Jacksonville Discovers Savings and Faster Connectivity

It is no secret to our readers that communities throughout the country have transitioned from leasing services from big corporations to building their own fiber networks to save public dollars. Some create collaborations between various entities to reduce costs. Jacksonville is the latest to dabble in collaboration and has found a way to save $200,000 on connectivity costs each year.

In a recent Government Technology article, Chad Vander Veen describes how the city found a way to eliminate leased lines and switch to a faster 1 gigabit connection via fiber (the article incorrectly says "gigabyte" in multiple places where it mights gigabit) . The City's Information Technology Division (ITD) began developing relationships and bringing various agencies together to explore its options. They held monthly meetings that included the mayor's office, public safety agencies, and libraries. Through these meetings they learned the city was eligible to participate in the Florida Lambda Rail program.

Lambda Rail is a nonprofit independent research and education network that connects universities, schools, libraries, and research facilities across the state. The network has an extensive network of fiber across the state. Because the City of Jacksonville is responsible for its libraries, it qualifies for service from Lambda Rail. Within 45 days, Lambda Rail served city facilities. 

“This is a great opportunity for all the partner agencies to work together to provide superior service and save money at a time we need to make every dollar count,” said Mayor Brown in a statement. “With a growing number of websites and applications helping to expand the reach of city government, we owe it to taxpayers to invest wisely in the most effective and efficient systems to keep everyone connected.”

Saving public dollars by elimintating leased lines and collaborating is certainly a positive outcome. Unfortunately, this solution may limit the community in the longer term. Working with entities that only serve nonprofit or specific entities means that others who need connections in the communities - including both residents and local businesses - will not directly benefit from this investment.

This is a good reminder for communities to engage in long term thinking when they decide how to invest for the future. This approach is surely better than the status quo, but may prove a bit restrictive as the big cable and telephone companies fail to meet local needs.

Roosevelt Institute Examines Comcast's Internet Essentials

In 2011, Comcast commenced its Internet Essentials program with great fanfare from then FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski. We looked at the program in detail and described Comcast's decision to withhold the program for two years to use as a carrot in a bid to secure the NBC merger. In addition to acquiring NBC, Comcast received great public relations press.

The Roosevelt Institute's Next New Deal Blog, recently ran an article by John Randall in which he examined the program in depth. He concludes that the program is an effective distraction from the real problem - lack of competition. In addition to placating policy makers to prevent meaningful changes, the program turns a hefty profit for Comcast and efficiently mines for new customers.

The program, touted as a way to reduce the digital divide, established onerous criteria to qualify for the $9.95 monthly service. Children in the household must qualify for the National School Lunch Program, there cannot be any unfinished business between the household and Comcast, participants must be new customers, and households must be located in an area served by Comcast.

I have had my own experience with the Internet Essentials program. My small family qualified and we now receive up to 3/1 Mbps from Comcast; prior to the program, we paid twice as much for 1 Mbps Wi-Fi. Randall is correct when he describes the program as a "customer acquisition program." A common expression goes "The slowest speed you will accept is the fastest speed you've experienced." So true. As more of my kids' homework depends on a usable Internet connection, we will need to sacrifice somewhere else to keep our 3 Mbps and we will do it. Our choices are limited because competition is scarce, even though we live in a major metropolitan area. Comcast, you have us. Nicely played!

If Comcast really wanted to help close the digital divide, it would make Internet Essentials a permanent program and ease the restrictions. I qualify because my kids qualify but there are millions of other people, including single adults and seniors, who do not and they need the Internet just as much as I do.

As Randall points out, Comcast is still turning a profit - $18 million per year on Internet Essentials' 150,000 subscriptions. While it may not be quite as profitable as roping those 150,000 into a higher rate when the program ends, more subscriptions and good faith business practices could pay off in the long term. Realistically, the Gonzalez Family knows Comcast will make no such changes. With no competition to fear, why should it?

