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Holding Their Breath in Bradley

Cleveland Utilities (CU), serving Bradley County, is carefully searching for the best way to improve connectivity for its southeast Tennessee customers. After exploring a number of possibilities, CU sees a partnership with Chattanooga's EPB as the brightest opportunity but their collaboration rests on lawmakers in Nashville or the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Need Is There, The Neighbors Are Close

CU President, Ken Webb knows the community needs and wants something better than AT&T for Internet access or cable TV from Charter Spectrum, especially in rural areas. Residents and business owners have gathered at community meetings. Local community leaders have passed resolutions asking the state to roll back restrictions and contacted CU directly but the utility's hands are tied as long as state barriers remain in place.

For over 7 decades, CU has served residents and businesses, providing electricity, water, and sewer. After a 2015 feasibility study revealed a $45 million estimate to build out a triple-play fiber to the entire county, CU began considering a limited pilot project.

They have been talking with their neighbors, EPB, about the possibility of partnering for some time Webb told the Times Free Press:

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Webb said Tuesday. "We continue to study our options (for adding telecommunications services), but we would prefer for the state to allow us to have the option of working with EPB."

Waiting...Waiting...Waiting

Right now, the prospect of fiber in Bradley County appears to hinge on two possible outcomes. First, if last year's FCC decision to roll back state barriers is affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and legal review stops there, the EPB will not need to worry about a legal challenge. 

Bradley County residents and businesses may also have a chance at fiber if the state legislature adopts legislation introduced last year by Cleveland's Representative Kevin Brooks. Senator Janice Bowling sponsored the Senate version last year and the two vowed to carry on advancing the bill this year. The bill, that would restore local authority to invest in Internet networks, received backing from a number of organizations and local communities.

Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga and its world famous gigabit municipal fiber, is located immediately west of Bradley County and ready to expand to the communities that want access to the EPB gigabit. Due to Tennessee's restrictive state laws, EPB cannot serve beyond its current electric service footprint:

DePriest, who is also chairman of the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, said the Chattanooga utility is eager to expand into the parts of Hamilton County it doesn't currently serve, which includes about 9,000 homes in east Hamilton County, and into all of Bradley County, which has more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

"We have developed some plans and we will develop more," DePriest said. "We've already had more than a thousand people from that area write us, email or call us asking when they can get our (broadband service)."

"We think we have the expertise and the infrastructure already in place so that expanding into these areas would help them and help us," he said. "We would have to work out the arrangement with Cleveland Utilities and Volunteer Electric because this is their territory and we're not going to go anywhere where we are not invited and where it doesn't make good business sense."

Op-ed: Next-Generation Networks Needed

The Knoxville News Sentinel published this op-ed about Tennessee's restrictive broadband law on January 9, 2016.

Christopher Mitchell: Next-Generation Networks Needed

Four words in Tennessee law are denying an important element of Tennessee's proud heritage and restricting choices for Internet access across the state.

When private firms would not electrify Tennessee, public power came to the rescue. In the same spirit, some local governments have built their own next-generation Internet access networks because companies like AT&T refused to invest in modern technology. These municipal networks have created competition, dramatic consumer savings and a better business climate in each of their communities.

The four words at issue prevent municipal electric utilities from expanding their successful fiber optic Internet networks to their neighbors, a rejection of the public investment that built the modern economy Tennessee relies upon.

Current law allows a municipal utility to offer telephone service anywhere in the state, but Internet access is available only "within its service area." This limit on local authority protects big firms like AT&T and Comcast from needed competition, and they have long lobbied to protect their de facto monopolies. To thrive, Tennessee should encourage both public and private investment in needed infrastructure.

These municipal systems have already shown they can bring the highest-quality Internet services to their communities. Chattanooga's utility agency, EPB, built one of the best Internet networks in the nation. Municipal fiber networks in Tullahoma, Morristown and more have delivered benefits far in excess of their costs while giving residents and local businesses a real choice in providers.

Many of these networks are willing to connect their neighbors — people and businesses living just outside the electric utility boundary. If Chattanooga wants to expand its incredible EPB Fiber into Bradley County with the consent of all parties, why should the state get in the way?

