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GovTech Reports on Broadband Legislation in Five States

Broadband is a topic of interest in several state legislative chambers this session. In a recent Government Technology article, Brian Heaton focused on five states where community broadband is particularly contentious. In some cases, legislators want to expand opportunities while others seek to limit local authority.

We introduced you to the Kansas anti-competition bill in January. The bill was pulled back this year but could be back next year. When the business community learned about the potential effects of SB 304, they expressed their dismay. From the article:

Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 as a “job-killer” that restricts communications services expansion in the U.S.

Minnesota's leaders introduced legislation to expand broadband. Efforts include financial investment earmarked for infrastructure:

Senate File 2056 – referred to as the Border-to-Border Infrastructure Program – would take $100 million from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. A companion bill in the House, HF 2615 was also introduced.

As we reported, there is bipartisan support for the bill in the House, but the Senate and Governor have not prioritized SF 2056.

New Hampshire's legislature wants to open up bonding authority for local communities that need help:

Legislation is making its way through the New Hampshire Legislature that would give local government expanded bonding authority for areas that have limited or no access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Sponsored by Rep. Charles Townsend, D-Canann, HB 286 passed the House earlier this year and is up for a hearing in the Senate Energy & Natural Resources Committee on April 23.

Heaton also reports on the Utah bill that targeted UTOPIA. The bill concerned potential private partners and appears defeated, but broadband advocates remain alert.

The agency [UTOPIA] has 11 member cities, but communities located outside the limits of member cities can pay to have the network built out to them.

HB 60 would prevent that from happening with specific language that targets only municipal fiber networks – potentially including a Google Fiber rollout in Provo, Utah. That means other forms of broadband such as DSL or cable would be exempt.

Tennessee is especially busy this session. Lawmakers introduced a collection of legislation aimed at enabling local communities to develop community networks. All appear stalled in committee or forgotten by leadership. Heaton spoke to Chris Mitchell about action in Tennessee:

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and a national expert on community broadband, told Government Technology that he wasn’t surprised that the bills stalled. He explained that for years, broadband advocates have tried to remove some of the barriers to network expansion in the state, but to no avail.

“The ironic result is that the federal government may be subsidizing obsolete DSL because the state will not allow local governments to expand next-generation community fiber networks even when they are not subsidized in any way,” Mitchell said.

“Many of the elected officials still don't [have] enough pressure on them from constituents to stand up to AT&T and Comcast,” he added. “Those two firms have a lot of power in the [Tennessee] Legislature.”

Utah Senate Bill Attacking UTOPIA on the Fast Track: SB190

UPDATE: According to Pete Ashdown, the amendment has been pulled. Stay vigilant, these things rarely just go away.

We reported earlier this month that UTOPIA was once again facing legislative attack at the state level in the form of HB60. While the House has focused on other issues, the Utah Senate is launching its own attack. SB190 has also put UTOPIA in the crosshairs and events are happening quickly. Time to contact your elected officials, Utah!

According to Jesse Harris at FreeUTOPIA.org, SB190 as originally crafted, could have curtailed a pending deal between UTOPIA and Australian firm Macquierie. From Harris' February 19 story on the bill:

It appears the legislature is determined to chase off a $300M investment in our state’s broadband infrastructure to appease CenturyLink. Sen. John Valentine is running SB190 which has been very specifically crafted to prevent any UTOPIA city from using the same utility fee that Provo has to pay down the bonds. Moving to a utility fee to provide transparency on the cost of the UTOPIA bonds has been a key part of the Macquarie discussions so far, so it could very well put the deal in jeopardy.

Since its introduction, the bill was heard in the Senate Business and Labor committee. There was broad and fierce opposition and Sen. John Valentine, the sponsor of the bill, amended it. The changes made the bill palatable to Macquarie and it passed through committee to the Senate Floor on Feb. 24.

After the bill passed through the committee, Valentine introduced a floor amendment that will prevent new cities from joining the network. Harris now reports:

His floor amendment to SB190 makes it so that only current UTOPIA cities can use a utility fee to finance construction of the network. Any new cities that join would be unable to do so at all.

Why does this matter? Because Macquarie has structured the entire deal around it. If future cities can’t do it, they can’t get the same terms that Macquarie is offering UTOPIA. This could derail their rumored plans to cover the entire state in gigabit fiber with over a dozen competing providers.

The bill is now awaiting a vote on in the Senate. It is imperative that you contact the Senate, especially your own elected offical, to voice your opposition to the bill in its current form.

