Communities across America have built their own broadband networks to ensure access to affordable, reliable, and fast networks. We tell their stories and defend their authority to build these networks.
Editorials and opinion pieces in favor of local telecommunications authority have been popping up more frequently in recent months. The benefits of increased competition due to the presence of municipal networks has become hard to ignore. Recently, we noticed a commentary published on CNBC from Seth Bailey, chief strategist at iTOK. Bailey supports the February FCC decision that peeled back restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina.
Bailey describes the role of munis:
In a fight against this Internet injustice, more than 450 communities have created publicly-owned high-speed fiber-optic networks. Known as municipal broadband, these providers offer Internet services to their areas which are roughly 50 to 100 times faster than the offered cable or DSL connections. In short, municipal broadband allows those in rural areas to have high-speed access similar to that offered to residents of urban areas. Which means the quality of their technological lives do not suffer due to their addresses.
iTOK, a company that focuses on technology support, consumer service, and small business tech assistance, wants to see more restrictions struck down:
To that end, we call on the FCC and state legislators to challenge these laws on a more frequent basis and accelerate the competition among Internet providers. The reality is that if the U.S. wants to stay on the cutting edge of technology and continue to lead global markets in the technological revolution, we cannot allow large corporate ISPs to put restrictions on the type and quality of Internet connection speeds. The government should enact legislation immediately to require ISPs to provide the highest possible speeds to the largest group of people and let whoever can provide the best service win. If that's a large ISP or a municipal ISP it shouldn't matter. Fast, stable and affordable internet is something that everyone should have access to regardless of where they live.
The people in Kemp, population 1,100, have officially said "adios" to CenturyLink and now give their business to a local wireless provider, reports Government Technology. According to the article, the community grew tired of slipshod service and repeated service interruptions:
At one point, the city lost its Internet connection for five days. “That was the last straw because that was detrimental to us, because we depend on the Internet so much more, especially with our phone system," said [City Administrator Regina] Kiser. "We had just gone with the voice over IP [Internet protocol] when our system went down for five days, so you try to call city hall about various things, including the police department, and there was no phone. So, that was horrible.”
After a year of requests from the municipality for better service went unheeded, government officials decided it was time to make some changes:
“If you’re a government entity and you call in, they send you into cyberspace somewhere and your phone just rings and rings and rings, and I guess there’s just not any commission to be made on cities from what I’m understanding,” Kiser said. “This problem’s been going on for about a year, as far as not having the power we need to run our court program. So we tried, but it was just impossible to deal with CenturyLink.”
Kemp now works with One Ring Networks, where they receive service for a rate of $450 per month. There was no installation charge and in exchange, One Ring Networks is able to expand its network in the community. It now has the opportunity to sell service to residents and businesses in Kemp.
Unlike the typical "up to" speeds the big incumbents offer, One Ring Networks claims it "carves out" 5 Mbpsdownload and upload for each subscriber, says Kris Maher from One Ring Networks:
“With the other carriers, that 10 Mbps by whatever is a best effort service, which means it can go up to 10 Mbps, but 10 Mbps isn’t guaranteed. Ours is right at 5 and it’s always going to be at 5, no matter who else is on our network.”
Kiser notes that residents are happy with their new provider and that, despite a brief delay caused by inclement weather, the upgrade was a simple task:
“CenturyLink’s been the only game in town for so long, they took advantage of the situation and they’re probably freaking out now that they have some competition for the first time,” Kiser said.
In late April, LD 1185 and several other broadband bills came before the Maine House Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. We have seen a flurry of activity in Maine this year as local communities deploy networks, develop plans, or begin feasibility studies. Likewise, the state legislature has been active as House and Senate members try to defibrillate the barely beating heart of the state listed as 49th for broadband availability.
The national providers in Maine - Time Warner Cable and FairPoint have little interest or capacity to invest in high quality services in Maine. Time Warner Cable is more focused on major metros and being acquired. FairPoint is laying off workers and also, positioning itself to be acquired. Fortunately, these big companies aren't the only option for improving Internet connectivity in Maine.
LD 1185, presented by Representative Norm Higgins, seeks to establish $6 million this year in funds for local communities that wish to deploy municipal networks. Maine already has the middle mile Three Ring Binder in place; the focus of this proposal is to help communities get the infrastructure they need to connect to it. In an effort to get the word out about the bill and grow support, Higgins and his team created this graphic explaining the proposal (a 2-page printable edition of the graphic is available for download from the link below):
According to a recent Legislative Bulletin from the Maine Municipal Association, LD 1185 and LD 1063, which redirects ConnectME towards issuing planning grants, appear to have the most traction of all the Maine bills. Testifying in support of both bills were the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, the ConnectME Authority, the University of Maine, Great Works Internet, Maine Fiber Company, the AARP, and the Coastal and Island Institutes. The Mayors' Coalition, and community officials from Rockport, Isleboro, South Portland, and Orono also testified in favor of the bills.
