Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the Episode 66 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Ed Stern on wireless mesh pilot program in Poulsbo, Washington. Listen to this episode here.
Ed Stern: And these networks can be owned directly by the user, the people, rather than by a central, for-profit model that lends itself to legal challenge.
Lisa Gonzalez: Hi there. This is Lisa Gonzalez from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance with a Community Broadband Bits Podcast.
This week, Chris visits with Ed Stern. Ed is a Councilman from Poulsbo, Washington, and on the Board of Directors at the Association of Washington Cities. He's also a member of the Board of Directors of the Puget Sound Regional Council. Ed's been instrumental in the development of a pilot project from the Kitsap Public Utility District to offer free wireless services in Poulsbo. The project uses a mesh network, in which local businesses and neighborhoods band together to extend the network out by linking their own networks. This model allows local people to participate in achieving better connectivity, rather than hoping and waiting for incumbents to create the necessary infrastructure for them. Like many other communities we encounter, Poulsbo has some unique geography. While its residents enjoy a high quality of life, getting to work is a challenge. The Kitsap PUD's project encourages telework in an area known for its high concentration of tech companies. Poulsbo has supported the project with local measures to assist the PUD and by jumping into the role of guinea pig. Here are Chris and Ed.
Chris Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. Today, we're heading out to the West Coast. We're talking with Ed Stern, a City Council member for the city of Poulsbo, Washington. He's on the Board of Directors for the Association of Washington Cities, and he's on the Board of Directors for the Puget Sound Regional Council. Welcome to the show.
Ed Stern: Good morning, Christopher.
Chris: I'm really glad to have you here. We're going to talk about some interesting things that Poulsbo's done. You have sort of a unique situation with where you're located and where a lot of your residents go to work. But in addition to that, you've taken some ordinance changes in the conduit that we find interesting, to try and make it easier to deploy these networks. So, let's start with you telling us a little bit about the region, and where Poulsbo's located, and the demographics of the folks there.
Ed: Great. We're just across the water from Seattle -- this town with the big Space Needle. I think everybody's familiar. Home of Boeing and Microsoft and Amazon.com, and a host of others. We're that peninsula that the picturesque ferryboats cross to, at the foot of those big mountains. And so, we're both very close to Seattle, but unconnected physically, which has been an underlying driver for the necessity for good telecommunications infrastructure. And those efforts started some 15 years ago.
Chris: Terrific. Why don't you tell us about some of those efforts?
Ed: Well, we have the fourth-longest commute in the nation, and the ninth-highest density of knowledge workers in the nation. That's always seemed like a strange disconnect to me. And....
Chris: Is that because a lot of your residents are canoeing to work?
Ed: [laughs] They wish they were canoeing. They spend less time at work and more recreating. We have bridges, road, and ferryboats, all of which are paid for by the public taxpayer, at considerable cost to not only people's time but environment and just the cost of the transportation in their pocketbook. So all of that seemed like a natural -- how can we better take advantage of reducing the fourth-longest commute in the nation and taking advantage of the ninth-largest knowledge worker concentration base.
Chris: So you recognized you have these attributes in your community, and decided you had to take action ...
Chris : ... to make sure people could work from home and be effective, and you would encourage the sort of entrepreneurial spirit, I'm sure, that you have among a lot of your residents.
Chris: What specific steps did you take?
Ed: We formed a Regional Telecommunications Committee, in 1999. We brought the players to the table: the private sector, the public sector, electeds, technology workers, and just the general public that might have an interest. I called it a shake-and-bake strategy, Christopher. By bringing all the players to the table, without putting an emphasis on one group or another, we kind of just stirred the mix and got competitive juices flowing. Because as this kind of took momentum, those that had an inherent interest, say, in an incumbent provider, a telco, got a little bit more concerned about protecting their turf and marketshare. And the effort also encouraged those who weren't here to look at our market. And it was really a great effort in free capitalism bootstrapping. It was something to behold. And over the five-year period, we were able to step up Sprint and make this an "A" market -- a decision from Kansas City at that time. When we hadn't been an "A" market, we got U.S. West to look at it seriously. We got a number of point-of-presences installed, and got good fiber optic infrastructure going. Comcast came in with their coaxial. We got the DSL.
And then, along came -- unexpectedly -- the Kitsap Public Utility District, which is a story unto itself.
Chris: And the public utility districts in Washington are fairly unique, as far as it goes. There's more opportunities for local governments and communities throughout Washington, in these partnerships, than most states have. Because not only are the public utility districts have this electrical infrastructure, but they often have a telecom infrastructure to manage it, that other utilities haven't developed to the same level.
Ed: That's correct, Christopher. And ours was an odd beast. Ours is the oldest in the state, but it had only been a water district. Whereas the early players had been electric, as you point out, specifically associated with the dams on the Columbia River. So, because of the work on the Regional Telecommunications Committee, back in 1999, our local PUD noticed our efforts and began to question, could they play a role in telecommunications, given the high level of public awareness and interest in it. They were the last of the 15 original utility districts that formed what's called the Northwest Open Access Network -- NoaNet, ...
