Guest Blog: Monmouth Independence Network Expanding with Public-Private Partnership

We at the Monmouth Independence Network (MINET) are utilizing public-private partnerships to expand our broadband network into Dallas, Ore., following our success in Monmouth and Independence.

 

The cities of Monmouth and Independence — both in Oregon — began building out MINET over 12 years ago. As part of the buildout, the cities established a high-capacity, head-end facility that is capable of serving many more thousands of homes and businesses than exist in its legacy market. Despite its municipal pedigree, MINET is not an exclusive provider. Its business is conducted in a highly competitive environment.

 

The need for MINET came about due to Independence and Monmouth historically being left behind infrastructurally. In the late 1990s, Independence and Monmouth city officials asked their telephone and cable companies when they could expect to receive broadband service. The answer was, “in about 20 years, maybe.”

 

That wasn’t good enough for these small, rural communities of about 20,000 people. Independence and Monmouth had already been bypassed by the major freeways built in the 1960s — they decided they would not be bypassed by the digital highway. In 1998, the cities decided to take matters into their own hands and create their own task force to begin planning their own network.

 

By 2006, network construction was underway. The vision of MINET was expansive; instead of building a cable television network, a wireless network, or even an internal municipal service (as some other Oregon cities had done), Monmouth and Independence leapt to fiber optic connections all the way to every home, farm, and business located in both cities.

 

Over time, MINET’s speed increased, rarely with additional fees. Beginning in 2006 with 2 Mbps, MINET’s common speed was raised to 5, 7, 20, 30, 50 and finally 60 Mbps. Today, residents can receive up to a gigabit and higher speeds of broadband service in their home or business.

 

The initial effects of MINET were impressive; small businesses have relocated here because of MINET. Telecommuting is not just a hope, it’s a reality for those who wish to enjoy small town life and big city work. The splash made by MINET’s presence is palpable. Conservative estimates show that there are 350-400 new area jobs, all because of MINET.

 

Despite MINET’s initial success, the network needed to work to keep citizens engaged. Don Patten — who took the general manager position for MINET in 2013 — noticed the network had hit a wall and wanted to bring new life to it. Competition had offered the citizenry faster speeds and cheaper prices, but the offers were barbed and thorny with contracts and conditions.  

 

Meanwhile, the debt undertaken to create MINET had become an issue in a local economy just coming out of recession, and complaint about MINET became the stuff of coffee shop discussions.

 

In 2014, MINET sent a delegation to Next Century Cities’ Gigabit Summit in Kansas City, Mo. That delegation was asked to make a presentation detailing the impact and economic advantage of a fiber optic system. They told the MINET story and got an unexpected reaction — wonder.

 

“You built a system yourselves? Two little towns?”  

“How did you do it? What’s the formula?”

 

MINET became a celebrity at that conference. It was the beginning of an opportunity to remind locals back home that they had done something extraordinary in building MINET and to remember their digital advantage.

 

At that time, the penetration rate — the percentage of users who are MINET customers — stood at 49 percent when Patten came to MINET. Under his leadership, he and his team have pushed MINET’s penetration in Monmouth and Independence above 85 percent and held it there.

 

However, debt required MINET to grow; there was not enough local market to adequately service the debt. Thus, MINET had to find a new way to expand.

 

This is where Willamette Valley Fiber comes into our story — the public-private partnership serves to expand the fiber network that MINET will power and operate. Dallas, Ore., will be the lucky community receiving the service.

 

Willamette Valley Fiber was born without municipal ties. With the blessing of MINET’s Board of Directors and owner-cities, MINET will connect its power and deliver quality product and service to the Dallas market. MINET is ready for this opportunity to expand via partnership into Dallas.

 

Willamette Valley Fiber has begun building the network and will light up first customers by the end of this year. Patten says that Willamette Valley Fiber will pair the speed and capacity that Dallas users want with high quality local service, a combination not available from any other provider.

 

Unbundled Network Elements

What is an Unbundled Network Element (UNE)?

Think of a UNE as a “broadband bridge.” This bridge allows network builders to supplement their networks by leasing (at a favorable rate) network elements — telecommunications infrastructure such as copper wire and fiber — where they do not have available infrastructure. It helps them fill in the “holes” in their network by providing them the opportunity to lease parts of the incumbent network. The provider can use this mix of owned and leased assets to build in places that might not otherwise be economically viable.

The reason to create this bridge is to allow a competitive ISP access to some parts of the network built by incumbents because the big incumbents have a significant advantage in the market after having built much of their infrastructure with a government monopoly.

What changes are being proposed?

