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CA Broadband Activists Aim For Big Wins On Mapping, Cable Franchise Reform
As California aims to boost broadband competition and Los Angeles County pursues what could be the biggest municipal broadband network ever built, local activists say they’ve made some meaningful recent inroads on both improving broadband mapping, and regulatory reform that should aid the equitable deployment of modern, affordable access.
Recently, inroads have been made on fixing long-broken California cable franchise law. In the early aughts, cablecos (and telcos pushing into the TV business) successfully lobbied for state-level “cable franchise reform” laws they promised would dramatically lower prices. In reality, such bills were often little more than legislative wishlists crafted by telecom giants.
Often these state-level replacements for local franchise agreements eroded legal regulatory authority, eliminated long standing requirements for uniform broadband and TV deployment, and in some states–like Wisconsin–even acted to strip away local consumer protections and eminent domain rights. Warnings by academics on this front were widely ignored.
Seventeen years after its passage, California activists say that California’s 2006 Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) was no exception.
After Years of Talk, Cambridge, MA is Now Taking Serious Look at Municipal Broadband
In Cambridge, Massachusetts, digital equity advocates and city leaders have been debating the idea of building a citywide municipal fiber network for years now, mostly over whether the estimated $150 to $200 million it would cost to build the network would be worth it.
In a tech-savvy city, home to Harvard and MIT, the former city manager was resistant to a serious inquiry into municipal broadband. He retired last summer. But before he left, he relented on the broadband question – under pressure from city councilors and a local citizen group advocating for municipal broadband, Upgrade Cambridge.
With many residents weary of being held hostage to the whims and high cost of service from the monopoly provider in town (Comcast), which currently controls 80 percent of the city’s market, in 2021 the city hired the well-regarded Maryland-based consulting firm CTC Technology & Energy to conduct a thorough feasibility study. Now, with a new supportive city manager in office, city leaders have agreed to continue to investigate the options laid out in the recently published study.
‘Significant Public Support’ Even If It Requires Tax Money
Quincy, MA Moves Full Speed Ahead On City Owned Open Access Fiber Plan
Quincy, Massachusetts is moving full speed ahead on a long-percolating plan to bring faster and more reliable broadband to a community long neglected by regional telecom monopolies.
If successful, the resulting open access fiber network should dramatically boost competitive options in the city, driving down costs for what many view as an essential utility.
After five years of debate and planning, Quincy officials say they’re getting closer to launching a city owned open access fiber network that will provide a backbone for city services, as well as a major infusion of long overdue broadband competition citywide.
Quincy Ward 3 Councilor Ian Cain told ISLR that the city is planning to launch trial deployments in Merrymount and Quincy Point during the next few months. The city has long worked with Entrypoint networks as a technical consultant and project financial planner, and city officials are expecting an engineering and feasibility study from Tilson within a matter of weeks.
RFP Coming Soon
“We're intending to bring the request for financing before the council before the end of session, which is at the end of June,” Cain said.
"We'll be putting out an RFP for the open access component of the project soon as well. We hope to fund the project through the city council before the summer, and then ideally we would start construction in the fall."
The initial pilot project will be funded by a general obligation bond. City leaders stated Merrymount and Quincy Point were selected both with an eye on socioeconomic diversity, and because the city was certain they’d see a relatively high adoption rate.
"Quincy Point in particular has a lot of economic and cultural diversity, and I think that's really important to emphasize as we move forward," Ward 2 City Councilor Anthony Andronico said of the city’s effort. "Quincy Point and Merrymount will have an opportunity to see what works with this program, what we can improve upon and help expand it to the whole city.”
Colorado Repeal Of Community Broadband Ban A Turning Point Decades In The Making
Colorado state leaders have voted to eliminate long-criticized state barriers to municipal broadband networks. Community broadband advocates hope it will be a beacon for other states eager to bring more reliable and affordable high-speed Internet service to a market long dominated by monopoly providers.
The Colorado decision, made after years of citizen backlash to the counterproductive restrictions, is the latest inflection point in a retreat away from monopoly-backed state laws stifling creative efforts to bridge the digital divide.
On May 1, Colorado Governor Jared Polis signed Senate Bill 23-183. The new law formally eliminates an older 2005 law backed by regional telecom monopolies, which imposed cumbersome and onerous restrictions on Colorado towns and cities looking to build better, more affordable community-owned and operated broadband networks.
