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Connectivity Cornucopia: We Give Thanks!

This time of year, people come together to celebrate the things they are thankful for and appreciate. Here at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we want to take a moment to appreciate all the communities, people, and wonderful ideas that help spread the concept of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

A few of us looked into the cornucopia that is feeding the growth of publicly owned Internet networks and picked out some of our favorites. There are more people, places, and ideas than we could write about in one post. Nevertheless, it's always good to step back and consider how the many contributions to the Connectivity Cornucopia accelerate us toward high-quality Internet access for all.

People: Colorado Local Voters

We appreciate the voters in Colorado who chose to reclaim local authority. This year, 26 more counties and municipalities asked voters to opt out of restrictive SB 152, and all chose to take back telecommunications authority. They joined the ranks of a groundswell of local Colorado citizens who have voiced their opinion to Denver - 95 communities in all. They know that they are the best situated to make decisions about local connectivity and, even if they don’t have solid plans in place, want the ability to investigate the options. Colorado voters rock!

Place: Ammon, Idaho  

The unfolding municipal fiber network in the city of Ammon, Idaho (pop. 14,000) continues to attract a steady stream of honors and opportunities. In August, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named Ammon’s open access network the 2016 Community Broadband Project of the Year.  Two months later, the city said it is partnering in a $600,000 initiative with the University of Utah to research and develop a series of next-generation networking technologies supporting public safety, including broadband public emergency alerts. With Ammon’s new fiber network, residents are giving thanks for a system that allows them, among other things, to change their Internet Service Provider (ISP) simply and quickly from a sign-up portal.

We give thanks for Ammon’s innovation and their desire to give people choice.

Policy: Clever Conduit Approaches

Multiple communities have created smart conduit policies to bring connectivity to their residents. Conduit is a reinforced tube that protects and guides cables that run underground. Despite how boring conduit policy might sound, it can bring about better connectivity and ensure community control of public infrastructure. Smart conduit policy is a cornerstone for municipal networks and creating infrastructure for potential future partners. For instance, Mount Vernon, Washington, has its own open access network with eight different Internet Service Providers. The city ensures that developers install conduit in all new developments and then turn control of it over to the city. There are many more excellent models of conduit policy, just check out Lincoln, Nebraska; Centennial, Colorado; or Saint Louis Park, Minnesota.

We understand the importance of smart conduit policy and are thankful for the fact that an increasing number of communities are onboard with implementing similar measures.

So Much To Appreciate!

These are only a few of the people, places, and policies that produce better connectivity for local communities. We're thankful for them and for many others as more communities realize the value of publicly owned Internet networks. We wish you a relaxing and warm holiday and hope you have a moment to pause and consider all you have to be thankful for.


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Photo of the turkeys courtesy of Farmgirlmiriam via Pixaby.

Photo of the cornucopia courtesy of Cliparts.co.

Rural Electrics Solve Rural Internet Access Problems - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 229

Rural electric co-ops have started delivering high quality Internet access to their member-owners and our guest this week on Community Broadband Bits episode 229 is dedicated to helping these co-ops to build fiber-optic networks throughout their territories. Jon Chambers is a partner at Conexon and was previously the head of the FCC's Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis.

Jon is a strong proponent for ensuring rural residents and businesses have at least the same quality Internet access as urban areas. We talk about his experience and frustration at the FCC, which was content to shovel money at telcos for the most basic infrastructure rather than setting higher expectations to ensure everyone had decent Internet access. We talk about how Co-Mo rolled out fiber to its members without federal assistance, inspiring electric cooperatives around the nation to follow suit.

In our discussion, I reference Jon's blog post "FCC to Rural America: Drop Dead." In it, he cites some of the reactions in the FCC from his advocacy for real rural solutions rather than signing big checks to big telcos for delivering slow and unreliable Internet access. One of quotes from a Democrat: "Republicans like corporate welfare, so we’re going to give money to the telephone companies to keep the Republicans on the Hill happy."

Neither political party comes off looking very good when it comes to rural connectivity, which fits with our impression. But Jon confirms another of our experiences when he says that when he works with rural communities, politics doesn't come up. They just focus on solutions.

Read the transcript of the show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 36 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bodacious."

