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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

AT&T also filed a suit this past spring in Louisville, Kentucky, to stop the city from implementing a similar ordinance. As in Nashville, the city put the policy in place to encourage new entrants like Google by speeding along a cumbersome and time consuming make ready process.

In the Louisville case, however, the FCC submitted a Statement of Interest in late October addressing the issue of authority over poles. According to the document filed with the court:

BellSouth [AT&T] maintains in its motion for summary judgment that the Louisville Ordinance conflicts with, and is therefore preempted by, the federal pole attachment rules promulgated by the Commission under Section 224. That argument is wrong as a ma er of law. The federal pole attachment regulations do not apply in Kentucky because Kentucky has filed a certification invoking reverse-preemption under Section 224(c) and has thereby opted out of the federal pole attachment rules. 

The FCC exercises jurisdiction over pole attachments under Section 224 “only in states that do not so certify” that they regulate pole attachments…BellSouth is thus wrong to assert a conflict with the federal pole attachment rules in these circumstances. 

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As a result, the FCC has no jurisdiction over Kentucky’s poles. In fact, the Statement of Interest goes on to support OMTR policies, stating that: 

”As a general matter, promoting the deployment of competitive broadband infrastructure through one-touch make-ready policies is consonant with the goals of federal telecommunications policy, the Communications Act, and applicable FCC regulations.”

Nashville Leaders Press On 

Back in Nashville, officials expressed disappointment at Comcast’s lawsuit, but resolve at creating a better environment for competition.

In a statement, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry said:

“One Touch Make Ready has been litigated in the court of public opinion, and the public overwhelmingly supports this measure designed to speed up the deployment of high-speed fiber in Nashville. Now, we hope that this federal litigation is quickly resolved so that we can get on with the business of expanding access to gigabit Internet throughout Davidson County.”

FCC's New Privacy Rules Irk Big ISPs, Munis Mellow

Consumers should be able to expect a certain amount of privacy and recent rules adopted by the FCC are a step in the right direction. That step has also revealed some key differences between profit-driven national Internet service providers, smaller ISPs, and municipal networks. The different attitudes correspond with the different cultures, proving once again that small ISPs and munis have more than just profit in mind.

On October 27th, the FCC adopted an Order to allow ISP customers to determine how their data will be collected and used. According to the FCC, they made the decision in response to public comments about the concern for personal data protection.

The New Rules

Over the past few years, consumers have become savvy to the fact that ISPs have access to personal data and that they often sell that data to other companies for marketing purposes. Under Section 222 of Title II of the Communications Act, telecommunications carriers are bound to protect their subscribers’ private information. Because those rule are designed to change as technology changes, says the FCC and Congress, this same authority applies to private data collected by ISPs. 

The FCC decided to divide the permission of use of personal information based on type, categorizing information into “sensitive” and “non-sensitive.”

Sensitive information will require ISPs to obtain “opt-in” consent from subscribers, which will allow them to use and and share this type of information:

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  • Precise geo-location 
  • Children’s information
  • Health information 
  • Financial information
  • Social Security numbers
  • Web browsing history
  • App usage history
  • The content of communication 

Non-sensitive information would include all other information and customers would need to "opt-out" in order to prevent their ISPs from collecting such data. Examples of non-sensitive personal information include service tier information.

The new rules also require providers to follow “up-to-date and relevant industry best practices” in reference to managing security risks, take care to provide accountability and oversight regarding security, and dispose of personal data properly. These are only a sampling of the rules, which are not complicated but add another layer of undertaking to the role of provider. Check out this Fact Sheet from the FCC for more on the new rules.

Not All ISPs Are Big ISPs - Thank Goodness!

At first, we were concerned that these new rules might create more work for munis and small ISPs that are already heavily burdened with reporting requirements. For municipal utilities that provide other services as well, such as electric, gas, or water, another round of administrative requirements seemed especially taxing.

While national providers with thousands on their payrolls may have entire departments to deal with paperwork, municipal networks often exist in small communities and employ small staff. Regardless of the number of employees, they still must submit the same amount of information to the FCC. But we didn't hear any of them complaining about the new privacy protections.

Large providers began complaining about the new rules as soon as they were released, including David Cohen from Comcast, who said the new rules “will likely do more harm than good for consumers, competition, and innovation in the all-important internet ecosystem.” AT&T senior vice president described the rules as “illogical.” The rules, according to the big national providers are just too tough.

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Small ISPs and municipal networks are not known to sell customer data the way Comcast, AT&T, or CenturyLink do. In fact, we know of at least one, Xmission serving customers via the UTOPIA open access network, that has no problem telling the NSA to bugger off when they improperly ask for private data. On the other hand, AT&T is cozy in the NSA pocket, no warrant required. Local providers and munis are close to their customers, creating a higher level of accountability, which contributes to high scores in customer service.

We reached out to Xmission to get their opinion on the new privacy protections. Would they be difficult to implement? A burden? The company’s founder, Pete Ashdown told us it is “high time the government allowed individuals to take back their privacy” and that he supports the FCC ruling. We also talked with municipal networks in Iowa and Utah, but they did not report any potential problems with the rules.

