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April 21st Webinar: "Municipal Broadband: Competition, Opportunity, or Both?"

A diverse panel of telecom industry experts will gather on April 21st for a webinar to discuss the emerging partnership role of private Internet Service Providers (ISPs) within the growing municipal broadband movement.

Featured speakers at the webinar, hosted by the leading telecom industry blog Telecompetitor, will include:

  • Doug Dawson, President - CCG Consultants: Doug Dawson has nearly 40 years of experience providing support for the planning, fund-raising, technical and operational aspects of creating broadband networks. Dawson is also the author of POTs and PANs, a daily blog covering current issues in the telecom industry.
  • Mark Mrla, Business Unit Manager -  Finley Engineering: Mark Mrla is involved in the design, budgeting, scheduling, and implementation processes for power, telecommunications and technology projects for clients of Finley Engineering. 
  • Dan Olsen, Project Manager - Finley Engineering: Former General Manager for Minnesota's WindomNet, Dan has firsthand experience making a fiber network a reality. When the webinar is over, check out Episode #64 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast and listen to Chris interview him about WindomNet.

The hour-long webinar, sponsored by Finley Engineering, will air live on Thursday, April 21st from 2:00 - 3:00 pm Central Standard Time (CST). You can register to participate in the webinar on the Telecompetitor Website. Even if you cannot attend the webinar live, the organizers encourage you to register for the webinar because your registration instructions will include information about accessing Telecompetitor’s on-demand archives.

Once you register, you will receive instructions via email on how to join the discussion. The live discussion begins here on April 21st.

Knowledge Is Power

These discussions are essential for communities to learn the pros and cons of partnerships with ISPs. A growing number of local communities are watching as places like Westminster, Maryland, and Huntsville, Georgia, take smart approaches with potential partners. On the other hand, public private partnerships are fraught with risk. We encourage every community to carefully examine the facts, look at the options, and proceed with caution.

A New Cooperative Model for Fiber to the Farm - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 198

When we launched this podcast in 2012, we kicked it off with an interview from Minnesota's farm country, Sibley County. We were excited at their passion for making sure every farm was connected with high quality Internet access.

After the project took a turn and became a brand new cooperative, we interviewed them again in 2014 for episode 99, but they hadn't finished financing. They broke ground 2015 and today we discuss the model and the new Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) case study that details how they built it.

City of Winthrop Economic Development Authority Director Mark Erickson and Renville-area farmer Jake Rieke are both on the board of RS Fiber Cooperative and they join us to explain how their model works.

We at ILSR believe this model could work in much of rural America, in any community that can summon a fraction of the passion of the citizens from Sibley and Renville counties. Having watched this project for all the years it was being developed, I cannot express how impressed I am with their dedication. And because they own it, I'm thrilled to know that no one can take it away from them.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Legal Eagles: Ammon FTTH Can Fly As Planned

Ammon now has judicial confirmation to move ahead on their Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) project.

As we reported earlier this year, Ammon's Fiber Optic Department, led by IT Director Bruce Patterson, is on the verge of commencing the next phase of its incremental network deployment. Bruce explained to Chris in Episode #173 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, how the city will create a utility and residents who choose to participate will pay to have the network connected to their homes. The first area where FTTH will be deployed includes approximately 300 properties.

Innovative Participation Model

As Bruce put it:

"…[I]t seems logical that since fiber to your home raises your property value that we'd find some way to bond for that and put the payment for that bond as on assessment on your property tax because it does actually increase your property value so that's our goal. We do that with what they call a local improvement district."

Ammon intends to issue bonds that will then be paid with funds from assessments levied on the properties of those who wish to connect to the network. If a property owner wants to connect to the network, they will also become a "Utility Member" and will pay a monthly fee to use the service. Ammon's FTTH network will be open access; the city will not provide retail services but will maintain and operate the infrastructure. Residents will subscribe to the services offered by ISPs that operate over the network.

Ammon also intends to offer a low-cost option that will allow Utility Members to access basic functions, such as checking email, messaging, and file transfers without the need to subscribe to an ISP. Their plan will allow people in the community who cannot afford more advanced services to still have access to basic Internet tools.

In order to determine which neighborhoods want fiber, Ammon asks residents to sign up so they know where to aim the next build.

Sweet Validation

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As Ammon has developed their open access network from vision to achievement, they have taken several bold steps. The city won an award for its school emergency app, took over to connect local schools when the state educational network went dark, and experimented with partitioning fibers for multiple services. It's no surprise that Ammon's approach to financing was not typical.

As pioneers know, there can be something unexpected around the next tree. City officials chose to obtain validation from the state court prior to moving forward rather than risk investing time, money, and effort into an uncertain project.

