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Debate on Municipal Networks by Federalist Society Now Available

Our own Christopher Mitchell recently participated in a debate hosted by the Federalist Society. You can now listen to the debate at the Federalist Society website. We think it offers an intelligent airing of different points of view.

Chris, who is also Policy Director at Next Century Cities, disscussed the role of municipal networks in improving competition, reveiwed reguatory issues, and debated the anticipated legal outcome of February's FCC decision on local authority in Tennessee and North Carolina. He squared off against Charles M. Davidson, Director of the Advanced Communications Law and Policy Institute at New York Law School, and Randolph J. May, President of the Free State Foundation. Both organizations have spoken out against community broadband networks.

Rachel M. Bender, Senior Policy Director of Mobile Future, moderated.

Want a Gig? Ask Consultants the Right Questions

For years, we have been frustrated at the tendency of communities and consultants to view municipal fiber networks as a binary decision. Should we or shouldn't we? Should they or shouldn't they? At its worst, it is framed with the most expensive approach - borrowing for a citywide all-at-once approach.

Consider this framing by a recent story in a Portland, Oregon suburb from the Oregonian:

Hillsboro officials have heard back from the consultant they hired to examine the feasibility of building a municipal fiber network that would bring high-speed, lower-cost Internet service to city residents.

The answer? Don't do it.

Stories like this make my blood boil. It is the absolute wrong question. But to delve into it, I want to abstract away from any specific consultants or approaches. This is not a failing of a single consultant, but something we have seen to various degrees from many.

Jumping ahead, the correct approach is to develop a description of the problems a community faces or wants to solve relating to Internet access. Then, examine a variety of approaches to pick the best option rather than only evaluating the single most expensive option.

Some consultants are very happy to bid a project, answer a narrow question, and then let the community go on its perhaps puzzled way. They have the list of phone poll questions, the spreadsheet full of assumptions, and final feasibility report template all ready for the next community. (We do not offer consulting services.)

Other consultants go out of their way to educate, guide, and otherwise help the community develop and achieve its objectives. These consultants may appear to cost a bit more, but actually can be much more cost effective. Some consultants bid the bare minimum, planning to charge extra later for supposedly supplemental information that is actually essential for continuing the process.

A consultant should be a guide to achieving objectives rather than simply evaluating a single, likely over-simplified question. It all starts with what questions a community asks. After doing some initial research (possibly perusing our Community Connectivity Toolkit), community leaders may be tempted to ask a consultant whether they should build a citywide municipal fiber network.

This is not recommended. Instead, we recommend developing a vision (discussed in our Santa Monica City Net case study).

What is the primary problem that needs to be solved? Hint: It isn't "how do we get a gig??" Be more specific. Common problems include poor business service availability that discourages economic development opportunities, slow connectivity, high prices (for residents or businesses or both), poor reliability, lack of access for historically marginalized populations etc.

Identifying specific problems is important because the preferred solutions for encouraging economic development will be different from those focusing on connecting low-income neighborhoods.

Having established the problems, the vision needs a sense of the opportunities from policy options. Here it is important to remember that the same technology deployed by different entities will create different opportunities. If Chattanooga had decided to beg Verizon for FiOS rather than building their own network, they wouldn't have created thousands of jobs and wouldn't have one of the best networks in the nation today. But both FiOS and Chattanooga's fiber network are technically similar. A FTTH network owned by a massive telco can have dramatically different outcomes than a FTTH network owned by a community. The tradeoff is the responsibility of running the system, likely over decades.

After establishing the problems and opportunities, the consultant should be charged with recommending paths to achieve the vision. "No" is not acceptable answer. An acceptable answer is an analysis that explains how the community can trade off cost, time, risks, and benefits. That is to say a community may decide to take greater risks in anticipation of greater benefits by borrowing significantly to rapidly build a citywide network. Or a community may decide to minimize risk with incremental investments over many years to expand conduit and fiber in the first phases of a long term plan. There are many permutations.

In the year 2015, municipal fiber is not a yes/no question. The models are many and varied - the best question is what does the community need and how motivated it is to take meaningful action.

Had Hillsboro taken this path, they would have a variety of options to discuss to solve the problems with connectivity that were demonstrated by the study. But instead, they have a document that only examined high risk, high cost approaches and found the recommended project to be "marginally viable."

If I were an elected official there, I would be examining what low cost incremental strategies could improve access to the Internet locally.

As a final thought, this is not just a problem with consultants. There are definitely elected officials who are privately happy to hear that a project is not feasible because it gives them cover to take no action. If they were already hesitant to upset power cable and telephone companies, they then have a document that "proves" the costs are too great to take any action.

