Austin, Minnesota Releases Fiber Network Feasibility Study Results

Austin has been thinking about getting a gig for a while now. The city of 25,000 near Minnesota’s southern border had campaigned to be picked for the initial Google Fiber deployment, but was disappointed when Google selected Kansas City instead in 2011. As with some other cities around the country, however, the high profile Google competition got Austin thinking about the benefits of a gigabit fiber network, and how they might bring it to their residents. Last month, a committee tasked with bringing such a network to every premises in Austin released a feasibility study they commissioned, with generally favorable results.    

The study recommended further exploration of a universal fiber optic network, but found the idea to be generally feasible. The cost of such a network was estimated at $35 million, and would cover the entire footprint of the Austin Public School District, which extends to rural addresses well beyond the city limits. The study recommended universal fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for many of the same reasons we’ve been talking about it for years: its nearly unlimited data capacity and speed, future-proof and damage-resistant properties, and reliability.  

The study was commissioned by the Community Wide Technology committee of the Vision2020 campaign, a broader planning movement to revitalize the greater Austin area. The Technology committee has since launched the GigAustin website and campaign to advocate for a FTTP network.

The GigAustin team has representation from the Austin Public School District, the city public power utility, private companies and foundations, and other potential anchor institutions. Hormel, the food products giant headquartered in Austin (and the people who brought you the SPAM Museum), is a major employer in the area and their presence on the GigAustin team and support of the feasibility study is notable.   

This is no slam dunk, however. The study did not recommend a specific funding source, and there appears to be little appetite for significant public expenditure

Committee members say the project could be funded in large part by state and federal grants and don’t currently plan to seek local tax dollars to pay for Gig Austin.

...The FCC set $100 million aside for broadband projects on July 11. In addition, Minnesota created the Office of Broadband Development in 2013 and budgeted $20 million to it earlier this year.

Securing grant funding from outside sources is nice, but not always possible - particularly when much of the community already has DSL and cable available. Given that the Austin network alone is projected to cost $35 million, it is easy to see how quickly $20 million or even $100 million could dry up on a statewide or federal scale. There are also hopes in Austin for securing grants from private nonprofits, which also seems like a long shot to make a significant dent in project costs. It is worth noting, however, that the funding for the feasibility study itself came from private sources: the Blandin Foundation, Hormel Foundation, and Ag Star Financial. 

There also does not appear to be any consensus yet on an ownership model, with both public and private options on the table. The public power utility, while participating in the GigAustin campaign, does not appear interested in ownership:

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur said the company will likely partner with Vision 2020 and may contribute dollars to Gig Austin, but the utilities board may decide not to operate the fiber network.

“I don’t think there’s any interest in ownership,” he said.

While leaving the governance and ownership structures as an open question, the study did note that private providers were unlikely to build such a FTTP network any time in the foreseeable future (a finding that will surprise exactly no one). 

The next step in the process is a survey of Austin area residents to determine the level of interest in ultra high speed connectivity. The feasibility study estimated a take rate of 40-50% would be necessary for the network to be sustainable. The survey got under way in July, and should be completed in August or September.

Rural Broadband Funding Webinar

The FCC has made a $100 million fund available to organizations seeking to bring advanced telecommunications to rural America. The National Rural Assembly is hosting a national webinar to explain the criteria and application process. If you or your organization have a stake in expanding broadband in rural areas, you may want to consider this resource. From National Rural Assembly's Broadband Working Group press release:

Recently, the Federal Communications Commission launched the Rural Broadband Experiments - a $100 million funding initiative seeking  proposals that bring advanced telecommunications services to Rural America. Deadline to apply is October 12th 2014. For the first time, cooperatives, municipalities, nonprofits, anchor institutions, and Tribal governments will be able to access federal funding to bring broadband service to rural areas. This is a historic opportunity for entities committed to rural communities. 

On Thursday, August 28th at 1:00pm Eastern, join the Rural Broadband Policy Group and the National Rural Assembly on a webinar featuring Jonathan Chambers from the Office of Strategic Policy and Analysis and Carol Mattey from the Wireline Competition Bureau, to learn about the rules and process to apply for the Rural Broadband Experiments. 

