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North Carolina Organizes for Local Internet Choice - Community Broadband Bits Episode 184

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has its first local chapter with the formation of CLIC-NC. Catharine Rice, who is both part of CLIC-NC and the Project Director for CLIC, explains what is happening on episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

We remind listeners what CLIC is and the goals of CLIC-NC more specifically. We also discuss the interesting comments of NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is both challenging the FCC's authority to remove North Carolina's anti-muni law and supportive of removing the law via the state legislature.

Catharine has long been involved in the effort for Local Internet Choice and put up an incredibly strong fight to stop anti-competition bills advanced by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others over multiple years in North Carolina. She was the guest on our 5th episode of this show.

The transcript from this episode is available 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.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Pioneer Press Op-Ed: Competition and Community Savings

The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015. 

Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings

Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.

Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.

The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.

Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.

Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.

Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.

Some municipal networks have been accused as being failures. For years, cable and telephone companies claimed Windom in southeast Minnesota was a disaster. WindomNet is one of the most advanced networks in the state and has been expanded to serve nearby towns that had been ignored by the big telephone companies.

In our 2014 study All Hands on Deck, we identified more than $400,000 in regional savings from WindomNet every year. In addition, the network helped keep 47 jobs in the community from one employer alone that previously couldn't get the service it needed from the national telephone company serving it. This is a threat to cable and telephone monopolies, not local taxpayers.

With Windom's success, the cable and telephone companies now attack Monticello's municipal FiberNet for not having yet broken even financially. However, that is the not the only metric by which it should be judged.

Ten years ago, Internet access in Monticello was dismal, harming local businesses. They demanded the city take action and the city asked the telephone and cable company to improve their services -- but those companies insisted everything was fine. So Monticello voted by 74 percent to build its own network.

The telephone company sued, costing Monticello millions in lost time despite its prevailing easily in court.

During the case, the telephone company improved its services, and, after Monticello built its own network, the cable company dropped its rates dramatically. The same package that residents in Rochester and Duluth pay $145 per month for was offered for $60 per month guaranteed for two years. Prices in Monticello from all providers are a fraction of what we pay in the metro.

We estimated the aggregate savings in the community at $10 million over the past five years in All Hands on Deck.

Rather than allowing communities to decide locally on the best strategies to improve Internet access, Minnesota discourages them by requiring a supermajority vote before a community can offer telephone service. This requirement particularly harms Greater Minnesota, where mobile phones are far less reliable and telephone service plays a more important public safety role.

We need an "All Hands on Deck" approach to improving Internet access. The state should be lessening barriers to investment, not maintaining them at the behest of large cable and telephone companies. Local government strategies will play an important role in ensuring our communities can thrive in the digital age.

Christopher Mitchell, St. Paul, is director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter @communitynets

Wilson Moves to Expand Greenlight Network to Neighboring Town

Thanks to a new interlocal agreement, the City of Wilson, North Carolina will soon expand its Greenlight community broadband network to the nearby Town of Pinetops. Officials expect to complete the expansion of the gigabit fiber network by April 2016. Pinetops, a town of 1,300, is less than 20 miles from Wilson, population 50,000.

We’re Waiting...

For Brenda Harrell, Pinetops Interim Town Manager, the agreement has been a long time coming after years of frustration over their limited broadband access options.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” “They haven’t found us worth the investment. Through this partnership with Greenlight and our neighbors in Wilson, we are able to meet a critical need for our residents.”

As far back as 2010, city leaders in Wilson were in negotiations with Pinetops officials on a proposal to expand the Greenlight network to reach Pinetops. But those negotiations reached an impasse in 2011 when the State of North Carolina passed H129. Since then, officials in Wilson and in surrounding communities have been waiting for a time when Wilson could extend their the Greenlight network footprint.

