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Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 17

December 17, 2018

Florida

Lakeland may rehire broadband consultant as high-speed Internet service debate gets new life by Mike Ferguson, The Ledger

 

Massachusetts

Small American town rejects Comcast – while ISP reps take issue with your El Reg vultures by Kieren McCarthy, The Register

It's a remarkable example of small-town America standing up to a corporate giant but it remains to be seen whether it acts as a template or a warning to other towns across the country. If nothing else, by putting all its work out there, Charlemont have given the US a blueprint for municipal networks.

Comcast rejected by small town—residents vote for municipal fiber instead by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica 

 

Minnesota

Blue Earth County Board looks to expand broadband options by Trey Mewes, Mankato Free Press

Meeker County to invest in broadband expansion over next decade by Cam Bonelli, Litchfield Independent Review

 

Ohio

Akron explores FairlawnGig services by Cassaundra Smith, Akron.com

 

Pennsylvania

Pa's lack of rural broadband may be underestimated by John Finnerty, The Herald

In Comcast’s hometown, the chasm between Internet haves and have-nots looks intractable, new census data shows by Bob Fernandez, The Inquirer 

 

Rhode Island

BIPCo to seek broadband connection by Cassius Shuman, Block Island Times

 

Wisconsin 

County board opens the door to broadband by Steve Sharp, Watertown Daily Times

"Internet is not a luxury, it's a necessity," she said. "I want the people in our communities to have all the advantages (others have)."

 

General

New FCC data indicates future broadband access for most Americans will be a monopoly

by Ernesto Falcon, Electronic Frontier Foundation 

The faster the speed you want, the fewer choices are available to you until, like a majority of Americans, you effectively return to monopoly options or no options at all. 

FCC Communications Marketplace Report finds high cable prices, uncompetitive broadband markets by Shiva Stella, Public Knowledge

One year after the net neutrality repeal: the FCC has abdicated its role protecting consumers and competition by Gigi Sohn, ProMarket

Compromise Farm Bill would raise USDA broadband loan and grant budget by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor

Poor people should get slower Internet speeds, American ISPs tell FCC by Kieren McCarthy, The Register

FCC panel wants to tax Internet-using businesses and give the money to ISPs by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

Tags: media roundup

Electric Co-op Connectivity Covered on New NRECA Podcast

December 17, 2018

More and more electric cooperatives have been building broadband networks to bring better Internet access to their rural members. According to the cleverly titled podcast “Along Those Lines” from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), that trend isn’t stopping any time soon.

In the second episode of the podcast, host Scot Hoffman, editor of RE Magazine, speaks with guests Mike Keyser, CEO of BARC Electric Cooperative, and Brian O’Hara, regulatory issues director for NRECA. They discuss the growing interest in broadband among electric cooperatives, some of the hurdles co-ops must overcome when deploying networks, and the impact that better connectivity has on Rural America.

Highlights From Their Conversation

A few years ago, the field of cooperative broadband was populated only by the early adopters. Now, Keyser tells the podcast host, “It seems like we’re reaching this tide where everybody’s now talking about [broadband] at every conference we go to.” One of the reasons for this groundswell of enthusiasm, O’Hara explains, is the increasingly vital role of communications infrastructure in managing the electric grid. Cooperatives’ commitment to local economic development and their “strategic advantages” in deploying networks also plays a role, he says.

BARC Electric Cooperative is one of the dozens of co-ops that have built fiber networks to connect their members. In the podcast, Keyser relates how the co-op ultimately decided to move forward with BARC Connects despite challenges:

“We finally got to the point as a co-op where the board said, look, this is going to revitalize our community, this is our mission, this is what we did 80 years ago . . . We need to just go. This is too important to the community and to the co-op.”

Local residents are clearly excited about the new network. “The single biggest question I get asked everyday is ‘When is it coming to my house?’” shares Keyser. He even believes that revenue from the broadband network will one day outstrip the co-op's income from selling electricity, a testament to the community’s need for better connectivity.

Later in the podcast, O’Hara argues that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) should consider raising its definition of broadband, which is currently 25 Mbps download and 3 Mbps upload. He explains:

“If [the FCC is] going to give out money to build 25/3, that’s meeting today’s minimum . . . It’s not going to necessarily meet the needs in the future. And we think that as the federal government looks to put out its limited resources towards broadband, it should look at higher speeds.”

In some cases, O’Hara continues, the FCC is funding large providers to offer speeds of just 10 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload in rural areas. “We don’t think that’s right,” O’Hara remarks. “That’s almost setting up a second class citizen status for some of these communities.” At the same time, many electric co-ops are using more modest federal funding to build future-proof fiber networks capable of gigabit speeds.

Some electric cooperatives decided to build broadband networks only after other providers refused to connect their rural members. “They kept waiting for someone else to come in and solve the problem, and no one did,” says O’Hara. In many ways, this parallels how cooperatives originally electrified their rural communities after they were left behind by the electric utilities. Keyser recounts what another cooperative leader said to him about bringing Internet access to their members:

“It is as close as we’re going to get to what it felt like to turn people’s lights on for the first time.”

Listen to the podcast here or at the "Along Those Lines" website.

 

 

More Resources on Electric Cooperative Broadband Projects

Listen the other episodes of “Along Those Lines” on the NRECA website.

To learn more about the electric cooperatives connecting Rural America, check out the rural electric co-ops story tag or visit our page on rural cooperatives. Prefer to learn with your ears instead of your eyes? The rural cooperatives page has a list of relevant Community Broadband Bits episodes for more.

Tags: audiocooperativesruralrural electric cooppodcast

FairlawnGig Brings Better Connectivity to Akron Business Hub

December 14, 2018

After building out the community of 7,500 residents at the end of 2017, Fairlawn, Ohio, began expanding its municipal broadband service beyond city limits through a collaboration with the Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN). In June 2018, FairlawnGig became the only municipal Internet access provider on the dark fiber network, which offers connectivity in the region, including in the Akron metropolitan area.

Ernie Staten, Fairlawn’s Deputy Director of Public service, stated that FairlawnGig is “thrilled to take [its] services beyond city limits to help regional organizations achieve business goals only obtainable with robust broadband service.” The newly formed Bounce Innovation Hub, located in the former B.F. Goodrich Plant in downtown Akron, is one such organization that will soon take advantage of the expansion. In early December, Bounce announced a partnership with FairlawnGig that will bring gigabit speed Internet access to its building that houses entrepreneurial and creative organizations.

Growing a Globally Competitive Region

In the little over a year since the creation of FairlawnGig, home values in Fairlawn have increased eight and a half percent. FairlawnGig now serves over 2,000 subscribers and 500 businesses in Fairlawn and more enterprises are choosing to locate in the town. Many of these new businesses, including an I.T. firm with 72 high-paying jobs, stated that their main reason for choosing to locate in the town was FairlawnGig. Staten believes that the network can help the entire region compete globally in the same way it has helped local businesses grow and thrive and that “[its] services are perfect to help businesses in Bounce innovate and create market opportunities.”

Listen to Staten and Christopher discuss the early benefits of the network on the community of Fairlawn in episode 292 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

A Partnership that Drives Change

Doug Weintraub, the CEO of Bounce, explained that as an innovation center attempting to recruit tech companies, it is imperative that the hub “have a public Wi-Fi solution that can accommodate high volumes at unprecedented speed with a convenient sign-on mechanism.” FairlawnGig will be able to deliver consistent, high-speed broadband service that meets these demands to the tenants of Bounce. While free public Internet access will be available throughout the building, companies in the hub will also be able to create customized network plans in order to meet their individual needs. Public Wi-Fi will also be available in the hub’s under construction first-floor space, The Generator, which will house a public working space, makerspace, cafe, events space, and esports lab. 

With this new public workspace and more than 50 organizations and 200 people already in the building, Bounce will become FairlawnGig’s largest customer outside of its home community. The deal will not only allow Bounce to provide high-speed and reliable broadband connection to tenants, but will also help FairlawnGig continue its expansion into new communities that can benefit from its service. As Weintraub explained: “FairlawnGig is able to give [Bounce] the power [it needs] here. This is the perfect example of how relationships can drive real change and opportunity.” 

Tags: fairlawn ohohioincubatorakronexpansionmedina countyeconomic development

Charlemont Chooses Muni Fiber Over Comcast Cartel

December 13, 2018

The people of Charlemont, Massachusetts, are ready to pay approximatly $1.5 million to own broadband infrastructure rather than shell over $462,000 to Comcast for cable Internet access in their community. At a packed December 6th town meeting, voters showed up to handily defeat the proposal from the cable giant and express their support for a publicly owned fiber optic network.

Making the Best Choice for Charlemont

According to Robert Handsaker, who chairs the Charlemont Broadband Committee, the standing room only crowd at the local school defeated the Comcast proposal by a 20 percent margin. He went on to state that the town already has a design prepared, which it developed with Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E). WG+E has been working with approximately 20 western Massachusetts towns interested in publicly owned broadband networks in several different capacities, including consulting and design. Having developed their own network, WhipCity Fiber, the Westfield utility is now offering skills as a consultant and as a network operator to nearby communities.

The Comcast proposal required Charlemont to kick in more than $462,000 while only serving 96 percent of the community. Ownership of the infrastructure would have remained with the national company. The city has been exploring options for at least two years, after plans for the broadband cooperative Wired West changed. When voters at a 2015 town meeting voted to approve borrowing for the project, community leaders considered Leverett’s financing model, using moderate property taxes to fund the project.

In the warrant article fact sheet comparing the two proposals side by side, Charlemont plans rates for $79 per month for symmetrical gigabit stand alone Internet access unless the local take rate falls below 40 percent, in which case it would increase to $99 per month. Comcast service would cost from $61 - $311 per month depending on speeds, with 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download estimated at $101 per month. Comcast upload speeds would be slower. 

Homeowners in Charlemont would also need to pay an average of $.66 per month per $1,000 of valuation until the infrastructure is paid off. With fewer subscribers, that rate increase and with more, that rate decreases. Voice service would also be available for an additional $23 per month from the town and up to $48 per month from Comcast.

Check out the other comparisons on the warrant sheet.

State Funding

Charlemont has received a grant from the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development (EOHED), which provided $960,000; the town used the funds for network design. Before they proceeded, however, town council wanted to present the Comcast proposal to voters.

The Greenfield Recorder reports that the Broadband Committee and the Finance Committee each took up the proposal from the cable company and, while the Broadband Committee voted unanimously to reject it, the opposite happened in the Finance Committee. The Selectboard chose not to make a recommendation to voters, letting people of Charlemont review the options and decide for themselves. However, two of the three Selectboard members spoke at the town meeting in favor of the Comcast plan, Handsaker said.

Shifting Plans

The 1,200 folks in Charlemont have anticipated fiber connections for years, having first planned to improve Internet access as a WiredWest member town. residents committed to the project by paying a $49 deposit to guarantee their connection to the proposed regional network.

When the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) objected to WiredWest’s plan to operate as a cooperative of Municipal Light Plants (MLPs), which are local entities responsible for operating publicly owned broadband networks, plans to develop a regional network began to fracture. MBI developed criteria that communities needed to meet before they could access funding, which slowed the process further. Community leaders took heart from the fact that more than 40 percent of households signed up with WiredWest, indicating a genuine interest in fiber optic service. Along with other local communities, Charlemont released an RFP for fiber optic design and contracting to develop a town network.

WG+E will build and operate the network; the Westfield utility has secured a little more than $100,000 in CAF-II funding that will apply to the Charlemont project. As in the case of Leverett, the town will choose an ISP to offer services via the Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure. With control that comes with ownership, they will have the option to choose a different Internet access company if they aren’t happy with the service they receive.