If small providers have no problem respecting subscribers' privacy, why do big corporations like AT&T and Comcast complain so much? AT&T and Comcast see subscribers as numbers on a page to be transformed into dollar signs. Local providers and municipal networks consider them customers, community members, and neighbors.

Haunted Halloween Weekend: Broadband Trick Or Treat!

Are you spending the Halloween weekend watching scary movies on Netflix? Researching pagan rituals online? Scouring the web for last minute costume ideas? If you are don't have decent Internet access, even those simple tasks can be downright horrifying.

If you are trapped as a cable monopoly zombie, you understand the difference between Broadband Tricks or Treats. We created this graphic last year to celebrate the spooky differences between community networks and cable monopolies and it's too good to bury in a shallow grave! Here it is again...back from the (un)dead!

Trick or Treat - Subscriber reviews edition!

View a larger version of this graphic here [pdf]. Stay up to date on community networks with our newsletter!

Movie Monster Madness At MuniNetworks! Internet Terror Triple Feature!

Much like the the bone-chilling flicks celebrating eerie entertainment that dwells in the depths of our dark imaginations, monster cable and DSL Internet service providers strike terror in the hearts of subscribers…if they survive. Mesmerizing fees, hair-raising customer service, and shockingly slow connections can drive one to the brink of madness.

In celebration of Halloween 2016, our writers each selected a national ISP and reimagined it as a classic horror character. The results are horrifying! Read them here…if you dare!

 

AT&T’s Frankenmerger

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by Kate

This shocking film tells the horrific tale of a mad scientist in his quest to create the world’s largest telecommunications monopoly monster. The scientist’s abomination runs amok, gobbling up company after company, to create a horrifying monster conglomerate. Watch the monster terrorize towns across America as it imposes data caps, denies people access to low-cost programs, and refuses to upgrade infrastructure. What nightmare lies ahead? Will the townsfolk and their elected officials unite to stop the monster, before it acquires Time Warner? Watch and find out!

 

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The Mummy From Last CenturyLink

by Scott 

Archaeologists unearth the Last CenturyLink Mummy from a rural field of copper wires. Townspeople put the Mummy on display in Hard Luck City Hall. Little do they know the Last CenturyLink Mummy was once Pharaoh of DSL (Dreadfully Slow Line) service. Long ago, he was cursed by subscribers and doomed to remain in the slumber of purgatory, much like the DSL Internet access they endured. He awakes when he hears the City Council talk of launching a muni fiber network and summons his zombie lobbyist worshippers. Will the brave people of Hard Luck prevail against Last CenturyLink Mummy and his lobbyists from beyond the grave? Will Hard Luck finally get the Internet connectivity they need to banish last century technology forever? 

 

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Count Comcast

by hannah

The ancient Count Comcast rises from his coffin to hunt for blood at the throat of every subscriber. Rather than pointed teeth, this undead creature uses data caps, outrageous fees, and asinine customer service techniques to suck the life from elderly folks, low-income families, and people with disabilities. The Count uses his enormous wealth and dark army of lobbyists to hypnotize state legislators to do his bidding. Will Count Comcast succeed in his evil plan to ensnare every state legislature and destroy municipal networks for all eternity? Will Americans forever be captive to the evil of the cable undead? Only time will tell…

Whether you face the creepy Count, the moldy Mummy, or the fearsome Frankenmerger, we wish you a safe and Happy Halloween. Boo!

Movie poster pics of Dracula, the The Mummy, and Frankenstein are all in the public domain and all expertly adapted by Kate. Awesome work, Kate!

Photo of the Jack-o'-lanterns is also in the public domain.

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.

This is Not a Surprise

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Google is a private firm that has a fiduciary responsibility to maximize returns for its shareholders. More to the point, so is Alphabet, which houses Google Fiber. Google's interest in fiber was not solely pulling revenue out of the network in the same way that Comcast, AT&T, and others do. They wanted to maximize good Internet access to get more people to use the Internet more and thereby increase the value of their ad business. That is why they have been more consumer-friendly in many ways than the big cable and telephone companies. Google believes it wins even when it simply forces other providers to upgrade their networks.

The fact that they are now focused on doing that in a different way or changing the way they are driving network upgrades should not be surprising. Fiber-optic investments in single-family home neighborhoods can take many years to break even whereas using a hybrid fixed wireless and fiber strategy to target the tens of millions of people living in apartments and condos is likely to break even much quicker. 

That said, if One Touch Make-Ready policies succeed in Louisville and Nashville, I think we will see more Google Fiber investment in FTTH.

But Google is fundamentally a private firm focused on its shareholder value. And as such, it does not have the right incentives to deploy what has become essential infrastructure. Many of us have objected to the market-driven approach that tends to leave low-income areas behind. Nevertheless, Verizon and AT&T have left far more neighborhoods behind than Google. We believe universal access will be more difficult after market-driven approaches skim the cream out of our cities, leaving public funds to ensure everyone has access.

Fiber Remains A Good Municipal Investment

There is no wireless technology today that will cost-effectively deliver a high capacity connection to single-family homes that gives a deployer a technological advantage over modern cable systems (yes, we need better networks than cable networks offer). Google is not abandoning fiber in favor of wireless. It is changing its focus from near-citywide deployments to buildings with many tenants, where it can use both fiber and fixed wireless approaches to deliver service quickly. 