Under consideration at the Federal Communications Commission is a change in the way unbundled network elements (UNEs) are made available for lease to small and regional providers. The trade association USTelecom, representing large incumbent providers like AT&T, is lobbying the FCC to cut off competition from smaller broadband providers serving local communities.

Currently, under Section 251 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, providers are required to provide wholesale access to UNEs and to offer certain resale arrangements. The availability of UNEs offer an important means of competitive entry in the market and spur new fiber building and innovation – especially necessary in small to mid-sized communities. Originally introduced two decades ago, this bipartisan policy has spurred competition and has helped to speed the growth and availability of broadband in areas where that would likely not have seen such investment — especially the small business market.

Why do large providers want this change?

  • It would allow them to stifle competition – especially with regard to smaller and more regional providers.
  • It would allow them to significantly increase the cost to lease these assets, effectively pricing smaller providers out of the market and preventing new entrants.

How might this change impact consumers?

  • It could slow the deployment of new fiber networks, keeping more Americans from being able to experience the opportunities and benefits of high speed access.
  • It could cut off broadband for many rural Americans.
  • It will increase prices on consumers, small business, schools, libraries, and public safety organizations.
  • It could strand networks, meaning those consumers in the region would lose coverage.
  • In areas where the networks were either stranded or the cost increase is significant, it could result in the loss of jobs – work from home, entrepreneurs, precision farming, and high tech.

How might this change impact small and regional providers who rely on this bridge to provide service?

  • Their networks could be left unconnected, effectively eliminating any opportunity to make a return on their already expended investment.
  • It would make it harder or impossible to raise capital to invest in their networks.
  • They would likely have to pay significantly more for access to the bridge, resulting in higher costs to consumers.

What can communities do to express their concern?

Communicate your concerns with the FCC. Follow Next Century Cities’ guide to commenting to the FCC here. The relevant docket number for this issue is 18-141.

This guide to UNEs is available as a PDF here.

Next Century Cities Hosts Masterclass at Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley

Yesterday, Next Century Cities hosted a masterclass at Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley in Santa Clara, California. The masterclass, entitled “Broadband 101: Infrastructure for the Next Century City,” focused on the building blocks a city must have in place in order to pursue smart city technologies, including fast, affordable, reliable broadband and collaborative 5G permitting processes.

 

Next Century Cities members spoke at the masterclass, offering unique perspectives and critical advice for other municipalities hoping to pursue smart city applications.

 

 

The first panel, Broadband 101, explored the variety of models for broadband deployment, such as open access networks, public-private partnerships, incremental builds, institutional networks, municipal networks, and more. The panel was moderated by Next Century Cities’ Policy Director Christopher Mitchell, and featured Tony Batalla, Information Technology Manager for the City of San Leandro, Calif.; Kate Garman, Smart City Coordinator for the City of Seattle, Wash.; Christy Batts, Broadband Division Director for the City of Clarksville, Tenn.; and Tom Mullin, Chief Data Officer for Riverside County, CA.

 

Panelists discussed the importance of taking small steps to ready a city for deployment. “We should not discount incremental steps toward a solution,” said Batalla. “We should ask ourselves – what are the small changes we can make that over time lead to significant outcomes?” For example, Riverside County implemented a dig once policy to encourage investment, said Mullin. Garman also brought up the importance of encouraging digital literacy across entire communities. 

The panelists all emphasized the importance of partnerships — Batts specifically addressed the value of collaborating with utilities.

 

 

The next panel discussed how cities can best prepare for 5G networks and small cell deployments. The panel was moderated by Next Century Cities’ Executive Director Deb Socia, and included insights from Courtney Violette, Chief Operating Officer, Magellan Advisors; Mayor Jill Boudreau of Mount Vernon, Wash.; Rebecca Hunter, External Affairs and Strategic Communications, Corporate Development and Strategy, Crown Castle; and Zach Friend, County Supervisor for Santa Cruz County, Calif.

 

Each panelist offered next steps for communities hoping to pursue 5G deployments:

 

“This is both a challenge and an opportunity,” said Violette. “Reach out to your peers; they have a lot to share.”

“Keep an eye on what Next Century Cities is working on,” said Mayor Boudreau. “And develop relationships with your state legislators, so that they clearly understand the impact of their decisions on local communities.”

Hunter offered four specific recommendations: “Know what assets you have as a municipality. Convene a working group within your city, because this involves everyone. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel; there are already things working – find them. Finally, know your state laws.”

“Define what your needs and wants are first,” said Friend. “Then work to create something together to address them.”

 

Next Century Cities was pleased to have the opportunity to bring together community leaders to explore how municipalities can prepare for smart city opportunities. Read more about Smart Cities Week Silicon Valley here.

