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Krugman Calls out the Barons of Broadband

We should probably be thanking Comcast for its attempt to take over Time Warner Cable. It has inspired a shocking amount of vitriol against the cable monopolies, including an entertaining but NSFW video with strong language from Funny or Die.

Whereas people were largely content to mostly silently hate Comcast and Time Warner Cable separately, the idea of them officially tying the knot to screw consumers even more has apparently hit a tipping point. As I noted a few days ago, we are seeing a more communities considering their own networks to avoid being stuck with a Wall Street monopoly forever.

Paul Krugman was inspired to write "Barons of Broadband," which accurately reflects the modern dynamic:

The point is that Comcast perfectly fits the old notion of monopolists as robber barons, so-called by analogy with medieval warlords who perched in their castles overlooking the Rhine, extracting tolls from all who passed. The Time Warner deal would in effect let Comcast strengthen its fortifications, which has to be a bad idea.

Krugman talks about monopoly as well, reminding me of one of our most important podcasts - Barry Lynn, Monopoly Expert.

And the same phenomenon may be playing an important role in holding back the economy as a whole. One puzzle about recent U.S. experience has been the disconnect between profits and investment. Profits are at a record high as a share of G.D.P., yet corporations aren’t reinvesting their returns in their businesses. Instead, they’re buying back shares, or accumulating huge piles of cash. This is exactly what you’d expect to see if a lot of those record profits represent monopoly rents.

It’s time, in other words, to go back to worrying about monopoly power, which we should have been doing all along. And the first step on the road back from our grand detour on this issue is obvious: Say no to Comcast.

There is no public benefit to this merger - none. Meanwhile it will give even more power to a corporation already slowing our economy by refusing to invest in communities that desperately need better connections so businesses can remain competitive. Allowing this merger will be just another step in the direction of powerful corporate lobbyists officially running the country rather than unofficially.

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 20 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 previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Joanne Hovis on Business Plans for Municipal Fiber

Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology and Energy, recently published a must-read article in Broadband Properties Magazine. Whether you are a community leader investigating the possibility of a publicly owned network or an engaged citizen looking for pros and cons, this piece explains practical benefits succinctly. In her article, The Business Case For Government Fiber Networks [PDF], Hovis looks at life beyond stimulus funding. She points out how we should evaluate municipal networks in an environment where shareholder profit is not the first consideration.

Hovis gives a brief history of how local communities reached this point of need. As many of our readers know, local communities used to be able to negotiate with cable providers for franchise opportunities and rights-of-way. Often cable providers would construct broadband infrastructure in exchange for a franchise to operate in a given community, creating I-Nets for local government, schools and libraries. Once states inserted themselves into the process with state-wide franchising, local negotiating power evaporated. Many of those franchise agreements are ending and local leaders are considering municipal fiber optic networks.

Hovis stresses that municipalities do not function in the same environment as the private sector. While they still have a fiscal responsibility to their shareholders (the taxpayers) the main function is providing public safety, encouraging economic development, offering education, and using tax dollars to better the quality of life. Hovis describes how redefining return on investment (ROI) needs to go beyond the balance sheet bottom line. 

These benefits have nothing to do 
with traditional financial measures. Rather, they represent the return 
to the community in terms of such largely intangible societal benefits 
as enhancing health care quality, narrowing the digital divide, providing enhanced educational opportunities to school children, delivering job search and placement opportunities at public computer centers and helping isolated senior citizens make virtual social connections.

joanne-hovis.jpg

Even without the intangible benefits, Hovis argues the financial benefits to local communities cannot be ignored:

First, a government network can help avoid existing and future costs by replacing services for which the government previously paid third parties. Second, a network can bring revenues to a community, especially given new E-Rate regulations that make government networks eligible for subsidy if they serve schools and libraries. Together, these cost savings and revenue streams can add up to significant dollars – potentially to amounts that justify financing the necessary construction.

Hovis explains the economics of government need to lease circuits, an extremely lucrative practice for phone companies or providers. In addition to being expensive, Hovis notes they are often low-bandwidth. Hovis takes it one step further:

Build the network and you will shave this amount from your accounts payable.

