Tag: "muni"

Posted December 20, 2010 by christopher

While the bad news about Burlington Telecom (BT) has traveled far and wide, it has been marked with errors, misinformation, and inaccurate comparisons to other projects. MuniNetworks.org will weigh in on this issue with a series of posts to explain what happened, what did not happen, and what lessons we can learn from it.

But today, we are publishing a commentary from Tim Nulty, the General Manager who started BT and is now working with the folks in East Central Vermont to build a rural FTTH network. In this commentary he discusses his experiences with Burlington Telecom and what lessons it has for the EC Fiber project. In short, they differ in important ways.

Business Plans of Burlington Telecom and ECFiber

Numerous loose allegations have recently appeared in the press regarding the business plans of Burlington Telecom and ECFiber. DPS Commissioner David O’Brien and John Briggs of the Burlington Free Press are examples but others have also chimed in. These statements are inaccurate, misinformed and unfounded. Since they affect organizations that are important to thousands of Vermonters they need to be corrected.

BT’s business plan was based on those of similar Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks already running and successful at the time…including Reedsburg, WI; Bristol, VA, Kutztown, PA; Dalton, GA and Winona, Minn. Experts from these projects were consulted in developing BT’s plan. Several came to Burlington to assist with and vet BT’s planning and BT staff visited them to in turn. All of these networks were built in towns, which like Burlington, had established broadband incumbents already in place so their experience was highly relevant. By their fifth year all these networks had achieved penetration rates over 55% and most over 65%. A study by survey firm RVA, in 2007 and updated in 2009 identified 57 municipal FTTH networks operating in the USA and calculated that the average penetration, including new start-ups, was 54%. BT’s business plan was constructed so that it would become profitable with 4800 - 5000 customers of the 19,500 potential—a more conservative take rate than comparable networks had actually achieved in practice. This provided BT with a substantial “safety cushion”.

All capital-intensive investments-- power stations, airports, steel mills--take some time to become profitable. This is also true of telecoms. Criticizing any FTTH network (...

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Posted December 17, 2010 by christopher

Vermont's Department of Public Service has released its audit of Burlington Telecom. The audit is highly flawed and a disappointment in terms of actually illuminating what went wrong with Burlington.

We have been awaiting this audit in the hopes that it would actually explain how the network could have gone into such great debt so quickly. The few answers provided from this audit are entirely unsatisfactory, due in large part to its overall sloppiness. We will soon put up a more substantial post about Burlington and lessons learned, but we wanted to post this information now as readers are undoubtedly wondering.

The audit should be read by any community running or considering a network because it describes a number of bad practices that should not be duplicated. That said, it isn't yet clear how accurate the audit is (they did not even attempt to interview key people), as explained by Tim Nulty in his response to it (linked below). Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the audit simply did not explain where the money went. Steve Ross examined this question more than a year ago, but we appear no closer to an answer. A longer explanation on this, next week.

Finally, Andrew Cohill's thoughts about lessons learned from BT is well worth a read as well. Regardless of whether BT really did make all those errors, Cohill's post should serve as an educational item to any community considering such an important investment.

Posted December 17, 2010 by christopher

Jim Baller offers a good national overview of community broadband networks in a 7 minute interview on TelecomTV. In it, Baller reads a list of the claims from private electrical companies when they claimed municipal ownership was a delusion, 100 years ago.

This video is no longer available.

Posted December 11, 2010 by christopher

Another community in Florida is considering a community broadband network as a solution to its need for faster, more reliable broadband than incumbents offer.

The City formed a commission and created a white paper discussing the problem and potential solutions (referencing the success of Chattanooga and Lafayette). It recognizes broadband as a key infrastructure.

The report lays out a range of options for the city: from doing nothing and letting the market determine Sarasota's broadband future; to partnering with a private entity in building a network that would increase speeds; to tapping a public project already in the works that could create a powerful Internet backbone between Manatee and Sarasota counties.

We recently reported on another community, Dunnellon, that is building a community fiber network. Unfortunately, these communities have to deal with unnecessary barriers created by the Florida Legislature as they invest in the future of their community.

