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NoaNet Touches Every County in Washington State - Community Broadband Bits Episode 159

The Northwest Open Access Network in Washington has a long history of expanding high quality Internet access into rural areas and now reaches into every county in the state. NoaNet is a nonprofit organization originally formed by local governments and now operating over 2,000 miles of fiber.

This week we talk with Dave Spencer, NoaNet Chief Operating Officer, about the history of NoaNet, how it has impacted the state, and what the future holds for this organization.

We also discuss the NoaNet expansion enabled by the federal broadband stimulus, how their open access fiber network has led to improved wireless connections in many rural areas, and what it takes for a nonprofit organization to thrive in an industry that can be very competitive despite often having very few competitors.

Our previous stories about NoaNet are available here.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

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

This show is 20 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

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.”

CrossCut.com: 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.”

Video: 
See video

Municipal Networks and Economic Development

Economic Development and Community Networks

When a community invests in a municipal broadband network, it often does so because it hopes to reap economic benefits from the network. Much has been written about the positive relationship between municipal Internet networks and economic development, including a White House report published in January 2015. Municipal networks create jobs by serving existing businesses and attracting new businesses to local communities, increase productivity by allowing individuals to telecommute and work from home, support advanced healthcare and security systems, strengthen local housing markets, and represent long term social investments in the form of better-connected schools and libraries. They also create millions of dollars in savings that can be reinvested into local communities. 

When municipalities choose to deploy fiber networks, they introduce Internet services into the community that are not only significantly faster than Digital Subscriber Lines (DSL) and cable, but more reliable. With fiber connections, businesses and individuals are far less likely to experience temporary blackouts that can harm their ability to provide services to customers. And because these networks are locally-owned and operated, business owners do not have to spend hours on the phone with an absentee Internet Service Provider like AT&T in the (albeit unlikely) event of a problem. 

Community Broadband Networks and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance have catalogued numerous examples of economic development achievements that have occurred as a result of cities and counties deploying a municipal broadband network. Below, you can find a wide range of articles, studies, blog posts, and other resources that speak to the economic successes enabled by municipal networks, organized by topic:

* Job Creation

* Attraction of New Businesses

* Expansion of Existing Businesses

* Home-based Productivity 

* Healthcare, Education, and Research

* High Tech Industries and Entrepreneurship

* Savings 

* Property Values 

* General Resources

Upgrade Seattle on Need For Better Access - Community Broadband Bits Episode 153

We were excited to begin writing about the Upgrade Seattle campaign back in January and this week we are presenting a discussion with several people behind the campaign for episode 153 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We are joined by Sabrina Roach, Devin Glaser, and Karen Toering to discuss what motivates the Upgrade Seattle campaign and the impact it hopes to have on the community.

We discuss their strategy for improving Internet access, how people are reacting, and how Upgrade Seattle is already working with, learning from, and sharing lessons to, people organizing in other communities for similar goals.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

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

This show is 25 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

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.

Seattle Times Supports Universal, Affordable Municipal Network

The Editorial Board of the Seattle Times wants Mayor Ed Murray and his administration to put affordability and ubiquitous access near the top of the list as it considers a municipal fiber network. In a May 7th editorial, the Board acknowledged that Internet access in the City is available, but apparently not at affordable rates for everyone. 

One of the next topics for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to address is whether taxpayers in Software City should support a new broadband network.

...

But any attempt to create the broadband equivalent of Seattle City Light should be planned from the start as a citywide service, providing the same quality to everyone in the jurisdiction.

...

Rates for city broadband must be kept low enough to be accessible and appealing. This would be a challenge for a city that’s found ways to load utility bills.

A city broadband network may be worthwhile if it offers something unique and of great public value. Leveling the playing field and providing top quality service to everyone would meet this criteria.

Read the full editorial here!

Seth's Tale of Comcast Woe Perfectly Illustrates Many Internet Policy Problems

Ideally, working from home allows one to choose the environment where he or she can be most productive. In the case of Seth that was Kitsap County in Washington State. Unfortunately, incompetence on the part of Comcast, CenturyLink, and official broadband maps led Seth down a road of frustration that will ultimately require him to sell his house in order to work from home.

