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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.

Comment Highlights: Proposed HUD Rule To Expand Low-Income Residential Internet Access

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) recently asked for comments about a proposed rule to expand low-income access to high-speed Internet. The regulations would require building owners to install high-speed Internet infrastructure in HUD-funded multi-family rental housing during new construction or substantial rehabilitation, improving Internet access by promoting competition. Because the Internet infrastructure is not owned by one company, many Internet Service Providers (ISPs) can compete to provide residents with better options.

A variety of individuals and groups provided feedback for HUD, including local governments, nonprofit advocacy groups, ISPs, and professional associations. The majority of comments support HUD’s proposed rule, with many encouraging HUD to go further in their efforts to close the digital divide.

We submitted comments with Next Century Cities to articulate the importance of having reliable Internet access in the home:

Although Internet access may be available at schools, libraries, and other locations away from home, families with children - in particular single-parent households - face barriers to accessing those facilities. There is no substitute for having high quality home Internet access, where all members of a household can use it with privacy, security, and convenience. This high quality Internet access is what our organizations work with mayors and local leaders to achieve for residents and businesses everyday, which is why we feel so strongly about the proposed steps to close the digital divide and allow more residents to connect online.  

HUD correctly notes that installing telecommunications equipment during major rehabilitations or as units are being built creates an opportunity to ensure high quality access without significantly adding cost to the project. The ongoing benefits from high quality Internet access certainly dwarf the one-time low cost of installing appropriate technology. --Next Century Cities and the Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Promote Competition

Google Fiber discusses the importance of infrastructure to access, suggesting that HUD could take further steps to ensure choices are available to multi-family housing residents:

...HUD should expressly prohibit the public housing agencies (PHAs) and landlords supported by its programs from unreasonably interfering with the right of any multifamily rental housing resident to request or receive installation, operation, maintenance, or removal of a broadband service from a provider.  --Google Fiber

Comments submitted by Eric Null highlight the benefits of open access networks for lower-income families who are forced to pay high rates when there is no competition. Null’s submission represents the comments of several public interest groups including New America’s Open Technology Institute, New America’s Resilient Communities Project, New America’s Education Policy Program, Benton Foundation, Center for Rural Strategies, National Hispanic Media Coalition, and Public Knowledge:

Open access networks are critical in traditionally underserved areas where a dearth of choice has led to higher prices and fewer choices for consumers. Allowing any internet service provider to service new and substantially renovated buildings would increase the number of competitors and lower the barriers to entry for new providers, forcing providers to compete for customers by reducing pricing and improving offerings. --Eric Null, on behalf of several public interest groups

conduit-multi-color.jpg

The City of Seattle also highlights how infrastructure can support competition and discusses ways to provide quality, reasonably priced service:

Local housing providers should be enabled with options to provide the best, lowest cost service to residents as possible. The two primary means to do this are to 1) enable multiple competitive providers, or 2) enable the housing provider and residents to aggregate purchasing and delivery of service. To do this there either needs to be sufficient conduit and wiring from the entry point to each unit, or to a central distribution managed distribution system where either a single best provider can be selected or multiple providers can offer service through the building distribution system. --City of Seattle

Encourage Fiber For Future-Proof Connectivity

The National Association for County Community and Economic Development’s comments about the proposed rule suggest HUD encourage fiber service and negotiate with ISPs for service agreements:

When requiring the build-out of broadband infrastructure in HUD-funded multifamily rental housing the agency should seek methods to incentivize the highest level of broadband service, such as fiber service, to ensure the ability to keep pace with the increasing needs of connection speeds… we believe a significant opportunity exists to utilize HUD’s negotiating power to secure competitive broadband service agreements from providers. Aggregating demand among HUD-funded buildings and properties could potentially yield lower service rates for low- and moderate-income renters. --National Association for County Community and Economic Development

Funding

Comments from The National Housing Conference encourage HUD to consider broadband infrastructure to be an eligible expense for multifamily affordable housing developments:

HUD has made good strides in clarifying that broadband is an eligible expense, like the recent guidance on broadband in HOME, CDBG, and the National Housing Trust Fund. HUD should continue these efforts for all multifamily development programs. Building on these initial steps, HUD should explore treating cost-effective basic broadband as a standard operating cost for affordable housing properties... Put more simply, if use of a program requires a property to install broadband infrastructure, the funds provided by that program should also be allowed to cover the cost. --National Housing Conference

Other comments support HUD’s interest in Internet expansion, but disagree with the way in which HUD is promoting low-income access. A few Public Housing Authorities and professional associations state their concerns with HUD creating an unfunded mandate; however, the estimated cost for broadband infrastructure is only $200 per unit and the construction occurs during significant rehabilitation or new construction. 

