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For the second week in row, our staff has felt compelled to address a misleading report about municipal networks. In order to correct the errors and incorrect assumptions in yet another anti-muni publication, we’ve worked with Next Century Cities to publish Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies: Yoo Discredits U Penn, Not Municipal Networks.
Skewed Data = Skewed Results
Professor Christopher S. Yoo and Timothy Pfenninger from the Center for Technology, Innovation and Competition (CTIC) at the University of Pennsylvania Law School recently released "Municipal Fiber in the United States: An Empirical Assessment of Financial Performance." The report attempts to analyze the financial future of several citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) municipal networks in the U.S. by applying a Net Present Value (NPV) calculation approach. They applied their method to some well-known networks, including Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics; Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina; and Lafayette, Louisiana's LUS Fiber. Unfortunately, their initial data was flawed and incomplete, which yielded a report fraught with credibility issues.
So Many Problems
In addition to compromising data validity, the authors of the study didn’t consider the wider context of municipal networks, which goes beyond the purpose of NPV, which is determining the promise of a financial investment.
Some of the more expansive problems with this report (from our Executive Summary):
Usually, we ignore the misinformation released by the Taxpayers Protection Alliance (TPA) but their latest efforts are so shady, we felt it was our responsibility to shine a light on its lack of validity and the organization's credibility. Our report, Correcting Community Fiber Fallacies: Taxpayers Protection Alliance Edition, takes a deeper look at the TAP's most recent attempt, which is filled with errors and a blatant disregard for the truth.
What Is A "Boondoggle" Anyway? This Map!
When we looked deeper, we discovered that TPA’s "Broadband Boondoggles: A Map of Failed Taxpayer-Funded Networks" is more misinformation than map.
All of the basic errors in the map display a lack of attention to detail; our short report examines the deceitful characteristics of this resource. Our purpose in publishing this report is to caution community leaders and citizens who are investigating publicly owned infrastructure; the TPA is not a credible source.
One of the more obvious errors: Sandy, Oregon, appears in Utah.
The map is also visually deceiving because it includes 213 communities, but only provides information for 87. Of the 213 on the map, the TPA only label 14 as "failures," which means less than 10 percent of the networks they document fit their own definition of "failure."
Clearly, TPA has proven that it seeks to spread any and all information it can find to discredit municipal networks, regardless of accuracy. Communities, public officials, or staff that research the option of publicly owned networks should review our report if they have ever considered the data in the Boondoggles Map.
Consider the Source
If your community is seeking better connectivity, thorough research will be the foundation of how you proceed. As part of your research, be sure to review the organizations that offer information.
From our report:
Congratulations to Chattanooga’s EPB Fiber, which in April exceeded 90,000 subscribers and contributed to lower power rates for all EPB customers.
Savings For Everyone
While the increased subscribership is cause for celebration, an equally important chapter in the story is that EPB lowered power rates by 7 percent as a result of upgrading to a “smart grid.” All EPB customers may not subscribe to EPB Fiber's Internet access, but all electric customers benefit from lower electric rates. Chattanooga’s fiber network operates as the main mode of communications for the grid, while also providing Internet services to businesses and residents.
The grid and fiber combination includes sensors, meters, and switches that enable EPB to track energy use and manage power outages. During one storm in 2013, the grid’s switches reduced outage times by 55 percent, saving EPB $1.4 million. In late April, the area endured severe storms, but network officials estimate the smart grid prevented power outages to 17,800 customers.
In an interview with Christopher last November, EPB’s former President and CEO Harold DePriest detailed how Chattanooga’s fiber network helps bring down costs:
“We built a smart grid on the back of that fiber, and that has very literally cut the number of outages and the length of outages here in Chattanooga by 50 to 60 percent... that one thing is saving our community's businesses somewhere in the neighborhood of 50 to 60 million dollars a year. That's pretty substantial.”
J. Ed. Marston, EPB’s vice president of marketing and communications, said:
Next City - April 20, 2017
Tennessee Bills Send Message on Municipal Broadband
Written by Josh Cohen
In a world increasingly reliant on high-speed internet for all facets of life, about 34 percent of Tennesseans lack broadband access. Two state bills were considered this year to remedy that. One would’ve allowed city-owned high-speed internet infrastructure to expand at no cost to residents. Another outlined an offer of $45 million in subsidies to private internet service providers to build the same infrastructure. Only the latter passed.
