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Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 24

On this week’s community broadband media roundup, we have more reverberations from Next Century Cities, a forward-thinking coalition of cities that promises real progress in establishing or restoring local authority for broadband networks. For the inside scoop on the launch, we suggest taking a look at Ann L. Kim’s Friday Q&A with Deb Socia, the executive director of the organization. 

Here’s an excerpt: 

Q: So when you say you work with cities that are either looking to get next generation broadband or already have it, what does that entail?

A: …We are working with elected officials and also employees, like CIOs and city managers and so forth, and the goal is to really help them figure out their pathway. This is pretty hard work and we recognize that there’s always a local context and so we don’t advocate any one way to do this work, but we help cities think about it.

So [are] you gonna work with an incumbent provider, are you gonna build your own, are you gonna work with a private non-profit? How are you gonna make it happen? What are the alternatives for you? And how can we best support you?

Multichannel’s Jeff Baumgartner covered the launch in Santa Monica as well. The bipartisan coalition offers members collaboration opportunities and support for those communities that face incumbent pressure when they announce plans to move forward with publicly-owned broadband programs. According to China Topix’s David Curry, neither Comcast nor Time Warner Cable have made announcements about gig networks, “with Time Warner Cable even go as far as saying "customers don't want 1Gbps Internet speeds", a statement ridiculed on the Web.”  

Rest assured, there will be much more coverage on this organization’s work in the weeks to come. 

San Francisco is catching on to the “Dig Once” strategy, an idea that is known to help build public fiber networks incrementally, and at a huge cost-savings to communities. According to Marisa Lagos with the San Francisco Chronicle, City Supervisor David Chiu is pushing an ordinance that would require public and private agencies that dig up the streets for other work allow the placement of city-owned conduits that can be used for fiber. 

[Chiu] hopes it will allow San Francisco to help bridge the “digital divide” by eventually letting residents and businesses access fast, inexpensive, city-owned broadband service…

“Quality broadband service is no longer a luxury — it’s a necessity for our economy and our education system. You need access to high-speed broadband to compete, just as you needed access to water, roads and electricity in the 20th century,” Chiu said, noting that the United States lags behind smaller countries “when it comes to speed and reliability.”

The Chamber of Commerce, Comcast and AT&T have agreed to stay neutral on the bill, which will most certainly help it move forward.

“There was a time we thought everyone would have free electricity because of nuclear power,” [Chris Mitchell] said. “I think everyone will be paying for high-quality Internet access for the foreseeable future. But the installation of city-owned fiber will allow San Francisco officials to make sure no one is left without high-speed access, if private companies only build out some areas of town, for example.

“This small step will really enable San Francisco to have more freedom in the future to be creative,” Chris Mitchell said. “It won’t be acceptable for some kids to have access to great Internet service and some not to, so this is important to have.”

Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) has saved an estimated $50 million for local businesses due to the smart grid over just the previous 2 years. Now, they’re partnering with Oak Ridge National Laboratory to improve efficiency for renewables like solar and wind. The partnership will allow Oak Ridge to help EPB gather and analyze data to find out where abnormalities and problems might arise. 

"Mid-sized Southern cities in the U.S. are not generally thought of as being ahead of the technological curve," [Mayor] Berke said. "The Gig changed that. We are now ahead of the curve, with other cities looking to us as a leader in the Innovation Century."

Arkansas K-12 educators are asking lawmakers to help them get faster broadband connections. Ryan Saylor with The City Wire explains how the cable and telephone company networks may be cost-prohibitive for public institutions, and why the state’s education board is hoping to tap in to public networks. The Arkansas Education Association’s president, Brenda Robinson says the schools are stuck between being mandated to provide digital learning courses and not having the resources. Current law prohibits schools from using more efficient publicly owned networks.

 “[O]ur state will not be able to fulfill our constitutional obligation of providing an adequate education for our children and the next generation will find themselves on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide.'”

Net Neutrality

“If the Internet is to remain an open, accessible platform for the free flow of ideas, we need strong rules of the road in place to guarantee those protections.”

Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, made a strong statement for Net Neutrality this week when he wrote a letter directly to Comcast Executive VP David Cohen asking him to come out much more strongly in favor of Net Neutrality. Sam Gustin of Motherboard had the story: 

Leahy’s letter could increase the pressure on the Federal Communications Commission, which is evaluating whether the proposed merger advances the public interest, to require Comcast to make a strong net neutrality commitment as part of the deal.

It also demonstrates how closely net neutrality is intertwined with concerns over consolidation in the broadband industry. Comcast and Time Warner Cable are the two largest cable companies in the country, and a union between them would create a broadband colossus with immense market power.

And then, Leahy went further. In The Capital’s Eric Hal Schwartz covered Leahy’s second letter, this time to the leaders of AT&T, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable as well. 

Leahy said he is worried that the FCC's upcoming rule changes to net neutrality will let ISPs arrange deals for websites to pay for faster user access. That's something Leahy said he is committed to stopping and he wants the ISPs to make a legally binding promise that they won't ever engage in that practices, regardless of what the FCC rules.

Which brings up an excellent question, says GovTech’s Brian Heaton. What does the FCC’s authority on Net Neutrality really mean? 

Christopher Libertelli From Netflix Joins CLIC Board

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has announced that Christopher Libertelli of Netflix has joined the Board of Advisors. Libertelli joins a group of policy leaders, including ILSR's Chris Mitchell, to advance the rights of local communities to have authority over their own broadband decisions.

From the CLIC announcement:

Mr. Libertelli has been Vice President of Global Public Policy at Netflix since December 2011. During his time at Netflix, he has been a champion for a variety of internet policy issues including efforts to increase competition among internet providers. Prior to joining Netflix, Mr. Libertelli managed Skype’s government relations programs in the U.S., Canada, and Latin America.

Netflix has been a strong and consistent supporter of local internet choice. 

Netflix has been very helpful in advocating for the right of communities to build their own networks if they so choose. They filed comments [pdf] in the Wilson and Chattanooga petitions and have been listing some of the larger municipal networks in their monthly speed rankings. We are very grateful for their assistance in these important matters.

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

Local Tennessee Communities Rally Behind EPB

As the FCC contemplates the fate of the Chattanooga EPB's ability to expand to surrounding communities, some of those Tennessee communities are publicly announcing their support. The Town of Kimball and Marion County, both part of the Chattanooga metro area, have passed resolutions asking state legislators to reconsider Tennessee's anti-muni law.

The Times Free Press reports that Kimball's Board of Mayor and Alderman unanimously and officially asked their state officials to introduce legislation enabling local authority. They requested action as early as the next legisaltive session.

Marion County passed a similar resolution in August - also unanimously. According to Kimball's City Attorney Bill Gouger:

"It is a situation where there are providers out there who would like to extend fiber-optic cable and high-speed Internet-type systems throughout our county," Gouger said. "The simple fact is, right now, our state laws make that really difficult to do, if not impossible."

County Mayor David Jackson is reaching out to the other municipalities in Marion County to increase support. From the article:

High-speed Internet access is "very important" for the entire county, said Jackson.

"It would, hopefully, give us another edge in getting new industry and other businesses to our county," he said. "It [quality Internet access] is very vital. We've got some industries now that are really struggling because they have limited Internet access."

Gouger said commercial and industrial developments are making high-speed Internet access a "requirement" for setting up shop in rural areas like Marion now.

"If we can't get those types of things throughout our county, it's going to disqualify us from some future growth," he said. "That's the whole purpose of this resolution."

ILSR Submits Comments to FCC in Support of Restoring Local Authority

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance recently submitted comments on FCC petitions filed by Wilson, North Carolina and Chattanooga, Tennessee. We have been following the proceedings that may prove to be the tipping point in the movement to regain local telecommunications authority.

Our organization collaborated with eight other groups and two D.C. Council Members to provide detailed comments for the Commission's consideration. Our group supplied examples of the benefits munis bring to local communities. In addition to providing connectivity where the incumbents fail to meet demand, our comments point out that municipal networks encourage private investment. We provide concrete evidence of both.

