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Open Access Networks Key To Affordability Question, House Committee Hears

The House Energy and Commerce committee heard arguments that open access to networks is crucial for competition and affordability.

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Screenshot of Francella Ochillo from House hearing

May 10, 2021—At a Thursday House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing on broadband equity to address disparities in access in affordability that communities face across the country, panelists said that open access networks were important to the discussion.

Chris Lewis, CEO of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based non-profit that advocates for consumer rights and education, argued that open access networks improve competition by lowering the barriers to building much of the infrastructure necessary to sustain a network.

“When those networks are open, any provider can use that infrastructure to offer services. This allows providers to save on [cost], and hopefully see lower prices [for consumers],” Lewis explained. He added that when open access infrastructure is available and a certain baseline level of service is established, companies can then focus on other areas of competition.

“Once a provider does not have a monopoly on a territory, they really have to compete for the attention and the loyalty of consumers,” he added. Lewis gave the example of customer service and responsiveness as an area that broadband providers could focus with the resources that they save from not having to establish their own infrastructure.

Francella Ochillo, executive director of Next Century Cities, said by establishing open access networks that are owned by a municipality, citizens are investing money into their local economy.

Ochillo argued that by giving the community equity in the project, a natural incentive for further improvement would arise. She described the plight of low-income areas that have suffered from decades of disinvestment, and then described the benefits of open access infrastructure.

“It’s so important that the city intervene and provide affordable service that’s actually equivalent to the service that other people would get,” Ochillo said.

Internet speed standard debate

Ochillo added that stopping at the current standard for broadband—25 Megabits-per-second download and 3 Megabits-per-second upload—does not go far enough. She advocated for the 100 Mbps symmetrical service that Federal Communications Commission Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel has also spoken in favor of.

Ochillo argued that this kind of competitive service would be what would drive investment and meet the future broadband needs of the next generation.

Not all the witnesses shared Ochillo’s vision for the future, however. George Ford, an economist for the Phoenix Center for Advanced Legal and Economic Public Policy Studies, said that 100 Mbps symmetrical service is not consistent with how consumers use broadband. He went further, arguing that the push for symmetrical service is motivated by fiber companies—though he stopped short of calling it marketing spin.

“If you have a [symmetrical definition of broadband]—particularly in 100/104/a gig—you’re basically saying the only broadband is fiber broadband,” Ford said. Ford later added that this change in definition is concerning to him because he believes that communities that are currently unserved will be lumped into the same category as those who simply have anything less that 100 Mbps symmetrical service, and will have to wait even longer to be served.

Ochillo added that addressing affordability and reliability are only a part of the solution, and that digital literacy is equally important.

“I want to point out this isn’t just about the economics of making sure that that person is trained, it’s making sure that they actually have a digitally literate household because that has a generational impact on the opportunities that everyone that they touch, has.”

Funding

Anticipating Launch, Yellowstone Fiber to Seek Federal Funds for Rural Broadband

With service beginning in late September, non-profit fiber ISP aims to serve rural Gallatin County

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Photo of Greg Metzger in July 2022 from Yellowstone Fiber

BOZEMAN, Montana, July 27, 2022 – Officials at the non-profit internet entity Yellowstone Fiber announced Thursday that they would pursue federal broadband funding to expand network construction in rural areas of its footprint in Montana.

Because every state is poised to receive a minimum of $100 million to expand broadband infrastructure under the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, officials at Yellowstone Fiber believe they are well-suited to obtain funding to connect homes, businesses, farms, and ranches to high-speed fiber internet in the sections of the Montana’s Gallatin County north of Bozeman.

Although Yellowstone Fiber is just going live with its first customers in September – and began offering pre-sales in late July – the new fiber entity believes that the availability of funding through the Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment program of IIJA offers a unique opportunity.

As with all states, Montana will receive a minimum of $100 million to expand high-speed broadband infrastructure to the nearly one-third of state residents who currently lack access.

Speaking about the impending launch of services on Yellowstone Fiber, CEO Greg Metzger said, “This is an important milestone for Yellowstone Fiber and we’re enormously excited to announce we’ll have the network live in a matter of weeks.”

“For decades, people in rural Montana have been limited by slow and expensive internet service and empty promises by cable providers. Today’s announcement signals we’re serious about connecting rural Gallatin County to high-speed fiber and the limitless possibilities that it brings,” he said.

Yellowstone Fiber is building an open access network, which means that Yellowstone builds, owns, and operates the fiber infrastructure, then leases space on its high-speed fiber to service providers, including Blackfoot Communications, Skynet Communications, Global Net, TCT and XMission.

In an interview, Metzger touted the role that open access networks play in enabling free market competition, including better prices, service, and reliability.

Metzger, an entrepreneur who previously manufactured plastic deposit bags for banks, sold that business and bought a furniture company in Montana.

Although he said he would rather be playing golf, when he stumbled across a new funding mechanism, he decided to create a non-profit entity designed to serve his community with fiber optic network services.

Yellowstone Fiber was formerly Bozeman Fiber, and was created in 2015 as an economic development initiative to address the lack of true high-speed broadband in Gallatin County, Montana.

A group was formed including the City of Bozeman, Gallatin County, the Bozeman School District and business leaders and funded by eight banks with a Community Reinvestment Act-designated loan.

This $4,000,000 was used to create a fiber ring connecting anchor tenants including the city, county and the school district, and also servicing the Cannery district and downtown Bozeman.