In fact, because a government network can deliver far higher-capacity connectivity than the jurisdiction
 had previously leased, its value is even greater than simple cost avoidance. 
A government that owns a network 
can use inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment to connect its facilities to one another at no cost for bandwidth (because the traffic is “on network”
 and not going out to the Internet). It can also deliver Internet connections to these facilities at a per-unit cost much lower than that of leased connections because it can aggregate the needs of all departments and purchase commodity bandwidth. This is particularly true for a jurisdiction that can develop a mutually beneficial partnership with a provider of wholesale bandwidth.

Considering the fact that capacity needs continue to grow, savings with a publicly owned next-generation network increase exponentially. Eliminating the need to lease now eliminates the need to lease more later.

Hovis also examines in detail the different ways municipal networks can provide revenue. She examines:

  • Dark or lit fiber to community anchor institutes (CAIs): We have documented hundreds of communities that lease dark fiber to CAIs and also to commercial customers. That list continues to grow.
  • Middle Mile Capacity: Providing infrastructure to private ISPs is more speculative, but encourages economic growth and provides connectivity to businesses and individuals who would not otherwise have it.
  • E-Rate Subsidies: As of September 2010, nonprofit and public networks are eligible for E-rate subsidies for providing broadband to schools and libraries. This potential source can contribute toward network self-sustainability.

The article also stresses one of the factors we find most compelling when considering investment in publicly owned networks - keeping local money in the local economy:

Circuits leased from a large national provider require the delivery of a big monthly check to a potentially far- away corporate entity, but monthly fees paid to a government-owned network stay in the community to be spent on other government services and to be multiplied when network employees go out to eat or spend money at other local businesses.

The concept of planning, financing, and building a municipal network is daunting to many communities; it should be a unique local decision. Few people have experience like Hovis, who does an excellent job of laying out critical considerations.

Making Markets Work - Information Asymmetry

An article about health care in the 2012 November Wired offers a strong reminder of how important smart government policy plays in making markets function well.

In the early 1950s, it was nearly impossible to know the value of an automobile. They had prices, yes, but these would differ radically from dealer to dealer, the customer a pawn in the hands of the seller. This all changed in 1958, when US senator Mike Monroney of Oklahoma shepherded a bill through Congress requiring that official pricing information be glued to the window of every new automobile sold in the US. The “Monroney sticker,” as it came to be known, has been with us ever since. It became an effective means of disclosing the manufacturer’s suggested retail price, or MSRP, and a billboard for other data disclosures to the consumer: the car’s fuel economy, its environmental rating, and so on.

The sticker price was one of the triumphs of consumer-rights legislation and has made buying a car an easier—though never altogether easy—experience. What’s more, window stickers made automobile pricing rational and understandable. A customer who knows the base price going in will expect more value coming out. In economic terms, the sticker turned a failed market flummoxed by information asymmetry into something resembling a functioning, price-driven marketplace.

There are many smart government policies that could radically improve the telecommunications industry, collectively saving billions of dollars for Americans and businesses. Unfortunately, most of these policies have been ignored by Congress and the FCC, which have focused instead on the solutions put forth by the big cable and DSL companies to further their own narrow interests.

NYU School of Law Analyzes, Supports Net Neutrality Policy

Publication Date: 
January 7, 2010
Author(s): 
Inimai Chettiar
Author(s): 
J Scott Holladay

In 2010, the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law released a report titled Free to Invest: The Economic Benefits of Preserving Net Neutrality. The report, authored by Inimai Chettiar and J. Scott Holladay, is a great resource - substantial and very digestible - on what net neutrality really is, how it is (or is not) regulated, and the economic possibilities policy makers must consider when moving ahead.

The Institute looks at the economic relationships between content providers, ISPs, and consumers. In addition to the current economic structure, the report examines possible alternate pricing models that are contrary to our current net neutrality policies. We have extracted just a few excerpts and encourage you to get the full report.

There are five main findings that are examined in depth:

Internet Market Failure: The report explains how ISPs lose potential dollars under today's market structure. There is ample motivation for them to find a way to charge content providers based on delivery, and open up a whole new market far beyond our net neutrality policy.

