Feed aggregator

Northern California City Gets Closer to Downtown Fiber Pilot

muninetworks.org - April 19, 2019

Earlier this month, Redding City Council decided to take the next step toward building a fiber network in a portion of the Northern California city’s downtown. Council members voted unanimously to move forward with exploration of the proposed pilot project after considering the design and cost assessment presented at the April 2nd council meeting.

City staff have been methodically researching the fiber project since May 2017. The exact model of the network is still up in the air; options include retail services from the city to the general public over the fiber infrastructure, opening up the network to multiple Internet service providers (ISPs) in an open access framework, or partnering with a single private provider. Following the approval from council, the city will now conduct further stakeholder engagement and a thorough risk assessment of the proposed fiber project.

Reading up on Redding

Redding (pop. 91,000) is the county seat of Shasta County in Northern California. Local industries include lumber, retail, and tourism, and the city is home to Mercy Medical Center. The community may already be familiar to some as Redding was impacted last summer’s devastating Carr Fire. Residents in outer neighborhoods and nearby towns had to evacuate to escape the wildfire, which killed eight people and consumed more than 220,000 acres and 1,000 homes.

For Internet access, residents can generally choose between DSL from AT&T and cable Internet access from Charter Spectrum, while businesses have a few more options, including fiber in certain areas. However, costs for fiber optic connectivity are high, according to Vice Mayor Adam McElvain, and some small sections of the city still don’t have any wireline connectivity. The Master Broadband Plan, shared with city council, also notes that “Downtown Redding has the lowest broadband adoption rates in the city, with rates between 20 and 40 percent,” compared to rates of over 80 percent in other areas.

The city has its own municipal electric provider, Redding Electric Utility (REU), established in the 1920s after the city purchased it from the investor-owned Pacific Gas & Electric Company (PG&E). If Redding moves forward with the downtown pilot project, the city plans to take advantage of REU’s existing electrical infrastructure to deploy the fiber network.

Council OKs Next Steps

At the Redding City Council meeting on April 2nd, McElvain presented the Master Broadband Plan to his fellow council members. Redding worked with the Geographic Information Center at Chico State University and received assistance from the federal BroadbandUSA program to prepare the report. The Master Broadband Plan assessed the cost and design of the proposed downtown fiber network and offered additional recommendations to the city, such as enabling public-private partnerships, developing a dig once policy, and creating conduit specifications.

McElvain, who included the downtown fiber network in his platform while running for office, explained that the downtown area was selected for the pilot project because it is densely populated, includes a variety of subscriber types (residents, businesses, schools, etc.), and has access to middle mile fiber. The Record Searchlight reports that 200 to 300 residents and 400 to 500 businesses are located within the footprint of the pilot area. The path of the proposed network is available on page 40 of the Master Broadband Plan.

The report estimated that the cost of the downtown fiber network would fall somewhere between $1.9 million to $3.5 million, depending on how the network is designed. In his presentation, McElvain identified public and private grants and subscriber backed financing as possible funding sources, noting that Redding might be eligible for U.S. Economic Development Administration grant money, especially considering the city’s recent experience with the Carr Fire.

A Charter Spectrum representative who attended the meeting, and repeated the usual false talking points: that "most municipal networks fail," overstating the services Charter offers in Redding, and grossly inflating the number of ISPs offering broadband service in the community. Nevertheless, City Council members voted 3 - 0 (two councilors abstained) to allow city staff to take the next steps towards developing a fiber pilot in downtown Redding.

What’s Next for Redding?

For proponents of the municipal fiber network, a major goal of the project is attracting businesses, promoting economic development, and revitalizing downtown Redding. The city being able to offer Internet access “at a fraction of the cost of what's available now at a much higher speed would be a huge benefit for economic development," McElvain told the Record Searchlight. At the council meeting, Redding Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Jake Mangas said that if this effort led to increased speeds and lower costs from existing ISPs, that alone would be “a win for business as well.” The project would also generate revenue for the city to support essential services like public safety.

But there’s more work to do before Redding can begin to reap the benefits of a downtown fiber network. Next, city staff will begin surveying city residents and businesses, building off a previously conducted survey. At the same time, they’ll continue to research grant options and develop an in-depth risk analysis.

McElvain and others working on the proposed fiber project hope to bring the results of these efforts back to council by September for a final decision

Redding Master Broadband PlanTags: redding cacaliforniaconsiderationmaster planeconomic developmentpilot projectpilot

Great Lakes Energy Planning FTTH Expansion in Rural Michigan

muninetworks.org - April 18, 2019

Great Lakes Energy (GLE) is considering expanding their Truestream fiber Internet access and voice service to more rural areas in the northwestern region of Michigan’s lower peninsula. In a recent news release, the electric cooperative announced that they began sending engineers to their Boyne service area to collect necessary information for analysis as they explore possible deployment in the area.

Growing One of the Largest

Last summer, we reported on the co-op's pilot project in the Petosky service area and their long-term plans to bring gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to their 125,000 members. The cooperative decided to begin with residential service and potentially expand to business subscriber offerings in the future.

Subscribers from the pilot area have reported positive feedback. Brian Bates, who is also the owner of Bear Creek Organic Farm in Petosky, posted speed test results on the Truestream FB page and commented:

“Truestream is more than 400 times faster than speeds we were able to get with our previous Internet provider. And for 75% less money with no contract and unlimited everything!”

By January, approximately 9,000 potential subscribers had registered interest via the Truestream website.

Better Broadband Coming to Boyne

Boyne City is located directly south of the city of Petosky and the GLE Boyne service area includes parts of five counties in the surrounding region. GLE will conduct a second field study this fall if results of the first study are favorable.

“If the findings are positive,” said [Lacey Matthews of GLE Communications and Communications], “Great Lakes Energy may budget for expansion of the fiber network in 2020, pending approval by the Great Lakes Energy Board of Directors in late 2019.”

As other cooperatives have done, GLE is depending on help from members interested in signing up for the service to decide where exactly to deploy FTTH within the Boyne service area. People should express their interest at jointruestream.com to help guide GLE in its strategic deployment plans. If GLE can better ensure fiber investment will lead to maximum sign-ups, their incremental approach will have better results.

Internet service from Truestream is available at three speed tiers:

  • 100 Mbps symmetrical for $59.99/month
  • 200 Mbps symmetrical for $69.99/month
  • 1 Gbps symmetrical for $99.99/month

Subscription fees include a Wi-Fi router. Telephone services costs $34.99 per month; more details are available at the Truestream website.

For more on the project and the cooperative, listen to Christopher interview Shari Culver from GLE for episode 324 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. They discussed the decision to pursue the project and their incremental approach.

Tags: great lakes energyrural electric coopruralmichigancooperativeFTTHexpansionincremental

Columbus, Mississippi, Network Quashed Courtesy of Big Cable and Telecom Lobby

muninetworks.org - April 17, 2019

Local communities in the state of Mississippi have the legal authority to develop publicly owned Internet networks and offer broadband, or any other utility, to the general public. When it comes to bonding in order to financing deployment for broadband infrastructure, however, the law isn’t as cut and dry. In order to stay on the right side of the law, the community of Columbus, Mississippi, decided to obtain permission from the state legislature to issue bonds for a $2.75 million expansion of their existing fiber optic network. Things didn’t work out as well as they had hoped, thanks to powerful lobbying influence in Jackson.

Stuck in Committee

Rep. Jeff Smith is Chair of the House Ways and Means Committee and introduced HB 1741, which would have granted permission for the city of Columbus to issue bonds to fund the infrastructure for better connectivity. Smith, who is also a board attorney for Columbus Light and Water (CLW), filed the bill because past opinions from state Attorneys General conflict on interpretation of the law. Bond attorneys told the utility board that the safest way forward would be to approach the Mississippi State Legislature for permission to bond.

The bill was directed to the House Local and Private Committee, but never received a hearing before the committee deadline of March 28th. According to Smith, HB 1741 had necessary support in the House, but Senate leadership would not let the bill advance:

"We were told lobbyists from Comcast and the other big cable providers had sat down with (Lt. Governor Tate Reeves) and encouraged him to kill three similar bills," Smith said. "He's the president of the Senate so ... when we heard that we knew it wasn't going to make it." 

When compared to the lobbying forces of Comcast, AT&T, and other national Internet access providers, CLW and the city of Columbus can expect to be outgunned at every turn. Large companies with millions to spend on experts well-versed at convincing state Senators not to take up bills such as HB 1741 have an unfair advantage. With the financing and manpower to spend many hours on one subject, convincing a powerful lawmaker who has limited access to information to maintain the current situation is not a difficult task. Monopoly ISPs have been cementing their positions from state capitals for years.

Co-ops Can, Cities Can't

While Mississippi Senators won’t take up the subject of bonding for the community of Columbus to offer better connectivity, they’ve decided that cooperatives can provide Internet access. The General Assembly two bills this session that remove existing restrictions preventing electric cooperatives from offering Internet access. In early April, elected officials sent SB 2 to Governor Bryant, which will remove legal barriers and, although it has not been signed yet, is expected to take effect this summer. In January at a bill signing ceremony where he signed the Mississippi Broadband Enabling Act, Bryant declared:

"This is a success for the Mississippi Legislature, for all those involved…If anyone wants to know how this bill got passed so quickly talk to the rural electric associations, because we do, and we listen to them."

The changes that allow electric co-ops to offer Internet access in Mississippi is a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, the inconsistency hasn’t been lost on those that want to review Smith’s proposal for Columbus. "That doesn't make sense because we passed a bill to allow co-ops to do basically the same thing,” said Senator Chuck Younger.

Smith said that next year, the plan will entail a bill aimed at allowing all local communities the right to bond for broadband infrastructure. Perhaps by then, lobbyists will have lost some of the influence they now wield in Mississippi. In a few other states, such as North Carolina and Arkansas, state lawmakers have moved to relax some of the restrictions that have prevented local communities from investing in local networks and expanding broadband access to people and businesses.

Thinking Ahead in Columbus

Like other municipal electric utilities, CLW already has some fiber infrastructure in place for internal communications. CLW began considering offering Internet access and voice service first to local businesses and possibly later to residences. Last fall, CLW surveyed approximately 2,500 local businesses; most of those that returned the survey responded that they would be interested in connectivity from CLW.

“We found then that there was definitely interest," [CLW General Manager Todd] Gale said. "There were a lot of people saying they'd switch. And even now, I have people on the street asking when we're going to start selling that service."

AT&T offers Internet access via DSL to residents in Columbus. Cable One provides service via its cable network, but subscribers complain about the data caps that interfere with the ability to stream content.

Officials from CLW consider an investment in municipal Internet access and voice services a way to keep electric and Internet access rates reasonable and keep Columbus utilities competitive. CLW has considered adding Internet access and voice to their available services as a way to increase revenue.

"In order to keep our rates down, we have to stay competitive," Gale said. "There has already been interest and we already have the fiber for it. It makes sense to take an asset we've already paid for and make good use of it."

The city has already conducted a feasibility study and determined that they’d need at least 600 subscribers to break even, with 200 needed in the first year. They may not have permission to bond from the General Assembly, but Columbus is floating the idea of finding other ways to finance the project. CLW are considering interdepartmental loans and an incremental approach. The board has not made final decisions, but if CLW can develop a workable plan, they may start construction before the end of the year.

Columbus also hasn’t given up on bonding in the future to expedite deployment. While they may once again face the power of the big corporate lobby at the General Assembly, they’ll have at least a year to build alliances, better educate lawmakers, and rally constituents. Smith is open about his intentions for next year’s session:

"We're going to try to next year -- and this sounds kind of mean -- to cram it down their throats," he said. "We're going to try to make (the bill) statewide." 

Tags: columbus msmississippilobbyingelectricutilitymunibondstate lawslegislation

Telemedicine Today: More Than Sending X-rays - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 352

muninetworks.org - April 16, 2019

This week, we have another interview that Christopher recorded while he was at the 2019 Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas. Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster, Maryland, where the town is partnering with Ting Internet, sat down for a conversation on telemedicine.

As the United States’ healthcare system continues to degrade, hospitals, doctors, and other caregivers are looking for new and efficient ways to provide better care for their patients. Broadband is a tool that healthcare professionals are already using for preventative care, consultation, and treatment from a distance. Dr. Wack and Christopher discuss some of the innovations within the healthcare industry that use connectivity, data, and human engagement. These approaches reduce costs and help patients by reducing the stress that accompanies unnecessary trips to the emergency room or can identify when a patient requires medical intervention from the security of their home.

Christopher and Dr. Wack also discuss some of the new challenges that accompany these innovations and strategies for bringing these programs to large groups of people, rather than focusing on small populations.

Dr. Wack updates us on the progress of the network deployment in Westminster and discusses the community’s Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC), the nonprofit established to optimize use of the fiber network they began developing in 2014.

Read more of our coverage about Westminster and their public-private partnership with Ting.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

View the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. 

Tags: westminstermarylandtelemedicinetelehealthaudipodcastbroadband bits

Wilson's Greenlight Community Broadband Now Serves 10,000 Subscribers

muninetworks.org - April 16, 2019

It’s been a little over ten years since Wilson, North Carolina, began offering Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) service to residents and businesses. After a decade of Internet access, video, and voice services, the Greenlight Community Broadband network recently celebrated adding the 10,000th subscriber. Their planned celebration at Wilson’s famous Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park was rained out, but network leaders expect to choose another date in the near future.

Check out this awesome editorial cartoon about Greenlight's milestone by Dave DiFillippo of the Wilson Times.

A Busy Decade

We told the story of Wilson in our 2012 report, Carolina's Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Internet. The community had approached ISPs serving in the area and asked for better connectivity in order to stay competitive, but those companies didn’t see a financial incentive for investing in Wilson. Rather than take no for an answer, Wilson developed Greenlight for the community of about 50,000 people.

Since then, the town has repeatedly been in the spotlight as an example of a community that has used broadband to advance economic development, help bridge the digital divide, and encourage better connectivity for neighbors. Wilson was the first North Carolina Network to offer gigabit connectivity, which assisted local businesses and attracted new employers. Tina Mooring, a local business owner, describes in episode 171 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, how her opinion of the municipal network changed, leading to her strong support for network expansion. 

