Tag: "rural"

Posted February 16, 2012 by christopher

Susan Crawford's op-ed in Bloomberg makes a tremendous case for publicly owned broadband networks.

She notes the importance of broadband and the failure of big cable and DSL companies to meet the growing needs of communities, just as the electrical trusts were insufficient to electrify much of America.

I'm a bit biased because she cites our work:

Today, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, which advocates for community broadband initiatives, is tracking more than 60 municipal governments that have built or are building successful fiber networks, just as they created electric systems during the 20th century. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, for example, the city’s publicly owned electric company provides fast, affordable and reliable fiber Internet access. Some businesses based in Knoxville -- 100 miles to the northeast -- are adding jobs in Chattanooga, where connectivity can cost an eighth as much.

Though I encourage readers to read the full column, I love the conclusion:

Franklin D Roosevelt

Right now, state legislatures -- where the incumbents wield great power -- are keeping towns and cities in the U.S. from making their own choices about their communications networks. Meanwhile, municipalities, cooperatives and small independent companies are practically the only entities building globally competitive networks these days. Both AT&T and Verizon have ceased the expansion of next-generation fiber installations across the U.S., and the cable companies’ services greatly favor downloads over uploads.

Congress needs to intervene. One way it could help is by preempting state laws that erect barriers to the ability of local jurisdictions to provide communications services to their citizens.

Running for president in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt emphasized the right of communities to provide their own electricity. “I might call the right of the people to own and operate their own utility a birch rod in the cupboard,” he said, “to be taken out and used only when the child gets beyond the point where more scolding does any good.” It’s time to take out that birch rod.

Posted February 13, 2012 by christopher

Lobbyists for major cable and DSL companies (Comcast, Frontier, and others) already earned their pay in Washington state this year by killing a bill that would have allowed some public utility districts to offer retail services on broadband networks in rural areas that were unserved.

Unfortunately, the powerful incumbent cable and DSL companies have been able to kill bills like this in committee year after year even as they refuse to build the necessary networks throughout the state. Comcast is not about to start offering broadband in these low-density areas, but it also does not want to allow public utilities to embarrass them by offering faster connections at lower prices than Comcast offers in Seattle (where it faces no real competition).

Public Utility Districts can currently only offer wholesale services -- meaning that they can only offer services by using private service providers in an open access arrangements. We are strong supporters of this approach where it works. However, in high-cost rural areas, the "middle man" kills the economics. There is not enough revenue to pay for the network.

Some of the public utility districts want the authority to offer retail services in order to bring high-speed connections to these rural areas and encourage economic development. Big companies like Frontier and CenturyLink serve some of the people in some of these areas -- often with significant state and federal subsidies. We could phase out such subsidies by encouraging approaches that are not as massively inefficient as Frontier and CenturyLink -- two of the worst DSL providers in the nation. Unfortunately, what they lack in capacity to invest in modern broadband, they make up for in lobbying prowess.

An article in the Omak-Okanogan County Chronicle offers some more background:

Erik Poulsen, government relations director at Washington Public Utility District Association, said PUDs have used the wholesale authority they were granted in 2000, building 4,500 miles of fiber-optic cable, investing $300 million in infrastructure and joining with 150 retail providers. He said such wholesaling isn’t possible in certain parts of the state.

“The idea was that PUDs would build critical infrastructure and private companies would...

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Posted February 8, 2012 by christopher

AT&T lobbyists in Georgia and South Carolina are arguing that local governments should not be allowed to build the networks that communities need, suggesting that the private sector is primed to make the necessary connections. But AT&T's CEO had a different message for investors a few weeks ago, in an earnings call on January 26:

The other is rural access lines; we have been apprehensive on moving, doing anything on rural access lines because the issue here is, do you have a broadband product for rural America?

We’ve all been trying to find a broadband solution that was economically viable to get out to rural America, and we’re not finding one to be quite candid. The best opportunity we have is LTE.

Whoa! LTE is what you more commonly hear called 4G in mobile phone commercials. The best they can do is eventually build a wireless network that allows a user to transfer just 2GB/month. That is fine for hand-held devices but it does nothing to encourage economic development or allow residents to take advantage of remote education opportunities.

But even the CEO admits they are not bullish on LTE as the solution:

[W]e’re looking at rural America and asking, what’s the broadband solution? We don’t have one right now.

Some may be wondering about "U-Verse" -- AT&T's super DSL that competes with cable in the wealthy neighborhoods of bigger cities. U-Verse cannot match the capacity or quality of modern cable networks but is better than older DSL technologies. But U-Verse is not coming to a rural community near you.

For those who missed the fanfare last year, AT&T's U-Verse build is done. AT&T's lobbyists have probably forgotten to tell Georgia and South Carolina Legislators that the over 20 million AT&T customers without access to U-Verse are not going to get it. But CEO Stephenson made sure investors weren't...

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Posted February 7, 2012 by christopher

Wally Bowen has again penned an op-ed that we gained permission to reprint. The original ran in North Carolina's Durham News Observer.

