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PBS Takes A Look At Internet Cooperatives

We aren’t the only ones noticing. As rural communities take control of their connectivity by banding together to form broadband cooperatives, their efforts are getting attention. Earlier this month, PBS News Hour featured a story on the Wired West and RS Fiber Cooperatives.

Ivette Feliciano visits with local residents, business owners, and community leaders in both western Massachusetts and rural Minnesota where both initiatives are rewriting the rules for rural dwellers. She visits with Jake Reike, a farmer from Renville County; he talked with Chris during the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #198. He described for us how improving local connectivity was what his family needed to maintain their farming lifestyle.

Feliciano also sought out expert Susan Crawford, who explained why people in these sparsely populated communities need high-quality connectivity and why they refuse to wait for big providers who may never come to their rescue.

Download a copy of our report RS Fiber: Fertile Fields for New Rural Internet Cooperative, to learn the details of one Minnesota farming region is bringing better Internet access to its people and businesses. There is much to be gained by joining forces.

For more on Wired West, we recommend WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build a Fiber Optic Network, from the Berkman Center. Crawford helped author that report that dives deeper into the situation in western Massachusetts.

WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build a Fiber Optic Network

Publication Date: 
April 20, 2016
Author(s): 
David Talbot
Author(s): 
Waide Warner
Author(s): 
Susan Crawford

In 2010, communities in rural western Massachusetts began a group that would evolve into the WiredWest Cooperative. Over the past six years, the group, formed to bring better last-mile connectivity to the unserved and underserved areas of the state, has faced a number of challenges. Most recently, disagreements with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state agency tasked with distributing funds for last-mile connectivity, have threatened WiredWest's regional cooperative model.

In a new report released by the Berkman Center, authors David Talbot, Waide Warner, and Susan Crawford share the story of these communities' attempt to band together to establish a fiber-optic network.

In WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build A Fiber Optic Network, we learn not only how this region came together, but how they developed their business plan and procured funding, how they anticipate the network to affect affordability, and the ways they have adjusted the plan as circumstances required. The authors also take the time to share some history of cooperatives, and address how the cooperative model - used in the past for electricity and telephone - can benefit the communities in rural western Massachusetts.

Berkman Center Releases Report on WiredWest Cooperative, MBI

In 2010, communities in rural western Massachusetts began a group that would evolve into the WiredWest Cooperative. Over the past six years, the group, formed to bring better last-mile connectivity to the unserved and underserved areas of the state, has faced a number of challenges. Most recently, disagreements with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state agency tasked with distributing funds for last-mile connectivity, have threatened WiredWest's regional cooperative model.

In a new report released by the Berkman Center, authors David Talbot, Waide Warner, and Susan Crawford share the story of these communities' attempt to band together to establish a fiber-optic network.

In WiredWest: a Cooperative of Municipalities Forms to Build A Fiber Optic Network, we learn not only how this region came together, but how they developed their business plan and procured funding, how they anticipate the network to affect affordability, and the ways they have adjusted the plan as circumstances required. The authors also take the time to share some history of cooperatives, and address how the cooperative model - used in the past for electricity and telephone - can benefit the communities in rural western Massachusetts.

Key Findings from the report:

  • WiredWest enabled dozens of small towns to come together through a unified structure and a shared vision of citizen cooperation across municipal borders, a model replicable nationwide.
  • WiredWest has developed and vetted a detailed financial model, drafted an operating agreement, and obtained $49 deposits from more than 7,100 residents who have pledged to subscribe to Internet access services.
  • WiredWest’s plan is designed to achieve economies of scale by centralizing operations and aggregating demand for network equipment and services. WiredWest still must resolve the question of how to balance cooperative versus local ownership of network assets within the boundaries of individual towns.
  • The scale of the project would also allow WiredWest—in likely contrast to single-town networks in the same area—to provide television services, which a majority of pre-subscribers want.
  • WiredWest plans to offer 25 Mbps service for $49 a month, 100 Mbps service for $79 a month, 1 Gbps service for $109 a month, telephone services for an additional $25, and TV services at prices to be determined.
  • In December of 2015 a consultant hired by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) issued a highly critical analysis of the WiredWest financial model, but WiredWest responded with a point- by-point rebuttal asserting that the analysis was inaccurate and misleading.
  • In January of 2016 the administration of Gov. Charlie Baker asked MBI to “pause” on funding last-mile projects and later asked MBI to analyze all options, without mentioning WiredWest.

