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Yet Another Homeowner Led Astray By Giant ISP; Responds with Muni Fiber Initiative

Last month, we highlighted the story of Seth, a Washington state homeowner forced to put his home up for sale due to a perfect storm of sloppy customer service, corporate bureaucracy, and terrible Internet policy. Now meet Dave Mortimer from Michigan.

Dave is another person in a similar situation, reports Ars Technica. In 2013 incumbent AT&T told Dave three separate times that the house he had his eye on in rural Lowell had U-verse fiber network capabilities. Their website verified what customer service represenatives told him. Dave is an IT professional and wanted the opportunity to work from home. He must be on call while not in the office and so requires a fast residential Internet connection. 

After buying the home and moving in, AT&T backpedaled. Actually his best option was DSL offering 768 Kbps. Oops!

Working from home was a struggle. After Dave complained to AT&T, the FCC, the FTC, and the state Public Service Commission, the provider eventually updated their website but that didn't help Dave. He limped along but seldom worked from home as he had planned to do from the start. His office is 30 minutes away.

Finally, AT&T billed him for a phone line he never requested leading to an auto-payment error and a shut-off of his Internet service. That was enough for Dave. He approached a local wireless provider Vergenness Broadband and, working with the installer, attached the receiver to a tree some distance from his house and buried the extra long cable in cracks in his driveway to his house. Dave now pays $60 per month and gets the 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload he was promised.

Dave is no where near the 45 Mbps he had hoped to obtain from the phantom U-verse, but he has this to say about his local provider:

“This is a night and day difference since switching from AT&T," he said. "Everything that AT&T did wrong, this small local company is doing right.”

Dave was fortunate to have a local company able to bring him service, even though it is not broadband as defined by the FCC. Nevertheless, he considers this a temporary fix and the best he can get for the time being.

This small company lured away Dave from AT&T but the Telecom Death Star is probably not worried about a massive customer exodus in Lowell. The Lowell Ledger recently reported on an April City Council meeting where Dave discussed his problems with AT&T and hte lack of broadband competition in Lowell:

Ryan Peel, owner of Vergennes Broadband LLC, said that his company had no plans to offer Internet service within Lowell city limits.

“We go head-to-head with Comcast and AT&T and it is very difficult to compete, basically because their prices are so low,” Peel said. “We basically don't have a presence in the city of Lowell because of that..."

That leaves few options for rural dwellers. Peel continues:

"...They cover just about everybody that's here. The outlying townships, that's a completely different story. That's part of my vision, has been to cover the more rural areas and not focus so much on town, just because of the options that already exist.”

Which leaves few options for town dwellers. Two options - DSL or cable with no choice of providers - verges on being no options at all.

AT&T has no one to blame but themselves as Dave's idea, the Lowell Fiber Initiative, takes off. He has presented his idea to the City Council and assembled a collection of resources to educate others in the community. Lowell already has its own electric utility, much like Michigan's Sebewaing, that fired up its own gigabit FTTH network late last year.

Michigan is one of the 19 states with restrictions on the books but, in light of the FCC's February ruling striking down restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the future for places like Lowell may be brighter. As long as AT&T continues to offer business as usual, more Daves will continue to build movements like the Lowell Fiber Initiative.

Community Networks Map 2015 Fact Sheet

As of January 2015, more communities than ever before have realized the value of publicly owned broadband infrastructure.

In order to introduce our updated Community Networks Map to advocates of better broadband, policy makers, and community leaders, we created the Community Networks Map fact sheet.

This is a great resource for policy makers, advocates, and community leaders who want a visul tool to share the truth – that a large number of successful community broadband networks are spread across the country, serving constituents, encouraging economic development, and saving public dollars.

Download the PDF to learn more and visit the online interactive map to obtain detailed information and links to specific community stories on the map.

New Community Owned Network Map

We have updated and expanded our interactive Community Owned Network Map [Non-interactive screen shot above]. The map continues to track the FTTH, cable networks, and partial fiber networks owned by local governments in the U.S. Now it also tracks dark fiber networks, publicly owned stimulus funded networks, and which networks are already advertising and/or delivering gigabit services.

We are presently tracking networks in 342 communities, including:

  • 89 communities with a publicly owned FTTH network reaching most or all of the community.
  • 74 communities with a publicly owned cable network reaching most or all of the community.
  • 179 communities with some publicly owned fiber service available to parts of the community.
  • 35 communities in 10 states with a publicly owned network offering at least 1 Gigabit services.