“SB23-183 removes the biggest obstacle to achieving the Governor’s goal to connect 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027,” Colorado Broadband Office Executive Director Brandy Reitter said of the decision. “Each local government is in a unique position or different phase of connecting residents to high-speed internet, and this bill allows them to establish broadband plans that meet the needs of their communities.”
Colorado state leaders say the repeal puts them in a prime position to capitalize on numerous digital equity programs designed to address Colorado’s digital divide, as well as the more than $42 billion in broadband subsidies soon to be distributed courtesy of the recently-passed Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA).
“With large amounts of federal funding coming from the IIJA bill, we wanted communities to be ready to receive this money,” Colorado Representative Brianna Titone told ILSR.
Last year, Governor Polis signed an executive order formally setting a goal of connecting 99% of Colorado households by the end of 2027. Colorado state leaders have previously stated they expect their share of IIJA/BEAD funding to be between $400 and $700 million; money that can now be used more broadly on a diverse array of creative broadband solutions.
FCC nominee Gigi Sohn Named Executive Director of the American Association of Public Broadband
Two months after President Biden’s belated and long-stalled Federal Communications Commission (FCC) nominee withdrew her nomination after a year-long attack campaign against her, today at the Broadband Communities Summit in Houston, Texas, Gigi Sohn announced her next move: Sohn will serve as the first Executive Director for the American Association of Public Broadband (AAPB).
A non-profit organization formed by a group of municipal officials, AAPB’s mission is to advance advocacy efforts on behalf of publicly-owned, locally-controlled broadband networks. Since the organization first announced its formation at the Broadband Communities Summit in May of 2022, it has been working to educate federal and state policymakers who “have turned to the telecom lobby for help and are receiving biased guidance” on the community broadband networks approach, just as $42.5 billion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is set to flow to state governments to expand high-speed Internet access this summer.
During a keynote luncheon at the summit, Sohn was joined by AAPB founding board members Bob Knight and Kimberly McKinley on the main stage for a candid discussion in which she reflected on the state of Internet access in the U.S. and her experience that led to her to withdraw her nomination to the FCC. Near the end of the luncheon she announced her new role with AAPB, which was greeted by a standing ovation from the hundreds of attendees in the audience.
Freedom to Choose Community Broadband Future
The announcement was followed by a press briefing where she elaborated on her vision for AAPB.
“I will be the first Executive Director of the American Association of Public Broadband. Until now, there has not been a membership-based advocacy organization that works to ensure that public broadband can grow unimpeded by anti-competitive barriers. That’s despite the success of public broadband to help places like Chattanooga and the Massachusetts Berkshires transform from sleepy hamlets to vibrant centers of economic opportunity, education and culture,” she said at the press briefing.
Cleveland, Tennessee’s City-Owned Utility Getting Into Broadband Business
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.
Capital Construction of a Municipal Broadband Utility 101
*This piece was authored by Brieana Reed-Harmel, manager of the municipal-owned Pulse fiber network in Loveland, Colorado. It was originally published by Broadband Breakfast with permission to republish here. We have extensively covered the Pulse network in Loveland examples of which can be found here and here.
I am the manager for Pulse, the municipally owned broadband utility in Loveland and parts of Larimer County, Colorado. We made strong choices early on that put us on a path to success.
Having broken ground fewer than six months before the start of the pandemic, I am continually impressed with how smoothly our work has progressed. Put simply, I want you to be as successful as we have been.
Define the Plan, Assess Your Skills and Determine What You Need
Documenting the plan makes it easy to share the vision. The plan needs to include the high-level vision and strategy, but also delve into the granular, tactical details as it establishes your success criteria. What does success look like in terms of customer take rate, time to rollout and network documentation?
Include details related to long-term maintenance, and what operations will eventually look like as it will affect the network design, construction methods and the type of materials you decide to use. Understanding these details can greatly change cost models, as some choices have lower upfront costs but higher longer term maintenance costs, and vice versa, which can make or break a business model.
Massachusetts Broadband Coalition Is Formed With Focus on Public Private Partnerships
Representing 26 towns across Massachusetts, from Cape Cod to Chelsea, an informal group of mostly town officials have formed the Massachusetts Broadband Coalition in search of a way out of a broken broadband market to ensure everyone in their individual communities has access to high-speed Internet.
