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Unpacking Policies In West Virginia's HB 3093
West Virginia rural communities struggle with access to broadband but a bill in the state legislature is taking some first steps to encourage better connectivity. HB 3093 passed the House with wide support (97 - 2) and has been sent on to the Senate for review. The bill doesn’t appropriate any funding for Internet infrastructure projects around the state, but adopts some policies that may help local communities obtain better connectivity.
Revenue Neutral And Popular
The state is facing a $500 million budget deficit and lawmakers don't have the appetite to appropriate finds for Internet infrastructure projects. As in most states, policy bills do well during times of financial strife. Elected officials still want to do what they can to encourage better broadband so, according to at least one lawmaker, the revenue neutral nature of the bill has contributed to its success in the legislature. Delegate Roger Henshaw, one of the bill's co-sponsors, told Metro News:
“Notice this is a revenue-neutral bill,” Hanshaw said. “That’s in fact one of the reasons we’re rolling it out now. We have other bills here in both the House and Senate that are not revenue-neutral bills that were on the table for consideration.
“But with the clock ticking on us, it became clear that we probably ought to be looking at options to advance service that didn’t even have the possibility of a financial impact. This bill does not.”
Check out the 3-minute interview with Hanshaw on Soundcloud.
The Broadband Enhancement Council
West Virginia’s Broadband Enhancement Council was created in a previous session and receives more authority and responsibility under HB 3093. They are tasked with the authority to, among other things, gather comparative data between actual and advertised speeds around the state, to advise and provide consultation services to project sponsors, and make the public know about facilities that offer community broadband access.
Christopher Speaks to Politico Live on "The Future of the Wireless World"
On March 7th, Christopher participated in a panel discussion sponsored by Politico and Qualcomm as part of an event called "The Future of the Wireless World." The panel was moderated by Politico Technology Reporter Alex Byers and included the following participants:
- Steven Crowley, P.E., Consulting Wireless Engineer
- Mindel De la Torre, former Chief of the International Bureau, Federal Communications Commission
- Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks Initiative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
- Joan Marsh, Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory, AT&T
Watch the video at Politico's website.
Highlights from this conversation include Christopher's interaction with the AT&T representative about their claim that a "one touch make ready" policy was specific to Google Fiber. This interaction is at 36:20 in the conversation.
Comcast Follows AT&T's Litigious Lead In Nashville
Comcast is the second Internet Service Provider (ISP) suing the mayor and metro government of Nashville, Tennessee (pop. 680,000) to stop a new ordinance to give streamline access to utility poles in the city, reports Cnet.com news.
Comcast’s October lawsuit over the Google Fiber-supported One Touch Make Ready ordinance (OTMR) comes on the heels of AT&T's legal action in late September. We wrote about AT&T’s lawsuit shortly after the filing.
Cnet.com reported that most of the utility poles are owned by Nashville Electric Service (NES) or AT&T, but Comcast has wires on many poles and has control over how these wires are handled. “When Google Fiber wants to attach new wires to a pole, it needs to wait for Comcast to move its wire to make room, and this is where the new ordinance becomes controversial.”
Comcast’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee, contends the AT&T-owned poles fall under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and not the city, and that Nashville Metro Council lacked authority to regulate NES poles, according to a story in the Tennessean newspaper. The telecommunications carrier is asking for a permanent injunction to stop enforcement of the ordinance.
Comcast reproduces AT&T's argument in Nashville - that the poles are within federal jurisdiction so the city does not have the authority to enforce such an ordinance.
Reverse Preemption In Louisville
Google Fiber Pauses - But No One Else Should
Google Fiber has finally announced its plans for the future after weeks of dramatic speculation that it will lay off half its workforce and give up on fiber-optics entirely. Google has now confirmed our expectations: they are pausing new Google Fiber cities, continuing to expand within those where they have a presence, and focusing on approaches that will offer a better return on investment in the short term.
