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Posted February 12, 2013 by Christopher Mitchell

Glasgow was a true pioneer in community owned broadband networks, starting with its own cable plant in the 1980s. Billy Ray, CEO of Glasgow Electric Plant Board, has been an inspiration for municipal broadband networks -- one can't dig into the early history of LUS Fiber in Louisiana without running into something from Billy Ray, for instance. Glasgow's network has been a tremendous success, resulting in tens of millions of dollars of benefits to the community.

In our interview, we discuss the bitter legal fights of the early years as Glasgow built its own cable network and eventually began offering Internet access. Additionally, we discuss the important role of these information networks in creating more efficient (and less costly) electrical systems -- an incredibly important implication that does not get enough coverage.

Given the extraordinary history of Billy Ray and Glasgow EPB, we hope this will be the first of several conversations exploring that community. You can read more from Billy Ray on his blog.

Read the transcript from our call here. Also, we created a video on Glasgow called The Birth of Community Broadband.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Posted December 14, 2012 by Lisa Gonzalez

Back in 2010, we reported on the municipal network in Spanish Fork, Utah. Back then, the utility innaugurated its telephone service, which completed its triple play offering. With recent discussion around Utah's UTOPIA, Spanish Fork is getting a second look.

A Cimaron Neugebauer, Salt Lake Tribune article, highlights the success of the Spanish Fork Communications Network (SFCN). When we last reported on SFCN, 60% of residents subscribed to its cable television and high-speed Internet service. Two years later, the numbers are even higher:

Spanish Fork runs its own municipal network to deliver telephone, cable TV and Internet services. The network has deep ties with the community and is popular with residents, nearly 80 percent of whom are customers.

"It’s exciting to live in community that invests in this kind of thing," resident Bret Bills said.

A combination of bonding and borrowing paid for the $7.5 million network including a municipal electric utility substation. Construction began in 2001. The investment continues to pay off:

Today, the city currently makes about $1 million a year profit from the service and its bonds of $600,000 annually will be paid off in 2015.

The network is a combination of fiber and coax cable. As is often the case, the community acted to fill the gap left by the failure of the private sector, involving the community along the way. From the SFCN website:

SFCN offers services that no other company will provide and can only be implemented by the public sector. The Spanish Fork Community Network has been established to serve the residents of Spanish Fork, not the interests of some large corporation.  We have involved the citizens of Spanish Fork since the systems inception through a local Citizen's Ad Hoc Committee and it has ensured the system is design to meet the needs of Spanish Fork.

Unlike UTOPIA, SFCN is able to offer retail services, having been grandfathered in at the time of the crippling Municipal Cable TV and Public Telecommunications Services Act.

Prices are incredibly...

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Posted July 14, 2012 by Christopher Mitchell

On Friday, July 13, I was a guest on TWiT Specials on the This Week in Tech Network, discussing bandwidth caps with Dane Jasper, Reid Fishler, and Benoit Felten. Hosted by Tom Merritt. It was a very good discussion over the course of one hour.

The video can be viewed here.

Posted May 15, 2012 by Lisa Gonzalez

Recently, we let you know about the situation in Siloam Springs, Arkansas, population 15,039. The town is now investigating the possibility of building their own fiber network. They have had several community meetings and a "vote of the people" is set for May 22, 2012.

Pamela Hill is investigating the twists and turrns in a series of articles about the vote. In one of her articles, Hill looked into another Arkansas community, Paragould, home of the annual "Loose Caboose" Festival.  This community, located in the northeast corner of the state, has successfully operated their own cable network since 1991. Unlike Siloam Springs, the people of Paragould weren't focused first on generating new revenue for the local government, they just wanted to be able to watch tv for a reasonable price.

Back in 1986, Cablevision was the only provider in Paragould. Hill spoke with Rhonda Davis, CFO of Paragould Light, Water & Cable:

"The public wasn’t happy with Cablevision’s service or rates,” Davis said. “We took it to a public vote and did it.”

Prior to Paragould's decision to build their own network, the City had a nonexclusive franchise agreement with Cablevision. The town was dissatisfied by the service they received and, in 1986, Paragould voters approved an ordinance authorizing the Paragould Light and Water to construct and operate a municipal cable system. Three years later, there was a referendum that authorized the city to issue a little over $3 million in municipal bonds to finance the system.

That same month, Cablevision filed suit alleging antitrust violations, breach of contract, and infringement of first and fourteenth amendment rights. The district court dismissed the antitrust and constitutional claims and Cablevision appealed unsuccessfully. The case attracted attention from lawyers and business scholars across the country.

By 1998, the City had purchased Cablevision's remaining service and began offering Internet service. The City has continually upgraded their investment, which now consists of fiber lines that run to nodes throughout the city. Coaxial cable delivers signal and data...