With our partners, we also addressed the fact that state restrictions like the ones in North Carolina and Tennessee are not needed. Local communities must go through a rigorous, transparent process everywhere before investing. State legislative barriers are the product of intense lobbying from the cable and telecommunications giants.

As we point out to the Commission, municipal networks are an important tool to bring ubiquitous Internet access to the U.S.:

The FCC is tasked with ensuring high speed access is expanded to all Americans on a reasonable basis and to remove barriers to broadband deployment. Local governments have proved to be an important tool in expanding access to high speed Internet access. Both Chattanooga and Wilson have neighbors that publicly want the local municipal network to expand access to them. Both Chattanooga and Wilson are prepared to invest in connecting their neighbors. Restoring authority to local governments, so they may decide for themselves if a municipal investment or partnership is an appropriate way to expand high speed Internet access, will result in a more rapid deployment of high speed Internet access.

We also filed comments alone to provide the FCC a small sample of the support people and organizations have shared with us. Even before the comment period, we heard from local governments and organizations that passed resolutions in favor of local authority, members of the business community that support local authority, and media outlets that endorse local decision making.

From our closing comments:

ILSR stands with local businesses, residents, media outlets, and many others in encouraging the FCC to grant this petition, restoring the capacity of local governments to invest in next generation Internet access or partner to the same effect, if they so choose. We have worked with communities across the nation and recognize that this is not a partisan issue at the local level. It is about jobs, education, and quality of life. Restoring the right of communities to invest in fiber networks will result in faster deployment of fast, affordable, and reliable Internet networks.

The Guardian Visits Chattanooga

The Guardian recently ran an article covering Chattanooga EPB's fiber network. The article tells the story of the birth of the network, the challenges the community faced to get its gigabit service, and how the network has sculpted the community.

Reporter Dominic Rushe, mentioned how the city has faced legal opposition from incumbents that sued to stop the network. They continue to hound the EPB today, most recently by trying to stop the city's FCC petition to expand its services. But even in a fiercely competitive environment, EPB has succeeded. From the article:

The competitive disadvantage they face is clear. EPB now has about 60,000 residential and 4,500 business customers out of a potential 160,000 homes and businesses. Comcast hasn’t upgraded its network but it has gone on the offensive, offering cutthroat introductory offers and gift cards for people who switch back. “They have been worthy competitors,” said [Danna] Bailey,[vice president of EPB]. “They’ve been very aggressive.”

Rushe spoke with Chris:

"In DC there is often an attitude that the only way to solve our problems is to hand them over to big business. Chattanooga is a reminder that the best solutions are often local and work out better than handing over control to Comcast or AT&T to do whatever they want with us,” said Chris Mitchell, director of community broadband networks at advocacy group the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

A key difference between a Comcast or an AT&T and EPB goes beyond the numbers. Rushe described the artistic renaissance happening in Chattanooga with the help of top notch service from EPB:

The city is making sure schools have access to devices for its children to get online. Fancy Rhino, a marketing and film production firm backed by Lamp Post, has been working with The Howard School, an inner-city school, to include them in the city’s renaissance.

...

Bailey said EPB could afford to be more community minded because of its structure. “We don’t have to worry about stockholders, our customers are our stockholders. We don’t have to worry about big salaries, about dividends. We get to wake up everyday and think about what, within business reason, is good for this community,” she said.

“The private sector doesn’t have that same motivation. It’s perfectly fair, they are motivated by profits and stockholders. they have a lot of capital already invested in existing infrastructure. It would be costly to overbuild themselves.”

The local business environment is, naturally, shifting toward a high tech center. Rushe checked in with one of the many incubators, Lamp Post, in the once abandoned downtown district:

“We’re not Silicon Valley. No one will ever replicate that,” says Allan Davis, one of Lamp Post’s partners. “But we don’t need to be and not everyone wants that. The expense, the hassle. You don’t need to be there to create great technology. You can do it here.”

Mayor Andy Berke addressed the community's drive to offer gig service:

Berke said they had no choice. “The Gig wasn’t coming here anytime soon without us doing it,” he said. “It was going to go a lot of places before it came to Chattanooga. For us, like a lot of cities, you either decide to do it yourself or you wait in line. We chose to do it ourselves.”

