I've often wondered what it would look like if a reporter wrote about a Wi-Fi network without any ideological baggage to slam it. Now you can see - Mollee Francisco wrote a lengthy and fair article for a local paper in Chaska, a suburb of Minneapolis. Like so many publicly owned citywide Wi-Fi networks, Chaska.Net accomplished many goals but was a disappointment for others. In particular, it was more expensive and the technology was more difficult than expected, but it introduced faster broadband than was available at the time. It continues to service 2100 customers, one of which is a household with close friends of mine. They love having the option of taking service from the City - they've been happy with the customer support and lower prices. That the speeds are slower than what cable networks offer doesn't bother them, they prefer to save the money. The article also discusses the wireless network in Buffalo, Minnesota, a city further away from the metro than Chaska that sees a brighter future for its public wireless network.
Tropos is a California-based company that sells wireless networking gear, frequently to municipalities. They filed comments with the FCC regarding the National Broadband Plan in response to the request: "Comment Sought on the Contribution of Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Government to Broadband."
We fully support their framing of the issue:
Municipalities that own and control their wireless broadband networks, operate public services more efficiently, prioritize broadband traffic for emergencies, and put unused bandwidth to use to attract new businesses, afford educational opportunities to students and in many cases, provide free broadband access to unserved or underserved residents.
Tropos calls for an end to preemption on community networks.
Congress should not adopt legislation that would prohibit local governments from building and operating broadband networks to provide services within a community. Local governments should have the freedom to make decisions on how they want to provide broadband within their community.
And finally, Tropos harkens back to the same political battles from one hundred years ago:
A century ago, when inexpensive electricity was available to only a small fraction of the U.S. population, incumbent suppliers of electricity sought to prevent the public sector from offering electricity for many of the same reasons incumbent broadband providers now argue against community broadband deployment and services. Back then, incumbents sought to limit competition by arguing that local governments didn’t have the expertise to offer something as complex as electricity. They argued that their own businesses would suffer if they faced competition from cities and towns. Local community leaders recognized that their economic survival and the health and welfare of their citizens depended on wiring their communities. They understood that it would take both private and public investment to bring electricity to all Americans. Fortunately, they prevailed. Just as municipal electric systems proved critical to making access to electric service universal in the 20th Century, municipal networks can be part of the solution in making broadband access universal in the 21st Century – and should be included in the build-out of a national broadband infrastructure.
As we have noted previously, Longmont, Colorado, has seen a number of private companies attempt to offer Wi-Fi broadband and then go out of business. As Colorado preempts local authority by requiring a referendum by the city before it can offer services itself, Longmont recently had a vote to authorize telecommunications services. Voters defeated the option.
As is common in these referendums, voters were blanketed with reasons to vote against it as incumbents (Qwest and Comcast) spent $200,000 opposing competition whereas the city is prevented by law from advocating for a ballot measure.
Now the Wi-Fi network will be auctioned off in pieces because it cannot pay taxes.
Ohio-based DHB Networks owes the Boulder County treasurer’s office $87,000 in unpaid business personal property tax, and the county demanded the company cease operations unless it pays those taxes.
DHB also owes the city of Longmont. Longmont-based RidgeviewTel is running the network, at least until the Wi-Fi equipment is auctioned off Thursday — at which point, 400 to 600 customers will be without Internet access, RidgeviewTel CEO Vince Jordan said.
Though the city already has fiber assets that could be used for backhaul as well as other expertise it could use in continuing to run the network, it cannot step in to run a network that would be useful to the community:
While the city can step in and operate the system, it would be only for municipal needs — such as police, fire and utility services — and not to provide Wi-Fi to customers.
“Our hands were always tied,” Roiniotis said. “We could buy the system and operate it, but only for our own purposes. We can’t provide the retail part of it.”
The city’s hands also were tied when it came to campaigning. State law bans governments from spending public money to campaign for or against local ballot questions.
Though 400-600 people may not seem like a lot of people to leave stranded, many of those on the network were the ones that needed a low cost alternative. This is one of the reason some hoped for a last minute resolution to the...Read more
Last year, Oklahoma City launched the world's largest muni Wi-Fi mesh network (not residential use, just public safety and other muni uses). Shortly thereafter, they won an award for the public safety aspects of the network.
A GovPro story now suggests networks like this Oklahoma City network could be leading a renaissance for muni wireless networks:
For instance, three years ago, Oklahoma City launched a muni-wireless broadband network using equipment from Tropos Networks covering 555 square miles. Today it has been adopted as the primary network used by all city departments.