 

Guest Blog: Monmouth Independence Network Expanding with Public-Private Partnership

We at the Monmouth Independence Network (MINET) are utilizing public-private partnerships to expand our broadband network into Dallas, Ore., following our success in Monmouth and Independence.

 

The cities of Monmouth and Independence — both in Oregon — began building out MINET over 12 years ago. As part of the buildout, the cities established a high-capacity, head-end facility that is capable of serving many more thousands of homes and businesses than exist in its legacy market. Despite its municipal pedigree, MINET is not an exclusive provider. Its business is conducted in a highly competitive environment.

 

The need for MINET came about due to Independence and Monmouth historically being left behind infrastructurally. In the late 1990s, Independence and Monmouth city officials asked their telephone and cable companies when they could expect to receive broadband service. The answer was, “in about 20 years, maybe.”

 

That wasn’t good enough for these small, rural communities of about 20,000 people. Independence and Monmouth had already been bypassed by the major freeways built in the 1960s — they decided they would not be bypassed by the digital highway. In 1998, the cities decided to take matters into their own hands and create their own task force to begin planning their own network.

 

By 2006, network construction was underway. The vision of MINET was expansive; instead of building a cable television network, a wireless network, or even an internal municipal service (as some other Oregon cities had done), Monmouth and Independence leapt to fiber optic connections all the way to every home, farm, and business located in both cities.

 

Over time, MINET’s speed increased, rarely with additional fees. Beginning in 2006 with 2 Mbps, MINET’s common speed was raised to 5, 7, 20, 30, 50 and finally 60 Mbps. Today, residents can receive up to a gigabit and higher speeds of broadband service in their home or business.

 

The initial effects of MINET were impressive; small businesses have relocated here because of MINET. Telecommuting is not just a hope, it’s a reality for those who wish to enjoy small town life and big city work. The splash made by MINET’s presence is palpable. Conservative estimates show that there are 350-400 new area jobs, all because of MINET.

 

Despite MINET’s initial success, the network needed to work to keep citizens engaged. Don Patten — who took the general manager position for MINET in 2013 — noticed the network had hit a wall and wanted to bring new life to it. Competition had offered the citizenry faster speeds and cheaper prices, but the offers were barbed and thorny with contracts and conditions.  

 

Meanwhile, the debt undertaken to create MINET had become an issue in a local economy just coming out of recession, and complaint about MINET became the stuff of coffee shop discussions.

 

In 2014, MINET sent a delegation to Next Century Cities’ Gigabit Summit in Kansas City, Mo. That delegation was asked to make a presentation detailing the impact and economic advantage of a fiber optic system. They told the MINET story and got an unexpected reaction — wonder.

 

“You built a system yourselves? Two little towns?”  

“How did you do it? What’s the formula?”

 

MINET became a celebrity at that conference. It was the beginning of an opportunity to remind locals back home that they had done something extraordinary in building MINET and to remember their digital advantage.

 

At that time, the penetration rate — the percentage of users who are MINET customers — stood at 49 percent when Patten came to MINET. Under his leadership, he and his team have pushed MINET’s penetration in Monmouth and Independence above 85 percent and held it there.

 

However, debt required MINET to grow; there was not enough local market to adequately service the debt. Thus, MINET had to find a new way to expand.

 

This is where Willamette Valley Fiber comes into our story — the public-private partnership serves to expand the fiber network that MINET will power and operate. Dallas, Ore., will be the lucky community receiving the service.

 

Willamette Valley Fiber was born without municipal ties. With the blessing of MINET’s Board of Directors and owner-cities, MINET will connect its power and deliver quality product and service to the Dallas market. MINET is ready for this opportunity to expand via partnership into Dallas.

 

Willamette Valley Fiber has begun building the network and will light up first customers by the end of this year. Patten says that Willamette Valley Fiber will pair the speed and capacity that Dallas users want with high quality local service, a combination not available from any other provider.

 

Guest Blog: Community Broadband & Telehealth — A Symbiotic Partnership Made In Heaven

What’s your marketing mission?

What? You mean “take-rate,” right?

No. Take-rate is another way of saying “sales goals.” The marketing mission has a different kind of value than sales targets.

In the 20 years I did marketing for high-tech companies, a lot of us in that role had a marketing mission to establish for products’ certain market positions in the minds of customers, journalists, investors, and so on.

For community broadband networks, their marketing mission should be to establish a particular position for the network within the minds of their respective audiences. The right positioning campaign leads to more sales, faster close rates, partnerships, and other benefits for the community.

