Tag: "washington"

Posted March 21, 2012 by lgonzalez

In past reporting, we have briefly discussed Pend Orielle PUD’s efforts at filling the broadband service gap in rural areas. People living in rural areas, while possibly needing connectivity more than urbanites, are often left to fend for themselves. In this case, the community was largely passed over by the private sector but took up the challenge to do it themselves. In addition to implementing a pilot program in 2011, they attempted to restore their right to make their own decisions about broadband.

In a commentary posted on the Pend Orielle PUD website, Commissioner Dan Peterson describes the agency’s commitment to their first priority, providing reliable electricity, and how expansion of their fiber network will improve the process of delivery. Yes, there are risks of building a community fiber-optic network, notes Peterson, but is has been done, done well, and will enhance the ability to fulfill that first priority. Additionally, the Commissioner notes that broadband access is something the people of Pend Orielle County need to stay competitive and gain any possible edge:

It increases educational opportunities, economic vitality, property values, and jobs. Our rural county will leap forward in this information age with state-of-the-art infrastructure. Without this gift, such progress is otherwise impossible.

The Pend Orielle PUD received stimulus funds, which it used to expand the network, but are considering the fiscal future of the network and current and future customers. Peterson and the PUD sought legislative changes, SB 6675, that would give the PUD the authority to offer retail services on its network, currently a no-no. In his commentary, Peterson attempted to allay the fears of those he correctly anticipated would be opposed to such authority – the potential competition.

Having the authority does not necessarily mean using that authority. We want local providers to be successful. We do not want to put anyone out of business. We will not compete unfairly. But we must ensure that this new PUD system pays its own way and does not raise electric rates...

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Posted March 14, 2012 by lgonzalez

Chelan PUD is asking the people of their rural community whether they “love” or “just like” their beleaguered and pioneering fiber-optic network. At a series of public input meetings to be held across the county over the next month, residents will have the chance to hear opinions from business, economic, and marketing consultants, as well as express their devotion, or lack thereof, to the network. The future of the network is in question and the Chelan PUD needs to hear from its owners.

At the first meeting, on February 28th, most residents of Chelan County said that having a locally owned and controlled network available to them was a priority. Consultants hired by the PUD said the fiber-optic network could be self-sustaining in the long term with changes in business planning. Recommendations included writing off internal debt, more aggressive marketing efforts to existing and ready locations, and collaborating with ISPs to obtain more subscribers in the open access network. Yes, the PUD Fiber-optic network has had its problems, including high installation costs due to the landscape and lack of conduit, changes in PUD leadership, and incompatible existing residential technology. Nevertheless, experts and the local community appear patient and cautiously optimistic. More meetings will follow; the next is scheduled for March 19th.

Providers lease from the PUD (state law prohibits them from competing directly with retail services) and proceeds from wholesale electricity sales have allowed the network to continue expanding. As we have reported in the past, the PUD is an open access network and while it has not been able to pay down its debt, and has had some difficulties, the PUD network has recognized value in the community, as evidenced at this first meeting. It certainly beats not having access to the essential infrastructure necessary to succeed in the modern economy.

John Tomkins, a Plain resident wants fiber, if it comes to his area. “Business is going to go where they can get a high-speed network. Let’s give our county the opportunity to grow.”

Chelan PUD is finding creative ways...

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Posted February 13, 2012 by christopher

Lobbyists for major cable and DSL companies (Comcast, Frontier, and others) already earned their pay in Washington state this year by killing a bill that would have allowed some public utility districts to offer retail services on broadband networks in rural areas that were unserved.

Unfortunately, the powerful incumbent cable and DSL companies have been able to kill bills like this in committee year after year even as they refuse to build the necessary networks throughout the state. Comcast is not about to start offering broadband in these low-density areas, but it also does not want to allow public utilities to embarrass them by offering faster connections at lower prices than Comcast offers in Seattle (where it faces no real competition).

Public Utility Districts can currently only offer wholesale services -- meaning that they can only offer services by using private service providers in an open access arrangements. We are strong supporters of this approach where it works. However, in high-cost rural areas, the "middle man" kills the economics. There is not enough revenue to pay for the network.

Some of the public utility districts want the authority to offer retail services in order to bring high-speed connections to these rural areas and encourage economic development. Big companies like Frontier and CenturyLink serve some of the people in some of these areas -- often with significant state and federal subsidies. We could phase out such subsidies by encouraging approaches that are not as massively inefficient as Frontier and CenturyLink -- two of the worst DSL providers in the nation. Unfortunately, what they lack in capacity to invest in modern broadband, they make up for in lobbying prowess.