The bill proposes to provide municipalities with matching grants to fund broadband planning efforts, and provide technical support to those communities. Providing this kind of assistance to communities is important to ensuring that those communities make informed decisions regarding use of public funds for broadband investment. The bill offers several novel and useful concepts not seen in other legislation that are particularly promising.
As can be expected, Verizon, Fairpoint, Time Warner Cable, and the Telecommunications Association of Maine testified in opposition.
Chicago is moving in the direction of using municipal fiber to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. According to the Chicago Sun Times, three Aldermen and the Vice Mayor recently introduced a Resolution calling for hearings on ways to use existing fiber assets for personal and commercial use. Text of Resolution R2015-338 [PDF] is now available online.
This time the City plans to collect information and educate leadership with hearings on ways to utilize the fiber that grace Chicago's underground freight tunnels. They also want to explore city-owned light poles and government rooftops as potential locations for wireless network equipment. From the article:
“These hearings would be a fact-finding mission to help the City Council fully understand the size and scope of Chicago’s fiber-optic infrastructure and explore how it could be shared or expanded to raise revenue for city coffers while making our city more competitive,” [Finance Committee Chairman Edward] Burke said in a press release.
Burke was joined by Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis, Economic Capital, Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney, and Vice Mayor Marge Laurino.
R2015-338 lists many of the communities we have researched as examples to follow, including Chattanooga, Wilson, Lafayette, and Scott County in Minnesota. In addition to exclusively municipal projects, the Resolution acknowledges partnerships between public entities and private organizations, regional projects, and statewide efforts. Clearly, Chicago is open to a variety of possibilities.
While creating more options for businesses and residents is a primary motivator, the City Council is also considering the potential for revenue:
“A Chicago broadband network would be an asset that could be monetized. During these challenging economic times, we need to examine all options to help balance the budget,” Tunney said in the release.
It is true that municipal networks often generate revenue in the long term. It is also true that they share one characteristic with private networks: it can take a significant number of years to reach that stage.
The expansion in Champaign-Urbana has begun! On May 8th, iTV-3 held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the start of its plan to bring fiber to the homes of neighborhoods that sign up for service. IllinoisHomePage.net reported on the event with the video below.
An April press release announced the celebration that kicked off efforts to meet iTV-3's ultimate goal:
This will enable iTV-3 to expand the network and provide Gigabit service to more than 250,000 homes including 45,000 households and businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area.
The company has promised to expand to neighborhoods where they achieve a 50 percent commitment.
Earlier this year, the ISP increased speeds for free in order to offer service that meets the minimum speeds as revised by the FCC. The lowest tier available from iTV-3 via the UC2B network is now 30 Mbps. All speeds are symmetrical.
The UC2B partnership with iTV-3 has been heralded by public leaders. UC2B's private sector partner, iTV-3 is an Illinois company with a track record of business decisions that support local communities. Their agreement is structured in such a way that will protect the UC2B nonprofit and subscribers in the future. At the event, a representative from iTV-3 briefly described the company's approach to the communities it serves:
"We own and operate the Family Video stores nationwide as well, and for us, we've always enjoyed being part of the community and this in and of itself is a community wide effort," said Trevor Rice, who is the marketing director for iTV-3. "Without the community's involvement, we're not going to be able to expand."
Back in March, I spoke at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecom conference, which is always an event with interesting people. While there, I met Doug Hammer and Krista Allen of Harlan Utilities. With just over 5,000 people, Harlan is small but they actually have better Internet and cable choices than most of us, in large part due to the municipal utility.
Doug is the Director of Marketing and Krista the Director of Finance & Customer Service. We spoke again for this week's show about the challenge small ISPs have in just completing the paperwork required of ISPs by the federal government. Though small utilities like Harlan have only a few staff people, they are subject to many of the same forms as much larger companies.
We talk about the paperwork, but also some of the benefits that Harlan's municipal utility brings to the community.
In a recent report, WBIR Knoxville shined the spotlight on Morristown. The article and video discuss how FiberNET has improved its telecommunications landscape by inspiring competition, offered better connectivity to the region, and how state law prevents other towns from reaping similar benefits. We encourage you to watch both of the videos below.
Morristown's utility head describes how it considers high-speed Internet access to be a necessary utility:
"You had railroads, you had interstates, and this is the new infrastructure cities need to have," said Jody Wigington, CEO of Morristown Utility Systems (MUS). "To us, this really is as essential to economic development as having electricity or water."
Morristown began offering gigabit service via its FTTH network in 2012. It began serving residents and businesses in 2006 because the community was fed up with poor service from incumbents. Since then, FiberNET has stimulated economic development, saved public dollars, and boosted competition from private providers.
Prices for Internet access are considerably lower in Morristown than similar communities. From the article:
Morristown's Internet service is more expensive than Chattanooga, but much faster than the rest of the region at a comparable price. A 100 Mbps synchronous connection is $75 per month. Advertised rates for Comcast in Knoxville show a price of almost $80 per month for a 50 Mbps connection with much slower upload speeds. A 50 Mbps connection in Morristown costs $40 per month. The cable Internet option in Morristown is Charter, with an advertised price of 35 Mbps for $40 a month.
