Tag: "stimulus"

Posted June 26, 2011 by christopher

Like many Washington Public Utility Districts, Pend Orielle, has connect small portions of its electric territory with an open access fiber-to-the-home. But these projects have been difficult to finance in remote (and often mountainous) areas. Pend Oreille previously built a pilot project but is now expanding its network with a stimulus grant from the feds.

The work has begun and is expected to end by November 30, this year. From a previous press release:

The project will make highspeed Internet available to approximately 3,200 households, 360 business, and 24 community anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, and health care facilities. Residents and business owners will have the opportunity to subscribe to a variety of highspeed Internet services through local internet service providers.

Posted June 16, 2011 by christopher

We have previously covered the East Central Vermont Fiber Network and their local frustrations at receiving little state or federal support in building a next-generation network. The feds and state government seem too heavily influenced by those with lobbying clout -- leading to subsidies to build lesser networks that local do not want.

They want real Internet, not another wireless promise that fails to deliver. A story from Vermont Public Radio discusses increased tensions as the networks struggle over a few community anchor tenants to help finance the rest of the network. Here, Loredo Sola of EC Fiber explains the problem:

SoverNet will own the infrastructure but is required to provide bandwidth at wholesale cost to providers who extend the service outward.

Loredo Sola is skeptical. He says he's already lost one institutional contract to the SoverNet project. He says that's forced E.C. Fiber to scrap its plans to serve smaller users in the area.

Sovernet is building a middle mile network connection community anchor institutions, but is an example of the exact wrong way to do it. Supposedly, the investment (the vast majority of which is funded by a federal stimulus award) will allow more ISPs to build more last mile networks as they have access to better backhaul.

But lowering the operating cost of a network does very little to make that network affordable to build. The high up front capital costs are what limit broadband in rural (and urban too!) areas. Compounding the problem is what Sola mentions above, Sovernet is taking the key anchor institutions off the board with its project so communities are actually left with a harder business case to connect themselves.

Groups like the Vermont Telecommunications Authority are so proud of having solved a short term problem, they have totally missed the fact that the longer term problem of making sure everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet is now much harder to solve.

When I first read about the WiscNet situation, I was interested to learn that it acted as an ISP but rarely provided the physical connections --...

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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 June 10, 2011 by christopher

Access Wisconsin, a group of telephone providers working with AT&T to kill a network essential for schools and libraries across the state, claims that using taxpayer money is unfair competition. It is a fascinating argument from a collection of companies that rakes in various state and federal subsidies.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported these statements from Access Wisconsin this week:

"This is by far the greatest assault we've ever felt from the University of Wisconsin Extension," said Mark Weller, president and CEO of Access Wisconsin, which represents 30 mostly small, rural telecommunications providers. "It's totally inappropriate.

"When services are available through the private sector at a competitive rate and we have to compete against yet another entity that is being funded by the taxpayers, that's just not fair."

Those statements came after increasing outrage around the state following the news that their lobbyists waited until the 11th hour to suddenly insert a provision into an omnibus bill that would kill WiscNet and require the state to return multiple broadband stimulus awards expanding telecommunications services in unserved areas.

But back in February of 2010, when Access Wisconsin was receiving a similar broadband stimulus award, it had a different attitude.

“The Recovery Act grant will bring fiber optic broadband to areas where it would otherwise be too expensive to build.  There aren’t enough customers to justify the cost of the investment without the help of these funds," Weller said.  “The federal grant, along with a 20% state match, is providing the kind of infrastructure for rural schools and libraries that will meet their needs for decades.”
 
The new fiber optic broadband connections will provide new education and economic opportunities in 380 largely rural communities across Wisconsin.  Schools and libraries in those communities will gain dramatically expanded telecommunications access, while the installation of new infrastructure will help make broadband access available for businesses and residents.

...

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Posted June 9, 2011 by christopher

There are many places to find information about AT&T's war on WiscNet, a great credit to those who recognize the importance of WiscNet to schools, libraries, and local governments around the state. The best article on the subject may be from Wisconsin Tech News (WTN), with "UW faces return of $37M for broadband expansion in 11th hour bill." This post builds on that as a primer for those interested in the controversy.

Update: Read a Fact Check Memo [pdf] from the University of Wisconsin Extension Service with responses to false allegations from AT&T and its allies.

