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Lakeland, Florida, Takes Small Steps

This spring, Lakeland city officials began contemplating the future of the city’s dark fiber network with an eye toward making a firm decision on whether or not to expand how they use it. Rather than pursue a municipal Internet network, Commissioners recently decided to seek out private sector partners to improve local connectivity.

Too Much For Lakeland?

Kudos to Christopher Guinn of the Ledger for very thorough reporting on the issue. According to his article, the city will release a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a solution that provides Gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) connectivity to replace the current speeds in Lakeland. Cable serves the community now with maximum speeds of 150 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and about 10 Mbps upload.

In addition to the difficulty of establishing an Internet access utility, City Commissioners appeared intimidated by incumbents:

“I look at us trying to develop and design a fiber-to-the-home (network), the marketing, the technical support and all that, and going up against current providers, and I don’t see it,” Commissioner Don Selvage said.

Pilot Won't Fly

One of the options the Commission considered was a pilot project in a limited area, but that idea didn’t catch on either. Commissioner Justin Troller advocated for the pilot project:

“I think we should have a test area. If that’s something that costs we can say we tried it, we invested in it, it didn’t work and we’re moving on and finding a private partner,” Troller said.

He added: “I’m not against going out and seeing what the private sector will offer us. I’m saying how do we know we can’t do it if we don’t do it?”

While a number of Commissioners agreed that high-quality Internet access is critical for both economic development and the residents’ quality of life, fear of facing off against incumbent Charter overcame any vision of how a municipal network could benefit Lakeland:

“For most of us there is not a philosophical problem with expanding utilities. This is a utility; we can pretty well justify it ... (and) when you look at the revenue possibility down the road to replace the hospital it makes good governmental sense,” [Mayor Howard] Wiggs said.


But incumbent providers are not obligated to play nice with new competition, Wiggs said, and he worried an operation like Charter Communications could severely drop prices and erode the city’s market edge.

Not A Total Loss

While Commissioners chose not to pursue the municipal network plan, they did support a number of items intended to encourage better connectivity in Lakeland:

  • It will submit a bid for supplying internet access to Polk County schools when its current contract expires with the goal of making money from existing assets while reducing the cost of the School District’s services.
  • To address the “digital divide” between rich and poor, Lakeland will consider expanding its free wireless service, SurfLakeland, into neighborhoods. The service is currently available in municipal buildings and in Munn Park.
  • Wiggs recently made a pitch to other municipal leaders in Polk County to join forces in encouraging broadband expansion throughout the county.
  • The city will continue its “dig once” policy for all infrastructure work — that when roads are closed and crews dispatched for underground utility work, conduit that could be used for fiber optics is put in place.
  • The city’s “dark fiber” network, which provides intra-city connections for companies and organizations with multiple facilities, will be more actively marketed. Currently the program generates about $4 million each year.
  • The city will also look at fees and licensing costs to determine if they are discouraging private investment.

The Lakeland Regional Airport will deploy its own fiber infrastructure and will offer Internet access to tenants. The project had been considered as a business pilot and, according to the article, costs are now going to be covered in part with federal and state grants specifically earmarked for airports.

Citizens Want Action

Gigabit Lakeland, the grassroots organization advocating for a municipal network, expressed their dissatisfaction with the decision. Shane Mahoney, one of the group’s leaders, talked to the Ledger:

A partnership with a private provider has not been his favored outcome, Mahoney said, but his group intends to continue pressuring the city toward better internet infrastructure in the city, particularly for residents who do not have quality access because of price or location.

Minnesota Broadband Grant Program Gets Funded, Issues Remain

The Minnesota Legislature has just approved $35 million for the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program for fiscal year 2017, the largest annual appropriation in the initiative’s two-year-old history.

But the Legislature’s action still falls short of dramatically helping bring universal, high-speed Internet connectivity to all non-metro Minnesotans. Try to find a Representative or Senator that doesn’t talk about how important rural Internet access is, but compare that list to those who are actually voting for solutions. The Blandin on Broadband website captured a glimpse of this dynamic in a recent post

Nice Gains And Noticeable Failures

The Legislature headed in the right direction this year to increase overall funding for broadband development. But we believe the Legislature’s action, which is moving at a snail’s pace, won’t help thousands of residents and businesses in Minnesota’s non-metro communities hurdle over the connectivity chasm. 

The state’s elected leaders also made changes to the program – some good and some bad – in the way projects are selected and the challenge process. 