An article in the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle offers some more background:

Erik Poulsen, government relations director at Washington Public Utility District Association, said PUDs have used the wholesale authority they were granted in 2000, building 4,500 miles of fiber-optic cable, investing $300 million in infrastructure and joining with 150 retail providers. He said such wholesaling isn’t possible in certain parts of the state.

“The idea was that PUDs would build critical infrastructure and private companies would...

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Posted January 12, 2012 by christopher

Last year we noted that a bill to expand local authority to invest in publicly owned broadband networks would return in 2012. HB 1711 is in Committee and causing a bit of a stir. "A bit of a stir" is good -- such a reaction means it has a chance at passing and giving Washington's residents a greater opportunity to have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet.

Washington's law presently allows Public Utility Districts to build fiber-optic networks but they cannot offer retail services. They are limited to providing wholesale services only -- working with independent service providers to bring telecom services to the public.

Unfortunately, this approach can be financially debilitating, particularly in rural areas. Building next generation networks in very low density areas is hard enough without being forced to split the revenues with third parties.

Last year, House Bill 2601 created a study to examine telecommunications reform, including the possibilty of municipality and public utility district provisioning. The University of Washington School of Law examined the issues and released a report [pdf] that recognizes the important role public sector investments can play:

U Washington Law School

Broadband infrastructure is this century’s interstate highway system: a public investment in an infrastructure that will rapidly connect Washington’s citizens statewide, nationally, and internationally; fuelling growth, competition, and innovation. Like highway access, the path to universal broadband access varies with the needs of the local community.

Our primary goal is to expand broadband access. We believe allowing municipalities and PUDs to provide broadband services addresses the most significant hurdles to broadband expansion: the high cost of infrastructure. In conjunction with a state USF, PUDs and municipalities are well placed to address the needs of their consumers.

A secondary goal is to promote a competitive marketplace. We believe that empowering PUDs and municipalities...

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Posted June 27, 2011 by christopher

We have an answer to the question of what a city gets when it commits the bare minimum to improving broadband access: more of the same. We were skeptical of Seattle's approach of using city-owned conduit to spur serious improvements to broadband and, it turns out, correct.

Only one company bid on the project, Comcast, a provider in much of Seattle already -- and a much maligned one at that. So Pioneer Square will have better access to the Internet, but from the dominant provider of high speed access in the City.

Seattle just helped Comcast consolidate its monopoly just a bit further. This is a small step forward for Pioneer Square, and a larger step backward for the City as a whole. With FiOS available in the suburbs, offering much faster and more reliable connections for the same prices, Seattle has done very little to stem the flow of techies to the burbs.

The RFP set certain requirements for use of the City's conduit, as noted in the Seattle Times article but one has to wonder if Comcast might be able to negotiate that down - few are better at exercising monopoly power than the Nation's largest cable and Internet provider.

Comcast is slated to pay $78,000 in one-time fees to cover part of the cable's installation, plus $4,057 in annual leasing fees, according to city documents.

The City elected a Mayor who promised to improve broadband access, but it seems the City Council is standing in the way of actually doing anything that would bring residents and businesses a meaningful choice in providers.

Photo, used under creative commons license, courtesy of Jeff Hathaway

Posted June 26, 2011 by christopher

Like many Washington Public Utility Districts, Pend Orielle, has connect small portions of its electric territory with an open access fiber-to-the-home. But these projects have been difficult to finance in remote (and often mountainous) areas. Pend Oreille previously built a pilot project but is now expanding its network with a stimulus grant from the feds.

The work has begun and is expected to end by November 30, this year. From a previous press release:

The project will make highspeed Internet available to approximately 3,200 households, 360 business, and 24 community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, and health care facilities. Residents and business owners will have the opportunity to subscribe to a variety of highspeed Internet services through local internet service providers.

Posted May 27, 2011 by christopher

In the campaign for Mayor, Seattle Mayor McGinn frequently proposed the city getting more involved in improving broadband access. Since becoming mayor, he has accomplished little in this area, perhaps due to a City Council that is not convinced it should get involved in broadband.

But the mayor held an event in Pioneer Square to announce a new initiative to start using City assets to expand broadband access:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn today laid out a proposal to encourage broadband Internet in a four-block area in Pioneer Square, allowing telecom and cable companies to lease some of the conduit that the city is now placing under First Avenue South. McGinn said it is a small, incremental step in a larger plan to bring high-speed Internet to the parts of the city that need it, tapping into some 500 miles of “dark fiber” that’s not being utilized.

