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For Block Island, RI, a Better Network Could Be Blowin’ in the Wind

Eight strands of publicly available fiber optic cable made landfall on Block Island, Rhode Island this month, opening the door to Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP) for local businesses and residents. Local officials are moving forward with a once in a multi-generational opportunity to share an underwater cable with Deepwater Wind and National Grid. The energy companies are laying lines to the nearby Block Island Wind Farm

A Brief History of Eight Strands of Fiber

The island is home to only one municipality, New Shoreham, which covers the entire land mass. Block Island residents have struggled with poor utilities for more than a century. Located about 12 miles off the Rhode Island coast, the island has never been connected to the mainland electrical grid or Internet backhaul network. As a result, the town of about 1,000 year-round residents has reported the highest energy costs outside of Alaska and dismal Internet speeds of 2 Megabits per second (Mbps) or slower download and upload speeds that are even more lethargic.

Local residents have put up with unreliable DSL Internet access from incumbent provider Verizon; it delivers service via microwave antennae. The island’s lack of bandwidth was the talk of the town in 2014 when up to 20,000 tourists flooded the network during the summer months:

  • “We have Verizon and live down in Franklin Swamp. No cell service. Our Internet is painfully slow unless you wake up super early. We have no choice but to disconnect when we come out to the island!”
  • “I was on the island for two weeks in July... We have Verizon and service was practically non-existent. My husband needed to complete some work and I was trying to update web pages I manage. Only had service downtown. Even the shop owners were having difficulties.”

Taking Advantage of the Sea Breeze

The first U.S. offshore wind farm is changing all of that. Eight years ago, Deepwater Wind and National Grid envisioned the five turbine pilot program they named the Block Island Wind Farm. Local officials convinced National Grid to include a mainland Internet connection in its undersea cable. Block Island Times reported on their success in 2012, 

“Deepwater will lay the cable at no cost to the town. At each end of the fiber optic cable, it would be the town’s responsibility to negotiate with a telecommunications service provider – be it Verizon, currently under fire for its DSL speeds here, or another provider.”

Options on the Horizon

The local government decided to move forward without Verizon. They hired a consultant in 2012 to advise the island on how to construct a publicly owned broadband network that will benefit future generations on Block Island. 

After a feasibility study in 2015, the town issued an RFI for potential partners - Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate a publicly owned network and potentially to build it. Earlier this year, the town narrowed down its options to two models under either GWI or Crocker Communications. From the RFI response memo

“Under both these models, the Town builds the complete (FTTP) network infrastructure, as well as the interconnection on the mainland from the National Grid cable to a negotiated point of presence for the selected provider. The Town is responsible for the fiber cable, electronics, real estate and structures. [The Town] received no responses under which the vendor would build a fiber network.”

Solving The Island Issue 

Block Island’s history is not unique - island communities often struggle to attract investment from larger ISPs as they are remote, sparsely populated, and often hilly. Islesboro, Maine, and Doe Bay, Washington, both suffered with unreliable, frustrating Internet connections and decided to take matters into their own hands. Islesboro’s 566 residents voted recently to bond and will build a gigabit FTTH network. Doe Bay became a self-reliant community with a fixed wireless system built and operated by its own residents

Early projections estimate a $4.3 million expense for Block Island’s network. Local residents are set to vote on bonding specifics at a town financial meeting later this summer. 

With the wind farm scheduled to be operational before the end of 2016 and the fiber network to be connected in early 2018, Block Island has taken massive steps towards a better future for its residents. They’ll be among the first communities in the world to power themselves with wind energy and own a next-generation fiber-optic network. 

Lakeland Considering Its Next Step In Florida

In August 2013, we reported on Lakeland, Florida’s dark fiber network that serves local schools, government facilities, and local businesses. Over the past year or so, community leaders have discussed whether or not to expand the use of Lakeland’s fiber resources.

A 2015 feasibility study suggested several other ways to use Lakeland’s existing 330 miles of fiber infrastructure to enhance connectivity for economic development and residential access. As the city examines its finances and its future in the coming months, city leaders are considering six avenues to meet the community’s needs. The options, some recommended by consultants, vary in type and investment and the City Commission will begin discussing the possibilities as they meet in the upcoming months.