Funding Fizzle? 

First, the funding fizzle. In its first two years, the state awarded about $30 million to 31 Border-to-Border projects. But that has been a miniscule appropriation compared with the Governor’s Task Force on Broadband’s estimate that Minnesota’s unmet broadband need is $900 million to $3.2 billion.

And the Legislature’s $35 million funding for the broadband grant program for the upcoming fiscal year seems particularly paltry given that the state has a projected $900 million budget surplus. 

“We are disappointed with the [broadband funding] number and the incredibly restrictive language” on eligibility for grants, said Dan Dorman, executive director of the Greater Minnesota Partnership, (GMNP), a non-metro economic development group established in 2013 that successfully lobbied for the creation of the Broadband Development Grant program. 


During the 2016 legislative session, the GMNP supported Gov. Mark Dayton’s recommendation that the broadband program receive $100 million. The DFL-led state Senate favored $85 million for 2016-17 while the Republican controlled House supported spending $15 million. The House wanted to invest far less and argued for keeping most Greater Minnesota Cities ineligible for grant funds. GMNP’s support was contingent on language changes in the statute that would make grant eligibility easier for non-metro cities. 

“Without major reforms to the eligibility for funding we assumed it would be difficult to get to the $100 million that Gov. Dayton and Lt. Gov. [Tina] Smith wanted,” Dorman said in an end-of-the session update website post to his members. 

Language Issues

Second, the ongoing language challenges with the Border-to-Border Program. “With 85 percent of people living in cities not eligible for [Broadband Development Grant] funding, it’s hard to get people excited [about the program],” Dorman told us. The Partnership; a 90 member group of economic development authorities, foundations, cities, nonprofits, businesses, and Chambers of Commerce; maintains the broadband program’s rules and criteria inadvertently harm the very cities that conceived the program. 

Established in 2014, the Broadband Development Grant program was designed to “bring high-speed Internet access to unserved or underserved areas of the state” and help provide opportunities to help existing businesses and attract new ones. The Legislature, in its 2016 legislation, reaffirmed that an unserved area is one where households or businesses lack access to wireline broadband service at speeds that meet the FCC definition of broadband which is 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload.

Because the grant program has focused heavily on unserved areas, it has largely ignored the majority of cities that are “underserved,” those that have some Internet service, albeit poor, Dorman said.

This has created what the Institute for Local Self-Reliance described in our policy paper “Minnesota’s Broadband Program: Getting The Rules Right” as “donut holes,” where a city has much poorer service than its surrounding rural areas.

Our fear is that towns with a moderate level of current business investment could lose that as businesses flock to more rural areas where the Internet infrastructure is better. Other investment would follow and the small cities in Greater Minnesota would find themselves at a disadvantage. It’s an unintended consequence that policy makers need to consider. 

Fortunately, lawmakers listened to the GMNP, the Star Tribune, and us as they established rules for funding this session.


In our policy paper, we recommended that the Border-to-Border fund should set some portion – less than half – of its funds aside for applications that would target the underserved population centers and blend them in with nearby unserved areas. Those business and industry centers are the economic heart of many regions and they need modern connectivity for Minnesota to thrive. 

Dorman said one significant victory in the newly-passed state broadband grant law is that $5 million of the $35 million appropriation will be set aside for areas that currently have speeds greater than 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up but less than 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up. That $5 million will be available to communities that need better broadband service to boost economic development.  

In a statement to, officials from state Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) said:

“Given the increased interest in the [grant] program, we expect to see a very competitive pool of applications this round, and using the results of previous rounds, expect to see over 12,000 homes and businesses served with wired service as well as increased wireless coverage in some areas of the state.” 

"Still," DEED officials admitted, “It is difficult to estimate how many will be left unserved after this round, given that there is private and federal investments also being made across the state. DEED continues to gather data from the providers and federal sources and will have an updated estimate of the gap in July, 2016.”

The federal “investments” are largely from the Connect America Fund, which has is effectively wasting billions of dollars on antiquated DSL service.

Disappointing “Challenge Process”

On the downside, the Partnership was disappointed in a provision in the broadband law pertaining to a “challenge process” that allows a telecom company to stop a project from receiving a grant if that company currently provides or even promises to provide service at the low state speed goals, Dorman said. This legislative language is a slight reform of the previous “right of first refusal” language, which had been included in the House broadband bill.