The new agreement became possible in the wake of the FCC decision in February to overturn North Carolina’s anti-muni HB 129, allowing North Carolina communities to start considering the option to build their own broadband networks or expand on existing networks. While the state has appealed that decision in hopes of preserving the law, this agreement indicates Wilson officials are looking confidently ahead with the expectation that the state’s appeal will fail.

Looking Back, and to the Future

Last November, when the New York Times wrote about the fight in communities around the nation for the right to build and expand community broadband networks, they talked to Gregory Bethea, the now retired town manager of Pinetops, North Carolina:

“If you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber,” Bethea told them.

And that’s what this agreement is about: giving Pinetops the local authority necessary to create their own economic opportunities.

In that article the Times also quoted Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson’s Greenlight network. At the time, Aycock was already looking beyond the state’s anti-muni law to future expansion:

“We would probably be building tomorrow if the law changed today,” Mr. Aycock said. “We’re not saying that we’re going to build out all of eastern Carolina or even all of our service territory tomorrow. But there are areas where we’d like to go now.”

With this new agreement in place, Aycock is now able to see those plans for expansion come to fruition. Upon reaching the agreement, he said:

“Our commitment to improving the delivery of City services through our smart grid initiatives has made broadband service to Pinetops possible, as the same fiber that supports the smart grid system will be leveraged to deliver next generation broadband.” 

Op-ed: Spanish Fork Proves Utah Law is Counter-Productive

The Salt Lake Tribune published this op-ed championing local investment in Internet infrastructure on December 11, 2015.

 

Op-ed: Spanish Fork’s success shows municipal Internet networks work

By Christopher Mitchell

For nearly 10 years, large telephone and cable companies have claimed municipal Internet networks are so risky that local government authority should be restricted. But after 15 years of experience, we can only conclude that the cure is worse than the disease.

Utah has three municipal networks, where local governments invested in Internet infrastructure to provide choices in a monopolistic environment. But only two of those networks are regularly discussed and used as examples of why local governments shouldn't be in this business: iProvo and UTOPIA, which were not able to meet their financial targets.

The network missing from the conversation is Spanish Fork Community Network, which has just finished paying off its debt and has generated millions of dollars in surplus revenue for the community. The network is now upgrading from community cable to community gigabit fiber optics.

Of the over 450 municipal networks tracked by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Spanish Fork's experience is above average. The vast majority of municipal networks deliver benefits well in excess of costs and do not require subsidies to operate.

It may come as a surprise, but iProvo and Spanish Fork are nearly twins, separated at birth and raised in dramatically different environments. Both were conceived at the same time — the same consultant did the feasibility study for each. But Spanish Fork, being smaller and more nimble, was able to move forward before Utah's Legislature weighed in to restrict local decision-making.

Comcast and the predecessor to CenturyLink crafted the legislation, which was revealed in a brilliant 2011 BusinessWeek article aptly entitled "Pssst … Wanna Buy a Law?" by Brendan Greeley and Alison Fitzgerald.

Since then, any new Utah municipal network has been subject to numerous requirements unlike anything private providers face, including a de facto requirement to use a wholesale-only arrangement.

Provo wanted to use the same business model as Spanish Fork, which we now know was tremendously successful. Whereas Spanish Fork could directly offer services to local businesses and residents, Provo was required to wholesale to other companies that delivered services.

Google has since taken over Provo's network and may soon be building in Salt Lake City, ensuring some competition for Comcast and CenturyLink in the short term at least. Whether they remain for the long term or not is their decision to make, independent of what is best for the community. Where the network is available, the services and prices will be determined from California, not Utah.

This powerlessness to ensure universal high quality access to the most important utility of the 21st century is a legacy of Utah law, which discourages locally-rooted networks. Utah should embrace the leadership from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who has pushed a pro-competition agenda to bring a real choice in high speed Internet access to local businesses and residents.

Ensuring universal high-speed Internet access requires all hands on deck, not only the private companies. We are seeing new local approaches out of smart communities like Ammon, Idaho, where an incremental approach to the wholesale-only model is very promising.

