Feasibility Study Offers Food For Thought In Fort Collins, CO

Fort Collins has the numbers, now it must weigh its options as it steps forward. This month the City Council received the results of a feasibility study it commissioned late in 2015 to help fill in its Broadband Strategic Plan. The results, along with city staff analysis, are now available for review (item no. 3 from the Aug. 23rd meeting).

A Growing Interest

Last fall, voters chose to reclaim local authority by opting out of Colorado’s SB 152, which in 2005 took away local telecommunications infrastructure decisions from municipalities. A resounding 83 percent of voters voiced their desire to have the option to develop a municipal utility. Local media and businesses had expressed their support for better connectivity through public ownership. Residents wrote to local papers describing how Fort Collins needed better Internet access to spur economic development. Clearly, the momentum was running strong.

Examining Several Options

The study examined several possible models, including retail, wholesale, and public private partnership models. The staff summary of the report suggests that staff consider a retail model, while more expensive to deploy, the least risky of those examined. From the staff summary:

Total funding requirement for a retail model is $125M with the project becoming net cash positive in 15 years. Recent terms announced in other communities are not attractive for the wholesale (or public/private partnership) due to the higher risk on municipalities and low pass per premise fee paid to the municipalities (does not become net cash positive within 15 years). Fort Collins pass per premise fee requirement needs are higher due to higher costs associated to undergrounding infrastructure. However, using an alternative scenario with an ideal pass per premise fee, a wholesale model could be feasible. Total funding requirement for a wholesale model is $88M. 

What Now?

Over the next several months, the city staff plans to begin reaching out to incumbents, potential partners, and the community. As they progress and learn more, they will develop recommendations and anticipate making a detailed presentation to the Council work session in December.

Learn more about Fort Collins in Episode #211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast; Christopher spoke with Mayor Wade Troxell about the community and their potential plans. 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 5


Internet improvements to go before City Council by Felicia Alvarez, Davis Enterprise

The fiber pioneers by Timothy Downs, American City and County

“Santa Monica is a great example of how a local government can develop a long-term vision and create significant economic benefits with low risk investments,” Christopher Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, a proponent of municipally owned networks, says. “Without spending any new money, it built a great fiber-optic network along major streets and ultimately began generating revenue from fiber leases and operating a free Wi-Fi network in popular tourist destinations.”



Broadband could be $125M effort for Fort Collins by Kevin Duggan, The Coloradoan



Spotty Internet in rural Georgia draws lawmakers' focus by Jill Nolin, Dalton Daily Citizen



It's time to 'beef up' to rural Internet speeds by Observer-Reporter Editorial Board




Internet expansion in the works for Augusta County by Clarissa Cooper, News Leader

Caroline struggles with lack of broadband access by Vanessa Remmers, Fredericksburg Star



Upgrade Seattle: Now is the time to push for city-owned Internet by Dyer Oxley, My Northwest

“Comcast, CenturyLink, and other telecommunications companies have actively worked to fight the free market,” Glaser alleges. “They have inserted different laws in state legislatures across the country making it harder for public utilities to compete.”

Upgrade Seattle said that a public internet utility evens the playing field for internet service, while also making the service local. Glaser points to dealing with Comcast customer service as an example.



Blame your lousy Internet on poles by Susan Crawford, BackChannel

Poles, as it turns out, seethe with operatic drama. They are creosote-soaked, 40-foot-high wooden battlegrounds. And, right now, a handful of companies — the usual villains in the internet access story — is very interested in keeping the status quo in place by quietly making sure that access to these vertical conflict zones is fraught with difficulties.

