Tag: "lessons learned"

Posted June 14, 2011 by christopher

The word from Wisconsin is mostly good. A deal has been struck that will spare WiscNet, though it will be studied for two years and then could be killed. But a fair, open study will allow WiscNet to clearly demonstrate its value -- WiscNet thrives in the light while AT&T thrives at secretive, last minute measures to gut its competitors.

Additionally, the stimulus grants appear to be safe. The Legislature apparently will not require them to be returned long after the recipients had begun implementing them. But again, there is some bad news in that UW Extension will be restricted from receiving federal grants in the future to build the networks otherwise unavailable to schools and libraries. So that is disappointing. Returning those funds would have cost a few communities $27.7 million over just 5 years.

However, nothing is settled until the Legislature fully votes on it (today and Thursday) and the Governor signs the bill. AT&T lobbyists don't get paid to create fair compromises and surely aren't finished scheming. So make sure you have made your thoughts on this matter known to your elected officials. The Rootstrikes make it easy. Don't forget to tell the Governor too -- the line-item veto is a powerful tool.

Some more details have emerged regarding the damage to local budgets that would occur if the Leg requires the stimulus awards to be returned, in the Superior schools, for instance:

"We would pay about five times more for the internet access than we already pay through Wiscnet," said Nordgren [Associate Vice Chancellor of UW Superior].

The Superior School District said they would also lose money, because they have already invested $300,000 in anticipation of the project.

"We utilized the funding from this broadband grant in order to purchase and update our website that was archaic," said Janna Stevens, Superintendent at the Superior School District.

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The Wisconsin League of Municipalities vociferously opposes language...

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Posted March 24, 2011 by christopher

After a few days of false hope, the Time Warner Cable Monopoly Protection Act, H129, passed the House Finance Committee after being stripped of the amendments that would have allowed communities without access to real broadband to build their own networks.

As usual, Stop the Cap! offered the first recap of yesterday's fiasco.

Faison’s amendment was designed to open the door to someone — anyone – to bring broadband into rural areas of the state.  While Time Warner Cable, AT&T, and CenturyLink dawdle, large numbers of rural residents simply go without any broadband service.  Faison’s amendment was simple and reasonable — if at least half of an area is not served with 4/1Mbps service, provisions should be made to allow local communities, if they wish, to establish service themselves to get the job done.

Last week, when Faison’s amendment appeared to be headed for incorporation into the bill, industry lobbyists blanched and fled the room, raising vocal objections and demanding a week timeout before a vote was taken.  After winning their reprieve, they managed to get the Republican majority in line to throw rural North Carolina under the bus, uniformly opposing Faison’s amendment.  Two Democrats, one representing the city where Time Warner Cable’s regional division is headquartered, joined them.

In its place, they substituted a new amendment which defined broadband in the state of North Carolina as any service occasionally capable of achieving 768kbps downstream and 200kbps upstream.  That represents “well-served” among these industry-friendly legislators.

This came after an excellent exposé showing Representatives annoyed to be asked why they are pushing Time Warner Cable's bill (to the detriment of every other business and citizen of North Carolina) after taking large contributions from telecommunications companies.

This video is no longer available.

Others have taken notice as well - see this political cartoon...

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Posted January 19, 2011 by christopher

Just how does the largest citywide community fiber network in the country deal with the thousands of people that want to subscribe? It is a daunting task, but the Times Free Press has an answer: a carefully scripted process.

Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (EPB) largely contracts with a company for the labor to do the installs:

Adesta is responsible for 80 percent of EPB's fiber-to-the-home installations, according to Lansford, project manager for Adesta. EPB itself performs the remaining 20 percent, as well as trouble calls.

Beginning in June 2009, Adesta ramped up from a one-man office to more than 120 locally hired technicians, and now performs an average of 500 installations per week, or about 100 every day, he said.

At the end of October, when the article was written, Adesta had hired some 123 technicians - more than twice as many as they originally expected to need. Perhaps the largest advantage of contracting with a company like Adesta for connecting subscribers is the company's ability to quickly hire more technicians as demand increases. Civil service rules for hiring can hamper hiring when all installs are done in-house. EPB directly employes some thirty installers.

Chattanooga closely supervises the training and quality of work from the contracted technicians. Perhaps the biggest downside to hiring outside contractors for this work is the potential for technicians not being invested in the satisfaction of the customer or rushing from install to install to maximize their income. In Chattanooga, they expect technicians to do two installs per day to avoid encouraging shortcuts.

In talking with an employee of another muni fiber network, he was amazed at the efficiency of Chattanooga's backoffice processes. The Times Free Press was also impressed:

From a control room in EPB, Abed manages every call that goes out, and knows the location of EPB and Adesta trucks at all times. A computer assigns work based on efficiency, and trouble calls are automatically routed to the nearest available unit.

Even in Chattanooga, which has had more of a smooth roll-out than most, getting into apartment buildings (MDU) is difficult:

In addition to servicing homes and businesses, EPB and Adesta have begun rolling out service to apartments as...

