Removing restrictions on community broadband can expand high-speed Internet access in underserved areas, spurring economic growth and improvements in government services, while enhancing competition. Giving the citizens of Chattanooga and leaders like Mayor Berke the power to make these decisions for themselves is not only the right thing to do; it’s the smart thing to do.
In a June 10 Official FCC Blog post, Chairman Tom Wheeler's words show continued resolve to restore local decision-making to communities that want to evaluate their own investments and partnerships. This is the latest in a series of public statements indicating the agency is ready to assert authority and remove barriers to community networks.
If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition.
I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.
In April, Wheeler raised a few lobbyist eyebrows in a speech on the role of municipal networks at the Cable Show Industry conference in Los Angeles. In this latest post, he notes that Chattanooga's network transformed it from "a city famous for its choo-choos," into the "Gig City." The network spurs economic development, improves access, and inspires innovation, notes our FCC Chairman.
The National Journal also takes note of the FCC blog post. Its article points out that Wheeler criticizes Tennessee's state law restricting Chattanooga's ability to expand. Even though nearby communities want service from EPB, the City is forbidden from serving them. Not acceptable, says Wheeler.
While the National Journal suggests Tennessee may be the first state to face FCC authority to eliminate state barriers, policy experts have no expectations yet. From the article:
Harold Feld, the senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said Wheeler will probably not launch a broad initiative to attack state laws around the country. Instead, the FCC chief will probably wait for groups or individuals to file complaints about specific state laws, Feld predicted.
Chairman Wheeler's sentiments comport with the growing movement to...Read more
Netflix has continued to publish monthly rankings of ISPs average speed in delivering Netflix video content to subscribers. Though they first published data about the largest, national ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and the link, they have an expanded list with many more ISPs.
I recognize two municipal networks on the expanded list of 60 ISPs. For March 2014, the Chattanooga EPB network is ranked 4th and CDE Lightband of Clarksville, Tennessee, is ranked 7th.
With the exception of Google Fiber and Cablevision, the top 10 are regional or somewhat smaller ISPs. Combined with the significant spread across the rankings of the biggest ISP, we see no empirical evidence for any kind of benefits to subscribers from scale. That is to say, Netflix data shows that bigger ISPs do not deliver better customer experience.
We do see more evidence that fiber networks deliver faster speeds on average, with cable following, and DSL trailing distantly. This is why DSL networks are losing customers where people have a choice and cable is gaining (most often where there is no fiber option).
Any claims by Comcast that allowing it to merge with Time Warner Cable would result in better service should be subject to extreme skepticism. Many much smaller networks deliver faster connections and raise rates far less often that Comcast, which is at the high end of frequency in rate hikes.
The problem with the biggest companies is that they focus on generating the highest returns for Wall Street, not delivering the best experience to Main Street.
Broadband is a topic of interest in several state legislative chambers this session. In a recent Government Technology article, Brian Heaton focused on five states where community broadband is particularly contentious. In some cases, legislators want to expand opportunities while others seek to limit local authority.
We introduced you to the Kansas anti-competition bill in January. The bill was pulled back this year but could be back next year. When the business community learned about the potential effects of SB 304, they expressed their dismay. From the article:
Eleven companies and trade organizations – including Google – signed a letter opposing SB 304 as a “job-killer” that restricts communications services expansion in the U.S.
Minnesota's leaders introduced legislation to expand broadband. Efforts include financial investment earmarked for infrastructure:
Senate File 2056 – referred to as the Border-to-Border Infrastructure Program – would take $100 million from the state's general fund to be applied to broadband projects. A companion bill in the House, HF 2615 was also introduced.
As we reported, there is bipartisan support for the bill in the House, but the Senate and Governor have not prioritized SF 2056.
New Hampshire's legislature wants to open up bonding authority for local communities that need help:
Legislation is making its way through the New Hampshire Legislature that would give local government expanded bonding authority for areas that have limited or no access to high-speed Internet connectivity. Sponsored by Rep. Charles...
In a recent New York Times article, reporter Kate Murphy shined a light on fiber's increasing role in economic development. Murphy discussed several of the same networks we have followed: Wilson, NC; Chattanooga, TN; Lafayette, LA; and Mount Vernon, WA.
Murphy acknowledged that successful companies are moving from major metropolitan areas to less populated communities out of necessity:
These digital carpetbaggers aren’t just leaving behind jittery Netflix streams and aggravating waits for Twitter feeds to refresh. They are positioning themselves to be more globally competitive and connected.
Murphy notes that countries where governments have invested in critical infrastructure offer more choice, better services, and lower rates. She also points to successful local initiatives, often in less populated communities where large private interests have not invested:
Stepping into the void have been a smattering of municipalities that have public rather than private utility infrastructures. Muninetworks.org has a map that pinpoints many of these communities. They are primarily rural towns that were ignored when the nation’s electrical infrastructure was installed 100 years ago and had to build their own.
