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Our "Open Access Networks" Resources Page Now Available

When communities decide to proceed with publicly owned infrastructure, they often aim for open access models. Open access allows more than one service provider to offer services via the same infrastructure. The desire is to increase competition, which will lower prices, improve services, and encourage innovation.

It seems straight forward, but open access can be more complex than one might expect. In addition to varying models, there are special challenges and financing considerations that communities need to consider.

In order to centralize our information on open access, we’ve created the new Open Access Networks resource page. We’ve gathered together some of our best reference material, including links to previous MuniNetworks.org stories, articles from other resources, relevant Community Broadband Bits podcast episodes, case studies, helpful illustrations, and more.

We cover: 

  • Open Access Arrangements
  • Financing Open Access Networks
  • Challenges for Open Access Networks
  • U.S. Open Access Networks
  • Planned Open Access Networks

Check it out and share the link. Bookmark it!

Open Access

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A key problem in improving Internet access has been ensuring residents and local businesses have high quality services. One means of ensuring high quality is via competition – if people can switch away from their Internet Service Provider, the ISP has an incentive to provide better services. However, the high cost of building networks is a barrier new ISPs to enter the market - limiting the number of options for communities. Open access provides a solution: multiple providers sharing the same physical network.

In this resource, you can find information about the different types of open access networks, how they are funded, what they look like in practice, and how many of them are currently operating in the U.S. 

* Open access arrangements
* Financing open access networks
* Challenges for open access networks
* U.S. open access networks 
* Planned open access networks
* Other resources
Read more »

New Braunfels Takes Next Step In Texas

At a recent City Council meeting, New Braunfels council members approved $57,000 in funding for Phase II of a study to explore the feasibility of constructing a city-owned fiber network. The city's Industrial Development Corporation (4B Board), which helps guide the city's economic development initiatives, previously recommended moving on to this next phase of the project. 

Because state laws in Texas prevent municipalities from offering retail telecommunications services, New Braunfels must advance carefully. The city is proceeding with the consultant's recommendation to pursue a public-private partnership (PPP) for the proposed network. With this second phase of the study, the consultant will help the city release a Request for Proposals (RFP) to solicit interest from would-be private Internet Service Providers (ISP) for the city-owned network.

Clarification from Christopher Mitchell: In Texas, the term telecommunications does not include Internet service. Communities cannot offer telephone service but are able to offer Internet only type services.

Some Findings from Phase I of the Feasibility Study

At a February 4B Board meeting, the New Braunfels Assistant City Manager Kristi Aday noted that the proposed network would cost the city somewhere in the range of $3 - $5 million. A major factor in determining the cost of the network, she said, is whether to use underground fiber for the network or to go with an aerial approach, using poles owned by New Braunfels Utilities.

The full feasibility study, presented at a special joint meeting between the City Council and the 4B Board in March, also reports the results of a survey in which 132 businesses in New Braunfels answered questions about their connectivity needs. According to the results of the survey, 78 percent of city businesses get their Internet service from AT&T DSL or coaxial cable Internet access from Time Warner Cable. Because both technologies rely on copper, many local businesses cannot obtain the high-quality Internet access required for daily operations.

Among the companies who responded, a full 81 percent expressed dissatisfaction with the limited speed and unreliability of their current Internet access. Consultants found that while 15 of the 5,600 companies in New Braunfels have paid to deploy fiber connections to their offices, more than 99 percent of the city’s businesses can't afford such an investment.

How Are We Supposed To Work This Way?

It was just a year ago when at the Texas Legislative Conference in New Braunfels, panelists were not able to take questions from remote attendees because the Internet connection at the Civic Convention Center hit a glitch. At the time, discussions of municipal Internet infrastructure had already started and local leaders understood the urgency:

“We have Texans from across the state here ... and we were dead in the water until 10 a.m.,” [Greater New Braunfels Chamber of Commerce President Michael] Meek said. “That just heightens my awareness, and the awareness of others in the city, on why we’re doing this broadband initiative in town.”

He said the problem was with “the major Internet providers, which we continue to have problems with, whether it be the civic center or Wurstfest. Any business in town will tell you the same thing. That’s one of the reasons why the 4B Board and the chamber are jumping on top of this broadband initiative.”

Holland, Michigan Pilot Project Could Lead to More

pilot project in the City of Holland, Michigan is now delivering gigabit speed Internet service via a dark fiber network built by the city more than two decades ago; three commercial buildings are connected. The project, led by the Holland Board of Public Works (HBPW), is the first phase in an effort to develop a municipally owned and operated fiber network.

Holland is home to about 33,500 people and situated on the shores of Lake Michigan. The community is known for its roots in Dutch culture and is a popular summer tourist destination. Windmills and tulips dot the landscape.

