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Glenwood Springs Continues Its Tradition of Looking Ahead With Fiber Network Expansion

muninetworks.org - May 7, 2020

Lighting up the first phase of middle-mile network Project THOR isn’t the only good news coming out of northwest Colorado recently. Glenwood Springs, a city of 10,000 forty-five minutes north of Aspen, is once again looking to secure the future of its information infrastructure. In a recent 6-1 decision, the city council voted to replace and expand the reach of its existing fiber system, which currently serves businesses and a select number of residents. The resulting network of 150 miles is projected to cost around $9 million and take two years to complete. Once done, current users will be switched over with no disruption. The new network will be citywide and have the capacity to handle Glenwood Springs’ 4,800 residences and commercial premises. Hopes are, many will sign up. Building up a Fiber Legacy This isn’t the first time Glenwood Springs has taken such initiative. Almost twenty years ago the city had access to speeds below one megabit per second (Mbps) and — after being told by Qwest (now CenturyLink) there were no plans for investment or upgrades — it built its own fiber backbone to community anchor institutions with a wireless overlay to provide service to residential customers. The city later expanded the fiber network to connect businesses and some households and opened up the network for participation by private Internet service providers (ISPs). In defiance of a 2005 state law intended to prevent municipalities from building and operating their own networks, Glenwood Springs was also the first community to opt out of Senate Bill 152. That was 2008. Since then more than 100 communities have followed suit. Longmont, a city of 90,000 five miles north of Boulder, finished its Fiber-to-the-Home network in 2017 and was subsequently named Community Broadband Project of the Year by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors. Project THOR, which Glenwood Springs participated in, is another connectivity project led by local governments. The results have been dramatic. Those connected to Glenwood Springs’ new fiber network will enjoy gigabit speeds, and everyone — from the local school district to hospitals and clinics — is happy to have it. “Broadband is going to be a utility that stands on its own just like water, wastewater, and our electric fund.” -Steve Boyd, Glenwood Springs Chief Operating Officer Looking to the Future These efforts have made a difference, but there’s still plenty of opportunity to improve. In July 2019, the Colorado Sun reported that 85,000 rural households, or 14 percent of the state, had access to no or slow broadband. Even with the help of federal funds, private ISPs have failed to connect rural Coloradoans. Mark Soltes, CenturyLink’s Director of Public Affairs, has admitted that even with federal funds — the company accepted nearly $160 million from the federal Connect America Fund in Colorado alone — CenturyLink will not be able to connect every user in the state. “I 100 percent believe that having access to broadband service can be an economic catalyst for these communities. It’s the 21st-century version of providing everyone with electricity or phone service.” -Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of the Colorado broadband office Denver-based Alpine Bank will finance the project, with the city paying $202,500 for the first three years and $640,000 for the remainder of the 20-year loan. The upgrade and expansion is expected to begin this summer. MuniNetworks has covered Glenwood Springs in depth. View past articles and listen to Episode 206 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for more. Tags: coloradoglenwood springsproject thorfiberFTTHmuniexpansionsb 152

Minnesota Legislature Considers Broadband Funding in Bipartisan Covid-19 Response

muninetworks.org - May 6, 2020

In response to the increased reliance on connectivity precipitated by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Minnesota Legislature is working on legislation to improve access to broadband, online education, and telehealth services throughout the state.

The Senate passed their version of the bipartisan funding bill, SF 4494, earlier this week, and the House has two similar pieces of legislation, HF 1507 and HF 3029, currently under consideration. If the bills are passed and signed into law, there would be a total of $20 million to $27 million (depending on how the different versions are reconciled) available in grants to support distance learning, telemedicine programs, and broadband deployment. Bill authors designed the legislation to prioritize the use of federal money for the grant programs before pulling from the state’s general fund. Broadband Bills in House and Senate The Minnesota Senate passed its version of the legislation, SF 4494, on May 4 in a unanimous vote. Representatives in the House have rolled the grant programs into a larger coronavirus relief package that is under consideration, HF 1507. This is in addition to keeping a separate House bill with the broadband funding provisions, HF 3029, alive in case HF 1507 fails to pass. The bills direct grant funding to three connectivity issues: connecting students for distance education, expanding access to telemedicine services, and deploying broadband networks in unserved areas. To facilitate online education during the pandemic, the bills would make $8 million (SF 4494 and HF 3029) or $15 million (HF 1507) available in grants to schools through the state Department of Education to fund the distribution of devices like hotspots and to reimburse the cost of broadband access for students without Internet access. Both the House and Senate bills would appropriate $2 million for grants to healthcare providers, administered by the Department of Employment and Economic Development, to purchase the necessary equipment and software to offer telehealth solutions. The legislation also earmarks an additional $10 million for the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Grant Program to deploy broadband in unserved areas. (The grant program still has $20 million remaining from last year's budget appropriation.) Both the Senate and House, in their respective versions of the bill, require the use of any available federal relief funding before dipping into the state’s general fund. Notably, the bill passed by the Senate will cancel the appropriation of $10 million for the Border-to-Border program if federal funds aren’t available. Other than the difference in funding amounts for distance learning, this is the main distinction between the House and Senate versions. Connectivity Crisis Exposes Existing Divides During the Senate discussion before passing SF 4494, bill author Senator Torrey Westrom noted that Internet access is not just a rural issue, and other legislators remarked on the importance of ensuring students in suburban and urban areas are also connected. Senators also commented on the need to complement temporary distance learning and telehealth solutions with long term investment in expanding broadband infrastructure in the state. The digital divides that the bills seek to close between broadband have and have-nots — whether the result of cost or availability, in both urban and rural communities — existed long before the pandemic brought a larger spotlight to the struggles of unconnected Minnesotans. Before Covid-19 became a global health crisis, groups like the Minnesota Rural Broadband Coalition were advocating for additional funding for the Border-to-Border Broadband Grant to connect unserved and underserved areas. While it may be too late to bring modern Internet access to some communities in the near future, the coronavirus has shown us that there’s never a better time than the present to invest in broadband infrastructure. Tags: minnesotalegislationquarantinegranttelehealthschooleducationfundingstatestate laws