As we have seen time and again, the presence of a municipal network (nay, just the rumor of one!) inspires private providers to improve their services. AT&T offers gigabit service in Morristown and Comcast has announced it plans on offering 2 gigabit service in Chattanooga.
"Without a major disruptor like we've seen in Chattanooga and in Morristown, there's really no reason for these guys [private companies] to go out of their way to make a big spend to make bandwidth faster. It just simply doesn't make good business sense," said [Dan] Thompson, [senior analyst for Claris Networks].
Thompson said he does not believe there should be any concern that municipal Internet would result in a monopoly akin to other utilities.
"If you go to Chattanooga, Comcast advertises like crazy on billboards down there. You don't see that here [in Knoxville] at all. Comcast is still there. AT&T is still there. They're still viable options."
Beyond offering better service to residents, FiberNET also attracts more employers. In 2013, we reported on 228 new jobs in the community, attracted here in part because of FiberNET's reliability. Most recently:
"There is a new call center that is looking at relocating to Morristown. They told us the local provider can get them fiber in the building for around $1,000. The guy from our utility company told him we've already got fiber to your front door and we'll put it in the building for free because you're going to be helping our economy and jobs. Their jaws drop. Businesses really are shocked by what we have here," said [President of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce Marshall] Ramsey. "They looked at Blount County and looked at Knoxville, but the confidence in the networks just isn't there right now."
Even though the FCC struck down state restrictions on municipal networks in Tennessee, local communities are not rushing to deploy their own networks. The state is challenging the federal action, and no local community has announced an expansion due to the uncertainty around the appeal. With this appeal, the state of Tennessee is wasting taxpayer dollars to deliberately slow the deployment of essential infrastructure in rural communities.
As Wigington acknowledges in the story, a municipal fiber network is no small endeavor. Nevertheless, only a local community can know if it has the ability, drive, and need to venture into Internet access as a utility.
Wigington said the decision of whether to compete with private industry should ultimately be made by the cities, not made for them by the legislature or the cable companies.
The organization's board will consist of 7 members, including 1 from the city. Members from the public and private sectors will also be on the board, which will function independently from the City. The business community is especially excited about the project. From the article:
Several members of the public, many representing business groups like the Montana Photonics Industry Alliance and Bozeman Chamber of Commerce, urged commissioners to move forward with the project. No one voiced opposition.
“This is putting in critical infrastructure,” said Matt Johnson of First Interstate Bank. “It’s one of the best collaborative projects I’ve been a part of.”
Learn more about the project from our interview with several people working on the project in episode #142 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.
"Rural areas in North Carolina already suffer from some of the slowest speeds in the nation because the big telecom giants see no financial reason to connect them," the Institute said. "The FCC ruling will help communities that will never be covered by these corporations to finally have Internet access beyond dial-up service."
“The big electric companies had formed into giant monopolies, not unlike the monopolies we deal with today with Internet,” [Christopher] Mitchell said. “They repeatedly claimed that local government could not operate a municipal electric grid and said it would end up in failure and disaster. As you know in Seattle, that’s not true. We’ve seen local government take technology of the day and craft it so everyone benefits from it.”
It is truly unfortunate that those in lower-class areas such as South Park do not get the same high-quality Internet as those in South Lake Union because they cannot afford the exuberant prices of monopolies like Comcast or Century Link.
Lower-class neighborhoods would benefit greatly from this program and it is imperative that we give equal opportunities to all. It is time for monopolies to stop controlling the lives of many.
“We cannot create gated digital communities,” the mayor noted. In fact, Chattanooga is known for its municipally-operated 1-gigabit high-speed fiber-optic network, which connects every home and business over 600 square miles in and around the city. “We want to use our gig network to break down barriers,” Berke said.
It is in the city and region that Obama sees hope for the nation's future, and it's broadband that he sees as a vital first step toward a whole new economy based not on manufacturing or even service provision but on knowledge or, more precisely, creativity and innovation. Now, for the first time in years, the door is open for cities everywhere to take the lead in building a broadband infrastructure that can be one of the fastest, cheapest Internet services imaginable.
Funny or Die offers up a new video, If Everything Was Bundled Like Cable, starring David Koechner. None of us like paying for stuff we don't use, and television channels are no exception. Here are some examples of that same model as it applies to other everyday activities.
Municipalities are not primary motivated by the desire to make a “profit,” as that term is understood by Wall Street, but by the need to meet important needs of the community. Chief among these are enhancing economic development, educational and occupational opportunity, access to affordable health care, digital equity, public safety, homeland security, environmental protection, efficient government service, cultural enrichment, and all of factors that contribute to a high qualify of life. A public FTTU system can contribute to the fulfillment of each one of these goals.