But that model shouldn't be imposed on communities by the state. Especially when those state laws are written by the very industry voices that seek to limit competition. The record is clear — laws revoking local authority to create Internet choice have increased the risk to taxpayers, limited investment in better networks and have only benefited cable and telephone companies monopolies headquartered outside the state.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis (MuniNetworks.org).

Local Internet Improvement Districts in New Hampshire - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 179

Local governments in New Hampshire are quite limited in how they can use public financing to invest in fiber optic networks, but Hanover is exploring an approach to create voluntary special assessment districts that would finance open access fiber optic networks. Town Manager Julia Griffin joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode 179 to explain their plans.

Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against municipal networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has certainly limited local authority to ensure high quality Internet access.

But Hanover is one of several communities around the country that is exploring special assessment districts (sometimes called local improvement districts) that would allow residents and local businesses to opt into an assessment that would finance construction and allow them to pay it off over many years. This approach is well suited to Hanover, which has access to the Fast Roads open access network.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Colorado's Unique Environment of Local Collaboration - Community Broadband Bits Episode 178

A few weeks back, Colorado voters overwhelmingly chose local authority and community networks over the status quo Internet connections. Approximately 50 local governments had referenda to reclaim authority lost under the anti-competition state law originally called SB 152 that CenturyLink's predecessor Qwest pushed into law in 2005.

This week, Virgil Turner and Audrey Danner join us to discuss what is happening in Colorado. Virgil is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose and last joined us for episode 95. Audrey Danner is the Executive Director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference. We previously discussed Mountain Connect in episode 105 and episode 137.

In our discussion, we cover a little bit of history around SB 152 and what happened with all the votes this past election day. We talk about some specific local plans of a few of the communities and why Colorado seems to have so many communities that are developing their own plans to improve Internet access for residents, anchor institutions, and local businesses.

Over the course of this show, we also talked about Rio Blanco's approach, which we discussed previously in episode 158. We also discuss Steamboat Springs and previously covered that approach in episode 163.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

How Lobbyists in Utah Put Taxpayer Dollars at Risk to Protect Cable Monopolies

Facing the threat of municipal broadband networks disrupting their cable and telephone monpolies, big telecom lobbyists wrote a law to restrict municipal networks under the guise of protecting taxpayers. Here's the irony: the law put taxpayers at much greater risk even while restricting their choice of Internet and cable providers.

Before Business Week became Bloomberg Business, Brendan Greely and Alison Fitzgerald published a remarkable story entitled, "Pssst ... Wanna Buy a Law?" It offers chapter and verse on the role of cable and telephone incumbents using the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC) to push Internet anti-competition restrictions in many states.

We have been reflecting on these laws that discourage or bar municipal broadband networks while drafting a brief for the 6th Circuit regarding the FCC decision to strike down monopoly-protection statutes in North Carolina and Tennessee. We realized that the Utah law isn't just anti-competitive, it dramatically increased the risk to taxpayers from building a municipal network in the state.

The Debt-Financed Wholesale-Only Model

Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to "protect" taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local Internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder. This is why we recommend either incremental efforts or subsidizing the upfront capital costs for those who want to use the wholesale-only model (which we continue to believe has tremendous potential).

Spanish Fork vs Provo

The Utah law, while purporting to be about protecting taxpayers, puts them at greater risk. Consider two Utah municipal networks: Spanish Fork Community Network and iProvo. Both were studying municipal broadband at the same time with the same consultant. Spanish Fork moved quickly to build its network and was grandfathered into the 2001 Utah law designed to discourage municipal networks. Provo, being larger and needing to inform the public and get feedback before embarking on the project lost its opportunity to use the retail model because the state revoked its authority to do anything but wholesale-only.