The Consumerist recently reported on Seth's story, the details of which ring true to many readers who have ever dealt with the cable behemoth. This incident is another example of how the cable giant has managed to retain its spotless record as one of the most hated companies in America

Seth, a software developer, provides a detailed timeline of his experience on his blog. In his intro:

Late last year we bought a house in Kitsap County, Washington — the first house I’ve ever owned, actually. I work remotely full time as a software developer, so my core concern was having good, solid, fast broadband available. In Kitsap County, that’s pretty much limited to Comcast, so finding a place with Comcast already installed was number one on our priority list.

We found just such a place. It met all of our criteria, and more. It had a lovely secluded view of trees, a nice kitchen, and a great home office with a separate entrance. After we called (twice!) to verify that Comcast was available, we made an offer.

The Consumerist correctly describes the next three months as "Kafkaesque." Comcast Technicians appear with no notice, do not appear for scheduled appointments, and file mysteriously misplaced "tickets" and "requests." When technicians did appear as scheduled, they are always surprised by what they saw: no connection to the house, no Comcast box on the dwelling, a home too far away from Comcast infrastructure to be hooked up. Every technician sent to work on the problem appeared with no notes or no prior knowledge of the situation.

It was the typical endless hamster wheel with cruel emotional torture thrown in for sport. At times customer service representatives Seth managed to reach over the phone would build up his hopes, telling him that his requests were in order, progress was being made behind the scenes, that it was only a matter of time before his Internet access was up and running. Then after a period of silence, Seth would call, and he would be told that whatever request he was waiting for was nonexistent, "timed out," or in one instance had actually been completed.

Seth usually had to be the one to make the call to Comcast for follow up. There was one notable exception, however on February 26th:

Oh, this is fun. I got a call from a generic Comcast call center this morning asking me why I cancelled my latest installation appointment. Insult to injury, they started to up-sell me on all the great things I’d be missing out on if I didn’t reschedule! I just hung up.

In mid-March, Comcast discussed the possibility of building out its network to Seth's house but he would have to pay for at least a portion of the costs; he was interested. Pre-survey estimates were up to $60,000. A week later, Comcast contacted Seth and told him that they would not do the extension even if Seth paid for the entire thing. 

Comcast was not the only provider Seth contacted. When he first learned that Comcast did not connect his home, he contacted CenturyLink. He was told by a customer service tech he would be hooked up right away but the company called him the next day to tell him that CenturyLink would not be serving his needs. They were not adding new customers in his area. 

Nevertheless, he was charged more than $100 for service he never could have received. Seth had to jump through hoops to get his "account" zeroed out. CenturyLink's website showed that they DID serve Seth's address, reports the Consumerist and, even though they have claimed to have updated the problem, the error remained as of March 23rd.

Official maps created by the state based on data supplied by providers, are grossly incorrect. As a result, Seth's zip code is supposedly served by a number of providers. While that may be true on paper, it doesn't do Seth much good. A number of those providers, including Comcast and CenturyLink (as Seth is painfully aware) do not serve his home. Satellite does not cannot the VPN connection he needs due to latency inherent in satellite Internet connections. He is using cellular wireless as a last resort now, but only as a short term solution because it is limited and expensive.

Ironically, Seth's new home is not far from the Kitsap Public Utility District fiber network. Because state barriers require the Kitsap PUD to operate the network as a wholesale only model, however, Seth cannot hook up for high-speed Internet. He would only be able to connect if a provider chose to use the infrastructure to offer services to him.

Here we have the perfect storm of harmful state barriers, corporate gigantism, and  "incumbetence." From his blog:

I’m devastated. This means we have to sell the house. The house that I bought in December, and have lived in for only two months.