To read full comments from organizations listed above as well as other comments, view the docket here.

Problem With Poles In Connecticut: Petitioning PURA For Precision

In Connecticut, local municipalities want to take advantage of the state’s unique “Municipal Gain Space” but invoking the law has not been hassle-free. As towns try to place fiber-optic cables on this reserved section of utility poles, questions arise that need answering. 

Giving Towns Some Room On The Poles

The Connecticut statute grants state departments and municipalities the right to use space on all of the approximately 900,000 utility poles sitting in the municipal Rights-of-Way (ROW), regardless of ownership. One of the state's electric providers and either Verizon or Frontier jointly own most of the poles.

The law was created in the early 1900s for telegraph wiring and as new technologies and wire types evolved, a number of law suits ensued. Cities and state entities usually won, preserving the space, but the process of getting attachment agreements approved became more burdensome and expensive. In 2013, the state legislature amended the law so municipalities could access to the space “for any use.” The change opened the door for hanging fiber for municipal networks and partnering with private providers.

A Little Help Here...

In theory, it seems simple but in practice, pole administrators - Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) and telephone companies - and government entities need guidance. As communities across the state band together to improve local connectivity and try to use the law, they have uncovered its flaws. It has potential, but the Municipal Gain Space law needs sharpening to be an effective tool. Its application rules are not sufficiently defined and a number of technical issues are not addressed. 

The state’s Public Utility Regulatory Agency (PURA) has the authority and responsibility to establish rules to settle the problems with the law. Deploying a municipal network is no small task; the Office of Consumer Counsel (OCC) and the State Broadband Office (SBO) hope to simplify the process for local communities. They have petitioned PURA to clarify the Municipal Gain Space rules. In their formal petition, they ask PURA to investigate and remove barriers that interfere with the “timely and efficient use of Municipal Gain.” Read the petition at the PURA website.

Lack Of Direction Jeopardizes Local Projects

We spoke with Elin Swanson Katz, Consumer Counsel, and Joseph Rosenthal, Principal Attorney from the OCC. Bill Vallee, the state's Broadband Policy and Program Coordinator joined the conversation. They described how a lack of direction for pole administrators and other gaps in the Municipal Gain Space law negatively impacts deployment for municipalities that decide to employ it. From inception to implementation, communities find themselves confronting some common questions.

A city may decide to invest in a project and use the Municipal Gain Space law to determine a route for their fiber-optic network cables.  As they move forward, they find that there are a number of unresolved questions, beginning with where on the pole the Municipal Gain Space should be located. Often the other entities that are using the poles have not reserved space for a municipality’s unrestricted use.

utility-pole-1.png

Once they answer the important issue of where on a pole a cable belongs, the next question is who pays to rearrange the existing wires so the new cable can be attached? For example, if a telephone company hung its wire but failed to reserve the space for the town to use later, who should pay for the make-ready costs when the town decides to use its statutory space under the Municipal Gain Space rule? How should make-ready costs, which can make or break a municipal fiber project, be allocated?

Time is critical; that holds true in the telecommunications industry in a number of ways. New rules would also establish who would be responsible for assessing the condition of the poles to expedite projects that depend on pole availability. Scheduling trucks and technicians from the various entities using the poles, fragile financing schedules, deployment delays that cause subscription losses, are only a few factors impacted by timing that affect the viability of a public or private network.

Limiting Competition With “An Offer You Can’t Refuse”

As communities have moved forward with fiber projects, some have entered into agreements with pole owners whose draft pole attachment agreements dictate the terms. Local communities may feel they have little choice, especially if they depend on critical funding tied to a tight deadline.