Leaders in Wilson answered appeals from the small community of Pinetops after the FCC preempted state restrictions in 2015. The small community of about 1,300 people finally obtained fast, affordable, reliable Internet access beyond DSL, which gave local businesses and entrepreneurs opportunities they never had before. When the state legislature chose to side with monopoly cable and telephone companies, however, and appeal the FCC’s preemption, Pinetops floated in limbo for months, uncertain if they would be sent backward to reliance on DSL. After reversing the FCC action, the General Assembly forced Wilson to sell the fiber infrastructure in Pinetops; Greenlight sold the infrastructure to Locality Networks to Suddenlink. Suddenlink is now also offering service in Pinetops. People in the community have expressed their dissatisfaction with the company; they preferred Greenlight’s services and customer approach.

Headlining Economic Development

Leaders in Wilson know what they’ve got and have worked to focus on the network’s economic development mojo. They’ve developed the Gig East brand, which brings technology, policy, and economic development to Wilson. Watch the video below about the 2018 Gig East event.

“The benefits to the community have been remarkable, and in many ways are only coming to fruition in the last few years,” [Wilson Chief Operating Officer Dathan] Shows said. “Greenlight has aided in the recruitment of businesses and residents, assisted almost every service provided by the city to become more efficient and effective, provided world-class connectivity to all schools in the Wilson County school system, supported local business and industry and provided a state-of-the-art communications and connectivity infrastructure to every address in the city of Wilson and many in Wilson County.

“As exciting as the first 10 years have been, I am very excited to see what the next 10 years will bring for Greenlight and what additional benefits it will provide to the community.”

More Convos on Greenlight

For more conversations on Wilson and Greenlight, be sure to check out our podcasts with Will Aycock and other representatives from the community:

  • Episode 291 about the program designed to help reduce Wilson's digital divide
  • Episode 236 regarding efforts to bring access to affordable housing
  • Episode 110 about the petitions filed which led to the FCC's preemption of state law, later reversed
  • Episode 70, one of our early podcasts, highlighing the work of Greenlight and the benefits to the community

 

Tags: wilsongreenlightFTTHeventeconomic development

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 15

muninetworks.org - April 15, 2019

California

Manhattan Beach takes first step towards installing city-wide fiber optic Internet by Kirsten Farmer, The Beach Reporter 

 

Michigan

Commissioners push for more high-speed Internet by John Matuszak, The Herald-Palladium 

 

Missouri 

Blunt expresses concern about rural broadband expansion in MO, KFVS 12

 

Pennsylvania 

Quest for high-speed Internet: Fiber optic close but out of reach for Valley business by Justin Strawser, The Daily Item 

"Lack of broadband access hinders our students’ ability to learn, it keeps our health care and EMS providers from delivering the best treatment possible, it drives away businesses, and it makes it more difficult for families and friends to connect with one another. Connecting Pennsylvanians to high-speed Internet is the most meaningful rural economic development initiative we can undertake today…” 

When the ‘homework gap’ hits home: How rural Pa. students learn with limited broadband by Sarah Paez, Centre Daily Times

19M rural Americans have little or no Internet access. Here’s how they hope to change that by Tim Johnson, McClatchy DC Bureau 

 

Tennessee 

State should let municipal fiber optic networks expand to meet demand by Deb Socia, Tennessean

 

General

Public Knowledge welcomes Digital Equity Act to help close digital divide by Shiva Stella, Public Knowledge

Questions over coverage plague rural broadband expansion by Anthony Izaguirre, Washington Post 

FCC “consumer advisory” panel includes ALEC, big foe of municipal broadband by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica 

Senate tries to get a read on broadband mapping by John Eggerton, Multichannel 

Net neutrality vote passes House, fulfilling promise by Democrats by Cecilia Kang, New York Times

Net neutrality is fundamental to guaranteeing that every American has unencumbered access to the Internet,” the companies wrote. “This access is also essential to a competitive, free market for the technology economy to thrive as well as entrepreneurship in this country.”

Edtech leaders praise $250 million 'Digital Equity Act' for state and local government by Betsy Foresman, EdScoop 

“No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to modern communications to have a fair shot at 21st-century success.”

 

Tags: media roundup

Broadcast TV Dispute Hinders Co-op Fiber Project in East Tennessee

muninetworks.org - April 15, 2019

Plans for Holston Electric Cooperative to offer television service as part of its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network deployment are on pause following allegations from the east Tennessee co-op that broadcasting company Nexstar Media Group refused to engage in “good faith” negotiations over retransmission consent agreements.

Holston Electric Cooperative established its broadband subsidiary, HolstonConnect, in late 2017 after a state law change removed restrictions on rural electric co-ops. Currently, HolstonConnect is in phase one of its FTTH project, which will bring high-quality Internet access to underserved communities in Rogersville, Surgoinsville, and nearby areas. Subsequent deployments will connect the remainder of the cooperative’s service territory, partially aided by federal funding from last year’s Connect America Fund phase II reverse auction.

From the start, the co-op planned to offer a “triple play” of broadband, voice, and video services. However, failure to come to an agreement with Nexstar, one of the nation’s largest station operators, over access to essential local channels has delayed the delivery of television services to HolstonConnect subscribers. In early March, Holston filed a complaint against Nexstar with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), arguing that the broadcasting company demanded exorbitant fees and unfair station tying arrangements during negotiations with the co-op.

“Failure to Negotiate in Good Faith”

To carry popular television programming, networks must sign cable retransmission consent agreements with regional station operators. The FCC requires that these companies behave in “good faith” and make tangible efforts to engage in negotiations.

Holston claims that Nexstar has not met the standard for substantive engagement, stating in a press release, “Nexstar violated FCC rules by failing to negotiate in good faith toward an agreement enabling HolstonConnect to deliver essential local broadcast TV content.” In its FCC complaint, Holston argues that the broadcaster has instead mandated excessively high rates and attempted to force the co-op to pay for extra unwanted stations. According to the complaint, the fees requested by Nexstar were much higher than those charged by other broadcasters and exceed what the company had previously offered other local providers.

Holston explains in its filing with the FCC,

“Knowing that HolstonConnect has an urgent need to finalize its cable lineup, [Nexstar] has sought to use its exclusive control over ‘must-have’ ABC and CBS programming to obtain grossly excessive retransmission consent rates from HolstonConnect, not just for Big 4 programming itself, but also for multiple channels that HolstonConnect does not want.”

The complaint continues,

“In addition, [Nexstar] has consistently failed to communicate in an effective and timely manner with HolstonConnect, which has caused HolstonConnect to waste extraordinary amounts of time and effort in seeking to elicit responses and conduct meaningful negotiations.”

In a filing opposing the complaint, Nexstar refutes Holston’s claims and argues that HolstonConnect was actually the entity delaying negotiations.

Impact on Rural Connectivity

Despite the rise of online streaming services, the inability to offer television access can put small providers like HolstonConnect at a competitive disadvantage when trying to attract subscribers, potentially delaying rural broadband deployment. “Without prompt and forceful remedial action by the Commission,” the complaint asserts, “HolstonConnect’s ability to deploy gigabit infrastructure and services in rural East Tennessee will be hamstrung.”

Holston explains the importance of acquiring retransmission rights further, saying,

“To provide widespread gigabit broadband Internet access service in rural East Tennessee on an economically sound basis, HolstonConnect must be able to obtain essential cable television programming – particularly from the four major television networks – at reasonable and non-discriminatory rates, terms, and conditions.”

“If left unchecked,” the co-op insists in its FCC complaint, “[Nexstar’s] conduct in this case will have a strong anticompetitive effect that dampens the development of competitive cable television service in rural East Tennessee.”

Nexstar Makes Play for Greater Market Share

These allegations add a new dimension to Nexstar’s current attempt to merge with Tribune Media Co., another large broadcasting company. If Nexstar successfully acquires the company, it would become the largest broadcaster in the nation with control over 216 stations in 118 markets. Tribune was previously in the merger crosshairs of Sinclair Broadcast Group, but the deal fell apart in the face of public and regulatory opposition.

Public interest groups have raised concerns about this merger as well, arguing that it would result in higher prices for consumers and less competition in broadcast television. If approved by federal regulators, the acquisition could further depress the negotiating ability of smaller providers, like HolstonConnect to obtain reasonable retransmission terms and rates.

Nexstar asserts that the FCC can’t block its acquisition of Tribune on the grounds that it “might” result in anticompetitive conduct, as opponents to the merger are requesting the agency do. However, considering that HolstonConnect is accusing Nexstar of already engaging in this sort of behavior, the FCC may decide that the deal is indeed not in the public interest.

HolstonConnect vs. Nexstar Media Group Complaint Nexstar Opposition to ComplaintTags: holston electric cooperativelawsuitfccretransmissionvideorural electric coopcooperativeFTTHtennessee

Culver City, California, Seeking Network Operator; Proposals Due June 27th

muninetworks.org - April 12, 2019

Last July, Culver City finished deploying their fiber optic backbone which they began developing in 2016. Now, the town of 40,000 people is looking for a firm to handle operation and maintenance, as well as marketing and development of the open access infrastructure, Culver Connect. They’ve issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) and responses are due June 27th.

Read the complete Proposal Instructions for Fiber Network Operations.

Economic Development, Education, Efficiency

Local businesses had expressed a need for better connectivity and in 2013, the city worked with CTC Technology & Energy to develop a preliminary design and business plan. With tech-focused employers, such as Apple and Sony Pictures, Culver City is located in the “heart of Silicon Beach.” Fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is critical to attract similar employers and retain the ones that have found a home in Culver City.

The city also developed the network to provide better connectivity to the Culver City Unified School District, serving approximately 6,500 students. Creating administrative efficiencies by connecting municipal facilities is an added benefit.

The city developed a three-ring, underground network; the interconnected rings ensure redundancy. Culver City leases two connections to carrier hotels One Wilshire in Los Angeles and Equinox in El Segundo. In addition to the existing 21.7-mile backbone, the city is in the process of working through plans to build laterals to multi-tenant commercial properties.

The Open Access Model

Culver City will maintain ownership of the infrastructure and would like to keep the open access model, but will consider other options from respondents. They specify in the RFP that they want to maintain dark fiber to lease to institutions and businesses.

Culver City is open to ideas and wants to hear more about innovative proposals that might be out there.

Culver City

According to the proposal:

Culver City is a full-service city located in the western area of Los Angeles County, generally situated north of Los Angeles International Airport, southeast of Santa Monica, south of Beverly Hills and southwest of West Hollywood. The City is approximately five square miles with a residential population of approximately 40,000. The total adopted budget for FY 2018-19 is approximately $239 million, of which $124 million is General Fund.

Check out the current fiber network map and read the proposal instructions. Remember, proposals are due June 27th.

Questions? Email culverconnect(at)cilvercity.org

Culver City Fiber Network Operations ProposalTags: culver citycaliforniarfpopen accessdark fibereconomic development

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 351

muninetworks.org - April 12, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 351 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Chris is at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin speaking with Isfandiyar Shaheen, who also goes by Asfi. They discuss how Asfi wants to finance fiber deployment in unconnected communities worldwide by reducing waste in agriculture, energy, and other fields. They also touch on the importance of connectivity and what it enables. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.

 

 

Isfandiyar Shaheen: We want to level the playing field for all human aspiration. Bridging the digital divide is step one to achieve that. And of all the things that we could make abundant in our life, I think making connectivity abundant is the easiest of the problems.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 351 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. It's that time of year again, spring, and Chris is off at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas. In addition to heading up panel discussions and sharing information about publicly owned broadband, he's interviewing people like this week's guest, entrepreneur Isfandiyar Shaheen, also known as Asfi. The title of the summit this year is "Fiber: Putting Your Gigs to Work," and Asfi is an expert on how fiber in a community perpetuates spillover benefits. One of his goals is to step out of the box to use those benefits as a method to bring affordable connectivity to people all over the globe. Asfi discusses some of the ways he plans to do that, which include, in his words, putting fiber to better use. Asfi has become a wiz at discovering and documenting methods in which communities use fiber and finding a way to focus on those unexpected benefits for expanded use. His visionary outlook to connectivity is the type of approach that we need to get everyone online, regardless of income level. We want to thank Asfi for using his birthday to promote ILSR and hold a Facebook fundraiser. We'll have a link in the show notes. Happy Birthday, Asfi! Now on with the interview.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This time of year, I'm usually down in Austin, Texas, for the Broadband Communities Summit. That's where I am right now. I have my first interview from the summit with Asfi. Asfi is someone that everyone knows by the name Asfi, so let me just ask you to introduce yourself quickly.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Sure. Thank you, Chris. It's a pleasure to be here. I've, I think, listened to more of your podcasts than anyone that I've come across. I'm founder and CEO of NetEquity. I think I can be best described as an entrepreneur in residence at Facebook, but what that means is I've got a startup. I have signed a contract with Facebook, which helps me get access to their people and some key technologies. My plan is deploying fiber in partnership with utilities in other parts of the world, particularly North America. I'm from Pakistan, and Pakistan's a very key market for me where I'm currently focusing.

Christopher Mitchell: And in particular, you want to do this using creative methods. I mean, you're looking at methods that really focus on the spillover benefits and trying to quantify the benefits that aren't often quantified around fiber now. Beause that's why I wanted to have you on, and also because you've asked some of the best questions of anyone that I've met.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: That's very nice of you to say. What my "why" behind why I do, why I migrated, why this whole thing is, you know, there's been this question of how do I find a way to make Internet access affordable for the poorest person in life? And let's start with the poorest person in Pakistan. For me, I've had some people in my mind, who are like my archetype about like, okay, I need to make Internet access affordable for these people because Internet access changed my life in a big way, and I just know if this becomes available, this is going to be quite powerful. So the thought has been that, okay, if we want to make it affordable for the poorest person, we've got to find other uses for internet connectivity, and particularly the other big uses are around making electric utilities more efficient, making agriculture — making lands more efficient, making public spaces safer, even some of these applications in telehealth services. Because when it comes down to it, we're looking at ways to put data to better use, and fiber gives you access to abundant bandwidth through which you can find more ways to finance fiber without just relying on charging humans. So that's kind of the broad thinking behind the work that I do.