You can sign up for the webinar here.

ILSR Co-Signs FCC Comment Endorsing More Open Spectrum

The Institute for Local Self Reliance has joined with Public Knowledge, Common Cause, and the Open Technology Institute, in submitting reply comments to the FCC last week as the Public Interest Spectrum Coalition (PISC). The issue at hand is the FCC’s proposal of new rules for how to govern the 3.5 GHz band, a range of the electromagnetic spectrum useful for many different types of communication. 

The PISC comment focused on the importance of getting away from the long-standing FCC policy of simply auctioning off big slices of spectrum for telecom companies to use exclusively, which inhibits innovation and enables a monopolization of the communications marketplace. Verizon and AT&T, who hold licenses to large swathes of the spectrum already, are lobbying to FCC to keep the status quo in place. PISC (and ILSR) support a more open arrangement, allowing multiple users to share the same underutilized spectrum segment, while still avoiding interference. The full text of the comment is available here. 

The language and policy of spectrum management can seem arcane to people unaccustomed to it, but how we regulate and use the electromagnetic spectrum has wide ranging consequences for almost all the technology we use in our daily lives. For a general primer on the importance and possibilities of a more open spectrum licensing policy, see the wireless commons articles we published earlier this summer.

You can view the full text of the PISC comment through the link below.

Muni Fiber in Rural Massachusetts - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 113

Though much of western Massachusetts has poor access to the Internet, the town of Leverett is in the midst of fiber build that will offer a gigabit to anyone who wants it. Peter d'Errico, on the town Select Board, has been part of the project from the start and Chairs the Broadband Committee. He joins us for Episode 113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

He and I discuss the great need for the project and inaccurate broadband maps that overstate availablility in the region. We discuss the role of the "municipal light plant" law that gave them the necessary authority to invest in the fiber.

But more interestingly, we talk about how they have structured the financing and prices for subscribers. The network will be repaid both with the revenues from subscribers and a modest bump in the property tax. The kicker is that many households will see their taxes increase a little but the amount they spend on telecom will decrease substantially, resulting in more money in their pockets each month.

We have written about Leverett often over the years, the archive is here. Read the Leverett FAQ here.

You can read a transcript of this discussion here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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 18 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.

Thanks to Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - Week of August 22

As we move closer to a FCC decision to restore local authority, more lawmakers are coming out to back Wheeler’s comments on using Section 706 authority. This week Senator Markey and Representative Mike Doyle of Pennsylvania issued a statement calling on Wheeler to take action. 

Wheeler will need that kind of support to remove state laws that restrict competition, as John Brodkin writes in his Ars Technica article. Matthew Berry, the chief of staff to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, spoke at the National Conference of State Legislatures, an organization that already announced it would sue if Wheeler allowed the FCC to step in and overturn state laws:

“In short, under our constitutional framework, states are free to grant or take away powers from municipalities as they see fit. So the basic concept is this: city governments are appendages of state government, but state governments most definitely are not appendages of the national government."

Multichannel’s John Eggerton also warned that those opposed to preemption think the FCC is overstepping its authority: 

“Section 706 does not come close to containing the necessary clear statement that Congress intended to authorize the FCC to preempt state restrictions on municipal broadband projects." 

But others (thankfully) disagree.

Kate Cox at The Consumerist summed up the preemption letter call-and-response between lawmakers and Wheeler:

"In his letter, the chairman agreed that, the state laws against municipal broadband “have the effect of limiting competition in those areas, contrary to almost two decades of bipartisan federal communications policy that is focused on encouraging competition.”

 Motherboard’s Sam Gustin followed the most recent letter as well:

He [Wheeler] also reiterated his earlier stance on pre-emption, saying, “I respect the important role of state governments in our federal system, but I know that state laws that directly conflict with critical federal laws and policy may be subject to preemption in appropriate circumstances,” though he diplomatically added, “I recognize that federal preemption is not a step to be taken lightly without a careful consideration of all relevant legal and policy issues.”

