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SiFi Networks Brings Infrastructure Financing to California With $75 Million Open-Access Fiber in Fullerton

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SiFi Networks’ recent announcement of a more-than $75 million open-access network in Fullerton, Calif., represents a departure from the public-private model that the company had been pursuing in the U.S. over the past four years.

SiFi is continuing its focus on an open-access network, or a network in which more than one service provider offers broadband over the same common fiber infrastructure.

However, SiFi is pivoting from a model of public-private partnerships that included some city financing and ownership. Now, it is using a fully-private investment model led by Dutch pension fund APG and Whitehelm Capital. The city is not an asset-owning stakeholder.

Fullerton is the inaugural deployment of the Smart City Investment Fund, a 250 million Euro ($281 million) infrastructure fund that will own the infrastructure asset. The fiber build will connect to about 50,000 homes in a city of 135,000. It promises to be the largest privately-funded open access network in the United States.

Although not involved financially, the city is supportive: “Having a true fiber optic network passing every part of the city is an amazing opportunity,” said Fullerton City Manager Ken Domer.

In an interview at the Broadband Communities Summit in Austin, SiFi CEO Ben Bawtree-Jobson discussed the project and the company’s next steps, as did the CEO of GigabitNow, one of the two internet service providers that will be operating on the network.

Building a high-capacity broadband network through a public-private partnership has involved a delicate balance between technical expertise and political support. Yet SiFi, which has been a mainstay at the Broadband Communities Summit over the past several years, had been left standing at the alter on more than one occasion.

Bawtree-Jobson spoke about SiFi’s new development in Fullerton, and how it differs from other prior potential projects that didn’t quite make it across the finish line.

“In [those] public-private partnerships, the city had to put a lot of skin in the game,” said Bawtree-Jobson. “What we found is that despite best efforts and fantastic opportunities, there wasn’t enough political weight behind those efforts to get them over the line.”

Recent developments in the capital markets, including the acquisition of the British-based CityFibre in by a Goldman Sachs-based consortium in April 2018, and a partnership between CityFibre and Vodafone in November 2017, caused SiFi to readjust its strategy.

“We always had a vision of 100 percent private market-funded” broadband project, he said.

However, investors had to adjust their expectations. Prior to 18 to 24 months ago, private investors “didn’t really see the inherent value in having that long-term fiber asset in the ground.”

The Vodafone and Goldman Sachs deals, and other developments, “woke up a lot of the capital markets,” said Bawtree-Jobson. That led to the creation of Whitehelm’s Smart City Infrastructure Fund in November 2018.

The fund aims to develop independent and open access infrastructure projects. In addition to fiber to the home, these project will also promote Smart City solutions, including smart lighting, parking, waste collection and pollution control.

The Smart City Infrastructure Fund would provide “much-needed physical infrastructure that underpins Smart City developments and the use of digital intelligence for the delivery of existing urban services, while significantly improving the accessibility of high-speed broadband connectivity to all citizens of the city of Fullerton,” said Graham Matthews, CEO of Whitehelm Capital, in a press release.

“When we first signed Fullerton, we were trying to work through a public-private partnership. Although that is different from the model that we see today, Fullerton is the beneficiary of their patient determination,” said Bawtree-Jobson.

“We were determined to make [a broadband project] happen there,” he said.

Under some of the various public-private models previously under consideration, SiFi Networks and its corporate partners would still have invested the funds necessary to construct fiber. But the city would have entered into a long-term lease with SiFi, with the city having the option to buy the asset over time.

“We knew the fundamentals were there” for an open-access infrastructure marketplace, he said. “We were just there too soon. The market had to come to us.”

That market of institutional investors — who have a different risk-reward profile than other investors — is “starting to have the appetite” for infrastructure investment. Still, he said that “you have to have a highly risk-mitigated strategy to deploy infrastructure.”

Bawtree-Jobson added that the Fullerton project will be financially successful even if it only splits the market with the city’s two principal incumbents, telecom provider AT&T and cable operator Spectrum. In addition to symmetrical gigabit service, the SiFi network will be “among the most reliable networks in the world” because of “redundancy and resilience.”

One provider offering internet services on the network is GigabitNow, which plans to sell symmetrical gigabit service for $79 a month, and 100 megabit symmetrical service for $60 a month. About half of that monthly revenue will go to SiFi Networks, according to CEO Stephen Milton of GigabitNow.