Murphy spoke with several business owners that moved from large metropolitan areas to smaller communities because they needed fiber. For a growing number of establishments, fiber networks are the only kind that offer the capacity needed for day-to-day operations. Information security firm, Blank Law and Technology, moved to Mount Vernon to take advantage of its open access fiber network. It helps when customer service representatives live in your neighborhood:
“We investigate computer malfeasance and have to sift through terabytes of data for a single case,” Mr. Blank...
Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.
The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.
However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.
According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:
S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.
As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.
The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "...Read more
EPB in Chattanooga offers a service to business clients that offers a good reminder that local service providers have to be able to offer a variety of business services because different businesses have vastly different wants and needs. In 2012, the publicly owned utility began offering telephone service with cloud characteristics.
The service saves money by limiting the need of small businesses to commit to capital investment and personnel costs while offering the capabilities that larger firms with larger IT staffs have. A TimesFreePress article on the service from 2012 reported:
"We looked at an average business that had nine sets and eight lines, and it comes to about $320 per month, instead of thousands of dollars in up-front costs," [Katie] Espeseth [EPB's head of product development] said.
When businesses install them on their own, the systems and devices require employees to maintain, at a time when many companies are looking to streamline their IT departments.
"It really takes the burden of installing and maintaining your telephone equipment off your own employees and puts it with our company," said Espeseth. "In Chattanooga, if a small business can take the capital they were going to spend on a new phone system and invest it in their business, it makes sense to spread that cost out over time."
EPB did their homework and now provides a service that small businesses need at affordable rates. Understanding the needs of local businesses and offering a range of options is key to the success of local providers.
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...
Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, a municipal FTTH system owned by the city's electric power board, has dramatically lowered its prices for the gigabit connection and increased all Internet speed tiers.
The slowest connection you can get from EPB Fiber is 100 Mbps symmetrical - and it comes at the same price that most cable tiers start at for much slower connections - $58/month. Want a gig? That is now $70/month. Here is the announcement:
The Washington Post covered the story, including several quotes from me.
DePriest tells me that EPB's fiber network is "a great profit center." In the four years the service has been active, the utility company has increased its mid-tier speeds three times — from 15 Mbps to 30 Mbps, from 30 Mbps to 50 Mbps and now from 50 Mbps to 100 Mbps. About 2,500 elite users will enjoy 1-gig speeds by the beginning of October.
Phil Dampier has more coverage at StoptheCap.com, including an analysis of AT&T and Comcast competition.
AT&T charges $65 a month for 24/3Mbps service — its fastest — with a 250GB monthly usage cap, currently not enforced. For $5 more, EPB customers get 1,000/1,000Mbps with no usage limits or overlimit fees.
A recent article in the Chattanoogan noted that Chattanooga had surpassed 50,000 subscribers and was on path to surpass Comcast in subscriber base locally.
Mr. DePriest said Comcast had some 122,000 customers on the EPB grid when EPB launched its rival program. He said Comcast is down to around 75,000 and will likely drop to around 60,000 next year....
Located in the northeast corner of Tennessee, Morristown Utility Systems (MUS) offers gigabit broadband throughout a region that covers 30,000 residents and businesses. I recently spoke with MUS General Manager and CEO, Jody Wigington, about FiberNET’s progress and he had much to report, starting with over $5 million in cost savings for local businesses, residents, and the local government itself.
Asked about cost savings to Morristown’s city government, Wigington pointed to $840,000 in total savings from a smart meter program - a combination of lower annual power consumption and operational efficiencies. Another $20,000 in annual savings is due to the county not having to pay out-of-town IT contractors to maintain its network because the required expertise can now be found locally thanks to MUS’s dedicated network specialists.
Morristown businesses and residents are also saving, to the tune of $3.4-million annually thanks to FiberNET’s introduction of lower prices in the local broadband market. That’s $3.4-million, every year, which can be spent locally rather than being siphoned out of the community to corporate shareholders.
In terms of revenue, FiberNET generated $8.6-million during the most recent fiscal year and is projected to generate $8.8-million during the current one. FiberNET's solid financials have translated into increases in MUS’s payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the city, which now amount to $350,000 per year, up from $150,000 in 2010. FiberNET’s strong financial performance resulted in MUS becoming cash flow positive just two years after launch, and net income positive after five years. Both of these key milestones were reached significantly quicker than initially projected.
MUS FiberNET’s impact on economic development is also notable. Oddello Industries, a contract furniture manufacturer that relies on FiberNET for its communications, recently announced a $4-million expansion in Morristown, resulting in 228 new jobs. Oddello CEO, Tom Roberts, cited “reliable utilities” among the reasons for investing in Morristown. This growth is part of a larger trend for Oddello, which has grown its Morristown presence from 35 to 415 employees in just the past year.
Another sign of FiberNET’s impact on economic development is the recent decision by Molecular...Read more