If anything, Google Fiber's change in focus reinforces the importance of smart municipal investments. That can mean a range of things, from Chattanooga or Lafayette approaches to Lincoln's conduit model to Ammon's software-defined network open access approach.

This is especially true in light of 5G wireless, which is still far on the horizon and will require fiber deep into neighborhoods - more fiber than the wireless carriers can easily deploy. Cities that make it easy for the wireless carriers to deploy small cells and connect it with affordable fiber will get these technologies faster and better than those that just wait for the private sector to do everything. Stay tuned to Broadband Bits for an upcoming podcast on how Lincoln has a brilliant model for that.

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Waiting Can Only Hurt You

Whether a community intends to offer services directly or simply to encourage more independent service providers, it is now clear that they need to take action. The "Google Lottery" is temporarily suspended. Get busy finding an approach that fits your needs and challenges.

This is especially true for cities that have real potential to meet their needs with smart local investments but have been waiting and waiting at the altar for Google - ahem, Palo Alto, Portland, and others. Stop dawdling and get serious. You have the capacity to do something. Get started.

Google may resume new FTTH build outs, and when it does - it will undoubtedly look more favorably on communities that have dark fiber, conduit, and other assets ready for them. And if Google remains paused much longer, then you will have created assets to use for your own deployment or for attracting a different partner. 

Speaking of a different partner, Elliot Noss of Ting reminded me that Google can play around with autonomous cars and artificial intelligence in a big way today. Since they launched fiber, the opportunity cost of using their capital has changed significantly. Compared to the potential returns for deploying fiber to single family homes, A.I., and the potential to control all future vehicular movement seems more lucrative.

Once again paraphrasing Elliot, one of the core talents of an ISP should be dealing with people - from installers to customer service. This is not a core area for Google. Google's engineers have done a stunning job creating their technologies - especially the DVR system. But being a competitive ISP is not just technology - it is interacting with your subscribers.

While Google may be in a pause, Ting is excited to keep moving on. Travis Carter of US Internet in Minneapolis can't wait to lay more fiber next year (winter is about to slow his deployment up here); they see nothing but potential in coming years.

Wireless Is Not Killing Fiber

I want to be especially clear. Companies like AT&T and Verizon love stories about how fiber is too expensive or uneconomic. They have a customer base to protect from competition. They are thrilled when they can scare potential investors in fiber networks.

5G is not magic and won't meet all of our needs. When I started working in this industry 10 years ago, I was told that Wi-Fi obviated the need for fiber. WRONG. But then, I was told that fiber wasn't necessary because WiMax would meet all our needs. WRONG. And then it didn't take long before fiber was supposedly unnecessary because 4G LTE was going to do everything except solve world hunger. WRONG. 4G remains a complement to fiber, not a substitute.

When I talk to people that have only 4G and not a wired service in their homes, they usually complain - whether it is the cost, reliability, or some other factor. And when you look closer at 5G, it is clear that FTTH continues to be a smart investment. And when building a FTTH network, you have an opportunity to lease fiber to those deploying 5G, another revenue source.

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Google is not scared of the possibility of 5G making fiber uneconomic. Google is frustrated at the pace of deployment because both pole owners and the networks already attached to utility poles can dramatically slow critical access to those poles by using every day of their allotted time to make a pole ready for a new attacher. 

This is not about city permitting - we have once again seen that even when cities bend over backwards to ease deployment access, it is the incumbent providers that continue to be the biggest barriers to new investment (this reinforces a CTC report that communities could reduce outside plant costs by 8 percent at most). There is just no way getting around the mismatch between private sector business models and the need for critical infrastructure. It is capital-intensive and offers a slow return, especially when done correctly.

The Private Sector Needs You

The private sector, Google included, simply cannot solve this problem alone but cities can change the calculus. Phil Dampier agrees. Blair Levin has been making this case for years - see the Next Generation Network Connectivity Handbook [pdf], for instance. But take care with those that are too focused on private investment. Cities need to be very careful in partnerships and should not rely too much on the private sector - our report offers suggestions for how to get the right balance.

Google is taking a pause, but it should be a kick in the pants for the rest of us. Time to get busy building the infrastructure of tomorrow - because some cities already have it today and we don't want to let them have all the fun.

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 224

This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. ILSR research associate and MuniNetworks.org writer, H.R. Trostle, joins the show to discuss the recent report on North Carolina's connectivity and the importance of cooperatives. Listen to this episode here.


H.R. Trostle: The telephone cooperative are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Recently, we released a report focusing on the availability of high-quality Internet access in North Carolina. H.R. Trostle, a research associate at the Institute and one of our authors on MuniNetworks.org, analyzed data from several different sources and she's talking to Chris this week to discuss her conclusions. She and Chris, who co-authored the report with her, discovered that municipal networks and cooperatives have an important role to play in North Carolina. Take a few minutes to check out the report and check out the detailed maps that show the results of their analysis. The report is titled North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. It's available at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org. Now here are Chris and H.R. Trostle, from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, discussing in detail their recent report and their findings on Internet access in North Carolina.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broad Bits Podcast. Coming to you live today from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance offices in Minneapolis, with H.R. Trostle, the co-author of our new report on North Carolina. Welcome to the show.