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Posted December 21, 2010 by christopher

There is so much to say about Burlington Telecom and its struggles that it cannot be covered in a single post. This is one of several posts that will discuss pieces of the situation. One of the questions that has been raised by the Larkin "audit" of BT is whether BT was losing money on the broadband it provided to City Departments.

Though the report prepared by Larkin for the State revealed a number of disturbing practices by Burlington Telecom, a number of them have been strongly disputed. The report clearly has a number of weaknesses, from an apparently lack of expertise on somewhat basic telecom economics to the fact that the "auditors" do not appear to have attempted to talk to anyone who knew anything about how BT operated.

That said, something surely went dramatically wrong with BT and the Larkin report may help shed light on it.

But when one reads articles in the local press about it, it is quickly evident that the writers have practically no understanding of what they write and harbor a strong hostility against Burlington Telecom. Consider this passage from the Burlington Free Press:

Auditors observed as well that the city, a prime user of BT services, was charged “below market rates” and “below BT’s cost of service. The low rates charged by BT ... to the city could be viewed as a form of cross-subsidization,” which, the audit notes, is a violation of a provision of BT’s state license. The building of the system in general, auditors said, was marked by a “lack of timely and accurate accounting information.”

While the quote does come from the Larkin report, it offers no foundation for the claim and later hedges against it (two paragraphs later -- all from page 26):

The fact that BT is providing services to various City departments at below- market rates that may be below BT’s cost of service, which could be viewed as a form of cross-subsidization, is a problem.

After stating without referencing any evidence that BT is providing services to Departments below the cost of provisioning, the conclusion two paragraphs below states BT may be providing services to departments at...

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Posted December 7, 2010 by christopher

The AP says Burlington Telecom may be a cautionary tale for cities around the the country that contemplate building their own networks.

It is fascinating that this article appears now, as we wait for the audit of Burlington to be published, where we hope to finally discover exactly what went wrong in the network. The Mayor used to allege that Tim Nulty (General Manager who built it) left it in ruin when he resigned.

However, it looked good (not great, but good) at that point. And after the transition, the Mayor's Administration ceased Nulty's policies of transparency, so we would have to take their word for it rather than any proof. For instance, BT ceased to work with citizen oversight committees. This is the same Administration that hid supposed transfers to the network from the City Council and the people.

The very fact that such secrecy was possible is troubling. These networks are intended to behave somewhat transparently and should be independently audited to ensure problems (which may be corrected when found) are not hidden for political reasons. Burlington had a unique structure that allowed the Mayor too much opaque control over the network - something rarely found in the structure of most community networks. (Some things, such as prices paid for content, should remain secret for competitive reasons, but that should not allow the Mayor to hide key metrics regarding the health of the network.)

There are reasons to believe the Mayor improperly accounted money to BT, which is why we await an audit from the state that we hope will clear up exactly how Burlington Telecom went from being a good example to the worst example of public ownership (something paid shills from telco and cableco groups critics love to point out).

Author Dave Gram has an odd passage regarding this situation:

In September 2009, BT notified the Vermont Public Service Board that it had used $17 million in city funds in violation of its state license. State officials have been mum about the details of their investigation, and an FBI spokesman, through an assistant, would not confirm or deny a Burlington Free Press report that that agency had stepped in. It's widely believed that apparent license...

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Posted November 3, 2010 by christopher

Wilson's Greenlight community fiber network is ahead of schedule. They continue to operate ahead of the business plan, despite a few difficulties that offer lessons to up and coming community networks.

We recently covered the fallout from their application to the broadband stimulus program where they had to disclose network information to their competitors.

Fortunately, that was not the only news last month from North Carolina's first all-fiber citywide network. They also surpassed 5000 subscribers and remain 6-9 months ahead of their business plan in take rate, according to the Wilson Times.

The number of customers is expected to reach 5,300 by the end of the fiscal year if the current trend continues, according to Dathan Shows, assistant city manager for Broadband and Technical Services. The city's current business plan calls for Greenlight to reach 5,000 customers by the end of the third full year of operation, which will be June 2011.

This is not the first time the network has exceeded projections; the network was built faster than expected and quickly jumped out ahead of take rate expectations.

One of the reasons Greenlight may be growing is its attention to local needs, as illustrated by the network finding a way to televise local football matches that otherwise would not have been available.

However, the Wilson Times story goes into much greater detail regarding the competition from Time Warner Cable. As we regularly see, Time Warner Cable is engaging in what appears to be predatory pricing to retain customers and starve Greenlight of new subscribers.

A lesson to other community networks, Wilson is documenting the deals TWC uses to keep subscribers. All communities should keep these records.

"Time Warner Cable's market tactics include anti-competitive pricing that interferes with Wilson's ability to secure customers through normal marketing," the application [for broadband stimulus] states. "TWC offers below-market rates to customers seeking to switch to Greenlight, locking them...

