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Chattanooga and Wilson Comment Period Open; Tell the FCC You Support Local Authority

Last week, the communities of Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, filed petitions with the FCC. Both communities requested that the agency remove state barriers preventing expansion beyond their current service areas. On July 28, the FCC established a public comment calendar for the request. It is imperative that all those with an interest in better access take a few moments to express their support for these two communities.

Opening Comments are due August 29, 2014; Reply Comments will be due September 29, 2014. That means you need to submit comments by the end of this month. If you want to reply to any comments, you can do that in September.

This is a pivotal moment in telecommunications policy. For months municipal network advocates have been following Chairman Wheeler's stated intentions to remove state barriers to local authority. Within the past few weeks, federal legislators - many that rely on campaign contributions from large providers - pushed back through Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN). Blackburn introduced an amendment to a House appropriations bill preventing FCC preemption if the amendment becomes law.

ILSR and MuniNetworks.org encourage individuals, organizations, and entities to file comments supporting the people of Wilson and Chattanooga. These two communities exemplify the potential success of local Internet choice. We have documented their many victories on MuniNetworks.org and through case studies on Wilson [PDF] and Chattanooga [PDF].

Now is the time to share your support for local decision-making. This is not about whether any given community should build its own network so much as it is about whether every community can decide for itself how to best expand and improve Internet access, whether by investing in itself or working with a trusted partner.

ILSR will be filing comments in support of Wilson's and Chattanooga's petitions. As a service to those who plan to express their support for local authority, we will continue to provide information, guidance, and resources throughout the comment period. In the near future, there should be a guide to help you submit comments. But if you are really enthusiastic or already know the process, here are some links.

File comments electronically for Wilson's petition at Proceeding 14-115; Chattanooga's petition is Proceeding 14-116. Petitions and exhibits are available at the filings pages or at the links below.

Chattanooga Will Ask FCC to Preempt State Barriers in Tennessee

Since January, when the DC Circuit Court of Appeals suggested the FCC has the authority to preempt state anti-muni laws, local communities have publicly supported the notion. Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) will join those communities when it petitions the FCC to preempt similar laws in Tennessee, reports The Center for Public Integrity.

Danna Bailey, vice president of corporate communication at EPB recently told The Center:

“We continue to receive requests for broadband service from nearby communities to serve them,” Bailey said. “We believe cities and counties should have the right to choose the infrastructure they need to support their economies.”

Chattanooga, one of the publicly owned networks that have inspired FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, has proved itself as a strong economic development tool. According to the article:

A day after his meeting with Berke, Wheeler wrote in his blog, “I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to pre-empt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.”

A number of other communities with municipal networks, or in the process of deploying them, have passed Resolutions that support the FCC:

In addition to communities with firsthand experience, the American Public Power Association (APPA) also passed a Resolution in June, urging Congress, the FCC, and the Obama Administration to unequivocally support:

…the ability of local governments, including public power utilities, to provide advanced communications services that meet essential community needs and promote economic development and regional and global competitiveness. 

The U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a similar Resolution at its annual meeting in June, which read:

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the US Conference of Mayors recommends that the FCC preempt state barriers to municipal broadband service as a significant limitation to competition in the provision of Internet access.

Soon after, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA), the National League of Cities (NLC), and the National Association of Counties (NACo) joined together for a letter of support to Chairman Wheeler:

The importance of Internet choice at the local level has never been more important. In many places in the U.S, locally-driven projects—including innovative partnerships with private sector companies—have demonstrated that local creativity and local authority is a viable means by which new next-generation broadband infrastructure can emerge.

Fortunately, support is also coming from DC. In late June, a collection of Senate and House Members penned a letter to Chairman Wheeler, asking him to take action and begin the process. In a statement fully supported by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the Members wrote:

Communities are often best suited to decide for themselves if they want to invest in their own infrastructure and to choose the approach that will work best for them. In fact, it was the intent behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to eliminate barriers to entry into the broadband market and promote competition in order to stimulate more innovation and consumer choice. We urge you and your colleagues to utilize the full arsenal of tools Congress has enacted to promote competitive broadband service to ensure America’s communities obtain a 21st century infrastructure to succeed in today’s fiercely competitive global economy.

Local communities, regional coalitions, and federal leadership all recognize the importance of local Internet choice. The country is ready for the next step, Chairman Wheeler. We support you!

Chattanooga Profiled in Al Jazeera America

“There are companies that do what we do, but we can do it in hours, and they can take weeks,” said Posey. “Anywhere else, it would take a lot more time and a lot more money ... Chattanooga is essential to our business model.”

Al Jazeera America's Peter Moskowitz recently spoke with Clay Posey, one of the entrepreneurs flocking to Chattanooga for the network. Posey works in one of the startup incubators there, Co.Lab, developing his idea for pre-operative models that allow surgeons to prepare before operating on patients.