Hansaker told the Recorder that next the city will begin filing make-ready applications with utilities that own poles in Charlemont.

Image of Curtis Country Store in Charlemont by John Phelan [CC BY 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Charlemont Warrant Article Fact Sheet on Broadband ProposalsTags: charlemont mamassachusettsFTTHcomcastmassachusetts broadband instituteproperty tax

John's CenturyLink Phone Cord Saga - The Final Holiday Chapter

December 12, 2018

Over the past several months, we’ve recounted trials and tribulations as we tried to obtain a telephone power cord from CenturyLink. The saga has taken us through the horrors of Halloween to an odd fall Groundhog Day, and now we’re happy to report that our hero recently celebrated an early Christmas. The phone power cord has finally arrived.

In order to memorialize the event, we recorded John opening the package from CenturyLink. Against all odds, it WAS the correct cord.

All He Wanted Was A Phone Cord

As a recap, the CenturyLink Saga actually began on August 22, 2018, when our Co-Director and head of the Energy Democracy Initiative, John Farrell, contacted our Internet access and VoIP provider to request a phone cord. If you read the first story in the series, you’ll remember that a phone he ordered for a new hire came with no power cord in the box. Seems like a simple request, but is there such as thing as a "simple request" when dealing with a massive, inefficient bureaucracy such as CenturyLink?

What He Got Was A Trip on A Hamster Wheel

From that moment on, John was mindlessly shuffled from sales associate to “help” desk, and eventually routed back the first person he reached out to for help. When he expressed his frustration on Twitter, CenturyLink was all over the problem, tweeting that they could help him if he would just direct message him. He obliged, only to be sent through the same maze once more after being ignored after some weeks. The final response, after CenturyLink had wasted John’s time was, “We don’t provide power cords for the phone. I apologize.”

He Had to Let the World Know

All that changed, however, after we published our account of the bureaucratic bumble from behemoth CenturyLink. When we tweeted out our story on Halloween, once again, CenturyLink was all over our problem and asked us to take our complaints out of the public sphere. Whatever you say about CenturyLink, they have alert communications people manning the Twitter account.

Things "Escalated"

Within a week, a dozen or so direct Twitter messages, and another endless Groundhog Dayish loop of endless bureaucracy later, the “escalation team” took up our cause. It was obvious by the messages that the people we interacted with didn’t know what each other were up to in trying to solve out problem. No surprises there.

And Voila!

After 96 days, John finally received the power cord he requested so long ago.

Happy Christmas, John!

Tags: century linkcenturylinkbusiness servicescustomer service

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 335

December 11, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 335 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode Christopher speaks with Councilor Joel McAuliffee about efforts to establish a municipal fiber network in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Listen to the podcast here.

 

 

Joel McAuliffe: What is the cost of not doing it? If we don't make this investment now, if we don't be at the forefront of this technology at this utility, what opportunities are we losing?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 335 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. When a local community considers developing a publicly-owned fiber optic network, the process from idea to implementation typically takes several years. This week, Christopher talks with Joel McAuliffe, city councilor from Chicopee, Massachusetts, a community that is currently involved in that process of consideration. Joel and Christopher discuss the city, what Internet access is like there, and the work that they've done so far in exploring options for better connectivity. They talk about some of the reasons why Joel thinks that investing in a network is the best option for his community and what they stand to risk if they don't take action. Joel also discusses what it's like as an elected official faced with this type of issue. Now, here's Christopher with councilor Joel McAuliffe from Chicopee, Massachusetts.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with Joel McAuliffe, the city councilor in Chicopee, Massachusetts. Welcome to the show.

Joel McAuliffe: Hey, Chris. Thanks for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: This is going to be, I think, a very good back and forth discussion. You have done a lot of research into this, you're a strong advocate for an aggressive municipal network in Chicopee, and you've made a difference — you're heading in that direction. So that's kind of a preview, but let's start a little bit with where is Chicopee and what is it's sort of economic situation. You know, what's it like to live there?

Joel McAuliffe: Sure. So we're about 90 miles west of Boston. We're known as the crossroads of New England. We're pretty much the center of Interstate 91, all the major highways. After coming from New York, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, you come through here. It used to be a major industrial hub. It's where a lot of railroads would cross through. We had a "Town of Seven Railroads." It's a huge industrial hub. We are home to the Ames Manufacturing Company, which made swords during the Civil War for the Union army. So we have a huge industrial base — home of Uniroyal, an old tire manufacturer. So that's really where we stand. We're a town of 56,000. We're trending upwards. We're growing in terms of population. And we're also home to the largest air reserve base in the country, Westover Air Reserve Base, so a huge military component here as well.

Christopher Mitchell: And your background is that you had previously worked for the mayor, but tell us a little bit about where you come from.

Joel McAuliffe: I grew up in Chicopee, went to school there, and shortly after my second year of college, was hired by the mayor of the city of Chicopee. I had run previously as a teen for school committee and was unsuccessful, but after my second attempt, the mayor hired me to work in his office. And it was in that time period where I did some work, working on certain special projects, where I came across the success of Chattanooga, Tennessee, which peaked my interest in municipal broadband, and also paid attention to what President Obama did in his State of the Union in 2015, where he pushed the success of certain municipal broadband utilities across the country and encouraged municipalities to make that investment. So that's where my interest in broadband Internet on a municipal level started. From there, I left in late 2016 to go work for our state Senator Eric Lesser, a Harvard Grad and a alum of the Obama administration, and I've been working for him since January 2017. Shortly after getting hired for him, I decided to take another plunge at electoral politics, and I decided to run for city council and was elected in November of that year. You know, fun story for me is, as much as I liked municipal broadband, I thought it would be a little bit of a too technical thing to try to talk about on the campaign trail. But as I knocked doors and met with voters, it increasingly became aware to me that this is something that was really important to them because they were incredibly frustrated with the Internet services and cable services in our area, which were pretty much confined to either DSL service from Verizon or cable service through Charter Spectrum, both which are not very well received in the community. And being a community that has a electric utility that is incredibly successful and well received, that became very clear to me that that was an issue that we should push and work on. And [I'm] continuing to work on it to today.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that you say in an op ed that you wrote when running, is something that really resonated with me. You wrote, "So often in government, we look for reasons not to do something. We say it's too costly, or it's too much work. We hardly ever talk about why we should do something. Now is the time for us to make this investment in our city, so we can create jobs and build on our history of innovation by shepherding in a new modern economy that works for everyone." Now I have to say that, you know, pushing for a municipal utility is a real breath of fresh air in that what I often hear from city council members is, "Well, maybe we could do a partnership or something, but we don't want to take on risk." And so tell me, why do you think Chicopee is well poised to succeed with a municipal utility approach.

Joel McAuliffe: I appreciate you bringing that quote forth. I mean, I still feel very passionately about heading in that direction and everything that I said at that time because, you know, as an old industrial community, we have lost so much industry, so many jobs because the economy is changing. You know, in our area, we're one of the few communities that have that municipal electric utility, which allows us to spin off of that to create that broadband Internet utility. And additionally, because of some of the work that's been done in our community over the years, we already have a fiber backbone in place that's been used in the city over the last few years. So part of that project, what's needed to do a fiber build out to the home, is already done. Yes, I do hear those concerns from other people about the costs associated, the risk associated. The general manager of our electric light utility is advocating for a much more conservative build out than I am, highlighting the risk to their electric side of things. That is a valid point, but I'd like to hit back on the fact that, you know, what is the cost of not doing this? If we don't make this investment now, if we don't be at the forefront of this technology at this utility, what opportunities are we losing? You know, I traveled last month to Burlington, Vermont. I'm sure you guys know a little bit of the story about Burlington, Vermont. They were one of the first utilities to be created in the early 2000s, creating a Fiber-to-the-Home utility, and I met with their general manager. They were one of the number one cited failures of the municipal broadband generation. They were largely a failure because, as it was explained to me, they were created specifically because the people in Burlington did not like Comcast, and they wanted to find a way to stick it to them. But as time went on, as they struggled with the loans that they took out to do this, they realized that they didn't have a target approach and a reason or a issue that they were trying to solve with their creation of their utility. They didn't have a reason to do this outside of wanting to compete with Comcast. Fast forward a few years, they brought in a gentleman to try to revise their model, their business model. They changed their outlook. They figured out, you know, the business side of things — that they could attract businesses to Burlington, they could offer service at a lower price, they could offer better services to their residents. And they have become much more focused on all the things that we talk about, which is using it to create economic development, which is using it to save our residents money, which is using it to give them an opportunity to have that better service. And now, they are thriving. They are expanding to communities across Vermont, not just in Burlington, and they're a very successful utility. And I often point to folks that say that there are some failures in this area and say, yes there are, but those are really a confined to the first few years of the phenomenon. Lately you've seen very little failure in this area because we sort of have an idea how to do it and do it the right way. But you know, the communities that do this need to have people who think about this on a thoughtful level. You can't just throw all your eggs in a basket, create an utility, and expect it to be successful. There's multiple components associated with it. So that's what I'm trying to do. That's what we're trying to do in Chicopee, and it's been well received — at least from the residents. It's been a little bit more difficult on the governmental level, but the residents feel very passionately about this.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, I'm not surprised to hear you say that. That's actually pretty common in my experience in that the local elected officials are often much more timid than the constituents.

Joel McAuliffe: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to note that with Burlington, we have done an interview with, I believe, Stephen Barraclough, who I think is still managing it.

Joel McAuliffe: Yep.

Christopher Mitchell: And there were a number of factors. I mean, with Burlington, what you said is true, and those are important lessons for anyone building a network like this. In Burlington's case, one of the biggest problems though was I think one of the mayors basically lied about its performance and hid when it was struggling, and that led to loss after loss that nobody even really knew about. And so it's a reminder of the need for city council members to do their oversight job and things like that. So I just want to put that out there for people, to make sure that they're hearing that part of it as well. But what I really want to talk about is a little bit more about what you heard in running because, you know, you beat an incumbent that had been there for 10 years. You beat him significantly, that incumbent — I don't know if it was a him or her actually. And I'm curious, do you attribute that to your message on municipal broadband? Was it a combination of factors? What do you think drove that?