Unsurprisingly, surrounding towns and suburbs want access to that network. EPB wants to expand as well. But they cannot. A state law pushed by private telecom companies prohibits public utilities with broadband networks from expanding beyond city limits. The Federal Communications Commission overturned that law in 2015, but an appellate court reversed the FCC’s ruling, meaning the law still stands.
State Senator Janice Bowling’s bill would’ve changed Tennessee law to allow municipal broadband providers to expand beyond city limits. Tullahoma, a city in Bowling’s district, also has a municipal broadband network. EPB said it could expand its network infrastructure with cash on hand and private loans. But both Bowling’s bill and its companion in the House died in committee.
Instead, the legislature passed the Tennessee Broadband Accessibility Act, a bill pushed by Governor Bill Haslam. It provides $45 million in tax breaks and grants to private companies such as AT&T and Comcast to build broadband infrastructure in communities that need it.
When state legislators in Tennessee recently passed the Broadband Accessibility Act of 2017, tech writers quoted our Christopher Mitchell, who pointed out that the proposal has some serious pitfalls.
Christopher's statement appeared in several articles:
"Tennessee taxpayers may subsidize AT&T to build DSL service to Chattanooga's [rural] neighbors rather than letting the Gig City [Chattanooga] expand its fiber at no cost to taxpayers. Tennessee will literally be paying AT&T to provide a service 1,000 times slower than what Chattanooga could provide without subsidies."
Motherboard noted that the Tennessee legislature had the opportunity to pass a bill, sponsored by Senator Janice Bowling, to grant municipal electric utilities the ability to expand and serve nearby communities. Nope. Legislators in Tennessee would rather pander to the incumbent providers that come through year after year with generous campaign contributions:
To be clear: EPB wanted to build out its gigabit fiber network to many of these same communities using money it has on hand or private loans at no cost to taxpayers. It would then charge individual residents for Internet service. Instead, Tennessee taxpayers will give $45 million in tax breaks and grants to giant companies just to get basic infrastructure built. They will then get the opportunity to pay these companies more money for worse Internet than they would have gotten under EPB's proposal.
The Motherboard reporter quoted Bowling from a prior article (because, like the movie "Groundhog Day," she keeps finding herself in the same situation year after year):
"What we have right now is not the free market, it's regulations protecting giant corporations, which is the exact definition of crony capitalism," she said.
TechDirt Gets Personal
If you’re going to talk about gigabit Internet access, Chattanooga is going to be part of the conversation. Chattanooga’s Electric Power Board (EPB) is the go-to example for citywide, symmetrical, high-quality, gigabit connectivity, and it has been since 2010.
But some one forgot to tell Comcast.
On March 20th, the ISP posted a new Xfinity video to “introduce” Chattanooga to gigabit speeds. Many, many snarky comments followed, from critique about the poor Internet access to complaints about slipshod customer service. The Times Free Press picked out some of the more memorable responses:
* Jason Schmurr: "Nope, Comcast is definitely not introducing gig-speed Internet to Chattanooga. In fact, the only thing they have introduced was a lawsuit attempting to ban gig-speed Internet from Chattanooga."
* Matthew Borden: "If I had the choice.... I'd still choose EPB. Unfortunately I am stuck with Comcast because they are the only provider in my area with broadband Internet access."
* Alixanderia Echbright: "I'd rather birth a cactus than deal with Comcast ever again. Gig speeds have been here for years, buck up."
* Scott Vandergriff: "The difference is EPB has no traffic throttling, no data cap and no "introductory" pricing. $69/month for straight unimpeded, symmetric gigabit fiber and it's been that way for years."
* Vince Cantrell: "Not sure why anybody would pay for Comcast over EPB. EPB has direct fiber to every house in Chattanooga, and has had gigabit for 7+ years already."
* Brent Tapio: "LOL, 'Introducing'? You guys have heard the term 'Gig City' used before right?"
* Patrick Alan Jaworski: "You guys realize that was already a thing ....right?"
* Steve Allen: "I'm glad I'm not the Comcast person that has to respond to all these comments."
Comcast told the Times Free Press that the strong negative response to the marketing campaign came from a "misunderstanding" in what the national provider meant to convey. Guess they should have said what they meant and meant what they said.
A new article from the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society takes a look at the pay in and pay off from Chattanooga’s investment into its fiber-optic network. The article, Smart Grid Paybacks: The Chattanooga Example, was written by Davd A. Talbot and Maria Paz-Canales.
From the Abstract:
After building a fiber optic network throughout its service territory, the city-owned electric utility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, became the first U.S. company to offer Internet access speeds of 1 gigabit per second to customers. The fiber also serves as the backbone for a sophisticated smart grid.