Leaders Consider The Next Move

Lakeland is examining public policies that will encourage better connectivity, such as dig-once, permitting changes, and right-of-way regulations. With smart policies in place, Lakeland can lay the groundwork so they can build off progress made today.

In 2013, Polk Vision, a group of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals, along with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council developed the Polk County Broadband Plan. Another option is using the Plan as a guidepost and aligning Lakeland’s plan to support the goals set in the Polk County Plan. Connecting the schools to a larger network would be part of that plan.

Lakeland, like many other communities wants to give providers operating in the community today the opportunity to work with them to improve services. Another option the city will pursue is reaching out to providers in Lakeland and engaging in discussions to upgrade or expand services to better meet the needs of the community. (We haven't seen much success when communities pursue large incumbents, but smaller local providers are sometimes more willing to work with communities.)

SurfLakeland, the city’s free Wi-Fi service that is available in limited areas downtown, in parks, and at municipal facilities, could be expanded. According to Terry Brigman, Lakeland’s CIO and Director of IT, whatever course city leaders choose, the equipment for the free service is due for an upgrade. SurfLakeland has been available for approximately ten years.

Another possible move will be a pilot project to determine how a larger network might do in Lakeland. Pilot projects are becoming more common as a way to test the waters and can help prove that potential subscribers are willing to switch from traditional providers to a new venture. We’ve reported on a growing number of pilot projects in recent years, including Westfield, Massachusetts; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; and Owensboro, Kentucky.

The City Commission will also consider releasing a Request for Information (RFI) to seek out a partner to develop a plan to improve connectivity in Lakeland with infrastructure deployment. 

A Hard Look At The Numbers

Community leaders in Lakeland reviewed the study and are discussing several recommendations. The consulting firm also suggested using city fiber resources as a basis for a more extensive network and that the city branch out to launch as an open access provider, or a retail services provider to businesses in select areas. Another option is to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services to every property within the city limits or within the Lakeland Electric service territory. The authors of the study estimated an FTTH in Lakeland would cost from $220 - $270 million if it's built out over the Lakeland Electric service area and would pay for itself in six to seven years.

In March, the City’s Chief Financial Officer gave his opinion about a potential FTTH project. In his opinion, the consultant's recommendation is too risky because “margins of error are too thin” based on the study’s authors' predictions of a 40 percent take rate.

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The financing, calculated on 20-year bonds, required price increases of 1.5 percent every year.

He went on to say, however, that he did not think the city should abandon the idea of finding a way to bring better connectivity to Lakeland, but that, “I'm simply saying the model we were presented that involved the city purchasing, managing (and) maintaining a broadband system is not feasible."

Support, Adversity Still Alive

Earlier this month, the Ledger reported that Commissioners discussing the issue said that, if the results of the financial analysis and risk assessment still due from the consultants are favorable, they will consider creating a publicly owned and operated Internet utility. Out of seven Commissioners attending the meeting, five expressed support.

A grassroots citizens' initiative, Gigabit Lakeland, has also sprung up in the community and encourages citizens to sign an online petition. They want community leaders to use of the existing publicly owned fiber to bring more choice to Lakeland. Currently, there is a small amount of Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks cable Internet access (which is now owned by Charter Communications).

While residents have expressed support for taking action, economic development and better business connectivity is on everyone’s mind. In March, the Ledger reported (reprinted at GovTech) on a meeting of the Downtown Lakeland Partnership, a group of business leaders:

Ellen Simms, the co-owner of Two Hens and a Hound, said that for a decade her connection has fizzled out when it rains and she can't get the provider to fix it. 

Kate Lake, who hosted the meeting with [Lakeland CIO Terry] Brigman at her business, My Office & More, said the dedicated fiber optics line she pays for at her shared office for hire "is killing me." 

"I'm paying through the teeth." 

Brigman pointed out at the meeting that the Lakeland-Winter Haven metropolitan area was determined to be the seventh worst served area in the country, according to Polk Vision. "We don't have what we need," he said. "We don't have what we need to compete with our neighbors." 