Daniel Morrison, the president of a software company in Holland and a member of a local public interest group called Holland Fiber, recognizes that businesses need fast, affordable, reliable connectivity:

“Our whole business is online,” he told the Holland Sentinel newspaper. “We’re working with clients all over the world and we want to be able to work as quickly as possible.”

Morrison’s company is a pilot tester. After the testing program began in January, Morrison Tweeted out a screen grab showing his Internet speeds:

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Pretty darn fast.

Toward a Municipal Network?

Pilot testing is set to last for three months to allow Holland’s Board of Public Works (BPW) to test out network technologies and solicit feedback from testers. All of the pilot testers are getting free fiber Internet service during the testing period.

Holland's BPW plans to apply their findings from the test toward a business plan for a municipal network for the entire service area. They will also use the business plan to support an application to the State of Michigan to become an authorized Internet Service Provider. BPW officials expect state regulators to respond to their application by the fall of 2016.

History of Holland’s Fiber Network

Holland first installed a 17 mile, 48-count fiber optic ring in 1992. It successfully facilitated a “smarter” power grid for the city, improving the reliability of various electrical facilities and equipment. In 2003, the city extended the fiber network to most of the school facilities in the local school districts.

Since the mid-1990s, the BPW has also provided limited wholesale Internet services to a small number of businesses that need high capacity data services. After expansion and extension of the network over the years, Holland now has 76 backbone miles of fiber, more than 150 total route miles, and fiber counts of up to 288 strands.

Envisioning a Better Future

Holland was one of the many cities across the country that tried unsuccessfully to lure Google Fiber to their town in 2010. After that disappointment, BPW released a “Broadband Strategic Plan” in 2011 in which they laid out their objectives for providing improved Internet service in Holland. That plan resulted in a recommendation to invest $58 million in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. The Holland City Council never voted to adopt the plan.

Michigan has restrictions, but those state barriers apply when a community decides to invest in municipal Internet network infrastructure as was the case in Sebewaing. In those cases, a community can only build the network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualifying bids. Holland already has fiber in place.

The pilot project is an important step in developing a municipal fiber network in Holland. With the existing infrastructure already in place, the community can assert local authority over the development of a 21st century utility that will benefit the businesses, government services, and residents in this community for years to come.

Legislation Alert: Washington Considers Community Broadband Bill

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 will spur competition which will drive innovation and improved service.

The analysis recognized the weakness of those arguing that only the private sector should be allowed to build this essential infrastructure:

To be successful private providers need to be able to generate profit for their shareholders. However, when an effective competitive marketplace does not exist, private providers only have a weak incentive to expand access to broadband services. In fact, the scarcity of service justifies the collection of high rates from users. In Washington’s urban areas, the barriers to entry are so high that incumbent providers have little trouble keeping new providers from entering the marketplace. Qwest (soon to be CenturyLink) and Comcast, merely vie for existing users, rather than expanding the overall number of ratepayers. In contrast Washington’s rural areas are characterized by low population density and large geographical distances between communities. The lack of concentrated business consumers in a given area translates into weak or non-existent business case for providers to build broadband infrastructure in rural areas. Arguably, rural areas are poised to reap the biggest rewards from broadband expansion, quickly integrating communities into existing networks of private and public service.

Chelan PUD

Not all public utility districts are pushing for this law to be changed. I asked the Chelan Public Utility District (one of the oldest and largest public services providers in the state, which we have previously covered here) about their position on the legislation. Chelan is not interested in offering retail services but does not oppose changes that would allow other PUDs to do so. They rightly oppose any law that would require PUDs to offer retail services -- something with which we strongly agree. State legislatures should not be telling communities what business model they have to use.

Getting back to HB 1711, it is presently in the Technology, Energy, and Communications Committee. The bill's author, Representative John McCoy has taken the arguments of opponents into account by limiting the impacted public utility districts to those in a county with 300,000 people or fewer. To build a network and offer retail services, a public utility district (or rural port district) would have to gain the approval of its governing board after a public meeting and be subject to state regulation for the services it offers.

The original bill also granted the authority to municipalities to build retail networks -- a right that munis appear to have presently but it is not clear (inviting expensive litigation from big anti-competitive providers). That provision has been removed from the present bill.

Opposition

The bill's opponents may be separated into two groups. The first is the usual gang of big, absentee corporations like CenturyLink, Frontier, and Comcast that typically oppose any legislation that could create competition to their services. They have a ton of lobbying power and very little desire or capacity to solve the rural broadband problem in Washington state.

The second group is more interesting. It is a collection of local businesses that are actually rooted in the community. Many are ISPs that operate on existing wholesale-only networks owned by public utility districts. They are afraid of either being kicked off the network or having to compete against the PUD itself in provisioning services. These are certainly legitimate fears.