“This [challenge language] provision in the bill could make it difficult, if not impossible, for projects seeking to upgrade existing broadband service to receive a grant,” Dorman said. “We will have to see how this all plays out.”

Dorman sees the “challenge process” language as a tool protecting telecom companies “that don’t want to invest” in their Internet networks. 

“Any broadband provider in the area can object” to an applicant’s request for grant funding, Dorman said. This is potentially more open-ended than the old language that gave this challenge authority only to incumbent providers in an area, he said.


In a statement, DEED officials told us: 

“The current challenge language was introduced to more accurately reflect the process that is already part of the program and to clarify that it is the state that will determine whether or not a challenge to an application is valid, not a provider.  This process was modeled after a federal system that was used in the distribution of the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act] broadband stimulus funds to address the desire to avoid making public investments where private investments are already being made that meet or exceed the goals of the program. The new aspect that has been added to the process is the allowance of near-term construction plans that meet state standards as a valid basis for a challenge. This is to account for the added presence of CAF (Connect America Fund) II investments. Added protections were also introduced so that if construction commitments aren't met as outlined in the challenge, the provider may be barred from issuing future challenges. DEED retains the authority to determine the validity of any challenge.”

Whatever the reasons for the legislative changes, Dorman decried the lack of opportunity for public comment on the “challenge” language.  

“It is a major change from current law and people had very little time to react interpret and comment on the House bill and no opportunity to comment on the agreed-upon language that made it into the final bill.” 

Meanwhile, Dorman blamed industry telecom lobbyists for convincing state lawmakers not to support the language changes sought by Partnership. “This [new Broadband Development Grant law] was written with the help of the [telecommunications] industry," he said. 

Speed Goals Lagging 

In another area, GMNP leaders also believe the state’s connectivity speeds goals are not aggressive enough. Under the law, the state’s goal is that “no later than 2022,” all Minnesota businesses and homes have access to minimum speeds of 25 Mbps down and 3 Mbps up and the minimum service goals in 2026 should be 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up.

“To say 25 Mbps / 3 Mbps is an acceptable standard is ridiculous,” Dorman told us. “This is equivalent of 1990s dial up service.  We need to step this up.”

That position resonates with us. In our policy paper we said:

“When it comes to its goal, Minnesota should recall the danger of aiming low: you might hit the target. Minnesota should establish a stronger goal and then actually fund the program to achieve it. 100 Mbps symmetrical by 2022 would be both ambitious and worthwhile.”

Moving forward, Dorman said his organization may have to re-evaluate if there is a better and faster way to get high-speed Internet connectivity to greater Minnesota if dramatic improvements don’t come soon to the Border-to-Border Broadband Development Grant program.

Lakeland Considering Its Next Step In Florida

In August 2013, we reported on Lakeland, Florida’s dark fiber network that serves local schools, government facilities, and local businesses. Over the past year or so, community leaders have discussed whether or not to expand the use of Lakeland’s fiber resources.

A 2015 feasibility study suggested several other ways to use Lakeland’s existing 330 miles of fiber infrastructure to enhance connectivity for economic development and residential access. As the city examines its finances and its future in the coming months, city leaders are considering six avenues to meet the community’s needs. The options, some recommended by consultants, vary in type and investment and the City Commission will begin discussing the possibilities as they meet in the upcoming months.

Leaders Consider The Next Move

Lakeland is examining public policies that will encourage better connectivity, such as dig-once, permitting changes, and right-of-way regulations. With smart policies in place, Lakeland can lay the groundwork so they can build off progress made today.

In 2013, Polk Vision, a group of organizations, businesses, government, and individuals, along with the Central Florida Regional Planning Council developed the Polk County Broadband Plan. Another option is using the Plan as a guidepost and aligning Lakeland’s plan to support the goals set in the Polk County Plan. Connecting the schools to a larger network would be part of that plan.

Lakeland, like many other communities wants to give providers operating in the community today the opportunity to work with them to improve services. Another option the city will pursue is reaching out to providers in Lakeland and engaging in discussions to upgrade or expand services to better meet the needs of the community. (We haven't seen much success when communities pursue large incumbents, but smaller local providers are sometimes more willing to work with communities.)

SurfLakeland, the city’s free Wi-Fi service that is available in limited areas downtown, in parks, and at municipal facilities, could be expanded. According to Terry Brigman, Lakeland’s CIO and Director of IT, whatever course city leaders choose, the equipment for the free service is due for an upgrade. SurfLakeland has been available for approximately ten years.

