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TN Study Suggests Stamping Out State Barriers

The results of a statewide Tennessee survey on residential and business connectivity are in and they ain't pretty. Thirteen percent of the state - more than 834,000 people - don’t have access to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC's definition of broadband. Authors of the study make a number of recommendations, the first of which is removing state barriers that stifle Internet infrastructure investment.

"...A More Open Regulatory Environment"

The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) earlier this year, includes feedback from more than 23,000 households and businesses. 

From page 13 of the report:

The State of Tennessee could consider lifting administrative burdens and restrictions to broadband infrastructure investment to fostering a more open regulatory environment. 

In the report, the authors provide detailed reasoning for why the state should embrace an open regulatory environment to encourage competition. They note that state barriers impact electric cooperatives, municipalities that operate electric utilities and cannot expand beyond their own service areas, and municipalities that do not operate electric utilities but can only build telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas with a private partner.

The FCC came to the same conclusion in February 2015 and rolled back Tennessee state laws in order to encourage competition. Tennessee is leading the charge against the FCC's decision with North Carolina (even though NC's Attorney General criticized the law). The parties have filed briefs, attorneys have presented oral arguments, and now the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case.

The report goes on to recommend other policies, including dig-once, smart conduit rules, and one-touch make ready. Some of these policies have been challenged in other states by the big incumbents, such as the AT&T fight in Louisville against one-touch make ready. It’s no secret that Governor Bill Haslam has been content to let these same corporate gigantaurs effectively run the show in his state for some time now. 

Business Critical

Beyond recommendations, findings from the study were also revealing. The press release from the TNECD stated that the study shows fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is especially important to Tennessee’s businesses:

Businesses participating in the assessment reported broadband enabled 43 percent of all net new jobs and 66 percent of revenues. In addition, 34 percent of businesses classified broadband as essential to selecting their location, and 56 percent noted that it was essential to remain in their location. Sixteen percent of economic development agencies reported that businesses frequently chose not to locate in an area due to insufficient broadband. (emphasis ours)

Both business and residential participants cited reliability as the most important factor to them when analyzing their connectivity. Businesses also considered upload speed critical to their use of the Internet.

Urban vs Rural

While the survey determined that 13 percent of people in the state don’t have access to 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps, the “vast majority” were rural folks. According to the survey, 98 percent of urban participants DO have access. Those would include people who live in places such as Chattanooga, Pulaski, and Clarksville - all towns with municipal networks.

The survey found a correlation between access to the Internet and a number of factors, four of which were the most prevalent:

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  • The economic status of the community 
  • Number of ISPs (level of competition)
  • Type of connection
  • Population density 

Removing state regulatory barriers would allow a number of these rural areas to partner with municipalities that have already invested in Internet infrastructure. Nowhere else is this situation more apparent than in Bradley County. Cleveland Utilities (CU), the electric, water, and sewer provider in the county would like to partner with nearby Chattanooga EPB Fiber Optics to bring fast affordable, reliable connectivity to customers but state law forbids it. Bradley County and a number of other rural communities have appealed to state lawmakers because it is a matter of economic urgency and educational necessity for their children. They are still waiting.

Bills to eliminate the state barriers have been introduced but while the number of State Legislators supporting them has increased, the movement does not have the force to restore local authority...yet.

Break Down The Barriers 

Haslam referred to his administration’s report as “a starting point” and TNED Commissioner Randy Boyd cautioned that, “Not every option included in the report may be the answer for Tennessee, nor is there one simple solution.” 

It must be hard to hold the line as expert opinion and evidence chip away at the flawed logic behind Tennessee's state barriers. It's becoming increasingly apparent that the laws do not benefit the people of Tennessee; they are in place strictly for the big cable companies and telcos that operate there.

For the full report, visit the TNECD website.

Discussing (Ranting) Consolidation - Community Broadband Bits Episode 209

In celebration of Independence Day, we are focused this week on consolidation and dependence. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are very focused on independence and believe that the consolidation in the telecommunications industry threatens the independence of communities. We doubt that Comcast or AT&T executives could locate most of the communities they serve on a blank map - and that impacts their investment decisions that threaten the future of communities.

So Lisa Gonzalez and I talk about consolidation in the wake of Google buying Webpass and UC2B's partner iTV-3 selling out to Countrywide Broadband. And we talk about why Westminster's model of public-private partnership is preferable to that of UC2B.

We also discuss where consolidation may not be harmful and how the FCC's order approving the Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable will actually result in much more consolidation rather than new competition.

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 Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Cork Hornpipe."

Calories? Carbs? Data Caps? ISP Nutrition Labels From BroadbandSearch

Depending on where you live, you may be able to choose between two or three big name ISPs. No matter which one you ultimately select, you might face some difficulty obtaining the kind of service you deserve. If you know what to expect, it’s easier to prepare yourself and, in the event you DO have a choice, pick the one that’s right for you.

BroadbandSearch has likened transparency in the telecommunications industry to nutrition information on food packaging. They have produced a set of “Nutrition Labels” for your Internet access diet.