Unfortunately, the small providers are also limited in the capacity to build the necessary networks needed to bring modern connections to everyone in the state. Offering service on an existing PUD network requires far less capital than building their own network. If the state wants to move toward a Washington where all residents and businesses have fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet, it has to risk upsetting the small ISPs. They do not have the capacity to connect rural Washington; the public utility districts and local governments have not just the capacity, but also the responsibility. It is time for the state to stop making it all but impossible for them to do so.

Get Involved

Local communities must have the freedom to build the networks they need without interference from federal or state capitals. Quoting from the Federal Communication Commissions' National Broadband Plan: "Congress should make it clear that Tribal, state, regional, and local governments can build broadband networks."

This bill will not succeed without a grassroots effort. People in Washington should contact their representatives (you can find them here), particularly those on the Committee:

make-the-call.jpg

Representative Room Phone
McCoy, John (D) Chair LEG 132A (360) 786-7864
Eddy, Deb (D) Vice Chair LEG 132D (360) 786-7848
Crouse, Larry (R) * LEG 425A (360) 786-7820
Short, Shelly (R) ** JLOB 436 (360) 786-7908
Anderson, Glenn (R) LEG 122A (360) 786-7876
Billig, Andy (D) LEG 122H (360) 786-7888
Carlyle, Reuven (D) JLOB 325 (360) 786-7814
Dahlquist, Cathy (R) JLOB 426 (360) 786-7846
Haler, Larry (R) LEG 122D (360) 786-7986
Harris, Paul (R) JLOB 427 (360) 786-7976
Hasegawa, Bob (D) JLOB 322 (360) 786-7862
Hudgins, Zack (D) LEG 438A (360) 786-7956
Kelley, Troy (D) JLOB 334 (360) 786-7890
Kristiansen, Dan (R) LEG 427A (360) 786-7967
Liias, Marko (D) JLOB 414 (360) 786-7972
McCune, Jim (R) JLOB 405 (360) 786-7824
Morris, Jeff (D) LEG 436A (360) 786-7970
Nealey, Terry (R) JLOB 404 (360) 786-7828
Wylie, Sharon (D) JLOB 417 (360) 786-7924

Former FCC Commissioner Copps recently said, "So it is regrettable that some states are considering, and even passing, legislation that could hinder local solutions to bring the benefits of broadband to their communities. It's exactly the wrong way to go."

Washington is smart to expand local authority in this matter. Local citizens are the best judge of whether a network is necessary and desirable as well as the most responsible business model.

Provo to Write off Some Debt of Struggling iProvo Network

Provo built a city owned FTTH network after its public power utility started connecting its substations with fiber-optic cables in the early 2000's. iProvo ultimately developed along similar open access lines as UTOPIA, but unlike UTOPIA, Provo did not actually want to operate on a purely wholesale model.

iProvo was forced into the wholesale-only model, where the publicly owned network offered wholesale services to independent ISPs that then resold service to residents and businesses. Comcast and Qwest (now CenturyLink) recognized the threat posed by municipalities building next generation networks -- particularly in communities that did not even have full DSL and cable coverage from the giant providers that long delayed upgrades, knowing that subscribers had no other options.

Comcast and Qwest went to the state legislature and did what they do best -- bought influence and pushed through laws to essentially prohibit publicly owned networks from offering direct retail services, knowing that the wholesale-only approach had proved a very difficult model to work financially.

UTOPIA had long had a vision of making the open access, wholesale-only model work (that proceeded to largely fail, for a variety of reasons -- only to start turning around in recent years) but Provo, with its public power utility, was denied its preferred model of offering services directly.

iProvo was built at a cost of $40 million and has operated in the red since, though a number of postive externalities from the network was not included in those calculations. For instance, City Departments had access to much higher capacity connections than were available previously and were not charged for them (a poor practice in our estimation). For more details on iProvo, I recommend a video of a discussion in 2011.

At any rate, iProvo was then sortof sold off to a private provider (sort of because the city is still on the hook for the debt) in large part because private providers are not as crippled by state law. Unfortunately, the network has already developed a bad reputation for many (thanks to the state law preventing Provo from being able to ensure a good subscriber experience).

And now Provo is poised to write off $5.4 million debt, one of the worst case scenarios in community networks. Electicity ratepayers will shoulder the burden:

The new "Telecom Debt Charge" is set to run 15 years — until the iProvo bond is repaid — and costs homeowners $5.35 per month and commercial customers $10 per month plus 2.3 percent of their electricity bill.

This is not a done deal - the City Council will decide the matter on January 17, so the citizens still have an opportunity to raise their voices on the matter.

The history of iProvo suggests a few things.

  1. State laws that cripple local authority to build essential infrastructure are poor public policy. Unfortunately, it is great policy for a few giant companies that use their lobbying power to restrict competition any way they can.
  2. Even with its advantages (not being crippled by state law), a private provider could do no better than the public provider. Surveying community networks nationally, which are often built it the areas hardest to serve with broadband, community networks have a better track record than the big privately owned cable and phone networks.