Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Every week we write about the municipalities and the cooperatives that come together to bring high-quality, affordable, locally accountable Internet access to those who need it most. And it seems as if we're at a watershed moment as a nation: community solutions to broadband are poised to have their big day.
One of the big questions that remains is who Congress and the White House will listen to in the coming weeks and months as national legislation moves through the D.C. crucible: their constituents, many of whom have spent the past year struggling to work and live on too-expensive, too-slow, or nonexistent broadband connections forged by a broken marketplace, or the monopoly ISPs gearing up for the fight of their lives to snuff out even the specter of competition so they can continue to extract profits from cities and towns large and small across the country.
ILSR's Sean Gonsalves and Christopher Mitchell have an essay out in The American Prospect which outlines both the upcoming fight and the future at stake, as the Biden Administration's American Jobs Plan positions itself to return a level of parity to local solutions in expanding broadband access and promote competition.
Read an excerpt below, but check out the whole piece here:
28 million households have only one Internet service provider offering at least the minimum broadband speed. Many of the supposed competitors are phantoms. And the number of households in areas with more than one ISP offering gigabit speed service is paltry. Only two million households have that choice, or maybe many fewer—the FCC doesn’t really know at any granular level.
Today, Internet access has been largely monopolized by a few big cable companies, even as voice and television services have become more competitive. Government officials have generally responded by seeking to remove barriers to competition, rather than embracing more deliberate pro-competition policies to better shape the markets. But that may be coming to an end.
Welcome to In Our View, the first installment of a new series here. From time to time, we'll use this space to explore new ideas and share our thoughts on recent events playing out across the digital landscape, as well as take the opportunity to draw attention to important but neglected broadband-related issues.
The disaster in Texas resulting from an electric grid that was deliberately left exposed and likely to fail in rare cold weather events has received a lot of dramatic coverage, as well it should given the loss of life and damage to so many homes and businesses. It also raised some questions in my mind regarding competition and designing markets that will be discussed below. Texas was a leader in allowing different electricity firms to compete in selling electricity over the same electric grid, an arrangement that has some similarities to open access broadband approaches.
In digging into that recent electricity history, I made another interesting and relevant finding that I discuss first as part of the background to understand the lessons from Texas. In 20 years of competing models between, on the one hand, municipal and cooperative structures to deliver electricity and, on the other hand, a largely deregulated and competitive market, the munis and co-ops delivered lower prices to ratepayers.
Many of the sources used in this article are behind paywalls. We wish that weren't the case but we support both paying for news and the libraries that have databases that may allow you to track this down if you have the inclination.
Electricity Deregulation, Texas Style
More than 20 years ago, Texas largely deregulated electricity markets. Residents still have a monopoly in charge of the physical wire delivering electricity to the home, but they could choose among various electricity providers that would effectively use the wire and charge different amounts, differentiating themselves via a variety of factors, including how the electricty was produced.
This past summer, consultants hired by Lakeland, Florida, shared their opinion that the community has the necessary components to launch a broadband utility. In a recent opinion piece in The Ledger, city commissioner Justin Toller encourages Lakelanders to let their elected officials know that they want a public vote on the issue.
We’re Paying for it, Regardless
Toller, who has championed the broadband initiative as the chair of the Broadband Task Force, appeals to the public’s sense of value. He notes that, while everyone in the community has contributed financially to developing the existing 330-mile fiber optic network, only a small number of commercial entities use the infrastructure along with local schools, libraries, and public safety facilities. The city collects around $4 million per year in dark fiber leases.
By investing in the final connection, we can reduce customer costs in the long-term, because you are the owners and not just the users. To private providers, you are a source of profit; to our city, you are an investment in our shared community. That investment will create innovation, economic development, job growth, and a higher quality of life, while also providing a savings on your Internet bill.
Repeating the Past
Toller also notes how Lakeland decided as a community in the past to invest in the electric utility, the hospital, and the roads. He sees a similar path with fiber.
Today, the roadways of the future are not concrete; they are fiber. Lakeland has invested millions of dollars in building the current fiber network, and now it’s time to make the final investment to connect all Lakelanders. Keep in mind, whether we hook-up that fiber to every home and business or not, we all continue to pay for the existing infrastructure.
The city has done its due diligence by having a feasibility study. There have been numerous community meetings, a survey, a forum, and hundreds of public comments. In response, private providers have done what they do best, raise prices.
When rural broadband advocates talk about the connectivity needs of farmers, they often discuss real-time crop prices, monitoring the status of fields, or the ability to submit data-intensive reports. An innovator in North Carolina has a different take on why fast, affordable, reliable connectivity is important to his ag-related business and it involves hog waste. He explains how North Carolina’s municipal networks and cooperatives need to be able to operate without restriction if the state’s agribusiness is to advance.
Methane is Power, but Broadband is a Must
In a recent opinion piece by Mark Maloney, the CEO and founder of OptimaBio writes that his company is developing a method for capturing methane from hog waste and transforming the biogas into electricity. According to Maloney, the pilot program has the potential to expand in order to provide affordable energy while also reducing harm to the environment.