H.R. Trostle: Thanks Chris, it's great to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Hannah.

H.R. Trostle: Hi.

Christopher Mitchell: I thought we would start with a broad overview of what did the report cover.

H.R. Trostle: The report covered everything from electric coops to municipalities and included telephone coops. It involved a lot of digging through a lot of FCC data.

Christopher Mitchell: What kind of data? What were we looking for?

H.R. Trostle: I looked at the FCC form 477, which is deployment data. It also includes maximum advertised upload speeds and download speeds, but it doesn't include things like pricing information.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. This has been long one of the issues that we have found infuriating is that the carriers can just say what they're offering. Maybe that's true, maybe it's not. To some extent, it's very difficult for CenturyLink to know what it can offer in rural areas, because the DSL is so poor. It varies from house to house, but they never have to disclose what they're charging for it, which really makes it difficult to make good policy around this.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, they also don't differentiate between different tiers, so it literally only tells me the maximum advertised. They may advertise that they offer 15-20 megabits a second, when in actuality you get maybe two.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. We know that that situation in Pinetops, just outside of Wilson, which we'll cover here in a few minutes, but I think one of the things that I found most interesting was that basic broadband access, which is overstated. You know, actually, why don't you just give us the numbers and facts that we're going to use from 477 data, from the FCC. Is that super accurate?

H.R. Trostle: It's not the greatest amount of accuracy. I could wish for more.

Christopher Mitchell: Is it randomly inaccurate, or is consistently inaccurate in one direction?

H.R. Trostle: It's mostly inaccurate in rural areas, because the census blocks are so large. The way the FCC's 477 is set up is each provider notes what they offer by census block. Rural areas tend to have very giant census blocks, with very few people.

Christopher Mitchell: That means that if a few people have access, maybe it's like the census block in which you have the edge of a town and you have a few people who have access, but the rest of the census block has no access. The form 477 data would suggest that everyone has access on that block.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly, even if two people have access, all twenty some people in the census block are considered as having access.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's imagine one other thing, which is to say that you have a census block in which, in the North side you have one provider's that's offering a service. In the South side, you have a different provider that's offering a service. In the middle, nobody can get anything, but we can't tell. As far as we know, I think about how that data is often interpreted. People might think there is competition in universal service in that block.

H.R. Trostle: It's actually pretty great. The FCC's form 477 specifically says that you should not try to use it to generate competition data, but everyone tries to use it to generate competition data for exactly that problem.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, but we can have a sense of at least -- The report, and the numbers in the report are a best case scenario.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, absolute best case.

Christopher Mitchell: I find it interesting, I actually thought that North Carolina has better basic broadband access than I expected. What's basic broadband access and who has access to it there?

H.R. Trostle: Basic broadband access is the FCC definition of 25 megabytes per second download and 3 megabytes per second upload speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Advertised.

H.R. Trostle: Just advertised, obviously. You might not actually get that. In fact, some areas, you can get 20 megabytes per second as a normal, affordable speed tier. Then they also offer 100 megabytes per second at some absurd price. You can't actually get broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: Because even though you could get a decent connection, maybe from a coop, I think that's what you're talking about here. You have the coop that has a plan. It's one of the rare cases in which we have an understatement of who has decent access.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: In general, 4 out of 5 people in rural North Carolina, approximately -- There's a little bit of an overstatement there, but still most people seem to have basic broadband access from one provider.

H.R. Trostle: 4 out of 5 rural residents for sure, do. Supposedly according to the data, 93% of all of North Carolina has basic broadband access.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that I found interesting was that I think, when you look at the state's reaction, the state of North Carolina did their own report a few months ago. We were not really impressed with it. I think their conclusion was, "Wow, we're doing really well. Sure, we got to figure out some way of doing better, but we're doing really well." Our conclusion was that North Carolina's really not doing that well. In fact, I found interesting that when you look at their access to higher quality Internet access, you often find it's utterly lacking. You have that basic broadband tier as the maximum in a number of these rural regions, but there's nothing above that level.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, it's very, very frustrating. Especially looking at where fiber is actually available. It tends to be available in urban areas or from coops.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, so there's not a lot of what we would call private sector or private company investment in fiber in rural North Carolina.

H.R. Trostle: Not at all.

Christopher Mitchell: Which I find very interesting, because their urban areas seem to be getting more investment, on average. None of those big companies are building out to everyone, but parts of their triangle, parts of Charlotte, parts of the suburbs around there, are getting fiber optic access from Google, from AT&T, from CenturyLink. At the very least they've announced it and made it available in a few partner buildings, but there's been a lot of announcements.

H.R. Trostle: There have been a lot of announcements but there's, from what I can tell, very little actually been done.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, they might just be on their way to doing it. It might be a charitable way of reading. In part, it does seem to me, and you and I both follow these things closely. It seems to me that there is some more investment in fiber optics in urban North Carolina areas than in your average metro regions around the United States.

H.R. Trostle: For sure, I've been looking at Minnesota and Tennessee as well. Doing something similar. There is so little actual private investment in those urban areas of Tennessee and Minnesota.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. Let's move on to talking about some of the subsidies, because what I'm confused about is AT&T and CenturyLink seem to be getting a king's ransom from the Connect America fund, and yet they're not investing significantly in these areas, from what I can tell. How much are they getting?