As expected, the incumbent providers have expressed concern, warned of repercussions, and attended meetings but still chosen not to invest in the infrastructure Lakeland needs. Elected officials in Lakeland appear open minded to discussion but don’t have the patience to be put on an endless waiting list if owning their own network or working with a trusted partner is a possibility. From an October article in the Ledger:

"The demand for data services is growing exponentially and it will grow in our homes and grow in our businesses when we have access to it. That we don't have access to it is the limiting factor," not a lack of demand, [Commissioner Jim Malless] said.

He said the commission owes it to the "incumbent services," Bright House Networks and Verizon, to get their points of view and find out what plans they have for upgrading their services in Lakeland.

"To me, they can provide that service tomorrow. They choose not to, and if it's economics to them, we have to get over the hurdle for the economics for us," Malless said. "I'd really like to hear why you don't provide the service."

 

Albany, New York Studying Internet Access Needs

The city of Albany, New York (pop. 100,000) recently hired a consulting firm to study the high-speed Internet needs of the community, including possibly the municipality building its own fiber optic network.

The study will, among other things, “assess the strengths and weaknesses of Internet access currently available in the city,” according to a city news release

According to Albany officials, an estimated 30 to 50 percent of children in Upstate New York communities live in households that cannot afford broadband service in their homes.

The Albany study will also “investigate the extent of a digital divide in Albany that prevents some residents from getting fast and affordable Internet service at home or elsewhere,” and “recommend a prudent path, including funding opportunities, to ensure the City has a broadband network that is affordable and provides high-speed Internet access for all.”

Albany expects the consultant to complete its work before this summer. The Albany Community Development Agency is contributing $20,000 toward the study with the city pursuing additional funding.  

We asked officials at Albany City Hall if the feasibility study will include the city possibly building its own municipal network.  An official from Albany’s Broadband team responded, “The language in the broadband feasibility study purposely did not include specific solutions.” But, they added, “One of options certainly could be a municipal fiber network.”

Affordable Internet Service a Problem

In a January 22, 2016 press release, Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan said: 

 “Whether you’re a student or a business owner, we live in a world where high speed connections are essential to success. This study will provide the lay of the land of broadband in Albany and outline how we can move broadband service forward in a cost-efficient and timely manner, making sure we bridge any digital divide that prevents residents, especially schoolchildren, from getting affordable and fast broadband access.”

Study Follows Working Group Initiative 

The city’s study comes in the aftermath of work from Albany’s Broadband Initiative Working Group, which is comprised of representatives from the Albany Public Library, the Downtown and Central Ave BIDS, the City School District of Albany, Green Tech Charter School, the Albany Housing Authority, the Albany Promise, and the Center for Technology in Government at the University at Albany, as well as business leaders, according to the city. 

Councilman Still Seeking Commission

Despite the new feasibility study, Albany Councilman Judd Krasher told us he is still pursuing his ordinance proposal to form a city commission comprised of residents whose specific charge would be studying the feasibility of the municipality building its own high-speed Internet network. Krasher contended Mayor Sheehan’s Working Group really hasn’t given much consideration to a municipal built and owned network. 

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“I believe that Internet access is a necessity for people and not a privilege,” Krasher said. “For many people, it (Internet access) is out of reach.” 

Krasher suggested Albany might want to participate with one or more neighboring towns to build and operate a joint municipal high-speed Internet network.  His commission proposal comes out of frustration with Albany’s existing Internet service.

“Time Warner has a monopoly,” Krasher said.  “I don’t know any of my constituents who are happy with their customer service and pricing. They are not pleased with what they are getting from Time Warner.”

Internet speeds in Albany are also lackluster, with the average download speed just a shade over 20 Megabits per second (Mbps), Krasher said. And there are wide pockets of areas in Albany where upwards of 50 percent of poor residents cannot afford to have any Internet service, he said. In Albany, about 30 percent of the city’s population is black with 8 percent Hispanic and 4 percent Asian. 

Major Gaps Exist in New York’s Internet Service  

This latest news from Albany comes as major gaps persist in high speed Internet access in many parts of New York. Previously, MuniNetworks.org reported that FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625,000 state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide. 

We also noted that at hearings last year before the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC), political leaders and consumers from the cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS (a FTTH) fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they asked the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

Across his state, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has set a goal of bringing broadband to all New Yorkers by 2018.

AT&T Willing to Fetch for NSA, No Questions Asked

It has been an open secret that AT&T maintained a cozy relationship with the NSA, but only recently has the extent of that relationship been revealed. AT&T had no qualms about illegally providing enough Internet traffic data to forge a relationship fondly described by the NSA as a "highly collaborative." 

