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After Years of Talk, Cambridge, MA is Now Taking Serious Look at Municipal Broadband
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, digital equity advocates and city leaders have been debating the idea of building a citywide municipal fiber network for years now, mostly over whether the estimated $150 to $200 million it would cost to build the network would be worth it.
In a tech-savvy city, home to Harvard and MIT, the former city manager was resistant to a serious inquiry into municipal broadband. He retired last summer. But before he left, he relented on the broadband question – under pressure from city councilors and a local citizen group advocating for municipal broadband, Upgrade Cambridge.
With many residents weary of being held hostage to the whims and high cost of service from the monopoly provider in town (Comcast), which currently controls 80 percent of the city’s market, in 2021 the city hired the well-regarded Maryland-based consulting firm CTC Technology & Energy to conduct a thorough feasibility study. Now, with a new supportive city manager in office, city leaders have agreed to continue to investigate the options laid out in the recently published study.
‘Significant Public Support’ Even If It Requires Tax Money
Quincy, MA Moves Full Speed Ahead On City Owned Open Access Fiber Plan
Quincy, Massachusetts is moving full speed ahead on a long-percolating plan to bring faster and more reliable broadband to a community long neglected by regional telecom monopolies.
If successful, the resulting open access fiber network should dramatically boost competitive options in the city, driving down costs for what many view as an essential utility.
After five years of debate and planning, Quincy officials say they’re getting closer to launching a city owned open access fiber network that will provide a backbone for city services, as well as a major infusion of long overdue broadband competition citywide.
Quincy Ward 3 Councilor Ian Cain told ISLR that the city is planning to launch trial deployments in Merrymount and Quincy Point during the next few months. The city has long worked with Entrypoint networks as a technical consultant and project financial planner, and city officials are expecting an engineering and feasibility study from Tilson within a matter of weeks.
RFP Coming Soon
“We're intending to bring the request for financing before the council before the end of session, which is at the end of June,” Cain said.
"We'll be putting out an RFP for the open access component of the project soon as well. We hope to fund the project through the city council before the summer, and then ideally we would start construction in the fall."
The initial pilot project will be funded by a general obligation bond. City leaders stated Merrymount and Quincy Point were selected both with an eye on socioeconomic diversity, and because the city was certain they’d see a relatively high adoption rate.
"Quincy Point in particular has a lot of economic and cultural diversity, and I think that's really important to emphasize as we move forward," Ward 2 City Councilor Anthony Andronico said of the city’s effort. "Quincy Point and Merrymount will have an opportunity to see what works with this program, what we can improve upon and help expand it to the whole city.”
Colorado Repeal Of Community Broadband Ban A Turning Point Decades In The Making
Colorado state leaders have voted to eliminate long-criticized state barriers to municipal broadband networks. Community broadband advocates hope it will be a beacon for other states eager to bring more reliable and affordable high-speed Internet service to a market long dominated by monopoly providers.
The Colorado decision, made after years of citizen backlash to the counterproductive restrictions, is the latest inflection point in a retreat away from monopoly-backed state laws stifling creative efforts to bridge the digital divide.
On May 1, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 23-183. The new law formally eliminates an older 2005 law backed by regional telecom monopolies, which imposed cumbersome and onerous restrictions on Colorado towns and cities looking to build better, more affordable community-owned and operated broadband networks.
“SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter said of the decision. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”
Colorado state leaders say the repeal puts them in a prime position to capitalize on numerous digital equity programs designed to address Colorado’s digital divide, as well as the more than $42 billion in broadband subsidies soon to be distributed courtesy of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
“With large amounts of federal funding coming from the IIJA bill, we wanted communities to be ready to receive this money,” Colorado Representative Brianna Titone told ILSR.
Last year, Governor Polis signed an executive order formally setting a goal of connecting 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027. Colorado state leaders have previously stated they expect their share of IIJA/BEAD funding to be between $400 and $700 million; money that can now be used more broadly on a diverse array of creative broadband solutions.
Maryland Awards $92 Million In Grants For 35 Projects
Maryland officials have announced that the state is doling out $92 million in new broadband grants to expand access to affordable broadband. The latest round of funding was made possible via the Connect Maryland Network Infrastructure Grant Program, and will help expand broadband access to 14,500 unserved locations statewide.
