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Broadband First Responders: Libraries, Schools, and ISPs Open Wi-Fi Hotspots for Students

Visitors to libraries across the country are being greeted with signs declaring, “Library Closed,” in an attempt to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. But increasingly, those words are followed by the ones seen outside Schlow Centre Region Library in State College, Pennsylvania: “Park for Free Wi-Fi.”

As the Covid-19 outbreak pushes almost all daily functions online, libraries, schools, and Internet service providers (ISPs) are finding themselves on the front lines of responding to their communities’ connectivity needs — especially those of students. Nationwide, these broadband first responders are working rapidly to open and deploy public Wi-Fi hotspots that families can access from the safety of their parked cars.

Even before the current crisis, the “homework gap” meant that 7 million school-age children did not have Internet access at home, hampering their ability to get an education. Now, the digital divide is being thrown into even starker relief, as students struggle to access online classes and school districts grapple with equity concerns.

Though it isn’t a permanent solution to the homework gap, these community institutions and providers hope that the emergency Wi-Fi access will give students on the wrong side of the divide a chance to learn while schools are shut down.

Students Trade Desks for Cars

Earlier this week, the American Library Association (ALA) recommended that libraries leave their Wi-Fi turned on and accessible while facilities are closed. In a press release, ALA stated:

Chattanooga and Its Gig Hit Top 50 Surge Cities Index for Entrepreneurs

When it comes to opportunity for startups, the folks at Inc. Magazine turned to Startup Genome, an innovation policy company that examines important factors to develop its Surge Cities index. Startup Genome looked at seven of the most important indicators, including seed funding and job creation, and created a top-50 list of places most friendly for startups. Chattanooga came in at 36 on the list, mostly due to its fiber optic network.

Inc.com described Chattanooga as the Gig City "where approachability meets opportunity" and went on to write:

In 2010, Chattanooga became the first U.S. city to offer inexpensive gigabit-speed internet to all of its residents. Since then, the Tennessean city's economy has flourished, entrepreneurial activity has spiked, and resources for startups have proliferated. These include the Company Lab, a nonprofit accelerator that hosts Chattanooga’s annual Startup Week, and the INCubator, a massive 127,000-square-foot complex currently housing 55 startups, including 3-D printed builder Branch Technology, which has $9.5 million in funding. Today, it ranks 25th in the country for net business creation. Entrepreneurs are also drawn to the area because of its big city culture and small town vibe, says Alexis Willis, director of small business and entrepreneurship at the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce. “Hearing about Chattanooga's [high-speed] internet may have brought them here, but then they’re like, ‘I want to move my whole family here’ and they end up sticking around,” she says. --Cameron Albert-Deitch

According to the Executive Director of CO.LAB Marcus Shaw, the EPB Fiber Optic network turned a congenial city into one roaring for entrepreneurs. "The gig was the impetus for this next generation of entrepreneurship," Shaw said. "This modern era of entrepreneurship is less than 10 years old, and where we've come in 10 years is phenomenal."

CO.LAB works with startups, offering courses on the information and skills that help innovators breed success in new endeavors.

Startup Genome looked at these factors when considering what cities made the list:

Thankful for Growing Efforts at Digital Inclusion

As late November arrives, so does the the holiday season for many of our readers. People reading up on local efforts to improve Internet access will be counting their blessings today, which inspires us to do the same. There are many things we have to be thankful this year.

As access to affordable broadband becomes increasingly critical in today's world, however, and as rates from the large Internet access companies continue to rise, getting online is more challenging than ever for folks with limited incomes. We want to express our appreciation for local communities who adopt policies to make high-quality Internet access available to lower income households through their municipal networks.

A Growing Awareness

Wilson, North Carolina, decided that as part of the community network's mission, they would offer fast, reliable fiber Internet access available to those living in public housing residences. Since then, we've seen other communities take creative approaches to ensure that everyone can use the network, not only those who are already better off. Municipalities that see the value of publicly owned fiber optic infrastructure understand the value of eliminating cherry picking as a way to tap into their undiscovered human capital.

Unlike large corporate Internet access providers, publicly owned networks don't need to maximize profit from every subscriber in order to please shareholders. They consider themselves in place for the public good. Munis can dedicate themselves toward digital inclusion efforts, which are in line with their mission.

During Digital Inclusion Week in October, we detailed some of the innovative approaches that local decision makers are adopting to ensure the least fortunate in their communities have access to the community's new fiber tools. Here are just a few:

Multichannel News Examines Munis and Economic Growth

Multichannel News recently published an informative and detailed look at municipal networks and the surge in interest that communities have exhibited as they've explored ways to improve local connectivity. Author Mike Farrell provides an indepth examination some of the many local communities that have used fiber optic connectivity to attract job creators and some of the common challenges they've encountered.