Joel McAuliffe: Well, I think with any sort of election there's varying factors, but municipal broadband, I think, was the center issue. You know, like most communities, as costs go up in different sorts of areas, things like trash and other sorts of services that municipalities offer, it seems today that the resident, the constituent is getting less and less in terms of services — less bang for their buck. So as they receive less and continue to pay more, we have to think about ways how to replace some of those services, enhance some of the things that they get, when they're losing some of the other services. And I thought this was just such a shining example as a way to do that. We're heading towards an area where people want to find a way to cut the cord with their cable companies, with their phone companies, and the only way you can do that is if you have reliable Internet that is able to handle the type of bandwidth that's necessary for them to do that. So on a much more basic level, to your average Joe, it's how can we save them money, and the only way you're really going to be able to save them money is if you find a way for them to lower their monthly costs by providing a service that allows them to do that. And that was a calculation that I made — that the way that they're able to cut the cord is to have that reliable service, to have uninterrupted service by offering the high speed broadband. And they were very receptive to that and they're very excited about that because they're looking for something out of their government. And one of the things that we continue to hear from my colleagues in elected government is concerns over the price. Now, we did a feasibility study in 2015 that basically analyzed the entire system that we had already, which was that fiber backbone that was part of the electric utility that already existed, and evaluated the economic climate in western Massachusetts [and] evaluated the interest in the residents in having such a utility. And it was pretty unanimous that, you know, this would be a huge success in Chicopee. It projected what the take rate would be, the interest in the consumer in becoming a part of the utility, a subscriber in the utility. It evaluated the economic climate in western Massachusetts to show that if Chicopee were to create this utility, it would a cement ourselves as a leader in the 21st century economy allow us to compete for tech companies and jobs that don't already exist. You know, for example, we look at Boston and Cambridge as a thriving tech industry, thriving in other industries as well, but a huge success in tech and innovation. But the cost of doing business, the cost of living in Boston and Cambridge and surrounding areas is so expensive, it's driving people out. I hear everyday of people who travel from Chicopee and from western Massachusetts out to Boston for work, and they find it difficult to do that. What I view happening — because no other municipality has this sort of technology, has this sort of utility, what we would be able to do if we build it out the way I'm advocating for would be to attract some of those companies to western Massachusetts where our cost of living, our costs of doing business is so much less than it is there. So it'll allow us to compete in this 21st century economy. It's a goal. And I keep returning to that phrase is "What is the cost of not doing this?" Because if we do not and we miss this opportunity, we miss this chance in time, we'll be [relegated] to falling behind everybody else, and we will not have found a way to replace the success we had during the industrial revolution when we were a player in terms of industry. So I think it's a huge opportunity to cement our future, to make our stake about where we're going to go, and I think it's largely important that we make an investment — a significant investment — to get that done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, there is a context here as well, and that's that Westfield, Otis are already moving ahead with a fiber project. Others in western Mass. — I mean, you're looking at 20 or 30 towns that may soon have Fiber-to-the-Home to the majority of the area. You know, you're right next to Holyoke, which I believe actually even serves some of the places in Chicopee, some of the businesses, with their municipal utility. And so I have to think that you're feeling some pressure, that to the extent there is going to be investment in western Mass., if Chicopee doesn't have the infrastructure of the day, you're definitely going to be missing out on it.

Joel McAuliffe: Well certainly, and we just saw within the last week, South Hadley, which is a community that borders Chicopee hired away our project manager that was spearheading this effort in Chicopee to go work for them so that they could look at expanding. The difference between what those communities are doing is they're doing a much more conservative, slow build out. I'm advocating for making a significant investment in building this out much faster, and building out to every home. Those other communities have done — like Westfield, which has been successful — have done "Fiberhoods," have slowly built it out. I want to build fiber to every home and every business to make it accessible because I don't necessarily believe the "offer it and they will come" approach, which is currently what Chicopee is discussing doing. Getting people to sign up for a service that doesn't exist doesn't seem all that successful to me. So you have to be real for that interest to exist for people. They have to have that opportunity to make that switch, to realize that service before you realize all the success that comes with it. But yeah, we definitely feel the pressure. Things that have been going on in Westfield, things that have been going on in Holyoke are reasons that we need to cement ourselves as a main competitor, and we need to be leaders in this effort and not followers.

Christopher Mitchell: And I certainly wouldn't — I should've mentioned Leverett as well. I just want to give them a plug because they were quite sharp in their project

Joel McAuliffe: With regards to those communities, they are rural communities that had been without any sort of broadband at all, so them being able to get that is large in part because of a statewide effort to complete what they call that last mile to connect those communities that haven't had any sort of broadband. So they're going from zero to hero in some sense, and it's exciting for those communities, but it increases our need to be more competitive and ahead of the curve.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that was hard to follow from afar was the dynamic that I want you to describe to me because, you know, looking at the newspapers as it was happening, it seemed like some months ago, Chicopee basically decided either to make a decision later or to make a very gradual approach. And then you started a petition, and then all of a sudden it seemed like city council got more aggressive. What happened there?

Joel McAuliffe: Since I've come into office, I used whatever tools possible to keep this issue at the forefront and to not let it go away, so I think that has played a large part in that. It's continuously been discussed on the council. I brought resolutions forward to have the council take a stand. Of course, we can't generate funding, but we can certainly drive the public discourse. And the public has been very supportive and very adamant with their elected officials that this is something that they want to get done. The main difficulty that we face, and I'm sure many other communities face this, is a basic understanding from those in elected government of what this means. You know, I've heard it uttered in these meetings that I've been a part of and these discussions, that DSL is just fine. Everybody who wants Internet, has it. I don't understand why we need to build something that we already have. And this a lot of times, I'm sure other communities again face this, is that you have people making decisions on what kind of technological investment your community is going to make with people who don't use the technology, don't understand the technology. I mean, we've had a feasibility study that outlines a lot of this stuff that's been done for a number of years and available to the public, which people in elected government haven't read or don't understand. That really makes things difficult, so that that's the challenge we're facing: how to educate our elected leaders about how important this is. About how this isn't just creating a cheaper service so that you can stream Netflix easier, but how it really unlocks so many different doors and opportunities for your community that are limitless.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's push in on that as we wind down interview. You know, if the result of this, if the result of your pushing ahead aggressively with this was that a national cable or telephone company said, "You know what, we think Chicopee is a great place to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network. We're going to cover every one with the latest technology." Do you think that would solve your problem?

Joel McAuliffe: I don't know. I don't see Google or any sort of company coming to Chicopee and making that investment, but it certainly would be welcomed.

Christopher Mitchell: I know that you care a lot about net neutrality, and that's what I was kind of getting at it. What if it was AT&T or Comcast or Charter — companies that we know have worked hard to try to undermine the net neutrality tradition of the Internet?

Joel McAuliffe: Let's just dovetail off that a little bit. One of the main arguments from my council against progressing forward has been reports that were paid for by Charter and Comcast saying that this kind of area was a failure. One of the main reasons that early on this year I discussed about why we need to move forward with this is that the Trump administration and the FCC were rolling back those net neutrality rules that didn't allow any sort of discrimination to occur. As a municipal utility, we could reject that interference in terms of net neutrality. If AT&T or any other company came in, they're free to do what they choose with these new restrictions — or lack of restrictions. So while I would encourage and welcome any sort of investment in our city, I still think the municipal side is the way to go.

Christopher Mitchell: It's pretty clear in your advocacy and even in the supporters you've had, with Chattanooga's mayor, Andy Berke, encouraging you, that Chattanooga is in some ways an inspiration. You mentioned that toward the beginning, Chattanooga is undoubtedly one of the most successful networks. They also happened to have been —and this is in no way casting disparagement on any specific utility, but Chattanooga's one of the most, best, well run electric utilities in the country from what I can tell. You know, is there a danger in sort of using almost an outlier in terms of success as a measuring rod?

Joel McAuliffe: You're right about that Chattanooga was the first and one of the most successful, if not the most successful one.

Christopher Mitchell: Sorry, let me jump in because you actually just said something that is a common claim. They were actually not one of the first. They were probably like, you know, 30th or 40th or something like that in terms of the number, although I would say that they certainly have been incredibly successful. So just a quick note in terms of when they built it, they were in the sort of third wave almost

Joel McAuliffe: Certainly on the forefront of the technology compared to where everybody else is.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Joel McAuliffe: But Chattanooga, the reason they were able to do this build out so quickly and so effectively was because they were able to get a stimulus money at the beginning of the Obama administration. So what they did is invested in their smart grid, which included this broadband utility. But, you know, when I went to Burlington, one of the things that stuck with me in speaking with Steven was he said to me, "You have to have a champion in your community to have this be successful."

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely.

Joel McAuliffe: That's what Chattanooga had. They had a mayor that was a leader on the issue and understood what this could do for his community. A lot of these communities that are entering this don't have that leader who fully understands what this does for your community, so the difference between us and Chattanooga is we're going to have to make a public investment, whether entirely from our municipal tax base or by bonding or however we do this or whether we receive any sort of state funds. We don't know how that's gonna work out, but what we do know [is] the comparisons in terms of them being a old industrial town that made an investment in itself and was able to change its future I think is very comparable to us. Are we going to see, you know the billion dollar investment, the thousands of jobs? It's not going to be that significant because some of that's already been done. But it is undoubtedly going to attract investment to our city. It is undoubtedly going to lower the costs that our residents have, and it is undoubtedly going to improve their service. And just because we're not the first or one of the first to do this, doesn't mean we won't realize those successes, so I think it's important for us to make the investment. I'm not too concerned at comparing us to Chattanooga because I think we have to learn from their successes, but as I've mentioned with Burlington, we have to learn from other failures as well. So I think that's important, but Chattanooga has done things the right way. They've marketed themselves the right way, and they've grown to offering their services to surrounding communities in a way that I think we need to think about doing, in a way that Burlington's also now doing, because other communities in western Massachusetts don't have the municipal light plant that they can use to expand. So I think it offers a tremendous blueprint, and I think it offers a great path forward for us.

Christopher Mitchell: And I just wanted to jump in to reiterate something you said at the beginning of that, which is key and sometimes has gotten confused in the minds of a lot of people working in this issue. And that's that the stimulus at the beginning of the Obama presidency to help the economy recover, that helped Chattanooga go from a 10 year build out plan to a three year build out plan, but they did have to borrow money still.

Joel McAuliffe: Oh yeah, absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: And some people have claimed that without that money, Chattanooga couldn't have done what they did, and the accurate piece of that is that that money enabled them to go faster. But I think Chattanooga was poised to have the success because of the right leadership and the right vision, and the timeframe is what changed with the Department of Energy grant.

Joel McAuliffe: Absolutely, and that's the argument that we get here, right? Is that because we have to do this all on our own, we should do it slower. And yeah, it absolutely did help Chattanooga move faster, but what we see here is we've already had the fiber backbone in place in Chicopee. So we do have the base of an infrastructure already, so that puts us a little bit further ahead than any other organization would be starting out.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you, Joel. I really appreciate your leadership on this, your passion for it. It's something that I think local governments really need, is to get that sense of vision back that we talked about with that line from your op ed about looking at the reasons why something should be done rather than focusing too much on the risks. It's important to measure the risks but I think people are scared sometimes, and it's important to make sure that you have a vision you're working toward. So I hope that others will take heart from you just as you've taken heart from Chattanooga and from the Obama campaign and presidency. But thank you so much for coming on the show.

Joel McAuliffe: Thank you. I appreciate you guys having me. And to all your listeners, I hope it's important that they realize that, you know, people who care about their community, when they feel very passionate about an issue, the power is in their hands. So continue to work on the advocacy. I appreciate what your organization does in raising awareness throughout the country and am so grateful for what you guys do and appreciate the opportunity to speak with you. And wish you guys the best.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with councilor Joel McAuliffe from Chicopee, Massachusetts, discussing efforts in his city to develop a municipal fiber optic network. 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. Don't miss out on our original research; subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 335 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Possibilities, Challenges, Risks : Chicopee, Massachusetts, Considers A Muni - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 335

December 11, 2018

By the time a local community is ready to light up their municipal fiber optic network, they’ve already invested several years' worth of debate, investigation, and energy. While deploying a network is certainly a complicated task, educating the community, growing support, and helping elected officials determine the best approach is equally difficult. What’s it like in the early stages for those visionaries who feel that their city or town needs a publicly owned option?

This week we find out from Chicopee’s Joel McAuliffe, Councilor for Ward 1. He’s been advocating for a municipal broadband network for several years and his message is growing. In addition to working to educate his fellow council members about the need for local high-speed Internet access, Joel has reached out to folks in the community. Last fall, he encouraged citizens to sign an online petition supporting the proposal and to contact their elected officials to urge them to move forward on the matter.

Joel describes how the city has certain advantages that he’d like capitalize on for a citywide fiber network. He talks about local concerns that are driving the effort, such as high rates and poor services, and that with a municipal network to offer competition, he believes Chicopee can attract new business and new residents from the Boston area. Chris and Joel also discuss the challenges for a city council in making decisions based on technology when they are not well-versed in those technologies.

When Joel introduced his petition to the community, he also published this short video to encourage people to sign and share:

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

This show is 37 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.