H.R. Trostle: From the Connect America fund, AT&T's accepted about three and a half million dollars each year, to serve about 13,000 people by 2020 with not a broadband connection, but a connection of 10 megabytes per second, download speed.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's unpack this for a second, all right. Three million dollars per year for four years. Twelve million dollars?

H.R. Trostle: Just about.

Christopher Mitchell: To connect how many homes?

H.R. Trostle: To connect 13,000 in rural and under-served areas.

Christopher Mitchell: Specific areas where they do not have, according to the map, broadband access. By 2020, they will deliver a connection that's 10 megabytes down and 1 megabyte up, at a minimum.

H.R. Trostle: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: Now, in some areas, and we'll talk about CenturyLink's numbers in a second. In some areas, I think we'll see them exceed that. I think CenturyLink will only provide that basic connection to some of their homes, but some of their homes will probably get a 40 by 5 connection or, occasionally, maybe, a gigabyte. I really doubt that, frankly, but they'll probably -- Homes that are close to the DSLAM, which, I always call it the magical device that turns your copper phone lines into an Internet provisioning system. People that are close enough will get higher speeds than 10 by 1, but AT&T seems to be really going for that minimum speed. They're just doing this wireless only product. This news really came out after our report was put to rest, but it's worth noting that AT&T seems to be really taking it seriously that they do not have to out-perform 10 by 1.

H.R. Trostle: That's what they want to do. CenturyLink, meanwhile, is getting about 10 million per year. They're going to serve 36,000 people with that same baseline.

Christopher Mitchell: I can only imagine what these coops in North Carolina could be doing with 40 million dollars a year. I find it infuriating that Uncle Sam is throwing away here, in just two companies, 52 million dollars to provide connection that would have been obsolete last year. It's really, really frustrating. Let's move on to what the coops are doing. What did you find in terms of, let's talk about the telephone cooperatives first. What are they doing in North Carolina?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, so there are eight telephone cooperatives in North Carolina. All of them are deploying some sort of fiber for Internet service. Six have committed to serving their entire service areas, several have actually completed those projects. The map is looking so much nicer.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, it's remarkable when you see the map that you've prepared, of where fiber exists in rural North Carolina. You see these areas in the central northern part of the state, you have this big block. In the northeastern part of the state, you have this big block where it seems that every last person has access because they're served by a telephone cooperative.

H.R. Trostle: Yes, and the telephone cooperatives are very used to serving these very sparsely populated rural areas in North Carolina. That's what they were designed to do. That's why they were made.

Christopher Mitchell: I was actually talking with a reporter and I made that exact point. The reporter was saying, "Is it surprising to you that the private sector is not getting this job done in rural North Carolina?" I was thinking, "No, it is not surprising." These are people who are served by co-ops because, for 100 years, we understand that the private sector does not do a good job providing the essential infrastructure for rural communities. The business model does not work for the way that they want it to. We have telephone coops and we have electric coops. It shouldn't be surprising that these approaches are the ones that are best serving North Carolina's rural communities.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, and North Carolina has 26 electric coops. Several have already taken steps to providing Fiber-to-the-Home or Fiber-to-the-Business. Lumbee River, Blue Ridge Mountain, they are in possibly even more sparsely populated areas than the telephone cooperatives.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, and that's not very surprising, frankly. The electric coops serve so much of the state that, on average, I can imagine -- Not even average. The electric coops serve such a large part of the state that there's just so many more opportunities for them to be serving the least dense areas. The areas that are the hardest to reach, but these electric coops have, historically, I feel like, resisted getting involved. Are you seeing that changing in your conversations with North Carolina's electric coops or, as they call them, EMCs?

H.R. Trostle: Yeah. EMCs is electric membership corporation. That conversation is really changing and part of that is the electric cooperatives are deploying fiber to communicate with their substations. They already had that as a growing part of their electrical infrastructure. Now they can actually use that for telecommunications. Previously, their infrastructure that would have been good for broadband access would have been just the poles.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, when you say communicate with the substations, I always imagine them, "Hello substation, how are you doing today?"

H.R. Trostle: "Hello world."

Christopher Mitchell: I have to think, if I'm the state of North Carolina, I should be really excited about these coops investing and trying to promote that and doing everything I can to say, "Hey, how can we make this happen more quickly?" How is North Carolina reacting? You read the report. I skimmed it, I read some sections in-depth, but the state of North Carolina's report, did they really actually recognize the way that the coops are already doing this?

H.R. Trostle: They did not recognize the growing role of coops. Not at all. The state of North Carolina didn't even really address one of the barriers to electric cooperatives. Getting involved in telecommunications. There are some restrictions how an electric cooperative can access capital from the Rural Utility Service funds and from the USDA. It's rather discouraging to investment.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, so the state of North Carolina says, if you're an EMC. If you're a rural electric coop, you can not get telecom loans or grants from the Rural Utility Service to distribute those. You also can't form a subsidiary. Now there may be other ways for these EMCs to find of accessing capital and to be able to build these networks, but I just find it stunning that the state wants to say, "We're going to officially discourage you from accessing the USDA," which is the main system that has built our cooperative infrastructure system around the country. All of the electrical coops, the telephone coops, they've all depended on our rural utility service funding. North Carolina says, "Hey, you know what? You guys are investing in rural communities, but we're going to make it harder on you." It's the exact opposite of what you'd want.

