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Baltimore for Broadband Op-Ed Demands Local Authority

On July 27 an important op-ed appeared in the Baltimore Sun to argue for the creation of a Baltimore Broadband Authority (BBA). Written by a cohort of three philanthropic organization presidents, two consultants, one broadband coalition leader, and one state senator, the op-ed echoed the calls of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and community groups, such as the Baltimore Broadband CrowdFiber initiative, who believe that in order for Baltimore to continue its development into a haven for young people, minimize pernicious digital inequalities, and ensure economic growth, the City must take charge of its fiber assets. As the authors wrote:

We urge the city of Baltimore to move quickly, but carefully, to create the much-needed Broadband Authority and act with all deliberate speed to devise a comprehensive, workable plan to move us forward.

The most recent op-ed comes in the wake of a series of moves by the City of Baltimore to study existing broadband infrastructure and adapt plans to expand access across the region. In June, the City released two studies to address increasing demand for broadband in areas that incumbent providers Comcast and Verizon have neglected (that being the vast majority of the city). One report, by the Smarter City Task Force, highlights the severity of the digital divide in the City of Baltimore:

There are no precise estimates of how many people in Baltimore lack access to broadband Internet. While national surveys suggest that about 20 percent of Americans do not have broadband at home or a smartphone, it’s reasonable to conclude that the percentage of Baltimoreans who lack broadband is higher. Baltimore has a large population of African Americans and people who have low incomes or low educational attainment – three demographic and socio-economic groups that nationally are significantly more likely to lack home broadband access.

The second report is more extensive than the first, including GIS maps of publicly-owned broadband assets ranging from dark fiber to wireless towers. Its policy suggestions include the creation of an open access network along the pre-existing Inter-County Broadband Network (ICBN); leasing dark fiber assets to private entities; taking advantage of the Department of Transportation’s underground conduit lines; and installing more “vertical assets,” such as wireless towers and rooftops, to increase Wi-Fi availability.

In Baltimore, more and more individuals are becoming aware of the negative impacts of Verizon and Comcast’s practices regarding broadband deployment, and recognizing the importance of broadband to local economic development. Other Washington D.C. area communities - such as Alexandria and Arlington, Virginia - are currently in the process of launching their own community broadband projects. Same goes for Harford County, Maryland. Some forward-thinking Maryland communities, such as Howard County, MD have been working to increase fiber availability for years, as CIO Chris Merdon explained in a January Broadband Bits Podcast.

Residents like D. Watkins, who in 2014 published an op-ed in Vice’s Motherboard, “Life on the Other Side of the Digital Divide,” have also lambasted the City of Baltimore for its insufficient broadband infrastructure. “Public libraries are an option for free internet access,” he wrote, “but unlike liquor stores and churches, you can’t find one on every corner.”

The continued push for a Baltimore Broadband Authority by non-profit, philanthropic, and government leaders should help to create a space for further discussion of Baltimore’s digital inequalities, but it will also be crucial for these entities to work directly with local community leaders. Even as the City’s high-level fiber assets are leveraged, ground-level work with communities and incremental deployment strategies will be key to ensuring an equitable rollout of broadband technologies.

Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed - Local governments should make broadband choices

The Orlando Sentinel published this op-ed about local government action for broadband networks on March 11, 2015. 

Local governments should make broadband choices
By Christopher Mitchell

Community broadband must be a local choice, a guest columnist writes.

When Comcast announced plans last year to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in Florida and California, its customers may have wondered why the cable giant wasn't using those funds to deliver a faster or more reliable Internet connection. While Comcast's Universal Studios faces competition from Walt Disney World, most people don't have a real choice in high-speed Internet access.

The Federal Communications Commission has just boosted the broadband definition from 4 megabits per second to 25 mbps. At that speed, some 75 percent of Americans have no choice in providers — they are stuck with one or none.

The rest of America is living in the future, often because their local government rolled up its sleeves and got involved. In some of these communities, the local government built its own network and others worked with a trusted partner. Chattanooga's city-owned electric utility built the nation's first citywide gigabit network, which is about 100 times faster than the average connection today.

