economy:

The World Bank estimates that every 10% increase in broadband penetration in a developed country increases economic growth by 1.2%…

So, for example, if eliminating net neutrality were to increase broadband penetration even by 10% (from 50% to 60%), that penetration would increase the value of the U.S. GDP by $289 billion per year.

The report also recognizes that ISPs don't make decisions based on the needs of consumers, but based on their past successes and failures. If net neutrality disappeared tomorrow, the only entities positioned to obtain the revenue to invest and expand are those that already exist. The report very frankly states that ISPs would not be inclined, based on their own investment history, to physically expand the pipes needed to connect more communities and more people. They would be more likely to filter those profits up to shareholders.

A large portion of the wealth transfer from content providers to ISPs would be essentially wasted because it would compensate for decisions that are already locked in, and most of the additional revenue would simply accrue on the basis of assets that the ISPs have already created.

Efficiently Supporting Infrastructure: A simple look back supports the idea that government should build infrastructure. From highways to electric service, the government has a track record of success in physical infrastructure. Conversely, our efforts to subsidize content have been limited. The report gives excellent examples of both and concludes:

Thus, when faced with the choice of how to correct for the externalities in the Internet market, government must take into consideration its whole range of policy options. Given the government’s historic success in subsidizing infrastructure and difficult in subsidizing content, it makes the most sense for government to correct the externalities by instituting net neutrality—a pricing policy that incentivizes market players to invest in content—and then directly subsidizing investments in infrastructure.

Problems With Prioritization: Authors of the report analyze the possible risks of allowing ISPs to divide content into accessibility tiers - speed of delivery based on who pays the most. Like price discrimination, this type of policy could stifle innovation and reduce the quality of the Internet.

For a variety of reasons, prioritization could run the risk of lowering the total surplus from the Internet market...In addition, the pure surplus effects from breaking the Internet into multiple streams is uncertain, the surplus loss for content providers in the slow lane may offset any gains from content providers in the fast lane. Perhaps most importantly, ISPs will face perverse incentives if they can generate revenue from the fast lane but not the slow lane. This misalignment of incentives could create a situation where ISPs can increase their revenue at the expense of the overall surplus from the market.

The conclusion, based on history, reason, and a realistic look at today's telecommunications industry:

By giving players the best incentives for optimal investment, net neutrality encourages a cycle that breeds more content, which in turn breeds more users. A combination of policies that protect content providers and judiciously deploy government resources to augment private investment in physical infrastructure is the right mix to ensure that the Internet continues to grow and flourish, generating massive benefits for the American public.

Utah State Auditor Reviews UTOPIA, Ignores State Role in Handicapping Network

Just this week, the Office of the Legislative Auditor General of the State of Utah released a report to the Utah Legislature on UTOPIA. The report, titled A Performance Audit of the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency rehashes prior criticisms of UTOPIA and tells the abridged story of the Auditor's understanding of UTOPIA's financial troubles.

While one can accept the report as truthful, it certainly is not comprehensive. Jesse Harris, of FreeUTOPIA notes that leaving out certain pieces of information taint the presumed impartiality of the report. From Jesse:

The Legislative Auditor General has published an audit of UTOPIA, and, as expected, it drags a fair amount of ancient history back into the spotlight.  The report concludes that additional accountability will alleviate the problems that UTOPIA has experienced, but it missed the mark on a number of points.

The Audit Scope and Objectives are spelled out in the beginning as:

Members of the Utah Legislature asked for an audit of UTOPIA so residents of UTOPIA member cities might know how the organization has used its funds. Legislators also asked for a review the organization’s general management practices. To address their concerns, we developed an audit plan to review the following areas:

  • The size and use of UTOPIA’s debt financing
  • The causes leading to UTOPIA’s current financial 
condition
  • UTOPIA’s management and board governance practices

While there are many bar graphs, pie charts, and dollar signs in the report and it seems to meet the scope and objectives, financial information alone does not explain UTOPIA's troubles. The first place to look is close to home.

From the beginning, UTOPIA has had to overcome difficult odds in a hostile legislative environment. As we note on our Community Broadband Map, the State of Utah effectively requires that community networks function as wholesale-only. The mandate puts them at a significant financial disadvantage from the beginning, severely limiting the amount of revenue they can collect early in the life of the network.

