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New Report on Bandwidth Caps From Open Technology Institute

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) at the New America Foundation recently released its report on bandwidth caps. "Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation" is the latest warning about an issue with grave implications. The PDF is now available to download

Last November, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] with serious comments on how ISPs might abuse their power through bandwidth caps. In that report, the GAO strongly suggested the FCC take action.

This report by Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey further examines how this profit grabbing technique from the big ISPs impacts consumer decisions and usage. 

From the OTI press release:

In this paper, we examine the growth and impact of usage-based pricing and data caps on wired and mobile broadband services in the United States. We analyze the financial incentive that Internet service providers (ISPs) have to implement these usage limits and discuss research that demonstrates how these policies affect consumer behavior. In particular, we explain how data caps can make it harder for consumers to make informed choices; decrease the adoption and use of existing and new online services; and undermine online security.

It is also increasingly clear that data caps have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations as well as groups like telecommuters and students. In the conclusion, we urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), particularly as the new Open Internet Order goes into effect, to open up a serious inquiry into whether data caps are an acceptable business practice.  

In addition to their own data and conclusions, Kehl and Lucey provide information to many other resources that tackle the implications of bandwidth caps. As consumers' need for bandwidth increases with their changing Internet habits, this topic will only become more pressing.

Call Center Central: Morristown, Tennessee?

The city of Morristown, Tennessee received more positive economic news recently when Sykes Enterprises, a global company that operates in more than 20 countries, announced plans to open a call center in an abandoned big-box store and connect to the city’s municipal network, FiberNet. Sykes estimates that the call center will employ up to 500 workers over the next three years, the large majority of which will come from the Morristown community. 

In Morristown, Sykes will join Oddello Industries, a furniture manufacturer, and the Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network, a personalized health firm – other companies that have cited the fiber network as an important part of their decision to locate facilities in the city of 30,000 people. 

According to the president of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce, Marshall Ramsey, the existence of FiberNet played a role in attracting the 50,000-plus employee firm to Tennessee: 

For Morristown to be able to have a local provider and a secondary provider in AT&T with a gig gives us that redundancy that most companies can’t get elsewhere in the country. 

FiberNet is operated by Morristown Utility Systems, the publicly owned electric and water utility. It began offering gigabit Internet speeds in 2012, though it has served local businesses since 2006. 

This is the second time in two months WBIR – Morristown’s NBC network – has run a story about FiberNet. In May, the station covered the way in which the municipal fiber network has stimulated economic development by increasing competition between service providers. When FiberNet upgraded its network to provide gigabit speeds, the incumbent telephone company in Morristown, AT&T, responded with some upgrades of its own. Morristown is one of a select few cities to have multiple gigabit-offerings, along with neighboring Chattanooga, Tennessee.  

Chris interviewed General Manager and CEO of FiberNet, Jody Wigington, in 2013 to discuss the municipal network’s deployment. You can find the interview here.

Local station WBIR covered the story:

In West Texas, "Hub City" Conducts Fiber Feasibility Study

A feasibility study conducted by the Lubbock Power & Light (LP&L) Electric Utility Board this April discussed several potential benefits of installing a fiber optic cable in the City of Lubbock, Texas. Charles Dunn, a member of the Utility Board, proposed installing fiber optic cables alongside the city’s utility lines, which are currently being buried underground as part of a three-phase, $1.9 million downtown redevelopment initiative

A fiber optic cable, Dunn contended, could increase Internet speeds hundredfold (from a max speed of around 10 Mbps to one above 1 Gbps), attract high tech companies to the city, and induce Texas Tech University students to stay in Lubbock after they graduate. In Lubbock, where Internet speeds run about 35 percent slower than they do in the rest of the state, a fiber network could be a boon for businesses and residents alike.

According to the April feasibility study, the fiber project might not even eclipse $100,000. LP&L would shoulder the costs of the project by drawing from its own budget. Both Dunn and LP&L director of electric utilities, David McCalla, believe that fiber would greatly benefit the community.