While Chattanooga may not be the norm and may not be an easy venture for every municipality, it lifts the bar. From the article:

“Whenever a corporation like Comcast wants to do something like raise prices, we can point at Chattanooga and say, ‘Why can’t we have something like that?’” said Christopher Mitchell, head of the community broadband networks initiative at the nonprofit Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “It establishes a baseline or at least an aspirational standard.”

The article describes lobbying efforts by large corporate providers designed to stop the municipal networks model. Another Chattanooga entrepreneur told Moskowitz:

“Having public or quasi-public Internet service providers is a good solution to consolidation because they most likely won’t be sold,” said Daniel Ryan, a local Web developer who helped run the digital operation of Barack Obama’s 2012 presidential campaign. “Do I think if every city did this, Comcast would go out of business? No. But it means there will always be competition.”

Moskowitz included a brief historical summary of the network, its contribution to the electric utility, and the challenges created by state barriers. He included our Community Broadband Networks map.

For more detail on Chattanooga's fiber network, download our case study Broadband at the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. The case study also covers the communities of Bristol, Virginia and Lafayette, Louisiana. We also spoke with EPBFiber's Danna Bailey on episode #59 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

FCC Chairman Wheeler on Chattanooga and Expansion Ban

Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition. Giving the citizens of Chattanooga and leaders like Mayor Berke the power to make these decisions for themselves is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

FCC's Wheeler Forging Ahead As Support Grows to Restore Local Decision-Making

In a June 10 Official FCC Blog post, Chairman Tom Wheeler's words show continued resolve to restore local decision-making to communities that want to evaluate their own investments and partnerships. This is the latest in a series of public statements indicating the agency is ready to assert authority and remove barriers to community networks.

Wheeler writes:

If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition.

I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.

In April, Wheeler raised a few lobbyist eyebrows in a speech on the role of municipal networks at the Cable Show Industry conference in Los Angeles. In this latest post, he notes that Chattanooga's network transformed it from "a city famous for its choo-choos," into the "Gig City." The network spurs economic development, improves access, and inspires innovation, notes our FCC Chairman.

The National Journal also takes note of the FCC blog post. Its article points out that Wheeler criticizes Tennessee's state law restricting Chattanooga's ability to expand. Even though nearby communities want service from EPB, the City is forbidden from serving them. Not acceptable, says Wheeler.

While the National Journal suggests Tennessee may be the first state to face FCC authority to eliminate state barriers, policy experts have no expectations yet. From the article:

Harold Feld, the senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said Wheeler will probably not launch a broad initiative to attack state laws around the country. Instead, the FCC chief will probably wait for groups or individuals to file complaints about specific state laws, Feld predicted.

Chairman Wheeler's sentiments comport with the growing movement to support local authority for infrastructure investment. In addition to communities expressing their desire to decide for themselves, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has just announced its formation. The group brings together policy leaders, including ILSR's Chris Mitchell, to defend the proposition that decisions over whether to invest in a community network should be made at the local level.

We encourage you to join CLIC through the CLIC website. You can also follow localnetchoice on Twitter. In addition to getting the latest updates on CLIC's activities and research, you can share your support for local Internet self-reliance.

To learn more about the many benefits EPB Fiber bring to Chattanooga, read our case study. The report provides a detailed account of how the community deployed the network and offers some hard data on the many ways it saves public dollars, drives economic development, and improves access. Also take a few minutes to listen to episode #59, our discussion with EPB Fiber's Danna Bailey.

Wheeler's closing is unambiguous:

Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition. Giving the citizens of Chattanooga and leaders like Mayor Berke the power to make these decisions for themselves is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.

No Scale Advantage in Netflix Speed Ranking

Netflix has continued to publish monthly rankings of ISPs average speed in delivering Netflix video content to subscribers. Though they first published data about the largest, national ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and the link, they have an expanded list with many more ISPs.

I recognize two municipal networks on the expanded list of 60 ISPs. For March 2014, the Chattanooga EPB network is ranked 4th and CDE Lightband of Clarksville, Tennessee, is ranked 7th.

With the exception of Google Fiber and Cablevision, the top 10 are regional or somewhat smaller ISPs. Combined with the significant spread across the rankings of the biggest ISP, we see no empirical evidence for any kind of benefits to subscribers from scale. That is to say, Netflix data shows that bigger ISPs do not deliver better customer experience.

We do see more evidence that fiber networks deliver faster speeds on average, with cable following, and DSL trailing distantly. This is why DSL networks are losing customers where people have a choice and cable is gaining (most often where there is no fiber option).