Another state law prevents community networks from bonding for more than 50% of the cost of the network. The only choice, thanks to the Utah Legislature, was to plan on using revenue from the early phase to complete further expansion of the network. The 50% rule, combined with the wholesale-only requirement prevents the robust expansion needed to breath life into a new network. Auditor staff failed to examine the effects of these two laws taken together.

The auditors gloss over efforts by the incumbents to deliberately disrupt UTOPIA. For instance, Qwest dedicated its significant might to preventing UTOPIA to access poles that it had a right to use. From the audit:

After eighteen months, UTOPIA and Qwest finally resolved their dispute over access rights. By that time, however, UTOPIA staff report that the agency’s construction contractors had moved on to other locations and the financial resources had been committed elsewhere. As a result, the financing was no longer available to complete the partially built neighborhoods. The result is a patchwork of service with some neighborhoods receiving services and with other, adjacent neighborhoods without service. 

UTOPIA Logo

It should read, "Qwest was able to delay UTOPIA's rollout by 18 months by forcing an unnecessary court proceeding. During that time, UTOPIA had little choice but to strand some of its investment and move on to areas where Qwest could not use legal tactics delay UTOPIA." The audit uses neutral language to avoid the important question of why they had a dispute to resolve -- it was because Qwest was using dirty tricks to bleed UTOPIA dry. And it worked.

There is no separation between pre-2008 and present UTOPIA. There are many examples of what hindsight can label as bad management decisions, but not enough examples of the implemented fixes. The report casually mentions a few - "stranded assets" being recovered and connected and efforts to better market the service to increase subscription rates. The Auditor could have and should have included more instances of remedial management action to give an up-to-date picture for the state legislature.

The Auditor's four recommendations revolve around management policy, practice, and greater accountability. Accountbility is always a good thing, but adopting those recommendations may or may not improve UTOPIA's financial health.

The report should have also included a recommendation to the Utah State Legislature - to remove state barriers and let local communities decide for themselves if they need, want, and can invest in broadband. Perhaps if UTOPIA was not restricted from day one, this report would not exist today.

In all, the report only considers part of the reasons for UTOPIA's struggles. There is no balancing discussion of the benefits UTOPIA has brought to its communities in return for the public money they have had to spend on the network. Those connected to the network have access to some of the fastest connections in the nation at very competitive prices. Residents and businesses can choose among more providers than literally 99% of America

None of this excuses the prior management of UTOPIA, which indeed made many mistakes. But to focus only on those mistakes only explains a piece of how UTOPIA arrived in such a deep financial hole.

Open Technology Initiative Report Shows U.S. Lagging in Broadband

The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation just released a report titled "The Cost of Connectivity." The report, authored by Hibah Hussain, Danielle Kehl, Benjamin Lennett, Chiehyu Li, and Patrick Lucey examines 22 cities across the planet for speed, triple play offerings, and what consumers can get for $35. The results, unfortunately, are not surprising. From the Report Summary:

The results indicate that U.S. consumers in major cities tend to pay higher prices for slower speeds compared to consumers abroad. For example, when comparing triple play packages in the 22 cities surveyed, consumers in Paris can purchase a 100 Mbps bundle of television, telephone, and high-speed Internet service for the equivalent of approximately $35 (adjusted for PPP). By contrast, in Lafayette, LA, the top American city, the cheapest available [triple play] package costs around $65 and includes just a 6 Mbps Internet connection. A comparison of Internet plans available for around $35 shows similar results.  Residents of Hong Kong have access to Internet service with symmetrical download and upload speeds of 500 Mbps while residents of New York City and Washington, D.C. will pay the equivalent price for Internet service with maximum download speeds that are 20 times slower (up to 25 Mbps and upload speeds of up to 2 Mbps).

The results add weight to a growing body of evidence that suggests that the U.S. is lagging behind many of its international counterparts, most of whom have much higher levels of competition and, in turn, offer lower prices and faster Internet service. It suggests that policymakers need to re-evaluate our current policy approaches to increase competition and encourage more affordable high-speed Internet service in the U.S.