FCC Public Comments Round Up

The Electronic Comment Filing System (ECFS) on the FCC website has been working overtime in the last few months, so we decided this would be a good time to “Roundup” the various petitions that are open for comment regarding Internet rules, give a brief rundown of the timeline, and let you know how you can make your voice heard. There are a couple of key deadlines this week, so make sure to get your comments in! Below is a quick summary of some of the petitions and filings you should be aware of, their deadlines, and next steps.

Net Neutrality (14-28)

After extending the deadline for Initial Comments on Net Neutrality, the FCC received more than a million comments asking them to preserve the open Internet. ILSR submitted its petition July 18, focusing on the issue of paid prioritization, reclassification, and regulation of content. The FCC also extended the deadline for reply comments to September 15.

The commission is expected to establish net neutrality rules by the end of 2014.

Local Authority on Municipal Networks

Wilson, North Carolina (14-115) and Chattanooga, TN (14-116) filed petitions with the FCC July 24th asking them to remove restrictions on their ability to expand and offer services to nearby communities. On July 28th, the FCC opened a public comment calendar for the request.

ILSR stands firm in its support of these communities, and others that have built their own networks. We are not alone. The US Conference of Mayors, several communities, the American Public Power Association, a coalition from the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, the National League of Cities, and the National Association of Counties all joined together to publicly support restoring local authority to communities targeted by state laws to prevent competition.

Initial comments are due August 29th, Reply Comments are due September 29th.

Comcast/Time Warner Cable Merger

Comcast announced it would by Time Warner Cable Inc. in March. The merger (14-57) would give one company enormous power over our nation’s media and communications infrastructure.  ILSR signed on to a letter to Chairman Wheeler in April.

You must file your complaint by Monday, August 25 to be considered. Responses to comments are due September 23rd. Replies to those responses are due October 8.

AT&T/DirecTV Merger (14-90)

AT&T and DirecTV announced their intentions to merge in May. The FCC opened proceeding 14-90 June 11. Although some organizations, including ILSR have asked for an extension for comments, the current deadline for petitions is Sept. 16. Replies can be filed until October 16, and responses to those are due by November 5. 

Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress

And finally, the FCC opened a Notice of Inquiry on Broadband Progress August 5. The Inquiry (14-126)  kicks off the FCC’s tenth “State of the Internet” report, in which they examine whether “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” 

The deadline for the inquiry is September 4, the reply comment deadline is September 19. 

Department of Delusion: Comcast Takes Credit for Google Fiber, Unicorns, and Kittens

In what can only be assumed as a fit of insanity or confusion, several dozen US Mayors came out Friday with a letter to Chairman Wheeler, praising Comcast and demanding that the cable monopoly be allowed to take over Time Warner Cable. Given that Comcast and Time Warner Cable are among the most hated corporations in America, perhaps these math wiz mayors think two negatives will produce a postive?

In light of all the evidence against Comcast’s track record for customer service, its glacial pace at upgrading Internet access, and its false promises for investment, we find the letter absurd, at best. But then it contains this gem:

Since the Comcast Time Warner Cable transaction was proposed, Google has announced plans to expand its high-speed Fiber service to 34 new communities. 

Wow! Comcast wants to take credit for Google's investment in fiber networks? An investment by Google that is only necessary because the big cable companies have refused to meet the growing demand of our communities with better services?

This got us thinking, what else can Comcast take credit for since it announced the merger?

  • Since Comcast announced the merger, the Large Hadron Collider has not created a black hole large enough to destroy the Earth. #thankyouComcast
  • Since Comcast announced the merger, millions of kittens have been adopted #thankyouComcast
  • Since Comcast announced the merger, we have a potential Ebola vaccine #thankyouComcast
  • Since Comcast announced the merger, Bruce Willis has not had to blow up an asteroid to save our planet. #thankyouComcast

Check out our #ThankYouComcast hashtags on Twitter, Retweet them, add your own, and share with friends, family, and all your local officials. And if you’re living in one of the cities where your mayor sold you out for Comcast’s bottom line, make sure they know just how ludicrous their letter is, they’re clearly very out-of-touch with their constituencies.