These types of end runs around legislative procedure are common place. In my own limited experience working at the state legislature, I have seen contentious sections of proposed bills added or removed to make a deal, only to be added or removed later on the floor and during conference commitee. In places that do not have a full time legislature, changing proposed legislation on top of a deadline is an effective way to take advantage of the clock to achieve an unpopular goal. It is important to remember that legislation is fluid until the gavel comes down sine die.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 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 previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

UTOPIA Again Targeted by Bill in State Legislature

Kansas is not the only place where the cable and telecom lobbies are attacking publicly owned networks. Jesse Harris from FreeUtopia.org reports that State Rep. Curt Webb has introduced HB60, aimed at UTOPIA. From the story:

As the bill is currently written, UTOPIA wouldn’t just be prevented from building to people willing to pay for it. They could also be required to shut down any existing services and be prohibited from maintaining their backbone that links cities together. It would effectively be a death sentence on any network that isn’t entirely within member cities AND can connect to an exchange point to reach ISPs and the rest of the Internet.

FreeUtopia also reports that the bill does not affect cable, DSL, wireless, or any other technology. Harris writes:

Naturally, I had to follow the money and it explains a lot. Rep. Webb has taken contributions from CenturyLink and the Utah Rural Telecom Association. 

As an observation, I take issue with the state's fiscal note on HB60. It reports that enactment of the bill "likely will not result in direct, measurable costs for local governments." The fiscal note also concludes that "enactment of this bill likely will not result in direct, measurable expenditures by Utah residents or businesses."  

If this bill ends UTOPIA in certain areas, affected government, residential, and business customers will lose the competitive rates they now enjoy - direct and measurable! See Pete Ashdown's comment on Jesse's story - he runs XMission, a beloved local ISP that uses UTOPIA to connect to some subscribers.

This bill is another example of how cable and telephone company lobbyists are not just trying to shut down municipal networks, but any possible public private partnerships. This is emphatically not about tax dollars, as Jesse rightly notes:

These extensions help lessen the burden on taxpayers as a whole by shifting more of the costs onto subscribers, but it doesn’t cost any city a red cent.

The Challenge of Open Access - Lessons Learned Part III

To finalize our series on reflections from Seattle and Gigabit Squared, I discuss open access networks and how the requirement that a network directly pay all its costs effectively dooms it in the U.S. Read part one here and part two here. I started this series because I felt that the Gigabit Squared failure in Seattle revealed some important truths that can be glossed over in our rush to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

The benefits of public-private-partnerships in these networks have often been overstated while the risks and challenges have been understated. We have seen them work and believe communities should continue to seek them where appropriate, but they should not be rushed into because they are less controversial than other solutions.

Sometimes we have to stop and remember that we will live for decades with the choices we make now. It was true when communities starting building their own electrical networks and is still true today. I hope the series has provided some context of how challenging it can be without removing all hope that we can stop Comcast, AT&T, and others from monopolizing our access to the Internet.

In this final piece, I want to turn to a different form of partnership - the open access network. I think it follows naturally as many in Seattle and other large cities would be more likely to invest in publicly owned fiber networks if they did not have to offer services - that being the most competitive, entreprenuerial, and difficult aspect of modern fiber networks.

Chattanooga construction

The desire to focus on long term investments rather than rapidly evolving services is a natural reaction given the historic role of local governments in long term infrastructure investments. Fiber certainly fits in that description and as many have noted, the comparison to roads is apt. An open access fiber network allows many businesses to reach end users just as roads allow Fedex, UPS, and even the Post Office, to compete on a level playing field.

In an open access approach, the local government would build the network out to connect all residents and businesses but not directly deliver services. Instead, multiple independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would compete on the network for business, ideally specializing in different niches - some providing great video game optimizations and others focusing on meeting small business needs.

Unfortunately, there are reasons we have not seen this approach gain widespread traction. The model is more difficult than is readily apparent.

A large part of the difficulty comes from incumbent providers that refuse to use the fiber network. The cable and the telephone companies claim that they don't want to abandon their assets, but that is not the main reason they have refused to participate in these networks. The big cable and telephone companies know that they have terrible reputations and would be slaughtered in a competitive market - so they put great effort in ensuring that they face as little competition as possible. Allowing the open access market to develop would all but ensure mighty Comcast would have to compete against local providers that offer much better customer service, lower prices, and more.

From an economic perspective, an ideal open access network would be one physical fiber network on which all ISPs compete. With a take rate over 80 percent, the revenue would likely be sufficient to pay the costs of building the network, operating costs, AND the ISP costs. But because the cable and telephone companies have fought against open access, subscribers are often split among three different physical infrastructures (cable, copper telephone lines, and the fiber network), generating too little revenue to pay the costs of building the fiber network.

If a major metro area does a feasibility study to build a citywide open access network fiber, it will find that the network will almost certainly not pay for itself using a conventional private sector accounting system. The interest on the debt required to build the network accrues faster than revenue. Of course, the roads and bridges don't pay for themselves via user fees either, but we still invest in them.

Community BB Logo

In a recent podcast, we discuss how over the first five years, a network can save more in aggregate for the community that it costs to build. But those benefits acrue individually to households. Thus far, very few communities have used this approach - to raise monthly taxes by $3 to save $10 on household telecom bills, for instance. Leverett is a rare example of this approach.

That does leave another option - building an open access network incrementally, as Danville has done in Virginia and Palm Coast FiberNet in Florida, among others. This is a viable option for just about any community but comes with the difficult reality that connecting everyone could take decades. And there are still other gotchas.

Some communities that wanted to build an open access network have found it can be challenging to find service providers that will operate on the network. Sometimes a local ISP can step up, as in Danville and in other cases, but not always. Until a network has thousands of potential subscribers, ISPs may not be interested in offering services. But incremental approaches will often start with just tens or hundreds of subscribers.

We have written elsewhere of how important it is to have at least one strong, trusted provider on the network. An important lesson from Provo, among other places, is the difficulty in recovering once a network has a bad reputation. A bad provider can ruin the name of a perfectly good network, especially as most people will not know whether to attribute any problems to the physical network or ISP.

UTOPIA Logo

All of that said, open access offers a tremendous promise. Networks like UTOPIA and Chelan PUD (Washington) have been unable to pay the capital cost of building the network solely from revenues but offer some of the fastest speeds in the nation at a fraction of the price we pay elsewhere. I recall the testimony of a local business to the Utah Legislature who basically said, "Yeah, my taxes went up a little -- but my monthly telecom bill went down a lot."

Nonetheless, nearly every municipal fiber network has been built and financed with the expectation that it would pay for itself - generally breaking even years after the high upfront investments have been made. Each community should be free to choose what expectations it has in building the network it needs to ensure a vibrant economy and high quality of life for everyone. Our role has been to help them understand that choice and push back on those who want to take it away. I hope this series helps in that effort.

Many of the municipal fiber networks that now directly provide services started with a hope of working with a local partner or building an open access network. As they considered their options, they found they effectively had to choose between doing nothing and venturing into a very challenging business.

There are few easy answers for communities stuck with subpar Internet access, or even for those that regard "par" as unacceptable. When Lafayette Mayor Joey Durel was presented with the idea of a municipal fiber network shortly after taking office, he was skeptical. But he ultimately decided they should examine it - saying "shame on us" if they didn't at least see what they could do. Maybe they would hit a brick wall... or maybe they would build one of the most impressive broadband networks in the country. That was good advice.

No one solution works for every community. Thus our guiding philosophy: communities should be free to choose for themselves the solution they prefer.

Construction photo courtesy of Chattanooga Electric Power Board

UTPOIA The Latest Network to Offer Super Affordable Gigabit

As we recently reported, EPBFiber presented a birthday gift to its current and future Chattanooga customers - gig service for $69.99 per month. In Utah, UTOPIA is extending the list of like-minded publicly owned networks and dropping prices. UTOPIA just announced that gig service is now available for as little as $64.95 per month. According to the Free UTOPIA! website, seven providers are now offering gigabit speeds for $70.00 or less.The Deseret News also reported on the story:

In addition to the exceptional speeds, residential subscribers on the network will also be able to choose their provider based on the services and pricing that best meets their individual needs, explained Gary Jones, UTOPIA chief operating officer.“More residents in Utah have access and the ability to connect to the digital world at the speed of light than anywhere else in the country, and the prices and services being offered by our ISPs make it affordable for many more customers,” Jones said. “This new price is … not much more than most phone and cable companies charge for their basic 8 megabits per second service.”

The News also quoted XMission's Pete Ashdown:

"As the Internet becomes an essential conduit for work, school and entertainment, gigabit availability is essential,” said Pete Ashdown, CEO of XMission. “Only fiber allows this kind of bandwidth and speed."