Consider that Tennessee metro areas almost always have at least one high-speed Internet option. Those with municipal networks have a real choice in providers. Nashville is slated for Google Fiber. But there is no such hope on the horizon in rural areas, despite the billions of dollars that have been spent on subsidies to providers like AT&T.

While AT&T's lobbyists scheme to prevent competition, the federal government subsidizes AT&T operations with more than $500,000 per month in Tennessee alone. So much for the "private" sector.

When it comes to municipal networks, taxpayer dollars are rarely used. Private investors often finance municipal networks by purchasing long-term bonds and are repaid by the revenues from the network. The Tennessee Valley Authority strictly oversees municipal utilities to ensure they are not cross-subsidizing telecom services with electrical ratepayer revenues.

To the extent municipal networks affect taxpayers, the taxpayers benefit. EPB just announced that in 2015 alone, its payments in lieu of taxes exceeded $19 million to the 17 jurisdictions in which it operates.

When local businesses connect to municipal fiber, more of their money stays in the community. Compare that to how much communities without a real choice send to AT&T and Comcast headquarters in distant states. And thanks to the competition, residents and businesses pay less. Morristown estimates a $3.4 million annual aggregate savings from lower bills.

The state should encourage communities to be more self-reliant and to build resilient regions rather than taking the side of distantly-owned monopolies. The state should be focused on how to encourage investment in next-generation Internet networks, not limit it.

 

Christopher Mitchell is the director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter: @CommunityNets.

Bradley County Urges Tennessee Lawmakers: High-Speed Internet Now!

Just this past week, we reported on the plight of Bradley County in Tennessee. Cut off from connectivity, families and businesses are considering leaving to nearby Hamilton County which has Chattanooga’s high-speed fiber network.

By a 12-1 vote, the Bradley County Commission urged the Tennessee legislature to pass a bill (Tennessee HB 1303/SB 1134) enabling public utilities to bring high-speed Internet to Bradley County residents. Current state law - right now embroiled in legal disputes - prohibits public utilities from expanding high-speed Internet access. 

Near-Unanimous Vote (12-1)

As reported in the Chattanoogan, the only naysayer to the resolution was the vice-chairman. He agreed that Charter and AT&T had failed to provide adequate Internet access to the county, but he expressed opposition to municipal networks. Although disagreeing with the resolution, he underscored how local control had disappeared with the current state law:

He said local governments at one time had leverage over providers when they had to come to them periodically for charters, but he said that control went away with the passage of the current law that he said was heavily lobbied.

The commissioners, however, felt that this vote was the only way forward. Some described how dependent their homes and businesses have become on Internet access, and others reiterated that the community suffered die to the lack of competition.

An Engaged Public Speaks Out

According to the Cleveland Daily Banner, the meeting attracted enough residents to pack the room. The people of Bradley County see the importance of better access in their future. Blake Kitterman, president of the Bradley County Young Democrats, told the Commission:

“When Bradley County citizens succeed, we all succeed, and EPB broadband expansion means an interconnected community…It means opportunities for businesses to affordably advertise their products, and students to be able to take part in higher forms of learning.”

According to the Banner, the crowd applauded every point supporting the resolution. The loudest and longest ovation was in response to Commissioner Mike Hughes when he summarized sentiment about incumbent providers Charter and AT&T:

““They had their opportunity, and they failed,” Hughes said. “It’s time to open it up.”

No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now

Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:

“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”

Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.

Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County. 

Don’t Mind the Gaps

Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:

“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.

Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”

The Marvel of the Free Market?

The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Send in the Munis

For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:

“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”

Ting! Holly Springs, NC to Get a Gig

While Google Fiber and AT&T focus on the large cities of the Research Triangle of North Carolina, the small town of Holly Springs is pursuing a third option. 

Holly Springs will be the third town to see Ting’s “crazy fast fiber Internet.” After a successful foray into the U.S. mobile service market, the Toronto-based company Ting has started to provide Internet service by partnering with local governments. Ting will offer 1 Gbps in Holly Springs by building on the town’s $1.5 million municipal fiber network. 

