The FCC recently asked for comments about how broadband should be defined. There was a marked difference between those who put community needs first and those who put profits first. Companies like AT&T and Comcast were quick to argue that the FCC should not change the definition of broadband for reasons ranging from too much paperwork to the suggestion that rural people have no need for VoIP. The honest approach would have been for these companies to say they do not want a higher definition because it will change their business plans, likely requiring them to invest in better networks for communities, and that will hurt their short term profits.
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.
Johnson City, Tennessee, is considering the pros and cons of expanding the fiber network its public electrical utility is installing to connect substations in order to improve grid reliability. They may follow the example of many other Tennessee public utilities that have offered broadband services to residents, creating competition in a sector sorely needing it.
They will need to speed the process along if they are going to get any stimulus money - many communities have been considering these options for longer and are ready with plans.
Catching up a variety of recent stories:
An article from the Lafayette Advertiser notes: LUS Fiber plans faster rollout. Community networks are frequently attacked by incumbent groups and private providers for failing to immediately turn a profit after launching a network (something we have addressed here). LUS Fiber wisely started slow and will now start to ramp up the number of customers as they progress further along the learning curve of running the fiber-optic network.
Minnesota is now in poor company, along with several other states that have chosen to use telecom industry-backed Connected Nation (if unfamiliar with CN, read this report) to supply data from Minnesota to the federal government as part of the national broadband map that is being constructed.
Just how this came about explains why a group like Connected Nation thrives in the current telecommunications arena.
Mike O'Connor, the urban users' representative on the Minnesota Governor's Broadband Task Force, explains that the Minnesota Department of Commerce and Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) chose Connected Nation absent any public discussion or even consultation of the broadband task force.
Folks who are mostly interested in broadband are probably unfamiliar with video franchising laws. Many people still apparently believe that cable companies are able to get exclusive franchises from the city (granting them a monopoly on providing cable television). However, that is not true and has not been true for many years.
Most cable companies still have a de facto monopoly because it is extremely difficult to overbuild an existing cable company - the incumbent has most of the advantages and building a citywide network is extremely expensive. This is not a naturally competitive market; it is actually a natural monopoly.
The July/August issue of Broadband Properties features a number of stories relating to community broadband. Editor Masha Zager explains how the stimulus rules hurt communities:
The NOFA explicitly calls 768/200 Kbps broadband “sufficient access to broadband service to facilitate rural economic development,” but how many jobs will this kind of broadband really attract to a depressed area? How many new services can service providers sell over such networks? Will the networks support public needs for distance education or health care? And how long will it be before the equipment has to be replaced? In the words of a rural telco manager I spoke with recently, “You want to put money into something long-term if you’re going to start building networks. Don’t build something you’ll have to throw away in two or three years.”
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.
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.
Geoff Daily recently put up "Hey FCC: Stop Ignoring Municipal Broadband!" It is a sentiment I wholeheartedly echo and amplify. If the FCC is going to chart a course for where America is heading, it should start with some communities who are already there - Burlington, VT and Lafayette, LA. These communities have built (Burlington) or are building (Lafayette) that networks that everyone will need if America will retain is leadership position in the 21st century.
There are communities across the country that have found success building and operating their own broadband networks. Despite the caricature that municipal broadband invariably leads to boondoggles, that's just simply not the reality.
Cecilia Kang, telecom writer for the Washington Post, recently looked into why major carriers are not applying to the broadband stimulus program.
The implication of the title - "Major Carriers Shun Broadband Stimulus: Funds would come with tighter rules" is because of the rules. I'm sure she didn't write the title or sub, that usually goes to the editor. But it would appear whoever wrote the title did not read the piece because she shows that the rules are a minor factor at best.
When it comes to the National Broadband Plan that the FCC is tasked with developing, we at muninetworks.org have a red line. No matter what the federal policy, all communities must reserve the right to invest in and own their own networks. These networks are essential infrastructure; no community must be left incapable of securing its future prosperity.
I therefore lay down the following principle: That where a community--a city or county or a district--is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of Government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up, after a fair referendum to its voters has been had, its own governmentally owned and operated service.
FairPoint's lobbyists in Maine have gone on the offensive, arguing that another group attempting to get stimulus funds is competing unfairly. FairPoint, you may remember, has already accomplished the improbable: it took over the dilapidated networks in New England from Verizon and made them worse. The charge of unfair competition, even if it were true, would be silly because FairPoint has proven it cannot provide these important services.
Karl Bode put Fairpoint in its place:
Folks in the Isle of Wight County in Virginia are looking to Wilson, NC, (which runs its own FTTH network called Greenlight) for inspiration as Charter will not expand broadband access locally. Interestingly, industry-backed Connected Nation would not consider these people to be unserved because they could buy wireless broadband cards that offer slow speeds at expensive prices and are still often capped at a monthly transfer of 5 Gigabytes ... which is to say not really a broadband option.
Charter will not expand their cable networks because
Charter requires that an area have a density of at least 30 rooftops per square mile in order to offer service, which leaves large swaths of the county, especially southern and western areas, without access.
Sounds like a good opportunity to investigate a publicly owned network.
What can states do?
Many states want to improve broadband access for their citizens. Some states genuinely want to act and others are content to give some money to industry-front group Connected Nation and form a Task Force in order to give the appearance that they are doing something rather than actually taking action.
However, the problem is difficult because in a time of severe budget crunches, states may not have the funds to invest directly in infrastructure or help communities do so themselves. There are some options - and I recently highlighted one: Virginia's Broadband Infrastructure Loan Fund.