Christopher Mitchell: And I know that you've been collecting examples of this. As you and I were just talking a few minutes ago, it made me think that as you've been listening to these podcasts, you've actually retained a lot more than I have because you were noting in particular the interview I did with Emmett, Idaho, and some of the benefits that they're seeing from having networks that they go well beyond the dollars and cents. And so maybe if you could just remind us, what you heard in that show that you found really interesting.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah, but first of all, most of your shows I've just gathered so much from, but let me just talk about two of them. One is in Ammon and one is in Emmett, and it's kind of cool that they're both in Idaho.

Christopher Mitchell: Right

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Ammon's example was the public safety application, which was, you know, if a gun shot is fired in the school, a software defined network configures a high capacity connection, which gives law enforcement eyes on the shooter in three seconds. This is insanely valuable. In Emmett, which I found a bit more interesting because it's an even smaller town with 7,000 people —

Christopher Mitchell: And nobody has to get shot.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: And nobody has to get shot. And in Emmett, I think the two killer applications that I thought were way cooler — automatically locking toilets and reducing the labor overheads that are associated.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so like in a public park at a certain time of the evening when the park is closed, they can lock the toilets without having to send a person there.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: The guy you interviewed on the Emmett show, he, I think, did a really good job explaining how fiber is an enabling technology because once you get fiber, your public Wi-Fi hotspot starts working a lot better because you've got good backhaul. Once your public Wi-Fi hotspots start working better, now you've got — I'll take it to slightly a bit of a meta level, right? Like, I mean, of the five human senses, sight is the most developed. Yeah? And we can see into the depths of the universe, we can see into the depths of a blood sample.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and that's why television news is killing the nation and possibly the world, but yes, I agree with you. Sight is one of our most important senses and immediate and everything else.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: And once you get fiber out there and you've got the ability to see things that previously you could not see, there is value in that. There is immense value in not just seeing things, but paying attention to those things that require intervention. And this is where at least like I see a really great intersection between fiber, between hyperspectral imaging, and between machine learning.

Christopher Mitchell: And hyperspectral imaging is — I think I know what it is, but it's basically looking at other wavelengths so you could see like infrared and things like that.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah. Basically, our eyes can only see three wavelengths, but the electromagnetic spectrum is many more wavelengths, right? If I had a hyperspectral imaging camera, I could see the heat signatures that your body was putting out, right? So if you think about the ability to, let's say, see a machine and see if a machine is overheating, you can actually start doing better predictive maintenance. You can also see photosynthesis. So if you can start seeing where a certain plant is performing better, you can start using algorithms to figure out why are these plants performing better.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I think we see, like, water stress, don't we, in terms of drought conditions. We can see it in the hyperspectral imaging before we would see it with our own eyes or where other tests might recognize it.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Spot on, man. And now if you think about what we are talking about, we haven't so far talked about charging people for voice and data. I mean, another, like, meta data or like high level data I want to throw out is why agriculture and I would say rural has become so important for me, is of the 4 billion unconnected, 75% live in 25 countries. These 25 countries have two things in common: high agriculture to GDP, high labor force participation rate in agriculture, and high electric line losses in their electric utilities. So for me, these are like two areas where there is a bunch of value getting wasted, and my thought has been if we can limit waste, what if we can finance fiber infrastructure by limiting waste? If we can do that, our ability to make broadband available at ultra low cost becomes feasible.

Christopher Mitchell: And I like to phrase it this way because it's really provocative and I think it's worth thinking about this way: you can finance broadband by lowering the cost of electricity to consumers.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: And so everyone really benefits. Because you're making the system more efficient, you don't have to the cost but the savings — because electric systems are phenomenally expensive.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: People have no appreciation of this. I mean, if you look at EPB, the investment they made in fiber is nothing compared to the investment they've made in electronics —

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Spot on.

Christopher Mitchell: — for the electric grid. And so, if you can avoid the cost of power plants — I mean, you're talking about like 100 million dollar, billion dollar investments. If you avoid a few of those, you can finance a heck of a lot of fiber.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Dude, it's insane. Like honestly, ultra high transmission lines, they cost about a thousand dollars a meter. If you do an expensive — we were talking about this yesterday. Even your super expensive underground build is what? $70 to $80 a meter, which I think is prohibitively expensive. I am thinking more like $8 to $10 a meter, but yeah, there's a 10x differential in some of the costs related to — like, I met this company, [???], a Canadian power company. They are, like, connecting the First Nations in Canada for the first time, doing a $1.8 billion project, and I helped them run numbers. It would cost them 25 million to also make fiber available. I mean, I don't know if they will do it or not, but like that's the quantum of differential. Fiber can make utilities efficient. It's a well proven case. I just think that what needs more work — and this is where I pay attention to — is turning those savings into bankable contracts because bankability means, you know, you can write a contract that a capital provider can get behind. And that is, like, a bit of unlocking that's still required.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the challenges I think is humans, in my experience, have trouble dealing with avoided costs. And so do you have a sense of how you're going to approach people to make this case, as you're collecting this data?

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah, so the thing with electric utilities is they — I mean I like to think of cash flows as like a waterfall. There is water already falling, and the way I generally think about the economy is I need to take a falling stream of water and I need to redirect it somewhere else. Yeah, that's the mental model that I have. So the idea with the utility is to say, hey utility, you are already spending x dollars a year on opex and capex. Can we agree to sign a contract which says as soon as I deliver you the following services, which are going to be specifically fiber connectivity into your substations, fiber connectivity between your head office and your regional office, as soon as that happens you agreed to divert these existing dollars, which you are already spending against these headers towards my company. If you can do that, then against that promise I can raise long term contracts. Why does this matter? This matter's for a couple of reasons because we want to design contracts that don't require board approval, that don't require regulatory approval, that can be constructed using existing cash flows that are already going out. You are spot on in saying that we are not good at cost avoidance, but in that also lies an opportunity. And the opportunity is to say, take a look at the existing waterfalls and tell people, hey, I just want to divert the waterfall. Your life won't change. In fact, you will get a better product. Instead of relying on land lines that are running on a copper infrastructure, we will give you video conferencing. That's going to be amazing, so that can help you sort of stay in touch with your workforce that's distributed.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Now remind me, you have a background in telecom. You built a tower company, is that right?

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah, that's right.

Christopher Mitchell: How did that work?

Isfandiyar Shaheen: I was a private equity fund manager in Pakistan, and we were trying to make this private equity fund work. And it wasn't working for a bunch of reasons, but one business that really stood out was cellular tower shedding. And that's because whenever we would travel, we would see telecom companies had built four to five towers right next to each other, and most of these towers were empty. They were big empty towers, and so, you know, it's a tried and tested business model where you buy a set of towers from one operator and then you enable other operators to share that infrastructure. So that is the business that actually got me interested in infrastructure sharing as a concept, and it also started opening up questions about, well, if so much infrastructure already exists, can we not lower the cost of connectivity through infrastructure sharing? So, yeah, that's what got me interested. I was one of the first financiers of this company. I was on their board. I was not a founder, but I mean, I was a very early stage investor and worked very closely with the founder to grow this company from 29 towers to several thousand towers.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you a question because I've traveled around the world a bit, but I have not been to anywhere near Pakistan. And my imagination as someone who's not been there is that people live a relatively low tech life, particularly in areas outside of the cities. You want to connect them, and so paint me a picture of what life is like because you know what stereotypes are like, but I'm curious what life is really like and how broadband will change that.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: People love data. Look, Pakistan is 193 million people. Pakistan has 75 million smartphones. That's a lot of smartphones, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Instead of painting a picture for Pakistan, I'll give you some real data from India because for a very long time, the stereotypes that you're talking about also existed with people like me. We are city folk, right? So we think, oh, what will poor people do with all this data? Reliance Jio is a very interesting Indian mobile operator that basically built a fiber only network or, like, they built a very fast fiber network and they built a data only network. So they said, we will do voice through data, and essentially they built a big data network in India. For the first six months of their launch, they made data free. In that free period their average consumer was guzzling about 26 to 30 gigs a month.

Christopher Mitchell: Wow.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Right. Yeah. And but why? In Reliance's case, they were a vertically integrated player and they made a very affordable device and they made bandwidth very affordable and they made the content very relevant to the user by making it very easy for them to access things they really care about, which is cricket, Bollywood, chat, and a couple of other things on their smartphone. The point is, when floodgates of data are opened, consumers are sitting there. And currently in Pakistan, I mean, aleady 70+ million smartphones exist. So for me, it's like the devices are already there, the awareness is already there, but people are just used to a pretty crappy experience because they can't really afford an always on connection. And the connections that they do have are getting choked because we don't have a lot of fixed line infrastructure, and now we're getting backhaul constrained. And I mean, that's a whole other topic because I also don't think the integrated telecom business model is sustainable for the long term, and so this business model is having a hard time justifying to make the capital expenditures to do these upgrades. And that's where I feel like some of my people are going to get stuck unless open access fiber arrives in the country.

Christopher Mitchell: You actually use the word that drives me nuts, which is consumers, and the applications you noted in that example from India were definitely consumption based.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of production do you think will happen as people have these networks available to them?

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Okay, what got me obsessed with connectivity other than my tower thing was I helped start a learning lab, a learning computer lab, in a building where I was a business executive. And that's because every day I would talk a lot about the digital divide, but then I would say the digital divide exists in my office. What do I do about the digital divide that exists in my office? So anyway, I'll kind of summarize the story. We teamed up with another nonprofit that curated content and brought in learning coaches through whom we were delivering content to some of our blue collar colleagues. The killer app or the killer application that emerged from this whole experience was when folks learned how to help their kids do math homework, they found much more willingness to engage with technology and this medium because for a lot of fathers, they were when they were finding relevance once again when their kid was saying, "Hey dad, I am struggling to solve this math equation. How do I solve it?" The dad does not know how to solve the math equation, but the dad has now learned how to take a picture of it or how to maybe type it in a Google search engine and figure out what are the steps through which his kid can do homework. For me, that is a massive application. I have seen other examples of e-commerce. In the early days of 3G — Pakistan only launched 3G in 2014 — I would often see in rural parts of Pakistan, people converging around certain 3G towers. When I went closer to see what they were doing, most of these people were craftsmen trying to send pictures over WhatsApp to their customers to say, "Hey, I have made this chair. I have made this thing. Is this good enough?" So the production finds a way. It's a matter of opening up this ability to communicate, and it's a matter of also ensuring that this communication is not through a walled garden, that this communication is something which is more free flowing. It usually starts with entertainment. That is the hook that gets people started. But then after entertainment, there is usually many more forms which people start finding because what we want ultimately is a better life for ourselves, a better life for our kids. And that's the question that drives us, right? How do we make our lives better? How do we make our kid's life better? With the Internet you have the ability to ask questions, get answers.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you said entertainment, I was just thinking about — I've given a lot of thought over the years to one of the things I love about the Internet, which is the ability — people have the technology and right now the authority, although Hollywood's chipping away at it at times, to create like parody videos or to create, like, music videos syncs or take a song they like and create a music video around it. And I just, I look at those sort of skills that those kids are building up and I think about — I do sports photography. I work for the University of Minnesota very frequently, and eight years ago or so, I think, maybe seven years, they had the first of, like, what they called, Gopher Digital Productions, which was really student-based, doing a lot of like high quality HD video capture. Now there's like 50 of them, and they do all these fascinating sequences, these short videos that are right for social media. Like, these are marketable skills. Those kids — I mean they were college students — they went on then to work for the big 10 network. So they're getting fulltime jobs now off of something that they probably learned originally just using that technology that was available to them on their smartphones. That's where they got the bug. And so, it's fascinating how those things can be turned into marketable skills.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Man, are you familiar with the Ronald Coase?

Christopher Mitchell: I'm not

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Big Nobel prize winning economist came up with a theory of the firm. He asked this brilliant question.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh right, C-O-A-S-E, right? Coase.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah, are you familiar with that?

Christopher Mitchell: Vaguely.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Okay. I mean I'll kind of very quickly summarize. He basically says firms exist because they can organize an activity that sort of minimizes transaction costs. Right, so transaction costs are a big theme in his work. And if you think about it, transaction costs are a function of communication costs, and when transaction costs fall, it allows for different types of organizations to emerge. For me, your organization's a great example of that. I think the kind of value and awareness that you've added doesn't — and it doesn't seem to be that you are on a very big budget, you know, but if I think about —

Christopher Mitchell: We're working toward it.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Right? When I think about, like, you know, some of the productions that you've done that, that video that you made for Ammon, the podcasts that you do, I would imagine these weren't feasible 10 years ago.

Christopher Mitchell: Correct.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Right? But now a guy like you, who is very mission aligned, can create incredible impact with very little funding, and that's inspiring for me. Right? And that kind of tells me that, okay, like, better connectivity, which is not in a walled garden, is going to drive down communication costs and is going to level the playing field for human aspiration. That's what really it's about, right? Like, we want to level the playing field for all human aspiration, and bridging the digital divide is step one to achieve that. And of all the things that we could make abundance in our life, from energy to like, you know, food, I think making connectivity abundant is the easiest of the problems —

Christopher Mitchell: Oh, I agree.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: — because of just the sheer physics of it. I'm quite pumped about this vision,to see, you know, what people will start doing. We can't imagine — this is the other thing that kind of drives me nuts about silicon valley. Everyone's trying to create a human brain, right? There's an obsession to create a human brain, and I say the 4 billion brains out there, the 4 billion brains out there who we don't have the means to talk to, to connect with, to learn from, many of these people are facing challenges that probably they are best equipped to solve. Perhaps it's easier to give them the tools through which they can solve their problems, which will also help us. I mean, climate change is a big topic for me because it's not going to get solved without global coordination. Well, how do you achieve global coordination when half the world cannot get online? That's kind of a — I kind of get carried away, Chris, with my . . .

Christopher Mitchell: Those are the best guests.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: So, I mean, my wife often reminds me that, you know, I need to remain mindful and like, kind of stay in the moment and not just go off on a tangent, but like —

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask you a question because you've given a lot of thought, you've really observed what different folks are doing when they're building networks. And like I said, every time I've talked to you, I felt that you figure the best questions to ask, whereas other people — and just to give you an idea, a question that I really hate is like people will ask, "Well, how many miles of fiber do you have?" and I'm kinda thinking, "Well, what do I care?" Like, I mean, really I'm worried about the service, I want to know about the costs and this and that. I don't really care about linear miles of this fiber, so I don't think of that as a good question often. What are some of the questions that you're asking that you think other people, you know, aren't asking that they should be thinking more about?