Google is famously working with some bigger cities, whereas local provider GWI in Maine has partnered with several local governments to expand gigabit access.

However, the big cable and telephone companies have almost always refused to work with local governments. Instead, they've lobbied states to restrict the right of local governments to build or partner in this essential infrastructure.

In Florida, the law puts restrictions on local governments that do not apply to the private sector, such as a strict profitability timetable that can be unrealistic for large capital investments regardless of being privately or publicly owned. Some 20 states have such barriers that limit competition by effectively taking the decision away from communities.

In January, President Obama spoke out in favor of local governments being able to make these investments and partnerships without state interference. He was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has one of the oldest municipal broadband networks in the country, but it's the first city in the state with citywide gigabit access. A local business owner, whose business had been able to thrive in its hometown due to the public network and its world-class access, introduced the president.

Both Obama and the FCC are taking actions to remove barriers to local authority, but they are seeing strong opposition from some Republicans in Washington, D.C.

National Republicans may be less likely to support an effort that Obama has now championed. But they can't just oppose the president; they will have to oppose their own base, which tends to believe decisions should be made locally. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed all citywide municipal networks, over 150 communities, and found more than 70 percent reliably vote Republican.

It may be surprising, but at the local level, there tends to be little partisan divide over whether local governments should get involved in a service so dominated by big monopolies. In the city council, it is a practical matter: Do local businesses have the connections they need to be competitive? If not, how can we make sure they do?

A bipartisan group of mayors has already come together to form Next Century Cities, a collaborative nonpartisan organization that includes a diverse group of cities. Some own and operate their own networks, as in Opelika, Ala. Some are working with partners, as Kansas City does. Some, as in Ammon, Idaho, can be hard to find on a map. And then there are cities like Los Angeles that recognize they need something better also.

Fortunately, Florida's law has slowed but not stopped smart local approaches. Martin County built a fiber network that has saved millions of dollars in connections for public facilities and is used by health-care facilities. The city of Palm Coast's FiberNET has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community, while dramatically improving connections for the Flagler County School District and other entities.

Building a modern fiber-optic network is no theme-park ride, but hundreds of local governments have already demonstrated it is well within their capacity. And given that they have to live with the consequences of action or inaction, shouldn't it be their decision?

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

Opelika Speaks From Experience: Support Local Authority!

Opelika has offered FTTH to residents and businesses for less than six months but already it is singing the praises of local choice. Mayor Gary Fuller is now speaking out in an opinion piece in AL.com, encouraging the FCC to allow Wilson, Chattanooga, and other communities to have the same opportunity as Opelika.

Mayor Fuller points out that local telecommunications authority is an organic outgrowth of local self-reliance:

Cities have always been at the heart of economic expansion, entrepreneurialism, and local connection to citizens, charged with ensuring high-quality education for our children, caring for our sick and elderly neighbors, and laying the foundation for shared prosperity. As we look to the years ahead, high-speed broadband will only become more and more important to the quality and vitality of our community. 

That's why in Opelika, I led the charge to become the first city in Alabama to offer this cutting edge technology, both to residential and business customers. As a result, Opelika citizens now have access to fast, reliable broadband speeds that will turn possibilities into real opportunities. Businesses now have more opportunities to expand and grow, work more effectively and efficiently, and compete in a larger market. 

As one of over 450 communities that have invested in the infrastructure for better connectivity, Opelika can speak from experience. Mayor Fuller encourages all FCC Commissioners to support the notion of local choice:

The important fact is that every city must have the power to make the best decisions for their residents, free of interference. That's why the Federal Communications Commission should join Chairman Wheeler in preserving these two communities' right to self-determination. 

In Opelika, our citizens are building a stronger more prosperous city based on local Internet choice. If more cities have those same opportunities, someday soon it may not be so strange for a 30,000-person city to offer blazing fast Internet.