The FCC’s nondiscrimination rule would prohibit an ISP from treating any content, application, or service in a “discriminatory” manner, subject to reasonable network management. This clearly bans pure price discrimination (charging different content providers different prices to access their subscribers). The regulation also bans ISPs from offering content providers a “take it or leave it” offer on access to their users. For example, an ISP like Verizon could not charge a website of a company like The New York Times a certain price for access to its subscribers by threatening to block the website from its network and therefore from its Internet subscribers.

Smart Policy Can Help: The authors of the report stress how the Internet must be viewed as a two pronged market - infrastructure to deliver the content and the content itself - and how both are equally important. Effective policy must recognize the delicacy of that balance.

The goal of any policy should be to maximize the value of the Internet, which means choosing a policy that addresses both the quality of broadband service and the quality of Internet content. Focusing exclusively on either of the two complementary goods may lead to overinvestment in one at the expense of underinvestment in the other, thereby reducing the total surplus in the market.

...it is far easier for the government to make up the shortfall for infrastructure investment; protecting content providers’ current surplus is the best policy option given the structure of the Internet market and the difficulty of directly subsidizing the creation of content.

Transferring Wealth Through Price Discrimination: If ISPs could discriminate among content providers and extract the full amount that each content provider would be willing to pay, content providers would be forced to share their proceeds with ISPs.

At its heart, net neutrality regulation is about who will get more surplus from the Internet market. Retaining net neutrality would keep more surplus in the hands of the content providers, and eliminating it would transfer some surplus into the hands of the ISPs.

If price discrimination is allowed and our policy of net neutrality is abandoned, ISPs will have more money to invest in infrastructure, but content providers will have less to invest in content. The report notes that investment has been shown to have a direct impact on a nation's economy:

The World Bank estimates that every 10% increase in broadband penetration in a developed country increases economic growth by 1.2%…

So, for example, if eliminating net neutrality were to increase broadband penetration even by 10% (from 50% to 60%), that penetration would increase the value of the U.S. GDP by $289 billion per year.

The report also recognizes that ISPs don't make decisions based on the needs of consumers, but based on their past successes and failures. If net neutrality disappeared tomorrow, the only entities positioned to obtain the revenue to invest and expand are those that already exist. The report very frankly states that ISPs would not be inclined, based on their own investment history, to physically expand the pipes needed to connect more communities and more people. They would be more likely to filter those profits up to shareholders.

A large portion of the wealth transfer from content providers to ISPs would be essentially wasted because it would compensate for decisions that are already locked in, and most of the additional revenue would simply accrue on the basis of assets that the ISPs have already created.

Efficiently Supporting Infrastructure: A simple look back supports the idea that government should build infrastructure. From highways to electric service, the government has a track record of success in physical infrastructure. Conversely, our efforts to subsidize content have been limited. The report gives excellent examples of both and concludes:

Thus, when faced with the choice of how to correct for the externalities in the Internet market, government must take into consideration its whole range of policy options. Given the government’s historic success in subsidizing infrastructure and difficult in subsidizing content, it makes the most sense for government to correct the externalities by instituting net neutrality—a pricing policy that incentivizes market players to invest in content—and then directly subsidizing investments in infrastructure.

Problems With Prioritization: Authors of the report analyze the possible risks of allowing ISPs to divide content into accessibility tiers - speed of delivery based on who pays the most. Like price discrimination, this type of policy could stifle innovation and reduce the quality of the Internet.

For a variety of reasons, prioritization could run the risk of lowering the total surplus from the Internet market...In addition, the pure surplus effects from breaking the Internet into multiple streams is uncertain, the surplus loss for content providers in the slow lane may offset any gains from content providers in the fast lane. Perhaps most importantly, ISPs will face perverse incentives if they can generate revenue from the fast lane but not the slow lane. This misalignment of incentives could create a situation where ISPs can increase their revenue at the expense of the overall surplus from the market.

The conclusion, based on history, reason, and a realistic look at today's telecommunications industry:

By giving players the best incentives for optimal investment, net neutrality encourages a cycle that breeds more content, which in turn breeds more users. A combination of policies that protect content providers and judiciously deploy government resources to augment private investment in physical infrastructure is the right mix to ensure that the Internet continues to grow and flourish, generating massive benefits for the American public.

