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Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses FCC In Disappointing Ruling

Disappointing news from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals today as the Court chooses to reverse the FCC’s February 2015 preemption order that peeled back restrictive state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina. We have the opinion for you to download and review. You can also view the decision at the Sixth Circuit's website.

We consider the Sixth Circuit’s decision disappointing, incorrect, and we hope the FCC and the cities of Chattanooga and Wilson appeal this decision. Local connectivity and telecommunications should be determined by the people who will be affected by their own decisions, not by officials who are distant, unaware of local matters, and lobbied by rich corporate Internet Service Providers with an interest in limiting competition.

Anti-Monopoly, Pro-Internet Access Groups React

In their statement, Next Century Cities, who joined us in filing an Amicus Brief, said, "Today’s court ruling is a setback in the fight to ensure access to next-generation broadband for more Americans, and Next Century Cities is disappointed by this decision."

The Open Technology Institute (OTI) responded by pointing out that, while the effort to restore local authority has stalled, the FCC's action has focused new attention on the benefits of local publicly owned networks:

“Today’s ruling doesn’t change the fact that these laws were hurting communities in Tennessee and North Carolina. They were written by telecom industry lobbyists to protect incumbents like AT&T and Comcast from competition. Similar laws exist in other states, and they all need to go. State legislatures should repeal these laws and replace them with ones that promote competition and consumer choice.

Although the FCC lost this particular case, the agency’s efforts put a spotlight on these pernicious laws and gave momentum to repeal efforts in statehouses across the country. The case also highlighted the success of locally grown networks, which are typically faster and more affordable than anything offered by private industry. Every community should have the ability to make smart investments in this type of infrastructure.”

Baller, Stokes & Lide, the lead counsel to EPB and Wilson, pointed out that this is only one battle in a war for restoring the rights of communities to pursue their own Internet infrastructure decisions:

“This is a very disappointing decision, but support for local Internet choice is growing rapidly across America, and the fight to preserve, protect, and advance community decision-making will go on,” said Jim Baller. 

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) and Common Cause also released statements that expressed deep disappointment and a resolve to press on to restore local authority. Common Cause Special Advisor Michael Copps, himself a former FCC Commissioner, stated:

"This decision does not benefit our broadband nation. Nor is it a good reading of the law. But if the FCC cannot set aside these bad laws, then the people must. We will redouble our state-by-state efforts to repeal these odious policies.”

FCC Commissioners Also React

Read their statements about the decision that reversed the Commission's action:

To learn more about the decision, check out our prior coverage:

If you really want to understand this issue well, we recommend Harold Feld's discussion of it on the Wetmachine group blog.

More to come. We will comment further as we dig into the Opinion...

Fort Collins Mayor on Fort Collins Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 211

Fort Collins is a thriving community of over 150,000 and the home of Colorado State University. Despite gorgeous vistas and many high tech jobs, Fort Collins basically has the same cable and DSL duopoly the majority of communities suffer from. But they are making plans for something better.

Mayor Wade Troxell joins us this week for episode 211 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast to talk about their situation and planning process.

We talk about their need for better access and how they are committed to taking action even if they are not quite sure yet what it will be. They exempted themselves from the Previously-Qwest-But-Now-CenturyLink-Protection-Act that requires a referendum for the local government to introduce telecommunications competition... with 83 percent support.

We end our discussion by talking again about undergrounding utility assets - which took them many decades but is very nearly complete.

Watch a video of Mayor Troxell at the Digital Northwest - where I was moderating a panel.

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 24 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."

Glenwood Springs Shares Lessons Learned - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 206

Last week, while at my favorite regional broadband conference - Mountain Connect, I was asked to moderate a panel on municipal fiber projects in Colorado. You can watch it via the periscope video stream that was recorded. It was an excellent panel and led to this week's podcast, a discussion with Glenwood Springs Information Systems Director Bob Farmer.

Bob runs the Glenwood Springs Community Broadband Network, which has been operating for more than 10 years. It started with some fiber to anchor institutions and local businesses and a wireless overlay for residential access. Though the network started by offering open access, the city now provides services directly. We discuss the lessons learned.

Bob also discusses what cities should look for in people when staffing up for a community network project and some considerations when deciding who oversees the network. Finally, he shares some of the successes the network has had and what continues to inspire him after so many years of running the network.

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 21 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."

