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Want a Gig? Ask Consultants the Right Questions

For years, we have been frustrated at the tendency of communities and consultants to view municipal fiber networks as a binary decision. Should we or shouldn't we? Should they or shouldn't they? At its worst, it is framed with the most expensive approach - borrowing for a citywide all-at-once approach.

Consider this framing by a recent story in a Portland, Oregon suburb from the Oregonian:

Hillsboro officials have heard back from the consultant they hired to examine the feasibility of building a municipal fiber network that would bring high-speed, lower-cost Internet service to city residents.

The answer? Don't do it.

Stories like this make my blood boil. It is the absolute wrong question. But to delve into it, I want to abstract away from any specific consultants or approaches. This is not a failing of a single consultant, but something we have seen to various degrees from many.

Jumping ahead, the correct approach is to develop a description of the problems a community faces or wants to solve relating to Internet access. Then, examine a variety of approaches to pick the best option rather than only evaluating the single most expensive option.

Some consultants are very happy to bid a project, answer a narrow question, and then let the community go on its perhaps puzzled way. They have the list of phone poll questions, the spreadsheet full of assumptions, and final feasibility report template all ready for the next community. (We do not offer consulting services.)

Other consultants go out of their way to educate, guide, and otherwise help the community develop and achieve its objectives. These consultants may appear to cost a bit more, but actually can be much more cost effective. Some consultants bid the bare minimum, planning to charge extra later for supposedly supplemental information that is actually essential for continuing the process.

A consultant should be a guide to achieving objectives rather than simply evaluating a single, likely over-simplified question. It all starts with what questions a community asks. After doing some initial research (possibly perusing our Community Connectivity Toolkit), community leaders may be tempted to ask a consultant whether they should build a citywide municipal fiber network.

This is not recommended. Instead, we recommend developing a vision (discussed in our Santa Monica City Net case study).

What is the primary problem that needs to be solved? Hint: It isn't "how do we get a gig??" Be more specific. Common problems include poor business service availability that discourages economic development opportunities, slow connectivity, high prices (for residents or businesses or both), poor reliability, lack of access for historically marginalized populations etc.

Identifying specific problems is important because the preferred solutions for encouraging economic development will be different from those focusing on connecting low-income neighborhoods.

Having established the problems, the vision needs a sense of the opportunities from policy options. Here it is important to remember that the same technology deployed by different entities will create different opportunities. If Chattanooga had decided to beg Verizon for FiOS rather than building their own network, they wouldn't have created thousands of jobs and wouldn't have one of the best networks in the nation today. But both FiOS and Chattanooga's fiber network are technically similar. A FTTH network owned by a massive telco can have dramatically different outcomes than a FTTH network owned by a community. The tradeoff is the responsibility of running the system, likely over decades.

After establishing the problems and opportunities, the consultant should be charged with recommending paths to achieve the vision. "No" is not acceptable answer. An acceptable answer is an analysis that explains how the community can trade off cost, time, risks, and benefits. That is to say a community may decide to take greater risks in anticipation of greater benefits by borrowing significantly to rapidly build a citywide network. Or a community may decide to minimize risk with incremental investments over many years to expand conduit and fiber in the first phases of a long term plan. There are many permutations.

In the year 2015, municipal fiber is not a yes/no question. The models are many and varied - the best question is what does the community need and how motivated it is to take meaningful action.

Had Hillsboro taken this path, they would have a variety of options to discuss to solve the problems with connectivity that were demonstrated by the study. But instead, they have a document that only examined high risk, high cost approaches and found the recommended project to be "marginally viable."

If I were an elected official there, I would be examining what low cost incremental strategies could improve access to the Internet locally.

As a final thought, this is not just a problem with consultants. There are definitely elected officials who are privately happy to hear that a project is not feasible because it gives them cover to take no action. If they were already hesitant to upset power cable and telephone companies, they then have a document that "proves" the costs are too great to take any action.

"Fibervention": Break the Cable Habit In Chattanooga

If you are lucky enough to live in a community where you have a municipal network as a provider, you already know they often go the extra mile to serve customers. However, they don't always market as well as the incumbents, something that is starting to change with naturally viral ads. Enter Chatanooga's "Fibervention" campaign.

