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Virginia's Roanoke Valley Opens Fiber Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 221

Having few options for high-quality telecommunications service, Virginia's Roanoke Valley formed a broadband authority and is building an open access fiber-optic network with different options for ISPs to plug-in.

In addition to being our guest on Community Broadband Bits episode 221, Frank Smith is the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority CEO and President. We discuss their various options for ISPs to use their infrastructure and the various services their network is providing, including access to conduit and dark fiber leases. We also discuss why they formed a state authority to build their carrier-grade network.

Though they have had some pushback from incumbents - something Frank seems unphased by in calling the Authority "the new kid on the block" - they have built local support by building relationships with local organizations like Blue Ridge PBS.

Read all of our Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority coverage here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 29 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Meeting the American Cable Association - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 202

The American Cable Association (ACA) represents over 800 small and medium-sized cable companies around the United States, including many municipal cable and fiber-optic networks. This week, we talk with ACA President and CEO Matt Polka about what they do and how small cable companies are vastly different from the big companies like Comcast and Charter.

We spoke after it was clear Charter's merger with Time Warner Cable would be approved, but before this article in Ars Technica effectively missed the point of Matt Polka's objection to the competition requirement in the merger. In our interview, we discuss the larger problem - that the federal government consistently puts its thumb on the scale to benefit the biggest cable companies at the expense of smaller ones. Forcing Charter to compete with Comcast would be a far bigger benefit to communities than having it take over small cable networks.

We wrap up with a discussion about how smaller companies, which includes all municipal networks, are disproportionately impacted by regulations that do not distinguish between the biggest providers (that tend to cause the majority of problems) and the smaller providers (that bear the brunt of regulations designed for reigning in the problems caused by the big carriers).

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 29 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Spanish Fork Building Gig Fiber over Cable Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 170

The Spanish Fork Community Network has long been among the most successful community broadband projects. And now that the community has finished paying off the debt of the network, they are using the net income to upgrade to a fiber network that will be capable of delivering a symmetrical gigabit to anyone in town.

John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director, speaks with us again this week to explain how the project is doing and how they plan to upgrade to fiber. They are pursuing a unique upgrade to our knowledge -- they are building fiber over the coax and will operate both. Telephone and Internet access will run over the fiber and television over the cable.

The network has paid back its debt and continues to generate impressive community savings. With a take rate of 80 percent of the community, the network saves a cumulative $3 million each year. That is a lot of money circulating in the city of 35,000 people.

We previously spoke with John in episode 60. You can read all of our coverage of Spanish Fork here.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Click! Network Rates Set to Increase to Cover Retrans Fees

Tacoma's Click! network raised prices in 2010 in order to cover increases in retransmission fees for its television feeds. Fees have continually risen for Click! and other networks and, according to Tacoma's News Tribune, will continue to rise. The market is fundamentally broken, with small providers struggling to keep up as sports programming shoots through the roof and companies like Comcast merge with content owners.

In Tacoma, the situation was so bad it led to a fee dispute between KOMO and Click! network that resulted in a channel blackout on the network. The News Tribune pursued document requests early in 2014 to obtain copies of the retransmission agreements at the center of the dispute between the network and KOMO. The documents revealed that agreements with several broadcasters rewarded broadcasters significant increases in retransmission fees. Over a six year period, KOMO's rate increased 416 percent.

In a recent update, the News Tribune reports that the new contracts include yet another significant increase:

New contracts that took effect Jan. 1 show the broadcasters’ fees are rising far faster than inflation.

No fee has increased over the years more than that of Seattle broadcaster KOMO. In 2009, the broadcaster received only 31 cents per month per home from Click. That amount has soared this year to $2.43 — a 684 percent increase.

Had the broadcaster’s fee risen equal to inflation, KOMO would earn only 34 cents per subscriber — or approximately $78,000 for all of 2015.

Instead, the new fee structure will mean Click pays about $561,000 this year. That cost is likely to be passed down to the utility’s 19,250 subscribers.

Chris Gleason, speaking on behalf of Tacoma Public Utilities, said the utility board will now have to consider a 17.5 percent rate increase for 2015. The original plan was to incorporate a 10 percent increase in 2015 and a similar increase in 2016. Four other channels are instituting similar increases:

“We don’t really have a lot of bargaining power with these broadcasters,” Gleason said. “... We do negotiate with them but there’s not a lot of leverage for us.”

Escalating fees could accelerate the trend of “cord cutters” — people who don’t have a cable subscription and who watch shows online.

