LA City Fiber, Request For Proposals (RFP)

Late last year, in November 2013, LA City Council officially requested that the Information Technology Administration (ITA) department issue a Request For Proposals (RFP) for an open access fiber network installation, along with the provision of free low bandwidth wireless services for the entire city (where higher bandwidth or uncapped WiFi services can charge arbitrary fees).

The only incentives the Council provided are accompanying contracts to provide LA City institutions and buildings with long term Internet access and datacenter services. Unlike most community Internet incentive programs, they have not offered any discounts on rights-of-way passage or waivers for related permits and fees. The lack of real cost-saving incentives in this RFP have caused the press to equate this effort with a request for unicorns.

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Should we change our name?

I personally apologize for not keeping this site up to date. A lot has been going on in my work and personal life that has kept me away. I was recently happy to see more people have filled out our interest survey, including interest in becoming cooperative board members. I still don’t think there’s enough to constitute a full board, so I’m wondering if it would be worthwhile to expand our mission.

I’ve been reading about services related to renewable power generation and (DC current) distribution, and thinking about how that relates to Power over Ethernet (PoE) network technology. I’ve also been reading about new local cooperation services like NeighborGoods and local time banking. New peer-to-peer technologies keep on getting better, that allow things like reliable storage sharing, and distributed computation using nearby unused hardware. New online currencies like Bitcoin can be used to exchange these services among communities fairly, with almost no transaction costs nor any cash expenses. I think as a technology cooperative, we could find experts and collaborate to serve many of these community needs simultaneously. I think this new name (keeping the same initials and web site) might serve that new expanded purpose well:

North East Los Angeles Infrastructure Service Cooperative

Notice that this is only a single word change — Infrastructure (general services) instead of Internet (communication specific). I think this change would help us advance our community investments together, and think past Internet communications to all the real-world ways that open communications enhance our communities. It would also allow us to start competing with more incumbents than just the local communications duopolies. We could take on the local power, construction, and logistics monopolies as well.

What do you think of this change? Please comment liberally, or note private sentiments in our interest survey.

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An open letter to Level3: Put up or shut up!

Netflix provides a valuable and convenient online video delivery service that we all enjoy. Unfortunately, cable companies (like Comcast) all have a vested interest in privileging their own video content over any others. They also hold a de facto monopoly on sufficient broadband access for video, in most of the U.S. consumer market territory. American customers have to deal with this problem every day. Now you get to share in our misery, and marvel with us at the horrible state of broadband access, in the same country that created the Internet in the first place.

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A new vision for the Internet, Part 1.

It is difficult to convey how I think the Internet should change, without some basis of comparison. Instead of explaining all the small incremental changes that I think should happen, I’ll tell you some short(ish) stories instead. These stories are about people who live in the new world we can create together, a few years into the future. These stories are not intended to be apocryphal or utopian in any way — just normal people dealing with common life changes. This is the story of Marie’s big move.

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Breaking the Broadband Monopoly

The legal and political field of broadband has been changing too rapidly for me to keep up with lately. In case you didn’t hear, the FCC has declared Title II reclassification of Internet services as a “third way” approach, because they’re going to use forebearance to avoid enforcing many of the key provisions, including those that would lead to open access requirements. I’m not happy about that, but it would take longer to explain than I have at the moment. Watch for an upcoming post on that issue, and on Network Neutrality in general.

For now, I want to direct you to an excellent study at the site titled “Breaking the Broadband Monopoly.” I haven’t even read it all yet, so I’m copying the official press release here. Be sure to download it and read it for yourself at the original page.

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Connecting Local Institutions

The FCC’s National Broadband Plan (NBP) is here, and it’s a big disappointment. While adding to the body of evidence that Internet access competition is poor to nonexistent in America, they still manage to praise do-nothing incumbents for offering any service at all, at the same time they’re keeping us 5th place in “connected nations” status, and 22nd place in broadband subscription rate worldwide. The FCC’s refusal to stand strong on open line-sharing policies not only received well deserved mockery by their counterparts in the UK, but they also continue to leave America behind the world technology development curve for the foreseeable future, for no evident reason. They have all the information they need to know that open line-access sharing is the proven way to increase competition.