The transcript for this episode is available here.

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 bitschicopee mamassachusettsconsiderationFTTHeconomic developmentpolitics

Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority: Progress Made, All Indicators Favorable

December 11, 2018

As they look back over their accomplishments, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) has more than the holidays to celebrate at the close of 2018. In addition to stimulating competition in the region, the RVBA network is attracting more investment and helping local nonprofits operate more efficiently.

Dual Purpose

For Feeding America Southwest Virginia in Salem, connectivity from RVBA is critical. “Without that Internet connection reliability, it would be very difficult for us to achieve our mission,” says IT Director Eric Geist. The food bank is one of the enterprise customers that the RVBA serves in the region, providing affordable access to organizations and institutions such as nonprofits, businesses, and institutions.

By providing affordable connectivity and services focused on the needs of businesses, the RVBA network has helped drive competition in the region. According to CEO Frank Smith’s research, prices have dropped 25 - 30 percent. The change squares with the RVBA mission to enhance and promote economic development by improving connectivity services and prices in Salem, Roanoke, and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt. They've seen results in the past three years with greater expectations ahead.

The History

Before the network, the valley was caught in a connectivity “donut hole.” The populations in Salem and Roanoke had access to some cable Internet access and were large enough to prevent the region from obtaining grants to entice providers to upgrade. In 2013, local governments decided to work together to improve connectivity and funded a feasibility study, which recommended an open access network.

Botetourt and Roanoke Counties were indecisive about their commitment to the project, but the cities of Salem and Roanoke pushed ahead. Salem, with its own electric utility, already had some fiber infrastructure in place, which lowered the cost of the project. Even through negative push polls from the Virginia Cable Telecommunications Association (top donors Comcast and Cox), local support for the investment remained. Folks in the Roanoke Valley understood the connection between the network and economic opportunity.

By the spring of 2016, the network started connecting their intended customers — businesses, schools, libraries, and nonprofits. In addition to Internet and data transport services, customers had the ability to lease dark fiber and manage their own IT structure. The RVBA also hoped to attract last mile residential Internet access companies interested in delivering services to households in the Roanoke Valley.

It didn’t take long for entities taking advantage of the network to sing their praises, including Blue Ridge PBS, the Western Viriginia Water Authority, and David Carter, Chief Technology Officer from Advanced Logic Industries:

”For the first time in my years in IT; a fiber construction engagement; happened on time and as promised. You are to be congratulated on setting up the RVBA for continued success; and with customer service like this you can count on ALI to be an advocate for your services in the region. Thank you again; for helping us with a mutual client do what we were explicitly told could not be done in Roanoke."

Learn more about the network; listen to episode 221 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher interviews CEO Frank Smith:

Word Got Around

After receiving the Governor’s Technology Award in the fall of 2016 and word spread about service from RVBA, more businesses and other entities signed up. In addition to GE Digital’s Meridium finance, RDG Filings, and Eldor Corp. When Elder Corp. was looking for a location to develop a $75 million manufacturing facility in Botetourt County, RVBA helped out by extending the network to their site.

Over the past three years, the RVBA has expanded the network to approximately 80 miles. In 2017, ABS Technology started offering residential Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services in Roanoke to a downtown apartment building via RVBA fiber. The network also serves Virginia Western Community College (VWCC) and have connected a downtown Roanoke business and tech accelerator, in collaboration with the college.

Heralded, But…

It’s clear that the local communities’ investment is paying off in several ways: employers are bringing new development, competition is making rates more reasonable for entities that can’t afford necessary high-quality connectivity, and services are finally available that never were before. The RVBA is accomplishing its mission to boost economic development, an ambition shared by local elected officials.

While most local leaders have shown support for the RVBA and the network, a few still oppose the investment. Often their lack of support is rooted in incorrect information that that, through repetition, perpetuates the wrong idea about publicly owned networks. For example, a recent Roanoke Times article, covers bipartisan support and accomplishments of the RVBA, but also repeats the line from former Roanoke Board of Supervisors Al Bedrosian that the investment amounts to “government subsidized Internet.” 

Like a municipal electric utility, the RVBA network is infrastructure that earns revenue from those that use it, which includes local businesses, nonprofits, and other entities. The local communities of Salem and Roanoke invested to improve economic development with fiber infrastructure and it’s paying off. Established rates are reasonable, realistic, and competitive — not subsidized in order to be artificially low.

Unlike proposed payments to large providers to build out rural Internet access (usually with outdated DSL) or to develop better service, when the RVBA or other publicly owned network earns revenue, it stays in the community. Public funds handed over to Frontier, Comcast, or AT&T are used to build inferior infrastructure that earns profits for shareholders.

The article also fails to clearly mention that the RVBA does not offer residential Internet access to the public, but allows private sector companies to do so. The RVBA provides the infrastructure that last mile providers lease and on which they deliver Internet access to homes. The RVBA isn’t competing for household subscribers, but creating an environment in which households have more options.

For more on the services and rates the RVBA offers to businesses, nonprofits, institutional customers, municipal entities, and similar organizations, check out their services page.

Both Sides of the Aisle

The Roanoke Times referred to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey indicating that both Democrats and Republicans believe local control should govern municipal broadband network decisions. When we examined elections between 2008 and 2012, we determined that conservative communities are most likely to have developed broadband networks. Joe McNamara, who was just elected to the Virginia House of Delegates on a strong Republican platform, has been an ardent supporter of the RVBA. When asked about the publicly owned option in the past, McNamara replied:

“It’s definitely, definitely something that whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, independent it really makes no difference,” McNamara said. “Everybody kind of has coalesced behind the need really to view broadband as another utility.”

Check out local coverage from WDBJ7 on the network and Feeding America Southwest Virginia:

 

Image of Roanoke, Virginia, by Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0]

Tags: roanoke valleysalem varoanoke countybotetourt countyvirginiavideoeconomic developmentdark fiberbusiness servicesleasecompetitionmisinformation

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 10

December 10, 2018

Colorado

Fort Collins to tap into Platte River Power Authority fiber for municipal broadband by Nick Coltrain, Fort Collins Coloradoan

Trail Gazette Editorial - Estes Park needs broadband, Trail Gazette

A win for our community by Michelle Perry, Craig Daily Press

 

 

North Carolina

North Carolina communities draw up Internet service wishlist by Andrew Mundhenk, Times-News

Need speed? Towns seek input on broadband network by Bill Moss, Hendersonville Lightning

 

Oregon

Broadband coalition not awarded big grant by Richard Hanners, Blue Mountain Eagle

 

Utah

At home and online: Utah households among the most connected, census shows by Annie Knox and Art Raymond, Deseret News

 

Virginia

Fredericksburg, Va., OKs broadband Internet expansion by Cathy Jett, The Free Lance-Star 

 

Wisconsin

Census: Wisconsin incomes up, poverty down; digital divide yawns by Chris Hubbuch, Wisconsin State Journal

 

General

Native Americans on tribal land are 'the least connected' to high-speed Internet by Hansi Lo Wang, NPR

"Folks find a way to access it. Folks are resilient," she says. "But it shouldn't be this way in the U.S. We should have the same access as other folks, and if we don't, it's going to put us down a path of further have's and have not's."

Here are the most affordable places to live with high-speed Internet by Joel Hruska, Extreme Tech

Podcast: The homework digital divide by Kim Hart, Axios 

Digital divide is wider than federal statistics show, Microsoft study says by Steve Lohr, The New York Times

Overall, Microsoft concluded that 162.8 million people do not use the Internet at broadband speeds, while the FCC says that broadband is not available to 24.7 million Americans. The discrepancy is particularly stark in rural areas.

Rural small grants available to deploy broadband-based solutions by Rachel Engel, Efficient Gov

What the government is doing on Internet access by Kim Hart, Axios

Electricity 2.0: Small cities rush to innovate on wifi by Kim Hart, Axios

USDA’s rural broadband plan met with criticism, concerns by Christopher Walljasper, Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting

Microsoft believes the broadband gap can be closed by Laurie Bedord, Successful Farming

Tags: media roundup

Estes Park Local Media Encourages Board to Move on Fiber

December 10, 2018

During the February 2015 referendum, approximately 92 percent who voted on the measure, chose to opt out of SB 152 in Estes Park. The mountain town of 6,300 has experienced catastrophic outages dues to ice and flooding, including in 2016 and in 2013 when telecommunications were wiped out for days.

Estes Park has their own electric utility and is part of a regional public power initiative that involves the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA). As a result the town has a fair amount of publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure in place. City officials hired consultants to offer recommendations and by 2016 had entered a design engineering phase of a possible Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) initiative. Experts estimated the cost to connect the community to be around $30 million and recommended a retail model.

At their recent November meeting, members of the Board of Trustees unanimously voted to allow Estes Park staff to issue a Request for Proposals (RFP) to find broadband bond underwriters. To keep the momentum moving forward, the Trail Gazette published an editorial encouraging Estes Park leadership to continue the process and to bring better connectivity to the community:

…Estes Park needs more action and less discussion for greater access to information and global connectivity. No longer is accessible, fast and reliable broadband Internet a luxury; it is a necessity in our digital world.

Editors stressed that Longmont, Fort Collins, and Loveland have either deployed or are in the process of creating gigabit networks and that Estes Park will be left behind in many ways if forced to depend on the same slow, unreliable Internet access that has left them stranded in the past.

Estes Park, where tourism and the service industry drive the economy, needs to be able to meet the demands of visitors, the businesses that cater to them, and the many families that make tourist vacations worth repeating. Trail Gazette editors also note that local schools are integrating more online technology and that, without affordable connectivity at home, students won’t have the same opportunities as kids in better connected environments.

Primarily, the community needs a broadband utility to avoid the crises caused in the past, when lack of redundancy and weather events cut off Estes Park from the rest of the world. With no access to credit card purchases, ATMs, or mobile service, the local economy took a hit. A municipal network designed to ensure multiple paths would prevent a repeat.

Estes Park needs fast, reliable, affordable broadband internet to stay connected, be safe, stay informed and to continue to be competitive and successful as our economy and community continues to evolve to fit our future needs. The Trail-Gazette sees our Town's broadband utility as a major step forward. Full speed ahead!

According to the town's broadband initiative website, if they find a bond underwriter: 

Next steps include consideration of hiring a project manager to finalize a business plan including implementation options, marketing and customer service options. This information will lead the board to a final decision point on starting a new utility. Construction could begin in 2019.

Tags: estes park cocoloradoeditorialFTTHconsiderationbondtourism

Grant PUD in Washington Aiming to Connect Entire County - Soon!

December 7, 2018

At their November 27th meeting, Commissioners from the Grant County Public Utility District (Grant PUD) in Washington approved the funds to complete countywide fiber optic deployment. They’ve decided to dedicate an additional $12.6 million in new funding toward infrastructure to speed up the project. The total 2019 fiber budget is now set for $18.4 million to pay for expansion, maintenance and operation, and new customer connections.

According to Wholesale Fiber senior co-manager Russ Brethower, Grant PUD will have a more accurate and detailed timeline calculated in the spring. Approximately 30 percent of Grant County residents have yet to be connected to the network. While some communities have partial connectivity, there are still a few with no connections to the fiber and the new accelerated plan aims to change that.

Big Ambition for A Big County

With approximately 3,000 square miles, connecting the entire county is no small feat. Grant County, known for its large potato farms, contains expansive tracts of rural areas and several dense population centers. Add in the fact that soil varies from rock to easily plowed soil, and the Grant PUD has faced an extensive education in all manners of deploying fiber.

