Forum on Local Broadband September 19th

The Urbana Champaign Independent Media Center (UCIMC) will be hosting what is sure to be an interesting online discussion about local broadband models. On Wednesday, September 19th at 4:30 CST, an expert panel will be presenting "Models for Building Local Broadband: Public, Private, Coop, Nonprofit." The event will be held at Urbana City Hall in Illinois, but you can also stream the event live here.

In addition to our own Christopher Mitchell from ILSR, we will hear from Joanne Hovis, CTC Technology & Energy (public interest telecom expert and also NATOA President) and Wally Bowen, Mountain Area Information Network (non-profit internet provider in North Carolina).

From the press release:

Urbana-Champaign in Illinois is completing construction of a public system - called UC2B - that will connect 10% of the community with fast broadband they can use to access the internet, share videos, make phone calls and more.  The project was made possible by federal funds.

  • How do we connect the other 90% of our community to fast broadband? 
  • With what funds?  Who will control it? 
  • How can these models support digital inclusion for minority and low income users?

Urbana IMC has gathered some of the top experts in the field of community broadband to join in a discussion of these questions. During this forum, which will be webcast nationally, we will explore public, public-private, non profit, and cooperative models for building out broadband.We will discuss the benefits and challenges of each model to inform our community's upcoming decision about building out the rest of the UC2B network. Champaign-Urbana recently applied to build out the network with Gigabit Squared in a public-private partnership where the network is owned by a private company and the public sets the terms of use. The community is also exploring municipal and co-op models and has a request for proposals to seek other partners and solutions.

For more information, please contact Danielle Chenowyth, UCIMC board member, at chyn@ucimc.org.

Tullahoma Rolls Out Smart Meters Using Public Network

Last winter, we reported on Tullahoma, Tennessee's plans to use their fiber optic network for an Automatic Metering Information system (AMI). At the time, city leaders had just started a series of informational meetings for customers. Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) technicians are now in the process of installing the new meters in the full service area and expect to complete the project by April, 2013.

Brian Justice of the Tullahoma News, reported:

Brian Skelton, TUB general manager, said Wednesday the results have proven to be very effective, and now the utility is spreading out to install 10,500 electric meters and 9,500 water meters that electronically read and provide TUB with the usage information.

...

In addition to reading electric and water meters automatically, the system will be used for a number of other tasks to reduce peak electric demand and take advantage of TVA’s new wholesale rate plan.

As we reported earlier, utility managers decided to pursue the new system when the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) announced it would change to a "time of use" pricing structure. Because rates will be higher at peak times, the TUB want to give customers the chance to manage their utility costs.

Brian Coate, manager of the electric and fiber departments, told Justice:

“Automated metering will not only reduce personnel costs, but also provide better information on leak detection, outage management, and theft of service,” he said. “The system will also have a server and data portal where customers can examine their time of use habits and have more control over their bill.”

The new meters contain a radio transmitter that sends usage data to a collector secured on a utility pole. The information is then transferred to the TUB via the fiber optic network.

Electric usage will be monitored hourly while water usage info will be available on a daily basis. Customers will also be able to determine if there are any water leaks based on the results. Residents will be able to monitor their usage via a computer or smart phone.

A small number of customers expressed concern over the privacy of their data and opting out is an option. A Tullahoma News article by Andrea Agardy notes that opting out will cost $50 each month. Because the number of customers opting out is so low, the TUB will revisit the opt out program in the future and may discontinue it.

Read the frequently asked questions here [pdf].

ILSR and MuniNetworks.org Recognized By NATOA

The National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors (NATOA) has recognized our work by naming us one of the Community Broadband Organizations of the Year for 2012. The award will be celebrated along with other 2012 Community Broadband Awards at their annual conference in New Orleans on September 27-29.

In the press release, NATOA noted our work "…for persistent reporting on community broadband initiatives and their opponents, thereby educating and informing the public and policy-makers nationwide."

The Massachussetts Broadband Institute (MBI) received a similar award for their work in regional broadband collaboration and development.

Other recipients include:

John Windhaousen, Blair Levin, Clakamas County, Oregon, the Cities of Wilson, North Carolina, and Port Angeles, Washington, and the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) project.

From the Press Release:

We are thrilled to recognize such a broad spectrum of people, communities, and organizations that lead the nation in advocating for and improving government and public options in broadband technology," said Joanne Hovis, president of the NATOA Board of Directors.  "These pioneers have distinguished themselves in their extraordinary efforts, achievements and innovation in community-based approaches to broadband.