Photo used under Creative Commons License, courtesy of 83d40m

Posted December 9, 2010 by christopher

This is a good 5 minute interview discussing what Wilson has done to build the first citywide FTTH network in North Carolina. Greenlight has a business customer taking 1Gbps -- something that would undoubtedly have been totally cost-prohibitive (and possibly just unavailable) if the City had not made its broadband infrastructure investment.

Toward the end, Brian Bowman is asked if he recommends all communities build a similar network. His answer is very wise: all communities should have the right to do it and they should decide for themselves based on their situation. That is our position as well.

This video is no longer available.

Posted December 7, 2010 by christopher

The AP says Burlington Telecom may be a cautionary tale for cities around the the country that contemplate building their own networks.

It is fascinating that this article appears now, as we wait for the audit of Burlington to be published, where we hope to finally discover exactly what went wrong in the network. The Mayor used to allege that Tim Nulty (General Manager who built it) left it in ruin when he resigned.

However, it looked good (not great, but good) at that point. And after the transition, the Mayor's Administration ceased Nulty's policies of transparency, so we would have to take their word for it rather than any proof. For instance, BT ceased to work with citizen oversight committees. This is the same Administration that hid supposed transfers to the network from the City Council and the people.

The very fact that such secrecy was possible is troubling. These networks are intended to behave somewhat transparently and should be independently audited to ensure problems (which may be corrected when found) are not hidden for political reasons. Burlington had a unique structure that allowed the Mayor too much opaque control over the network - something rarely found in the structure of most community networks. (Some things, such as prices paid for content, should remain secret for competitive reasons, but that should not allow the Mayor to hide key metrics regarding the health of the network.)

There are reasons to believe the Mayor improperly accounted money to BT, which is why we await an audit from the state that we hope will clear up exactly how Burlington Telecom went from being a good example to the worst example of public ownership (something paid shills from telco and cableco groups critics love to point out).

Author Dave Gram has an odd passage regarding this situation:

In September 2009, BT notified the Vermont Public Service Board that it had used $17 million in city funds in violation of its state license. State officials have been mum about the details of their investigation, and an FBI spokesman, through an assistant, would not confirm or deny a Burlington Free Press report that that agency had stepped in. It's widely believed that apparent license...

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Posted November 24, 2010 by christopher

David Isenberg, of isen.blog, has published a short history of Reedsburg's community fiber network that he previously wrote for the FCC when they were gathering evidence of successful networks they would later ignore in formulating a plan to continue the failed status quo of hoping private companies will build and operate the infrastructure we need.

Nonetheless, one cannot say that smart people like David did not try to help the FCC overcome its obsession with national carriers who dominate the conversations, and whose employees often work periodically with the FCC in what we call the revolving door (which itself, is a reason the FCC has been captured).

Back to Reedsburg; it is a small community approximately 55 miles northwest of Madison that just happens to have far better broadband service than just about anywhere else in Wisconsin.

David writes,

RUC first entered the telecommunications business in 1998, when it constructed a ring to tie its wells, its five electrical substations together and to provide Internet access for its high school, middle school and its school administration building. In planning the ring, the city asked Verizon and Charter if they would build it, but they were not responsive. RUS built a partly aerial, partly buried 7-mile ring of 96-strand fiber at a cost of about $850,000. Internet access was provided by Genuine Telephone, a tiny subsidiary of LaValle Telephone Cooperative which ran a fiber from LaValle, about 8 miles NW of Reedsburg.

As they were building the ring, local businesses asked to be connected as well. Reedsburg took the path that so many communities have followed, start by building for yourself and expand opportunistically. Of course, this requires that you originally engineer the network so it can be later expanded, which is good practice regardless of your future plans.

Reedsburg used bond anticipation notes, a financial mechanism that few others have used in building similar networks.

A local bank loaned the initial $5 million in bond anticipation notes for planning and construction. Then RUC issued an...

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Posted November 23, 2010 by christopher

For years, the North Carolina General Assembly has considered bills pushed by cable lobbyists to ban community networks. A new analysis from the folks at MuniNetworks.org shows that community fiber networks offer the most advanced services in the state -- faster speeds at lower prices. Preempting these community networks would cripple North Carolina's ability to compete in the digital future.

Read the Report [pdf]
Read the Press Release

Following on the heels of similar findings for Minnesota, smaller towns in North Carolina that have built community owned fiber networks offer far superior services to those found in the metro area around Charlotte and the famous Research Triangle.