Synopsis

AT&T and its allies have long made false claims against WiscNet, setting the stage for their lobbyists to push this legislation to kill it. AT&T and some other incumbents want to provide the services WiscNet provides in order to boost their profits. WiscNet not only offers superior services, it offers services the private providers will not provide (including specialized education services). For instance, from the WTN article:

One of features that differentiates WiscNet from a private broadband provider is allowing for “bursting,” so that during isolated periods when researchers send huge data sets, they greatly exceed the average data cap. UW-Madison currently uses seven gigabits on average, and would have to procure 14 gigabits under the new legislation, even though most of the extra seven gigabits would seldom be in use, Meachen [UW CIO] said.

“We'd be paying for the fact that researchers have to send these huge data sets, and not have it take hours and hours to get to where it's going,” Meachen said. “You can't afford to pay for that extra 7 gigabits from the private sector because it's too costly. They increase your charges based on that.”

A private network would not have the necessary capacity for scientists on the UW-Madison campus, who are some of the leading researchers on next generation Internet. A previous recommendation to combine BadgerNet and WiscNet was deemed infeasible, as AT&T would own the network and would not be able to provide sufficient bandwidth at an affordable cost, Meachen said.

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WiscNet is a buying cooperative,...

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Posted May 6, 2011 by christopher

Thanks to Minnesota Public Radio for an update on stimulus broadband projects in NE MN. A massive non-profit middle-mile project called the NorthEast Service Cooperative will finally provide redundancy and modern connections to an area long neglected by Qwest.

Hundreds of miles of fiber optic cables will bring faster Internet access to the Arrowhead region of Minnesota by the end of this summer. Ground for a broadband network stretching 915 miles was broken yesterday. Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and other politicians were on hand to tout the long-term economic significance of this federally funded project.

Soon, entire counties will not have to fear disastrous meltdowns from Qwest's inability to offer reliable services, as when they went 12 hours without any telecommunications, meaning police could not run background checks or run plates, credit cards and ATMs went offline, and border security had to use Canadian comms.

Northland News offered greater coverage as well as a video that would not embed here for reasons unknown.

The 915 miles of fiber optic network will stretch across eight counties in the Arrowhead Region and bring world class web speeds to the area.

State lawmakers were also on hand at the ceremony and say this type of technology is pivotal to economic development.

"I want this to be the next step in people realizing that economic diversification on the Iron Range can be done because we are wired, we're ready to go, and we have a work force that is second to none," said state Sen. David Tomassoni.

We have to wonder how many of these legislators will support removing barriers in Minnesota law to communities building their own networks.

Note that the the NE Service Coop is a middle-mile network and that Frontier will be using it to improve their services.

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Posted April 25, 2011 by christopher

Centerville is finally getting the fiber-optic network it wanted, after many years of waiting. UTOPIA has started work to expand its network, first to community anchor institutions and then to residents and businesses. UTOPIA had previously stopped expanding after problems with its business plan, management, and the intense opposition of incumbents Qwest and Comcast as well as other anti-government groups.

UTOPIA trucks have started working in Centerville this week, putting in hub and connector points that will help bring the long-planned fiber optic network to public institutions in the city.

Though this will also lay the groundwork for bringing the network to residents, the current phase of construction is covered by grant money that only involves government institutions. Construction on residential connections won’t begin until sometime this summer.

Centerville has been stuck with considerably less reliable wireless connections that do not offer anywhere near the capacity of fiber-optic cables. The network will go beyond the typical anchor institutions (e.g. City Hall, muni buildings, and often schools) to connect traffic lights as well -- an increasingly common approach.

After this phase, UTOPIA will begin expanding residential connections -- but they will prioritize areas that show the most interest in taking services.

Before the summer construction begins, residents should expect to see an information and advertising push explaining the different companies offering services on the UTOPIA network and seeking those wishing to sign up for the services (though UTOPIA and the UIA maintain the network, they offer no services. Outside companies, such as XMission, use the network for their services).

Placing the advertising before the construction will determine whether or not there’s enough demand to justify the expense of laying in the network in a given area.

UTOPIA continues to impress even past critics with its new management and approach.

Posted April 18, 2011 by christopher

For the last 6 weeks in Chelan, Washington, the Public Utility District has had to make some hard decisions regarding expanding its rural FTTH network using a broadband stimulus award from the federal government. Chelan was an early pioneer of rural FTTH, operating a network that serves over 2/3 of a rugged county that offers great rock climbing and hiking opportunities (I checked it out personally).

As we reported last year, Chelan's citizens had strongly supported accepting the stimulus award and paying for their required match by modestly increasing electrical rates (which are among the least expensive in the nation).

At that time, the PUD believed its network passed over 80% of the county. But after reassessing their coverage and changing the leadership of the group in charge of the fiber-optic aspect of the utility, they found the network passed closer to 70% of the population. They also re-examined assumptions about the cost of expanding the network's reach:

The PUD’s financial review resulted in a series of revised statistics that PUD engineers presented to commissioners Monday.
Of the county’s 43,000 premises — mostly homes and businesses — 30,000 have access to fiber.

Some 6,000 don’t have access because they live in areas where hookups are more costly, despite their often urban settings.

In these areas, the cables that supply electricity are buried directly in the ground. Fiber hookups require costly trenching and installing conduit.

Another 7,000 premises don’t have access because they’re very rural. Fiber access to all but the most rural of these locations will be funded jointly by a $25 million federal stimulus grant and PUD matching funds of about $8 million.

Of the 30,000 with access, some 37% are taking a service (though they have to subscribe through independent service providers that contract with Chelan PUD due to Washington State law denying the opportunity for PUDs to offer retail services on their own network. Nonetheless, they are signing up 100 new customers per month.

The problem is that some of the new connections are in high cost areas (whether due to distance or underground utilities). So the...

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Posted March 8, 2011 by christopher

In an op-ed, Tom Evslin discusses FairPoint and their opposition to a middle mile stimulus grant that would improve broadband access around the state. FairPoint had taken over Verizon's New England lines a few years ago. Verizon had a reputation for poor service but FairPoint took that to new levels before reorganizing under bankruptcy (yet another high-profile private sector failure).

FairPoint fought a middle-mile project in Maine and was eventually bribed into silence by the Legislature. Having learned the only lesson one can learn from such an experience, they are now fighting a middle mile project in Vermont.

Unfortunately FairPoint, the successor to Verizon for landlines in Northern New England, wants Vermont to choose between protecting a badly flawed FairPoint business plan or improving the economic future of Vermont’s rural areas. The choice is stark: use the federal “middle mile” stimulus grant already awarded to the Vermont Telecommunication Authority (VTA) to bring fiber closer to rural Vermonters and make wholesale backhaul and institutional broadband affordable in rural areas of the state or forfeit the grant and leave these areas without adequate business, residential and cellular service.

Vermont should move forward with its stimulus project to expand open access middle mile connections across the state. Appeasing FairPoint yet again is not only bad for Vermont's many underserved, it would further embolden FairPoint in its fight against any competition, public or private.

The VTA was formed to improve broadband access while not providing services directly. There is no reason it should not invest in these middle-mile networks. Quoting again from Evslin op-ed:

Now President of FairPoint in Vermont, Mike Smith said yesterday in an interview broadcast on WCAX that he never meant that the VTA should build fiber networks and provide middle-mile (backhaul) service. He thought it would be directing its...

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Posted February 19, 2011 by christopher

The story about Wisconsin becoming the first state to return broadband stimulus funds has circulated quite quickly over recent days. The state, which is one of several to have recently swung far more conservative than it traditionally is, has returned other stimulus funds unrelated to broadband as well. In this case, they were apparently surprised at the previously well-publicized terms of the award for which they applied:

State officials are returning $23 million to the federal government, saying there were too many strings attached to stimulus money that was supposed to be for expanding high-speed Internet service in schools, libraries and government agencies.

We previously noted efforts by a few legislators to meddle in a different project to preserve AT&T's monopoly on providing over-priced services to schools and community institutions in part of the state. This is different, but related as Wisconsin has made it very difficult for the network used by the University of Wisconsin to be owned by the University, a gift to AT&T that just keeps on giving. Because the stimulus funds would have been given to AT&T to expand the network, the University would have to continue using that network for the 22 year period required under the conditions of the award. But the contract with AT&T is only for 5 years -- so Wisconsin complained about "strings" attached to the award. Stop the Cap! has published an excellent research piece covering various facets of this story.

Currently BadgerNet largely exists as an extension of AT&T’s network in Wisconsin. That is a critical point. Had BadgerNet initially been created as an independent entity, today’s stimulus rejection might never have happened. Wisconsin, no doubt at the behest of AT&T, built its network with a leasing arrangement, signing five-year term contracts to rent space on AT&T’s fiber-copper wire facilities. That kept...

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