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Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

When communities decide to proceed with publicly owned infrastructure, they often aim for open access models. Open access allows more than one service provider to offer services via the same infrastructure. The desire is to increase competition, which will lower prices, improve services, and encourage innovation.

It seems straight forward, but open access can be more complex than one might expect. In addition to varying models, there are special challenges and financing considerations that communities need to consider.

In order to centralize our information on open access, we’ve created the new Open Access Networks resource page. We’ve gathered together some of our best reference material, including links to previous MuniNetworks.org stories, articles from other resources, relevant Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes, case studies, helpful illustrations, and more.

We cover: 

  • Open Access Arrangements
  • Financing Open Access Networks
  • Challenges for Open Access Networks
  • U.S. Open Access Networks
  • Planned Open Access Networks

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!

Congrats to FreeUTOPIA for Victory In Utah

Jesse Harris over at FreeUTOPIA is noting an important shift in the discussions and controversies that surround Utah’s UTOPIA open access network. For starters, as the network is increasingly showing signs of financial success, he’s noticing that critics of the network have gone silent. Meanwhile, more and more people in the region seem to be interested in getting connected to the network. 

After almost a decade spent covering the UTOPIA open source network, Harris declared victory for UTOPIA and for local authority over broadband access in Utah.

We’ll let Jesse take it from here:

UTOPIA is probably in the best shape it has ever been in. They have or will soon hit operational break even, where all operating expenses are now covered by revenues. Between remaining UIA money and the RUS settlement, they have operating capital they can use to expand the network. In fact, expansion is now underway in Perry, Layton, Midvale, and West Valley City. All of the expansion is being done to demand and the cost is landing squarely on subscribers.

Even the public attitude is different. I don’t see baseless fact-free editorials against it with any notable frequency. Even the Utah Taxpayers Association has gone uncharacteristically silent. Orem elected pro-UTOPIA candidates. Murray has been actively working on ways to maximize the network in their city. Payson reportedly even shows up to board meetings with regularity now. From many sources, I hear less “how do we get rid of it” and more “how do I get it in my house”. The importance of competitive, fairly priced, and high performance broadband has entered the mass consciousness in a way that I haven’t seen it before. Most importantly, highly visible failures by incumbents to deliver the kind of broadband nirvana they’ve been promising for decades has made the public highly cynical to their claims.

There is still work to do. UTOPIA has a lot of network to build to serve every address in member cities. There are a lot of areas badly neglected by incumbents that don’t have any kind of viable competition. Google is great for those that have it but creates a lot of have nots and replaces one duopolist with another. The companies who are doing interesting competitive things can’t really do it at scale. Despite these challenges, one thing is certain.

We won the war.

Yes, I’m declaring victory. It’s taken nearly 10 years of running this blog, but the hearts and minds part of the game is more-or-less over. It’s all mop-up operations from here, scattered battles that I think we’ll have little trouble seeing through to victory.

In Jesse’s decade of diligently tracking all things UTOPIA, he’s covered good news (see here and here), setbacks, the network’s tumultuous history, and he’s been a voice of reason in the face of misinformation efforts.

We’d like to salute Jesse for 10 years of effective advocacy for UTOPIA and for the municipal broadband movement as a whole. Thanks Jesse!

South Central Communications Bringing Fiber to Members in Utah, Arizona

Another rural communications cooperative is upgrading its current system to a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. South Central Communications (SCC), is in the process of deploying fiber to all of its 23 member communities in Utah and the few it serves just across the Arizonia border. The cooperative started as South Central Utah Telephone Association in 1953.

An Investment For Today And Tomorrow

Construction began in 2015 and should be completed by the end of 2016, reports the Southern Utah News. Kanab, population 4,300, is the first community to receive the upgrade from the coop's DSL network to the new fiber infrastructure. All of Kanabs schools, municipal facilities, libraries, homes, and businesses will connect to the network, SCC President and CEO Michael East told the News:

“We are making this investment because we believe it will contribute to the economic vitality of our community and allow us to serve this great place we call home with the best communications network available today.”