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 29, 2014

"When private industry does not answer the call because of market failures or other obstacles, it is appropriate and even commendable, for the people acting through their local governments to improve their lives by investing in their own future."

~ John McCain, 2005

Wait. What? Brendan Sasso from The National Journal brought up some excellent points this week-- some things we’ve been pondering for a good long while.

Why would so many republican lawmakers who claim to value self-determination and self-rule deny citizens the right to take on Big Telecom? Why would Republicans who rally for smaller government and healthy competition turn around and argue that the State should step in and bar citizens from having their basic broadband needs met?

That quote from Sen. John McCain was spoken when McCain and a bipartisan group of senators (Republicans John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Norm Coleman and Democrats Frank Lautenberg, John Kerry, and Russ Feingold) introduced a bill to block states from restricting local governments' ability to provide publicly run and funded Internet service. It can be explained pretty simply, According to Sasso: 

“President Obama has taken a position on the issue this time around. That’s why 11 Republican senators are “deeply troubled” that the FCC would "force taxpayer funded competition against private broadband providers."

Municipal Broadband got a shot in the arm this week from the Center for Public Integrity as well. Allan Holmes wrote extensively about how Big Telecom spends millions of dollars in litigation, advertising and lobbying “instead of investing in improving infrastructure in these communities.” 

“On a scale of 1 to 10 on who is the most powerful lobbying presence in Tennessee, AT&T is a 12,” said a long-time lobbyist in Nashville who asked not to be identified so he could speak candidly about lobbying in the state. “They are the big horse in the race, and they are unstoppable.”

AT&T and its president of Tennessee operations Joelle Phillips didn’t respond to CPI emails asking for comment, but Alex Wilhelm of TechCrunch definitely added his own thoughts. He outlines some of his concerns:  

“Increasing competition is good. Helping bring more American citizens onto the Internet at high speeds is good. And it is especially good to bring quick digital access to the world’s information to rural areas that are not currently served by private enterprise. As such, there is a place for municipal broadband in America.

More broadly, if citizens want to come together and build a service for themselves using monies that they elect to raise, they should be able to. I struggle to understand how that idea is controversial.”

The initial comments period for the Time Warner merger plan came to an end Friday. Before it closed, ILSR and 64 other reform groups made their voices heard. Value Walk staff reprinted our comments, the basis of the argument is this:

“The merger would give Comcast too much control over the future of the Internet and communications infrastructure and undermine the diversity of ownership and content in media.” 

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves…

Center for Public Integrity Covers Big Telecom Attacks on Munis

The Center for Public Integrity recently published an excellent article worth sharing. In "How big telecom smothers city-run broadband," Allan Holmes describes the money-for-infleunce machine at the state level, connects the dollars, and reveals bedfellows. The article is part of a series investigating the political power of big cable and telecom companies.

If you are a regular at MuniNetworks.org or any other news source covering telecommunications, you are familiar with the renewed push to restore local telecommunications authority that began in January of this year. Holmes provides a little background on the court case that inspired FCC Chairman Wheeler to publicly state that the agency is serious about restoring local authority.

Since those developments, an increasing number of journalists have reported on how we came to have barriers to municipal networks in some 20 states. The revived interest has further revealed that state legislatures are big benefactors of campaign contributions from cable and telecom leaders. "Think tanks" aimed at protecting industry giants and conservative millionaires prove to be at the heart of this payola. Holmes does an excellent job of simplifying the web of political influen$e that dooms millions of people to dial-up, outdated DSL, and aging cable infrastructure.

Holmes follows the story of Janice Bowling, a state senator from Tennessee representing the district that is home to LightTUBe in Tullahoma. When she introduced a bill to allow LightTUBe to expand to serve surrounding communities, she did so because:

…I believe in capitalism and the free market. But when they won’t come in, then Tennesseans have an obligation to do it themselves.

When it appeared the bill might get some traction:

That’s when Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T’s Tennessee operations, leaned toward her across the table in a conference room next to the House caucus leader’s office and said tersely, “Well, I’d hate for this to end up in litigation,” Bowling recalls.