We checked in with Kevin Garlick, Provo City Energy Director from 1997-2013, about this time period and he shared interesting details, including this:

As a successful and reliable municipal electric utility, we wanted to leverage our customer relationship by offering telecom services. The community and municipal council supported that. We wanted and planned to use the same retail model that Spanish Fork used. However, the state law essentially forced us to the adopt the more risky wholesale-only model that led to our financial problems.

Thanks for the Protection, Jerks!

The results from Spanish Fork, where the taxpayers were not "protected" by the laws drafted by cable and telephone lobbyists, the city has paid off all of its debt, regularly reinvested net income into local budgets, and is on its way to gigabit fiber. More details on Spanish Fork here.

Provo, saddled with the state restrictions that forced a riskier business model on it, was not financially sustainable. The network generated some benefits but the costs were too great and it eventually became Google Fiber. Many envy the network they now have but the intervening years certainly were part of the plan to improving Internet access.

Since the 2001 law to protect taxpayers from having a real choice in Internet providers, the only two municipal networks (iProvo and UTOPIA) that have been built have encountered major financial challenges and required subsidies to operate. Anyone trying to justify that law on the basis of helping taxpayers has some serious explaining to do. Local governments should be able to make these decisions without interference from states or Washington, DC.

Chattanooga Crushes It - Marketing, Technology, and Nearby Communities - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 175

Chattanooga returns to the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week in episode 175 to talk about their 10 Gbps upgrade, the fibervention campaign, TN4Fiber, and having surpassed 75,000 subscribers.

For so much content, we have three guests joining us from Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (the EPB in EPB Fiber): Danna Bailey is the VP of Corporate Communications, Beth Johnson is the Marketing Manager, and Colman Keane is the Director of Fiber Technology.

Danna gives some background on what they are doing in Chattanooga and how excited people in nearby communities are for Chattanooga to bring local Internet choice to SE Tennessee if the state would stop protecting the AT&T, Comcast, and Charter monopolies from competition.

Beth tells us about the Fibervention campaign and how excited people are once they experience the full fiber optic experience powered by a locally-based provider.

And finally, Colman talks tech with us regarding the 10 Gbps platform, branded NextNet. We tried to get a bit more technical for the folks that are very curious about these cutting edge technologies on a passive optical network.

Read the transcript from episode 175 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 downlhttp://muninetworks.org/sites/www.muninetworks.org/files/audio/comm-bb-bits-podcast175-danna-bailey-colman-keane-beth-johnson-epb.mp3oad this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

More Colorado Communities Will Ask Voters To Reclaim Local Authority

This November 3rd, more than ten communities in Colorado will attempt to escape the local-authority-revoking effects of SB 152 by overriding its restrictions at the polls: Archuleta County, Bayfield, Boulder Valley School District, Durango, Fort Collins, Ignacio, La Plata County, Loveland, Moffat County, Pitkin County, San Juan County, and Silverton.

Many of these communities participated in a $4.1 million fiber infrastructure project which currently provides public entities (municipal buildings, libraries, and schools) with cheap, plentiful Internet access. To determine how to better utilize that existing fiber infrastructure, the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments received a $75,000 regional planning grant. The 10 year old law in question, SB 152, prevents local governments from taking full advantage of local fiber assets by removing local authority to offer any services that compete with incumbents; voters must reclaim that authority through a referendum.

Under the restrictions, localities cannot partner with local ISPs to provide high-speed Internet to community members via publicly owned infrastructure or create municipal FTTH networks. Local government entities must also be careful to not lease too much fiber or risk running afoul of the law. Statewide organizations have worked to amend the law, but without success:

“It’s an obnoxious law that was passed by the industry to protect their monopoly,” said Geoff Wilson, general counsel for the Colorado Municipal League.

The league tried to get the law amended during the 2015 legislative session after hearing from communities across the state about how it was blocking them from improving Internet access for residents.

“The law is designed to protect the provider of inferior service from the local government doing anything about it,” he said.