Now is an excellent time to start positioning your network in your market as a delivery vehicle for telehealth. The FCC announced last week they’re launching a $100 million Connected Care Pilot Program to support telemedicine for low-income and rural Americans as well as veterans. Congress has several bipartisan initiatives that support telemedicine.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicare Services (CMS), the Federal agencies that manage these programs, also last week indicated they planned to reverse themselves and start reimbursing patients for telehealth services. 90 percent of seniors recently surveyed by HealthMine said they either don’t have access to telehealth through their Medicare plan or they don’t know if they have it.

Cities revving up telehealth engines

Partnerships are key to effective positioning strategies.

Chattanooga is aggressively exploring telehealth options. “We’re very interested and committed to participating in this telemedicine market, and are evaluating our options,” says Katie Espeseth, Vice President of EPB Product Development. “We’ll soon reach 100,000 subscribers, and having partners that provide innovative products and services is how we plan to maintain our competitive edge in this market.

Danville, Virginia’s public utility is nDanville. “The healthcare argument was always understood, but it wasn’t the one of the drivers network at the time,” states Frank Maddux, MD and co-founder of Gamewood, Inc, an ISP that joined nDanville. Except for the economic development group, “People didn’t understand how important the network would become and what healthcare applications there would be. They see it now.”

Recently the city’s medical center leveraged the gig broadband network to dive into telemedicine. Sovah Health – Martinsville’s emergency department has partnered with the Duke TeleStroke Network in North Carolina to get real time access to Duke Medicine’s neurologists, stroke care specialists, and tele-stroke technology.

The better quality broadband a community has, the more effective will be the telehealth applications and services. These vendors can prosper through aggressive marketing relationships with municipalities, co-ops, wireless ISPs, and other Internet providers that grow their subscriber rolls. Everybody needs healthcare.   

On the flip side, over 750 municipal and co-op community broadband networks currently exist, and new projects begin each month. These networks can cost a lot to build, so owners have to get and keep has many subscribers as possible while fending off competitors. Nothing grows a subscriber base like innovative leading edge technology, of which telehealth has an abundance.

Bottom line – both the vendors (particularly start-ups and medium sized companies) and broadband owners share a mission – the need for plenty of customers and marketing clout. In addition, many of these organizations are committed to serving communities’ disadvantaged and the low-income residents, so there’s a shared social as well as marketing mission.


Craig Settles is an industry analyst with CJ Speaks.

Next Century Cities Hosts Regional Broadband Summit in Pittsburgh, PA

This week, Next Century Cities hosted Making Connections: A Regional Broadband Summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The summit brought together national and local leaders and included panel conversations about today’s pressing broadband issues, including broadband financing, digital inclusion, successful network models, and breakout sessions about 5G and rural connectivity solutions.

 

Individual panel and keynote videos may be found here, and a recording of the full event can be viewed below:

Thank you to the Internet Society for making the recording of this event possible!

 

The Summit kicked off with a welcome from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who spoke about Pittsburgh’s transformation from a struggling steel town to a leader in technology, and the reality of the digital divide. “That digital divide is not simply urban-rural, but within urban areas itself,” said the Mayor.

 

 

Mayor Peduto also highlighted the city’s new Inclusive Innovation Plan, which creates guidelines for questions such as “‘how does local government become proactive in order to be able to bridge that divide? How can we make sure that underserved communities are at the forefront of what we do when we offer new initiatives that are reliant upon the use of a computer?’” the Mayor explained.

 

Mark Smith, the Executive Director of Broadband Initiatives for Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf, delivered welcoming remarks on behalf of the Governor. Jordan Ball, a Regional Representative for U.S. Senator Bob Casey, Jr. (D-PA) then took the stage to deliver a welcoming statement on behalf of the Senator.

 

 

Blair Levin, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, joined Christopher Mitchell, Next Century Cities’ Policy Director, for a morning keynote discussion that centered on the disparity between city priorities and Federal Communications Commission policy.

 

“The FCC has curiously interpreted their statutory mandate to dramatically reduce its regulatory powers over private enterprise,” Levin said, “while simultaneously asserting new authority to regulate prices and micromanage over only one set of enterprises, local governments.”

 

 

Mignon Clyburn, former Chairwoman of the Federal Communications Commission, delivered a lunchtime keynote about the importance of universal connectivity.

 

“Without these critical networks, none of the innovation and growth that we’ve ever hoped to achieve in any [sector] will be possible,” said Clyburn. “That is why promoting the deployment and adoption of broadband-enabled services should always be a top priority.”