Nothing Worth Doing Is Easy
In short, Google has found it more difficult than they anticipated to deploy rapidly and at low cost. And in discussions with various people, we think it can be summed up in this way: building fiber-optic networks is challenging and incumbents have an arsenal of dirty tricks to make it even more so, especially by slowing down access to poles.
That said, Google is not abandoning its efforts to drive better Internet access across the country. In the short term, people living in modern apartment buildings and condos will be the greatest beneficiary as Google takes the Webpass model and expands it to more cities. But those that hoped (or feared) Google would rapidly build Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) across the country are likely disappointed (or slightly relieved, if they happen to be big incumbent providers).
This is a good moment to talk about the lessons learned from Google Fiber and what we think communities should be thinking about.
Let's start by noting something we have often said: Google Fiber and its larger "access" approach have been incredibly beneficial for everyone except the big monopolists. Its investments led to far more media coverage of Internet access issues and made local leaders better understand what would be possible after we dismantle the cable broadband monopoly.
Benoit Felton, a sharp international telecommunications analyst wrote a very good summary of Google Fiber titled Salvaging Google Fiber's Achievements. Some of my thoughts below overlap his - but his piece touches on matters I won’t address, so please check out his analysis.
I want to focus on a few key points.
AT&T Makes Good On Threats, Sues In Nashville
AT&T lawyers filed suit against Nashville just two days after Mayor Megan Barry signed the new One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) ordinance into law. The Metro Council [no-glossary]passed[/no-glossary] the proposal for the final time, and sent it on to the Mayor, on September 20th.
Seeking Out Streamlining
OTMR was proposed by Google Fiber, which wants to enter the Nashville market by deploying an aerial fiber network. In order to do that, they need to attach fiber-optic cables to utility poles around town, but the current process is cumbersome and will significantly delay the rollout. OTMR streamlines the procedure but would allow some one other than AT&T to manage the rearrangement of wires on all poles in the Nashville rights-of-way. The telecom giant owns about 20 percent of the poles in Nashville; the city’s electric utility, NES, owns the rest.
AT&T seeks a permanent injunction to stop the city from enforcing the new ordinance. They argue the city does not have the authority to enforce the ordinance - that role is within federal jurisdiction through the FCC.
They go on to state that the Metro Council does not have the authority to pass the ordinance because, according to the city charter, only the Electric Power Board the has the right to pass regulations that deal with issues related to equipment, such as poles and the cable on them.
AT&T also asks that the court grant a permanent injunction on the basis that they already have a contract with the city relating to AT&T’s wires that are on NES poles. The contract allows the company to handle its own wires and enforcing the ordinance would basically nullify that component of the contract.
What This Is Really About
Nashville: One Touch Make Ready Moves Forward
On September 6th, the Nashville Metro Council approved a proposed One Touch Make Ready (OTMR) ordinance by a wide margin of 32-7 on a roll call vote (computers were down). This was the second vote to advance the ordinance, designed to streamline deployment of fiber-optic networks in a city looking for better connectivity. Elected officials responded to Nashville residents who flooded their council members’ offices with emails.
The Nashville Metro Council will take up the ordinance one last time; passage could speed up competition in the country music capital. Google Fiber has been pushing for a OTMR, while incumbents AT&T and Comcast look for a non-legislative solution to the problem of the poles while protecting their positions as dominant Internet Service Players (ISPs).
Caught Between A Rock And A Hard Stick
The city of Nashville sits on limestone, a rock that cannot support the trenching and underground work of fiber deployment. The only other option is to use the utility poles. Eighty percent of the poles are owned by the public utility Nashville Electric Service (NES), but incumbent provider AT&T owns the other 20 percent. Google Fiber says it needs to attach fiber to 88,000 poles in Nashville to build its network and about half of those (44,000) need to be prepared to host their wires.
Pole attachments are highly regulated, but there are still gray areas. Susan Crawford provides an overview of the policies and regulations on BackChannel; she accurately describes how poles can be weapons that guard monopoly position. Currently, each company that has equipment on the poles must send out a separate crew to move only their own equipment. This process can drag on for months. The OTMR ordinance is a deceptively simple solution to this delay.