All providers must contend with these increases in retansmission fees but small networks are particularly hurt because they cannot afford to buy the entities that create the fees. Comcast can hedge against increasing prices by demanding an ownership stake in the channel or buying them outright.

The largest cable companies also have more leverage - a channel is more reluctant to go dark across Comcast's millions of viewers than the 20,000 on Click!. The idea that we can have a competitive market for these services while content owners hold all the cards is misguided and we believe the FCC and Congress should be addressing these problems before more small cable companies are forced out of the market.

Sign Up Early for A Gig in Longmont, Colorado

If you are in Longmont, you can sign up for gigabit service from LPC for only $49.95 per month. The Longmont Compass reports that customers who sign up within the first three months will retain that price point for an as yet undetermined extended period. AND, that price stays with the home if the customer sells, adding substantial value to the real estate.

The Compass also spoke with General Manager Tom Roiniotis about LPC's decision to offer Internet and voice but not video: 

“Cable TV is a dying industry. People want to get the TV that they want, not the TV that the cable companies force them to get.”

When pressed for an example, Roiniotis considered sports. If you want to watch an NFL game, why should you have to pay for two hundred channels you’ll never even tune into? There is a growing consensus that audiences don’t want to watch the movie that happens to be on Showtime right now, they want to choose when to start, when to pause, and what movie they’re interested in. As he put it, “The consumer is finally becoming king in the world of TV.”

“In five years, I can see Xfinity (the Comcast content delivery network) using our fiber-optic to deliver their content,” he says. “So instead of investing another $20M in the technology to deliver cable, we save that money and let the consumers drive the future of content delivery.”

LPC began construction on the expansion in August with completion scheduled for 2017. Last fall, voters passed a referendum to bond in order to speed up construction.

Letters to the editor from Longmont locals express impatience. They want better services! P.R. Lambert recently wrote:

It's really sad that the Longmont fiber optic Internet will take so long to be installed. From what I see, the two major competitors (Comcast and Century Link) seem to believe that customers are a bother.

One of those has pricing on their web page that they refuse to honor, while the other will not even try to be competitive.

The Compass shared this video to illustrate what lucky Longmonters have coming to them:

Video: 
See video

Over the Top Video: A Peak or a Path Forward?

About six months ago, I was quite bullish on advances in over-the-top (OTT) video making it easier for communities to build fiber networks because they would no longer have to deal with the challenges of securing and delivering traditional cable television channels. I explored these challenges in a recent post.

OTT video includes Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, and similar services that deliver video content over your broadband connection, ideally to your television. Last summer, we were anticipating more devices and services that would expand OTT options.

In the time since, I have been disappointed. There have been advances - the Google Chromecast dongle works well (if you have a good Wi-Fi signal near your TV - no ethernet option unfortunately). But Chromecast works with a limited suite of video services.

Hulu works well enough, but seems to have fewer shows that I want to watch available on Hulu plus. Also, Comcast owns it and won't always be shackled by the temporary conditions it agreed to in order to secure permission to buy NBC Universal.

Aereo continues to be a very interesting model but will be fighting in the courts for awhile yet, creating an air of uncertainty over its future. Additionally, its business model hurts public access media (locally produced content), which often depends on franchise fees that Aereo and broadband providers don't have to pay. On the other hand, Aereo solves the problem of getting sports programming over the top and that is a big deal.

We had high hopes for an announcement from Intel that it would begin marketing a service offering television channels over the top but it ran into the steep barriers to entry we have previously noted. Now the Intel effort is dead to us: Verizon has purchased it.

Maybe Sony or Samsung or some other manufacturer will suddenly come out with a breakthrough, but given my experience with their user interfaces, I would be shocked if it were usable, to say nothing of desirable.

It is distinctly possible that we will see breakthroughs that make OTT video more accessible and therefore help to drive new investment in fiber networks that don't require large investments in cable head end technology and acquiring hundreds of channel contracts. But I think it more likely that we are going to see OTT content hold steady or even draw back - we may see still fewer popular programs available on Hulu in the near future, for instance.

Regardless, we should not assume that we are in the midst of a linear progression from little OTT video to much more. Given the massive power of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and the channel owners, we could well see a return to content only being available to those who pay ever-increasing fees to the local cable monopoly.

There is a reason Google decided it needed to offer television channels to get enough subscribers to make their investment worthwhile. Communities may not need the same high subscriber rates that Google wants, but it is a sign of where they think the market is staying.

