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Christopher Mitchell: Electric Grid Disaster in Texas Leads to Broadband Open Access Soul Searching

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at Institute for Local Self-Reliance

The disaster in Texas resulting from an electric grid that was deliberately left exposed and likely to fail in rare cold weather events has received a lot of dramatic coverage, as well it should given the loss of life and damage to so many homes and businesses.

It also raised some questions in my mind regarding competition and designing markets that will be discussed below. Texas was a leader in allowing different electricity firms to compete in selling electricity over the same electric grid, an arrangement that has some similarities to open access broadband approaches.

In digging into that recent electricity history, I made another interesting and relevant finding that I discuss first as part of the background to understand the lessons from Texas. In 20 years of competing models between, on the one hand, municipal and cooperative structures to deliver electricity and, on the other hand, a largely deregulated and competitive market, the munis and co-ops delivered lower prices to ratepayers.

Electricity deregulation, Texas style

More than 20 years ago, Texas largely deregulated electricity markets. Residents still have a monopoly in charge of the physical wire delivering electricity to the home, but they could choose among various electricity providers that would effectively use the wire and charge different amounts, differentiating themselves via a variety of factors, including how the electricty was produced.

However, some areas continued to have monopoly electricity providers, including two of the largest public power providers in the nation, San Antonio’s CPS and Austin Energy, among others as well as several rural electric cooperatives.

For 20 years, Texas has conducted an informal test between unregulated market competition and local providers that are democratically accountable to their customers. The Wall Street Journal is the latest of many over the years to study the numbers and dispassionately annoint the munis and cooperatives the winners.

None of this was supposed to happen under deregulation. Backers of competition in the electricity-supply business promised it would lower prices for consumers who could shop around for the best deals, just as they do for cellphone service. The system would be an improvement over monopoly utilities, which have little incentive to innovate and provide better service to customers, supporters of deregulation said….

From 2004 through 2019, the annual rate for electricity from Texas’s traditional utilities was 8% lower, on average, than the nationwide average rate, while the rates of retail providers averaged 13% higher than the nationwide rate, according to the Journal’s analysis.

The findings are similar to a 2015 report from the Texas Coalition for Affordable Power, covered by the Texas Tribune:

But from 2002 to 2013, the average household in deregulated areas paid a total of about $4,800 more than residents of cities — like Austin and San Antonio — served by just one municipal utility, or those served by electric cooperatives, the analysis said.

Not just a question of price

This isn’t the first time we at ILSR’s Community Broadband Networks team have looked at electricity. Given that many of the arguments against municipal broadband are identical to arguments against public power more than 100 years ago, we like to look at the 100+ years of empirical evidence that local governments can handle these responsibilities.

Many studies looking at prices and reliability have found public power to be at least as good as the big investor-owned utilities, and often better. Back in 2011, I wrote about Connecticut Light and Power compared to Norwich, Connecticut after a storm demonstrated the benefits of community ownership.

Norwich had far fewer customers lose power, and they regained service more quickly than the investor-owned utility. It led to the New York Times digging into the two companies’ budgets to seek answers.

In contrast to Connecticut Light and Power, Norwich’s electric unit last year increased operations and maintenance spending by 11 percent, to $2.9 million. Put another way, in 2010 Norwich allocated about $132 a customer to this line item in its accounts. Connecticut Light and Power reported maintenance, unadjusted for deferred expenses, of $96.5 million, or around $78 per client.

We generally see networks that are directly accountable to their customers doing a much better job, not just in price but all-around value.

Lessons for designing markets competitively

The competitive market was supposed to deliver far lower prices to consumers. As several have stated, including ILSR’s very own energy expert, John Farrell, what it mostly did was allow electricity companies to introduce the tricky and opaque billing practices common among the national cable monopolies to what had been a fairly transparent market.

A 2019 Houston Chronicle article, “Analysis: The Murky and Confusing Texas Electricity Market” sheds some light:

But the shopping site became overwhelmed with offerings. Some companies offered more than 30 plans that were hard to distinguish from each other. Several retail electric providers began offering multi-tiered electricity plans with low teaser rates designed to catch the attention of shoppers, only to have those who signed up learn too late that using one kilowatt hour above a certain threshold would send the advertised price soaring by as much as 10 times.

Other companies offered “free nights and weekends” plans that could cost consumers more because of much higher weekday rates. One company offered a $600 bill credit for a two-year plan that would ultimately cost customers twice as much as another plan offered by the same company.

