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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.”

Open Access

Financing Mechanisms for Community Broadband, Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment

Panel 3 video. Join the Broadband Breakfast Club to watch the full-length videos from Digital Infrastructure Investment.

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Video from Panel 3 at Digital Infrastructure Investment: Kim McKinley, Chief Marketing Officer, UTOPIA Fiber, Jeff Christensen, President & CEO, EntryPoint Networks, Jane Coffin, Chief Community Officer, Connect Humanity, Robert Wack, former Westminster Common Council President and leader of the Open Access Citywide Fiber Network Initiative, and moderated by Christopher Mitchell, Director, Community Broadband Networks, Institute for Local Self-Reliance

For a free article summarizing the event, see Communities Need Governance Seat on Broadband Builds, Conference Hears: Communities need to be involved in decision-making when it comes to broadband builds, Broadband Breakfast, November 17, 2022

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Open Access

In Video Session, Christopher Mitchell Digs Into Community Ownership and Open Access Networks

The conversation dealt with open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

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Screenshot of Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.

September 29, 2022 – Community-owned, open access networks protect communities against irresponsible network operators and stimulate innovation, said Christopher Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, at a Broadband.Money Ask Me Anything! event Friday.

“AT&T, Frontier, these companies have a history of failing to meet community needs,” said Mitchell. “If I had a choice between open broadband fixed wireless and fiber from AT&T, I’d be really, you know, checking it out.”

“[AT&T] is a company that will sell your data at the first opportunity, it’s a company that will raise your bill every chance it gets,” Mitchell added.

ILSR’s director said that in communities in which local ownership isn’t possible, such as in a town with a deeply corrupt government, there still exist contractual provisions that can maximize local control.

A right of first refusal, for instance, gives communities the option to purchase their local network if the original provider chooses to sell. Mitchell also suggested communities write performance-based contracts that institute penalties for network partners who fail to meet clearly outlined performance benchmarks.

Conversation entered realm of open access discussion

The wide-ranging conversation also dealt with the issues of open access networks, and whether cities are well-suited to play a role in developing them.

 “The cities are the custodians of their rights of way – they need to be, they must be,” said Drew Clark, editor and publisher of Broadband Breakfast. Because of the cities inherent role as custodians of their rights of way, Clark said that open-access networks provide cities with the opportunity to own the infrastructure portion of their broadband networks, while still offering private companies the ability to serve as network operators or application service providers.

Mitchell agreed that open access networks can be critical to broadband innovation. “We need to have millions – ideally tens of million – of Americans in thriving areas that have open access to kind of see what we can do with networks,” he said.

“Maybe a lot of those ideas won’t work out, but I think we don’t want to foreclose that path.”

In addition to overseeing digital infrastructure projects, communities can promote digital equity by utilizing established, trusted community-based institutions – such as food pantries or faith groups – to boost digital literacy and distribute devices, Mitchell said.

Mitchell added that these efforts must be ongoing: “This is more about building connections now.”

Broadband.Money is a sponsor of Broadband Breakfast.

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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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