The campaign encourages current subscribers to nominate non-suscribers for a gift package:

  • Three months of FREE EPB Fiber Optics service
  • Three months of FREE Smart Network or Smart Network Plus service
  • A Roku online streaming player
  • Six months paid subscription to Netflix
  • $100 iTunes gift card
  • EPB branded gear

They have even created this video, highlighting all the reasons why EPB is so much better than the competition:

As a follow up, EPB released a second video showing the installation at the home of Ms. Martha, the first winner.

With winners like Ms. Martha, this campaign is sure to draw some attention. If you pay attention, you'll see Chase, an actual EPB installer that has become very popular around the community, with some people actually requesting he specifically install their service. At a conference awhile back, many of us assumed in an early ad that he was from a stock photo, but he is real.

Cleveland Investigating Fiber Pilot Project in Tennessee

After a feasibility study on the possibility of a municipal triple-play fiber network left Cleveland Utilities feeling "…not overly optimistic…" community leaders have decided to rethink their strategy. The utility board recently voted 5-0 to look deeper at a network that would offer only Internet and voice services.

Rather than study the feasibility of serving the entire community, CU wants to first try their hand at working on a limited area with a pilot project. The next step is to work with a consultant that will conduct a more focused feasibility study and develop a business plan.

In June, CU CEO Ken Webb told the board:

"I will go ahead and tell you that it's not overly optimistic about us being able to provide 'triple play' [Internet, television and phone] services," Webb said. "The capital requirements are extensive, and the startup cost could present issues."

"There is a possibility of offering services that are not full-blown services," Webb said. "There are a lot of decisions yet to be made, and a lot of review has yet to take place."

After more review of the study, Webb asked the board at the July meeting to consider further consideration for the pilot project, much like the process in Erwin, Tennessee. The Times Free Press covered the meeting where Webb reported that Erwin expected to break even on its pilot project once it took on 180 customers. After recently commencing the project, it quickly signed up 150 subscribers.

As municipalities are considering how to improve their local connectivity, subscriber interest in video services continues to drop. The associated expenses such as head end equipment and the rising cost of content lead a number of them to offer only Internet access and voice. Longmont, Colorado, and Sandy, Oregon, are two recent networks that have decided not to directly offer video, though Sandy is negotiating with a vendor to include a video package in their service.

Cleveland, home to approximately 41,000 people, is considered part of the Chattanooga statistical metro but is not served by the Chattanooga EPB, in part due to state restrictions. Even though the FCC scaled back those state laws in February, the issue is under appeal. Chattanooga border communities such as Cleveland are in limbo as they debate whether or not to wait for the possibility that EPB may one day extend out to them or to take action on their own.

"We owe it to the community to determine whether or not this is a viable project or not," said Webb.

Comcast's Big Gig Rip-Off

For some five years now, many have been talking about gigabit Internet access speeds. After arguing for years that no one needed higher capacity connections, Comcast has finally unveiled its new fiber optic option. And as Tech Dirt notes, it is marketed as being twice as fast but costs 4x as much (even more in the first year!).

We decided to compare the Comcast offering to muni fiber gigabit options.

Comcast's Big Gig Rip-Off

For more information on the great offer from Sandy, see the video we just released about their approach.

Chattanooga Video Explains Potential Gigabit Expansion Process

Following up on our post last week noting the new video from Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, another video recently posted explains what needs to change in Tennessee law for Chattanooga to expand Internet access beyond the current footprint. EPB Chief Operating Officer David Wade also explains the process the municipal electric distributor will use to connect nearby communities.

Video: 

Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities - Video on Gig Freedom

In a video calling for "Broadband Equity," the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities have released a video explaining why communities must have their local Internet choice restored.

We encourage you to Like and Follow their campaign on Facebook.

Video: 

Chattanooga's EPB, Local Cooperative, and Athens Utility Board Collaborate For Better Internet

Athens, Tennessee, has struck a deal with Chattanooga's EPB and the Volunteer Energy Cooperative (VEC) that could facilitate the city's interest in a municipal fiber network. According to the Times Free Press, the Athens Utility Board (AUB) hammered out the final agreement earlier this month.