Visit the map here.

Tags by Location


All the places we have written about, organized by geography

  Read more »

Ford Foundation Annual Report Promotes Publicly Owned Networks

The Ford Foundation has recognized the important contribution of publicly owned broadband networks to improving affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet in communities throughout the US. Using data that we helped to gather, they have launched a single map identifying publicly owned networks around the country and showing states with barriers to such networks.

Ford Foundation Community Map tool

Ford Foundation explores the context around the map here:

The stakes on this issue are high, and the questions are complex—making the involvement of philanthropy especially important. Questions are emerging, for example, about the lack of market competition, and what appears to be the resulting failure to provide good service to rural and working communities. Some localities are responding by establishing municipal broadband networks that meet the infrastructure needs of their citizens and ensure that local businesses and families are not left behind. Our grantee partners are informing debates on issues like these, where the real future of Internet rights is being determined—and where the public interest can easily get lost.

We look forward to seeing this map add more communities as they take responsibility for their digital future.

Rural Massachusetts Open Access Fiber-Optic Network Builds Momentum

We are hearing exciting news from western Massachusetts -- at least 17 towns have already held the necessary meetings and votes to join the Wired West cooperative that will build an open access, universal, FTTH broadband network in each of the member towns. This is an exciting project in a region largely left behind by cable and phone companies.

Back in January, we described the steps necessary to form a "Municipal Light Plant," in each community but a recent update from Wired West reminds us about the specifics:

Town participation in the WiredWest municipal telecommunications cooperative requires passing two consecutive town votes at separate meetings to establish Municipal Light Plant (MLP) legislation in the town. The MLP legislation was created in the Commonwealth over 100 years ago to enable towns to generate their own electricity. In 1996, the ability for towns to offer telecommunications services was added to the MLP statute. WiredWest charter towns researched various governance options and determined this was the best choice for enabling towns to offer telecommunications services, work together cooperatively and issue municipal debt to capitalize the network.

Towns have been passing the 2/3 votes with overwhelming approval, as in the town of Florida, with a 30-1 vote.

Wired West is maintaining an impressive map of the status of each town along the path. Clicking on a town brings up more information about that town. Kudos to them for making a great map that is easy to use and conveys a lot of information.

The Berkshire Eagle recently published an op-ed discussing the importance of economic development in the area:

Because many Berkshirites work, either at home or in an office, in towns without high-speed Internet service, making such connections widely available is vital to economic development in the county. I’m a volunteer with WiredWest, a cooperative effort of 47 towns in Western Massachusetts to build a locally-owned fiber-optic network to provide broadband services to homes and businesses. With this network the Berkshires can compete with anywhere else in the country, or the world for that matter, as a place to live and work. Without it, unwired areas of the county will become economic deadzones.

Monica Webb, spokeswoman for Wired West, was interviewed about the network:

"We've got 47 towns that have opted to join the organization and have been part of the discussions," she said. "Of those, about 30 are actively pursuing the government structure required to join Wired West, which requires two votes at two town meetings. In July, we will have the meeting to form our cooperative and we're hoping that at least a couple of dozen towns will join after that. We already have our recommended articles of incorporation and bylaws so that once this is formed it can be acted on quickly."

"I do have satellite and although I hear a lot from people that the weather affects their connection, that's less of an issue for me than the integrity of the system itself," she said in a phone interview. "If it goes out, they have to send a technician out to fix it and that can take up to a week. I've had to sit on the steps of the library twice a day to send and receive emails and I know I'm not the only one who's doing this. Even with the satellite, I've had to send three separate emails to people because a file was too big. This is really no way to conduct a business."

And she has developed an incredible metaphor for explaining why wireless alone is not sufficient for the economic development and high quality of life local residents need:

"I try to tell people, imagine that you are at the top of a hill with two pails of water and you want the water to go to the bottom of the hill. Dump one directly on the ground and then pour another down a pipe that is running downhill. That's the difference between fiber and wireless. And besides, fiber sets the foundation for wireless. Wireless will never have the capacity to run a business."

This is exactly correct. Wireless is no substitute for the reliability and high capacity of a fiber-optic connection. Unfortunately, rural residents across the country have to deal with the same issue -- policymakers who want to take the path of least resistance by leaving rural residents barely connected to the the engine of economic development and quality of life: modern communications.