Longmont Gig Finds Many Takers - Community Broadband Bits Episode 161

The community reaction to Longmont's NextLight gigabit municipal fiber network in Colorado has been dramatic. They are seeing major take rates in the initial neighborhoods, driven in part by the opportunity for a $50/month gigabit connection if you take service within three months of it becoming available in the neighborhood.

This week, Longmont Power & Communications General Manager Tom Roiniotis joins us to tell us more about their approach and how the community has responded, including a block party celebrating freedom from a well-known monopoly.

We discuss how they have connect the schools, the history of the network, and how incumbent providers are reacting. Along the way, I make a case for why what Longmont is doing is substantially different from the upgrades that CenturyLink and Comcast are making in some areas. See our other stories about Longmont here.

Read the transcript from this discussion here.

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

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Gilberts Voters Say No to Tax Increase for Muni

On April 7th, voters in Glberts, Illinois, chose not to raise taxes to deploy a municipal fiber network, reports the Daily Herald. According to the article, 81 percent of ballots cast voted against the proposal. Voter turnout was low, with only 682 ballots cast out of 4,002 registered voters in town.

As we reported last month, local developer Troy Mertz plans to deploy fiber to each structure in a new housing development, The Conservancy. His fiber company will also install fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. The plan was to issue General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance a publicly owned network throughout the rest of the community. The proposal would have raised taxes approximately 1.8 percent or $150 per year on properties with a market value of $250,000.

For the developer the plan will remain the same:

Mertz still plans to go ahead and connect The Conservancy's planned fiber optic network to municipal and public safety buildings plus Gilberts Elementary School, saying it was built into his development plans.

"The goal of village was always to getting fiber to our industrial areas," said Gilberts Village President Rick Zirk. "As a community, we asked the rest of the village, 'Do you want the same service and the same options that the new part of town and the industrial park?' And it seems that they don't want to pay for it."

There is a definite lesson here for any other communities considering a similar plan - educate the voters and make sure they are excited about it! From what we can tell, there was little effort to make people aware of the plan and the turnout for the vote suggests that no one was particularly excited to make it happen.

Small Illinois Town Will Vote On Fiber Investment in April

The Village of Gilberts, Illinois, will ask voters in April to authorize up to $5 million in General Obligation bonds to deploy a FTTH network reports the Daily Herald. GO bonds are rarely used for network deployment but often used for public works projects and other publicly owned assets. Due to the funding mechanism in Gilberts, the network would be publicly owned.

"It's something that is not readily available in other communities," Village Administrator Ray Keller said. "It would set us apart and put us on a path to better meet the needs of our residents and businesses as their demands and needs for technology grows."

The community, home to 6,800 people, has experienced rapid population growth since 2000. At that time only 1,200 people lived in this northeast Kane County village.

According to the article and January Board of Trustee minutes [PDF online], the bond issue would increase property taxes 1.8 percent on most tax bills. Properties with a market value of $250,000, which is most common in Gilberts, would pay an additional $150 per year or $12.50 per month to fund the infrastructure deployment. There are approximately 2,400 taxable properties in Gilbert today but as more properties are built, each property owner's share would decrease. 

This is the second time the village has planned for a fiber network to improve connectivity throughout the community. In 2013, Gilberts entered into an agreement with i3, a British company that eventually folded, to deploy fiber using sewers as conduit. In that plan, i3 would have owned the fiber network.

Developer Troy Mertz is spearheading the project. His company is investing in a new housing development that will eventually include an additional 985 new homes. As part of that development and independent of the municipal fiber project, Mertz is installing fiber to each structure at his own expense. His company, iFiber Networks will also run fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. According to the Daily Herald, iFiber is not charging the city for bringing fiber to its facilities or the school.

Mertz said it's hard to quantify how much additional money he's spending on granting access to village buildings and the elementary school, but it's something he's doing because it will benefit everyone, he said.

"It's a mutual success type of thing," he said. "I hope that by bringing these services into the village, it benefits not just my community but the community as a whole."

The housing development, called The Conservancy, was originally conceived prior to 2007 but the original developer filed for bankruptcy before the project could get off the ground. There is already some street infrastructure in place and the proximity to the elementary school makes the location attractive, says Mertz. Adding fiber to the new homes will make them more attractive and, according to a 2014 FTTH Council study, increases the value of propoerties up to $5,000.

In order to reduce the cost of the deployment, the Gilberts network will piggyback the iFiber network along the iFiber route.

Using GO Bonds will keep the interest rate down because the community pledges its full faith and credit to pay back the investors, resulting in very little risk. A benefit of tying the bonds to property taxes is that the investment increases the property value. Thus, if a homeowner moves out of town, the cost of paying back the bonds stick with the property that was improved with the network, not the homeowner him or herself. 

