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Albany, NY Proposes Feasibility Study for Municipal Broadband Service

In July, the city of Albany, NY released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified consulting firms to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal broadband service. As the RFP states, the study will look to develop strategies, find gaps in service and adoption, and develop a business plan to explore partnerships between the city and private ISPs.

According to Broadband Communities magazine, a working group comprised of several important community organizations and business groups in Albany will help to steer plans for the possible municipal broadband initiative. Jeff Mirel, a technology professional in Albany and a member of the working group, explains the group’s goals for the feasibility study:

“The first step is asking the right questions, which is what we want this study to do. What are the real broadband needs and issues that both businesses and residents experience here? Is it infrastructure, technology, education, affordability? How do we address the gaps to not only keep and attract companies, but bring these employers and a connected local workforce together? By taking a deep, comprehensive look at broadband access and usability, along with best practices, we can move towards meaningful, actionable strategies.”

This news out of Albany, a city of about 100,000 people, comes as major gaps persist in high speed broadband access in many parts of the state. FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625K state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide

At recent hearings in front of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) in the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem, political leaders and consumers expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they are asking the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

We warned in 2012 that Verizon would never bring FIOS to Albany and many other cities in the state. Then, as now, it’s clear that Albany’s feasibility study offers a way forward towards the only certain strategy for bringing the fast fiber-based broadband to Albany: taking matters into their own hands.

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.

Community Fiber Is Not Just About the Fiber

The focus on community networks tends to linger on the technology - FTTH is much faster and more reliable than cable or DSL services. But community fiber is only partially about the superior technology, as evidenced by a recent story over at Broadband Reports - "Verizon has been Quietly Increasing FiOS Fees."

We don't see this behavior in Chattanooga, which has gone over four years without raising the fees for Internet access to telephone services. Community networks rarely increase their fees because the cost of delivering Internet and telephone services declines over time. Television prices go up, though less rapidly for community networks than big cable firms because the big firms demand a bigger margin.

Further, we see that Verizon has been sneaking its price increases into things like the router rental fee, as Comcast and most providers have long done. At one point, renting the Comcast modem cost me $2, then $5, now $7, and in some places $9 I hear. Per month. I bought my own now - took less than a year to payback. But my bill has gone up even more since then, so I didn't gain much.

Now Verizon is even charging for battery backup units:

In addition to price hikes, promotion cuts, the new gateway rental fee and the activation fee, Verizon also recently started charging users for the backup batteries in their ONT units, first charging users for backup battery replacement, then charging users to get any backup battery in the unit to begin with.

Anytime you hear someone arguing that munis should only be able to build their own networks where the private sector absolutely refuses, recall that community owned networks are not simply a consolation prize, they are often superior. Better customer service, lower rates over the long term, and more likely to invest in upgrades as needed - there is no good reason to condition this investment on the refusal of some other distant company to provide an inferior alternative.

Will Alexandria Consider A Municipal Network?

Alexandria, Virginia's City Council is talking about broadband. In a recent DelRay Patch article, Drew Hansen reported that Councilman Justin Wilson recently addressed the Del Ray Citizen's Association to advocate for a plan to improve local connectivity. From the article:

“We’re still dealing with severe budget issues and dropping $300 million on a huge broadband system is not a reality,” he said. “But the first thing we need is a plan.”

According to the article, Alexandria has traveled down this path before with attempts to work with private providers:

In the late 2000s, the city saw a deal with EarthLink to bring free municipal Wi-Fi and competitive service to consumers fall through when the CEO suddenly passed away. Then Verizon made a decision not to build any new FiOS networks as Alexandria was looking for a provider, leaving the city in the lurch.

As is often the case, Verizon is not convinced Alexandria is worth the investment:

“I reached out to Verizon a few months ago and they didn’t even want to meet,” Wilson said. “I think that shows where we are. The city is going to have to be more aggressive. I think we’ve reached the end of big infrastructure build and we’re seeing some new models.”

Wilson raised the possibility of conduit installation in Alexandria in preparation for fiber installation. The community will soon be updating sewers in parts of town. 

“We have a responsibility to our residents to create competition,” Wilson said. “If the private sector doesn’t do it, there are some things we can do.”

Verizon Begs Regulators for Protection While Demanding Deregulation

From the "A Pox on Both Your Houses" files, Verizon is squaring off against greedy landlords in New York City as it tries to fix lines damaged by Superstorm Sandy.

In short, Verizon needs access to the common areas of the multi-dwelling units (MDU or industry-speak for apartments) to fix or upgrade the lines. Verizon is using these repairs as an opportunity to transition connections from copper to its fiber optic FiOS system.