FCC won't appeal Sixth Circuit Court decision on municipal broadband by Andy Sher, GovTech

Republicans are coming around to this public Internet idea by Henry Grabar, Slate

3 ways governments are working to make broadband universally accessible by Adam Stone, GovTech

States are putting the brakes on municipal broadband by Jamie Condliffe, MIT Technology Review

Photo of the cow courtesy of Dominik Schraudolf via pixaby

Harlan Continues Bump Up To Fiber In Rural Iowa

With charming cornfields and bustling cities, Iowa is a Midwest hub of community networks. Harlan, the county seat of Shelby County, is located in west central Iowa. About 5,400 people live in the town, situated along the West Nishnabotna River. Back in the ‘90s, Harlan was one of several Iowa towns that built their own cable networks to deliver video and Internet services. In August, Harlan Municipal Utilities (HMU) announced it will continue upgrading to fiber, a project they started in 2012. Upon completion in early 2017, much of the town will have Internet access via fiber.

The Present: 2016-2017 Fiber Project

HMU announced the project on their website in early August. For more details, we spoke with Director of Marketing, Doug Hammer, previously a guest on our Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

During the fiber expansion, HMU will build out to the southern half of town, which is bounded by Highway 44 to the north, Highway 59 to the west, and the river to the east. The utility also intends to build out slightly north, into the center of town. The project will take approximately six months to complete. 

First, HMU will install conduit, the reinforced tubes which hold the fiber, to all their electric, gas, and water customers along major roads. Then, in the first quarter of 2017, they will bring fiber to homes and businesses. [Update: Those homes and businesses already receiving telecom services. Fiber to non-telecom customers will be connected if the property adds telecom services or when advanced metering applications are launched.]

The Past: Projects and Paperwork

By 1997, HMU was providing Internet service via a Hybrid Fiber-Coax (HFC) network. They financed the network with a grant from the Commerce Department and utility revenue bonds. Committed to affordable, high-quality service, the utility began to install fiber in certain areas in the north [Update: the northwest portion] of town in 2012.

A few years later, in May 2015, our Christopher Mitchell spoke with HMU representatives, including Hammer, at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (Community Broadband Bits Episode #151). They discussed how small ISPs handle paperwork and how the system can be improved. Small ISPs want to spend less time filling out forms and more time serving customers.

The Future: Smart-Grids and More

This fiber project provides the potential for new applications. Hammer specifically noted the possibility of developing a smart-grid for the electrical system, preventing outages and improving energy efficiency. Fiber connectivity can also boost home security systems and enable business to use new applications, such as cloud computing.

HMU will finish [this phase of] the project in 2017 and consider future fiber projects to better connect the northeastern section of town. For more information and updates about the project, including a map, check out the HMU website at HarlanNet.com.

From Ghost Towns to Fiber Towns, A Texas Cooperative Looks to the Future

Amid Ghost Towns in northern Texas, a local telephone cooperative looks to bring next-generation technology to rural communities. In August 2015, Brazos Communications, based out of Olney, Texas, announced its plans to build a fiber network throughout its sparsely populated service area.

A year later, in August 2016, the project is well underway. Brazos Communications has completed construction in two of the more populous towns (Archer City and Olney) and has begun installing fiber in the community of Newcastle

The Fiber Project

Brazos Communications keeps locals apprised of the details of the project through their blog on BrazosNet.com and their social media accounts. The telephone cooperative’s service area covers many small communities, the largest of which is Olney with about 3,000 people. 

Previously, the communities only had access to the slow DSL network through Brazos Communications' old network. Last year, the cooperative realized it was time for a forward-looking change. They began to replace the DSL with a new fiber network to offer better, more reliable high-speed services.

And this summer, Brazos Communications teamed up with ice cream truck Pop’s Homemade Ice Cream to celebrate the successful completion of construction in Archer City. As Archer County News reported, residents could learn about the new fiber plans while eating delicious, cool ice cream. Brazos offers symmetric service (the same upload and download speed) ranging from 10 Mbps for $59.95 to 100 Mbps for $199.95. 

Cooperative Connectivity

This connectivity could bring new life to this region that has been losing population ever since the end of the early 20th century oil boom. The communities of Elbert and Jermyn combined have a population of less than 100 people. Meanwhile, nearby Orth, Texas, never recovered and is now home to only a cemetery. Improved Internet access could play an integral role in supporting these small rural towns so they can avoid the fate of Orth.

