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New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

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."

Blackburn and Wheeler: Awkward Penpals

Back in June, some sixty House Republicans led by Tennessee’s Marsha Blackburn sent an open letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressing their “deep concern” with his support for community networks. They took issue with comments he made at a House Energy and Commerce hearing in May, indicating his willingness to preempt incumbent-sponsored anticompetitive state laws that handicap or outright ban municipal networks. 

In the the views of Rep. Blackburn and her allies, this “sets a dangerous precedent and violates state sovereignty in a manner that warrants deeper examination.” They demanded answers from Chairman Wheeler on a set of eight questions so leading that they would make even the most partisan pollster blush. They featured many of the same “states’ rights,” “unelected federal bureaucrat,” and “unconstitutional authority” talking points used later in the floor debate over Blackburn’s anti-muni amendment, softened up and rephrased just a bit for polite company. 

In late July, Chairman Wheeler offered a formal written response. He opened with a diplomatically worded overview of the U.S. broadband sector, before launching into the heart of the matter:

“...Many states have enacted laws that place a range of restrictions on communities’ ability to make their own decisions about their own future. There is reason to believe that these laws have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition. I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I also know that state laws which directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances.”

While the legal debate is all about the extent of federal authority, Chairman Wheeler correctly identifies the real policy issue: "communities' ability to make their own decisions about their own future." Preemption [meaning removing state preemption] is about enabling choice, not forcing any particular option on a local community. Conversely, "states' rights" is used by Rep. Blackburn and her allies as a blanket permission to dictate to every county, township, and municipality in a given state that they must take service from monopolistic incumbents or go without broadband entirely.

 

Chairman Wheeler gamely answered each of the questions in Blackburn’s letter, despite the fact that some were little more than veiled threats:

[Blackburn et. al:] “1. If the courts struck down the FCC’s ploy to override state laws restricting municipal broadband do you believe that such a decision would weaken the credibility of the FCC?” 

[Wheeler:] The commission gives careful consideration to all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues before making decisions…As you know, final Commission decisions are typically subject to judicial review, but I do not believe that is a reason to shy away from making important decisions. 

Translation: 

Blackburn: Don't even think about it, we will sue you. 

Wheeler: Fine by me.

Several of the other questions were variations on the theme of “How dare you!”:

[Blackburn et. al:] “2. Why does the FCC believe state governors and state legislators should not have a say over how to govern the political subdivisions of their state even though that is what they are elected to do by voters?”

and 

[Blackburn et. al] “7. Did you ever ask Congress for the authority to override states’ rights with respect to municipal broadband?”  

In defending the legal soundness of preemption, Chairman Wheeler quoted both the language of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act as well as several favorable circuit court decisions that “specifically characterized preemption of state laws restricting municipal broadband as a ‘paradigmatic’ example of the authority given by Congress to the FCC under Section 706.”

Perhaps the best encapsulation of the entire tense Blackburn-Wheeler correspondence is given in the following exchange: 

[Blackburn et. al:] “6. How does the FCC believe Section 706 authority trumps the states’ rights in the Constitution?”  

[Wheeler:] As explained above, Section 706 establishes a strong federal policy of ensuring that broadband is available to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. When state laws come into direct conflict with critically important federal law and policy, it is a long-standing principle of Constitutional law that state laws can be subject to federal preemption in appropriate cases. I do not view federal preemption as a matter to be undertaken lightly. Such action must be premised on careful consideration of all relevant issues. As noted above, in any proceeding involving these issues, the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented to determine the appropriate course of action. 

This is the correspondence in a nutshell: Blackburn and her allies are hopping mad about the prospect of their big telecom donors having to compete with municipal networks or private companies partnered with municipal networks, and Chairman Wheeler is striking a measured, non-provocative tone while sticking to his guns on the need to restore local authority to increase competition. The qualifying phrase “the Commission will consider all relevant factual, policy, and legal issues presented” appears, by my count, eight times in Wheeler's four page letter. 

The Blackburn-Wheeler exchange stands in contrast to the response letter sent by Wheeler to Pennsylvania Democrat Representative Mike Doyle, which contains much of the same language and phrases but strikes a decidedly different tone. Chairman Wheeler apparently had no objections to Rep. Doyle’s pro-municipal network letter, and was in fact “heartened by [his] support for community broadband.” 