AT&T and Verizon have been arguing that once a household transitions from a copper connection to FiOS (in the case of Verizon) or U-Verse (in the case of AT&T, which actually hasn't even changed the copper connection), they are using a fundamentally different, less regulated service. My conversation with Bruce Kushnick delved into some of these claims.

Verizon's copper to fiber upgrade could actually therefore be an accountability downgrade if regulators agree that households deserve fewer protections on connections over fiber than over copper. This appears to be a major fight brewing -- how to regulate the same services over different types of connections.

And this is where it gets interesting. Verizon, AT&T, and the other big cable/telcos are constantly arguing for deregulation, saying that the market is so competitive that the government should just get lost.

But then Sandy rips through and landlords (that I have ZERO sympathy for) see an opportunity to shakedown Verizon. After all, Verizon is going to use the new connections to increase revenues from these households by selling more services (triple play over fiber). This seems a perfectly reasonable deregulated market showdown.

Crying Verizon

But Verizon immediately goes crying to the state regulators: "The landlords aren't playing nice, force them to let us into their buildings!"

Anyone who still believes competitive or free markets are synonymous with unregulated markets is fooling themselves. Big firms use deregulation or regulation in their attempts to corner and monopolize markets. They only favor less regulation when they perceive an immediate benefit to the bottom line.

We need a government that is sufficiently wise to decide when more regulation or less regulation will create the best outcomes for all of us. In some cases, regulation is essential to preserve a competitive market and in others, some deregulation may be in order. Unfortunately, we have a government that tends to act based on what is best for those employing the best lobbyists and making the most campaign contributions.

To be clear, I don't think landlords should be able to hold tenants hostage until they get paid off. However, that is in large part because I view access to the Internet as an essential infrastructure that requires accountability. Being a natural monopoly, the market will not provide those protections, which is why the government has long protected the public interest in telecommunications with regulations.

Five Cities Denounce Verizon/Comcast Spectrum Deal

If you live in Boston, Baltimore, Albany, Syracuse, or Buffalo, you won't be getting FiOS from Verizon. Absent any public investment, you will likely be stuck with DSL and cable... like 80% of the rest of us.

Not long after Verizon announced it would cease expanding FiOS, we learned that Verizon was coming to an arrangement with the cable companies that would essentially divide the broadband market. Verizon won't challenge cable companies with FiOS and the cable companies won't challenge Verizon's "Rule the Air" wireless domain.

For a while now, the FCC has reviewed a potential deal for a Verizon purchase of Comcast's wireless spectrum. The possible deal involves multi-layered questions of anti-competitive behavior, collusion, and corporate responsibility. 

Along with many other interested parties, such as the Communications Workers of America, Free Press, Public Knowledge, and  the five towns are publicly opposing the deal. They have expressed their derision to the FCC but whether or not they will influence the result remains to be seen.

From a FierceTelecom article by Sean Buckley:

Curt Anderson, chair of the Baltimore City Delegation to the Maryland House of Delegates, expressed...outrage on the agreement the telco made.

"Under this transaction, Baltimore will never get a fiber-optic network, and the city will be at a disadvantage," he said. "The direct job loss will be the hundreds of technicians that would be employed building, installing and maintaining FiOS in the area. The indirect costs of this deal are even higher: the lack of competition in telecommunications will raise prices and reduce service quality.


The deal, said Albany Common Council President Carolyn McLaughlin, "is not in the best interest of those who need to get and stay connected the most and is "a step backwards in bridging the digital divide."

Though these five cities would indeed be better off with FiOS than under the status quo, they would be much better off if they considered building a fiber-optic network owned by the community. Think of it like FiOS, with faster speeds, lower prices, better customer service, and an actual responsibility to put local needs first.

Regardless, the federal government needs to take action against anti-competitive collusion that drives prices up and investment down.

See video

The Internet is More Important than Broadband

I encourage readers to visit Doc Searls post "Broadband vs. Internet" for a discussion about things that matter regarding the future of Internet access for most Americans.

The Internet is no more capable than the infrastructures that carry it. Here in the U.S. most of the infrastructures that carry the Internet to our homes are owned by telephone and cable companies. Those companies are not only in a position to limit use of the Internet for purposes other than those they favor, but to reduce the Net itself to something less, called “broadband.” In fact, they’ve been working hard on both.

There is a difference between the Internet and "broadband." Broadband is a connection that is always on and tends to be somewhat faster than the dial-up speeds of 56kbps. Broadband could connect you to anything... could be the Internet or to an AOL like service where some company decides what you can see, who you can talk to, and the rules for doing anything.

The Internet is something different. It is anarchic, in the textbook definitional sense of being leaderless. It is a commons. As Doc says,

The Internet’s protocols are NEA:

  • Nobody owns them.*
  • Everybody can use them, and
  • Anybody can improve them.

