Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
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Comcast announced at the end of January that it will be expanding its stock repurchasing program to $10 billion for 2022. It’s a reminder that local governments need to be wary about the huge cable and telephone monopolies stopping by their offices and offering generously to solve the digital divide once and for all, if only we give them more taxpayer money.
Doing so has largely been a failed policy, and does a better job of transforming public tax dollars into private wealth than it does in efficiently extending Internet infrastructure to communities that need it most. With all the federal funding on the horizon, and some states already looking like they’re going to listen to monopoly lobbyists rather than their constituents, cities and states would do well to follow along closely.
Business is Good
Stock buybacks by publicly traded companies like Comcast are a commonly used mechanism to transfer wealth from the cash a firm has on hand to the pockets of its shareholders, while also driving up its value. The program expansion from Comcast announces as clear as day that the company’s top priority isn’t connecting Americans; it’s to return the most money for the least investment for its shareholders.
North Louisiana has more premises unserved with high-speed Internet access than any other region of the state. In an effort to bring reliable Internet access to its members who have gone without service, directors of the Northeast Louisiana Power Cooperative (NELPCO) recently agreed to pursue a $54 million fiber buildout.
During a special meeting called on June 29th, NELPCO’s Board of Directors voted 5-2 to begin providing high-speed Internet access across the seven rural parishes the cooperative serves through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Volt Broadband LLC.
The exact details of the project and how it will be funded are still being worked out. But, the cooperative is preparing to bond for $50 million to deploy fiber infrastructure across its 2,180-square-mile service territory, which runs from “south of Turkey Creek Lake in Franklin Parish north to the Arkansas line, and extends into Morehouse Parish,” according to the cooperative’s website.
Construction of the fiber network will be completed in segments, beginning in the most populated regions and extending to the most rural, to eventually serve all 11,000 co-op members.
During fire season in Northern California - when the sky often turns dusky with smoke in the middle of the day and the air quality can get so bad that officials declare it unhealthy to be outdoors - access to high-speed Internet connectivity is all-important.
For local governments, fast, reliable, and resilient Internet service is crucial for public safety communications. When flames engulf the region, relaying critical emergency information with speed is paramount. Seconds matter. It’s equally important for citizens to get timely information on the course of wildfires, receive alert notifications or evacuation orders, and be able to connect with friends and family.
Living in that reality is one of the driving reasons the Chico City Council recently voted to earmark $5 million of the city’s $22 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds to research and implement a plan to improve citywide Internet access.
City council members have already authorized spending $250,000 of the funds to develop a Broadband Master Plan in conjunction with EntryPoint Networks. The plan is projected to be completed by October, and once it is finished the City Council will decide where to go from there.
City officials are also in the process of surveying the city’s 115,000 residents to gauge community interest in building a municipally-owned open access fiber network. Responses to the survey so far have indicated residents are excited about the potential of a municipal broadband offering, the city’s Administrative Services Director, Scott Dowell, told ILSR in a recent interview. Dowell said he’s noticed three recurring themes in the survey responses to date: “They want it to be reliable, inexpensive, and fast.”
Although no plans have been finalized and the city is open to various approaches to improve Internet access, Dowell said the city’s lofty goal is to enable symmetrical gigabit Internet service to all premises in Chico for a monthly access fee of no more than $100.
Improving Emergency Communications in the Face of Forest Fires
Maine broadband authority redefines statewide broadband as symmetrical 100/100 Mbps connection
California Legislature and Governor reach $5.25 billion agreement on statewide middle-mile network
New Hampshire matching grant initiative aiming to promote partnerships signed by Governor
The State Scene
The Maine Senate recently enrolled a bill (L.D. 1432) amending the Municipal Gigabit Broadband Access Fund to only allow communities, municipalities, and regional utilities access to grants through the program. The bill became law without State Governor Janet Mills’ signature on June 24.
The legislation removes limits placed on the number of grants able to be awarded per project, but limits the amount of funds that may be distributed per project to 50 percent of total costs. The bill, aiming to support the deployment of municipal gigabit fiber optic networks, also requires the ConnectMaine (ConnectME) Authority to establish minimum upload and download speed definitions to foster widespread availability of symmetric high-speed Internet access, beginning in 2025.