During the initial build, connections to the new fiber will be free of charge. If customers pass on the offer the first time around decide to connect later, they will be charged an installation fee. FTTH connectivity typically increases home values, so even if customers decide to pass on taking fiber service, there is no down side to connecting to the network.

FTTH Internet access from SCC is available in 5 Megabits per second (Mbps), 15 Mbps, or 50 Mbps for $34.95, $54.95, and $64.95 per month respectively. Gigabit per second (Gbps) access is available for $89.95 per month.

It's About More Than Profit

SCC is one of an increasing number of rural cooperatives offering fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to communities where big corporate providers don't invest. Publicly owned networks, like cooperatives owned by the people who use them, have an interest in the well-being of the community, rather than only in extracting profit from subscribers. 

East concluded by saying “We are excited to be bringing this fiber network to Kanab. I am excited about the tremendous and much needed opportunities it will provide…[I]t’s the educational opportunities, and the improvements in healthcare that are available via the tele-health initiatives that I am excited about.  And we can’t forget about the hundreds, if not thousands of home-based jobs that are now available to people by virtue of having access to this new fiber network. I guess what I am saying is, I am excited about the opportunities for Kanab as a whole.” 

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).

How Lobbyists in Utah Put Taxpayer Dollars at Risk to Protect Cable Monopolies

Facing the threat of municipal broadband networks disrupting their cable and telephone monpolies, big telecom lobbyists wrote a law to restrict municipal networks under the guise of protecting taxpayers. Here's the irony: the law put taxpayers at much greater risk even while restricting their choice of Internet and cable providers.

Before Business Week became Bloomberg Business, Brendan Greely and Alison Fitzgerald published a remarkable story entitled, "Pssst ... Wanna Buy a Law?" It offers chapter and verse on the role of cable and telephone incumbents using the American Legislative and Exchange Council (ALEC) to push Internet anti-competition restrictions in many states.

We have been reflecting on these laws that discourage or bar municipal broadband networks while drafting a brief for the 6th Circuit regarding the FCC decision to strike down monopoly-protection statutes in North Carolina and Tennessee. We realized that the Utah law isn't just anti-competitive, it dramatically increased the risk to taxpayers from building a municipal network in the state.

The Debt-Financed Wholesale-Only Model

Industry lobbyists convinced Utah legislators to restrict local authority over municipal networks to "protect" taxpayers and that argument is still frequently used today by groups opposing local Internet choice. The law does not actually revoke local authority to invest in networks, it monkeys around with how local governments can finance the networks and requires that municipalities use the wholesale-only model rather than offering services directly.

However, the debt-financed citywide wholesale-only model has proven to be the riskiest approach of municipal networks. Building a municipal fiber network where the city can ensure a high level of service is hard and can be a challenge to make work financially. Trying to do that while having less control over quality of service and splitting revenues with 3rd parties is much harder. This is why we recommend either incremental efforts or subsidizing the upfront capital costs for those who want to use the wholesale-only model (which we continue to believe has tremendous potential).

Spanish Fork vs Provo

The Utah law, while purporting to be about protecting taxpayers, puts them at greater risk. Consider two Utah municipal networks: Spanish Fork Community Network and iProvo. Both were studying municipal broadband at the same time with the same consultant. Spanish Fork moved quickly to build its network and was grandfathered into the 2001 Utah law designed to discourage municipal networks. Provo, being larger and needing to inform the public and get feedback before embarking on the project lost its opportunity to use the retail model because the state revoked its authority to do anything but wholesale-only.

We checked in with Kevin Garlick, Provo City Energy Director from 1997-2013, about this time period and he shared interesting details, including this:

As a successful and reliable municipal electric utility, we wanted to leverage our customer relationship by offering telecom services. The community and municipal council supported that. We wanted and planned to use the same retail model that Spanish Fork used. However, the state law essentially forced us to the adopt the more risky wholesale-only model that led to our financial problems.