Television Ad Revenue for Small Networks

When communities are trying to figure out how to pay for networks, they sometimes fail to explore some logical places. A recent article on Telecompetitor gives us an estimate for revenues from inserting ads in cable television programming.

Before the economic downturn, a typical small video service provider could expect between $1.25 and $2.00 a month per subscriber in ad revenues, noted Walter P. Staniszewski, president of Prime Media Productions – a company that sells advertising for small video service provider clients. Since the downturn, the numbers are more like $1.00 to $1.50.

The article focuses on the windfall cable operators are seeing due to all the money being spent by big-money interests in anticipation of the election in November.

However, the smallest networks may not want to commit to ad-insertion until they are reaching thousands of homes, according to the Telecompetitor source:

“If you study the cable industry, even the big guys didn’t have their own sales force until they developed some real scale,” said Staniszewski. He cautioned operators with systems with fewer than 5,000 or 6,000 subscribers against hiring their own sales force.

The Economics of the Google Gigabit

In the excitement around Google's unveiling of the $70 gigabit broadband connection in Kansas City, some may be wondering how it is that Google can offer a gigabit for moderately more than what most of us pay for far slower cable broadband connections.

On one side of the equation is the fact that big cable companies (Time Warner Cable, Comcast, etc.) have long been ripping off consumers by pricing their services far above cost -- something they can easily do because they face so little competition. But the more interesting side of the equation is how Google can make its gigabit price so low.

Recall that Chattanooga made major waves with its gigabit service, priced then at the rock-bottom rate of $350/month. A gigabit is not available in many communities and where it is available, the price is often over $10,000 per month. We published an in-depth case study of their approach a few months ago.

But, as Milo Medin -- the head of the Google Fiber project -- is fond of saying, "No one moves bits cheaper than Google." Google has built an incredible worldwide fiber optic network. Let's call this lessons 1 and 2.

Lesson 1: Google built its own network. It isn't leasing connections or services from big telecommunications companies. Building your own network gives you more control -- both of technology and pricing.

Lesson 2: Google uses fiber-optics. These connections are reliable and have the highest capacity of any communications medium. The homes in Kansas City are connected via fiber whereas Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and others continue to rely on last-generation technologies because they are delaying investment in modern technology to boost their profits.

EPB Installs Fiber Cables in Chattanooga

Others have already followed these lessons but are not able to offer their gig for such a low prices. To understand why, let's start with some basics. I'm hypothetically starting Anytown Fiber Net in my neighborhood and I want to offer a gig. Whenever any of my Anytown subscribers want to transfer files amongst themselves, the operating cost to me approaches zero because (aside from the capital costs of building the network), the cost of transfering those files is basically the electricity it takes to pulse lasers over the fiber and keep the fans on the routers humming.

Lesson 3: Local traffic on the network is essentially free. A local gigabit is no big deal on a fiber network. (Hat tip to Lafayette Utilities System for being the first to offer local 100Mbps traffic for free.)

We start talking about real operating costs when Anytown users want to connect to networks that are not on the Anytown network. When a user wants to watch a video on YouTube or download a patch from Microsoft, I need to interconnect with other networks that can get me there. For a small player like me, that means paying for transit. I pay Level 3 or some other major national network operator so my user can send a request to YouTube over the Level 3 network.

The arrangement between me and Level 3 is interesting. I don't pay per bit that my customers use. Instead, I "commit" to a specific capacity. The higher the capacity, the lower my per bit charge. So if I commit to 500Mbps, I may be paying $7 for each Mbps but if I commit to 2000Mbps, I may pay $5 for each Mbps (these numbers are totally invented, not unlike how actual contracts seem to be made). But the interesting part is how it is measured and its implications.