H.R. Trostle: It is the complete opposite of what you want. That's not all -- Other states also discourage electric cooperative's investment. Tennessee, New Mexico, but there are work-arounds.

Christopher Mitchell: Where there's a will, there's a way, right?

H.R. Trostle: Pretty much.

Christopher Mitchell: That may not be true with some forms of municipal broadband investment, though. We've saved the biggest hot button issue for us last, which is HB129, or just H.129, depending on the system that you use in referencing it, but this is a law from 2011. We've talked about it so many times. The FCC repealed it, it came back through the 6th circuit, reinstated it, but basically North Carolina tells local governments, "You can not build broadband networks."

H.R. Trostle: North Carolina does not support municipalities building their own networks. H129 is sort of a zombie law in that it came back and has now ruined things for Highlands and Pine Tops and a few family farms that really were depending on that connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, let's talk about that. The City of Wilson, incredibly successful municipal fiber network. We've talked about them many times because they were, with Chattanooga, the two of them went to the FCC to roll back these laws. Wilson, during that period when the law was not in effect, built out to some of its neighbors that desperately needed access but did not have broadband access. This family farm in Nash County, they could not even basically run their IT systems, they couldn't be a modern packing facility because they didn't have the Internet access they needed. Wilson comes along, provides it to them, the state of North Carolina challenges the law, goes to the 6th circuit. The 6th circuit says, "The FCC does not have the authority to change that law, so the law's reinstated." Wilson's going to have to disconnect its fiber optics networks from the small community and the nearby family farms.

H.R. Trostle: Yeah, Wilson had to vote to do that. They could have tried to continue service, but it would have just led to an even greater mess.

Christopher Mitchell: They would have had to shut down their entire system, ultimately. Wilson City has universal access. Wilson County has significant access, but it all would have been at risk if they tried to continue under their current laws. As this goes to air, there will be one week left, basically, of service that Wilson will be providing nearby. Then it will have to turn them off. Now, this is the part that kills me, though. The fiber optics cables, the optical network terminal devices will be on the side of the house still. I find it incredibly frustrating that people are going to have all of the things that they need to have world class Internet service in their home, but the state will say, "You can't use it for that." Wilson can use it to monitor the electrical system, to say, "Hey, how you doing?" To the substations, to communicate with the substations. It's there, but they won't be able to deliver Internet service.

H.R. Trostle: I would say it's a quirk of the law, but it's actually the entire point.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, exactly. Here's a question then, as we head toward the end and I'm done ranting about the injustice in Wilson and Pine Tops and altitude in Highlands. What is the next step? What can North Carolina do if it actually has leadership that cares about promoting rural connectivity, rather than just lining the pockets of powerful CenturyLink and AT&T, their lobbyists and their interests?

H.R. Trostle: Well, it would be really simple to repeal H129, but I don't know if that's actually ever going to happen.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let's go a step further and say, let's assume that that got rid of it. You have some towns that move forward, more importantly, perhaps, you have the existing networks able to expand and serve their neighbors. You still have a lot of areas, I mean what do you see in terms of the electrical -- Is it feasible to think that electric coops could solve most of North Carolina's problem? A way that partnerships with the telephone coops expanding outside of their areas? I mean, is this a pipe dream or is this something that could happen?

H.R. Trostle: No, this is entirely possible. The electric coops can work with the telephone coops to provide better connectivity. They don't have to actually worry about providing the telecommunication services themselves, they can simply partner with someone who already has experience in doing that.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we're starting to get a sense, from some of the reaction to the report, is that this is starting to happen. There is hope, I think.

H.R. Trostle: There is. It would be a little bit nicer if they could get rid of some of the restrictions on the electrical cooperatives access to capital.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I also think, as you have the electric coops and the telephone coops doing this expansion. It must be incredibly frustrating. Let's imagine that you're just outside of the Wilkes cooperative area and the Riverfront Networks.

H.R. Trostle: RiverStreet.

Christopher Mitchell: RiverStreet Networks. You are right outside of there and you're not getting service from them. They're working with a couple of other areas nearby, but they can't build everywhere at once. North Carolina says, "Too bad, you can't get do it yourself. You have to wait until they come to you." Or something like that. I just, I think that the H129 restrictions are such a slap in the face to communities. To say, "Yeah, you're losing property value, you're losing businesses, people don't want to move in there, but you can't solve the problem yourself. You have to just hope that someone else is going to come along and solve it for you."

H.R. Trostle: Yep, even if you have the technical expertise, you're just not allowed to.

Christopher Mitchell: It runs totally contrary to everything that we believe in at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and what people and communities should be empowered to do.

H.R. Trostle: Exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: I hope that people have a chance to check out this report. I think we're going to be seeing more maps, more exciting stuff coming from Hannah, from the work that you're doing. You already prove it a little bit, Tennessee and Minnesota are in the works. I hope people stay tuned to your work.