Webinar - "How a Municipal Network Can Help Your City"

We want to remind our readers that tomorrow, September 13, is the day for "How a Municipal Network Can Help Your City." The webinar runs from 2-3 Eastern time. Registration is free and Christopher Mitchell will be joined by Kyle Hollified, VP Sales/Marketing, Bristol Virginia Utilities and Colman Keane, Director of Fiber Technology, EPB, in Chattanooga.

Christopher will be discussing his report, “Broadband at the Speed of Light” as well as other economic benefits from publicly owned networks and the panel will talk about lessons learned in building and deploying municipal networks. Mary Beth Henry from Portland will discuss their experience with broadband as well.

The Public Technology Institute and the National League of Cities are sponsoring the event.

New Network in Carroll County Maryland on Track for 2013 Completion

Two years ago, we reported on the emerging partnership between Carroll County, Maryland, and the Maryland Broadband Cooperative (MBC) to build a fiber network to local business clients. The County financed the investment in part through cost savings obtained as a result of transitioning away from expensive T1 lines.

This summer, the Carroll County Office of Technology Services reported that the network is on track to be completed by January, 2013. In an interview with the Carroll County Times, Mark Ripper noted that the network is 60% complete. When deployed, the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN) will be 110 miles long and connect 132 sites, including the county public schools, the public library, and Carroll County Community College.

Carroll is one of a group of Maryland counties that comprise the Inter-County Broadband Network, a group of local government entities partnering to connect the smaller municipal networks across Maryland like the CCPN.

Back in 2007, when the CCPN was in its infancy, a Baltimore Sun article discussed significant cost savings estimated for the local library:

Currently, Ripper said the county pays $3,300 a month to connect all the local library branches to the Internet. Those costs will be eliminated once the network is built out.

Savings to the schools, the libraries, the college, and county government are expected to be significant. Short term annual savings for all four entities are estimated at $950,000 per year in leased line costs, according to a 2010 Carroll County Credit Rating Report. The report goes on to estimate potential revenue from the network at $300,000 to $600,000 in the short term and as high as $3,600,000 to $7,200,000 in the long term, depending on how the network is used in the future. The credit report PDF is available here.

The $9 million project, partly funded through a stimulus funding, is expected to pay for itself in 10 - 15 years through the significant cost savings. The future jobs created and economic development for the region will continue long after the capital asset is paid off. View a PDF of the map.

Community Broadband Bits 12 - Todd Murren with SpringNet, Missouri

The 12th episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast features an interview with Todd Murren of SpringNet, in Springfield Missouri. SpringNet delivers blazing broadband over Ethernet to businesses in the community. We talk about Missouri's strong restrictions on local authority around broadband and the history of SpringNet.

We also discuss how SpringNet has led to hundreds of new jobs in the community from one single employer, to say nothing of the many others.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Carl Sagan on Technology

We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.

Google Fiber Spurs Digital Divide Discussions

“I’m concerned that the digital divide” — the gap between electronic haves and have-nots — “will be exacerbated by the fact that you’ll have extremely fast Internet in some neighborhoods while people in neighborhoods with fewer resources will be left even further behind,” said Christopher Barnickel, an assistant director at the Kansas City, Kan., Public Library.

Christopher Barnickel, speaking with Scott Canon of the Kansas City Star, echoed the growing concerns of many in Kansas City. The Google fiber initiative, meant to offer the fastest broadband, may leave many behind. Google is connecting neighborhoods that met a minimum threshold for service, creating concern that low-income neighborhoods will not meet that threshold. Of the 202 possible neighborhoods, 22 will not be connected.

We discussed in a previous post how Google is in the unique position of being able to offer their gigabit service for such a low price. But one of the reasons they make it work is by building only in areas where people are ready to sign up today. Their agreement with the City is very clear that they do not have to serve everyone.

Google's Kansas City preregistration just ended. But Canon's words from 2 weeks ago remain important: 

Two weeks remain for dozens of neighborhoods to sign up enough potential customers to qualify for Google’s service before a Sept. 9 deadline. But many neighborhoods — chiefly the least prosperous pockets of the metro area — remain far behind the pace needed to hit the Google-established thresholds of customer penetration.

That means many of the free connections Google agreed to make to public buildings, library branches and community centers won’t happen.