Closing the homework gap has been a top priority for Federal Communications Commission (FCC) acting Chair Jessica Rosenworcel. She has a long track record advocating for Wi-Fi-enabled school buses, lamenting viral images of school children completing homework in fast food parking lots, and making the case that no child should be left offline. At the onset of the pandemic, she pledged to use her influence at the agency to fight to increase the flexibility of the E-Rate program, saying “every option needs to be on the table.”
When the American Rescue Plan Act established the Emergency Connectivity Fund (ECF) in March, a $7 billion program to connect students and library patrons to the Internet at off-campus locations, Rosenworcel had an opportunity to follow through on those promises. She could have seized the moment to steer the program in the direction of allowing schools and libraries to build, own, and operate their own school and community networks (what the federal government refers to as self-provisioned networks). Many schools serving areas with poorly connected students already do this, but without much help from the E-rate program.
But when the rules on how to spend the money were finalized on May 10th, the FCC’s Report and Order declared that schools and libraries could not use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks, but instead could only use the funds to purchase Wi-Fi hotspots, modems, routers, and connected devices, such as laptop computers and tablets. The one exception in which schools and libraries can use Connectivity Funds to build self-provisioned networks is in “areas where no service is available for purchase,” based on data self-reported by private ISPs.
This piece was written by Christopher Mitchell and Ry Marcattilio-McCracken
The second round of Techdirt’s Greenhouse Policy forum lands on the topic of broadband in the age of Covid and brings together a collection of voices speaking to facets of an important conversation. “The triple whammy of limited competition, regulatory capture, and Congressional corruption,” Karl Bode writes in introduction, “has resulted in the U.S. being utterly mediocre (or worse) in nearly every major broadband metric that matters.” Deb Socia and Geoff Millener have contributed to talk about online education, Harold Feld writes about radio spectrum, Terique Boyce talks about New York City’s Master Plan, and Jonathan Schwantes writes about treating broadband like a public utility. We likewise contributed an essay on community broadband and the steps local governments have taken to get citizens connected.
We encourage you to read it over at Techdirt, but will repost it below.
When it comes to the goal of ensuring all Americans have affordable and reliable Internet access, we are pretty much stalled. Sure, the FCC will make noise every year about our quest to bridge the digital divide, but it has focused solely on for-profit private solutions. And while there are many hundreds of good local companies making important local investments, the FCC has tended to throw the most money at the few extremely big ones (the same big ones that are on the other side of the revolving door at the FCC for most employees, whether staff or political appointees.)
Despite repeated reminders from the rest of us that Hollywood will only ever give the late night slots to guys named James, Stephen, or Conan, Christopher is determined that if he just hosts enough things he’ll be able to break into the business and leave us all behind. In that spirit comes a new series here at the Community Broadband Networks initiative within the Institute for Local Self-Reliance: Connect This!
Every two weeks, a diverse panel of broadband policy experts and industry veterans will get together and talk about recent news, untangle regulations, demystify technology, dig into grant programs, and have a good time. Compared to the Broadband Bits podcast, Connect This! will range wider and encourage guests to find common ground on the complicated issues that collectively define our networked future. Episodes will have a set agenda and aim for less than an hour, and the plan is to bring at least one guest across two episodes in a row to provide some continuity.
Host Christopher Mitchell shared the driving impulse behind it:
I don't think people working in this space have enough opportunities to hear people wrestling over these different ideas and challenges. A lot of people are working very hard to build networks or better policies and trying to puzzle through things on their own. What is happening at the FCC? What is the deal with that government program? How does this technology work in the real world?
The goal of the show is to address these issues from different perspectives and ask hard questions — questions that we may not always know how to answer. But also to have fun with it because this is an exciting space to work in and we shouldn't have to be super serious all the time.
