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Holyoke Case Study from Berkman Center Explores Massachusetts Muni Fiber

A few weeks ago, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society released a report that documents the achievements of Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) Telecom, a municipal electric utility that now provides fiber-optic broadband Internet to local businesses in several western Massachusetts towns. The utility’s move into fiber-optics has led to municipal savings for the City of Holyoke, as well as increased high-speed access in neighboring cities, and driven economic development. We interviewed Holyoke's Senior Network Engineer, Tim Haas, in a previous episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Because the state of Massachusetts has no barriers that prevent the creation of municipal Internet networks, HG&E has been able to compete on a level playing field with incumbent ISPs Comcast and Charter. HG&E is among 12 MLPs (Municipal Light Plants) out of 41 in the state to offer fiber Internet services. Researchers at the Berkman Center believe that MLPs could play a large role in expanding Internet access and business opportunities throughout the state as electricity revenues experience diminishing returns and data needs grow. For example, HG&E’s fiber connection was a factor in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center’s decision to open a $90 million data center in Holyoke. 

HG&E is a somewhat unique municipal network in that it offers services not only in Holyoke, but also in nearby Chicopee. It also assists Leverett and Greenfield with their own networks. In Chicopee, the utility provided fiber access in a collaboration with 35 local businesses. In Leverett, it is managing the municipal network, with services provided by a local private company. As for Greenfield, HG&E now serves as the ISP for City Hall and the city’s police station, both of which will function as Internet access nodes as the town looks to create a fiber and wireless network that extends into homes and businesses. 

Unlike in North Carolina and Tennessee, where public interest groups had to petition the FCC to strike down a law preventing cities from extending fiber into neighboring municipalities, in Massachusetts cross-municipal collaboration can happen at the drop of a hat. The authors of the report write: 

These deals provide modest revenue streams and also illustrate how a MLP telecom division can extend its offerings far beyond the usual geographic boundaries of electricity service.

Though HG&E currently only offers municipal fiber optic services to business and community anchor institutions, the next step for other MLPs is the provisioning of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services. The report highlights Westfield’s plans to use its public utility to roll out an FTTH offering: 

The offering will include optional phone service, but no TV bundle. WGE [Westfield Gas and Electric Department] had rejected the idea of residential service several times over the past 10 years because it would have meant providing TV content. Now, however, on-demand video services are becoming popular. 

The Berkman Center report, which runs 21 pages, illustrates both the shifting demands for broadband access, as well as a collaborative method for addressing these needs. The hope is that reports of this nature can contribute to an ever-increasing wealth of knowledge with regards to the variety of municipal approaches in play for expanding high-speed, reliable Internet access.

New Handbook on Next Generation Connectivity From Gig.U

Gig.U, a collaboration of more than 30 universities across the country has just released The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: A guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth. The handbook, published in association with the Benton Foundation, is available as a PDF online.

One of the authors, Blair Levin, has been a guest several times on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, last visiting in January 2015 to weigh in on public vs. private ownership of broadband networks. As many of our readers know, Levin was one of the primary authors of the FCC National Broadband Plan in 2010.

In a PCWorld article about the report, Levin commented on funding and on local control:

“Nearly every community we worked with saw public money as a last resort, when no other options for next generation networks were available,” he said. “But our group view was that the decision should be made by the local community.”

The report underscores the importance of local decision making authority, whether each community chooses to go with a municipally owned model, a public private partnership, or some other strategy.

Levin and his co-author Denise Linn also address issues of preparation, assessment, early steps, things to remember when developing partnerships, funding issues, and challenges to expect. They assemble an impressive list of resources that any group, agency, or local government can use to move ahead.

Add this to your library.

New Report on Bandwidth Caps From Open Technology Institute

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) at the New America Foundation recently released its report on bandwidth caps. "Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation" is the latest warning about an issue with grave implications. The PDF is now available to download

Last November, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] with serious comments on how ISPs might abuse their power through bandwidth caps. In that report, the GAO strongly suggested the FCC take action.

This report by Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey further examines how this profit grabbing technique from the big ISPs impacts consumer decisions and usage. 

From the OTI press release:

In this paper, we examine the growth and impact of usage-based pricing and data caps on wired and mobile broadband services in the United States. We analyze the financial incentive that Internet service providers (ISPs) have to implement these usage limits and discuss research that demonstrates how these policies affect consumer behavior. In particular, we explain how data caps can make it harder for consumers to make informed choices; decrease the adoption and use of existing and new online services; and undermine online security.

