Tag: "taxes"

Posted December 9, 2009 by christopher

Following up on my previous post "Institutional Networks and Cherry Picking," I want to briefly note that the U.S. should reform how it funds Internet connections at schools and libraries.

Let me start with an assumption: we do not want to use federal taxes to support these local institutions except where most necessary. It strikes me that wherever possible, communities should take responsibility for their own community institutions.

With that in mind, the eRate program concerns me. Basically, eRate is a means for the federal government to aid local schools and libraries in affording broadband. I'm afraid that it indirectly encourages monopolistic service providers (mainly telephone incumbents) to overcharge for T-1 lines while removing any incentive for the school or library to invest in a better connection.

If a school or library is only paying 20% of the cost of a slow and overpriced line, it has considerably less motivation to seek a better connection -- especially as the only alternative to an existing connection may be building new fiber paths - as noted in "Libraries dying for bandwidth."

But another problem is simple availability. As the ALA's report (PDF) points out, "moving from a 56Kbps circuit to 1.5Mbps is one thing. Moving from 1.5Mbps to 20Mbps or to 100Mbps or even to a gigabit—depending on the size and need of the library—is another." Even when they can pay for it, many libraries are finding that higher speeds simply aren't available.

This program has been around since 1998 and has paid out $25 billion. Imagine if the program had encouraged the schools and libraries to build their own networks from the start - a truly sustainable approach rather than an approach that brought slow broadband to these anchor institutions while rewarding telephone companies significantly overcharging for slow services.

Consider Joanne Hovis of Columbia Telecommunications Company -

In Montgomery County schools connected to a community-owned fiber network are getting access to 100Mbps speeds and paying $71 per Mbps per month, whereas neighboring schools not on the network are paying $2,000 a...

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Posted December 1, 2009 by christopher

It looks like Palo Alto should move quickly on expanding its publicly owned fiber-based I-NET - as the city renegotiates the cable franchise with Comcast, the private cable company is trying to rip-off taxpayers with exorbitant prices for community anchor tenants.

California is one of several states to recently take negotiating power on cable television franchises away from communities and grant it to the state. Historically, communities negotiated a free or reduced rate for connectivity to schools, public safety buildings and other key community anchors in return for access to community Right-of-Way - an essential permission necessary to build a cable network.

However, as these agreements come up for review, the regulatory landscape is significantly different than it was when they were negotiated in the past. Federal and state decisions have limited the power of communities to gain concessions from cable companies as they continue to raise prices and post large profits.

In response, many communities have embarked on smart efforts to build their own fiber-optic networks connecting key institutions. These networks often save money while greatly increasing available bandwidth, allowing local governments to be more efficient and use cutting-edge applications. In some communities, these Institutional Networks have formed the backbone of next-generation networks that extend full fiber-to-the-home network access to businesses and citizens. Palo Alto has not yet connected all the necessary buildings with its network and still depends on Comcast for bandwidth to those areas.

Communities should beware - network ownership means power. The network owner can decide what price to charge schools - prices that must be paid with tax dollars. Communities building their own networks have slashed these prices and reduced pressure on the tax base. They don't have to worry as much when cable franchise negotiations are up again - like Palo Alto is now.

Joe Saccio, deputy director of Palo Alto's Administrative Services Department, said Comcast's proposed rates for I-Net would essentially enable the cable company to bill the communities twice for the fiber network. The network's construction was funded by cable subscribers and according to the staff report, Comcast has already largely (if not completely) recouped those costs.

"It's felt...

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Posted October 6, 2009 by christopher

The Minnesota Independent took Pawlenty's Administration to task last week for its decision to give more money to the telecom company front group Connected Nation. To be clear, this is not the money for infrastructure (yet - time will tell how the state encourages the feds to allocate the grants). This was the mapping money.

Peter Fleck, of PF Hyper blog, put it well:

“My understanding is that we have allowed the companies that have not provided the needed broadband coverage in our state to steer the broadband mapping process itself because of a stated need for confidentiality. That need is questionable,” said Fleck.

“And it puts the state in a position where if the maps show there is no problem with broadband coverage, then we won’t need legislation, regulation, or any other policies and it creates the risk that the telecom industry can continue to provide inadequate coverage to underserved areas — usually areas of low-density and low-income. And because of the inadequacy of these maps, eventually we will have to undertake broadband mapping again at taxpayer expense. To me, this is an irresponsible use of public money.”

The story also quotes me and links back to our story on Connected Nation in Minnesota.

I want to note that states and federal agencies can demand more in terms of better maps and data transparency. It is somewhat disingenuous to lay the blame solely at the doorstep of this telecom-front organization when elected officials refuse to demand more from an industry that has long retained legions of lobbyists. Make no mistake, Connected Nation's conflict of interest is a serious problem, but we need our elected officials to stand up to the telecommunications companies and demand better mapping data. We had higher hopes from the NTIA, but clearly that was misplaced.

More recently, Sharon Schmickle of MinnPost wrote about plans for a publicly owned network in Cook County, Minnesota. It touches on the major issues that many communities face when deciding whether to build...

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Posted August 10, 2009 by christopher

In another example of how some private companies continue acting against the public interest, Verizon is again using FiOS as a weapon, threatening not to bring it to a New York town unless the town essentially waives some $12,000 in real estate taxes.

Communities maintain what is called the "right-of-way" - where utility polls are located or conduit is buried underground. Imagine if a cable company had to work out an arrangement with every resident who had a poll in their yard to string cable - what a headache! Instead, companies like Verizon negotiate with the municipal government for access to the right-of-way. In return, communities typically negotiate for things like a franchise fee, often a 3%-5% fee from television revenues that is used to fund local public access channels. The right-of-way is a valuable community asset and the community deserves to benefit from allowing private companies to profit from it.

In this case, Verizon wants to dodge the real estate taxes it owes by taking them out of the franchise fee - which would pass effectively reduce its public interest obligations required by using the rights-of-way. Yet another way in which companies put profits above the community.

Verizon must have some skilled accountants, they never seem to pay taxes. When they sold off their customers in New England to the failing Fairpoint, they also avoided paying taxes on the income from the sale.

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