Randall summarizes:

Comcast's Internet Essentials program does more to benefit Comcast's customer acquisition, public relations, and lobbying departments than to help people in America who need high-speed Internet access at a reasonable price. The reality is that the program is a cleverly designed customer acquisition program that benefits Comcast's bottom line. The program is ineffective: the connections are not “high-speed,” the program assists very few people, and the the program does nothing for those who can’t get a connection at all where they live. More importantly, the program does nothing to address the fundamental reason for the lack of ubiquitous, affordable high-speed Internet access in this country – the lack of competition. It earns Comcast good press while distracting regulators and public officials into thinking that changes in policy aren't needed and that digital divide problems will somehow work themselves out on their own as a result of corporate generosity. In the long run, Comcast Internet Essentials will do no more than contribute to the delay of much-needed regulation.

Lack of competition is important, but more choices may not solve much if they are also owned by companies from outside the community that are not accountable to it. Access to the Internet is not an ordinary market because all other markets depend on telecommunications services in the modern economy. Even if there are not many choices, having at least one choice that is rooted in the community and putting community needs first is the best solution.

Longmont Friends of Fiber Rallies Supporters, Preps for Referendum Fight

Longmont's City Council and municipal power and communications utility are getting serious about bringing fiber to the people. We reported earlier this month about the decision to allow voters to decide how fast they want that next generation network. Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) already plan to expand the existing network to households and businesses but face a long, slow time table over many years if they expand incrementally without bonding. The City Council will ask voters if they will authorize a $44 million bond issue to pay for capital costs, interest and debt-service reserve.

Many in Longmont recall the ferocious opposition they faced during the two previous referendums. The cable industry (mostly Comcast) spent hundreds of thousands of dollars during each campaign, saturating citizens with a deceitful advertising campaign.

Once again, local citizens are forming their own group to support the measure. A Scott Rochat Longmont Times-Call article reports that the group, Friends of Fiber, recently met in Longmont's TinkerMill "hackserspace" to plan initial strategy. The main take-away for participants was "we need more people."

The group does not want to be taken by surprise by the same astroturf groups that spent $250,000 dollars to defeat the referendum question in 2009. While a second referendum passed in 2011 despite even more astroturf spending, Friends of Fiber are taking no chances and mobilizing now. Both of those referenda dealt with the authority to operate the network, not finance an expansion.

From the article:

[Organizer Scott] Converse said the group had to be ready for just as big a fight now. One tactic will be borrowed from the national political campaigns; creating software that will scan the Internet for negative references to the bond issue so that the group can respond quickly.

Vince Jordan, LPC Telecom Manager, note that the utility has updated the original service offering from $59.95 for 25 Mbps to $49.95 for residential 1 gig service. From the meeting:

"I'll be a guinea pig," one man in the crowd said to chuckles as he asked to be connected. "I'll dig the trench if you'll let me."

Governments Should Focus on Infrastructure Despite False Statistics Peddled by NY Times and Others

Having just read the New York Times story "Most of U.S. is Wired, but Millions Aren't Plugged In," I was reminded that even the top mainstream telecom journalists really have little understanding of what they write. This is a bit ranty but comes back together constructively at the end.

I just read that "nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband." Really? Just what exactly does that mean? It is definitely not the current FCC minimum standard speed required to engage in basic Internet activities: 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Not even close.

To get 98%, I can only assume that the author has started with flawed stats from the FCC that are comprised on systematically overstated DSL availability in rural areas by carriers like Windstream, Frontier, CenturyLink, and others. He likely then included satellite Internet access availability, which is explicitly not broadband due to the inevitable lag of a 50,000 mile roundtrip to geosynchronous orbiting satellites.

But we don't know. We just know that Edward Wyatt knows that by some definition, nearly everyone in America has "high speed" broadband. This is news to the vast majority of rural communities I hear from, who see maps paid for by their tax dollars claiming they can get broadband in their homes. But when they call the company to get it, they find it is not actually available, even though that company had just told the government that it is available there.

These are the statistics that are now apparently official, without any need to even note where they come from. Note that this comes after the New York Times repeatedly erred in claiming few Europeans have access to high speed networks.

Wyatt goes on to laud the Obama Administration's stimulus effort to expand broadband networks:

The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.

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As far as federal programs go, this one worked pretty well at accomplishing its objectives. From what I could tell, a key objective was not overly upsetting existing carriers, which is why so much of the money was spent on middle mile connections that have recently been finished or are now being completed.