Across the U.S., rural cooperatives have started building fiber networks to improve their communities. Some are electric cooperatives such as Co-Mo Coop in Missouri, while others are telephone cooperatives like Paul Bunyan Communications in Minnesota. Co-ops allow those obtaining services to also be owners, as in the case of Greater Minnesota's RS Fiber Cooperative, which focuses specifically on bringing members better connectivity. Cooperatives are bringing next-generation technology to their members and building a brighter fiber future.

California Bill Maps Existing Fiber, Requires Conduit Construction

Legislation improving rural Internet access and reducing telecommunications outages is headed to the Governor’s office after unanimously passing in the California State Assembly and Senate. AB 1549 creates a comprehensive statewide map of all conduit and fiber cables in California and requires new conduit to be laid during public works projects. 

“We need better connectivity in our rural communities, bottom line,” said California Assembly Member James Wood, who introduced the legislation, in a June press release.

“In past decades the public sector invested heavily to deliver copper telephone lines and electricity across the country. This is a drop in the bucket compared to those investments, but it will make a world of difference for our communities in this 21st Century economy.”

Improving Service, Lowering Prices

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have cited the cost of laying fiber cable and conduit as a major deterrent for investing in infrastructure, especially in rural communities. That cost is mostly incurred when companies have to dig into the ground. AB 1549 helps ISPs lower these costs by mandating that CalTrans, the state’s department of transportation, notify ISPs when it is opening a trench that could house conduit. If no ISPs are interested in installing conduit at that time, CalTrans is required to install it for future use.  

A number of  local communities have similar “dig once” policies, which lower costs, but the bill is the first statewide effort in California. Santa Monica, which implemented smart dig once policies and has since deployed fiber across the community, has had a 90 percent reduction in the cost of laying fiber by coordinating fiber and conduit installation with other capital projects.

Decreasing Outages, Preventing Losses

Assembly Member Wood, who represents a rural part of California, sponsored the legislation in response to a series of costly and inconvenient telecommunications outages. The most damaging occurred in December 2015 and lasted for 20 hours after CalTrans workers accidentally cut into a buried fiber cable on the state’s North Coast. Currently, each Internet Service Provider (ISP) keeps information on their conduit and fiber locations; no one, including the State, has a complete picture of where each are buried. AB 1549 creates a statewide map, which not only helps transportation and utility departments understand where they should dig, but also helps ISPs and local governments understand where other conduit exists.

Outages are as frustrating and expensive. The Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County quantified some of these costs in a report, which used a countywide survey to calculate the cost of a 45-hour outage that occurred in September 2015. Specific data from the survey show at least $215,622 in lost revenue from local businesses. The report estimates the actual losses for the outage are in the millions of dollars. AB 1549 has the potential to significantly reduce these outages and costs by ensuring agencies, workers, and ISPs know what is buried beneath dig sites.

Feld Breaks Down 6th Circuit FCC Reversal

In our last Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher and I discussed the August 10th U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit decision to reverse the FCC’s February 2015 ruling against state barriers. We mentioned Harold Feld’s article about the ruling posted on his website. In keeping with most matters of importance in the municipal Internet network field, Harold expertly sums up the history of the case, the arguments, and what the outcome could mean for the future.

Feld gets down into the crux of the argument that won over the three judges in the Sixth Circuit - the need to establish if it is states or federal agencies that make the decisions regarding whether or not local governments can provide telecommunications.

Determining the answer was a multi-step process and Feld explains how the FCC came to the conclusion that they had the authority to preempt the laws and the states' arguments against it. This was, after all, a test case and Feld describes why the FCC chose Chattanooga and Wilson.

Read more on Feld’s Tales of the Sausage Factory, where he speculates on how the big incumbent providers will react to their win and what is next for municipal network advocates. From Harold:

As with most things worth doing in policy land, it’s disheartening that it’s an uphill fight to get to rational policy. The idea that states should tell local people in local communities that they can’t invest in their own local infrastructure runs against traditional Republican ideas about small government and local control as it does against traditional Democratic ideas about the responsibility of government to provide basic services and promote competition. But that’s how things work in public policy sometimes. We can either give up and take what we get, or keep pushing until we change things for the better.