A key element that OptimaBio requires, however, is reliable and fast connectivity, which isn't readily available in many rural North Carolina communities yet:
The equipment that allows this conversion produces large amounts of data to assist us in understanding operations and avoid downtime.
That data is of no value if we cannot transmit it over a reliable communications network.
Today, without reliable broadband, we use radio signals to get the job done. It’s not ideal.
He describes how weather and trees can interrupt radio signals that must be in line of sight of each other, and how the company must purchase expensive equipment in order to use radio signals. At this stage, there is no other alternative in the rural areas where they operate.
A Chronic Problem
Maloney writes that his company is one of many in the agriculture industry that struggles due to poor rural connectivity in North Carolina. In order to allow agribusiness to pursue innovations that can solve problems and find improvements, the state needs to remove onerous hurdles.
Talking Rural Broadband, the Internet, and Media with Dr. Christopher Ali - Broadband Bits Podcast 355
The Austin, Texas, 2019 Broadband Communities Summit was about a month ago, but we’re still enjoying the experience by sharing Christopher’s onsite podcast interviews. This week, he and University of Virginia Assistant Professor Christopher Ali have an insightful conversation about rural broadband, media, and the Internet — and we get to listen in.
Dr. Ali works in the University Department of Media Studies and has recently published a piece in the New York Times titled, “We Need A National Rural Broadband Plan.” In the interview, he and Christopher discuss the op-ed along with Dr. Ali’s suggestions for ways to improve federal involvement in expanding rural connectivity. In addition to structural issues of federal agencies that affect the efficiency of rural expansion, Dr. Ali discusses the advantages he sees from a single-entity approach.
The two also get into a range of other topics, such as the importance of broadband to help deliver a range of media, especially in rural areas where local media outlets are disappearing.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. See other podcasts from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance here.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
In January, Governor Bill Haslam announced that he and Senator Mark Norris would introduce legislation to provide grant funding and tax credits to private companies in order to expand rural connectivity in Tennessee. In a recent Knoxville News Sentinel, Christopher took another look at more subsidies to large private providers and how that strategy has worked out so far.
We've reprinted the op-ed here:
Christopher Mitchell: State needs better broadband, not subsidies
If you were tasked with improving the internet access across Tennessee, a good first start would be to examine what is working and what’s not. But when the General Assembly debates broadband, it frequently focuses on what AT&T and Comcast want rather than what is working.
Broadband expansion has turned into a perennial fight between Tennessee’s municipal broadband networks and advocates of better connectivity on one side and AT&T and Comcast on the other. On one side is a taxpayer-subsidized model, while the other depends solely on the revenues of those who choose to subscribe. But which is which?
AT&T has received billions of taxpayer dollars to build its networks, whereas Chattanooga, Tullahoma and Morristown, for example, financed their fiber-optic networks by selling revenue bonds to private investors and repaying them with revenues from their services. The big telephone companies are massively subsidized, whereas municipal networks have generally not used taxpayer dollars.
It is true that after it began building, Chattanooga received a Department of Energy one-time stimulus grant for $111 million, but that was actually less than AT&T is getting from just one federal program in Tennessee alone – over $125 million from the Connect America Fund. And most of the money to Chattanooga went into devices for its smart grid that have since led to massive job gains.
These community networks offer modern connectivity. Chattanooga offers 10,000 Mbps to anyone in its territory. AT&T is getting enormous checks from Uncle Sam to deliver 10 Mbps. Comcast will soon offer 1,000 Mbps, but only for downloads. If you are a small business trying to upload lots of data, Comcast won’t get you there.
Virginia publication, Bacon’s Rebellion, recently published an opinion piece written by Christopher on HB 2108, a bill introduced by Del. Kathy Byron. If passed, the bill will make it even more difficult for local communities to take control of their own connectivity. We’ve reproduced the op-ed here:
Virginia Is for Lovers, Not Lobbyists
Pop quiz: Should the state create or remove barriers to broadband investment in rural Virginia? Trick question. The answer depends very much on who you are – an incumbent telephone company or someone living every day with poor connectivity.
If you happen to be a big telephone company like CenturyLink or Frontier, you have already taken action. You wrote a bill to effectively prevent competition, laundered it through the state telephone lobbying trade organization, and had it sponsored by Del. Byron, R-Forest, in the General Assembly. That was after securing tens of millions of dollars from the federal government to offer an Internet service so slow it isn’t even considered broadband anymore. Government is working pretty well for you.
If you are a business or resident in the year 2017 without high quality Internet access, you should be banging someone’s door down – maybe an elected official, telephone/electric co-op, or your neighbor to organize a solution. You need more investment, not more barriers. Government isn’t working quite as well for you.
Rural Virginia is not alone. Small towns and farming communities across America are recognizing that they have to take action. The big cable and telephone companies are not going to build the networks rural America needs to retain and attract businesses. The federal government was essential in bringing electricity and basic phone service to everyone. But when it came to broadband, the big telephone companies had a plan to obstruct and prevent and plenty of influence in D.C.