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 407

muninetworks.org - May 6, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 407 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Brian Skelton, president of the Tullahoma Utilities Authority about fiber network in Tullahoma and how the pandemic has affected their service. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Brian Skelton: We try to have low rates and have the best service for our customer so they want to stay with us, but we do understand this is a very difficult financial time for a certain segment of our population. So we know those people are going to need some time to catch up with any kind of debt they may have whenever all of this COVID-19 situation is over with. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 407 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today Christopher talks with Brian Skelton, president of the Tullahoma Utilities Authority. Brian walks Christopher through some of the history of the Tullahoma Utilities Authority. He explains that they've been operating their network for 12 years now and have reached nearly 4,000 subscribers. He tells Christopher that unlike big companies like Comcast, small providers like his are unable to offer low cost or free service during the pandemic due to financial barriers. But the Tullahoma Utilities Authority is already providing high quality, affordable service to their community and is offering flexible bill payment options for anyone who needs them. Christopher and Brian also discussed how the network contributed to local economic growth before the pandemic hit and Brian shared some advice for communities considering investing in a municipally-owned network or pursuing a partnership. Now here's Christopher talking with Brian Skelton, president of the Tullahoma Utilities Authority. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and I'm talking with Brian Skelton, the president of Tullahoma Utilities Authority. Welcome back to the show, Brian. Brian Skelton: Thanks Chris. Good to catch up with you. Christopher Mitchell: I think you've had a slight promotion since the last time we spoke. You were the head of the LightTube network, I believe previously, but now you run all the utilities, is that right? Brian Skelton: Well, I've actually always ran all the utilities, but we did go through a change. We became an authority, we used to be Tullahoma Utilities Board and we became an independent authority of the State. So it's given us a little more flexibility by getting out from, I guess under the direct ownership of the city. We still have a great relationship with the city. They appoint our board members, but we're still a city owned broadband network and trying to do what's right for our customers. 2:15 Christopher Mitchell: Do you have more flexibility to build to customers who are not in your electric footprint or is that still a limitation? Brian Skelton: That is still a limitation by State law because any governmental owned entities and I think cooperatives are under the same restriction, they can only build within the service territory of their electric customers. Christopher Mitchell: So let me just ask it. So I think it's 12 years of running this network. Brian Skelton: Wow. Christopher Mitchell: Can you give us a thumbnail reminder of how it's gone? Brian Skelton: Oh, it's gone well, going back and just giving a little bit of history, I came to work here in 2006 and our board of directors who hired me at the time wanted to look at providing a broadband network to the residents of our community. And so they had actually looked at that a couple of other times and couldn't get it past the finish line with the City Council. But we started looking at that really I guess in late 2006 and by early 2007 we had done a customer survey and had prepared, I guess a forward looking document as to how we thought the system would operate financially. And we were able to go to the City Council that winter in 2007 and secure approval from the city. And at that point we had to go to the State and get approval. So we got approval from the State and by the fall of 2007 we were already building our fiber optic network. Brian Skelton: We pretty much had it built out by summer of 2008 and that's when we began customer testing. And so we tested for about six months with active beta testers and in January of 2009 we actually build our first customer. So we've actually been in business now from a financial perspective of billing customers a little over 11 years. We built a passive optic network, it was originally a wave Seven network. We have since pre updated that system to Calix, that's been in operation now for a couple of years. So the system is running really well. Our goal when we launched with our plan was, we wanted to hit 3,500 customers. I will say we did not hit that number as quickly as I expected. It was a little bit more difficult taking customers away and we overbuilt Charter, that's the legacy old cable network that's here. We also compete with AT&T but it took us a little longer than we expected but we've since passed that number and we're currently at 3,979 customers and we expect to pass 4,000 with the minute the next few months. 4:53 Christopher Mitchell: Have you seen an uptick in interest with the stay at home orders and people having a lot more time to think about their Internet access? Brian Skelton: I think so. I know in the month of March we met 23 new customers in that month. I mean that being the number of customers we lost versus the number of customers we gained. We are still adding customers through all this. We do have some limitations on what we will do. Our techs are not installing set top boxes and TV extension outlets and telephone outlets, but we will put an Internet drop in for the customers. Of course Internet continues to be our only growing utility in terms of the three services we offer through LightTube, I ran these numbers and I think they're probably pretty reflective of what the industry is seeing. But if you look at the last 12 months, our TV customer numbers have gone down 5.9 percent, our phone customer numbers have gone down 6.8 percent, but our Internet customers have gone up 5.2 percent. Brian Skelton: We're growing rapidly with the Internet and I think you're exactly right, people are more interested in getting better Internet and the difference in having fiber is, especially if you get outside of our entry level package, you get so much faster upload speeds than any other provider can offer with the fiber. 6:12 Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. Don't make me jealous, I'm on a cable system myself. I'm curious about your Internet rates over time. When we did an analysis of all the Tennessee fiber optic cities, it was quite clear that it was far superior in terms of if you compare your rates to the big cable companies, they seem to increase their Internet service rates all the time. Whereas you all did it quite rarely. Brian Skelton: Right? We have not gone up on our Internet rate. We have increased the speeds based on what tier it is, but most tiers have seen at least six or seven increases in speed compared to what we launched with. I remember our lowest launch speed was 10 megabit down and one megabit up, Chris, this was in 2008 while our entry level speed, and we keep the speed down because we've got a low price tier at 39.95 that we really have trouble making money and making it work at that price, because we built a $17 million fiber network, we have to pay that back. But if you start at that entry level tier 39.95 is 30 megabit down and 5 megabit up, then you go to 49.95 you've got 80 megabit down, 40 megabit up. Then you go to 59.95 you've got 150 megabit symmetrical for 69.95 you've got 300 megabit symmetrical and for 79.95 you've got gig symmetrical. Christopher Mitchell: Every time I hear people telling me these sorts of things every week and every time I reflect on my bill and it's quite a deal. Leading into that question, are you seeing a lot of people staying home now in your part of Tennessee? Brian Skelton: Certainly, we're just like other parts of the country, we have more people at home. Our school system has been out since when they went on spring break, the middle of March, the governor announced yesterday that he's recommending that they not go back to school until the fall. So you've got students at home doing gaming and you've got students at home doing online learning, plus you've got more parents at home because many of them are not in their central jobs, so they're at home with the kids. There's definitely a lot more usage of the network. It is not stressed our network, I will say that it's a very robust fiber to the home network. We've got three separate circuits going out to get Internet from three different providers and so we haven't had any issues with delivering the bandwidth that they need. I will say that typically in the daytime, the network has always been under utilized because our busiest times of the day have always been between 7 and 9 and 10 at night. Because of the stresses of Netflix and people watching television online versus traditional cable TV. 8:47 Brian Skelton: It's never been a stress on our system, but that's just been our highest usage and the day times have always been very under utilized. So today the daytime, there's much more traffic on the daytime Internet compared to what we used to see. But at nighttime, I don't know that there's a lot of difference. Christopher Mitchell: I want to come back to economic development in a few minutes, but I want to ask you a couple of other questions about COVID-19 related things. One, I think takes advantage of you being in charge of the whole utility because I was having a conversation with some folks in North Carolina that are dealing with small electric utilities. And in many parts of the country, there is noble intentions to say no cutoffs of telecom, of gas, of electricity for people who can't pay. And I've insisted that is a good idea if it's accompanied with assistance because utilities like yours can't just see a lot of nonpayment and continue to operate. I'm curious to me just tell me a little bit about the stresses that you see as a smaller operator that has to pay its bills. Brian Skelton: Well, we actually have done the same thing. We implemented a policy across all of our utilities about the middle of March, around the 20th I believe that said, we will not turn off any customer for nonpayment until a certain day. We've extended that day now that date is May the fourth and it may be extended again. But it's just difficult. I mean, we are very fortunate financially, we've made the right decisions, the board has let us do increases on cost and that's been 100% on cable TV. Because we haven't increased the cost on telephone or on Internet really since we launched over 11 years ago. But we've been able to increase the cost. So we've kept an ample amount of reserves and quite frankly, most of our customers are still paying their bills. We are watching it carefully and we definitely have much more at risk subject to disconnection across all of our utilities today than we've probably ever seen ever because of the policy that we put in place. 10:51 Brian Skelton: That being said, out of 12,000 utility customers, and I'm talking utilities now rather than LightTube itself, I think we only have less than 5 percent that are delinquent past the cutoff date. So 95 percent of our customers at this point are making payments as they should. But that day is going to come to an end where we quit doing cutoffs and customers will be subject to cut off. But what we will do, and that's again, some of these things are fluid and we haven't made decisions on how we're going to do this, but we will give them a certain amount of time to catch up their old bill. But they will have to sign an agreement that they're going to agree to pay this much per month over the next how many months to get caught up and everything paid. It does have the potential to hurt us financially because our LightTube system itself, we operate telecommunication side with about a $6 million budget. I mean we certainly have the ability to be exposed to hundreds of thousands of dollars in bad debt when this is over with. So that will hurt us. Christopher Mitchell: And I'm curious, when we look at some of the providers around the nation, they have announced really generous plans in terms of either a very low cost or no cost for some period of months. My reading of Tennessee law is that you're pretty limited in terms of what benefits you can offer. Are you able to navigate those or is that a challenge for you? 12:11 Brian Skelton: We have not made any consideration on that because we operate it at such a low margin that if we were to say we were going to give a so much of a discount or give something free, I mean we would be upside down financially very quickly. Again, we try to have low rates and have the best service for our customers so they want to stay with us. But we do understand this is a very difficult financial time for a certain segment of our population. Because there are a lot of people who have lost income or have had reduced income because their job responsibilities have changed, maybe they still have a job, but they're only working 25 hours a week rather than 40 hours a week. So we know those people are going to need some time to catch up with any kind of debt they may have whenever all of this COVID-19 situation is over with. But we haven't had any discussions about offering lower rates or anything like that. Christopher Mitchell: Well the $40 intro rate is certainly lower. I mean when I look nationally, even among you know them, you know the economics of it, it's very hard to offer anything below $50 a month and be able to continue expansion and that sort of thing. So it's certainly a benefit already. Brian Skelton: Yes, and it's our largest plan because most people want the least expensive option that there is available on top of that, if you do subscribe to video service and also telephone service, we have about an $18 triple play discount that comes into play. So it technically actually reduces that number even more. We'd like for people to try to be up on that 50 or $60 plan because we can offer them just what I consider to be super fast, robust Internet that I understand why people want gig Internet. It's great in certain applications, there are noticeable differences, especially if you have a big household of people using it. But gosh, if you've got 150 Meg symmetrical, that's pretty rock solid for 59.95 a month. 14:07 Christopher Mitchell: Yes it is. I'm curious when we look at the business connections. I think one of the, it was a great story that was done many years ago from the Center for the Public Interest maybe. Brian Skelton: Maybe that was it. Christopher Mitchell: I think CPI is in my head. It was a guy named Allen who did, I thought a fantastic reporting on it. He talked about the economic gains and I'm curious, what have you seen lately in terms of your network attracting jobs and economic development before the pandemic shut it all down? Brian Skelton: Well, it continues to help us attract jobs to this community. I will say this is more of a retail and office community. It's not a big manufacturing community because we just don't have a lot of land for that. We do have an industrial park and we have a handful of small industries here that employ maybe up to 500 people each, but we did recently have a call center that located here. I think they've maybe been here six or eight months now. They handle insurance claims, it's an inbound call center, not an outbound call center. And certainly that was a big driver for them was having access to fiber Internet because unfortunately we're not providing their phone service, but we are providing the circuit that connects them to their phone service. And that's fine with us because it's brought lots of jobs to our community and we're glad to provide the Internet service and or the telephone service. Brian Skelton: And in this case we only had their Internet service but they were able to successfully run a VoIP service from a company we're not affiliated with only because they've got rock solid Internet that's a hundred percent dependable. Christopher Mitchell: And I think they actually noted that several times in their press releases and things like that. We have that in our archives. Brian Skelton: That's very good. Yeah, they've been a great employer and I think they're ramping up to continue to hire more people and grow even more. The one advantage of coming to a community like Tullahoma, certainly even in Tennessee, if you step 65 miles to the North in Nashville, labor rates get much more expensive because the cost of living is so much more. So employers can come here and locate qualified people and then they won't have to pay those exorbitant labor rates that they do in Nashville and get hopefully comparable services. Christopher Mitchell: So I'm curious now, you've been running this network for a long time and from what I understand of everyone who runs networks like this, it's a lot of sleepless nights. There's all kinds of challenges that pop up. It's frustrating. What makes it worth it to you, to have done that for this time period? 16:32 Brian Skelton: Well, I mean I don't give credit to myself. I mean I can take some credit for it, but certainly I'll give a lot of credit to the board of directors in 2006 and 2007. Who had the forward thinking to say we need to step out on a limb and take some chances, put some of the rate payer money at risk and build this network because we have asked the local company charter to improve their network and they have not done that to the level that they felt like was adequate. And then the people who built this, I mean we had contractors that came in, we've got a supervisor, a VP of our fiber department. I mean there's a lot of people who have had input on this. We definitely had a lot of sleepless nights when we were building it for sure. I would say I got a lot of gray hair that first five years, not only in building it, but trying to make sure we met some financial goals. Brian Skelton: And as I said earlier, we didn't hit 3,500 quite as quickly as I expected us to, but we did stay on track with the financial goals and that's what I had to always communicate to our board of directors. Is we're a little bit behind based on what we expected so far as a customer can't go, but we're actually ahead of where we expected to be from a financial perspective. Which that was the one that we needed to be at least where we expected to be because we had $17 million worth of debt to pay back. We had hired about 10 or 11 full time equivalent employees to work for our company, to run the system and then we've had other sleepless nights along the way. As I said, we made a conversion from wave Seven to Calix. That actually went really well. We changed middleware providers on the video side last year and those things. 18:12 Brian Skelton: I guess what we learned when we built the system out is, if something's not working, every vendor wants to point the finger at the other vendor and it's hard to navigate that finger pointing to try to get your end result. But we've been fortunate to work with a lot of good folks and we've made a lot of bad decisions along the way and we've tried to share those with people who are following in past similar to what we have and we certainly stolen a lot of good ideas from other utilities. Everything we've done is not always original. I'm not above taking a good idea from somebody else and implementing it here. Christopher Mitchell: Well, I guess my last question is building off of that in terms of advice for other communities. When you were building it, I mean fiber was so much better than cable and it was obvious that the path that offered so much more promise for communities now, they often still just have one very high speed provider, but the cable is better. It's certainly a lot better than it used to be, reliability, things like that. What do you tell communities that come to you for advice in terms of how should they think about the challenge versus opportunity of considering a municipal network or partnership? Brian Skelton: Well, I think every community has to make their own decision based on how much risk they're willing to take. And looking at the situation with the cable provider that's incumbent there in that local community. Things have changed a lot, we offer TV service, we will continue to offer TV service. I would expect 10 years from now we will still be in the TV service because we've put a lot of money in building a head in for video and we're not having to spend a lot of money to upgrade that and keep it up. I mean, it's already a sunk cost to us, but if you're building a new network, do you invest an extra million and a half dollars to build a video network? Maybe not. A lot of the electric cooperatives certainly are not doing that. They're just doing Internet and telephone, which allows them not to really put a lot of money in their head in, they just put the money in the outside fiber and the transported sale. So I think you got to look at how much risk you're willing to take. 20:15 Brian Skelton: I do think that if it's a local community that has a good electric system that's willing to be forward thinking. I've had to think differently, my board, our employees have had to think differently with our LightTube service system, we do with our electric water and wastewater. With those electric water and wastewater customers have no choice, if they want those services, they have to get them from us if they live in our service territory. But with LightTube, we've got to earn their trust, offer a great product, and be better than the competition to get them to leave. We're not always cheaper, I've always said we're going to price our services to where we can be physically sound and responsible, but we're not in the business to try to make money, but we certainly can't lose money because we have seven more years to pay on the fiber debt. Seven years from July we will be debt free. I mean that will be a great feeling for our LightTube system to be debt free. Brian Skelton: And it will change our operation quite a bit I think because we won't have that indebtedness, we may be able to even lower rates at that point because of that. But I think most communities, if they make the choice to do this, if they're willing to give the operator, the electric system, the city, whoever, the flexibility to think about doing this different than just a regular government operation, they will still continue to be very successful. We not only in terms of offering services, we have two employees that are almost full time doing a three day a week television news program for us and most of them are delayed. But we televise all of the high school football games, a lot of the basketball games, some of the baseball and softball games, wrestling matches. A large cable provider is not going to do any of those things for us. We televise graduation, we put it on YouTube Live so everybody can see it. We televise the Christmas parade. There just a lot of things that our LightTube subscribers are helping pay for that just benefit our community that you won't get from another large cable system. 22:13 Brian Skelton: If you're willing to take a little bit of risk and you're willing to give the operator flexibility to operate it more like a business, less like a government, I think you're going to always be successful. Christopher Mitchell: Thank you. That's a wonderful note to leave on. I think it paints a really great picture of some of the benefits that can really help a town that has a real local identity like that stick together and build on it. Brian Skelton: I think so too and as I said, it's been a great experience for us. One of the proudest statistics that I'm going to tell people is the fact that our churn rate since we've launched has averaged less than 1% per month. And you think, well that's a pretty good churn rate? But what you've got to think about is, we've got a community of 10 or 11,000 households and businesses, if they move two miles outside of our service territory, we can't keep them as a customer. But if charter, if they're sitting here with charter, they can move to any of the dozen surrounding towns. And it's not a churn for them because they can still stay with charter. So anytime anybody moves, that's our churn. So we've tracked our customers who leave and consistently more than 80% of them are churning because they're moving outside of our community, not because they're leaving us to go to another provider. Christopher Mitchell: And that is truly remarkable. And it really, I mean that's the benefit also of having the transparent pricing. I think people really come to love that. They like the customer service they get, there's so many benefits. Brian Skelton: I think so too. It's a great service, but we're again thankful to our customers for being faithful to us. Christopher Mitchell: Well, Brian, I really appreciate your time. I know that there's always things that president of major authority like this working with all these different services has going on. So thanks again for talking to us. Brian Skelton: All right, Chris. Good to catch up with you. Christopher Mitchell: Take care. 23:55 Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Brian Skelton, president of the Tullahoma Utilities Authority. 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 and the other podcast from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives, if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate, your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 407 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening. Tags: transcript

Checking in With Fort Collins Fiber Network, Connexion- Community Broadband Bits Episode 408

muninetworks.org - May 5, 2020

After a bitter battle with Comcast and a successful referendum to reclaim local authority back in 2017, Fort Collins, Colorado, is moving forward with its municipal fiber network, Connexion. The city is starting to connect residents to the network, so we wanted to check back in with local activists and Connexion staff to find out how it's going. In this episode, Christopher interviews community advocates Glen Akins and Colin Garfield as well as Colman Keane, Connexion executive director, and Erin Shanley, Connexion marketing manager. Glen and Colin discuss their grassroots organizing efforts from the 2017 referendum, and they share what it's like to finally watch the network being built. Colin, who has Internet access from Connexion now, describes the installation process for his new fiber service. The pair also tell Christopher how incumbent providers are reacting to the municipal network. Speaking from the city's point of view, Colman and Erin explain how Connexion differs from other municipal networks, including that it faces competition from other broadband providers in Fort Collins. Christopher praises the city's decision many years ago to underground all utilities, and Colman tells Christopher how that has introduced challenges to the network fiber build. Erin shares how the Connexion is marketing services and engaging with the community, while keeping information away from competitors and staying mindful that the network isn't yet available citywide. For more on Fort Collins and Connexion, listen to Community Broadband Bits Episode 211: Fort Collins Mayor on Fort Collins Fiber Future and Episode 282: Organizing for a Community Network, Against Big Cable This show is 46 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode.  Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. 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: podcastaudiobroadband bitscoloradofort collinssb 152munifiberFTTHoverbuildundergroundingorganizing

Case Study Shows How Local Providers Built World-Class Broadband in Rural North Dakota

muninetworks.org - May 5, 2020

A recent case study from the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) finds that rural North Dakotans are more likely to have access to fiber connectivity and gigabit-speed Internet than those living in urban areas. This may surprise many of us city dwellers, who are often stuck with large monopoly providers and their expensive, unreliable Internet access.

