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Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 12

This week, you might have been tripped up by some infuriating “spinning wheels of death” on the Internet, but don’t worry, the slow-down was largely symbolic— at least for now. Fierce Telecom covered the Internet Slowdown Day protest on Wednesday, organized by “Battle for the Net." It was designed to bring attention to what will happen if so-called “slow lanes” are allowed under new FCC net neutrality rules. 

Netflix, MuniNetworks, Kickstarter, Reddit, and thousands of other sites took part in the protest. “The New Yorker’s” Vauhini Vara writes that Internet Slowdown Day produced more than 700 thousand comments about proposed FCC rules. 

Meanwhile, Amazon is positioning itself to come out on top whichever way the Net Neutrality rules fall. Susan Crawford urged the FCC to take action and “Think Chattanooga.”

“This is not a story of huge companies fighting one another. This is a sweeping narrative of private control over the central utility of our era: high-capacity Internet access. We, the people of the United States, are the collateral damage in this battle; we are stuck with second-class, expensive service.”

Muni Networks are gaining more ground, with Chattanooga and Wilson, NC still in the spotlight. Anne L. Kim took up the issue of preemption on CQ Roll Call. She interviewed Chris Mitchell for the article:

“Communities build their own networks because they think the private sector isn’t investing in them, said Christopher Mitchell… According to Mitchell, in the case of city-wide municipal fiber networks, reasons for deployment are often a mix of getting fast, reliable service at an affordable price.”

Blogger KateCA of My FireDogLake commented on the failings of the invisible hand in the telecom realm in her Corporations and The Commons post. 

“While free enterprise usually merits a hearty rah-rah in certain circles, competition between for-profit entities and publicly-owned ones seems to be a no-no, at least to Rep Blackburn and her crowd when it comes to [Chatanooga’s] EPB.”

In The New York Times, Colin Dougherty laments the search for a killer app in cities where Google Fiber has set down roots. He talked to Chris Mitchell and other experts about the difference between local control and dependence on a corporation like Google:

“It felt like a righteous invading tech company coming in to tell us how to run the city,” he said. Faster Internet helps Google in lots of ways."

The more time users spend searching the web or watching YouTube videos, the more ads Google sells and the more Google services people use. The company could also use Fiber to test new services like household-targeted TV commercials.

As FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced his intention to address barriers to competition and broadband deployment, several reporters, including Stephen Hardy of Lightwave Online wrote on the topic.

Regarding the definition of broadband, Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin and Fierce Telecom’s Sean Buckley wrote that AT&T, Verizon, and others made claims that consumers simply don’t need or want faster Internet speeds.

"Consumer behavior strongly reinforces the conclusion that a 10 Mbps service exceeds what many Americans need today to enable basic, high-quality transmissions," AT&T wrote in a filing. 

AT&T’s comments were made public after Wheeler mentioned that the current definition for broadband is much slower than is necessary for economic growth.  

Casey Houser suggests that gig networks are forcing big telecom to play a game of “anything you can do I can do better”. But many communities are not waiting around for the big guys to come in. More announced this week they are dipping their collective toes into the municipal broadband pool. 

Lexington, KY mayor Jim Gray says he’s moving forward to give his city a big gig push. 

Austin, MN’s Vision 2020 group is studying how it can get its own gig, after being passed over by Google Fiber three years ago. The Daily Herald’s Trey Mewes reports that the group will be going door-to-door to get feedback about the Gig Austin proposal.

Finally, a recent article in The Advertiser counters some false statements made by a paid muni network hit man. Lafayette Utilities System (LUS) director Terry Huval said a report published by “Reason”, and written by Steven Titch is extremely flawed and biased. 

“Steven Titch, a paid analyst, and formerly a news editor in the telecommunications industry, has been criticizing LUS Fiber and other municipal broadband systems for virtually the past decade,” Huval wrote in response to the report. He takes data and twists it in a way that meets the particular needs of that client,” he said. “The bottom line for us is we are doing well. We are growing every year.”

The Guardian Visits Chattanooga

The Guardian recently ran an article covering Chattanooga EPB's fiber network. The article tells the story of the birth of the network, the challenges the community faced to get its gigabit service, and how the network has sculpted the community.

Reporter Dominic Rushe, mentioned how the city has faced legal opposition from incumbents that sued to stop the network. They continue to hound the EPB today, most recently by trying to stop the city's FCC petition to expand its services. But even in a fiercely competitive environment, EPB has succeeded. From the article:

The competitive disadvantage they face is clear. EPB now has about 60,000 residential and 4,500 business customers out of a potential 160,000 homes and businesses. Comcast hasn’t upgraded its network but it has gone on the offensive, offering cutthroat introductory offers and gift cards for people who switch back. “They have been worthy competitors,” said [Danna] Bailey,[vice president of EPB]. “They’ve been very aggressive.”