CEO of McDougal Companies, Marc McDougal, also argued in favor of the installation of the cable. From Fox 34 News:

Quite honestly, it would give us something that very few cities have... It would give us a huge advantage in another market to recruit businesses for downtown Lubbock. 

If plans to build the network were to move forward in Lubbock, LP&L would not be able to immediately offer Internet access to customers because of state law discouraging municipalities from offering telecommunications service. Though a Texas Utilities Code prohibits municipalities from offering telecommunications services to the public, that restriction does not appear to apply to Internet service (which is why AT&T a decade ago unsuccessfully tried to explicitly revise the barrier to include Internet access). The municipality would almost certainly have to defend its interpretation of the law in court, work with a private provider to offer services, or petition the FCC to overturn the current state law

While many municipal networks are located in smaller towns and rural areas, Lubbock seems to be an ideal mid-sized city for a high-speed municipal fiber network. Nicknamed the “hub city” on account of the key economic and educational role it plays in the South Plains region of West Texas, a foray into fiber optics has the potential to turn Lubbock into a hub for local self-reliance, as well.

From FOX 34

Co-Mo Cooperative Facing Off With Subsidized CenturyLink in Missouri

Parts of rural central Missouri have some of the fastest Internet service available thanks to fiber service from Co-Mo Electric Cooperative and United Electric Cooperative. The two have worked together to bring gigabit FTTH to cooperative members in central Missouri. Now that they have proven that people and businesses want high capacity connectivity, CenturyLink is about to enter the scene. The company plans to use millions of dollars in Connect America Funds (CAF) to build in areas already served by the cooperatives.

After years of planning and hard work, Co-Mo and United are not taking the threat lightly. They have filed challenges with the Wireline Competition Bureau but CenturyLink's Inside-the-Beltway power has thus far served them well. The Wireline Competition Bureau denied a challenge by Co-Mo and United but the decision appears to contradict established policy. Co-Mo and United recently appealed to the FCC asking them to review the Bureau's Order allowing CenturyLink to use over $10 million in CAF. [Read the Application for Review here.]

CenturyLink argues that Co-Mo and United are not providing voice services because they are working with a third party, Big River Telephone Company, to bring VoIP to members. If this were true, it could disqualify them as providers and lend credence to the argument that there are census blocks in the area that are not served. Because Co-Mo and United install, take phone orders for subscribers, and service phone switches, they should qualify as a provider of land line voice services. 

CenturyLink also asserted that census block information showed areas unserved even though those areas now have access to fiber connectivity from Co-Mo and United. General Manager of Co-Mo Connect Randy Klindt told us that the timing of their build prevented Co-Mo from providing an active customer in each block, but that service is available to people who live there. Even though it is not a requirement, Co-Mo and United now have detailed information that prove people in those census blocks can, and do, take FTTH service.

Co-Mo and United waged successful challenges for similar CAF awards to AT&T and Windstream. CenturyLink appears determined to use tax subsidies to build what will likely be only a fraction of the speed and reliability of Co-Mo or United Cooperative networks infrastructure. Unfortunately, CenturyLink's usual modus operandi - offering cheap intro rates to lure customers away from local providers like Co-Mo and United - could harm new investment in high speed networks.

Klindt also summed up the larger policy concern in an email:

The commission’s directive was to ensure that CAF support should not be used to build broadband in areas already served by an unsubsidized competitor...This money should be used in legitimate unserved areas, not areas with gigabit residential service available.

Learn more about Co-Mo Cooperative and their fiber network, Co-Mo Connect, in episode #140 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast where Chris interviewed Randy Klindt.

Yet Another Homeowner Led Astray By Giant ISP; Responds with Muni Fiber Initiative

Last month, we highlighted the story of Seth, a Washington state homeowner forced to put his home up for sale due to a perfect storm of sloppy customer service, corporate bureaucracy, and terrible Internet policy. Now meet Dave Mortimer from Michigan.