This past year, a number of Colorado communities (including Boulder, Cherry Hills Village, Estes Park, Grand Junction, Red Cliff, Rio Blanco County, San Miguel County, Yuma, and Wray) held similar referendums to reclaim local authority; most passed with huge majorities. Not all have expressed the desire to establish municipal fiber networks but they have sent a clear message that they want the ability to determine their own broadband destiny. Many are inspired by the success of Longmont, which offers 1 Gbps connectivity for $50. (Check out this video on Longmont’s fast, reliable, affordable network, NextLight.)

Here are a few details from communities scheduled to vote on local authority this fall:

Boulder Valley School Board owns about 100 miles of fiber which currently cannot be used to improve the connectivity of the surrounding community. Polling over the summer showed that 60% would approve of opting out of SB 152

Moffat County, the City of Moffat, local businesses, the school district, and Colorado Northwestern Community College are discussing how to increase economic development through better Internet access. Exempting themselves from the restrictions of SB 152 would create the opportunity to explore public-private partnerships and allow the communities to pursue the options that best meet their needs with high-speed, affordable connections. 

logo-durango-co.PNG

The City of Durango also already owns about 19 miles of fiber, leasing out 14 miles to private providers. Even the leased lines, however, have extra capacity that the city would like to be able to use. Loveland similarly has underutilized fiber, and the school district is especially interested in increasing Internet access among all students. 

Pitkin County Commissioner Rachel Richards spoke on the possibility of creating a Carrier Neutral Location (CNL) or middle-mile infrastructure and how SB 152 prevented the county from pursuing such projects. La Plata County is primarily interested in the opportunities for public-private partnerships. Other communities, such as Silverton, San Juan County, Bayfield, and Ignacio, are also preparing to vote

The ballot language from these communities often highlights how these communities do not want to raise taxes or commit to broadband project, but simply explore all their options. Archuleta County just released its ballot language as did Fort Collins:

Without increasing taxes, shall Archuleta County, Colorado have the legal ability to provide any or all services currently restricted by Title 29, Article 27, Part 1, of the Colorado Revised Statutes, specifically described as ‘advanced services,’ ‘telecommunications services,’ and ‘cable television services,’ as defined by the statute, including, but not limited to, any new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, utilizing community owned infrastructure including but not limited to any existing fiber network, either directly, or indirectly with public or private sector service providers, to potential subscribers that may include telecommunications service providers, and residential or commercial users within Archuleta County?

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Without increasing taxes by this measure, shall the City of Fort Collins, in the exercise of its home-rule authority, have the right to provide, either directly, and/or indirectly with public and/or private sector partners, high-speed internet services, including but not limited to any new or improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies (advanced services), telecommunications services, and/or cable television services to residents, businesses, schools, libraries, nonprofit entities and other other users of such services located within the boundaries of the City of Fort Collins Growth management area, as expressly permitted by SB 05-152 (codified at Sections 29-27-101 to 304 of the Colorado“ Revised Statutes)?

Rather than wait for incumbents that are in no hurry to serve them, these communities are seeking local authority to take full advantage of their own infrastructure. Miriam Gillow-Wiles, executive director of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments described the situation to the Durango Herald:

“We’re sort of the end of the Internet world.” 

Wilson Business Thrives With Muni Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 171

When Wilson decided to build its municipal fiber network in North Carolina, it found a strong opponent in Tina Mooring, store manager of Computer Central. One of the local business' sources of revenue was connecting people to the Internet and they were fearful that they would lose customers to what became Greenlight, the municipal fiber network that delivered the first 100 Mbps citywide service in the state and later the first citywide gig as well.

As we noted in a post in August, Computer Central became a strong supporter of Greenlight and now believes that Computer Central would be best served by allowing Wilson's municipal fiber to expand to nearby communities.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits, Tina Mooring gives us the background and reasoning for this interesting change of heart. This is a short interview, but we hope to see more of these collaborations and partnerships in other communities, where local businesses can use municipal fiber networks to sell business-to-business services.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 10 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."