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Op-Ed: Community Broadband Networks Drive NC Economy

The Roanoke Daily Herald published this op-ed about local government action for broadband networks on September 25, 2015. We were responding to an earlier Op-Ed, available here. Christopher Mitchell wrote the following op-ed.

Local governments should make broadband choices

Community broadband must be a local choice, a guest columnist writes.

It is stunning any legislator can look at the constituents they serve in rural North Carolina and think, “‘These people don’t need the same high quality Internet access now being delivered in Charlotte and the Triangle. They should be happy with whatever cable and telephone companies offer.”

But that’s just what I think Representatives Jason Saine and Michael Wray are implying in their recent opinion piece on community broadband networks.

By supporting U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis’ legislation to remove local authority for building broadband networks, the two lawmakers are siding with big cable and telephone firms over their own communities.

It is hardly a secret that Time Warner Cable, AT&T, CenturyLink and others are investing too little in rural communities. The majority of residents and local businesses in North Carolina have no real choice today and can expect their bills to go up tomorrow.

Areas served by coops or locally-rooted companies are more likely to see upgrades because they are accountable to the community in ways that national firms are not. Local firms are more willing to invest in better networks and keep prices low because they live in the community.

North Carolina communities stuck with no broadband or slow DSL and cable at best are disadvantaged in economic development and property values. This is why hundreds of local governments have already invested in fiber optic networks — with remarkable success.

Wilson is one example, where the city built the first gigabit fiber optic network in the state. The network has paid all its bills on time and the largest employers in the area all subscribe to it. One local business, which was a vocal opponent of the idea at first, now credits the municipal fiber network with helping her business to expand and reach new clients. The General Manager of Central Computer, Tina Mooring, argues that restrictions on municipal networks hurt the private sector, noting that her clients in areas near Wilson strongly desire access to the high capacity services they cannot get from cable and DSL networks.

Just across the Virginia state line is another approach, where Danville has built a fiber network that is available to private ISPs to offer services. The network has led to new investment and high tech jobs as well as helping existing businesses to expand. Not only have they paid all their bills on time, they make enough net income to contribute $300,000 per year to the general fund.

The fastest citywide network in the nation, offering 10 Gbps was just announced in Salisbury, north of Charlotte. Again, city owned.

This strategy is rarely a partisan issue at the local level. Some 75 percent of the communities that have a citywide municipal network voted for Mitt Romney in 2012. From Maine to Louisiana to California, municipal broadband is a pragmatic question of whether it will improve quality of life and spur economic development.

U.S. Senator Thom Tillis’ legislation to challenge the FCC is not a win for local autonomy. It is an example of distant officials micro-managing local issues.

It is unfathomable the state Attorney General, whose job it is to protect residents and local businesses, has sided with Time Warner Cable and AT&T rather than champion the cause of fast and affordable Internet access for North Carolinians. The state is literally using taxpayer dollars to protect the monopolies of big telecom firms that prevent communities from having a real choice in providers. This is yet another decision that should be made locally, not in Raleigh or D.C.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis and is @communitynets on Twitter. He writes regularly on

Debate on Municipal Networks by Federalist Society Now Available

Our own Christopher Mitchell recently participated in a debate hosted by the Federalist Society. You can now listen to the debate at the Federalist Society website. We think it offers an intelligent airing of different points of view.

Chris, who is also Policy Director at Next Century Cities, disscussed the role of municipal networks in improving competition, reveiwed reguatory issues, and debated the anticipated legal outcome of February's FCC decision on local authority in Tennessee and North Carolina. He squared off against Charles M. Davidson, Director of the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School, and Randolph J. May, President of the Free State Foundation. Both organizations have spoken out against community broadband networks.

Rachel M. Bender, Senior Policy Director of Mobile Future, moderated.

Digital New England Community Broadband Summit Webcast Live

If you are not able to attend the Digital New England Community Broadband Summit in Portland, Maine, you are in luck. The conference is being webcast live from NTIA's Digital New England Community Broadband Summit website.

The conference will run until 4 p.m. Eastern today and is a collaboration between NTIA and Next Century Cities. NTIA describes the gathering:

The summit will present best practices and lessons learned from broadband network infrastructure buildouts and digital inclusion programs from Maine and surrounding states, including projects funded by NTIA’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) and State Broadband Initiative (SBI) grant programs funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The summit will also explore effective business and partnership models.

You can view the full agenda online [PDF], complete with a list of guest speakers and moderators.