Forbes' Bruce Upbin reviewed the report and the implications and, once again, pointed out what we all know:

This inferiority is almost purely a function of the lack of true competition and pro-consumer regulation in the telecom industry. According to the National Broadband Plan of 2010, 78% of American households have a choice between two companies for broadband: the telephone company and the cable company. Another 13% have one choice.

Also no surprise is that Lafayette and Chattanooga, both communities that invest in their own fiber insfrastructure, were at the top among U.S. cities for speed and affordability. The parallel between lack of affordability and lack of competition runs through the report.

The report is 54 pages; download the PDF here to get more details.

Florida County Saves Millions by Building its own Broadband Network

Publication Date: 
June 20, 2012
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

We have just released a paper revealing how Martin County saved millions of dollars by building its own fiber optic network to link schools and county facilities rather than leasing lines from Comcast.

The report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network, reveals how Martin County transformed the threat of a near ten-fold cost increase for its telecom budget into cost savings and new opportunities for economic growth.

Download the Florida Fiber Report here.

“Martin County is a model example of how local governments can cut costs, increase efficiencies, and spur economic development,” according to Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. “Local governments will need broadband networks in 10, 15, 30 years – they should consider owning the asset rather than leasing indefinitely.”

ILSR Broadband Researcher Lisa Gonzalez and Christopher Mitchell authored the report.

The new report highlights challenges the County faced, creative tactics used to reduce the cost of the investment, financial details on the incredible cost savings from the network, and how the new connections are already being used.

Though the County is not planning on offering services directly to residents or businesses over the network, the network has already allowed a local Internet Service Provider to expand its territory and offer some choices to people and businesses previously stuck only with AT&T and Comcast. Additionally, the network is leasing dark fiber to some entities.

Florida law makes it difficult for the community to offer services to residents and businesses by imposing additional regulations on public providers that are not imposed on massive companies like AT&T and Comcast.

If you want to stay current with stories like this, you can subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

How Chattanooga, Bristol, and Lafayette Built the Best Broadband in America

Publication Date: 
April 9, 2012
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

We are thrilled to finally unveil our latest white paper: Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. This report was a joint effort of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Benton Foundation.

We have chronicled how Bristol's BVU Authority, Chattanooga's EPB, and Lafayette's LUS built some of the most impressive broadband networks in the nation. The paper presents three case studies and then draws lessons from their common experiences to offer advice to other communities. Here is the press release:

The fastest networks in the nation are built by local governments, a new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Benton Foundation reveals

Chattanooga, Tennessee, is well known for being the first community with citywide access to a “gig,” or the fastest residential connections to the Internet available nationally. Less known are Bristol, Virginia, and Lafayette, Louisiana – both of which now also offer a gigabit throughout the community.

A new report just released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and the Benton Foundation explains how these communities have built some of the best broadband networks in the nation. Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks is available here.

“It may surprise people that these cities in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana have faster and lower cost access to the Internet than anyone in San Francisco, Seattle, or any other major city,” says Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. “These publicly owned networks have each created hundreds of jobs and saved millions of dollars.”

“Communities need 21st century telecommunications infrastructure to compete in the global economy,” said Charles Benton, Chairman & CEO of the Benton Foundation. “Hopefully, this report will resonate with local government officials across the country.”

Mitchell is a national expert on community broadband networks and was recently named a “Top 25 Doer, Dreamer, and Driver” by Government Technology. He also regularly authors articles at MuniNetworks.org.

The new report offers in-depth case studies of BVU Authority’s OptiNet in Bristol, Virginia; EPB Fiber in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and LUS Fiber in Lafayette, Louisiana. Each network was built and is operated by a public power utility.

Mitchell believes these networks are all the more important given the slow pace of investment from major carriers. According to Mitchell, “As AT&T and Verizon have ended the expansion of U-Verse and FiOS respectively, communities that need better networks for economic development should consider how they can invest in themselves.”

Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks is available here.

About ILSR: Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) proposes a set of new rules that builds community by supporting humanly scaled politics and economics. The Telecommunications as Commons Initiative believes that telecommunications networks are essential infrastructure and should be accountable to residents and local businesses.

About Benton: The Benton Foundation works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance our democracy. We pursue this mission by seeking policy solutions that support the values of access, diversity and equity, and by demonstrating the value of media and telecommunications for improving the quality of life for all.