Feds Are Fed Up With AT&T's Lame Excuse For Abusing E-rate

In late July, the FCC released a Notice of Apparent Liability (NAL) in which it found the telecommunications giant AT&T Southeast liable for a $106,425 forfeiture. The agency also ordered the company to return $63,760 of E-rate funds it described as “improperly disbursed.” AT&T overcharged two school districts in Florida and, in a response released last week, are trying to justify their pilfer by blaming the E-rate rules and the schools themselves, much as a criminal blames victims for being such easy targets.

Funded By Phone Users

E-rate funds are collected as a surcharge on telephone bills; the funds go to schools to help pay for telecommunications costs at schools, including telephone, Internet access, and infrastructure costs like fiber network construction. The amount a school district receives depends on the number of students in the district that qualify for free and reduced lunches; schools with higher numbers of low-income students are reimbursed at a higher rate. Given that many of our schools are funded through property tax rolls, this means that schools in poorer neighborhoods that are more likely to need help with their budgets receive the higher reimbursement rates.

According to the program rules, phone companies and Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that participate are required to offer the “lowest corresponding price” to schools. Providers aren’t permitted to charge rates that exceed the “lowest corresponding price” or bid higher than that price on contracts to serve similarly situated entities if those entities are eligible to receive E-rate funds. School districts do not carry the burden of getting the lowest corresponding price - telephone and Internet access providers are responsible to ensure that they offer the lowest price in exchange for the opportunity to participate in the program. Between July 2012 and June 2015 alone, AT&T received $1.23 billion in E-rate funding nationwide.

Filching In Florida

In Orange County and Dixie County, AT&T charged the districts prices that were 400 percent higher than other phone rates in Florida, claims the FCC. Their investigation focused only on two types of telephone services. The FCC noted that when Florida deregulated phone services in 2011, AT&T “dramatically increase[d] its pricing.” According to the the NAL, the company repeated the pattern between 2012 and 2015. Each year AT&T would file paperwork, falsely claiming they had followed the rules regarding price.

The NAL describes AT&T’s substantial rate increases after 2011 for the two types of phone service. Increases occurred every year and “both Districts paid among the highest rates of all non-residential customers” which contradicts the purpose of the E-rate program. When pressed as to why they increased rates so dramatically:

Indeed, AT&T has not offered any justification for its pricing at all despite requests from the Enforcement Bureau (Bureau). We are left to conclude that AT&T sought to maximize profits at the expense of the Districts and at the expense of the publicly-funded E-rate program. 

This isn’t the first time big telephone providers have been known to push the limits of the rule. Verizon and others have been criticized for similar behavior but this is the first enforcement action for violating the lowest price requirement. Back in 2012, AT&T was caught overcharging schools for telephone service by 325 percent. In 2010, a Detroit Public Schools audit recommended $3 million be recovered from AT&T, in part because the telecom had not provided the lowest corresponding price. There are other reported instances and probably numerous unreported ones.

AT&T's luck appears to have run out, however, because the FCC seems to have had enough of the bad behavior. In calculating the amount of the fine, the FCC focused only on the instances of false reporting and limited the number of years they included. Considering the large sum of money AT&T has taken from the program, and their pattern of misbehavior, the fine could be much higher. For more on how it was calculated, check out the Common Law Monitor


AT&T Responds

On August 26th, AT&T filed its response to the NAL and posted a blog the same day. The company argued that they charged the school districts higher rates because they chose to receive services on a month-to-month basis rather than via one-year contracts. The FCC disputes that conclusion, determining that the districts inherently requested one-year service as a matter of course.

Charging more for month-to-month contracts is the way telecom businesses typically operate, which gave AT&T an excuse to increase telephone rates by 400 percent. How convenient that school administrators did not feel the need to shout, "We want an annual contract!" at every turn - their mistake.