The newly-formed coalition has recently started to meet monthly to share information about what kind of alternatives there might be, or could be, to the big cable monopoly provider in their towns.
Questioning Monopoly Rules Without Reinventing the Wheel
The coalition, which held its first meeting in January, was convened by Robert Espindola, Fairhaven Selectmen and the board’s liaison to the town’s broadband study committee. And though the coalition is “in its infant stages,” as Espindola recently shared with ILSR, one common theme has emerged from each participating member.
“No doubt the common theme is: there’s no competition,” he said. “That’s how it started in Fairhaven for us. When we were negotiating our (franchise) agreement with Comcast, people in the community were asking: ‘why can’t we get competition?’”
When we first came together it was really more just to learn from each other, what each community was doing. And we wanted to see if we could find ways to work more efficiently and not reinvent the wheel.
Indeed, communities across the nation have set out to tackle local connectivity challenges head-on with a community broadband approach without having to reinvent the wheel. Some have built, or are building locally-controlled, publicly-owned open-access fiber networks to create the conditions for competition. Other cities and towns are building, maintaining, and operating their own successful municipal broadband networks. While still others have opted to enter into a public-private partnership with an independent ISP to build out a community-wide network.
Public-Private Partnerships Come into Focus
Boulder, Colorado Gets Ready to Roll on Citywide Fiber Network
With the construction of its 65-mile dark fiber backbone nearly complete, city officials in Boulder, Colorado are now ready to move into the next phase of their plan: test the waters for a partnership with private or nonprofit Internet service providers (ISPs) to build out a citywide fiber network to deliver last mile service to the city’s 104,000 residents and businesses.
Last week, the city issued a Request for Information (RFI) “to gauge the interest of for-profit and nonprofit entities in forming a public–private partnership (PPP) with the city to make Gigabit per second-class bandwidth available to all Boulder homes and businesses.”
“As we prepare for further City Council discussion on a future community broadband operating model, it is imperative that we understand the market potential for a PPP (public-private partnership) to meet the city’s goals related to connectivity. We look forward to responses that consider a variety of business models to share technological and operational responsibilities and financial risk with the city in innovative ways,” Innovation and Technology Deputy Director Mike Giansanti said in a press statement when the RFI was issued.
The city is looking for a partner or partners that will come to table with new ideas, create competition, and either fully fund or share costs.
Having prioritized a city-wide fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) build, city officials have identified two main goals: serve the growing demand for “affordable, reliable, and sophisticated broadband technology; and support a thriving business environment.”
Responses to the RFI are due by May 19 at 4 pm MDT.
City officials say they will consider a range of construction and operation designs as well as a variety of ownership models as the City Council will likely vote on the path forward and the execution of a contract sometime this year.
Realizing Ambitions of Open Access in Marin County, California
Creative efforts are underway in Marin County, California to bring fiber connectivity to underserved pockets of the community and eventually the whole area. Digital Marin, currently housed within the county’s Information Services and Technology Department, is coordinating the project, and is leaning towards a municipally-owned, open-access solution modeled after Ammon’s standout network in Idaho.
Just across the Golden Gate Strait from San Francisco, Marin County is home to about 265,000 residents, as well as the Muir Woods National Monument, a County Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and nearly 73 miles of coastal trail. Despite largely being considered an urban county, Marin also includes suburban and rural areas with 40 percent of the county classified as protected park land.
When it comes to Internet connectivity, the area is peppered with what Marin County resident and Digital Marin Executive Steering Committee member, Bruce Vogen, calls “donut holes of high-quality Internet access.” An unknown provider built a DSL network in the region many years ago and then Comcast later bought and inherited the antiquated infrastructure. Soon after, AT&T entered the market but selected only the most profitable neighborhoods to serve. All 90,000 of the county’s urban households can access the Internet through Comcast, but just 20,000 of these homes have access to the archipelago of AT&T’s fiber network. In any case, Marin’s urban areas are either subject to monopoly or duopoly market control. It has long been apparent there is a digital divide in Marin County, but it wasn’t until the 2022 FCC maps were released that the contours of this divide came into focus.