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.
I hesitate to say, "know your enemy," because the carriers should not be our enemy. There are many ways these carriers can continue profiting even without damaging America's standing in international broadband rankings. However, they are instead attacking our efforts to regain parity with peer nations by forming astroturf groups to argue that only they can save us from the problems their lack of investment have created - and then only by reducing regulations on them. How convenient for them...
Thanks to Karl Bode for discussing how they operate:
The Minnesota Independent took Pawlenty's Administration to task last week for its decision to give more money to the telecom company front group Connected Nation. To be clear, this is not the money for infrastructure (yet - time will tell how the state encourages the feds to allocate the grants). This was the mapping money.
Peter Fleck, of PF Hyper blog, put it well:
“My understanding is that we have allowed the companies that have not provided the needed broadband coverage in our state to steer the broadband mapping process itself because of a stated need for confidentiality. That need is questionable,” said Fleck.
At a general discussion yesterday at the NATOA National Conference down here in New Orleans, I was stunned to hear someone from the muni world accept the idea that some municipalities do not want to compete with the private sector. I say stunned, not because I'm surprised to hear that some towns do not want to provide telecommunications services in competition with the private sector, but because towns "compete" with the private sector in many ways that go unnoticed.
Police and education are two examples in which every community provides services in competition with the private sector (security guards and private schools). Most communities have libraries - taking sales away from hard-working bookstores. Some towns provide municipal golf courses or public swimming pools. There are many ways in which it is acceptable for the public sector to "compete" with the private sector.
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:
Kudos to the New American Foundation's Open Technology Initiative (OTI). Earlier this week, I told Geoff Daily that we would all benefit from some form of a truth-in-labeling requirement for broadband. This should be a no-brainer that both the FCC and FTC embrace because it will educate subscribers and allow them to make better, more informed choices - which is a requirement for a functioning market.
One day later it became apparent that I was too slow in my idea, because OTI already had a prototype. They even have a sample label and have come up with a great set of required disclosures.
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
San Francisco has leveraged its municipally-owned fiber in a program to overcome the digital divide. Projects like this are a good early step for larger communities. First, invest in fiber to public buildings, schools, etc., to cut costs from leased lines (often, while upgrading capacity). Second, begin to leverage that fiber to increase affordable broadband availability in the community. Expand until community needs are met.
Glenn Fleishman, of the excellent Wi-Fi Net News, recently interviewed Mike McGinn, a candidate for Mayor of Seattle that has talked frequently about the need for a publicly owned full fiber network in the City.
Larger cities have been slow to move on publicly owned broadband, in part because they typically already have some level of service available throughout the city (though perhaps not universally). Fleishman rightly notes this:
The Chair of the Federal Communications Commission has taken a stand for network neutrality - the founding principle of openness of the Internet. In short, network neutrality means the entity providing you access to the Internet cannot interfere with the sites you choose to visit - it cannot speed them up or slow them down in order to increase their profits. See video at the bottom of this post for a longer explanation.
FCC Chair Julius Genachowski recently spoke at the Brookings Institution [pdf] on the importance of an open Internet. He started by noting many of the ways we depend on services delivered over the Internet:
In a recent post the NY Times Bits Blog, Saul Hansell reports "Verizon Boss Hangs Up on Landline Phone Business" - something we have long known. Nonetheless, this makes it even more official: private companies have no interest in bringing true broadband to everyone in the United States.
Verizon is happy to invest in next-generation networks in wealthy suburbs and large metro regions but people in rural areas - who have long dealt with decaying telephone infrastructure - will be lucky to get slow DSL speeds that leave them unable to participate in the digital age. These people will be spun off to other companies so Verizon can focus on the most profitable areas.
Harold Feld at Public Knowledge created another five minute video on broadband policy - embedded below - that I heartily recommend. This video fits in nicely with my recent posts discussing comments submitted to the FCC on the definition on broadband, and more recently, on why the definition matters. If you want to dig in deeper to Harold's comments, I recommend his blog. If you take one thing away, remember that broadband is not a simple market of sellers and buyers, it is an ecology - impacting everything from energy efficiency to education to entertainment ... and those are just some of the e's.
In all the wrangling over how we should define broadband, I wanted to step back and remember why the definition is important.
Information networks have become essential for business, education, and entertainment. The broadband definition originally meant something faster than the dial-up speeds that topped out at 56kbps. In the late 90's, any connection faster than dial-up pretty much supported all Internet activities.
Over the years, some connections got faster while the slower connections were expanded to more people across the United States. In 2009, people who remain stuck with dial-up would be happy to get the slow speeds that first became available when DSL and cable modems debuted. On the other hand, many no longer consider those connections (often in the neighborhood of 200kbps to 768kbps for download speeds and even slower for upload speeds) to be capable of supporting many modern applications.
Muniwireless.com recently noted "Eastern and Northern Europe driving broadband and FTTH growth." Of particular interest to us is the crucial role of public investments in creating that growth:
Roland Montagne also says that competition has been driving new FTTH/FTTB projects. He mentioned that more that 56% of the FTTH/B projects were conducted by public entities such as municipalities and utilities. Incumbents originated only 10.8% of the projects.
If we want to see competition in telecommunications, we need public ownership of networks. Private networks tend toward monopoly markets, communities should build a network to ensure competition, especially the robust competition that can only come with open access full fiber-optic networks.