GigabitNow creates and operates gigabit networks for communities and homeowner associations, including the Sea Ranch project along the Pacific coast in Sonoma County, California. There, GigabitNow designed, constructed and operated the network, which was purchased by the homeowner’s association.

But in Fullerton, GigabitNow is willing to only offer internet services on the network, even though it will be in competition with Ting Networks, because of a range of new opportunities it sees through SiFi, particularly along the west coast, said Milton.

For now, only two ISPs will operate on the network. Their tenure there will be determined by performance, including reliability, customer service and take rate, said Bawtree-Jobson.

Whether or not SiFi will add others “depends on what value-add the other ISPs will provide to the network,” he said. “You don’t want to create an unsustainable environment for ISPs on the network.”

(Photo of Ben Bawtree-Jobson by Drew Clark at Broadband Communities Summit.)

Drew Clark is the Editor and Publisher of BroadbandBreakfast.com and a nationally-respected telecommunications attorney at The CommLaw Group. He has closely tracked the trends in and mechanics of digital infrastructure for 20 years, and has helped fiber-based and fixed wireless providers navigate coverage, identify markets, broker infrastructure, and operate in the public right of way. The articles and posts on Broadband Breakfast and affiliated social media, including the BroadbandCensus Twitter feed, are not legal advice or legal services, do not constitute the creation of an attorney-client privilege, and represent the views of their respective authors.

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Openreach Partners With STL For Fiber Build

Openreach aims to get 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by later this decade.

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Screenshot of STL's Ankit Agarwal via YouTube

April 14, 2021 – STL, or Sterlite Technologies Limited, announced Wednesday a partnership with Openreach, the United Kingdom’s largest digital network business to expand its “Full Fiber” broadband network across the UK.

STL, a global network designer from India, will provide millions of kilometers of fiber to develop Openreach’s goal of 20 million fiber-to-the-premise connections by late 2020s.

“This collaboration with Openreach strengthens a 14-year-old technology and supply relationship between the two companies and further reinforces STL’s commitment to the UK market,” the company said in a statement.

Openreach will use STL’s Opticonn solution, a fiber and cable build that the company claims offers better performance and faster installation, according to the release statement. The company will also utilize STL’s new celesta ribbon cable that boasts a capacity of up to 6,912 fibers, the statement added.

“Our Full Fiber network build is going faster than ever. We need partners like STL on board to not only help sustain that momentum, but also to provide the skills and innovation to help us go even further,” Openreach’s Kevin Murphy said in a statement. “We know the network we’re building can deliver a host of social and economic benefits – from boosting UK productivity to enabling more home working and fewer commuting trips – but we’re also trying to make this one of the greenest network builds in the world.”

Ankit Agarwal, CEO of connectivity solutions business at STL, said, “our customized, 5G-ready optical solutions are ideally suited for Openreach’s future-proof network requirements and we believe they will enable next-gen digital experiences for homes and businesses across UK. This partnership will be a major step towards our mission of transforming billions of lives through digital networks,” he said in a statement.

Openreach’s network now reaches 4.5 million premises, offering gigabit-capable connection through a range of competing providers on the network, and the company is building at a rate of about 42 thousand new homes and businesses a week, according to the release.

The UK parliament has set a goal to get 85 percent of UK homes and businesses access to gigabit-speed broadband by 2025. They reported that as of September 2020, 27 percent of UK premises received that connection speed, and 95 percent have access to “superfast broadband” which the government defines as at least 30 megabits per second download speed.

Parliament acknowledged that although “superfast broadband is sufficient for most household needs today, the demand for data-intensive services such as online video streaming is increasing and can push the limits of a superfast broadband connection. The coronavirus pandemic has further highlighted the need for widely available and reliable digital connectivity.”

STL is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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Privacy and ‘Right to be Forgotten’ Laws Complicate Rules for Global Reporting

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Screenshot from the webinar

February 8, 2021 – When sharing content in any form, publishers need to understand the legality and impact of the content may have on foreigners, especially given the European Union’s privacy law, a panel of experts concluded at a Tuesday conference hosted by the American Bar Association.