Short Policy Report on Munis and Education From ECS

Digital learning initiatives for K-12 grades and online coursework for college programs both require high-speed connectivity in school and at home. Policymakers cannot overlook this issue when discussing municipal networks.

The Education Commission of the States addressed connectivity in the classroom and at home in a short policy report, entitled Inhibiting Connection: State policy impacting expansion of municipal broadband networks in September 2016. 

Inside the Report

Co-authors Lauren Sisneros and Brian Sponsler provide an overview of how municipal network issues intersect with state education goals. The paper covers the major arguments for and against municipal networks as well as current state laws restricting those networks:

"As state education policymakers explore options to support postsecondary access and success, they may be well served to consider their states’ policy addressing municipal broadband networks."

They also highlight our Community Networks Initiative as a resource for policymakers to access fact sheets, case studies, and videos. 

Read the entire policy report on the Education Commission of the States' website

For more information on connectivity in schools in general, check out our Institutional Networks page.

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.

Saint Louis Park is Prepared for the Fiber Future - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 219

Saint Louis Park, a compact community along the west side of Minneapolis, has built an impressive fiber network, a conduit system, and several deals with developers to ensure new apartment buildings will allow their tenants to choose among high speed Internet access providers. Chief Information Office Clint Pires joins me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 219.

In one of our longest episodes, we discuss how Saint Louis Park started by partnering with other key entities to start its own fiber network, connecting key anchor institutions. Years later, it partnered with a firm for citywide solar-powered Wi-Fi but that partner failed to perform, leaving the community a bit disheartened, but in no way cowed.

They continued to place conduit in the ground wherever possible and began striking deals with ISPs and landlords that began using the fiber and conduit to improve access for local businesses and residents. And they so impressed our previous podcast guest Travis Carter of US Internet, that he suggested we interview them for this show.

Clint Pires has learned many lessons over the years and now we hope other communities will take his wisdom to heart. Well-managed communities can make smart investments that will save taxpayer dollars and drive investment in better networks.

Read the transcript of the episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 40 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Just What is the Internet? Community Broadband Bits Podcast 216

The Internet is one of those things that is right there in front of our face but can be hard to define exactly. Community Broadband Bits Episode 216 answers that question and picks up right where episode 213 left off with Fred Goldstein, Principal of Interisle Consulting Group.

Having already discussed the regulatory decisions that allowed the Internet to flourish, we now focus on what exactly the Internet is (hint, not wires or even physical things) and spend a long time talking about Fred's persuasive argument on how the FCC should have resolved the network neutrality battle.

We also talk about why the Internet should properly be capitalized and why the Internet is neither fast nor slow itself. These are core concepts that anyone who cares about getting Internet policy correct should know -- but far too few do. Not because it is too technical, but because it does require some work to understand. That is why this is such a long conversation - probably our longest to date in over 200 shows.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 40 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Roller Genoa for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Safe and Warm in Hunter's Arms."

Rewriting the Rules, Santa Cruz County Encourages Competition

South of California’s Bay Area with its buzzing tech startups and expensive housing, Santa Cruz County has been overlooked by the big Internet Service Providers (ISPs). The city of Santa Cruz had less than stellar connectivity, and the rest of Santa Cruz County was no better. That’s when county leaders decided to rewrite the rules.

Throughout 2014 and early 2015, the Board of Supervisors for Santa Cruz County developed a broadband master plan, created a “dig once” policy, and streamlined the regulatory permit process. Cutting down red tape at the county level encouraged both small and large ISPs to reconsider investing in Santa Cruz.

Streamlining To Increase Competition

Although large ISPs have enough money and personnel to focus exclusively on permit acquisition, smaller ISPs must find a way to contend with the permitting process with limited resources. Santa Cruz County's new policies and processes enable all ISPs interested in Santa Cruz County to compete on better terms. Under these new rules, ISPs have a more equal playing field.

The policies reduce the amount of time spent on the regulatory process for ISPs building fiber networks. A master lease agreement simplifies the procedure to use county assets for networks. Modified ordinances enable ISPs to easily install or upgrade infrastructure in the county’s right-of-way. (Right-of-way is public land managed for the public good, especially boulevards and medians along roadways.)

