Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Fort Worth, Texas, (est pop. 956,000) has struck a $7.5 million, 34-year contract with Dallas-based Sprocket Networks to construct a new 300-mile fiber optic backbone to shore up city municipal communications needs, expand affordable access to marginalized neighborhoods, and boost local economic development.
City officials say construction crews are expected to begin work sometime in the next three to six months, with the full network construction expected to cost $65 million and take three years to complete.
Services will first be made available to nine target neighborhoods (including Las Vegas Trail, Como, Marine Creek, Stop Six, Rosemont and Ash Crescent) on a rolling basis. Sprocket Networks will own the finished fiber network.
“This partnership was entered into with Sprocket with the hopes of eventually getting to universal service in Fort Worth,” Fort Worth IT Solutions director Kevin Gunn told ILSR in a phone interview. “We want the gold standard fiber optic connectivity: 100 megabits symmetric and up available at every doorstep, whether that's a senior family, multifamily or commercial.”
Gunn told ILSR that the city’s initial payment of $7.5 million to Sprocket consists of $4.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds, and $3 million from the North Central Texas Council Of Governments, which has allocated some of its transportation budget to broadband improvements the agency will benefit from.
In response to COVID era broadband inequities, the city of Fort Worth last year expanded free Wi-Fi access to 40,000 largely underserved city residents. Gunn indicated that those connections will be slowly phased out as the city transitions to fiber.
In 2021, California passed Senate Bill 156, an ambitious plan allocating $6 billion to shore up affordable broadband access throughout the state.
Among the most notable of the bill’s proposals was a plan to spend $3.25 billion on an open-access statewide broadband middle-mile network backers say could transform competition in the state.
An additional $2 billion has also been earmarked for last mile deployment. Both components will be heavily funded by Coronavirus relief funds and federal Broadband Equity, Access, and Deployment (BEAD) subsidies as well as California State Government grants – with all projects to be finished by December 2026 as per federal funding rules.
But while California’s proposal has incredible potential, activists and digital equity advocates remain concerned that the historic opportunity could be squandered due to poor broadband mapping, a notable lack of transparency, and the kind of political dysfunction that has long plagued the Golden State.
Massive Scale, Big Money, Endless Moving Parts
Still, California’s prioritization of open access fiber networks could prove transformative.
Data routinely indicates that open access fiber networks lower market entry costs, boost overall competition, and result in better, cheaper, faster Internet access. Unsurprisingly, such networks are often opposed by entrenched regional monopolies that have grown fat and comfortable on the back of muted competition.
New England residents have been complaining about Verizon’s lack of meaningful fiber upgrades for the better part of the last two decades, prompting a steady parade of interest in community owned and operated fiber networks in states like Massachusetts.
But some of these community broadband efforts, such as West Springfield’s plan to deliver affordable fiber access to every city resident, are still being hampered by Verizon.
In 2021 the city (est. pop. 28,000) announced it would be partnering with Westfield Gas and Electric, the publicly owned utility in Westfield, Massachusetts, which has built and operates fiber networks in nearly two dozen communities in the Berkshires. The end result: Westfield Gas and Electric's broadband subsidiary Whip City Fiber plans to deliver West Springfield residents symmetrical gigabit fiber for $75 a month, without long term contracts or onerous hidden fees.
But efforts to launch a $1.8 million pilot project have been on hold thanks to ongoing delays by Verizon and Eversource to prepare local utility poles for fiber attachment, West Springfield Chief Technology Officer Stephanie Straitiff tells local news outlet The Reminder.
Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland has introduced an ambitious new plan to incentivize private telecom providers to deliver affordable fiber to 85 percent of the Tennessee city of 633,000. The project, part of the city’s Memphis 3.0 master plan, will spend more than $700 million to expand broadband in a city where less than a quarter of residents–most of them wealthy–have access to next-generation fiber.
On September 23, city leaders introduced a new city ordinance amendment establishing new, streamlined permitting and fee requirements. Their goal: to incentivize companies willing to expand fiber optic broadband to at least 60 percent of Memphis’ residential and business premises and 60 percent of all existing low-income premises.
Not long after, city leaders unveiled more details about their "Smart Memphis Fiber" effort. After issuing an RFP last year, Memphis officials say they’ve struck a partnership with Paris-based Meridiam and Blue Suede Network to build a $700 million fiber optic network with an eye on eventually reaching 85 percent of the total Memphis population.
“City Government will incentivize any interested company by reducing our costs through reductions in permitting fees and right-of-way fees,” Strickland said in a recent presentation before the city council. “Additionally, we will streamline our process to allow a company to get to work faster. We are also putting our own skin in the game.”
U.S. News & World Report Finds Nearly 2 in 5 Internet Subscribers Compromise Personal Expenses to Afford Internet
With the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) poised to run out of funding in early Q2 next year, and no funding source lined up to keep the program alive, a recent U.S. News & World Report survey underscores the significance of the program in the face of rising prices from the nation’s major Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
The ACP offers a monthly benefit of $30 dollars for qualifying households and $75 for qualifying households on Tribal lands (as well as in some remote areas). Over 20 million Americans to date have enrolled in the program to help pay their Internet service bills, but with the $14.2 billion ACP program on track to run dry as soon as May of next year – even amid a historic national effort to establish “Internet For All” – the affordability crisis has become more worrisome for a growing number of Americans.
U.S. News & World Report’s survey found that Internet prices are going up and that families are compromising other expenses to pay for connectivity, affirming the urgency among digital equity advocates to identify a source of continued funding for ACP, as well as push for more structural solutions that address the root causes of why Americans pay among the highest prices for broadband service in the developed world.