Christopher talked with Brethower for episode 279 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast about the network and the start of Grant PUD's efforts in 2000. Brethower discussed the fact that the county is an ideal place for data centers, as companies are encouraged by inexpensive real estate, the climate, low electric rates, and the fiber network.

Brethower also described how connecting the remaining residents and businesses in the county has become a priority for the Grant PUD and that their open access network, as required by state law, has attracted two dozen service providers.

With the additional funding for 2019, the Grant PUD will reduce the original deployment goal from 10 years to five.

Listen to the November 2017 interview with Russ Brethower here to learn more about the story behind Grant PUD’s fiber network:

Tags: grant countygrant utility districtpublic utility districtruralwashingtonFTTHopen access

Malicious Michigan Bill in Committee December 6th

December 5, 2018

Update: HB 5670 was removed from the agenda prior to the committee hearing.

Representative Michele Hoitenga from Michigan is at it again. Last year as Chair of the House Communications and Technology Committee, she attempted to pass a bill to discourage her state’s self-reliant municipalities from improving local connectivity. Deja vu as her committee’s agenda for tomorrow, December 6th, picks up HB 5670, a bill sponsored by a different lawmakers and deceivingly titled the “Broadband Investment Act.”

View the language of the bill.

Money is Good, Who Gets it Matters

The bill, sponsored by Mary Whiteford (R - Laketown Township) establishes a fund that will provide grants for broadband infrastructure deployment; the fund will be created by the state treasury. The bill doesn’t specify a dollar amount, which likely would vary from year to year. Recognizing that the state needs to make a financial investment in rural Internet infrastructure deployment is certainly a step forward, but the details in HB 5670 will end up doing more harm than good for people living beyond urban centers.

Municipalities and other government entities are specifically denied eligibility for grants. Not only does the restriction prevent local communities the ability to offer Internet access to the general public, but without an equal opportunity at state funding for infrastructure, municipalities and counties can’t pursue a public-private model. In short, by locking out local governments from state funding, the bill is harming both local citizens and the local ISPs that tend to offer services via publicly owned infrastructure.

10/1 Isn’t Broadband!

Michigan’s State Legislators are considering a bill that uses the term “broadband” to describe minimum service as 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload. The FCC increased the standard to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps back in 2015 and it remains today. HB 5670 will siphon money from the state treasury to Frontier, AT&T, and any other telco that refuses to invest in anything better than DSL in rural Michigan. Fail. Needs improvement.

The vague language of the bill would also thrust satellite and mobile Internet access into the “served” parameters of HB 5670. These loose qualifications greatly reduce the number of households across the entire state that would qualify as underserved or unserved. Looks like lip service legislation as is.

No Dough for Planning

While building the infrastructure to deliver high-quality Internet access is the ultimate goal, smaller grants are best suited for planning. HB 5670 as written only allows funds to be used for infrastructure and, while no definite dollar amount has been attached to the bill yet, unless the grants are sizable enough for deployment purposes, they may only be helpful to a large Internet service provider with the resources to self-fund planning.

By changing the language of the bill to include planning grants, Michigan’s Legislators could help new entrants that want to serve rural areas. Let's get some choice in the Great Lake State!

Maintaining the Monopoly Mindset

Once again, a state bill focuses in on only providing funding for areas deemed “unserved” or “underserved.” While arguing that they need to first bring Internet access to regions that don’t have it, this approach prevents overbuilding, which encourages choice.

In this case, the bill is particularly problematic because of the vague eligibility language pretty much zeros out any “underserved” premises. Many of the “unserved” households would not qualify either, because satellite Internet access renders them as “served” due to, once again, poor legislative construction. The bill also requires "unserved" premises to obtain priority eligibility for the first five years. Does that mean NO funds will be disbursed for the first half-decade of the fund?

We’re sick of writing about crappy state bills like this. Do better.

Are You Sick, Too?

If you’re a Michigan resident and are also sick of this, you can express yourself to the members of the Communications and Technology Committee and let them know that you’d like to see a bill that provides funding for rural broadband, but that HB 5670 has too many flaws to pass as is. Feel free to point out where the problems are and let them know that you’re a voter, especially if your representative is on the committee.

Members of the Communications and Technology Committee:

Michele Hoitenga (R) Committee Chair, 102nd District

Beth Griffin (R) Majority Vice-Chair, 66th District

Gary Glenn (R) 98th District

Jim Runestad (R) 44th District

Jason Sheppard (R) 56th District

Jim Tedder (R) 43rd District

James Lower (R) 70th District

Phil Phelps (D) Minority Vice-Chair, 49th District

Kevin Hertel (D) 18th District

Jewell Jones (D) 11th District

Donna Lasinski (D) 52nd District

 

Read the bill.

HB 5670 as IntroducedTags: michiganlegislationhb 5670 mi

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 334

December 4, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In this episode, Christopher Mitchell speaks with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna, board members of the Municpal Broadband Coalition of America, about Municipal Broadband PDX, an initiative to develop a publicly owned broadband network in the Portland, Oregon, region. View the transcript below, or listen to the episode here.

 

 

Michael Hanna: Once it's explained that a publicly owned, not-for-profit Internet utility is an option, people's eyes light up.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Internet access in Portland, Oregon isn't as good as it could be. For years, the city and various citizens groups have grappled with ways to improve connectivity. This week's guests are Russell Senior and Michael Hanna. They're involved in the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America. The nonprofit organization is working on the Municipal Broadband PDX project, an initiative to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in Portland and across Multnomah County. Christopher, Russell, and Michael spend some time discussing past efforts, including Russell's work with the Personal Telco Project. Michael and Russell describe the way the Municipal Broadband PDX project moved from a centralized Portland initiative to a broader, county-wide project. They also discuss how they're organizing a large number of people across the county and in the metro area and the possible tensions that might arise as they move forward. Russell and Michael offer tips for others and share their visions of success for the Municipal Broadband PDX project. Now, here's Christopher with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna discussing the Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, Municipal Broadband PDX initiative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. We have a fresh little blanket of snow on the ground, but today I'm talking to folks where I suspect the weather's a bit nicer. Russell Senior, the president of the Personal Telco Project and a member of the board of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America, welcome to the show.

Russel Senior: Thanks.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Michael Hanna, a data engineer at Multnomah County IT and — [laughs] I was going to say, "and spends his nights also on the board of Municipal Broadband Coalition of America." Welcome to the show.

Michael Hanna: Great. Thanks for having us on.

Christopher Mitchell: Russel, you and I go back quite a ways. Michael, we met when I was in Portland recently — Portland, Oregon — which is the focus of a project of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America. But let me ask Russell, let me ask you first to tell me a little bit about Municipal Broadband PDX, and then I'll ask Michael to tell us more about the coalition more largely. So Russell, what's happening in Portland?

Russel Senior: Municipal Broadband PDX is an effort to get a publicly owned, telecommunication utility started in the Portland area. This is something we've been thinking about here for quite a while. The city of Portland did a feasibility study back in 2007, and for a cavalcade of reasons that never quite got traction. Basically, kind of initiated by the recent FCC actions with the rescinding of the net neutrality rules, it was injected with a lot of new energy and so a new effort kind of got launched to get something moving again.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, there's a proud history throughout Portland's history of fighting for better Internet, back to the Brand X decision and even before then.

Russel Senior: Right. Yeah, we had the fight for open access when the cable utility here started offering Internet back in the late 1990s. Following on that, it was the effort with the city of Portland in about 2006-7 or so. The group that I was involved in at that time was — well, I'm still involved with that — was the Personal Telco Project, that just had its 18th birthday. We basically build free, public access Wi-Fi networks in the Portland area, but we really started out as an effort to build alternative infrastructure to route around what we saw as dysfunctional telecommunications options in the area.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I saw that on Twitter, and happy birthday to the Personal Telco Project.

Russel Senior: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: So, Michael, tell us a little bit more about the organization that is kind of really organizing this effort in the Portland region.

Michael Hanna: The Municpal Broadband Coalition of America, we formed it as a 501(c)(4) organization so we can do political advocacy. And the purpose was, our first campaign is focused on the Portland metro area, as Russell mentioned, but in the broader purpose of our nonprofit is to create templates or an open source toolkit — a lot of different ways we could call it — but the fundamental idea is to make it easier for other grassroots organizations or elected officials in other jurisdictions to move forward with a municipal broadband project themselves. So rather than creating something from whole cloth each time, you know, can we create some templates and some patterns, design patterns if you're thinking in the software world, to be able to do this in a more turnkey fashion in other jurisdictions?

Christopher Mitchell: Great, and both of you have a fair amount of technical expertise. Michael, you've been with Multnomah County in IT for awhile, and Russell, I forget what your background is, but you're quite technical as well, right?

Russel Senior: I call myself a Linux nerd. With Personal Telco Project, I spend most of my time building router firmware.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. That's more technical than — that puts you in the top one percent.

Russel Senior: We have a kit of software that we install on our networks, so I spend most of my time doing that.

Michael Hanna: I would say that I jokingly call myself a data geek. And so, you know, not as much on the hardware side, but definitely I've been working with data my entire IT career, technology career. But for about a decade now, I've been involved in local political campaigns outside of work, and one of them was a successful effort to secure permanent, stable funding for the Multnomah County library system, which has the second highest circulation in the United States after New York library system. And so my day job versus, you know, outside work volunteer efforts, it's a mix of day job being much more technical and data driven and then nonwork kind of volunteer efforts are all around political organizing and trying to move innovative things forward in the Portland metro area.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that political organizing experience really showed up in the launch event for Municipal Broadband PDX. And I'm wondering if maybe you can just briefly describe the video, that we will have on our page, that you did for the launch and what role it plays in terms of driving enthusiasm for your effort.

Michael Hanna: So we developed this short video. The theme is basically the people rising up against the evil telcos, you know. There's kind of an opening scene of men in suits with cash flying everywhere and the logos of the large telcos, like Comcast, CenturyLink, etc., and basically, ordinary people turned superheroes to rise up and fight back is kind of the theme. But it really gets to the core of how we're trying to organize the community around this, which is that, you know, whether you're a resident or you're a business owner, there's broad dissatisfaction with the high cost and a crappy service provided by the monopolistic telcos. And you know, there's just a lot of interest among people — ordinary people — to have something different, and they know. Once it's explained that a publicly owned, not-for-profit Internet utility is an option, people's eyes light up. They go, "Wow!" You know, a lot of them never even imagined that something like that would be possible.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I think a little bit of background — I mean, Russell's not the only Linux hacker out there. There's a very high proportion, a high number of people at least, in the Portland region who work for high tech companies, and yet you're mostly stuck with CenturyLink, which has DSL and a mix of Fiber-to-the-Home in some places, and then, you know, Comcast for the rest of them. And you don't really have a lot of other options for what I can tell. Is that right Russell?

Russel Senior: Going back to the early days of the Internet here, we had many, many dial-up ISP options. You know, there was probably 100 in the Portland area, and then in the early days of DSL, there was open access on DSL and you had a broad range of options. You know, this was all before cable came along. You had many, many options to choose from, which meant you could shop for price or you could shop for terms of service. And it was actually kind of wonderful from a market point of view. And then cable came along, and of course the phone company was not investing in infrastructure. The access to DSL was a little wobbly. There was large sections of Portland that could not get DSL at all and did not have that option, you know, from a market point of view. And increasingly, your only option was the cable company if you needed viable bandwidth. As things progressed, we had Google, which was quite interested in deploying here for two or three years. It totally looked like they were going to come build here, and then, you know, two or three years ago, they just pulled the plug on that. But the one nice thing about that is they finally got CenturyLink off the dime, and CenturyLink started deploying fiber. There are kind of a horrible company to deal with. You know, we've sort of evolved into a duopoly, but they don't compete against each other on price very much and they're both kind of horrible to deal with.