H.R. Trostle: I hope so too.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Chris talking with H.R. Trostle, our colleague and one of the authors of our recent report on connectivity in North Carolina. You can download the report at ILSR.org and MuniNetworks.org to learn about the urban/rural digital divide and how coops and muni networks are finding ways to close the gap. Remember, we have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter, where the handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research by also subscribing to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. Thank you to the group Mojo Monkeys for their song, "Bodacious", licensed through Creative Commons. Thanks for listening to episode 224 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

North Carolina Connectivity: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

Publication Date: 
October 11, 2016
Author(s): 
H. R. Trostle
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

North Carolina's digital divide between urban and rural communities is increasing dangerously in a time when high quality Internet access is more important than ever. Rural and urban areas of North Carolina are essentially living in different realities, based on the tides of private network investment where rural communities are severely disadvantaged. The state has relied too much on the telecom giants like AT&T and CenturyLink that have little interest in rural regions.

Download the Report

The state perversely discourages investment from local governments and cooperatives. For instance, electric co-ops face barriers in seeking federal financing for fiber optic projects. State law is literally requiring the city of Wilson to disconnect its customers in the town of Pinetops, leaving them without basic broadband access. This decision in particular literally took the high-speed, affordable Internet access out of the hands of North Carolina's rural citizens.

The lengths to which North Carolina has gone to limit Internet access to their citizens is truly staggering. Both a 1999 law limiting electric cooperatives' access to capital for telecommunications and a 2011 law limiting local governments' ability to build Internet networks greatly undermine the ability of North Carolinians to increase competition to the powerful cable and DSL incumbent providers. 

In the face of this reality, the Governor McCrory's Broadband Infrastructure Office recommended a "solution" that boils down to relying on cable and telephone monopolies' benevolence. What this entire situation comes down to is a fundamental disadvantage for North Carolina's rural residents because their state will not allow them to solve their own problems locally even when the private sector abandons them.

"It's not as if these communities have a choice as to what they're able to do to improve their Internet service," says report co-author Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. "There's a demonstrated need for high-quality Internet service in rural North Carolina, but the state literally refuses to let people help themselves."

Read ongoing stories about these networks at ILSR’s site devoted to Community Broadband Networks. You can also subscribe to a once-per-week email with stories about community broadband networks.

From The Report:

  • Despite significant tax subsidies from the state and federal government, North Carolina's private providers are building their fiber-optic networks only in certain metro areas and none in rural regions.
  • Only 12 percent of North Carolina's rural population has a choice for their broadband access, the rest are stuck with only one option and no control over their Internet prospects.
  • All of North Carolina's telephone cooperatives are investing in fiber for members in their service territory, some have entirely replaced their copper lines with fiber-optic. 
  • While North Carolina has 26 electric cooperatives capable of bringing fiber-to-the-home to rural residents, a 1999 state law (N.C. Gen. Stat § 117-18.1) limits the co-ops' access to capital for telecommunications projects.

Download the Report

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 passed 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.

Three Arguments

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

AT&T filed a similar suit in Louisville earlier this year when the Metro Council there passed OTMR; that suit is still ongoing. Google Fiber wants to serve both communities and, in typical AT&T fashion, the telecom giant is attempting to use the courts to put a block on them. Even before the final Metro Council vote, AT&T threatened to sue if the measure passed. “The short answer is the One Touch Make Ready proposal Google has offered is a proposal that we expect would result in litigation,” said Joelle Phillips, President of AT&T Tennessee. Mayor Barry had asked that the ISPs and NES all work together to come up with an agreement but AT&T was determined to slow Google Fiber’s deployment, hindering its success.

Lawyers On Loan

Google Fiber has offered assistance to Nashville in the form of its legal team. Before the final vote, Google’s parent company Alphabet had already committed to helping out:

“Google Fiber is disappointed that AT&T has threatened to go to court in an effort to block Nashville’s efforts to increase broadband competition should the OTMR ordinance pass,” Fleur Knowlsey, senior counsel of Alphabet’s Access group, which manages Google Fiber, wrote in an email to the council on Monday.

“We believe the city's commonsense initiative will be upheld in the face of any litigation. We know, however, that litigation can be challenging and expensive. In the event of OTMR litigation, Google Fiber will therefore be glad to share the capabilities of its in-house and outside attorneys, including some of the most experienced and accomplished regulatory attorneys in the industry.”

Read the complaint here.

AT&T Gets Snagged In Giant Loophole Attempting To Avoid Merger Responsibility

They're at it again. Recently, they have been called out for taking advantage of E-rate; now they are taking advantage of their own lack of infrastructure investment to worm their way out of obligations to serve low-income residents. Fortunately, a nonprofit group caught up with AT&T's shenanigans and held their feet to the fire.

"Nah, We Don't Have To Do That..."

As part of FCC-mandated conditions under which AT&T was allowed to acquire DirecTV in 2015, the telecommunications conglomerate created the "Access from AT&T" program, offering discount Internet access to low-income households. The program consists of tiered services - download speeds of 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $10 per month, 5 Mbps for $10 per month, and 3 Mbps for $5 per month.

