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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. 

Bald Head Island Reopens RFP to Find The Right Partner

After searching for a suitable partner, the Village of Bald Head Island in North Carolina has reopened its RFP for a gigabit fiber network. Apparently, the community received four responses but no proposal provided the level of detail they require. 

In order to give respondents another opportunity and to offer new candidates a chance, Bald Head Island leaders chose to release the RFP a second time with additional questions and a responsibility matrix. No response will be considered without answers to these new appendices. All three documents are available on the Village website.

The Village of Bald Head Island is home to approximately 160 year-round residents, but numbers swell to 7,000 during the busy tourist season. Vacation homes and part-time residents bring the potential fiber service area up to 2,500 but incumbents AT&T and Tele-Media don't see the value of bringing fiber to such an environment. The StarNews Online described community leadership's frustration and decision to move forward:

"Broadband is not available on Bald Head Island," said Calvin Peck, the village's manager. "It just isn't, and none of the current providers have plans to invest the money to make it available, so the village council feels it's an important enough issue to spend village resources to make it happen."

While Bald Head Island looks for a partner it also plans to ask voters if they agree to pursue better broadband. Voters will decide on November 3rd if they support a $10 million bond issue. Community leaders will focus on revenue bonds, one of the most common ways to finance municipal network deployment. This mechanism shifts repayment to those who use the network, reducing financial risk to the community at large.

Clearly community leaders understand that the time to act is now:

"We are losing people who would build, buy or rent property on the island because they do not have Internet service," said Gene Douglas, the village's mayor pro tempore. "Many executives of major companies' office is wherever they are as long as they have access to the Internet, and we simply don't have that."

As we have noted in the past, good partners are difficult to find; municipalities must always move forward with caution. We applaud Bald Head Island for being thorough and insisting on the details before choosing a partner. Kudos to them also for taking a bifurcated approach and asking voters for funding approval now so all pieces are in place when they find the right partner.

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

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. 

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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:

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