Check out Opelika's recent marketing videos and listen to Chris interview Mayor Fuller back in Episode #40 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

USA Today Leadership Latest to Support Munis

USA Today recently joined the growing list of national press to publicly support local telecommunications authority. In its February 16th opinion piece, the Editorial Board commented on the proposed rule being considered by the FCC that would allow local communities to chart their own course with no preemption from state legislatures:

The FCC should stand up to the broadband lobby and approve the rule. The laws in question have not been passed in the name of limited government but rather in the name of limiting competition.

USA Today recognizes that many of the communities that invest in infrastructure do so out of necessity when they cannot draw the interest of the big players that fight to limit their ability to make those investments. Whether or not a community decides to deploy a muni should always be left up to the people who live there, argues the Editorial Board:

The question, however, is not whether these systems are good, but whether they should be quashed by acts of legislatures. The answer is no.

Op-Ed: Baltimore Makes Smart Move with Fiber Investment

On November 25, the Baltimore Sun ran this opinion piece by me regarding Baltimore's approach to expanding Internet access in the city.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently spoke the plain truth: “You can’t grow jobs with slow Internet.”

This simple statement is the best explanation for why Baltimore is examining how it can use existing City assets and smart investments in the near future to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access. It is also a slap across Comcast’s face.

The big cable and telephone companies have insisted for years that they already deliver the services residents and businesses need. But they also claim to offer reasonable prices that just happen to increase year after year with few customers having other options to choose from.

Baltimore’s reality is that Comcast does indeed offer speeds that are faster than many in rural Maryland can access. But they are not even in the same league as cities like Chattanooga, where every address in the community has access to the fastest speeds available anywhere in the nation, and at some of the lowest prices. There, as in hundreds of communities across the country, the local government built its own next-generation network.

Whenever a city announces the possibility of investing in a network, the cable industry public relations machine kicks into high gear. They argue that we have a plethora of choices for Internet access. The sleight of hand behind this claim is to include LTE wireless networks as a replacement for cable – something almost no household does because replacing your home wired connection with LTE will break your budget. According to bandwidth-management firm Sandvine, the average household uses more than 50 gigabytes of data each month. Between the data caps and overage fees from AT&T, that will cost over $500/month.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of community owned networks are doing exactly what they intended – breaking even financially while providing a valuable public service. Big cable companies argue that these networks have failed if they aren’t making big profits each year, a misunderstanding of public accounting. Community owned networks aim to break even, not make a profit.

When Windom, Minnesota, ended a year with a $50,000 deficit from a network that kept many local jobs in the community, few complained. Ask any local government official what is more important: 10 jobs or $50,000 in the general fund. No contest, especially when the accounting does not include the tens of thousands saved by a local government that no longer has to lease expensive voice and data connections for schools and municipal facilities.

Chattanooga is often cited out as the most successful municipal network after becoming the first US city with universal gigabit access and having helped created 6,000 jobs. But Thomasville, Georgia, and Spanish Fork, Utah, have operated networks for over a decade and generate more than a million dollars each year for the general fund from the telecommunications net income.

However, a few community owned networks have failed, just as thousands of privately owned telecommunications companies have disappeared or declared bankruptcy in a very difficult business. Provo is a favorite of the cable lobbyists, who generally neglect to note that it had to compete with one hand tied behind its back due to Utah state laws pushed by Comcast and US West (now CenturyLink). Some 19 states have created special barriers to discourage publicly owned networks.

Let’s be clear, very few expect Baltimore to suddenly build a citywide fiber optic network offering residential services in competition with Comcast.

Baltimore will likely take another path, expanding the fiber-optic network it already owns to better benefit community anchor institutions, local businesses, and potentially even residents. This is a very low-risk approach similar to what Seattle has done for years. Now Seattle has a partnership with a company called Gigabit Squared that is building a gigabit network out to tens of thousands of households.

None of these successes mean local governments should rush unprepared into a network investment. Nor should they be scared off by cable lobbyists trying to preserve what is effectively a monopoly. Building a successful network is a challenge, but so is trying to grow an economy while relying on yesterday’s technology at artificially inflated rates.

Idaho Town Calls for Fiber Investment; Cable and DSL Not Good Enough

This is the third time we have found an occasion to highight the community of Ketchum in Idaho. We previously noted their work on a strategic plan and that Cox cable was booted off the broadband advisory board after trying to sabotage the process with a push poll.