Just a month ago, we reported that Xmission chose to increase speeds for subscribers of its 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps at no extra charge. As we monitor rates from networks around the country, we find that customers of municipal networks regularly enjoy free speed increases. EPBFiber increased speeds for residential customers for free about a year ago. Tullahoma's LighTUBe upgraded its prior highest tier from 300 Mbps to 1 gig service with no price increase earlier this year. The same cannot be said of the large cable and telephone corporations, which regularly increase rates instead. Publicly owned networks can focus on benefits to the community rather than financial rewards for only a select few.

Xmission Increases Speeds for Free in the Land of UTOPIA

Customers subscribing to Xmission via UTOPIA just received a free upgrade. Subscribers to the 50 Mbps service are now receiving 100 Mbps at no extra charge. The Free UTOPIA blog ran the announcement along with this tip:

One thing to note is that if you aren’t seeing those speeds, you may need to upgrade your router. Most routers, even newer ones, don’t include a 1Gbps WAN port which often serves as a bottleneck. Older 802.11 a/b/g routers also create choke points on the wireless side. All said, that’s a pretty nice problem to have, isn’t it?

Indeed it is...

We reported on Xmission's decision to keep customer data private and we interviewed Pete Ashdown, founder of Xmission, and Todd Marriott from UTOPIA in Episode #3 of the Broadband Bits podcast. The two talked with Chris Mitchell about the services they provide and some of the challenges they have faced as a publicly owned network and a local provider.

This announcement is no surprise for our readers. We often report on free or modestly priced speed increases from publicly owned networks and providers that deliver services via publicly owned infrastructure. In contrast, the news is regularly speckled with stories about increased rates with no increase in speeds from the large national providers. 

American Crafts' New Muse is UTOPIA

If you are a 21st century crafter, you are probably prolific at finding inspiration online. You may be familiar with American Crafts of Orem for ideas or products. The company, founded in 1994, is now a customer of UTOPIA and reports significant bandwidth improvement after the switch from old T-1 connections. From the UTPOIA blog:

With a robust e-commerce presence, American Crafts has to rely on its network. According to Kris Barlow, IT Manager, before switching to UTOPIA, the firm used a single T-1 connection, along with two additional T-1 connections to connect a remote warehouse in Provo. “Our Provo location was using an iProvo connection at the time. By switching to UTOPIA, we could use a single fiber connection to our headquarters building which provided much faster Internet speeds—up to 10 Mbps on our service plan, as compared with traditional T-1 speeds.”

Barlow also notes how the switch has allowed the company to consolidate headquarters and warehouse locations. Reliablity has also been a key improvement:

“In the three years that we've had UTOPIA service, I can remember only two or three service interruptions, all of which were resolved within the same day and were not related specifically to our connection,” he says. “Using the UTOPIA network has allowed us to drastically reduce the fee that we pay for Internet service when compared to the T-1 connections we were previously using, all while also drastically increasing the bandwidth of the connection.”

Because UTOPIA is open access, the company could keep the same phone provider, as it is an ISP on the UTOPIA network. The switch was seamless:

“This allowed for us to simply add the UTOPIA service to our current provider’s bill and allowed us to avoid the hassle of establishing a new account with a new provider,” Barlow says.

UTOPIA, For Better And Worse, Profiled

Since 2008, we have followed and reported on the peaks and valleys that is UTOPIA. Recently, the Salt Lake Tribune ran a series on the regional network. The coverage includes a sampling of the bitter and sweet of the complex relationship between the pioneering network, the state, and the customers it serves.

As many of our readers know, UTOPIA is mired in debt and endless political controversy as Comcast and CenturyLink fund "think tanks" to attack it.  Tony Semerad from the Tribune talked to our own Chris Mitchell:

"When you build a network like this, it takes a minimum of several years of spending a lot of money before you start to get it back from your customers,’’ said Christopher Mitchell

As Christopher goes on to note, a large debt from the beginning to create an open access network is not a favorable situation. Additionally, past management made choices that still negatively impact the network. Constricting legislation at the state level prevents the network from expanding to a more profitable retail market, weakening it even further. Also from the article:

State law requires UTOPIA to operate as a wholesaler, a limitation conceived at UTOPIA’s inception when telecommunications giants such as CenturyLink and Comcast, now called Xfinity, grew wary of plans by Spanish Fork and Provo to get into the cable television business and lobbied state lawmakers for protections.