My committed rate determines my cost but not necessarily what I have access to. Let's say I commit to a 500Mbps connection to Level 3 for $7/Mbps. I have to pay for the amount of Mbps that corresponds to 95% of my peak demand. The cost comes down to how high the peaks are, not how many bits are transferred over the course of the month. So if my peak was 550 Mbps, then I have to pay for (550 * .95) * $7, or $3,657.50

On the other hand, if I allowed the combined usage of my users to hit a far higher peak, say 1,000 Mbps, my cost would be $6,650 and I would be kicking myself for not upping my committed rate. Fortunately, I can control the peak with my routers, allowing me some control (at the cost of alienating my users who will see worse performance individually).

YouTube Logo

Another thing I can do is "peer" with others. For instance, if Anytown Net can get Google to connect directly to us, traffic to Google sites (ahem, YouTube) becomes free (as Google likely wouldn't charge because it wants to encourage everyone to use its services). This is why the Open Connect Netflix announcement is so important.

Allowing users to hit popular sites without increasing the peak bandwidth saves real money. In fact, a sizable community fiber network reported to me that peering with a major source of video traffic dropped their monthly costs by tens of thousands of dollars. This brings us to Lesson 4.

Lesson 4: Scale matters. Big time. Everyone wants to interconnect with large networks and large sources of content. The larger Anytown Net is, the more others will be interested in connecting with me.

Google probably has the most favorable peering agreements with others because they all want cheap access to YouTube and the various other Google services. And Google can peer with others anywhere - they probably have a presence at every major interconnection location (to learn more about those fascinating places, read Tubes by Andrew Blum -- buy it through your local bookstore, not Amazon).

What all of this means is that Google doesn't really have to worry about the cost of its peak because it already has advantageous relationships with the networks hosting the traffic that Google doesn't already have local to it.

Let's go back to Anytown Net. If I offered a gigabit to my users, I would be exposing myself to a major peak in the evenings as most used that connection concurrently. As we now know, the cost to Anytown Net has much less to do with how much is transferred than to a few times when a lot of people happen to all be using a lot of their capacity at the same time.

At present, there are a few other entities that have the kind of scale and relationships that could also do what Google is doing. They have names like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and AT&T. But they have little reason to invest because most of us are locked in to them. My neighborhood has one high speed Internet option - Comcast. We have a cheaper, slower DSL alternative from CenturyLink. This is why communities are increasingly building their own networks and policymakers need to pay attention the Looming Monopoly.

Google Fiber Graphic

These are the economics of Google's gig and an explanation of why it will be so hard to duplicate -- with one proviso. Dane Jasper of the incredible Sonic.net actually beat Google to the $70/gig. And I have no idea how he does it. If U.S. telecommunications policy were not so tilted in favor of the biggest corporations, perhaps we would see more successful local ISPs that subscribers actually liked.

And let's not forget, though Google is offering a clearly superior product, Time Warner Cable is cutting its prices and locking customers into long-term contracts. It remains to be seen if this project will even be profitable for Google, though it is clearly already creating benefits for Kansas City as a whole.

Though Google has a stated intention of demonstrating how this can be done so others can do it also, the lesson may be there very few can duplicate the full gig availability. But they can do what Chattanooga, Lafayette, and many others have done - build some of the best networks in the nation that are still accountable to the community.

To learn more about the economics of networks, I strongly recommend this roundtable discussion:

Photo of fiber deployment courtesy of Chattanooga EPB

How Chattanooga, Bristol, and Lafayette Built the Best Broadband in America

Publication Date: 
April 9, 2012
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

We are thrilled to finally unveil our latest white paper: Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks. This report was a joint effort of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and the Benton Foundation.

We have chronicled how Bristol's BVU Authority, Chattanooga's EPB, and Lafayette's LUS built some of the most impressive broadband networks in the nation. The paper presents three case studies and then draws lessons from their common experiences to offer advice to other communities. Here is the press release:

The fastest networks in the nation are built by local governments, a new report by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and Benton Foundation reveals

Chattanooga, Tennessee, is well known for being the first community with citywide access to a “gig,” or the fastest residential connections to the Internet available nationally. Less known are Bristol, Virginia, and Lafayette, Louisiana – both of which now also offer a gigabit throughout the community.

A new report just released by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) and the Benton Foundation explains how these communities have built some of the best broadband networks in the nation. Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks is available here.