According to a state press release, this latest round of funds should help fund portions of 35 different projects scattered around the state. A full breakdown of award winners indicates that while Comcast and Verizon secured $14.4 million and $11 million respectively in new funding, smaller ISPs and cooperatives were, unlike in many states, well represented.
Quantum Telecommunications, a smaller local ISP founded in 1995, was slated to receive $15.3 million in funding to connect 1,693 locations to broadband. Choptank Electric Cooperative, first founded in 1938, was among the biggest award winners, receiving $16 million to deliver broadband to 1,693 locations currently lacking broadband access.
Massachusetts Broadband Coalition Is Formed With Focus on Public Private Partnerships
Representing 26 towns across Massachusetts, from Cape Cod to Chelsea, an informal group of mostly town officials have formed the Massachusetts Broadband Coalition in search of a way out of a broken broadband market to ensure everyone in their individual communities has access to high-speed Internet.
The newly-formed coalition has recently started to meet monthly to share information about what kind of alternatives there might be, or could be, to the big cable monopoly provider in their towns.
Questioning Monopoly Rules Without Reinventing the Wheel
The coalition, which held its first meeting in January, was convened by Robert Espindola, Fairhaven Selectmen and the board’s liaison to the town’s broadband study committee. And though the coalition is “in its infant stages,” as Espindola recently shared with ILSR, one common theme has emerged from each participating member.
“No doubt the common theme is: there’s no competition,” he said. “That’s how it started in Fairhaven for us. When we were negotiating our (franchise) agreement with Comcast, people in the community were asking: ‘why can’t we get competition?’”
When we first came together it was really more just to learn from each other, what each community was doing. And we wanted to see if we could find ways to work more efficiently and not reinvent the wheel.
Indeed, communities across the nation have set out to tackle local connectivity challenges head-on with a community broadband approach without having to reinvent the wheel. Some have built, or are building locally-controlled, publicly-owned open-access fiber networks to create the conditions for competition. Other cities and towns are building, maintaining, and operating their own successful municipal broadband networks. While still others have opted to enter into a public-private partnership with an independent ISP to build out a community-wide network.
Public-Private Partnerships Come into Focus
Boulder, Colorado Gets Ready to Roll on Citywide Fiber Network
With the construction of its 65-mile dark fiber backbone nearly complete, city officials in Boulder, Colorado are now ready to move into the next phase of their plan: test the waters for a partnership with private or nonprofit Internet service providers (ISPs) to build out a citywide fiber network to deliver last mile service to the city’s 104,000 residents and businesses.
Last week, the city issued a Request for Information (RFI) “to gauge the interest of for-profit and nonprofit entities in forming a public–private partnership (PPP) with the city to make Gigabit per second-class bandwidth available to all Boulder homes and businesses.”
“As we prepare for further City Council discussion on a future community broadband operating model, it is imperative that we understand the market potential for a PPP (public-private partnership) to meet the city’s goals related to connectivity. We look forward to responses that consider a variety of business models to share technological and operational responsibilities and financial risk with the city in innovative ways,” Innovation and Technology Deputy Director Mike Giansanti said in a press statement when the RFI was issued.
The city is looking for a partner or partners that will come to table with new ideas, create competition, and either fully fund or share costs.
Having prioritized a city-wide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) build, city officials have identified two main goals: serve the growing demand for “affordable, reliable, and sophisticated broadband technology; and support a thriving business environment.”
Responses to the RFI are due by May 19 at 4 pm MDT.
City officials say they will consider a range of construction and operation designs as well as a variety of ownership models as the City Council will likely vote on the path forward and the execution of a contract sometime this year.
Realizing Ambitions of Open Access in Marin County, California
Creative efforts are underway in Marin County, California to bring fiber connectivity to underserved pockets of the community and eventually the whole area. Digital Marin, currently housed within the county’s Information Services and Technology Department, is coordinating the project, and is leaning towards a municipally-owned, open-access solution modeled after Ammon’s standout network in Idaho.
Just across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, Marin County is home to about 265,000 residents, as well as the Muir Woods National Monument, a County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and nearly 73 miles of coastal trail. Despite largely being considered an urban county, Marin also includes suburban and rural areas with 40 percent of the county classified as protected park land.