On the other hand, incumbent cable companies will often argue that this allows local governments to borrow at lower cost than the private sector providers can. Whether or not this is even true is hard to say give the incredible cash flow of these de facto monopolies that raise prices on an annual basis. Additionally, the benefits of having built the original cable networks as part of a government sanctioned monopoly are hard to quantify, so there is little reason to suggest that using GO bonds is actually unfair when compared to the many advantages of entrenched incumbent providers.

The referendum is set for April 7th.

Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed - Local governments should make broadband choices

The Orlando Sentinel published this op-ed about local government action for broadband networks on March 11, 2015. 

Local governments should make broadband choices
By Christopher Mitchell

Community broadband must be a local choice, a guest columnist writes.

When Comcast announced plans last year to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in Florida and California, its customers may have wondered why the cable giant wasn't using those funds to deliver a faster or more reliable Internet connection. While Comcast's Universal Studios faces competition from Walt Disney World, most people don't have a real choice in high-speed Internet access.

The Federal Communications Commission has just boosted the broadband definition from 4 megabits per second to 25 mbps. At that speed, some 75 percent of Americans have no choice in providers — they are stuck with one or none.

The rest of America is living in the future, often because their local government rolled up its sleeves and got involved. In some of these communities, the local government built its own network and others worked with a trusted partner. Chattanooga's city-owned electric utility built the nation's first citywide gigabit network, which is about 100 times faster than the average connection today.

Google is famously working with some bigger cities, whereas local provider GWI in Maine has partnered with several local governments to expand gigabit access.

However, the big cable and telephone companies have almost always refused to work with local governments. Instead, they've lobbied states to restrict the right of local governments to build or partner in this essential infrastructure.

In Florida, the law puts restrictions on local governments that do not apply to the private sector, such as a strict profitability timetable that can be unrealistic for large capital investments regardless of being privately or publicly owned. Some 20 states have such barriers that limit competition by effectively taking the decision away from communities.

In January, President Obama spoke out in favor of local governments being able to make these investments and partnerships without state interference. He was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has one of the oldest municipal broadband networks in the country, but it's the first city in the state with citywide gigabit access. A local business owner, whose business had been able to thrive in its hometown due to the public network and its world-class access, introduced the president.

Both Obama and the FCC are taking actions to remove barriers to local authority, but they are seeing strong opposition from some Republicans in Washington, D.C.

National Republicans may be less likely to support an effort that Obama has now championed. But they can't just oppose the president; they will have to oppose their own base, which tends to believe decisions should be made locally. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed all citywide municipal networks, over 150 communities, and found more than 70 percent reliably vote Republican.

It may be surprising, but at the local level, there tends to be little partisan divide over whether local governments should get involved in a service so dominated by big monopolies. In the city council, it is a practical matter: Do local businesses have the connections they need to be competitive? If not, how can we make sure they do?

A bipartisan group of mayors has already come together to form Next Century Cities, a collaborative nonpartisan organization that includes a diverse group of cities. Some own and operate their own networks, as in Opelika, Ala. Some are working with partners, as Kansas City does. Some, as in Ammon, Idaho, can be hard to find on a map. And then there are cities like Los Angeles that recognize they need something better also.

Fortunately, Florida's law has slowed but not stopped smart local approaches. Martin County built a fiber network that has saved millions of dollars in connections for public facilities and is used by health-care facilities. The city of Palm Coast's FiberNET has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community, while dramatically improving connections for the Flagler County School District and other entities.

Building a modern fiber-optic network is no theme-park ride, but hundreds of local governments have already demonstrated it is well within their capacity. And given that they have to live with the consequences of action or inaction, shouldn't it be their decision?

Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.

Bill to Establish Broadband Grant Program in Montana State Legislature

In Missoula and Bozeman, momentum is building for improved connectivity by way of community network infrastructure. As usual, funding a municipal network is always one of the main challenges, but the state appears uninterested in helping them. State Representative Kelly McCarthy recently dropped HB 14 into the hopper, a bill to create a broadband development fund primarily for private companies.

The bill authorizes $15 million in general obligation bonds for broadband infrastructure projects for middle-mile and last-mile connectivity in rural areas. Unfortunately, projects built and maintained by private entities have priority per the language of section 3(2)(b).

The state legislature would be wise to follow Minnesota's lead and establish a program that is available to all as in the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant Program. Private entities are eligible to apply along with public entities and nonprofits, but do not receive special consideration.

If anything, the long history of success from cooperatives and local government approaches in infrastructure is favorable to the history of consolidation and poor services that big monopolies have offered in rural areas.

It never ceases to amaze us that people designing programs to use taxpayer money in expanding essential infrastructurel would earmark it only to subsidize entities that are the least accountable to the communities they are supposed to serve. Ultimately you have to wonder whether these programs are designed to benefit local communities or just the companies that can best afford lobbyists.