Muni network restricted by state law

Holly Springs, with a population of almost 30,000, has worked hard to improve its connectivity. In mid-2014, they completed a 13-mile fiber Institutional network (often called an “I-Net”) to connect the municipal buildings and other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. 

Unfortunately, when business and residents wanted to connect to the network, a North Carolina state law prevented the town from providing Internet services directly.  As it became obvious that Google Fiber would not pass through the town, leaders worked with a consulting company to try to draw in a private Internet service provider (ISP).

Ting! Innovative Partnerships

The locked-up potential of that fiber helped attract Ting. The municipal network's unused fiber will function as a backbone for Ting to deploy its own last-mile infrastructure, which will provide connectivity directly to homes and businesses.

Ting has had success with small towns. The first Ting town was Charlottesville, Virginia, where the company bought a local ISP’s existing fiber network, improving the speeds and prices. Most recently, Ting partnered with the city of Westminster, Maryland, to expand broadband access. The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors dubbed it 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year” and presented the partnership with an award in September. Check out our podcast conversations with Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster and Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows (parent company of Ting).

Local networks are the solution

Construction on the Holly Springs network is likely to begin in early 2016. Although not all public private partnerships prove successful, Ting’s approaches support the philosophy that communities should be empowered to make these decisions locally. Noss explained in the press release [PDF]:

The problem of slow, expensive and unreliable Internet access is national but agreements like the one reached with Holly Springs further demonstrate that the solution is local.

Chattanooga Crushes It - Marketing, Technology, and Nearby Communities - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 175

Chattanooga returns to the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week in episode 175 to talk about their 10 Gbps upgrade, the fibervention campaign, TN4Fiber, and having surpassed 75,000 subscribers.

For so much content, we have three guests joining us from Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (the EPB in EPB Fiber): Danna Bailey is the VP of Corporate Communications, Beth Johnson is the Marketing Manager, and Colman Keane is the Director of Fiber Technology.

Danna gives some background on what they are doing in Chattanooga and how excited people in nearby communities are for Chattanooga to bring local Internet choice to SE Tennessee if the state would stop protecting the AT&T, Comcast, and Charter monopolies from competition.

Beth tells us about the Fibervention campaign and how excited people are once they experience the full fiber optic experience powered by a locally-based provider.

And finally, Colman talks tech with us regarding the 10 Gbps platform, branded NextNet. We tried to get a bit more technical for the folks that are very curious about these cutting edge technologies on a passive optical network.

Read the transcript from episode 175 here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can downlhttp://muninetworks.org/sites/www.muninetworks.org/files/audio/comm-bb-bits-podcast175-danna-bailey-colman-keane-beth-johnson-epb.mp3oad this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Peachtree City, Georgia Approves Resolution to Establish Municipal Broadband Utility

At a September meeting, the City Council in Peachtree City, Georgia unanimously approved a resolution to construct and operate a fiber-optic broadband network.  According to the City Council minutes from the meeting, the initial 22.54-miles of fiber will provide 1 Gbps broadband access to various facilities in the City Service area.

In addition to providing connectivity for government buildings, utility services, and medical and educational buildings, the city will target business customers in the “high end user category.”

Officials estimate the network will cost $3.23 million. To pay for the project, the Peachtree City Public Facilities Authority, an independent local government authority created by the state legislature in 2011, will enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Peachtree City. According the August 2015 Fiber Initiative plan, capital for the project will come from the Authority; the city will issue a bond and pay installments to the Authority under an Agreement of Sale.

For several years now, the city located 30 miles southeast of Atlanta has explored options to improve local connectivity. City leaders tried and failed to bring Google Fiber to the community of 35,000 people in 2010. The city attempted repeatedly to urge private ISPs like AT&T to address the problem with no success. In February of this year, city leaders began work on a study to explore the feasibility of a publicly owned fiber network.

City Council members citizens at the recent City Council meeting expressed concerns that the network will not pay for itself and taxpayers will be left to cover unpaid costs. According to a recent survey of local businesses, 100% of respondents reacted positively to the prospect of a municipal network for connectivity.