The FCC also found that AT&T should not have charged such exorbitant rates because of the presence of the state's E-rate Consortium. The Consortium allows schools to band together and negotiate for lower rates. The schools did not belong to the group but, because it reduced possible rates for similarly situated entities that qualify for E-rate, AT&T was not permitted to charge rates higher than those available to those in the consortium. The company argues, again, that the schools wanted month-to-month service, rather than the yearly contracts that are negotiated for consortium members, so the rates did not apply.

AT&T claims that the "lowest corresponding price" rule is not well-defined and blames their decision to apply a price 400 percent higher than acceptable on that ambiguity. 

Solid Track Record

AT&T has proven to be a virtuoso of swindle over the years, typically in the form of shifty rate practices. David Cay Johnston has written about AT&T's stylistic theivery perfectly described by an incident involving his friend Bruce Kushnick:

When he cross-checked his aunt’s telephone bills over the years, he could hardly believe the numbers. His aunt paid $9.51 for her local phone service in 1984. By 2003 her bill had swollen fourfold to $38.90. In the two decades since the breakup of the AT&T monopoly, even after adjusting for inflation, his aunt’s telephone cost $2.30 for each dollar paid in 1984. And that was without any charges for long-distance calls.

Taking advantage of elderly ladies, school budgets, and taxpayers are all in a day's work at AT&T.

North Carolina and Tennessee Lose in 6th Circuit - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 217

It has been several weeks, but Lisa and I wanted to answer any lingering questions people may have about the results of the Sixth Circuit case reviewing the FCC's action to remove state-created barriers to municipal networks. We devoted Community Broadband Bits episode 217 to the case and aftermath.

The Sixth Circuit ruled against the FCC narrowly - finding that while it had no dispute with the FCC's characterization of municipal networks as beneficial, Congress had not given the FCC the power to overrule state management of its subdivisions (cities). As we have often said, restricting local authority in this manner may be stupid, but states are allowed to do stupid things (especially when powerful companies like AT&T and Comcast urge them to).

Lisa and I explore the decision and explain why we are nonetheless glad that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Commissioners Rosenworcel and Clyburn moved on the petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson to remove state barriers to next-generation network investment. We also reference this blog post from Harold Feld, which is a well-done summary of the situation.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

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Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Port of Lewiston Crossing Bridges: Network Forges Ahead

Port of Lewiston’s open access dark fiber network continues to move toward completion. Construction crews are burying fiber lines at multiple project sites around Lewiston. In the past few weeks, the network crossed to the north side of Clearwater River via the Memorial Bridge, where it will link to Whitman County’s fiber network. 

A recent article from the Port of Lewiston listed completed sections of the network, 

“So far, it reaches major employers such as St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, Lewis-Clark State College, Regence and the Vista Outdoor plant at 11th and Snake River avenues.”

The article also outlined the projects to be completed by September 1st,

“They will reach the industrial district by the Lewiston-Nez Perce County Regional Airport, Clearwater Paper, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories and the Southway Bridge. At the bridge, the lines will connect with an Asotin County network built by the Port of Clarkston.”

Questions From The Past

Memorial Bridge is only the first of two bridge crossings necessary for the completion of the Lewiston-Whitman-Asotin fiber network. The Southway Bridge crosses the Snake River to Asotin County. Conduit access rights stalled construction progress across the river. We wrote about the negotiations in a story from earlier this summer.

Readers may recall that there was a question with Centurylink's right to have conduit on the bridge and whether or not they owned the conduit or where the provider's potential ownership rights ended. To iron out the details, the Port of Lewiston filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the bridge builders.

The Lewiston Tribune (also reprinted in 4-Traders) reported that the Port of Clarkston has reached an agreement for conduit access on the Idaho side of the Southway Bridge, 

“CenturyLink granted the Port of Clarkston use of one its 20 conduits on the Washington side of the bridge, enough room to meet the community's needs for as many as 60 years, Port Manager Wanda Keefer said… Ideally, the lines will be live by Sept. 1 to accommodate a customer… Before that can happen, CenturyLink needs to iron out issues with Asotin and Nez Perce counties and the cities of Lewiston and Clarkston, which own the bridge.”