Rushe spoke with Chris:

"In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A key difference between a Comcast or an AT&T and EPB goes beyond the numbers. Rushe described the artistic renaissance happening in Chattanooga with the help of top notch service from EPB:

The city is making sure schools have access to devices for its children to get online. Fancy Rhino, a marketing and film production firm backed by Lamp Post, has been working with The Howard School, an inner-city school, to include them in the city’s renaissance.

...

Bailey said EPB could afford to be more community minded because of its structure. “We don’t have to worry about stockholders, our customers are our stockholders. We don’t have to worry about big salaries, about dividends. We get to wake up everyday and think about what, within business reason, is good for this community,” she said.

“The private sector doesn’t have that same motivation. It’s perfectly fair, they are motivated by profits and stockholders. they have a lot of capital already invested in existing infrastructure. It would be costly to overbuild themselves.”

The local business environment is, naturally, shifting toward a high tech center. Rushe checked in with one of the many incubators, Lamp Post, in the once abandoned downtown district:

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

Mayor Andy Berke addressed the community's drive to offer gig service:

Berke said they had no choice. “The Gig wasn’t coming here anytime soon without us doing it,” he said. “It was going to go a lot of places before it came to Chattanooga. For us, like a lot of cities, you either decide to do it yourself or you wait in line. We chose to do it ourselves.”

Blackburn and Wheeler: Awkward Penpals

Back in June, some sixty House Republicans led by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn sent an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressing their “deep concern” with his support for community networks. They took issue with comments he made at a House Energy and Commerce hearing in May, indicating his willingness to preempt incumbent-sponsored anticompetitive state laws that handicap or outright ban municipal networks. 

In the the views of Rep. Blackburn and her allies, this “sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination.” They demanded answers from Chairman Wheeler on a set of eight questions so leading that they would make even the most partisan pollster blush. They featured many of the same “states’ rights,” “unelected federal bureaucrat,” and “unconstitutional authority” talking points used later in the floor debate over Blackburn’s anti-muni amendment, softened up and rephrased just a bit for polite company. 

In late July, Chairman Wheeler offered a formal written response. He opened with a diplomatically worded overview of the U.S. broadband sector, before launching into the heart of the matter:

“...Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities’ ability to make their own decisions about their own future. There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition. I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I also know that state laws which directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances.”

While the legal debate is all about the extent of federal authority, Chairman Wheeler correctly identifies the real policy issue: "communities' ability to make their own decisions about their own future." Preemption [meaning removing state preemption] is about enabling choice, not forcing any particular option on a local community. Conversely, "states' rights" is used by Rep. Blackburn and her allies as a blanket permission to dictate to every county, township, and municipality in a given state that they must take service from monopolistic incumbents or go without broadband entirely.

 

Chairman Wheeler gamely answered each of the questions in Blackburn’s letter, despite the fact that some were little more than veiled threats:

[Blackburn et. al:] “1. If the courts struck down the FCC’s ploy to override state laws restricting municipal broadband do you believe that such a decision would weaken the credibility of the FCC?” 

[Wheeler:] The commission gives careful consideration to all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues before making decisions…As you know, final Commission decisions are typically subject to judicial review, but I do not believe that is a reason to shy away from making important decisions. 

Translation: 

Blackburn: Don't even think about it, we will sue you. 

Wheeler: Fine by me.

Several of the other questions were variations on the theme of “How dare you!”:

[Blackburn et. al:] “2. Why does the FCC believe state governors and state legislators should not have a say over how to govern the political subdivisions of their state even though that is what they are elected to do by voters?”

and 

[Blackburn et. al] “7. Did you ever ask Congress for the authority to override states’ rights with respect to municipal broadband?”  

In defending the legal soundness of preemption, Chairman Wheeler quoted both the language of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as well as several favorable circuit court decisions that “specifically characterized preemption of state laws restricting municipal broadband as a ‘paradigmatic’ example of the authority given by Congress to the FCC under Section 706.”

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the entire tense Blackburn-Wheeler correspondence is given in the following exchange: 

[Blackburn et. al:] “6. How does the FCC believe Section 706 authority trumps the states’ rights in the Constitution?”  

[Wheeler:] As explained above, Section 706 establishes a strong federal policy of ensuring that broadband is available to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. When state laws come into direct conflict with critically important federal law and policy, it is a long-standing principle of Constitutional law that state laws can be subject to federal preemption in appropriate cases. I do not view federal preemption as a matter to be undertaken lightly. Such action must be premised on careful consideration of all relevant issues. As noted above, in any proceeding involving these issues, the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented to determine the appropriate course of action. 

This is the correspondence in a nutshell: Blackburn and her allies are hopping mad about the prospect of their big telecom donors having to compete with municipal networks or private companies partnered with municipal networks, and Chairman Wheeler is striking a measured, non-provocative tone while sticking to his guns on the need to restore local authority to increase competition. The qualifying phrase “the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented” appears, by my count, eight times in Wheeler's four page letter. 

