Tag: "referendum"

Posted August 5, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Opelika, Alabama, is home of some 27,000 people and a public power utility called Opelika Power and Light. On Tuesday, Aug 10, the city will hold a special referendum to decide if the community can build a network that will cover telecommunications and smart-grid services.

Alabama is one of the states that preempt local authority to build broadband infrastructure, requiring a referendum and imposing limitations on the business plan for community-owned networks that it does not do for privately owned networks.

The local newspaper has a Q&A to answer questions about the project.

Expected cost is in the neighborhood of $33 million and will be funded with revenue bonds if citizens approve the project. Opelika Power and Light already has a fiber ring that will be used in the project if they move forward (the project could start offering services as early as Fall 2012).

From a distance, it appears that details are not yet worked out (and why would they be -- until they have the authority conferred by a successful referendum, they would not complete any agreements), but the private company Knology will likely provide some of the services on the network built by Opelika.

Opelika Power and Light

The local editorial board endorsed the plan.

“Shall the City of Opelika, Alabama, be authorized to acquire, establish, purchase, construct, maintain, lease and operate a cable television system for the purpose of furnishing cable service to subscribers?”
That’s what the ballot will read in Opelika on Aug. 10.


And the answer: absolutely yes.

Unless, of course, you are a massive company like Charter that already offers services. If you are Charter, you might make absurd claims that cable is somehow more reliable than fiber. The Charter Government Relations Director apparently suffers from what we might call the make-ity-up...

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Posted July 20, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Today's Star Tribune editorializes about the importance of broadband and calls on the state to reduce the 65% referendum barrier that prevents a number of communities from building the network infrastructure they need.

The editorial recognizes the successes of Monticello, Minnesota, as well as Bristol Virginia Utilities at spurring broadband growth and lowering prices.

Just as we previously wrote about the unfairness of the 65% referendum requirement, the Strib agreed:

An antiquated state law also stands in the way of communities that want to pursue their own version of FiberNet Monticello. With research increasingly demonstrating that high-speed service boosts rural economic development, communities underserved by current providers should not be held back by the unfair 65 percent threshold for popular support the law requires to go forward. A simple majority would suffice.

Finally, they corrected noted that broadband has been a total sleeper issue. If the next governor pays as little attention to broadband as current Governor Pawlenty, the state will be in dire straits.

Posted May 7, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

How can a local city or county government respond to the misinformation barrage? They can’t. Public officials can’t spend taxpayer dollars to promote such projects or refute industry propaganda. They can’t even financially assist a citizen-run campaign.

That’s a fight with ground rules only Don King could love.

Posted March 14, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

A recent article from GovPro.com, "Cities make end run around data network obstructions," has a good discussion of why referendums are not a good way of ascertaining community support for a community network:

A 2005 Colorado law bans municipalities from providing any type of advanced telecommunications services unless more than 50 percent of the voters favor the plan. Longmont's ballot question asked voters to allow the city to provide services either directly or in partnership with a private company, but 57 percent of voters said no.

"Comcast decided it didn't want Longmont to go there," says Tom Roiniotis, director of Longmont Power & Communications, the city's community-owned electric utility. Comcast spent about $200,000, the largest contribution to any campaign in Longmont's history, to defeat the measure, Roiniotis says. Meanwhile, once the issue became a ballot initiative, Longmont was not allowed to spend any money to campaign for the ballot initiative because that would violate campaign financing laws. "We were walking with one arm and one leg tied behind our back when it came to this campaign," Roiniotis says.

Posted March 1, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

The Longmont Times-Call continues its coverage of the community network struggles of a Colorado community. This story has a lot of the history behind how Longmont developed a fiber ring and how they have used it even as they are prohibited from expanding it.

Longmont is not alone in working for upwards of a decade to bring better broadband to the community that actually meets local needs rather than maximizing profits. Other communities have also spent ten, fifteen, or even long with on-gain, off-again plans to build a publicly owned network. This reality provides a handy refutation of state preemptions based on the logic that communities will act too quickly in not considering their plan for a network. Communities take years in researching, planning, and developing networks.

In Longmont, the first public fiber investment came in 1996 and was expanded shortly thereafter by the Platte River Power Authority. The city moved more than 40 facilities to a gigabit network, leaving T1s to communities that prefer to vastly overpay for their telecommunications needs.