But very few households were directly served by the stimulus programs. NTIA chose to invest largely in middle mile networks that also connected community anchor institutions - rarely residents. If any last mile investment will result from the middle mile, it probably hasn't been built yet because the middle mile has just been completed or will be soon.

So while the stimulus was certainly better than doing nothing, it has had little impact on the growth from the invented 90% statistic to the invented 98% statistic.

The grand conceit of the article is what big cable and telephone companies have been telling us for years - we don't have an availability problem, the problem is that Americans just don't take advantage of these awesome connections we want to sell them! To paraphrase something I heard Yochai Benkler once say, Americans are not stupid, if you give them a crap product at a high price, they won't buy it.

The point of my frustration boils down to where we should focus our limited resources.

There is a real literacy component to the digital divide and that is a problem. However, solving that problem can be done with comparatively modest investments in programs to teach computer/technical/media literacy. This has been demonstrated by numerous foundations and others in civil society. Blandin Foundation in Minnesota does an excellent job of this. Existing Internet Service Providers can and should help fund these programs because it increases their customer base.

The danger of government focusing on the literacy divide rather than on actual availability, as some influential folks like Blair Levin have argued, is that solving the access divide - making fast, affordable, and reliable access truly available to 98% or more of US households - is a very challenging problem that civil society cannot solve and the private sector will not solve.

Some elected leaders LOVE to focus on the literacy divide because no one opposes those programs. That doesn't mean it is a good use of resources. Sometimes using resources effectively means challenging a few powerful firms that will vigorously oppose any change to an intolerable status quo because they are banking historically high profits by creating artificial scarcity.

Government exists so we can do together what we cannot do alone. Examples include electrifying the entire nation, building roads, and eventually an interstate highway system. Government should be focused on ensuring just about every American has access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks. Not by bragging about deeply flawed statistics provided by self-interested corporations but by making the necessary investments at the local level.

This is my final point - different levels of government have different strengths. We don't want to see a federal network. These networks should be responsive to communities, which means owned and operated locally. But the federal level needs to do its part in demanding accurate data that reflects the true nature of access to the Internet in America - not settling for whatever politically-connected firms want to offer.

Spanish Fork Discusses Stunning Success - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #60

The Spanish Fork Community Fiber Network (SFCN) is an incredibly successful HFC cable network in Utah. It delivers television, telephone, and Internet access at incredibly low rates to most of the community despite competition from Comcast. Located south of Provo, Spanish Fork has a population of 35,000.

Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director John Bowcut joins us for episode 60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss why they built the network in 2000. Funded with 15 year bonds, the network mortgage is nearly retired.

In the meantime, the network generates an extra million in revenue for the local government and keeps over $2 million in the community each year with its low rates that force competitors to keep rates lower than they otherwise would.

Read the transcript of this show here.

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 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Television Consumer Freedom Act Promises More Choices

On August 14th, Christopher Mitchell and I visited Senator Amy Kobuchar's office in Minneapolis. We arranged the meeting in coordination with Free Press and the Media Action Grassroots Network to talk with our Senator about the Television Consumer Freedom Act, also known as S.912.

Senators John McCain (R-AZ) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) are sponsoring this effort to scale back cable program bundling. ILSR and the Free Press recognize this as a good start to reforming our deeply flawed video market. We also see it as a foothold to inching closer to the wide ranging and affordable broadband we desperately need.

We met with Senate staff to present 594 Minnesota petition signatures in support of the legislation. Free Press has collected over 27,000 signatures from across the country asking Congress to pass the Television Consumer Freedom Act.

The bill provides options for consumers beyond today's restrictive bundled services. By offering channels a la carte, consumers can pay for what they want rather than being forced to pay for many channels they do not. Bundling also limits independent channels by crowding out capacity and creating onerous financial barriers for entrepreneurial media ventures. This bill will not eliminate bundling, but will require cable providers to also offer a la carte pricing. It is important to note that the cable companies themselves are often forced to bundle by channel owners like Viacom or Disney. This bill restricts that practice as well.

We also give two thumbs up for the sports fans' provision in the bill. From an LA Times opinion piece written by Senator McCain:

Another provision in the bill seeks to end the practice of sports team owners punishing fans by blacking out home games that don't sell out. It provides that games taking place in publicly financed stadiums can't be blacked out.

