Community Broadband As Generative Infrastructure

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April 16th, 2016

In an earlier post I discussed Marjorie Kelly’s framework for distinguishing “generative” vs. “extractive” ownership models.  In this post, I’ll try to further clarify this distinction by considering some key characteristics of community-owned local access networks in relation to Kelly’s framework (in my next post I’ll shift my focus to middle mile and special access fiber).

To get started, I’ll reiterate one of my key working premises, that when an extractive ownership model is combined with a lack of competitive pressure or corrective regulation (as is currently the situation in much of the nation’s local access and special access markets), service providers can achieve high levels of financial extraction.  This can lead to broad and substantial economic harm, especially in the case of core infrastructure like the Internet and telecommunications in general.  That’s because these infrastructure resources tend to be “spillover rich” when managed in a non-discriminatory way, but less so when constrained by dominant ISPs’ internal monetization priorities, as I discussed in the latter section of an earlier post, and which Brett Frischmann addressed in far more depth in his book, Infrastructure: The Social Value of Shared Resources.

As discussed in my last post, I view the longstanding focus on shareholder returns at the expense of network upgrades by AT&T, the nation’s largest ILEC, as one example of this dynamic.  Another relates to the nation’s leading cable operators.  On one hand these companies have been able—thanks to their much higher speeds relative to DSL—to capture nearly all net broadband customer growth in recent years (see the table here for 2015 data).  But, at the same time, these same companies have consistently been ranked at or near the bottom among all U.S. industries in customer satisfaction surveys.  Simple economic logic tells us that, if there was minimally healthy competition in the market for these higher-speed broadband connections, this combination of strongly positive market share gains with strongly negative customer satisfaction would be a very unlikely outcome.  As the title of Susan Crawford’s 2013 book points out, these growing ranks of customers signing up for and retaining cable modem service are, in a very practical sense, a Captive Audience.

Later on in this post I’ll suggest some research questions I believe are worth pursuing related to the operation and impacts of community-owned networks and the relevance of Kelly’s ownership framework to the broadband access market. But before I do, I want to consider how some of Kelly’s “generative” characteristics apply in theory and practice to community broadband.

In applying Kelly’s framework to local access ownership models, it makes sense to start with Purpose, which Kelly describes as the most fundamental design element.

Having studied a number of community-owned broadband networks, I’d say that all or most were undertaken with a purpose along the following lines: to provide local households, businesses and public service organizations (e.g., schools, healthcare providers, public safety, etc.) with affordable, reliable, symmetrical, high-capacity broadband connectivity and related services; to support their ability to thrive in an increasingly competitive and knowledge-based global economy and; to provide decent paying jobs to local citizens who, in turn, provide high quality customer service to the network’s customers.

While privately owned networks, including those owned by publicly-traded corporations, might claim to have the same or a very similar purpose, years of listening to earnings calls of these publicly-traded companies tells me that such goals are, at best, secondary priorities to the overriding goal of maximizing shareholder value, and ones that will be jettisoned if they conflict with the latter goal. And if shareholder value-maximizing decisions are not made with sufficient speed, vigor and clarity of (extractive) purpose, a publicly-traded firm’s management is likely to face intense pressure from investors, particularly those focused on a relatively short time horizon for measuring shareholder value.

It’s also clear to me that compared with most publicly-owned cablecos and telcos, community-owned networks tend to have locally Rooted Membership (vs. the Absentee Ownership characterized by publicly-traded stocks); Mission-Controlled Governance focused on achieving benefits for the local community (vs. Governance by Markets, stock price and related measures of financial profitability); and tend to function as part of local and national Ethical Networks focused on supporting sustainable community development (vs. Commodity Networks geared toward maximizing financial extraction).  And, as discussed further below, while the capital intensive nature of last mile access networks makes reliance on Stakeholder Finance challenging, there are models developing on this front as well.

A mix of generative characteristics and results

The general family of community-owned networks includes both municipal ownership (often through an existing municipal power utility) and end-user cooperatives (often through an existing rural electric co-op). While there are legal, organizational and financial differences between these ownership models, my preliminary research suggests these aren’t large enough to significantly alter the fundamental ways in which they differ from ownership by publicly-traded cable and telephone companies.

That being said, different combinations of generative characteristics may yield somewhat different sets of strengths and weaknesses, with these sometimes impacted by other factors, including relevant state laws and local regulations, existing institutional relationships and expertise, local market dynamics, and the mix of stakeholders supporting the project.

The mix of generative characteristics and situational factors can also impact how a community network evolves over time, and whether its particular model is sustainable within the environment in which it has taken root.

For example, in the case of municipally-owned networks, the departure of strong founding project leadership has sometimes led to a migration of decision-making to political leaders lacking appropriate industry expertise, particularly if the network was deployed in a community that lacked an existing public utility that was well-managed and enjoyed the loyalty and respect of its local customer base. In my view this type of management transition led to problems for the community-owned network in Burlington, VT, and highlights a potential point of design weakness for municipally-owned networks lacking a well-established and sufficiently independent, professional, non-political utility management unit.

In other cases, management of a municipally-owned network has experienced disruptive discontinuities when local political leadership has changed. This seems to be most likely if such change occurs when the network and/or city is facing financial or other challenges, and/or when candidates or newly elected officials view the shortcomings of their predecessors’ network project as a useful rallying point for mobilizing political support.  This also supports the notion that, once launched, the ongoing management of a community network needs to be sufficiently sheltered from day-to-day and election-to-election political pressures.  My research suggests that this is most readily achieved in communities that already have some form of municipal utility infrastructure (or set up a strong-enough one when a network project is launched).

Similarly, the interaction of political dynamics among multiple jurisdictions has sometimes complicated and/or delayed decision-making, adding to the challenges of addressing unexpected financial or operational problems. My sense is that this has been a factor for the multi-city UTOPIA fiber network in Utah, one that was made even more difficult by state restrictions on the network’s ability to provide retail services.

This latter point highlights the significance of state regulation as a factor that can influence which generative characteristics are likely to be most effective (or even legal) in achieving a project’s internal and external goals.  In the case of UTOPIA, the retail-service prohibition presented  serious and not-well-understood challenges and risks related to marketing, finances, technology and overall management of a wholesale-only local access enterprise.  As those risks became more clear with time, the task of addressing them was made even more challenging by the project’s multi-city management and financial structure.  As a result, this pioneering and arguably over-ambitious project, launched a dozen years ago, has become the perennial poster boy used by critics to make their case against community broadband.

In my view, the risks related to local political dynamics suggest that communities without existing public utilities take these risks very seriously.  While establishing a strong and sufficiently independent municipal utility structure is one option, another would be to adopt a form of cooperative structure (e.g., similar to the rural telephone and electric cooperatives common in very rural areas).  This would help ensure that the network is responsive to end-users rather than to local politicians with many and often conflicting priorities and, in some cases, focused too much on the next election and lacking appreciation for the management requirements of the network. That being said, cooperative managers are not immune from losing touch with their members needs, nor can these members always be relied upon to wisely exercise the rights and responsibilities of their membership.

These challenges highlight the value of initial and sustainable stakeholder “buy-in” for a community network to succeed, a factor that relates to Kelly’s concepts of Rooted Membership and Mission-Controlled Governance.

The value of building and maintaining stakeholder buy-in seems especially important during a network’s early years, when the bulk of construction is underway. This is because costs are especially high during this startup phase, while revenues are just beginning to ramp up. Case study research suggests that it’s during this startup period that incumbents have the most leverage to mobilize their considerable resources to weaken both the economic viability and credibility of community networks.

Given its role as core communication infrastructure,  a community-owned broadband network is a resource likely to impact virtually every organization in a community, including local government, public safety, education, healthcare, non-profits, and businesses both large and small.  This suggests that important elements of generative structure (e.g., Rooted Membership and Mission-Controlled Governance) will be closely tied to how these various stakeholders (as well as residential users) are involved in setting goals and priorities and the decision-making processes related to network management, build-out plans, resource allocation, service development, pricing, etc. This governance issue also relates to the Ethical Network element of generative ownership, as reflected in the relationships among community leaders, their local constituencies and their counterparts in other communities that have invested in a community-owned network or are considering such an investment.

Stakeholder finance: challenging but potentially fortifying

Deploying a community broadband network that relies on Stakeholder Finance strikes me as more challenging than Kelly’s other generative design elements, in large part because the high upfront cost and capital-intensive nature of communication networks has typically required access to public debt markets.

One of the clearest and apparently successful examples of local stakeholder financing is Vermont’s ECFiber, now officially known as the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District.

As the following excerpt from ECFiber’s website indicates, its decision to initially rely on local stakeholder financing was made out of necessity:

On Town Meeting Day 2008, 24 towns voted to join ECFiber…In August, 2008 23 towns signed the Inter-local Contract and by early September, the initiative’s underwriter, Oppenheimer & Co., had pledges of $70 million. One week later the international financial markets collapsed taking ECFiber’s initial funding effort with it.

ECFiber then submitted several funding proposals under the American Recovery and Reinvestment ACT (stimulus program), but with no operating history at that point, we were edged out by competing proposals from other local companies.

But undaunted, ECFiber returned to the Vermont roots of self-reliance and initiated our current program of grass-roots funding. With the advice of local counsel, ECFiber developed a program of issuing promissory notes in a private placement offering. The notes are offered in $2500 units. The first round of financing, in January,2011, raised $912,000, which enabled us to build our first 20+ mile loop… Additional rounds of financing have brought total investment to nearly $5 million…It is ECFiber’s intention, at some suitable point, to return to the capital markets to seek sufficient funding to build out the entire network in all member towns.

According to a March 11, 2016 press release, ECFiber has reached the point where it is ready to augment its initial base of local stakeholder financing via institutional capital markets:

ECFiber…plans to activate 110 miles of network in 2016 and build an additional 250 miles in 2017. “Working with bond underwriters, we believe ECFiber has reached the point in its financial development that allows us to access institutional capital markets for the first time in 2016,” says Irv Thomae, District Chairman.

While the financing model pioneered by ECFiber may lead to slower network buildout, it may strengthen the Stakeholder Financing element of its generative ownership design, since most of its initial funding came from community members with a three-pronged interest in its success—as customers, as local community members, and as direct financial investors.

This underscores a broader and important point: community broadband planners are likely to increase their chances for success if, from the beginning, they keep in mind all elements of Kelly’s generative ownership structure, including how they interact with each other to support the project’s Living Purpose.

To a large extent, all of Kelly’s ownership characteristics relate to the effective and sustainable harnessing of stakeholder support and participation.  As both successful and unsuccessful community broadband projects have demonstrated, strong and sustained support from community stakeholders provides a solid—and perhaps the most essential— foundation upon which to build a community network.

As noted above, this foundation has proven to be especially important during a project’s startup phase, when learning curves and financial pressures abound, and when community networks are likely to be most vulnerable to well-financed political, legal and predatory pricing attacks by incumbent service providers. The more fully and firmly that stakeholder support is embedded in a community network’s design, the more likely it is to weather these startup storms and any squalls that might follow in later years. And the more likely it will be to remain focused on prioritizing the social benefits and community development goals that give it the Living Purpose that distinguishes it from the financial priorities of extractive ownership models.

More research can help

The existing body of research focused on community broadband networks tends to be heavily polarized and somewhat anecdotal, with proponents focusing on success stories and opponents on the sector’s most notable failures, even if, as with UTOPIA, they were launched many years ago and were subject to a unique mix of situations and constraints that virtually guaranteed they would illustrate painful lessons for others to learn from. To a large extent the tone and content of existing research reflects the often intense political battles at the state, local and national levels regarding restrictions on community broadband projects.  As with most politically charged policy-related research, the result is a strong tendency toward cherry-picking of projects to study and data to analyze.

My own view is that case study-oriented research by myself and others provides clear evidence that community-owned broadband networks can and often do succeed in terms of both their internal economics and in bringing to their communities lower prices, faster speeds, better customer service and more robust support for the potentially large but difficult-to-internally-monetize social goods discussed in Frischmann’s book.

That being said, I also believe that state and local policymakers, local decision-makers and communication scholars could benefit from additional and less agenda-driven research in this area, perhaps conducted by a team of researchers representing a range of perspectives and expertise, and well sheltered from bias based on the source of their funding.  Among the questions I view as worthy of such research are the following:

Given the intensity of debate surrounding state laws restricting the ability of communities to finance and control their local broadband networks; the FCC’s efforts to preempt such state restrictions and; the expansion of both publicly-owned and privately-owned (e.g., Google Fiber) competitive network models, I believe research focused on these questions can help local leaders, state and federal policymakers, and private sector players make better-informed decisions about how best to leverage the power of high-speed Internet access to benefit our nation’s citizens, businesses and public institutions.

While the focus of this post has been the relevance of Kelly’s ownership framework to the local broadband access market, I believe it is also relevant to policy issues and research questions related to the special access market, which is the focus of the final blog post in this series.

 

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Detroit Digital Stewards: Unlicensed Open Source Neighborhood Networks

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In a series of posts over the past two months, I’ve looked at efforts by private companies and city governments to use unlicensed spectrum to improve choice, affordability, innovation and service quality in the communications sector.

In this post I’ll add another type of entity to the mix of unlicensed spectrum innovators: local neighborhoods, where issues, interactions and initiatives tend to be more personal and place-based.

One focal point for this kind of neighborhood-driven network initiative is Detroit, a city facing severe financial constraints and one of the nation’s lowest levels of Internet penetration (see tables in this earlier post). In this highly challenging environment, a community-based organization called Detroit Digital Stewards, working closely with the Open Technology Institute (OTI), has been developing human and technical systems to support low-cost wireless mesh networks that support local needs. The open-source OTI technology, called Commotion, is also being used in Red Hook, NY following Hurricane Sandy and in projects overseas.

According to an April 2014 report in the New York Times, the State Department has provided financial support for Commotion’s development, as a means to help dissidents use decentralized mesh networks to bypass government surveillance and censorship (ironically this occurred around the same time the NSA was developing surveillance technology later exposed by Edward Snowden).

The State Department provided $2.8 million to a team of American hackers, community activists and software geeks to develop the system, called a mesh network, as a way for dissidents abroad to communicate more freely and securely than they can on the open Internet.

I recently had the pleasure of speaking with Diana Nucera, Director of the Detroit Community Technology Project (DCTP), which coordinates the Digital Stewards project.   That conversation helped me appreciate that, while it may lack the scale (and certainly the funding) of New York’s LinkNYC project or Google’s Project Fi, the Digital Stewards program (one of multiple Allied Media Projects) has some unique strengths worthy of study, support and sharing.  For example:

My sense is that there’s much to learn from the work of the Detroit Digital Stewards team, OTI and Commotion projects in other locations, as they break new ground in bringing affordable and empowering connectivity to underserved communities.

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LinkNYC: Free Muni Wi-Fi with Big Apple Style & Ambition

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In my last post I described Boston’s recently-launched Wicked Free Wi-Fi as a new generation of municipal wireless networks likely to be more successful than the first generation of projects launched a decade earlier.

Another member of this new generation is LinkNYC, a recently announced Wi-Fi network that will be deployed in New York City starting later this year. While they have some things in common (i.e., a focus on free outdoor nomadic service), the NYC project is, in key respects, different, more ambitious and perhaps more controversial than Boston’s Wicked Free.

As Matthew Flamm put it in the lead paragraph of a piece in Crain’s New York Business:

Gigabit Internet is finally coming to New York City, and from the unlikeliest of sources: the city’s pay-phone network. And even more remarkable, the service—and all U.S. phone calls on these new Wi-Fi kiosks—will be free

[Note: as explained below, the gigabit speed is per kiosk, and would be shared by all users accessing the kiosk it at any given time].

The project’s media kit explains the kiosks, known as “Links” this way:

Links are iconically designed connection points that house state-of-the-art wireless technology, interactive systems and digital advertising displays, which will offer 24/7 free Internet access at up to gigabit speeds…as well as a range of other services including free phone calls to anywhere in the U.S., a touchscreen tablet interface to access City services, wayfinding, 911 and 311 calls, free charging stations and digital displays for advertising and public service announcements.

LinkNYC_Kiosk3

 

That’s a lot of free services in exchange for a new layer of high-tech display advertising (see example above) in a city that’s already pretty saturated with display ads.

And, instead of costing NYC taxpapers money, the project aims to generate revenue for the city.  According to the media kit, the project “will be funded through advertising revenues, will be built at no cost to taxpayers and will generate more than $500 million in revenue for the City over the next 12 years.” And, according to Flamm, “[t]he contract…guarantees payment of $20 million in advertising revenue to the city in the first year of operation.”

The project is being undertaken by a for-profit consortium of four companies.  As Kif Leswing explains at GigaOm:

CityBridge is a partnership between four companies: Titan, the New York display advertising giant; Comark, which will be fabricating the actual kiosks; Control Group, which is providing most of the strategy for the concern; and chipmaker Qualcomm. They all own about a quarter of the partnership, which entered into a 12-year, $200 million contract with New York City to build and administer Links.

Transit Wireless, currently providing wireless technology for NYC’s underground subway stations through a partnership with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), and Antenna Design, which specializes in people-centered industrial design, will also be involved in the LinkNYC project. The former will support the network’s fiber infrastructure, while the latter will design the Link kiosks.

As to the timetable, Flamm reports that:

[I]t won’t be until late 2015 before the first 500-plus units are installed, according to Stanley Shor, assistant commissioner at the Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications, which administers the franchise. CityBridge has four years to complete installation of the first 4,000 structures. The RFP called for eventual construction of 10,000.

Leswing, citing CityBridge’s contract with the city, discusses the LinkNYC technology:

Each link will supply a Wi-Fi network within a 150-foot radius…[and] must be capable of supporting up to 256 devices with a total aggregate throughput of 1Gbps” and “simultaneous dual spectrum 2.4 GHz 802.11 b/g/n, and 5GHz a/n/ac services.” So if you’re the only one connected to a Link, you might be able to pull down gigabit speeds.

Plus, there’s a requirement…for CityBridge to upgrade its Link design every four years…to stave off obsolescence…[and] there’s a pilot program planned in the Bronx for a partially solar-powered Link that might be incorporated into the next design.

Advertising is at the heart of the project’s revenue model and economic viability. As Leswing notes “CityBridge won’t be able to introduce a new premium tier of service later,…so it will have to make its money through advertising.”

CityBridge[‘s]…draft…privacy policy…indicates that it plans to show ads on the built-in tablets as well as on people’s devices…But the real moneymaker will be display advertisements. Titan already makes a mint by selling mini-billboards around the city, and Links — at least the wider model — will come with two digital ad units on each side that can be changed remotely or sold programatically. Essentially, Titan, an outdoor advertising company, is getting the inventory to display thousands of new state-of-the-art ad units around New York.

“Major brands will flock to advertise on the LinkNYC network because the structures look beautiful,” Dave Etherington, chief strategy officer at Titan said. “This also means they could customize their message from Link to Link.”

Lots of endorsements, but also some concerns

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Boston’s “Wicked Free Wi-Fi”: A New Model for Municipal Wi-Fi?

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In my last post I briefly reviewed the less-than-stellar history of municipal Wi-Fi networks that were deployed roughly a decade ago. As I noted in that post, these projects employed earlier generations of technology and often-poorly-conceived “public-private partnerships.”  And, importantly, they were launched well before the combination of smartphones/tablets and data-capped LTE/4G mobile services had turbocharged demand for nomadic Wi-Fi connectivity.

In this post I’m going to focus on an example of what I consider a new generation of municipal Wi-Fi networks, Boston’s Wicked Free Wi-Fi service, which the city formally launched in April.

As reported by Michael Farrell in the Boston Globe:

Boston has switched on a free public Wi-Fi network for about 30,000 residents living in the Grove Hall neighborhood as the first step to blanketing much of the city with wireless Internet service. Dubbed Wicked Free Wi-Fi, the network of outdoor Wi-Fi hotspots will provide Internet coverage over an area of about 1.5 square miles.

In contrast to the first generation of municipal Wi-Fi projects, Boston’s network is focused on the fast-growing demand for nomadic high-speed connectivity rather than the more mature and more technically and financially challenging market for in-home access:

The city stresses that the new Wi-Fi network isn’t designed to be used inside homes as a replacement for wired services that residents can buy from commercial providers. Rather it will work best for mobile users, and is largely intended to be accessed outdoors or in the restaurants and cafes around the neighborhood… making it easier for users with smartphones and tablets to access the Internet on the go.

While “first generation” projects tended to underestimate the technical and economic challenges they faced in targeting the in-home market, the Boston project sets a more realistic yet socially valuable goal of expanding mainly-outdoor coverage.  As Farrell explains:

Boston had Wi-Fi hotspots scattered around the city before this rollout — about 70 access points in a few tourist districts or at municipal properties. However, those hotspots reach just a short distance, and do not have the kind of wide-area blanket coverage as the Grove Hall network should provide.

And while first generation projects often looked to a private company like Earthlink to bear the financial risk and deployment costs in exchange for a large measure of control and future profit potential, Boston is taking a different approach.  For backhaul—a key component of network cost and performance—it is using its existing fiber network.  And, with help from HUD community development grants, it appears to be funding the project itself rather than looking to a private service provider to bear the financial risk.  As the Globe article explains:

The Grove Hall project was born during [former mayor Thomas] Menino’s administration, which was awarded a $20.5 million federal grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development in 2011 that set aside money for redevelopment projects in Dorchester. About $300,000 was used for the Grove Hall build-out… Grove Hall was selected as the launch site because of its large number of low-income families who may not be able to afford the high cost of speedy broadband service.

According to an April 10, 2015 press release issued by current mayor Marty Walsh’s office, the Wi-Fi project is “using resources from the City and its partners, as well as [HUD’s] Choice Neighborhoods program.”

“HUD is very excited about Boston’s innovative use of Choice Neighborhood funding for the Grove Hall Wi-Fi project,” said Barbara Fields, HUD New England Regional Administrator. “This project is opening the door to opportunity for Boston residents, in particular students, and we are proud to be a part of this ‘out of the box’ thinking that is improving lives.”

In terms of the network’s future expansion, Farrell reports that:

[O]ver the next two years, the Walsh administration plans to extend the Wi-Fi network to all 20 commercial districts that are part of the city’s Main Streets neighborhoods program. Those areas are eligible for federal grant money to fund community development projects.

According to the city’s press release, when it was issued the Wicked Free network was attracting 14,559 visitors per month, including 79% repeat visitors.  More information on the project, including an interactive network map, is available here, along with an invitation to “[d]ownload the Citizens Connect app to alert the City of neighborhood issues such as potholes, damaged signs, and graffiti.”

More than just a physical network

The Wicked Free web site’s invitation to download the Citizens Connect app is a reminder that, when considering current-generation municipal network projects, it’s important to keep in mind that they are increasingly viewed as part of a broader strategy aimed at creating what authors Stephen Goldsmith and Susan Crawford refer to as “The Responsive City.”

Boston is a good example of this.  For example, in 2010 the city launched the Mayor’s Office of New Urban Mechanics (for information on MONUM projects see here and here).

According to its web site MONUM:

[P]ilot[s] experiments that offer the potential to significantly improve the quality of City services…[and] focuses on four major issue areas: Education, Engagement, the Streetscape and Economic Development. To design, conduct and evaluate pilot projects in these areas, MONUM builds partnerships between constituents, academics, entrepreneurs, non-profits and City staff.

Below are some links with additional information about Boston’s effort to use technology (including the Wicked Free Wi-Fi network) to become a Responsive City:

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Community WiFi in the Smartphone Era: lessons & differences from the past

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So far, this series of blog posts has focused on what private companies are doing in the unlicensed spectrum space—including startups, cable operators, Google and mobile carriers. In the next few posts I’ll consider what cities and local neighborhoods have done, are doing, and are planning to do with unlicensed spectrum.

As a first step in considering current and future “community WiFi” projects, it’s worth taking a look back at an earlier wave of municipal WiFi networks.

These date back roughly a decade, with one of the most ambitious early projects, in Philadelphia, being announced in April 2005, just a few months before the first iPhone was shipped. The Philly project was one of multiple urban deployments involving Earthlink which, at that time, was grappling with the transition from dial-up to broadband as the dominant form of Internet connectivity. Frustrated with its limited and not-very-profitable access to cable and DSL networks (which weren’t subject to the same network-sharing requirements that applied to dial-up service), Earthlink viewed these muni-WiFi projects as a way to offer Internet access services independent of wholesale arrangements with cable and telco network operators that were not only its main competitors, but increasingly refused to offer Earthlink and other dial-up ISPs access to their networks.

The problem with this effort to use WiFi as a competitive “bypass” technology was that the public-private partnership model embraced by Earthlink, its city partners and similar ventures, was flawed in multiple respects. Though some projects were relatively successful (the largest one probably being the Minneapolis network operated by USI Wireless) Earthlink eventually abandoned its WiFi ambitions after launching several high-profile projects in major U.S. cities. Other players, including MetroFi, which launched several networks in the Bay Area and in Portland, also exited the business around the same time.

Among the problems faced by these early network deployments was that they attempted to offer a service that could compete with wireline broadband services, at least at the low end of the market. But the inability of WiFi signals to reliably penetrate walls made in-home service a serious challenge, especially for the earlier generations of equipment used in these networks.

Another issue was that, ten years ago (as the June 2005 iPhone launch date suggests), there was nothing comparable to today’s nearly insatiable demand for nomadic (but not necessarily ubiquitous) outdoor Internet connectivity. Yes, there were plenty of laptops being lugged around and used in coffee houses, etc., but today’s increasingly universal presence and intensive use of high-performance WiFi-capable smartphones and tablets was, at that time, nothing more than a twinkle in Steve Jobs’ visionary eye.

As discussed in prior posts, today’s dramatically increased demand for nomadic Internet connectivity is spurring a range of efforts by private service providers, including startups, cable operators, Google and cellular providers (as well as restaurants, cafes and other venues providing WiFi hot spots as a customer amenity) to satisfy that demand.

At the same time, some municipalities and neighborhood groups are discovering unmet needs and exploring ways to address them. These efforts will be the focus of the next few posts in this series.

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Community Fiber Networks: Bringing Competition and World-Class Infrastructure to American Cities

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In the following video, President Obama announced several steps his Administration is taking to encourage municipally-owned broadband networks, as well as the rationale for taking them.

A few weeks after the president’s January 14 speech, the FCC announced it would be voting on a similar approach to municipal broadband at its February 26 meeting, where it will also vote on a proposal to classify broadband access as a Title II common carrier.  Since community broadband is a topic I hope to write about here in the future, and the Commission’s meeting is only two weeks away, I thought I’d share some initial thoughts on the subject, using the President’s plan and its significance as a focal point.

As always, feedback (especially from those who see this issue differently) is welcome…

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