On February 29th, District Judge Joel E. Tingey decreed that the city has the authority to construct, operate, and maintain the FTTH network under state law. He went on to state that their plan for financing under the Local Improvement District Act is authorized and that the bonds issued will be valid and enforceable.

Read the Judgement here and the Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, and Decree here.

Onward And Upward For Ammon...And Others?

Now that the state court has determined that Ammon has the authority to enter into this venture with this model, perhaps other communities will feel more confident forging ahead. While this ruling applies only to Ammon, we hope it will help reinforce innovative thinking in the "Gem State."

Webpass and Its Fixed Wireless Seek Fix for Landlord Abuses - Community Broadband Bits Episode 197

San Francisco is one of the rare cities that has multiple high quality ISPs competing for market share, though the vast majority of people still seem to be stuck choosing only between Comcast and AT&T. This week, we talk to a rising ISP, Webpass, about their success and challenges in expanding their model. Charles Barr is the President of Webpass and Lauren Saine is a policy advisor - both join us for episode 197 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Webpass model, which uses fixed wireless and fiber to serve high density apartment buildings where they are allowed in by the landlord. Unfortunately, they have been locked out of many of these buildings and are looking to the city of San Francisco to adopt better policies to ensure a single provider like AT&T cannot monopolize the building. Though the FCC has made exclusive arrangement unenforceable, the big providers are still finding ways to lock out competition.

We also talk a little about the role of fiber and fixed wireless technologies, chokepoints more generally, and why Webpass is so sure it could succeed if residents were all able to to choose the ISP they wanted.

Read the transcript from this show 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.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Service Unavailable: The Failure of Competition - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 196

If you are paying close attention to discussions about broadband policy, you may have come across Fred Pilot's reminders that competition is not a cure-all for our Internet access woes across the United States. The blogger and author joins us for episode 196 of Community Broadband Bits.

Fred Pilot's new book, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis, discusses some of the history behind our current challenges and proposes a solution centered around federal funding and cooperatives.

We discuss the switch from telecommunications as a regulated utility, to which everyone was guaranteed access, to a system relying on competition, in which some people have many choices but others have no options. We also discuss the merits of a national solution vs encouraging more local approaches with federal financial assistance.

Fred's blog is Eldo Telecom and you can follow him on Twitter.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

AT&T Tries to End the Magic of One Touch Make-Ready

On the border of Kentucky and Indiana a fight is brewing as AT&T and Google Fiber have both announced plans to bring Gigabit Internet service to Louisville, Kentucky. Home to over half a million, the city could see major economic development with new ultra high-speed Internet access, but there’s a problem: the utility poles.

AT&T is suing the city over a “one touch make-ready” ordinance. On February 11, 2016, the Louisville Metro Council passed the ordinance in order to facilitate new competitors, i.e. Google Fiber. 

Utility Poles: Key to Aerial Deployment

Make-ready is the shorthand for making a utility pole ready for new attachments. Although it may seem simple, this process is often expensive and time-consuming. To add a new cable, others may have to be shifted in order to meet safety and industry standards. Under the common procedure, this process can take months as each party has to send out an independent crew to move each section of cabling. 

To those of us unfamiliar with the standards of pole attachment it may seem absurd, but this originally made sense. Utility poles have a limited amount of space, and strict codes regulate the placement of each type of cable on the pole. Competitors feel they have to fiercely guard their space on the pole and cannot trust other providers to respect their cables. Make-ready must involve coordination between multiple providers and the utility pole owners. For some firms, like AT&T, this is an opportunity to delay new competition for months.

“One touch make-ready” simplifies the entire process. A single crew only makes one trip to relocate all the cables as necessary to make the utility pole. Under the amended ordinance in Louisville, the company that wants to add a cable to the utility pole can hire a single accredited and certified crew, approved by the pole owner, which will accomplish the work much more quickly and at lower cost. Also, it must pay for needed fixes or any damages to the pole-owner’s equipment and inform the pole-owner of any changes within 30 days. Such “one touch make-ready” policies quicken network deployments by preventing delays inherent in coordinating many different entities.

Why Oppose It? Private Utility Pole vs. Public Right-of-Way

AT&T is suing to stop Louisville from implementing this new policy in an effort to stop the new competition from entering the market. Ostensibly, AT&T argues they filed the suit because they own many of the utility poles (an estimated 25-40%) in Louisville. The company argues that the municipality does not have the authority to regulate the utility poles and that this is an unjust seizure of property. In other communities where this is the case, the new companies that want to use the utility poles must sign a licensing agreement with AT&T. 