It is also increasingly clear that data caps have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations as well as groups like telecommuters and students. In the conclusion, we urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), particularly as the new Open Internet Order goes into effect, to open up a serious inquiry into whether data caps are an acceptable business practice.  

In addition to their own data and conclusions, Kehl and Lucey provide information to many other resources that tackle the implications of bandwidth caps. As consumers' need for bandwidth increases with their changing Internet habits, this topic will only become more pressing.

The Next Generation Connectivity Handbook: A Guide For Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth

Publication Date: 
July 21, 2015
Author(s): 
Blair Levin
Author(s): 
Denise Linn

Gig.U, a collaboration of more than 30 universities across the country has just released The Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook: A guide for Community Leaders Seeking Affordable, Abundant Bandwidth. The handbook was published in association with the Benton Foundation.

The report underscores the importance of local decision making authority, whether each community chooses to go with a municipally owned model, a public private partnership, or some other strategy.

Blair Levin and Denise Linn also address issues of preparation, assessment, early steps, things to remember when developing partnerships, funding issues, and challenges to expect. They assemble an impressive list of resources that any group, agency, or local government can use to move ahead.

Connecting 21st Century Cities: A Policy Agenda For Broadband Stakeholders

Publication Date: 
July 8, 2015
Author(s): 
Next Century Cities

Next Century Cities, a nonpartisan coalition of 100 communities working to expand Internet access, recently published "Connecting 21st Century Communities: A Policy Agenda for Broadband Stakeholders." This resource brings together timely research, best practices, and examples of successful approaches from around the U.S. and the world - all focused on encouraging ubiquitous Internet access for all. Chris Mitchell, Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative and the driving force behind MuniNetworks.org, serves as Next Century Cities' Policy Director.

Holyoke: A Massachusetts Municipal Light Plant Seizes Internet Access Business Opportunities

Publication Date: 
July 8, 2015
Author(s): 
David Talbot
Author(s): 
Waide Warner
Author(s): 
Carolyn Anderson
Author(s): 
Kira Hessekiel
Author(s): 
Daniel Dennis Jones

Fifteen years ago, Holyoke Gas & Electric  (HG&E) began its incremental fiber deployment to meet the need for better connectivity in the community. Since then, they have invested savings created by initial and subsequent investments. Over the years, HG&E expanded their services, becoming the ISP for several local business customers in two nearby communities. HG&E also established a regional interconnection agreement and it is now an ISP for municipal agencies in a third community 30 miles away.

The Berkman Center's most recent report, report, "Holyoke: A Massachusetts Municipal Light Plant Seizes Internet Access Business Opportunities,” documents their story.

Growing Interest in Dark Fiber and Pricing Details

Dark fiber is a growing business for both private and publicly owned networks. Data transport, data centers, ILECs, and CLECs are some of the most common users. Increasingly, wireless providers are turning to dark fiber for backhaul.

A May Fierce Telecom article reports that 14 percent of Zayo's wireless backhaul services are dark fiber solutions:

"We're seeing a shift with wireless backhaul contracts to dark fiber to the tower and we're starting to see that show up as the trend over the last couple of quarters," [Chairman and CEO Dan] Caruso said … "And you see it more pronounced in the current quarter where 14 percent of our product mix for fiber to the tower is dark fiber to the tower and you see that's grown and taken on a bigger piece of the pie."

Dark fiber leases have played an important role in developing revenue for municipalities that have invested in fiber infrastructure. Dark fiber leasing can be the only option in places where state barriers limit local options.

Santa Monica, Columbia in Missouri, and Maryland's Howard County, are only a few communities that lease dark fiber to ISPs and other commercial customers. A few networks, including Metronet Zing in Indiana, offer only dark fiber services. It is worth noting that, as Santa Monica discovered, the vast majority of businesses and residents prefer and easy, affordable, and reliable lit service rather than dark fiber. But the dark fiber niche is growing.

As more customers look for the service, negotiating leases and pricing models can be challenging. Municipal networks seeking guidance can start with a 2012 report from CTC Technology & Energy, Dark Fiber Lease Considerations [PDF].