I don’t know where we go from here. I don’t know if there’s any kind of recourse. I do know that throughout this process, Comcast has lied. I don’t throw that word around lightly or flippantly, I mean it sincerely. They’ve fed me false information from the start, and it’s hurt me very badly.

This whole thing would have been avoided if only Comcast had said, right at the start, that they didn’t serve this address. Just that one thing would have made me strike this house off the list.

I don’t know exactly how much money I’m going to lose when I sell, but it’s going to be substantial. Three months of equity in a house isn’t a lot of money compared to sellers fees, excise taxes, and other moving expenses.

So, good bye dream house. You were the first house I ever owned, I’ll miss you.

But putting all the blame on Comcast ignores the failed public policy that allows Comcast to act like this. Providers like Comcast lobbied legislators and DC to ensure no map could be created that would be useful. The carriers have refused to turn over data at a granular level that would prevent these mistakes from happening. And whether it is the states, the NTIA, or the FCC, they have wasted hundreds of millions of dollars on maps that do little more than allow carriers to falsely claim there is no broadband problem in this country.

And we have utterly failed to hold our elected leaders to account for this corrupt system. Something needs to change - but it won't until people stand up and demand an end to these stories.

Click! Network Rates Set to Increase to Cover Retrans Fees

Tacoma's Click! network raised prices in 2010 in order to cover increases in retransmission fees for its television feeds. Fees have continually risen for Click! and other networks and, according to Tacoma's News Tribune, will continue to rise. The market is fundamentally broken, with small providers struggling to keep up as sports programming shoots through the roof and companies like Comcast merge with content owners.

In Tacoma, the situation was so bad it led to a fee dispute between KOMO and Click! network that resulted in a channel blackout on the network. The News Tribune pursued document requests early in 2014 to obtain copies of the retransmission agreements at the center of the dispute between the network and KOMO. The documents revealed that agreements with several broadcasters rewarded broadcasters significant increases in retransmission fees. Over a six year period, KOMO's rate increased 416 percent.

In a recent update, the News Tribune reports that the new contracts include yet another significant increase:

New contracts that took effect Jan. 1 show the broadcasters’ fees are rising far faster than inflation.

No fee has increased over the years more than that of Seattle broadcaster KOMO. In 2009, the broadcaster received only 31 cents per month per home from Click. That amount has soared this year to $2.43 — a 684 percent increase.

Had the broadcaster’s fee risen equal to inflation, KOMO would earn only 34 cents per subscriber — or approximately $78,000 for all of 2015.

Instead, the new fee structure will mean Click pays about $561,000 this year. That cost is likely to be passed down to the utility’s 19,250 subscribers.

Chris Gleason, speaking on behalf of Tacoma Public Utilities, said the utility board will now have to consider a 17.5 percent rate increase for 2015. The original plan was to incorporate a 10 percent increase in 2015 and a similar increase in 2016. Four other channels are instituting similar increases:

“We don’t really have a lot of bargaining power with these broadcasters,” Gleason said. “... We do negotiate with them but there’s not a lot of leverage for us.”

Escalating fees could accelerate the trend of “cord cutters” — people who don’t have a cable subscription and who watch shows online.

All providers must contend with these increases in retansmission fees but small networks are particularly hurt because they cannot afford to buy the entities that create the fees. Comcast can hedge against increasing prices by demanding an ownership stake in the channel or buying them outright.

The largest cable companies also have more leverage - a channel is more reluctant to go dark across Comcast's millions of viewers than the 20,000 on Click!. The idea that we can have a competitive market for these services while content owners hold all the cards is misguided and we believe the FCC and Congress should be addressing these problems before more small cable companies are forced out of the market.

Mount Vernon Mayor: Local Authority Has Been Good For Our City

As the time approached for FCC Commissioners to choose to allow Wilson and Chattanooga to serve surrounding communities, leaders from municipalities with publicly owned networks shared their experiences. Jill Boudreau, Mayor of Mount Vernon, Washington, published her community's experience with their muni in GoSkagit.com. 