Some pole attachment agreements violate the law because it includes language that restricts municipalities’ use of the Municipal Gain Space. By limiting the space to “government use,” pole owners are able to prevent partnerships between municipalities and other Internet Service Providers (ISPs) who may wish to provide services to businesses or residents via publicly owned infrastructure. Such a restriction eliminates a range of options for local communities who may not have the ability to operate and maintain a fiber network alone. Incumbent providers are using their pole attachment agreements to stifle and delay municipal networks, including those that involve private partners, as a way to limit competition.

seal-somers-ct.jpg

Local communities must go out of their way to avoid these restrictive agreements if they want to preserve their ability to one day use their fiber for something other than a "government use."

For example, Somers had been awarded state funding to connect to the state education network but refused to sign the pole attachment agreement from Frontier. The resulting delay almost caused them to lose the state grant and they eventually engineered the network to avoid Frontier poles so they would not have to restrict away their Municipal Gain Space.

As part of the petition, the OCC and SBO are asking PURA to develop rules that could be used to build a standard agreement between municipalities and the telecommunications companies or EDCs that own the poles.

Washing Away The Mud For Everyone

In their June 21st news release, the OCC emphasized that the Municipal Gain Space rules affect a number of entities:

Other interested stakeholders in a PURA proceeding regarding the municipal gain would likely include the Single Pole Administrators (the two Electric Distribution Companies), the incumbent telephone companies, the several cable operators, long-term infrastructure investors, the diverse set of utilities, municipalities, investors, other entities that already engage in pole attachments, and Connecticut business and technology promotion groups seeking high-speed internet access.

"The process is daunting and in some circumstances clear as mud...That whole process needs to be clarified," Katz told the Hartford Courant in June. If PURA agrees, the Municipal Gain Space may soon be sharpened and ready to break new ground for Connecticut communities.

Comments Wanted: Proposed HUD Rule To Expand Low-Income Residential Internet Access

As part of a growing interest in expanding fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for low-income families at home, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has proposed a new regulation requiring high-speed Internet infrastructure to be installed in HUD-funded multi-family rental housing during new construction or substantial rehabilitation. While the proposed rule doesn’t require developers to pay for Internet service subscriptions, it is a step in eliminating barriers that low-income families face in obtaining quality, consistent Internet access. Public comments are due July 18, 2016.

The proposed rule covers HUD’s rental assistance and grant programs, including its Section 8 housing assistance program, Supportive Housing for the Elderly and Disabled program, Community Development Block Grant program, and Choice Neighborhoods Implementation Grant program. Families living in multi-family housing can then choose to purchase full-priced Internet access from local providers or utilize other resources in their community, which include federal subsidy programs in addition to other state, local, and charitable programs.

Getting Wired Up

As for the actual infrastructure, several types of Internet access technologies satisfy the requirement. Developers can install either wireless (Wi-Fi, fixed and mobile wireless, satellite) or wired (digital subscriber lines also known as DSL, power lines or BPL, cable lines, or fiber) infrastructure. HUD expects most builders will elect to install wired access because of the rapidly changing nature of wireless technologies.

Additionally, wired access is more likely to provide meaningful competition between several Internet Service Providers (ISPs), lowering costs and improving service quality for multi-family housing residents. In an open access network, ISPs typically lease space on infrastructure owned by another entity rather than owning the physical infrastructure themselves. If HUD's new rule called for an open access model, multiple ISPs could utilize a building’s wired infrastructure to offer services to residents. According to HUD’s estimates, which are detailed in the proposed rule, the average construction costs for wired broadband access in its multi-family housing is approximately $200 per unit.

Promoting Equity Through Competition

HUD’s proposed rule is one of the federal government’s initial attempts to address the digital divide. Programs such as the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program provide credits to families to purchase Internet services, but the programs are small and help consumers pay bills rather than lower costs by promoting competition.

HUD seeks public input about the proposed rule. While HUD asks for feedback on specific questions in the proposal, ILSR also encourages comments that affirm the importance of the proposed rule and support the installation of wired technologies that create open access networks that offer multiple benefits to subscribers rather than wireless technologies. Comments can be submitted online or by mail and are due July 18, 2016

Fiber in Lenox, Iowa

When community leaders in Lenox, Iowa, gathered together to examine the community's cable TV options in the 1980s, they probably didn't expect their decision to impact local Internet access. Fast-forward 30 years, and this town of 1,400 people now has one of the most sought after forms of Internet access infrastructure: Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

Lenox Municipal Utilities owns and operates a FTTH network that offers symmetrical speeds to hundreds of customers in town. It’s just one of many communities around the nation that have invested in this rugged, future-proof technology.