Dave in another person in a similar situation, reports Ars Technica. In 2013 incumbent AT&T told Dave three separate times that the house he had his eye on in rural Lowell had U-verse fiber network capabilities. Their website verified what customer service represenatives told him. Dave is an IT professional and wanted the opportunity to work from home. He must be on call while not in the office and so requires a fast residential Internet connection. 

After buying the home and moving in, AT&T backpedaled. Actually his best option was DSL offering 768 Kbps. Oops!

Working from home was a struggle. After Dave complained to AT&T, the FCC, the FTC, and the state Public Service Commission, the provider eventually updated their website but that didn't help Dave. He limped along but seldom worked from home as he had planned to do from the start. His office is 30 minutes away.

Finally, AT&T billed him for a phone line he never requested leading to an auto-payment error and a shut-off of his Internet service. That was enough for Dave. He approached a local wireless provider Vergenness Broadband and, working with the installer, attached the receiver to a tree some distance from his house and buried the extra long cable in cracks in his driveway to his house. Dave now pays $60 per month and gets the 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload he was promised.

Dave is no where near the 45 Mbps he had hoped to obtain from the phantom U-verse, but he has this to say about his local provider:

“This is a night and day difference since switching from AT&T," he said. "Everything that AT&T did wrong, this small local company is doing right.”

Dave was fortunate to have a local company able to bring him service, even though it is not broadband as defined by the FCC. Nevertheless, he considers this a temporary fix and the best he can get for the time being.

This small company lured away Dave from AT&T but the Telecom Death Star is probably not worried about a massive customer exodus in Lowell. The Lowell Ledger recently reported on an April City Council meeting where Dave discussed his problems with AT&T and hte lack of broadband competition in Lowell:

Ryan Peel, owner of Vergennes Broadband LLC, said that his company had no plans to offer Internet service within Lowell city limits.

“We go head-to-head with Comcast and AT&T and it is very difficult to compete, basically because their prices are so low,” Peel said. “We basically don't have a presence in the city of Lowell because of that..."

That leaves few options for rural dwellers. Peel continues:

"...They cover just about everybody that's here. The outlying townships, that's a completely different story. That's part of my vision, has been to cover the more rural areas and not focus so much on town, just because of the options that already exist.”

Which leaves few options for town dwellers. Two options - DSL or cable with no choice of providers - verges on being no options at all.

AT&T has no one to blame but themselves as Dave's idea, the Lowell Fiber Initiative, takes off. He has presented his idea to the City Council and assembled a collection of resources to educate others in the community. Lowell already has its own electric utility, much like Michigan's Sebewaing, that fired up its own gigabit FTTH network late last year.

Michigan is one of the 19 states with restrictions on the books but, in light of the FCC's February ruling striking down restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the future for places like Lowell may be brighter. As long as AT&T continues to offer business as usual, more Daves will continue to build movements like the Lowell Fiber Initiative.

Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

Video: 
See video

Carl Junction Partnering for Wi-Fi in Missouri

Carl Junction has been looking for a way to improve connectivity in its southwest corner of the state for several years. Plans for a fiber network did not come to pass, but the community has found a private partner to bring ubiquitous high-speed Wi-Fi to town.

The City Council voted unanimously to approve a deal with Aire Fiber, reports the Joplin Globe, for a basic plan that will offer service for $49.99 per month. Users will not be constrained by data caps, speeds will be up to 50 Mbps download and 10 - 15 Mbps upload, and the network will provide service to each address in town. Installation is $99 per address; rates will be the same for businesses and residences. There are no long term committments. The partners have launched their campaign to get signups online seeking 289 subscriptions to get the project off the ground.

Aire Fiber will also provide free Wi-Fi to select locations in town such as the Community Center.

Steve Lawver, Carl Junction City Administrator, told us that the city will receive 10 percent of the gross revenue from the network. The city will purchase the equipment and provide facilities on which Aire Fiber will mount the equipment. Air Fiber will handle installation, management, and all technical aspects required to keep the network up and running.

If the network picks up 10 percent of the market, both partners will break even. KOAM reports that the system will cost from $400,000 - $450,000 to deploy. City officials expect to have it serving the community by mid-summer.

