In 1999, the city of Spanish Forks in Utah began building a $7.5 million publicly owned cable network to offer broadband and cable television services. Since then, the network has created some $2 million in community savings from the lower rates created by competition. In February of 2009, Spanish Fork Community Network received the "Business of the Month" award from the local Chamber of Commerce.
Last month, they announced that they will be adding telephone services to the network by contracting with a private provider that will actually offer the service.
The Star Tribune ran my opinion piece on Monday, March 15
The vast majority of Minnesotans, like the rest of the country, are served by only two broadband suppliers: the cable or telephone company. These companies generally want to maintain their monopolies because they can postpone upgrades while keeping prices and profits high. Just about everyone else just wants a better choice among providers.
The result of this structure is that we pay much higher prices for slower internet connections than our peers in Europe and Asia.
The FCC has released its National Broadband Plan and I have perused it, in anticipation of digging into it. The vast majority of reactions seem to agree that it has some good parts and some disappointments. Karl Bode summarizes the plan nicely (as does Glenn Fleishman). From our perspective, it is good on a million details but disappointing on its solutions.
As is usual for me, I'll focus on wired networks.
A recent article from GovPro.com, "Cities make end run around data network obstructions," has a good discussion of why referendums are not a good way of ascertaining community support for a community network:
A 2005 Colorado law bans municipalities from providing any type of advanced telecommunications services unless more than 50 percent of the voters favor the plan. Longmont's ballot question asked voters to allow the city to provide services either directly or in partnership with a private company, but 57 percent of voters said no.
From what we have seen of the upcoming broadband plan, it looks to solve very little. Karl Bode explains why the National Broadband Plan will deliver everything but what it is supposed to. Basically, it comes down to an Administration that is unwilling to challenge very powerful private sector interests.
The main question we need to ask when the plan comes out is how the plan will increase the power of communities to succeed in the 21st century. For more than a decade, private companies have decided when communities will receive the utility of the 21st century: broadband Internet access. They have decided, without any oversight from the community, what speeds are available and at what prices. Towns regularly lose businesses because incumbent providers offer only overpriced, slow connections.
The good folks at Broadband Properties Magazine recently ran an article I wrote about Brigham City's use of a new financing model for FTTH networks. You can read it there in the nice layout and formatting, or here:
The UTOPIA project, an ambitious fiber-to-the-home network developed by a consortium of 16 Utah cities, has encountered difficulties that delayed its original buildout schedule. However, it is now building out fiber in Brigham City, one of the original cities in the consortium. Brigham City found a local solution to UTOPIA’s slow deployment schedule and created a model to speed buildout in willing communities.
Joe Abraham, from the University of Louisiana, recently addressed the LUS Fiber network in Lafayette. This is possibly the fastest and most affordable network in the entire country. Apparently, Joe has been asked by friends if they should switch to the new municipally owned network. His answer is an unequivocal yes - backed up by several points like it is a faster, cheaper service that strengthens the whole community. But really, I like this point:
Minnesota is one of the eighteen states that have enacted specific barriers to prevent the public sector from building networks (protecting incumbents from any competition). It presently has the uniquely high - 65% - referendum requirement on communities that want to build a network that will offer telephone services (which thereby includes all fiber-to-the-home triple play networks).
The Longmont Times-Call continues its coverage of the community network struggles of a Colorado community. This story has a lot of the history behind how Longmont developed a fiber ring and how they have used it even as they are prohibited from expanding it.
Longmont is not alone in working for upwards of a decade to bring better broadband to the community that actually meets local needs rather than maximizing profits. Other communities have also spent ten, fifteen, or even long with on-gain, off-again plans to build a publicly owned network. This reality provides a handy refutation of state preemptions based on the logic that communities will act too quickly in not considering their plan for a network. Communities take years in researching, planning, and developing networks.
Though it may not be a major selling point for communities considering building a network, they can offer tremendous research potential. Local communities are more approachable for researchers and more likely to form mutually beneficial partnerships. Consider an interesting story about the Oklahoma City Wi-Fi network and weather researchers.
This is a massive network -- at 555 square miles, the largest in the world. Local universities have teamed up with the city to closely monitor the weather constantly throughout the network. This data is useful in tracking how air currents move around a city - which is really helpful for those trying to understand and mitigate terrorist chemical or biological weapon attacks... for instance.
This is just one of some 200 applications the City uses its network for:
Folks in New Hampshire are fed up with the private carriers ignoring them and have started an initiative to build their own fiber-optic open access network. Looks like the site is pretty new, so check back for details.
Last summer, I predicted the NTIA's rules for the broadband stimulus would disadvantage the public sector and tilt the playing field toward the private sector. I was right.
With time and resources scarce and applications to review from nearly 2,200 entities, favoring vendors was less complicated because they wrote savvier proposals and required less follow-up, in Winogradoff's view.
Readers undoubtedly know that Google has proposed a limited fiber-to-the-home open access network rollout that will offer gigabit speeds. Communities are applying to be considered -- all we know at this point is that Google envisions ultimately serving some 50,000 - 500,000 subscribers.
Parts of this announcement are very exciting for those of us working to create better networks that serve community interests. I think the long term impact of it being open access may well dwarf the impact of having gigabit speeds available to some at "competitive" rates (though one wonders how rates can be competitive when the service is unlike any other?).