In order to achieve the plan’s objectives, the network will need 12 “high-end” commercial customers by the end of year 2.  The city’s consultant expressed confidence in meeting that first goal:

“If we had a different experience, I would be standing up here in front of you saying 12 is going to be a stretch. However, we found exactly the opposite to be the case,” said Davis. “I was amazed by that. It’s a surprise to me that the demand was so great, and that the existing customer base out there was so positive about becoming a user. From a pure business standpoint, that gave me a lot of confidence to come in and say I believe we can hit this number and I believe we can exceed this number.”

The city’s Financial Services Director Paul Salvatore added that the business plan for the project is based on conservative assumptions.  It relies on a 20-year financial model projecting success for the network if the city secures at least 12 non-governmental customers in addition to 17 serviceable government sites. Thereafter, if it reaches at least 19 total non-governmental customers by year 6, the network will start to achieve positive gains, a 10-year bond payoff, and profitability after 16 to 20 years.  

City officials have no plans to bring the network to residential subscribers at this stage, choosing instead to focus on direct and indirect economic development benefits, public safety improvements, and better cell phone coverage that will likely result from the fiber deployment. They did not rule out the prospect of fiber for residents in the future. (Watch a complete video of the September 17th City Council meeting here, the city’s municipal broadband network discussion starts at 28:20.)

At a workshop earlier in September, city leaders met with the consultant to finalize the business plan for the network. At the meeting, Interim City Manager Jon Rorie quizzed the City Council about the risks involved with investing in the new broadband network. By the time the City Council met 9 days later, Rorie was convinced of the plan’s prospects for success: 

“We recognize this is a big decision, and it is of a visionary nature, but we also recognize that there is a risk exposure as a business model,” he said. “As far as providing an opportunity from an economic development perspective, I do think it is a huge opportunity as we move forward.

AT&T Willing to Fetch for NSA, No Questions Asked

It has been an open secret that AT&T maintained a cozy relationship with the NSA, but only recently has the extent of that relationship been revealed. AT&T had no qualms about illegally providing enough Internet traffic data to forge a relationship fondly described by the NSA as a "highly collaborative." 

Edward J. Snowden provided documents chronicling the relationship; ProPublica and the New York Times reviewed them jointly. In that information:

One document reminds N.S.A. officials to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities, noting, “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”

ProPublica and the New York Times reviewed the information and recently published articles on their joint findings. ProPublica's article describes how anything floating across domestic networks owned by AT&T was up for grabs and, in at least one documented case, involved international clients:

It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

The NSA’s top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership was more than twice that of the next-largest such program, according to the documents. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than its similarly sized competitor, Verizon. And its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.

Whether or not those data gathering programs still operate today is unclear. While AT&T is not identified by name in the documents provided by Snowden, former intelligence officers and corroborating evidence strongly suggest that the telecom giant is the company that exhibited an "extreme willingness to help" the NSA collect information for the Fairview program. 

Unsurprisingly, the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, stepped up activity within these programs. AT&T responded to warrantless surveillance "within days" by handing over emails and phone calls, according to the documents provided by Snowden. We doubt they did so out of patriotism, given their past enthusiasm to rip off local 9-11 centers. Verizon and MCI also participated but no other company accommodated the NSA so willingly or quickly as AT&T.

The report also documents how AT&T repeatedly goes the extra mile to please an overreaching government agency over the course of several decades. Including this, among other activities:

In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

It was an earlier New York Times investigation that revealed NSA equipment installations at 17 AT&T facilities. The arrangement allowed the NSA a reach beyond AT&T customers due to peering agreements with other providers. AT&T was not only willing to hand over information on its own customers, but also eager to provide data from other providers' customers. Why not?

In an effort to make the NSA's workload lighter, it seems, AT&T even took on some of the surveillance labor itself. 

Many privacy advocates have suspected that AT&T was giving the NSA a copy of all Internet data to sift for itself. But one 2012 presentation says the spy agency does not “typically” have “direct access” to telecoms’ hubs. Instead, the telecoms have done the sifting and forwarded messages the government believes it may legally collect.