Christopher Mitchell: On that note, I'll just note that we finally received a power supply for a phone. We wrote about this saga back on Halloween. I think it took on the order of four to six months, and we talked to between 10 and 15 CenturyLink employees. In the end, we actually just kept doing it to see if we would ever actually get the power supply for the phone that they forgot to send us. So yeah, I fully agree.

Russel Senior: Either intentionally or unintentionally, they seem to have a serious internal communication problems. So the sales people will tell you one thing and the billing people will tell you a completely different thing.

Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that's interesting about your effort is that right away you were looking at an area outside of just Portland though. I mean in Portland, pretty much anyone who has the money can get broadband I would guess, but you have people that are a part of this effort for Municipal Broadband PDX that are living in parts of Multnomah county that do not have any broadband at any price, I think. Is that right, Michael?

Michael Hanna: Yes. So within the Portland Metro area, there's three primary counties. Multnomah County is the one obviously where I live and work and Russell as well, but then there's Clackamas County and Washington County. Then there's cities and unincorporated areas within those three counties. And you're right. Very early on, I reached out to a contact out in east Multnomah county, which is outside of the city of Portland city limits, and found that the situation for people living outside of the Portland city core is even worse. And so that really shifted our thinking to be much more focused on county-wide so that we could address the gaps in the these outlying areas.

Christopher Mitchell: And how is that going? I mean, in terms of the organizing principle, you're well aware that the largest municipal network that we have in existence in Chattanooga would be, I think, less than half of the population that you're talking about, so this is something wholly different. How is the effort going to organize on such a large basis?

Michael Hanna: So yeah, interestingly, we had much more interest — you know, we started our efforts right after the repeal of net neutrality last year by focusing on city of Portland elected officials and really thinking that. But very quickly that pivoted to Multnomah County government and then the east county cities. And Multnomah County jumped on board and allocated funds for the feasibility study very quickly, and then we got the four east county cities to join as well. So what's interesting is that it's actually everything other than the city of Portland who has really jumped on board. And in Washington County where the city of Hillsboro is, the city of Hillsboro has already moved forward and is already laying fiber cables for their broadband network. There's discussions underway with the city of Beaverton in Washington county. Similarly in Clackamas County, there's efforts underway. There's discussions in the city of Milwaukie, which is in Clackamas County. So really, most areas in the Portland metro region are either exploring this, thinking about it, or have already kind of committed to move forward. Really the one outlier is the city of Portland, and that's where we've focused all of our recent lobbying and organizing efforts is to get the city of Portland to agree to fund their portion of the feasibility study so that we can move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: And is there a deadline on that?

Michael Hanna: We submitted a grant proposal to the city of Portland. It's called the Special Appropriations Grant; it's a pool of money. And they've told us that in January we will hear something — you know, we'll get a response of whether our grant has been approved or not. The grant is the most straightforward way to get the funds. There are other ways to get funds from the city of Portland, but that's the most straightforward way, so we're focusing our efforts on securing that so that the rest of the jurisdictions can move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk about how you're organizing. And Russell, I'm curious because this has been something that I think has been a dream for you. You've recognized the potential that this could do for [the] digital divide, for entrepreneurs, for all the benefits that a well-run municipal network can bring to a community. How are you organizing this time in order to try to make it happen?

Russel Senior: In the Pacific northwest, we have a large public utility called the Bonneville Power Administration, which is back from the same era as the Tennessee Valley Authority. FDR basically built a bunch of a large federal hydro projects on the main stem of the Columbia river and then marketed power to the region to provide very low-cost hydro power, which had, you know, what I like to call immense economic benefits for the entire region.

Christopher Mitchell: Also, I think it helped to win World War II, so the world is thankful for that.

Russel Senior: Absolutely. When I was growing up as a young person, my father worked for the Bonneville Power Administration. I was well aware of the existence of that and its impact. [I had] become well educated in all the benefits of that. In fact, I grew up in a house that was built with all electric heat because electricity was so cheap here. You know, people will quibble sometimes about the prices, but they actually get a pretty sweet deal. The water is excellent. And so, I approached all of this knowing that there was a publicly owned utility model that could deliver these kinds of services, and what I saw in telecommunications — I got a modem, you know, back in 1986 or '87 or something and was communicating with people on the Internet all the time. I was watching computing capacities shoot upwards at Moore's Law rates, and I saw telecommunications not growing very fast. I saw that problem and I saw the solutions that public utilities could provide. So I've been a big advocate for saying, "Hey, look, people, here's a model that can actually deliver the services that you want on much better terms and in a way that really focus[es] on the needs of the user rather than just you as a resource to be exploited by the big companies who just have you over a barrel."

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Russel Senior: So that's where my energy comes from, is seeing the gap between what could be and what is.

Christopher Mitchell: So that gives you energy and vision. How are you going to achieve the vision?

Russel Senior: I've been engaged with the city of Portland on and off for pretty much the entire time I've been involved with the Personal Telco Project. There has been — the bureaucracy in the city of Portland actually recognizes this problem pretty clearly and has been an advocate over the years for doing something. The issue has been very much that the city council has been skeptical about it. Going back to the 2007 era, basically there was a lot of internal energy in the city of Portland, and they got this feasibility study going, and it got to city council, and for a bunch of reasons, mostly some fear about the risks involved, they kind of pulled the plug on it. And the person who was overseeing it at the time kind of had cold feet, and he felt like he'd spent a lot of effort on this and it didn't seem like it was somewhere that he wanted to go. And that's kind of put the damper on the enthusiasm inside city hall. So our efforts have been focused on letting the public know that this is an option that they can consider and that this actually might be very much in their interest to pursue. You know, in the midst of many, many other issues that the city is facing, primarily homelessness, we kind of get their attention and say, "Hey, this is something that can generate large benefits for all of your constituents and by the way, your internal operations and that this is something worthy of making initially a very small investment in doing a feasibility study." Our organizing efforts have been around mobilizing the public to let the city council know that we need the city council to come up with some money to help fund the feasibility study. We managed to get Multnomah County initially willing to spend a little money and they allocated some money but that money is insufficient to cover the cost of the feasibility study, so we need the participation of the various constituent cities.

Michael Hanna: In terms of Multnomah County, one of the core reasons that Multnomah County recognized the value of this relates back to Multnomah County's core mission. In addition to the library, Multnomah County's core missions is being the safety net for our community and really providing services for the neediest in our communities. And so we know because we're part of this digital inclusion network, also with the city of Portland, that knows the data, where 30 percent of Latinx households lack broadband access in Multnomah County and I believe 25 percent of African American households. 28 percent of households over age 65 lack broadband. We know that there are these huge gaps in terms of, you know, certain demographics in Multnomah County that do not have access to broadband, which is a core equity issue. It really hinders their ability to participate in society fully. And then if we look at households with students, you know, that's just a whole other level with the homework gap and the inability to have online access. So for Multnomah County, immediately the primary driver was that municipal broadband aligns with our mission as a county around serving the neediest in our communities and really bridging the digital divide and addressing that directly. And so that was the core reason of why Multnomah County jumped in to lead on this issue. And similarly with east county, the cities, some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the entire state of Oregon are in east Multnomah County. And so again, there's these low income households, there's this gap, and that's really what's driving a lot of this. And it's also part of the organizing where we've reached out to community organizations who focus on those populations and addressing the needs of those populations, and really so that they are partners with us in moving this forward. And I do think that's really one of the unique things about what we're doing here in the Portland metro area is not just looking from a technology lens or a market lens, but also really including this equity and inclusion lens so that we're really sticking — our values are core to this effort from day one.

Christopher Mitchell: Although, I have to say I was very impressed with the launch party and with the amount of support, both in the number of people and the way that those people represented different interest groups and parts of the community. It seems unlikely that, you know, three or four years from now, that Multnomah County would be able to build a fiber to connect everyone's home immediately, which I think would kind of be the dream goal. But, what's success, you know, in terms of a realistic approach for a community the size of Multnomah and given the resistance of Portland historically?

Michael Hanna: In the short term, the success is getting the remaining funding for the feasibility study and getting that underway because as we know, something of this scale, we really need to crunch the numbers and do a hard look at the technical, economic, and other aspects of municipal broadband. So that's really core in the short term. We just have to get that underway. But in the medium term, we want to continue to organize, continue to build a very broad coalition because once the feasibility study comes back, the results come back, and you know, if there is a viable path forward, we still need to have either the elected officials agreeing to move forward or some sort of ballot measure. So either way, there's kind of a political aspect to this. One of the things you touched on is the timeframe and the build out. You know, there's definitely going to be a tension between those who want this as quickly as possible and those who want to do this in a more measured, gradual approach. So for example, the city of Hillsboro, has decided that they're going to build out their network over a 10 year period, and that's a very conservative, gradual, lower-risk approach. For Multnomah County, you know, until we get the feasibility study back, it's really hard to say, but a lot of people have been thinking more along the five year build out. But I think no matter what, there's going to be this balance between building out in a timely manner because there's high demand for residents and businesses, and then just doing it in a measured approach. Ultimately it's going to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We do want to do it in phases so that we're learning iteratively through each phase and reducing the risks.

Christopher Mitchell: Russell, do you want to add any additional goals?

Russel Senior: Over the summer, I was traveling and visited some existing municipal fiber projects. One of which was in Longmont, Colorado, and I had a nice conversation with them. Some of the practical issues is that they had designed their rollout in a way that, you know, stepped their way around their geographic footprint. One of their challenges was the demand for the service that they were providing was not nicely focused in the areas that they were just starting to build on. Everybody wanted it at the same time. So certainly, there are tensions there because there are people that will be very excited about getting access [and] some people who don't quite understand what it is we're doing because it completely breaks the mold of what they've been trained to understand what was possible, you know, in America.

Michael Hanna: Just another note about that is that our campaign here in Portland metro has been picked as one of Neighborly's 18 Broadband Accelerator cities around the country. [Editor's note: the Community Broadband Accelerator actually includes 35 communities in 18 states.] One of the efforts is around marketing and educating the public and possibly doing pre-signups of residents and businesses to demonstrate the demand. And I think, just kind of piggybacking on what Russell was saying, is that there's this tension between the residents and then the elected officials. I think if we can really demonstrate broad interest and excitement around it, I think that will accelerate the build out. And the city of Hillsboro said the same thing. You know, they have their kind of 10 year, very conservative build out plan. But if residents and businesses really want to step up and demand that that speed up, then it can be a partnership. And that's really what I'm hoping, from my grassroots organizer hat on, is really developing enough grassroots push to kind of hold the elected officials', the government agencies' feet to the fire and really accelerate this, you know, reasonably. Obviously we want, we don't want to do it recklessly, but we want to do it [in a way] that balances those tensions.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's really a key point that some people miss in terms of the promise of the incremental effort is that it can create political will that was not there before and lead to a much more rapid build out than one may have thought in year one when you're getting started. And that also depends on cities making sure that they're doing it right, you know, executing it well because if you start to stumble and make mistakes and don't correct them quickly, then political support can evaporate, and so that's the problem. But I think that those are some good things that other people should be keeping in mind when they're thinking about this in their own communities. What other things should people keep in mind when they're trying to build an organizing campaign like you're doing here in the Portland area?