Same Utility, Changing Technology

We spoke with the Lenox Municipal Utilities General Manager John Borland who graciously provided some of the history of the network.

Since the early 1900s, Lenox has operated its own electric and water systems. These essential services enabled the community to thrive in the southern plains of Iowa. Eventually, a local entrepreneur decided to build and operate a TV system to ensure that the Lenox community stayed connected. In the 1980s, the town purchased the coaxial network from the owner who was ready to sell the system, but wanted to keep ownership within the community. Unfortunately, Borland didn’t know the identity of the entrepreneur whose investment eventually led to top-notch connectivity in this most unexpected place.

By the late 1990s, the network needed replacing, and nationwide, communities had already begun to realize the importance of Internet access. The incumbent Internet service provider, Frontier, offered dial-up and some DSL. Anticipating future need, Lenox decided to rebuild the entire network with fiber. 

Better Connectivity in the Community

In 2005, the community voted on a referendum to enable the utility to provide Internet service; it was one of many towns voting that year to ensure local control. The FTTH build cost about $1.5 million, which they funded through municipal revenue bonds.

Farmers Mutual Telephone Company ran a fiber line to Lenox, ensuring middle mile connectivity. By 2008, Lenox Municipal Utilities had the FTTH system up and running, bringing high-speed Internet to residents and businesses.

Now, Lenox Municipal Utilities offers triple play: television, telephone, and symmetrical Internet service, so upload and download speeds are equally fast. They also provide bundled packages for customers who want to purchase all three services. The network has about 450 customers for their Internet service, and several larger businesses have dedicated lines. 

Lenox is just one of the many small communities that offer next-generation high-speed connectivity in Iowa. For more stories about these self-reliant Iowa communities, check out our past stories in the Iowa tag.

Discussing (Ranting) Consolidation - Community Broadband Bits Episode 209

In celebration of Independence Day, we are focused this week on consolidation and dependence. At the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, we are very focused on independence and believe that the consolidation in the telecommunications industry threatens the independence of communities. We doubt that Comcast or AT&T executives could locate most of the communities they serve on a blank map - and that impacts their investment decisions that threaten the future of communities.

So Lisa Gonzalez and I talk about consolidation in the wake of Google buying Webpass and UC2B's partner iTV-3 selling out to Countrywide Broadband. And we talk about why Westminster's model of public-private partnership is preferable to that of UC2B.

We also discuss where consolidation may not be harmful and how the FCC's order approving the Charter takeover of Time Warner Cable will actually result in much more consolidation rather than new competition.

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 18 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 Fifes and Drums of the Old Barracks for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Cork Hornpipe."

Muni In Muscatine: Upgrades, Speeds Up, Outperforms

Cedar Falls may be the Iowa city famous for its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, but that won’t stop Muscatine. This small city of approximately 29,000 people is about to upgrade its aging network. For a little over a year, the municipal utility, Muscatine Power and Water (MP&W), has planned for the move to FTTH with funding from an interdepartmental loan. Now, FTTH is coming to Muscatine's MachLink Internet access service.

MP&W expects to break ground this year on this $8.7 million FTTH project and to finish building the network in 2017. Fiber will offer speeds much faster than those available on the existing hybrid fiber-coax (HFC) network. In anticipation, MP&W is increasing speeds for subcribers without raising rates.

More than a Year in the Making

The local newspaper, the Muscatine Journal, has closely followed the story. In late November 2014, MP&W announced the planned FTTH upgrade. MP&W is taking a slow and steady approach and planning to complete the upgrade in 2017. The latest Muscatine Journal article from this March emphasized how the large infrastructure project has many "interlocking" pieces that must fit together to make the project successful.