Isfandiyar Shaheen: I have an obsession with connectivity, and because I have an obsession, this is all I think about. This is all I'm dreaming about, and it's like, it's a constant. So for me, I have, like, an eight step mental model and it kind of goes like this: People are hungry for services. Services are hungry for infrastructure. Infrastructure is hungry for capital. Capital is hungry for cashflow predictability. Cashflow predictability is hungry for bankable contracts. Bankable contracts are hungry for aligned incentives. Aligning incentives requires trust. Trust comes from believing in the same story. The last line is from Yuval Harari, who's a historian I'm a big fan of. This is my mental model, and I kind of go up and down this mental model to say — because for a very long time I was just thinking about infrastructure from the perspective of "I just need to do a long term contract," and this is kind of the problem, right? "Oh I just need to do a long term contract," but no. But what are the services, what are the problems that we will solve when that becomes available? And I think unless you can spell out what connectivity will do for people, you're going to struggle to make it relevant. And I give my wife all the credit for this, right? She forced me to think about this, that what will connectivity enable. You know, you've seen that video from EPB, the STEM school one?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, with the 4K Microscope.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: That's a killer video. That video now spells out that, okay, when you have fiber and you've got a microscope and kids can control it using a mouse, they can learn from a professor sitting in California 1800 miles away — all the kids were saying "1800 miles away" — great application. When you present this to people, it makes it clearer for them to understand, oh, this is why it matters.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Similarly, I mean — and then for me, it's like it's becoming a case of, "I know this is valuable. How do we communicate it?" And so the questions therefore go up and down this mental model from, you know, how do we get this thing financed? How do we tell the right story? What are the applications? Because it's a complex problem, right? Like, I mean, half the world is unconnected. At least for me, it's not a matter of like, oh, we bridge the digital divide in Pakistan, we're done. No, we've got to do it for the world because we don't have a lot of time in terms of where we are at with what we've done to our environment, what we've done to our climate. We don't have a lot of time. We need to bridge this digital divide in less than 10 years. And currently, I don't see a compelling plan that gets us there in 10 years, so at least one goal I've set for myself is, I set up my company April 2018 and think April 2028 — before April 2028, we've got to get this thing done. And so there's also a bit of urgency with the obsession, hence why I keep listening to your podcasts and sometimes tracking down how your welcome note has changed. But like, you know, I think you've asked an important question. This is something I've also thought about. When does learning happen? There are certain facts you retain, you remember even after hearing about them only once, right?

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: And what is it about those things? And I think —

Christopher Mitchell: They explain something.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Well, I think something else, right? When you are in a heightened state of curiosity, right? When you're in a heightened state of curiosity and you're really wondering, man, how does this thing work? How does this thing work? How does this thing work? You get an answer once you remember that.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: So I think for me, what's going on is I am experiencing a heightened, well, it's been a sustained, heightened state of curiosity because I spent frankly quite a bit of time thinking about my why. Why did I want to do this? What did I want to do? I mean, I was also sort of in a privileged position in life where I could think about these things. As soon as the clarity on the why emerged, the obsession became clearer and the learning became a lot better. I think that — so I will tie it back to the why. The why has helped create a mental model and the mental model has helped this to continue to remain focused and find resources like you, who's doing such an incredible job.

Christopher Mitchell: My team, yes.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Sorry, your team. And what is your why?

Christopher Mitchell: Well, my why?

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah, why are you so obsessed with all of this stuff?

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I am — so there's a lot of podcasts I listen to in which I've listened to every last episode.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: There's a little bit of obsessive in me as well.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah, yeah. You are obsessive. I can see you are.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so, you know, I think it's — honestly, there's a part of me, I say this in speeches relatively frequently, I am so frustrated to hear from people who think we cannot solve this problem in America, let alone in Pakistan or in Mongolia or anywhere, you know, in South America. Like, people have this sense of, oh, we can't solve the problem, and I just look back and I keep reading more about how we solved electrification in the 30s and 40s and a little bit in the 50s, and I'm just stunned that in the year 2019 people think, oh, we can't do the same. We couldn't possibly drag a wire to every home. You know, and so I just have the sense of this is my own little part of trying to help the people of the United States remember the greatness that's possible when humans actually make something a priority and do it.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Man, I couldn't agree more. You know, this is like something I often talk to my friends about. America is still the biggest economy in the world despite having pretty crappy broadband infrastructure.

Christopher Mitchell: Right.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Imagine what happens to this country when it does get legit broadband because it's created a pretty cool culture, it's found a way to assimilate a bunch of people from other parts of the world, and once this country gets its act together — and I think it's happening, that's the sense I get whenever I listen to your shows — that once communities around America can actually start deploying and ensuring that this critical piece of infrastructure is open access, I think some amazing years lie ahead for this economy.

Christopher Mitchell: I hope so.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: So as we're wrapping up, I just wanted to go back to something and say that people are familiar with the OSI stack in networking. I think we should call what you described as the Asfi style.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: I like that. I like that.

Christopher Mitchell: Maybe even a nice slide that gets at that.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Sure. No, no, absolutely. Yeah. Maybe that's a visual I need to think about, but yeah, no, absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: Well thank you for coming on. This has been a really fun conversation.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: Thank you, and lastly, for any listeners, I'm doing a fundraiser for ILSR, and my birthday's in two days. Yeah — oh, it's tomorrow actually. My birthday is tomorrow, and so for the first time on Facebook, I am doing a fundraiser for ILSR because I think ILSR does killer work. And so, if anyone's listening, please locate me. My name is not Asfi. It's Isfandiyar Shaheen. That's how you can find me, and if you can find that fundraiser, please donate because I think this organization can make a really big difference to the lives of the world.

Christopher Mitchell: We deeply appreciate you doing that. People can also find it on my Facebook, or I believe we'll have it on the ILSR page also. So, you know, I really appreciate you doing that.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: It's a small amount. By the way, we are already at $721. Our target is $2,000, so if anyone's tuning in, let's please get to $2,000. The fundraiser will stay on until April 13th.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and we're recording this today and it'll actually be be published today most likely or else tomorrow, Wednesday.

Isfandiyar Shaheen: We have four days to raise about $1,300. Let's get $2,000 into ILSR's account, people. Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, Asfi.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, talking with entrepreneur Isfandiyar Shaheen about fiber's spillover benefits and the ways that he's using them to bring affordable connectivity to some of the least connected communities. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount helps keep us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 351 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Hopkinsville, Kentucky, Strives to Become Next Gig City with Fiber Upgrade

muninetworks.org - April 11, 2019

In Hopkinsville, Kentucky, “the idea that [Internet] connectivity is a luxury” will soon be a relic of the past. The city’s municipal electric provider, Hopkinsville Electric System (HES), is currently working through its Internet service, EnergyNet, to bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to all premises.

Looking Ahead

EnergyNet has offered fiber Internet service for over 10 years to local businesses, but in January 2018, HES made the special announcement that it would soon be providing the same service to all local residences, with the goal of making Hopkinsville the next “gig city.”  The General Manager of HES, Jeff Herd, explained that by offering fiber Internet service, HES “is looking ahead and building infrastructure not only for today’s needs, but any future needs [Hopkinsville] might have as it relates to connectivity.”

While the current plan is to offer citywide FTTH, HES is building out the network one neighborhood at a time. Hopkinsville residents can register their interest for service on the EnergyNet website and neighborhoods with the most reported interest will be served first.

All options are symmetrical, and subscribers can choose from three tiers of service:

  • $59.95 per month for 200 Mbps
  • $79.95 per month for 500 Mbps
  • $99.95 per month for for 1,000 Mbps (1 Gigabit)

The Kentucky Infrastructure Authority (KIA) has approved $4.3 million in loans to Hopkinsville Electric System in order to make the expansion happen. Past KIA loans have focused on loans to communities for water and wastewater infrastructure projects, but their Fund C program also provides loans for publicly owned broadband infrastructure.

Changing with the Times

Hopkinsville, Kentucky is the county seat of Christian County in western Kentucky near the Tennessee border. The town of just under 32,000 is home to a wide variety of industries and manufacturing, including the headquarters and primary manufacturing facility for Ebonite International, a company that produces 60 percent of the world’s bowling balls. The area additionally has strong agricultural roots dating back to the 18th century centered on corn, winter wheat, and tobacco.

Hopkinsville leaders believe that universal fast and reliable Internet will not only meet the needs of existing residents and industry, it will help Hopkinsville recruit the next wave of industry, new businesses, and new residents. Former General Manager of HES, Austin Carroll, backed the project, stating that fiber Internet service is “one of the things people look for now when they move to a new location and companies in particular are dependent on it now.”

HES, originally established 76 years ago, first started distributing Internet services through EnergyNet in 1999. HES made the decision to start pursuing FTTH in order to meet growing community demands for increased Internet speeds. When EnergyNet first started offering Internet service, Carroll described how it was not fast enough to meet the bandwidth needs of a local E-commerce company causing the company to relocate to Columbus, Ohio. By establishing its FTTH network and becoming one of the few gig cities in the country, Hopkinsville is now taking every measure to ensure that it does not miss another similar opportunity. 

Hopkinsville Mayor Hendricks Carter has expressed great enthusiasm for the project. He stated:

“I coach track and field in the spring and when you’re a track coach you really like two things— being fast and winning. Thinking about Hopkinsville being a gig city, that is what it’s going to do— going to help us have faster Internet speeds and connectivity and help us win in the twenty-first century.”

Tags: hopkinsville kykentuckyupgradeFTTHsymmetryelectricmunigigabit

Tacoma Develops Lease Plan to Preserve Muni Network Ownership

muninetworks.org - April 10, 2019

For several years now, Tacoma, Washington, has pondered the fate of its Click! municipal open access network. In the spring of 2018, the community issued an RFI/Q searching for interested private sector partners that would lease the network from the Tacoma Power Utility (TPU). After reviewing responses, consulting experts, and comparing potential arrangements, Tacoma has narrowed the field of possible partners. The goal is to put the network on a sustainable and competitive footing both financially and technologically. Tacoma is following a path that will retain public ownership of the Click! network as the network continues to expand.

Click! has offered considerable benefits during its lifetime, but the network retains considerable debt even as it will soon require more upgrades to continue competing with Comcast. The cable television system is rigged against small operators and while the open access Internet side creates many benefits, Click!’s ISPs just don’t have enough subscribers to make the network financially viable into the future.   The discussion around Click’s finances are complicated because the broadband network is used for both external customers and internal utility uses -- the rate modeling around how to allocate costs is a process that requires subjective analysis (e.g. should the costs be allocated based on bandwidth or evenly split among each service). Some have credibly accused past TPU officials with cooking the books to make Click!’s financial status worse than it actually was. Nevertheless, Click! still doesn’t appear to be financially sustainable when costs are allocated more reasonably. Given the upgrades needed by the cable system, we fear that preserving the status quo will do more harm than good to the community over the medium and long terms; Tacoma needs to make a change to avoid being stuck solely with the broadband monopolies that plague the rest of us.

Opponents have labeled the current proposal to lease the network as “privatization.” ILSR strongly disagrees. The options being considered by Tacoma will ensure public ownership - the lease to a partner is no more privatization than allowing independent service providers to use the network is privatization. Note that some of those who label the leasing arrangement as “privatization” also vehemently opposed the network directly delivering services in the way that Chattanooga, Wilson, and Lafayette do, among others. That approach also could have improved the finances of the network.

We are disappointed that the network faces this tough decision, but the lessons learned from early open access pioneers like Tacoma have been essential to advancing a model in which we continue to have faith. One key lesson is that the open access approach has to be grounded in a feasibly financial model and that does not describe Click!’s present status.  The open access ISPs on Click! have achieved a collective take rate of less than 20 percent of the addressable market. Very few networks can succeed financially with so few subscribers. Thus, we believe moving ahead with a leasing arrangement is a prudent course.

Challenging History

We dug deep into the history and the debate in our four part series “The Tacoma Click! Saga of 2015,” to examine the challenges that faced the community and their municipal network.

The network has never been self-sustaining but it’s nearly impossible to know the full value that the network has served in jobs, educational opportunities, or other “soft benefits” that have generally improved livability in the community. A conservative view of jobs generated, at least in part because of the Click! network, includes those created when more than 100 companies relocated to Tacoma after the city developed Click!. As a result, approximately 700 new positions cropped up in around 18 months. That was documented in 2001; since then, the city's trajectory has continued north.

Tacoma’s population of approximately 213,000 has managed to overcome similar obstacles for more than 20 years — TPU deployed the coaxial cable network in the 1990s and has maintained infrastructure that offered Internet access and cable television service to the public. At the time of deployment, the network was one of the fastest in the U.S. and TPU has also used the network for smart metering, which also benefited electric customers. While 115,000 premises are currently connected to the open access network, there are still areas of the community where Click! does not extend to connect residents or businesses in the TPU service area.

In the spring of 2015, community leaders began discussions to lease out the network to a sole provider for a 40-year term. The contentious issue split the city’s leadership. Those who favored the lease option expressed concern over the network’s financial viability, while others simply felt the strain of managing and operating a municipal cable network in competition with Comcast. Grassroots support from citizens influenced elections and the decision of the city council to table that option and take a step back.

By the end of December 2015, the city council unanimously voted to keep Click! and pursue what they called the “all in” option, which would focus on upgrades, including a transition to a gigabit offering. “All in” would improve the muni, rather than leasing the network to a third party. The plan would require significant investment and a change in operating structure making Tacoma the sole provider of Internet access and video.

Because the fiber infrastructure was originally shared with TPU’s smart meter operations, the original cost allocations divided the operation and maintenance costs between TPU and Click!. When TPU switched to wireless smart meter applications and no longer needed the infrastructure to the same degree, the city reassigned cost for O&M, greatly increasing expenses for Click!. Advocates for the network argue that the shift unfairly put too much burden on the fiber network, placing costs that were actually needed for the utility into the telecom portion of the budget.