Thanks for the Protection, Jerks!

The results from Spanish Fork, where the taxpayers were not "protected" by the laws drafted by cable and telephone lobbyists, the city has paid off all of its debt, regularly reinvested net income into local budgets, and is on its way to gigabit fiber. More details on Spanish Fork here.

Provo, saddled with the state restrictions that forced a riskier business model on it, was not financially sustainable. The network generated some benefits but the costs were too great and it eventually became Google Fiber. Many envy the network they now have but the intervening years certainly were part of the plan to improving Internet access.

Since the 2001 law to protect taxpayers from having a real choice in Internet providers, the only two municipal networks (iProvo and UTOPIA) that have been built have encountered major financial challenges and required subsidies to operate. Anyone trying to justify that law on the basis of helping taxpayers has some serious explaining to do. Local governments should be able to make these decisions without interference from states or Washington, DC.

Spanish Fork Building Gig Fiber over Cable Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 170

The Spanish Fork Community Network has long been among the most successful community broadband projects. And now that the community has finished paying off the debt of the network, they are using the net income to upgrade to a fiber network that will be capable of delivering a symmetrical gigabit to anyone in town.

John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director, speaks with us again this week to explain how the project is doing and how they plan to upgrade to fiber. They are pursuing a unique upgrade to our knowledge -- they are building fiber over the coax and will operate both. Telephone and Internet access will run over the fiber and television over the cable.

The network has paid back its debt and continues to generate impressive community savings. With a take rate of 80 percent of the community, the network saves a cumulative $3 million each year. That is a lot of money circulating in the city of 35,000 people.

We previously spoke with John in episode 60. You can read all of our coverage of Spanish Fork here.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Spanish Fork Upgrading to Fiber in Utah

Spanish Fork Community Network (SFCN) recently announced it is upgrading its cable network to a fiber optic network. The network has already started improving services by increasing speeds for the highest tiers at no extra cost reports the Herald Extra.

Residents and businesses in the town of approximately 37,000 have relied on the municipal cable network since 2001. Over the past 14 years, the network has come to provide triple-play to 80 percent of Spanish Fork homes.

Officials kicked off construction on September 3rd:

“We’re excited this is the next step for the SFCN network," [SFCN Director John] Bowcut said. "We’ve always planned on doing fiber to the home, and now we’re in the fiscal position where we can go ahead and install that for our customers."

Customers who choose to remain with the lowest tier - 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps - will remain on the coax infrastructure, says Bowcut, but will be switched to fiber if they choose to upgrade to a higher tier.

The city made its last bond payment for the existing system this year and will use newly available funds from retiring the debt to fund the upgrade. Assistant City Manager Seth Perrins describes the early deployment as "soft" so officials can obtain a better understanding of cost demands, construction management, and how long the project will take. They estimate the project will be complete by 2020.

According to Bowcut, Premium service that is now 120 Mbps / 15 Mbps will transition into symmetrical gigabit service for around $68 per month. PLUS service, currently 60 Mbps / 10 Mbps, will be upgraded to 100 Mbps symmetrical for approximately $45 per month. The Starter tier at 12 Mbps / 3 Mbps will remain $35 per month. All three tiers offer discounts when purchased with TV service.

Read more about Spanish Fork, one of the early municipal networks, and listen to Chris interview John Bowcut during Episode #60 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We have an updated interview with John ready for an upcoming podcast.

Who Has Citywide Gigabit Internet Access for $100 or Less?

As Westminster begins serving customers with its new FTTH network and partner Ting, we were curious how many communities are there where a residential subscriber can obtain affordable gigabit access? We estimate the number of networks, large or small, where a majority of residents in a community can obtain gigabit service for $100 or less to be 12. Westminster will be there in a few years.

Update: Russellville, Kentucky; Salisbury, North Carolina; and Wilson, North Carolina, also offer a gigabit, bringing the total number of citywide gigabit networks to 16. On September 1, we added another network that we previously overlooked - CSpire in Quitman and Flora, Mississippi (and soon others).

Municipal citywide, sub $100 gigabit providers:

  • Leverett, Massachusetts
  • North Kansas City, Missouri
  • Chattanooga, Tennessee
  • Tullahoma, Tennessee
  • Sandy, Oregon
  • UTOPIA Cities, Utah
  • Russellville, Kentucky
  • Salisbury, North Carolina (Fibrant)
  • Wilson, North Carolina (Greenlight)

Cooperatives:

  • Paul Bunyan Communications, Minnesota
  • Farmer's Telecom, Alabama
  • Co-Mo Connect, Missouri

Private Companies:

  • Google - Kansas City, Provo
  • CSpire - Quitman and Flora, Mississippi
  • MetroNet - Crawfordsville, Indiana (formerly a muni)
  • Burlington, Vermont - (currently privately owned, formerly a muni with future in limbo)

We included municipal networks, cooperatives, and privately owned companies. When considering networks that cover multiple jurisdictions in a single area, we counted it as one (thus Google counts as 1 in KC, Chattanooga is 1 in TN). And we were looking for gigabit networks - not just gigabit download. While we prefer to see symmetrical connections, we accepted 500 Mbps up for our threshold.

We could not identify any cities served by AT&T, CenturyLink, Verizon, Comcast, Cox, or any other similar company where the majority of the community has access to a gig. Those providers tend to cherry pick and even then, their prices are over $100 typically. For example, CenturyLink advertises a gig at $80 but then requires other services and hidden fees that make the monthly bill closer to $150.

We found affordable residential gigabit service from networks in urban, suburban, or rural communities from 12 networks (some of which cover multiple communities). Trying to determine how much of the community has access to a service is challenging, so please contact us with any corrections. In a few years, munis like Longmont and private companies like Ting will join the list. 

While the number of providers are few, many of them do serve multiple communities. The coops, including Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative in Alabama and Missouri's Co-Mo Cooperative, provide the service to a long list of smaller communities within their service areas. There is also the open access network UTOPIA, with at least 7 providers that offer gigabit FTTH below our price point in nine communities currently served by the network (to various degrees, some cities have little coverage whereas others are almost entirely built out). 

Prices range from $0 to $99.95 per month with the highest concentration at $70 or higher. In North Kansas City, residents pay $300 for installation and receive gigabit Internet access for $0 per month for the next 10 years. This incredible offer is available due to the presence of LiNKCity, a network deployed by the city and now managed and operated by a private partner. 

AT&T has launched its $70 GigaPower in parts of 12 different metro areas, although the price requires users to submit to a special web based advertising program. Even when these big firms finally invest in high capacity connections, they find new ways to exploit their subscribers - a reminder that who deploys a technology can be as important as what that technology is.

Now that the gig barrier has been blasted away (primarily by municipal networks and smaller ISPs) we expect to see more networks and providers offering affordable gig service to residents. 

Gigabit Cat photo courtesy of Michael Himbeault and shared through a Creative Commons license.

Gigabit Networks and Utah: March 24th Luncheon and Webcast

On Friday, April 24th, make plans to attend the Utah and Broadband Breakfast Club Luncheon Event. If you can't make it in person, attend the webcast. The topic: Gigabit Networks in Utah.

From the announcement:

In announcing in late March that Google Fiber will expand to Salt Lake City (its eighth metropolitan area nationwide), the broadband world turned its envying eyes on Utah. With Google Fiber in Provo and now Salt Lake -- and with Gigabit Networks available in the 11 cities served by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA -- Utah is poised to be the first state where a substantial portion of its residents have access to the fastest-possible broadband internet services.

What does Google's investments say about the economic health and technology-savvy nature of Utah? What do cities and citizens get from Google Fiber that they haven't gotten from traditional telecom companies? And, for cities and states seeking to get a Gig, what are the best options to build and enhance Gigabit Networks?