Even though AT&T and MediaCom both have a presence in Carl Junction, neither serve the entire community. City leaders told KOAM they hope to create better consistency of service throughout the community with this partnership:

"We think this is a big step forward for the city — now high-speed broadband Internet connection will be available to all citizens of Carl Junction, no matter what their address is.''

Lawver said Media Com, the city's cable television company, does not offer Internet service in all areas of the town. AT&T only serves parts of the city, he said.

Carl Junction Mayor Mike Moss said, "Reliable, effective and affordable broadband connection throughout the whole city will put us on the same foothold as other cities of our region and the state. It is what will keep us competing with other cities in the 21st century.''

Local media has reported on the project:

Video: 
See video

Grover Beach Chooses Local Partner to Improve Local Connectivity for Businesses

After several years of considering options for a municipal network, the community of Grover Beach, California, is improving local connectivity options through a collaboration with private partner Digital West

According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the City struck a deal last fall with the local firm that will provide gigabit connectivity to local business customers. A city staff report states that Grover Beach will install and own a series of conduit that will house fiber owned by Digital West. 

The company, a data storage and web hosting firm located in nearby San Luis Obispo, will manage the fiber network. Digital West will lease conduit space from the city for 5.1% of its gross revenue from its operation of the private portion of the system. The initial lease is for a 10-year term. The company will also transfer ownership of some of the fiber to the city for public purposes. San Luis Obispo (SLO) County also wants to connect its facilities in the area and will contribute to the cost of the project. It appears as though SLO County will use the fiber provided to Grover Beach.

Grover Beach will contribute $500,000; SLO County will contribute $268,000; Digital West will contribute $159,000 to the total cost of $927,000 of the project. The parties agree that the city's contribution will be capped at $500,000. The staff report recommends an interdepartmental loan to finance the city's portion of the conduit installation.

Digital West has been an instrumental player in the city's quest for improved connectivity for several years. The company provides Internet service in SLO County and manages a private network offering connectivity, colocation, and cloud services to commercial clients. 

Grover Beach is also the location of the Pacific Crossing trans-Pacific fiber cable, connecting to Shima, Japan. In 2009, Digital West began working with Grover Beach to find ways to take advantage of the pipe. The city and Digital West have sence developed a Technology Master Plan and an Implementation Plan.

AT&T, Level 3, CenturyLink, and Verizon operate in the area, but Digital West plans to offer more affordable options. The city's vision includes providing more options for the numerous small businesses and to encourage more home based business. The staff report quoted Digital West estimated pricing at $100 per month for 100 Mbps and $150 per month for 1 gigabit service. Similar services in the area run between $250 per month and $500 per month according to the report.

Mendocino County Analyzes Losses From Communications Outage

In November, the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC) released a report documenting the results of an online survey to determine the effects of a summer communications outage. The Willits News reported that the survey revealed losses of over $215,000 in the county, although actual losses likely reach the millions.

In August, an accident wiped out Internet, telephone, cell, and 911 services for eight communities along the coast in Mendocino County. AT&T aerial fiber optic cable was destroyed. Approximately 17,400 people lost access to 911 services. Depending on the location, 911 service was out for 24 to 45 hours.

Only about 6.5 percent of the people in Mendocino County participated in the survey according to the report. Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were directly impacted.

The article quotes the BAMC report:

According to the BAMC, the outage was lengthy because "the AT&T backbone fiber network was not configured to be redundant nor diverse with protection routing. This was not due to the lack of fiber in the surrounding routes. AT&T did provide diverse fiber and protection for their cable station, but elected not to provide the same for the surrounding community and emergency services."

Mendocino County has been working for several years on an initiative to improve connectivity along California's north coast. They are now part of a larger collaboration called the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The incident in Mendocino County is much like a similar event in 2010 in which Cook and Lake Counties in Minnesota were cut off in the same way. At that time, a single Qwest line was cut and, since there was no redundancy, 911 service, Internet, and many business services came to a screeching halt.

Yet another reminder of the risks that come with depending on distant mega-corporations for essential infrastructure.