Another possible move will be a pilot project to determine how a larger network might do in Lakeland. Pilot projects are becoming more common as a way to test the waters and can help prove that potential subscribers are willing to switch from traditional providers to a new venture. We’ve reported on a growing number of pilot projects in recent years, including Westfield, Massachusetts; Sun Prairie, Wisconsin; and Owensboro, Kentucky.

The City Commission will also consider releasing a Request for Information (RFI) to seek out a partner to develop a plan to improve connectivity in Lakeland with infrastructure deployment. 

A Hard Look At The Numbers

Community leaders in Lakeland reviewed the study and are discussing several recommendations. The consulting firm also suggested using city fiber resources as a basis for a more extensive network and that the city branch out to launch as an open access provider, or a retail services provider to businesses in select areas. Another option is to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) services to every property within the city limits or within the Lakeland Electric service territory. The authors of the study estimated an FTTH in Lakeland would cost from $220 - $270 million if it's built out over the Lakeland Electric service area and would pay for itself in six to seven years.

In March, the City’s Chief Financial Officer gave his opinion about a potential FTTH project. In his opinion, the consultant's recommendation is too risky because “margins of error are too thin” based on the study’s authors' predictions of a 40 percent take rate.


The financing, calculated on 20-year bonds, required price increases of 1.5 percent every year.

He went on to say, however, that he did not think the city should abandon the idea of finding a way to bring better connectivity to Lakeland, but that, “I'm simply saying the model we were presented that involved the city purchasing, managing (and) maintaining a broadband system is not feasible."

Support, Adversity Still Alive

Earlier this month, the Ledger reported that Commissioners discussing the issue said that, if the results of the financial analysis and risk assessment still due from the consultants are favorable, they will consider creating a publicly owned and operated Internet utility. Out of seven Commissioners attending the meeting, five expressed support.

A grassroots citizens' initiative, Gigabit Lakeland, has also sprung up in the community and encourages citizens to sign an online petition. They want community leaders to use of the existing publicly owned fiber to bring more choice to Lakeland. Currently, there is a small amount of Verizon FiOS and Bright House Networks cable Internet access (which is now owned by Charter Communications).

While residents have expressed support for taking action, economic development and better business connectivity is on everyone’s mind. In March, the Ledger reported (reprinted at GovTech) on a meeting of the Downtown Lakeland Partnership, a group of business leaders:

Ellen Simms, the co-owner of Two Hens and a Hound, said that for a decade her connection has fizzled out when it rains and she can't get the provider to fix it. 

Kate Lake, who hosted the meeting with [Lakeland CIO Terry] Brigman at her business, My Office & More, said the dedicated fiber optics line she pays for at her shared office for hire "is killing me." 

"I'm paying through the teeth." 

Brigman pointed out at the meeting that the Lakeland-Winter Haven metropolitan area was determined to be the seventh worst served area in the country, according to Polk Vision. "We don't have what we need," he said. "We don't have what we need to compete with our neighbors." 

As expected, the incumbent providers have expressed concern, warned of repercussions, and attended meetings but still chosen not to invest in the infrastructure Lakeland needs. Elected officials in Lakeland appear open minded to discussion but don’t have the patience to be put on an endless waiting list if owning their own network or working with a trusted partner is a possibility. From an October article in the Ledger:

"The demand for data services is growing exponentially and it will grow in our homes and grow in our businesses when we have access to it. That we don't have access to it is the limiting factor," not a lack of demand, [Commissioner Jim Malless] said.

He said the commission owes it to the "incumbent services," Bright House Networks and Verizon, to get their points of view and find out what plans they have for upgrading their services in Lakeland.

"To me, they can provide that service tomorrow. They choose not to, and if it's economics to them, we have to get over the hurdle for the economics for us," Malless said. "I'd really like to hear why you don't provide the service."


Colorado Bill Aims To Hinder Opt-Out, Restrict Local Authority Even More

When local elected officials in Colorado put the issue before constituents last fall, voters in almost 50 communities chose overwhelmingly to reclaim local telecommunications authority. Colorado's state law that strips away local authority, SB 152, permits opt-out through referendum. Referendums are expensive for local communities, but at least they are a way to reclaim the power to decide their own future. 

