Tag: "washington"

Posted January 29, 2011 by christopher

Ars Technica takes an inside look at a small fiber network in a subdivision in Washington State: "Tale of the Trench: What if your Subdivision laid its own Fiber?"  The author makes a valid point in noting that not all community fiber networks offer the best speeds in the country.  However, I do take issue with any suggestion that these experiences are reflective of most community networks.  The scale of this network is tiny -- resulting both in unique problems and common problems greatly exacerbated.  

Issaquah Highlands is a planned community east of Seattle that offers FTTH to residents while essentially assessing them for it whether they use it or not.  In this neighborhood, broadband is treated like water service, with the exception that residents can pay their FTTH fee but also pay to get service from a cable or telephone company instead.  

The cost of implementing a community-owned network prevents most neighborhoods from building their own networks, and it's the main reason why all Issaquah Highlands residents are required to subscribe to the service. The cost of initial buildout was in the millions of dollars and was financed to be paid off over several decades. Once the network is paid off, ownership will be transferred from the builder, Port Blakely, to the community association. However, the community has a strong leadership position on the HFN board even while the builder owns the fiber.

Port Blakely at first contracted with a small Internet provider to build and operate the network, but this ISP quickly collapsed due to financial issues. Port Blakely then contracted with a Seattle-area ISP to operate the network and provide Internet service over the physical infrastructure. This step can be harder than one might expect; there aren’t many options left when it comes to standalone ISPs. Back in the days of dial-up, we had a thriving market in the US, but the proliferation of DSL and cable Internet service provided by whoever owns the wires means that most smaller ISPs have folded. While serving on the HFN board, I always knew that we would have problems replacing our local ISP if that became necessary.

The author was on the advisory board of the network and offers frank assessments of their difficulties - despite...

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Posted December 3, 2010 by christopher

The Chelan Public Utility District in Washington state is upgrading network capacity as it starts expanding the network following its broadband stimulus award. We previously covered their consideration of whether to expand from passing 80% of the territory to 98%.

Chelan is one of the most rural publicly owned fiber networks as well as one of the oldest ones. In a rarity, it looks likely to run in the red permanently (the pains of rural, mountain terrain) with the support of most ratepayers. These ratepayers recognize the many benefits of having the network outweigh its inability to entirely pay for itself. The utility also runs a sewer project that is subsidized by wholesale electricity sales. Though some areas in Chelan are served by Charter and Frontier, the more remote folks would have no broadband access if not for the PUD.

With the planned upgrades in 2011, Chelan's open access services will offer far faster speeds than available from the cable and DSL providers. Under Washington law, the PUDs cannot sell telecommunications services directly to customer. The PUD builds the network infrastructure and allows independent service providers to lease access while competing with each other for subscribers. Though this is a great approach for creating a competitive broadband market, it has proved difficult to finance (if one believes this essential infrastructure should not be subsidized as roads are).

When the PUD considered whether to pursue the expansion (meaning taking a federal grant covering 75% of the costs and agreeing to run the network for 22 years), it asked the ratepayers for feedback:

Sixty-four percent of 450 randomly chosen Chelan County registered voters who were part of phone survey in August said they favor taking the grant and completing the buildout, even if it means their electric bills will go up by as much as 3 percent — about $1.50 more on a $50 per month power bill.

On November 9, PUD Commissioners approved the rate increase.

Chelan's service providers currently offer connections of 6Mbps/384kbps or 12 Mbps/384kbps. As with...

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Posted November 4, 2010 by christopher

Two cities, located on opposite coasts, have recently cried out for cable competition in their communities.

A few weeks ago, SunBreak ran a story under "Why Comcast Needs Competition...Badly." The post describes a significant outage in Seattle and Comcast's slow response to fix the problem.

You may think to yourself, Hey, come on, it's 90 minutes out of your day. But what I think about is how much time cumulatively was wasted in Seattle this morning, much of it simply because people would not have been sure where the problem was. An early, all-hands-on-deck announcement from Comcast would have been a big help. It seems slightly insane that a company that provides internet service isn't very good at using the internet.