Some communities express derision at the situations they face regarding UTOPIA, having been left with debt and not yet received the ubiquitous access they anticipated. Some communities, who are still waiting for better subscriber numbers, already see improved economic development and remain patient. Connected communities vary in their satisfaction and level of support:

Layton » Mayor Steve Curtis believes UTOPIA fiber-optic lines already are luring business to his Davis County city and benefiting residents. The grid is built out to a small portion of Layton, one of eight municipalities that have signed on for a second round of UTOPIA bonds. "A lot of legislators don’t understand UTOPIA and haven’t taken the time to know it," Curtis said.

...

Payson » In spite of promising subscription rates among residents and a belief in UTOPIA’s value to the community, the Payson City Council chose not to back the newest round of borrowing. "It just came down to budget,’’ City Manager David Tuckett said. "We didn’t have the money."

logo-utopia_new.png

While overall subscribership is lagging, customers share one common trait - they love what they get and the prices they pay. Another article in the series quotes current UTOPIA customers:

"It’s great,’’ Eric Eide of Murray said. "It’s very reliable. It’s high-speed. Whenever I check, I get the speed that is advertised."

"It’s pretty steady. I don’t notice any tail-off in the afternoons or evenings. It’s always the speed I pay for. We watch a lot of stuff on Netflix, and I don’t experience any stuttering," Phil Windley of Lindon said.

...

UTOPIA’s primary advantage is that it can deliver much higher download and upload speeds for lower prices than competitors, according to those who use it. For $35 per month, for example, a UTOPIA customer through the ISP XMission can get up to 50 megabits per second of both download and upload speeds. By comparison, Comcast charges $73 per month for 30 megabits-per-second download speed (the upload speed also is slower). UTOPIA also offers up to 1 gigabit (1,024 megabits) per second of download speed for $300 per month.

Getting more for less is always good, but the network and the state are at a crossroads. Some want to sell the network, others want to legislate tighter controls, still others want to give momentum a chance to build under present management (which has resolved many of the problems of previous management). 

The idea of disbanding the network leaves us somewhat incredulous. No one would wish for the present situation, but abandoning UTOPIA would leave the municipalities still responsible for the debt while also removing any incentive for Comcast and CenturyLink to be competitive. In short, such action preserves all the negatives from the status quo while ending the benefits.

Broadband is Essential Infrastructure for Communities

In August, we reported on the results of a report on UTOPIA by the Office of the State Auditor General of Utah. As you will recall, the results were less than favorable and presented more fodder for those opposed to municipal telecommunications infrastructure investment.

The same old arguments often rest on the financial investment in municipal networks - they are considered failures if they don't break even or make money. Pete Ashdown, founder of ISP XMission in Utah, addressed those arguments in the Salt Lake Tribune:

UTOPIA provides broadband service in 11 Utah cities. Today, communication infrastructure is no less critical than transportation, sanitation and clean water. Government is not a business, but the infrastructure it provides contributes to a robust business environment.

Consider how private businesses rely on government funded infrastructure. Why don’t entrepreneurs clamor to build the next generation of roads? Why don’t airline companies get off the public dole and build their own facilities? Why are sewer facilities so rarely handled by anyone else but the state?

Does effective infrastructure cost? Considerably. Does it make a profit? No.

For decades now, public service entities have contended with the argument that if they are "run it like a business" they will be more efficient, productive and even profitable. While lessons from the private sector may contribute to increased efficiency at times, government is NOT a business. Applying business tenets should be done sparingly and not in the case of critical infrastructure like electricity, roads, and yes, access to the Internet.

Gary D. Brown, who lives in Orem, shared a guest opinion through the Daily Herald and drew a similar parallel between UTOPIA's status and the business world:

When UTOPIA was first proposed, I was all for getting a fiber optic connection to every home and business in the at-that-time 17 cities. In my opinion, the original business model was sound; install fiber to each home/business and offer data, voice, and television services at the retail level.

Of course, the entrenched incumbent businesses, namely US West (it became Qwest and now CenturyLink), Comcast, and AT&T, who would face real competition, sent their lobbyists to the state legislature and after some intense lobbying, got the legislature to eviscerate the UTOPIA business plan by passing a law that prohibited community-based consortiums such as UTOPIA from offering services at the retail level.

UTOPIA will forever remain in the news because its financial struggles forced member communities to pay part of its costs through sales taxes. Though most community owned networks have not used tax revenues to support the network, we do support the right of communities to do so if they so choose.

We have covered the story of Leverett, where the community imposed a property tax increase on itself to pay for part of a new community owned fiber network. Communities that want to build networks entirely without tax subsidy should be free to do so, but those that want to pay for part of it with tax dollars should also have the right. That should be a local discussion, possibly a heated one. But it should not be decided in state capitals or Washington, DC.