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They describe the project:

We believe that anything that makes buying broadband Internet service easier is a good thing, and for that reason we've created these ready-made broadband nutrition labels to help you choose from the biggest providers in the nation. 

Here is Comcast’s Xfinity label, a big provider in our Minneapolis area.

Of course, rates from Xfinity and other providers vary from place to place and they offer introductory deals that depend on a number of factors. For more on how BroadbandSearch obtained their data, check out their Sources page.

Now that the FCC’s network neutrality rules have been challenged and upheld in the Appellate Court, providers are required to be more transparent. These labels can help them share the information that subscribers need to make informed decisions. Check out the complete set at BroadbandSearch.

Without Big Banks, Rural Broadband Experiments On Hold

It's been well over a year since awards were announced in the FCC Rural Broadband Experiment program, but several projects have not started because funds have not been released. The recipients are ready to commence, but the FCC's own requirements have halted expansion of high-quality Internet access to areas that need it the most.

The Rural Broadband Experiments program has required Letters of Credit from the top 100 banks. Although it may have seemed like good regulation, it completely ignores the reality of small businesses.

They Are Experiments

The FCC touted the Rural Broadband Experiments as the answer for small, local, and nontraditional, Internet Service Providers (ISP). The program had $100 million in funding to encourage innovation in ill-served rural areas. After the FCC provisionally approved 37 of the 200 applications, those providers then needed to secure Letters of Credit to ensure that the projects were secure, reliable investments.

The Letters of Credit for this program must be from one of the top 100 banks, and big banks are not known for lending to small ISPs. Local banks, however, do lend to such projects because they are familiar with the local ISP, the local economy, and the community. These big banks that the FCC wants, however, cannot judge the relative soundness of such projects, especially not “experiments.”

Big Banks Don’t Understand Risk

Why would you require a Letter of Credit from these banks? Last year, ILSR published a chart that shows how banks with more than $100 billion in assets “make poorer lending decisions and write-off more bad loans than do community banks, those financial institutions with under $1 billion in assets.”

Not all of the top 100 banks have more than $100 billion in assets, but there is no need to involve the big banks when rural Internet access programs can and often should work with small local banks. For instance, in Bozeman, Montana, eight local banks provided funding for the non-profit community network. The requirement is flawed, ill conceived, and evidence that our system is conditioned to promote the inaccurate premise that "bigger is better."

Listen to the Lawyers: Audio of Oral Arguments Now Available in TN/NC vs FCC

Attorneys argued before the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on March 17th in the case of Tennessee and North Carolina vs the FCC. The attorneys presented their arguments before the court as it considered the FCC's decision to peel back state barriers that prevent local authority to expand munis.

A little over a year ago, the FCC struck down state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks. Soon after, both states filed appeals and the cases were combined.

You can listen to the entire oral argument below - a little less than 43 minutes - which includes presentations from both sides and vigorous questions from the Judges.

To review other resources from the case, be sure to check out the other resources, available here, including party and amicus briefs.

The Importance of Data and Cooperation: Tribal Lands

As of now, 41% of tribal lands do not have high-speed Internet access according to the FCC Broadband Report of 2016 released on January 29, 2016. That same day, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) published a study of high-speed Internet access on tribal lands. 

The GAO report (GAO-16-222) reviewed previous federal programs that aimed to improve Internet access and interviewed several tribal entities. The result reveals the perspective of communities impacted by the data and cooperation - or lack of both - among the different federal entities. Long before this report, the FCC had recognized the shortcomings of these programs and began to improve data collection and inter-governmental cooperation.

Highlighted Areas for Improvement

The GAO focused mainly on FCC and USDA programs from 2010 – 2014, especially those that specifically addressed tribal connectivity. GAO researchers collected the perspectives of several tribal entities, which provided useful qualitative data to understand the impact of Internet access on these communities.

Tribal officials noted that the important role the FCC and USDA programs had in expanding high-speed Internet access. Throughout the report are anecdotes of how the several programs have benefitted tribal lands. The outreach efforts of the two federal agencies, however, are not always well coordinated:

“Officials from one tribe said that multiple federal programs offering similar grants were confusing and that a federal one-stop-shop for outreach and training would help them better target the right programs for their situation.“ (p. 22)

The report also touched on the quality of quantitative data. In 2006, there was little meaningful data. Although the situation has improved, reliable data is still lacking. Tribal lands are often rural and sparsely populated, such that census blocks (the basis of much data collection) cover large areas. This method can grossly overstate the availability of Internet access in such an environment.

GAO Recommendations and FCC Action

“GAO recommends that FCC (1) develop joint training and outreach with USDA; (2) develop performance goals and measures for tribal areas for improving broadband availability to households; (3) develop performance goals and measures for improving broadband availability to tribal schools and libraries; and (4) improve the reliability of FCC data related to institutions that receive E-rate funding by defining “tribal” on the program application.” (GAO-16-222)

The FCC and USDA had already recognized many of these problems and solutions and had already started to implement them. The Wireline Competition Bureau Chief DelNero and Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau Acting Chief Kutler responded to the recommendations. Their letter is included in the appendix of the GAO report. They assured the GAO that the FCC was already taking action on improving many of these areas. 