Deceptively Simple, But Regulated
Nashville Considering One Touch Make Ready
In 2015, Nashville welcomed Google Fiber with open arms, anticipating all the possibilities gigabit connectivity could mean for businesses and residents. The deployment is moving slowly, however, in part because of time consuming make ready work on utility poles. In order to speed up the process and establish better policy for the city in general, Nashville has just introduced a one touch make ready ordinance.
Too Many Wires
A recent Nashville Scene article described the situation, common in a number of communities where utility poles already carry a number of wires:
The thousands of poles that stand around the city, most of which are owned by Nashville Electric Service, are arranged with power on top and communications equipment in a line below that. In Nashville, this means NES equipment pushes electricity up top, while broadly speaking, gear from Comcast and AT&T — whether for home phone, cable or internet service — operates below.
Enter Google Fiber. Because Nashville largely sits on a massive bed of limestone rock, running cable underground is, for the most part, not a viable option. That means Google has to join its new friends in the industry on the poles, through a process known as Make Ready. In a typical scenario, that involves Google — or any other new company trying to enter the market or get on a particular pole — notifying NES, which will then notify each telecom company that it needs to send a crew to the pole — one after another — to move their equipment and accommodate the new party. The process can take months, even if contractually mandated time frames are followed. Google Fiber officials and operatives working on their behalf suggest that’s not always the case.
TN Study Suggests Stamping Out State Barriers
The results of a statewide Tennessee survey on residential and business connectivity are in and they ain't pretty. Thirteen percent of the state - more than 834,000 people - don’t have access to 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload, which is the FCC's definition of broadband. Authors of the study make a number of recommendations, the first of which is removing state barriers that stifle Internet infrastructure investment.
"...A More Open Regulatory Environment"
The study, commissioned by the state’s Department of Economic and Community Development (TNECD) earlier this year, includes feedback from more than 23,000 households and businesses.
From page 13 of the report:
The State of Tennessee could consider lifting administrative burdens and restrictions to broadband infrastructure investment to fostering a more open regulatory environment.
In the report, the authors provide detailed reasoning for why the state should embrace an open regulatory environment to encourage competition. They note that state barriers impact electric cooperatives, municipalities that operate electric utilities and cannot expand beyond their own service areas, and municipalities that do not operate electric utilities but can only build telecommunications infrastructure in unserved areas with a private partner.
The FCC came to the same conclusion in February 2015 and rolled back Tennessee state laws in order to encourage competition. Tennessee is leading the charge against the FCC's decision with North Carolina (even though NC's Attorney General criticized the law). The parties have filed briefs, attorneys have presented oral arguments, and now the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is considering the case.
AT&T Tries to End the Magic of One Touch Make-Ready
On the border of Kentucky and Indiana a fight is brewing as AT&T and Google Fiber have both announced plans to bring Gigabit Internet service to Louisville, Kentucky. Home to over half a million, the city could see major economic development with new ultra high-speed Internet access, but there’s a problem: the utility poles.
AT&T is suing the city over a “one touch make-ready” ordinance. On February 11, 2016, the Louisville Metro Council passed the ordinance in order to facilitate new competitors, i.e. Google Fiber.
Utility Poles: Key to Aerial Deployment
Make-ready is the shorthand for making a utility pole ready for new attachments. Although it may seem simple, this process is often expensive and time-consuming. To add a new cable, others may have to be shifted in order to meet safety and industry standards. Under the common procedure, this process can take months as each party has to send out an independent crew to move each section of cabling.
To those of us unfamiliar with the standards of pole attachment it may seem absurd, but this originally made sense. Utility poles have a limited amount of space, and strict codes regulate the placement of each type of cable on the pole. Competitors feel they have to fiercely guard their space on the pole and cannot trust other providers to respect their cables. Make-ready must involve coordination between multiple providers and the utility pole owners. For some firms, like AT&T, this is an opportunity to delay new competition for months.