Struggles In The State

As we reported late last year, one of the biggest hurdles for WiredWest has been opposition from MBI. Talbot, Warner, and Crawford dedicate significant coverage to the problems between WiredWest, MBI, and Governor Charlie Baker's administration. To learn more about what has happened in Massachusetts with WiredWest and look deeper into the authors' analysis of what WiredWest could mean for the region, download the report.

One Touch Make Ready and Wireless Innovation in Louisville - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 193

When we asked Ted Smith, Chief Innovation Officer of Louisville, Kentucky, to join us for episode 193 of the Community Broadband Bits Bits podcast, we expected to talk about the one touch make ready policy they had enacted (and AT&T has since sued to stop). We did, but we ended with a focus on how networking is already improving the city.

We start off by focusing on the problem of adding new fiber networks to existing poles (many of which are owned by telephone company incumbents that are not particularly inclined to make life easy for new competitors). One touch make ready simplifies the process, resulting in many benefits for communities in addition to lowering the cost to build new networks. We explore that topic to start.

But at the end of the discussion, Ted and I discuss what Susan Crawford has termed a responsive city approach - Louisville is using all kinds of network attached devices to improve city services in some of the lowest income neighborhoods.

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 26 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."

NYSBA Building (Economic) Bridges with Dark Fiber

The New York State Bridge Authority (NYSBA) expects to bring in over $900,000 over the course of the next ten years in revenue from dark fiber leases. The agreements, which allow private companies to access publicly owned dark fiber spanning the bridges, will also help maintain low tolls and allow regional telecom operators to expand their data transmission networks. The NYSBA announced on August 4 that it would be leasing dark fiber on two new bridges - the Bear Mountain and Rip Van Winkle bridges in upstate New York. These will be the third and fourth NYSBA bridges that generate revenue from fiber leasing.

The NYSBA dark fiber leasing program is now in its fifth year. Since the Authority does not receive any state or federal tax money for the operation and maintenance of its bridges, it has sought creative solutions to finance the upkeep of its infrastructure. It has now leased dark fiber on four of five intended bridges, with plans to lease more on a fifth - the Kingston­-Rhinecliff Bridge - in the near future.

In March, the Authority leased the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge to QCSTelecom, Inc. for $535,000. While such dark fiber leases are one-time fees, and usually last for at least ten years, the immediate benefit to the community takes the form of lower tolls for everyone who crosses the bridge. One editorial, posted in the Daily Mail, considered the locally-scaled benefits of the project:

Locally, we don’t have much to worry about from another toll hike in the immediate future. Although the lease won’t replace tolls as a principal source of revenue, it will help the bottom line and help keep tolls at current level. It’s clear that getting to the other side of the Hudson River can be costly over time and, as energy and transportation costs rise, we are not prepared for another toll hike. But with the success of the dark fiber leasing program, now in its fifth year, we can believe with some certainty that the drive to Columbia County won’t cost more.

The NYSBA’s strategy seems to be working at keeping tolls low - really low. Kathy Welsh reported in the Hudson Valley News Network that the $1.25 toll on Authority bridges is lower today (in real dollars) than it was in 1925 when the NYSBA started operations.

The success of the NYSBA dark fiber leasing project points to the economic viability of dark fiber networks. Dark fiber networks appeal to both proponents of municipally owned networks and private sector telecom advocates. We wrote about the growing interest in dark fiber in July.

In places like Ammon, Idaho dark fiber infrastructure has provided a major economic spark, as Susan Crawford reports in Backchannel:

For cities, the existence of dark fiber networks — basic, passive infrastructure available on a neutral basis to any operator — could drive down retail access prices, make available reliable, world-class communications to every business and residence, and cause a steady stream of leasing revenue to flow into city coffers.

Dark fiber networks can be a safer investment than city-wide lit fiber infrastructure, and, as the NYSBA project shows, can have a positive economic impact. The project already boasts revenues of over $2 million in less than five years. However, the gains from a dark fiber network across an entire city tend to be more limited than lit services. Unless a community is willing to take dark fiber to every residence as Ammon is, the dark fiber seems to only appeal to a limited number of businesses.

But when it comes to crossing bridges - or other challenging crossings like interchanges and railroads, passive strategies like conduit or dark fiber may be a very smart investment.

San Francisco Looks to Expand Muni Fiber and Wi-Fi

San Francisco has long been considered a modern, glittering, tech capital. For years its leaders have struggled with ensuring residents and businesses actually had next-generation Internet access as AT&T and Comcast only provide the same basic services that are available in most cities. In a recent Backchannel article, Susan Crawford discusses how the City by the Bay is taking steps to develop its vision, its long-term plan, and hopefully a network that will improve connectivity in a city of over 800,000 8.5 million.