Ting Delivering FTTH Is Great News for Community Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Episode 134

In recent weeks, we have been excited to see announcements from Ting, a company long known for being a great wireless provider (both Lisa and I are customers), that is now getting into FTTH deployments. The first announcement was from Charlottesville where it acquired another company. Last week they announced a partnership with Westminster, Maryland.

This week we interview Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, which is the parent of Ting. Elliot has long been active in preserving and expanding the open Internet.

We discuss many issues from Ting's success in wireless to cities dealing with permitting and access in rights-of-way to Ting's willingness and enthusiasm to operate on municipal fiber open access networks. We finish with some musings on upcoming over the top video technologies like SlingTV from Dish.

Both Elliot and I are presenting at the upcoming Freedom to Connect event in New York City on March 2 and 3rd.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 27 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Public or Private Ownership? Community Broadband Bits Episode 132

Ever since the last time I spoke with Blair Levin on Episode 37, I have wanted to have him back for a friendly discussion about public or private ownership of next generation networks.

Though Blair and I entirely agree that local governments should be free to decide locally whether a community broadband network investment is a wise choice, he tends to see more promise in partnerships or other private approaches whereas we at ILSR tend to be concerned about the long term implications of private ownership of essential infrastructure.

In what may be the longest interview we have done, Blair and I discuss where we agree and how we differ. We weren't looking to prove the other wrong so much as illustrate our different points of view so listeners can evaluate our sides. Ultimately, we both believe in a United States where communities can choose between both models -- and some may even seek solutions that incorporate both.

Blair Levin was the FCC Chief of Staff when Reed Hundt was Chair and was instrumental in forming Gig.U. In between, he did a lot of things, including being Executive Director for the FCC's National Broadband Plan. He is currently with the Metropolitan Project at Brookings.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 37 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 Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

Crawfordsville Municipal Network Purchased by Metronet in Indiana

Our Community Broadband Map documents over 400 communities where publicly owned infrastructure serves residents, business, or government facilities. We rarely hear of publicly owned systems sold to private providers, but it does happen once in a blue moon.

Accelplus, the fiber optic FTTH network deployed by Crawfordsville Electric Light & Power (CEL&P) in Indiana was sold earlier this year to private provider Metronet.

According to a July Journal Review article, the transition for customers began this summer with completion expected by the end of 2014. Metronet invested approximately $2 million in upgrades. Metronet will also offer voice services via the network; Accelplus offered only Internet and video.

In the past, we have found that networks that offer triple-play can attract more customers, increasing revenues. In states where munis cannot offer triple-play or administrative requirements are so onerous they discourage it, municipalities that would like to deploy fiber networks sometimes decide to abandon their vision due to the added risk. 

A November 2013 Journal Review article reported that the network, launched in 2005, faced an expensive lawsuit commenced by US Bank. Apparently the network could not keep up with the repayment schedule for Certificates of Participation, backed by network revenue, that financed the investment.

Metronet purchased Accelplus and its assets for $5.2 million. The City also provided some economic development incentives. When all is said and done, investors are settling for a total of $5.6 million and the City avoids a $19.6 million lawsuit.

A February Journal Review article reported:

Metronet will receive a 10-year, $24,000 per year lease from CEL&P on property currently used by Accelplus. Metronet can purchase that property for $1 after the lease expires. Accelplus manager John Douglas has segregated those areas and provided AutoCAD drawings to Metronet.

Furthermore, CEL&P will lease 72 strands of fiber to Metronet at the rate of $24,000 per year for 10 years as part of an indefeasible right to use agreement.

A 99-year lease agreement will also allow Metronet to have equipment on CEL&P utility poles. Metronet will monitor and maintain CEL&P equipment as part of the agreement.

Metronet, established in 2005, serves 14 communities in Indiana. They will acquire approximately 2,600 customers in Crawfordsville. When the transaction was approved by the City Council in November 2013, the Journal Review quoted Metronet leadsership:

“We think Crawfordsville is a great fit for us,” Metronet representative Steve Biggerstaff said. “This is a great day of celebration for us, as well. We commend you on your vision and we look forward to continuing providing a top-notch fiber network.”

Local Accelplus customer Roger Thacker, expressed dismay in his letter to the Journal Review. It seems his experience with a local, accountable, responsive publicly owned network raised the bar. Based on all the reports we have seen (and our own experience with Comcast), we emathize with Roger:

I like Accelplus over Comcast. When there is a problem I can call the local office and the problem is fixed that day, and you get a live person on the other end. Unlike Comcast you call a toll-free number and your call goes to another state or to Canada. Then it takes them a week to fix their Internet or cable. With Accelplus you call a local number and they are there. In my opinion Accelplus is successful. It is sad to see them sell out to an outsider. I just hope we get the same service as we did with Accelplus.