While the FCC rulemaking process sometimes seems like a black box, there are many political aspects to its decisions that extend into the public arena. Reading the tea leaves on exchanges like these between Congress and the FCC does not necessarily offer definitive answers, but it does appear to indicate that Chairman Wheeler is leaning in the right direction and may be willing to take the inevitable heat that a decision in favor of restoring local authority would bring.

ILSR Statement on FCC Call for More Competition: A Step In the Right Direction

There is little doubt that our readers are aware of Chairman Wheeler's remarks on September 4th at 1776, a start-up incubator in D.C. His message echoed what policy leaders have repeated countless times - competition is lacking in the world of broadband.

Telecommunications has become a popular topic in the past few months as decision makers are discovering that constituents DO care about online access, economic development, and exessive consolidation. ILSR was pleased to see the Chairman address the issue of lack of competition and released the following statement:

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance applauds FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s Agenda for Broadband Competition. We feel it is a positive step coming from the nation’s top communications official.  

“These gigabit developments are positive, but they are not yet pervasive,” Wheeler said. “Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler's recognition that Americans lack a true choice in fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access is an important development. If we want real options for next-generation connectivity, local governments must be free to build then own networks. 

If there is one thing we have learned from the history of essential infrastructure, it is that local governments must have the option of building and owning it themselves. 

Hundreds of communities have already invested in their own fiber networks, keeping money in the local economy and spurring job growth.” says Community Broadband Networks director Chris Mitchell.

Muni Fiber as Real Estate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 111

Hunter Newby is back for his second appearance on Community Broadband Bits to discuss his thoughts on carrier neutral approaches to spur our economy with more investment in better networks. We just talked with Hunter in episode 104 on carrier neutral approaches to middle mile networks.

Now we discuss these types of approaches within communities - how to spur more competition without the owner of the infrastructure actually offering services directly. This has been a challenge historically, but we continue to see signs that this approach can be viable in the future.

Hunter Newby is the CEO and founder of Allied Fiber.

Read the transcript for episode 111 here, 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 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

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."

Rural Utilities Building Broadband Networks - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 109

If you have doubts that we can or will connect rural America with high quality Internet connections, listen to our show today. Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, the Industry Affairs Manager at the Utilities Telecom Council, joins me to talk about how utilities are investing in the Internet connections that their communities need.

Many of these utilities are providing great connections, meaning that some of the folks living in rural America have better -- faster and more affordable -- Internet access than residents of San Francisco and New York City.

We discuss the demand for better Internet access and the incredible take rates resulting from investment in some of the communities that rural electric cooperatives are serving.

UTC has a been a strong ally of our efforts to prevent states from revoking local authority to build community networks. Within UTC, the Rural Broadband Council is an independent operating unit.

Read a transcript of this show, 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 17 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."

Minnesota's Lake County Fiber Network Begins Connecting Customers

The Lake County fiber network is now serving a limited number of customers in northern Minnesota. According to the Lake County News Chronicle, the network's triple-play services are lit and bringing better connectivity to Silver Bay and Two Harbors.

About 100 customers in Silver Bay take service via the network; beta testers in Two Harbors are helping Lake Connections, the entity managing the network, straighten out any kinks in Phase One. Phase Two, which is more than 60% complete, will bring service to Duluth Township, Knife River, Silver Creek Townships, and Beaver Bay Township. Phase Two is scheduled for completion this summer; Lake Connections anticipates network completion in the fall of 2015.

The Lake County project has been plagued with problems, including delays cause by incumbents. Mediacom filed complaints with the Inspector General based on unsound allegations. While the cable company was not confident enough to sue, its accusations wasted time and money for Lake County. Frontier asserted ownership of a significant number of Two Harbors utility poles, even though the City has maintained them, and the two are still involved in negotiations over ownership and fiber placement on the poles. The Minnesota Cable Companies Association (MCCA) delayed the project further by submitting a massive data request.

The FTTH project is one of the largest stimulus projects, totaling approximately $70 million in grants, loans, and local matching funds. The project will cover almost 3,000 square miles when complete, connect almost 100 community anchor institutions, and provide services to over 1,000 businesses.

As we have noted before, the project was sorely needed. On more than one occasion, a single fiber cut to the area created Internet black outs to homes, businesses, hospitals, government, and any other entity depending on connectivity to function.

In Two Harbors, outdoor equipment supplier Granite Gear is on the new network. In the past, the entire company shared one DSL connection, forcing the company art director to work at night when bandwidth was available. Now, everyone works normal hours. From the article:

Dave Johnson, the strategic accounts manager for the 28-year-old company, said fast internet has become essential to Granite Gear in recent years.

