Tag Archives: muni broadband

Reporters ripped for muni broadband stories. Is Comcast behind it?


A “visiting scholar” at the American Enterprise Institute (and a member of Donald Trump’s “landing team” at the Federal Communications Commission) has taken to trash talking writers and publications that reported on a recent municipal broadband study (I haven’t yet – it’s on my to do list). The resemblance to a Comcast-sponsored astroturfing campaign is noteworthy.

Roslyn Layton joined Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison as volunteers assigned to help cobble together telecoms policy and overhaul the Obama-era FCC. All three are affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a consulting group – think tank in Beltway speak – that serves right-of-center and industry interests.

Writing in Forbes, Layton tees off on a study done by Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society that concluded that muni broadband systems “generally charge less for entry-level broadband service than do competing private providers, and don’t use initial low ‘teaser’ rates that sharply rise months later”. She spends little effort critiquing its merits. Layton’s ire is directed at publications that dared to report on the findings and, in her view, failed to properly excoriate it.

For the editor of one of those publications, Daniel Frankel at FierceCable, the attack brought to mind a 2014 campaign by AEI to discredit network neutrality policy, an effort that was linked to Comcast

At the time, Comcast spokesperson Sena Fitzmaurice conceded to the [Washington Post] that the cable operator “has worked with most of the major think tanks in town who are interested in communications issues," including the Aspen Institute, the Brookings Institution and the American Enterprise Institute. She didn’t go into further detail.

I reached out to Fitzmaurice to see if she could provide any update on Comcast’s relationship with AEI. Is it now working with them on municipal broadband, an issue Comcast has stridently contested in markets including Seattle and Denver? I’m still waiting to hear back.

Layton told Frankel that “Comcast didn’t influence her column” and claimed to have “little to no knowledge” of where AEI gets the money it pays her. But that doesn’t mean that Comcast isn’t still in AEI’s decision making loop.

By their nature, astroturfing campaigns – where a company uses unidentified front organisations to push its agenda – are difficult to unmask. Absent a smoking gun, companies who engage in it don’t offer straightforward answers.

But Frankel is asking the right questions.

I make my living helping communities improve broadband infrastructure and service, including, at times, developing municipal broadband projects. I’m not a disinterested commentator. Take it for what it’s worth.

Riverside’s open access muni fiber network is open for business


Municipal dark fiber is now available for lease on an open access basis in Riverside, California. Riverside Public Utilities (RPU) – the City of Riverside’s municipal electric and water utility – has gone live with its dark fiber webpage, which sets out the rates and terms for leasing strands on its 120 mile network.

The base rate is $125 per strand-mile per month (one mile minimum, by tenth of mile after that), which can fall to $70 with term and volume discounts. Drops, laterals and end points cost $150 per month each.

Dark fiber is available to any business that wants to make use of it, including Internet service providers, mobile carriers and other telecommunications resellers. There are no plans to offer lit services or Internet bandwidth to businesses, or provide residential service of any kind.

Security is always a concern for any public utility. The fiber strands that RPU uses for its own operations will not be shared with any customer. The only strands that will be terminated at a customer’s location will be ones that are either leased to that customer or used to monitor network continuity.

Like RPU’s electric and water systems, the fiber network has a citywide footprint and is particularly dense in the downtown area, where several office buildings are already on-net. It’s interconnected to Southern California Edison’s 5,000 mile regional fiber network, Charter Communications’ local network and to the County of Riverside’s RC3 data center, where connections to other major fiber and telecommunications companies are available. RPU’s fiber route also passes several other potential interconnection points, including an AT&T central office, a Level 3 data center, UC Riverside, and Metrolink stations.

If a connection to a particular building or area of the city isn’t already available, RPU will build laterals and extensions to order. Terms for new construction and information about planned projects are also on the new webpage.

Full disclosure: Riverside Public Utilities is my client and I’m working on their behalf (although what’s posted on my blog is purely my responsibility). Take it for what it’s worth.

California legislature looks at muni broadband rules. Beware


Municipal broadband is on the line in the California legislature. Assemblyman Ed Chau (D – Monterey Park) introduced assembly bill 1999 last week. As drafted, it would do two things: require muni broadband systems to abide by network neutrality principles and remove restrictions that effectively prevented community services districts from getting into the Internet service provider business.

On the face of it, AB 1999 is straightforward. It succinctly lays out net neutrality rules – no blocking, throttling or paid prioritisation – and applies them to broadband services offered by cities, or by the special districts that are particularly authorised to do so by Californian law.

Public utility districts, municipal utility districts and infrastructure finance districts are allowed to get into the telecoms business with no restrictions. Community services districts can only do so if “if the district is unable to locate a private person or entity who is willing or able to provide broadband service”. Even if it does, if someone rocks up later and offers service then the district has to sell or lease the system “at fair market value”.