Ed: ... I think you've probably heard of them. They're very robust. They operate within the five states of the Northwest: California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana. And that's not a coincidence, that it overlays the Bonneville Power Administration service grid.
Chris: So what did Kitsap offer? What could they bring to the table to benefit Poulsbo?
Ed: Well, the whole county really. They were the last, smallest, and non-electric public utility provider to sign on board with NoaNet. They used their taxing authority and revenue generation from water to broaden their authority. And they brought in the fiber optic backbone, which is, in essence -- NoaNet operates with the excess fiber optic capacity of Bonneville Power Administration. In the early 1990s, Congress, recognizing the critical nature of the service territory of the Bonneville Power Administration, wanted to make it survivable to both natural and man-made catastrophes -- war, earthquake, you name it. So they brought in OC-192 to all the generating stations throughout that five-state region. That was THE biggest pipeline available.
Ed: And by the late 1990s, there was so much excess capacity on that system that it was recognized that perhaps then they could share some of this excess fiber optic with its junior partners, the utility districts. That's the essence of this -- one of the most robust public fiber optic systems in the United States, both in terms of capacity and in terms of geographic reach. In the state of Washington, Northwest Open Access Network is an independent corporate board formed of its membership, of those 15 or 16 public utility districts. And then ours, the Kitsap Public Utility District, was the smallest and oddest duck to join that. They brought in, starting in 2000, what amounted to 120 miles of fiber optic backbone. We had a lighting ceremony. And everything looked great. In 2001, the State Legislature, under considerable lobbying pressure, created a firewall from this new public utility fiber optic system players, saying that they could provide only wholesale access, not retail -- or, what you and I would call last-mile. So that was in the game plan almost from the beginning -- was this political Chinese firewall, saying, OK, we have this robust public fiber optic system, but we don't want to upset the economic structure that the private telcos and incumbents are playing by. They can sign up and take this capacity last-mile, mark it up, and sell it for retail. But the public utility districts -- uh uh, you can't go anywhere with it. And so that's been a problem -- or opportunity, or risk to overcome -- throughout this entire curve, Christopher.
Chris: Right. We've written about this in a number of other public utility districts, as well. And it's been interesting, over the years, that as there's been some disagreement among public utility districts as to whether to push for repeal or whether to keep it as is. Because a number of the public utility districts have developed these relationships, and they don't want to upset the people who have been using them as wholesale. And so, from our point of view, we always like to see maximal freedom and decide business models at the local level. So we've been hoping that such a law would be repealed, but it's been a hot potato year after year.
Ed: The question boils down to: is Internet access and fiber optic and broadband access an essential public service? And we've fought this battle, starting with education, 300 years ago, which was entirely in the private sector. Policing used to be entirely in the private sector. Water. Sewer. Most of those have moved entirely into the public sector. Nobody questions it. Equal access and common good. We're not quite there yet with telecommunications.
Chris: Well -- and some places are further ahead than others, as I think you're about to tell us.
Ed: Yeah. So, the fiber optic backbone was robustly built out. We garnered quite a bit of attention for it. We've done some state pilot projects, including the telework pilot project, that we received an award for in 2009, working with Microsoft and a number of others, to try and create a public portal template for both employer and employee, to encourage remote office telework. So we had both the infrastructure and now the applications: telework, e-medicine, and now online learning. So those are coming at various speeds on board, utilizing this. And then the next step was, how do we overcome finally getting that last mile done without upsetting the political applecart? The public utility district, using Poulsbo as the guinea pig, developed a plan for last-mile, not based on hard demark wiring to each user -- which is very expensive, as you know. Let, you know -- the idea behind the conduit ordinance we have here, on open roads and not tearing them up, is -- all has to do with moving out the broadband infrastructure physically. So the experiment was, what could be done using wireless mesh technology that's rapidly ramping up? And so, using a fiber optic backbone and main antenna, then a wireless mesh network that would broaden that reach and make it available. And as more people signed on board and -- hopefully, through local improvement districts -- put up their own small antennas, the wireless mesh network becomes not only more robust but redundant as well. So, it's a pretty exciting experiment. And we're delivering it to PUDs for free.
Chris: We discussed a wireless mesh, and how it differs from traditional wireless hub-and-spoke-type models about six months ago, in a different episode. So I would expect that people have some sense of it. Why was it important for you to go with a mesh, as opposed to just the more traditional wireless approach?
Ed: The idea is that people can own their own networks. Rather than a central provider -- and we get into the old conundrum of private versus public -- if it's people who own it, it's more defensible. There's more ownership. It doesn't exactly fit into the fight between retail and wholesale. And it's a way to leapfrog some of these arguments. Especially providing it for free. And currently it's a 300-megabit symmetrical upload-download. It's been working out very well.
Chris: You said it's free. I'm wondering, who's paying the minimal costs that there are for things like the 300 megabits?