Cleveland, Ohio is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious plan to build a citywide open access fiber network–and deliver affordable fixed wireless service–at minimal cost to city residents. The double-edged proposal aims to bring both meaningful broadband competition–and lower rates–to the long neglected city of 1.7 million people.
Last month, the city announced it had awarded $20 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to Cleveland-based digital equity non-profit DigitalC. Under the proposal, DigitalC will spend 18 months building a fixed wireless broadband network capable of providing locals with symmetrical 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) service for $18 a month.
DigitalC’s fixed wireless service, EmpowerCLE+, launched in 2018 and accelerated its deployment in 2020 to meet the needs of frustrated parents and workers during peak COVID.
Speaking at ILSR’s and the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) Building for Digital Equity (B4DE) event last week, DigitalC CEO Joshua Edmonds noted that the EmpowerCLE+ network currently passes 23,500 households in Cleveland, with 2,300 current subscribers. The city’s new agreement with the city should expand the network’s potential reach to 99.9% of homes in Cleveland.
“We're thankful for the opportunity and we're just really hoping that people use this as motivation to change things within their respective markets,” Edmonds told ILSR in a phone interview.
Net Neutrality and the Regulatory Theater of the FCC - Episode 571 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Karl Bode, a returning guest who has long covered tech and the telecommunications industry. After a short conversation about the continued absence of monopoly abuse in policy conversations about broadband access and affordability today, Karl and Christopher tackle the proposed return to net neutrality announced by Chairwoman Rosenworcel last week.
They talk about how we got here in the first place, including the landmark decision by the Commission in 2015 to largely abdicate responsibility for Internet-related regulatory activities and the states that stepped in to fill the void. They end the show by considering for a bit what it might be like to have an expert federal agency whose activities governed by a strong regulatory framework and the teeth to enforce its mandate to extend fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for all.
This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, the concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Murfreesboro, Tennessee suddenly finds itself awash with looming broadband competitors thanks to the city’s booming growth. In less than a month, United Communications – owned by not-for-profit electric cooperative Middle Tennessee Electric (MTE) – and Google Fiber have unveiled major plans to expand affordable gigabit fiber within city limits.
MTE-owned United Communications says it has some big plans for the city of 157,000, starting with broadband upgrades for the utilities’ 77,000 existing electricity customers.
According to a recent announcement, the cooperative-owned ISP will spend $85 million in existing cash reserves to deploy 1,400 miles of fiber in the city, bringing affordable gigabit access to existing MTE electricity customers. As with many utility deployments, the upgrades will prove beneficial for electrical grid monitoring and maintenance.
“We’ve already completed phase one in the Boro, which includes our fiber backbone and service to more than 1,000 homes and businesses. As part of phase one, we also built fiber to the square in downtown Murfreesboro,” United President and CEO William Bradford said in a statement. “It was a privilege to put our fiber infrastructure to work by connecting our neighbors in disadvantaged communities and adding resiliency to the local emergency communications network.”
Last year, United received $53.4 million in grants from the Tennessee Emergency Broadband Fund (made possible by the The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) to help shore up broadband access in numerous Tennessee counties, including Bedford, Franklin, Giles, Lincoln, Marshall, Maury, Moore and Williamson.
Local electrical cooperatives say they’re making inroads on efforts to finally bring affordable gigabit fiber connections to long neglected portions of rural South Carolina. Dubbed Carolina Connect, the alliance between Aiken Electric Cooperative, Newberry Electric Cooperative and Mid-Carolina Electric Cooperative is doing what cooperatives across the nation have taken the lead on in recent years in the rural areas many serve: filling the gaps left by regional telecom monopolies disinterested in finishing the job.
Aiken’s website indicates that the cooperative coalition has delivered broadband to more than 14 towns and cities, is currently in the process of bringing broadband to eight more, and has five additional communities in the planning stage. According to the Aiken Standard, the coalition has laid about 6,000 miles of fiber within the nine counties served by Aiken Electric alone; predominantly rural markets spread across the Southwest part of the state.
The deployment is not only delivering broadband to many residents for the first time ever, it’s delivering the kind of affordable pricing locals have never seen, thanks to a notable lack of regional competition between regional telecom monopolies like Breezeline (formerly Atlantic Broadband) and AT&T.
For over 20 years, the city of Palo Alto, the "Birthplace of Silicon Valley,” has flirted with the idea of building a city-owned municipal fiber network. Now after years of debate, numerous studies, several false starts, and many unfulfilled RFPs, city officials say they’re finally moving forward with a city-owned fiber network they hope will transform affordable broadband connectivity citywide.
Palo Alto officials tell ILSR that the project will be spearheaded by the city-utility, and deployed in coordination with a major upgrade of the city’s electrical systems. Phase One of the city’s planned fiber deployment should begin later this year, delivering fiber access to around 20 percent of the city–or 6,500 homes and businesses.
Phase One will be funded entirely from the utility’s existing cash reserves. Profits from that deployment will then be used to expand affordable, multi-gigabit fiber access to all of the city’s 63,210 residents. Though no shortage of challenges remain.
A Long Time Coming
That Palo Alto residents have been clamoring for better, more affordable alternatives to regional telecom monopolies for 25 straight years speaks for itself. The high costs, slow speeds, and abysmal customer service of regional telecom giants AT&T and Comcast have long driven the public’s unflagging interest in better, cheaper connectivity options.