The complexity of what is legal or illegal to publish has risen in light of continuing evolution in protecting peoples’ privacy rights.

Nowadays, some question whether the posting of mugshots in a newspaper might reveal personal bias, or promote a community of discrimination among its readers. Other news organizations have moved to take down archived stories of articles that might haunt the victims involved – otherwise known as the “right to be forgotten” – or even refrain from publishing minor crimes to protect privacy rights.

To further complicate the issue, what might be acceptable and perfectly legal to publish in one country may not be the same in another country, legal experts said at the ABA’s Communications Law Conference forum on February 2.

There are a few ways news organizations can accomplish this, said Lauren Fisher, chief legal officer at Vox Media.

When distributing content, news organizations can geoblock their audience  from sharing information widely that may run offside of foreign laws.

EU’s General Data Protection Regulation complicates global reporting

In comparing U.S. law with the EU’s stringent General Data Protection Regulation privacy law, Fisher said it would be best for a U.S. organization to have no physical or digital presence in the EU if it wants to avoid complying with GDPR requirements.

However, this is extremely difficult because the internet has no borders, and the dissemination of information online can hardly be contained.

The GDPR is crucial knowledge because it ensures U.S. companies are respecting trade agreements between the U.S. and the 27-country pact.

Relatively recently, U.S. companies have needed to ensure their audiences know precisely what is being done with the collected personal data. For example, GDPR-compliant websites now require users to transparently make clear that tracing cookies are being used. Other rules include explicit opt-in for data collection or tracking.

Difficult-to-square rules from country to country

And therein lies some of the complications: Publishing rules can vary significantly between countries.

For example, when trying to conform to EU rules, a newsroom in New York can be hamstrung by foreign privacy laws if an investigation it’s doing involves British citizens, said Randy L. Shapiro, global newsroom counsel for Bloomberg news. Reporters need to understand the legality of reporting such information, he said.

Similarly, publishing companies abroad must be aware of proper reporting rules. If a reporter from a global newspaper moves from the U.S. to the EU, their reporting practices may not be allowed through border security. This is so because it’s not just about foreign publishing issues — it’s also about domestic privacy concerns.

For example, in some jurisdictions sports athletes can sue if information about their drug test failure is leaked, on the grounds of invasion of privacy concerning medical records, said Mark Stephens, Partner at London-based

In other cases, said Gabriela Zanfir-Fortuna, senior counsel of the Future of Privacy Forum, it’s also about knowing which other countries are following GDPR rules.

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Social Media an Extremely Important Outlet for Belarusian Independent Journalists

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Screenshot from the webinar

February 8, 2021 – Social media remains an important means for journalists in Belarus to fight state repressions, said Alexander Lukashuk, director of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and other on a panel of journalists gathered by the Atlantic Council on Thursday.

Many journalists in the Eastern European nation nestled between Poland, Ukraine and Russia have faced attacks, detentions, and fines. The situation became worse after August 2020 elections, when more than 470 Belarusian journalists were arrested.

International press members were also obliged to leave the country and, and coverage by the more formal media was banned.

With authorities attempting to take down any website or blog that discussed the election, social media become extremely important. Lukashuk said that the undercover nature of social media allowed it to flourish when other media were throttled.

Further, internet usage is restricted by the government: On protest days and before the election, the internet was shut down in the whole country. Virtual private networks did not help in getting around internet repression when all access was cut. Communication by phone became essential.

Even when the internet was restored, 30 percent of the population lack access to the internet.

Maryna Zolatava editor-in-chief at Tut, an independent news media and internet service portal in Belarus, said that its website was targeted by the government on a daily basis. They constantly need to have a plan B, C, D, and E.

With 400,000 subscribers on their channel on Telegram, a cross-platform instant messaging software, people feel the duty to help to promote the information and support its media channels. This popularity makes it harder for government authorities to take it down.

Hence, she said, social media usage has become a driving force of the protests.

Belarusians also need to confront disinformation propaganda with which Russia bombards the country.

During the pandemic, Moscow outlets trusted by the Belarusian people were promoting the idea that the Western world was deliberately propagating the COVID-19 virus.

While many Belarusians are skeptical of these propaganda narratives, polls have shown that people who are 50 years or older receive and are more likely to believe in misinformation and conspiracy theories, panelists said.

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