A panel of experts will discuss what Google and Gig networks mean to Utah and its citizens. The webcast is free and the event is $25 for Nonmembers of the Utah Breakfast Club or $15 for Members. Lunch will be served at the Utah State Capitol at 11:30 a.m. MT and the panel discussion will and webcast will start at 2 p.m. ET/Noon MT.

As a bonus, you may now obtain a free three-month trial membership to the Utah Breakfast Club.

Panelists will be:

  • Devin Baer, Head of Fiber Business, Salt Lake, Google
  • Paul Cutler, Mayor, City of Centerville, Utah
  • Justin Jones, Vice President, Public Policy and Communications, Salt Lake Chamber
  • David Shaw, Shareholder, Kirton McConkie; Chair, Government and Utilities Practice Group
  • Moderated by Drew Clark, Of Counsel, Kirton McConkie; Founder, Utah Breakfast Club

Register online for the webcast or buy tickets for the live event.

Municipal Networks and Small ISP Partners to FCC: Title II Not a Problem

A group of municipal leaders and their private sector small ISP partners submitted an ex parte filing with the FCC today stating that they see no reason to fear Title II reclassification of Internet access. The statement, signed by a variety of towns and providers from different areas of the country is reproduced in full:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

As a group of local governments and small ISPs that have been working to expand the highest quality Internet access to our communities, we commend you for your efforts to improve Internet access across the country. We are committed to a free and open Internet without blocking, throttling, or discriminating by ISPs.

As local governments and small ISPs, we wanted to ensure you are aware that not all local governments and ISPs think alike on matters like reclassification. For instance, on July 18, 2014, the mayors of New York City; Portland, Oregon; and San Francisco called on you to issue the strongest possible rules to guarantee Net Neutrality. Each of these communities is also taking steps to expand and improve high quality Internet access to their businesses and residents.

Our approaches vary but are already resulting in the highest level of service available because we are committed to expanding high quality Internet access to supercharge local economies and improve quality of life. We have no interest in simply replicating older triple play model approaches. We want to build the infrastructure of the future and we see nothing in the proposed Title II reclassification of Internet access that would hinder our ability to do that. As Sonic CEO Dane Jasper has strongly argued, ISPs that don’t want to interfere with their subscribers’ traffic should expect a light regulatory touch.

We thank you for your leadership during this difficult period of transition. We understand that many of our colleagues have trouble trusting the FCC given a history that has, in many cases, ignored the challenges small entities face in this industry. But whether it has been increasing the speed definition of broadband, or calling for the removal of barriers to community networks, we have been impressed with your willingness to take on powerful interest groups to ensure the Internet remains a vibrant, open platform.

We look forward to working with you to ensure that future rules recognize the unique challenges of small providers and innovative approaches to expanding access.

Sincerely,

  • Peter d'Errico, Town of Leverett MA, Municipal Light Plant, Town of Leverett MA Select Board
  • Fletcher Kittredge, President and CEO, GWI, Maine
  • Rick Bates, Town Manager, Town of Rockport, Maine
  • Kevin Utz, Mayor, Westminster, Maryland
  • Dr Robert Wack, Council Member, Westminster, Maryland 
  • R. Brough Turner, Founder and CTO, netBlazr Inc., Boston, MA
  • Pete Ashdown, Founder and CEO of XMission, Salt Lake City, Utah
  • Elliot Noss, CEO, Tucows / Ting
  • Kim Kleppe, Information Systems Director, City of Mount Vernon, Washington
  • Dana Kirkham, Mayor, City of Ammon, ID
  • Levi C. Maaia, President, Full Channel Labs, Warren, Rhode Island

You can also view the PDF of the filing at the FCC website.

For more on Title II and how it may or may not affect municipal networks and their private partners, listen to Chris interview Chris Lewis from Public Knowledge in Episode #138 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.