That ability to opt out will get more expensive and more burdensome if a new bill becomes law. Even though the state removed local authority with SB 152, this bill demonstrates that the legislature can still find a way to strip away more local control when big corporate providers feel threatened.

Local Leaders Concerned

SB 136, sponsored by Kerry Donovan, was introduced on March 4th under the guise of "modernizing" the dreaded SB 152. The bill is now waiting for a hearing in the Senate State, Veterans, and Military Affairs Committee. According to the Aspen Daily News, Pitkin County Commissioners are wary of the bill's consequences. So are we. Ninety-two percent of Pitkin County voters approved the opt-out of SB 152 last November, thereby reclaiming authority. The county has already completed a needs assessment and is obtaining bids for telecommunications infrastructure; they don't want this bill to derail their efforts.

Kara Sillbernagel, Pitkin County analyst, shared her interpretation with the Board of County Commissioners (BOCC):

...[A] concern is SB 136 could open the door to potential litigation in the opt-out process.


Silbernagel added that, in her opinion, the language complicates the issue away from the simple opt-out solution, and introduces terms which have left governments that opted out “feeling vulnerable.”

“[Concerns are that] it actually seems to be more restrictive for counties moving forward,” she said.

"Modernized" Language = "Modernized" Barriers

Among other changes, the proposed bill requires local governments to give a 60-day notice to private providers if an SB 152 opt-out question will be on the ballot. Local governments are already required to provide notice when a new measure is to be included on a ballot; this creates an additional requirement for measures related to broadband.

The bill also mandates that, prior to the election, a local community must develop and publicize a detailed plan as to what types of services it intends to offer, where the services would be offered, projected revenues, projected expenses, and why the municipality or its partner is seeking to offer those services. If a municipality seeks to work with a private sector partner, the requirement that they release this type of information will make any potential partner think twice. Competitors that have access to such data have an edge before the project has permission to commence.

There also appears to be considerable confusion in the bill's language regarding the term "services." Fiber, wireless, direct, indirect, video, voice? The ambiguity is off-putting for any community and potential partner hoping to offer connectivity where the big corporate providers won't go while also avoiding legal challenges. How can a community create a plan that does not run afoul of the law if the details of the law are clouded in mystery?

This section of the bill will increase the burden it places on local government. It will increase costs to communities early in the process, extend the timetable for proposed projects, and make local governments and their partners vulnerable to litigation from deep-pocketed incumbent providers. A legal challenge can stop a proposed project in its tracks simply by asserting that a business plan is ill-defined.

From the Aspen Daily News artice:

Commissioner Patti Clapper said the bill sounded like blowback from industry due to so many jurisdictions voting to opt-out of SB-152.

“It almost seems like … a way for industry to come in from the back door and nail us the other way around,” she said.

A Simple Solution

The bill attempts to remove barriers that prevent communities from entering into public private partnerships. The only barriers in Colorado are those put in place by SB 152. Rather than toying with unnecessary changes that make the barrier more restrictive, the best option is to repeal SB 152 and let local communities decide for themselves how best to solve their connectivity needs.

Boston Globe: Build A Muni

The Editorial Board from the Boston Globe recently kicked off a series titled "The Cutting Edge of the Common Good." The editors intend to offer suggestions for how to create a prosperous city through ideas to benefit Boston's 4.7 million residents. 

Their first proposal? Build a municipal fiber network.

In the editorial, the Board point out how the city has always been a cutting edge leader, from Revoluntionary War to same-sex marriage. But when it comes to developing the tech sector, the "City on a Hill" is being edged out by Chattanooga, Lafayette, Louisiana, and Cedar Falls, Iowa. High-tech innovators are flocking to communities with municipal fiber networks.

As the Globe notes, connectivity could be better in Boston:

The truth is that our tech infrastructure is in the same dismal shape as our roads and bridges. Boston, like a majority of American cities, pays more for slower Internet service than our international peers. If Boston is to remain a global hub of innovation — and on the “cutting edge of the common good,” as Mayor Martin J. Walsh promised in his State of the City address last month — it should build a citywide fiber-optic network that allows each residence and business an onramp to the information superhighway of the future.

Even though the city has its own conduit network and significant fiber assets, residents and businesses must seek service from large private providers. The Globe Editors believe the city should rethink the current approach:

But the City of Boston should not gamble its future competitiveness in a Mountain View lottery, nor should it entrust such vital infrastructure entirely to private hands.