The case study, How Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota, highlights the efforts of 15 local companies and telephone cooperatives who came together to invest in rural North Dakota and build gigabit fiber networks across the state. Their success is traced back to the companies' acquisition of 68 rural telephone exchanges from monpoloy provider US West (now CenturyLink) in the 1990s. The local providers then leveraged federal funds to connect rural residents and businesses with some of the most extensive and future-proof fiber networks in the country. Download the case study, How Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota [pdf]. The case study features several maps and graphs that demonstrate North Dakota's widespread, high-quality connectivity, including this map of fiber coverage in the state. Some key lessons from the case study:

  • When US West, the regional telephone monopoly, didn't believe their rural North Dakota networks would be profitable, the local providers saw an opportunity to acquire US West’s rural territories in the state and to expand their services.
  • More than three quarters of rural North Dakotans have access to fiber broadband today, compared to only 20 percent of rural residents nationally. Over 80 percent of North Dakota's expanse is covered by fiber networks.
  • National telecom monopolies refuse to invest in rural areas even though they receive billions in subsidies, while local co-ops and companies continue to innovate and build better networks for their communities.
The North Dakota independent providers’ vision and persistence delivered high-quality, rural Internet access to one of the most sparsely populated states in the country. Their efforts prove that better rural connectivity is possible and that the solutions already exist. Read How Local Providers Built the Nation’s Best Internet Access in Rural North Dakota [pdf].   Cover image courtesy of Broadband Association of North Dakota. Tags: case studyreportinstitute for local self-reliancenorth dakotaruralfibercooperativetelcocenturylinkfrontiergigabit

Mississippi Co-op Members and State Official Protest After Board of Directors Rejects Broadband Project

muninetworks.org - May 4, 2020

Early last year, Mississippi changed state law to allow electric cooperatives to offer Internet access in addition to electrical service. Since then, several co-ops have announced plans to connect member-owners with fiber optic networks. But despite their new legal authority, some cooperatives are deciding against broadband projects, and their members aren’t happy. The Daily Journal reported last week on one co-op, Pontotoc Electric Power Association (PEPA), that has chosen not to invest in broadband at this time, citing high costs. PEPA's decision faces strong opposition from some of its members as well as a commissioner from the Mississippi Public Service Commission. Critics claim that cooperative leaders did not fully consider all of the possibilities, and they take issue with the board’s choice to hold the vote during a closed meeting without issuing public notice. “We’re not adversarial but are advocating for letting the owners get back involved,” Jackie Courson, a PEPA member in favor of broadband, told the Daily Journal. Critics Question Private Board Vote The PEPA board decided against moving forward with a broadband network during a private meeting on April 2. Members of the cooperative only found out about the vote four days later, during a public board meeting. In that later meeting, the board limited public discussion on every topic, including the broadband vote, to two people with five minutes each. As justification for their decision to give the broadband project a pass, PEPA leadership cited the high cost of building fiber infrastructure — estimated at up to $48 million for the northern Mississippi co-op. “One study said it would only be financially feasible after 22 years, and then just marginally. The other two said flat out it was not economically feasible,” PEPA General Manager Chuck Howell explained to the Daily Journal. Regardless of their members’ enthusiasm, the PEPA board argued that the potential cost put the project out of reach for the co-op. “I realize there is a demand for it. I would have loved to do it, but financially it is too much. The money wasn’t there and there are too many unanswered questions,” President Larry Parker told the paper. However, critics of the board’s decision believe that PEPA leaders are using the price of the project as an excuse to turn it down. “Some just see it as a nuisance,” said Public Service Commissioner Brandon Presley, who advocated for the 2019 state law change. “That is Model T thinking in a Tesla world. You have to view it as an investment in the future.” The Daily Journal article detailed some of Presley’s and Courson’s concerns with the board’s decision process, including a “flawed” member survey and limited examination of alternative options. “There are lots of different business models that were not explored,” argued Courson. What Now? In response to the board’s rejection of broadband, dissatisfied PEPA members have taken to social media to discuss their concerns with the co-op's decision-making process and strategize next steps. One Facebook Group, Pontotoc Electric Power Association Members for Rural Broadband Internet, has nearly 2,000 followers, who post relevant news articles, complain about poor connectivity, and share their frustrations with PEPA’s inaction. Some members are looking to neighboring electric co-ops that have decided to deploy broadband and may consider expanding to serve PEPA members in the future.  North East Mississippi EPA, Tallahatchie Valley EPA, and Tombigbee EPA, which border PEPA, are all currently planning fiber networks. “We hope to build a platform for our members first, but we will definitely take a look,” shared Keith Hayward, general manager of North East Mississippi EPA. In the meantime, other PEPA members want to vote in pro-broadband board members to replace the three directors who will be up for reelection during the co-op’s annual meeting in the fall. Courson himself recently announced his candidacy for the PEPA board, but he still wants to take action on the issue before the election. “I don’t want to wait until November to do something,” Courson told the Daily Journal. “We need to go ahead and address this issue now.” Link: Tags: mississippirural electric cooporganizingcooperativerural

Community Broadband Media Roundup - May 4

muninetworks.org - May 4, 2020


Mohave Electric Cooperative moves forward to build fiber optic network in partnership with TWN Communications, Cision PR Newswire   Arkansas State program created to lift rural broadband by Michael R. Wicklin, Arkansas Online   California More California students are online, but digital divide runs deep with distance learning by Sydney Johnson and Michael Burke, Edsource  About 17,000 students in Oakland Unified didn’t have internet at home before the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Oakland Tech Exchange, a group that provides technology to low-income families in the area. That’s equal to more than one-third of all students in the district. Massachusetts Expanding wireless broadband hubs in unserved communities, Massachusetts Broadband Institute    General Conexon's breakthrough Interactive RDOF Mapping Platform steers electric cooperatives to broadband funding success, Conexon   Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home by Harmeet Kaur, CNN We are the country that created the internet. We think of ourselves as the most affluent nation on Earth," said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "We should be embarrassed that millions of people have to drive to a closed library or a fast food restaurant in order to do their jobs or do their homework. Another FCC disaster?, POTs and PANs    Telecom's Latest Dumb Claim: The Internet only works during a pandemic because we killed net neutrality by Karl Bode, Techdirt   Even in crisis times, there is a push to wire rural America by Kirk Siegler, NPR   Ajit Pai uses bad data to claim ISPs are deploying broadband to everyone by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica Pai's conclusion is based on ISPs' filings to the FCC, which are known to overcount the number of Americans who have broadband access. The FCC report also failed to consider whether data caps and broadband prices are impeding progress toward universal broadband access. 53% of Americans say the Internet has been essential during the COVID-19 outbreak by Emily A. Vogels, Andrew Perrin, Lee Rainie and Monica Anderson, Pew Research   How The Channel can help bridge the digital divide among students by Jennifer Zarate, CRN Tags: media roundup

CNN Shares Stories of Disconnected Rural Residents During Pandemic, Quotes Christopher Mitchell

muninetworks.org - May 1, 2020

Not only has the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic exposed our nation’s dire lack of medical equipment and protective gear, but it has also shone a light on the inadequacy of our rural broadband networks.

A recent CNN article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home,” by Harmeet Kaur, explores the many struggles that rural households face now that jobs, schools, and everything else has moved online and their outdated broadband connections can’t keep up. “We Should Be Embarrassed” CNN reports that while only 1.4 percent of urban Americans don’t have access to broadband speeds of at least 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, more than a quarter of rural households don’t have broadband available to them. And almost three quarters don’t have access to faster upload speeds of 25 Mbps. These disparate stats are currently on display at parking lots across the country, as families without adequate home connectivity are forced to drive to open Wi-Fi hotspots and sit in their cars while completing assignments for school and work. The article shared how one teacher in rural Virginia has turned her school’s parking lot into her new office: Every Sunday since the coronavirus lockdown started, Stephanie Anstey drives 20 minutes from her home in Grottoes, Virginia, to sit in her school's near-empty parking lot and type away on her laptop. Anstey, a middle school history teacher, lives in a valley between two mountains, where the only available home internet option is a satellite connection. Her emails can take 30 seconds to load, only to quit mid-message. She can't even open files on Google Drive, let alone upload lesson modules or get on a Zoom call with colleagues. “We are the country that created the internet,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative, said in the article. “We should be embarrassed that millions of people have to drive to a closed library or a fast food restaurant in order to do their jobs or do their homework.” High Costs, Slow Speeds The CNN article points to a number of reasons for the dearth of high-quality Internet access throughout rural America. Deploying broadband infrastructure is expensive in urban and rural communities, but in sparsely populated areas, the cost per potential subscriber is much higher. Because of that math, companies often refuse to upgrade their rural networks, leaving many residents and businesses stuck with outdated, slow, and unreliable connectivity. One household interviewed in the article relies on a DSL connection with only 6 Mbps speeds that isn’t enough for the family of four: Addie Maiden, a seventh grade special-needs teacher in Dahlonega, Georgia, has DSL internet from a major telecoms company — the only provider available where she lives, she says. While the internet at home has always been slow, now she and her three sons — ages 15, 13 and 5 — are having to share already limited bandwidth as they try to work and learn from home . . . To make things work, her family disconnects the TV from the Internet and turn off the Wi-Fi on their phones . . . "It would be nice if we could all get our work done at the same time so that it wasn't staggered throughout the day," Maiden said. Even when broadband networks are available, many rural residents can’t afford the high monthly fees that result from little to no competition for providers. Some people, including Virginia resident Debbie Hill and her family, turn to less costly mobile hotspots to get online, the article explains. However, these mobile plans often feature restrictive data caps that aren’t enough for families that now must turn to the Internet for everything from work meetings and school assignments to doctors appointments and movie nights. Hill told CNN how the data caps and slow speeds are affecting her son’s education: It was hard enough to get her 11-year-old son to sit still and do schoolwork on a laptop, Hill said. But then the instructional videos he had to watch started buffering more often and the photos he had to take for assignments started taking longer to upload. The issues made the situation unworkable . . . "When you're fighting an 11-year-old to do schoolwork on a computer when it's lagging, Mommy loses," she said. Finding a Fix Though the federal government has set aside some additional funds for broadband deployment, it will have limited impact in the short term. The article explains: Even with emergency federal funds to address connectivity issues, many Americans with inadequate Internet service likely won't see any immediate improvements, said Strange of Ookla, the internet testing company. The roots of the problem run deep, and addressing them will require efforts from state governments, nonprofit organizations and municipalities. "There's very little that a government agency can do during this tight timeframe to resolve this issue other than providing more access to existing services." Strange said. "You're not going to get networks improved necessarily during a time like this." For more stories from rural Americans stuck at home without high-quality connectivity during the global health crisis, read the article, “Why rural Americans are having a hard time working from home.” Tags: institute for local self-reliancechristopher mitchellquarantineruraldigital dividepress center

Tullahoma Thrives With Fiber Network, Plus Straight Talk on the Pandemic - Community Broadband Bits Episode 407

muninetworks.org - April 30, 2020

We last spoke to Brian Skelton, president of Tullahoma Utilities Authority, in 2013 for episode 54 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Since then, the Tennessee city's municipal fiber network, LightTube, has continued to offer Internet access, voice, and video services, attracting new businesses to the region. For this episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher and Brian review the network's nearly 12-year-long history. Brian shares some of LightTube's early struggles and describes how the network has found success over the years, especially in promoting local economic development. He explains how a call center recently decided to locate in Tullahoma, due in part to the municipal fiber network, bringing 200 jobs to the city. The pair also talk about how LightTube is adapting in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Brian says that the fiber network is holding up well, despite increased demand from families now stuck at home. Tullahoma Utilities Authority has suspended disconnections for non-payment during the public health crisis, but it has not lowered costs for broadband subscriptions. Brian shares how it can be difficult for a small provider to offer free or discounted services while continuing to cover its own costs. To close out the interview, Brian relates his advice for other cities that are considering investing in broadband. While each community must make its own decisions, he's broadly optimistic about the potential for success in many cases. This show is 25 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.    Image of Jackson Street, Tullahoma, Tennessee, courtesy of Brian Stansberry under Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) Unported license. Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitstullahomaquarantinetennessee

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 406

muninetworks.org - April 30, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 406 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This episode brings Jon Stavney, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments as well as Evan Biagi, executive vice president of business development for Mammoth Networks. Chris, Jon, and Evan discuss about Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network established out of a collaboration between local governments and private companies. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Jon Stavney: This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to, hopefully, affect the quality of service with whatever partners come to the table and make the most sense. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 406 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Jess Del Fiacco: Today, Christopher talks with Jon Stavney, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, as well as Evan Biagi, executive vice president of business development for Mammoth Networks. Christopher, Jon, and Evan talk about Project THOR, which was established by a group of Colorado communities who decided to band together in order to reduce costs and improve connectivity. Jess Del Fiacco: THOR provides middle mile service so communities can engage in a variety of solutions to suit their unique local needs. They discuss how Project THOR has evolved and how Mammoth Networks has been involved in the project. Jon and Evan also tell Christopher about some of the engineering and funding challenges of working to develop a regional network with multiple communities. Jess Del Fiacco: Now, here's Christopher talking with Jon Stavney and Evan Biagi about Project THOR. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance and I'm speaking today with two patient guests, Jon Stavney, the Executive Director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. Welcome to the show. Jon Stavney: Thank you, Christopher. Great to be here. Christopher Mitchell: Wonderful. And we also have Evan Biagi, the executive vice president of business development for Mammoth Networks. Welcome to the show. Evan Biagi: Thanks, Chris. Thanks for having me. Christopher Mitchell: And thank you both for your patience. We just, we just did a great introduction and I forgot to record it, so we're going to do that same thing again now. Mammoth Networks is a, it's a wonderful large wireless and fiber optic network in the West, but for people who want to know a lot more about it, we did an interview with Brian last year at the mountain connect conference, one of the wonderful events for a broadband gatherings in the entire country, which will unfortunately be postponed this year, like so many other things. But let me just start, Evan. Let me ask you to give me a 30-second sketch of what Mammoth does. 2:19 Evan Biagi: Sure. So Mammoth networks is traditionally a middle mile aggregator of broadband services and we've focused quite a bit on providing resilient and backup type, middle mile connections to more rural areas than urban. We focus in the New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana markets more than anywhere else. And we provide backhaul services. We take bits and pieces from various carriers and stitch them together in very unique ways. So we like to take on some of the more difficult and hard to get to areas and come up with solutions for them. Christopher Mitchell: And you are working with a variety of partners, Jon Stavney, with NWCCOG, the Council of Governments, which I think is, it's a wonderful approach in Colorado of keeping regional local governments coordinated. Jon, you're the one that actually owns Project THOR. And why don't you tell us a little bit about what Project THOR is going to be- is actually already doing? I think of it as the hunky hunky network named after one of my favorite series of movies. Jon Stavney: Right. Or Norse gods. Right? Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean, I suppose pop culture or sort of thousands of years of culture. But I go for the pop culture. Jon Stavney: There you go. Project THOR. It's not an acronym, but so NWCCOG, council governments, we, we've been around since the early seventies. The state of Colorado, like many States actually has these regional organizations that are, representative governments deliver services. So we have a variety of different services that we, that we deliver across the mountain side of central Colorado. We're just on the other side of Rocky mountain national park from Fort Collins and Boulder and Denver and serve for a lot of your listeners who may know a little bit of Colorado, Summit County, Eagle County, Picking County, Grand County and Jackson County, which contain a winter park ski resort, Aspen, Breckenridge, Vail, among others. So we have a number of services that we've provided over the years where the agency for aging, providing funding for senior services. We inspect elevators across the region and we have a business loan fund and do weatherization that's low income qualified. 4:55 Jon Stavney: So a basket of different services that make more sense at a regional level than at a local level. And we've been involved in broadband for about six years or so. Starting back a little bit further than that to the conversation about broadband. We've had a number of our member jurisdictions, towns and counties who have been involved in local broadband projects for some time. Top of mine, Vale, which has hosted very large events as you might guess, has a wireless, municipal wireless network to bring in tens of thousands of people and be able to allow communications and have these large events. And they've been doing that for many years. Steamboat Springs, which is also at the Northern end of our region, has been doing mobile broadband for roughly the same amount of time, almost a decade really. And then you've got Glenwood Springs, which has been in the electrical delivery business. Jon Stavney: Most municipalities in Colorado don't do electricity. They're rural electric co-ops that deliver most of that. So anyhow, we've had some seasoned members who have been in the broadband business. We did a regional plan and then brought on a coordinator, somebody to provide technical assistance across the region and Nate Walowitz has been in that role now for a number of years with us. And what's great with Nate's role is he's able to assist, at no additional costs to our members. Jon Stavney: Those communities that want to explore how they might play a role in improving broadband locally. And each one has taken a bespoke approach to that. There really isn't a single way this is delivered or a single purpose. We have some communities like Vail really just wanted a cheaper, more robust broadband to serve mainly themselves in their hospital and others like the town of Eagle just up the road on I70 went from sort of "yeah, we want to just replace at the municipal a building having a large carrier service and we want to be on this network. So we, we have some leverage to pull," to in the course of a year of thinking about this and being involved, actually wanting to deliver municipal broadband. So Project THOR really came out of discussions with these different localities. Doing the projects and, , we provided help with RFPs and how you navigate the landscape of this industry and come to find out that a lot of these local projects just don't have robust, affordable middle mile going to them and that's really the origin of, of project THOR. 7:45 Christopher Mitchell: Yes. One of the things that I love about the way you approach that is to discuss the local groups because Colorado, I think ,has been one of the best States for allowing solutions to bubble up that actually fit the local circumstances because people on the ground are developing them rather than having the state come up with a solution and sort of imposing it on people. Let me just ask, Evan, to tell us a little bit about what Project THOR is doing because if there's one thing I know from more than 10 years of discussing these kinds of networks, the first thing people assume is it's connecting people in their homes. What is, what is Project THOR accomplishing today now that it's lit? Evan Biagi: Well first and foremost a project THOR does not go to people's homes or even to businesses for that matter, a project THOR is a middle mile transport network. And that's really, that's really all that it is. And that's what it was meant to be. What Jon was mentioning is there were a number of broadband projects throughout this region and everyone was taking a slightly different approach as communities normally do. But the one thing that each community needed, or needs, with whatever their broadband approach is, quality middle mile. So really when we started looking at each of these communities and their needs, what ended up happening is we went around and , talk to each individual community and ultimately we designed and engineered THOR to just provide a resilient connectivity in and out of each community. So the entire project THOR is built on various ring architecture and all of those rings essentially terminate down in Denver at one of the major Internet hubs. 9:35 Evan Biagi: And that allows us to provision network transport services in an open access fashion to each of these communities so that they can get the transport down to Denver. And then at Denver they can interconnect with whatever upstream carriers they so choose. You know, we've also provided a kind of a default connection if they don't have an existing carrier through Mammoth Networks where we are already interconnected with several upstream carriers and have a blended product there that folks can connect to. And we had even taken it as far to say, "Hey, it's as aggregated demand increases across the network will continue to provide a lower cost of that IP transit down in Denver to all of the communities that are connected through Mammoth there." So really the separation Northwest CCOG is the network owner and it's a transport network in and out of each of the member communities and it's open access. Evan Biagi: What we've done is we've created some terms, everybody loves terms, each community that is on project THOR has what we are calling a "meet me center" and that's really where that local community meets the transport. It's kind of akin to a train station so to speak, where you can get on and off Project THOR and then we've left it up to each local community to take that middle mile and that connectivity and interconnect with either their anchor institutions, other ISPs or as Jon mentioned, some are doing their own muni type network. Christopher Mitchell: We actually did an interview with Tim miles several years ago about the meet me room that I is another one of those solutions that bubbled up and I think has been very important but people can get more background on that there. We will have a link to that in our on the show page associated with the show, but I want to, Jon, I want to ask you one of the things that I think people also may assume is that these are areas in which there was no broadband, but Yampa Valley has been building the electric association. There has been building a network, , many of these communities had some form of access. You have them as part of the project. You have a healthcare organization. I think they already had some access but it wasn't good enough is my understand. There was some problems with it. 11:53 Jon Stavney: I want to, I want to correct that a little bit. So Yampa Valley Electric, they are served by Project THOR. They are serving the community of Craig, Colorado is just launching broadband services. So they are new to the broadband business and they also serve Steamboat Springs and we're a partner in NCB Northwest called a broadband. The Tim miles who's from the school district project, you're talking about, where that community had anchor institutions that municipality the County, the school district ,and a couple other key partners who got together and just said, "Hey incumbent serving this isolated community, you're going to negotiate with all of us. We're a co-op and we're going to pool our money." And they did their own fiber loop. And, and really that was a lot of the origin of sort of, the genius of THOR is, it is a co-op, a coalition of the willing, but you're right, almost every one of our communities, I think a good exception might be Red Cliff. Jon Stavney: And there's been some good news about that. They did not have any Internet service or cell service and they're not directly served by THOR, but we did help them get that, serve their small community. Almost every one of the communities in this part of Colorado has some level of service. And I think the crux there is this is a really difficult part of the state, like a lot of the West to serve. I mean, the critical mass of people, customers, if you will, is really spread out. Jon Stavney: Now we're concentrated in these communities, but even the communities oftentimes have, hills and valleys and art sort of like growing out from a core center. And so, with respect, it's a difficult region to serve. And so, complaints over the years were lack of investment. You know, often times service would go out and be out for periods of time and then costly serve as compared to urban areas. So yes, most of these communities have at least one incumbent provider, some of them like Breckenridge, they're served by multiple and still wanting to be involved in this because a variety of reasons. 14:09 Christopher Mitchell: Evan, I'm curious about the cost because I feel like if we're talking to someone and saying, "well, we're going to build, I shouldn't say we're going to establish more than 400 miles of network across some of the most expensive areas to build in the United States." And you'd say, "yes, it's going to cost you two point $6 million." You might be surprised at how little that is. How does that work out? Evan Biagi: Well, so we took a different approach. So what we looked at is we said, "Hey, these are all of the different communities that would like to be on project THOR," and we really started peeling back the layers on what network infrastructure exists, who owns it, how could use it perhaps in a different fashion than it's being used today. And to be honest, the engineering was a little bit of a challenge as we were trying to figure out which communities wanted to participate, which communities didn't want to participate. Evan Biagi: It was a continually changing game with engineering and cost modeling. So as we finalized the list of communities that we wanted to include in Project THOR, we ended up with 12 official meet me centers that were hosted by 10 different entities. A couple of those entities have multiple meet me centers and we utilized existing network resources from various different carriers and entities to stitch together the network that is Project THOR. Really there was not an existing carrier that had the entire infrastructure that we wanted and they weren't certainly using it in a way that was going to provide the resilient services that we needed. 15:55 Evan Biagi: So most of the network has been built using dark fiber elements that we've been able to obtain. One of our major partners was the Colorado Department of Transportation that provided dark fibers along the I70 route. But we do have other fibers that Mammoth was able to obtain through other carriers such as Strata Networks, CenturyLink, Comcast has some elements, even Xeo has a piece in this network. So what we did is we used different, I call them puzzle pieces to essentially build this network that most of it existed today, but just not in this manner. So keeping the costs down was a huge element in the success of this. And it allowed us to focus on, , getting some grant dollars and using that, namely for some local builds to connect to those elements as well as the electronics that are needed to light the network in certain areas. So, that's essentially how we were able to do what we did on such a tight budget. Christopher Mitchell: And Jon, I'm curious how the Northwest CCOG actually was able to come up with the money. I never want to miss an opportunity to praise a DOLA and the matching grants from the department of local affairs of the state. Jon Stavney: You know, Evan referred to this sort of evolving nature of who we like to call it, "the coalition of the willing," right? So we have, 28 member jurisdictions, 10 of whom bought into this project. And, and interestingly enough, we talked about how the projects are designed with different purposes locally. They also have different local champions, so in Grand County, the real need and the folks that sort of gravitated to us in this where the two medical centers, one medical center but in two locations and some of them were cities or municipalities and some of them were counties. And as you alluded to earlier, Yampa Valley Electric, which is serving Craig, Colorado, probably the most furthest out on the loop away from Denver. We didn't know as we were moving forward, it's kind of, we hit different points when we had are you in with a letter of interest, we'll take that letter of interest to DOLA as sort of a promise and go seek a grant. 18:15 Jon Stavney: Are you in with a contract? Right? Which is sharing money. And during each sort of round of that, the group just slightly shifted and changed. And of course from Evan's standpoint having to engineer the network, it mattered a lot. We had a running spreadsheet that Evan put together, networks put together where we could show if this community drops out and they weren't equal numbers right, then the costs go up for everybody else monthly here or there's the startup costs. So we took this group that we sort of came together and we help try to stay together with the promise of an investment and took that to DOLA and got a million dollar grant from DOLA for this basically 2.5, $2.6 million project. And that's the infrastructure that Evan was referring to, including some reduced costs. Jon Stavney: You know, the main part of our backbone, 178 miles of the 400 miles is on Colorado Department of Transportation fiber. So negotiating a favorable public entity to public entity rate for fiber that they already had that they weren't using really helped make this project possible and kept the monthly costs down. You know, roughly half of the cost. We had a second grant actually that helped pay for from DOLA, Department of Local Affairs that help pay for three years of the first part of our ruling agreement with CDOT. That was another, 250, $270,000. It was awarded for 270 ended up being 250 and change was when it was actually billed for. 20:05 Jon Stavney: So yeah, we've cobbled together financing from local jurisdictions because DOLA, the state always wants to have skin in the game and it's 50% local match or more to go get those state dollars. That's really where the financing came from was these local agencies and grant dollars and we really played the aggregator, the organizer, the facilitator at Northwest CCOG to that. We don't have any COG money, so to speak, all the time, but we don't have any CCOG dollars into the project. Christopher Mitchell: If we could solve a lot of problems with this low expenditure, we wouldn't have a broadband program. You've done a great job of figuring out how to thread this all together and make it work. I wanted to just touch on the operating expenses. How are the ongoing expenses going to be paid for? Jon Stavney: Yeah, so they're paid for through a contract with each of the local jurisdictions and so they're paying a monthly fee to basically maintain the infrastructure and for the most part pay the operator to do their work. The Northwest CCOG is not taking a cut out of it. One thing we will have to add in is as we get more partners and it becomes a little more robust to start covering the cost or part of the cost of our coordinator, our director, broadband director's time. But right now he's covered separately through another program. Evan Biagi: It's really unique when you take these 10 entities and you bring them together and you put them into this cooperative type model. What we've essentially done is we've taken those operating costs and we've divvied them up based on a size of meet me center and a couple of other metrics. And we've actually got this down to a point where it's like each entity has a share in THOR. We've even developed a model with allocating bandwidth across the network where they can trade share, so to speak. If one entity is not using enough capacity or the capacity that they have excess capacity, they can quote unquote sell those shares to the next entity. So it's a really unique model when you start talking about bringing that many entities together, man, it's not an easy task, number one, but number two, it's a great group and they discuss on a biweekly steering committee calls, essentially the operations and how this network is going to continue to evolve. 22:35 Christopher Mitchell: The other things that this project has accomplished is something that's fairly unique in my experience, which is Ron Rizutto, a professor at the University of Denver, who in my experience has never taken a position that is opposed to the incumbent interests. Someone who is as opposed to municipal networks as he is unencumbered by facts relating to municipal networks. He praised this and said that he thought this is a good example of government stepping up and, and taking care of something that private sector wasn't going to do. And so I was very glad to see that. Christopher Mitchell: At the same time and in the same article actually by Tamra Chung from the now the Colorado sun who's just one of the best broadband reporters in the nation at the local level. She quoted CenturyLink who is takes a different view. And I want to ask you about this, Evan, CenturyLink says "the new network" quote "does not add any significant route diversity and, unfortunately, does not provide the last mile facilities needed to deliver broadband to rural Colorado consumers and businesses." Saying that "we hope that future taxpayer funded projects are focused on meeting the needs of unserved and underserved Coloradans rather than competing with existing facilities and networks." And so I'm just curious if you can respond to that. It seems like maybe we didn't need to do any of this work. Evan Biagi: Well , Chris, as we mentioned earlier on, the intent of THOR is not to provide that last mile access. It is a middle mile network transport network and the last mile access is handled by the local communities themselves. So, again, just for clarity's sake, that's what THOR is and that's the intention of THOR. You know, also as I mentioned earlier, we've created the redundancy that we want on this network. 24:35 Evan Biagi: There've been far too many times where a single fiber cut impacts an entire community. We've had nine-one-one services impacted due to fiber cuts that are on the incumbents network and this is just the fuel for the fire, so to speak, and really determining the need for this. We also have some communities where we know that CenturyLink fiber is single threaded and we've used alternate carriers to get to those communities. So, certainly CenturyLink has stepped up recently in some communities we know that. Is that a result of Project THOR or these different efforts? Maybe? Even if it is, we'll call that a win. But, ultimately this is the network that the communities wanted and it was designed using various elements that do include CenturyLink elements. But for the most part want to compliment what CenturyLink has so that there's true resiliency across the region. Christopher Mitchell: I think it's important to note. What I mean, one of the things that we've seen as Comcast is expanding and some of these areas too, and it's, it's not clear what necessarily the role is. If that would've happened otherwise or what their decision making is. But, Project THOR is not something that's meant to, harm those companies. Right? Like I think sometimes we see these and we feel like, Oh well CenturyLink's opposed, there must be some sort of, conflict there. But a project like Project THOR, this is about building a foundation that anyone can then build off of. Right? I mean that's the thing, that it provides because CenturyLink is not able to prioritize the kind of investments in rural Colorado that we may want to see in rural Colorado. 26:28 Christopher Mitchell: So, I just, I want to make sure that it's, this is something where we're like saying CenturyLink sucks. No one's saying that you're using part of CenturyLink fiber. They want to suggest, I feel like that there's no need for this. And so Jon, I want to, I want to come back to you quick cause one of the things that I read was that there was healthcare implications for the lack of reliability you had before. And I'm just curious, do you want to tell us any stories from, Northwest CCOG about why greater resiliency and redundancy was particularly important? Jon Stavney: You know, and Tamara used the quote from the chair of Middle Park Health when we went up and met with their board, and this is a little over a year ago and talking about whether they would tie into Project THOR, these rural hospitals are not, if you will, full service hospitals, so they have to really pick and choose what services they can and they can afford to provide. Jon Stavney: And so one of the things that is a challenge is a good bit of their imaging. They have the tools there, but the specialists who are then assessing those images and the doctor who was quoted in Tamara's story was talking about a stroke victim for instance, where the clock is really, really ticking and they need to send this image over the Internet to their specialists elsewhere and get, assessment and then get told back what they should do. And how regular outages and then if they had to go to their backup system, how it went from being timely to life and death. So the drama of that I think just underscored for us how important it is and we know rural hospitals are struggling these days financially and we also know how critical they are to delivery of healthcare. That is something we're really proud of. Having Middle Park Health be a partner and have two locations on the network. 28:30 Christopher Mitchell: Yes, and I would just say as we're wrapping up, I've been doing more thinking about Telehealth a lot lately, who hasn't? $2.6 million in a million dollar operating cost per year. You don't have to have a lot of medical benefits from that to justify that just from a medical benefits. Jon Stavney: Sure, sure and I want to go back to the incumbent discussion. You're right, we're not set out to beat any of the incumbents, if you will. But we are there to provide some competition. And I've listened to too many meetings with end users and to me, I live in Eagle, complaining about their services and I can't explain why they are as they are CenturyLink will send people up and listen. But there's a lot of frustration in these communities and what happens to the people who are elected officials who are, convene these meetings with their citizens and with incumbents they realize really they don't have a lever to pull, to say, "Hey, would you step up to the plate?" And some places they have. Mammoth is a good example and some other networks in some of the locations that, that Evan could talk about where among others sort of the smaller, hungrier ISPs if you will, that have a conversation with the community of "we could deliver this if you helped us with that." Jon Stavney: If we had that tower location or you built this fiber here. So those conversations are going on. They just don't really happen very much in these smaller communities with the big incumbents. And so they're kind of a black box. They're kind of a black box. If we don't know where their funding was spent from the federal government to invest in these communities, to serve underserved communities and rural communities. We don't know what their plans are. We don't know if they're heading towards de-investing or if we know they're investing in the next generation, on, in the urban centers and understand from a market standpoint that, but there isn't that kind of transparency. This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to hopefully affect the quality of service. 30:50 Jon Stavney: However, they can do that with whatever partners come to the table and make the most sense. And that's the exciting thing for these communities is that they're not just sitting back at this critical infrastructure, which is what broadband is these days. And just waiting, without anything more than broad assurances, they're able to actually act. If the incumbent step up to the plate and improve services, great. We cheer for that. So I wanted to give that thought about our relationship with this project to the incumbents. Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad you did and I feel like that's a very good place to wrap up. So let me thank you, Jon. Thank you Evan. This has been a wonderful discussion and I'm so thankful for the work you've done for Northwestern Colorado. Jon Stavney: Thank you Christopher. It's been a pleasure. Evan Biagi: Yeah, thanks a ton. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Jon Stavney and Evan Biagi. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available @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 and the other podcast from ILSR Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and The Composting for Community Podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support in any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song, Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through CreativeComments. This was episode 406 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening. Tags: transcript

