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Just What is the Internet? Community Broadband Bits Podcast 216

The Internet is one of those things that is right there in front of our face but can be hard to define exactly. Community Broadband Bits Episode 216 answers that question and picks up right where episode 213 left off with Fred Goldstein, Principal of Interisle Consulting Group.

Having already discussed the regulatory decisions that allowed the Internet to flourish, we now focus on what exactly the Internet is (hint, not wires or even physical things) and spend a long time talking about Fred's persuasive argument on how the FCC should have resolved the network neutrality battle.

We also talk about why the Internet should properly be capitalized and why the Internet is neither fast nor slow itself. These are core concepts that anyone who cares about getting Internet policy correct should know -- but far too few do. Not because it is too technical, but because it does require some work to understand. That is why this is such a long conversation - probably our longest to date in over 200 shows.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 40 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Smart FCC Decisions Helped Create the Internet - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 213

We originally planned this episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to answer the question of "What is the Internet?" But as we started talking to our guest, Principal of Interisle Consulting Group Fred Goldstein, we quickly realized we first had to dig into a little bit of history.

This is not the story of how the Department of Defense and university researchers created the ArpaNet. We are focused on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and telephone companies and how the FCC's Computer Inquiries allowed the Internet to thrive.

Fred lived it and offers a passionate retelling of key events, motivations, and more. This conversation is setting the stage for a future show - later this month - focused on answering the original question: "Just what, exactly, is the Internet?" And we'll also talk about network neutrality and other hot topics in answering it. But for now, we hope you enjoy this show. We went a bit long and it is a bit technical in places, but we think the history is important and a reminder of how good government policy can lead to great outcomes.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 35 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

In Minnesota, Alexandria Connects Businesses - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 210

When the cable and telephone companies refused to offer dial-up Internet service 20 years ago in Alexandria, Minnesota, the municipal utility stepped up and made it available. For years, most everyone in the region used it to get online. Now, the utility has focused its telecommunications attention on making fiber-optic telecommunications services available to local businesses.

Alexandria's ALP Utilities General Manager Al Crowser joins us this week to explain what they have done and why. Like us, Al is a strong believer that local governments can be the best provider of essential services to local businesses and residents.

In the show, we talk some history and also about the difference between local customer service and that from a larger, more distant company. He discusses how they have paid for the network and where net income goes. And finally, we talk about their undergrounding project.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Over 100 Years of Muni Telecom in Churchill County - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 204

For more than 100 years, Nevada's Churchill County has been operating its own telecommunications system, Churchill Communications. In recent years, they upgraded the vast majority of the county from copper to fiber offering a gigabit connection to the Internet. Churchill Communications General Manager Mark Feest joins us this week for Community Broadband Bits Episode 204.

We discuss the fascinating history behind their network and how they have built it without using any local taxpayer dollars.

Mark also explains two recent announcements that involve Churchill Communications offering its services in nearby areas where it already has some fiber. Finally, we discuss how some of the people that were originally skeptical of municipal networks have come around and are even asking Churchill Communications to expand.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Andrew Blum Decides to Visit the Internet - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 187

We head directly into the Internet this week with Andrew Blum, author of the book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. We wrote about it when it was published back in 2012. It is as relevant today as then - buy it from your local bookstore.

In our discussion, we talk about the physical infrastructure and geography of the Internet. Blum traveled around the planet, seeking out key Internet locations and exploring how the Internet actually works.

We discuss peering, the municipal fiber network in The Dalles of Oregon, and how squirrels have cynically targeted last mile vulnerabilities to disrupt household connections.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 32 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Longmont's NextLight Video: A Brief Look at the Network and the Community

When we talk to municipal network leaders about lessons learned, they often tell us that marketing is an area where they feel a particularly vulnerability. Whenever we see a great piece of marketing from a municipal network, we like to share it.

When Longmont rebranded its FTTH network under the name NextLight, they released this awesome video. Check it out!

Video: 
See video

Network Neutrality - Warnings From Radio Regulation

Many of us in the public interest telecommunications sphere are excited that the FCC appears poised to reclassify Internet access, which seems a necessary first step of protecting the open Internet.

Though we often focus on the false claims of the self-interested cable and telephone lobbyists when criticizing those who oppose FCC action on this, a recent Smithsonian Magazine article is a reminder that we must be vigilant with how the FCC uses this power. Clive Thompson penned "Air Waves" for the October, 2014, issue. It offers some context from the history of radio to discuss regulation of communication technologies.

When groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other pro-open Internet groups question an enhanced FCC role in protecting the open Internet, they are often motivated by the somewhat terrible record of the FCC and its precursor in balancing the speech rights of everyone vs a motivated and self-interested for-profit industry.