Still Some Opposition 

As Farrell notes, several candidates for President have mentioned funding for municipal networks in their platforms, bringing more attention to publicly owned Internet networks. The interest has been growing for some time, however, as has opposition. Farrell writes:

But no matter which side you’re on, one thing is increasingly clear: municipal broadband is gaining steam and some communities are finding innovative ways to finance and maintain projects. And the risk, as many areas are finding out, is becoming worth it.

When Farrell spoke with the NCTA - The Internet & Television Association (formerly the National Cable & Telecommunications Association), which lobbies on behalf of large and small Internet service providers, they indicated a dislike of competition:

“Broadly, we support government programs that dedicate money to building networks where they don’t exist or make economic sense for private ISPs to build, and believe that taxpayer dollars should not be used to subsidize competition where networks already exist,” NCTA senior vice president, strategic communications Brian Dietz said in an email message.

Here and There

Farrell covers communities where networks have been serving the public for years and in places where locals have only recently decided to make the investment. One of the places Farrell writes about, which many other authors have covered, is Chattanooga, Tennessee: 

Tri-County Rural Electric Delivering Connectivity, Expanding Partnerships, in Appalachians - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 383

Tri-County Electric Cooperative in north central Pennsylvania has listened to its members' wishes and is developing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for Internet access. While Christopher was at the October Broadband Communities Economic Development event in Alexandria, Virginia, he met up with Craig Eccher, President and CEO of the co-op, to learn more about the project and the cooperative.

Craig describes how the infrastructure was needed for basic electric operations - to improve communication between substations - and that members had also begun to request Internet access from their co-op. When they sought information through a survey, the results were supportive, but cooperative leadership needed to take a creative approach to get members to attend a meeting for discussion about project details. Craig describes how the demographic support surprised and encouraged them and how state and federal funding provided the boost they needed to confirm the project.

The cooperative is redefining partnerships both in the community and in ways that go beyond the co-op's service area. Craig talks about business and member partnerships that will help expand the use of the infrastructure. He also describes how the project has breathed new life into the role of the cooperative within the Appalachian community it serves and how, while happy with the new excitement, it's important to manage expectations.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played on this page or via Apple Podcasts or the tool of your choice using this feed

Transcript below. 

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.

Municipal Fiber Networks Power Digital Inclusion Programs

Which would you choose — a broadband subscription with download speeds of 15 Megabits per second (Mbps) or a much faster gigabit plan for the same price?

The choice is clear, and it’s one that low-income households in Hillsboro, Oregon, may soon make, thanks to the city’s planned municipal fiber network. Earlier this year, Hillsboro announced that its new broadband utility, HiLight, will offer gigabit connectivity for only $10 per month to qualified low-income residents. In comparison, Comcast’s Internet Essentials program provides low-income families in the city speeds of just 15 Mbps for roughly the same monthly cost.

Hillsboro isn’t the first community to leverage its publicly owned fiber network for digital inclusion efforts. Municipal networks across the country are providing low-cost connectivity, affordable devices, and digital skills trainings to their communities, bringing the educational, economic, and healthcare benefits of broadband access to more people.

Defining Digital Inclusion

Digital inclusion is the practice of ensuring digital equity, which the National Digital Inclusion Alliance defines as “a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy.”

Broadband availability is only one of many “digital divides” that explain who is and isn’t connected. For instance, income and affordability also play a role. According to the Pew Research Center, adults with annual incomes of $75,000 or more are almost twice as likely to have broadband access at home than adults with annual incomes of less than $30,000. Among those without home broadband access, the high cost of a subscription is most commonly cited as the top reason why, Pew reports.

Chattanooga's EPB Working with Cities, Co-ops to Improve Connectivity

In the Internet access industry, large corporations typically fight to maintain their positions as monopolies. Even if they have no intention of serving certain communities, big cable and telecom companies work to prevent others from gaining a foothold, fearful that they may someday lose subscribers. On the other hand, municipalities that operate publicly owned networks often encourage, mentor, and collaborate with neighboring communities to get people connected. Now, EPB Fiber Optics in Chattanooga is partnering with municipalities and cooperatives interested in offering Internet access.

Working Past Restrictions

Tennessee still prevents municipal power utilities from offering telecommunications services beyond their electric service areas, but state law won’t deter EPB Fiber Optics from doing what they can. Recently, EPB Vice President of Marketing J. Ed Marsten spoke with Telecompetitor. “We’re partnering with some other municipal and cooperative providers to help them get into the business,” Marston said. “We’ve seen a ton of interest.”

EPB Fiber Optics is offering a range of services to potential utility partners as a way to bring better connectivity to more Tennesseans. In addition to consulting services, the utility may be able to provide transport to an Internet point of presence (POP) and offers tech support. When municipalities or cooperatives work with EPB and use Chattanooga’s staff, they can cut operating costs and reduce the time it takes to begin offering services.