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Posted October 31, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

Ever since the towns of Mooresville and Davidson purchased and began fixing the failed Adelphia franchise in their part of North Carolina, private sector purists have tried to portray their efforts as a disaster. MI-Connection has had some serious difficulties amid higher than expected costs, but just reported a promising increase in revenues.

At their monthly board meeting at Davidson’s Town Hall on September 22, Transition Manager David Auger said that, from July through September, the system had increased its voice customers by 48 percent over the first quarter last year, its video customers by 296 percent and its data customers by 2,248 percent. 83 days of the gains, said Auger at the time, were actual, and 9 were projected, since September was not yet over.

The final customer numbers, which the system released today, showed that the last few days of September growth activity exceeded projections: voice customers grew by 60 percent over the first quarter last year, video customers by 319 percent, and data customers by 2257 percent.

This network was targeted time and time again by Time Warner Cable and its allies in pushing the anti-competitive bill that has effectively stopped any investment in next-generation networks in the state by killing local authority to make broadband investments.

They regularly blamed the network's problems on the local governments owning it while providing no context -- the network was in terrible shape because its prior private-sector owner saw little reason to invest in it. The network is now far superior because the local governments care more about encouraging economic development and creating local jobs than producing a quick profit for out-of-state shareholders.

As MI-Connection continues to correct its problems, Davidson's government is remarkably open and transparent. You can read just about all the documents relating to the network, finances, and history here.

Posted June 21, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

If you the take a look at our community broadband map, you'll see that Texas has only one citywide wired network owned by the public: Greenville. The story behind it is the same story we hear from just about every other community - but they actually spelled it out on their history page.

In 1999, Greenville, Texas' economic development leaders were unable to attract certain businesses and on the verge of losing existing companies due to a lack of high speed Internet.

In response, Mayor Sue Ann Harting asked SBC for a commitment to deploy DSL. That request was denied. The city's cable franchise, Time Warner, also declined to commit to cable modem Internet deployment.

Greenville found itself in a situation similar to one that many towns had faced years ago when railroads changed transportation. If the railroad was not routed through a town, that town just might die. What would happen to Greenville if the information superhighway did not come through the city?

Incumbent cable and telephone companies, their lobbyists, and associated "think tanks" like to claim that communities are somehow "duped" into building publicly owned networks. The truth is that just about every community wants to avoid the hassle of building a network but incumbents refuse to invest sufficiently to keep the community competitive for economic development and a high quality of life.

They build networks when backed into a corner, not because they want to. Fortunately, all that hassle almost always pays off with far more benefits than problems over the long term as communities transition from depending on some distant corporation to solving their own problems locally.

In fact, the results are often like that of Greenville:

Greenville citizens were not willing to take that chance. They took destiny into their own hands by amending the city charter to allow their revenue-only supported, municipally-owned electric system to build a hybrid fiber coaxial system to make high speed Internet available to everyone. Digital cable TV was offered as an option on that same system.

Once the citizens had committed to this venture, the city's incumbent telephone and cable franchises found ways of deploying that high speed Internet that they had only recently declared not feasible in Greenville.

In...

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Posted March 23, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

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.

ILSR has been tracking telecommunications developments at the local and state level, working with citizens and businesses to preserve their self-determination in the digital age.

View the Community Broadband Map
Download the Report [pdf]
Read the Press Release [pdf]

Executive Summary

Quietly, virtually unreported on, a new player has emerged in the United States telecommunications sector: publicly owned networks. Today over 54 cities, big and small, own citywide fiber networks while 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.

Even as we grow ever more dependent on the Internet for an expanding part of our lives, our choices for gaining access at a reasonable price, for both consumers and producers, are dwindling. Tragically, the Federal Communications Commission has all but abdicated its role in protecting open and competitive access to the Internet.

Now more than ever we need to know about the potential of public ownership. To serve that need the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has published an interactive Community Broadband Map that gives the location and basic information for existing city owned cable and fiber networks.

The communities featured on the Community Broadband Map have overcome many formidable obstacles to build their networks.  The results are impressive: millions of dollars of community savings; some of the best broadband networks in the country offering a real choice to residents...

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Posted January 4, 2011 by Christopher Mitchell

Susan Crawford has coined the expression "looming cable monopoly" to describe important changes in the Internet access arena. We have long discussed the ways in which FTTH represents a natural monopoly -- the first entity to build a FTTH network is likely to be the only one. What we haven't discussed how cable networks are similarly edging DSL-dependent telcos out of the market.

Fortunately, Susan Crawford has recently been casting light on this trend -- and her work has been picked up by Ars Technica (the finest tech reporters in the biz for my money).