“It’s not just nice having faster internet, but it has become an absolute necessity,” he said.

“Business is not just pushing emails back and forth. We maintain a website,” he said. “Doing business has become real bandwidth intensive.” A new technological era has dawned and companies are evolving to keep pace with their competitors.

Granite Gear Logo

Johnson told us via email that uploading files for customers in the past used to take hours but now the task takes a few minutes and does not disrupt service for other employees.

Delays have created extra expenses and Lake County will need more customers like Granite Gear to make the network strong. According to the article, the County has already started making loan payments:

[County Commissioner Rich] Sve said he understands his constituents’ concerns that the network may not be viable.

“I share that concern as a taxpayer. I think it’s legitimate,” he said.

But, he added, private companies have not stepped forward to provide the service, despite encouragement by federal and state government to do so. The county, therefore, opted to undertake the task.

“So far, we’re pleased with what we’re getting in Silver Bay and hopeful that it continues,” [Lake Connections Project Manager Jeff Roiland] said.

Businesses and residents interested in signing up for service from Lake Connections can contact them today to make arrangements:

“The biggest thing to do is contact our staff,” Roiland said. “They can call in (or) walk in and the gals at the office can explain to them what to do.”

Chattanooga and Wilson Petition FCC to Remove Anti-Competitive Restrictions

Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina, are two of the most successful municipal fiber networks by a variety of metrics, including jobs created, aggregate community savings, and more. This has led to significant demand from surrounding communities for Wilson and Chattanooga to expand. We have profiled both of them in case studies: Wilson and Chattanooga.

Expecting this outcome, the big cable and telephone companies had pressured the states to limit where municipal networks can offer service, unlike the private companies that can invest anywhere. Wilson cannot expand beyond county limits. Chattanooga already serves its entire electrical footprint, which stretches into northern Georgia and includes a few other towns but cannot serve anyone beyond that.

FCC Chairman Wheeler has been quite clear that he intends to remove barriers to competition that limit local authority to build community networks.

Today, Wilson and North Carolina have filed petitions with the FCC to remove restrictions on their ability to expand and offer services to nearby communities. These barriers were created after major lobbying campaigns by Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable, one of which we chronicled in The Empire Lobbies Back. We have also explained how the FCC can take this action and interviewed Harold Feld on the matter.

Read press statements from Chattanooga EPB and Wilson, North Carolina [PDF below]. Also, take a look at Wilson's Full Petition and Exhibits and Chattanooga's Petition and Exhibits as filed with the FCC. Jim Baller worked with them on the filing, so you know the facts are straight.

We issued a press release this afternoon,

“The move today cuts right to the heart of local authority,” says Christopher Mitchell, director of Community Broadband Networks with The Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR). “The ultimate question is who decides what investments are right for each community — that community or officials far removed from it..”

If the FCC agrees with the petitions, the big cable companies will almost certainly appeal it to the DC Circuit Court, where a recent Verizon v. FCC opinion specifically noted that this type of action is well within its authority.

CLIC Logo

On behalf of the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, CEO Joanne Hovis wrote,

The net effect is to stifle competition, harm public and private sector economic development, and extinguish associated quality of life improvements in education, health care, energy use and public safety. Nearby communities that desperately want services from these networks are prevented from receiving it. Wilson and Chattanooga have asked the FCC to step in using its authority to promote advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans and preempt these state laws; to let local choice prevail.

Because the power of incumbent providers is so great in each state legislature, there is little hope for a remedy at the state level. These petitions are part of a larger discussion at the national level, whether the promise of modern Internet access will be for ALL Americans, or only for some.

And both Sam Gustin and Karl Bode were quick to post on the matter as well. Sam wrote on Motherboard at Vice:

In states throughout the country, major cable and telecom companies have battled attempts to create community broadband networks, which they claim put them at a competitive disadvantage.

Last week, Rep. Marsha Blackburn, the Tennessee Republican who has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the cable and telecommunications industry, introduced an amendment to a key appropriations bill that would prevent the FCC from preempting such state laws. The amendment passed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 233-200, but is unlikely to make it through the Senate.

And Karl Bode called it "Put Up or Shut Up Time for FCC on Community Broadband:"

Comcast and AT&T have quickly moved to stop the FCC's potential assault on their protectionist laws via both lawsuit threats via proxy groups, and via politicians like Martha Blackburn, who, after receiving campaign contributions from PACs tied to both companies -- has passed a bill in the House threatening to strip FCC funding if the agency dares to act. It's not a fight that would be easy, but it's a fight the FCC should win -- and it's a long-overdue fight that must be had if we're to finally start taking broadband competition problems seriously.