At that time, the map was fairly divided among income lines. 

West of Troost Avenue, the map is mostly green, indicating neighborhoods with plenty of eager customers. East of Troost, pre-registrations largely are low. In Kansas City, Kan., the map looks more quilt-like. Places where incomes are lower seem to have little chance of getting Google’s Internet service.

But we will know more on Thursday, when Google announces the schedule of when neighborhoods will be connected.

In addition to private citizens' concern over whether or not they will get the chance to access the new gig network, schools are worried about a new divide they had previously worked to diminish:

The city’s school district is worried that many of its buildings will be left without the fiberoptic connections that will blossom in areas that are better off.

“We worked hard to close the technology divide between our kids and more-resourced communities,” said school district spokesman David Smith.

All students in the district high schools, for instance, are issued laptops.

“It is unimaginable to us to have that divide reopen,” Smith said.

Some say the bridge over the digital divide now seems like a mirage.

“It does not have the feel of the universal access that was part of the initial description,” said Karen Hostetler, a resident of the East Argentine section of Kansas City, Kan.

Kansas City Logo

The municipal government of Kansas City should be responsible for making sure every school has the connections they need. Leaving it up to a distant, private company's marketing gimmicks rather than taking responsibility for a core city function is really poor public policy. It is also smart marketing for Google, which seems to be the message reporters are spreading.

Some have organized grassroots efforts to sign up more pre-registrants in low-income areas and results are mixed because obstacles in economically challenged areas are numerous. Some are not aware of the initiative, others don't trust door-to-door volunteers, and still others don't have the pre-registration fee of $10.

At Juniper Gardens, a University of Kansas research center dealing with children’s developmental disabilities, it has sparked a tone of worry. The downtown Kansas City, Kan., office is staffed by people fearing it won’t get Google Fiber or its potential for long-distance, high-definition video to analyze kids and train their parents.

“The potential is great,” said Jay Buzhardt, a professor at Juniper. “We just don’t want to miss out.”

While we remain hopeful that the Google effort in Kansas City helps to demonstrate the importance of next-generation broadband, we also believe the hype around it is hitting noxious levels, often from commentators who have no idea what they are talking about (and are attacking Google to defend the companies like Time Warner Cable that indirectly pay their salaries). Therefore, it was with relief that we read Timothy Lee's Ars Technica article explaining to free market glibertarians that Google's Kansas City network is fundamentally not an example of the free market working.

In fact, the local government is subsidizing this network in ways that local governments generally do not. Google has used its fame and its technical prowess to get a great deal from the City in terms of access to public right-of-way and instant inspections. 

We are strong supporters of local authority and do not believe that such a subsidy is poor policy per se. And we do defend the ability of communities to choose to partner with corporations in this manner. However, when we see that Kansas City will not get universal access and has no real decision-making power in regard to the network, we have to wonder how good of a deal they are getting. Kansas City, Missouri, may have been the better negotiators, as Google is installing an additional conduit and is charging them less than industry standards to do so.

In the short term, they get an incredible network and tons of publicity. But in the long term, we'll see -- because these networks will still be important in 10, 20, 30 years. And who knows what Google will be doing then.

Breaking the cable/DSL monopoly/duopoly is very difficult given the power of the massive corporations responsible for it, but we continue to see the largest gains going to the communities who have shouldered the greater risk of building their own network to achieve self-determination.

But viewed differently, the greatest risk lies in hoping distant corporations will provide the network a community needs to succeed in the digital economy.

A Match to Watch: Tennis Channel v. Comcast

Back in 2010, we reported on the merger between Comcast and NBC, which was in the works at the time. One of the issues that came up was how programming is chosen.

At the time, the Tennis Channel had filed a suit against Comcast, alleging that Comcast did not make Tennis Channel programming available to as many subscribers as the Golf Channel and NBC Sports (both belong to Comcast). Comcast, under the Communications Act and Commission rules, is required to place channels owned by others on tiers equal to its own similar types of channels and can't play favorites.

The FCC had reviewed the case at various levels for two years (there was an appeal) and finally, in July of this year, issued a decision in favor of the Tennis Channel. The Tennis Channel alleged discrimination, Comcast argued the Tennis Channel was using the FCC to get out of a contract it wanted to escape. According to a Meg James LA Times article:

The FCC ordered Comcast to provide the Tennis Channel with distribution comparable to the two sports channels, which would effectively increase its coverage by about 18 million homes, and force Comcast to pay Tennis Channel millions of dollars more each year in programming fees.