The short version is this: upgrading cable networks to offer fastest speeds is much less expensive than upgrading DSL networks. Something not often mentioned: aside from AT&T and Verizon (who effectively mint dollars with their mobile revenues), the telephone companies have no money to upgrade their DSL networks anyway.

When the FCC took a look at this situation, they concluded that what little competition we have for broadband in the US is about to decrease (something we have long argued is a result of relying solely on the private sector for essential infrastructure). From the National Broadband Plan [pdf] on page 42:

Prior to cable’s DOCSIS 3.0 upgrade, more than 80% of the population could choose from two reasonably similar products (DSL and cable). Once the current round of upgrades is complete, consumers interested in only today’s typical peak speeds can, in principle, have the same choices available as they do today. Around 15% of the population will be able to choose from two providers for very high peak speeds (providers with FTTP and DOCSIS 3.0 infrastructure). However, providers offering fiber-to-the-node and then DSL from the node to the premises (FTTN), while potentially much faster than traditional DSL, may not be able to match the peak speeds offered by FTTP and DOCSIS 3.0.

Thus, in areas that include 75% of the population, consumers will likely have only one service provider (cable companies with DOCSIS 3.0-enabled infrastructure) that can offer very high peak download speeds.

To be clear - those "very high peak download speeds" they...

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Posted November 21, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

One of the key differences between community owned networks and those driven by profit is customer service. Community-driven providers spend more and create more jobs in the community to ensure subscribers' needs are met. The massive private companies instead choose to outsource the jobs to call centers (sometimes in the U.S., sometimes outside) in order to cut costs (and jobs - see the report from the Media and Democracy Coalition).

We've seen a few examples of the big carrier approach in this arena - as when Cablevision billed apartment residents $500 after a fire for the DVR that was consumed in the blaze... stay classy, Cablevision.

Another difference between community networks and the big carriers is that big carriers see little reason to upgrade their anemic networks to ensure communities remain competitive in the digital age. As Free Press has long documented [pdf] big companies like AT&T have been investing less in recent years as the U.S. has continued falling in international broadband rankings.

Up here in Minnesota, Qwest has invested in FTTN - what they call fiber-to-the-node. We call it Fiber-to-the-Nowhere. For those who happen to live very close to the node, they get slightly faster DSL speeds that are still vastly asymmetrical. Meanwhile, Qwest has branded this modest improvement for some as "fiber-optic fast" and "heavy duty (HD)" Internet, misleading customers into thinking they are actually going to get faster speeds than Comcast's DOCSIS 3.

Much as I hate to praise the middling DOCSIS 3 upgrade, it certainly offers a better experience than any real results we have seen with Qwest. But as we carefully documented in this report, community networks offer more for less.

Two friends recently moved to Qwest. One, J, was convinced by a Qwest salesperson that Qwest would be much faster so he signed up for a 20Mbps down package. Fortunately, he didn't cancel the cable immediately because he was back on it quickly - he says Qwest dropped out 4 times in...

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Posted November 12, 2010 by Christopher Mitchell

Spanish Fork, a well-regarded community broadband network, is now offering triple-play services on its hfc network. Previously, the town was offering broadband and television but recently added telephone after feeling the time was right.

From the article:

John Bowcut, director of Information Systems for Spanish Fork, said 15 percent of homes signed up when told telephone service was available over the cable. The network only used door hangers to advertise at first because it intended to have a slow rollout. Then the service was promoted in the city newsletter.

SFCN's phone rollout was slow for a reason. Small neighborhoods were notified one at a time, which allowed the network to handle the load. Bowcut said they didn't want to open sign-ups citywide and then have to tell people their connection date was three months out. He said the most people had to wait this way was 10 days.

Initially about 1,500 homes signed up for phone service, out of 5,534 homes in Spanish Fork.

The new telephone service runs an economical $14.95 with a variety of features. 75% of the town takes at least one service from the network, perhaps because of the great customer service:

Perrins was a beta tester for the system. He thought going through that process was awesome. They fixed every problem quickly and fine-tuned the network. "It was fun because the employees were so excited and eager to find and fix the problems."

Prior to the telephone rollout, only some 60% of the community took a service from the network, as explained in this article

About 60 percent of Spanish Fork residents already subscribe to SFCN's cable TV and high-speed Internet. The customer appeal of the city-run communications utility is that Spanish Fork provides both the infrastructure and the service -- a practice that was actually outlawed by the Utah Legislature in 2004, though Spanish Fork was grandfathered in.

This means SFCN can cut out any middle-man service provider, which amounts to about $2 million in savings each year, Mayor Wayne Andersen said.

"I think it was a sad day when the state Legislature put the kibosh on that sort of thing," Andersen...

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