The private market would be the ideal solution in an ideal world, but in Boston the market has failed.

The Globe points out the economic development, public safety, and community savings benefits that would accompany a municipal fiber network in Boston. They also point out the fact that a publicly owned network is one way to help shrink the digital divide between income levels.

The leaders at the Globe are not naive; they acknowledge that the task is expensive and will be fought, tooth and nail, by the big incumbent players:

Companies that currently provide phone and Internet service would view such a move by a city like Boston as a very serious — if not existential — threat to their bottom line. Telecoms are big employers, and they give heavily to political campaigns. Were such a system proposed, prepare for a deluge of ads smearing the venture as the Big Dig Redux.

But given that there does not appear to be any significant private investment planned by incumbents to upgrade Boston's connectivity, the Globe calls on the city's leadership to take control of the future…or risk stepping back:

And yet, is there anyone in Boston who yearns for a return of the filthy, noisy, elevated Southeast Expressway? The city once wisely buried a highway; now it’s time to bury a superhighway, too.

No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now

Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:

“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”

Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.

Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County. 

Don’t Mind the Gaps

Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:

“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.

Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”

The Marvel of the Free Market?

The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Send in the Munis

For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:

“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”

$117,000 Broadband Service Disaster From Charter

Shocking horror stories about incumbent ISPs reaching new lows for poor service are now so common that they have become routine. A story from Ars that recently went viral puts a human face on the frustration millions of Americans endure just trying to determine if Internet access is available where they choose to live. First, here is the gist of the story.

Cole Marshall, a work-from-home web developer, decided he wanted to build a new home on the outskirts of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. While scouting properties, he confirmed with local incumbent ISPs Comcast and Frontier online and by phone that they could offer sufficient Internet access to his favored lot.

When Marshall completed construction and contacted Charter, the cable company offered to provide the service only if he paid $117,000 to extend their network to his home. And Frontier? Frontier mislead him too, pricing the job at $42,000 to bring him the 24 Mbps service they’d promised they could provide. 

When all was said and done, Charter couldn’t provide affordable service at all. Marshall is now stuck with Frontier’s sloth-like DSL broadband speeds of 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload for all of his small business needs. These speeds fall well short of the 25 Mbps download / 4 Mbps upload the FCC defines as “broadband.” 

Marshall’s story illustrates well the problems with existing broadband services in and around the city of Sun Prairie that led citizens and city leaders to recently pass a resolution to build a municipal broadband network in some areas within the city limits. While Marshall’s address is outside the purview of Sun Prairie’s planned network buildout, the potential for future expansion of this publicly-owned network may be Marshall’s only hope for a solution to his broadband connectivity problems.


Frontier and Charter officials told Sun Prairie city leaders in June during the network’s planning phase that their plans to build a municipal network were misguided. At that same meeting, Frontier and Charter also warned that they would likely cut jobs if the city chose to build the municipal network.

When Alderman Hariah Hutkowski asked Frontier and Charter officials if they would build a fiber-optic network so the city wouldn’t have to, the incumbents offered no response. Hutkowski called them out:

“What I see is that you will provide just enough to people to make a profit, but our community has other needs, we have demands through schools, residents streaming service, and demand is moving toward higher capacity,” Hutkowski said.

The people of Sun Prairie, a city of about 31,000 just outside of Madison, simply want reliable broadband service from an organization that will operate with basic accountability to its customers. With the private ISPs refusing to provide that service, their pleas to stop a municipal network deployment ring hollow.

Marshall's story highlights at least two problems we see repeatedly across the United States. First, there is highly inadequate or nonexistent broadband service access at non-competitive rates across the country and private ISPs see no financial incentive to help. Second, it underscores common complaints about incumbent ISPs making terrible customer service errors that suspiciously resemble predatory bait-and-switch behavior. Once again, the consumer is caught in the middle as these two problems collide with disastrous results.

Explaining Right-of-Way Basics - Community Broadband Bits Episode 169

For this week's Community Broadband Bits, we are delving into an area of law and practice that is quite important for Internet network deployment but tends to be dry and confusing. Not for us today though, we have Sean Stokes, a Principal at Baller Herbst Stokes & Lide, joining us to explain Right-of-Way basics.

We talk about what the public Right-of-Way (ROW) is, who is responsible for maintaining it, how entities can get access to it and how poles are distinct from the ROW. We discuss how much power local governments and pole owners have to deny access to these assets and some of the costs associated with make-ready. If you don't know what make-ready is, you'll know in less than thirty minutes.