We previously noted the long video released by Wired West but below we have embedded a shorter, Director's Cut.


Publicly Owned Broadband Networks: Averting the Looming Broadband Monopoly

Publication Date: 
March 23, 2011

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is pleased to release the Community Broadband Map and report, Publicly Owned Broadband Networks: Averting the Looming Broadband Monopoly. The map plots the 54 cities, big and small, that own citywide fiber networks and another 79 own citywide cable networks. Over 3 million people have access to telecommunications networks whose objective is to maximize value to the community in which they are located rather than to distant stockholders and corporate executives.

For several years ILSR has been tracking telecommunications developments at the local and state level. We have worked with businesses and communities protecting their right to self-determination via the fundamental infrastructure for the information-based economy. This report offers some of our findings.

Community Network Map

Around the United States, hundreds of communities have made substantial investments into telecommunications networks. These investments range from the nation's largest FTTH network in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to the hundreds of local governments that built networks to connect schools and community anchors. This is the first map to comprehensively map the broadband networks that are structurally designed to meet community needs first.  Read more »

More Minnesota Broadband News

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 their own network.

I wanted to add some comments to it that will add perspective to the story - I encourage you to read the whole Schmickle piece because I pick only a few points below to expand upon.

Regarding Cook County's application for broadband stimulus funds, the incumbent phone provider to much of the area (Qwest), has brought a we-won't-build-it and we-won't-let-you-build-it-either attitude. Local businesses and the Forest Service cannot even get a T-1 line (which would offer about 1.5 megabits and would probably cost $800/month give or take $500 depending on Qwest's mood at the time). The phone lines are in such a state of disrepair that dial-up is even slower than average and businesses can go days without any telecom services.

Dana MacKenzie, the information systems director for the County, previously told the MN Broadband Task Force that when the single connection to the area goes down (somewhere on the road to Duluth), all telecom stops up there. No redundancy means no credit card transactions, no 9-11 service, no nothing until the line is repaired. Profit-maximizing companies have little incentive to provide redundancy when residents have no real choice in providers.

Unfortunately, Jack Geller lets these companies too far off the hook. I find Geller, a member of the state's broadband task force, to be a deep-thinking person, so I hope this quote was out of context.

"Whether you agree or disagree with how good a job your incumbent providers are doing, you have to admit that they have invested millions of dollars in your community," Geller said. "Now we are saying we need more, and the government should provide it … should use taxpayer dollars to compete with the private sector."

These companies have not invested millions out of charity - they were originally granted a government-sponsored monopoly to ensure they would be profitable and they have continued to make profits while refusing to invest in better networks (here, I aim my criticism at the large, absentee companies - the smaller independent telcos that are rooted in their communities have continued investing in the community).

As for whether taxpayer dollars should compete with the beneficiaries of government-granted monopolies (though such monopolies ceased to exist, their legacy continues to shape our telecom landscape), I think the answer is muddier than he suggests. Further, most community networks emphatically do not use taxpayer dollars, so the argument is largely academic anyway. Jack and I have previously discussed the role of government competing with the private sector, but that is different from phrasing it as "taxpayer dollars" that are funding the networks - something almost guaranteed to result in a knee-jerk reaction opposing the idea (creating more heat than light rhetorically).

Finally, I think Jack's larger point would be that private companies cannot, even if they were willing, build out the networks that are needed in many rural areas. The costs are too high and returns too low. This is something I agree wholeheartedly on - which is why I find it ludicrous that some still think the private sector is capable of building this essential infrastructure throughout the country without continuing to damage our ability to compete with peer nations. And it remains frustrating that these companies, who will not build the needed networks, have the money and lobbyists to prevent others from doing it.

A final criticism of Shmickle's piece is that I was disappointed to see her treat the Monticello lawsuit as though it had any merit. It was thrown out by every court in Minnesota at the earliest opportunity - the only reason it lasted so long is because we have a massive backlog of cases and too few judges. It was a frivolous lawsuit meant to delay competition and it succeeded. It was an abuse of the justice system that has successfully scared other communities from exercising their legitimate power for fear of being locked in an expensive court battle (is there any other kind?) that would drain their resources despite an inevitable victory. Large companies like TDS have lawyers for this very reason - they probably profited from their court loss due to the delay of more than a year whereas Monticello had to hire representation to respond.

Photo by Jackanapes, used under creative commons license.