Any claims by Comcast that allowing it to merge with Time Warner Cable would result in better service should be subject to extreme skepticism. Many much smaller networks deliver faster connections and raise rates far less often that Comcast, which is at the high end of frequency in rate hikes.

The problem with the biggest companies is that they focus on generating the highest returns for Wall Street, not delivering the best experience to Main Street.

New York Times Covers Fiber and Economic Development

In a recent New York Times article, reporter Kate Murphy shined a light on fiber's increasing role in economic development. Murphy discussed several of the same networks we have followed: Wilson, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Lafayette, LA; and Mount Vernon, WA.

Murphy acknowledged that successful companies are moving from major metropolitan areas to less populated communities out of necessity:

These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected.

Murphy notes that countries where governments have invested in critical infrastructure offer more choice, better services, and lower rates. She also points to successful local initiatives, often in less populated communities where large private interests have not invested:

Stepping into the void have been a smattering of municipalities that have public rather than private utility infrastructures. Muninetworks.org has a map that pinpoints many of these communities. They are primarily rural towns that were ignored when the nation’s electrical infrastructure was installed 100 years ago and had to build their own.

Murphy spoke with several business owners that moved from large metropolitan areas to smaller communities because they needed fiber. For a growing number of establishments, fiber networks are the only kind that offer the capacity needed for day-to-day operations. Information security firm, Blank Law and Technology, moved to Mount Vernon to take advantage of its open access fiber network. It helps when customer service representatives live in your neighborhood:

“We investigate computer malfeasance and have to sift through terabytes of data for a single case,” Mr. Blank said. “The fiber connection is the only reason we are in Mount Vernon and the customer service isn’t bad because all you have to do is walk down the street and knock on the door at City Hall.”

Tennessee Legislature Considers Four Pro-Muni Bills

Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.

The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.

However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.

According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:

S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County  to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.  

As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.

The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "telecommunications." The change would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing dark fiber to reach customers that are not served by rural telephone cooperatives. The goal is to encourage economic development, education and health care.

As we so often find, these bills have bipartisan support. Though Republicans at the state and federal level tend to support big cable and telephone company positions more often than Democrats, both Republicans and Democrats at the local level overwhelmingly support the decision being made at a local level rather than state or federal preemption.

PDFs of the full text of the bills are available online:

SB2005, HB1974 - Affecting Clarksville

SB1240, HB2242 - Affecting Trousdale County

SB2428, HB2364 - Addressing the definition of "telecommunications"

SB2562, HB2482 - Facilitates the expansion of municipal utilities’ broadband services for economic development, education, and health care.

On the Media Talks Cable Consolidation, Municipal Networks With Crawford and Baller

The possible merger between Comcast and Time Warner Cable and the FCC's recent announcement to review state barriers have created a significant buzz in the world of telecommunications. Two recent NPR interviews with Susan Crawford and Jim Baller provide insight into how the merger may affect consumers and why a new light is shining on municipal networks.

Crawford spoke with Brooke Gladstone for a recent interview for On the Media. The two addressed some of the consequences of the potential merger. Crawford also discussed the option of municipal broadband investment is an alternative gaining traction. As our readers know, Crawford authored Captive Audience: The Telecom Industry and Monopoly Power in the New Gilded Age. Crawford joined us in a past episode of the Communiy Broadband Bits podcast.

Jim Baller, President of the Baller Herbst Law Group, also joined On the Media when he spoke with Bob Garfield. Baller and Garfield talked about the cable and telecom lobby's efforts to block municipal authority to build networks. Baller supplied a few of the many examples of successful communities that have blossomed as a result of their investment. We have interviewed Baller three times for our podcast.

 

Each interview is a little over six minutes.

Chattanooga's Fiber Network Praised for Great Customer Service

One of the main differentiator's of community owned networks compared to the big cable and telephone companies is customer service. Being rooted in the community, vested in its success, and employing local residents just means better, more prompt service. A prominent Chattanoogan recently explained

My last shout-out is to EPB Fiber Optics.  This is not a paid commercial, just an opportunity for me to brag on some people who know what they’re doing.  I am the first to go on social media and complain about whatever store or business is guilty of subpar service.  It’s human nature, and it often makes for a good story.  I started using EPB for my cable, internet and phone service about a month ago.  I have encountered three problems during that time, none of them major, but all beyond my level of expertise.  Each time, I called their help line.  Each time, I spoke to local people who did not put me on hold for extended periods, nor did they force me to learn a new language.  They always solved my problem within five minutes.  My blood pressure thanks you, EPB.  This is how it’s done.

We hear these stories frequently with community owned fiber networks. It is hard to do a national study that quantifies the benefits of better customer service, but if we could, we have no doubt the locally owned networks would bury the national cable and telephone companies.