As in the recent testimonial from Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller, Mayor Boudreau described how Mount Vernon's network has created a quality of life where high-tech has enhanced local medicine, encouraged new businesses, and created and environment rich with competition.

Mount Vernon's open access network provides infrastructure for nine service providers. Some of these providers offer services only to businesses, while others also serve government, retail providers, and specific industries such as the medical community. Hundreds of public and private customers receive fast, affordable, reliable connectivity through these providers and the city's publicly owned network.

We first introduced you to Mount Vernon in 2013. The community began deployment in 1995 and have added incrementally to the network to serve nearby Burlington and the Port of Skagit. Government facilities, schools, hospitals, and businesses save millions while utilizing top-notch technology. Businesses have relocated to the area to take advantage of the network and enjoy the high quality of life in the relatively affordable area with its abundance of outdoor recreation.

Mayor Boudreau recognizes that Mount Vernon's success may not be easy to come by for every community but believes each should have the ability to decide that for themselves. She writes:

When it comes to community growth and prosperity, next-generation Internet is vital infrastructure just like a road or sewer pipe. Though what we’ve built in Mount Vernon may not work in every city, each community should have the choice to pursue fast, affordable and reliable broadband in the way that works for them.

Municipal Networks and Small ISP Partners to FCC: Title II Not a Problem

A group of municipal leaders and their private sector small ISP partners submitted an ex parte filing with the FCC today stating that they see no reason to fear Title II reclassification of Internet access. The statement, signed by a variety of towns and providers from different areas of the country is reproduced in full:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

As a group of local governments and small ISPs that have been working to expand the highest quality Internet access to our communities, we commend you for your efforts to improve Internet access across the country. We are committed to a free and open Internet without blocking, throttling, or discriminating by ISPs.

As local governments and small ISPs, we wanted to ensure you are aware that not all local governments and ISPs think alike on matters like reclassification. For instance, on July 18, 2014, the mayors of New York City; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco called on you to issue the strongest possible rules to guarantee Net Neutrality. Each of these communities is also taking steps to expand and improve high quality Internet access to their businesses and residents.

Our approaches vary but are already resulting in the highest level of service available because we are committed to expanding high quality Internet access to supercharge local economies and improve quality of life. We have no interest in simply replicating older triple play model approaches. We want to build the infrastructure of the future and we see nothing in the proposed Title II reclassification of Internet access that would hinder our ability to do that. As Sonic CEO Dane Jasper has strongly argued, ISPs that don’t want to interfere with their subscribers’ traffic should expect a light regulatory touch.

We thank you for your leadership during this difficult period of transition. We understand that many of our colleagues have trouble trusting the FCC given a history that has, in many cases, ignored the challenges small entities face in this industry. But whether it has been increasing the speed definition of broadband, or calling for the removal of barriers to community networks, we have been impressed with your willingness to take on powerful interest groups to ensure the Internet remains a vibrant, open platform.

We look forward to working with you to ensure that future rules recognize the unique challenges of small providers and innovative approaches to expanding access.

Sincerely,

  • Peter d'Errico, Town of Leverett MA, Municipal Light Plant, Town of Leverett MA Select Board
  • Fletcher Kittredge, President and CEO, GWI, Maine
  • Rick Bates, Town Manager, Town of Rockport, Maine
  • Kevin Utz, Mayor, Westminster, Maryland
  • Dr Robert Wack, Council Member, Westminster, Maryland 
  • R. Brough Turner, Founder and CTO, netBlazr Inc., Boston, MA
  • Pete Ashdown, Founder and CEO of XMission, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Elliot Noss, CEO, Tucows / Ting
  • Kim Kleppe, Information Systems Director, City of Mount Vernon, Washington
  • Dana Kirkham, Mayor, City of Ammon, ID
  • Levi C. Maaia, President, Full Channel Labs, Warren, Rhode Island

You can also view the PDF of the filing at the FCC website.

For more on Title II and how it may or may not affect municipal networks and their private partners, listen to Chris interview Chris Lewis from Public Knowledge in Episode #138 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.