It is worth nothing that Texas was not solely seeking lower prices, but also incentives to encourage customers to shift their electricity use away from peak times, especially in the summer. Some companies have achieved those goals, but reading the investigations suggests that the bulk of energy in the market has been expended trying to fool potential customers with opaque pricing.

What this means is that rather than technical or other useful progress, the main innovation was in the form of legalized fraud or trickiness. Companies often competed in how they could fool people into signing up, though they would pay more. This is one of the biggest complaints people have today about telecommunications bundles that are hard to understand and often change price without adequate warning.

Open access broadband networks

As more municipal networks explore and iterate on open access models, proponents need to consider some of the recent lessons learned from Texas. To date, most ISPs on open access networks are earnest, small local companies with a variety of reasons to enter the business, though maximizing wealth extraction has not been one of them.

To my knowledge, I don’t see these shenanigans on UTOPIA despite it passing 120,000 premises. But what happens when open access networks pass 2 million potential users? Or 10 million?

I hope this issue won’t even arise, in part because I would expect the local ownership of the network to produce more accountability than a state or federal agency. But it wouldn’t hurt to have some rules regarding transparency of pricing or some mechanism to ensure the competition on these networks doesn’t devolve to harmful games.

These cable pricing dynamics aren’t just annoying. They are particularly pernicious for the lowest-income households that don’t have the time, and sometimes the literacy, to spend hours digging into complex pricing. Returning to the case of electricity and the Houston Chronicle’s “Murky” story:

“Too many Texans are still overpaying for power,” said Fred Anders, founder of Texas Power Guide in Houston, a website that helps consumers find the lowest cost plans. “And very likely a disproportionate share of them are people who can least afford to overpay and have less time and awareness to navigate the minefield of gimmicks in the electricity market.”

That story also has the interesting nugget that very few people are actively switching providers, which is supposedly the best way to keep prices low. A fatigue seems to set in rather than the kind of enthusiasm that might be expected from the heartiest fans of markets.

This reality is an important reminder when it comes to internet access: I believe people generally want “competition” when they are frustrated with their provider. I don’t think a survey of the subscribers to EPB in Chattanooga or NextLight in Longmont or US Internet in Minneapolis or Sonic in California would reveal much desire for more local competition because users there are happy to pay a fair rate for reliable and straightforward service.

I don’t think people want to spend their time trying to save another $2/month on internet access by checking in on the deals each week to change providers. If that would be all that open access could offer, I will be disappointed. Of course, it may be that for communities that do not want to offer retail service, offering the possibility of choice will result in better outcomes than if they chose a contract with a single ISP, so there are many factors to consider.

People want something that works transparently at a reasonable price. My enthusiasm for open access is very much tied up with the possibility of specialized niche services. Services that we have trouble imagining today because nearly all Americans are locked behind networks owned by corporate monopolies that are not open to innovation. Ammon’s genius is not merely the financial model but the courage to open so much power to users and ISPs. Time will tell if they do anything special with it.

I believe that valuable innovation will come from open platforms, but think the Texas lessons offered a chance to explore why as well as some potential hazards along the way.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. Originally published on MuniNetworks.org, this piece is part of a collaborative reporting effort between Broadband Breakfast and the Community Broadband Networks program at ILSR.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

Broadband Breakfast is a decade-old news organization based in Washington that is building a community of interest around broadband policy and internet technology, with a particular focus on better broadband infrastructure, the politics of privacy and the regulation of social media. Learn more about Broadband Breakfast.

Expert Opinion

Bjorn Capens: Strong Appetite for Rural Broadband Calls for Next Generation Fiber Technology

The first operator to bring fiber to a community creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Björn Capens, Nokia Fixed Networks European Vice President

In July, the Biden-Harris administration announced another $401 million in funding for high-speed Internet access in rural America. This was just the latest in a string of government initiatives aimed at helping close the US digital divide.

These initiatives have been essential for encouraging traditional broadband providers, communities and utility companies to deploy fiber to rural communities, with governments cognizant of the vital role broadband connectivity has in sustaining communities and improving socio-economic opportunities for citizens. 

Yet there is still work to do, even in countries with the most advanced connectivity options. For example, fixed broadband is missing from almost 30 percent of rural American homes, according to Pew Research. It’s similar in Europe where a recent European Commission’s Digital Divide report found that roughly 18 percent of rural citizens can only get broadband speeds of a maximum 30 Mb, a speed which struggles to cope with modern digital behaviors. 