In 1927 Congress created the Federal Radio Commission, endowed with the power to assign wavelengths. It began aggressively doing so, booting hundreds of small stations off the air, to produce “clear channels” for the big firms—wide-open zones where they could broadcast with no interference.

Amateur time was over, as the FRC explicitly warned in a memo: “There is not room in the broadcast band for every school of thought, religious, political, social, and economic, each to have its separate broadcasting station, its mouthpiece in the ether.”

Using modern technology, there can be no doubt there is room in the broadcast for every school of thought - but we certainly have to be vigilant to ensure no current or future government agency turns the Internet into the morass of broadcast radio today. This goes both for the ways over-commercialization and consolidation has killed interesting content and the ways the FCC strictly polices some forms of offensive content (the famous seven dirty words) while ignoring blatantly racist or homophobic content. My view: the FCC should stay far from content and let households do their own filtering as necessary.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 63

Thanks to Jeff Hoel for providing the transcript for the Episode 63 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast with Jim Baller on second part of the History of Municipal Networks. Listen to this episode here.

 

00:06:

Jim Baller:  It is the code of omerta within the cable industry that you don't compete with an existing system.

00:14:

Lisa Gonzalez:  Hi there.  This is Lisa Gonzalez, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.  Welcome again to the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  Large corporate providers enjoy lack of competition within the status quo.  Unfortunately, those same providers often refuse to build in communities without the potential for large enough profits, or where they would encounter competition.  What is a local community to do when existing providers see no reason to serve their community?  Several weeks ago, we brought you Jim Baller, President and Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group.  Baller Herbst has worked with local communities for years, as they have found ways to provide connectivity to residents, businesses, and government.  During episode 57, Jim and Chris discussed some of Jim's experiences with early legal battles, as publicly-owned networks began to pop up across the country.  This time, Jim and Chris continue to explore the history of publicly-owned networks.  As momentum builds, and more communities consider the pros and cons, past experiences can mold future decisions.  Here are Jim and Chris with more on the early days of the municipal network movement.

01:20:

Chris MItchell:  Welcome back to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.  This is Chris Mitchell.  And once again I'm speaking with Jim Baller.  Jim, welcome back to the show.

01:30:

Jim Baller:  Thank you, Chris.  I'm happy to be here.

01:32:

Chris:  Last time, when you and I were speaking, we spent a lot of time talking about the early history of the municipal networks.  Some of the cable history, your work with Glasgow.  And we ended up by talking about the 2004 Nixon v. Missouri decision.  And I think today we're actually going to go back a little bit in time, to explain a little bit of what was happening in those years, while that case was working its way through the system.  So, why don't we pick one of the networks that you worked with early on -- perhaps the first fiber network you worked with -- and pick up the story there?

02:06:

Jim:  First, Chris, let me try to put into context the fiber networks that I began to work with, beginning in around 2000, 2001.  Up to that time, the great majority of the municipal networks were HFC -- hybrid fiber coaxial -- networks that were similar to the networks that cable systems -- private-sector cable systems -- were operating.  And also, a number of municipal networks did not provide residential service at that time.  And so, that's the kind of network that existed at the time.

Beginning around 2000, a number of very creative, pioneering communities saw the vision of developing fiber-to-the-home networks that would have substantially more capacity, and would reduce operating costs, and were, as the phrase -- saying was at the time, "future-proof."  Among these communities were Bristol, Virginia; and Kutztown, Pennsylvania; Grant County, Washington; Chelan County, Washington; Dalton, Georgia; was another early one.  And we worked with most of them -- in particular, Bristol, Chelan, Kutztown, and Dalton.  And these networks were very new in concept and they were pretty much all there was in this field of advanced fiber-to-the-home networks.  The major phone companies were not doing anything like that at the time.  They began to get into it about three, four years later.  The municipal projects encountered the usual opposition from the private-sector entities.  But they all went forward.  And they ended up being the spearheads for what is now a very widespread community of public and private entities that believe that fiber networks are the future of the nation, and, indeed, the future of many countries around the world.

04:56:

Chris:  Let's just jump right into Chelan, in part because when I was speaking with people from Bristol, they noted that they had gone out there to Chelan ...

05:05:

Jim:  Um hum.

05:05:

Chris:  ... when they were thinking about their system.  And also, Chelan's in a very interesting place.  Because, you know, most of these other places, they're -- they may be in rural areas, but it's a town center, and it's a -- you know, there's an area of density that they serve, or that they started to serve first.  Whereas Chelan is really quite spread out, and -- as is Grant, as I understand it.  And the public utility districts of Washington state, they're -- they cover these much larger areas, as I understand it.

05:32:

Jim:  That's quite correct.

05:32:

Chris:  So, how did Chelan become one of the first to experiment with this new technology?

05:41:

Jim:  Counties like Chelan, and Grant County, had revenues from selling electricity from their hydro projects on the great rivers of Washington, that they could use to support the development of broadband networks.  Their populations were not getting broadband of any kind.  And there was a logical connection of using communications services to improve the provision of electric power and also, at the same time, to give their residents access to a broadband service that they would not otherwise have had.  At the time that entities like Chelan and Grant County and other PUDs actually began to make plans to provide services over their networks, the state of Washington passed legislation that effectively limited the public PUD providers to providing service, if at all, only through wholesale means.  And that had a negative effect on their ability to serve the public well, and also their ability to provide a sustainable service.  They went ahead in any event, and their communities are much better for those efforts.

07:32:

Chris:  We saw this later, to the same effect, although not the same wording, in Utah, that -- There's justification by legislators, often, who are working at the behest of the cable and telephone companies, that they should limit the ability of these local government units, or local governments, depending on what we're talking about, as though it would somehow lower their risk, when, in fact, what we've seen time and time again is that when you decrease the freedom of the local government or public entity to pick its own business model -- the one that works best for its own unique situation and assets, that's when you're creating more risk for them.

08:12:

Jim:  The problem with this model of restricting public providers to providing wholesale service, as distinguished from retail service -- there are several problems, but the main one is that, if you are dealing directly with your own customers, you are responsible for the quality of service, the pricing of service, the way in which the customers are able to respond when they have problems, and so on and so forth.  What the wholesale model essentially does is inject between that relationship -- between the consumers and the utility -- a whole layer of middlemen, or middlepersons, or --  And that layer of retailers has the incentive to gain the same kinds of profits that incumbents have.  They push prices.  Their interests are not necessarily the same as the network owners.  Because the network owner, if it's a utility in particular, has decades of building a reputation for high-quality customer service, and high quality of service.  If the retailers don't meet those standards, the utility still gets blamed for it, but there's not much they can do about it.  Retailers, in our experience, have tended to be very conservative about spending money for marketing, and for customer service and support, which has a negative effect, from the perspective of the network owner.  And it's a difficult model, especially since there aren't that many high-quality retailers who are available in many of the rural areas where we're talking about PUDs serving.  So, bottom line, where municipalities have been able to provide retail service, they tend to have done very well.  Where they've been forced to operate a wholesale operation without being able to serve customers directly, they've, in many cases, struggled.  That's a difficult model.

10:55:

Chris:  Bristol, Virginia, was thinking about what it could do to try and revitalize the economy in southwestern Virginia.

11:02:

Jim:  When Bristol got going, they wanted to do a wholesale model.  Their problem, as far as the model was concerned, was something different.  They couldn't get a cable operator to work on their network as a partner, because there were already, actually, two private-sector cable systems serving portions of the city: Comcast and Charter.  And it is the code of omerta within the cable industry that you don't compete with an existing system.  And so they couldn't get a cable operator to operate over the network.  And they had a -- what they thought was a deal with a private phone company to operate over the system, so that they could focus on broadband and providing infrastructure to the cable and phone providers.  And that didn't work out either.  So Bristol was faced with a choice of either abandoning their desire to be a wholesale provider or abandoning the concept of providing a fiber service in their community.  And they decided that the only real alternative left to them was to step up and become a retail provider themselves.

12:25:

Chris:  Right.  And we -- you and I -- told that story.  You provided a lot of advice in the writing of a case study that I did, on Bristol, Lafayette, and Chattanooga.  I wanted to just sort of say that BVU holds claim, and likes to brand itself as the very first municipal triple-play network available in the United States.  And, although that is true -- although they weren't the first sort of municipal fiber network.  And we skipped over Kutztown a little bit.  Which has a little personal history for me.  My mom was born there.  I visited there a few times.  Let's talk about Kutztown, and how they came into building a fiber network.

13:10:

Jim:  They're a small college town in central Pennsylvania.  They have, I believe, a population of only around 5,000, not including the college campus and the students there.  But, you're right, they did put together a fiber-to-the-home network.  And, you know, you often hear that it's public versus private.  And that's not true at all.  And it certainly isn't true in Kutztown's case.  We once provided testimony for a committee of Congress on how the Kutztown network operated.  And it had, as it turns out, a half a dozen private providers filling out the service list on that network.  And there were providers, for example, providing local phone service.  And some were providing long-distance phone service.  Kutztown was providing broadband and cable.  Others were providing a security service.  And so you had this isolated little community in the heart of Pennsylvania out there showing up what everyone else in Pennsylvania was doing.  And, as it turns out, Kutztown was a sore point with Verizon, and it led to two or three years of efforts by Verizon to obtain legislation in Pennsylvania to prevent future Kutztowns.  And that ultimately resulted in Verizon pushing through the legislation at the end of 2004.  That spawned its own history of national opposition to barriers to entry, which I think we'll probably get to at some point down the road.