Holmes delves into the Herculean efforts by incumbents to quash municipal network projects in other communities, such as Lafayette, Louisiana. Millions of dollars have been spent on lobbying and lawsuits instead of upgrades to improve services or connect more potential customers.

For the next three years, Lafayette spent $4 million responding to three lawsuits and subsequent appeals from BellSouth, which AT&T bought in 2006, and Cox.

The article addresses the fact that better connectivity leads to better economic development. This is only one of many stories from Tullahoma:

Agisent Technologies Inc., which provides online records management for police departments and city jails, moved to Tullahoma in 2011 because it needed a fast reliable broadband network that had a backup if the connection failed, said David Lufty, the company’s president.

Charter and AT&T couldn’t offer redundancy, but LightTUBe could.

“Since we’ve been here, we haven’t had more than five minutes of downtime in almost three years,” Lufty said.

Holmes compares Tullahoma, where job growth outpaces the state average, to Fayetteville, North Carolina. Fayetteville, struggles to beat down unemployment. All the while existing fiber resources that could be used for local business and residents sits untapped due to a 2011 state law. When a Fayetteville Senator tried to exempt his community through legislative process, he was personally attacked in the Chambers. Fayetteville did not get its exemption.

For Steven Blanchard, chief executive of Fayetteville’s Public Works Commission, prohibiting Fayetteville residents from using the fiber network that’s already there doesn’t make sense.

“Why shouldn’t we be allowed to sell fiber if it runs by everyone’s house?” Blanchard said. “They are already paying for the fiber to be there, so why not allow them use it for telephone and Internet and capture back a lot of the cost they put in to have it there?”

The article offers some powerful graphics comparing services, state laws, and political influence dollars.

A must read! Don't miss it!

Huntsville Considers a Network Investment, as Its Businesses Consider Chattanooga

We reported back in June on Huntsville, Alabama's decision to undertake feasibility study to evaluate its options for increasing next generation fiber optic internet access throughout the city. AL.com is now reporting that Huntsville Utilities hopes to hear the results of the study within 90 days, allowing it to decide whether it will take steps to expand its minimal existing fiber infrastructure and offer connections to businesses and the public. 

The sense of urgency in Huntsville is not surprising, given that it sits just South of the Tennessee border and a less than 100 miles from Chattanooga, the Gig City. News coverage in Huntsville on the possibilities of a future municipal fiber network make constant reference to Chattanooga's example, including this list of valuable lessons Huntsville can learn from its neighbor.

The scenario Huntsville fears is laid out in another AL.com article, featuring the story of Matt Barron, a young tech entrepruener who moved his startup from Huntsville to Chattanooga this summer. Barron describes the attraction of a city with a commitment to next generation infrastructure, above and beyond the advantages of speed:

 "I want to live in the sort of city that puts a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "It might have nothing to do with the bandwidth. It has everything to do with the community and the people, the people that stand behind what is basically a human right, right now."

Barron sees the Internet as fundamental. People "can't even apply for a job without bandwidth," he said, and "you have the right to free speech, but speech happens largely on the Internet these days. So, it's a human right."

Chattanooga is forward-thinking enough "to even think about putting a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "Those are the people I want to be around."

It should be noted that Barron gave those quotes at the annual GIGTank event in Chattanooga, a conference designed to help startups and web-based firms, while surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and investors eager to capitalize on Chattanooga's network.

Huntsville itself has a history of being a tech- and innovation-friendly environment, having served as the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center since 1960. Marshall is a rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research facility, and played a crucial role in the Saturn, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. With a community full of rocket scientists, doing the math on a municipal network for Huntsville shouldn't be too hard.  

Understanding the Wilson and Chattanooga FCC Petitions - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 110

Given the exciting development of the FCC opening comment on petitions from Wilson, NC and Chattanooga, TN to restore local authority to their states, Lisa and I decided to take over this week's podcast of Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about the petitions, some background, and interview Will Aycock from Wilson's Greenlight Gigabit Network and Danna Bailey from Chattanooga's EPB Fiber network.

We finish with some instructions on how you can comment on the record. The Coalition for Local Internet Choice also has commenting instructions and some sample comments.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 110, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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 22 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."