Tennessee Potential Partnership Between Morristown Muni and AEC Co-op - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 203

In Tennessee, this month marks 10 years of Morristown Utility Systems delivering fiber-optic triple-play service to the community, including great Internet access. But those living just outside the city and in nearby cities have poor access at best. MUS General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington returns to our show this week and we also welcome Appalachian Electric Cooperative (AEC) General Manager Greg Williams to discuss a potential partnership to expand Morristown services to those that want them.

As we have frequently noted, Tennessee law prohibits municipal fiber networks from expanding beyond their electric territories. The FCC decision repealing that favor to the big cable and telephone company lobbyists is currently being appealed. But Tennessee also prohibits electrical co-ops from providing telephone or cable TV service, which makes the business model very difficult in rural areas.

Nonetheless, MUS and AEC have studied how they can team up to use the assets of both to deliver needed services to those outside Morristown. We discuss their plan, survey results, the benefits of working together, and much more.

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 24 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."

AT&T Celebrates, Tennessee Families Go Another Year Without Internet Hope

As I write this, I suspect the "platoon" of lobbyists from AT&T and Comcast in Nashville are waking up with hangovers from celebrations last night after they once again defeated a bill to restore local authority in Tennessee. After a grassroots uprising, we thought the state would finally allow communities to decide for themselves if networks like Chattanooga's famed gigabit EPB would be able to expand.

Color me extremely disappointed - not because AT&T won, but because I fooled myself into thinking this grassroots mobilization might matter.

From the Times Free Press,

On Tuesday at the state Capitol in Nashville, a platoon of lobbyists and executives, including AT&T Tennessee President Joelle Phillips, were present in the House hearing room or watching on a video screen as Brooks presented the bill and the amendment.

...

It failed on the 5-3 [committee] vote with Rep. Marc Gravitt, R-East Ridge, voting for Brooks' amendment and Rep. Patsy Hazlewood, R-Signal Mountain, a one-time AT&T executive, voting against it.

Eight people voted on the bill. AT&T and Comcast formed the majority of the 27 lobbyists fighting against the bill according to Karl Bode.

People in Bradley County have either no service or poor access from companies like AT&T - but Chattanooga's EPB is not allowed to expand due to a state law pushed by the cable and telephone companies nearly 20 years ago to prevent competition.

These are people whose children have to go to libraries or fast food restaurants every day to do their homework. These are businesses that can barely compete in the digital age because AT&T doesn't view modern connectivity in the region an investment that would garner a fat return.

But alas, money and corporate influence again ruled the day in Nashville, where the Governor and others have continued to refuse to admit there is any problem worth fixing. This lede from Times Free Press answers the question of why companies like AT&T "donate" so much to political campaigns:

Gov. Bill Haslam says efforts by EPB and other municipal electric services to expand high-speed Internet to rural areas won't fully solve Tennessee's broadband accessibility issues and doesn't fairly treat for-profit servers like AT&T and Comcast.

In the face of this injustice, the Governor's first concern remains with what is fair to AT&T and Comcast, not what is best for the millions of Tennesseeans struggling with no connectivity or last generation slow Internet access.

To cover any charges they are doing nothing, they have announced an official "kick the can down the road strategy." Consider the Facebook post from AT&T executive turned state Legislator Patsy Hazlewood:

The state has invested $250,000 for a comprehensive study of broadband in TN. The report will be presented in June and will do a number of things. It will define broadband--which has a wide variety of definitions by both providers and customers across the state. The report will outline options for deployment and penetration on a statewide basis.

Great - one hopes that as parents drive their children to do homework while parked in front of closed libraries with active Wi-Fi access points that the state will soon decide how to define broadband.

This is why the FCC ruling to restore local Internet choice to communities is so important and oral arguments for the appeal are this week.

What remains to be done is a greater grassroots mobilization to demand that Nashville allow communities to solve their own problems. Republicans regularly critize Democrats for trying to enact a "nanny" state where the government refuses to let people make their own decisions. But when those same Republicans are in power, we see them restricting local governments from solving their own problems locally.

Bradley County and the local governments therein should be free to work with EPB if that is their choice. All this nonsense about fairness to AT&T and studying the definition of broadband in the year 2016 are a direct result of AT&T's power in Nashville and the dependency of elected officials on powerful companies for political donations and favors.

The FCC's Pro-Competition Agenda - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 192

This week we welcome Gigi Sohn, Counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, to Community Broadband Bits for episode 192. Before joining the FCC, Gigi was a founder of Public Knowledge.