Now the local paper has editorialized on the "Need for Fiber."

While it is tempting to marginalize the need for such services as just a way for Johnny or Sally to download games or movies faster, increasingly the lack of fiber optic capacity is also limiting health care and advanced education options for residents, as well as impacting the growth of telecommuting and home-based businesses for which Ketchum has noticeably been successful in attracting in the past.

Now owners of home-based businesses are increasingly saying they can not operate effectively without fiber to the home, and telecommuters contend their employers will be less likely to let them work from home without fast, reliable fiber broadband.

This is all true and we wish we saw a hundred editorial boards recognizing it every week. The question is what the community can do about it given the challenge and potential expense. The answer from the Ketchum Keystone is smart:

Overcoming these obstacles will be very heavy lifting for any city government, but there are also remarkable opportunities and common sense strategies available including the use of the existing and soon to be retired water pipe grid, simple changes in building codes to require fiber-optic implementation, and government loan and incentive programs, all of which make the prospects for a sooner rather than later solution.

Every community has a somewhat unique mix of challenges and assets. Communities with the asset of smart leadership will seize upon opportunities like maximizing joint projects between the water system, public works, and such. Communities without smart leadership may want to solve that problem first.

Ketchum has identified the problem, and that is a good first step. Until a community recognizes that the big cable and telephone corporations will not solve this problem alone and that communities have an essential role in the process, little progress is likely.

Muni Network Debate in Charlotte Observer

In a recent op ed in the Charlotte Observer, Christopher Mitchell delves into why North Carolina ranks last in per capita subscribers to a broadband connection. The state, through its legislature, is held hostage by large providers such as Time Warner, CenturyLink, and AT&T. David Hoyle, a retired Senator who admitted pushing bills written by Time Warner Cable, signed his name to an op-ed arguing cities should not have the authority to make their own decisions in this regard.

Readers know that Time Warner and CenturyLink (formerly EMBARQ) targeted Wilson's Greenlight, leading to restrictive barriers for any similar initiatives. In his opinion piece, Chris delves into how those providers create an environment that kills opportunity for the people of North Carolina and how local publicly owned networks could restore those opportunities.

The Observer edited the original piece for length, but we provide the full version:

If you think you’re being ripped off by the cable and telephone companies, you aren’t alone. These companies rank at the top of the most hated corporations in America, year after year. Given a recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, North Carolinians have more reasons to be angry than most Americans.

Released last month, the FCC’s annual Internet Access Services [pdf] report shows North Carolina last among U.S. states in percentage of households subscribing to high-speed Internet connections as defined in the National Broadband Plan. 

seal-north-carolina.jpg

This news comes on the heels of State Representative Brawley announcing that House Speaker Tillis told him he had a “business relationship” with Time Warner Cable after Brawley introduced legislation opposed by the cable giant. But one alleged relationship does not explain how North Carolina fell to last place in that FCC ranking.

The deeper problem is power Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink have at the General Assembly. These companies successfully lobbied for two flagship bills that increased prices, limited competition, and generally hurt consumers and businesses throughout the state.

Back in 2006, the General Assembly bowed to industry pressure and passed a bill for statewide video franchising. Local governments lost their right to oversee companies offering television services or require them to build out to everyone. North Carolina was promised a new age of cable competition and lower prices.

Prices continued to rise – a 2009 study from the University of Minnesota actually noted that North Carolina’s prices were among the fastest rising in the nation. But even now, most families still have the same limited options for cable and Internet service.

Fed up and recognizing that the cable and phone giants would never allow competition to prosper, the City of Wilson took matters into its own hands by building its own next-generation fiber optic network. Completed by 2009, the network has been a success and Wilson is the first community in North Carolina to have universal access to a gigabit – about 100x faster than cable speeds.

Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink lobbied against Wilson from the start and engaged in a multi-year effort in Raleigh to revoke the authority of any local government in the state to build a similar network. For five years, they worked with the now infamous ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, to push bills that would effectively ban local governments from building networks.