Appetite for high-speed broadband in rural areas is strong

There’s no denying the appetite for high-speed broadband in rural areas. The permanent increase in working from home and the rise of modern agricultural and Industry 4.0 applications mean that there’s an increasingly attractive business case for rural fiber deployments – as the first operator to bring fiber to a community creates a significant barrier to entry for competitors. 

The first consideration, then, for a new rural fiber deployment is which passive optical network technology to use. Gigabit PON seems like an obvious first choice, being a mature and widely deployed technology. 

However, GPON services are a standard offering for nearly every fiber broadband operator. As PON is a shared medium with usually up to 30 users each taking a slice, it’s easy to see how a few Gigabit customers can quickly max out the network, and with the ever-increasing need for speed, it’s widely held that GPON will not be sufficient by about 2025. 

XGS-PON is an already mature technology

The alternative is to use XGS-PON, a more recent, but already mature, flavor of PON with a capacity of 10 Gigabits per second. With the greater capacity, broadband operators can generate higher revenues with more premium-tier residential services as well as lucrative business services. There’s even room for additional services to run alongside business and residential broadband. For example, the same network can carry traffic from four G and five G cells, known as mobile backhaul. That’s either a new revenue opportunity or a cost saving if the operator also runs a mobile network. 

This convergence of different services onto a single PON fiber network is starting to take off, with fiber-to-the-home networks evolving into fiber for everything, where homes, businesses, industries, smart cities, mobile cells and more are all running on the same infrastructure. This makes the business case even stronger. 

Whether choosing GPON or XGS-PON, the biggest cost contributor is the same for both: deploying fiber outside the plant. Therefore, the increased cost of XGS-PON over GPON is far outweighed by the capacity increase it brings, making XGS-PON the clear choice for a brand-new fiber deployment. XGS-PON protects this investment for longer as its higher capacity makes it harder for new entrants to offer a superior service. 

It also doesn’t need to be upgraded for many years, and when it comes to the business case for fiber, it pays to take a long-term view. Fiber optic cable has a shelf-life of 75 or more years, and even as one increases the speeds running on fiber, that cable can remain the same.  

Notwithstanding these arguments, fiber still comes at a cost, and operators need to carefully manage those costs in order to maximize returns. 

Recent advances in fiber technology allow operators to take a pragmatic approach to their rollouts. In the past, each port on a PON server blade could only deliver one technology. But Multi-PON has multiple modes: only GPON, only XGS-PON or both together. It even has a forward-looking 25G PON mode. 

This allows an operator to easily boost speeds as needed with minimal effort and additional investment. GPON could be the starting point for fiber-to-the-home services, XGS-PON could be added for business services, or even a move to 25G PON for a cluster of rural power users, like factories and modern warehouses – creating a seamless, future-proof upgrade path for operators. 

The decision not to invest in fiber presents a substantial business risk

Alternatively, there’s always the option for a broadband operator to stick with basic broadband in rural areas and not invest in fiber. But that actually presents a business risk, as any competitor that decides to deploy fiber will inevitably carve out a chunk of the customer base for themselves. 

Besides, most operators are not purely profit-driven; they too recognize that prolonging the current situation in underserved communities is not great. High-speed broadband makes areas more attractive for businesses, creating more jobs and stemming population flows from rural to urban centers. 

But rural broadband not only improves lives, but it also decreases the world’s carbon emissions both directly, compared to alternative broadband technologies, and indirectly by enabling online and remote activities that would otherwise involve transportation. These social and economic benefits of fiber are highly regarded by investors and stockholders who have corporate social responsibility high on their agendas. 

With the uber-connected urban world able to adopt every new wave of bandwidth-hungry application – think virtual reality headsets and the metaverse – rural communities are actually going backwards in comparison. The way forward is fiber and XGS-PON. 

Björn Capens is Nokia Fixed Networks European Vice President. Since 2017, Capens has been leading Nokia’s fixed networks business, headquartered in Antwerp, Belgium. He has more than 20 years of experience in the fixed broadband access industry and holds a Master’s degree in Electrical Engineering, Telecommunications, from KU Leuven. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Johnny Kampis: Federal Bureaucracy an Impediment to Broadband on Tribal Lands

18% of people living on Tribal lands lack broadband access, compared to 4% of residents in non-tribal areas.

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The author of this expert Opinion is Johnny Kampis, director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance

A new study from the Phoenix Center finds that as the federal government pours tens of billions of dollars into shrinking the digital divide in tribal areas, much of that gap has already been eliminated.