Gigi discusses the pro-competition agenda that Chairman Wheeler has advanced, including the efforts to ensure communities can decide locally whether to build a municipal network or partner. We also discuss other elements of FCC action to encourage competition in the Internet access market, even how television set-top boxes fit in.

Echoing some of the comments I regularly hear from some thoughtful listeners, I asked if competition was the best approach given the argument that telecom, and particularly fiber, has the characteristics of a natural monopoly.

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

North Carolina Organizes for Local Internet Choice - Community Broadband Bits Episode 184

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) has its first local chapter with the formation of CLIC-NC. Catharine Rice, who is both part of CLIC-NC and the Project Director for CLIC, explains what is happening on episode 184 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

We remind listeners what CLIC is and the goals of CLIC-NC more specifically. We also discuss the interesting comments of NC Attorney General Roy Cooper, who is both challenging the FCC's authority to remove North Carolina's anti-muni law and supportive of removing the law via the state legislature.

Catharine has long been involved in the effort for Local Internet Choice and put up an incredibly strong fight to stop anti-competition bills advanced by Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and others over multiple years in North Carolina. She was the guest on our 5th episode of this show.

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 20 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 Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Pioneer Press Op-Ed: Competition and Community Savings

The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015. 

Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings

Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.

Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.

The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.

Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.

Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.

Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.

Some municipal networks have been accused as being failures. For years, cable and telephone companies claimed Windom in southeast Minnesota was a disaster. WindomNet is one of the most advanced networks in the state and has been expanded to serve nearby towns that had been ignored by the big telephone companies.

In our 2014 study All Hands on Deck, we identified more than $400,000 in regional savings from WindomNet every year. In addition, the network helped keep 47 jobs in the community from one employer alone that previously couldn't get the service it needed from the national telephone company serving it. This is a threat to cable and telephone monopolies, not local taxpayers.

With Windom's success, the cable and telephone companies now attack Monticello's municipal FiberNet for not having yet broken even financially. However, that is the not the only metric by which it should be judged.

Ten years ago, Internet access in Monticello was dismal, harming local businesses. They demanded the city take action and the city asked the telephone and cable company to improve their services -- but those companies insisted everything was fine. So Monticello voted by 74 percent to build its own network.

The telephone company sued, costing Monticello millions in lost time despite its prevailing easily in court.

During the case, the telephone company improved its services, and, after Monticello built its own network, the cable company dropped its rates dramatically. The same package that residents in Rochester and Duluth pay $145 per month for was offered for $60 per month guaranteed for two years. Prices in Monticello from all providers are a fraction of what we pay in the metro.

We estimated the aggregate savings in the community at $10 million over the past five years in All Hands on Deck.

Rather than allowing communities to decide locally on the best strategies to improve Internet access, Minnesota discourages them by requiring a supermajority vote before a community can offer telephone service. This requirement particularly harms Greater Minnesota, where mobile phones are far less reliable and telephone service plays a more important public safety role.

We need an "All Hands on Deck" approach to improving Internet access. The state should be lessening barriers to investment, not maintaining them at the behest of large cable and telephone companies. Local government strategies will play an important role in ensuring our communities can thrive in the digital age.

Christopher Mitchell, St. Paul, is director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is on Twitter @communitynets

Wilson Moves to Expand Greenlight Network to Neighboring Town

Thanks to a new interlocal agreement, the City of Wilson, North Carolina will soon expand its Greenlight community broadband network to the nearby Town of Pinetops. Officials expect to complete the expansion of the gigabit fiber network by April 2016. Pinetops, a town of 1,300, is less than 20 miles from Wilson, population 50,000.

We’re Waiting...

For Brenda Harrell, Pinetops Interim Town Manager, the agreement has been a long time coming after years of frustration over their limited broadband access options.

“Current providers haven’t made significant upgrades to our broadband service through the years,” “They haven’t found us worth the investment. Through this partnership with Greenlight and our neighbors in Wilson, we are able to meet a critical need for our residents.”

As far back as 2010, city leaders in Wilson were in negotiations with Pinetops officials on a proposal to expand the Greenlight network to reach Pinetops. But those negotiations reached an impasse in 2011 when the State of North Carolina passed H129. Since then, officials in Wilson and in surrounding communities have been waiting for a time when Wilson could extend their the Greenlight network footprint.