Cambridge Broadband Advocate at the Summit: "We Are the Perfect Testbed"

In April, Chris spoke at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin. If you were not able to attend, Saul Tannenbaum's article gives you a taste of what it was like. Tannenbaum is a member of the Cambridge Broadband Task Force, recently set up by the city's City Manager to investigate the possibility of municipal broadband connectivity.

Tannenbaum describes his experience there and some of the typical discussions he encounters while investigating a muni network. What role should the local or state government play in bettering connectivity? What is preventing the U.S. from excelling at ubiquitous access for all income levels? Why a municipal network? For Tannenbaum, and other residents of Cambridge, those questions are especially significant because the town is historically a place of technological innovation. Gigabit connectivity may be the gold standard, but in a place like Cambridge, it is the minimum:

Cambridge has companies and institutions for whom high capacity, high speed networks are mission critical. MIT, Harvard, the Broad Institute, Google, Microsoft, Biogen-Idec, Novartis, and many others who are not yet household names, move large amounts as part of daily work. With partners like those, Cambridge can become a true testbed for the network of the future. Cambridge, where the Internet was invented, can be where the next Internet is developed.

We encourage you to read the entire article, which also offers up some great resources, but Tannenbaum made the case for his home town:

[Cambridge] pairs a legacy of being on the frontiers of social justice with an economic sector whose future health requires a free and open Internet. It is a rarity in Cambridge politics to find the interests of our innovation community and our social justice community to be so closely aligned.

Lafayette Celebrates 10 Year Anniversary of "Yes" to Network

In June, 2005, voters in Lafayette chose to invest in a municipal FTTH network, now known as the only municipal gigabit network in the state, LUS Fiber. To celebrate the milestone, City-Parish President Joey Durel has declared July LUS Fiber Month. Current customers' Internet access has been boosted up to gigabit speed at no extra charge for July and the city will celebrate with a series of events this week. The entire community is invited to participate onsite but most of the events will be broadcast live so if you are not there, you can be part of the celebration. See the list of events below.

In the past ten years, the network has attracted thousands of new jobs, created better educational opportunities, and helped bridge the digital divide. Just last fall, three high tech companies committed to bringing approximately 1,300 new jobs to the "Silicon Bayou." The presence of the network, the University of Louisiana's local top-ranked computer science program, and its quality grads were two more key factors for choosing Lafayette. In April, Standard & Poor gave LUS Fiber an A+ bond rating based on the system's "sustained strong fixed charge coverage and liquidity levels, and the communication system’s improved cash flow."

The July issue of the local Independent tells the story of the network. According to Terry Huval, Director of LUS Fiber, the self-reliant streak has always been part of Lafayette's culture - in 1996 the city celebrated its 100th year vote to create its own electric and water system. The Independent article describes that culture as it permeated the vision shared by City-Parish President Joey Durel and  Huval.

"The vision was simple: Lafayette was already benefiting from a very successful electric, water and wastewater system, and LUS could leverage its expertise to offer Internet and other telecommunications services, if that is what our community wanted,” he says. “After we threw out the idea, the entrepreneurial, wildcatter spirit of Lafayette seemed to take it from there.”


Even with a vision, it took strong community organizing to overcome incumbent efforts to derail any municipal network project. John St. Julien was at the front of those efforts; he spoke with Chris in episode #19 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast about organizing strategies and fending off attacks from incumbent providers. Mobilizing to improve connectivity with a fiber network brought together individuals from every demographic in the community. Business leaders worked with community activists because they all needed better connectivity.

Fighting misinformation and lies from incumbents became a valuable tool, reports the Independent:

The citizen group was able to settle into reaction mode: Once the dumb, clunky messages came out, they took to their emails and blog and pointed out every single lie. It wasn’t just an opportunity to educate; it was an opportunity to draw on local pride and, again, that spirit of audacity. “It was a lot of fun to watch, waiting for them to say something else ridiculous and outrageous,” John St. Julien remembers.

Those clunky messages eventually backfired and, with anti-incumbent sentiment strong, the voters chose to serve themselves with a publicly owned, accountable, reliable municipal network.

Achieving success has not been easy as LUS Fiber has had to contend with lawsuits, delays, restrictive state laws, and twisted criticisms over the past ten years. While Lafayette has much to celebrate, Huval reflected in the Independent article on what more could have been accomplished if the situation were different:

We entered this arena as underdogs.

We had to fight for every success we achieved. We were forced to accept a law that was going to make our entry into this business far more difficult. We incurred lawsuit delay after lawsuit delay — delays that impacted our entry into this competitive market for three years. I know of no local government telecom system that has had to go through the extreme challenges we encountered.