AB 1999 would remove that restriction and give community services districts the same options as utility and infrastructure financing districts.

All that is fine. The problem is that broadband bills that are introduced with good intentions – Chau gained cred with AB 375 last year, which would have established state Internet privacy regulations – are often flipped as they move through the legislative process. That happened to AB 1665. It started out as a carrier-neutral broadband infrastructure subsidy bill, but was rapidly rewritten into an incumbent piggy bank by telco and cable lobbyists and pushed through by biddable lawmakers.

And that’s the danger with AB 1999. Net neutrality regs are well and good, but it’s an industry issue, not a particular problem for muni broadband operations. It’s a fair argument that community services districts should be allowed to offer broadband service, but there’s also a case to be made that they shouldn’t get into the public utility business – that’s what utility districts are for.

In the unlikely event that AB 1999 is passed as currently written, it’ll do no harm and might do some good. Once cable and telco lobbyists get their hands on it, though, and offer friendly amendments to their special friends on key committees, it’ll be a different story. Stay tuned.

FCC grabs ankles for industry lobbyists San Jose mayor says, but in a nicer way


The Federal Communications Commission is only interested in listening to big telephone and cable companies, according to San Jose mayor Sam Licardo. He resigned from the FCC’s broadband deployment advisory committee yesterday, following two days of frustrating meetings that were dominated by industry lobbyists and other corporate hacks. Licardo said in his resignation letter that the industry bias was blatant…

One working group, which did not have a single municipal representative among its 30+ participants, created a draft model state code that included provisions to eliminate all municipal control over when, how, and whether to accept industry applications for infrastructure deployment. Another working group had an industry representative dramatically re-write its draft municipal code in the 11th hour, pushing aside the product of months of the working group’s deliberations. The result, in each case, were provisions that plainly prioritized industry interests.

It has become abundantly clear that despite the good intentions of several participants, the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public. The apparent goal is to create a set of rules that will provide industry with easy access to publicly-funded infrastructure at taxpayer- subsidized rates, without any obligation to provide broadband access to underserved residents..

The “industry representative” who big footed the subcommittee’s work was an AT&T lobbyist, according to an article by Mari Silbey in Light Reading.

Licardo resigned after signing on to a “minority report” prepared by the City of McAllen, Texas and also joined by New York City. “Despite many hours of hard, earnest work by representatives from across the nation and the ideological spectrum, the work product developed by the BDAC is, with some exceptions, decidedly not representative of the views of all stakeholders nor grounded in legally viable solutions”, the report read.

BDAC wrapped up two days of meetings on Wednesday. Once final recommendations have been made, the FCC will move forward on further preemption of local and state authority according to FCC commissioner Michael O’Rielly, when he spoke at the CES show in Las Vegas earlier this month.

California muni broadband battle continues, with or without federal advice


Even if it’s adopted as is – and it’s as likely to get worse as it is to get better – a wish list of muni-stomping broadband policy drafted by a Federal Communications Commission advisory group, and echoed by the FCC majority, probably won’t have much impact in California.

That’s not necessarily good news for Californian cities and counties, though. One of the recommendations – grant cable franchises on a statewide basis with an impossibly light and delicate regulatory touch – has been law here for more than ten years. Cable companies pushed through the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) in 2006 and now answer to no one.

Local control over permits for wireless facilities – on private property or in the public right of way – has been steadily eroding and mobile carriers, as well as telephone and cable companies, continue to keep the pressure on in Sacramento. They’ll be back next year looking for on-demand access to city and county owned assets, such as light poles or land, at below market rental rates. Senate bill 649, which was passed by the legislature this year but was vetoed by governor Brown, would have done all that. Brown wasn’t fundamentally opposed to the idea, he just thought the bill went a bit too far. That’s an open invitation to try again, with some of the rough edges sanded off.

The third major recommendation was to kill muni broadband systems, and give away muni fiber to incumbents so they wouldn’t suffer the horrible pain of competition. That would be difficult in California. The California constitution gives cities, particularly charter cities, a considerable degree of autonomy. Even though full service muni broadband systems are relatively rare here, they do exist. And the number of muni dark fiber systems is growing. Trying to claw back that authority would be difficult, legally and politically.

But that doesn’t mean they won’t try.

State lawmakers should exorcise muni broadband evil, federal advisors say


Stomp on cities. Boiled down, that’s the conclusion of a group advising the Federal Communications Commission on what states ought to be doing to promote broadband deployment. The FCC formed the Broadband Development Advisory Committee earlier this year, which is top heavy with lobbyists and others from big and mid-sized telecoms companies, very weak on local or state government representation and devoid of any municipal broadband experience. The committee spun off five working groups, including one tasked with writing model laws for states to adopt or, potentially, for the FCC to impose through its assumed preemption powers.