Welcoming New Senior Researcher Ry Marcattilio-McCracken to the Team

muninetworks.org - April 29, 2020

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative said a sad goodbye to longtime Senior Researcher Lisa Gonzalez last month, but we’re excited to welcome a new face to the team in her place! Ry Marcattilio-McCracken recently joined the Community Broadband Networks Initiative as Senior Researcher. In his new role, Ry will research and write about community owned broadband networks, universal Internet access, and other related topics. He is also the new editor of MuniNetworks.org and will manage the site’s various resources, including our many articles, reports, and podcasts. Before joining ILSR, Ry was an Adjunct Professor of American History in Oklahoma, Rhode Island, and Minnesota. Ry holds a PhD in American History from Oklahoma State University, and he is interested in the democratizing power of technology, systems engineering, and the history of science, technology, and medicine. Connect with Ry on Twitter @galtonsbox or by email at ry [at] ILSR [dot] org. Tags: institute for local self-reliance

Project THOR Public-Private Partnership Hammers Out Path to Better Connectivity in Colorado

muninetworks.org - April 28, 2020

There’s a new Thor in town, but instead of lighting up the night sky like the Norse god of thunder, it’ll be lighting up communities in rural Colorado with fiber optic connectivity.

A group of local governments and private partners, led by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), recently completed the first phase of Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network that will enable better connectivity in the participating towns, cities, and counties. The network, owned by NWCCOG, provides backhaul to local governments looking to connect public facilities, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions. It’s also available to Internet service providers (ISPs) to serve residents and businesses. Project THOR brings much needed redundancy to the region’s broadband infrastructure, where previously a single fiber cut could take entire communities’ health and public safety services offline. It also promises great cost savings for localities and ISPs. Perhaps most importantly, the new network gives communities the necessary leverage to improve local connectivity beyond begging the incumbent providers for better broadband. Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG explained on Community Broadband Bits episode 406: This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to hopefully affect local service, however they can do that, with whatever partners come to the table . . . They’re able to actually act. Building Toward a Network NWCCOG, which is composed of member governments in and around Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin, and Summit Counties, coordinated broadband efforts in the region even before Project THOR began. A number of years ago, the council invested in a regional plan and hired a broadband coordinator, Nate Walowitz, to offer technical assistance to the member governments. At the time, communities were taking a variety of approaches to bolster connectivity. Some wanted to provide broadband access directly to residents, like Rio Blanco County which owns an open access Fiber-to-the-Home network. Others just needed better services for their own facilities and schools. Despite local differences, NWCCOG and its partners realized that all of the communities lacked reliable, resilient backhaul options. “The one thing that each community needed, or needs, with whatever their broadband approach is, is quality middle mile,” explained Evan Biagi of Mammoth Networks, the Project THOR network operator, on the podcast episode. To address that need, the group decided to create a regional middle mile fiber network, naming it Project THOR after the Norse god. “The image of the hammer and breaking down roadblocks and breaking down barriers really worked,” Walowitz told the Colorado Sun. Partners Connect Communities, Cut Costs Project THOR is managed by NWCCOG and is a partnership among several local governments and other entities. NWCCOG members, including the towns of Breckenridge, Eagle, and Vail, as well as nearby non-member communities, including Glenwood Springs and Rio Blanco County, joined in on the project. The effort also attracted other partners, including the nonprofit Northwest Colorado Broadband, the Middle Park Health special district, and Yampa Valley Electric Association. Wyoming-based ISP Mammoth Networks operates the fiber network. The Project THOR network, which won the Community Project of the Year Award at Mountain Connect last year, has well over 400 miles of backbone fiber. Fourteen communities host “Meet Me Centers” on the network, connecting to the broader Internet through a Point of Presence in Denver. The Meet Me points are “kind of akin to a train station, where you can get on and off Project THOR,” Biagi described on the podcast. Once they are connected to Project THOR, communities can decide whether to connect their municipal buildings and anchor institutions, work with an ISP to expand service to homes and businesses, and/or invest in their own broadband network. View a map of the network and the locations of the Meet Me Centers on NWCCOG’s website. Project THOR is a Frankenstein’s monster of sorts, stitched together from existing broadband infrastructure across the region. Much of the network is made up of dark fiber segments sourced from carriers and public agencies (178 miles is leased from the Colorado Department of Transportation). This lowered construction costs substantially to only about $2.6 million. “If we had to build 400 miles of fiber, that would have been a significant investment . . . It would have been unaffordable for the region,” Walowitz told the Colorado Sun. Approximately half of the project financing came from a $1.3 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), which often funds local broadband efforts. Participating partners contributed a local match to meet the remaining costs. An additional DOLA grant kicked in approximately $250,000 to cover the first few years of the lease agreement with the Department of Transportation. Local partners pay a monthly fee to NWCCOG for ongoing operations costs. The exact dollar figure depends on the size of the community’s Meet Me Center, their data usage, and other factors. “It’s like each entity has a share in THOR. We’ve even developed a model with allocating bandwidth across the network where they can trade shares, so to speak,” Stavney said on the podcast. Colorado Context We’ve done a lot of reporting on Senate Bill 152, the restrictive Colorado law that forces communities to hold a referendum to reclaim local broadband authority. While the law was intended to make it more difficult for local governments to invest in community broadband networks, more than 140 towns, cities, and counties have opted out of SB 152 after it was passed in 2005. And a number of communities, including Project THOR partners Breckenridge, Glenwood Springs, and Rio Blanco County, have since moved forward with publicly owned broadband networks. In fact, SB 152 proved so ineffective that we removed it from our list of state broadband preemptions last year. But even opponents of municipal broadband networks support Project THOR’s efforts to offer middle mile connectivity to communities and providers. Ron Rizzuto, a University of Denver professor and frequent critic of publicly owned broadband in Colorado, shared his rosier view of Project THOR with the Colorado Sun: [THOR] is a good example of why you need the government to be the catalyst. The private sector is not stepping up . . . The government sector can help entice the private sector to participate because the private sector won’t act on its own. However, the middle mile network does face some criticism from ISP CenturyLink, which confusingly argued that the partners should have invested in last mile connections to homes and businesses instead of a fiber backbone. “We hope that future taxpayer-funded projects focus on meeting the needs of unserved and underserved Coloradans, rather than competing with existing facilities and networks,” the company said in a statement to the Colorado Sun. It’s a bizarre statement coming from a company that currently leases access to Springfield, Missouri’s dark fiber network. THOR Brings Reliability, Affordability Project THOR partner communities are particularly excited about the cost savings the network creates for institutional connections. Aggregating demand across the region leads to greatly reduced transport costs, so Project THOR is able to charge half as much as other middle mile networks in the region, Walowitz told the Colorado Sun. Community anchor institutions can feel the difference. The Steamboat Springs School District, which joined with other agencies in the community to form the Northwest Colorado Broadband cooperative, is now paying just $500 per month for significantly better access than it received previously from CenturyLink, the Colorado Sun reported. Another Project THOR partner, Middle Park Health, told the paper that it was paying “at least 10 times more per Megabit,” than it is today, calling it a “drastic change.” Northwest Colorado households and businesses should also gain access to better broadband, thanks to the middle mile project. ISPs and local governments are expanding networks in the region, using Project THOR’s fiber backbone. Mammoth Networks started offering wireless connectivity in Kremmling last year, and local co-op Yampa Valley Electric Association is building out a fiber network. In Breckenridge, ISP Allo is providing broadband access over the town owned broadband network, Fiber 9600. Many of the providers are drawn to expand their networks because of the increased redundancy offered by Project THOR. The middle mile network’s ring design prevents a single fiber cut from knocking an entire town offline. Before Project THOR, limited network reliability caused outages for essential services like 911 and healthcare providers, putting lives at risks. Now, fiber cuts are imperceptible. “The other day, there was a small fiber outage that affected a few of our communities,” Walowitz shared with the Colorado Sun. “And Project Thor kept going. Nobody knew.” Listen to Community Broadband Bits episode 406 for more information on Project THOR and the partners’ efforts to improve connectivity in Northwest Colorado. Tags: coloradoproject thorpartnershipmiddle miledark fiberanchor institutionsroutt countysteamboat springsvail cobreckenridgeaspenglenwood springseagle cosummit county corio blanco countyyampa valley electrichealth carereliabilityredundancyCost Savings