Mark Meier, Oklahoma City’s chief technology officer recently indicated that the city has derived approximately $10 million in value from its broadband network to date. "Some of our critical public safety applications required redundant wireless connectivity, but the cellular data cards have remained virtually unused and handle less than 1 percent of our traffic which has resulted in significant cost savings for the city," he says.
Many have held up the CyberSpot Wi-Fi network in Florida's Saint Cloud as a successful example of public provisioning of wireless. From my perspective, the network was always interesting in that it did not attempt to pay for itself out of network revenues. The city built the network and provided services over the 15 square miles for free - they viewed it as a public service. The network start-up cost was $2.5 million and was funded by the Economic Development Fund. It cost another $370,000 each year in operating costs - some $30,000 a month. Some 77% of the city used the network within half a year according to Free Press. St. Cloud has some 30,000 people and had at least 8500 unique devices connect to it monthly in recent months - due to NAT routers (non-geeks, ignore this) we can safely assume that there are more than 8500 devices using the network. In order to keep the local taxes level, the City Council decided to cut Cyberspot along with a number of a other programs. Popular outrage led to another meeting in which many people testified that they wanted the network to remain funded. The Orlando Sentinel covered the extension of the city service for 3 more months and public reaction:
Scores of angry residents packed commission chambers Thursday, demanding that the city not pull the plug. " St. Cloud is not a hick town anymore," said resident Keith Harris. "We're country folks, but we're not backwards. One of the reasons for that is our Internet."
One of the people (in part 2 - the second video below) noted that the cost to him for raising taxes to cover CyberSpot would be a few dollars a month. The cost of eliminating CyberSpot to him is far greater - he will now have to pay ten times as much to get an Internet connection. I watched the first half hour of the meeting and found the public comments quite interesting. The rest are probably interesting as well - you can find all the videos here. Update: The network stopped offering public service on February 16, 2010.... Read more
On the Daily Yonder - offering coverage of rural issues - Craig Settles offers advice to community networks on the need to attract institution and business customers because networks rarely generate enough revenue to make debt payments by focusing solely on residential subscribers.
When communities compare the costs of different technologies, they often get too caught up in the upfront costs and ignore the ongoing costs (operating costs, or opex). He offers an example of a modest wireless network:
It’s important to understand that while it costs a lot of money to create a broadband network, over a five-to-ten-year period, it costs even more to operate that network than to build it. Say it costs $1 million to build a wireless network. During the municipal wireless heyday, it was estimated to cost 20% of buildout expense to operate the network annually – to pay for customer service, maintenance, upgrades, etc. That’s $200,000 a year.
This is a great intro article for those who may not be used to thinking about the economics or business plans networks need.
For the rest of us, it is a strong reminder of how many networks start (and a good path for those who want to create a network):
Santa Monica, California, had a legacy PBX phone system and slow connection circuits from incumbents. The city pooled money it was already paying for voice and data services, using this capital to build a fiber network and implement new communication technology.
City CIO Jory Wolf states, “By switching to fiber we realized a $500,000 savings in data circuits and $250,000 savings in voice circuits, all of which stayed in our fund. Ongoing savings enabled us to provide our police with video streaming in their vehicles. We have excess bandwidth, so we provide (a) large number of sites with free wireless access.” Wolf said that the city is also selling companies fiber lines that haven't yet been turned on. “Our network budget is self-sustaining,” he said, “and I have $2.5 million in capital.”
I remember Tim Nulty saying that Burlington Telecom started the same way. They figured out how much they were paying each month for telecom as a city. They used that number to compute how much they could spend...Read more
On Tuesday, September 15, EPB, the public power utility serving Chattanooga and nearby communities in Tennessee, rolled out fully fiber-powered triple-play services to 17,000, a number expected to grow by July 2010, when services will be available to some 100,000 people and businesses. It will take three years before all 160,000 potential subscribers are passed.
Chattanooga has had a relatively rough time creating the network due to the litigious nature of its incumbents, who have filed 4 lawsuits to stop the project only to have each of them dismissed by the courts. (This is a predictable outcome, many of these companies file frivolous lawsuits to intimidate communities with lost time and legal fees - leading to a no-lose situation for companies that invest more in lawyers than in the networks communities need in the modern economy.)