The result is a wish list that might have been – and probably was – written by lobbyists from big cable, telephone and mobile companies, and includes…

  • Statewide cable franchising. California adopted this approach more than ten years ago, when the Digital Infrastructure and Video Competition Act (DIVCA) was passed. Instead of negotiating for franchise rights on a city by city, county by county basis, cable companies get blanket permission to operate from the California Public Utilities Commission, which has virtually no discretion or oversight authority. It simply hands out full or partial statewide franchises and hopes for the best. In some ways DIVCA has reduced barriers to broadband deployment, but it has also given cable companies free rein to cherry pick high revenue service areas, ignore regulatory standards imposed on other telecoms companies and otherwise use its position as the sole provider of advanced service – 25 Mbps down/3 Mbps up – to extract monopoly rents from consumers and businesses alike.
  • Eliminate municipal broadband service. The group’s draft takes a convoluted path, but the destination is clear: keep cities out of the broadband business. The general advice to local governments is to butt out of broadband issues, but if they are determined to do something anyway, they should give money, real estate and other assets to incumbents and trust that all will be right. Owning and operating a broadband system is a city’s last resort, and only allowable if it can be shown that every other possibility has been exhausted – in other words, only if incumbent cable and phone companies meekly concede their turf. Good luck with that. As a kicker, if a city or county owns dark fiber – not uncommon in California – it wouldn’t be able to keep it. At least not for anything beyond its own “reasonably anticipated” needs. Any spare municipal fiber capacity could be claimed, at will, by a private broadband provider for a pitifully low price.
  • Preempt local ownership and oversight of poles and other wireless assets. This one is no surprise to anyone who’s been following the money the wireless policy debate in Sacramento. The group’s draft tracks very closely with California senate bill 649, which was vetoed by governor Brown last month. Discretion regarding installation of most wireless facilities on private property and in the public right of way would be eliminated and, as with dark fiber, telecoms companies could make free use publicly owned property, such as streetlights, at rental rates far below market value.

The FCC’s model state code working group is expected to finalise its recommended policy in January. After that, expect the political money men to pressure the FCC to impose as much of it as it can on a federal preemption basis, and then deploy to state capitols to mop up what’s left.

FCC broadband committee offers letter to Santa deployment advice


There was a mix of good and awful policy on the table last Thursday as the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband deployment advisory committee (BDAC) heard from its five working groups. The BDAC was created by Ajit Pai shortly after he got the nod to be Donald Trump’s FCC chairman. Its job is to offer advice on how to speed up broadband deployment by breaking down legal, regulatory and bureaucratic barriers. Although there are nuggets of sound policy to be found, what it came up with mostly reads like wish lists written by telecoms lobbyists.

The committee and working groups membership is top heavy with big (and mid sized) telecoms companies and their lobbyists, but there are some bright lights as well. Cities are represented, but by policy-level people, not by people with muni broadband or other industry expertise.

And it shows.

The five working groups dealt with competitive access to broadband infrastructure, model code for municipalities, model code for states, removing state and local regulatory barriers and streamlining federal siting. The results are, to put it kindly, uneven.

The worst showing was from the model code for states group. It pretty much wants to ban municipal broadband ventures, although instead of coming out and saying so, it recommends first running projects through a gauntlet of preferred options, including subsidising incumbents. Few muni broadband proposals would survive it. The state model code group also recommends preempting local ownership of broadband-relevant assets, including dark fiber. If a city owns dark fiber or light poles, private companies could commandeer them at will for a price far below market value.

The muni code group, on the other hand, had some worthy ideas about streamlining permit processes and, contrary to the state group, recommended local governments should maintain control of municipal property.

The working group looking at state and local regulatory barriers produced a lengthy indictment of the sins committed against broadband and wireless companies, and took an analytical, but sympathetic, look at federal preemption of pretty much anything that might upset a telecoms lobbyist.

There are many recommendations for streamlining federal processes, but the P word – preemption – didn’t come up. That would be unneighborly, I suppose. The group looking at competitive access focused primarily on pole attachment issues, with one touch make ready rules at the top of the list.

A few recommendations, mostly preliminary, were adopted by the full committee, with the meat of the proposals expected to get a full review in January. What happens after that – or even, before – is unclear, although if the the effusive reaction of commissioner Michael O’Rielly is any indication, the FCC majority will cherry pick the policy bits that support the positions they’ve espoused all along, and run with them.

New Benicia broadband RFP comes with money on the table


The City of Benicia is taking another try at priming the pump for upgraded industrial and commercial class broadband infrastructure and service. A request for proposals was posted this week, backed by up to $750,000 of city money. The objectives include…

  • Specific service proposals for the Benicia Industrial Park and the adjacent Arsenal area, which, among other things, is being developed as a home for high tech start-ups.
  • Generally, improving availability of high quality managed services and unbundled network elements, such as dark fiber, throughout the City.
  • Options for meeting the connectivity needs of the City’s internal IT network.
  • Free public WiFi access, particularly in commercial and industrial areas.
  • A more competitive market for broadband service in Benicia.