The folks at Sunbreak apparently were not aware that the City is still slowly considering building a network to ensure everyone in the community has affordable high speed broadband access (which would likely be far more reliable than Comcast's network). After I noted this in the comments, they reprinted one of my posts about Seattle's deliberations.

Meanwhile, the folks in Scranton, Pennsylvania, (immortalized in the television show The Office) have been asking when they get the faster broadband now available in Philly, Pittsburgh, and parts of the Lehigh Valley. The answer came bluntly from Stop the Cap: Sorry Scranton, You’re Stuck With Comcast Cable… Indefinitely

An article from the Times Tribune explains why the private sector fails to provide competition:

"Offering out television service is expensive, too expensive for most smaller telephone companies," said telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan. "So many are reselling satellite service to keep customers who want one bundle and one bill."

Because of that, satellite television providers, who were never a formidable challenge to conventional cable...

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Posted September 22, 2010 by christopher

If Seattle moves forward on the Community Fiber Network it has been considering, it will be the largest such network in the nation. However, as we recently noted, progress has been slow. Reclaim the Media recently noted progress toward publicly owned fiber in Edmonds and asked why Seattle is stuck in the mud on the issue.

The City's "Seattle Jobs Plan" devotes a significant mention of a publicly owned fiber network as a smart investment:

Seattle’s economic prosperity, its ability to deploy effective public safety systems, and its determination to reduce gridlock and greenhouse gases are increasingly dependent on its communication systems. Currently, the communication systems serving Seattle businesses and residents are controlled by a few private companies, using older technology. With a lack of competition, there is little incentive to invest in more innovative technologies. Although some of Seattle’s larger institutions have migrated to their own fiber networks, these types of networks are unavailable to residents and Seattle’s small businesses. Multiple surveys indicate that 70% of Seattle households want to see more telecommunications competition. A recent study listed global cities with the fastest broadband connections; not a single U.S. city was listed in the top 20. A network of municipal fiber optic cables would instantly put Seattle at the top of the list of U.S. cities capable of supporting next-generation, data-intensive businesses, making it a potential hub for a number of fast-growing industries.

But the network requires a significant amount of planning:

The City has built and maintains a high speed, fiber optic broadband network connecting schools, government facilities, and community institutions. An interdepartmental team of staff in SCL, SPU and DoIT are currently developing a high level business plan that will guide this effort to expand broadband to businesses and homes. The business plan will be completed in early 2011. Once the plan is finalized, the City will explore funding options and next steps.

The report notes that Seattle applied for BTOP stimulus funding from NTIA, but the recent...

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Posted August 10, 2010 by christopher

After Seattle's new Mayor campaigned on a community fiber network and consulted with both Lafayette and Tacoma on how to build it, it will now spend a year considering its options.

In discussing the current options for broadband in the city, Governing Magazine notes lack of demand for Comcast's "up to" 50/10 EXTREME package:

The demand for this "Extreme" tier speed, however, is "extremely low," says spokesman Steve Kipp. Later this summer, the ISP plans to offer 105 Mbps download and 12 Mbps upload speeds.

I suspect people mostly aren't interested in the extreme price for supposed extreme speeds. A number of communities that have built their own networks offer faster (and symmetrical) connections for considerably less. However, even there most people opt for lower tiers rather than the fastest speeds.

What the article utterly misses is that faster speeds are only one piece of the reason communities build these networks. Yes, next-generation networks offer faster speeds now and have much more capacity for future expansion than cable networks (and DSL is so far behind as to not be comparable).

But public ownership is about more than faster speeds. It spurs competition and lowers prices for everyone. It offers accountability, ensuring the network meets the needs of the community now and in the future. It allows public agencies to get faster connections at lower prices (though Seattle already has this through its previous investments in fiber-optics). As Seattle owns City Light, it would have greater abilities to invest in smart-grid and metering applications to make the city more energy efficient. When the community owns the network, it can ensure everyone has access to fast connections (particularly children in low-income neighborhoods where absentee companies may be reluctant to invest).

But to get back to the argument about network speeds, there is an argument for FTTH and faster speeds even if people do not demand them right now. Until people have access to robust connections, applications will not be created to take advantage of them. When people have access to faster connections that are affordable...