Michael Hanna: We're trying to learn from other efforts in other cities for municipal broadband, and one of the reasons that efforts stalled in other cities was that it was often driven by an enthusiastic elected official or government bureaucrat of some kind and didn't have the corresponding grassroots coalition to support it. And so if that person left, let's say they were voted out of office or they left the jurisdiction, then the effort quickly could fall apart. And so I think learning from that, I think that that building as broad of a coalition as possible that is really separate from the elected officials or any one administration or any one set of bureaucrats is really key. And so that's where we've got — unions have endorsed this. We have hundreds of businesses that have endorsed it. We have community organizations that have endorsed it. And I think really trying to build that broad coalition is key, so that's definitely something I would say. And I think secondarily is that for groups, grassroots groups, to be really clear about what their asks are going to be of the elected officials before they approach the elected official. So if the ask is we want you to allocate funds for a feasibility study, for example, then just be really clear about what are you asking the elected officials. Because when you go meet with elected officials, you're lobbying them, you need to be succinct and clear about what you're asking them to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Michael, you glossed over something that I think some people would be interested in. You know, you just sort of candidly mentioned, oh, we've got a bunch of businesses and unions that have supported us. Could you just give us a sense of how you did that. I mean, did you show up in the union hall or, you know, go just walk into businesses and talk to them about it. Like, how did you go about getting that interest and demonstrating it?

Michael Hanna: Because I had been involved in a lot of other political campaigns, I already had a lot of connections with unions. And so, for example, AFSCME, which is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, I've already worked with them for many, many years. Similarly with IBEW — electrical workers. So I had connections, but ultimately it really was getting on their agenda, going to their meeting, and making an ask. And the way that we did it was first round we explained what this campaign was and what municipal broadband was and asked for their support, their endorsement, and then we came back a month or two later and then asked for some funding to help support the campaign. So there was that, and then with the businesses, a lot of it has — we did some canvassing, like you would do canvassing of residents' homes. We did some canvassing of businesses — you know, literally going in to talk to managers and owners of businesses and found a lot of support. And just from the minimal amount of canvassing we did, we found a lot of support. And with businesses, there's many reasons for them to support this. At a very direct way, it would be likely lower cost, much better service than what they're receiving today, but there is — among the local businesses for sure — there's also this sense of civic duty or civic engagement, and so they really also resonate with the values and vision of what this could do in terms of equity and bridging the digital divide. So I think it's a relatively easy ask for businesses, and then I think community organizations similarly. It just aligns with their existing mission. So I think a lot of community organizations already have within their mission bridging the digital divide, and so when I reached out to them, similarly to unions, just going to one of their meetings and say[ing], "Hey, this is municipal broadband, this is how it could work, and this is how it aligns with what you value and what you want to see in the community."

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask a similar question for you, Russell, but I'll rephrase it in the Linux world: what would you put in your how-to, or you got any tips and tricks for us?

Russel Senior: One thing I want to just add on frosting on what Michael just said: there are two larger organizations in the Portland metro area and of course across the country that have been doing marketing for this project for decades, and that's Comcast and CenturyLink and the way that they treat —

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs]

Russel Senior: So, you know, I've been saying for years to people that there are gas fumes everywhere, that people are starving for an alternative, an option that really serves their needs. And you know, because of the abuse that's been heaped upon them by the telcos, that's there and all somebody needs to do is show them that there's an alternative, that it will be better, and it will make their lives fulfilled in a way that feels much better about how they're participating as effectively as an owner of the infrastructure that's serving their needs — just like the streets and the water system and the sewer system and a bunch of other things that are intended to serve their needs and not just generate profit for somebody far, far away. So I think that atmosphere is here, and it's our job to exploit that, to take advantage of that latent feeling that people have and show them a path that can take them to where they want to go.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's a good way to wrap it up. Thank you both for coming on, and thank you especially for your organizing efforts in the Portland area. I think, you know, in 10 years we could see a tremendous number of municipal broadband connections throughout the Tri-County region, I guess.

Russel Senior: I certainly hope so.

Michael Hanna: Yep. Yep, that's the goal, and nationwide.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna on the Municipal Broadband PDX initiative. Be sure to check out their website, MunicipalBroadbandPDX.org for details. They also have a Facebook presence and are on Twitter so you can follow their progress. 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. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Organizing for Better Broadband in the Portland, Oregon, Region - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 334

December 4, 2018

This week on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, we hear from Russell Senior and Michael Hanna from Portland, Oregon. Russell is President of the Personal Telco Project and Michael is a Data Engineer for Multnomah County; both are on the Board of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America.

In this interview Christopher, Russell, and Michael discuss the goals of the Coalition and their current work grassroots organizing in Portland and across and Multnomah County for the Municipal Broadband PDX initiative. In addition to hearing how Portland and the surrounding county has reached a point where residents and businesses are ready for better connectivity, we also find out how these two organizers became involved in the efforts.

Michael and Russell describe the way the project has evolved after years of attempts to improve Internet access in the region and their approach toward organizing such a large area with a high population. Our guests describe some of the challenges they have coped with and other issues they anticipate along the way as well as the basic principles that create the foundation for their initiative. They also define their visions for a successful outcome and offer suggestions for others who are considering organizing for better Internet access.

Check out the clever short film created to help launch Municipal Broadband PDX:

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

This show is 37 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 here.

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 bitsportlandoregonmultnomah county orgrassrootsregionalruralurban

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 3

December 3, 2018

Colorado

Centennial aims for future with fiber-optic backbone by John Aguilar, The Denver Post

Broadband grant application withdrawn, YVEA announces plans for Craig buildout, Craig Press

 

Florida

Clermont, Fla., to expand public Internet access downtown by Roxanne Brown, Daily Commercial

 

Indiana

Timing right to expand broadband by Erica Quinlan, AgriNews Publication

 

Iowa

City begins search for Internet solutions by Michael Crumb, Ames Tribune

City council looks at Internet service issues, discusses public Internet option by Talon Delaney, Iowa State Daily 

 

Maine

Ellsworth broadband speeds still have some catching up to do by Kate Cough, The Ellsworth American 

Fast Internet is critical for nearly every aspect of life in the 21st century. Hospitals require it for electronic medical records and telehealth; schoolchildren need it for homework and research, businesses use it for sales and inventory. Seniors may take advantage of virtual health care to be able to stay in their homes. But access across the country is not equal, leading to what is often called “the digital divide.”

 

Ohio

Lack of Internet service in Cleveland neighborhoods linked to serious health issues, study reveals by Joe Pagonakis, News5

 

Oregon

Broadband coalition seeks to build public support by Richard Hanners, Blue Mountain Eagle

 

Texas

Survey seeks to determine Lampasans’ level of interest in faster Internet service, Lampasas Dispatch Record

 

Wisconsin 

Internet co-op to build fiber infrastructure for rural Crawford County, Guttenberg Press

 

General 

Gigabit? More like, you can gigabet the US will fall behind on super-fast broadband access by Kieren McCarthy, The Register

While the US is weighed down by an oligopolistic market with a small number of large broadband companies that avoid competing with one another to form local monopolies and maximize profits, China is focused on the end goal of getting gigabit to the masses.

House Democrats who haven’t supported net neutrality yet have all taken money from telecoms by Kaleigh Rogers, Motherboard

Broadband for farmland? Here's why it matters for America by Mike Stern, Forbes 

But when 29 % of U.S. farms have no access to the Internet, it's impossible for them to access these tools. That means they can't utilize things like weather stations, in-field sensors, farm equipment, drones and satellites, all of which can produce data that can help farmers make more informed decisions on how to manage their crops and increase the productivity on their fields.

 

 

Tags: media roundup

Another Texas Town Considers Fiber Infrastructure

December 3, 2018

People in Lampasas are fed up with outages that have repeatedly plagued the community due to lack of redundant infrastructure connecting the central Texas municipality. Now, the city and the Lampasas Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) are asking the community to complete an Internet survey to help determine how best to move forward an achieve better connectivity.

Cuts to the Line

In the spring, summer, and early fall of 2017, Lampasas experienced four outages totaling 45 hours when local construction projects accidentally cut AT&T fiber, the only Internet connection into town. Without a redundant line, the community’s residents, businesses, emergency services, and hospitals were cut off for days as AT&T repaired the breaks. To add insult to injury, AT&T didn’t respond well to the town’s requests to resolve the situation:

“We felt like we weren't a priority on AT&T's list, so when we had outages, and we had businesses that were losing thousands of dollars, and we were calling and we were trying to get reimbursements, and we were trying to get answers, and we were trying to see if there were future projects for infrastructure for Lampasas, we just weren't getting a good response from AT&T,” Lampasas Economic Development Director Mandy Walsh said. 

Within a few months, local leaders had started searching for a firm to help them assess their options. After considering proposals from six different companies, Lampasas chose Foresite Group for a project that includes a market analysis and a technology assessment. As part of the project, Foresite Group has helped the city and the LEDC prepare the current survey.

The survey has divided the community into Service Zones in order to obtain a detailed analysis of which areas of town residents and businesses are most interested in better Internet access. The Service Zones approach will also help the city, the EDC and Foresite discover Internet access speeds in each area of town.

Mandy Walsh, Economic Director from the LEDC, suggests that the city is interested in an open access or dark fiber model. In the Lampasas Dispatch Record, Walsh described publicly owned infrastructure leased to multiple providers as a possible solution to Lampasas's woes. She went on to tell the Dispatch:

The purpose of the survey is to determine whether enough citizens in each neighborhood are interested, she said.

“If we reach these [ideal] take rates, we can attract more providers in the community,” Walsh said. “We want to find other providers to come into the city to have better options for our businesses and residents. [These providers] have to see there is enough demand in this market.”

In Texas, It’s All About the “Home”

Recently, we shared information about the Texas community of Mont Belvieu. Established as a “home rule” municipality, Mont Belvieu determined that it had the authority to establish a broadband utility and offer Internet access to the community. They chose to solidify that decision by asking the State Court for confirmation, which it did. Listen to Christopher talk with several representatives from Mont Belvieu about the court case and their network in episode 326 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lampasas, however, doesn’t share that same authority. As a “general powers” city, the community only has the authorities granted to it by the state constitution. Home rule communities have broad authority that is only limited by the state. If the survey results indicate sufficient interest, Lampasas plans to build it's own fiber infrastructure and then lease it to private sector providers, which will then offer Internet access to the community.

“It will not be run by the city,” Walsh said. “We cannot legally run a network. We can have our own infrastructure and lease to providers.”

The community has developed a broad plan that approaches the issue in phases. The results of the phase I survey will determine whether or not they move forward with the next phase, sign-up, which will help determine where construction occurs.

Economic Development Concerns

According to Walsh, residents aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch of low bandwidth. AT&T and Suddenlink offer DSL in town and one lone fiber provider offers limited fiber to businesses in a few areas of town, but Lampasas businesses don’t have the kind of connections they need to operate in the 21st century. 

The problem is driving away potential jobs:

"A lot of them [employers] rely heavily on the internet, and currently as we stand, most of them don't have the required bandwidth to continue to be successful," the economic development director [Walsh] said. "And if they're looking at expanding their business in Lampasas, a lot of them are unable to at this point due to their Internet -- their lack of connectivity and speeds."

Walsh said one business has sent employees out of town or out of state to work from home, where the Internet service is faster and more reliable than at the business site.

Read more about the early plans from the LEDC.

Lampasas

With about 8,000 people, Lampasas is the county seat and has grown in recent years. The city is about 25 miles from Fort Hood and 70 mils from Austin. Large employers in the community include the public school system, Walmart, food manufacturer Windsor Foods, and Oil States.

The city has several industrial and commercial sites where they hope to attract new employers and where connectivity from the area’s lone fiber ISP is available.

Image of the Lampasas County Courthouse by Travis K. Witt [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: lampasas county txtexasconsiderationsurveyat&tredundancyopen accessreliability

Mississippi Public Service Commission Requests Law Change: "Let Electric Co-ops Offer Broadband!"