At the end of the day…

The report serves as a reminder that the programs of 2010-2014 have improved the availability of Internet access but not done enough for tribal lands. We still have a long way to go to bring tribal residents the access they need to participate in the 21st century.

TN and NC vs. FCC: Oral Arguments Scheduled for Thursday, March 17th

This Thursday, March 17th, attorneys for the FCC and the states of Tennessee and North Carolina will present arguments to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals on a case that could define parameters for publicly owned Internet networks. The proceedings begin at 9 a.m. eastern. Each side has 15 minutes to present.

As we reported a year ago, the FCC ruled that state barriers in Tennessee and North Carolina limiting expansion of publicly own networks are too restrictive and threaten the U.S. goal of expanding ubiquitous access. The FCC overruled the harmful state laws but soon after, both states filed appeals.

The cases were consolidated in the Sixth Circuit and a number of organizations, including ILSR, offered Amicus briefs. We have collected all the briefs and made them available for you here. As most of our readers will recall, the case focused on Chattanooga and Wilson, two communities that know the many benefits of publicly owned networks.

So, when you raise your glass of green beer on Thursday to celebrate St. Paddy's, send some luck to our friends in Wilson, Chattanooga, and the FCC!

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."

Local Communities Appeal to State Leaders: Change State Anti-Muni Law

Some of us remember it - not so fondly - as a discarded relic of an early era of the Internet. But it’s not a relic for people in some parts of rural Tennessee: the awful sound of a dial-up modem.

There are approximately 28,000 people living in the county and as Marion County Mayor David Jackson tells it, he knows residents with no Internet access at all. Some of Marion County residents with nothing better than dial-up can actually look across the Tennessee River and see buildings and houses served by Chattanooga's EPB’s gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

Given this stark contrast, it’s no wonder the push is intensifying for more access to publicly owned Internet networks in Tennessee.

Marion County Wants Local Authority

Elected officials from the Marion County Commission and the town of Kimball are the latest communities to vote on resolutions asking state leaders to change Tennessee’s state anti-muni law. The legal barrier prevents existing municipal utilities from expanding their fiber network footprints to provide telecommunications services to neighboring communities. 

In fact, city leaders in every Marion county municipality have plans to vote on their own resolutions asking the same thing: give us the local authority to decide for ourselves.

While the U.S. Court of Appeals considers whether or not to reverse the FCC decision to roll back the state barrier, communities are calling on the legislature to solve the problem by restoring local authority.

As Communities Succeed, the Municipal Fiber Movement Grows

These communities hope that changing the law will enable Chattanooga to extend its much celebrated EPB network to serve the people of Kimball and other communities in Marion County. The efforts come in the wake of similar requests out of Bradley County.

"There's a movement, pretty well statewide now, to expand broadband and fiber optic networks throughout rural areas of the state," Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger said. "In order to do that, there has to be a change in the state law."

The Marion County officials are forwarding their resolutions to Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, and Marion County’s state delegates. While state leaders have not signaled an intent to change the law and some county officials tried unsuccessfully to get the law changed in 2014, Marion County Attorney Billy Gouger believes things are different now: 

“‘They're going to try it again,’ he said. ‘There are some other concessions being made that will [give it] a better chance of passing this time.’”


Mr. and Mrs. Monopoly Seek Treatment with Competify

Check out this new video from the Competify coalition. The short 2-minute feature introduces viewers to Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly, who are clearly suffering from "chronic broadband access control."

Meet Mr. and Mrs. Broadband Monopoly

Competify focuses on raising awareness about the long term damage caused by lack of high-quality Internet access competition. Our livelihoods suffer when a small number of huge corporate telecommunications providers control connectivity. The coalition provides hard information on how these de facto monopolies and duopolies negatively impact our lives and how a more competitive environment can help.

Here is a statement from Competify and the Partners for the Cure:

The largest data collection ever conducted by the FCC and almost a decade of advocacy by those throughout the broadband economy have finally brought us to this long-awaited milestone — the FCC’s review of the high-capacity broadband market. As the incumbents struggle to come to terms with the fact that their own behavior has given them chronic broadband access control, they seem to be trying to blame the high-capacity broadband lines they sell for their very own conduct. Here at COMPETIFY, we have a message for those critical high-speed broadband lines: from powering schools and libraries to 5G to the Internet of Things, we think you are pretty “special.” And today is a major step toward your freedom.

It’s important to note that a very common symptom of chronic broadband access control is confusion. Indeed, the large incumbent companies have gone to great lengths to explain why the lines providing vital broadband service to our businesses, hospitals, schools, government buildings, banks and countless other indispensable institutions are “not very special anymore” and are “obsolete.” By all means, if those interests insist on that point of view, then they should have no concerns whatsoever about this proceeding, as they have obviously moved on to more “special” technologies.  In the meantime, the rest of the broadband economy anxiously awaits the FCC’s efforts to finally cure this diseased marketplace.

Visit the Competify website to learn more and to sign the petition asking the FCC to take action to encourage competition through smart policies.