Heroic Partners Bring Middle Mile Fiber to Northwest Colorado With Project THOR

muninetworks.org - April 28, 2020

The breathtaking mountains of northwest Colorado have long attracted skiers and hikers, but broadband providers haven't found the region's rugged landscape and sparse population as appealing. Enter Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network developed out of a collaboration among local governments and private companies led by the Northwest Colorado Council of Goverments (NWCCOG). Over the last few years, the partners strung together more than 400 miles of fiber to provide reliable and affordable backhaul to municipal facilities, public schools, healthcare systems, and Internet access providers. This week on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG, and Evan Biagi, executive vice president of business development for network operator Mammoth Networks, to learn more about the recently completed project. Jon describes past broadband efforts in the region that led into Project THOR. The pair explain how the new middle mile network will allow localities to connect municipal facilities and anchor instutions and how broadband providers or the communities themselves can build off the network to serve residents and businesses. This will improve broadband reliability and affordability in the region, which had previously been plagued by network outages that cut access for hospitals and 911 calls. Jon and Evan also discuss how the partners lowered project costs by leveraging existing infrastructure. They share some of the challenges involved in designing a network with so many partners. At the end, Jon explains how Project THOR will give communities more opportunities to take action on local connectivity instead of just impatiently waiting for better broadband. This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page. Read the transcript for this episode.  Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control. 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: podcastaudiobroadband bitscoloradoproject thorpartnershipmiddle miledark fiberanchor institutionsroutt countysteamboat springsvail cobreckenridgeaspenglenwood springseagle cosummit county corio blanco countyyampa valley electrichealth carereliabilityredundancyCost Savings

FCC Says Broadband Being Deployed on a Timely Basis, It’s Just Not Sure Where

muninetworks.org - April 27, 2020

The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the yawning gaps in broadband access throughout the country. Yet the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), in its 2020 Broadband Deployment Report released on April 24, found that “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis,” in effect turning a blind eye to the students parked outside libraries to access Wi-Fi, housebound seniors cut off from telehealth services, and struggling businesses left behind by the economy’s move online. The agency came to this conclusion despite years of concern over how the FCC’s flawed data collection method systematically overstates broadband coverage. “We need to do a better job collecting data,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai admitted nearly three years ago, adding, “It’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” 2020 Report Lacks 20/20 Vision Every year, the FCC must report on the expansion of Internet access in the country and determine whether broadband is being deployed in a “reasonable and timely fashion.” In this year’s report, the FCC said, “Given the compelling evidence before us, we find for the third consecutive year that advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed on a reasonable and timely basis.” As support, the FCC noted: The number of Americans lacking access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 25/3 Mbps continues to decline, going down by more than 14 percent in 2018 . . . The vast majority of Americans — surpassing 85 percent — now have access to fixed terrestrial broadband service at 250/25. This is a bold claim, considering the FCC has a tenuous understanding of where broadband is actually available. Everyone, from Congress and state governments to FCC commissioners themselves, agrees that the agency’s current method of collecting coverage information, Form 477, routinely exaggerates broadband availability. Since access is reported by census block, an entire block is considered served if only one house has Internet access. Furthermore, companies self-report the data with limited oversight, which lets providers mistakenly claim to serve millions more people than they really do. Even large companies, like AT&T, struggle to accurately report coverage. FCC commissioners acknowledge the failings of Form 477 and last year issued the Digital Opportunity Data Collection Report and Order to update data collection methods. Commissioner Brendan Carr said at the time [pdf]: The FCC created the form almost 20 years ago . . . Back then, less than half of Americans had Internet access at home, and almost all of those were on dial-up. Yet today, we’re still using substantially the same form to assess the deployment of networks that weren’t imagined at the time. Because of these shortcomings, the FCC’s 2020 report found that “only” 18 million Americans lack access to broadband while recent analysis from BroadbandNow put the number at closer to 42 million. And last year, Microsoft determined that almost 163 million people in the US don’t connect to the Internet at broadband speeds. Commissioners, Critics Challenge Report Conclusion Not all FCC commissioners agreed with the decision to label the pace of broadband deployment adequate. Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Geoffrey Starks both issued dissents. In her statement [pdf], Commissioner Rosenworcel called the report “baffling” and said it, “ignores the lived experiences of so many people struggling to get access to the broadband they need right now for work, education, healthcare, and more.” In addition to the FCC’s flawed data, Rosenworcel pointed to the agency’s failure to consider access to faster speeds, broadband affordability, and Americans’ digital literacy. Broadband advocates echoed Rosenworcel’s concerns. In a press statement, Gigi Sohn, Distinguished Fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law & Policy and a Benton Institute Senior Fellow, argued that the FCC’s conclusion “defies reality,” saying: Over the past six weeks it has become painfully apparent to the press, policymakers and the general public that tens of millions of Americans don’t have access to high-speed broadband Internet service. Yet Chairman Pai has decided that it’s time to take a victory lap even as millions of children cannot do their schoolwork, workers cannot telecommute and families cannot connect to friends, neighbors or each other during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our own Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative, said in a recent press release that this report is more evidence of the FCC’s neglect: This month, the FCC’s Connect America Fund is giving millions of dollars to bankrupt companies like Windstream and Frontier to deliver obsolete Internet access that is slower than the Commission’s own outdated definition of broadband. It is spending $120 million on satellite subsidies that make it harder to deploy broadband in rural areas. He concluded, “The FCC has failed America.”   View PDF's of the FCC's report, Roseworcel's dissent, and Carr's statement below. FCC 2020 Broadband Deployment Report Rosenworcel Dissenting Statement on 2020 Broadband Deployment Report Carr Statement on Digital Opportunity Data CollectionTags: fccfederal governmentdatamappingform 477jessica rosenworcelajit pai

Community Broadband Media Roundup - April 27

muninetworks.org - April 27, 2020


Glenwood working toward installing a new broadband system over the next two years by Matthew Bennett, Post Independent    Kentucky  Locally owned rural telcos establish hotspots to meet demand during pandemic by Toni Riley, Daily Yonder   Massachusetts  Expanding wireless broadband hubs in unserved communities, Massachusetts Broadband Institute    New York  City reaches deal with Greenlight, hopes to leverage terms to bridge digital divide by Brian Sharp, Democrat and Chronicle    Pennsylvania Closing the digital divide in rural Pennsylvania by Therese Perlowski, Internet2   Washington Rural Washington residents working from home adapt to dearth of high-speed Internet connectivity by Amy Edelen, Spokesman   Broadband is primarily a private investment and it’s difficult to make a business case to Internet service providers to deploy in remote areas, because it’s expensive to build towers and lay fiber. If communities can show there are enough people living in the area through mapping, it opens up opportunity for grants that could support broadband infrastructure, Hansen said.   General Benton says FCC's bad broadband standards and data lead to bad decision again, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society    Pandemic builds momentum for broadband infrastructure upgrade by John D. McKinnon and Ryan Tracy, The Wall Street Journal    America’s broadband moment, Benton Institute for Broadband & Society    With limited Internet, one mom finds a way to home-school outside the home by Ronnie Koenig, Today   Fiber providers see strong demand during COVID-19 pandemic by Martha DeGrasse, Fierce Telecom    AT&T gave FCC false broadband-coverage data in parts of 20 states by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica   With Form 477 reports, ISPs are required to tell the FCC which census blocks they offer service in. The FCC uses the data to track broadband-deployment progress and, crucially, to decide which census blocks get government funding for deploying Internet service. AT&T falsely reporting broadband-data coverage could prevent other ISPs from getting that funding and leave Americans without broadband access.   Telecom's latest dumb claim: The Internet only works during a pandemic because we killed Net Neutrality by Karl Bode, Tech Dirt    Another FCC disaster, POTs and PANs  Tags: media roundup

Press Release: FCC Efforts to Track Broadband Have Failed

muninetworks.org - April 27, 2020

MINNEAPOLIS, MINN. (April 24, 2020) - The Federal Communications Commission has concluded that broadband is being deployed “on a reasonable and timely basis” across America. The FCC has admitted on many occasions that it does not know who has broadband or where it is available. Congress has told the FCC to fix its failed data collection. States have had to develop their own approaches because they cannot rely on the FCC’s deployment data. Georgia found that the FCC massively overestimates rural broadband availability. In relation to the data collection used to justify its conclusion, FCC Commissioners have said the following things: Chairman Pai: “It’s often said that you can’t manage what you can’t measure.” https://www.fcc.gov/news-events/blog/2017/07/13/bridging-digital-divide Commissioner O’Rielly: “I appreciate the hard work that went into this item to fix the Commission’s broken mapping process.” https://www.fcc.gov/document/fcc-improves-broadband-mapping-0/orielly-st... Commissioner Carr: “The FCC created the form almost 20 years ago to assess local voice competition and collect data on advanced telecommunications. Back then, less than half of Americans had Internet access at home, and almost all of those were on dial-up. Yet today, we’re still using substantially the same form to assess the deployment of networks that weren’t imagined at the time of the FCC’s 2000 Data Collection Order.” https://docs.fcc.gov/public/attachments/DOC-358832A4.pdf The following comments can be attributed to Christopher Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. The FCC does not know how many Americans can access broadband. It has failed at one of its most basic tasks. This month, the FCC’s Connect America Fund is giving millions of dollars to bankrupt companies like Windstream and Frontier to deliver obsolete Internet access that is slower than the Commission’s own outdated definition of broadband. It is spending $120 million on satellite subsidies that make it harder to deploy broadband in rural areas. The FCC has failed America. Americans must demand better from every elected official on the ballot if they want any hope for the future in this pandemic. About Christopher Mitchell: Christopher Mitchell is the Director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is a leading national expert on community networks, advising high-ranking broadband decision-makers and speaking on radio and television programs across the United States. For more information and to schedule an interview with Christopher, call Sushmita Shrestha at 612-540-5997 or email SShrestha@ilsr.org. ### The Institute for Local Self-Reliance 1710 Connecticut Ave., NW, 4th Floor Washington, DC 20009 Tags: press center