San Francisco has developed an Information and Communication Technology Plan, which still needs approval from the City Board of Supervisors. According to the article, the plan calls on the city to take an incremental approach on its path to improved connectivity. They plan to use a similar method as Santa Monica by connecting municipal facilities - many of which are already connected via fiber - and then shedding expensive leased circuits. By eliminating that expense, the city will cut $1.3 million for Internet access and networking services from its connectivity costs.

Last year the City also put dig once policies in place, a decision other communities attribute as one of the keys to a cost-effective deployment. Like Santa Monica, the City currently leases dark fiber to ISPs. They plan to entice more ISPs who want to bring broadband to residents and businesses by expanding that practice. San Francisco plans to streamline the process and work with developers on strategically linking new developments to Internet hubs with dark fiber.

As Crawford notes, the City has created free Wi-Fi in select areas of town with plans to serve public housing and commercial corridors. Miquel Gamiño, San Francisco's CIO, told Crawford they hope to make Wi-Fi available on a larger scale:

Gamiño’s dream is that San Franciscans and visitors will be connected to that service at all times: “I would love for people to come here, or live here, and feel as if they are just connected, woven into this fabric that exists in thin air,” he says. Consolidating the brand so that every public open network is labeled #SFWiFi will ensure that users perceive the city’s role in providing public WiFi. 

Crawford believes the City is on the right path by investing in more fiber throughout the community:

In the bigger picture, San Francisco will require fiber to businesses and homes. You can’t have a WiFi connection without a wire — that would be like having an airplane but no airports. And the WiFi connections used by both citizens and city infrastructure (“phoning home” via sensors about weather, water, air pollution, transport, energy use, and a host of other indicators of the city’s wellbeing) will be generating — uploading — mountains of data that will need wires on which to travel anywhere at all.

...

Fiber and WiFi are complementary, in other words. And that’s where long-term planning will be essential.

For more about Santa Monica's incremental approach, check out Chris's interview with CIO Jory Wolf in Episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. You can also learn about their strategy in our detailed report, Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. 

Remembering David Carr, and His Writing on Monopoly Power

Stacy Mitchell, Co-Director of ILSR and Director of the Community-Scaled Economy Initiative, took a few moments to look back over the work of David Carr. Carr's work included investigating monopolies in the telecommunications space. Stacy's story, re-posted here, originally ran on ILSR.org.

What will we do without David Carr, the brilliant media columnist at the New York Times who died last week? At ILSR, we will especially miss his writing on monopoly power, Amazon, and the book business. Below we’ve excerpted and linked to a few of his best recent pieces on those subjects.

In Modern Media Realm, Big Mergers Are a Bulwark Against Rivals — July 16, 2014

Comcast’s bold strategy of acquisition kicked off a wave of defensive consolidation, fueled by a combination of fear and abundant capital in the media realm.

I talked to the head of one company that creates television and movies, who expressed a common sentiment. “When Comcast decided to get bigger,” he said, “we all had to ask ourselves, Are we big enough? We all have to think about getting bigger.”

And why not? No one is stopping them.

With big data, a Big Brother government and now big media, size creates its own prerogatives. When Amazon used its market dominance to limit access to Hachette books over a price dispute, regulators yawned. When AT&T and DirecTV propose a tie-up in response to Comcast, the market issues are just another deal point. Cable companies slowed down content from clients (which are also competitors) like Netflix, and it was treated as a business dispute.

For the most part, the current government has passed on regulating potential monopolies, and as citizens, we have become inured to the consequences of bigness.


Amazon Absorbing Price Fight Punches — June 1, 2014

Someone forgot to tell the book business that it was dead. Last Thursday afternoon, I walked over to the Javits Center in Manhattan, where a throng of people had gathered for BookExpo America, the industry’s annual campfire — so many people that I wondered if there was a free whiskey concession…

The immense space was brimming with a surprising amount of optimism: After years of downward spiral, the industry seems to have found some kind of equilibrium.

It has also watched with a mix of giddiness and anxiety as the Hachette Book Group, one of the big Manhattan publishers, has taken on Amazon in a bitter dispute over pricing. Hachette is suffering big losses because Amazon is delaying delivery of Hachette titles while also eliminating discounts. (Its authors are getting clobbered in the process.) Amazon is taking a reputational hit for not putting its customers first, which has long been its guiding philosophy.