The bridge was built in the 1980s and no one has been able to locate documentation that describes the length of Centurylink's easement on the bridge. Centurylink pays $0 for the use of the bridge, which is another issue that may be re-examined as the parties move forward. According to a local official, the Port of Lewiston has not yet come to an agreement with the involved parties, but negotiations are making progress.

Connecting And Competing

Thus far, the Port of Lewiston has spent roughly $600,000 on the network infrastructure project designed to promote competition among Internet service providers and spur economic development. "We think it's going to provide connectivity to our community so we can compete with almost anywhere in the world," [Port Manager Wanda] Keefer said.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - August 29


Voters to Decide Whether El Paso County, Colo., Will Provide High-Speed Internet to Less-Populated Areas by Matt Steiner, The Gazette



Comcast’s $70 gigabit deal is shockingly difficult to sign up for by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica



Living without broadband still a reality for many towns by G. Michael Dobbs, The Reminder



Rural communities left behind due to lack of high-speed internet by Zack Orsborn, Daily Journal


North Carolina

Tillis helped big business monopolize internet services in NC by Bill Faison, News & Observer

One of the first pieces of anti-resident, pro-big business legislation to run through the House was the bill that Tillis now touts as being a taxpayer bill. It was not. It was a power and money grab by wealthy out-of-state companies to disadvantage North Carolina residents – nothing more. The residents lost.



Editorial: Embrace group's effort to bring high-speed broadband to Stark by Canton Repository Editorial Board



Commissioner, senator spar over broadband by Brian Graves, Cleveland Daily Banner

AT&T says Google Fiber's make ready pole proposal could compromise CWA contract by Sean Buckley




Seattle public broadband hinges on a President Hillary Clinton by Devin Glaser, Crosscut

But the party lines drawn at the national level aren’t reflected in the local communities aspiring to build these networks. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed over 150 communities with municipal networks, and found more than 70% of them voted reliably Republican.

“At the federal level there is more partisanship, while at the local level there is very little,” said Christopher Mitchell, the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute. “Local leaders tend to be more pragmatic. People in DC tend to be shaped much more by lobbying and powerful moneyed interests. At the federal and state level, they have little contact with the realities of Main Street, whereas they hear constantly from the big cable and telephone companies that everyone has good access and there are few problems.”



After Legal Defeat, US Mayors Vow to Continue Municipal Broadband Fight by Sam Gustin, Motherboard Vice 

In the wake of the ruling, some community broadband advocates say the focus must shift away from the FCC and toward the states that have passed laws restricting publicly-owned networks.

“We need to go state by state to overturn these laws, while working with cities to develop their networks,” Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, told Motherboard.

Mayors Slam Smackdown of Next Century Cities by John Eggerton, Multichannel News

City leaders support local broadband decisions by Amanda Ziadeh, GCN

U.S. Mayors Raise Concerns About Court Ruling Restricting Broadband Deployment by Amir Nasr, Morning Consult  

Google Fiber’s struggles highlight value in using existing dark, shared fiber assets by Sean Buckley, Fierce Telecom

While leveraging millimeter wireless is a less expensive alternative to wireline internet service, the service provider can also tap into a bevy of dark fiber networks being built in a number of U.S. cities. 

Three FCC Rural Broadband Experiment Awardees Rejected Over Letters of Credit by Joan Engebretson, Telecompetitor

Municipalities Dream Big on Broadband by Mariam Baksh, The American Prospect

For years, nearly 40 percent of people in rural America have been saddled with slow internet speeds and no opportunity to get broadband internet services which provide fast connections. Yet internet service providers (ISPs), such as AT&T and Verizon, that can’t turn enough profit from rural investments have also made it almost impossible for competitors to provide alternatives. With the assistance of groups like the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a network of state lawmakers and corporate officials, they’re spending millions of dollars lobbying for laws that bar municipalities from implementing alternative services.

Photo of the cow courtesy of Dominik Schraudolf via pixaby