They worked with a private company, Adesta, to expand the network to residents and businesses but the company filed for bankruptcy in the following year. The arrangement certainly had its upside though - Qwest and Comcast mysteriously decided to start offering broadband in Longmont shortly after the Adesta agreement. This happens almost every time a community invests in infrastructure -- it leads to increased investment from incumbents.

They quote a techie from the Longmont Hospital who explains the one of the benefits of the publicly owned fiber already in the ground:

“It’s at least a three times reduction in cost,” Niemann said of leasing fiber from the city, versus contracting with a commercial provider. “And oftentimes, if you go with a commercial provider, you have construction costs.”

The city would like to expand the network, both to bring competition to the DSL/cable duopoly, and to invest in smart grid applications for its public power utility. Unfortunately, they have to win a referendum per Colorado's incumbent-protection law. The incumbents are more than willing to spend hundreds of thousands against any such measure, knowing they would lose far more in profits if they had to deal with competition in the community.

Posted December 17, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

Highland, Illinois, having overwhelmingly approved a referendum in April, 2009 to own and operate a fiber-to-the-premises system, has continued to examine the potential for a publicly owned fiber-to-the-home network. Most of the local government is supportive but one councilmember is vehemently opposed, leading to a ""boom or bust?" article in the local paper.

Interestingly, the city had a significant outage in 2008 due to a fiber cut outside of town.

The new redundancy brought by fiber that would mean a decrease in the chances for a repeat of the winter 2008 when a third-party contractor working to put up a communications tower for AmerenIP cut a fiber optic cable near Maryville, knocking out phone service, most cellular services and Internet service in Highland for nearly seven hours, Latham [city manager] said.

Worried about the future, Latham then spoke with the incumbent provider:

“There was another one for a short span six weeks after that and I spoke with a Verizon official if there were any plans to come in a build a tieback to create redundancy and they said no. The city is fighting for the best interests of this community.”

Whether Highland can get broadband stimulus funding in round 2 or not, they are on the right path for ensuring their community is ready for the future.

Posted November 16, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

As we have noted previously, Longmont, Colorado, has seen a number of private companies attempt to offer Wi-Fi broadband and then go out of business. As Colorado preempts local authority by requiring a referendum by the city before it can offer services itself, Longmont recently had a vote to authorize telecommunications services. Voters defeated the option.

As is common in these referendums, voters were blanketed with reasons to vote against it as incumbents (Qwest and Comcast) spent $200,000 opposing competition whereas the city is prevented by law from advocating for a ballot measure.

Now the Wi-Fi network will be auctioned off in pieces because it cannot pay taxes.

Ohio-based DHB Networks owes the Boulder County treasurer’s office $87,000 in unpaid business personal property tax, and the county demanded the company cease operations unless it pays those taxes.

DHB also owes the city of Longmont. Longmont-based RidgeviewTel is running the network, at least until the Wi-Fi equipment is auctioned off Thursday — at which point, 400 to 600 customers will be without Internet access, RidgeviewTel CEO Vince Jordan said.

Though the city already has fiber assets that could be used for backhaul as well as other expertise it could use in continuing to run the network, it cannot step in to run a network that would be useful to the community:

While the city can step in and operate the system, it would be only for municipal needs — such as police, fire and utility services — and not to provide Wi-Fi to customers.

“Our hands were always tied,” Roiniotis said. “We could buy the system and operate it, but only for our own purposes. We can’t provide the retail part of it.”

The city’s hands also were tied when it came to campaigning. State law bans governments from spending public money to campaign for or against local ballot questions.

Though 400-600 people may not seem like a lot of people to leave stranded, many of those on the network were the ones that needed a low cost alternative. This is one of the reason some hoped for a last minute resolution to the...

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Posted November 5, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

A few local elections on Tuesday had questions relating to publicly owned broadband networks. In Seattle, candidate McGinn strongly supported a publicly owned fiber optic network for the city and he may yet get his way as the race is a dead heat and ballots are still being counted. We previously discussed Seattle's broadband deliberations.