Meet Russellville, Kentucky's Broadband Speed Leader - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #82

The municipal electric utility in Russellville has launched Kentucky's first citywide gigabit service on its FTTH network. Russellville Electric Plant Board General Manager Robert White joins us to share their motivations for building a fiber network.

The utility had originally offered some telecommunications services over a wireless system but recognized the need for a more robust fiber system, in part because of the lack of investment in modern telecommunications by incumbent cable and telephone providers.

Now Russellville has much better options for residents, local businesses, and schools. We expanded on this interview with a mini case study of their network.

Read the transcript of our conversation here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

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

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

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Public Access Media and Community Owned Networks - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #81

After a listener suggested we do a show on the modern role of public access media, we decided to reach out to Mike Wassenaar, now a senior development officer at Free Press and formerly the Executive Director of Saint Paul Neighborhood Network, a great example of the promise of public access.

Mike and I talk about history, present, and future of public access. Historically coupled with the cable companies for both funding and distribution, access centers are now under fire as cable companies have been successful in reducing their funding and distribution.

But we believe there remains a strong demand for local content that is not being met by large corporations and access centers continue to have a strong role to play. That means we need to ensure they are funded and have a means to distribute content, both of which are possible as communities build their own fiber optic networks.

A good place to seek additional information is the Alliance for Community Media. Thanks to Eliz for suggesting this show.

Read the transcript for our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 19 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

LightTUBe Financially Secure in Tennessee

Tullahoma Utilities Board's triple-play FTTH LightTUBe, began serving Tullahoma in 2009. The fiber network utility is paying off its city bond debt on schedule reports the Tullahoma News.

The network's income during the first four months of fiscal year 2014 is a positive $58,939. General Manager Brian Skelton spoke with Chris Mitchell in July 2013 and expressed confidence that that network will continue to operate in the black. The News reported on our podcast interview with Skelton and provided some recent updates:

With an estimated potential customer base of 9,000 in the TUB service area, LightTUBe services 3,201 fiber customers. That number is slightly ahead of goal (3,186) and represents nearly 36 percent market penetration against primary competitor Charter Communications.

Tullahoma deployed its network to encourage economic development. In 2011, we reported on J2 Software Solutions. The company located its headquarters in Tullahoma because LightTUBe offered fast, reliable, affordable service. 

According to the News article, expenditures on Internet service remain consistent while subscriptions grow. The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) only recently approved a $7 rate increase for video service due to an increase in the cost of television content. When content rates rose in the past, TUB chose to absorb the increase but the cost of content continues to increase for all providers. Since 2009, TUB increased Internet service speeds five times without increasing prices. From the article:

”LightTUBe is in a very comfortable position from a financial perspective. Our biggest concern at this point is the unreasonable price increases that we (and others in the video business) are seeing from many of our channel providers,” said Skelton.

That comfortable financial position appears to rest largely on the shoulders of LightTUBe’s Internet service.

While video and telephone services together generate enough income to offset the system’s net maintenance and depreciation costs, Internet services generate enough income to offset its additional customer service, sales, administration and debt costs.

Unlike the private providers it competes against, Tullahoma is limited in where it can offer service. State law prevents it from serving customers outside its electrical territory - something AT&T and Comcast lobbyists have preserved year after year by killing bills that would remove this damaging law. Across Tennessee, local businesses, residents, and anchor institutions are stuck with slower, less reliable connections despite desiring expansion from the nearby utility but they are denied.

Because Tennessee law prohibits municipal utilities from providing their fiber services outside of their electric service territory, LightTUBe cannot offer its 1G Internet to – for example – the Coffee County Joint Industrial Park, which is serviced by Duck River Electrical Membership Cooperative (DREMC). The joint park, located five miles northeast of Tullahoma and outside of TUB’s service area, has cable-based Internet service.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network: Community Broadband Bits Episode #74

Last month, we unveiled a video teaser of our interviews in Glasgow, Kentucky over the summer regarding its municipal broadband network. This week our podcast features a few clips from those interviews with Billy Ray, the Superintendent of Glasgow's Electric Plant Board.

He offers more context on the history of their network, including how they became "savvy marketers" when faced with stiff competition from Telescripts - a cable company that cared nothing for Glasgow until they dared to build a rival system operated for community benefit.

He details how they began producing local content and the surprisingly most popular show they developed - what would eventually come to be known as "reality TV."

We thank Media Working Group, our partners in this documentary for the high quality interviews.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 10 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.