15:25:

Chris:  You know, when I was looking at some of the history of Kutztown, I found this fascinating fact -- and I don't remember the exact amount of time -- but the governor of Pennsylvania at the time presented Kutztown with an award ...

15:41:

Jim:  Um hum.

15:41:

Chris:  ... recognizing their local government excellence in this telecommunication investment, you know, building this futuristic network.  And the same governor turned around, a few months later -- I think it may have been as many as six or nine months later -- and he signed the bill to make sure that no one else could ever do that in Pennsylvania.  It was a fairly fascinating turnaround.  It really shows the power of a company like Verizon.

16:05:

Jim:  Yes, it does.  And that is a very unfortunate experience.  I remember the morning after we lost that fight in Pennsylvania, turning to my partners in Washington and saying, mark my words, this loss is going to be the equivalent of the sinking of the Lusitania, which ultimately led to America's entry into World War I.  And, as it turns out, that is in fact what happened.

16:35:

Chris:  It's a great point to end this show on.  And what we'll do is, we're going to come back, and we'll keep this history moving forward.

16:44:

Jim:  OK.  Let's do it.

16:45:

Lisa:  You can access a wealth of information about the Baller Herbst Law Firm at baller.com . We have one more future interview with Jim lined up.  So be sure to return to hear Jim share some of his rich experiences.  Thanks again for listening to the Broadband Bits Podcast.  If there are issues related to telecommunications that interest you, we welcome your suggestions for future shows.  E-mail us at podcast@muninetworks.org .  You can also follow us on Twitter.  Our handle is @communitynets .  We released this show on September 10th, 2013.  Thank you again to the group Break the Bans for their song, titled "Escape," and licensed using Creative Commons.  Thank you for listening.

The Birth of Community Broadband - Video

ILSR is excited to announce a new short video examining an impressive municipal broadband network, Glasgow Kentucky. Glasgow was the first municipal broadband network and indeed, seems to have been the first citywide broadband system in the United States.

We partnered with the Media Working Group to produce this short documentary and we have the material to do much more, thanks to the hard work of Fred Johnson at MWG and the cooperation of many in Glasgow, particularly Billy Ray.

People who only recently became aware of the idea of community owned networks may not be familiar with Billy Ray, but it was he and Jim Baller throughout the 90's and early 2000's that paved the way for all the investment and excitement we see today. 

I'm excited to be helping to tell part of this story and look forward to being able to tell more of it.

Video: 

Michael Powell said What?? Why Everyone Should Ignore the Cable Lobby

Stop and think for a second. Would you regard the electricity grid and water system as an abysmal failure or success? If you are lobbying for cable companies in DC, you apparently think they are monumental failures.

Michael Powell, former Chairman of the FCC must be dizzy after his trip through the revolving door on his way to heading the national cable lobbying association. From his remarks at their cable show [pdf]:

It is the Internet’s essential nature that fuels a very heated policy debate that the network cannot be left in private hands and should instead be regulated as a public utility, following the example of the interstate highway system, the electric grid and drinking water. The intuitive appeal of this argument is understandable, but the potholes visible through your windshield, the shiver you feel in a cold house after a snowstorm knocks out the power, and the water main breaks along your commute should restrain one from embracing the illusory virtues of public utility regulation.

Pause for a second and think of the last time your water rate went up. Think of what you were paying 10 years ago for water and what you pay now. Compare that to anything you get from a cable company.

His point seems to be that because more regulated utilities like water and electricity are not PERFECT, regulation has failed and we should just let the private sector handle that. Well, some communities have privatized their water systems and the results have been disastrous - see a company called American Water in David Cay Johnston's book The Fine Print and also explored here.

Let's imagine if electricity was not tightly regulated and the market set the rates. How much would you pay for illumination at night? A refrigerator? Probably 10 times what you do now if that was your only option. Maybe 100 times after a few Minnesota winter nights. Market-based pricing for electricity would at least encourage conservation and efficiency, I'll give it that.

Public utility regulation is far from perfect but the alternative is far scarier. There is no "market" for these services over the long term. There is monopoly. And unregulated monopoly means Wall Street sucking the resources out of Main Street - and using some of them to employ former regulators as chief lobbyists who argue that regulation doesn't work.

I'm not convinced that Tom Wheeler is the disaster that some are now claiming he is, but it is long past time that top regulators are chosen from among major donors and fund raisers from the winning presidential candidate. Frankly, Wheeler is a helluva lot better than the last guy and we could have done a lot worse.

We need to change the system, but in the meantime, no one should be listening to any fool that claims our electrical or water systems would be better off with less regulation. After all, it isn't that long since we tried it. Enron, remember?

Communities that wisely don't want to put their trust either in DC regulators or a few massive corporations that care only to meet Wall Streeet's desires should choose to be locally self-reliant. Build your own network and take charge of your future.