Prices and Options
All broadband speeds are symmetrical; prices by month
|15 Mbps and basic phone||$68.83|
|15 Mbps / basic phone / basic cable||$92.97|
|15 Mbps/ phone & 120 min long distance / 77 Channels||$117.24|
Caveats: an extra $5.99 a month for HD Capability on the TV, but even the basic phone package comes with caller ID and 3-way calling
The Tennessee Cable and Telecommunications Association kicked off the lawsuits in 2007 and Comcast chimed in a year later. As has been done in other communities, the private companies alleged the power utility was cross-subsidizing its triple-play telecom offering with revenues from the electric side. Aside from this just being a poor business practice, the companies say such cross-subsidization would be unfair to them even as major carriers routinely cross-subsidize from community to community - overcharging in non-competitive markets to make up for keeping prices low in competitive markets.
Nonetheless, public power companies and other public agencies have learned to keep meticulous books to show they are not cross-subsidizing, something courts recognize each time their time is wasted by lawsuit-happy incumbent providers.
EPB has long offered some...Read more
The second line of Rachel Carter's story at TimesCall.com captures the reason we care about community broadband networks:
But others argued that it’s not about whether the city will jump into the cable or Internet business; it’s about giving the city options and giving voters a choice.
Longmont, Colorado, will have a question on its November ballot asking whether the city should have the right to offer retail broadband services. This referendum is a requirement of Colorado state law (passed in June 2005 -- more details about that law from Baller.com [pdf]) for communities that want to offer such services to their community.
A number of people spoke at the city council meeting before they unanimously voted to put the question on the ballot. Responding to some who opposed giving citizens a chance to choose, one Council Member came up with quite the apt phrase:
Councilman Sean McCoy said the Comcast representatives and Denver attorneys who spoke against the ballot question tried to “put a shadow of a doubt” on it by using “red herring” issues. “I believe the concerns are more of an issue of ’not in my monopoly’ more than anything else,” he said.
Longmont has given the private sector plenty of chances to offer the broadband that citizens want - but they have failed to meet community needs. A number of private companies have tried to use the city's assets to build a wireless network: As detailed here, Kite Networks contracted with the city in 2006 to build a wireless network but ran out of money. In 2007, Gobility gave it a shot but also ran out of money. In stepped DHB, who completed the network.
It is not clear what has happened to DHB, but this suggests that many remain dissatisfied:
All council members supported the ballot question, although Mayor Roger Lange and Councilwoman Mary Blue questioned what the city may choose to do in the future. Lange said there are some telecommunications services that the city doesn’t need to jump into, but others — such as wireless...
Opponents of publicly owned broadband networks often hold up examples of wireless networks that did not turn out as planned -- more often than not, they ignorantly use examples of privately owned networks like Earthlink networks in Philly, Houston, or proposed privately owned networks in San Fran and Chicago.
It is true that many wireless networks (especially those using Wi-Fi) came in above projected costs and late. It is also true that this happened across all manner of network ownership types. GoMoorhead, a publicly owned Wi-Fi network in Minnesota, was recently sold to a private company - and I am working on a report about that. However, there was also a recent announcement that the privately owned wireless network being built in Burnsville, Minnesota, is behind schedule.
Frontier Communications expects to extend its Wi-Fi hot spot service to Burnsville's performing arts center this fall, but a company official admitted Friday that knitting together complete citywide coverage has gone more slowly than expected.
The phone provider for the southern part of Burnsville as well as Apple Valley, Farmington and Lakeville, Frontier had expected to have 90 percent of the city covered with a network of broadband Internet Wi-Fi hot spots by now.
But Frontier is still moving its wireless service from the south, where it kicked off service in October 2007, into the northern parts of the city.
Additionally, the public-private partnership in Minneapolis remains behind schedule (privately owned but built with substantial amounts of public money).
The problem is the technology - not the ownership. We continue to believe that the future should feature wireless as a complement to the more reliable and faster wired connections that should be available to everyone. But the more we talk to communities, the more we learn that wireless is more difficult to work with and often more expensive than expected.
There are so many interesting articles recently (some are actually a bit older than recent, I guess).
How did Sweden get so connected? BuddeBlog took a look at how Sweden has invested so greatly into advanced fiber networks. This short post looks at factors from geography to government policy that have helped.
Andrew Cohill, an advocate of both fiber and wireless networks, offers a simple explanation for why wireless can only be part of the solution to the problem of universal broadband. Wireless just cannot provide the same high reliability and speeds of wired connections.
Interestingly, of the 51 "constituents" brought in for the 8 most recent workshops, just five don't work for a corporation -- and zero of them act as witnesses for consumer interests (so clearly, you've got your work cut out for you).
And finally, Timothy Karr at Free Press has been unmasking astroturf groups funded by major carriers. Learn more with this fun widget (available here).