AUB is leasing fiber from VEC that carries a gigabit signal from EBP to the AUB system.

According to the article, AUB has explored the prospect of developing their own fiber network as early as November 2013 and now offers Internet access to one business in a local business park. AUB General Manager Eric Newberry told the AUB Board that they plan to approach other local businesses to set up additional commercial accounts. They plan a slow buildout and urge local businesses, many of them clamoring for a reliable connection, to be patient as they take next steps.

Athens is part of the Chattanooga-Cleveland-Dalton area in the southeast corner of the state and home to around 13,500 people. In March, the City Council voted unanimously to pass Resolution 2015-11 supporting local authority for telecommunications. [See the PDF of the Minutes p.1]

Thusfar, the investment has cost $58,258.69 for labor, materials, and equipment. The Board had budgeted $100,000 for the project.

EPB Fiber Keeps Electric Rates in Check

For the first time in four years, EPB is asking its board of directors to approve a rate increase for electric power charges, reports the Chattanoogan. According to EPB, revenue from the Fiber Optic division has kept electric power prices in check for the past four years.

Price increases are always a frustration for residents and businesses, but this is actually another example of how the entire community, even those who may not subscribe to EPB's fiber network, have beneifted via reduced energy rates. We wrote about this last in 2012.

According to the article, several years of deadly storms have caused damage that have increased the average cost of cleanup from $2 million per year to $6 million per year. Additionally:

Officials said this rate increase "is driven by a continuing trend over several years of higher-than-normal costs associated with the greater frequency of devastating storms and by large peak energy demand charges that EPB pays to TVA for power generation.  These demand charges are not covered by regular power sales during months with extreme fluctuations in temperature, particularly when there are a few days of extreme temperatures and the rest of the month is much milder."

The article also notes that the fiber optic division has made $13.4 million over the past fiscal year. Debt from the investment made to offer telephone services is expected to be paid off this June.

[EPB CEO Harold] DePriest  said it was "the best investment we ever made."

EPB and Chattanooga Will Lower Price of Internet for Low Income Students

In an effort to extend the benefits of its gigabit network to lower income Chattanooga school kids, Mayor Andy Berke announced that the EPB will soon offer the "Netbridge Student Program." 

WDEF reports that children will qualify for the program if they are enrolled in Hamilton County schools and are currently enrolled in the free or reduced price lunch program. Comcast's Internet Essentials uses the same eligibility criteria. Households that qualify will be able to sign up for 100 Mbps service for $26.99 per month. Details are still being discussed.

Last year, Hamilton County schools replaced a number of textbooks with iPads in an attempt to take advantage of Chattanooga's fiber asset to improve student performance. The move revealed a grim reality - that many students' access to that incredible gigabit network (or any network) stopped when they walked out of the school. Educators found that children with Internet access at home made significant strides while those without fell behind. From a December 2014 article on Internet and Chattanooga students:

In the downtown area, for example, only 7 percent of potential customers subscribe to high-speed broadband Internet. In economically depressed areas such as Alton Park and East Lake, only 15 percent of residents have high-speed Internet, according to EPB.

We spoke with Danna Bailey, Vice President of Corporate Communications from EPB, to get some details on the plan and she confirmed that the program is still in its infancy; officials at EPB plan to have it ready for students by the fall. She told is that the rate of $26.99 is what EPB must pay to bring 100 Mbps to a customer when it is unbundled. The regular rate is $57.99. 

Note that the slowest speed anyone can get on the EPB Fiber network is 100 Mbps symmetrical. Unlike other providers, EPB is not offering a much slower tier to low income households. We haven't been able to verify, but we suspect that EPB is limited by state law on its pricing. State laws that prohibit municipalities from offering services below cost may be uniquely hurting low income households -- yet another reason that states should allow communities to make these decisions locally.