Ed: We started in the downtown Poulsbo location, where building owners offered up both their building location, for an antenna, and covered the cost of the electricity, in order to create what you and I would traditionally call a hotspot. But the entire downtown's a hot area. It's not a hotspot. So, initially, it's the PUD buying the antennas, and the building owners and the private sector providing the site because they see it as important to customers and potential customers in attracting more activity in the downtown area. From there, it can build out into residential, potentially, where people in neighborhood associations could, through joint funding, form a coop-type structure, and then own that "next wave" of build-out, in order to provide for their own connectivity.
Chris: That answers most of the question I had. I just had one follow-up, which is, the ongoing sort of bandwidth costs. So, I mean, if I'm a user and I go to CNN.com, someone has to pay for that network to be connected, I'm presuming.
Ed: We're providing access to the broadband, the KPUD is. You still need to have -- you have to choose who your provider's going to be.
Chris: Oh, OK.
Ed: And so, there is the business model that provides for the private sector, doesn't step on any toes. And it's an experiment. It's called a pilot project for a reason. It's not a business model. But the idea, ultimately -- at least in my mind -- would be: we can form these coops. And these networks can be owned directly by the user, the people, rather than a central for-profit model that lends itself to legal challenge.
Chris: That makes a lot of sense. How's it being received?
Ed: Well, so far, it's in the technology-testing phase. We've just discovered recently that more and more people are relying on their cell phones, be it Android or iPhone or Windows platform on their cell phone -- those devices. And they need a special connection on the Wi-Fi wireless mesh network. And so, right now, it's in a stage where -- OK, we got the laptops, we got the iPads, we got some of these larger mobile devices connecting up without a problem. But those who are using their cell phones are very frustrated, 'cause they're getting the download signal, but they can't bounce back to it.
Ed: So we're having to lower antennas to almost street level. And that's the experiment that's going on right now. And pick up some of those shadows.
Chris: OK. Well, let's switch gears a little bit to talk about how you've changed the conduit ordinances, in order to, over time, improve access to the Internet as well. What have you done?
Ed: That was in the early 2000s, as the backbone was being built out. At the time that the fiber optic system was being built out, the ILECs and other incumbents were proprietary, and their distribution networks -- underground, over-ground -- and so all of it was having to be built from scratch. Or was an encumbrance to furthering the pubic fiber optics. We recognized that by the time it reached Poulsbo, since the others didn't want to play nice, and we don't want our streets ripped up, that we could create a conduit ordinance -- that any time the city had a street open, and/or a new development was coming in, we would require empty PVC to be put in, so that we were "neutral," and a truly open platform to any providers that would be showing up in the future -- both protecting, then, the investment in public infrastructure called roads, and encouraging and lessening the threshold cost of these distributed networks. So we created a conduit ordinance. It affects us in the city. And, any new development, you have to put in conduit underground and leave it open for any and all comers in telecommunications.
Chris: And has it had the desired effect?
Ed: Well, we've had some major residential developments, and a 214-acre commercial development, with the conduit in it. And so now they're able -- like the PUD or whatever provider it is -- to go and blow in the fiber optics through it.
Chris: Um hum.
Ed: So it just makes it much more encouraging, and much more cost-effective to provide state-of-the-art broadband. Yes, it works.
Chris: Have you had push-back from either developers or the existing telecom companies?
Ed: No. Because if you catch it at the right moment, when you're laying in sewer or water anyway, the cost of putting in x amount of certain grade PVC is -- I don't want to call it negligible, but it's marginal.
Chris: Is there anything else that we should know about Poulsbo before we sign off?
Ed: Well, we just -- we hope, both here and everywhere else, that we can take knowledge workers and instead of them competing on roads and bridges and, in this case, ferryboats, with those who have to get to work with their hands, that we could encourage them, part-time, to work from remote office or home. And this is a great experiment to do it here, because, as I mentioned, we have the ninth-largest concentration of knowledge workers in the United States ...
Ed: ... right now, driving every day -- ridiculously -- to work.
Chris: Right. Actually, I learned that Google had placed an additional facility in Seattle that they hadn't originally planned on, so it would have one on each side of those congested bridges, because they were -- they watched their employees wasting time on the bridge, and it became more valuable for them just to create the facility so they didn't have to cross the bridge.
Ed: Absolutely. And so, that makes this -- Puget Sound -- a great test bed for applications of broadband.
Chris: Great! Well, thank you so much for sharing what you've done, and some of the lessons.
Ed: Good. Well, thank you very much, Christopher.
Lisa: That was Chris, talking with Ed Stern from Poulsbo, Washington. We have a couple stories on the Kitsap PUD project in Poulsbo on muninetworks.org . You can learn more on the Kitsap telecom utility by going to their website at kpud.org . Thank you again for listening to the Broadband Bits Podcast. E-mail us at email@example.com if you have ideas for the show. And our handle on Twitter is @communitynets . Chris is a frequent tweeter, so be sure to follow us for some interesting conversation. This show was released on October 1st, 2013. Thank you again to the band Break the Bans for their song, "Escape," licensed using Creative Commons. And thank you for listening.