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.
Craig Settles recently wrote "Debunking Myths about Government-Run Broadband" to defend publicly owned networks (the title is unfortunate as many networks are publicly owned but not necessarily run directly by the government). Nonetheless, he tackles several false claims commonly levied against public networks and offers an entertaining rebuff to those rascally incumbents down in North Carolina that keep trying to buy legislation to protect themselves from competition:
This is a slightly older story, but I wanted to make sure it made the rounds.
In "FCC Hires Industry Shill to Develop US National Broadband Plan," OpenLeft.com's Chris Bowers details the shady history of Scott Wallstein, the economics director of the FCC broadband task force.
His past affiliations and quotes regarding the state of broadband in the U.S. are quite troubling. He has said that the U.S. does not have a broadband problem and has a long history of working with "coin operated" think tanks like Progress and Freedom Foundation (so named because they tend to produce reports justifying whatever their corporate funders desire).
Our focus on the broadband stimulus is almost entirely on last-mile infrastructure because it is the most challenging and expensive problem to solve before all Americans will have affordable access to the broadband networks they need in the modern era. As we are most familiar with Minnesota, we decided to take an in-depth look on who is proposing what projects in our state.
Total Infrastructure Grants Requested for Last Mile solely in MN: at least $240 million
Total Infrastructure Loans Requested for Last Mile solely in MN: at least $85 million
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.