The report, and a second from the U.S. Government Accountability Office, are more indications that regulations and economic factors that include income levels continue to hamper efforts to get broadband to all Americans.

The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 allocated $45 billion toward tribal lands. This was done as part of a massive effort by the federal government to extend broadband infrastructure to unserved and underserved areas of the United States.

George Ford, chief economist at the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal & Economic Public Policy Studies, wrote in the recent policy bulletin that while there is still plenty of work needed to be done in terms of connectivity, efforts in recent years have largely eliminated the broadband gap between tribal and non-tribal areas.

Ford examined broadband deployment around the U.S. between 2014 and 2020 using Form 477 data from the Federal Communications Commission, comparing tribal and non-tribal census tracts.

Ford points out in the bulletin that the FCC has observed several challenges for broadband deployment in tribal areas, including rugged terrain, complex permitting processes, jurisdictional issues, a higher ratio of residences to business customers, higher poverty rates, and cultural and language barriers.

Ford controlled for some of these differences in his study comparing tribal and non-tribal areas. He reports in the bulletin that the statistics suggest nearly equal treatment in high-speed internet development.

Encouraging results about availability of broadband in Tribal areas

“These results are encouraging, suggesting that broadband availability in Tribal areas is becoming closer or equal to non-Tribal areas over time, and that any broadband gap is largely the result of economic characteristics and not the disparate treatment of Tribal areas,” Ford wrote.

But he also notes that unconditioned differences show a 10-percentage point spread in availability in tribal areas, which indicates how much poverty, low population density, and red tape is harming the efforts to close the digital divide there.

“These results do not imply that broadband is ubiquitous in either Tribal or non-Tribal areas; instead, these results simply demonstrate that the difference in availability between Tribal and non-Tribal areas is shrinking and that this difference is mostly explained by a few demographic characteristics,” Ford wrote.

In a recent report, the GAO suggests that part of the problem lies with the federal bureaucracy – that “tribes have struggled to identify which federal program meets their needs and have had difficulty navigating complex application processes.”

GAO states that 18 percent of people living on tribal lands lack broadband access, compared to 4 percent of residents in non-tribal areas.

The GAO recommended that the Executive Office of the President specifically address tribal needs within a national broadband strategy and that the Department of Commerce create a framework within the American Broadband Initiative for addressing tribal issues.

“The Executive Office of the President did not agree or disagree with our recommendation but highlighted the importance of tribal engagement in developing a strategy,” the report notes.

That goes together with the GAO’s dig at the overall lack of a national broadband strategy by the Biden Administration in a June report. As the Taxpayers Protection Alliance reported, the federal auditor noted that 15 federal agencies administer more than 100 different broadband funding programs, and that despite a taxpayer investment of $44 billion from 2015 through 2020, “millions of Americans still lack broadband, and communities with limited resources may be most affected by fragmentation.”

President Biden has set a goal for universal broadband access in the U.S. by 2030. These recent reports show that the federal bureaucracy under his watch needs to do a better job of getting out of its own way.

Johnny Kampis is the director of telecom policy for the Taxpayers Protection Alliance. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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Craig Settles: Communities to Roll Out Telehealth Integration

‘We figured out how to train people to be digital navigators [and] get customers comfortable with telehealth.’

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Craig Settles, who unites community broadband teams and healthcare stakeholders through telehealth-broadband integration initiatives.

A pacesetter among municipal broadband owners, the City of Chattanooga is giving away 1,000 free telehealth appointments that also brings broadband into low-income homes. Vistabeam, a Nebraska Wireless ISP, is bringing telehealth to rural towns through Community Empowerment Centers that increase broadband as well as improve residents’ health. 

“The Enterprise Center works hard at the intersection of technology and inequality, whether it’s using technology to work efficiency, for learning, or improving personal health,” states CEO Deb Socia. The center is partnering with residents, community organizations and the Parkridge Medical System to identify needs and bring in resources to combat high levels of diabetes, stroke, heart disease, and asthma. 

Vistabeam owner Matt Larsen says, “You can’t just lay down some fiber and routers, then call this a broadband success. Rural areas often lack the human and tech resources necessary for broadband to thrive.” So Vistabeam is designing Community Empowerment Centers to offer communities private telehealth consultation rooms, digital skills and telehealth training, full-time digital navigators and inventory rooms with shared computing devices and equipment.

These and other communities are finding that telehealth increases broadband adoption as well as improves the physical and economic health of residents. Telehealth is the “killer app” that can harness and focus broadband investments into digital inclusions advancements for urban and rural communities.  