Edward J. Snowden provided documents chronicling the relationship; ProPublica and the New York Times reviewed them jointly. In that information:

One document reminds N.S.A. officials to be polite when visiting AT&T facilities, noting, “This is a partnership, not a contractual relationship.”

ProPublica and the New York Times reviewed the information and recently published articles on their joint findings. ProPublica's article describes how anything floating across domestic networks owned by AT&T was up for grabs and, in at least one documented case, involved international clients:

It provided technical assistance in carrying out a secret court order permitting the wiretapping of all Internet communications at the United Nations headquarters, a customer of AT&T.

The NSA’s top-secret budget in 2013 for the AT&T partnership was more than twice that of the next-largest such program, according to the documents. The company installed surveillance equipment in at least 17 of its Internet hubs on American soil, far more than its similarly sized competitor, Verizon. And its engineers were the first to try out new surveillance technologies invented by the eavesdropping agency.

Whether or not those data gathering programs still operate today is unclear. While AT&T is not identified by name in the documents provided by Snowden, former intelligence officers and corroborating evidence strongly suggest that the telecom giant is the company that exhibited an "extreme willingness to help" the NSA collect information for the Fairview program. 

Unsurprisingly, the terrorists attacks of September 11, 2001, stepped up activity within these programs. AT&T responded to warrantless surveillance "within days" by handing over emails and phone calls, according to the documents provided by Snowden. We doubt they did so out of patriotism, given their past enthusiasm to rip off local 9-11 centers. Verizon and MCI also participated but no other company accommodated the NSA so willingly or quickly as AT&T.

The report also documents how AT&T repeatedly goes the extra mile to please an overreaching government agency over the course of several decades. Including this, among other activities:

In September 2003, according to the previously undisclosed NSA documents, AT&T was the first partner to turn on a new collection capability that the NSA said amounted to a “‘live’ presence on the global net.” In one of its first months of operation, the Fairview program forwarded to the agency 400 billion Internet metadata records — which include who contacted whom and other details, but not what they said — and was “forwarding more than one million emails a day to the keyword selection system” at the agency headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland.

It was an earlier New York Times investigation that revealed NSA equipment installations at 17 AT&T facilities. The arrangement allowed the NSA a reach beyond AT&T customers due to peering agreements with other providers. AT&T was not only willing to hand over information on its own customers, but also eager to provide data from other providers' customers. Why not?

In an effort to make the NSA's workload lighter, it seems, AT&T even took on some of the surveillance labor itself. 

Many privacy advocates have suspected that AT&T was giving the NSA a copy of all Internet data to sift for itself. But one 2012 presentation says the spy agency does not “typically” have “direct access” to telecoms’ hubs. Instead, the telecoms have done the sifting and forwarded messages the government believes it may legally collect.

“Corporate sites are often controlled by the partner, who filters the communications before sending to NSA,” according to the presentation. This system sometimes leads to “delays” when the government sends new instructions, it added.

When the story of NSA spying first broke back in 2013 we noticed an article in the Guardian about Pete Ashdown from Xmission, one of the providers on the UTOPIA network. He was asked about customer data and privacy in this type of situation. There is a proper procedure and unlike lapdog AT&T, local providers with ties to their customers and the communities they serve, appreciate the gravity of their actions. When asked for private data by local, state, or federal officials:

"I would tell them I didn't need to respond if they didn't have a warrant, that (to do so) wouldn't be constitutional," the founder and chief executive, Pete Ashdown, said in an interview at his Salt Lake City headquarters.

Since 1998 he rejected dozens of law enforcement requests, including Department of Justice subpoenas, on the grounds they violated the US constitution and state law. "I would tell them, please send us a warrant, and then they'd just drop it."

The response is much different over at AT&T. When asked to about the information in the documents:

“We don’t comment on matters of national security,” an AT&T spokesman said.

They may not comment on it, but they sure do have an opinion. And an impact. When just one firm can single-handedly collect so much data and hand it over to the government without a clear legal process, we have a problem.

Image courtesy of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and licensed through Creative Commons.