Because no one owns it, few promote it or defend. Sure, major companies promote their connections to it (and when you connect to it, you are part of it) but they are promoting the broadband connection. And the biggest ones (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, etc) will do anything to increase the profits they make by being one of the few means of connecting to the Internet -- including charging much more and limiting what people can do over their connection, etc.

This is one reason the connections from major corporations are so heavily tilted toward download speeds -- they want consumers to consume content. Just about every community network built in the last 3-4 years offers symmetrical connections by contrast.

Last I heard, the fastest cable offering in the upstream direction was 12Mbps. Cox, our cable provider in Santa Barbara, gives us about 25Mbps down, but only 4Mbps up. Last time I talked to them (in June 2009), their plan was to deliver up to 100Mbps down eventually, but still only about 5Mbps up. That’s competitive as long as all you want is “content delivery.” But what about when you want to live “in the cloud,” and all your data is elsewhere? In the long run you’ll need a lot more upstream as well as downstream capacity for that. Internet service optimized for media delivery (where TV especially wants to go) won’t cut it. But then, most people aren’t looking at that. They’re looking at TV on their iPads over broadband, and thinking that’s way cool enough.

So here we are, smack up against what John Perry Barlow warned us about in Death From Above, way back in early 1995. There he wrote, “The cable companies and Baby Bells have a model for developing the next phase of telecom infrastructure which, were it applied to the design of physical superhighways, would have us building them with about five thousand lanes in one direction and one lane in the other.”

This is where Bob Frankson comes in, reminding us that the big cable and phone companies are good at billing, not connecting. Their methods and procedures are optimized to maximize their revenues, not to maximize the benefits of the Internet or anything else. Back to Doc:

The division is between what communications wonks crudely characterize as “net-heads” and “bell-heads.” Think of conflict as one betwee any and only. Net-heads want the Net to support anything. Bell-heads want communications systems optimized only for the businesses they prefer — namely, their own — and to avoid even talking about the Internet. (Bell-heads have never been comfortable with the Net, because it was not made to bill. TV and telephony are easy to bill, and so is “content” in general. Thanks to Apple’s and Google’s pioneering work —mostly in league with the operators — so now are apps.)

Community Broadband generally sides with the net-heads. The focus tends to be on what is best for the community as a whole, rather than what is good for a single company or industry. After all, if a community had a choice between one business providing 5,000 jobs and 500 businesses each providing 10 jobs, they would be crazy to opt for the single employer.

Verizon had been the only major company investing in next-generation networks with its FiOS deployment. It is done expanding -- unless you live in one of the wealth neighborhoods or suburbs that got it, you won't. AT&T has even ceased its pathetic U-Verse upgrades, even as they spend millions to prevent communities from building their own, much better networks. Communities that want to be relevant in 10 years take notice -- and take a good hard look at building a locally owned network that responds to the needs of the community.

Doc Searls photos used under creative commons license, courtesy of Flickr's Irisheyes

A Survey of National Private Sector Broadband Providers

When it comes to expanding access to the Internet across the US, the federal government has long looked first to the private sector, ignoring hundreds of years of experience showing that unaccountable private companies cannot be trusted to sufficiently invest in or govern essential infrastructure.

Inevitably, they price access to high and invest too little as they maxmize their profits -- thereby minimizing the profits of all other parts of the economy.

So let's take a little survey of the progress we see from these companies.

We have long railed against the Verizon -> FairPoint fiasco in New England that left Verizon much richer at the expense of residents and businesses in rural Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine particularly. Well, FairPoint creditors have realized the depth of Verizon's scam and are suing Verizon for $2 billion. Read the complaint [pdf].

According to the complaint (pdf), Verizon not only made out like a financial bandit up front, but took advantage of regulatory delays to strip mine the assets of anything of value, including core IP network components, business services, and localized billing and support assets required to support the three states. Verizon then billed out their support assistance for millions per month during the very rocky transition, during which time 911 and other services saw repeated outages, resulting in millions more in refund penalties.

Karl Bode is right to criticize the state authorities that allowed this fiasco to occur. Their inability to regulate in the public interest has hurt everyone stuck in the mess. While we can expect powerful companies like Verizon to try to game the system at every opportunity, there is no excuse for making it so easy for them.

Frontier Logo

As long as we are talking about Verizon shedding its rural investments, let's take a look at how Frontier is doing since it inherited thousands upon thousands of FiOS customers as part of its recent deal with Verizon. Frontier has decided the best approach is to transition those customers from the next-generation FTTH network to an older, slower, less reliable, DSL alternative. Find me another country where a major company is moving customers away from fiber-optic connections. This is a national embarrassment.

Rather than investing in better technology, Frontier has literally doubled down on DSL by marketing a second DSL line to customers. Connect one computer to one line and the TV/video game unit to another one. Of course, it turns out they are lying (or incompetent) when it comes to how much they are charging for it...