Pioneer Square, with a mix of commercial and residential, currently has very poor access to the Internet:

Jeff Strain, the founder of Undead Labs, a 20-person game developer in Pioneer Square, said that fiber-optic cable would dramatically improve his company’s ability to create cutting-edge games.

“What we are able to get in Pioneer Square is about half the speed of what you’d be able to get in your home,” said Strain. “So, it is not really suitable for the sort of media rich businesses that we are trying to build down here.”

The Mayor's site explains that Jeff Strain was considering moving his company to a location with better access.

We’ve heard from Pioneer Square businesses that internet speeds there are just not what a 21st century economy needs. Jeff Strain, who founded a game development company called Undead Labs, worries that he might have to move his company from Pioneer Square if the “barely adequate” internet service isn’t improved. He needs high-speed, high capacity internet access to upload his content.

...

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Posted April 21, 2011 by christopher

As we recently noted in our coverage of the Chelan Public Utility District in Washington state, state law restricts the authority of Public Utility Districts to offer retail services over the fiber-optic networks many have built. But at least one Representative is pushing to expand PUD authority.

Representative John McCoy has been working to improve rural broadband access and spurring more competition in Washington State. He brought a bill, HB 1711 that would allow PUDs to begin offering retail services as well as offer telecommunications services outside their traditional boundaries.

The bill did not go far this year, likely due to the considerable influence of large carriers like Charter, Frontier, and others. But Representative McCoy plans to bring it up again next year and may have more support depending on the recommendations of a current study. The University of Washington Law School is studying options to expand broadband access in rural areas. The final report is due in December and will address the option of allowing PUDs to offer retail access.

I strongly encourage people who may be interested in such developments in Washington to contact Rep McCoy or email me to find out how you can get involved. Quite frankly, we need to develop better networks to ensure citizens are aware of efforts like this bill so elected officials can be contacted in a timely manner.

At the bottom of this post, we have embedded a six minute audio clip of Rep. John McCoy discussing HB 1711 and issues around access to the Internet more generally from a Progressive States Network conference call earlier this month.

Digging into this bill, the summary of the bill [pdf] offers some history:

Public utility districts (PUDs) are municipal corporations authorized to provide electricity, water, and sewer service. In 2000, the Legislature authorized PUDs and rural port districts to acquire and operate telecommunications facilities...

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Posted April 20, 2011 by christopher

I just noticed that Progressive States Network has published the audio from a phone call we did on March 31 about community broadband networks. I was one of the four guest speakers -- we each spoke for 5-10 minutes and then answered questions from the audience. Progressive States Network has long advocated in the states to recognize and preserve local authority to decide whether to build a community broadband network.

Other guests included:

  • Washington State Representative John McCoy
  • Ben Lennett, Senior Policy Analyst, New America Foundation
  • Craig Settles, Founder and President, Successful.com
Posted April 18, 2011 by christopher

For the last 6 weeks in Chelan, Washington, the Public Utility District has had to make some hard decisions regarding expanding its rural FTTH network using a broadband stimulus award from the federal government. Chelan was an early pioneer of rural FTTH, operating a network that serves over 2/3 of a rugged county that offers great rock climbing and hiking opportunities (I checked it out personally).

As we reported last year, Chelan's citizens had strongly supported accepting the stimulus award and paying for their required match by modestly increasing electrical rates (which are among the least expensive in the nation).

At that time, the PUD believed its network passed over 80% of the county. But after reassessing their coverage and changing the leadership of the group in charge of the fiber-optic aspect of the utility, they found the network passed closer to 70% of the population. They also re-examined assumptions about the cost of expanding the network's reach:

The PUD’s financial review resulted in a series of revised statistics that PUD engineers presented to commissioners Monday.
Of the county’s 43,000 premises — mostly homes and businesses — 30,000 have access to fiber.

Some 6,000 don’t have access because they live in areas where hookups are more costly, despite their often urban settings.

In these areas, the cables that supply electricity are buried directly in the ground. Fiber hookups require costly trenching and installing conduit.

Another 7,000 premises don’t have access because they’re very rural. Fiber access to all but the most rural of these locations will be funded jointly by a $25 million federal stimulus grant and PUD matching funds of about $8 million.

Of the 30,000 with access, some 37% are taking a service (though they have to subscribe through independent service providers that contract with Chelan PUD due to Washington State law denying the opportunity for PUDs to offer retail services on their own network. Nonetheless, they are signing up 100 new customers per month.

The problem is that some of the new connections are in high cost areas (whether due to distance or underground utilities). So the...

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