Want a Gig? Ask Consultants the Right Questions

For years, we have been frustrated at the tendency of communities and consultants to view municipal fiber networks as a binary decision. Should we or shouldn't we? Should they or shouldn't they? At its worst, it is framed with the most expensive approach - borrowing for a citywide all-at-once approach.

Consider this framing by a recent story in a Portland, Oregon suburb from the Oregonian:

Hillsboro officials have heard back from the consultant they hired to examine the feasibility of building a municipal fiber network that would bring high-speed, lower-cost Internet service to city residents.

The answer? Don't do it.

Stories like this make my blood boil. It is the absolute wrong question. But to delve into it, I want to abstract away from any specific consultants or approaches. This is not a failing of a single consultant, but something we have seen to various degrees from many.

Jumping ahead, the correct approach is to develop a description of the problems a community faces or wants to solve relating to Internet access. Then, examine a variety of approaches to pick the best option rather than only evaluating the single most expensive option.

Some consultants are very happy to bid a project, answer a narrow question, and then let the community go on its perhaps puzzled way. They have the list of phone poll questions, the spreadsheet full of assumptions, and final feasibility report template all ready for the next community. (We do not offer consulting services.)

Other consultants go out of their way to educate, guide, and otherwise help the community develop and achieve its objectives. These consultants may appear to cost a bit more, but actually can be much more cost effective. Some consultants bid the bare minimum, planning to charge extra later for supposedly supplemental information that is actually essential for continuing the process.

A consultant should be a guide to achieving objectives rather than simply evaluating a single, likely over-simplified question. It all starts with what questions a community asks. After doing some initial research (possibly perusing our Community Connectivity Toolkit), community leaders may be tempted to ask a consultant whether they should build a citywide municipal fiber network.

This is not recommended. Instead, we recommend developing a vision (discussed in our Santa Monica City Net case study).

What is the primary problem that needs to be solved? Hint: It isn't "how do we get a gig??" Be more specific. Common problems include poor business service availability that discourages economic development opportunities, slow connectivity, high prices (for residents or businesses or both), poor reliability, lack of access for historically marginalized populations etc.

Identifying specific problems is important because the preferred solutions for encouraging economic development will be different from those focusing on connecting low-income neighborhoods.

Having established the problems, the vision needs a sense of the opportunities from policy options. Here it is important to remember that the same technology deployed by different entities will create different opportunities. If Chattanooga had decided to beg Verizon for FiOS rather than building their own network, they wouldn't have created thousands of jobs and wouldn't have one of the best networks in the nation today. But both FiOS and Chattanooga's fiber network are technically similar. A FTTH network owned by a massive telco can have dramatically different outcomes than a FTTH network owned by a community. The tradeoff is the responsibility of running the system, likely over decades.

After establishing the problems and opportunities, the consultant should be charged with recommending paths to achieve the vision. "No" is not acceptable answer. An acceptable answer is an analysis that explains how the community can trade off cost, time, risks, and benefits. That is to say a community may decide to take greater risks in anticipation of greater benefits by borrowing significantly to rapidly build a citywide network. Or a community may decide to minimize risk with incremental investments over many years to expand conduit and fiber in the first phases of a long term plan. There are many permutations.

In the year 2015, municipal fiber is not a yes/no question. The models are many and varied - the best question is what does the community need and how motivated it is to take meaningful action.

Had Hillsboro taken this path, they would have a variety of options to discuss to solve the problems with connectivity that were demonstrated by the study. But instead, they have a document that only examined high risk, high cost approaches and found the recommended project to be "marginally viable."

If I were an elected official there, I would be examining what low cost incremental strategies could improve access to the Internet locally.

As a final thought, this is not just a problem with consultants. There are definitely elected officials who are privately happy to hear that a project is not feasible because it gives them cover to take no action. If they were already hesitant to upset power cable and telephone companies, they then have a document that "proves" the costs are too great to take any action.

New Report on Bandwidth Caps From Open Technology Institute

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) at the New America Foundation recently released its report on bandwidth caps. "Artificial Scarcity: How Data Caps Harm Consumers and Innovation" is the latest warning about an issue with grave implications. The PDF is now available to download

Last November, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) released a report [PDF] with serious comments on how ISPs might abuse their power through bandwidth caps. In that report, the GAO strongly suggested the FCC take action.

