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Wilson, N.C.’s Fight for Better Internet Found Lots of Opposition from Big Telecom and Republicans

If you’ve ever lived in small-town America, you know how bad the internet can sometimes be. So one town in North Carolina decided: If we can’t make fast internet come to us, we’ll build it ourselves. And they did, despite laughter and disbelief from Time Warner Cable (today known as Spectrum).

When the city started installing fiber optics, the incumbent cable and phone companies did not like the competition and fought back, hiring an army of 40 lobbyists. The telecom companies enlisted the support of the now Republican-controlled state legislature, often with the help of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and other conservative groups. Together, they hammered home scare stories with suspect studies critical of municipal broadband written by not-so-independent researchers ghost-funded by many of the same big cable and phone companies.

National Public Radio’s “Planet Money” looks at what happened when the City of Wilson decided to try and start its own internet provider, and how it started a fight that eventually spread to dozens of states, a fight about whether cities should even be allowed to compete with big internet providers, and what the effect the outcome might have on working remotely. But the citizens of Wilson seem to love Greenlight Community Broadband, right down to its well-regarded customer service, which includes dropping by elderly customers’ homes during lunch to troubleshoot set-top boxes and nefarious remote control confusion. (22:47)

This Internet Provider Earned a 94% Customer Satisfaction Score, and It Isn’t Comcast or Spectrum

One of America’s internet service providers managed to achieve a customer satisfaction score of 94%, an unprecedented vote of approval from consumers that typically loathe their cable or phone company.

What also makes this provider different is that it is owned by the public, and administered by the City of Fairlawn, Ohio. Fairlawn is a suburb of Akron, with a population of around 7,400 people. Akron is dominated by Charter Spectrum for cable and AT&T for telephone service. But the suburbs have been underserved by both companies for decades. As with many northeastern cities, the economic shift away from manufacturing towards high-tech businesses requires robust connectivity. But many communities are stuck with a cable company that will not service less populated areas in town and a phone company that is willing to leave many customers with low-speed DSL and nothing better.

When a community finds it cannot get gigabit fiber optic service for residents, it can either live with what is on offer instead or decide to do something about it. Fairlawn decided it was time to establish FairlawnGig, a municipal broadband utility that would provide gigabit fiber service to every resident in town, if they wanted it.

Broadband Communities reports local residents love the service they are getting:

The online survey results reveal overall satisfaction with FairlawnGig at an astoundingly high number of 94% with more than 3 out of 4 (77%) saying they are “very satisfied.”

Additionally, FairlawnGig 94% of residential customers rated the service they receive from FairlawnGig as “excellent” or “very good.”

FairlawnGig offers two plans to residents: 300/300 Mbps service for $55 a month or 1,000/1,000 Mbps service for $75. Landline phone service is an extra $25 a month, and the municipal provider has pointed its customers to online cable TV alternatives like Hulu and YouTube TV for television service. Incumbent cable and phone companies usually respond to this kind of competition with cut-rate promotions to keep the customers they have and lure others back. Spectrum has countered with promotions offering 400 Mbps internet for as little as $30/mo for two years. Despite the potential savings, most people in Fairlawn won’t go back to Spectrum regardless of the price. FairlawnGig’s loyalty score is 80, with 85% of those not only sticking with FairlawnGig but also actively recommending it to others.

Residents appreciate the service, deemed very reliable, and that technicians are local and accessible. The City says it works hard to ensure that customer appointments are kept and on time and representatives are available to assist customers with their questions and technical support needs. FairlawnGig claims its technicians spend extra time teaching customers about their services.

City officials candidly admit they were willing to build and launch the municipal fiber service even if it did not recoup its original investment for years to come. That is because the municipal fiber network has benefited the city in other ways:

  • It has attracted new residents to town and kept them there.
  • Several businesses launched or moved to be within FairlawnGig’s service area. Most are white collar businesses, such as IT firms, software and hardware engineers, and consultants.
  • A new orthopaedic hospital is being developed in the town, in part because FairlawnGig can provide connectivity up to 100 Gbps for things like medical imaging and video conferencing.
  • As businesses move in, so do workers looking for a shorter commute. Property values in the town have increased and realtors make a point to alert would-be buyers when a property is within FairlawnGig’s service area.

In short, Fairlawn officials see providing internet access as more than just a profit center. It is a public service initiative that is paying back dividends that will eventually exceed the $10 million investment taken from the city’s general fund to build the network. Taxes did not increase as a result of FairlawnGig either. Now other towns around Fairlawn and the city of Akron itself are showing interest in how to join forces to expand the public service well beyond Fairlawn’s town borders.

WOIO in Akron covered FairlawnGig back in January 2019 in this report explaining how a publicly owned fiber to the home service was delivering gig speed to this northeastern Ohio community. (2:31)

Idaho Students Harmed by Unreliable Broadband; State Senator Wants Internet to Be Public Utility

Sen. Nelson

Idaho internet access is inadequate to support tele-learning services, hurting the state’s ability to move towards online education as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State Sen. David Nelson (D-Boise) told his constituents that “now, more than ever, Idahoans need reliable broadband.”

At the moment, they are not getting it.

Nelson:

“The Moscow School District is providing instruction online for middle and high school students but about 20% of students don’t have strong enough Wi-Fi or can’t afford the internet access needed for classes at home. To make online learning available to all students, Moscow School District has turned school parking lots into Wi-Fi hot spots and is providing wireless hot spots to some students. In the Potlatch School District, they have distributed 300 laptops and Chromebooks, but 20% of kids don’t have internet access. Potlatch is also creating Wi-Fi hot spots for some families.

“In mountainous Benewah County, St. Maries School District has a harder job. Cell service is spotty and line-of-sight internet connections are hard to come by. More than 70% of St. Maries students and teachers do not have access to reliable internet. The school district found they must send home weekly packets because they cannot do online instruction. St. Maries teachers work in their classrooms daily because neither they nor their students have reliable internet for online teaching. Instead, the teachers spend their time creating the paper worksheets for families to pick up.

“St. Maries students only get packets, while other schools teach online. Does that live up to Idaho’s constitutional requirement of a general, uniform, and thorough system of public, free common schools? Idaho needs more investment in broadband infrastructure, but we aren’t going to be able to fix this in the midst of a crisis. I wish we had been investing in broadband infrastructure instead of cutting taxes significantly when times were good.

“Our limited, unreliable broadband is often overtaxed. Internet that was already struggling to serve our communities is now unable to keep up with the unprecedented demand from educators, people working from home, families ordering groceries online, and nearly every other Idahoan using the web to stay connected. Even the time to clear a credit card payment at a grocery store has increased.”

Internet access in rural states like Idaho is mostly a mixture of cable internet in larger cities and towns and DSL service in suburban areas. Rural communities often have to rely on wireless internet, where available, or satellite internet access. A few communities have a co-op utility that doubles as a broadband provider, but in most cases rural Idaho only gets what CenturyLink, Frontier, and other telephone companies are willing to provide.

“Last year, the governor’s Broadband Task Force found that North Central Idaho has the least access to functional broadband in the state,” Nelson noted. “Since schools have closed due to coronavirus, North Idaho school districts are experiencing the consequences of Idaho’s lack of investment in broadband infrastructure.”

After years of trying to convince private telecom companies to do the right thing by their customers and expand internet access, Nelson points out the current COVID-19 crisis is a perfect example of why states like Idaho can no longer afford to wait.

“The coronavirus pandemic has made it more obvious than ever that reliable internet access is a public utility that all Idahoans need,” Nelson said.

New York Governor’s Boast About Near-100% Broadband Coverage Backfires

Gov. Andrew Cuomo announcing rural broadband initiatives in New York.

When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo boasted in 2015 that anyone who wanted broadband service in the state would have access to it, he could not have realized that claim would come back to haunt him five years later.

New York’s Broadband for All program claimed to be the “largest and most ambitious state broadband investment in the nation,” with $500 million set aside “to achieve statewide broadband access by 2018,” with “99.9% of New Yorkers” getting access to broadband service.

In 2020, that goal remains elusive, with over 80,000 New Yorkers relegated to heavily data-capped satellite internet access and potentially tens of thousands more left behind by erroneous broadband availability maps that could leave many with no access at all. Now it appears the federal government will not be coming to the rescue, potentially stranding some rural residents as a permanent, unconnected underclass.

The Republican-majority at the Federal Communications Commission has decided to take the Democratic governor at his word and exclude additional rural broadband funding for New York State. The FCC’s recently approved Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) is the most ambitious rural broadband funding initiative to date, with a budget of $20.4 billion. As it stands, not a penny of those funds will ever be paid to support additional broadband projects in the Empire State.

“Back in 2016, the governor of New York represented to this agency that allocating the full $170 million in Connect America Fund II support to the state broadband program would allow full broadband buildout throughout the Empire State, when combined with the state’s own funding,” said FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly.

That $170 million was originally designated for Verizon to spend in upstate and western New York in areas without high-speed broadband. When Verizon declined to accept the funding, the rules for the program required the money to be made available for other qualified projects in other states, or left forfeit, unspent. An appeal from New York’s Senate delegation to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to award that $170 million to New York’s Broadband for All program was successful, allowing other phone, cable, and wireless providers to construct new rural broadband projects around the state. That decision was met with criticism, especially by the Wireless Industry Service Providers Association (WISPA), which represents the interests of mostly rural, fixed wireless providers around the country.