November 30, 2018

When it comes to high-quality Internet access, the big corporate ISPs have failed rural Mississippi. Other states with similar digital divide issues are starting to see rural electric cooperatives make efforts to connect members. In some places, legislatures have adjusted state laws that complicated co-ops' ability to deploy fiber optic infrastructure. Now, the Public Service Commission (PSC) in Mississippi has formally requested that state lawmakers update an antiquated statute to allow rural electric cooperatives to expand high-quality Internet access.

Waiting for Action

When Magnolia's State Legislators convene in January, they’ll have a unanimous resolution waiting for them from the state’s PSC. The resolution requests that lawmakers take action to adjust Miss. Code 77-5-205 to allow electric cooperatives the authority to offer Internet access. 

James Richardson, Policy Director and Counsel from the Office of Commissioner Brandon Presley, explained that the law currently only allows electric cooperatives the authority to form “…for the purpose of promoting and encouraging the fullest possible use of electric energy…” — electric cooperative are precluded from operating for any other purpose. The law was passed in the 1930s when cooperatives formed across the state to bring electricity to the many farmers in rural Mississippi. The matter has been tested and confirmed at the state Supreme Court

The PSC asks that the State Legislature create an exception in statute in order to allow rural electric cooperatives the the ability to also offer Internet access. Earlier this month, the three Commissioners on the PSC approved the resolution requesting the law change.

Presley has been leading the effort to open the door for electric cooperatives. This past summer, he’s taken his initiative public with a series of opinion pieces in local media. He also traveled to Hamilton, Alabama, with more than 40 Legislators to showcase the work done in that state by Tombigbee Electric Cooperative. 

Hamilton is only 14 miles away from the Mississippi state line, Presley said at the gathering he hosted there, but “it might as well be 14,000 miles away because the Alabama efforts are so far ahead of Mississippi.” Presley wanted to compare the drastic difference between Alabama, where there is no restriction on electric cooperatives. In Alabama, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative’s Freedom FIBER network is deploying gigabit connectivity and signing up subscirbers in Hamilton, Winfield, and in more service areas where they plan future deployment.

“The first electric cooperatives in the nation were formed right here in Mississippi, and they weren’t formed just to sell electricity. They were formed to enhance the quality of life for rural people. While folks in the big cities had lighting and electric appliances, people who lived on farms or in rural areas were still lighting candles and cooking on wood stoves. These industrious people of Mississippi formed America’s first electric cooperatives because they wanted rural people to be able to enter the 20th century. Today, we simply ask for rural Mississippi to be allowed to enter the 21st century.”

Strong Support

In addition to the full PSC, Mississippians appear to agree with Presley. Chism Strategies, an advocacy and public opinion firm, conducted a survey this past fall of 646 voters across the state. Seventy-seven percent of respondents supported the idea of allowing electric cooperatives to offer Internet access in Mississippi. Support was bipartisan, but strongest among those that identified as Republican. 

A few Legislators who have been asked their thoughts also appear to support the change.

Sen. Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, said he has a family member living in rural Marshall County in north Mississippi, working for a tech company, who had the opportunity to work from home for the company, but could not because of the lack of high speed internet.

“I am definitely interested in this issue,” he said.

No other state restricts electric cooperatives with this type of language. It’s a common sense adjustment that can help expand rural broadband in a state where people living outside metro areas struggle with lack of high-quality Internet access. When it comes to the legislative process, however, nothing is ever over until the final gavel comes down.

Those who don’t seem so enthusiastic about changing the law include lawmakers like Rep. Jody Steverson, who have a history with big cable and ISPs. Steverson, Vice Chair of the House Public Utilities Committee, has worked in the industry for companies that might see electric cooperatives as a competitive threat. Nevertheless, he describes himself as “open-minded” on the possibility of legislation to remove the restriction.

In a recent opinion piece in the Clarion Ledger, Bill Moak from Consumer Watch encouraged lawmakers to move quickly on the proposal. He shared the story of his parents, who live in rural Mississippi and who are caught in one of the state's many "broadband deserts."

Moak writes:

Solving the broadband question isn’t likely to be solved overnight or in one fell swoop, but by using innovative solutions such as that proposed earlier this month [by the PSC], we can get Mississippians connected — one house at a time.

Ready to Move

The state’s rural electric cooperatives are ready to move forward. According to Michael Callahan from Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi:

“At this time, 19 of our 25 electric distribution cooperatives are involved in feasibility studies regarding offering rural broadband services. They will be reviewing all aspects and, at the appropriate time, each will make a decision whether to enter the business. If the studies are positive and legislation is passed to allow us to offer broadband, we believe some will offer the services.”

If the Mississippi Legislature corrects its outdated law, we look forward to adding some electric cooperative "pins" to our Community Network Map, which reveals a notably empty Mississippi.

Within the past few years, both rural and telephone cooperatives have filled in the gaps in rural areas where large corporate telecommunications and cable companies don’t feel motivated to provide high-quality Internet access. Contrary to distant companies that answer to shareholders, member cooperatives belong to the people they serve. With personnel, equipment, and a certain amount of infrastructure already in place, the decision to add high-speed Internet access is a logical step. Read more about how cooperatives are helping rural communities obtain the connectivity they need in our 2017 policy brief, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model For The Internet Era.

As Commissioner Presley says:

“We cannot continue to wait on the big telecommunications giants to serve rural people. One of my constituents from rural Lee County, John Henson, was told by an AT&T representative that he would get high-speed internet service at his home in the Blair Community when the day came that he could rent a condominium on the moon. That is unacceptable. Telecom companies unwilling to serve rural areas should not prevent rural people from serving themselves through the cooperatives that they own. The members of rural electric cooperatives are simply asking for the right to do what they did a century ago and take the reins themselves and bring service to rural Mississippi. I hope this resolution makes clear that the Public Service Commission is behind them 100%.”

Tags: mississippirural electric coopcooperativeruraldigital dividelegislation

Grant County, Oregon, Getting Closer to Bridging the Digital Divide

November 29, 2018

The Grant County Digital Network Coalition is moving forward with plans to expand connectivity and close the digital divide in Grant County, Oregon.

We first reported on the creation of the coalition, which includes Grant County and the cities of John Day and Seneca, last year. Since then, the group has held three Board of Directors meetings and is making progress toward deploying a fiber optic network in Grant County. The coalition plans to build the network in phases, and once completed, it will connect public facilities, homes, and businesses along the fiber route. To offer Internet access to subscribers, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition will partner with local company Oregon Telephone Corporation (Ortelco).

Working Together to Solve Connectivity Woes

The local governments, led by John Day, established the Grant County Digital Network Coalition to improve the region's inadequate Internet access. Out of all Oregon counties, Grant County ranks second highest on the Digital Divide Index, a measurement of broadband access disparities, according to a presentation prepared by John Day City Manager Nick Green. In 2017, Green told the Blue Mountain Eagle that average Internet download speeds in Grant County are around 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and that some people don’t have any access at all to the Internet.

Though the county desperately needs better connectivity, the region’s rugged hills make deploying a broadband network to the small communities difficult. Grant County is also home to Malheur National Forest and other federally owned land, further complicating network construction.

The coalition hopes that closing the digital divide in the county will promote local economic development. A press release pointed out that “Grant County has had the highest unemployment rate in Oregon since 2012 and has experienced more than 30 years of population decline.” It also notes that more than half of the households in the proposed project area are low- to moderate-income. Former State Senator Ted Ferrioli said of the broadband project, “It could turn out to be the key piece to attracting a few new employers and growing local businesses.”

Building the Network, Connecting the County

Earlier this year, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition formally announced their partnership with Ortelco. The current plan is for the consortium of local governments to finance, build, and own the fiber network, while private provider Ortelco will offer Internet access to individual homes and businesses. The coalition will operate as a wholesale provider, and Ortelco will provide retail services.

Construction of the fiber network is expected to proceed in stages. In phase one, the coalition will bring the fiber backbone from the town of John Day to Seneca, connecting homes and businesses along the route and in Seneca with Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP). Fiber drops will likely be completed as the city undertakes water and sewer system projects. The network will also connect a communications tower, outdoor recreation facilities, and public buildings in Seneca, for a total of approximately 100 connections in the first phase. In addition, the coalition is considering extensions to various public facilities in John Day and to a CenturyLink location, for network redundancy. Phases two and three will extend the fiber network further south to Burns and then expand service throughout the county, where possible.

The coalition plans to work with various companies, including Commstructure Consulting, CTC Technology & Energy, and Cohen Law Group, to design and build the fiber network.

Waiting for Federal Grant Results

To finance the fiber network, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition is looking toward state and federal funding. Blue Mountain Eagle reported that John Day has already received $1.8 million from the state of Oregon for deployment. Earlier this year, John Day also applied for a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect program, leveraging a portion of the state funding to meet the the grant program’s mandatory 15 percent match. The USDA has not yet announced the winning Community Connect grant awards, but regardless of the results, the coalition will have enough funds from the state to begin construction.

Tags: grant county ororegondigital divideruraljohn day or

Dalton, Georgia, Officially A Gig City

November 28, 2018

In a recent episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, host Christopher Mitchell spoke with Hank Blackwood from Dalton Utilities in Georgia about their publicly owned network, OptiLink. Hank described an upcoming milestone for the community of around 35,000 and a few surrounding rural areas with access to the network. Now it’s official — OptiLink is the first municipal network in the state that offers residential gigabit Internet access to subscribers.

Updates, Updates

Gigabit connectivity is coming on the heels of another improvement for OptiLink subscribers. This fall, officials at Dalton Utilities launched their new video product, VidLink. Hank described that the old video equipment needed a facelift after providing services to the community for 15 years.

With VidLink and the new subscriber base it began to attract, and the desire to give Dalton the economic development tools for a truly tech-centered economy, network officials decided it was time to expand gigabit connectivity. They had offered the service to businesses for about four years and on November 19th, 2018, officially launched residential symmetrical gig service.

Residential GIGLink service is an affordable $79.95 per month when bundled with VidLink and voice. Stand alone GIGLink service costs $84.95 per month.

Households can still sign up for three other symmetrical tiers as low as $41.95 per month for 50 Megabits per second (Mbps). Bundling with voice and video saves subscribers $5 per month.

It All Began With SCADA

Dalton Utility customers have enjoyed OptiLink since 2003, but the fiber infrastructure took root in Dalton in the 1990s. Like many other municipal networks that have been serving subscribers since the early 2000s, Dalton Utilities needed better communications between facilities and the ability to better manage and control their electric, gas, water, and wastewater utilities. They developed their Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system; soon some of the larger local businesses were approaching Dalton Utilities requesting connectivity. As a major center for carpet manufacturing, some of the community’s largest employers needed the kind of high-speed connectivity a fiber network could provide.

Within a few years, community leaders recognized the economic development potential of a citywide fiber optic network. By 2003, OptiLink was serving the entire city and a few of the smaller areas beyond Dalton where rural population centers obtain services from Dalton Utilities.

Not All About Gaming and Netflix

From the press release:

“We have offered Gigabit service to our large business customers since 2014,” noted [Hank] Blackwood. “We have upgraded our network to enable a Gigabit to our entire community because we recognize that high-speed connectivity is an essential service inside the home. We also realize that Gigabit internet is an economic development tool that drives businesses to relocate to places where they can get the bandwidth they need.”

Dalton’s economy still retains manufacturing, but now it has diversified as entrepreneurs, including home-based businesses, are taking advantage of OptiLink. As Hank described in his conversation with Christopher, Dalton wants their new status as a Gig City to continue to bring tech innovators and employers to town. Dalton Utilities has plans to offer 10 Gig residential service in the future, a move to support their long-term vision.

Listen to Christopher and Hank Blackwood in episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Tags: daltongeorgiagigabitFTTHvideoupgrade