This report by Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey further examines how this profit grabbing technique from the big ISPs impacts consumer decisions and usage. 

From the OTI press release:

In this paper, we examine the growth and impact of usage-based pricing and data caps on wired and mobile broadband services in the United States. We analyze the financial incentive that Internet service providers (ISPs) have to implement these usage limits and discuss research that demonstrates how these policies affect consumer behavior. In particular, we explain how data caps can make it harder for consumers to make informed choices; decrease the adoption and use of existing and new online services; and undermine online security.

It is also increasingly clear that data caps have a disproportionate impact on low-income and minority populations as well as groups like telecommuters and students. In the conclusion, we urge the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), particularly as the new Open Internet Order goes into effect, to open up a serious inquiry into whether data caps are an acceptable business practice.  

In addition to their own data and conclusions, Kehl and Lucey provide information to many other resources that tackle the implications of bandwidth caps. As consumers' need for bandwidth increases with their changing Internet habits, this topic will only become more pressing.

Grover Beach Chooses Local Partner to Improve Local Connectivity for Businesses

After several years of considering options for a municipal network, the community of Grover Beach, California, is improving local connectivity options through a collaboration with private partner Digital West

According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the City struck a deal last fall with the local firm that will provide gigabit connectivity to local business customers. A city staff report states that Grover Beach will install and own a series of conduit that will house fiber owned by Digital West. 

The company, a data storage and web hosting firm located in nearby San Luis Obispo, will manage the fiber network. Digital West will lease conduit space from the city for 5.1% of its gross revenue from its operation of the private portion of the system. The initial lease is for a 10-year term. The company will also transfer ownership of some of the fiber to the city for public purposes. San Luis Obispo (SLO) County also wants to connect its facilities in the area and will contribute to the cost of the project. It appears as though SLO County will use the fiber provided to Grover Beach.

Grover Beach will contribute $500,000; SLO County will contribute $268,000; Digital West will contribute $159,000 to the total cost of $927,000 of the project. The parties agree that the city's contribution will be capped at $500,000. The staff report recommends an interdepartmental loan to finance the city's portion of the conduit installation.

Digital West has been an instrumental player in the city's quest for improved connectivity for several years. The company provides Internet service in SLO County and manages a private network offering connectivity, colocation, and cloud services to commercial clients. 

Grover Beach is also the location of the Pacific Crossing trans-Pacific fiber cable, connecting to Shima, Japan. In 2009, Digital West began working with Grover Beach to find ways to take advantage of the pipe. The city and Digital West have sence developed a Technology Master Plan and an Implementation Plan.

AT&T, Level 3, CenturyLink, and Verizon operate in the area, but Digital West plans to offer more affordable options. The city's vision includes providing more options for the numerous small businesses and to encourage more home based business. The staff report quoted Digital West estimated pricing at $100 per month for 100 Mbps and $150 per month for 1 gigabit service. Similar services in the area run between $250 per month and $500 per month according to the report.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 12, 2014

This week in Community Broadband networks... partnerships, cooperatives, and going-it-alone. For a background in muni networks, check out this recent article from FiscalNote. The article highlights Kansas and Utah's fight for improving beyond the minimum speeds. 

Speaking of minimum, the FCC announced its new "rock bottom" for regulated broadband speeds. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin reports that despite AT&T, Verizon, and the National Cable and Telecom Association's protests, ISPs that use government subsidies to build rural broadband networks must provide speeds of at least 10 Mbps for downloads.

Rural Americans should not be left behind those who live in big cities, the FCC announcement today said. "According to recent data, 99 percent of Americans living in urban areas have access to fixed broadband speeds of 10/1, which can accommodate more modern applications and uses. Moreover, the vast majority of urban households are able to subscribe to even faster service," the FCC said.

The FCC plans to offer nearly $1.8 billion a year to carriers willing to expand service to 5 million rural Americans. 

This is a step in the right direction, but we are alarmed to see a download:upload ratio of 10:1. People in rural areas need to upload as well as download - our comments to the FCC strongly recommended raising the upstream threshold as well and we are very disappointed to see that remain a pathetic 1 Mbps.