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Posted July 15, 2010 by christopher

The American Cable Association has profiled Tacoma's Click! network. Click! is an HFC network owned by the city, via the public power utility. Tacoma Power only offers one retail service: cable television. Voice and broadband data services are provided by independent services providers who use the network on an open access basis.

The network has been quite successful. Some 25,000 households subscribe and it has kept competitor rates (Comcast, for instance) far lower than nearby Seattle, for instance. I previously noted the economic development victories attributable to the network.

"If you're a cable TV customer or an Internet customer of any company in our footprint, you pay between 35% and 49% less than if you are not in our footprint," said Diane R. Lachel, Click! Network's Government and Community Relations Manager. "That's really significant. That's what the Telecom Act of 1996 was all about. That's the kind of competition Congress intended."

Other communities aspiring for successful networks should study the approach of Marketing and Business Operations Manager Mitch Robinson. Click! has embraced local content - something every community should do to differentiate itself from absentee-owned incumbents.

One Robinson innovation was the localization of video-on-demand (VOD). The inspiration for this product was the lack of Tacoma community news from the TV stations based in Seattle, about 30 miles northeast of Click!'s headquarters. Tacoma tends to make the local TV news mostly when the news is bad.

In response, Click! decided to build relationships with a multitude of local nonprofits to create a steady inventory of VOD segments exclusively available to Click! viewers.

One VOD service, called Safe Streets, shows how to energize a neighborhood by curbing gang activity, setting up block watches, cleaning up derelict properties, and scrubbing away unsightly graffiti.

Click! also has exclusive VOD rights with The Grand Cinema, a local independent movie theater that also sponsors local film festivals. Through the Click! partnership, local film makers expand their viewing audience to customers hungry for local content.

"We just continue to add hours and hours of that type of exclusive content," Lachel...

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Posted July 12, 2010 by christopher

In January 2001, or about 1 million years ago in tech time, Site Selection Online published "Wired Cities: Working-Class Communities Build Next Frontier of High-Speed Connectivity". I found it years ago when reading up on the Click! network in Tacoma, Washington.

I recently stumbled across it again and thought it might be interesting to evaluate its claims after a decade (or close to it) had passed.

The lead of the article discusses Tacoma its relationship to Seattle. Tacoma had extremely poor connectivity from the private sector and its public power utility decided to build an HFC network to extend broadband to everyone in the community. Tacoma's Mayor notes that over 100 companies poured in after the community solved its own broadband problems - generating some 700 jobs in 18 months.

Fast forward to today, and this paragraph:

As a result, the next frontier of information companies isn't being confined to the Silicon Valleys of the world. It's taking root where you might least expect it: in places like Tacoma, LaGrange, Ga., and Blacksburg, Va.. And in most cases, it's government taking the lead, beating business to the punch by stringing fiber and building networks in working-class communities that most bottom-line corporations would otherwise ignore.

The principle of self-reliance is timeless. And we see the same idea in news articles today: local governments bringing broadband to areas the private sector cannot. In 2010, the fastest and more affordable broadband networks in the US are not in Silicon Valley -- they are in Lafayette, Chattanooga, Wilson, Utah, and other places where the community decided to prioritize big broadband.

Because of the competition in Tacoma, prices for telecom have remained lower than in nearby Seattle - as I quoted a Tacoma resident previously:

I have Comcast in Tacoma and all I know is since there is competition down here Comcast is about half the cost as it is in Seattle. They give you a rate good for a year. When your year is up you call up and just say Click! and bam back down you go. A friend in Seattle once called Comcast with both of our bills with similar service and mentioned my price and they said I must live in Tacoma and they wouldn't match the price.

Seattle...

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Posted May 14, 2010 by christopher

The Chelan Public Utility District in Washington began its county-wide fiber-optic network build. They have since passed some 80% of the county but are temporarily pausing expansion efforts. Chelan is a rural county and the network is not expected to break even for quite some time.

In Washington, state law limits the powers of public utility districts to offer broadband. As with communities in Utah, these public sector entities are forced to operate an open access network and are unable to offer services directly. While the open access model is a great one for some communities (and one we encourage when the numbers work), it can be difficult to implement depending on local circumstances.

The Wenatchee World recently covered the decision to hire a consultant to identify means of lowering costs. The network has cost $80 million to get to this point and will require an additional $40 million to connect the remaining 15-20%.

The network can provide access to over 30,000 residents, businesses, and community anchors (schools, hospitals, muni facilities). Subscribers choose from a variety of service providers for services and take rates vary from 30%-60% depending on the area.

The network is operating at a loss (probably due to a combination of the high costs of FTTH in rural areas, the low take rates, and lower revenues from operating on a purely wholesale basis). Residents were conflicted about the network's inability to pay for itself but a majority have continued to support it because they often have no other broadband options. However, the current economic climate has resulted in more concern about the costs.

Chelan PUD has apparently covered the losses from broadband (as well as some sewer and water services) with the sales of surplus electricity on the wholesale market. Those prices are rather low right now, forcing the PUD to make some difficult choices.

Some residents are frustrated by the delays:

Sanders has already laid underground conduit for her own house and two of her neighbors’, following assurances from PUD staff that it would speed the installation process.

Another resident, Rachel Imper who lives on Brown Road, said she needs a fast Internet connection to exchange writing assignments that she...

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Posted January 19, 2010 by christopher

Seattle's new mayor continues to impress me as he makes good on his pledge to build a publicly owned fiber-optic network in the City. He has just met with the mayor of Tacoma to discuss lessons learned from the Tacoma Click! network.

We have previously discussed Click!, an HFC network run by Tacoma's public utility. Here are some additional benefits from the article:

Since its approval in 1997, Tacoma’s hybrid fiber coaxial network has, among other things, ushered in a cable television service, offered customers three high-speed retail Internet service providers, enhanced Tacoma Power’s electrical system and created a communications network among government institutions. In turn, the network and its programs have drastically reduced market rates for cable TV and Internet subscribers; saved local governments about $700,000 in annual expenses; and created several promising projects, such as “smart meters” that can gauge utility consumption electronically and “pay as you go” account options for electricity customers, she said.

I was glad to see the article noting the many differences between when Tacoma built their network and the present situation in which Seattle finds itself. Seattle certainly has bigger difficulties than Tacoma did, but they should continue examining their options to determine if the community should build its own network.

A local blogger was more pessimistic after reading the article, but one of the comments on the post bears repeating:

I have Comcast in Tacoma and all I know is since there is competition down here Comcast is about half the cost as it is in Seattle. They give you a rate good for a year. When your year is up you call up and just say Click! and bam back down you go. A friend in Seattle once called Comcast with both of our bills with similar service and mentioned my price and they said I must live in Tacoma and they wouldn't match the price.

Photo used under creative commons license from flickr.

Posted December 22, 2009 by christopher

After campaigning on building a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network in Seattle, Mayor McGinn has decided to maintain leadership at the Department of Information Technology. Department head Bill Schrier will stay on, continuing his work that lays the groundwork for a community-owned network.

He said he expects the city to apply for federal stimulus money in the first part of the year to move toward that goal. In addition to improving broadband access in homes, the initiative could help Seattle City Light implement smart-grid infrastructure, and improve public safety communications.

Another article further notes their shared ambition:

"Mayor-elect McGinn ran on a platform of bringing fiber to every home and business in Seattle, something I've advocated for several years," Schrier commented.

No post discussing broadband in Seattle is complete without a reference to Glenn Fleishman - who both wrote another story discussing the situation and then patiently responds to many comments in the thread below it. Discussing Tacoma's publicly owned Click! network, he notes that Tacoma's investment benefited everyone:

Click being built actually helped what has become Qwest and Comcast: by creating a market and making it feasible for professionals who need high-speed Internet access in Tacoma to live there, Click spurred the two incumbents to improve their networks, compete, and gain new revenue. Comcast actually thanked Tacoma Power publicly years ago; not sure it would today, but it was seen as a big boost for the viability of competitive broadband.

Photo used under creative commons license from flickr.

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