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Field Reports: Municipal Broadband and Digital Equity in Baltimore
This week, we bring you a special field report from Maryland-based radio and podcast producer Matt Purdy. Through interviews with citizens, digital equity advocates, and the city's new Director of Broadband and Digital Equity, Purdy documents the connectivity struggles that have persisted in Baltimore's historically marginalized neighborhoods for decades.
Those challenges have only become more pronounced with the pandemic, prompting local officials to begin making moves in the direction of something we've not yet seen in a community the size of Baltimore: building a city-owned, open access fiber network.
This is a great story, so we won't give anything else a way. Listen below, or here.
Fairfield, California Exits Research Phase, Will Soon Unveil City Access Plan
Fairfield City, California is one of several cities in the state hoping to lean on both California’s broadband expansion initiative and the American Rescue Plan Act to provide faster, less expensive Internet access for city residents. The city says it will soon exit the research phase of its project and outline what they believe is the best path forward.
Last May the city council approved a plan to deploy a city-owned broadband network to expand broadband options in the city using Rescue Plan funds. Last August, the city launched a Broadband Action Planning (BAP) process to measure the scope of Internet access gaps and propose a solution, the results of which will soon be shared with the city council and the public.
Digital Divide Exacerbated
Like so many U.S. communities, the lack of affordable, equitable Internet access was particularly pronounced during the Covid crisis, the city said.
“Access to broadband is becoming a prerequisite for improving economic and social welfare,” Fairfield City Communications Manager, Bill Way, told ILSR. “It provides a conduit to enable open and accessible government, enhance business competitiveness, and improve the quality of residents’ lives through improved delivery of services such as telework, telehealth, distance learning, and digital inclusion.”
The city recently completed a survey of community members, and the majority of the almost 300 responses cited limited competition and a lack of affordable Internet access options.
“While a few comments were positive, most comments indicated lack of options, low speeds, and high costs,” Way said. “One specific consideration to note, although city staff coordinated with outside agencies to cast a broad reach for the survey, and utilized in-house engagement efforts, the responses did not generally capture vulnerable populations, most at-risk of being digitally excluded.”
South Hampton Roads Issues RFP for Regional Open Access Fiber Ring
Hampton Roads, a metropolitan region bordering the Chesapeake Bay in southeastern Virginia, is known for its 17th century historical sites, shipyards crowded with naval aircraft carriers, and mile-long bridge tunnels. Home to 1.7 million Virginians, Hampton Roads is now looking to broaden avenues for economic development by leveraging existing transatlantic subsea broadband cables to transform the region into a technology-forward digital port. That’s why regional officials recently issued a Request for Proposal (RFP) seeking one or more private partner(s) to construct a regionally-owned 100-mile, open access fiber ring.
Private partners interested in responding to the RFP [pdf] must do so by August 24, 2021. Potential partners can decide to offer some or all of the project functions, choosing to: design, build, finance, operate, and/or maintain the regional fiber ring. (See instructions on how to respond to the RFP, as well as details on the selection process, under Section IV on Page 7.)
Five of the nine cities that make up the region colloquially referred to as “the 757” - Chesapeake, Norfolk, Portsmouth, Suffolk, and Virginia Beach - banded together to improve local fiber connectivity in 2018, forming the Southside Network Authority (the Authority).
According to the Authority's RFP, the project was undertaken to resolve the broadband issues faced by the cities, including:
a need for more and more affordable internal connectivity for governmental operations
equity and affordability concerns in general as compared to similar metropolitan areas
a perceived lack of responsiveness by incumbent providers to the needs of the business community and economic development prospects
a relative lack of broadband infrastructure by comparison to comparable metropolitan areas
and concerns about the security and scalability of existing, privately-owned regional networks
Connect This! Episode 13 - Middle-Mile Challenges and Internet Exchange Points
On Episode 13 of Connect This!, co-hosts Christopher and Travis Carter (USI Fiber) are joined by Reid Fishler (Senior Director, Hurricane Electric) and Fletcher Kittredge (CEO, GWI) to talk about the issues that come up in building and maintaining backhaul routes and exchange points. During the show they discuss whether creating a small, rural ISP far from an exchange point is easier or harder now than it was 10 years ago. They talk how resiliency, competition, capacity, reliability, efficiency, cost, and innovation play into the topic, current middle-mile issues in California and Maine, and what the future of the space might look like.
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Watch here, or below.
Listen to Baratunde Thurston Interview Bruce Patterson About Open Access, Competition, and Ammon, Idaho
Baratunde Thurston hosted Bruce Patterson on the most recent episode of his podcast How To Citizen. The episode is a deep dive into the consequences of a lack of competition in Internet access, and how the city of Ammon on stepped up to meet the challenge. Baratunde talks with Technology Director Bruce Patterson about how he got into this space, how the project got started, and the wealth of positive outcomes it has help drive for the community.
Listen here, then watch the video below on how the network is saving money, creating competition for broadband services, and creating powerful new public safety applications.
Bar Harbor, Maine Considers Building Its Own Network After Charter Spectrum Raises Prices Tenfold
Bar Harbor, Maine (pop. 5,500) has been trying to get a municipal fiber network off (and into) the ground for more than half a decade. If local officials throw weight behind the most recent move, we may see momentum continue to build for faster, more reliable, affordable, and universally available Internet access for government use, commercial development, and maybe, down the road, residents as well.