For an in-depth analysis of S.912's provisions, read Combating the Cable Cabal, from the Free Press.

Contact your elected officials through the Free Press call to action page or contact them directly. Elected officials respond best to visits, phone calls, and brief personalized emails. Let them know you want their support for S.912, the Television Consumers Freedom Act.

Baltimore Once Again Considering Publicly Owned Options

Back in 2010, we reported on the City of Baltimore and its frustration with Comcast and desire to have a real choice for Internet access. Nothing came of the idea at the time but the Baltimore Business Journal reports that Baltimore is once again considering the possibility of a publicly owned network.

The Board of Estimates recently decided to hire Magellan Advisors to provide a study that will offer several options for the community of 619,000 residents. The study will cost $157,000 and will identify key anchor tenants, cost analysis, and risk assessment related to a municipal broadband network.

Given Baltimore's situation, we doubt very much that they will proceed with a full-on universal FTTH network. Rather, we expect to see Baltimore considering an incremental approach that starts by serving community anchors (schools, libraries, public safety, etc.) and also may make conduit and fiber available for local businesses or other ISPs. 

Comcast has no real competition in Baltimore, not because of the franchise as intimated by numerous factually incorrect articles covering this news, but because private companies are too intimidated by Comcast and its bag of dirty tricks to invest in a competitive system. No local government can establish a cable or Internet monopoly under federal law dating back to 1992.

According to the article, Baltimore already has some fiber assets:

A major part of what Magellan is being hired to study is what’s known as the city’s “fiber ring,” a 30-mile fiber optic cable network that supports the city’s public safety radio system. As the city prepares to make improvements to the system, [CIO Chris] Tonjes said the city also wants to add capacity through a process called “overbuilding” that would allow the city to lease some of the extra bandwidth to the private sector.

“We have a lot of ideas; a lot of people could lease it — a local Internet provider, a local cultural institution,” Tonjes said. “It could even be Comcast.”

Seattle ventured down this road for several years to no avail until Gigabit Squared came along. And Seattle had considerably more miles of fiber available. Even if Baltimore begins leasing its fiber to any entity that wishes to use it, there will still be no business case for expanding that fiber to residents. In the short term especially, the only beneficiaries will be businesses that spend enough on these services to attract interest from new ISPs. This is why Baltimore's plan should ultimately be geared toward the City being able to offer services, even if that is not anticipated for many years. It is the only way to guarantee everyone has access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

Jason Hardebeck, the executive director of the Greater Baltimore Technology Council told the Business Journal that city leaders recognize the importance of robust connectivity to economic development.

“The city is woefully underserved with broadband and my opinion is that internet access is becoming a basic public utility or need, just like clean water,” Hardebeck said. “The current administration understands the need. I don’t know what we can do about the franchise agreement, but I think there’s real opportunities from a redevelopment standpoint. If you had access to ultra-high broadband inexpensively, that could generate activity you would not have anticipated.”

Community Network Services (CNS) Brings STEM Education and More to Rural Southwest Georgia

“With agriculture being the number one industry in the state, we are looking to inspire students to learn globally and live and produce locally. Agriculture and STEM education are a natural fit. With GPS-guided equipment and variable-rate irrigation and fertilizer applicators to better manage natural resources, education is key." These are the words of Beau Sherman, Regional Distant Learning and Video Coordinator for Education serving schools connected by Community Network Services (CNS) in Georgia.

CNS was formed in 1997 when several towns in rural southwest Georgia got together to form a public telecom utility. They started by connecting local schools and libraries with a fiber broadband network. While CNS has since grown into a full-service telecommunications provider - offering phone, video and internet access to business and residential customers - its impact on local education is a shining example of how community broadband networks can improve local education. CNS now serves 65 schools across 3,278 rural square miles including the cities of Cairo, Camilla, Moultrie, Pelham and Thomasville.

To help realize the network’s full educational potential, the school districts served by CNS teamed up to hire Beau Sherman. Mr. Sherman had long been a strong advocate for pushing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in rural southwest Georgia. So he was the perfect fit for the role of helping the schools harness their new state-of-the-art broadband network.