Unmeasured Success

Tacoma’s decision to invest in the network has been cited as one of the city’s investments that helped turn it around from half a century of economic economic difficulties that began after World War II. As part of a 1990s economic development plan, Click! helped Tacoma improve its reputation as a livable, modern city, and high tech companies have since taken up residence in the community.

Prior to Click!, the cable predecessor to Comcast in the area was TCI and it steadfastly refused to invest in a modern network for Tacoma. . As is often the case, private sector investment came close on the heels of a public network infrastructure that created local Internet choice. Because municipal facilities use the publicly owned network, fewer public dollars go toward telecommunications budgets. Schools and libraries have better, more reliable connectivity for affordable rates. The city relied on Click! as a pillar for its downtown revitalization project in 2010, which included a new branch of the University of Washington and continued influx of tech companies.

Tacoma’s Click! network, while struggling from the point of view of a narrow spreadsheet, spread indirect spillover benefits throughout the community. With the lease option now being considered, the infrastructure will still belong to the people of Tacoma and will continue to expand, two main objectives that will allow the city to retain control over the future of Click!.

Down to the Last Two

When the city released its RFI/Q in March 2018 to explore options from interested parties, they also included a list of 12 policy goals that respondents would need to adhere to for consideration. The city engaged CTC Technology & Energy to help them review responses and narrow down the field. Over the past year, experts have examined proposals, compared them, and held them up to Tacoma’s policy goals.

Two finalists include a provider that is currently offering services via the network, Rainier Connect, and ISP Wave Broadband. Wave, formerly a regional company, combined with ISPs Grande and RCN in 2018; the consolidated entity is part of TPG Capital, headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, with assets of approximately $103 billion.

Both companies plan to expand the network and all new assets will belong to Tacoma, rather than the companies. Each has agreed to adhere to the city’s policy goals, including network neutrality, low-income affordability, and competition, with a few variations between plans. Both partners guarantee that they will upgrade to gigabit speeds within three years. Each potential partner has agreed to a partnership for a 20-year term, followed by two 10-year extension periods.

The potential partnerships are similar, but CTC has recommended that Tacoma continue negotiations with Rainier Connect rather than Wave Broadband. 

While both term sheets and potential partners are strong, we recommended to the Council and Board that they proceed with final negotiations with Rainier Connect—based on its substantially higher financial offer and some stronger terms, including a much more robust oversight role for TPU in the event that the partner wants to sell or transfer its rights under the contracts to operate Click!.

Wave’s lease offer begins with $1.5 million annually, and specifies that $500,000 will be applied to the ISP’s electricity costs. Rainier offers $2.5 million the first year and offers to incrementally increase their lease payment to $3 million as of the sixth year. Additionally, Rainier promises a net revenue to TPU of $2.5 million increasing to $3 million, while Wave promises a steady $1 million to TPU. Both promise to invest $1.5 million into the network each year.

While the offers have many close similarities, Wave and Rainier take conflicting approaches on future ownership. If Wave wants to transfer their lease, TPU can only object based on “legal, technical, and financial capacity” of the entity to which Wave wants to hand off the lease. Rainier Connect, has agreed to those same conditions but will also allow TPU to stop the transfer if the transfer would violate any of the 12 policy principles that Tacoma has developed for the network.

The two companies also look at competition differently. Wave has agreed to not to sell to any entity that already possesses 33 percent or more of the Click! service area while Rainier Connect will commit to a lower figure of 25 percent. Click! has worked as a price control tool on ISP giant Comcast in Tacoma. If Wave were allowed to transfer their interest in the infrastructure lease to a large contender such as Comcast, rates would increase and subscribers would suffer. There would be no reason for a “most hated company in America” to work to keep subscribers happy with no other high-speed option.

Check out the CTC term sheets to review and compare more details of the Rainier Connect and Wave Broadband offers.

Tags: tacomawashingtonclick!leaseopen accessfinancialpartnershipexpansion

Spillover and Sharing for Better Connectivity - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 351

muninetworks.org - April 10, 2019

There are recognizable and obvious benefits that occur when a fiber is deployed in a community. New access to high-quality connectivity, educational opportunities for students in schools, better reliability, jobs from new employers, and possible ISP competition. Spillover effects also occur, but they may not be as obvious. This week’s guest, entrepreneur Isfandiyar Shaheen, has made it his mission to discover and document the benefits that come to a community when fiber connectivity is available.

Asfi is Founder and CEO of NetEquity Networks and he’s driven by the idea of connecting the entire globe. In addition to listening to our podcasts, Asfi has tapped into multitude of other methods for fiber infrastructure sharing as a way to make Internet access affordable.

He and Christopher discuss some of the places that have inspired Asfi, including Ammon and Emmet in Idaho, where the communities have used their fiber networks to find unexpected uses for their infrastructure. He describes how he finds a way to transform a spillover benefit into the direct benefit of affordable connectivity by working with infrastructure owners. It’s a process of creativity and vision.

We want to thank Asfi for using his birthday to start a Facebook fundraising campaign for ILSR ~ Thanks, Asfi!

Christopher interviewed Asfi at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, Texas; you can learn more from his 2017 TEDx talk:

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. 

Tags: podcastbroadband bitsaudioinfrastructureammonemmett idpublic benefits

Taxpayers Protection Alliance Trolling Vinton, Iowa

muninetworks.org - April 9, 2019

Vinton, Iowa, is on the road to Internet access self-reliance as the community of about 5,100 people continue to move forward with their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project. They’ve come under attack, however, from the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA). The group is part of a web of organizations aimed at increasing corporate dominance and corporate concentration of power. TPA sent a letter filled with the usual twisted anti-muni spin, but this time went a step farther. A TPA senior fellow mischaracterized a quote from one of the industry’s most respected experts in order to push their harmful agenda.

Former State Representative Chip Baltimore did not run for re-election last year and now fills his days trying to prevent competition for the large incumbent ISPs. His methods include interfering in local communities’ decisions to improve connectivity. In an attempt to undermine the project and frighten community leaders out of supporting it, Baltimore sent a letter to Vinton Municipal Electric Utility Board Members in February.

The letter included several overused fallacies that permeate TPA literature and in other letters we’ve seen directed to decision makers in other communities. Baltimore also included a quote from Joanne Hovis from CTC Technology & Energy. The quote applied to take rates in another part of the country far away from Vinton. 

Farr Technologies, the consultants that performed the feasibility study for Vinton, estimated that iVinton could achieve take rates of 40 percent in the first year and grow to 62 percent within five years. Baltimore tried to use Hovis’s statement, which applied to a different community, to discredit Farr’s estimate. It’s true that these rates appear high, but folks in Vinton have shown that they believe the electric utility can provide better service than incumbents Mediacom or CenturyLink. Farr’s consultants considered the community’s survey results, expressions of dissatisfaction with current incumbents, and the electric utility’s stellar reputation with customers when estimating future take rates. 

In 2015, when the town started to dig deeper into the issue, voters decided 792 to 104 that they wanted to put the municipal electric utility in charge of bringing better Internet access to town. 

In a shifty attempt to use Hovis’s words to support his motives, Baltimore chose to quote Hovis from a presentation she had made to the Tacoma Utility Board and City Council, where the situation is far different than in Vinton. When Hovis learned that her words had been used out of context, she wrote to Vinton’s electric utility board to correct the misrepresentation:

My comments were based on my experience with markets with robust competition such as that in Tacoma, the community in which I was speaking. In Tacoma, there currently exists residential broadband competition from two very capable and robust networks—a phone company fiber- to-the-home network and a cable company hybrid fiber-coaxial network -- as well as from mobile and fixed broadband providers that satisfy some consumers. Given those particular circumstances, I was cautioning my client regarding projections of high data service take-rates. 

This Tacoma-focused analysis was in no way appropriate for generalization to the entirety of the country—or to any other single community. I am not familiar with Vinton and have not analyzed your competitive environment, your demographics, your broadband needs, any market research you have conducted, or any other factor that is a necessary component of evaluating potential take-rates for the feasibility of a new broadband network. 

In her letter addressing the misuse of her words, Hovis went on to state that she would not presume to make assumptions or predictions about a community unless she dedicated time and research to their unique situation. Quality consultants such as Hovis, policy researchers, and broadband advocates know that each community is unique. 

The TPA and Baltimore depended on the fact that elected officials don’t always have the specialized knowledge to understand how critical local factors influence the success of a community network. 

Same Old Playbook

The TPA has tried to influence the decisions surrounding broadband options of many local communities. Their purpose is to preserve monopolies and duopolies of big cable and telecom. They act quickly in order to prevent municipal networks from gaining a foothold.

Each time, TPA and similar organizations echo anti-muni arguments that have been repeatedly discredited. They do it so often and with such fervor, we felt the need to create a repository of information to correct their errors and spread of misinformation. We know that local leaders and grassroots advocates repeatedly face the same anti-muni arguments, so we created a page to help local folks who need to address such misinformation. The resource provides examples of work from organizations like Chip Baltimore and the TPA, how to deal with that misinformation, and how people beat their harmful fallacies.

Check out the Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies page for more.

Handling Slick but Sloppy

The TPA, which is one of the most active anti-muni groups, often attempts to denigrate networks that are effectively serving a community, spurring economic development, and saving public dollars.

In 2016, the TPA set its sights on CFU FiberNet in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The network has served the community of about 41,000 people with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) since 2011 and subscribers appreciate fast, affordable, reliable Internet access from the local utility board. The network has kept the economic development engine humming in this community and has even expanded to offer services to areas beyond city limits. In 2015, President Barak Obama visited the small city to congratulate them on their success.

In 2016, Cedar Falls made the TPA’s “dirty dozen” list, which the organization described as a collection of “failures,” but was actually a compilation of “whoppers.” From the claim that the network wasn’t complete, to the falsity that other utilities took on debt to deploy the network, to a charge that government officials passed loans between municipal enterprises without taking proper and transparent procedures, report authors (who curiously remain a mystery) load up the report with untruths and mischaracterizations.

The report was so shockingly wrong, officials at CFU FiberNet, who might otherwise ignore such propaganda, felt that it should be addressed. They chose the most grievous of the misleading claims and addressed them one by one to correct the record. Sometimes, you just can’t ignore the loud, obnoxious fly buzzing around your head.

Josh Byrnes, Manager of Osage Municipal Utilities in Iowa, also decided to address falsities from the TPA when Baltimore published an opinion piece in the Mason City Globe Gazette. Byrnes published an opinion of his own, which was covered in Broadband Bytes from Community Broadband Action Network: 

"There are significant advantages community-owned utilities have when implementing rural broadband access. Community-owned utilities already have established relationships with their customers and can communicate with them directly and in a timely manner. The employees are the friends and neighbors of the community and serve with a sense of purpose."

As Broadband Bytes pointed out, the TPA has published opinion pieces in local news to oppose the network. The organization claims that Traverse City, Michigan, residents have access to “plenty of broadband” because satellite is available to everyone and because Spectrum cable or DSL are available in much of the community. Whether or not residents can afford overpriced, unreliable service with poor customer service isn’t addressed in the TPA’s opinion piece. As people who have experience with satellite Internet access know, satellite is not broadband.

In order to educate the Traverse City public about the facts of the project, rather than let them be misled by half-truths from the TPA, the Traverse City Light & Power decided to create a FTTP Broadband Project Q & A resource for the community with correct answers to common questions. 

Faulty and Incomplete Data

As is usually the case, the TPA has become masterful at picking out pieces of data that suit their aims. In their letter to Vinton’s Utility Board, they tried to paint Muscatine, Iowa’s investment in a fiber optic network as a failure because of changes in an interdepartmental loan between the electric and communications utility. 

While the electric utility acknowledged approximately 4 percent increase in electric rates, they attribute that to “higher delivered coal costs, higher cost of purchased power, and increased operating expenses,” not a planned upgrade from an existing cable network to fiber.  The upgrade to fiber, which increased subscribership and resulted in higher than expected revenues, were positive factors that the TPA chose to ignore. The takeaway here is that there’s more to the picture than the simplistic stick figure drawing that the TPA always offers.

Likewise, in the letter to Vinton, Baltimore failed to point out that Lake County’s decision to sell their fiber optic infrastructure came after years of fighting efforts by incumbents, such as Mediacom and Frontier that wanted to stop the project. With delays and lawsuits to contend with, thanks to corporate incumbents aiming to stop the project, Lake County achieved a major milestone. The project provided high-quality connectivity needed for the residents and businesses in the far northern reaches of Minnesota over an incredibly large rural area where incumbent ISPs would not invest. Many resorts and businesses that served the people in the area and the tourists who visited struggled after years of neglect by large corporate entities like those represented by the TPA.

The Data Dilemma

If the TPA can’t twist the facts to suit their message, like they did with Hovis’s information, they either find or create resources that rely on incomplete and inaccurate data. And unlike a research organization that protects its reputation to ensure reports, maps, and other resources are accurate to ensure maximum effectiveness, the TPA just doesn’t care.

There’s no other explanation for their “Broadband Boondoggles” map, which tried to label every municipal network as a “failure,” while muddling their own definition of the word. The TPA sacrificed credibility with the project when they placed Sandy, Oregon, in Utah (in addition to other errors).

Credibility or not, the TPA is exceedingly skilled at spreading alarming letters and polished resources filled with misinformation to local communities and state legislatures. With deep pockets and an intense desire to prevent publicly owned networks from catching on, they’ll continue to buzz about like that annoying fly.

CTC Letter to Vinton Municipal Electric Utility Taxpayers Protection Alliance LetterTags: vintoniowamisinformationliesjoanne hovisctc technology and energycorrecting community fiber fallaciescedar fallsosagetraverse city milake county

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 8

muninetworks.org - April 8, 2019

Colorado

Net neutrality measure moves to Polis' desk by Charles Ashby, The Daily Sentinel

"We have set aside nearly $170 million to support new Internet connections, broadband deployment to every corner of Colorado," Hansen said. "That was an incredibly important step that we took together as a General Assembly, but there was one important problem that we didn't address, and that is, what happens if we get in a situation where one of those new providers decides to offer service that's not net neutral."