It was the first time that a major cable operator has been found in violation of federal anti-discrimination program carriage rules that were established in 1993.

Comcast was ordered to remedy the situation within 45 days, a window that would make the Tennis Channel available in more homes during one of the biggest tennis events of the year, the U.S. Open in New York. The channel is currently available in about 34 million homes nationally.

Comcast immediately asked for a stay from the remedy, appealing to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Comcast was granted the stay while the case is argued on appeal. Once again, Comcast's army of lawyers  are strategically using the court as a way to slow down an adversary's remedy.

We expect to see more video legal issues arise in the near future. As broadband transforms the way people receive video signals, how those signals are governed will inevitably affect license agreements, rules, and regulations.

In an informative blog post, Susan Crawford gives us the heads up on where problems dwell and the attitudes that will drive litigation and policy. Unfortunately, now that few people watch video for free, the usual participants will tussle for a very large pie. Will the consumer be considered? Early indications don't seem to suggest that. From Crawford:

The consumer, who is being squeezed the most, would like to watch what he/she wants, when he/she wants, and doesn’t want to be stuck with enormous must-buy bundles. But no one is talking about that.

The ever-growing Comcast is a threat to those who have innovative ideas for video content. If you want people to see your content, you need to get it in a cable lineup or online... but the big cable providers are trying to wrestle back control over online video with monthly bandwidth caps.

And even when Comcast does violate the law, it knows how to string out the process long enough that the harmed party has to fold or negotiate directly with them because they'll go bankrupt waiting for justice. 

Martinsville, Virginia, Investigates Network Expansion

Not long ago, we shared information on MINET, the municipal network in Martinsville, Virginia, that serves schools, municipal facilities, and about 30 local businesses. We noted that businesses are attracted to the area and cite the capabilities of the fiber network as a driving force.

The Martinsville Bulletin now reports that city leaders have been approached by more local businesses interested in saving money by connecting through the network. The Bulletin spoke with City Manager Leon Towarnicki who said "we are essentially maxed out”  in staff and resources. Obviously, economic development through MINET is moving along well. The City Council is now considering the costs and benefits of expanding.

The city is working with CCG Consulting to develop a business plan. CCG will soon begin a business and residential survey and review of the city's current network. The survey and plan will explore the possibility of deploying a fiber-to-the-home network and communication system, but Martinsville will shy away from operating a cable television system. From the article:

Asked if the city would try to provide cable TV service again, City Attorney Eric Monday said, “We tried it. We litigated. We lost. We’re done.”

Martinsville made an attempt to acquire a retail cable television service in 2006, but found itself in a long and expensive court battle. Adelphia had previously provided cable in the area but filed for bankruptcy in 2002 and as a result, failed to honor its franchise agreement. At the time, the city landfill had just closed and the city was looking for other ways to generate revenue. They wanted to purchase the network and tried to block Time Warner Cable and Comcast from doing so. Time Warner Cable wanted to purchase the network and then engage in a like-kind exchange. This technique is a common tool large cable corporations have used to ensure geographic monopolies.

Martinsville argued that they were grandfathered in, as in the case of Bristol, and thought it could take advantage of another exception by claiming it had installed a cable television "headend" before December, 2002. Virginia law effectively revoked local authority for communities to build triple-play networks unless they built the headend prior to that date. But the court disagreed with Martinsville; the judge ruled that contracting with Adelphia to install the headend was not the same as installing it themselves. 

According to a 2006 Martinsville Bulletin article, the City Council admitted they had made mistakes in being transparent in the effort to take over the failed Adelphia franchise:

Martinsville City Council members said Tuesday they should have kept the public better informed about their attempt to buy the local cable television franchises from Adelphia.

There is "a fog amongst the public" as to how the council made decisions regarding the purchase attempt, said Councilman Mark Anderson.

"I believe we could and should have been more open," said Councilman Ron Ferrill. "Perhaps we were too protective of our negotiating situation."

The City Council is engaging in a transparent process this time and carefully exploring the economic development possibilities of MINET. From the recent article on expansion talks:

[Mayor Kim Adkins] emphasized that all of the customers approached the city about using its system; the city did not approach them.

When businesses and residents approach a local government like Martinsville and asks for options, the community should have the authority to follow through without burdensome regulations that only apply to local governments and not to private sector companies.