The first episode is up, with Christopher joined by Cat Blake (CTC Technology and Energy), Karl Bode (TechDirt), and Travis Carter (CEO, US Internet). They talk about US Ignite’s new Project Overcome, state broadband grant programs that exclude municipal networks, and AT&T’s decision to stop connecting users to its DSL network.
Subscribe to the show using this feed.
Email us firstname.lastname@example.org with feedback and ideas for the show.
AT&T Is Abandoning Tens of Thousands of American Households in the Deep South Who Have No Other Internet Access Option
All across the country, municipal networks, cooperatives, and cities have been putting in extra effort to make sure that Americans have the fast, affordable, reliable Internet access they need to conduct their lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
AT&T has decided to take another route. A USA Today report last week revealed that the company has stopped making connections to users subscribing to its ADSL Internet as of October 1st. Anyone calling the company to set up new service is being told that no new accounts are being accepted.
The decision comes right as the National Digital Inclusion Alliance has released a report detailing that only 28% of AT&T’s territory can get fiber from the company. AT&T has deliberately focused investment in more urban areas of higher income. From the report:
The analysis of AT&T’s network reveals that the company is prioritizing network upgrades to wealthier areas, and leaving lower income communities with outdated technologies. Across the country, the median income for households with fiber available is 34 percent higher than in areas with DSL only — $60,969 compared to $45,500.
The Deep South Hit Hardest
As of today, it looks like the most conservative number of those affected by the decision will be about 80,000 households that have no other option. Our analysis using the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) Form 477 data shows that the Deep South will be hit the hardest (see table at the bottom of the page).
Collectively it means more than 207,000 Americans who, if disconnected, will have no option for Internet aside from their mobile devices or satellite service. The number of Americans affected by the decision but which have additional wireline options is higher: roughly 2.2 million American households nationwide subscribe to the service (see map, below).
Last December we wrote about Connecticut’s long-awaited victory by court affirmation in the fight to let its cities attach to utility poles at no cost in pursuit of spurring municipal broadband efforts. A similar effort seems to have stalled in its neighbor to the north, with HD 4492 languishing in the Massachusetts Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy Committee.
The bill, “An Act To Establish Municipal Access To Utility Poles Located In Municipal Rights-Of-Way,” is simple. It modifies Chapter 166, Section 22a of the state’s General Laws to eliminate pole attachment fees for cities working to build broadband networks to reach “unserved or underserved areas” (as defined by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI)), shifting the expense instead to the current pole owner(s). John Barrett introduced the bill and two dozen fellow legislators co-signed it. It calls for:
Notwithstanding any provision of law to the contrary, for the purpose of safeguarding access to infrastructure essential to public health, safety and welfare, an owner of a shared-use pole and each entity attaching to that pole is responsible for that owner's or entity's own expenses for make-ready work to accommodate a municipality's attaching its facilities to that shared-use pole: a) For a governmental purpose consistent with the police power of the municipality; or b) For the purpose of providing broadband service to an unserved or underserved area.
Up in the Air
There’s no better way to celebrate the start of a revolution than to break free from the tyranny of a telecom monopoly. So join us this Independence Day, and declare yourself independent from King AT&T and its monopolist pals.
We’ll be celebrating the holiday by throwing our own AT&Tea Party, so to speak. We’ve created a few graphics that we’ll be sharing on social media alongside examples of communities that have freed themselves from the rule of broadband monopolies once and for all using the hashtag #CommunityNets. Please join us by using the hashtag, sharing the images, or posting your own story about how your community has built its own broadband network.
Check out our social media kit below or share via Facebook.
Time to Dump AT&T
The telecom giant has a long history of neglecting its subscribers, exploiting its employees, and abusing our state legislatures in order to maintain its monopoly for the benefit of its executives and shareholders. According to the most recent Federal Communications Commission data, more than one million people can only access broadband through AT&T, and at least 83 million people in the United States live under a broadband monopoly. More importantly, AT&T is writing the rules for the entire market both in DC and state legislatures.
While King AT&T is not the only monopoly broadband provider that we should rebel against, it is certainly among the worst. Here are just several select examples of how AT&T has acted egregiously over the years: