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February 17, 2005

Municipal: Texas Fights; Indiana Bill Dies; NYT Covers; Philly Councilman Shills; Colorado Suppresses

Municipal Round-up: Piles of news about municipal networking keeps pouring in; for links to our complete coverage, follow our category pages to municipal and (about the hands that pull the strings) sock puppets.

The fight in Texas, reported yesterday, is heating up over municipal wireless: The bill under consideration in Texas--HB 789--would impose one of the most extreme bans on municipal involvement in any form of communications--free or otherwise--of any state bill I'm aware of. But the fight is joined. The EFF (that's EFF-Austin not the national organization) will help fight the bill, according to Esme Vos of Esme also points to an anti-anti-municipal wireless Web site, set up by Chip Rosenthal. Esme notes and a commenter on Rosenthal site queries that this bill would ban free library access among other broad statements.

In Indiana, three bills under consideration would have affected municipal wireless: HB1148 would have banned municipalities from engaging in network building by imposing conditions that would have allowed any incumbent to state they were going to build a network within nine months, restrict funding in an unpleasant way, and allow endless appeals for delay and information. That bill is dead. Two other bills (SB0381 in the Senate and HB1793 in the House) would allow the resale of access to Indiana's statewide fiber optic network if there's excess capacity. (It's fiber: there's always excess capacity.) [Thanks to David Dellacca at Indiana University for the bill information and insight.]

The New York Times chimes in on municipal networks: This article has some great direct quotes from the incumbents involved in the municipal debate with very few indirectly funded third parties in the article. The lead says it all, describing the scope and intent of Philly's network more accurately than almost all over press accounts:

"City officials envision a seamless mesh of broadband signals that will enable the police to download mug shots as they race to crime scenes in their patrol cars, allow truck drivers to maintain Internet access to inventories as they roam the city, and perhaps most important, let students and low-income residents get on the net."

The Cato Institute tips it's hand at the fairness and balance of the report they'll be issuing by stating, "The last thing I'd want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility." Because, of course, if you survey the field and look at the municipalities all running networks of varying kinds today, they are all lazy. Thanks for that brilliant insight; can't wait for the feature-length movie.

Comcast's executive vice president asks, in the article, "Is it fair that the industry pay tax dollars to the city that are then used to launch a network that would compete with our own?" Once again, subsidies rear their ugly heads: I'd like Comcast to disclose every penny they're received in subsidies or allocated taxes. It's only fair. We already know how much money Verizon got for a fiber-optic network they never built in Pennsylvania.

Here's a great example of how the incumbents have shifted an aspect of the debate: "Philadelphia officials say a recent survey found that nearly 40 percent of residents did not have Internet service. But industry officials say that virtually every neighborhood in the city is wired for broadband and that many people are choosing not to buy it." This is like the Zip code argument cited by the sock puppets in this debate: every neighborhood may have access, but that doesn't mean that every home does.

This doozy from Verizon: " 'Government doesn't do service well,' said Eric Rabe, vice president for public relations for Verizon." Help me, I've fallen down laughing. A telephone company is lecturing public entities on providing service. He then goes on to note that with 3.5 million DSL subscribers, they're still trying to make money at $30 per month. That seems absurd. It's a low price, sure, but they already have the wire into the home. They already have massive data networks wired into central offices. Their real cost is quite low--and they get to keep making money on the voice line that's bundled with the DSL service. Even if they break even on $30 per month, they still make money on the voice wireline which might otherwise be switched to cell.

Comcast argues that the city's estimate of $10 million to set up and $1.5 million a year is too low. But how would Comcast know? They don't run broadband wireless networks for public safety or for wide access. It's more likely that other cities would understand the costs than Comcast.

Philly Councilman recites sock puppet numbers: Frank Rizzo recites the history of what he calls overbudget municipal networks without noting that a) they are all fiber optic networks, b) the numbers and conclusions are drawn from sock-puppet reports by institutes directly or indirectly funded by incumbents competing with municipal networks, and c) the reports of failure are pretty poorly researched and in my limited checks so far don't pan out. (I'll be working more on this subject in the future.)

Rizzo points to the Big Dig as an example of overspending, but it's really hard to compare a massive project that will positively affect the face of Boston for decades (or hundreds of years) to come that was ridiculously over budget with fiber optic networks that involve lots of digging with wireless networks that can be easily deployed and refreshed. It's not apples to apples nor apples to oranges: it's blue whales to field mice.

Rizzo cites tons of technically inaccurate information from reports or other sources. He writes, the network will be "enabling those with expensive laptops to get wireless broadband signals in a radius of 300 feet from a municipal router." That's not the network that's proposed nor are laptops that expensive any more. A $200 desktop with a cheap high-gain antenna will gain access as readily as a $3,000 laptop owner.

He notes, "Further, many engineers estimate that an astounding 60 percent of the equipment requires replacement or upgrading every three to five years." Sure, but the capital outlay costs are about building service; equipment is a fraction of that. This equipment becomes increasingly cheaper and more powerful over time meaning that replacing 60 percent of the equipment in 3 to 5 years could result in a tenfold speed advantage at 20 percent of the original cost.

Rizzo says, "It's highly conceivable that the protocols used for Philadelphia's wireless network today will be outdated tomorrow when new equipment is manufactured to accommodate more robust wireless technologies like WiMax." Mr. Rizzo, I know John Dvorak. John Dvorak is a colleague of mine. Mr Rizzo, you are no John Dvorak. By the time WiMax hits, hundreds of millions of Wi-Fi devices will be in use. 10Base-T Ethernet hasn't gone out of fashion just because Gigabit flavors are readily available.

The councilman doesn't address any of the homeland security and public safety issues that are part of what Philadelphia's mayor's office proposes, nor does he deal with the lack of incumbent build-out. This whole essay is full of specious logic, incorrect technical interpretations, and puppet shows of misleading facts.

Who wrote this for you--and why did they do such a bad job?

(Update: Rizzo claims his stance, at least, was his own, but still doesn't claim the words.)

Colorado is considering SB 05-152 to burden muni telecom, broadband, cable: For the down side of the bill, read the Colorado Municipal League's February 4 Statehouse Report. For the up side, contact Qwest and the Colorado Cable Television Association, which the CML says is backing this bill. The text of the bill explains that municipalities have many flaming hoops to jump through in their pursuit of rolling out any kind of service. These hoops don't constrain other municipal services or private enterprise. They're very specific.

These bills remind me of Kurt Vonnegut's superb short story Harrison Bergeron in which the field of humanity was leveled by the exceptional being hobbled to match the mediocre. Bergeron is so extraordinary that he carries the heaviest weights and most disruptive devices of anyone. But his inner strength is so great that he casts off these shackles and flies--only to be downed by the enforcer of mediocrity. I don't need to give you a key for that roman a clef.


Now, hopefully, we're going to find out just who is how deep in whose pockets. I'm hoping that there's no anti-muni effort in my home state of New York, as I'm starting to get lots of calls from people that are interested in building muni or community wi-fi nets as part of smart growth initiatives, and to make broadband affordable in some of the worst performing school districts in the state.

re: "The Cato Institute tips it’s hand at the fairness and balance of the report they’ll be issuing by stating, 'The last thing I’d want to see is broadband turned into a lazy public utility.'”
A very interesting selection of words. Maybe Cato doesn't get it. Today's physical network layer provider _should_ be lazy, as it relates to their involvement in what users want and do, and the amount of bandwidth users receive. Yes, municipal networks have to be designed properly, but beyond the skelatal design stage, it only needs to be abundant with bandwidth, relatively if not entirely passive in nature from the standpoint of network provider involvement, and allow independent service providers and end users the ability to control their own destinies. This, as opposed to the more "energetic" level of meddling that is usually ascribed to the incumbents, whose entire business models are still based on bandwidth scarcity, both real (when they refuse to do anything about it) and imagined (when they intentionally throttle back by rate limiting), and the nickel'n'diming they impose on end users' every press of their DTMF touch tone pads.

Isn't it time for municipalites to simply thumb their collective noses at the state or feds and simply do as they please? What every happened to collective resistance?

I love the idea of free WiFi everywhere, all the time. I hate the idea of making something else a government program. However, sometimes it's easiest way to get something started. Is it economically feasible, though, to have the municipal wireless be implemented in such a way to provide such a service, but address some of the overblown-but-partly-true claims of the Telcos/ISPs?
What if the city's square milage is broken into zones, and each zone is allocated a certain amount of subsidy. That subsidy is for providing basic service (define that, for example, as 802.11b, with bandwidth caps around what residential DSL offers today). After the first X months, the zone may be purchased by any ISP that wants to do so, and they continue to receive the subsidy. They MUST provide free "basic service" to everyone in the zone. They MAY offer any additional services they wish for a fee. They still have incentive to come in (the additional services -- faster connections -- fees), and they can't claim the free service is undercutting them -- as long as they provide the basic service in the zone, they receive a piece of the same subsidy that funds the municipal network. Everyone has "free" wireless access (albeit a little slower than ideal, but hey, you're on the net and it's as good as DSL.) The city eventually sells all the zones off. Government eventually gets out of the game. I'm probably missing a lot here... but maybe this will spur some discussion.
Alternative solution: lets keep those community efforts going, make it all moot by covering the city ourselves!

