Policies for Better Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 165

Back in July, Next Century Cities released a short report, Connecting 21st Century Communities: A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders, exploring various policies and approaches that will improve Internet access. The brief is organized into sections on local government, state government, federal government, philanthropy, and community.

For this week on Community Broadband Bits, Lisa Gonzalez takes the mic to interview Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities, and me, the Policy Director for Next Century Cities (which I do within my capacity at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance).

We talk about the report, why we picked the policies we did, why we stuffed it full of examples, and as a bonus, Deb gives us an update of Next Century Cities and upcoming events.

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

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Santa Cruz Fiber Project with Cruzio

Santa Cruz, California, and its 62,000 people with poor Internet connectivity near Silicon Valley, could be one of the larger municipalities to develop a citywide fiber network. The Santa Cruz Fiber project, which was announced on June 24, 2015, would be an open-access public private partnership (PPP) with the city constructing the network and a private company, Cruzio, serving as network operator. The plans are preliminary, but the announcement highlighted the project’s emphasis on local ownership: 

“A locally-owned, next-generation broadband network operated openly and independently and built for Santa Cruz, [the Santa Cruz Fiber Project] is uniquely tailored to fit the diverse needs of the Santa Cruz community.” 

Cruzio is one of the oldest and largest Internet service providers in California. Completely locally-owned and staffed, Cruzio is rooted in Santa Cruz County. The company’s name perfectly describes it. Cruz- from Santa Cruz and -io from I/O (Input/Output, communication between an information processing system and the rest of the world).  Our Christopher Mitchell is gushing over the name and says: “I seriously love it.”

Fiber is not a new commodity in Santa Cruz. Since 2011, Cruzio has installed fiber in several of its projects, and the fiber has wooed some 30 entrepreneurs and solo practitioners to stay in the downtown area at the Cruzio Works, a co-working space. Last November, Central Coast Broadband Consortium commissioned a study of the fiber networks in Santa Cruz (paid for with a grant from the California Public Utilities commission). They discovered more fiber under the city of Santa Cruz than in any other city in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito. Unfortunately much of it belonged to incumbent providers like Comcast and AT&T who are loath to lease dark fiber or make affordable fiber connections available to local businesses and residents. 

Then, just this past June, Comcast announced the planned rollout of Gigabit Pro near Silicon Valley, but not Santa Cruz. Even if Comcast changes its mind, the city has already found a local private partner in Cruzio. This local public-private partnership will almost certainly result in far more benefits to the community than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro. This network will be under local control and responsive to community needs.  

The intention of the partnership is to pursue an open access model. At first, the network will be solely a public-private partnership where the City of Santa Cruz will own the network and Cruzio will construct and operate it. During the initial stages, Cruzio will provide the expertise in network management that the city of Santa Cruz does not necessarily have. After a number of years, the network will open up to more service providers in order to promote competition, which is how Westminster has arranged its partnership with Ting in Maryland. 

The goal of the FTTH project proposal according to Cruzio is to connect 6,000 households and businesses by the end of the third year. Currently, the construction costs are estimated at $52 million. The City staff will present a report to city council by the end of this September on the potential Fiber Project’s feasibility. Early project estimates suggest the network would be mostly completed by late 2018. If the take-rate is feasible, the city intends to back the network with municipal revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are repaid through the sale of networking services, not through taxes. This ensures that those who use the network will pay for the network. Cruzio is now surveying residents to determine interest and creating an engineering report. 

CLIC to Host Partnership Event at Broadband Communities' September Conference

Is your community considering a public private partnership to improve connectivity for businesses and residents? Will you be attending the Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference in Lexington this September? If you answered 'yes' to those two questions, you should attend CLIC's half-day event on Friday, September 18th.

Spend the morning breakfasting with telecommunication attorney Jim Baller and Joanne Hovis from CLIC along with Maura Corbett, CEO of Glen Echo Group and Heather Gold, CEO of FTTH Council Americas.

The rest of the agenda from a CLIC email invitation:

An Extensive CLIC Paper on the Key Business and Legal Issues in Public-Private Partnerships :

Moderator: Jim Baller - President, CLIC

Speakers:

The Private Sector’s Perspective :

Speakers:

  • Elliot Noss - CEO, Ting Fiber Internet
  • Bob Nichols - President, Declaration Networks Group
  • Levi Dinkla – Vice President & Chief Operating Officer, iTV-3
  • Steve Biggerstaff – Founding President, Director & Advisor, Metronet
  • Nicholas Hann – Senior Managing Director, Macquarie Capital/Macquarie Group Ltd.

The Public Sector’s Perspective :

Moderator: Catharine Rice - Project Director, CLIC

Speakers:

  • Robert Wack - President, City Council, Westminster, MD
  • Scott Shapiro - Senior Advisor, The Mayor’s Office, City of Lexington, Kentucky
  • Jon Gant – Director, UC2B

We Remember Scott DeGarmo

We were saddened to learn of Scott DeGarmo's passing this past week and, like many others who knew him and his work, want to pay tribute to his many contributions.

Scott was the CEO of Broadband Communities, a valuable resource that policy makers, industry chiefs, and community leaders depend on for the most recent developments in the world of advanced communications networks. Scott molded the magazine into a leading publication for readers and began the practice of bringing them together at an annual conference. He took it to a higher level by raising awareness, building coalitions, and creating possibilities.

Scott will be missed by many who care about connecting the world. You can share memories from others who knew Scott at the Broadband Communities Tribute Page. Thank you, Scott. Below is a tribute that Jim Baller has shared via the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

Scott DeGarmo, CEO of Broadband Communities, passed away this weekend.  He was an ardent and invaluable supporter of CLIC and a champion of local choice.  He published and promoted CLIC’s articles on the Broadband Communities website and made sure that CLIC had a prominent role in Broadband Communities events, including the upcoming conference in Lexington.  We will send out more information on the Lexington conference later in the day, but first, we wanted to share a tribute to Scott from CLIC’s president, Jim Baller. 

A TRIBUTE TO SCOTT DEGARMO 

On Saturday, August 15, 2015, Scott DeGarmo died of pancreatic cancer at his home in Riverdale, NY, after exchanging goodbyes with his wife and daughters.  Scott was a giant in our field and a dear friend for many years. 

When Scott acquired Broadband Properties a little more than a decade ago, its activities consisted primarily of publishing a trade magazine for owners and managers of multi-tenant properties and holding an annual conference for them.  Over the years, under Scott’s visionary leadership, Broadband Properties expanded its services in the multi-tenant market and it increasingly focused its attention on the needs of cities, towns, and other localities across America for advanced communications capabilities and services.  Broadband Properties ultimately became Broadband Communities, and its magazine, primers, and other publications became must-reading for community leaders, industry executives, policy makers, and others stakeholders in America’s broadband Internet future.  Broadband Communities also hosted increasingly well-attended national and regional conferences featuring the latest and most important developments in fiber-based communications, presented by key federal, state, and local officials and a broad range of experienced practitioners.  Scott repeatedly insisted that speakers talk in plain language and provide as many real-world examples as possible, so that each attendee could take home valuable information that he or she could use immediately. 

If these had been Scott’s only accomplishments, they alone would have entitled Scott to our deep gratitude and praise.  But Scott’s contributions ran so much deeper.  In particular, in establishing the policies and high standards for Broadband Communities publications and events, Scott also played a major role in shaping and accelerating America’s deployment, adoption, and use of fiber-based broadband access to the Internet.  That is, Scott did not just disseminate information about important developments; he also had much to do with stimulating and influencing many of these developments. 

More specifically, Scott and his excellent team at Broadband Communities typically targeted the most important issues of the day and brought together the best minds to address them, with Broadband Communities readers and event attendees sharing the experience.  Among the many critical issues that Broadband Communities explored this way were how to develop a national broadband strategy, how to use advanced communications capabilities to drive and support economic development, how to stimulate broadband deployment and use in rural and other high cost areas, how to make federal stimulus-funded projects economically sustainable, how to preserve and protect local Internet choice, and how to foster public-private collaboration and partnerships.  In his quiet, understated way, Scott left an important mark on all of these issues and many more.   As Harry Truman observed, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.”

But what about the man himself?  As word of Scott’s passing has gotten around, tributes have poured into Broadband Communities from all directions, from individuals and entities of all kinds.  Again and again, Scott’s many colleagues and friends have stressed his intelligence and creativity, his unbounded positive energy, his kindness and grace, his generosity, his unassuming modesty, and his deep commitment to making fiber-based access to the Internet the platform and driver of simultaneous progress in just about everything that matters to America’s communities. 