 

Georgia

BRIEF: Georgia lawmakers OK electric co-ops to sell Internet service by Mark Niesse, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“This authorizes one of the main players in rural Georgia to provide a service that they're not legally authorized to provide now,” said House Rules Chairman Jay Powell, a Republican from Camilla. “We're trying to break down the barriers that prevent services from being provided.”

 

 

Massachusetts

Holyoke ballot question will gauge interest in city-run Internet service by Dennis Hohenberger, MassLive

Apple Valley set to receive broadband by Grace Bird, The Greenfield Recorder 

 

Mississippi

CLW looks to fund broadband expansion itself by Amanda Lien, The Dispatch

 

Missouri 

Voter turnout, broadband Internet updates provided at county commission meeting by Sarah Gray, The Marshall Democrat-News

 

New York

Mayor Brown discusses call for countywide broadband, WIVB 4

Syracuse’s digital crisis: 1 out of 4 homes doesn’t have Internet by Chris Baker, Syracuse.com

 

Ohio

Great Lakes Energy exploring Truestream fiber Internet in rural Otsego County by Jeremy Speer, Gaylord Harold Times 

Medina County Fiber is taking high-speed network to residents, Crain’s Cleveland Business

"Fiber broadband networks are the most important underpinning for every future-ready community," Snider said in the release. "We know affordable and accessible high-speed Internet is the key to better educational outcomes, greater economic opportunity and output, and the foundation for all next-generation infrastructure — including 5G technology. We're so excited to be here in Medina County, connecting people and communities to their future."

 

Oregon

Encouraging rural broadband investment is the key to bridging the digital divide by Tom Gurr, The Observer

 

General

Telecom lobby suddenly pretends to care about accurate broadband maps by Karl Bode, Techdirt

Broadband affordability report: Nearly half of U.S. population lacks access to a low-price offering by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor

Why broadband should be a utility by Susan Crawford, Broadband Communities 

...the electrification of America followed a consistent pattern: municipal buildings and businesses first, wealthy urban dwellers next, then poorer urban dwellers and, last of all, rural homes and farms. This was the demand-driven model in action.

Now, after government intervention in the electricity marketplace and decades of treatment of electricity as a utility subject to public obligations, we take electricity for granted as a service that is available to every home and business at a reasonable cost. 

Dems seek FCC explanation of faulty broadband coverage data by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

Pai FCC tours the country promising better rural broadband, but his policies routinely undermine that goal by Karl Bode, Techdirt

 

Tags: media roundup

Holyoke Ballot Will Gauge Feasibility Study Interest This Fall

muninetworks.org - April 8, 2019

After a citizen effort in Holyoke, Massachusetts, community leaders will let voters decide this fall on the question of analyzing Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) possibilities. 

At the April 4th city council meeting, community leaders passed a recommendation that a nonbinding public opinion advisory question be put on the ballot in November:

Should the Holyoke Gas and Electric conduct a feasibility study on a gradual roll out of fiber optic internet for residents of the City to purchase, and the findings be presented at a City Council meeting by April 2022 or sooner?

There was one Councilor absent and one nonparticipating member of the Council; the measure passed 7 - 4.

First Stop in Committee

The decision to bring the question to voters came after the city’s Charter and Rules Committee reviewed a citizens’ petition in mid-March. A group of citizen gathered signatures for the petition to ask Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) to conduct a feasibility for an incremental deployment for residential premises in Holyoke. HG&E currently offers fiber connectivity to commercial subscribers. 

Resident Laura Clampitt appeared at the committee meeting to speak in favor of the measure. She and another local resident, Ken Lefbvre, have lead efforts encouraging city leaders to move toward a feasibility study. Locals have shared information via a Facebook page to keep the public up-to-date on the proposal:

“These residents would love to purchase those services as well,” Clampitt said. “We would like to encourage HG&E to explore that option and present those findings in a public manner."

“We’ve seen the figures for the full rollout, $20 million or so. We understand that’s not feasible at this time,” Clampitt said. “We would appreciate HG&E looking into doing a partial rollout.”

Other residents spoke in support of moving the proposal forward and HG&E’s General Manager, James H. Lavelle also commented. He noted that the network is “entirely self-supporting” at this time and that he estimates a residential build out would cost approximately $30 million.

He said the utility completed a five-year capital investment in upgrading hydroelectric generating plants and substation infrastructure, which totaled $75 million.

"There’s no room for resources to do the buildout as was referenced,” Lavelle said. “We have been, for the last several months, looking at a gradual build to see if that would be viable. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done.”

Lavalle suggested that the utility already surveys customers, but one at-large Councilor described the surveys, conducted via home phone numbers, as “piecemeal.” 

“The petitioners are trying to help you to get a better or more holistic read of public support and sentiment the fiber network,” [At-large Councilor] Lisi told Lavelle.

Process

Once the issue passed through the committee to the full council, city leaders were tentative about the language and asked legal staff to review it. After the Law Department reviewed the language and recommended changes, the Holyoke City Council took up the issue again at their April 2nd meeting. 

There was another motion to table the question again, but that motion failed and the full council voted to put the issue on the November ballot. 

Holyoke Connecting Local Businesses but Residents Want More

Back in 2013, Christopher interviewed HG&E’s Senior Network Engineer, Tim Haas, who talked about the utility’s philosophy of helping out neighboring communities who needed better options. You can hear that discussion in episode 65 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

HG&E deployed their network with an incremental approach, which has helped them on the road to a self-sustaining system. This slow and deliberate expansion technique, along with the willingness to work with nearby towns seeking better connectivity, have lead to steady growth. A 2015 report from Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center tells their story. We also were able to talk with one of the report’s authors, David Talbot for episode 162 of the podcast.

For about three and a half years, the Holyoke Fiber Optic group has worked to educate the community’s 40,000 residents and drum up support for a possible municipal FTTH deployment. Comcast serves homes in the community, but residents who want faster, more reliable connections feel frustrated that that don’t have access to the same level of service as local businesses from their municipal electric utility. 

In the past, officials from the utility have mentioned that they’ve looked into FTTH and asked for residents' opinions, but the utility has never engaged in a citywide survey. Members of Holyoke Fiber Optic group hope that a ballot measure will put to rest any uncertainty about the community’s desire for residential municipal FTTH service.

Update: Ken and Laura were recently interviewed about the ballot initiative on Holyoke's Radioplasma. Listen here or check out Radioplasma for more:

Tags: holyokemassachusettsgrassrootsballotfeasibilityFTTHmunieconomic development

Locally Owned Broadband Enables Rural Innovation With New Initiative

muninetworks.org - April 5, 2019

Innovation today requires a high-speed Internet connection, and in rural areas, that often means a fiber optic network owned by a local government, a cooperative, or a local business. It’s no surprise then that when the Rural Innovation Initiative was looking for rural communities with good connectivity and an interest in innovation-based economic development, it turned to cities served by locally owned broadband networks. Out of the nine communities initially selected to participate in the Rural Innovation Initiative, more than half have a local Internet access provider instead of a national ISP.

Initiative Bridges Rural Opportunity Gap

The Rural Innovation Initiative is a new program created by the Center on Rural Innovation (CORI) and Rural Innovation Strategies, Inc. (RISI), with funding and support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA). Launched at the end of last year, the initiative works to “bridge the opportunity gap in rural America by helping communities build the capacity to create resilient, innovation-based jobs.”

For the first part of 2019, CORI and RISI selected nine cities and community partners to take part in what they describe as a “fast-paced technical assistance sprint,” which will help participants develop innovation hubs as an economic development strategy. The initiative will also prepare communities to apply for federal funding opportunities, such as EDA’s Regional Innovation Strategies program. More than 100 rural communities from 40 states applied for the program, which is free for participants. Selection criteria included location in a census-designated rural county, access to New Market Tax Credits and Opportunity Zones, partnerships with higher education and local nonprofits, and existing high-speed broadband networks — Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) in particular.

CORI and RISI, in partnership with EDA, will offer further technical assistance to communities through the Rural Innovation Initiative after this initial project complete. To learn more, watch a webinar about the program from December 2018.

Connectivity Sets Communities Apart

CORI identifies broadband access as a key prerequisite for rural economic development. During the December webinar, a representative from the organization riffed:

“We joke at the Center on Rural Innovation that in fact the real core to economic development in rural places are the three ‘B’s, which are broadband, blues, and beer.”

Many rural communities, however, lack broadband access because large providers won't expand into high-cost, low-profit rural areas. Accordingly, more than half of the communities that CORI selected to participate in the first round of the Rural Innovation Initiative have a locally owned broadband network.

For some of the selected communities that means a municipal network, like MINET in Independence, Oregon, or Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Another initiative participant, Traverse City, Michigan, is currently planning a citywide fiber network; rural cooperatives have deployed fiber networks in two of the participating communities. Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative connects residents and business in Pittsburg, Kansas, and Sho-Me Power Electric Cooperative offers enterprise fiber in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. Other participating cities are home to local Internet access providers, such as HBC in Red Wing, Minnesota, and ValuNet in Emporia, Kansas.

Local ownership allows rural communities to build strong economies and take advantage of programs like the Rural Innovation Initiative. Accountbility, awareness of local needs, and concern about the well-being of the community keep local companies, local government, and cooperatives seeking solutions that focus on more than profitability. Check out our "Why Local Solutions?" fact sheet for more on the benefits of local ownership.

Tags: localeconomic developmentminettraverse city migreenlightwilsoninnovationruralFTTH

Considering Upstate New York's Connectivity Problem and Middle Mile Investment; Our Take on ErieNet

muninetworks.org - April 4, 2019

Erie County, New York, and its county seat of Buffalo have had high-quality Internet access on their minds for several years. Now, County Executive Mark Poloncarz proposes a project to deploy middle mile infrastructure to attract local ISPs and generate competition. We're pleased to see county leadership taking another shot at better connectivity for the people in Erie County, but we hope community leaders will approach the project realistically; in order to bring high-quality Internet access to everyone, the county may need to play a more significant role in the future.

A Lingering Problem, A Possible Solution

Even though it's the county seat, a 2015 report from Erie County's Municipal Broadband Committee noted that the Buffalo Metropolitan Area's peak speeds ranked 294th in the state and that areas existed where there was no option for Internet access of ANY kind. The results horrified elected officials at the time; they issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to study the feasibility of a county-wide publicly owned broadband network. 

After a survey of residents and businesses, and an assessment of the current situation in Erie County, the final feasibility study recommended several actions, including a middle mile open access network investment. You can review the entire 2017 feasibility study here.

Problems with lackluster and even nonexistent Internet access have lingered in Buffalo and Erie County throughout the past two years. Community leaders have considered the feasibility study and given providers Verizon, Spectrum, AT&T, CenturyLink, and others operating in the region the chance to improve services to the entire county.

Now, County Executive Mark Poloncarz has announced that enough is enough and the digital divide won't narrow unless the public takes control. Taking the recommendation of the 2017 feasibility study to heart, Poloncarz has announced that he'd like Erie County to invest approximately $20 million in an open access middle mile network to connect community anchor institutions (CAIs), public facilities, and businesses interested in leasing dark fiber connectivity. The fiber infrastructure would also be open to private sector Internet access companies who want to extend last mile connections to households and businesses. The proposed project has been praised, criticized, and viewed with skepticism.

Prevent Cherry Picking

We're pleased to see Erie County taking action. Investing in middle mile infrastructure and relying on private sector ISPs to build out the last mile always includes some risk, but the bigger risk for a community such as Erie County would be choosing to do nothing. It's apparent large corporate Internet access companies don't see any reason to connect households where people struggle to connect, either because rates are too high, or because sparse populations don't encourage deployment. Areas where fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is not available will not enjoy the same economic development as other regions.

One of the main objectives of the projects is to encourage expansion of broadband, especially to areas in the county that are hard to reach, are more rural, and that are considered lower-income. We are concerned that investment focused on middle mile investment will enable cherry picking in easier to serve and wealthier areas in Erie County, rather than deployment of last mile connections in the areas where households and businesses need broadband the most. Erie County will need to establish a plan on how best to prevent such an outcome. 

If one or two more firms build those last mile connections in the more attractive areas, it isn't likely that another company will find motivation in deploying to poorly served and lower income areas because it will be harder to break into the market in the attractive areas. The nature of middle mile infrastructure projects make it more difficult to ensure that every one is able to connect to high-quality Internet access. County officials should address the potential for cherry picking and understand that they may require future investment toward connecting lower income areas to meet their goal of shrinking the digital divide. 

Keep Expectations Realistic

People living in Erie County are frustrated, reporting poor services and lack of choice of Internet access providers; they hope that an open access network will bring more competition. The ErieNet plan aims to encourage local providers to deploy last mile connections needed to offer services. While middle mile networks lower the cost of investment for ISPs, deploying that last mile is still substantial. If the county were able to connect homes and businesses directly to the network, they would improve chances of attracting private sector investment. Expanding the project to connect premises would, of course, increase the cost of the project.

County officials estimate that the 360-mile project will cost approximately $20 million to deploy with a completion goal of 2021. Balancing a community's ability to invest in a project with the expected benefits is a fine line that every community leader must reconcile. Local people are best suited to know what their needs are and how much a community can invest to meet their needs.

Erie County's middle mile network will probably lead to one or two more providers who want to deliver services via the new network, but will not produce the robust competition of Ammon, Idaho, or Utah’s UTOPIA Net. We expect to see a small number of new options in middle and upper income areas, but there's no guarantee that lower income or harder to serve areas will experience more choice or additional investment from private ISPs.

The extent of investment from the private sector and how long the expansion continues is unpredictable. We remain concerned that smaller local ISPs may eventually be sold to larger companies, such as Comcast or a similar corporate entity, and subscribers will be trapped taking service from a company with no desire to contribute to the well-being of the community.

On the Plus Side

Even if private sector investment doesn’t reach the level community leaders anticipate, even the hint of public investment in better connectivity often improves rates and services in a region. In Longmont, Colorado, incumbents Comcast and CenturyLink upgraded services to compete with the municipal network. National companies have the ability to lower rates to preserve their position in one region by raising rates in another area, as Charter (now Spectrum) did in Monticello, Minnesota, and as other large companies have in places like Denver and Chattanooga.