Hachette is the first big publisher to enter talks with Amazon since the last round of negotiations, and book people have rejoiced watching the bully get sand — a heap of negative press — kicked in his face.

Amazon, beloved by Wall Street (until recently) and its customers for putting growth and low prices ahead of profits, is getting a bit of an image makeover right now, and the results have not been pretty.

On one level, this is just one corporate giant fighting with another — Hachette is owned by Lagardère of France — over the share of e-book profits. So why the fuss? The answer is that books are different from the thousands of other products Amazon sells.

As the uproar grows, Amazon is learning that while it may own the publishing industry with a 40 percent market share of all new books sold, according to Publishers Weekly, it doesn’t own the debate….

 

Growling by Comcast May Bring Tighter Leash — Sept. 28, 2014

Comcast has a long corporate tradition of smiling and wearing beige no matter what kind of criticisms are hurled at it. That public posture is in keeping with the low-key approach favored by Brian L. Roberts, the company’s chief executive, as he seeks to take over the world. It’s worked very well so far.

But in a filing submitted to the Federal Communications Commission last week in defense of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, the company lashed out uncharacteristically at its critics. And David L. Cohen, Comcast’s chief lobbyist, continued the salvo in comments to reporters and in his written remarks.

Watching Comcast’s ballistic response to opponents of its $45 billion takeover bid was a bit like watching a campaign debate go off the rails. The front-runner, ahead by 20 points, is besieged by ankle-biters who suggest he is a lout and a bully. He finally loses it and goes off on his opponents in a fury, generally acting like, well, a bully.

 

Questions for Comcast as It Looks to Grow — April 6, 2014

It is hard to say how rugged the questions will be when Comcast goes before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday to defend its proposed megamerger with Time Warner Cable.

We do know that Comcast is feeling pretty confident about its chances. In a recent interview with C-Span, David Cohen, an executive vice president at Comcast and the man who will represent the company, said, “ I have been struck by the absence of rational, knowledgeable voices in this space coming out in opposition or even raising serious questions about the transaction.”

Really? How can the largest cable company in the country bid to buy the second-largest and gain control over 19 of the country’s top 20 markets — corralling a 30 percent market share in cable and a 40 percent share in broadband — and there be no serious questions?

 

Why Barnes & Noble Is Good for Amazon — July 14, 2013

Having a bookstore in your neighborhood, as opposed to one that is bookmarked on your browser, is an invitation. Not long ago, I was walking by an airport bookstore and thought, “What if this was the only place to buy books?” Similar to Hollywood, only the blockbusters would get shelf space…

Bookstores offer discoverability, not just the latest Dan Brown or Carl Hiaasen book on the front table, but sometimes treasures deep in the stacks, a long tail of midlist authors and specialty books. Even as the book business consolidates, the physical object displayed in an actual place will continue to be an important part of the ecosystem.

Let’s hope it survives.

 

Telecom’s Big Players Hold Back the Future — May 19, 2013

Ms. Crawford argues that the airwaves, the cable systems and even access to the Internet have been overtaken by monopolists who resist innovation and chronically overcharge consumers.

The 1996 Telecommunications Act, which was meant to lay down track to foster competition in a new age, allowed cable companies and telecoms to simply divide markets and merge their way to monopoly. If you are looking for the answer to why much of the developed world has cheap, reliable connections to the Internet while America seems just one step ahead of the dial-up era, her office — or her book — would be a good place to find out.

 

Navigating a Tightrope With Amazon — April 29, 2012

Mr. Bissinger, who has built a franchise on journalistic excellence and rhetorical intemperance — see his Twitter account — managed to choose his words carefully when talking about how his e-book ended up as a bug on the windshield of Amazon’s relentlessness on pricing.

That may have a little something to do with the fact that he has a great big book, “Father’s Day,” being released by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in just two weeks. It would be a bad time to stick his finger in the eye of a company that sells more books — including his — than any other company in the world.

“It’s a shame that the e-book was not on sale at Amazon,” he said. “Amazon is a crucial outlet for any author, and when you lose them, it’s terrifying. It’s a killer for ‘After Friday Night Lights’ because it was just gaining momentum and books have a very small window of opportunity.”

Like Wal-Mart, Amazon is big enough to set prices in certain categories. Suppliers are left to scramble to meet those objectives or pass up the opportunity to work with the largest retailers in the world. Amazon’s might when it comes to pricing will only grow as the impact of the Justice Department’s lawsuit begins to emerge. But sometimes the company’s tactical aggression lands hard on the people who supply it.