The Blackburn-Wheeler exchange stands in contrast to the response letter sent by Wheeler to Pennsylvania Democrat Representative Mike Doyle, which contains much of the same language and phrases but strikes a decidedly different tone. Chairman Wheeler apparently had no objections to Rep. Doyle’s pro-municipal network letter, and was in fact “heartened by [his] support for community broadband.” 

While the FCC rulemaking process sometimes seems like a black box, there are many political aspects to its decisions that extend into the public arena. Reading the tea leaves on exchanges like these between Congress and the FCC does not necessarily offer definitive answers, but it does appear to indicate that Chairman Wheeler is leaning in the right direction and may be willing to take the inevitable heat that a decision in favor of restoring local authority would bring.

ILSR Statement on FCC Call for More Competition: A Step In the Right Direction

There is little doubt that our readers are aware of Chairman Wheeler's remarks on September 4th at 1776, a start-up incubator in D.C. His message echoed what policy leaders have repeated countless times - competition is lacking in the world of broadband.

Telecommunications has become a popular topic in the past few months as decision makers are discovering that constituents DO care about online access, economic development, and exessive consolidation. ILSR was pleased to see the Chairman address the issue of lack of competition and released the following statement:

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance applauds FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s Agenda for Broadband Competition. We feel it is a positive step coming from the nation’s top communications official.  

“These gigabit developments are positive, but they are not yet pervasive,” Wheeler said. “Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler's recognition that Americans lack a true choice in fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access is an important development. If we want real options for next-generation connectivity, local governments must be free to build then own networks. 

If there is one thing we have learned from the history of essential infrastructure, it is that local governments must have the option of building and owning it themselves. 

Hundreds of communities have already invested in their own fiber networks, keeping money in the local economy and spurring job growth.” says Community Broadband Networks director Chris Mitchell.

National Journal Traces Growth of Partisanship in Municipal Broadband Debate

In an excellent piece titled “How Republicans Flip-Flopped on Government-Run Internet,” the National Journal outlines the disappointing political evolution of municipal broadband, from a bipartisan local choice issue to an anti-Obama Administration, pro-incumbent telecom, states’ rights issue. 

It was not so long ago (2005, to be precise) that three Republican senators (John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman) joined three Democrats in sponsoring legislation that would enshrine the principle of local choice explicitly in law, preempting anti-muni state laws pushed by incumbent lobbyists. A year later, 215 House Republicans voted for a bill that included a similar preemption provision. In 2007, even more Republican Senators joined McCain and Graham, including Olympia Snowe, Ted Stevens, and Gordon Smith. Their communications bill, including local choice provisions, narrowly missed becoming the law of the land due to fights over unrelated net neutrality issues. 

Yet somehow, in 2014, we have the Blackburn anti-muni amendment passing the House floor with nearly unanimous Republican support: 223-200. There are multiple reasons for this, including the generational shift in the Republican Party away from moderates like McCain and towards the more insurrectionist Tea Party. The Journal article also cites the ubiquitous hostility to anything associated with President Obama, even extending to statements made by his nominees at the FCC in favor of federal preemption. Ever greater lobbying spending by cable and telecom incumbents has helped muddy the water for municipal broadband as well.

Yet even some of the same Republicans who once supported local choice now oppose it. Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan, the current and former Chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that handles communications issues, was one of the leading figures in pushing the bill that included preemption in 2006 and 2007. In 2014, he joined his caucus in voting for Blackburn’s amendment to stop such preemption. From the Journal:

An Upton spokesman claimed there's nothing inconsistent about supporting a bill to nullify state restrictions and opposing FCC action that would do the same thing.

"Voters and their elected representatives, not bureaucrats at the FCC, should make the decision whether to spend tax dollars on municipal broadband," the spokesman said in a statement.    

This is conveniently myopic logic, considering it is voters and their elected representatives at the local level who are being blocked from deciding municipal broadband issues in some 20 states but the very laws Upton has helped keep in place.

The article, while somewhat disheartening about the current state of things, also underscores a fundamental truth about community networks: they are not intrinsically partisan. There is no set-in-stone law that says Republicans must oppose them at all costs. They are not about government mandates, the size of government, executive overreach, or any other red herring. Community networks are about choice, exercised by residents and the elected officials that are their neighbors, to decide for themselves what they need and how to get it. It doesn’t get much more Jeffersonian than that.

First Muni Fiber Net in Maine - Community Broadband Bits Episode 115

By building a fiber line to allow some local businesses to get next-generation Internet access, Rockport became the first municipal fiber network in the state of Maine. Town Manager Richard Bates joins us for episode 115 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the financing behind the network and their partnership with local Internet Service Provider, GWI, to improve access to the Internet.