In sum, in his professional life, Scott had an extraordinary significant impact in making our corner of the world a better place.  On a personal level, he left us a wealth of warm and wonderful memories.  In fact, looking back over the last decade, it’s hard to think of many individuals who contributed more. 

Scott has now left us physically, but his legacy will live on.  In recent weeks, recognizing that his time was short, Scott repeatedly asked those of us in his leadership circle to do everything possible to ensure that Broadband Communities will continue to grow and thrive.  In particular, Scott wanted us to have a great conference in Lexington, Kentucky, from September 15-18, 2015, in part to demonstrate that Broadband Communities can remain successful without him at the helm.  Please join us there if you can.   In particular, I urge CLIC members to check out our outstanding program on the morning ofSeptember 18. 

Photo of Scott courtesy of Broadband Communities.

Nebraska Farmer Wants Fiber, Won't Be Ripped Off By Windstream

Windstream has the distinction of being one of the worst providers we have ever covered from consumers' perspective, but in rural areas many people have little or no choice. The latest Windstream debacle involves a Nebraska farmer, an outrageous price quote, and a local company that is taking on the project for about one-ninth of Windstream's estimate.

Ars Technica recently introduced us to Nelson Schneider, CTO of the Norman R. Schneider Family Trust Farm in Ceresco, Nebraska. Like many other farms today, the Schneider business needs fast, reliable connections for a variety of reasons including checking ever changing grain prices. Schneider had Windstream's DSL for $80 per month, but his promised speeds of 1.5 Mbps were clocked at 512 Kbps download and 256 Kbps upload, making business online impossible.

When he attempted to take advantage of the business class speeds Windstream advertised online, the company dismissed him. Schneider had to file a complaint for false advertising with the FCC just to get Windstream to negotiate. He wanted fiber, was willing to pay for construction costs, and considered it an investment in the vitality of the farm. 

Windstream told him it would cost Schneider $383,500 (gulp) to install 4.5 miles of fiber from his property to its facilities in town. Even though Windstream's fiber network map shows they run fiber about one-half mile away, they insisted he would need to connect to the facility farther away. When he asked about connecting to this closer line, Windstream refused to connect him. The company would not provide a reason when Ars asked for a reason.

Even though Schneider was prepared to pay thousands of dollars to bring fiber to his farm, such a preposterous quote and Windstream's refusal to commit to anything higher than 10 Mbps symmetrical were too much. He contacted Northeast Nebraska Telephone Company when he learned that they had been connecting local farms with fiber. Soon an NNTC executive visited the farm and the two talked about the possibilities. The final estimate was $42,000 or about one-ninth what Windstream demanded and now NNTC is working with Schneider to make the project easier:

Northeast agreed to let Schneider pay for the construction in three annual payments of about $14,000 each, and it will provide 50Mbps download speeds and 15Mbps uploads for $100 a month, he said. Northeast also agreed to a $6,000 credit for any other customer “that signs up using the line I'm paying to install.” The necessary paperwork is being finished up this month.

“They said they'd have to order the fiber cables, but should be able to get me set up by the end of September of this year,” he said.

It is true that $42,000 is a sizable sum, but Schneider considers it well-spent and we are pleased to see a local business was able to work with a provider that, unlike Windstream, clearly is has some desire to serve rural businesses.

What does Norman Schneider say about ditching Windstream for this investment?

“I look at it like buying a nice new car, only instead of taking me places on the paved highway, it will finally allow me to drive the Information Superhighway at the speed limit,” he said. “Right now I feel like an Amish horse-drawn carriage when doing anything online."

Bald Head Island Reopens RFP to Find The Right Partner

After searching for a suitable partner, the Village of Bald Head Island in North Carolina has reopened its RFP for a gigabit fiber network. Apparently, the community received four responses but no proposal provided the level of detail they require. 

In order to give respondents another opportunity and to offer new candidates a chance, Bald Head Island leaders chose to release the RFP a second time with additional questions and a responsibility matrix. No response will be considered without answers to these new appendices. All three documents are available on the Village website.

The Village of Bald Head Island is home to approximately 160 year-round residents, but numbers swell to 7,000 during the busy tourist season. Vacation homes and part-time residents bring the potential fiber service area up to 2,500 but incumbents AT&T and Tele-Media don't see the value of bringing fiber to such an environment. The StarNews Online described community leadership's frustration and decision to move forward:

"Broadband is not available on Bald Head Island," said Calvin Peck, the village's manager. "It just isn't, and none of the current providers have plans to invest the money to make it available, so the village council feels it's an important enough issue to spend village resources to make it happen."

While Bald Head Island looks for a partner it also plans to ask voters if they agree to pursue better broadband. Voters will decide on November 3rd if they support a $10 million bond issue. Community leaders will focus on revenue bonds, one of the most common ways to finance municipal network deployment. This mechanism shifts repayment to those who use the network, reducing financial risk to the community at large.

Clearly community leaders understand that the time to act is now:

"We are losing people who would build, buy or rent property on the island because they do not have Internet service," said Gene Douglas, the village's mayor pro tempore. "Many executives of major companies' office is wherever they are as long as they have access to the Internet, and we simply don't have that."

As we have noted in the past, good partners are difficult to find; municipalities must always move forward with caution. We applaud Bald Head Island for being thorough and insisting on the details before choosing a partner. Kudos to them also for taking a bifurcated approach and asking voters for funding approval now so all pieces are in place when they find the right partner.

Murfreesboro Wants to Use Existing Fiber for Better Connectivity

In the center of Tennessee sits Murfreesboro, the fastest growing city in the state with 108,000 people and one of the fastest growing cities in the U.S. (Just 10 years ago there were only 68,000 residents.) Murfreesboro is also one of the next communities to show an interest in a publicly owned fiber network to improve connectivity.

In an August press release [PDF], Murfreesboro Electric Department (MED) described their existing 19-mile fiber infrastructure, used for communication and control purposes for the electricity distribution system. The fiber was deployed in 2008, says MED General Manager Steve Sax, and the utility is now making plans to use spare fibers for Internet connectivity. MED is in the process of expanding its network by an additional 20 miles.

Sax also stated that MED is working with Middle Tennessee State University to develop a fiber optics pilot project but did not offer details other than it is "very similar to what Google is doing in Nashville."

MED and the Middle Tennessee Electric Membership Cooperative (MTEMC) recently entered into negotiations for MTEMC to acquire the MED. The city of Murfreesboro is in the center of the MTEMC service area and the two have been duplicating efforts in some areas. The city and cooperative signed a memo of understanding in June and the process is moving forward slowly. MTEMC serves over 200,000 cooperative members in a four county service territory; the MED provides electricity to approximately 56,000 customers.

MTEMC does not offer telecommunications services at this time but according to a Daily News Journal article, the cooperative is investing in fiber:

"We have been working with an enterprise ... on a fiber network," said [Brad Gibson, MTEMC chief business officer] about the utility that covers Rutherford, Wilson, Williamson and Cannon counties.

MTEMC has contracted with a private company to install and manage its fiber network but the utility is also researching the possibility of developing its own network, he said.

"We are dedicated to fiber," Gibson said.

The ownership of the public electric utility notwithstanding, leadership at the utility understand the impact today's investment will have on Murfreesboro's future. From the press release:

"Back when MED was founded, electricity was the crucial piece of infrastructure that our grandparents and great-grandparents worked to extend throughout the city," [Sax] says. "Now it's our turn. Broadband Internet is every bit as essential to keeping Murfreesboro competitive now as electricity was then. We welcome the opportunity to work with the city to continue enhancing the quality of life for our citizens."

Baltimore for Broadband Op-Ed Demands Local Authority

On July 27 an important op-ed appeared in the Baltimore Sun to argue for the creation of a Baltimore Broadband Authority (BBA). Written by a cohort of three philanthropic organization presidents, two consultants, one broadband coalition leader, and one state senator, the op-ed echoed the calls of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and community groups, such as the Baltimore Broadband CrowdFiber initiative, who believe that in order for Baltimore to continue its development into a haven for young people, minimize pernicious digital inequalities, and ensure economic growth, the City must take charge of its fiber assets. As the authors wrote:

We urge the city of Baltimore to move quickly, but carefully, to create the much-needed Broadband Authority and act with all deliberate speed to devise a comprehensive, workable plan to move us forward.

The most recent op-ed comes in the wake of a series of moves by the City of Baltimore to study existing broadband infrastructure and adapt plans to expand access across the region. In June, the City released two studies to address increasing demand for broadband in areas that incumbent providers Comcast and Verizon have neglected (that being the vast majority of the city). One report, by the Smarter City Task Force, highlights the severity of the digital divide in the City of Baltimore:

There are no precise estimates of how many people in Baltimore lack access to broadband Internet. While national surveys suggest that about 20 percent of Americans do not have broadband at home or a smartphone, it’s reasonable to conclude that the percentage of Baltimoreans who lack broadband is higher. Baltimore has a large population of African Americans and people who have low incomes or low educational attainment – three demographic and socio-economic groups that nationally are significantly more likely to lack home broadband access.

The second report is more extensive than the first, including GIS maps of publicly-owned broadband assets ranging from dark fiber to wireless towers. Its policy suggestions include the creation of an open access network along the pre-existing Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN); leasing dark fiber assets to private entities; taking advantage of the Department of Transportation’s underground conduit lines; and installing more “vertical assets,” such as wireless towers and rooftops, to increase Wi-Fi availability.

In Baltimore, more and more individuals are becoming aware of the negative impacts of Verizon and Comcast’s practices regarding broadband deployment, and recognizing the importance of broadband to local economic development. Other Washington D.C. area communities - such as Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia - are currently in the process of launching their own community broadband projects. Same goes for Harford County, Maryland. Some forward-thinking Maryland communities, such as Howard County, MD have been working to increase fiber availability for years, as CIO Chris Merdon explained in a January Broadband Bits Podcast.

Residents like D. Watkins, who in 2014 published an op-ed in Vice’s Motherboard, “Life on the Other Side of the Digital Divide,” have also lambasted the City of Baltimore for its insufficient broadband infrastructure. “Public libraries are an option for free internet access,” he wrote, “but unlike liquor stores and churches, you can’t find one on every corner.”

The continued push for a Baltimore Broadband Authority by non-profit, philanthropic, and government leaders should help to create a space for further discussion of Baltimore’s digital inequalities, but it will also be crucial for these entities to work directly with local community leaders. Even as the City’s high-level fiber assets are leveraged, ground-level work with communities and incremental deployment strategies will be key to ensuring an equitable rollout of broadband technologies.

New Reference From U-W Extension A Library Must-Have

The University of Wisconsin-Extension recently released Broadband Policies and Regulations for Wisconsin Stakeholders, a good addition to your digital library, especially if you have in interest in Wisconsin and midwestern broadband issues.

The document provides case studies and an in-depth list of references addressing:

  • Public-private partnerships
  • Local ordinances
  • Technology councils
  • Community engagement
  • Local government telecommunications services
  • Unique efforts to increase adoption

While many examples hail from Wisconsin communities, the authors also provide information from other states and offers links to information such as local government broadband resolutions, tower agreements between municipalities and private internet service providers, successful applications for state and federal grant funds. 

The Broadband Policies and Regulations for Wisconsin Stakeholders is well organized and indexed. You can download the PDF, or access the online flip book for quick reference.

Traffic Project Gets Fiber in the Ground in Winston-Salem, NC

Winston-Salem struck up a smart deal with the North Carolina Department of Transportation in 2011. Four years later, that agreement allows the city to move forward with its vision for an I-Net.

The Winston-Salem Journal reports that the City Council recently approved $826,522 for networking equipment to light up city owned fiber installed by the NCDOT. The agency has been upgrading area traffic control systems, a project estimated at around $20 million. Winston-Salem took advantage of the opportunity and paid the agency $1.5 million to simultaneously install its own fiber in the state conduit.

“The city was able to have the network built at only the cost of the fiber,” [city information systems department Chief Officer Dennis] Newman said. “They (state traffic contractors) are running fiber optic cable all around the city to where all the traffic lights are at. This will enable us to connect to all facilities all over the city – fire stations, public safety centers, satellite police stations – right now there are about 40 locations that we have targeted to connect to.”

As is typically the case, Winston-Salem currently pays private providers for connections at each facility but when the new I-Net is up and running, they will be able to eliminate that expense. The new voice and high-speed network will outperform current connections, described in the article as "out-of-date." City officials also told the Journal that some municipal offices have no Internet access at all but will be connected to the new I-Net.

A number of other communities have taken advantage of partnerships with state and federal transportation agencies during traffic signal upgrades. Martin County, Florida; Aurora, Illinois; and Arlington, Virginia saved considerably by collaborating during similar projects.