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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.
Fort Piece, Florida officials say the city continues to make steady progress with its plan to expand access to affordable fiber to all 45,000 Fort Pierce residents with the help of the city-owned utility. The network, inspired by similar utility-backed efforts in cities like Chattanooga, promises to deliver multi-gigabit speeds at prices notably lower than regional monopolies.
Since 1972, the Fort Pierce Utilities Authority (FPUA) has provided gas, electric, water, and natural gas services to city residents. Since the early 2000s, FPUA has deployed 110 miles of optical fiber via its FPUAnet Communications division. In 2018, the city, frustrated by limited broadband competition, decided to expand network access to the public.
“Our network is moving along well,” Jason Mittler, FPUAnet manager told ILSR. “We have passed about 1000 parcels and will pass another 1000 next year.”
The full deployment is expected to take somewhere between five to ten years to finish, and is funded by bonds held by FPUAnet. The network is utilizing GPON fiber technology capable of 2.5 Gigabits per second (Gbps) downstream and 1.25 Gbps upstream in some areas, and XGS-PON-based fiber capable of symmetrical 10 Gbps speeds in others.
Mittler notes that the finished product should result in both last-mile speeds and pricing that regional telecom monopolies, predominantly AT&T and Comcast, are both unable and unwilling to offer. Especially on the upstream side of the equation.
Mittler says the plan remains to provide all locals with access to symmetrical 100 Mbps for $49 a month; symmetrical 200 Mbps for $69 a month; symmetrical 200 Mbps service for $69 a month, symmetrical 500 Mbps for $79 per month; and symmetrical gigabit for $99 a month.
The city of Dublin, Ohio has struck a public private partnership with altafiber (formerly known as Cincinnati Bell) to build a new citywide fiber network city leaders hope will finally deliver the kind of affordable, next-generation broadband access Dublin’s 50,000 residents have long been clamoring for.
In 2022 the city issued a request for proposal (RFP) looking for a partner on a citywide network build. At a June 26 meeting, the Dublin city council voted unanimously to select altafiber from a roster of seven potential applicants.
According to the arrangement, construction of the city network is expected to begin in Spring of 2024, with every premise in Dublin passed by a 10 gigabit per second (Gbps) capable network within three years. A select number of undetermined customers are expected to be brought online sometime in the latter part of next year, officials tell ILSR.
A city press release notes that altafiber will invest $35 million in the fiber network, as well as potentially providing the infrastructure necessary to help the city support either public Wi-Fi initiatives or a City Innovation Center. The city says it will pay about $6 million to bury the necessary fiber infrastructure citywide.
Ponca City, Oklahoma officials say they’ve completed construction of a citywide fiber broadband network both ahead of schedule and under budget.
The finished network is now providing affordable, uncapped, multi-gigabit fiber access to every local resident in the community or 24,100 residents of Northern Oklahoma city.
In 1996, Ponca City began developing a 140 mile central fiber network to help connect schools, city offices, and other key anchor institutions. The city’s infrastructure was expanded in 2005 to provide access to local businesses, and again in 2007 when the city began providing local access to a citywide Wi-Fi system at no cost to local residents.
Frustrated with substandard service from regional telecom monopolies, in 2014 city officials began seriously talking about building a citywide fiber network. By 2015, officials had begun gauging local interest and found that 85 percent of residents were frustrated with existing service, and overwhelmingly supported the city’s plan to build something better.
That same year officials began network planning and studying other projects in earnest.
“Collectively we studied more than 2 dozen successful projects and 13 failed ones to learn from those experiences,” Dave Williams, Director of Technology Services for Ponca City said at the time. “We visited other cities that have implemented broadband solutions, read countless research articles detailing the challenges and rewards of such projects, and systematically took every aspect of this project apart and looked at it to develop a plan addressing all the potential problem areas the best we possibly could.”
‘Business is Booming’
Eight years later and those efforts are now paying off for Ponca City residents.
Officials in the South Texas town of Harlingen say they’ve put their plan to deploy a municipal broadband network on hold after projected costs ballooned well beyond original estimates.
Originally, Harlingen officials had hoped to construct a $4 million fiber network to shore up broadband access to the city’s unserved and under-served populace, using a portion of the city’s $22 million share of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).
But a $100,000 study conducted by Houston-based consultants Cobb Fendley and Associates suggested a more realistic price tag would be closer to $10 million, forcing city officials to reconsider their plan.
"We were hoping to get it rolling but we ran into a few hurdles along the way," City Commissioner Ford Kinsley recently told GovTech. "We're looking for some sources other than what we originally thought."
A 2019 census survey found that nearly 35 percent of Harlingen’s households (7,887 of 22,901) lacked any broadband access whatsoever, positioning the city as second worst in the state behind Pharr, Texas, which recently built a municipal fiber network to bring affordable connectivity to its city residents. Harlingen school district officials also say they found that 900 students' homes lacked Internet access as of 2020, hampering city education standards.
The majority of the rest of the city’s residents are served by one or two providers, resulting in spotty access, high prices, and sluggish speeds. As with so many U.S. markets, the Covid home education and telecommuting boom drove home the need for the kind of affordable, uniform broadband access regional monopolies long failed to deliver.
The Cleveland, Tennessee city council has approved the creation of the Cleveland Utilities Authority, the first step in allowing the city-owned utility to get into the broadband business. The goal: improve utilities services and provide city residents with faster, cheaper, and more reliable fiber access after years of neglect by often-apathetic regional telecom monopolies.
The plan, approved by the city council with a 7-2 vote (see full video here), paves the way for Cleveland’s city-owned utility, Cleveland Utilities, to begin deployment of a $72 million fiber network. The city’s plan, documented in detail here, is heavily inspired by the successes seen by Chattanooga, Tennessee’s publicly-owned utility, EPB.
Of the initial $72 million investment, $64 million will be funded by public-issued debt, and go towards construction of the network, which Cleveland Utilities states should begin in March of 2024 and be completed in “roughly two to three years” barring complications.
An additional interdivisional loan of $8 Million will fund three years of operation for the new division. The utility’s plan is based on a 30 percent take rate, and aims to become cash flow positive between years 2-3, with all debt paid between years 10 and 12.
Once complete, the network will dramatically upgrade the utility’s energy monitoring and maintenance capabilities and deliver symmetrical fiber at speeds of 1 gigabit per second (Gbps) to local residents, and 10 Gbps to local area businesses.
The South Carolina Broadband Office (SCBBO) has announced 56 newly funded projects through its new broadband grant program, which state leaders say will dramatically improve resident access to affordable, next-generation broadband networks statewide.
South Carolina historically hasn’t been a hotbed of community broadband deployment, and is one of 17 states that have passed restrictions on municipal network creation, funding, and expansion. Still, there are numerous electric cooperatives in the state busy creatively bridging the digital divide that stand to benefit from an historic infusion of new grant funding.
The state’s latest round of funding comes courtesy of South Carolina’s American Rescue Plan Act, State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds Priority 1.0 program (ARPA SLFRF 1.0).
All told, the SCBBO says it has doled out $129.6 million in broadband grand awards to 15 different Internet service providers (ISPs) across 34 different South Carolina counties.
“We are incredibly excited about this next chapter of broadband expansion in South Carolina,” Jim Stritzinger, Director of the SC Broadband Office said in a statement. “Across the state, most have probably noticed the ISP road crews working diligently to provide high-speed internet access to our homes and businesses. This set of investments will provide a substantial boost to the work that is already underway.”
According to state officials, All ARPA SLFRF 1.0 grants are required to be completed by December 31, 2024. Once completed, the state says these grants will have funded 5,000 additional miles of fiber statewide as well as last mile access to at least 38,995 locations.