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Seattle Grassroots Muni Initiative Kicks Off With Campaign Survey

Seattleites tired of waiting for incumbents to provide better services, have decided to launch a campaign to establish Internet access as a public utility. In order to get the campaign off to a strong start, the founding group has launched a survey to choose a name.

Seattle has significant fiber resources in place, an electric utility, and strong grassroots support. Unfortunately, incumbent Comcast has been trying to curry favor within City Hall. But given that Seattle has joined Next Century Cities, the City seems focused on exploring all of its options.

When Chris presented in Seattle, he strongly encouraged them to organize a grassroots effort to support a community network. Now, a group of community organizers, artists, tech workers, and students are taking the next step forward because:

A 2014 report by the city found that "nearly 20% of Seattle residents do not have any Internet access.” Entire neighborhoods still lack access to Internet speeds necessary to take part in the modern economy. Without access, residents may not be able to apply for jobs, utilize city websites, finish their homework, operate a small business, display art, shop online, or video chat with a doctor from the comfort of their homes.    

Even those with home access to Internet have too few options. The same city report showed that 45% of residents wanted better prices, and 33% wanted higher speeds than currently offered by the two dominant Internet providers: Comcast and CenturyLink.  

Some of the names they suggest are "Seattle for Homegrown Internet," "Connecting Seattle," and "Seattle's Own Internet." They also offer the chance for participants to offer their own ideas.

Seattleites, we encourage you to share your opinion by taking the survey. In addition to naming the campaign, your participation will help organizers gauge the level of interest. You can also connect with the group and let them know you are willing to volunteer.

According to a Brown Paper Tickets Blog post, the new campaign name will be revealed on February 13th at the launch day for new Puget Sound radio stations and World Radio Day.

Local channel 5 also covered the story:

 

Los Angeles Times Supports Local Authority

President Obama's recent appearance in Cedar Falls infused adrenaline into the debate about local authority for telecommunications decisions. As a result, some of the media outlets from large cities are now coming out in support of local authority. The Editorial Board of the LA Times published an opinion on January 21st supporting the notion of restoring local authority in states where laws prevent community decision making.

The Times recognizes that rural areas will benefit most from reversing these restrictions, that the restrictions need to be removed for us to compete globally, and that there are numerous municipal networks that are up to the challenge of improving connectivity. The LA Times also recognizes the value of public-private partnerships in New York and in other places where local government has forged productive relationships with the private sector.

Editors at the LA Times boil it down to one tenet:

Regardless, the decision about whether a local agency should get into the broadband business should be left to the people who bear the risk — local officials and the people who elect them.

Cap Times Weighs In on Mayoral Race, Muni Broadband, and Free Internet: We Need It!

The Madison Cap Times recently ran an editorial focusing on the surprising nature of mayoral races. We were also surprised - pleasantly so - to read the intention of the editorial board (emphasis ours):

The Capital Times will add its proposals to the mix, with a special focus on using emerging technologies to promote high-wage job creation and economic development. In particular, we'll advocate for the establishment of a municipal broadband system that can provide free high-speed Internet access to all Madisonians. 

...

Madison is a great city that does plenty of things right. But it faces major challenges, some of its own making, some imposed by reactionary state government, some dictated by our complex times. A mayoral race is the pivot point at which to discuss those challenges and the proper responses to them.

The Cap Times editorial reminds us that local decision making about connectivity is rooted in our choice of local leaders. We encourage Madison voters and all other communities facing the ballot to press candidates to address the issue of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. If your community doesn't have it, ask your candidates what they intend to do about it.

Madison's mayor Soglin has been a leader on this issue via the U.S. Conference of Mayors, where he wrote and worked to adopt a resolution that called for restoring local decision-making authority to local governments.

Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Issues RFP

The Roanoke Valley in Virginia has taken a deliberate pace on the road to improving local connectivity. On December 10th, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) released an RFP for proposals for an open access fiber optic network.

The RVBA is seeking a partner to build the network that will remain a publicly owned asset but will be managed by a private partner. According to the RFP, the City of Salem Electric Department has fiber in place that will be integrated into the the network. The RVBA has already invested in design, engineering, and permitting of 42 miles of a fiber network to jumpstart the process. Construction should begin this year.

In November, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported:

The valley is often described as being caught in a “doughnut hole” for broadband service because it’s not a large enough area for the marketplace to drive creation of a truly high-speed network, but it’s too large to qualify for grants available to more rural locales.