As we reported when MP&W announced the upgrade in 2014, a FTTH network will achieve immediate goals and help achieve a number of benefits. MP&W wants to improve residential services, reduce maintenance costs, and increase network reliability. Upgrading to FTTH will also contribute to long-term goals, such as encouraging economic development. Fiber is a future-proof technology, adapting to the increasing need for bandwidth from households, businesses, and institutions. MachLink will offer speeds of up to a Gigabit (1,000 Megabits) per second.

Outperforming Expectations

In the spirit of community, MP&W is increasing speeds without raising rates. MP&W announced that current customers will get twice the speed for no additional charge. Current MachLink subscribers with the fastest tier receive 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) download which will double, but Gigabit speeds will dwarf even that. Upload speeds have yet to be determined.

It’s a good move as the TV and Internet services in Muscatine are continuing to grow in popularity. The communications division has outperformed already high expectations according to the Muscatine Journal this January:

“A profit of $1.25 million was budgeted for the Communications Utility for 2015, but actual profit was $1.79 million. For December, actual profit of $214,638 outperformed the budgeted $120,136.”

Without this public network, those dollars could have all gone to absentee-owned providers - who wouldn’t be investing money to improve the network. Also, it’s important to note that publicly owned networks do not actually make a “profit” to be distributed among shareholders, but rather extra revenue is reinvested in other community projects, used to improve the network, to pay down debt, or put in a rainy day fund. Publicly owned network "shareholders" are people who live and work in the community served by the network.

The FTTH network will make current services even better. As Beecher Sykes, MP&W manager of telecommunications, told the Muscatine Journal in March,

“(Fiber is) an extreme benefit not only to customers but the community as a whole.” 

Meeting the American Cable Association - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 202

The American Cable Association (ACA) represents over 800 small and medium-sized cable companies around the United States, including many municipal cable and fiber-optic networks. This week, we talk with ACA President and CEO Matt Polka about what they do and how small cable companies are vastly different from the big companies like Comcast and Charter.

We spoke after it was clear Charter's merger with Time Warner Cable would be approved, but before this article in Ars Technica effectively missed the point of Matt Polka's objection to the competition requirement in the merger. In our interview, we discuss the larger problem - that the federal government consistently puts its thumb on the scale to benefit the biggest cable companies at the expense of smaller ones. Forcing Charter to compete with Comcast would be a far bigger benefit to communities than having it take over small cable networks.

We wrap up with a discussion about how smaller companies, which includes all municipal networks, are disproportionately impacted by regulations that do not distinguish between the biggest providers (that tend to cause the majority of problems) and the smaller providers (that bear the brunt of regulations designed for reigning in the problems caused by the big carriers).

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 29 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 Forget the Whale for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "I Know Where You've Been."

Reclaim Time, Money By Bidding Cable Bye Bye

“There aren’t enough hours in the day,” is a statement that describes the increasing stress of people who feel over-scheduled, over-worked, and over-tired. With too much to do and too little time in which to do it, snatching back every wasted moment can keep an individual on track and pleasantly productive.

Added Benefits Of The Break

In addition to slashing your cable bill, cord cutting can help you retrieve those lost moments - and preserve your sanity - by allowing you to control your advertisement consumption. 

A March Ting blog post shared data from the Wall Street Journal that described how commercial time on cable TV has steadily increased over the past few years and is now up to an average of 15.8 minutes of every hour. Some cable channels gobble up as much as 25 percent of your viewing time with advertisements. Considered cumulatively:

Further, if you watch every episode of NCIS Season 13 live, you will watch 17 hours of content. If you stream the same show through Amazon, without ads, it would be just 11.9 hours of content, for a total savings of over five hours.

Taken one step further, viewers can reduce electricity consumption by eliminating or reducing commercials. While some streaming services like Netflix show no ads, even the ones that do, such as Hulu, show much fewer ads than cable TV; often subscribers can pay a slightly higher rate for ad-free viewing.

If You Like Commercials

Some people enjoy ads, however, so if you decide to cut the cord but still want the ability to view some of those quirky commercials, there is a way to see high-quality ads at your leisure. Ting recommends Superbowl-Ads.com, Fandango on Youtube and Daily Commercials.

Bookmark-worthy

The Ting Blog is one of those golden nuggets that is worth an occasional look. In addition to tips like these, the provider offers product reviews, information on new apps, and answers to questions you probably won't find elsewhere. Check it out.

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."