The report covers pricing models, various methods for pricing dark fiber, and offers some examples. CTC also helps identify potential customers and makes general recommendations. It is always advisable to seek out the advice of professionals with significant experience in negotiating dark fiber leases, but the CTC report can provide a foundation to begin exploring options and weighing risks.

From the report summary:

This memorandum presents a brief framework for pricing and marketing of dark fiber. With the obvious caveat that a detailed analysis requires an in-depth evaluation of a given project or market, this general overview may help you in determining such matters as how to price your dark fiber—for example, to balance encouragement of use (and opening up of the dark fiber market) and rationing of strands, while maximizing potential dark fiber net revenues.

Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies: The Reality of Lafayette's Gigabit Network

Publication Date: 
October 13, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

In just the last year the Lafayette Utility System (LUS) gigabit network has attracted 1,300 high-tech jobs. Chairman Wheeler praised the network for doing what many communities hope to do, but cannot because of state laws limiting municipal broadband networks. Critics are desperate to discredit the network, using false statements and misinformation.

The Reason Foundation released a paper by Steven Titch in November, 2013, to discredit LUS Fiber. Here we offer a point-by-point rebuttal of the report. Titch makes numerous claims that he does not support with any evidence. Much of the evidence he uses in support of other claims is out of context or erroneous. And even then, his worst criticism is that the network may struggle in the future but is not currently failing.

Our critical response to the Reason Foundation's report should be helpful to any community considering its own municipal network investment. This document includes common arguments and responses both for and against such networks.

Download or read the full report at ILSR.org.

All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access

Publication Date: 
September 23, 2014
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

Minneapolis, MN —In 2010 the Minnesota legislature set a goal: universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state by 2015. It is now 2015 and large parts of Greater Minnesota will not achieve that goal, even as technological advances make the original benchmarks increasingly obsolete.

But some Minnesota communities are significantly exceeding those goals. Why? The activism of local governments.

A new report by ILSR, widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable organizations on municipal broadband networks, details the many ways Minnesota’s local governments have stepped up. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access” includes case studies of 12 Minnesota cities and counties striving to bring their citizens 21st century telecommunications.

 

  • 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.

Read how these and other communities took control of their own connectivity and their community vitality. Some did it alone while others established partnerships; each chose the path they considered the best for their own community.

 

GAO Report Warns of Potential for ISPs to Abuse Data Caps

Last month, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report warning of the possibility and potential consequences of ISPs instituting data caps in their fixed line plans. In effect, this could mean applying something like the tiered service charges based on usage levels that we see in the mobile sector to broadband connections in the home or office. But whereas the vast majority of Americans have a reasonable range of choice between several major and minor carriers for mobile service, the GAO notes that the same is not true in the market for broadband, which could lead to ISPs using data caps (or usage-based pricing (UBP) in their parlance) in various harmful ways:

...providers facing limited competition could use UBP [usage-based pricing] to increase profits, potentially resulting in negative effects, including increased prices, reductions in content accessed, and increased threats to network security.

The GAO has provided the FCC with a copy of its report, and urged that the agency take action on the issue, including systematically tracking information on how many consumers are impacted by fixed providers instituting data caps and developing a voluntary code of conduct for the industry. According to Ars Technica, the FCC has taken a skeptical stance on the issue, despite Chairman Tom Wheeler’s outspoken concerns on the lack of competition in the fixed broadband market. Pointing to the small number of consumer complaints on the issue so far, the FCC asserted that “it is unclear that any action is needed at this time.”

Usage caps do not just affect sophisticated users with bandwidth-intensive jobs or hobbies that require them to transfer large design files or generate and share multimedia content. This has the potential to affect kids and adults doing homework or taking classes online, people who hope to cut the cord from traditional television providers, and telecommuters. From the GAO study:

Participants also expressed concern about difficulty tracking the wide range of devices accessing their fixed data allowance and that fixed UBP may negatively affect students, people working from home, and those with lower socio-economic status. 

Perhaps just as importantly as the specific levels, the existence of a cap or usage-based pricing policy creates an atmosphere where people think of data as a finite resource that should be used only sparingly, even if they may not be directly affected by specific limits:

Participants exhibited confusion over data consumption—for example thinking that low-data activities like online shopping consumed large amounts of data. 

These kinds of policies are in direct contrast with the connectivity environment we should be working to create - plentiful, cheap bandwidth for as many people as possible.