Read the full letter here. And please, take a minute to file comments with the FCC on this merger. Due by Monday afternoon, August 25th.

#ThankYouComcast 

Rockport Builds Maine’s First Municipal Network

Rockport, a coastal town of just 3,300, became a statewide leader last month by launching Maine’s first municipal broadband network. Offering symmetrical gigabit speeds to businesses and residents, Rockport’s network is a carrier-neutral dark fiber system, with local private provider GWI offering retail services. 

The reach of the network is limited, as it consists of only 1.2 miles of fiber. While only about 70 homes and businesses currently have the option to purchase a connection, GWI offers symmetrical gigabit per second internet access for just $69 per month and the city has left the option open to expand the network in the future.

As noted in a Bloomberg View article on the network, it massively outpaces the only broadband competitor in Rockport, Time Warner Cable. Time Warner also offers a $70 service package, but its download speeds are 20 times slower and its upload speeds 200 times slower.  

The network was the product of a partnership between the town board, GWI, the University of Maine system, and Maine Media Workshops + College. Maine Media is a nonprofit college with 1,500 students learning photography, videography, and other digital media skills, and has a large economic footprint in such a small town.

Students’ coursework requires the storing and sharing of massive files, something that was previously difficult or impossible to accomplish given limited network capacity. Town officials are hoping that the new network will not only allow students to learn more easily, but enable them and others to establish small businesses in town.    

U.S. Senator Angus King, a vocal champion of broadband access, was among the officials on hand last week for the official unveiling ceremony. Speaking to the need for greater internet access, Senator King stated:

“In my opinion it’s exactly like water, it’s exactly like electricity, it is a public utility that is necessary in order for our economy and our country to flourish…We want to work where we live, rather than live where we work."

The total cost of the project is estimated at $60,000, half of which came from the University of Maine’s Networkmaine program and half of which came from the Town of Rockport. Interestingly, the town’s contribution came from tax increment financing (TIF), and required town voters to approve two measures to rewrite the local TIF statute and allow funds to be used for fiber optic investments.

Despite this encouraging sign in Rockport, a recent report from a Montana-based research firm ranked Maine 49th out of the 50 states in broadband availability and speed. Hopefully other Maine communities will be inspired by Rockport to look at their own broadband landscape and have a conversation about how they can expand internet access. 

Local TV covered the network unveiling. For those interested in the bigger picture, a piece from Engine.is, a technology research and advocacy group based in San Francisco, looks at Rockport’s network in the context of the larger nationwide need for fiber infrastructure and broadband competition. 

Syracuse Mayor Calls for Community Broadband

Syracuse, a city long frustrated by its lack of broadband options and in thrall to a monopolistic cable incumbent Time Warner Cable, is facing an even bleaker future. Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable would shift Syracuse residents who need broadband from one of the two most hated companies in America to the other, while of course also ensuring that the combined company is even larger and more influential. Verizon gave up plans to compete in the Syracuse market several years ago when it ceased expanding FiOS

Fortunately for Syracusans, mayor Stephanie Miner doesn’t appear to be taking all this lying down. A Post-Standard article from Monday reports the mayor is considering plans for a city-owned fiber optic system that could bring gigabit connectivity to the area:

“I’m putting together a plan that we can do it ourselves, as a community,”

Syracuse has had rumblings of interest in municipal broadband for years, including a citizens group called the Syracuse Community Broadband Initiative that advocated and educated locals on the topic. Now, with mayor Miner’s comments, it appears the idea is again gaining traction. 

Miner’s plan seems to be in its very early stages, with little in the way of specifics yet:

"Would we have to do that in phases? What would that look like? How would we pay for it? What would the model be? Those are all things that we are currently looking at, '' Miner said.

Stop the Cap has a take on the issue as well. We hope to hear more details in the future as mayor Miner develops her plan. 

Revisiting the Blackburn Amendment Debates

REMINDER - Today is the last day to file comments in the opening round of the FCC petitions of Wilson and Chattanooga. Information on how to file here.

Last month, we covered the progress of U.S. Representative Marsha Blackburn’s amendment to strip the FCC of its authority to restore local decision-making as its budget wormed its way through committee and into a larger appropriations bill. Her quest to keep state bans and restrictions on community networks in place (including in her home state of Tennessee, where Chattanooga EPB has filed a petition to start serving neighbors in need) is impressive for its boldness, if not its logical consistency. Impervious to many observers and commenters who noted her extensive financial support from incumbent telcos, she succeeded in passing the amendment on the House floor by a vote of 223-200.

The points raised by Representative Blackburn on the House floor in support of her amendment deserve some attention, as does the rebuttal offered by Representative Jose Serrano of New York’s 15 district, who rose against the amendment and in defense of the right of local communities to decide for themselves how to meet their broadband needs. Few of Blackburn’s arguments will surprise regular observers of the telco incumbent playbook, but there are some highlights that deserve special focus.

Rep. Blackburn based nearly her entire argument against FCC preemption on the idea that states are closer to the people than Washington, and that the FCC shouldn’t tell the local folks what to do:

“[Chairman Wheeler] wrongly assumes that Washington knows best, and forgets that the right answer doesn’t always come from the top down.”

“...Twenty states across this country have held public debates and enacted laws that limit municipal broadband to varying degrees. These state legislatures and governors have not only listened but have responded to the voices of their constituents. They are closer to the people than the Chairman of the FCC.  They are accountable to their voters.”

“...State governments across the country understand, and are more attentive to the needs of the American people than unelected federal bureaucrats in Washington.”

We could not agree more, Rep. Blackburn: the right answer does not always come from the top down. Which is exactly why state legislators and incumbent lobbyists should get out of the way and allow local communities to find their own answer for affordable broadband access. In his time on the floor, Rep. Serrano raised this point as well:

"Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. 

[Blackburn’s] amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leader to determine if their broadband needs are being met."

Representative Blackburn also raised the specter of the “failed” UTOPIA network, and charged that the FCC would somehow force all states to do something similar:

“For example, look at the failed UTOPIA project, that has created massive disruption and is challenging taxpayers… That doesn't sound like a model the federal government needs to force against the wishes of state elected officials” 

No one is “forcing” any kind of municipal broadband model on any community; under preemption each community would simply be free to choose for itself. The unfortunate state legislators who may potentially see the federal government go “against their wishes” are in fact forcing a cable and telecom monopoly model on local communities. 

Rep. Serrano noted the example of Chattanooga EPB, where gigabit connections can be had by anyone for $70 per month from the municipal utility and potential customers are clamoring for service but are blocked by state law. He also rooted out the red herring of “forcing” a given model on anyone: 

“Preemption will not force anyone to do anything that the municipalities alone don’t want to do. This is not about forcing states to do anything, but instead stopping states from choking grassroots competition and stopping states from blocking faster networks or new networks where none exist.

“Broadband is something that we need to expand... It should be available everywhere, and it should be available in every possible place - rural, suburban, inner city, in homes, in schools. 

We have to build the infrastructure to make that happen.” 

Rep. Serrano also submitted several letters into the Congressional Record in support of FCC preemption, including those submittted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors and the Coalition for Local Internet Choice.

As important as it is to name and shame the politicians (such as Rep. Blackburn) who act on behalf of their corporate sponsors to undermine local communities, it is equally important to give credit where it is due. In this case, a pat on the back is due to Rep. Serrano, who took time on the House floor to point out some of the more ludicrous straw man arguments used by the anti-community network crowd. 

The full Congressional record of their exchange can be seen here (the relevant debate starts on page 6280). Youtube also has an edited video of Rep. Blackburn’s full floor statements from her own channel, where Rep. Serrano’s well-reasoned rebuttal is conspicuously absent.