The Times-Dispatch reports the estimated cost for the project is $4 million. 

SandyNet Now Offering Gigabit FTTH in Oregon

Back in September, SandyNet announced that its FTTH gigabit network was officially up and running. The utility will continue to expand and eventually bring the network to all 4,000 households. Light Reading recently spoke with Joe Knapp, Sandy's IT Director and general manager of the broadband utility about the new offering. With a population of 10,000, Sandy is in Oregon between Portland and Mount Hood.

The network is completely underground. Sandy is one of many communities that have developed smart conduit policies, reducing the cost and preparing the environment for deployment over a period of years.

You can listen to our discussion with Knapp on Sandy's conduit policy in Episode 17 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with City Manager Scott Lazenby about Sandy's conduit policies during Episode 48.

Like many other communities we study, Sandy invested in connectivity out of necessity. Knapp told Light Reading:

"We started out because we couldn't get a DSL line at city hall," says Joe Knapp, IT director for the City of Sandy and general manager of SandyNet. The utility first built a 900MHz wireless network, then WiFi, then a wireless mesh network to connect residents to broadband, he says. "That became so popular that we took about 40% of the market with wireless, but that was a hard thing to sustain."

The journey to FTTH was not an easy one:

"We started to realize that a lot of communities are doing this," Knapp says. "It took three years of beating my head against the wall to finally get it to happen."

Gigabit speeds are something to boast about, but Knapp says SandyNet will not go to extremes to push them:

"As a muni network, we view this as trying to benefit the community. I tell them to try the 100-Meg service first -- we're actually not pushing the gig that hard."

Pricing for gigabit service is $59.95 per month; 100 Mbps service is $39.95 per month. All speeds are symmetrical and there are no caps or contracts.

FACT SHEET: Broadband That Works: Promoting Competition & Local Choice In Next-Generation Connectivity

Publication Date: 
January 13, 2015
Author(s): 
White House Office of the Press Secretary

In January 2015, President Barak Obama appeared in Cedar Falls, Iowa, to present his administration's plan to encourage local choice and competition through community networks. The President's strategy includes eliminating barriers to local telecom authority that now exist in 19 states. 

The Broadband That Works: Promoting Competition & Local Choice In Next-Generation Connectivity fact sheet, released by the White House Office of the Press Secretary on the eve of the appearance, provides info on several communities served by munis and the benefits they have enjoyed. The fact sheet also outlines five steps the administrations proposes to improves access, adoption, and investment.

For more detailed information, download the accompanying report by the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisors.

Community-Based Broadband Solutions: The Benefits of Competition and Choice for Community Development and Highspeed Internet Access

Publication Date: 
January 13, 2015
Author(s): 
National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisors

Affordable, reliable access to high speed broadband is critical to U.S. economic growth and competitiveness. Upgrading to higher-speed broadband lets consumers use the Internet in new ways, increases the productivity of American individuals and businesses, and drives innovation throughout the digital ecosystem. As this report describes, while the private sector has made investments to dramatically expand broadband access in the U.S., challenges still remain. Many markets remain unserved or underserved. Others do not benefit from the kind of competition that drives down costs and improves quality. To help fill the void, hundreds of towns and cities around the country have developed their own locally-owned networks. This report describes the benefits of higher-speed broadband access, the current challenges facing the market, and the benefits of competition – including competition from community broadband networks. - Executive Summary

On January 13, 2015, President Barak Obama visited Cedar Falls, Iowa, to discuss his administration's plans to bring better connectivity to American residents and businesses. The centerpiece of his strategy involved removing state barriers to municipal networks and promoting local authority.

In tandem with that speech, the White House released this report. The report includes significant research from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, including community profiles, economic data, and the role if municipal networks in competition.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 9

Susan Crawford’s latest piece on municipal broadband discussed a real problem that mayors of communities can have a definite impact in helping resolve: the digital divide.

Think of that divide, now amplifying and entrenching existing social problems in your city, as similar to a failure to provide a functional street grid. You don’t have to provide retail services yourself, just as you don’t have to provide the cars and businesses that use your streets. Consider the case of Ammon, Idaho, a small conservative town that built a passive fiber (as opposed to fiber-optic) network over which a host of competing service providers can sell directly to residents. Only a city builds streets; similarly, no private company would have an incentive to serve everyone with basic infrastructure, but every private company will rejoice in having reasonably-priced, unlimited communications capacity as a basic input into everything it needs to do. For more evidence, look at Chattanooga, Tennessee.