In Massachusetts, Westfield Gas+Electric (WG+E) offers similar services to the nearby rural towns that lack high-quality Internet access. Westfield’s Whip City Fiber, however, is not precluded from offering Internet access via local public infrastructure. Like EPB, WG+E also offers consulting services, if municipalities choose to operate their own networks.

Publicly Minded Moves…So Many

Munis Make PCMag Fastest ISPs List Again

Since 2011, PCMag has collected speed data and written about the country’s Fastest ISPs based on download and upload results. This year’s results reflect, once again, that locations with publicly owned broadband infrastructure contribute to communities’ ability to offer faster connectivity.

How They Did It

PCMag asked readers to use a special speed test developed specifically for this reporting that measured download and upload speeds. PCMag's Speed Index assigned to each ISP represented 80 percent download speed and 20 percent upload speed. Filtering out non-U.S. tests, they ended up with 256,016 tests that applied to the comparisons. If, however, a location (for state and regional comparisons) or ISP had fewer than 100 tests, the folks at PCMag did not consider it a contender.

While editors further broke down results so as to stack major ISPs against each other in a head-to-head comparison, they also looked at all the results in a general comparison. PCMag broke down the results further by region and city. For more details on the results, check out the full article.

Munis New and Not-So-New

FairlawnGig in Ohio made the list this year, adding a third municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network to the list. The city’s retail service began serving residents with gigabit connectivity back in 2017, after firmly establishing their fiber services for local businesses.

When contemplating the investment, city leaders adopted the approach that their fiber optic network would be an essential piece of infrastructure on par with sewers or roads. Fairlawn used municipal bonds with no intention of turning a profit; they considered the network an investment that would keep the Akron suburb competitive. Residents, businesses, and institutions in Fairlawn, however, have enthusastically signed up for fast, reliable, connectivity where residents can get gigabit Internet access for $75 per month.

Why Your Internet Sucks: Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj Boos Comcast, Cheers Muni Broadband

In the most recent episode of his weekly Netflix show Patriot Act, comedian and former Daily Show correspondent Hasan Minhaj answers the question we’ve all asked ourselves: “Why does my Internet service provider suck so much?” To figure it out, the show, which features research from the Community Broadband Networks initiative, takes a deep dive into Internet access inequality, lobbying telecom monopolies, inept federal regulators, municipal broadband networks, and more.

Minhaj, citing our Profiles of Monopoly report, points to monopoly broadband providers as one of the main reasons for slow speeds, poor service, and uneven access. He calls out Comcast in particular:

“Now look, all of these companies are terrible, but Comcast deserves a special place in Hell . . . In fact, Comcast has been called “America’s Most Hated Company” . . . The emotions are real. People hate Comcast.”

Later, he notes that the federal government shares responsibility for the sad state of affairs:

“The most frustrating part about the broadband cartel is that the government isn’t just letting this happen; it’s helping it happen. They are protecting broadband monopoly power over the public good, and most of the blame falls on one agency: the Federal Communications Commission, or the FCC.”

In the episode, Minhaj also explains how the FCC’s data collection methods vastly overstate broadband coverage, calling Form 477, which the agency uses to collect deployment data from providers, the “government version of ‘grade your own quiz.’”

As a counterpoint, Minhaj highlights how communities across the country, like Chattanooga, Tennessee, are building their own broadband networks to get around monopoly providers and sluggish regulators:

“Small cities are going DIY, and they’re setting up their own Internet. It’s become known as municipal broadband, and it is phenomenal. It turns out, when cities create their own Internet, then their own broadband customers get faster speeds, lower prices, and better customer service — you know, all the things that violate Comcast company policy.”

Municipal broadband, he says, is creating competition and faster, more affordable Internet access:

Deb Socia to Lead Enterprise Center in Chattanooga

It was only a year ago that Next Century Cities Executive Director Deb Socia received the Charles Benton Digital Equity Champion Award. Since then, Deb has continued to raise the bar for nonprofit leaders. She has brought people together, advocated for smart policies, and developed resources to help local communities improve connectivity and shrink the digital divide. Now, Deb has decided it’s time to share her high-energy magic in Tennessee. Deb recently announced that she has accepted a position as CEO of the Enterprise Center in Chattanooga.

The Heart and Soul of Next Century Cities

Since she started the organization in the fall of 2014, Deb has led its team and the member communities that collaborate and share information. The group began with a modest 32 members, but through Deb’s hard work and determination, more than 200 communities have now joined. The nonprofit, through her vision and leadership, has assisted local governments in their vision of better connectivity and local policies that encourage broadband investment.