 

Sascha Meinrath, Director of X-Lab and the Palmer Chair in Telecommunications at Pennsylvania State University, presented an afternoon keynote address about the flaws of current broadband mapping techniques, the importance of collecting accurate data, and the new Pennsylvania mapping methodology project that seeks to create local maps that measure the discrepancy between advertised and actual internet services.  

 

In addition to the keynote conversations, attendees heard from elected officials and city leaders as they discussed successful models for broadband deployment and policies that support ubiquitous access to twenty-first century infrastructure.

 

 

On the first panel, Ernie Staten, Deputy Director of the Public Service Department for the City of Fairlawn, Ohio; David Corrado, CEO of the Medina County Fiber Network in Medina County, Ohio; Melanie McCoy, Superintendent for Sebewaing Light & Water in the City of Sebewaing, Michigan; Cheryl DeBerry, Natural Resources Business Specialist for Garrett County, Maryland; and Kim McKinley, Director of Marketing for UTOPIA Fiber all discussed the variety of successful models that can be employed to bring broadband to communities. Models discussed included municipal networks, public-private partnerships, open access networks, and more. The panel was moderated by Next Century Cities’ Policy Director Christopher Mitchell.

 

 

The next panel discussed the importance of digital equity and what steps cities could take to ensure equitable access to broadband and other digital resources. Panelists for this conversation were: Bill Callahan, Director of Connect Your Community and Research and Policy Coordinator for the National Digital Inclusion Alliance; Francella Ochillo, Director of Government and Legal Affairs for the National Hispanic Media Coalition; Angelique Johnson, CEO and Founder of MEMStim LLC and CEO and Founder of Vissionaireum; Majestic Lane, Deputy Chief of Staff to Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto; and Liz Lazar, Director of Programs and Partnerships for DigitalC in Cleveland, Ohio. Next Century Cities’ Executive Director Deb Socia moderated the conversation.

 

Attendees then split into two breakout sessions: 5G and rural solutions. The 5G breakout panel tackled small cell permitting challenges and federal and state threats to local control, and offered a vendor perspective about the ways in which cities can help or hurt the deployment of 5G. Panelists also offered suggestions on how both vendors and cities can collaborate to expedite access to the opportunities promised by 5G. Speakers for this panel: Rebecca Hunter, External Affairs and Strategic Communications, Corporate Development and Strategy, Crown Castle; Nick Hall, Digital Services Manager for the City of Pittsburgh; Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology & Energy; Mitsuko Herrera, Director of ultraMontgomery for Montgomery County, Maryland; and Anne Schweiger, Broadband and Digital Equity Advocate for the City of Boston. Deb Socia moderated the conversation.

 

The rural solutions breakout panel discussed the unique set of challenges that rural communities face when working to improve connectivity. The panel broke down these challenges, highlighted successful rural solutions, and shared best practices in rural connectivity. Jonathan Chambers, Partner at Conexon LLC and former Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission; Drew Davis, Broadband Program Manager, Information Technology, Larimer County, Colorado; Fletcher Kittredge, Founder and CEO of Great Works Internet in Maine; Harry Collins, Chairman of the Letcher County Broadband Board in Letcher County, Kentucky; and Richard Jenkins, General Field Representative for XX all offered important insight. Christopher Mitchell moderated the conversation.

 

 

The final panel of the day addressed broadband financing, exploring the financing options available to communities, including traditional funding opportunities, available federal programs, and creative new projects that can provide communities with unique funding solutions. Panelists for the conversation: Jonathan Chambers, Partner at Connexon LLC and former Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis at the Federal Communications Commission; Tom Coverick, Managing Director at KeyBanc Capital Markets; Garrett Brinker, Product Manager at Neighborly; and Jim Baller, President of Baller Stokes & Lide, P.C. Don Williams, Senior Specialist for Broadband Development Infrastructure at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, moderated the panel.

 

The summit also included an exclusive screening of the documentary Do Not Pass Go, which tells the story of Wilson, N.C.’s Greenlight network and the legislative fight against municipal broadband in North Carolina.

 

The full-day event highlighted successful connectivity solutions and provided a platform for cities to share best practices and lessons learned.

 

“Cities have led the charge for creative, effective connectivity solutions for their communities,” said Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities. “Bringing local, state, and federal leaders together to discuss successful models and to unpack challenges maximizes the benefits of lessons learned and inspires action.”

 

Thank you to our Platinum Sponsor: Crown Castle

To our Gold Sponsors: Foresite Group, KeyBanc Capital Markets, and the Internet Society

To our Silver Sponsors: SmartWorks Partners and Winncom

And to our Bronze Sponsors: ISPN and VETRO FiberMap.

 

Learn more about Making Connections on our site here, and watch the full event here

Find additional coverage about the event from Telecompetitor, Route Fiftyand the Pittsburgh Business Times

 

PA TIMES – Policymaking in the Public Right of Way: Preemption and Push-back

Originally printed in PA TIMES Online, a media outlet of the American Society for Public Administration

Under the American federal system, local governments are creatures of the state with no constitutional identity. In many respects, local governments exist only as vehicles for delegated authority.

As discussed previously though, land-use authority has historically been the province of local government. People in the United States expect their neighborhoods to reflect their values and their culture. But what happens when a national priority intersects these values and cultures in the public rights-of-way that comprise our communities?

The tension between these needs is one of the features of American federalism and provides some of the dynamism in our policymaking. But this only happens when stakeholders are offered the opportunity to collaborate.

Federal preemptions are generally made without input from local governments. This is in some ways understandable: local needs may not reflect national needs, and vice versa. The public good of a contiguous high-capacity telecommunications network, for example, can’t account for the fact that nobody wants a cell tower in front of their house. But this is precisely why local governments need a voice in policymaking: so that the granular interests of local communities are not truncated by federal laws.

The Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee was established by the FCC in 2017 to stimulate broadband infrastructure development. By most accounts though, this committee was designed to provide industry representatives occasion to affect federal telecommunications policy at the expense of local government authority. In fact, committee member San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo quit and in his resignation letter argued that, “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.” Implicit in his statement is that local governments best represent the interests of the public in matters relating to rights-of-way, and that there was no federal interest in such concerns.

The FCC’s ruling in October 2018 —which went into effect in January —was the product of this committee, and explicitly strips local authority from decisions regarding the siting and installation of small wireless telecommunications facilities, affirming Mr. Liccardo’s concerns.

How Local Governments Can Affect Change

In such an environment, local governments have only a few options for asserting local priorities.

Local governments can themselves assert some limited authority in siting telecommunications infrastructure and assert some aesthetic considerations in project designs.  Creating rules for attachments to public infrastructure, like street lights and traffic signals, is a good way for local governments to ensure that their assets aren’t degraded by antennae or other attachments.  They can also create detailed technical manuals and one-stop permitting to funnel applicants in a preferred direction.  Finally, clear zoning regulations on broad categories of utility infrastructure can be used to prevent encroachments from telecommunications facilities. These policies must be utility-agnostic, though, and cannot specifically restrict telecommunications equipment.

Some local-government advocacy organizations are attempting to reassert local prerogatives in the policymaking process.  The National Association of Counties Telecommunications and Technology Steering Committee has developed a series of policies that militate against local authority preemption and assert the value of local voices in telecommunications policymaking.  Their document describes local governments as, “Stewards of substantial amounts of public rights-of-way,” and as vital to serving local interests.

Next Century Cities is an organization that’s helping local governments share and develop policies to support broadband while also advocating for local government.  Their work to organize and promote local government has helped elevate local broadband projects, and has also helped local jurisdictions develop policies and ordinances.

The Local Solutions Support Center is likewise positioning itself as both an advocate and resource for local governments pushing back against preemption. Their work is focused on clearly defining the problem of federal preemption and highlighting its effects on our communities.  While their aegis extends beyond telecommunications infrastructure, their policy prescriptions are a clear indictment of federal attempts to quash local government authority.

There are also some Congressional efforts to claw back some authority for local governments. Congresswoman Anna Eshoo’s HR 530, for example, would completely nullify the FCC’s October 2018 decision.

Conversely, California’s AB 649 was intended to do much of what the FCC’s order ended up doing nationwide.  It had provisions for limiting local zoning authority, restricting fees that could be charged, and asserted by-right access to public infrastructure.  Governor Jerry Brown vetoed the measure soon after it passed, noting that, “The interest which localities have in managing rights of way requires a more balanced solution.”

What Now?

Local policymakers frequently find themselves in fraught conversations with residents who demand that their interests be represented in these matters, but the federal intent has consistently been to divest locals of their regulatory authority.  The move against local authority has been comprehensive and is not bound by political affiliation.  We live in an era of aggregation and commodification, and the tapestry of communities that comprises the nation is being forced to conform to national priorities over their own individual, local interests.

Until a national interest in local government rights manifests, this homogenization will only continue.