We last checked in with the town in 2016, when its franchise agreement with Charter had expired and negotiations for a new agreement had stalled. At the time, Bar Harbor was considering a $100,000 engineering study to flesh out the possibility of a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network or a $50,000 study to do so for a government-only network, but at the last minute the town’s Warrant Committee and Council decided not to move ahead on either at the last minute. Since then, the situation has remained more or less in stasis.
But with recent changes, Charter has signaled that it will begin to charge Bar Harbor $45,000 a year for access via – a ten-fold increase over the $4,500/year the town currently pays. With the company refusing to negotiate, on December 15 the Town Council, at the recommendation of the Communication and Technologies Committee (CTC), voted unanimously to place a $750,000 proposal to build their own institutional network onto the 2022 budget draft review. The general public will have the chance to vote on the measure in June.
Locally Owned Infrastructure at a Fraction of the Price
A Call for More Open Access Infrastructure
There’s a new short essay out called “Future-Ready Information Infrastructure Must Be Open Access” from Underline, a firm which specializes in design, financing, construction, and operation of open access networks. It which outlines both the need for more growth of this model but also why, at this moment, we are particularly well positioned to do so today. Read a few excerpts below, but read the whole post over at Underline.
To develop the networks we need now, we must challenge the status quo & rebuild our information infrastructure from first principles: the only solution is open access, content and service agnostic, fiber-based networks.
Multi-purpose, open access fiber networks are equivalent to our “open access” roads. As the necessity of connectivity continues to extend far beyond sending email and online shopping—to virtual learning, remote work, distributed healthcare, new wireless solutions (e.g., 5G) and resilient modernized infrastructure—open access fiber networks are the critical and most efficient foundation.
We can and must efficiently build new information infrastructure as the foundation for resilient, flourishing communities to enjoy new economic opportunities, modernize other critical community infrastructure, and form a pathway to responsible energy creation and secure smart grid technology.
For more on open access networks, read our primer on the benefits they offer, or listen to Episode 424 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast below to hear Christopher talk with Jeff Christensen from EntryPoint Networks.
Open Access Networks - Episode 4 of Connect This!
On Episode 4 of Connect This! Christopher is joined by Jeff Christensen (President, EntryPoint Networks), Dane Jasper (CEO and Co-Founder, Sonic), and Travis Carter (CEO, US Internet) to talk about open access models, and the challenges and opportunities they present. During the discussion they discuss barriers to entry, differentiation, dark fiber, and why we don't see more cities pursuing projects like this. They also have a little fun sharing what they think the FCC has gotten right and wrong over the last 4 years, and what Comcast's recent announcement about bandwidth caps will mean for users and competing Internet Service Providers (ISPs).
Mentioned during the episode was Chris' conversation with NetEquity Networks' Isfandiyar Shaheen and Althea Networks' Deborah Simpier about innovating financing models for expanding fiber networks.
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Read the transcript for this episode.
Two New Reports Detail Connectivity Challenges and the Potential of Community Networks
July has seen the release of two complementary reports which shed light on two of the topics we care about a great deal around these parts: availability and affordability of Internet access, and municipally-enabled networks.
The Open Technology Institute at New America recently released “The Cost of Connectivity 2020” [pdf], which digs into the factors (some of which are explicit and others hidden) dictating how much Americans can expect to spend for Internet access in comparison to Europe, Asia, Canada, and Mexico. They conclude that, compared to the rest of the world, a lack of competition, regulation, and accurate data collection by the FCC has led to higher prices, slower speeds, exorbitant data cap fees, and deep digital divides running between those with high-speed access and those in Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities and low-income parts of American cities. And among its most compelling policy recommendations — based on data points from 296 standalone Internet plans in the United States — is that municipal networks offer a solution.
If OTI’s report outlines the deep and persistent problem of connectivity in the United States, US Ignite and Altman Solon’s “Broadband Models for Unserved and Underserved Communities” [pdf] provides a clear and thoughtful roadmap for local communities who ask “What can we do?” Above all else, the guide shows that high-speed broadband is a solvable proposition, and sketches out five models for local governments to follow according to their unique conditions. Like the OTI report, US Ignite and Altman Solon highlight the many inherent benefits of community-enabled networks.
Download the full reports at the bottom of this post.
Digging into the Data
Project THOR Public-Private Partnership Hammers Out Path to Better Connectivity in Colorado
There’s a new Thor in town, but instead of lighting up the night sky like the Norse god of thunder, it’ll be lighting up communities in rural Colorado with fiber optic connectivity.
A group of local governments and private partners, led by Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), recently completed the first phase of Project THOR, a middle mile fiber network that will enable better connectivity in the participating towns, cities, and counties. The network, owned by NWCCOG, provides backhaul to local governments looking to connect public facilities, schools, hospitals, and other community anchor institutions. It’s also available to Internet service providers (ISPs) to serve residents and businesses.
Project THOR brings much needed redundancy to the region’s broadband infrastructure, where previously a single fiber cut could take entire communities’ health and public safety services offline. It also promises great cost savings for localities and ISPs. Perhaps most importantly, the new network gives communities the necessary leverage to improve local connectivity beyond begging the incumbent providers for better broadband. Jon Stavney, executive director of NWCCOG explained on Community Broadband Bits episode 406:
This project allows these local governments to actually have a lever to pull to hopefully affect local service, however they can do that, with whatever partners come to the table . . . They’re able to actually act.
Building Toward a Network
NWCCOG, which is composed of member governments in and around Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Pitkin, and Summit Counties, coordinated broadband efforts in the region even before Project THOR began. A number of years ago, the council invested in a regional plan and hired a broadband coordinator, Nate Walowitz, to offer technical assistance to the member governments.