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Posted September 24, 2010 by christopher

The nation's newest community fiber network (FTTH) is launching in Salisbury, North Carolina, in the next month. Fibrant, a $29 million project financing by general obligation bonds, is slightly behind schedule but way ahead of the cable and DSL competition.

The City Council has approved the network's pricing in anticipation of hooking up customers in October. Some 70 people have been testing the network, but it will soon be available to everyone in the community. The basic tier of broadband speeds is 15Mbps and they have a second tier at 25 Mbps. The network is capable of much faster speeds but these are the tiers they will start with, making them the fastest basic tier available in North Carolina.

They are offering over 460 television channels, of which 100 are HD. HD quality over fiber-optics tends to be the highest quality viewing experience (though not everyone can tell, depending on their level of obsession with picture quality) but the first year or so of video service on Fibrant may suffer from occasional problems as they iron out the quirks of the new system. Reports of the broadband and voice services are tremendously positive.

They have made it clear that they cannot get into a price war with incumbents (Time Warner Cable and AT&T) and cannot beat the "promo" prices these companies offer for the first x months. However, Fibrant's rates are 7-10% lower than the regular rates of the incumbents and will come with local, superior, customer service.

Big companies like Time Warner Cable often claim they are at a disadvantage relative to these municipalities but the reality is that the massive scale of national cable and phone companies give them many more advantages to offer lower prices for their services (which tend to also be lower in quality).

“If you get deal you can’t refuse from someone else, just thank Fibrant for it because you wouldn’t have gotten it if we hadn’t been here,” Clark [Fibrant Marketing Director] said.

Fibrant aims for a 30% take rate (4400 subscribers) by the end of year 3 and a positive cash flow in year 4. Pricing and channels lineups are available at the end of this Salisbury Post article. Subscribing to the service has no installation fee...

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Posted September 17, 2010 by christopher

Jackson Energy Authority in Tennessee, long the largest community fiber network in the US, is investing in greater smart-grid capabilities. If you aren't already familiar with this network, an article in Electric Light & Power offers some history:

After receiving local government support and revenue bond issue funding, JEA went ahead with the $54 million project. Now its FTTP network boasts 16,500 cable, 10,843 Internet and 7,000 telephone subscribers. JEA is preparing for the next phase of its FTTP deployment with a smart grid initiative expected to begin in 2010.

The article also makes an important point that many find confusing in understanding the economics of these community fiber networks:

In the early years, JEA focused on subscriber growth as its key performance metric, rather than average revenue per user (ARPU). The capital-intensive cost of acquiring and hooking up new customers, however, can create significant cash flow problems for a network operator, especially when growth substantially exceeds the business plan. JEA had to secure more financing to support its incremental growth. The utility also adjusted its business model to focus instead on ARPU and increasing the number of existing subscribers using two or three services. JEA employed special promotions and service packages that took advantage of the huge bandwidth capabilities of its fiber network to build customer loyalty and overcome the customer churn typical of the industry. Today, JEA’s network has passed more than 30,000 homes, more than 16,000 of which are subscribers.

This is a good example of a community encountering a problem and overcoming it. The article also offers other lessons learned along the way. Moving forward, JEA has decided to work with Tantalus to add smart-grid capabilities to the fiber network.

Posted May 3, 2010 by christopher

The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is pleased to release this comprehensive report on the practices and philosophy of publicly owned networks. Breaking the Broadband Monopoly explains how public ownership of networks differs from private, evaluates existing publicly owned networks, details the obstacles to public ownership, offers lesson learned, and wrestles with the appeal and difficulty of the open access approach.

Download Breaking the Broadband Monopoly [pdf]

Executive Summary

Across the country, hundreds of local governments, public power utilities, non-profits, and cooperatives have built successful and sometimes pioneering telecommunication networks that put community needs first.

These communities are following in the footsteps of the publicly owned power networks put in place a century before. We watch history repeating itself as these new networks are built for the same reasons: Incumbents refusing to provide service or charging high rates for poor service.

Cities like Lafayette, Louisiana, and Monticello, Minnesota, offer the fastest speeds at the lowest rates in the entire country. Kutztown’s network in Pennsylvania has saved the community millions of dollars. Oklahoma City’s massive wireless mesh has helped modernize its municipal agencies. Cities in Utah have created a true broadband market with many independent service providers competing for subscribers. From DC to Santa Monica, communities have connected schools and municipal facilities, radically increasing broadband capacity without increasing telecom budgets.

These pioneering cities have had to struggle against many obstacles, often created by incumbents seeking to prevent the only real threat of competition they face. Eighteen states have passed laws that discourage publicly owned networks. When lawsuits by entrenched incumbents don’t thwart a publicly owned system, they cross-subsidize from non-competitive markets to temporarily reduce rates in an attempt to starve the infant public network of subscribers.

Despite these obstacles, more and more cities are building these networks and learning how to operate in the challenging new era in which all media is online and a high speed tele-communications network is as much a part of the essential infrastructure of...

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