Why not allow cities to build their own network? They already old other municipal services... water,roads, and sewage. In fact, toll roads are a perfect example of state owned, and corporate run self-paying "infrastructure".

Network infrastructure is no different. It's an infrastructure that under curent terms is anti-competitive by nature. So why not turn over anti-comeptitive parts of services to the cities and governments that then lease access to companies.

I'll tell you why the companies are so against this. They realize that if this DOES happen, then they are now on a level playing field with anyone else that wants to start a telco or ISP or power company or cable company.

Municipal run infrastructure like this is the bane of monopolies. Naturally they will scream "UNFAIR!" and start throwing lawyers and politicians at it.

I live in Madison, WI, a town of about 300,000 people that's proposing to implement wireless. The proposed budget of somewhere around $10M over ten years doesn't seem unfeasible. It seems likely that larger cities could build wireless networks just as easily, and probably for less cost. Government maintenance would be a bit scary though, since censorship issues begin to come into play. Either side of the coin has pros and cons. My guess is that eventually the government will be able to institute networks as they see fit.

I live in a small rural town here in Texas. We have a population of apx 5,000. The city council has appointed myself and 6 others to a committee to determine the best way to get the best service to our small town. We have a smattering of wifi companies, and no DSL availability. Ma Bell won't run fiber to our town, even though we have a large university, 2 high schools, and several grade schools in our small community.
We are open to suggestions as to how to proceed. Just found this web site. Interesting stuff!

It is prudent to remember that none of these municipal networks are free, even if there is no direct charges via bill or account.

They come at a cost to someone, and that someone is the taxpayer. These municipal networks may be agreed to, and may, like public roads, produce a benefit for all that exceeds any personal financial reservations, but to call it "free" is disingenuous and feeds fire to the claim that the municipalities and the people who live in them simply want the Internet, and are not considering the cost implications of doing so.

[Editor's note: I'd still like to see real names attached to comments, and it's hard to post inaccurate items like this one without a real name. So I'll just comment here: I don't know who calls municipal networks free: most of the networks that have been proposed involve using grants or subsidized service only for poorer residents. These grants may come from existing taxes and funds distributed by the feds, states, or foundations.

You can cherry pick a few egregious examples -- like San Francisco's utopian proposal -- rather than look at the dozens and dozens of networks in which there may be at most limited free hotspot service, while home service is competitive with national cable and DSL rates but offered in typically a broader area than the incumbent providers can manage with their cost structure. Municipal networks are usually cost competitive with national prices; local prices (before municipal networks enter the field) are typically above national averages.

Further, many municipal networks are using public/private partnerships, private funding with a restriction in the charter that avoids tapping general revenue, have a mandate for cost recovery within a certain period, or use excess revenue required for reinvestment on the part of a utility. It's much more complex than: free municipal equals taxpayer money spent and wasted thus not free.

Once again, I urge considered debate over whether the role of a municipality or utility is to offer telecom, cable TV, or broadband rather than knee-jerk "yes" or "no" responses that use incorrect or cherrypicked details to prove an ideological point when actual facts are available.--gf]

Someone pays. Always. TANSTAAFL applies. Grant money comes from someplace, most often from the bloated federal giveaway programs. I think many in the technology business are well aware of the spending that is happening in the name of homeland security, for example.

Why should all of us have to subsidize a few of us? GF suggests that muni wireless would be free only to low income people. So there will be means testing prior to access? We will have to undergo credit checks before logging on? Be very careful about the road you choose to travel.

Let me repeat the question. Why is muni wireless a good idea? Good answers do not include "becfause it's kewl", "because I think its a good idea", "because the poor need it" and other selfish or pretentiously altruistic responses. The utility argument is not a good answer either, because the response is "why not privatize utilities?" Another response is "why not socialize other private businesses that government deems important to the economy or beneficial to the poor?".

This morning I received an email from Ron Sege. Ron is President and CEO of Tropos Networks. He attached a letter that he sent to the TX legislature, along with a Wireless Fact Sheet. Both can be viewed, respectively, here: