Tag Archives: muni broadband

Muni broadband can defend net neutrality, but winning isn’t guaranteed

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Net neutrality and municipal broadband are two separate issues that overlap in a couple of ways. First, there’s an assumption that muni broadband systems will abide by net neutrality principles, even if not required (but there’s a bill in the California legislature, AB 1999, that would require it). It’s an easy pledge to make now, but it’s not a certainty that muni systems could or would swim against the financial tide if the economics of the business changes significantly.

And the economic structure of the Internet will continue to change, as it has for the past thirty years. Small broadband providers, muni or not, only control traffic up to a certain point. Traffic could be shaped, throttled, blocked or prioritised on the other side of that point, reducing the value of a neutral last mile. Another consideration is the value of privileged access to users, particularly by content providers that rely on advertising. Sharing that revenue could make it possible for big, non-neutral incumbents to drive down the retail price of Internet service, making it impossible for independents to compete on the basis of virtue alone.

Another area where net neutrality and muni broadband overlap is on the political side. The big incumbents – cable and telco – lobby hard against muni broadband in both Sacramento and Washington. Those same lobbyists are working against net neutrality, and paying large amounts of money to legislators who are involved with both issues. There’s a similar, parallel effort to influence state and federal regulators.

There isn’t the same unity – throw weight, I’d call it – on the other side. There’s a core of people who care equally about freedom to use the Internet and freedom to provide the service, but for the most part advocates are involved with one issue or the other. When end-of-the-session horse trading begins, it’ll be much easier for cable’s and telco’s unified, deep pocketed lobbying fronts to cut a deal. Whether their passion is muni broadband or net neutrality, separate, single issue groups will not be happy with the result.

FCC pits one local technical expert against big telecom’s lobbyist horde

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Ajit Pai is trying to stop the bleeding on his Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC). The Federal Communications Commission chairman appointed David Young to the committee, as a representative of the National League of Cities. Young is the fiber infrastructure and right of way manager for Lincoln, Nebraska’s public works department. It’s not explicitly stated, but the intent seems to be to fill at least one of the chairs left vacant by recent resignations by high profile municipal representatives. Pai is now dealing with accusations that the committee’s broadband policy work was hijacked by telephone and cable company lobbyists, as well as the recent arrest of a former BDAC chair on fraud charges.

It’s completely appropriate for the League of Cities to take a place on the committee. It’s a national lobbying front for municipalities, allowing cities to push their common interests in Washington, D.C. Since BDAC’s membership – official and unofficial – largely comprises lobbyists representing telecoms companies, it’s course-of-business for the League to take a set at the table, too.

I don’t know Young, but after taking a look at how Lincoln supports fiber build outs in the community, it seems apparent that he knows his stuff. And his stuff is boots on the ground management of city permit processes and utility easement issues. That’s important experience, and the FCC should listen to his advice.

But the resignations of San Jose mayor Sam Licardo and New York City chief technical officer Miguel Gamino – both because of the way the FCC is kowtowing to cable and telco lobbyists – left a bigger hole than Young can fill. He should have been on the committee with Licardo and Gamino from the beginning. The FCC should have given equal weight to the technical and policy expertise offered by municipal representatives, particularly when crafting model policies that state and local governments will be urged – or perhaps required – to follow.

That didn’t happen. So when BDAC meets later this month, it’ll be one new, fresh local face versus a platoon of entrenched beltway bandits working for big cable and telephone companies. That’s something to keep in mind when evaluating whatever comes out of it.

Another muni broadband expert says no to being a stage prop for industry lobbyists

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Citing similar worries as San Jose mayor Sam Licardo over the FCC’s apparent determination to let industry lobbyists write the Federal Communication Commission’s broadband deployment advisory committee (BDAC) manifesto, Miguel Gamino, New York City’s chief technology officer, turned in his letter of resignation last week

I have expressed concerns with other municipal colleagues in multiple meetings and documents that the makeup of the BDAC, with roughly 75 percent of members representing large telecommunications and cable companies or interests aligned with those companies, would result in recommendations unfavorable to localities looking to responsibly manage public rights-of-way to promote public safety, quality of life, and other priorities. This has resulted in the BDAC producing pre-packaged one-size-fits all proposals that industry lobbyists have pushed nationwide rather than working in a cooperative fashion to find creative solutions to dynamic local issues. In our own working group, there have been no efforts to add more voices familiar with city operations or to replace the former working group Vice Chair San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. This has prevented us from addressing the diversity of concerns and solutions that would be offered by a better representation of the nearly 40,000 local governments nationwide.

The committee is scheduled to meet at the end of the month, in what could be its final session. Drafts prepared by the various working groups – which did, at first, allow for some diversity of opinion – are being combined into a single set of recommended broadband development policies for the FCC, and other public agencies, at all levels, to follow. That draft has not been released publicly, but presumably Gamino has some inkling of what it contains. The clear indication is that it will simply add weight to the sledgehammer that republican commissioners are eagerly anticipating slamming down on state and local governments.

Tacoma seeks private sector help for its city-owned cable system

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The City of Tacoma wants to hang on to its municipal cable system, but it’s looking for someone else to come in and run it. It posted a request for information and qualifications (RFI), asking private sector companies to propose business models.

Examples given include leasing out the system as a whole to an operator, bringing in a company to manage it or running it as an open access system, where competing retail providers would buy wholesale capacity from the system and take responsibility for selling it to customers. Click already runs its Internet service business on an open access basis, but sells video service directly to subscribers.

There are strings attached…

The City seeks a Provider interested in expanding the existing customer base, advancing broadband connectivity services to residents and businesses in the community, upgrading the network as required, providing operational support, and supporting the 12 critical community policy goals defined in Section II. The Partnership Arrangement could be a lease of the HFC network assets described herein, a management contract pursuant to which the Provider operates such assets, a partnership of another form with respect to such assets, or any other contractual arrangement that satisfies the City’s objectives.

Those 12 policy goals include maintaining public ownership, running an open access network and abiding by network neutrality principles, particularly no paid prioritisation. That would seem to rule out a major incumbent, such as Comcast or CenturyLink, since all three of those restrictions run counter to their core business models. Wave, which is much smaller nationally but calls Puget Sound home, might find the flexibility to qualify, though.

The Click system needs an upgrade, but in its current condition the system can’t support it on its own. Most of it is limited to 750 MHz of analog bandwidth – not bad when it was built in the 1990s, but not so impressive nowadays when the standard is 1 GHz or better – and the average node serves 1,200 homes, which is a critical bottleneck when it comes to delivering high speed Internet service.

Responses are due on 27 April 2018.

Request for information and qualifications for partnership arrangements for Tacoma Power’s Click network, 23 March 2018.

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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.