“It may surprise people that these cities in Virginia, Tennessee, and Louisiana have faster and lower cost access to the Internet than anyone in San Francisco, Seattle, or any other major city,” says Christopher Mitchell, Director of ILSR’s Telecommunications as Commons Initiative. “These publicly owned networks have each created hundreds of jobs and saved millions of dollars.”

“Communities need 21st century telecommunications infrastructure to compete in the global economy,” said Charles Benton, Chairman & CEO of the Benton Foundation. “Hopefully, this report will resonate with local government officials across the country.”

Mitchell is a national expert on community broadband networks and was recently named a “Top 25 Doer, Dreamer, and Driver” by Government Technology. He also regularly authors articles at MuniNetworks.org.

The new report offers in-depth case studies of BVU Authority’s OptiNet in Bristol, Virginia; EPB Fiber in Chattanooga, Tennessee; and LUS Fiber in Lafayette, Louisiana. Each network was built and is operated by a public power utility.

Mitchell believes these networks are all the more important given the slow pace of investment from major carriers. According to Mitchell, “As AT&T and Verizon have ended the expansion of U-Verse and FiOS respectively, communities that need better networks for economic development should consider how they can invest in themselves.”

Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks is available here.

About ILSR: Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) proposes a set of new rules that builds community by supporting humanly scaled politics and economics. The Telecommunications as Commons Initiative believes that telecommunications networks are essential infrastructure and should be accountable to residents and local businesses.

About Benton: The Benton Foundation works to ensure that media and telecommunications serve the public interest and enhance our democracy. We pursue this mission by seeking policy solutions that support the values of access, diversity and equity, and by demonstrating the value of media and telecommunications for improving the quality of life for all.

Broadband and Second Order Benefits

In a recent post about AT&T's funding of astroturf groups to promote its agenda, I took aim at the Internet Innovation Alliance, which has long promoted AT&T goals around the country.

Despite this criticism of them, they have produced a very good infographic (included below) that discusses the relationship between broadband and jobs. I would like to draw your attention to number 5 below in particular.

“10

#6 is a great explanation of why communities should directly invest in broadband. Local economic growth and secondary investment enabled by broadband expansion is 10 times the initial investment.

Think about that. While private companies have long built, owned, and operated most of the broadband networks, they have seriously underinvested. They underinvest because they cannot monetize many of the benefits from broadband. Faster, more reliable connections simply do not translate into more revenue for cable and telephone companies. So the big incumbents have largely ceased investing in next-generation networks.

These massive corporations do not care about the growth of secondary investments or other spillover effects from better broadband in communities because it does not change their bottom line -- the one thing they are supposed to prioritize over all other matters.

This is why communities should be investing in themselves. Communities do care about secondary investments and spillover benefits from broadband. In fact, they are specifically tasked with investing to benefit the community!

So when it comes to maximizing the benefits of broadband, community investments tend to make a lot of sense... and other secondary benefits.

Fibrant Buys More Set-Top Boxes

Salisbury's Fibrant network, a muni FTTH network in North Carolina that is approaching its one year anniversary, has decided to celebrate by ordering 5,000 set-top boxes. Because the order was so large and only available from a single vendor due to software issues, City Council had to approve the deal.

The city will order 5,000 additional set-top boxes for Fibrant at the discounted price of $721,572…

Fibrant’s original inventory of 5,000 set-top boxes purchased in March 2010 is running low, Behmer said. The city’s new broadband utility, which sells Internet, cable TV and phone services to Salisbury residents, has about 1,200 customers and averages about three set-top boxes per home, he said.

This is a reminder of the economics of these networks. Each set-top box costs something like $150. Household that subscribes for television service average 3 set-stop boxes, meaning that the cost of those boxes alone is about $450 of loss to Fibrant before the subscriber pays a dime to Fibrant.

This is why muni networks take so long to break even. The additional install costs like the equipment on the side of the house and the labor to set everything up grow quickly -- often to between $1200-$1500 per subscriber. It takes years to pay down those costs, plus the interest of borrowing to build the network.

So when you hear that a community network is running in the red in year 3, you should say, "Duh." Infrastructure often takes a long time to pay off, which is one of the main reasons the private sector does such a poor job of providing it.