The City isn’t necessarily looking for a single provider that can achieve all of its objectives and is leaving the door open to working with two or more companies, if that seems to be the better course. The RFP is designed to encourage responses from as many qualified companies as possible – a maximum length of 10 pages is specified for the proposal, not counting any back-up material that might be included in an appendix, although additional information may be requested during the evaluation process.

There’s no particular business or partnership model specified, although the City took care to highlight, in bold letters, that “its preference is for a model that minimizes the City’s ongoing role in the project while ensuring that sufficient public benefits are generated by its investment, including, particularly, achievement of its economic development goals“.

An earlier RFP, issued in 2013, was focused on just the Benicia Industrial Park and Arsenal area. More information about it, including the research reports that backed it up, can be found here. The 2013 RFP resulted in an agreement with Lit San Leandro to build a network, but changes at the company took it in a different direction and a contract was never executed.

The deadline for proposals is 22 September 2017, with any written questions due by 8 September 2017.


Request for Proposal, Benicia Industrial and Commercial Broadband Project, 21 August 2017

Full disclosure: I’m a consultant to the City of Benicia and assisted with preparation of the RFP. I’m not a neutral commentator; take it for what it’s worth.

Rural Michigan voters approve higher taxes for faster broadband


Voters in a Michigan town overwhelmingly approved adding about $22 a month to their tax bills, in order to pay for the construction costs of a municipal fiber to the home system. Lyndon Township is in a rural area of southern Michigan, where broadband service is described by a local news site as “almost entirely lacking” (h/t to MuniNetworks.org for the pointer). According to a story in the Chelsea Update by Lisa Allmendinger, the vote was 66% to 34% in favor of the property tax hike

Based on currently available taxable valuation data for Lyndon Township, the average cost per property owner for this construction will be about $21.92 per month. Estimated costs for basic internet access will be between $35-45 per month. This internet service will provide a basic speed of 100Mb, with no caps on data usage, with 1Gb (gigabit) speeds available for about $60-70 per month.

The average combined cost of the millage for infrastructure and monthly fee for basic service will be between $57-67 per month.

On the face of it, this muni FTTH project is credible. It’s small town – about 900 homes – and a small system, which means even a small disconnect between the business plan and reality can have big consequences for taxpayers. But the $22 per month tax hit is in the same ballpark as estimates elsewhere, including in San Francisco and for the Utopia project in Utah. It’s estimated to be a $7 million project, in other words right around $8,000 per household, which is a realistic figure for a rural build. If there are cost overruns or take rates don’t match projections, taxes might go up, but probably not by a huge amount.

It’s an honest approach to municipal FTTH financing. Instead of pie-in-the-sky promises, a realistic price was presented to voters and they agreed to pay it.

Be glad the FCC lost its muni broadband bulldozer


Municipal broadband dodged a bullet when a U.S. appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission can’t tell states that they have to allow cities to build networks and offer service. It seemed like a good idea to many muni advocates at the time (although not me, I’ll immodestly point out) because of all the warm and fuzzy love that the Obama administration was bestowing on the concept.

Had that preemption withstood court challenges, muni broadband would be at the mercy of the current FCC majority, which includes Michael O’Rielly, who recently offered his thoughts to a group of state legislators. After warming up with some rants about socialism and the collapse of the Venezuelan economy, he riffed on muni broadband systems…

What I am unwilling to do and will never support is allowing government-sponsored networks to use their unfair advantages to offer broadband services. Doing so would be the quickest way to destroy the private broadband market and reassure creation of a market monopoly position by these networks. In addition, in instances where they have been attempted, the success rate is highly suspect. Clearly, building and operating a broadband network is the opposite of easy.

The fact that some states in our nation have enacted protections prior to allowing localities to pursue government-sponsored networks should be celebrated, not criticized or attacked. Upon close examination, the protections are, in fact, quite reasonable. They tend to include requirements that potential networks conduct a right-of-first refusal process to see if the private sector is capable and interested in offering service, perform referendums of the local people to determine whether there is a desire to put taxpayer monies at risk, limit the use of cross-subsidies and government advantages to rights-of-way, and present business plans before becoming operational. Far from being radical, these are common sense requirements.

Fortunately, the FCC’s abortive preemption of muni broadband ended up reaffirming state authority over what cities and counties do, including whether or not they can build and operate networks. The flip side of the argument – that maybe the FCC has the power to ban, rather than require, muni broadband – hasn’t been tested. So don’t rest easy. But be glad the courts didn’t agree that the FCC has unmistakably clear authority over what cities can and can’t do with broadband.