 


Patrick Mulhearn, MPA is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors.  He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at Patrick.Mulhearn@santacruzcounty.us

PA TIMES — Policymaking in the Public Right-of-Way: Home Rule

Originally printed in PA TIMES Online, a media outlet of the American Society for Public Administration

 

Our 21st Century media-consumption appetite is creating strange new chimeras. AT&T merging with Time-Warner, Comcast merging with NBC Universal, and a (rumored) merger between Verizon and Charter represent an inflection point for policymakers. We now live in an era defined by conglomerate entities marrying content and delivery, one which represents the end of a world where our various modes of transmitting information—telephony, data, video, music, games—are managed by separate entities on separate infrastructures. These mergers represent the beginning of an era of “tubes” where the only distinction between services is who puts those tubes in the ground.

In response to this, the regulatory systems that governments once used to modify and control the information landscape are themselves becoming more centralized at the state and federal level. From the perspective of local governments, this represents a threat to local control – an idea which seems increasingly anachronistic in our modern, global economy.

Home Rule

Home rule assumes that there are indeed some matters that are best managed by local governments. As John Nolon notes in his 1993 article “The Erosion of Home Rule Through the Emergence State-Interests in Land Use Control” from Pace Environmental Law Review, it is the transference of authority from state government to a local agent, providing limited local autonomy.

The concept of home rule is an ancient one, which seems to predate the Magna Carta, in which we first find references to specific authorities granted to the City of London.  According to Nolon, the concept of home rule “was a logical expression of the desire to establish some limitation upon the state’s power over local affairs.” And we still see the remains of this preference in local zoning authority and control over the public right-of-way.

The Issue Today

But now we’ve entered an era of globalism with few of the temporal and topographical barriers that once restricted our interaction with the wider world. The advent of a global economy founded in Internet communications has spurred state and national governments to exert their authorities to support development of the infrastructures these communications rely upon – most of which reside in public rights-of-way overseen by local governments. For many, the private sector’s need for simplified regulatory processes and broad, unfettered access to new markets is best served by central rather than local regulation.

There is a convergence of the technologies once used to transmit this data, along with the converging corporate entities vying for public spaces in which to install their transmission infrastructure. This infrastructure is no longer content-specific, with digital technologies permitting any type of data to be transmitted across an agnostic network.

Consequently, the distinctions between these different networks are disappearing. This has far-reaching implications for regulatory policymakers who must now find ways to protect the public interest while at the same time cultivating what is increasingly becoming vital infrastructure for economic growth.

There is a national interest in facilitating the deployment of these technologies in a consistent manner under a central authority. And although access to local rights-of-way is fundamental to placing the antennae, poles, and fiber conduits needed for data transmission, this access is increasingly becoming a non-local decision.

For authors such as Kyle Dixon and Phillip Weiser “access to [public rights-of-way] is an essential predicate to entering a particular market and is often a gating factor” – an “entry barrier” for companies that operate in many jurisdictions. But from the perspective of local governments control of this resource is necessary to avoid damage to expensive public infrastructure while local policies are often the only means they have in asserting local preferences for the siting and appearance of obtrusive equipment.

The data convergence heralds the further departure of local authority to state and national players and represents the dissolution of the historical distinction between interstate and intrastate services has long rooted policymaking at the federal, state and local levels.

There’s More Work to be Done

For the most part, this conversation has been driven at the national level through the Obama Administration’s ConnectHome and Connect America policy initiatives, and the Trump Administration’s Sustainable Spectrum Strategy. But local government voices have generally been left out of the policymaking.

It is important to remember that infrastructure placed in public rights-of-ways has an impact on communities, families, and individuals, and that these voices are best represented by local governments.  As the sites needed for this infrastructure vary wildly at the most granular level, there should be opportunities for local citizens to be involved in establishing the best locations for the tubes they rely upon for accessing the global economy. Organizations such as the National Association of Counties and the League of Cities—and jurisdictions around the country—are working on responses to these issues, and in future columns we will discuss the feasible, practicable solutions such local policy problems demand.


Patrick Mulhearn, MPA is a public policy analyst for the Santa Cruz County, California, Board of Supervisors.  He focuses primarily on policies relating to telecommunications and transportation infrastructure and may be reached at Patrick.Mulhearn@santacruzcounty.us.

Next Century Cities Files NTIA Comments with Open Technology Institute

Next Century Cities signed comments submitted to the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) along with New America’s Open Technology Institute and others. The comments were in response to a request by the NTIA for comments on their efforts to improve the accuracy and quality of broadband availability data.

 

The other signatories included Access Humboldt, the Benton Foundation, the Center for Rural Strategies, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Public Knowledge, and X-Lab.

 

The NTIA requested comments on broadband availability data — especially in rural areas — to comply with Congress’s Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018. The law allocated $7.5 million to the NTIA with the purpose of updating the national broadband availability map.