If we would not have had all these early legal impediments, we would have been on-line faster and drawn in far more customers, more quickly. If we could have captured the level of strong enthusiasm in those early years, there is no doubt our revenues would have been stronger, and we could have been even more creative and aggressive. ... Under the circumstances, there was not much we could have done differently and still reach a successful business result.

We concur. Lafayette's success is all the more powerful given the tremendous obstacles they had to overcome. But they overcame them and kept a sense of humor throughout. We have greatly enjoyed every opportunity to interact with everyone we have met from Lafayette - from Joey Durel, Terry Huval, and John St Julien to recent transplant Geoff Daily to the folks making poboys at Olde Tyme Grocery.

Thanks to the city utility, local Cox customers report that the company appears to be reacting to the competition with more reasonable rates and better customer service. LUS Fiber is in the black and revenues are projected to reach $50 million per year in the next nine years. While LUS Fiber and the people of Lafayette are celebrating success as measured by time on the calendar, they can also celebrate their own grit and determination. 

Durel to the Independent:

I knew this had the possibility of transforming Lafayette — that 25 years later, Lafayette would be a better place because of this...Even if fiber just breaks even, but we create thousands of new jobs because of it, that’s a win.

Watch video below from KLFY Channel 10 reported on the network earlier this month, highlighting one of the telemedicine applications made possible by LUS Fiber.


Schedule of events:

Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) With City-Parish President Joey Durel and LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval

Tuesday, July 14th - 1:30 - 3:30 p.m.

Get answers to your questions as we host an AMA session. Join us by going to

Fiber for Breakfast


Wednesday, July 15 - 7:00 - 10:30 a.m. CST

Live Remote Broadcast on KATC-TV 
LUS Fiber Customer Service Center - 1875 W. Pinhook Road
Join us for a live remote braodcast on KATC-TV and a breakfast bite.

George Porter, Jr. & the Runnin Pardners
 The Park at the Horse Farm

Levitt Amp Concert Series feat.

Wednesday, July 15 - 6:30 - 8:00 p.m.

Come out and celebrate with LUS Fiber - a night of great music and fun, in a venue steeped with history.

LUS Fiber joins City-Parish President Joey Durel for "Lafayette Live" on KPEL

Thursday, July 16 - 7:30 - 8:00 p

City-Parish President Joey Durel is joined by LUS Fiber Director Terry Huval during "Lafayette Live" on 96.5 KPEL. Be sure to tune-in as they reminisce the 2005 Election and the ten-year road that followed.

Our report, Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks dives deep into Lafayette's accomplishment. But in terms of our enthusiasm for what Lafayette has accomplished, well ... Kermit is a pretty good proxy for how we feel:

Did You Miss An Episode? Community Broadband Bits Podcast Index!

On June 19, 2012, we published our first Community Broadband Bits podcast. Three years and more than 150 episodes later, we are still sharing conversations with interesting people who care about local authority, connectivity, and telecommunications.

Now, each episode is indexed and cataloged by topic and guest so you can catch up on those you missed or listen again to your favorites. We have also transcribed many of the episodes. Check out the Community Broadband Bits Podcast Index.

Pull out your earbuds and feel free to binge on Chris and his guests. As always, we welcome your topic and guest ideas for the show; email us at Thanks for listening!

Connecting 21st Century Cities: A Policy Agenda For Broadband Stakeholders

Publication Date: 
July 8, 2015
Next Century Cities

Next Century Cities, a nonpartisan coalition of 100 communities working to expand Internet access, recently published "Connecting 21st Century Communities: A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders." This resource brings together timely research, best practices, and examples of successful approaches from around the U.S. and the world - all focused on encouraging ubiquitous Internet access for all. Chris Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative and the driving force behind, serves as Next Century Cities' Policy Director.

Seattle reporters interview Chris Mitchell about broadband feasibility study

With the release of the city of Seattle's community broadband feasibility study, media outlets turned to ILSR and our own Christopher Mitchell for context, and to help uncover what can be done to help improve connectivity for all Seattleites. 

The same week, Christopher was invited to the city by Upgrade Seattle to help launch their initiative. Below are some selected publicity highlights from Seattle. 

KUOW's "The Record" with Ross Reynolds. How can Seattle get affordable broadband Internet  

KEXP's "Mind Over Matters" with Mike McCormick. Video is below. "What is Seattle's Next Step?" You can also listen to the Audio version here.

GovTech: Colin Wood interviewed Chris for his June 12 article Muni Broadband Goes Mainstream.