Now that we know our own FCC isn’t going to help us out of the broadband mess in America, that their past policies helped to create, we have to figure out a way to help ourselves out. One small helpful aspect of the National Broadband Plan is an admonition to Congress that they support schemes to run high-speed fiber to anchor institutions like schools, hospitals, and libraries nationwide. These institutions can then act like central office hubs for neighborhood networks, sharing their fast connections with the entire community, and gaining maintenance fee help from the connected community. The FCC describes no specific action, but hopefully it will inspire Congress to stop the parliamentary games and electioneering, and actually get something done this year. Barring federal aid, local organizations like NELA-ISC can help these institutions install and maintain these networks, in return for open access to distribute connections to neighboring members.

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The Economics of Sharing

I. The benefits of sharing.

On the Internet, sharing is a solved problem. The Tier-1 backbone providers all save time and money for their international bandwidth via “peering agreements” — contracts that say network traffic will be freely exchanged between them without any money traded. The cost of maintaining such an agreement is only the maintenance of each side’s own equipment, and one or more “cross connections” that are shared equally between the contractual parties. Whole buildings have been set up, usually called “carrier neutral hotels,” just to provide space for the equipment and wires required for these connections. They wouldn’t be sharing traffic in this way, nor would they pay the costs of these cross connections and hotel stays, if there were not some huge cost benefits being gained. Free Internet traffic must be very valuable.

So why don’t neighbors and home owners just participate in Internet traffic sharing agreements as well? Is it a technical issue? Not really! Home network scale Internet routing features like Multihoming, Routing Information Protocol, and Border Gateway Protocol routing have been available in low-cost network equipment, sitting on store shelves for years.  Computer scientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have even developed routing software called PERM (Practical End-host collaborative Residential Multihoming) that makes it easy to safely share a home wireless network connection with nearby neighbors, on low-cost wireless network equipment. They are giving that software away for free! The biggest thing holding back people from actually using that software isn’t knowledge — it’s incumbent ISP contract limitations and related legal fears. Your Internet provider doesn’t want you to get the same economic advantages that they do from sharing connections. They want you to buy any bandwidth upgrades from them, rather than doubling your burst bandwidth by just sharing connections with a neighbor. The problem isn’t that sharing with neighbors is hard — it’s so easy that incumbents can’t easily charge you extra for it.

II. The opportunity of the Commons.

Four basic types of shared resource management. Adapted from V. Ostrom and E. Ostrom 1977, 12.

Amount that sharing diminishes value
Low High
Cost of excluding participants in sharing
Low Maintenance Tolls Private Goods
High Public Goods Common-pool Resources

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Of course people care about Internet access.

Ars Technica posted an article today entitled “The poor don’t care about broadband? Of course they do.” The article references a recent study published by the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). The study partially refutes some findings made in earlier studies by the the Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Pew’s Internet & American Life Project, which suggested that two thirds of those Americans that’s don’t have broadband now don’t want it, and about a third of US residents never use the Internet.

These kind of studies are always skewed in some way, based on sampling methods, size, question order, use of “push poll” methods, and the way questions are phrased. Even without looking at any of these studies, it’s easy to guess that recent unemployment rate increases have probably created poverty rate increases as well. Both increases mean that better access to online tools for educationjob searchesonline résumé updates, and job applications are even more important now than ever. Of all these studies, the SSRC study seems to go into the most depth over whether low-income populations understand how (lack of) access to the Internet affects their lives. Interviewees told the SSRC that high speed Internet access is a basic necessity, the same way electricity has become a basic necessity to our modern lifestyle.

The analogy between electricity and Internet access is interesting. It shows that many people understand that the Internet is basic to modern national infrastructure, in the same way our electrical lines and roads are. When any of these basic services are unavailable or too costly, we tend to share some of the blame between the responsible government agencies and local providers. It seems strange then, that so many are so willing to let Internet provider incumbents set the terms of access, without more redress through calls for government action. Too few people seem to remember that the telephone and cable companies had little to do with the initial creation of the Internet, and it was government and public institutions that started the process. Government and public University institutions continue to drive open uses of the Internet further, while incumbent access providers try to hold it back. Maybe giving people a chance to own their own “driveways” onto the Internet would change how people address the Internet’s importance politically.