We finish our discussion by exploring the "Municipal Gain" policy in Connecticut, where munis are entitled to some space on the poles for any purpose they choose to use it. Historically, this was used only for public safety, but it was recently broadened. Sean also explores how he believes we should simplify access for fiber-optics rather than basing access on the particular end service being offered.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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Small Texas Town Don't Need No Stinkin' CenturyLink

The people in Kemp, population 1,100, have officially said "adios" to CenturyLink and now give their business to a local wireless provider, reports Government Technology. According to the article, the community grew tired of slipshod service and repeated service interruptions:

At one point, the city lost its Internet connection for five days. “That was the last straw because that was detrimental to us, because we depend on the Internet so much more, especially with our phone system," said [City Administrator Regina] Kiser. "We had just gone with the voice over IP [Internet protocol] when our system went down for five days, so you try to call city hall about various things, including the police department, and there was no phone. So, that was horrible.”

After a year of requests from the municipality for better service went unheeded, government officials decided it was time to make some changes:

“If you’re a government entity and you call in, they send you into cyberspace somewhere and your phone just rings and rings and rings, and I guess there’s just not any commission to be made on cities from what I’m understanding,” Kiser said. “This problem’s been going on for about a year, as far as not having the power we need to run our court program. So we tried, but it was just impossible to deal with CenturyLink.”

Kemp now works with One Ring Networks, where they receive service for a rate of $450 per month. There was no installation charge and in exchange, One Ring Networks is able to expand its network in the community. It now has the opportunity to sell service to residents and businesses in Kemp.

Unlike the typical "up to" speeds the big incumbents offer, One Ring Networks claims it "carves out" 5 Mbps download and upload for each subscriber, says Kris Maher from One Ring Networks:

“With the other carriers, that 10 Mbps by whatever is a best effort service, which means it can go up to 10 Mbps, but 10 Mbps isn’t guaranteed. Ours is right at 5 and it’s always going to be at 5, no matter who else is on our network.”

Kiser notes that residents are happy with their new provider and that, despite a brief delay caused by inclement weather, the upgrade was a simple task:

“CenturyLink’s been the only game in town for so long, they took advantage of the situation and they’re probably freaking out now that they have some competition for the first time,” Kiser said.

Lafayette Considers Expansion, One Nearby Town Strikes Itself From List

We have long applauded communities that have built their own fiber networks and then elect to expand them to neighboring communities. In Louisiana for example, Lafayette could hoard its network, forcing people that want the best connectivity in the region to move within its borders. But instead, it is preparing to expand the network.

City-Parish President Joey Durel announced that the municipal network would begin expanding beyond Lafayette city limits. An article in The Advocate quoted Durel:

“As I have traveled this parish, one of the most common things I am asked is, ‘When will we get fiber?’ That answer depended in large part on making fiber successful in Lafayette. We’re there,” Durel told the crowd that filled the Cajundome Convention Center.

Durel noted that municipalities that make agreements with Lafayette based on future annexation will be considered if they are willing to pay for the cost of expansion in their communities. Youngsville is reported to be the first town be consider Lafayette's proposal for bringing better local residential and business connectivity.

Any expansion of municipal networks has to answer some of the same important questions of any partnerships - how to allocate risk and benefits. It doesn't seem appropriate for Lafayette to assume the full risk of expanding the network to Youngsville, for example. Those who receive the benefits should assume some risk, and those who assume risk should be compensated in some measure.

One community, Broussard, is balking. Apparently, the town of 6,800 people located just outside Lafayette city limits does not want to contribute to the cost of fiber in their community, reports The Advocate. Understanding these fights from afar is always challenging because neighboring communities have often developed animosity over decades from both real and imagined slights.

Broussard has taken a hard line:

“There is no way we are going to give LUS the money to extend their fiber lines in Broussard for them to profit off of our infrastructure and the business of our citizens,” Broussard Councilman and Mayor Pro-Tem Johnnie Foco said in a statement…

Seeing such strong statements, we are forced to recall the extremes Cox Cable has gone to in an effort to thwart potential competition in the past. We don't know the terms LUS is offering, though we hope to update our reporting on this in coming days. What we do know is that expanding the LUS Fiber network will require a significant capital cost and risk. If Broussard doesn't want to contribute it all, it should get used to its Cox monopoly.