Chanute Receives State OK to Bond for FTTH Deployment

The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) will allow the city of Chanute move forward with its plan to serve residents and local businesses with its municipal network reports the Wichita Eagle. KCC staff had recommended that the community, which has built out a network over the course of decades, receive KCC approval. 

In keeping with an antiquated 1947 state law, K.S.A. 10-123, the city needed KCC approval to issue the revenue bonds. In keeping with the statutory requirements, the KCC found that the expansion is necessary and appropriate for the city, its consumers and investors. The KCC also also determined that the expansion will not duplicate an existing utility service.

In its filing [PDF], Chanute indicated that its network is an essential part of the local economy and the community's future:

Chanute is a rural community, and like all rural communities, access to broadband is fundamental to the well-being of its citizens and even to the survival of the community itself. Chanute does not need to convince the Commission of the importance of having access to a high- speed broadband network. The Commission is well aware of that need. The investments contemplated for Chanute's broadband network are necessary and appropriate to allow Chanute to meet that need in its territory.

As the city points out, incumbents AT&T and Cable One, do not offer anything close to the level of service of the planned gigabit FTTH network. As we cover in our 2012 report on Chanute, AT&T and Cable One seem to have no interest in serving the community beyond minimum expectations. It was the need for better services that inspired the city to build out its infrastructure and offer services to local businesses.

Prior the the KCC ruling, the Wichita Eagle reported that AT&T requested and obtained permission to intervene in the proceeding. AT&T's subsidiary Southwestern Bell Telephone Company (SWBT) petitioned to intervene in November [PDF], stating:

SWBT's interests and those of its customers may be affected by any order or determination of the Commission as may hereafter be adopted in the above- captioned proceeding.

AT&T told the Eagle:

“Any decision made by the KCC could impact AT&T’s business operations in the area, which is why we asked to intervene in the proceeding,” the company said in a written response to questions from The Eagle. “AT&T remains interested in both broadband issues and the work of the KCC.”

Larry Gates, Director of Utilities in Chanute, 
told the Eagle that the city is ready to issue the revenue bonds and begin connecting customers as soon as the KCC approves the request.

In their filing, the city also commented on the the outdated nature of the state law requirement. From the Eagle article:

In the commission case, Chanute is arguing that the 1947 law was actually designed to protect municipalities from defaulting on bonds because of private-sector competition, not to protect private-sector providers from competition with local government.

Since then, lawmakers and regulators have almost entirely deregulated telecommunication services, counting on competition in the marketplace to keep providers from charging too much or providing substandard service.

“This reasoning (behind the 1947 law) reflects an environment where construction of a telecommunications network was considered a natural monopoly, where one company could supply an entire market at less cost than two or more companies,” Chanute’s filing said. “That is no longer the case in the telecommunications marketplace.”

The 1947 law “does really sort of fly in the face of everything that has been said about competition,” [David Springe, chief consumer counsel for the Citizens' Utility Ratepayer Board] said. “It’s either a competitive world and you can stand on your own two feet, or it’s not.”

KCC staff agreed with Chanute. At the time the law was implemented, it was meant to protect the interests of the monopolies that served the rural areas, but the Telecommunications Act of 1996 shifted policy to encouraging competition.

There are other providers in the area, writes staff, but none of them can provide the caliber of services Chanute will offer. Because AT&T and Cable One do not offer services anywhere near the gigabit FTTH planned by Chanute's broadband utility, there would be no duplication of services.

Staff also agrees with the city, when it analyzes the need for the expansion. From the staff report [PDF]:

Upgrading Chanute's facilities would not only benefit the citizens of Chanute but its community anchor institutions and community business partners as well. In addition, by improving and expanding upon the fiber optic network currently in place by Chanute, Chanute is protecting its current investment. Staff therefore believes the expansion plans as contemplated are appropriate for the municipality and its consumers, and for the protection of its investors.

For a look back at Chanute's story, listen to episode #16 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Chris interviewed Larry Gates and then City Manager JD Lester.