In Longmont, Colorado, voters voted against giving the municipality authority to expand the city owned fiber-assets into a network offering retail services. As usual, the proponents of the public network were significantly outspent by incumbents seeking to prevent competition.

A group called No Blank Check Longmont, backed with $150,000 from the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association, spent more than $143,000 in cash and benefited from more than $46,000 in in-kind contributions in its campaign to defeat 2C.

Up on top of Minnesota's North Shore, the Cook County Broadband project got a mixed reception. Though they received the authority to raise a 1% sales tax that would have helped pay for the project, they failed to achieve the necessary 65% super majority required under ancient Minnesota law (1915) to operate a telephone service. A majority supported the idea - 56% - but without the ability to offer a triple-play, the county will have to reconsider its approach.

Though such results are disappointing, every community with a locally owned community network has had to deal with such setbacks. The question is how organizers can respond to challengers and how badly the community wants fast and affordable broadband networks.

In the near term, I hope that both the Minnesota Broadband Task Force Report (due Friday) and the FCC National Broadband Plan recommend abolishing such barriers to public ownership as a 65% referendum.

Posted October 28, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

As I noted previously, a community in Colorado - Longmont - will soon vote on whether the local government should be allowed to sell retail Internet services. This community has tried a number of approaches to expanding broadband competition but have not yet succeeded in getting the networks they need.

The local paper opposes the measure. However, the editorial frames the issue in a curious way. It claims the ballot measure will "override" state law, which is utterly false. State law says the community has to approve it before they can do it - so the City is complying with the state law.

Those against the measure point to failed municipal-run telecommunication efforts as another reason not to support this measure. That’s fairly compelling, especially when we have no specifics about what type of telecommunications projects the city will pursue.

Those against the measure claim that municipal-run telecommunications efforts have failed. They often point at successful community networks (or even failed privately owned networks, oddly enough), call them failures, and rightly assume that no one will fact-check the assertions. Often, they will gin up some false numbers that suggest a far-off network has lost a lot of money (using their same methodology, it would be crazy for anyone to borrow to buy a house).

Regarding the concern over what specific project the city will pursue if authorized, this is an interesting catch-22 because it makes little sense to expend a lot of money on a business plan before a community has the authority to build something. Either decision is difficult and requires a trust in the local leadership and democratic process.

Comments to that editorial rightly note that Comcast and Qwest will not prioritize investments in Longmont until they see competition. The private sector has failed to generate competition on its own, so the community is smart to consider spurring competition themselves. However, both Comcast and Qwest can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to scare people into voting against competition - it will still be cheaper for the incumbents than having to actually invest in faster networks.

One of the comments provides some interesting background on local broadband:

...
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Posted September 8, 2009 by Christopher Mitchell

The second line of Rachel Carter's story at TimesCall.com captures the reason we care about community broadband networks:

But others argued that it’s not about whether the city will jump into the cable or Internet business; it’s about giving the city options and giving voters a choice.

Longmont, Colorado, will have a question on its November ballot asking whether the city should have the right to offer retail broadband services. This referendum is a requirement of Colorado state law (passed in June 2005 -- more details about that law from Baller.com [pdf]) for communities that want to offer such services to their community.

A number of people spoke at the city council meeting before they unanimously voted to put the question on the ballot. Responding to some who opposed giving citizens a chance to choose, one Council Member came up with quite the apt phrase:

Councilman Sean McCoy said the Comcast representatives and Denver attorneys who spoke against the ballot question tried to “put a shadow of a doubt” on it by using “red herring” issues. “I believe the concerns are more of an issue of ’not in my monopoly’ more than anything else,” he said.

Longmont has given the private sector plenty of chances to offer the broadband that citizens want - but they have failed to meet community needs. A number of private companies have tried to use the city's assets to build a wireless network: As detailed here, Kite Networks contracted with the city in 2006 to build a wireless network but ran out of money. In 2007, Gobility gave it a shot but also ran out of money. In stepped DHB, who completed the network.

It is not clear what has happened to DHB, but this suggests that many remain dissatisfied:

All council members supported the ballot question, although Mayor Roger Lange and Councilwoman Mary Blue questioned what the city may choose to do in the future. Lange said there are some telecommunications services that the city doesn’t need to jump into, but others — such as wireless...

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