The two community fiber networks are Wilson's Greenlight and Salisbury's Fibrant. We have written frequently about both - Fibrant coverage and Greenlight coverage.

A chart and explanation from the report:

NC BB Price chart

Comparing the tiers of residential service from Wilson or Salisbury against the providers in the Raleigh area (figure 4), shows that the communities have invested in a network that offers far faster speeds for less money than any of the private providers (Greenlight offers more packages than depicted as only unbundled options are displayed). Whether communities in North Carolina are competing against other states or internationally for jobs and quality of life, they are smart to consider investing in a community fiber network.

This chart actually uses the new FCC definition for “basic broadband,” which is 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. The packages that are plotted below and to the left of the origin are no longer technically broadband. Notice how many of the plans offered by private providers barely qualify as broadband. In fact, as neither AT&T nor Time Warner Cable offer upstreams of at least 1Mbps in Raleigh, their...

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Posted November 18, 2010 by christopher

Yet another town has decided to take responsibility for their broadband future: a small Florida community has secured financing and is moving forward with their publicly owned FTTH network.

The City Council voted unanimously Monday night to approve the $7.3 million in funding with Regions Bank in Orlando. City Manager Lisa Algiere told the council members the city would be doing most of its business with the local Regions Bank.

The funding will come in the form of three bonds: a series 2010A Bond, which is good for 20 years and has an interest rate of 3.61 percent; the second bond is a Series 2010B Bond and is for five years with an annual interest rate of 3.20 percent; while the third bond is a Series 2010C Bond and is good for one year. The funding secured by the city is a drawdown loan, meaning it will only take what it needs and only repay that portion.

The network has been branded Greenlight (though the website is not yet fully functional). Greenlight is also the name used by the Community Fiber Network in Wilson, North Carolina.

Light Reading interviewed a network employee, shedding more details than have been released elsewhere.

He says they are passing 7,000 premises, but Wikipedia only notes a population of 2,000 in 2004, so there is more than meets the eye at first glance. They financed the network without using general obligation bonds, working with a nearby bank (Regions is a big bank, headquartered out of state).

Local competitors are AT&T and Comcast, though both offer extremely slow services; the fastest downstream speed available from Comcast is 6Mbps. The new network, as do nearly all recent community fiber networks, will offer much faster connections, the slowest being 10Mbps.

This is a good sign that communities in Florida can still move forward despite the many...

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Posted November 9, 2010 by christopher

As we wrote last week, Salisbury's Fibrant -- the newest community fiber network in the country -- launched last week and immediately saw Time Warner Cable respond with an upgrade to its cable plant that allowed it start advertising even faster speeds - a 50/5 tier of broadband (whether they actually deliver that to anyone, I doubt and will wait to see).

Fibrant was "only" advertising (and delivering) 15/15 and 25/25 speeds, so some suggested that TWC had taken the top honors away... though for people who know much about telecom technology, most of us will gladly take a 25/25 on fiber-optics over a supposed 50/5 on an old, unreliable coax network.

Nonetheless, Fibrant didn't break a sweat, and announced that they were already offering a 50/50 plan though they did not advertise it. I'm not sure why it was not advertised -- though if the reason was to hold a trump card ready in response to TWC's gimmicks, it was a smart move. And Fibrant's 50/50 plan at $85 is cheaper than TWC's 50/5 plan.

Though community fiber networks consistently offer better experiences and lower costs, the big incumbent providers are well versed in gimmicks -- communities must keep that in mind as they plan their own networks. This may mean creating higher tiers of service that many only interest a select few, if that, to remind the populace of the technical superiority of the public network.

Salisbury has since announced that both 100/100 and 200/200 plans are in the works from their network. A 200/200 will be the fastest plan in North Carolina -- though one wonders how the results of the election will impact the future of community fiber networks in the state. Unable to beat community fiber networks in the market, TWC has repeatedly pushed for crippling laws against communities that would dare create competition against TWC. After the 2010 election, North Carolina has a more conservative state government that may find TWC's lobbying more persuasive.

In the meantime, TWC is yet again increasing rates to subscribers, as noted by Stop the Cap!. We'll see if Fibrant is able to shield the community from future rate increases as...

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