As with consumer advocate requests that ISPs be reclassified as utilities as a solution to neutrality concerns, this is another area where Wheeler can prove he's either thrown aside his long-history of industry lobbying and is ready to fight for consumers, or is just another in a very long line of FCC bosses too timid to meaningfully challenge deep-pocketed campaign contributors and the status quo.

And finally, we have seen an outpouring of grassroots support for this effort.

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part II here

In Part I of this story, we laid out the difficult situation the open access UTOPIA network finds itself in and how it got there. Part II gave the broad outlines of Macquarie’s preliminary proposal for a public-private partnership to complete and operate the network. The numbers we deal with here are mostly from the Milestone One report, and assumed the participation of all 11 cities. It should be noted that since five of eleven UTOPIA cities opted out of proceeding to Milestone Two negotiations, the scope and scale of the project is subject to change. The basic structure of the potential deal is mostly set, however, allowing us to draw some reasonable conclusions about whether or not this deal is good for the citizens of the UTOPIA cities.

Let’s first turn to why Macquarie wants to make this investment.  This would be the firm’s first large scale broadband network investment in the U.S., allowing it to get a foothold in a massive market that has a relatively underdeveloped fiber infrastructure. To offset network build and operation costs, it will also be guaranteed the revenue from the monthly utility fee, which my very rough calculations put between $18 and $20 million for the six cities opting in to Milestone Two (or between $30 and $33 million per year for all 11 cities) depending on whether the final fee ends up closer to $18 or $20 per month.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA puts Macquarie’s base rate of return between 3.7% and 4.7%, which is slim enough that they should have the incentive to make the network successful and truly universal, boosting their share of the revenue from transport fees in the process.

The monthly utility fee is a difficult pill for UTOPIA cities to swallow politically, and has allowed opponents to paint it as a massive new tax.  But this claim ignores the costs of the existing $500 million debt (including interest), which will have to be paid regardless of whether the network is ever completed or any more revenue is generated.

The existing debt adds up to about $8.50 per month per address over 30 years, without accounting for ongoing operating losses (or bond prepayment penalties if the network goes dark) or necessary network maintenance and upgrades. Without completing the network, there is no hope that it could return to self-sufficiency, meaning it would likely require operating subsidies in perpetuity.

Again, Jesse Harris has paved the way by doing an analysis of what is in the best interest of taxpayers from a purely self-interested perspective (ignoring indirect benefits of the network) here and here. As he sees it, it all depends on the take rate: if Macquarie can reach a 38% take rate in the newly expanded network coverage area, the entire deal will cost the same for taxpayers as simply selling off the network. A higher take rate would mean the cities actually spend less to get a completed network than they would to sell it off. But that’s only a narrow look at the balance sheet.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Opponents, especially those from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayer Association (UTA), have focused on the extra cost from the new utility fee to the small segment of the population that neither has nor wants a telecommunications connection. However, some studies have also shown that a fiber connection increases the value of a property, so there really may be some gain for everyone under this deal.

As it stands today, 2,100 miles of fiber have already been built, 70% of it underground. 40% of UTOPIA addresses are passed by the network (meaning they are able to purchase a connection upfront or on a payment plan), but only 10% are actually connected. Some cities are almost completely covered, others less than 20%. Some neighborhoods have one side of a street where connections are offered and the other where services are unavailable. The result of constant funding constraints, frivolous incumbent lawsuits, and poor planning, these pieces of stranded infrastructure can still be reclaimed and capitalized on with additional investment. 

Essentially, UTOPIA city taxpayers are on the hook either way. They can either get something for their troubles with the Macquarie deal (and maybe even end up paying less), or they can call it quits and pay to shut it down. They‘ve taken out a mortgage and built most of the house, but run out of money before they put a roof on. They can either restructure the debt and get on a payment plan to finish the roof, or they can watch the house rot and pay the mortgage for 30 years anyway. 

It is important to note that UTOPIA has a unique dynamic because the network has struggled financially (unlike the vast majority of community networks, most of which use a different business model and learned from the early mistakes of UTOPIA). We have not yet seen any communities proposing to establish a utility fee from the start, but it is an interesting proposition and we will explore it at length in a paper later this summer.