AT&T’s argument, however, fails to recognize that local governments are required to manage the public Rights-of-Way (in layman’s terms, that is the land kept for the public interest near a roadway). The utility poles, although privately owned, serve a key function for connecting the public with needed services. That is why those utility poles are permitted on the public Right-Of-Way in the first place. Local governments, moreover, must have the authority to ensure that anything permitted on the public Right-Of-Way, such as utility poles, meet safety and industry standards in the quickest and most efficient way possible. 

Further Resources on “One Touch Make-Ready”

Chris interviews Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer for Louisville in Community Broadband Bits Episode 193. Smith describes how “one touch make-ready” is quicker, safer, and more efficient to use the utility poles in the public Rights-of-Way to their full potential for the good of the community.

For more information on the importance of “one touch make-ready,” check out analyses from the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, Next Century Cities, and FTTH Council. For an in-depth analysis of Right-of-Way regulations, listen to Sean Stokes of Baller, Herbst, Stokes & Lide on Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 169.

OECD Study on Munis Digs Deep, Discovers Dividends

A recent large-scale cross-national study from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) offers strong evidence that municipal broadband networks provide numerous benefits for communities around the world. Among the study’s major findings include evidence that municipal networks contribute to efforts aimed at improving local economic development, stimulating business productivity and innovation, and enhancing people’s quality of life.

The study's analysis of European nations is of special interest to us as European municipal networks are the only international municipal networks in the study that closely resemble U.S. municipal networks. In particular, the findings from the study’s central econometric analysis of Swedish municipal networks have direct implications for our understanding of the impact of municipal networks in the United States.

Findings from Econometric Analysis of Sweden

As the researchers note, extensive municipal broadband development across Sweden has contributed to a remarkably high level of nationwide fiber penetration, putting the country far ahead of the US in global rankings. The researchers report a series of features and benefits of Sweden’s widespread fiber penetration and aggressive municipal broadband efforts, including:

Increased rates of employment (with even greater employment increases in highly urbanized municipalities), increased business creation, and reduced car usage (also greater in the most urban cities) as fiber networks make it easier to telecommute to work and to shop for goods and services online.

Overall Economic Development Benefits: The authors cite a previous socio-economic analysis of the municipally-owned broadband network in Stockholm, Sweden showing that this network has generated about $2.5 billion (U.S. dollars) in economic returns for the city, or three times the initial investment. This includes $1.2 billion through the creation of new jobs, $800 million in new economic activity for the broadband supplier industry, $300 million saved by the City of Stockholm from lower service costs, and $300 million in increased values of public housing properties, along with additional savings.

Benefits from E-services: 80 percent of municipalities in Sweden are able to provide enhanced e-services including home care, nursing services, social services, library services, civil dialogue, and digital security alarms, enabling significant cost savings for goods and services and improved quality of life for Swedish citizens. In particular, users of home medical care reported that digitally facilitated home care give them an increased sense of independence, security, participation, and freedom of choice in their health needs.

Benefits of improved competition: The prices for Internet service over Swedish municipal networks are 23 percent to 38 percent lower than national prices. Further, prices for service over open access networks are also 25 percent lower compared to those municipal networks that have only one ISP.

Policy: Although the Treaty on European Union generally prohibits state aid out of concern that it could stifle competition and discourage private investment, the Treaty does permit state aid for public private partnerships (PPPs). Notably, the Treaty also makes exceptions on its prohibition of state aid for rural areas lagging behind the European Commission’s Digital Agenda 2020 targets which call for universal European access to 30 Megabits per second (Mbps) broadband speeds and 100 Mbps connectivity for at least 50 percent of the population by 2020.

Early Federal Stimulus: A federal bill in the year 2000 allocated $900 million to stimulate nationwide equality of access to information for Swedish citizens. The authors credit this bill with prompting a proliferation of major broadband initiatives in the ensuing years.

The Swedish Model: To be eligible for state aid, the Swedish government requires community networks to be operator-neutral (open access). Thus, most Swedish community networks are open access and 93 percent of the nation’s municipal networks have at least two ISPs offering service.

PPPs: These Swedish municipal networks are generally structured as PPPs in which a municipality or regional group of cities own a carrier-neutral infrastructure (owned by a neutral party that is NOT one of the ISPs). As the authors report, a general consensus exists among Swedish policy makers and market actors that PPPs, in combination with an open access model, serve to effectively “safeguard a competitive market on services and applications for the benefit of consumers and businesses” (p. 51).