We spoke with Santa Cruz County Board Supervisor Zach Friend about the impact of these policies and the Santa Cruz County master broadband plan. He credited the new policies for encouraging providers to offer better services. (Cruzio is building a fiber network in the city of Santa Cruz, and Comcast decided to increase speeds without raising prices in Santa Cruz county.) Supervisor Friend also emphasized that the public discussions brought attention to the need for improved Internet access in the community.

A Model For Other Counties

In late 2014, the California Broadband Council highlighted the work of Santa Cruz County and the draft policies that Supervisor Friend presented. Now most jurisdictions within Santa Cruz County have adopted similar policies, and Supervisor Friend has presented drafts of the policies to several other areas throughout California. 

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Dig Once: The "dig once" policy lays out how all construction or repaving of a county right-of-way will include measures for installing cable or conduit. Any project that involves digging in or adjacent to the County of right-of-way has to include installation of cable or conduit. The policy puts the Director of Public Works in charge of administering the program, exempting projects, inspecting projects, and issuing citations. Violating the rule is considered a public nuisance.

Master Lease Agreement: The master lease agreement ensures that all providers get similar, fair treatment in getting access to County right-of-way, conduit, and other facilities. The lease is designed for a five-year term, with an option to extend another five years. Each year the payment increases by about four percent. Knowing how the County has treated other providers creates consistency, and a draft lease agreement cuts down on paperwork for the County. 

Necessary Infrastructure

Santa Cruz County wants to treat telecommunication infrastructure like a utility: less permits, less paperwork, and more access. Read the “dig once” draft policy and the draft conduit specifications, master lease agreement, and telecommunications ordinance as presented to the California Broadband Council.

Webpass and Its Fixed Wireless Seek Fix for Landlord Abuses - Community Broadband Bits Episode 197

San Francisco is one of the rare cities that has multiple high quality ISPs competing for market share, though the vast majority of people still seem to be stuck choosing only between Comcast and AT&T. This week, we talk to a rising ISP, Webpass, about their success and challenges in expanding their model. Charles Barr is the President of Webpass and Lauren Saine is a policy advisor - both join us for episode 197 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the Webpass model, which uses fixed wireless and fiber to serve high density apartment buildings where they are allowed in by the landlord. Unfortunately, they have been locked out of many of these buildings and are looking to the city of San Francisco to adopt better policies to ensure a single provider like AT&T cannot monopolize the building. Though the FCC has made exclusive arrangement unenforceable, the big providers are still finding ways to lock out competition.

We also talk a little about the role of fiber and fixed wireless technologies, chokepoints more generally, and why Webpass is so sure it could succeed if residents were all able to to choose the ISP they wanted.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Service Unavailable: The Failure of Competition - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 196

If you are paying close attention to discussions about broadband policy, you may have come across Fred Pilot's reminders that competition is not a cure-all for our Internet access woes across the United States. The blogger and author joins us for episode 196 of Community Broadband Bits.

Fred Pilot's new book, Service Unavailable: America's Telecommunications Infrastructure Crisis, discusses some of the history behind our current challenges and proposes a solution centered around federal funding and cooperatives.

We discuss the switch from telecommunications as a regulated utility, to which everyone was guaranteed access, to a system relying on competition, in which some people have many choices but others have no options. We also discuss the merits of a national solution vs encouraging more local approaches with federal financial assistance.

Fred's blog is Eldo Telecom and you can follow him on Twitter.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

The FCC's Pro-Competition Agenda - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 192

This week we welcome Gigi Sohn, Counselor to Chairman Wheeler of the Federal Communications Commission, to Community Broadband Bits for episode 192. Before joining the FCC, Gigi was a founder of Public Knowledge.

Gigi discusses the pro-competition agenda that Chairman Wheeler has advanced, including the efforts to ensure communities can decide locally whether to build a municipal network or partner. We also discuss other elements of FCC action to encourage competition in the Internet access market, even how television set-top boxes fit in.

Echoing some of the comments I regularly hear from some thoughtful listeners, I asked if competition was the best approach given the argument that telecom, and particularly fiber, has the characteristics of a natural monopoly.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."