O’Rielly

“After robust opportunity for public input, last year the FCC adopted a CAF-II framework that was truly technology-neutral and designed to harness the power of competition to deliver the most broadband to the most Americans, at the lowest overall price,” said Steve Coran, counsel for WISPA, in a statement. “Unfortunately, today’s action appears to deviate from this approach by providing disproportionate support to one state at the expense of others, which will now be competing for even less federal support.”

That criticism was partially echoed by Commissioner O’Rielly, who appreciated the dilemma of rural New Yorkers without access to high speed internet, but felt the FCC was showing favoritism to New York, which he worried was getting a disproportionate share of federal funding.

“These are federal [Universal Service Fund] dollars taken from ratepayers nationwide. They are not New York State funds, and we have the burden of deciding how best to allocate these scarce dollars, as well as the right to demand that they be spent wisely,” O’Rielly said. “At the same time, I am concerned that the funding will not be used as efficiently as possible. It should not be lost on everyone that New York is one of the states that diverts 9-1-1 fees collected to other non-related purposes, as is noted in the Commission’s recent report on the subject. We should have received assurances that New York would cease this disgraceful practice.”

O’Rielly added that offering even more generous funding in New York could lead to overpaying providers to service rural New York communities at the expense of other, cheaper rural broadband projects in other states.

Recently O’Rielly claimed that allowing New York to receive funding under the new RDOF program would almost guarantee dollars would be spent on duplicative, overlapping broadband projects, noting that Gov. Cuomo already considers New York almost entirely served by high speed providers. In fact, he claimed any additional funding sent to New York would be “beyond foolish and incredibly wasteful” and would undermine the rural broadband program’s objective to avoid funding projects in areas already served by an existing provider.

In other words, since Gov. Cuomo has claimed that virtually the entire state is now served with high speed internet access, O’Reilly believes there is no reason to award any further money to the state.

Except the claim that ‘nearly the entire state already has broadband access’ is untrue, and O’Rielly’s arguments against sending any additional money to New York seem more political than rational.

The FCC’s broadband availability map shows significant portions of New York in yellow, which designates no provider delivering the FCC’s minimum of 25/3 Mbps broadband service.

First, the FCC’s own flawed broadband availability maps, criticized for over counting the number of Americans with access to broadband, still shows large sections of upstate and western New York unserved by any suitable provider. Parts of western New York between Buffalo and Rochester, significant portions of the Finger Lakes, Southern Tier, and North Country are all still without access. An even larger portion of upstate New York has either no access or very slow access through DSL. The number of residents without service is significant. The FCC uses census blocks to measure broadband availability, but this methodology is flawed because if even one home within that block has broadband while dozens of others do not, the FCC still counts every home as served. This has angered many New Yorkers stuck without service while a local cable or phone company offers high-speed internet access to neighbors just up the road. Many of these rural residents are not even designated to receive satellite service, Broadband for All’s last catchall option for areas where no wired provider bid to provide service.

Second, long-standing rules in broadband funding programs already deny funding to areas where another suitable provider already offers service. So it would be impossible for RDOF to award “wasted” funding to projects where service already exists.

While Gov. Cuomo’s boastful claims about broadband availability opened the door for discriminatory rules against the state, the FCC itself wrote the rules, and it appears the goal was one part payback for securing earlier broadband funding over the objections of Commission O’Reilly, and one part sticking it to a state that has given the Trump Administration plenty of heartburn since the president took office.

Mediacom Wants to Kill Public Broadband in Iowa

Lobbyists for Mediacom, one of America’s medium-sized cable operators, are reportedly behind the latest effort to curtail public broadband in the state of Iowa with a new bill designed to make life difficult for municipalities trying to get internet access to their residents.

Senate Study Bill 3009, proposed by Sen. Dan Dawson, the new chairman of the Iowa Senate Commerce Committee, would create an unfair playing field between cities and towns attempting to offer their residents broadband service and the state’s private cable and phone companies which often do not.

In addition to tying the hands of local officials in their efforts to obtain funding for such projects, the bill would also make a public record of private strategies used by providers to construct systems and market service to the public. Cable operators like Mediacom could be able to obtain business records from municipal providers that would give the company an unfair advantage identifying financial information and rollout schedules about where municipal systems would offer service next.

Iowa’s report for Mediacom’s lobbying activity shows their support for restricting public broadband.

The bill would also forbid communities from marketing their broadband service on bills sent for other municipal services, including power, gas, sewage, garbage removal, and water. Municipalities would also be forbidden from lowering rates to levels deemed unprofitable, even when incumbent providers like Mediacom cut prices in competitive service areas to keep business while quietly subsidizing those lower prices on the backs of their other subscribers in non-competitive areas.

Iowans can protest the new bill by sending e-mail to Sens. Dan Dawson ([email protected]) and Carrie Koelker, ([email protected]) the subcommittee chairperson reviewing the bill. Ask them to kill the bill, because Iowa needs more broadband service, not less.

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