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The right to own Internet connections

I. The Premise: The right to own our Internet connections.

In the 21st Century, the Internet is the most important tool we all have for our freedom of speech. So it’s important to answer the question: who really owns the Internet? One answer might be found in the Comcast and NBC merger that is currently being fought out in Congress. This is just the latest example of an Internet provider (in this case the second largest one) seeking to control online media content and access. At the same time, they are also fighting the FCC and Congress against Network Neutrality, regulations that affect every single Internet Service Provider (or ISP for short) nationally. They don’t want regulators to interfere with their ability to pick and choose online media winners. If they get to pick the winners, then all of us will be the losers, especially when it comes to our individual freedom of speech.

Even if you don’t live in a Comcast service area right now, your current telephone and cable owners will follow their example. If you don’t like the media content your cable picks, you will only be able to switch to content that your telephone ISP favors. In the end, you will only have full speed bandwidth to companies that pay your ISP for the privilege.

II. The Problem: Nobody owns their connections right now.

So who really owns our connections to the Internet now? It’s certainly not us! The truth is: we rarely have any choice over our connections to the outside world, except for the choice of where we live. A short list of local broadcasters, one telephone company, and one cable company choose our homes, often before we move into them. If another company decides to come along and buy out a local provider, we don’t have any real control over that either.

In Los Angeles, DWP owns our pipes and our electrical mains, but we expect DWP to work in our best interest, through local voter controls over their activities. The giant telephone and cable incumbents have none of the same local voter responsibilities, except in the form of broad industry regulations.

The only connection to the outside world that we really own is our driveways. They give us access to a grid of local city streets, state highways, and national interstates. A larger array of transportation systems connect us to the entire world. Everyone has an equal vote over shared road issues, and we all must obey the rules of the road.

Right now there are no driveways nor surface streets onto the “Internet Super Highway.” We can’t even connect to our next door neighbors without going all the way to their “Highway” and back, and we always have to pay a toll along the way.

It’s pretty clear by now that nobody is going to build any “Internet surface streets” for us. Forcing all of us out onto their toll roads is way too lucrative. Without surface streets to connect to, any driveways we build are useless. We will have to find some way to make these streets for ourselves, but we certainly don’t have to do it alone. Almost every American is in the same situation right now.

III. Two Potential Near-Term Solutions: Google’s 1Gbps Fiber Experiment, and Internet Service Cooperatives.

1. Google recently released news that they will be deploying a lot of gigabit fiber Internet connections in America this year, as an experiment in high-speed Internet Services. They have welcomed responses from local government and members of the public, using their online “Request For Information” (RFI) forms. They are taking all submissions until March 26th. They will use these responses to help them decide where to install fiber, to find out the best installation methods, and even to help decide payment structure.

Please use Google’s RFI forms if you want to help make sure that they get all the information they need, and to let them know that the North East Los Angeles community is an excellent choice for their experiment. An incremental payment path to fiber line ownership should be encouraged to Google, so that home owners are given the chance to finally own their connections to the world. It is not clear that Google wants to provide ISP services in the long term, so they may welcome a path towards giving more responsibility to home owners.

2. A Non-Profit Utility and Communications Cooperative, as defined by Internal Revenue Code 501(c)(12). These co-operatives exist to bring basic services to under-served communities at cost, or to provide superior services for less cost than for-profit corporations. All Cooperative Utility subscribers must also be equal voting members and, unlike for-profit telephone and cable operations, cooperatives are required to share services and cost savings in a manner that benefits all members equally.

A neighborhood cooperative could create a network of “Internet surface streets,” and help local home owners make their own “driveways” onto that network. Two complimentary technologies that could enable private network development today are: wireless mesh networks, and wired conduits along fence lines. These “Internet surface streets and driveways” would increase home value, and decrease bandwidth costs over time.

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