Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
City administrator Jeff O'Neill said that the city has no intention of abandoning FiberNet's 1,700 customers, including about 130 businesses. "This system isn't going anywhere," he said. "We're not going out of business." Despite the problems, he said the city has one of the fastest Internet systems in the country that has driven down prices and improved services by providing competition.The article also notes that prior to the City-owned network, the telephone company (TDS) provided very poor DSL service that was harming area businesses with slow and very unreliabile phone and broadband services. Without FiberNet Monticello, we don't know how many businesses would have been forced to relocate to be competitive in the digital economy. We decided to dig a little deeper to get a sense of what Monticello has received for its investment and difficulty. We previously examined the prices charged by Charter cable in town and found that households taking that deal were saving $1000/year. We also noted that Charter was almost certainly engaging in predatory pricing. After talking with other networks, we would guess that Charter is losing between $30 and $50 (conservatively) per subscriber per month.
“It stopped us from really building the system by about a year,” said Finance Director Tom Kelly, “which put our revenue collections about a year behind.
Dan Olsen, who runs the municipal broadband service in Windom, was just about to leave work for the night when he got a call. The muckety-mucks at Fortune Transportation, a trucking company on the outskirts of town, were considering shuttering their office and leaving the area. "They said, Dan, you need to get your butt out here now," Olsen recalls. "I got there and they said, 'You need to build fiber out here. What would it take for you to do it?'" Fortune, which employs 47 people in the town of 4,600, two and a half hours southwest of the Twin Cities, relies on plenty of high-tech gadgetry. Broadband Internet access figures into how the company bids for jobs, communicates with road-bound truckers, controls the temperatures in its refrigerated trucks and remotely views its office in Roswell, New Mexico. Fortune even uses the Internet to monitor where and to what extent drivers fill their gas tanks in order to save money. Yet, when it was time to upgrade company systems three years ago, Fortune's private provider couldn't offer sufficient speeds. That's where Windomnet came in. Though Fortune was a mile outside the municipal provider's service area, "We jumped through the hoops and made it happen," recalls Olsen. "The council said, "Do it and we'll figure out how to pay for it.' We got a plow and a local crew. We had it built in 30 days."I have thought about this story frequently when I hear claims that publicly owned networks are failures.
Some Berry residents may have to move if they can't get high-speed Internet access, according to town officials, because their employers require them to have the service for working from home. "Parents have told us their children are at a disadvantage by not having high-speed connections," Town Chairman Anthony Varda wrote in a recent letter to TDS Telecommunications, the town's Madison-based telephone provider. "It is critical to the success of rural students, people working from home, and residents serving on nonprofit boards, committees and local government," wrote Varda, an attorney with DeWitt, Ross & Stevens.Their property values are going down because few people want to live someplace without fast and reliable access to the Internet. To cap it off, Wisconsin is one of 18 states with laws to discourage communities from building their own networks. TDS puts on an act about how difficult it is to tell these people that they aren't getting broadband ... but if they were to build it themselves, I wonder if TDS would sue them like it did Monticello. In asking the state PUC to require TDS to expand, the residents are taking a unique approach. I can't really see it working under the modern rules. It long past time we realize the limits of the private sector: The private sector is simply not suited to solve all problems. Matters of infrastructure are best served by entities that put community needs before profits. (Image: Liberty rotunda mosaic at Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison, Wisconsin, a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from photophiend's photostream)
But the entire congratulatory press release glosses over a key fact: the reason that Monticello received a fiber network was the town's decision to install a municipal-owned fiber network to every home in town… spawning a set of TDS lawsuits that went all the way to the Minnesota Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of the town.I might also note that the press release and much of the coverage also glosses over a one-year contract and early termination fee (though it isn't clear if this is applied in all circumstances). However, Nate nails the story by framing it with the title "Want 50Mbps Internet in your town? Threaten to roll out your own."
We spoke to TDS about the situation last year, and its director of legislative and public relations told us that TDS didn't act earlier because it didn't actually know that people really, really wanted fiber; once the referendum was a success, the company moved quickly to give people what it now knew they wanted.Of course, TDS did not start rolling fiber after the referendum. They waited. It was only after the City successfully bonded for the project that TDS acted (first by filing a lawsuit to block competition and second by investing in their network to be competitive when the doomed lawsuit would inevitably be dismissed). TDS did not change course because they suddenly realized that people wanted better broadband, they did it because they knew that they would have to invest or perish when confronted with actual competition. Nate's article looks at other communities that have followed a similar trajectory.