One way Mr. Sherman is leveraging CNS’s high-speed fiber network is bringing live interactive science demonstrations into classrooms via Georgia Tech’s Direct 2 Discovery (D2D) program. With CNS and D2D, students in rural southwest Georgia enjoy live interactions with research scientists demonstrating principles of science in fields including astronomy, high-energy physics and nanotechnology. Students see in HD exactly what the scientists see and can ask questions as if they were all in the same room. Having worked with schools lacking high-speed fiber connectivity, Sherman attests that these two-way HD interactions would not be possible for his students without CNS’s fiber network.

Another way CNS is enabling new educational opportunities is by offering telepresence capabilities to a Certified Nursing Assistant (CNA) program set to launch at Mitchell County High School in Camilla, Georgia. Telepresence will allow students to complete their practicum requirements with supervising instructors who cannot physically be in Camilla. Due to low numbers of medical professionals in rural areas, it is difficult to provide consistent supervision for medical training programs. But thanks to CNS’s high-speed fiber network, medical supervisors can be much more efficient with their time - treating patients in one town while training nursing students in another, without hours of driving in between.

Thanks to CNS and Beau Sherman, students in some of Georgia’s most rural stretches are enjoying high-tech educational opportunities available only through advanced broadband networks. And as we see time and time again, municipalities are very well suited to solve these problems locally with their own investments at a far lower cost than they would pay to lease inferior services.

Xmission Increases Speeds for Free in the Land of UTOPIA

Customers subscribing to Xmission via UTOPIA just received a free upgrade. Subscribers to the 50 Mbps service are now receiving 100 Mbps at no extra charge. The Free UTOPIA blog ran the announcement along with this tip:

One thing to note is that if you aren’t seeing those speeds, you may need to upgrade your router. Most routers, even newer ones, don’t include a 1Gbps WAN port which often serves as a bottleneck. Older 802.11 a/b/g routers also create choke points on the wireless side. All said, that’s a pretty nice problem to have, isn’t it?

Indeed it is...

We reported on Xmission's decision to keep customer data private and we interviewed Pete Ashdown, founder of Xmission, and Todd Marriott from UTOPIA in Episode #3 of the Broadband Bits podcast. The two talked with Chris Mitchell about the services they provide and some of the challenges they have faced as a publicly owned network and a local provider.

This announcement is no surprise for our readers. We often report on free or modestly priced speed increases from publicly owned networks and providers that deliver services via publicly owned infrastructure. In contrast, the news is regularly speckled with stories about increased rates with no increase in speeds from the large national providers. 

Glasgow EPB Helps Community Hospital Expand

When a local hospital saw an opportunity to deliver services from an abandoned big box store, the community broadband network sealed the deal with connectivity both advanced and affordable. That store had been an anchor for nearby businesses; allowing it to remain empty put them at risk.

In 2011, officials from T.J. Samson Community Hospital approached the Glasgow Electric Plant Board (EPB) to inquire about the feasibility of connecting the hospital and other facilities to an abandoned shopping plaza which once housed a Wal-mart. The officials were interested in converting the old shopping plaza into a state-of-the-art healthcare facility. But that would only be possible if the the abandoned shopping plaza could be connected to existing facilities with an advanced fiber optic network, including multiple diverse routes to assure the necessary level of reliability.

Hospital officials ultimately asked EPB to provide a redundant 10-gigabit network interconnecting all of their facilities with the abandoned shopping plaza and EPB's network operating center. The hospital needed advanced connectivity for advanced telemedicine practices, such as sharing high-resolution images and transferring large data patient files. The hospital also needed a collocation deal with EPB in order to install mirrored servers in a safe, storm-hardened facility.

Asked about the decision to meet the hospital’s request, Billy Ray, CEO of the EPB said "We knew it was us or nobody. It would’ve been cost prohibitive for the private sector to do the job, if they would bother at all."

The converted shopping plaza, now known as the T.J. Samson Health Pavilion, added 126,000 square feet to its capacity that houses 30 new physicians' offices, advanced diagnostics, preventative treatment and educational services. The $36-million project also created administration and healthcare related jobs while reinforcing the basic infrastructure of the community. And it was all made possible by Glasgow’s public utility having the flexibility and public interest mandate to serve the community first, rather than focusing on short term profits.