 

We recommended that the government monitor broadband performance using factors such as price, speed, and congestion. The comments cited Measurement Lab as a good model for the government to follow for broadband availability data. Measurement Lab has partnered with member cities Seattle, Wash., Louisville, Ky., and Alexandria, Va., as well as the Center for Rural Pennsylvania to deliver data. One aspect of the Measurement Lab’s data-gathering technique that we suggested the NTIA could adopt is ensuring that servers are located outside of ISPs, ensuring that that the gathered data can be more representative of the consumer experience.

 

We also suggested that the government collect data on the barriers to broadband adoption such as pricing, perceived lack of relevance, and faulty service. The high costs of broadband access prevent low-income individuals from having a home internet connection, which leads them to rely upon mobile connections that often have data caps and can also be costly. We encourage the NTIA to put resources towards monitoring pricing to gain a more accurate idea of broadband availability.

 

Another suggestion was for the NTIA to build upon the Community Connectivity Initiative, which began in March 2016 as part of President Barack Obama’s ConnectALL Initiative. The Community Connectivity Initiative aims to give communities the resources to create and improve local broadband efforts. Our comments suggested that the NTIA put more money back into the Community Connectivity Initiative because empowering local communities would allow them to better determine their broadband needs.

 

NCC members Ammon, Idaho; Arvada, Colo.; Baltimore, Md.; Boston, Mass.; Charlotte, N.C.; Kansas City, Mo.; Kenmore, Wash.; and Seattle, Wash. are among the cities and towns that signed on to partner with the Community Connectivity Initiative program.

 

An additional recommendation made in the comments suggested the NTIA could better ensure quality broadband availability data by working with stakeholders that already have third-party data sets.

 

The NTIA can draw upon the examples set by their past work and third-party organizations to create better broadband data-gathering practices. We hope that the NTIA implements these recommendations in order to ensure better data is available, leading to more successful local broadband efforts.

 

Find the full comments here.


Anna Higgins is a 2018 summer intern for Next Century Cities and a candidate for a master of public policy at the University of Virginia.

Unbundled Network Elements

What is an Unbundled Network Element (UNE)?

Think of a UNE as a “broadband bridge.” This bridge allows network builders to supplement their networks by leasing (at a favorable rate) network elements — telecommunications infrastructure such as copper wire and fiber — where they do not have available infrastructure. It helps them fill in the “holes” in their network by providing them the opportunity to lease parts of the incumbent network. The provider can use this mix of owned and leased assets to build in places that might not otherwise be economically viable.

The reason to create this bridge is to allow a competitive ISP access to some parts of the network built by incumbents because the big incumbents have a significant advantage in the market after having built much of their infrastructure with a government monopoly.

What changes are being proposed?

Under consideration at the Federal Communications Commission is a change in the way unbundled network elements (UNEs) are made available for lease to small and regional providers. The trade association USTelecom, representing large incumbent providers like AT&T, is lobbying the FCC to cut off competition from smaller broadband providers serving local communities.

Currently, under Section 251 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, providers are required to provide wholesale access to UNEs and to offer certain resale arrangements. The availability of UNEs offer an important means of competitive entry in the market and spur new fiber building and innovation – especially necessary in small to mid-sized communities. Originally introduced two decades ago, this bipartisan policy has spurred competition and has helped to speed the growth and availability of broadband in areas where that would likely not have seen such investment — especially the small business market.

Why do large providers want this change?

  • It would allow them to stifle competition – especially with regard to smaller and more regional providers.
  • It would allow them to significantly increase the cost to lease these assets, effectively pricing smaller providers out of the market and preventing new entrants.

How might this change impact consumers?

  • It could slow the deployment of new fiber networks, keeping more Americans from being able to experience the opportunities and benefits of high speed access.
  • It could cut off broadband for many rural Americans.
  • It will increase prices on consumers, small business, schools, libraries, and public safety organizations.
  • It could strand networks, meaning those consumers in the region would lose coverage.
  • In areas where the networks were either stranded or the cost increase is significant, it could result in the loss of jobs – work from home, entrepreneurs, precision farming, and high tech.

How might this change impact small and regional providers who rely on this bridge to provide service?

  • Their networks could be left unconnected, effectively eliminating any opportunity to make a return on their already expended investment.
  • It would make it harder or impossible to raise capital to invest in their networks.
  • They would likely have to pay significantly more for access to the bridge, resulting in higher costs to consumers.

What can communities do to express their concern?

Communicate your concerns with the FCC. Follow Next Century Cities’ guide to commenting to the FCC here. The relevant docket number for this issue is 18-141.

This guide to UNEs is available as a PDF here.