The new agreement became possible in the wake of the FCC decision in February to overturn North Carolina’s anti-muni HB 129, allowing North Carolina communities to start considering the option to build their own broadband networks or expand on existing networks. While the state has appealed that decision in hopes of preserving the law, this agreement indicates Wilson officials are looking confidently ahead with the expectation that the state’s appeal will fail.

Looking Back, and to the Future

Last November, when the New York Times wrote about the fight in communities around the nation for the right to build and expand community broadband networks, they talked to Gregory Bethea, the now retired town manager of Pinetops, North Carolina:

“If you want to have economic development in a town like this, you’ve got to have fiber,” Bethea told them.

And that’s what this agreement is about: giving Pinetops the local authority necessary to create their own economic opportunities.

In that article the Times also quoted Will Aycock, the General Manager of Wilson’s Greenlight network. At the time, Aycock was already looking beyond the state’s anti-muni law to future expansion:

“We would probably be building tomorrow if the law changed today,” Mr. Aycock said. “We’re not saying that we’re going to build out all of eastern Carolina or even all of our service territory tomorrow. But there are areas where we’d like to go now.”

With this new agreement in place, Aycock is now able to see those plans for expansion come to fruition. Upon reaching the agreement, he said:

“Our commitment to improving the delivery of City services through our smart grid initiatives has made broadband service to Pinetops possible, as the same fiber that supports the smart grid system will be leveraged to deliver next generation broadband.” 

Op-ed: Spanish Fork Proves Utah Law is Counter-Productive

The Salt Lake Tribune published this op-ed championing local investment in Internet infrastructure on December 11, 2015.

 

Op-ed: Spanish Fork’s success shows municipal Internet networks work

By Christopher Mitchell

For nearly 10 years, large telephone and cable companies have claimed municipal Internet networks are so risky that local government authority should be restricted. But after 15 years of experience, we can only conclude that the cure is worse than the disease.

Utah has three municipal networks, where local governments invested in Internet infrastructure to provide choices in a monopolistic environment. But only two of those networks are regularly discussed and used as examples of why local governments shouldn't be in this business: iProvo and UTOPIA, which were not able to meet their financial targets.

The network missing from the conversation is Spanish Fork Community Network, which has just finished paying off its debt and has generated millions of dollars in surplus revenue for the community. The network is now upgrading from community cable to community gigabit fiber optics.

Of the over 450 municipal networks tracked by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Spanish Fork's experience is above average. The vast majority of municipal networks deliver benefits well in excess of costs and do not require subsidies to operate.

It may come as a surprise, but iProvo and Spanish Fork are nearly twins, separated at birth and raised in dramatically different environments. Both were conceived at the same time — the same consultant did the feasibility study for each. But Spanish Fork, being smaller and more nimble, was able to move forward before Utah's Legislature weighed in to restrict local decision-making.

Comcast and the predecessor to CenturyLink crafted the legislation, which was revealed in a brilliant 2011 BusinessWeek article aptly entitled "Pssst … Wanna Buy a Law?" by Brendan Greeley and Alison Fitzgerald.

Since then, any new Utah municipal network has been subject to numerous requirements unlike anything private providers face, including a de facto requirement to use a wholesale-only arrangement.

Provo wanted to use the same business model as Spanish Fork, which we now know was tremendously successful. Whereas Spanish Fork could directly offer services to local businesses and residents, Provo was required to wholesale to other companies that delivered services.

Google has since taken over Provo's network and may soon be building in Salt Lake City, ensuring some competition for Comcast and CenturyLink in the short term at least. Whether they remain for the long term or not is their decision to make, independent of what is best for the community. Where the network is available, the services and prices will be determined from California, not Utah.

This powerlessness to ensure universal high quality access to the most important utility of the 21st century is a legacy of Utah law, which discourages locally-rooted networks. Utah should embrace the leadership from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who has pushed a pro-competition agenda to bring a real choice in high speed Internet access to local businesses and residents.

Ensuring universal high-speed Internet access requires all hands on deck, not only the private companies. We are seeing new local approaches out of smart communities like Ammon, Idaho, where an incremental approach to the wholesale-only model is very promising.

But that model shouldn't be imposed on communities by the state. Especially when those state laws are written by the very industry voices that seek to limit competition. The record is clear — laws revoking local authority to create Internet choice have increased the risk to taxpayers, limited investment in better networks and have only benefited cable and telephone companies monopolies headquartered outside the state.

Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis (MuniNetworks.org).