We were curious about how EPB plans to contend with the high incidence of mobility among lower income families, which often complicates their ability to qualify for Internet Essentials from Comcast. EPB acknowledges that this may become an issue, but because they are so entrenched in the community and serve so a large segment of housing, Danna does not believe it will be a difficult problem to overcome. 

They are also determined to avoid the enrollment pitfalls of Internet Essentials because, according to Danna, it defeats the purpose when people who need the program cannot enroll. It is also undecided at this point whether or not the program will be extended to other low-income households, such as the elderly or adults without children.

We applaud any community's attempt to provide fast, affordable, reliable Internet access to their less advantaged citizens. The program is new, but we hope that EPB will consider this sort of program for all those that need affordable access, rather than just a small segment. We want to see capable communities address the digital divide with force and conviction.

Local coverage from WDEF:

Morristown FiberNET in the Spotlight

In a recent report, WBIR Knoxville shined the spotlight on Morristown. The article and video discuss how FiberNET has improved its telecommunications landscape by inspiring competition, offered better connectivity to the region, and how state law prevents other towns from reaping similar benefits. We encourage you to watch both of the videos below.

Morristown's utility head describes how it considers high-speed Internet access to be a necessary utility:

"You had railroads, you had interstates, and this is the new infrastructure cities need to have," said Jody Wigington, CEO of Morristown Utility Systems (MUS). "To us, this really is as essential to economic development as having electricity or water."

Morristown began offering gigabit service via its FTTH network in 2012. It began serving residents and businesses in 2006 because the community was fed up with poor service from incumbents. Since then, FiberNET has stimulated economic development, saved public dollars, and boosted competition from private providers. 

Prices for Internet access are considerably lower in Morristown than similar communities. From the article:

Morristown's Internet service is more expensive than Chattanooga, but much faster than the rest of the region at a comparable price. A 100 Mbps synchronous connection is $75 per month. Advertised rates for Comcast in Knoxville show a price of almost $80 per month for a 50 Mbps connection with much slower upload speeds. A 50 Mbps connection in Morristown costs $40 per month. The cable Internet option in Morristown is Charter, with an advertised price of 35 Mbps for $40 a month.

As we have seen time and again, the presence of a municipal network (nay, just the rumor of one!) inspires private providers to improve their services. AT&T offers gigabit service in Morristown and Comcast has announced it plans on offering 2 gigabit service in Chattanooga.

"Without a major disruptor like we've seen in Chattanooga and in Morristown, there's really no reason for these guys [private companies] to go out of their way to make a big spend to make bandwidth faster. It just simply doesn't make good business sense," said [Dan] Thompson, [senior analyst for Claris Networks].

Thompson said he does not believe there should be any concern that municipal Internet would result in a monopoly akin to other utilities.

"If you go to Chattanooga, Comcast advertises like crazy on billboards down there. You don't see that here [in Knoxville] at all. Comcast is still there. AT&T is still there. They're still viable options."

Beyond offering better service to residents, FiberNET also attracts more employers. In 2013, we reported on 228 new jobs in the community, attracted here in part because of FiberNET's reliability. Most recently:

"There is a new call center that is looking at relocating to Morristown. They told us the local provider can get them fiber in the building for around $1,000. The guy from our utility company told him we've already got fiber to your front door and we'll put it in the building for free because you're going to be helping our economy and jobs. Their jaws drop. Businesses really are shocked by what we have here," said [President of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce Marshall] Ramsey. "They looked at Blount County and looked at Knoxville, but the confidence in the networks just isn't there right now."

Even though the FCC struck down state restrictions on municipal networks in Tennessee, local communities are not rushing to deploy their own networks. The state is challenging the federal action, and no local community has announced an expansion due to the uncertainty around the appeal. With this appeal, the state of Tennessee is wasting taxpayer dollars to deliberately slow the deployment of essential infrastructure in rural communities.

As Wigington acknowledges in the story, a municipal fiber network is no small endeavor. Nevertheless, only a local community can know if it has the ability, drive, and need to venture into Internet access as a utility.

Wigington said the decision of whether to compete with private industry should ultimately be made by the cities, not made for them by the legislature or the cable companies.

"Cities need to be able to make this decision."