“You don’t just want better Internet access,” Mitchell said. “You want to know for whom and at what cost. Is your problem connecting low-income populations? That requires different thinking than if you’re just trying to attract some high-tech businesses to your town.” Amelia Havenec covered the lunch & learn conversation between Chris and Upgrade Seattle organizer Hollis Wong-Wear. Following setbacks, municipal broadband supporters continue urging action

“The focus should be on the people who are not connected, the people who are left behind,” Mitchell responded. “Low income people pay $10 a month for Comcast. But you can only connect one device per household. To make sure everybody has a basic connection at home, there’s a $5 million budget to bring one-gigabit, fiber-to-the-premises internet access to tens of thousands of single-family homes in Beacon Hill, Central District, and Queen Anne. With all the transportation planning right now, it’s a good time to identify a fiber conduit in the ground.”

GeekWire: Taylor Soper interviewed Chris as well. The two talked about how the debate over municipal broadband echoes the debate over whether to electrify cities in the 20th century. Municipal broadband in Seattle? New group lobbies city for public Internet

“The big electric companies had formed into giant monopolies, not unlike the monopolies we deal with today with Internet,” 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.”

See video

Seattle Energy Committee Meets to Discuss Muni Fiber Possibilities: Video Available

As the talk of municipal broadband grows louder in Seattle, city leaders are gathering to learn more about what deploying at a fiber network may entail. On May 13th, the Seattle Energy Committee and leaders from citizen group Upgrade Seattle met to discuss the needs, challenges, and possibilities. Chris joined them via Skype to provide general information and answer questions. He was in Atlanta at the time of the meeting. Video of the entire meeting is now available via the Seattle Channel and embedded below.

King5 also covered the meeting (video below). 

"We're starting from a different place in terms of the infrastructure," said Karen Toering with Upgrade Seattle. "The city already has in place hundreds of miles of dark fiber that we're not even using right now that were already laid in the years previous to now."

Upgrade Seattle sees that dark fiber as the key to competition which will lead to better consumer prices and service from private providers. 

Businesses are also interested in reliability, argues Upgrade Seattle. Devin Glaser told the committee:

"It's important to have double redundancies – to have two wires connecting everything – so one accidental cut doesn't take out the entire grid," Glaser said. "So anything we have at the city level would value our productivity rather than their profits."

You can watch the discussion below. The conversation on a municipal fiber network lasts about about an hour. Chris begins his presentation around 11:00 into the video. As a warning, there is a significant amount of profane language at the beginning of the video from one of the public commentors.

North Carolina Files Petition Opposing FCC Ruling to End Anti-Muni Laws

It took a while, but the State of North Carolina finally decided to take its turn at the throat of the FCC. Attorneys filed a Petition for Review in the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals similar to the one filed by the State of Tennessee in March. The Petition is available for download below.

Our official comment:

"Attorney General Cooper must not realize the irony of using state taxpayer dollars to ensure less money is invested in rural broadband, but we certainly do," says Christopher Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "State leaders should stand up for their citizens' interests and demand good broadband for them, rather than fighting alongside paid lobbyists to take away those opportunities."

Like Tennessee, North Carolina makes an attempt to stop the FCC's well-considered Opinion and Order by arguing that the FCC overstepped its authority in violation of the Consitution. The FCC addressed this argument in its Opinion and Order along with a myriad of other potential arguments. For detailed coverage of the FCC's well-considered decision, we provided information on highlights of the decision back in March.

According to WRAL, Wilson is taking the new development in stride:

The City of Wilson was not surprised that North Carolina sued.

"We are aware of the suit," said Will Aycock, who manages the Greenlight network. "We knew that this would be an ongoing process."

The Attorney general's has not contacted Wilson about the suit, he added.

We have to wonder if North Carolina is a bit embarrassed in arguing that rural areas should not be allowed to build their own networks even as the metro regions in Charlotte and the Triangle are seeing gigabit investment. State elected officials in North Carolina seem committed to two-tier Internet access: fast for the metro and stiflingly slow in rural regions.

"Wilson filed this petition [last year to restore local authority] not with immediate plans to expand into its rural neighboring communities, but to facilitate the future advancement of its critical Gigabit fiber-optic infrastructure over the long term."...Wilson does not expect to incur any legal costs related to the North Carolina suit, Aycock said. "We told our story," he explained.

Unfortunately, this is another example of big telecom dollars asserting influence over  state leaders. Wilson's Greenlight has proven itself over and over again to be an economic development tool, a way for the municipality to save precious public dollars, and an agent to encourage better connectivity for citizens