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Additional Findings about International Municipal Networks

The study’s strongest and most consistent finding was that municipal broadband networks around the world inject competition into local telecommunications markets. According to the researchers, these enhanced competitive environments generally lead to lowered Internet service prices, increased investment by the private providers in markets with municipal initiatives, and/or increased opportunities for private ISPs to use shared infrastructure over open access networks.

An analysis of the UK offers conclusive evidence that access to fiber networks in businesses leads to increased worker productivity.

The importance of pre-existing public utilities: Community networks tend to have the most success in communities that had pre-existing public utilities for services such as water, energy, or gas before they developed their community networks.

Successful municipal networks require competent personnel, sound organizational structure: Cases of failed municipal networks tend to share a common characteristic: lack of previous organizational and financial stability in those cities. In other words, in the observed cases of some failed municipal networks, the study’s findings suggest that such failure is typically due to pre-existing deficiencies in the organizational structure and personnel in those communities, not because the networks were inherently problematic.

Citizens are willing to contribute resources/expertise to solve local broadband needs: In addition to the country's 190 municipal networks, Sweden also has around 1000 small village fiber networks that are generally operated as co-ops. The authors observed cases in these villages where the citizenry voluntarily contributed their labor or other resources, including machinery, to assist in the construction of municipal broadband networks. Some of the telecommunications companies in Sweden provide tool kits and other services to help villages collaborate to help solve their own fiber access needs.

The study offers a useful overview of municipal broadband issues in each nation studied, providing a glimpse into a variety of relevant public policies, common strategies, and other major developments in the deployment of municipal networks in the respective countries. We encourage you to check out the entire study.

Additional Notes on the Analysis of Swedish Municipal Networks

Importantly, the researchers chose Sweden for their central econometric analysis largely because its high number of municipal fiber networks offers an especially large sample set for analysis purposes. They were also careful to statistically control for potentially confounding variables in their analyses.  For example, they controlled for variables that could otherwise skew the evidence of benefits from municipal networks such as local tax rates, average yearly income per person, population age distribution, and share of foreigners and immigrants. These measures help to ensure that the observed benefits of municipal networks are actually due to the impact of municipal networks and not a product of any other secondary variables. 

ISP US Internet Gets More Respect Than Rodney Dangerfield - Community Broadband Bits 194

In Minneapolis, a small and privately owned ISP has been steadily building fiber across the city and developing a stunning reputation for great customer service, low and predictable pricing, and generally being a great company to do business with. Co-founder Travis Carter of US Internet joins us for episode 194 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss their approach to building networks, especially their philosophy around customer service and just how poorly some of US Internet's competitors treat their customers. As a small firm that is carving out its own path in a world of giants, its experiences are important lessons and points of consideration for community networks.

We also discuss how US Internet interacts with local governments. Though the company has high praise for Minneapolis, it discusses where some of the challenges have been in navigating local government zoning and permitting. Travis also offers some advice based on how smart investments and a well-organized approach to leasing fiber have helped US Internet to begin expanding in suburb Saint Louis Park.

USI coverage map is available here. For more information on USI's pricing, see their website for Fiber-to-the-Home and telephone service.

We plan to have Travis back on in the future again, so if you have questions you would like us to ask, please tell us!

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

One Touch Make Ready and Wireless Innovation in Louisville - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 193

When we asked Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer of Louisville, Kentucky, to join us for episode 193 of the Community Broadband Bits Bits podcast, we expected to talk about the one touch make ready policy they had enacted (and AT&T has since sued to stop). We did, but we ended with a focus on how networking is already improving the city.

We start off by focusing on the problem of adding new fiber networks to existing poles (many of which are owned by telephone company incumbents that are not particularly inclined to make life easy for new competitors). One touch make ready simplifies the process, resulting in many benefits for communities in addition to lowering the cost to build new networks. We explore that topic to start.

But at the end of the discussion, Ted and I discuss what Susan Crawford has termed a responsive city approach - Louisville is using all kinds of network attached devices to improve city services in some of the lowest income neighborhoods.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

This show is 26 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

The FCC's Pro-Competition Agenda - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 192

This week we welcome Gigi Sohn, Counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, to Community Broadband Bits for episode 192. Before joining the FCC, Gigi was a founder of Public Knowledge.

Gigi discusses the pro-competition agenda that Chairman Wheeler has advanced, including the efforts to ensure communities can decide locally whether to build a municipal network or partner. We also discuss other elements of FCC action to encourage competition in the Internet access market, even how television set-top boxes fit in.

Echoing some of the comments I regularly hear from some thoughtful listeners, I asked if competition was the best approach given the argument that telecom, and particularly fiber, has the characteristics of a natural monopoly.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

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

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."