Follow the Money Logo

In 2011, the new Speaker of the House, Representative Tillis, ushered just such a bill through the House after receiving $37,000 from the telecom companies in the previous election cycle. Though he ran unopposed, he received significantly more from that industry than any other candidate, according to a  report from the National Institute for Money in State Politics called “Dialing up the Dollars.”

Strictly speaking, the bill was not technically a ban. We call these “leprechaun-unicorn bills” because a local government effectively has to find a leprechaun riding a unicorn to meet the standard necessary to build a network.

What it really did was revoke local judgment for state authority – something Republicans regularly decry in other circumstances. Opponents of the bill consistently argued that these decisions should be made at the local level, by those who will live with the consequences for better or for worse.

These two bills are essential to understanding why North Carolina has such poor access to the Internet and ever-increasing cable prices. Consumer protections typically come from the market (competition) or government (regulation). But these big companies are too powerful for other private companies to compete against and local governments have no regulatory power to protect consumers. Big cable and phone companies have little fear of competition and little motivation to invest in regionally or globally competitive upgrades.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking over 400 local governments across the nation that have invested in telecommunications networks and very few have regretted it. Just outside North Carolina, the cities of Bristol, Chattanooga, Danville, and a few others offer some of the fastest network connections at the lowest prices in the entire United States. If even 10 percent of these networks actually were failures, cable lobbyists wouldn’t have to spend millions lobbying states to revoke local authority to build them.

The General Assembly should return authority to local communities and trust them to make decisions. But as long as big cable and phone companies maintain their “business relationship” with elected officials, you can expect to see more decisions made in Raleigh rather than at the local level.

For the whole story on the war against Greenlight, you can download a copy of our case study, The Empire Lobbyies Back: How National Cable and DSL Companies Banned The Competition in North Carolina.

Moving From an Age of Internet Scarcity to Abundance

The Seattle Times has published an opinion piece I wrote about the need to move from Internet access business models based on scarcity to those based on abundance.

Many of us have grown accustomed to the speeds offered by modern cable networks. They aren't particularly speedy, but we are used to them. When we find ourselves stuck ong a slow DSL connection, perhaps at a friend or relative's house, we notice how long page loads take and we have to change the way we use the Internet as a result.

Some have said that the slowest network connection you will put up with is the fastest one you have become accustomed to. We can do better and we should. By embracing self-reliance and ceasing to rely on the national cable and telephone companies, we can build better, more affordable networks. Such networks will lead to more innovation, grow the economy, and improve quality of life.

CONSIDER your last electrical appliance purchase. Did you pause to think if your home could handle the increased electrical demand? No, because our electrical networks are built around the principle of abundance, not scarcity.

If the massive cable companies ran our electrical grid like they do their broadband networks, we would have to do without air conditioning, which puts a heavy strain on the grid during peak demand. In contrast, the cable networks get congested during periods of peak activity, failing to deliver the “up to” speed promised in their advertising.

Some new network builders are embracing a different approach, one that has major implications for the future of innovation: adopting a business model of abundance rather than scarcity.

Read the rest here.

Op-Ed: NC In Bottom of Broadband Barrel

Common Cause's Todd O'Boyle and myself have just published an opinion piece in the North Carolina News & Observer to highlight the foolishness of the General Assembly revoking local authority to build broadband networks.

Todd and I teamed up for a case study of North Carolina's most impressive fiber network, Greenlight, owned by the city of Wilson and then turned our attention to how Time Warner Cable turned around to lobby the state to take that right away from communities. That report, The Empire Lobbies Back, was released earlier this month.

An excerpt from our Op-Ed:

The Tar Heel economy is continuing its transition from tobacco and textiles to high technology. Internet startups populate the Research Triangle, and Charlotte’s financial services economy depends on high-quality data connections. Truly, next-generation Internet connections are crucial to the state.

It is deeply disturbing that the Federal Communications Commission ranks North Carolina at the bottom nationally – tied with Mississippi – in the percentage of households subscribing to a “basic broadband” connection. The residents and businesses of nearly every other state have superior connections.

Read the whole thing here.

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.