With more than 300 miles of fiber within the county, the network could also make the region more attractive for fixed wireless and 5G investment. If Erie County makes dark fiber available to providers and keeps prices reasonable, companies offering the services are more likely to invest in the area because there will be more opportunities for antenna sites.

New York’s Southern Tier Network has provided middle mile dark fiber infrastructure in several counties south and east of Erie County for a few years. ISP Empire Access has taken advantage of the opportunity to compete with incumbents in Corning and Elmira and may also see ErieNet as a chance to add subscribers. Jim Baase, CFO of Empire Access told the Buffalo News:

“Once Erie County builds out its network, we would contract with them to get around Erie County and then build out in the communities,” Baase said. “We would go into a community like the city of Buffalo and add fiber up and down virtually every street. It’s a large project.”

The ErieNet project could be a first step to publicly owned broadband in a major metropolitan area. With approximately 1.2 million people in the metropolitan area, and ongoing complaints about incumbents Spectrum and Verizon, people in and around the city are looking for options. Buffalo’s public power utility hasn’t taken up the prospect of offering Internet access to the community, but ErieNet may inspire other cities to take action.

Middle Mile Networks Have Good Things to Offer

While our Community Networks Map displays hundreds of places where publicly owned networks serve the community in one form or another, middle mile investments haven’t always met expectations. Connecting premises directly to a network creates a more attractive environment for ISPs considering operating over an open access infrastructure.

Nevertheless, places such as Martinsville in Virginia and Clackamus County, Oregon, offer middle mile connectivity that has resulted in economic development and better connectivity for businesses and residents. In Sandy, Oregon, the Clackamus County Broadband eXchange allowed the municipal network to obtain the low cost backhaul it needed to offer its $60 gig.

In A Nutshell

As Erie County moves forward with the ErieNet project, we encourage them to address the reality of cherry picking, expect that new competition will be limited, and prepare for future investment in order to connect premises hard to serve or in lower income areas.

For Poloncarz, other Erie County officials, and people living and working in the region, doing nothing isn't an option anymore. In March, he told the Buffalo News, " In the new Erie County, we're not leaving anybody behind."

Listen to Christopher discuss the project on WREN: 

Image of Buffalo's Peace Bridge by Doug Kerr from Albany, NY, United States [CC BY-SA 2.0]

2017 Erie County Broadband Feasibility StudyTags: buffalonew yorkerie county nydigital dividemiddle milecompetition

Those Bewitching Broadband Bills; States Making Moves - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 350

muninetworks.org - April 2, 2019

Interest in community broadband and broadband service from cooperatives has grown significantly within the past few years. This legislative session, lawmakers in states such as Vermont, North Carolina, and Arkansas, have decided that they’d like to start contributing to new ways to bring better Internet access to their constituents. This week, Christopher and Jess Del Fiacco, our Communications Specialist, sit down to review some of the most recent state bills that we find promising.

Jess and Christopher talk about H 513 making it’s way through Vermont’s legislature. The bill contains policy changes and financial support designed to invigorate local broadband projects. H 513 was developed after state leaders examined the success of ECFiber, the regional network that brings gigabit connectivity to more than 20 communities in the central part of the state. 

The state of North Carolina’s FIBER NC ACT, which relaxes some of the state’s restrictions on local Internet network infrastructure investment, also comes up in the conversation. Christopher finds the bill a promising start to restoration of local telecommunications authority in North Carolina. State lawmakers are also considering another bill that will assist with pole issues.

Christopher and Jess spend some time examining what’s happening in Tallahassee, Florida, where city leaders have decided that they will not pursue a feasibility study for the time being. Christopher addresses the meaning of "competition" in Internet access providers. It shouldn’t be a question that’s up for debate, but here we are.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 32 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license. 

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsstate lawsstate policylegislationVermontecfibervtelnorth carolinaArkansaspole attachmentspolesh 513 vth 431 ncs 310 nc

Net Inclusion 2019, Live from Charlotte, North Carolina

muninetworks.org - April 2, 2019

Net Inclusion 2019 is happening in Charlotte, North Carolina, and if you aren’t there you can still watch the action online through the livestream from National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA).

In addition to bringing the live action, NDIA is providing a list of the livestreamed content directly below the video on the YouTube page. For a full agenda, check out the Net Inclusion website

If you’re in North Carolina at the event, you can make Christopher’s panel, “Infrastructure Projects that Include Affordability, Digital Literacy, and Public Access.” He’ll be moderating a panel with Garrett Brinker from Neighborly, Deb Socia of Next Century Cities, Geoff Millener of the Enterprise Center Chattanooga, and Will Aycock, General Manager of Wilson, North Carolina’s Greenlight Community Broadband Network. The panel will discuss municipal network infrastructure and efforts to bring high-quality connectivity to people living in affordable housing.

Watch the livestream:

Tags: eventdigital dividechristopher mitchellvideonational digital inclusion alliance

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 350

muninetworks.org - April 2, 2019

This is the transcript for episode 350 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, our Communications Specialist Jess Del Fiacco takes over the mic and interviews Christopher about state bills in Vermont and North Carolina and about the future of a feasibility study in Tallahassee, Florida. Read the transcript below, or listen to the episode.

 

 

Jess Del Fiacco: More and more people are talking about it. More and more people recognize that it's a problem. It's being taken seriously. These communities who say what they need, they're finally being listened to.

Lisa Gonzalez: Welcome to episode 350 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This has been a busy legislative session for broadband. Bills that address both policy and funding have kept us on our toes. This week, Christopher teams up with our Communications Specialist, Jess Del Fiacco, to review a few of the bills that state lawmakers seem especially keen to advance. We've been very interested in what's happening in Vermont and North Carolina. Jess and Christopher also review the local situation in Tallahassee, Florida, where community leaders have see-sawed over whether or not to engage a consultant to develop a feasibility study. At the root of the matter is the issue of competition and what it really means in a large city. Christopher and Jess talk about the different perspectives that have come out of Tallahassee and how those views have influenced the city's ability to move forward. Now, here's Christopher and Jess.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, ILSR, in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Jess Del Fiacco who's actually going to be hosting this episode. Jess is our Communications Specialist. Welcome to the host chair.

Jess Del Fiacco: Happy to be here. And I am new to this, so hopefully it goes smoothly.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. If you do a terrible job, we'll edit you out.

Jess Del Fiacco: Just a bunch of silence.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and we'll never talk of it again. So Jess, what are we going to talk about today?

Jess Del Fiacco: We're gonna just talk about some things that are in the news right now about muni broadband networks. First, looking at Vermont where lawmakers are suddenly eager to support ECFiber.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, ECFiber. That sounds as though — it's almost like "easy" fiber, but it's "EC."

Jess Del Fiacco: ECFiber is around 25 communities in east central Vermont who have banded together to form their broadband network.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. And I'm really excited about what's happening with the house. The house overwhelmingly passed a measure that would create funding that would be available, both grants and loans, for all kinds of providers, but the newspaper stories suggest that they are very keen on that ECFiber model. And right around that time was also a time when — I don't even think you remember this, Jess. You weren't with us at the time, but ECFiber got its start around the time of the broadband stimulus. And we were very supportive of it, and we really hoped that they would get a very big award to build this network. They would have been done years ago. Instead, the Rural Utilities Service gave the money to a private company called VTel, which said we're going to build the Fiber-to-the-Home in a few areas, but we're going to have this really great wireless service in Vermont that's going to serve everyone else. And wireless is not—

Jess Del Fiacco: It's always a good promise, but . . .

Christopher Mitchell: And in Vermont in particular, it's really challenging because first of all, they don't like towers and they really like their trees. So . . .

Jess Del Fiacco: A good combination for a good wireless network.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And so, it just recently came out that practically no one is being served. People are very frustrated. People who are happy are reporting that they're getting one or two Megabits per second, so it's clearly not the best investment. And people who are frustrated are trying to complain to the RUS, and RUS says basically, "Well, they built the towers and they're doing the service." And I think you might say, "Well, you know, they have executed a dumb plan well." So anyway, it was interesting to me that after years of us promoting the ECFiber model and feeling that this was such a really smart approach, that these communities have gotten together and done and they did it almost entirely — I mean, very little support from the state over the years. They did eventually, once they'd proven themselves, get some money from the state. Not nearly as much as I think they should have, so I don't want to say that the state didn't do anything for them. But I feel like it's this feeling of, "Oh, I'm glad we weren't crazy." because we were among the very few groups that saw how ECFiber was doing things correctly while the state and the federal government were giving money to others, including private approaches that were destined to fail.

Jess Del Fiacco: And what are some of the benefits? What sets this model apart from others?

Christopher Mitchell: The big difference that I see with ECFiber compared to these other models that have received a lot more support, it seems like over the years, is that ECFiber is owned by the communities. You know, it's involved with this nonprofit ValleyNet and they have this ethos of connecting everyone with very high quality networks, whereas the money that's gone to FairPoint, which was previously Verizon and is actually now Consolidated Communications — someone will come along and buy it in a few more years, I'm sure, and then they'll change the name again to escape from the horrific past. But those companies have no commitment to serve everyone, let alone to serve everyone with high quality service, and ECFiber has figured out how to make sure they're serving everyone. You know, and a few years ago — I think it was a few years ago, it may have just been last year — we did a story about ECFiber and how they were building fiber to homes at roughly the same price point for what FairPoint was getting subsidized to bring DSL. And you just again have a sense that something's gone horribly wrong when we see these stories in which — you know, when you look at grant programs and things like that, ECFiber, other municipal networks will often say, we'd like to get some money because we have this good business model to serve everyone. And they may get a response that's like, "Oh, well we couldn't possibly give you money because we've given this other company money to deliver broadband using pigeons." And so, you know, the money is never available, but yet when the big incumbent providers want money, often to build a crap product to people who want a better product and are already sometimes getting a better product from a network like ECFiber, somehow the federal government still finds ways to give money to those big incumbents. We see it time and time again I feel like. And I might just be focused on on a few edge cases, but it's really great to see the state of Vermont recognizing the benefits of ECFiber and moving in that direction. They had previously enabled communications union districts, I think is what it's called, but I might be butchering that a little bit, making it easier for communities to work together to get some aggregation, which is really necessary.

Jess Del Fiacco: And we are talking about really small, really rural communities, right? So is this less financial risk for them individually if they band together like this?

Christopher Mitchell: That's right. Yeah, and it's worth noting — I mean, Vermont, like you said, they're often called towns, but they're more like rural areas that are arbitrarily —

Jess Del Fiacco: There are some houses.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but I wouldn't say it's like the west. When you get out west of Minnesota and Iowa — you know, even Iowa, the density is actually much greater than if you go to Nebraska and Montana and places like that. Like, both of these are rural in different senses. Vermont is rural in that there's not large areas that are totally uninhabited; it's just that you may not be very close to your neighbors. So these are challenging areas to connect. ECFiber has a model that will work. The best part is once that network is built, we will not have to subsidize another network on top of it, and that is definitely not true with the subsidies we've poured into companies like VTel or into certainly the big incumbents. And I don't want to suggest that VTel is a bad company. I actually have no idea, but I will say that the idea of a statewide wireless network in Vermont always struck me as profoundly stupid.

Jess Del Fiacco: Okay. Well on that note is there —

Christopher Mitchell: Not to understate it.

Jess Del Fiacco: Is there anything else that the state of Vermont could be doing to improve broadband access? I mean, one point might be streamlining one touch make ready policies.

Christopher Mitchell: Oh yes, yes. Thank you. I'm glad someone else is paying attention, or I should say, I'm glad someone is paying attention here because that's actually an exciting part of the bill, is that the Vermont bill would deal with the pole access, making sure that those who own the poles cannot prevent new networks like ECFiber from getting on the poles by having really arduous make ready, which is basically to say that if a company like ECFiber wants to build the fiber network on poles, right now it may have to wait months and months and months. It may not even know if it's going to wait months or a year to get access to the pole, and Vermont is trying to tackle that. Maine has also moved in this direction. So we're seeing some real smart decisions, I think, in the New England area about trying to make sure that poles are available for new investment and that's a big deal. States can act on pole access, and I think that's exciting.

Jess Del Fiacco: So we're seeing elsewhere that rural communities are having an even stronger push for better broadband. I want to talk a little bit about North Carolina and the two bills that have been —

Christopher Mitchell: Do I ever.

Jess Del Fiacco: — introduced lately.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, the most exciting thing is just that there's bills moving forward that are promising. You know, North Carolina has had a Republican leadership for almost 10 years now that I would say has been overly optimistic in terms of the capacity of the big companies and private sector investment alone to bring high quality networks to everyone. We've talked about this a lot over the years, and what we see with — remind me, what's the number of the bill?

Jess Del Fiacco: It's 431.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so 431 is the bill in the house, which is in the General Assembly of North Carolina. It has a lot of bipartisan support from what I can tell. The North Carolina League of Municipalities, the Association of Counties, a lot of people in North Carolina that care deeply about improving broadband have been working on this. And they have found a lot of support across the lines, which is I think a big deal, and we're hoping to see a lot of support in the Senate as well. I would say this is not a foregone conclusion that this will pass, but it is a very sensible step forward to allow local governments to, with a variety of hoops they have to jump through, be able to build infrastructure and then partner with others to operate it. I will say that I'm a little bit frustrated in that local government could not build infrastructure and then partner with Wilson or another municipal network. That is expressly precluded, but they will be able to work with a cooperative like Wilkes or a company like Hotwire or a company like Open Broadband, which just happen to be three of the companies that we worked with and talked with in our series, Let's Connect, in North Carolina. And if you haven't seen that on muninetworks.org, we documented this and our town meetings and just a fantastic time in North Carolina about these issues. This seems like a very sensible bill that will not allow cities to build networks in the way that we would like to see necessarily, but will allow them to engage in public-private partnerships, which I think is a good step in the interim. I do hope over time that we see greater freedom for communities to make these decisions for themselves, but right now it's just really exciting because North Carolina is one of these areas in which I've felt rural communities were really disadvantaged because not only were they not getting investment from the private sector, they just weren't allowed to solve the problem themselves in any way.

Jess Del Fiacco: Do you think there's a potential for cooperatives to get involved in these partnerships?