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 405

muninetworks.org - April 24, 2020

This is the transcript for episode 405 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher talks with Angela Siefer, Executive Director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) about how the pandemic crisis has exposed the digital divide. She also shares the work NDIA is doing to bring long-term solutions to connect low income families. Listen to the episode, or read the transcript below.   Angela Siefer: The affordability problem is one that we can solve like right now, and so the the idea that people don't have broadband in their homes because they can't afford it and we know of all the terrible stuff that's going along with not having broadband in your home right now, that situation is completely unacceptable. Jess Del Fiacco: Welcome to episode 405 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. This is Jess Del Fiacco, Communications Manager. Today, Christopher talks with Angela Siefer, Executive Director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Christopher and Angela talk about the new work organization is doing to meet the needs of our public health crisis, including creating a list of resources to help those who can support people who may need assistance with connectivity during the pandemic. They discussed some of the efforts of larger ISP to bring connectivity to low income folks and why such efforts need to include a range of demographics, not just homes with school aged children. Angela explains why some of those programs are more popular than others in the short term, and she and Christopher discuss possible longterm solutions as well. Now, here's Christopher talking with Angela Siefer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. This is Chris Mitchell from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in my den in St. Paul talking to one of my favorite people who's doing a lot of really great work around the nation. Angela Siefer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. Welcome back to the show, Angela. Angela Siefer: Hi Chris. Thanks for having me again. I'm coming to you from my home office/college age daughter's bedroom, which we now share. Christopher Mitchell: Well, if she's reading in the corner, she's doing it extremely quietly. Angela Siefer: Excellent. Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to start off by just asking you, is this just a lovely relaxing time for you to be home with the family? 2:02 Angela Siefer: The last two days, my college aged son has made dinner and brought it up to me because I was still working while they were all eating dinner, so I wouldn't say it's relaxing. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. A few days ago you told me you'd resolve to take it a little bit easier after working 20 hour days or so. I'm assuming. Angela Siefer: That didn't really work out. It was good intentions though, right? And we all appreciate good intentions. Christopher Mitchell: Well, this is where I think it's a good place to start because as someone who's been aware of the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, which if people want to check it out, digitalinclusion.org, the list is off the hook. I feel like you put together a network of the people who are on the front lines of figuring out how to make sure people can conduct their lives in the period of this pandemic. That wasn't the intention of what you put it for, but just just give me a sense, what's NDIA doing now that it didn't have to do two months ago? Angela Siefer: I think the work itself still falls in the same buckets that it did before, which is that we help the digital inclusion practitioners on the ground and talk to each other and learn from each other. We write up some of that turn it into guide books, but then also we do the policy work where we're learning from those on the ground. And so that kind of work is the same. The difference now is that the work is much more urgent because people who don't have Internet in their homes or a device or the digital skills to use it, it's now life and death. So, this is why taking breaks doesn't seem appropriate. I know I need to do it for my personal health and don't anybody send me nasty emails on that. Angela Siefer: But at the same time, the work really is life and death because we need folks to stay in their homes. If they don't have broadband device and digital skills, if they don't have one of those, they are going to leave their homes. I really encourage anyone to think if you didn't, would you stay in your home? Would you shelter in place? Christopher Mitchell: Not just that. Well, you're being told that your children need to go and do this work digitally in some cases. So they're literally receiving conflicting messages. 4:03 Angela Siefer: They are and the stories of those who don't have it, people are really being told to go sit in the parking lot, hopefully have a car in order to sit in the parking lot. If you don't have a car to sit in the parking lot. Well, is there really an answer to that? And even sitting in a car to do the parking lot, I can't imagine. I have a nine year old, "All right honey, get in the car. We're going to go to the parking lot to do your homework." We can barely get her to do it now sitting in our bedroom. And then there are some stories of cities and others turning off the wifi in parks because we're not social distancing. I mean that's complicated, right? Yes, we don't want them to social distance but maybe one of those folks, they were just trying to apply for unemployment. So, now they can't feed their kids. Oh my heart just breaks in thinking about those situations. Christopher Mitchell: Right. And I just want to make sure, I mean this discussion about how things have changed, you are well aware that people have been doing this, in rural areas in particular for a long time, so if anyone's thinking that you're not aware of that, you are very aware of it. You're just talking about what's, it's a much larger scale now. I was talking to someone from Cambridge, Massachusetts recently and I was like, well a lot of the solutions we're looking at don't apply to you because people drive everywhere and they have parking lots everywhere and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, you really don't have that. So I don't know what to tell you. I'm sorry. Angela Siefer: Yeah. So hopefully the weather's okay so that you can sit outside in a parking lot because you don't have a car. Another terrible story, I saw a tweet of a principal in Phoenix came in in the morning to the school building when it was supposed to be shut down and there were kids under a blanket up against the school building, so they can get access to the wifi. And it gets cold at night in Phoenix, it's a hot day, but it's cold at night. So, those stories are out there and it's heartbreaking. So, we have to figure this out now. I curse more than I have ever cursed. Like I just did it right there but I stopped myself. So I'm pretty proud of that. 6:14 Christopher Mitchell: NDIA has assembled a really great and essential collection of resources for families that aren't all that aware of what their opportunities are. And I think even more importantly for all the people who are on the front lines who themselves just need something that point people at when they get questions or to put on sheets. And so I'm curious, did anything as you were compiling that list of resources, what's included on it and then we'll talk a little bit about if it's sufficient. Angela Siefer: The list that we have is a list of free and low cost Internet plans specific to the Covid crisis and beyond the Covid crisis. The list that we have is intended for practitioners, individuals who are supporting those who would be eligible, it is not intended for consumers because this stuff is confusing. Christopher Mitchell: Yes. Even for the people who are working for the companies that are supplying it. Angela Siefer: That's exactly right. One of the confusing parts and this may seem kind of silly to some of your listeners is that individuals who have never really had to think about broadband before now have to think about it in terms of those that they are serving, making sure that they have access, whether it be education, healthcare, employers and because they don't understand it some unfortunate promotion of free offers have gone out in areas where those providers don't actually provide service. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's a problem. Angela Siefer: Right. So we very much encourage those who are interacting with and supporting particularly low income consumers, family members, households to look at the list and then take out the pieces that are relevant for your area. Don't just hand over the whole list cause that's confusing. You know which providers are available in your area. If you don't figure it out. Do the copy paste of just the providers in your area. 8:13 Angela Siefer: Create the flyers, create you know the information that can spread the word. Because that's how we're going to reach folks. NDIA right now is working on a model that we're calling digital navigator. And to be clear, when I say NDIA, I don't just mean the staff, I mean the whole community, this has really been a community discussion and now we are doing the more detailed work of writing it up. But this idea of a digital navigator is someone who has a different job within the community, maybe their local healthcare workers going into home or used to go into homes. Maybe it is folks who are providing housing assistance, but it's individuals and organizations who do other work with at risk populations. Training them on how to provide guidance to someone on what's the Internet available in that area? What are the options for getting a free or low cost device in that area? Angela Siefer: And then helping that person really with some basic digital skills in order to do the very basic thing they need to do right now. If they just need to apply for unemployment right now, that's the urgent thing in their lives. Help them get to that point. And then help them get to the point where they're comfortable enough to take some online digital literacy classes. So, this is a model that's probably been needed in the past, but the urgency of the current situation is you can't just tell people to go a library anymore. We have to figure out how to help people via phone and we have to get at home broadband in a way that the urgency of it today is completely different than before. We always knew that the digital divide was a significant issue. It has now become a life and death if showroom Christopher Mitchell: And you brought someone on board to help with that. Angela Siefer: We did. We have a project going with LISC actually, which we're super excited about and that has allowed us to bring on Sabrina Roach who can help pull this together us. NDIA is a small team, so having a little bit of support during this time is just really incredible. Christopher Mitchell: Well, especially from Sabrina, who I think of as being one of the most capable people I've ever had the pleasure of working with. 10:17 Angela Siefer: Yeah, that's exactly right. We totally got lucky is what happened in being able to hire her. And I think it's important to note that this digital navigator idea as we build it and define it, we're doing so very publicly. We just finished up creating what we're defining as the concept and then we're pushing that out today actually. Christopher Mitchell: You mean last week? Angela Siefer: Yes, I meant we've pushed that out last week, so the details of how it all works, we are very aware. And so are all the folks that we're working with around the country who are trying to figure this out at the same time that we have to just keep sharing with each other what it is that we've figured out and what it is we don't figured out in order for us all to make mistakes as quickly as we can and share out those mistakes so that others can have can have greater impact. Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's wonderful. I'm looking forward to the results that I think that's something that well maybe take for granted in five or 10 years in a lot of places. What do you think about the response from the big providers? So, you've collected a list and we know that hundreds of providers have responded. A lot of the media attention went to the big ones because they have customers everywhere and especially in the big media markets. So what do you make of, if we just generally say the biggest cable and telephone companies, how are they doing in responding to the pandemic specifically to connect low income folks? Angela Siefer: It is a scale, I'm not sure what the right word is. Christopher Mitchell: A big continuum. Angela Siefer: A continuum of broadband providers who are doing super job, those who are doing really not so super job. The ones in the middle, the, "Eh, it's okay." The super job I would put at Comcast, if everybody could level up to Comcast, we could really have a lot more folks connected to the Internet. I put Charter at the other end of the spectrum. Golly. 12:13 Christopher Mitchell: Let me just pause you for a second and say that what you've just described as almost every inside conversation I've had with people about the management of the two companies, and this is something I've tried to make clear, is I have plenty of things that I'm frustrated with Comcast about, but fundamentally they are a well run company in the system, Charter is not, its employees spend most of their days trying to figure out how to find another job from what I can tell. Angela Siefer: The issues with Charter are multiple. I think one of the biggest ones is that they didn't connect the free two months to their existing $18 a month discount offer. That just doesn't make any sense at all. After your free two months either your service stops depending on upon who the person was that you reached at the call center or you are now being charged for rate. Some people are being told they will be charged for rate, which means that call center person took it as a promotional offer, not a crisis offer. Kind of want it makes me scream. Christopher Mitchell: I bet it actually has made you scream. Angela Siefer: It has, actually. There's a lot of curse words in that one too. When we were first figuring out the problems with Charter, I really had it make myself tone it down because I was not speaking professionally to the media and I should be very careful about that. I think one of the issues is that at Comcast there are people whose job it is and their only job is Internet essentials. That low cost offer, which is now free for two months. At Charter, I can't get anybody to tell me who's in charge over there. And I've asked lots of people. I've asked other people to ask people. I've asked FCC commissioners if they can figure it out. Nobody seems to know who's in charge of the free offer and or the the $18 a month offer. Where does the responsibility lie? Nobody wants to take responsibility. That is not good. 14:15 Angela Siefer: The company's in the middle of that spectrum are AT&T, Verizon and the offers are okay. They're not great. Verizon's is troubling because it leaves out all of their folks that have DSL. So if you don't have enough to get upgraded a Fios, you're also not lucky enough to get their ... and you're low income, you're also not lucky enough to get it for $20 which those who have Fios can do. That seems particularly wrong. AT&T it's really slow. It has been really slow, their low cost offer. So now you can get the really slow for free for two months. Eh. You know, it is what it is. Christopher Mitchell: So, as we look at the hundreds of smaller companies that have taken the FCC pledge, I'm presuming that some of them have gone further to also create some of these free programs for 60 days, I mean in one case I think it's actually 180 days or 120 days or something like that. So there's some variety out there. But what do you broadly take away from it? Angela Siefer: I take away that the smaller companies are more connected to the communities. That they certainly know who's in charge of the low cost programs. And the folks locally can probably figure out who that person is. If there's something going on and not working correctly. So the idea that the smaller the company might have more of a financial challenge providing that free offer, but they probably experience a bit more pressure to provide it because they live in those communities and they're seeing it firsthand. 16:00 Christopher Mitchell: Also, I assume they have thinner margins and so it can be much more difficult for them to make those commitments, which is why we've seen Senator Klobuchar among others and a bipartisan group pushing for $2 billion. A few months ago we would have said is a large amount, when now we would say it's a small amount to try to make sure they're able to keep doing that. Angela Siefer: I was talking to a reporter at the New York Times and I said, there is concern about the smaller companies not being able to afford to do this and being in danger of their own stability. And he said, "Are you sure? I don't know. Is that true?" I said, "Well, ILSR thinks it's true and I trust them." His response was, "I do too." Christopher Mitchell: Well, that's great. We're going to isolate that and replay it over and over again. Something that NDIA has done a great job of is talking about how these programs can't just be for households that have kids. It's not just about school, it's about the family being connected and just tell me what you're seeing on that front. Angela Siefer: The most attention around the issue of the digital divide during this crisis has been on school kids and the homework app. Completely understaNDIAble. I think we need to be super careful not to limit any solutions just to that population. In particular, seniors are at greatest risk of dying because they're leaving their homes. Christopher Mitchell: Right? Elderly seniors, not seniors in high school. Angela Siefer: Not seniors in high school, that's a very good clarification. Let's call them older adults. Older adults are most at risk of dying when they leave their homes, so we cannot just focus on any of our solutions on the kids, which they definitely need solutions. We have to look at everyone, all of the folks who are particularly at risk, all of those who are asymptomatic and out there sharing the virus unintentionally for all the reasons that we all know, everybody needs to shelter in place as much as they can, and so that means the solutions have to address everyone. 18:11 Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's a good time for a PSA. I hate masks, I really, really hate them and when I go out in public to hit the grocery store, take out at a local restaurant or something like that, I put on one of the stupid baNDIAnas that hurts my ears with the rubber bands like ... strongly encourage people to do it because I'm frankly ... I can't remember the last time I got sick. It happens once every six or seven years. I'm one of those very lucky people, it comes from my mom. I don't want to accidentally pick it up and spread it around and and so that's why I wear it. Angela Siefer: That's exactly right. My husband also has a beard as you do Chris and he actually shaved it off because it was so uncomfortable under the mask. Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. So, I want to ask you about what we can do we in the short term. what are the kinds of things that you're encouraging to resolve this over the next ... let's just say particularly over the summer, but over 2020. Things that don't involve architecting new broadband networks. Angela Siefer: The free and low cost offers from the Internet service providers are valuable. The one thing that we can be doing right now that's not costing the rest of us money but is really essential is to get out information about those. They are not the full answer. They are baNDIAids and we really need a broadband subsidy, an emergency broadband subsidy, to be identified and funded by Congress as soon as possible. Get it out through existing mechanisms because we don't have time to stand up a new program and make sure that everybody can afford broadband. Angela Siefer: Broadband infrastructure is a problem that takes longer to solve. The affordability problem is one that we can solve right now. And so, the idea that people don't have broadband in their homes because they can't afford it. And we know of all the terrible stuff that's going along with not having broadband in your home right now, that situation is completely unacceptable. 20:12 Christopher Mitchell: And this is primarily an urban and suburban situation in which this is where the advantage of the Comcast and Charters and even AT&T's because they have equipment on the home and for them it's a matter of likely flicking a switch in software to turn it on. One of the things that you're saying about a subsidy I want to say is important ... I don't want to get lost in the fact that there's tons of people who just don't know about the offers we discussed earlier. So making them aware is really important, but the subsidy is important beyond that, is what you're saying. Angela Siefer: Yes. And I would also clarify that there are rural areas where infrastructure does exist and people are not subscribing. So, it's not just an urban issue to provide a broadband subsidy or to get them to sign up for free and low cost offers. It is wherever there is existing service, we should help folks sign up for that. There's been a lot of excitement and promotion over using hotspot devices, loaning them out, so there's different kinds of hotspots. We should be careful about that because it often gets, they get thrown together at the same time. Christopher Mitchell: It's the English language, it's brutal. Angela Siefer: It is the English language. Hot spots that are personal devices that would handle a few other devices in your household versus hotspot area. I'm not even sure the right word- Christopher Mitchell: Right, they go wifi, public access point. Angela Siefer: Yes, right. The hotspot devices that get loaned out by libraries, that sometimes individual families will have, those are a valuable resource where the service is available. And if the actual hotspot device can be purchased, which right now there's a supply problem with those, we very much need all the solutions to be on the table. This gets at that issue of very well meaning people not knowing what all those solutions on the table are, so they focus their efforts at hotspots when they could be focusing their efforts at those free and low cost offers where that infrastructure is already available. 22:22 Christopher Mitchell: Right. The challenge I feel like with the hotspots is that it's a decent solution for schools that just need to finish the term and perhaps the very beginning of the next term, let's hope not, but it seems likely for at least some schools, but over time it ends up being super costly. I'm guessing. Angela Siefer: It is very costly and the more reasonable the service is in terms of costs, the more spotty it is also. It is mostly a really valuable solution for housing insecure folks and homeless folks where having a wire line doesn't make sense. There is no place to put a wireline or they move often, so keeping continually installing a new wireline is not going to happen. That's where it's a solution. The issue with getting folks signed up for the free and low cost is that it's a bit more time consuming. It's a lot faster. If you could just hand out hotspots and you press the button and it works whereas getting them signed up and making sure it's actually working, the installation and then is it functioning? It's a longer process to be fair. Christopher Mitchell: Sure. One of the other solutions then also is to have the public wifi hotspots in parking lots that we're seeing rushed out in a number of places and memorably a fiber to a school bus, which is not the first, but it won't be the last in the Ozarks of Arkansas. So, that's also a solution that you see a lot of merit in for the short term. Angela Siefer: Oh yes. There's a lot of creative solutions going on out there. Internet through bookmobiles, spreading the signal that way. Internet through the school buses, parking them in particular low income neighborhoods, pushing out the signal from the schools so it's stronger and maybe reaches even beyond the parking lot to some homes. All of those are really appreciated. And those along with the low cost offers and along with hospital devices, it's all a series of baNDIAids. So you know what happens when you only use a series of baNDIAids, there's a bunch of gaps. There are people who aren't covered by any of those solutions. 24:35 Christopher Mitchell: So, what's a longer term solution that we should be looking at? Angela Siefer: The longer term solution is that broadband subsidy that goes beyond the emergency. Christopher Mitchell: What does that look like? We have lifeline. It's a $9,25, I believe, an entire family gets to choose if they would like to have a telephone or Internet service. So, we have the start of something. I don't want to put that as purely as straw man, but what does your subsidy do differently? Angela Siefer: It is a start and I think we have to take advantage of the fact that we already have the lifeline structure there. There are certainly aspects of that structure. Lots of us would want to change, both who lean right and who lean left there are things that any of those individuals would want to have it fixed, but it is a structure that already exist and we should figure out if we want to continue using it. Angela Siefer: The broadband subsidy right now is this tiny little 3Gb added onto your mobile phone because that's what most folks use lifeline for, those who do use lifeline as a communication subsidy use it from a mobile phone for the most part. So it would need to be a completely separate benefit. We can't have people choosing that totally doesn't make any sense. There needs to be both a phone subsidy and a broadband subsidy. And I know this makes some folks super nervous. I get it. Christopher Mitchell: I'm one of them. Angela Siefer: I totally get it and I think now is the time to be having those discussions to determine, "Okay, what about it makes us nervous and how can we get to some sort of agreement?" 26:15 Christopher Mitchell: The part that makes me nervous is, first of all, it doesn't make me oppose it. I'm supportive of it. I think it's necessary for all the reasons that you've laid out both here and in other conversations. I am nervous about subsidizing a broken market. And that's the part that makes me nervous and I think that is shared by people in the left and the right, as you said earlier. Angela Siefer: Absolutely. The tricky part is going to be us trying to increase competition at the same time that we're providing the subsidy. Theoretically the subsidy would then be able to go down if we were able to raise competition and improve prices. Wouldn't that be lovely? Christopher Mitchell: Right. That's a very good point in that one of the reasons it's not perhaps the predominant reason, but one of the reasons we do lack competition is because the cost of trying to provide an additional network in an area in which you do not have a lot of people taking up service, if you suddenly have more people that are willing to take service with a subsidized coupon, then you could see new network build out. I do feel like, and knowing you I know you would support additional ways to increase competition as well, so yeah ... I think that makes sense as a holistic sort of approach. I just get nervous about programs that start off well intentioned and then five years later you're like, "Whoa, we're spending so much money. We haven't structurally resolved very much." Angela Siefer: Yes. Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I get the impression of is that you're not the kind of person to waste a lot of time on things that can't happen. I think you take strong goals, things that are hard to make happen, but you are seeing support now for that that you had not seen six months ago. We've talked for awhile about the need for a better broadband subsidy, but we haven't made it a public campaign. Now you are, the facts on the ground have changed is what you're seeing. 28:09 Angela Siefer: They have completely changed. The awareness is now totally different. There are still a couple people out there who think everybody already has broadband, but number of people are fewer. I'm now having conversations with even Internet service providers about a broadband subsidy and they weren't really talking to me about broadband subsidies before. Angela Siefer: And I'm seeing conversation amongst organizations who haven't always worked together who are now working together to try to figure this out, so I have high hopes. I am also realistic that it may not, the emergency part of this may not happen. And I'll just keep cursing a lot, but if it doesn't happen, we will be closer to figuring out the longterm solution because we will have had some of those hard conversations during the crisis that we hadn't had before. Christopher Mitchell: That's great. Well, I think that's a good note to leave on unless there's anything else that you want to shoehorn in. Angela Siefer: This is perfect. Thank you, Chris. Christopher Mitchell: Thank you so much, Angela. I appreciate your time and I really love the work that you're doing, the network you've put together, seeing the collaboration that's happening on that lists are wonderful, it makes me feel a lot worse about the work I've done. Angela Siefer: Well, I love your work, so I'll have to send you some more kudos to make sure you understand. Thanks, guys. I appreciate it. Jess Del Fiacco: That was Christopher talking with Angela Siefer, executive director for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance. 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. 29:51 Jess Del Fiacco: Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @communitynets. Follow muninetwork.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @muninetworks. Subscribe to this and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power, Local Energy Rules, and the Composting For Community podcast. You can access them anywhere you get your podcasts. You can catch the latest important research from all of our initiatives if you subscribe to our monthly newsletter ilsr.org. While you're there, please take a moment to donate. Your support at any amount keeps us going. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle licensed through Creative Commons. This was episode 405 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Thanks for listening. Tags: transcript