A perfect storm for telehealth

Chattanooga’s public broadband network, through a city electric power board that offers both electricity and broadband, is an advantage to telehealth. Socia says, “EPB has a deep connection to the community, and they invest money, technology in public spaces, and energy upgrades in the homes. EPB cares about the health of our community.” (EPB, formerly known as the Electric Power Board of Chattanooga, provides broadband in the city.) Communities without public broadband may have to work harder to find large ISPs with similar levels of commitment.

Communities wanting to leverage telehealth likely will need new strategies for winning and managing grants. You can’t have telehealth without broadband, but the integration of broadband to facilitate telehealth delivery may involve a myriad of people, organizations, and resources besides the network builder. 

For years Chattanooga has had a culture of cooperation among its many civic groups. The nonprofit Orchard Knob had a preexisting collaborative, so when the telehealth opportunity came up as part of a larger “healthy community” initiative, it was it much easier to create a grant of the size that the group currently has.

The community created the Orchard Knob Collaborative, which includes Parkridge Medical Center with their 1000 telehealth appointments, the Orchard Knob Neighborhood Association, Habitat for Humanity of Greater Chattanooga Area and United Way of Greater Chattanooga. EPB contributed money, energy upgrades, and public WiFi. Green Spaces is another nonprofit and the Center provides project management plus various Tech Goes Home digital inclusion programs.

Telehealth opens the door for larger grants. “I think the anticipated grant-raising outcomes are quite specific when you’re producing social determinants of health,” Socia says. “Projects that involve telehealth are a much tougher ‘ask’ for funders and everyone else involved. But at the same time, you can leverage other additional dollars and other partners for a much better healthcare outcome.” 

Telehealth and the ‘human element’

Every state is developing a digital equity plan. How important is telehealth to the success of a digital equity plan? Quite important! But remember that telehealth deployment strategy in rural communities likely could take shape differently than urban deployment. Vistabeam’s Centers represent one approach.

Digital equity in telehealth is just one component of a giant ecosystem of social services that good societies use to help take care of people. The challenge is the need to successfully coordinate scarce resources to get maximum impact from the resources. However, in rural communities there can be a real lack of coordination between a lot of these resources.

“It makes sense to start out by focusing on getting telehealth into some smaller communities at locations where people can come in and access telehealth in an environment that develops trust and familiarity with the technology,” says Larsen. “To do that, we’re going to need a ‘human element’, facilitators such as digital navigators to plug community telehealth into the ecosystem. A lot of rural communities have trust issues with government programs.”

Using surplus office space to create customer service centers

There are plenty of large incumbents’ mobile device showrooms in communities. But these employees tend to be sales-oriented with scripted content. Vistabeam happens to have surplus office space they are using to create true customer service centers.

“We figured out how to train people to be digital navigators, we get customers comfortable with telehealth and our staff connects people with complementary social services and other resources,” says Larsen. For the last few months, Vistabeam has been promoting exclusively the FCC’s Affordable Connectivity Program of free Internet access and subsidized computing devices. There’s a complex enrollment process residents have to complete that’s confusing for many, so Vistabeam trained staff to walk people through the process, get them qualified, and connected.  

As for the potential of telehealth deployment to the home, Larsen believes the technology represents a tremendous amount of potential utility and value for both rural and urban broadband deployments. Though broadband is currently underutilized for telehealth, in large part because communities are just beginning to plan for it, the pandemic revealed a burning need for strong video streaming capacities to bridge doctors and patients.

“What’s missing is a telehealth killer app or device,” says Larsen. “I believe preventive healthcare will be the answer – technology that detects or prevents things from happening before they become big problems. This app could be a way to check vital statistics and watch for health or illness markers. Maybe we’ll see a device connected to the Internet that accesses research data to help you and your health professional with health planning.”  

Just about everybody gets sick or hurt, or they are responsible for others when those loved ones aren’t doing well. Telehealth and its many iterations are designed for people to use when they’re sick or hurt or for preventative healthcare. The universality of telehealth and its symbiotic relationship with broadband technologies give communities great potential for expanding digital inclusion. Together with the bezillion grant dollars coming out the ying yang, what we’re seeing is the perfect digital storm. 

Craig Settles conducts needs analyses, planning, and grant assessments with community stakeholders who want broadband networks and telehealth to improve economic development, healthcare, education and local government. This piece is exclusive to Broadband Breakfast.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views reflected in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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