When the Federal Communications Commission set up the Connect America Fund, they began giving billions of dollars to the big telephone companies in return for practically nothing. By 2020, these companies have to deliver a connection doesn’t even qualify as broadband. CenturyLink advertises 1000/1000 Mbps in many urban areas but gets big subsidies to deliver 10/1 Mbps in rural areas. Rural America has been sold out.
This has been a “loud” general election. The candidates, the campaign ads, and the supporters have all blasted their messages to voters in every state, drowning out some initiatives that are equally important. In Colorado, 26 local governments are asking voters to decide whether or not to opt out of SB 152, the state’s restrictive law passed in 2005 that looted local telecommunications authority.
In addition to seven counties, 19 municipalities have the issue on the ballot. Most of them use similar language from years past, when dozens of Colorado local governments presented the same question to voters.
El Paso County
There are about 664,000 people in the county, with approximately 456,000 living in the county seat of Colorado Springs. Rural residents and businesses typically struggle to obtain Internet access. County Question 1A reads:
Without increasing taxes, shall El Paso County have the authority to provide, or to facilitate or partner or coordinate with service providers for the provision of, “advanced (high-speed internet) service,” “cable television service,” and “telecommunications service,” either directly, indirectly, or by contract, to residential, commercial, nonprofit, government or other subscribers, and to acquire, operate and maintain any facility for the purpose of providing such services, restoring local authority and flexibility that was taken away by Title 29, Article 27, Part 1 of the Colorado Revised Statutes?
Recently, El Paso County Board of Commissioners chairwoman Sallie Clarke published a guest column in the Colorado Springs Business Journal and the Gazette urging voters to support the measure. She noted that, even thought the initiative is important to the community, the local press has been quiet about the measure. With media filled by the Clinton/Trump race, there is little room for anything else, but she spells out why El Paso County needs to opt out of SB 152.
The Knoxville News Sentinel published this op-ed about Tennessee's restrictive broadband law on January 9, 2016.
Christopher Mitchell: Next-Generation Networks Needed
Four words in Tennessee law are denying an important element of Tennessee's proud heritage and restricting choices for Internet access across the state.
When private firms would not electrify Tennessee, public power came to the rescue. In the same spirit, some local governments have built their own next-generation Internet access networks because companies like AT&T refused to invest in modern technology. These municipal networks have created competition, dramatic consumer savings and a better business climate in each of their communities.
The four words at issue prevent municipal electric utilities from expanding their successful fiber optic Internet networks to their neighbors, a rejection of the public investment that built the modern economy Tennessee relies upon.
Current law allows a municipal utility to offer telephone service anywhere in the state, but Internet access is available only "within its service area." This limit on local authority protects big firms like AT&T and Comcast from needed competition, and they have long lobbied to protect their de facto monopolies. To thrive, Tennessee should encourage both public and private investment in needed infrastructure.
These municipal systems have already shown they can bring the highest-quality Internet services to their communities. Chattanooga's utility agency, EPB, built one of the best Internet networks in the nation. Municipal fiber networks in Tullahoma, Morristown and more have delivered benefits far in excess of their costs while giving residents and local businesses a real choice in providers.
Many of these networks are willing to connect their neighbors — people and businesses living just outside the electric utility boundary. If Chattanooga wants to expand its incredible EPB Fiber into Bradley County with the consent of all parties, why should the state get in the way?
The Pioneer Press published this op-ed about Minnesota high speed Internet access and availability on December 3, 2015.
Christopher Mitchell: Competition and community savings
Minnesota has just one more month to achieve its goal of high speed Internet access available to every resident and local business. In 2010, the Legislature set a 2015 goal for universal Internet access at speeds just under the current federal broadband definition. But the state never really committed to anything more than a token effort and will fall far short.
Even for those of us living in metro areas that have comparatively high speed access, we don't have a real choice in providers and most of us lack access to next-generation gigabit speeds.
The big cable and telephone companies excel at restricting competition by manipulating markets, state and federal government policy, and other means. This is why so many local governments across the nation are themselves expanding Internet infrastructure: to ensure local businesses and residents can access affordable next-generation services and create a real choice. We should be encouraging these local approaches.
The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is tracking more than 450 communities where local governments are expanding choices with direct investments in networks. Just this month, some 50 communities in Colorado and two in Iowa voted to move forward with plans for their own networks or partnerships.
Here in Minnesota, we have seen a variety of successful approaches. Eagan's modest network attracted a data center.
Dakota County has saved itself millions of dollars by placing conduit for fiber in the ground at very low cost as part of other projects. Now it can use that to help local companies to compete with the big cable and telephone companies.
Scott County's fiber network has helped create more than 1,000 jobs and tremendously improved access in area schools. In Sibley County and part of Renville, cities and townships joined together to help launch a new cooperative, RS Fiber, which shows tremendous promise. Cooperatives, which are effectively community-owned as well, offer some of the best connectivity in rural regions of the state.