When it comes to Internet connectivity, the area is peppered with what Marin County resident and Digital Marin Executive Steering Committee member, Bruce Vogen, calls “donut holes of high-quality Internet access.” An unknown provider built a DSL network in the region many years ago and then Comcast later bought and inherited the antiquated infrastructure. Soon after, AT&T entered the market but selected only the most profitable neighborhoods to serve. All 90,000 of the county’s urban households can access the Internet through Comcast, but just 20,000 of these homes have access to the archipelago of AT&T’s fiber network. In any case, Marin’s urban areas are either subject to monopoly or duopoly market control. It has long been apparent there is a digital divide in Marin County, but it wasn’t until the 2022 FCC maps were released that the contours of this divide came into focus.
Florida Designates $144 Million in ARPA Funds for 58 Broadband Projects
Florida’s state broadband office is doling out $144 million in grants to 58 different broadband expansion projects across 41 Florida counties.
The funding is being delivered courtesy of Florida’s Broadband Opportunity Grant Program, itself made possible by federal legislation—the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA)— that many Florida lawmakers opposed.
The full breakdown of the deployments make it clear that, similarly to what we’ve seen in states like Montana, the lion’s share of state funding will be going to regional cable monopolies.
Roughly $89 million of Florida’s $144 million grant award will be going to the state’s three largest cable broadband providers: Cox, Comcast, and Charter. Comcast obtained $45 million, Charter was awarded approximately $28 million, and Cox was awarded $16 million. A more detailed breakdown of the awards obtained by Telecompetitor indicates that the vast majority of the projects are partnerships with cable giants.
New Bill Could Make Colorado Friendly State for Municipal Broadband
Earlier this month, a new Colorado bill was introduced that, if passed, would rid the state of a law designed to protect monopoly Internet service providers (ISPs) from competition.
SB-183, titled “Local Government Provision Of Communications Services,” seeks to gut a law Big Telecom pushed state lawmakers to pass in 2005. That law, known as SB-152, prevented any of Colorado’s 272 municipalities from building and operating their own telecommunication infrastructure unless local voters first passed a referendum to “opt out.”
End of ‘the Qwest Law’?
Known also as “the Qwest law,” Qwest (now Lumen but more recently CenturyLink), with the help of Comcast, leaned on legislative allies to pass SB-152 to protect their monopoly profits. On our Community Broadband Bits podcast, Ken Fellman and Jeff Wilson, prominent telecom attorneys, recount how lobbyists for the monopoly ISPs were instrumental in pushing two false, but effective, narratives we’ve seen many times before: that SB-152 only sought to “level the playing field” so that private companies could compete with municipally run networks, and that SB-152 “protected” Coloradoans from irresponsible local governments, as if there were no such things as local elections.
But, if passed, the new proposed legislation (SB-183) – co-sponsored by a bipartisan-ish group of state legislators (10 Democrats and 2 Republicans) – would neuter SB-152 and allow local communities to decide for themselves if they wanted to pursue municipal broadband without needing special permission from the state.
Summit County, Ohio Building $75 Million, 125-Mile Fiber Ring
Summit County, Ohio says it’s making progress on a $75 million, 125-mile fiber-optic ring made possible courtesy of American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funds. The project will start by providing gigabit connectivity to all county first responders, after which county leaders say they’ll focus on shoring up lagging broadband access to long-neglected communities.
A 2017 report by an outside consultant found that Summit County, like so much of America, struggles with a dearth of affordable broadband access thanks to a heavily monopolized U.S. broadband market. The county’s fixed-line broadband market is dominated by two major incumbents, Centurylink and Comcast, and wireless access remains spotty across large swatches of the county’s more rural territories.
Introduced last year, Summit County Executive Ilene Shapiro noted the network will first connect all 31 city, village and township governments to gigabit speed broadband and a data center. The network is expected to cost as much as $75 million. $35 million of that total will be pulled from the $105 million in ARPA funding received by the county.
Summit County’s interest in more affordable broadband extends back years. County leaders played a key role in beating back monopoly efforts in the state legislature to effectively ban publicly-owned broadband networks. Once those efforts were defeated, county leaders began formulating their broadband expansion plans in earnest.