In Massachusetts, WWLP’s Anthony Hill reported on the small city of Leyden, whose residents may finally be getting high speed Internet access. The city is supporting a $2 million project, which will be up for a vote by residents this coming spring. 

The Monroe Courier reported this week on how 25% of Connecticut towns could soon be a formidable force against big cable. The cities are joining together to demand better connectivity and to make the state the nation’s first Gigabit State. Our story on Connecticut here.

“The response from our state’s towns has been overwhelming,” Consumer Counsel Katz said.  “I’ve heard over and over that municipal officials are frustrated with available internet speeds and the cost to their towns of upgrading internet networks.  These 46 municipalities have made the decision to take control of the situation.  From the high school to the town hall to the library, the demand for faster internet speeds and greater bandwidth is ever-increasing. Businesses face the same challenges, and we know more residents than ever are asking the same question: How do we get faster, cheaper, more reliable internet? Partnering with the private sector to examine the best way to build and finance these Gig networks is the first step in making them a reality in Connecticut.”

From California’s Mendocino County, we found yet another reason why communities should consider municipal fiber: residents there are still dealing with damage inflicted after an AT&T broadband outage left people with out phone and Internet for nearly 45 hours! Adam Randall with the Ukiah Daily Journal reported that officials say the outage was due in part to AT&T’s refusal to upgrade its copper wiring.

“AT&T's unwillingness to address repair issues in Mendocino County in a timely manner is something that has continued to irk [chairman of the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County, Jim] Moorehead, along with other officials, including Congressman Jared Huffman.

Some of the affected customers are now experiencing landline outages, with the biggest concern being those who are not able to connect with 911 in case of an emergency, Moorehead said.”

Joan Engebretson wrote about North Dakota’s surprisingly high fiber-to-the-home percentage

…because North Dakota is so rural, 96% of the state (on a geographic basis) is served by one of 18 small rural telecom companies – and those companies have made deploying FTTH a high priority.

The small companies’ rural status also has enabled them to benefit from several USDA programs. According to a report released in late December, the USDA has invested more than $330 million in broadband in North Dakota since 2009…

Brian Heaton with GovTech covered Iowa governor Terry Branstad’s plan to “connect every Iowan.” 

“For Iowa to remain competitive in an increasingly global marketplace, we must connect every acre to high-speed broadband Internet,” Centers said. “Not only does that mean connecting agriculture to high-speed Internet, but it also means making sure Iowa’s schools have the ability to give our children access to educational resources available online and main street businesses can connect with the global marketplace.”

Google and Title II

The FCC’s decision on reclassifying the Internet as a utility could be music to Google Fiber’s ears.

TechDirt’s Karl Bode again weighed in on how ISPs use utility pole rights to block both private and municipal broadband projects:

Bureaucratic pole attachment rights negotiations are already sometimes annoyingly cumbersome, but they're also one of many ways incumbent ISPs thwart competitive efforts. Municipal broadband efforts in Utah, for example, were hindered by a litany of Qwest (now CenturyLink) lawsuits aimed at blocking local community ISP Utopia from having access to the company's poles. In Austin, where AT&T owns around 20% of the city's utility poles, Google Fiber ran into some initial obstacles getting pole attachment rights because AT&T argued Google wasn't officially a telecom company. 

And Martin Blanc with BidnessEtc continued to explain how the search engine giant would benefit greatly from reclassification as Title II.  

“[Google Director of Communications Law Austin Schlick] told the FCC in a letter last week that such reclassification will promote competition in the industry and induce more investment in the sector, and will also promote the provision of broadband Internet to more markets.”

Reid Schram with Epoch Times broke it down to Google's bottom line:

“Google is asking for this because as they’ve been trying to roll out their high speed Google Fiber service to different areas, they have run into major problems getting permission to access things like utility poles and cable carrying conduits. AT&T and Comcast have long been afforded ease of access to these key pieces of infrastructure, as they are classified as a cable tv provider, and thus a utility."

2015

A couple of writers this week commented that America’s slow-to-the-draw connectivity may be a good thing– it could serve as a wake up call for communities that want to take back their local authority. 