The company is required to enroll households in the fastest speeds available, but a significant amount of low-income families don't qualify because the fastest speed AT&T offered to their home is 1.5 Mbps download. The problem, created by AT&T's own lack of infrastructure investment in certain neighborhoods, allowed AT&T to dodge their responsibility under the terms of the DirecTV acquisition by simply denying enrollment to households with speeds less than 3 Mbps. Trouble is, some one noticed.

NDIA In Cleveland, Detroit

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance (NDIA) realized the scope of the problem when they attempted to help families in low-income neighborhoods in Detroit and Cleveland sign up for Access from AT&T. In addition to discovering that residents could only obtain 1.5 Mbps download speeds, NDIA found that AT&T denied these households enrollment because their speeds were too slow. The only other option for ineligible households was AT&T’s normal rate for 1.5 Mbps service, which is six times the cost of the Access program.

Loopholes: All Lawyered Up And Nowhere To Go

By diving through a cavernous loophole, AT&T cleverly manipulated the terms of the merger order and single handedly squelched the intended purpose of the program. According to the directive, AT&T “shall offer wireline Broadband Internet Access Service at speeds of at least 3 Mbps, where technically available, to qualifying households in the Company’s wireline footprint for no more than $5 per month.”

AT&T’s repeated unwillingness to invest in infrastructure in low-income neighborhoods precluded residents from living in neighborhoods where 3 Mbps download was technically possible. Yet, the corporate giant used lack of speed availability to justify denying Internet access discounts for those who need it the most. It's amazing Randall Stephenson doesn't get dizzy from all that circular reasoning.

Unfortunately, this technicality didn’t just affect a few households on the fringe of AT&T’s service area: according to data from the FCC, 21 percent of census blocks in Detroit and in Cleveland have Internet speeds of 1.5 Mbps or less. Unsurprisingly, these blocks include mostly low-income households in inner-city neighborhoods.

Don't Mistake Us For Philanthropists

Because these households can't partake in the program, NDIA asked AT&T to extend their $5 per month offer to households with 1.5 Mbps speeds. While 1.5 Mbps is considerably slower than the program’s slowest speed, and far from the FCC’s broadband goal of 25 Mbps, AT&T would not budge. It took the corporate giant a month to reply:

“AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval.”

logo-NDIA.jpg

NDIA Director Angela Siefer detailed the exchange in a post, writing

“AT&T's response is very unfortunate for tens of thousands of households in the company's 21-state service territory who may need affordable Internet access the most, but who happen to live in places – both city neighborhoods and rural communities – where AT&T has failed to upgrade its residential service to provide reasonable speeds.”

Bad Press Has A Purpose Sometimes

After a significant amount of bad press, AT&T reversed its original stance. AT&T spokesman Brett Levecchio was quoted in CNN Money:

"We're currently working to expand the eligibility process of Access from AT&T to the 2 percent of our home Internet customers unable to receive Internet speed tiers of 3 Mbps and above."

Siefer replied by pointing out that 2 percent of all AT&T customers still equates to 250,000 people, typically concentrated in low-income neighborhoods where the only Internet access available is the same slow technology found in Cleveland and Detroit. She wrote in a follow-up post:

“Some are already paying AT&T full price for their slow connections, while many others can’t afford Internet at all—and still won’t be able to, unless the Access speed threshold is lowered. Both groups will benefit from AT&T’s change of heart...We look forward to learning more about AT&T’s plans to extend Access from AT&T to these households, and to working with our local affiliates to maximize the program’s contribution to digital inclusion in their communities.”

Davis, CA, Issues RFP For Feasibility Study: Responses Due Oct. 31

The city of Davis, California, recently released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for a citywide fiber-optic feasibility study report. The community wants to consider the options for a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Responses are due October 31.

The scope of the work includes:

The study should provide an analysis of options for engineering, constructing, provisioning and operating a high speed citywide FTTP network. It should feature both physical and network transport layer components required to pass and potentially connect every home, business, apartment complex, and institutional building within the City of Davis. The analysis should also consider future use at strategic infill and edge points around the City in order to support network growth through the coming decades. 

Davis wants firms to consider public private partnerships, the city’s network as an open access infrastructure, and Davis is only an infrastructure provider.

In early 2015, a group of citizens formed DavisGIG to encourage community leaders to move forward by establishing a Broadband Advisory Task Force and the feasibility study. In March, Davis established a task force to examine the possibility of deploying a network to serve municipal facilities, community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents. Incumbents Comcast, AT&T, Omsoft, and non-profit Davis Community Network offer a wide range of services now and there is little consistency for the city’s 68,000 residents.

The University of California Davis (UCD) is a major employer, as is the State of California. According to the RFP, there is a growing entrepreneurial culture springing up in Davis due to the presence of UCD’s research environment. The community wants to feed that growth with a citywide, future-proof, FTTH network.

Important due dates:

  • Notice of Intent to Respond:  Thursday Sept. 22, 2016
  • RFP respondent questions due: Thursday Sept. 29, 2016
  • Answers to questions distributed: Friday Oct. 14, 2016
  • Proposals Due: Monday Oct. 31, 2016 at 3:00 p.m. PT

Send questions to Diane Parro, Chief Innovation Officer: clerkweb(at)cityofdavis.org.