And, from TechDirt's own "who can you trust if you can't trust the phone company department," Karl Bode found that a study by the AT&T-funded Progressive Policy Institute concluded that if Title II regulations were passed, the nation would be "awash in $15 billion in various new Federal and State taxes and fees. Bode writes that the study cherry-picked and conflated data:

The reality the broadband industry doesn't want to acknowledge is that very little changes for it under Title II if carriers aren't engaged in bad behavior. The broadband industry is fighting Title II solely to protect potential revenues generated from abusing uncompetitive markets. That this self-serving behavior is being dressed up as concern about the size of your broadband bill is the industry's best comedic work to date.

Cities Pursuing Community Broadband

Nancy Scola reported on the growing collective of "Next Century Cities." 

[The group's] early expansion is a signal of what seems to be a shift in the way Americans are thinking about high-speed Internet access: the idea that cities will the battlegrounds for the playing out of the broadband debates. One effect of these cities working so closely with Google as it rolls out its fiber network in places like Kansas City and Austin is a realization that mayors can take broadband into their own hands -- whether that's through a municipal solution like Chattanooga's gigabit network or through partnering with traditional Internet service providers such as Comcast or Time Warner Cable.

Other partnerships are also moving muni networks forward

At the same time as the Next Century Cities announcement, the Department of Agriculture announced $190.5 million in grants and loans for rural broadband and telecommunications infrastructure.

"Modern telecommunications and broadband access is now as essential to the businesses and residents of rural America as electricity was in the 1930s," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, in a USDA statement. The funding will go towards providing, “broadband in areas that lack it, help rural-serving public television stations begin using digital broadcasts and support other telecommunications infrastructure improvements."

Jason Meyers with LightReading explains why utility companies (like EPB in Chattanooga) are positioned so well to be home to gigabit networks.  

Several communities are considering local options for networks. Some are just in the earliest study phases: Medina County and Athens in Ohio and Walla Walla, Washington are among them. RS Fiber in Minnesota has approved its updated business plan and financial strategy, meaning it can move forward with its cooperative network, and several communities in Northeastern Oklahoma are pursuing a cooperative plan as well.

It looks like the push for local options in Colorado is having an affect on other communities. Aspen and Pitkin County have submitted requests for proposals-- perhaps inspired by Longmont, Boulder, and the rest of the communities we reported on after the November referenda.  

Meantime, Bruce Kushnick with the Huffington Post reported this week that communities all over the country have been paying for fiber infrastructure upgrades, but have seen almost none of the investment. 

Starting in 1991, the phone companies went state-to-state to get changes in state laws, known as "alternative regulations" to charge customers for the replacement of the copper wires that were part of the state-based utility, like Verizon New Jersey, with a fiber optic wire capable of 45 Mbps in both directions, the standard speed for broadband in 1992.

And though it varied by state, this fiber optic wiring was to be done everywhere -- urban, rural, and suburban, rich and poor communities and cities, and even the schools were to be wired in some states. All customers were paying for the upgrades of this future fiber optic broadband utility so they all deserved to be upgraded.

Check it out and see if your community is on the list. And if you think this isn't the first time you've heard about this Big Ripoff, you're right-- We interviewed him on Community Broadband Bits Episode 28

Net Neutrality

This week, New Jersey's Cory Booker and Maine's Angus King defended net neutrality on CNN. 

The Internet is one of the most powerful tools on the planet. Across the globe, millions of people connect every minute of every day to harness its wealth of information, exchange ideas in an open platform and foster the type of innovation and entrepreneurship that spurs economic growth.

And today, it's never been more at risk in the United States.

Washington Post's Brian Fung reported that there are hints that the telecom industry is preparing for a new Title II reclassification. Verizon's CFO Francis Shammo said, in a nutshell, that the company would do just fine if the FCC imposed the stricter regulations. 

"I mean to be real clear, I mean this does not influence the way we invest. I mean we're going to continue to invest in our networks and our platforms, both in Wireless and Wireline FiOS and where we need to. So nothing will influence that. I mean if you think about it, look, I mean we were born out of a highly regulated company, so we know how this operates.

Despite this very clear statement, we expect to see still more claims from groups like the AT&T puppet Progressive Policy Institute that Title II would somehow cause major carriers to invest even less in networks across the United States. Though, if the market were half as competitive as they claim, any firm that invested less would be in big trouble! How do we know when they are lying? Well, are their lips moving?

Small Town Volunteers in Massachusetts Begin Pole Inventory

Volunteers in Shutesbury will fan out this weekend to perform a "pole inventory blitz" reports the GazetteNet.com. The town of approximately 1,800 people sits near Leverett and faces many of the same difficulties with connectivity. 

Shutesbury and Leverett were working together a few years ago hoping to develop a solution to bring infrastructure to both communities. The two communities approached Verizon and Comcast asking for better connectivity, but their requests led to nothing. Eventually, Leverett became frustrated and broke out on their own. They are now deploying their own fiber network.

One of the first steps in determining the feasibility and costs to deploy a fiber network is accurately evaluating assets. Many local communities do not have an up-to-date inventory of utility poles or what entities own those poles. In Lake County, Minnesota, Frontier Communications asserted ownership of utility poles in the town of Two Harbors after fiber had been strung on those poles. Unfortunately, the county's records had not been revisited in some time and Frontier was able to produce records put ownership in question. The project was significantly delayed; planners eventually moved more fiber underground to avoid many of those poles. Pole inventories and due diligence, as in Shutesbury, help avoid delays and unanticipated cost increases. (Read all about Lake County's project in our recent report, All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models For Exanding Fiber Internet Access)

Most Shutesbury residents use Verizon DSL, satellite, or dial-up and the community knows it needs better access. In an effort to obtain connectivity that will ensure fast, affordable, reliable services in the future, Shutesbury is taking inspiration from its neighbor. The city does not have any specific plans for a municipal network but is realistic about lack of interest from private investment.

The committee originally formed to work on the issue with Leverett began meeting again last April and has organized volunteers to get the process started. On November 8th, 60 volunteers will go out in teams of 3 in order to accurately collect information on utility poles in the 27.2 square-mile town. They will use a special iPad app developed by one of the Shutesbury Broadband Committee Co-Chairwomen, Gayle Huntress.

Asha Strazzero-Wild, another co-chairwoman of the Broadband Committee told the GazetteNet that the community is painfully aware of the lack of connectivity in Shutesbury:

“Everyone who’s involved in this is saying we need broadband and we need it yesterday.”

Verizon Engaged in IP Transition With No Rules: Where is the FCC?

Public Knowledge, The Utility Reform Network (TURN), and a long list of other public interest groups, recently filed a letter with the FCC urging the agency to launch an investigation. Specifically, the alliance asks the FCC to look into reports that Verizon is forcing customers to move from copper lines to fiber IP-based service. From the letter:

The Commission must begin investigating this issue quickly, lest inaction send carriers the message that abandoning customers in violation of their legal obligations is acceptable. Delay will only lead to carriers hanging up on more customers at a time when basic communications service is more important than ever.

In California, New York, New Jersey, and DC, large corporate carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, and Frontier are not maintaining traditional copper lines. Public Knowledge and TURN note in their letter that in Maryland, the state's Office of the People's Counsel found that "Verizon routinely migrates customers from the copper network to unregulated services with inadequate procedures for customer notice and consent."

We noted last summer that Verizon faced criticism for transitioning residents in the Catskills and in New York City to VoiceLink without disclosing the full limitations of the service. This was the tip of the iceberg. Verizon has failed to repair copper lines when requested. People in some areas of New York City have been told they must upgrade to FiOS in order to get phone service. There are even some customers who have been told they cannot order stand alone telephone service.

Because IP-based services are not yet regulated, carriers will not be obliged to provide services to everyone or to maintain communications infrastructure as they must with copper lines. 

The full text of the letter [PDF] and exhibits [PDF] provide details on Verizon's purposeful neglect of existing copper lines, customer service tactics to push customers on to IP services, and more about the company's nation-wide strategy. From the letter:

The problems that have garnered public attention so far are geographically widespread, and the Commission must take seriously the likelihood that these problems are occurring in many more states, leaving an unknown number of people with substandard basic communications service. This state of affairs is unacceptable. The Commission must now assert its leadership in this area, work with states where consumers are being denied adequate basic service, investigate places where customers are losing reliable basic voice service, and ensure that our country is living up to its commitment to provide basic communications service to everyone.

TURN wants Verizon customers to contact them, if they have experienced similar problems with the provider.