To Get Students Online, Schools Cover Cost of Comcast Low-Income Plans

muninetworks.org - April 23, 2020

Across the country, schools have shifted to distance learning after the Covid-19 pandemic resulted in widespread school closures and stay-at-home orders. But many students still can’t get online to learn. A recent survey of Los Angeles Schools found that 16 percent of students don’t have access to broadband and that 15 percent had not yet spoken with teachers. To connect students on the wrong side of the digital divide, school districts in a number of cities, including Portland, Oregon and San Francisco, California, are working with Comcast to sponsor the cost of the company’s Internet Essentials program for low-income families in need of home broadband connections during the crisis. In a press release, Guadalupe Guerrero, Superintendent of Portland Public Schools, said of the program: As we transition from a traditional brick and mortar school experience to one that takes place online, it is more important than ever that we make every effort to remain connected to our students who rely on us for not only academics, but also essential needs and social and emotional supports. . . This partnership will allow us to stay connected to our students who need us most. Schools Sponsor Student Service To help ensure all students can access online education while schools are closed, San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) and Portland Public Schools (PPS) plan to pay the monthly cost of Comcast’s Internet Essentials plan for eligible households. The school systems will distribute promotional codes to families who can then contact the company to sign up for broadband access at no cost. Internet Essentials is Comcast’s affordable broadband plan for low-income households that qualify for a variety of public assistance programs. The program currently offers speeds of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. In response to the current public health crisis, the company is offering all new Internet Essentials subscribers two months of free access. After two months, the monthly fee is $9.95, which SFUSD and PPS will cover for participating families. Households will not have to continue service after the crisis or pay for unreturned equipment. “We're not looking to put an added burden on families through this,” explained Melissa Dodd, Chief Technology Officer for SFUSD, at a recent Board of Education meeting. The duration of the assistance varies. SFUSD’s contract with Comcast [pdf], which the Board of Education approved on April 14 and is available to view below, establishes an initial term of up to one year. The district has budgeted $1 million from general funds for the initiative. In Portland, the Fund for PPS, a nonprofit established to coordinate donations for the public school system, has enough initial funding to pay for 4 months of Internet Essentials (in addition to the two free months from Comcast) for 2,000 households. “Thanks to an early infusion of private donations, we were excited to commit free Internet connectivity to many of our students and families in need,” Jonathan Garcia, President of the Fund for PPS, shared in a press release. The organization continues to accept donations for the program. In both cities, the sponsorship program with Comcast is just one of the efforts the school districts are taking to connect students and their families. “We're learning everyday how complex this broadband access is, and we'll need multiple strategies to address the gaps,” said San Francisco Commissioner Jenny Lam at the April 14 Board of Education meeting. In addition to the Internet Essentials program, SFUSD is publicizing other free and low-cost connection options and distributing Wi-Fi hotspots. PPS, which estimates that more than 3,000 students need broadband access, is also providing hotspots for families with volatile housing situations. Both SFUSD and PPS are reaching out to families that may be eligible for sponsored Internet Essentials connections. Portland families can request a promotional code online. The Portland Community College Foundation is also offering free connections to up to 300 students. Comcast is working with other school districts, including Albuquerque Public Schools in New Mexico, on similar sponsorship programs. Temporary Fix Reveals Double Standard It’s commendable that the school districts have worked with Comcast to find a solution to rapidly meet the urgent needs of their most vulnerable students. “It is great to see such quick responses from providers to this long term problem of unequal access to the Internet,” said Mike McCarthy, a friend of MuniNetworks.org who manages San Francisco’s Community Broadband Network, a 10 year old network that provides access to over 2,000 households. Comcast’s cable network already reaches many homes in San Francisco and Portland, so most participating families would be able to plug in and learn without delay. And unlike some other Covid-19 programs, the Internet Essentials sponsorships don’t automatically transition families to paid service after the crisis offer ends, and they are open to households with prior debt. Even before the pandemic underscored the importance of connectivity, some municipal networks had already taken action to connect students to home broadband. For example, last year, the local school district in Cedar Falls, Iowa, partnered with the city’s municipal broadband network to provide $5 per month broadband plans to families that qualify for free or reduced price school lunches. We are supportive of these sponsorship programs and Comcast’s willingness to work with the school districts. However, we want to remind readers that these same solutions would probably be called unfair cross-subsidies if municipal networks like Cedar Falls Utilities proposed them. “It is okay for Comcast to take public subsidies, but not local governments,” said Community Broadband Networks Director Christopher Mitchell. Tennessee and Louisiana even have laws that limit how low municipal broadband networks can price their service, preventing them from implementing creative solutions like this. To close the homework gap after the Covid-19 crisis ends, cities will need a more comprehensive focus on broadband expansion and competition. McCarthy explained: It will be important that this newfound national focus on Internet access doesn’t stop with the deployment of hotspots or expanding the customer base for traditional providers. The best solution to ensuring access for all is to increase competition and expand markets by supporting new deployment models of Internet access, [including] models that allow municipal entities to support new ISPs in their communities by sharing access to infrastructure. Students' need for at-home connectivity won’t end with the pandemic, and cities should start planning for that future now. Any arguments about the need for universal, in-home, high-quality Internet access are settled. Tags: comcastinternet essentialsdigital divideeducationquarantinesan franciscoportlandschool districtfree

Frontier Removes 17,000 Census Blocks From $20 Billion Rural Broadband Auction

muninetworks.org - April 23, 2020

Last week, Frontier Communications told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that there are 17,000 census blocks in which it is now offering 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. This means well over 400,000 Americans now live in areas no longer eligible for the FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund, a $20.4 billion program to expand rural broadband. The first phase will auction off up to $16 billion in subsidies later this year. In the filing, the company also identified census blocks where it believes other providers will deploy broadband access through state-funded programs, making those locations ineligible for the federal funds as well. Frontier is Flailing Frontier recently declared bankruptcy, following a history of increasingly unsustainable acquisitions. It also just missed its milestone for the Connect America Fund, which required the company to deploy obsolete 10/1 Mbps service to 80 percent of the funded locations by the end of 2019 in return for more than $1.5 billion in subsidies. Some 774,000 locations should have at least 10/1 Mbps service by the end of 2020 from a company Consumer Reports repeatedly finds to be one of the worst Internet Service Providers in the nation. Frontier is so bad that it went through repeated outages of 911 in Wisconsin, dealt with state investigation after state investigation (including but in no way limited to Minnesota, Ohio, Nevada, New York, Connecticut, Minnesota again, West Virginia, and California [pdf]), and cannot even handle basic redactions (revealing nearly 1 million poorly maintained network connections in West Virginia alone). We made a fact sheet to track some of Frontier's problems. Maps Our own Michelle Andrews, GIS and Data Visualization Researcher, produced a map of where these census blocks are in which Frontier says it has deployed 25/3 Mbps service since June 2019. We are extremely concerned that many of these locations may not actually be getting the claimed 25/3 Mbps. If Frontier is exaggerating its coverage, now is the time to investigate before those households miss out on a massive opportunity to get high-quality Internet service from a company that, unlike Frontier, has basic competence. In working with some local folks, Michelle also put together more in-depth maps of Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Indiana so we can try to spot check locations. If you know Frontier subscribers in those states, please spread the word and ask them to send the results of this speed test to broadband@muninetworks.org with their address. Situation Normal: Bewildering This would not be the first time in the past week that a major U.S. telecom monopoly incorrectly reported coverage in thousands of census blocks to the FCC. The FCC seems to have no intention of developing any consequences for companies that make repeated false claims in these data collections. One of the oddest things about the Frontier filing is that while Frontier was preparing to declare bankruptcy in recent months, it also had the time to research state broadband programs and suggest locations to the FCC in which it thought others may be deploying broadband in areas not covered by Frontier. That company is an utter mystery. Contact broadband@muninetworks.org to share your Frontier speed test results and to find out how you can help.   "Frontier Communications Cable Truck, 7/2015" by Mike Mozart. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Tags: frontierruralwisconsinindianaillinoisbankrupctyrural digital opportunity fundconnect america fundfccmap911reliabilitysubsidies

Help PCs for People Connect Students and Give Lonely Office Computers a New Life

muninetworks.org - April 22, 2020

Schools across the country have moved instruction online in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, but many students are struggling to log in and learn. We’ve written before about how schools, libraries, and Internet access providers are taking steps to connect students with Wi-Fi hotspots. Still, many kids don’t have access to appropriate devices they can use to complete online schoolwork. According to PCs for People, a digital inclusion nonprofit and computer refurbisher, almost a quarter of students don’t have a computer. To overcome that barrier, PCs for People partnered with Schoolclosures.org, GoFundMe, and Google Fiber to launch the Give Computers project, which will connect unused computers sitting in empty corporate offices with students in need. The initiative will refurbish computers and other devices donated by businesses and send them to eligible students. Details and donation information are available online. Donation and Distribution Details PCs for People and its partners will welcome donations from all businesses, from large corporations to small mom-and-pop shops, as well as from individuals. Accepted equipment includes working and non-working laptops, desktops, tablets, and computer accessories. PCs for People, which has an NAID AAA certification for data sanitization and R2 certification for e-waste recycling, will securely erase any data on the devices and restore the computers to operable condition, recycling any unusable devices or materials. More information is available in the Give Computers FAQ. Submit an inquiry online if you wish to donate. PCs for People will help set up shipping or a free pickup for the equipment. If your child or another student you know needs a device to complete online schoolwork and meets PCs for People’s eligibility guidelines, you can apply online at the Give Computers website. Tags: digital dividequarantinecomputer refurbishing programlow-incomeeducation

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