 

Book Publishing’s Real Nemesis - April 16, 2012

The Justice Department finally took aim at the monopolistic monolith that threatened to dominate the book industry. So imagine the shock when the bullet aimed at threats to competition went whizzing by Amazon — which not long ago had a 90 percent stranglehold on e-books — and instead, struck five of the six biggest publishers and Apple, a minor player in the realm of books.

That’s the modern equivalent of taking on Standard Oil but breaking up Ed’s Gas ’N’ Groceries on Route 19 instead…

But pull back a few thousand feet and take a broader look at the interests of consumers. From the very beginning and with increasingly regularity, Amazon has used its market power to bully and dictate. It leaned on the Independent Publishers Group in recent months for better terms and when those negotiations didn’t work out, Amazon simply removed the company’s almost 5,000 e-books from its virtual shelves. The Seattle Times just published a series with examples of how Amazon uses its scale not only to keep its prices low, but also to keep its competitors at bay…

After a week of watching the Justice Department and Amazon team up, I’ve learned that low prices come with a big cost. Maybe I’ll order it at my local bookstore instead.

 

Photo of David Carr by Ian Linkletter.

Still Time to Register for F2C 2015…But Hurry!

If you are still contemplating whether or not to trek to New York City on March 2nd and 3rd for Freedom to Connect 2015, now is the time to take action. Tickets are going fast and seats are limited. ATTENDANCE IS BY REGISTRATION ONLY and this year the event is hot!

Register online through EventBrite.com.

A working agenda has just been posted. An email from David Isenberg, who tirelessly plans and promotes the event every year, described some of the issues to be discussed:

  • The aspects of the Internet's protocol suite that make it the success it has become
  • The all-fronts attack on the Internet by the National Security Agency
  • How community controlled networks, especially the fiber to the home networks being built by communities such as Chattanooga TN and Wilson NC, as well as alternative networks being built by Google, Ting and others, are challenging incumbent telcos and cablecos
  • Title II as the centerpiece of the FCC Open Internet Report and Order

The agenda will continue to develop as planning progresses, so be sure to revisit.

Guest speakers include:

  • Chris Mitchell from ILSR and MuniNetworks.org
  • Susan Crawford, Cardozo Law School
  • Harold Feld, Public Knowledge
  • Jim Baller, Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide
  • Deb Socia, Next Century Cities
  • Gigi Sohn, FCC
  • Tim Wu, Columbia Law School

...and many, many others.

If you are unable to attend, you can still livestream Tuesday's event for a $25 fee. Sign up at http://freedom-to-connect.cleeng.com/.

Susan Crawford on the Responsive City - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 125

Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience and now co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance joins us for Community Broadband Bits #125. We discuss the idea of a Responsive City.

Susan contrasts her visions of a Responsive City with more traditional notions of a "smart" city and notes that having fiber throughout a community is a necessary base.

We discuss a few of the examples from the book that discuss how local governments are being transformed and how we would like to see them continue to transform in coming decades.

Read the transcript here.

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 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Next Century Cities Launch Webcast on October 20

Municipalities are increasingly realizing they need to take steps to ensure fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for local citizens. Some are doing the work themselves with publicly owned projects while others seek public-private partnerships. In order to capitalize on collaboration, a group of city leaders are now forming Next Century Cities.

On October 20, 2014, they will webcast the official launch from Santa Monica at 9:30 a.m. - 1 p.m. PT / 12:30 p.m. - 4 p.m. ET. From the announcement:

We're proud to announce the official launch of Next Century Cities. Next Century Cities is a new, city-to-city collaboration that supports community leaders across the country as they seek to ensure that all have access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet. Founding Partners represent dozens of cities from across the United States.

On October 20, we will be officially launching at Cross Campus in Santa Monica, CA. Our event will bring together mayors from communities across the country, as well as successful technologists who have helped to implement and run some of the nation's most impressive broadband networks. We're proud to host mayors and leaders from across the country for a series of thought-provoking discussions about how high-quality broadband Internet has begun to empower American communities.

Featured speakers will include

As part of the event, Susan Crawford will moderate a panel discussion with Mayors and city leaders from a variety of communities.

The event will also include a panel discussion moderated by Christopher Mitchell with information and innovation leaders from the cities of Santa Monica, Boston, Kansas City, Portland, Raleigh, and Lafayette.

You can register online for the free event.