In other words, that $13.50 1.5 Mbps (if you're lucky) DSL line is actually closer to a $50 1.5 Mbps DSL line once Frontier gets done slamming you with additional fees. These kinds of below-the-line fees have been a mainstay at phone companies for decades, essentially allowing them to engage in false advertising and covertly jack up the advertised price post sale. It's a practice that has yet to see any real attention of regulators, even those ceaselessly professing dedication to "transparency." It helps that Frontier serves a lot of uncompetitive markets where users have no other options, resulting in "deals" like this one.

Let's move on to the nation's largest cable company, Comcast. We recently noted Comcast's dubious distinction as the least trusted company in America. It was simultaneously the second least trusted. I'm guessing we won't see that award plastered on the side of the vehicles their poorly compensated contractors drive around.

Comcast Logo

Occupy Philly, the City of Brotherly Love offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, recently demonstrated at the Comcast Center to bring attention to Comcast's corporate tax dodging. Hey -- I thought Comcast routinely said it wasn't fair that non-profit entities don't pay taxes!

Finally, the big cable companies in general have been singled out in a study showing that Americans lost $38 billion in wages last year while waiting for technicians and delivery people. Cable companies were the worst at making people wait - prompting one person to say "SCAMCAST should be their name."

There is plenty more of examples like the above, but I'm done writing about them today. Just recall that the federal government prefers that this group of unaccountable corporations build, own, and operate the most important utility of the 21st century. We prefer local ownership that is accountable to communities. Time Warner Cable has actually been sued for its terrible customer service!

Verizon: The Future is Wired

An unfortunately common argument used against community fiber networks is that everything will be wireless in the future. This was used frequently last year in North Carolina by defenders of the pro-TWC legislation to create new barriers against community fiber networks.

The technical among us may want to get into the math theory with the Shannon-Hartley theorem to explain why wired is more reliable than wireless and therefore capable of much higher capacity.

Others might point that wireless will have less capacity because a wireless connection is really a wired connection to a tower somewhere that is then shared among hundreds or thousands of other users. Empirically, there is no wireless connection that beats fiber-optics.

But if you are looking for an entity that is intimately familiar with both wired and wireless, you might ask Verizon. Verizon is rolling out its LTE wireless network (arguably the best large scale wireless network in the country) and has millions of customers on its fiber-optic FiOS wired network. Verizon says the future needs fiber-optics to the home and wireless in the air:

"If you get underneath what's driving the fiber in the metropolitan markets it has been the need for increased video, increased reliability and security for customers," Seidenberg said. "The way we think about it is even though we have this great 4G mobile network, you still need to have fiber to the premises because we think your home will utilize a Gigabit of bandwidth."


"The way we look at it is we want to get fiber to as many business premises and cover as much as the footprint as we can and we believe everyone else going to do the same thing in other parts of the country," Seidenberg said. "If the incumbents or the MSOs don't do it then these little companies will do it and be the entrance facilities to homes and businesses."

As folks in North Carolina consider this year's proposal to limit competition with last-generation cable and DSL networks, they should think seriously about the communities around them served by FiOS -- with much faster speeds at much lower prices than anything their incumbents can offer.

Fort Wayne, Indiana: What Happens When You Beg

For years, I have heard Graham Richards, former mayor of Fort Wayne Indiana, brag about this "beg, borrow, buy, build" [pdf] philosophy as Mayor.  I am not insulting him -- his brash style is quite likable, but it is bragging.  He was somewhat of a celebrity among the broadband folks because he both understood the importance of broadband and had convinced Verizon to roll out FiOS in Fort Wayne when they had no plans to.  His philosophy is to first beg, then borrow, then buy, and finally build the network if necessary -- a similar approach of many local governments.  This is also often the path of least resistance (which, Utah Phillips reminds us, is what makes the river crooked).  

Graham is a terrific guy and a great evangelist for broadband (though he never jumped into a frozen Lake Superior) -- but we have long argued that his priorities were wrong in the long term.  Not owning the network means the network is unlikely to care about what the community needs.  Unfortunately, our philosophy has proven prescient.

When we last discussed Frontier's radical price increases for the FiOS subscribers they bought from Verizon, we failed to note that Fort Wayne was one of the transferred communities.  They begged for the network and they have no voice in how it is run.  So when Frontier jacks up its FiOS prices and glibly encourages people to drop their high quality FiOS cable for lesser quality DirectTV (with a long contract), the folks in Fort Wayne have little choice but to shrug their shoulders.

Serfs may occasion upon a good Lord of the Manor, but mostly they didn't.  Ownership of essential infrastructure offers long term benefits.

Photo used under Creative Commons, courtesy of Jenn Raynes