“Corporate sites are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to NSA,” according to the presentation. This system sometimes leads to “delays” when the government sends new instructions, it added.

When the story of NSA spying first broke back in 2013 we noticed an article in the Guardian about Pete Ashdown from Xmission, one of the providers on the UTOPIA network. He was asked about customer data and privacy in this type of situation. There is a proper procedure and unlike lapdog AT&T, local providers with ties to their customers and the communities they serve, appreciate the gravity of their actions. When asked for private data by local, state, or federal officials:

"I would tell them I didn't need to respond if they didn't have a warrant, that (to do so) wouldn't be constitutional," the founder and chief executive, Pete Ashdown, said in an interview at his Salt Lake City headquarters.

Since 1998 he rejected dozens of law enforcement requests, including Department of Justice subpoenas, on the grounds they violated the US constitution and state law. "I would tell them, please send us a warrant, and then they'd just drop it."

The response is much different over at AT&T. When asked to about the information in the documents:

“We don’t comment on matters of national security,” an AT&T spokesman said.

They may not comment on it, but they sure do have an opinion. And an impact. When just one firm can single-handedly collect so much data and hand it over to the government without a clear legal process, we have a problem.

Image courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and licensed through Creative Commons.

Santa Cruz Fiber Project with Cruzio

Santa Cruz, California, and its 62,000 people with poor Internet connectivity near Silicon Valley, could be one of the larger municipalities to develop a citywide fiber network. The Santa Cruz Fiber project, which was announced on June 24, 2015, would be an open-access public private partnership (PPP) with the city constructing the network and a private company, Cruzio, serving as network operator. The plans are preliminary, but the announcement highlighted the project’s emphasis on local ownership: 

“A locally-owned, next-generation broadband network operated openly and independently and built for Santa Cruz, [the Santa Cruz Fiber Project] is uniquely tailored to fit the diverse needs of the Santa Cruz community.” 

Cruzio is one of the oldest and largest Internet service providers in California. Completely locally-owned and staffed, Cruzio is rooted in Santa Cruz County. The company’s name perfectly describes it. Cruz- from Santa Cruz and -io from I/O (Input/Output, communication between an information processing system and the rest of the world).  Our Christopher Mitchell is gushing over the name and says: “I seriously love it.”

Fiber is not a new commodity in Santa Cruz. Since 2011, Cruzio has installed fiber in several of its projects, and the fiber has wooed some 30 entrepreneurs and solo practitioners to stay in the downtown area at the Cruzio Works, a co-working space. Last November, Central Coast Broadband Consortium commissioned a study of the fiber networks in Santa Cruz (paid for with a grant from the California Public Utilities commission). They discovered more fiber under the city of Santa Cruz than in any other city in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito. Unfortunately much of it belonged to incumbent providers like Comcast and AT&T who are loath to lease dark fiber or make affordable fiber connections available to local businesses and residents. 

Then, just this past June, Comcast announced the planned rollout of Gigabit Pro near Silicon Valley, but not Santa Cruz. Even if Comcast changes its mind, the city has already found a local private partner in Cruzio. This local public-private partnership will almost certainly result in far more benefits to the community than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro. This network will be under local control and responsive to community needs.  

The intention of the partnership is to pursue an open access model. At first, the network will be solely a public-private partnership where the City of Santa Cruz will own the network and Cruzio will construct and operate it. During the initial stages, Cruzio will provide the expertise in network management that the city of Santa Cruz does not necessarily have. After a number of years, the network will open up to more service providers in order to promote competition, which is how Westminster has arranged its partnership with Ting in Maryland. 

The goal of the FTTH project proposal according to Cruzio is to connect 6,000 households and businesses by the end of the third year. Currently, the construction costs are estimated at $52 million. The City staff will present a report to city council by the end of this September on the potential Fiber Project’s feasibility. Early project estimates suggest the network would be mostly completed by late 2018. If the take-rate is feasible, the city intends to back the network with municipal revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are repaid through the sale of networking services, not through taxes. This ensures that those who use the network will pay for the network. Cruzio is now surveying residents to determine interest and creating an engineering report.