Bates also explains how they had to ask voters for authorization to use a tax-increment financing approach to paying for the network to spur economic development. Nearby communities have been watching to see what happens.Read our story about this network 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 15 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 The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

Calls Grow for Community Network in Syracuse

Last week, we noted some comments made by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner indicating her interest in a municipal broadband network and her promise to develop a plan for how to build it. Now it appears others in Syracuse are picking up her refrain. 

Two columns appearing recently in the Syracuse Post-Standard offered support for Miner’s idea: one from the paper’s editorial board, and another written by a former Republican candidate for mayor.  

Stephen Kimatian, a lawyer and former local TV station general manager, penned an enthusiastic op-ed in favor of Miner’s idea; this despite the fact that he was the Republican candidate for mayor that lost to Miner in 2009. If his Twitter feed is any guide, Kimatian is quite conservative and not a huge fan of Miner’s, but he appears to recognize the nonpartisan advantages of community network ownership:

Connecting broadband throughout the city of Syracuse makes a clear statement that we embrace the 21st century digital economy, we "get" it. The practicality of building a backbone of interconnectivity enables communication between all levels of government and citizens and sets us up for the many more uses to come. It builds a sense of community that we are all connected, from Eastwood to Winkworth, from the Valley to the North Side and that we have a stake in each other's neighborhoods…

Broadband also creates economic equality. Not every home is able to afford broadband and its data usage can be expensive. That means many students don't have the essential research tool of Internet access at home. By providing a common connection, we are putting the less advantaged kids on the same plane as everyone else.

….Broadband should be a utility just like water, gas, electricity and phones.

The Syracuse Post-Standard’s editorial board offered a bit more qualified support, but still lauded Miner’s goals and supported the effort to study broadband deployment: 

….[L]et's hand it to Miner for recognizing that affordable, high-speed Internet service is a necessity in today's world. A city without it is going to be left behind -- and so are its residents and businesses.

Let's also recognize that the for-profit Internet service providers that built high-speed networks have largely given up on some urban areas like Syracuse. Yet the industry fears municipal broadband enough to lobby furiously for state and federal laws banning it.

Should Syracuse step into the breach? It's worth study and debate.

Hopefully Syracusans have been reading their local paper and are primed for informed public discussion whenever Miner brings her plan for community broadband forward. 

Ellensburg Considers Muni Fiber Network Expansion

Last year, we covered this central Washington city’s first foray into publicly owned fiber optics. The local incumbent, Charter Communications, began charging the city $10,000 per month for services it had been providing for free for a decade as part of its franchise agreement. Ellensburg officials did some quick math and realized that they could save money building their own network.

They ultimately awarded a contract for $960,000 to build 13 miles of fiber connecting various public facilities throughout the city including the police department and Central Washington University. Thanks to Charter’s high rates, the direct cost savings alone could pay for the entire project in about eight years, leaving aside all the other direct and indirect benefits of public network ownership. 

Now, with the original construction project not even quite complete, Ellensburg is already considering expanding to serve residents and the local business community. According to the local Daily Recorder newspaper, the city council has unanimously voted to issue a request for qualifications from contractors for a long term strategic plan.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

The new strategic plan is expected to be finished before construction on the current institutional network ends. The construction plan for the institutional network was designed to be “future-ready,” with contingency funds set aside for possible later alterations or expansions. It seems those funds may be tapped sooner rather than later.

The Ellensburg Business Development Authority has been a major advocate of the city’s fiber network, pushing the city to expand it to new areas, offer service to businesses, and look into how it could compete with Charter Communications. As city councilmember Tony Aronica put it:

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”  

While nothing has been decided yet, Ellensburg’s discussion of expanding municipal network services is already turning envious heads in Spokane and other nearby cities. Ellensburg itself consulted with Tacoma, which has operated a city cable utility for years, in crafting its institutional network construction plan. It's always encouraging to see expertise and ideas spread from one local community to another, shortening the learning curve for small cities seeking to get out from under the local cable incumbent's thumb. 

Sallisaw: The First Muni Fiber Network in Oklahoma - Community Broadband Bits Episode 114

Sallisaw is one of many small municipal FTTH networks that most people are not familiar with. For a decade, they have been quietly meeting their community's needs with DiamondNet. For this week's Community Broadband Bits, we learn more about it in a conversation with Assistant City Manager Keith Skelton and Network Communications Supervisor Danny Keith.

Sallisaw built their network after incumbents failed to provide broadband in the early 2000's, becoming the first triple play municipal fiber network in the state. Nearly 2 out of 3 people take service from DiamondNet, which is operated by municipal electric utility.

They pride themselves on doing much more for the community than the incumbent providers do - particularly responsive customer service and creating lots of local content. They are also building a wireless network to serve people outside of town who currently have limited Internet access.

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 17 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."