Anchor operations began in the fall of 2016, and commercial operations in February 2017. In 2020, the network formed an operational partnership with Utah-based UTOPIA Fiber to bring fiber-to-the-home services to every address in Gallatin County.

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Open Access

UTOPIA’s Projects Proceeding in California and Montana, CEO Says

Both the GSCA and Yellowstone Fiber are using UTOPIA’s techniques to provide open access broadband over fiber.

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Barbara Hayes (left) and Roger Timmerman (right) speaking at Broadband Communities Summit 2022 on May 4

HOUSTON, May 4, 2022 — UTOPIA Fiber’s open access model has found success in California, Montana, and Idaho as it continues to deploy across Utah, the company’s CEO said Wednesday.

“Right now, we are working with [Golden State Connect Authority] to identify various pilot areas for the project and have started preliminary engineering work to determine the initial project area,” Roger Timmerman said at the Broadband Communities Summit 2022.

During the press conference, Timmerman also pointed to UTOPIA’s expansion into Santa Clara, Utah, and its completion of its original 11 Utah cities by the end of 2022.

Timmerman was joined by partners Barbara Hayes of the Golden State Authority and Yellowstone Fiber CEO Greg Metzger as they delivered remarks on their joint ventures. The partnership will create the largest publicly owned fiber network in the US, and as it stands now, would span 38 of California’s 58 counties.

“California may be the world’s fifth-largest economy, but our state’s connectivity is decades behind,” Hayes said. “Investing in open access fiber will be transformative for California.”

Both Metzger and Hayes emphasized that their decision to partner with UTOPIA was largely informed by the company’s track record.

“We needed to have a partner who was successful and had done it before,” Metzger said. “For Montana, this is going to be a breath of fresh air.”

Yellowstone Fiber, formerly known as Bozeman Fiber, is a not-for-profit that will replicate UTOPIA’s open access model to provide broadband to the greater Bozeman region; it will own and operate the fiber but will rely on UTOPIA for assistance on the backend.

UTOPIA’s model of open access has long been a point of interest in the telecom industry. While some claim it will be a solution to the digital divide, other assert that it has merely created a “race to the bottom” where internet service providers are constantly pushed to undercut their completion. Timmerman and others have pushed back against the “race to the bottom” assertion, claiming that providers can find ways other than price to distinguish themselves from their competition, such as superior customer service. Additionally, they point to their recent track record as evidence that critics’ concerns that they can maintain a positive cash flow are unfounded.

Though UTOPIA, a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast, now has positive revenue and has served as a model for open access projects around the country, critics still point toward its more than $300 million in outstanding debt it accrued in its early days, before Timmerman was at the helm.

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Open Access

‘Worst Broadband City’ Brownsville Approves Open Access Fiber Project with Lit Communities

Lit Communities will operate the network, with subsidiary BTX Fiber as the last-mile provider. HMI Utilities is prime contractor.

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Photo of Elizabeth Walker and Andres Carvallo at the city council meeting.

BROWNSVILLE, Texas, April 1, 2022 — During a special city commission meeting on Wednesday, council members voted to approve a fiber project that will bring high-speed broadband to 100% of its citizens.

Elizabeth Walker, Brownsville assistant city manager, and Andres Carvallo, CEO and founder of CMG Consulting LLC, recommended that the council authorize two respondents, HMI Utilities with Lit Communities, for a combined proposal to maximize technical and financial capacity.

Brownsville, Texas, is a city of more than 182,000 people and is one of the cities with some have called the worst broadband city in the country.  The National Digital Inclusion Alliance in 2018 listed Brownsville and a neighboring community as one of the top two worst connected cities in the country with a population of more than 65,000. For Brownsville, 47.1% of households do not have broadband of any type, NDIA found

Lit Communities, a fiber-builder that partners with municipal, county and other government entities, will operate the network, with HMI Utilities as the prime contractor. Lit Communities subsidiary BTX Fiber will be the last-mile provider on the network. However, the project will be an open network with multiple internet service providers.

Standard service on the network will be at least 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical.

The research for this project began nearly a year ago in April 2021 when Walker and Carvallo looked at different business models, like public policy only, public services, open access, infrastructure, municipal retail (business only and residential). They looked at these models in similar projects in Texas and across the country, including in places like Knoxville and Santa Cruz County. Eventually, they decided on an open access model.

Specifics of the Brownsville network

All citizens will have access to this broadband. “It is eight middle-mile fiber rings to address the full geography of Brownsville,” said Walker.

The city will own 100% of the middle mile and will be able to license it out in private-public partnerships to create revenue, as well as revenue from the last mile connectivity. To ensure affordability, there will be a cap on what providers can charge.

Affordability “is very important,” said Walker. “The crux of the consideration is just to not deliver access, but to make it affordable.”

This infrastructure will have a life expectancy of 50 to 100 years, said Walker.

Walker said that “evidence suggests that broadband services have a net positive economic and social impact to communities by enhancing key functions such as economic competitiveness, workforce development, training, educational capabilities, municipal operations, and smart city developments.”

This is part of the private-public partnership model of Lit Communities. The company recently partnered with Ohio’s Lorain-Medina Rural Electric Cooperative to install fiber on existing utility poles. In these projects, the municipality in question provides the capital necessary to build a middle mile or backbone network.

“We are not stopping with these initial groups of towns that we are looking at and working into right now,” said Rene Gonzalez, Lit Communities’ chief strategy officer. “It is just the beginning.”

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