President Barack Obama said in his State of the Union address that he wants to upgrade the nation's "critical infrastructure," including our "incomplete high-speed broadband network that prevents a small business owner in rural America from selling her products all over the world."

The Green Bay Packers know how to tackle this problem.

Green Bay, Wis., population 104,000, and its National Football League franchise have much in common with communities left behind in today's broadband world. In 1923, the Packers faced a similar crisis. How to keep the team in Green Bay despite being in an "uncompetitive" market.

Green Bay took a page out of the playbook of rural electrification. It converted the franchise into a community-owned nonprofit. The move permanently tied the Packers to Green Bay and lifted the burden of generating profits for outside investors. In short, Green Bay found a business model in scale with its market.

Rural electrification via a community-ownership business model began more than 100 years ago when for-profit utilities bypassed rural areas. This self-help solution has deep roots in rural America, where nonprofit cooperatives have long provided essential services for local economies.

Yet the congressionally mandated National Broadband Plan omits nonprofit networks as part of a universal broadband strategy. Blair Levin, a former FCC official and Raleigh attorney, is the Plan's lead author. According to Thomas Friedman in a Jan. 3 column in The New York Times, Levin now believes that "America is focused too much on getting 'average' bandwidth to the last 5 percent of the country in rural areas, rather than getting 'ultra-high-speed' bandwidth to the top 5 percent in university towns, who will invent the future."

Levin leads Gig.U, a consortium of major research universities - including UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke and N.C. State - promoting "ultra-high-speed" Internet access. He has every right to advocate for Gig.U, but doing so at the expense of under-served rural communities raises concerns about his work with the National Broadband Plan.

Universal access to electricity was made possible by the 1936 Rural Electrification Act, later amended to help...

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Posted February 6, 2012 by christopher

A group of rural residents living east of Madison, Wisconsin, gathered near Portage of Columbia County to discuss their lack of affordable high speed access to the Internet. These are people for whom slow, overpriced DSL would be an improvement.

Lack of access to the Internet is a drain on rural economies -- their real estate market suffer and they are unable to telecommute, when they would benefit more from it than most who do have the option. They lack access to long-distance education opportunities in a time when the cost of gas makes driving to school prohibitively expensive.

Andy Lewis, who has been working with the Building Community Capacity through Broadband Project with U-W Extension, was on hand to discuss some of the lessons learned through their work, which is largely funded by a broadband stimulus award.

The incumbent providers encouraged residents without access to aggregate their demand and create petitions to demonstrate the available demand. Of course they did. And if CenturyLink decides it can get a sufficient return on its slow and unreliable DSL, they will build it out to some of those unserved areas. This is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" scenario for rural residents. DSL was starting to be obsolete years ago.

The better solution is finding nearby cooperatives and munis that will extend next-generation networks that can provide fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. Getting a DSL to a town will do very little to attract residents and nothing to attract businesses. It is a 20th century technology in a rapidly evolving 21st century world.

The Beaver Dam Daily Citizen covered the meeting, which eventually turned away from how to beg for broadband to how they can build it themselves:

But several attendees asked why the government can't play a role in making high-speed service available everywhere, in the same way that the government helped bring about rural electrification and telephone service.

This is a very good question. They may decide not to follow that path, but given the importance of access to the Internet, they should look at options for building a network that puts community...

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Posted January 31, 2012 by christopher

As Australia rolls out its National Broadband Network (NBN), an open access mostly FTTH network that will connect 90% of the population (with most of the rest connected with high capacity wireless), it is exploring telehealth opportunities:

“Expanding telehealth services to older Australians still living in their own homes will help health professionals identify potential health problems earlier, reduce the need for older Australians to travel to receive treatment and increase access to healthcare services and specialists.”

Australia has recognized that the private sector will not meet the needs of its businesses and residents and is therefore investing in a next-generation open access network and seeking ways to maximize its social benefits.

Israel appears poised to follow Australia's lead. And what is happening in the US? Well, AT&T admits that DSL is dying, has stopped expanding its supposed next-generation product, and is working state legislatures to prevent others from building the needed networks. SNAFU.

Posted January 27, 2012 by christopher

A rural Fiber-to-the-Farm project that started in Sibley County has added three new towns to its potential territory due to the extremely high interest in fast, affordable, and reliable connections to the Internet. The current providers aren't getting the job done and few expect that to change given the cost of improving services.

An article last year reported on present difficulties for many in Sibley:

Soeffker, who farms with her husband in rural Sibley County, said the dish receiver they must use works fine in good weather but balks during heavy rain and snowstorms.

Meantime, her husband struggles with a lagging Internet speed of .6 megabits a second that falls short of meeting his business needs when he’s selling commodities.

The committee organizing the network set a goal for demonstrating the interest of something like 50% of the population in the target area. There has been some confusion as to exactly how many they should have before committing to the project but with just two mass mailings, they have received nearly 3,000 positive responses (of the over 8000 households that could be served). This is a very strong response.

To keep the public informed, they have had numerous public meetings in each of the communities that will be involved. To be as open as possible, they would often have three meetings in a town per day -- a morning, afternoon, and evening meeting to accomodate everyone's schedule. As this project moves forward, no one can claim the group has been anything but open with the plan.

On January 19, they had a major meeting with over 100 people attending, including many elected officials from the towns. For over two and a half hours, they had five presentations and numerous questions. MPR's Jennifer Vogel was there and wrote about the project shortly afterward.

Participating communities--which include Renville County, Sibley County, Fairfax, Gibbon, Winthrop, Gaylord, Arlington, New Auburn, Green Isle, Buffalo Lake, Steward, Brownton and Lafayette--have been asked to decide by early March whether to...

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Posted January 23, 2012 by christopher

Minnesota Public Radio has once again covered some of the many benefits coming from the stimulus-funded Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services that grew out of WindomNet, a small muni network. It is now offering some of the fastest connections in the region to people who previously only had dial-up or slow DSL.

Schensted and his wife are the first in their southwest Minnesota community to connect to a new high-speed Internet service. He said the new service is everything it was advertised to be.

"We're getting anywhere from 50 megabits downloading and about 20 to 30 uploading," Schensted said. "It's just really incredibly fast."

Stimulus dollars spent on expanding publicly owned networks gets the most bang for the taxpayer's buck and should have been a much larger focus for the broadband stimulus.

The people and businesses served by this network have faster connections at lower prices than we can get in the metro area of Minneapolis/St Paul.

Schensted's house is connected to the nearly $13 million Southwest Minnesota Broadband Service project that will serve eight communities: Bingham Lake, Brewster, Heron Lake, Jackson, Lakefield, Okabena, Round Lake and Wilder.

Internet equipment
Schensted said he has never had that kind of Internet speed, even when he lived in the Twin Cities.

"This is perhaps overkill for even my home," he said. "I'm not complaining about it, but it's a wonderful overkill. My wife and I can both be using a computer, we can be streaming something on the television, all at the same time which is something we wouldn't have dreamed of before."

Smart public investments can connect everyone in this state, at a fraction of the price that it would cost to subsidize the big private companies to do it. They are too inefficient and require too large a margin of profit, in addition to a host of other problems.

Posted January 12, 2012 by christopher

Last year we noted that a bill to expand local authority to invest in publicly owned broadband networks would return in 2012. HB 1711 is in Committee and causing a bit of a stir. "A bit of a stir" is good -- such a reaction means it has a chance at passing and giving Washington's residents a greater opportunity to have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet.

Washington's law presently allows Public Utility Districts to build fiber-optic networks but they cannot offer retail services. They are limited to providing wholesale services only -- working with independent service providers to bring telecom services to the public.

Unfortunately, this approach can be financially debilitating, particularly in rural areas. Building next generation networks in very low density areas is hard enough without being forced to split the revenues with third parties.

Last year, House Bill 2601 created a study to examine telecommunications reform, including the possibilty of municipality and public utility district provisioning. The University of Washington School of Law examined the issues and released a report [pdf] that recognizes the important role public sector investments can play:

U Washington Law School

Broadband infrastructure is this century’s interstate highway system: a public investment in an infrastructure that will rapidly connect Washington’s citizens statewide, nationally, and internationally; fuelling growth, competition, and innovation. Like highway access, the path to universal broadband access varies with the needs of the local community.

Our primary goal is to expand broadband access. We believe allowing municipalities and PUDs to provide broadband services addresses the most significant hurdles to broadband expansion: the high cost of infrastructure. In conjunction with a state USF, PUDs and municipalities are well placed to address the needs of their consumers.

A secondary goal is to promote a competitive marketplace. We believe that empowering PUDs and municipalities...

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Posted January 10, 2012 by christopher

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is hosting an informational meeting on Thursday, January 12, at 1:00. For those who cannot make it in person, it will be webcast here.

The PDF announcement is here.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will convene an informational meeting in the format of panel discussion to examine the implications of the FCC Order with respect to (i) universal service funding, (ii) intercarrier compensation and (iii) the substantive and procedural tasks that the Commission can be expected to face in the coming months.

The meeting will commence with opening remarks by Commission Chair Ellen Anderson and
Commissioner Michael Rothman of the Minnesota Department Commerce. The panel
discussion will be moderated by Commissioner Betsy Wergin. The panelists are:

  • Jeff Lindsey; CenturyLink
  • Brent Christensen; Minnesota Telecom Alliance
  • Dan Lipschultz; Moss Barnett PA, competitive carrier perspective
  • Tom Cohen; Kelley, Drye Warren LLP for the American Cable Association
  • Dave Conn; T-Mobile
  • Dennis Ahlers; Minnesota Department of Commerce.

The Commission will welcome questions from attendees as time permits.

I would have specifically liked to hear how the rural telephone coops would be affected by the inter-carrier compensation changes as those charges have helped many rural communities gain access to broadband. Apparently, the MTA rep will represent their viewpoint.

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