Bruce Kushnick predicted 2015 will include a lot of hair-pulling by cable and phone customers: 

... There is one shining light -- A wise friend of mine once said, "It has to get so bad that people actually notice." With 4 million people commenting about Net Neutrality, the so called "ISPs" being considered the 'most hated companies in America' in 2013 and Time Warner and Comcast being the most hated companies in 2014 -- out-stripping every other industry, or that the major media actually used the term "Title II"-- maybe, just maybe, the sheep have woken up from their slumber.

But, right now, for communications, the year 2015 looks like it will just suck to be a customer of America's telecom-cable trust."

The Washington Post’s Brian Fung reported on the proposed new definition of broadband: 25 Mbps. He said that Wheeler’s recommendation recognizes that the government is finally catching up to technology advancements:

“In 2012, the most recent year for which the FCC has published data, 94 percent of Americans already had access to download speeds of at least 3 Mbps. While that may have been enough for most people then, it represents the bare minimum now."

Top of the Dung Heap Awards 

Tech Dirt’s Karl Bode and Erika Rawes with The Wall Street Cheat Sheet listed the Top 10 WORST businesses in 2014. Spoiler Alert: SEVEN out of the 10 from Big Telecom. We could have been knocked over by a feather by shear surprise… not really.

"It’s frustrating. And although the customer service rep claims to “understand you are frustrated today,” there is only so much these reps can do, given they are trained to utilized the most inexpensive and cost-effective potential “solutions” for the business, as opposed to doing what’s easiest and most convenient for the customer.

On top of the fact that customer service reps are often trained to lean toward inexpensive solutions that drive customers crazy, most reps are also working for sub-par wages. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), customer service reps are paid median hourly wages of around $14.85 per hour and those on the lower end of the wage scale earn less than $9.50 per hour. However, in 2001, the median hourly wage for these representatives was $12.23 — or $16.31 in today’s money.

Not only have wages declined for these workers, automated systems and online systems have reduced the need for them. Sure, customers want human interaction, but they also want that interaction to be friendly and productive. This personal and friendly interaction is something so many businesses lack."

But you can take (some) solace in this: you may now find it easier to complain about that telephone and cable service! 

The FCC unveiled its new “one-stop shop” complaint site for filing and tracking complaints about robocalls and fraudulent charges. Teresa McUsic with SavvyConsumer gave a full list of where and how to complain early, and often.

In Ohio, Hudson Offers Broadband Survey

The city of Hudson in Northeast Ohio is considering ways to improve its broadband connectivity. As part of developing its “Broadband Needs Assessment and Business Plan,” the city has begun soliciting responses to a brief broadband survey. The goal is to get input from both residents and businesses to “examine the current state of the city's broadband services to identify ways the City can positively impact the delivery of broadband internet services in Hudson.” 

We wrote about Hudson back in July, when they issued an RFP for their needs assessment and business plan. The current incumbent, Windstar, has left residents and businesses frustrated with slow speeds and poor customer service. The city already has an institutional network that connects some of its schools, utility and public safety facilities, and town hall. It hopes to be able to leverage and expand on those assets to further economic development and possibly provide home service at some point in the future. From the Hudson Hub Times:

"Our first step in this process is to assess the current broadband capacity and determine ways to help ensure we have access to the broadband and technology we need for Hudson to thrive," said City Manager Jane Howington. "We encourage Hudson residents to make their voices heard by taking the short residential survey on the city's website."

The survey, as well as a brief informational video from the city discussing some of the possible uses and value of fiber optic connections, is available here.

Public or Private Ownership? Community Broadband Bits Episode 132

Ever since the last time I spoke with Blair Levin on Episode 37, I have wanted to have him back for a friendly discussion about public or private ownership of next generation networks.

Though Blair and I entirely agree that local governments should be free to decide locally whether a community broadband network investment is a wise choice, he tends to see more promise in partnerships or other private approaches whereas we at ILSR tend to be concerned about the long term implications of private ownership of essential infrastructure.

In what may be the longest interview we have done, Blair and I discuss where we agree and how we differ. We weren't looking to prove the other wrong so much as illustrate our different points of view so listeners can evaluate our sides. Ultimately, we both believe in a United States where communities can choose between both models -- and some may even seek solutions that incorporate both.

Blair Levin was the FCC Chief of Staff when Reed Hundt was Chair and was instrumental in forming Gig.U. In between, he did a lot of things, including being Executive Director for the FCC's National Broadband Plan. He is currently with the Metropolitan Project at Brookings.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 37 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 previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."