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Yeah, and so Wilkes, which is a cooperative that is also doing business as RiverStreet networks, they are very active across the state but limited. Whether it's them or other cooperatives, they can only expand so fast. They can only hire so many construction managers and oversee so many projects, and so if cities and counties were able to build some of this infrastructure and make it easy for a cooperative like that to lease it, then that will allow much more investment much more rapidly in areas of rural North Carolina that desperately need it. So Jess, you also are tracking another bill, which I think is exciting but I have not paid as much attention to.

Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, so that's one in the Senate and it's bill 310, which would allow electric cooperatives to apply for funding previously they were restricted on getting.

Christopher Mitchell: Right from the federal government I think.

Jess Del Fiacco: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so we highlighted this in a report that Hannah Trostle did for us several years ago. I think it was "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" about North Carolina's limitations. The easements are a big deal. We've seen states looking at this. I think Texas might be looking at it. Indiana was one of the first with something called the FIBRE Act. Colorado is trying to figure out what to do with it. And that's a situation in which electric co-ops may need permission from land owners, even though they have fiber running across their fields currently, they may need additional permission to use that fiber for things unrelated to electricity. And that can be a very time consuming process to try to get those easements, which has precluded electric co-ops from getting more aggressive in solving the broadband investment gap. So these sorts of approaches that would just solve it I think would be very helpful. Frankly, you know, ordinarily we don't really want the state to step in and sort of abrogate the rights of landowners, but if you have cable going across your property, just allowing it to be used for other things for community benefits doesn't seem that onerous to me. And frankly, I think most of the people impacted would like to do that anyway.

Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, and that's a good point. Do you think — we've talked a little bit about the League of Municipalities being in support of this bill, but do you think there's a lot of public, just average person, support for this?

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I mean, we could go out there and say people just love our approach. Like, people love what we're doing at ILSR, and they really think municipal broadband or public-private partnerships is the way to go. And I think that we do have a lot of support, to be clear. I also think that people just want better networks. They want something that will work. They want something that will allow their kids to have all the educational opportunities that they could have. They want things that will allow them to search for jobs. You know, they want something that works. And so, we see a lot of popularity for our ideas, but I will say that in general, people are hungry for solutions for this. And so it's not just a matter of you doing a really good job in communications, Jess, but there's —

Jess Del Fiacco: I take all the credit for these bills.

Christopher Mitchell: For once, this is one of those issues in which we're kind of rowing downstream, which is an odd feeling for me who feels like I'm going upstream most of them.

Jess Del Fiacco: Well, it's great to see North Carolina making some progress then.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, you know, I can't understate this enough how glad I am. I feel like the cable and telephone companies have lied for years to the Republican and Democratic legislators in Raleigh in North Carolina and convinced them that there was no needed public investment, that local governments do nothing but get in the way. And I think we're seeing many more elected officials in Raleigh recognizing the important role that communities can play. You have a lot of counties that independently can make investments and try to make this go more rapidly. You have a lot of cities that are hungry and need these kind of networks to keep their businesses in town and they want to keep their property values up and make sure people want to live there. I find it frustrating how people think of rural broadband as kind of like it's almost like a tech issue or it's like people will sometimes act like, "Oh, it's just broadband." You know, we've seen some people say, "Oh, you know, it's not as important as other issues," but people are leaving their homes in rural areas in part because they cannot get good broadband. I mean, you grew up in a part of Wisconsin that's not exactly a metro region, so . . .

Jess Del Fiacco: Not exactly. Yeah, those are the words I would use. And yeah, it's not about, you know, just being able to get online, but it's the things that that allows you to access. You know, jobs, education, whatever.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. And so I, I just think it's, you know, if you're telling people, "Oh, maybe in five years someone will come and invest in your region, so you're still not allowed to do it yourself," that's a slap in the face. And really, it's not necessarily — to say it's a death sentence is overstating a little bit, but it is basically condemning a community, I think.

Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah. You're cutting out a lot of years of potential progress and growth that you would have.

Christopher Mitchell: You have a lot of people who are not going to come back. They're moving away and they're going to build their roots somewhere else, and I think we should be concerned about that. I think we should cherish our communities and do everything we can to support them, rather than saying, "Well, we think in three to five years, you know, maybe 5G will eventually get out there, and then that's why you can't have broadband today if you wanted to build it yourself." So let me just say one other thing, which is — I don't think that we covered it on the podcast, but for people who aren't regularly reading muninetworks.org, first of all, shame on you. Lisa does a great job with that. But Arkansas did slightly walk back its restrictions, and we do hope to have a podcast in the future once their session ends to talk a little bit about that with some folks who were there, but the important thing is that North Carolina and Arkansas are two southern legislatures dominated by Republicans that are seeing the wisdom of allowing local governments some more opportunities to solve these problems. And they're not willing to say that local governments can entirely do what they want, but they are taking a step in the direction of more freedom, more local authority for communities to solve these problems locally. I think that's a big deal.

Jess Del Fiacco: So, in Tallahassee, Florida, the city commission recently kind of walked back their decision to move forward on a feasibility study around broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, Not Tallahassee, Nebraska.

Jess Del Fiacco: Correct. There's so many of them, you know. And it seems the main criticisms were, A) about potential cost and B) you know, the suggestion that we've heard in a lot of other places, which is there's already plenty of competition — we have 17 providers. What do you say to that?

Christopher Mitchell: One thing that I can say is that I don't know who thinks they have 17 providers. And so, I wrote a quick letter to the editor in response to this. The only reason that we think it got published is because someone sent me an email thanking me for writing it and saying that she was in this situation of only having one option and she hated it in Tallahassee and that she was very thankful that I pointed out to them that that 17 is a comically wrong estimate for the number of providers in Tallahassee. Tallahassee is like almost 200,000 people or so. It's a larger city, municipal electric city, which means they have the poles, most likely. They have the know-how already to do a lot of the things related to fiber. In fact, they almost certainly already have a fiber network connecting their substations and a lot of the grid, but they're not connecting residents and businesses. Now, the op ed that we read from the Tallahassee Democrat, it just drove me nuts because I'm so tired of people who should know better, right? I mean, you work on for a major newspaper. You would think you would know how to engage in basic fact checking. So they claimed, well we don't need to do this because of all this competition. Now, I looked at broadbandnow.com to look at some of this and they're pretty good. I mean BroadbandNow uses a lot of flawed statistics from the federal government and elsewhere, and they compile a pretty accurate picture. For as wide of a net as they cast, I think they're pretty good at giving you a picture of a city, and they didn't have 17 providers. I think they had like six residential providers. I think four of them were satellite, you know, which I think it's safe to say that — it would be interesting to find if there's like three people in Tallahassee that have satellite access. I'm guessing there aren't, but the point is that like most urban areas, Tallahassee has a cable competitor that goes to most homes and CenturyLink I think is the telephone provider that goes to most homes with a combination of DSL and maybe fiber in a few areas, but that's the extent of it. For most people in Tallahassee, which I would say is like more than probably 80 percent, they have no other options for actual broadband service.

Jess Del Fiacco: They're not all spoiled for choice, you know, looking at their pamphlet of 17 providers to choose from.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, right. It's not like they come home from work [saying] "Hey honey, I was thinking we should change Internet providers yet again to this other one because of all this price competition we're seeing." No, they're paying high rates. You know, it's probably not — you wouldn't think of it necessarily as totally stifling business activity, but I'm sure that businesses are frustrated. I mean, every place we've looked at in depth that has this dynamic, their businesses are overpaying and frustrated with the quality of service, so I assume Tallahassee is the same way. If anyone ever sees anyone suggesting there are double digit figures of competition, that person just does not know what they're talking about. If you look at the FCC statistics for areas that have residential competition, most areas have two. Some have three. I don't think anyone has more than eight. And I think, like, literally you could count the census blocks, you know, in a short period of time that have more than five.

Jess Del Fiacco: I think we have a whole report about this that covers some of these statistics.

Christopher Mitchell: We do. And you know, one of the frustrating things is the areas that have the best competition, which we found in looking at and researching the Profiles of Monopoly telecom report we did, is that the FCC doesn't even really keep track of the open access networks where we see the robust options. I mean, if you're in rural Washington state, you might actually have 10 choices for residential service, but that's all through the municipal broadband network that's open multiple providers. So, I will just say if you're listening to this and you ever hear anyone saying, like, "Oh, there's 10 choices," they're probably confusing the fact that if you're a business on certain street corners, you might have six or seven choices and other people have two choices and other people have a different two choices. If you add all those together, you can say people have this many choices, but the only way you could defend that is to say, "Well, if you want this provider, you move over here. If you want to then switch to this provider, you move your house over there." That's not at all what is intended by, you know, these claims. So the other thing that they said was 3G and 4G. They're like, look at how fast things are progressing, and this is just a fallacy that I've said many times. You know, when I started doing this job, people were saying, "We don't need to invest in wires anymore, we have Wi-Fi. Wi-Fi is going to bring lots of competition." Obviously that hasn't happened. This is even — I think, you know, you were probably in maybe high school at the time — probably in high school. Let's be generous. You know, I'm guessing you didn't see a lot of Wi-Fi business models coming about trying to get to your parents' home as you were growing up.

Jess Del Fiacco: Nope, I'm going to say no. Actually maybe zero.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so people have told me, "Well that's okay because Wi-Fi was going to be replaced by a WiMAX." Did you have any WiMAX service providers in your area when you were growing up?

Jess Del Fiacco: Can't say I did, no.

Christopher Mitchell: No, but then that was not something that really resulted in more competition. 4G LTE came along, and I'm going to guess you do have some 4G LTE competition

Jess Del Fiacco: Eh, some. It's still spotty.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so in 2019 it's still spotty. Would you rely on that in the home you grew up in?

Jess Del Fiacco: Absolutely not.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so, you know, this idea —

Jess Del Fiacco: And then we still have a landline, so yeah.

Christopher Mitchell: So I mean, like, this is the reality, and people are like, oh no. Like the magic thing that was going to happen in 200,5 that was going to happen in 2009, that was going to happen in 2013, that was going to happen in 2017, it's really going to happen now in 2020. I mean, the people who make these claims, it actually reminds me of those cults who are like, "Oh yeah, like the next time we have an eclipse — "

Jess Del Fiacco: Judgement day is coming right around the corner.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, the spaceships are going to come and pick us up — it's happening. And then it doesn't happen, and they're like, oh yeah, you know we —

Jess Del Fiacco: Recalculate. Two years.

Christopher Mitchell: Exactly, yeah. Two years away — it's really going to happen this time. And that's just my reaction to this idea of 3G, 4G — everyone's going to have Gs. It's really exciting. We're kind of torching the editorial staff because they did a really bad job and this is really important, but that's not to say that we are throwing in to say that the city should absolutely move forward with a project. Now it's been claimed that the project would cost $300 million. I just think that's indefensible. A city like Tallahassee with a municipal electric, if you were asking me offhand what I thought it would cost, I would say on the order of $100 to $200 million probably and probably pretty close to the middle in there — maybe less. It's still an expensive project, and I think the city should take it seriously. I think they should do a feasibility study, and they shouldn't go into it thinking we're absolutely going to do this. I think they should be thinking about it in terms of perhaps incrementall,y like what are the goals? The advice we often give cities is, what are you trying to solve? Are you trying to solve broadband in every residence for price competition? Are you trying to bring broadband to people who can't afford it today? Are you focused on business benefits? Those are the kinds of questions I think they should be asking, and in the meantime, maybe the editorial staff can educate themselves a little bit. You know, my fear is always that the editorial staff basically got a briefing from Comcast and was like, "Well, this is crazy," and then they just wrote it all down without fact checking it. People who live in urban areas, we're going to see more of this. This morning we were talking about this in fact, how we're seeing so many more areas that are considering these kinds of investments. I think we're going to see these flawed stats over and over and over again. People need to be prepared for how to answer them. And that doesn't necessarily mean that people who are cautious are wrong, but we all need to have our facts in front of us. So Jess, as we're wrapping up here, let me just ask you — you've been on staff for nearly nine months now. Congratulations on your nine month anniversary;

Jess Del Fiacco: Time flies.

Christopher Mitchell: Have you sensed any changes? I mean, I realize nine months is not that long of a time as you're sort of getting your sense, but you know, I feel like there's an acceleration right now of interest in this stuff, and you're going through the news every day to look and hunt these stories down. Are you seeing any differences?

Jess Del Fiacco: You know, I mean, like you said, it is hard to tell because I don't have a long term sense of how things have changed, but I really do — I mean, like you said, I comb through the stories every afternoon and it seems like my Google alerts are more full every week. It's just more, more people talking about it. More and more people recognize that it's a problem. It's being taken seriously. These communities who say what they need, they're finally being listened to, I think, at a higher level.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. I mean, I'm just thinking right now, the stories Lisa has put up recently — I mean, classic recency bias perhaps, but we don't have a story up yet, I don't think, about Erie County in New York. But they're moving forward — well, they've proposed an interesting project for a backbone. Loveland, Colorado, and Estes Park both seem to be moving forward with municipal broadband. Hillsboro in Oregon, which had received tragically bad, terrible advice from Uptown Services, which I've written about a few times a muninetworks.org, they're moving forward with a really innovative approach. You know, I just feel like we're seeing all kinds of of cities that are not just saying we should look into this, but that are actually moving forward and it's pretty exciting right now.

Jess Del Fiacco: Yeah, it's hopeful.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so with that, I think, you know, we could probably leave people. And let me just remind people that we do two other podcasts through ILSR, at least. The two I'm thinking of are Building Local Power and —

Jess Del Fiacco: Who knows how many podcasts we do?

Christopher Mitchell: Checkout ilsr.org for the latest in podcasts. And the other podcast is Local Energy Rules, which has had a really great series on cities that are planning on and getting to 100% renewable energy. And come on back. We'll be back next week. We're gonna be doing some live interviews pretty soon with folks down at the Broadband Communities event in Austin, which will be next week, so it should be really great.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was our Communications Specialist, Jess Del Fiacco talking with Christopher about recent legislative efforts in Vermont and North Carolina and Tallahassee, Florida's decision not to move forward with the feasibility study. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@muninetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR that Christopher mentioned during the show, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thank you for listening to episode 350 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript
Syndicate content