Data show that the savings produced by the smart grid, plus revenue from access fees paid by the utility’s Internet access business, more than cover the capital and operating costs of the smart grid. What’s more, we estimate this would still be true even if the utility hadn’t received a $111.6 million federal stimulus grant, and instead borrowed the extra amount. We reach this conclusion after counting direct savings in the utility’s operating costs (such as labor, truck maintenance, and fuel), avoided purchases of expensive wholesale power at peak times, and avoided power losses.
The region is also experiencing second-order benefits including economic development and savings to local businesses thanks to fewer and shorter power outages. The data on the following two pages were provided by the utility (known as the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, or EPB), and include data on second-order benefits originally published by Bento Lobo at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
The authors detail direct and indirect paybacks to the community from the smart grid investment. The grand total? $67.1 million.
Check out the full article here.
Tennessee State Senator Janice Bowling, a Republican from Tullahoma, has once again introduced legislation that would help bring high-quality connectivity to rural residents and businesses. The bill is not complicated and would allow municipal electric utilities that offer broadband connectivity to expand beyond their electric service area. In a video from 2015 Senator Bowling takes a few minutes to explain her proposal - to eliminate the restriction and allow places like Tullahoma, Chattanooga, and Clarksville to serve neighboring communities.
This year, the bill that eliminates the restriction is SB 1058 and its House companion is HB 0970 from Representative Dan Howell. For now, her bill is in the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee waiting to be heard. Sen. Bolling has also introduced similar bill that allows municipal electric utilities to offer telecommunications service with no geographical limitations.
Senator Bolling gets it. She understands that the people of her district and the rest of rural Tennessee need high-quality connectivity to keep pace with areas that already have such access. We’d like to see more legislators like her who put the needs of their constituents before the interests of the big cable and telephone companies.
In the video Senator Bolling describes why the bill, which she has introduced several times, has not passed. She explains what the bill does legally and practically, and she gives a frank assessment of what the situation is now in many rural areas of her state. Even though the video is from 2015, her comments are still relevant.
The video is short and to the point - only 4:20 - check it out and share.
This is the transcript for episode 242 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Our Christopher Mitchell invites Professor Susan Crawford to reflect on her recent travels through North Carolina and Tennessee. Both states have restricted communities from building new municipal networks. Listen to this episode here.
Susan Crawford: It's much more about a very bipartisan, quite progressive group of people thinking about how to make life better in their communities, and that's terrific. That's truly American.
Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 242 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We're pleased to have Susan Crawford back on the show this week. She's a Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, but she's also served as Special Assistant to President Obama for science, technology and innovation policy. Susan's CV is too long for us to go through point by point. She's authored several publications, including The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance, and The Telecom Industry and Monopoly power in the New Gilded Age. She's been on the show before to talk with Christopher about access to high-quality connectivity, and it's always a pleasure to have her back. As it turns out, Susan has been on a walkabout of sorts, visiting local communities as she works on her current book, and in this discussion she shares her impressions with Christopher. She's got some ideas on how she feels are the most effective ways to bring better connectivity to the most people, especially in rural areas, and she and Christopher hash through her findings.
Ouachita Electric Cooperative, nestled deep in south-central Arkansas, is an unlikely innovator in a pair of industries struggling to adapt to shifting market dynamics: electricity and broadband.
Despite rising demand for energy efficiency and renewable electricity generation, large investor-owned utilities -- and many rural electric co-ops -- have resisted programs to address those needs. Likewise, corporate Internet service providers frequently offer shoddy service at high rates, a particular problem in rural areas with limited competition.
But Ouachita Electric found a way to do both things better, with complementary technologies. Fiber-optic network investments provided lower cost Internet access, but also provide an information backbone for the electric utility that can reduce outage times and verification for energy savings programs. The network and the efficiency programs reduce costs for a customer base dominated by low-income households that can now reinvest their earnings elsewhere in the community.
The utility’s tariff-based, on-bill financing program -- known as HELP PAYS -- allows customers to invest in energy efficiency upgrades at their homes, like insulation and heat pumps, with no upfront cost. Ouachita Electric covers eligible expenses, then recoups its buy-in through payments from participating customers on their monthly bills. Customers immediately pay less thanks to utility-financed energy-saving improvements.
Unlike other energy efficiency programs, the opt-in “inclusive financing” program, HELP PAYS, enables all Ouachita customers to capture significant benefits: