Super-Local Broadband May Be The Best Way to Preserve Net Neutrality

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Water, electricity, internet: Three things that Americans can increasingly not live without.

Recently, though, that last item has seemed under threat. Earlier this year the FCC repealed net neutrality, allowing U.S. internet service providers (ISPs) to control the price of broadband speed and threatening equal access to information, education and other essential online services.

The battle may seem lost. But the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has a plan to fight back.

In a recent report shipped to 100 mayors in 30 states, ACLU makes the case that, instead of leaving internet in the hands of private companies, it should be the concern of local administrators.

The report points out that the move would be perfectly legal, too. “Nothing the FCC has done prevents a city, county, or town from directing its own, municipally run service to honor strong network neutrality and privacy policies,” it reads.

Empowering cities to run their own internet networks could help bypass the power of private corporations, but has other important benefits, too. According to a report by the consulting firm Economist Incorporated, over 56 million households in the country don’t have access to high-speed broadband. That’s partly because many communities are too small and remote to be a good investment for ISPs.

Take the village of Pinetops, North Carolina. According to Motherboard, the town of 1,300 people had a long legal struggle with Big Telecom and eventually won the right to keep its municipal broadband — until a private company decided to step in and offer the same service.
In remote communities, people don’t mind paying for internet access: “We had it and they wanted to take it away,” Suzanne Coker Craig, a local commissioner and business owner told Motherboard. “Our folks are very excited to have it back.”
At the core of ACLU’s call for action is the idea that internet access is a democratic right. “Municipal systems should be built to serve all residents equally,” the report says, “even though the demands of affluent neighborhoods might be louder than others.” If Pinetops’ experience is anything to go by, the idea is sure to face some stern opposition from private ISPs.
But the case is strong for cities to take the lead, and the successful examples, many of which are of conservative communities, speak for themselves: “They’re reaping the benefits of local control over what has become an indispensable utility,” Jay Stanley, one of the ACLU’s report authors, wrote in a blogpost. “Other cities would be wise to consider taking a similar path.”

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Broadband fling! Rebel Scottish village builds Gigabit network

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Balquhidder, a remote rural Scottish community, is building its own 1Gbps broadband network, after a decade of unsuccessfully trying to get commercial suppliers in the region to provide a better service.

The new network will be among the fastest in the UK – and the world – giving the village and surrounding areas access to broadband that is up to hundreds of times faster than the services available locally at present.

Many in the village have no broadband access at all, or only slow copper connections, or have been relying on expensive, patchy satellite services.

The project has seen local volunteers defy the network giants by digging trenches and laying fibre cables themselves across the landscape in the Trossachs National Park in central Scotland, on the southern boundary of the Highlands near Loch Lomond.

Balquiddher

Community interest company Balquhidder Community Broadband (BCB) will deliver the service to all the premises in the area, working in partnership with Stirling Council and internet service provider, Bogons.

• BCB is encouraging other communities to share their stories of poor connectivity and get in touch via its website, to see if it can help.

Two local residents are behind the scheme: scientist Richard Harris, and retired police officer David Johnston. Harris told the Sunday Post, “For each cluster of connections we are trying to find a champion to organise people in their area.

“The farmers will do most of the digging with their machines and we will have volunteers who will help out with that. After that, we will be looking for particular people to train on how to install the cable.”

Joining the three percent

The community project will see businesses and residents of Balqhidder’s 197 properties joining the tiny fraction of customers in the UK that have Gigabit connectivity.

The UK government said this month that only three percent of UK premises have access to full-fibre broadband connections. There are 27 million households in the UK, so that equates to roughly 800,000 premises.

However, few of those connections deliver 1Gbps, so the actual number of premises with Gigabit access is far smaller than that. As a result, Balquhidder’s businesses and residents will soon have the fastest broadband in the country, and among the fastest in the world.

• The world’s fastest average fixed-line broadband speed is in Singapore, with download rates of 161Mbps. The UK is currently 29th on that list – and falling – with average speeds that are less than one-third of that: just 50.45Mbps. The Balquhidder project is unlikely to boost the UK’s ranking, because so few people in the UK have access to Gigabit broadband as to be statistically insignificant. The UK only ranks 45th in the world on mobile broadband speeds, according to Speedtest.net.

Read more: Dell: UK lagging well behind Europe on IoT, AI, digital

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Funded with £100,000 startup investment from Stirling Council, similar investment from its commercial partner, and rural development money from the Scottish LEADER programme, the Balquhidder project is expected to bring millions of pounds in economic gains to the area.

The network takes shape.

Speaking at the project’s launch, Johnston, now a director at BCB, said: “This project is hugely significant. Residential homes and businesses, some of which currently have no broadband, will be able to cancel existing poor copper-to-the-premise broadband and line rental contracts and enjoy world-class service, for less than most are currently paying.

“This has been a genuine collaboration between local businesses, local government, local people, and our commercial partner Bogons, to lay the foundations for broadband connectivity in Balquhidder on a par with the rest of the world.”

Starting a rebellion

Brandon Butterworth, a director of Bogons, said that the project could be the start of a rebellion, in effect, against slow, expensive service providers:

“We are looking to help other communities where the community is willing to do the digging and other works for us to install the fibre. A DIY dig saves the community a significant part of the installation cost where any fibre, even fibre to the cabinet, has not previously been available.”

Local businesses include the Mhor Group, which operates restaurants and a hotel in the area. Owner Tom Lewis, said: “This broadband scheme is vital to the development of our businesses. The markets we target expect, and demand, a good internet connection.

“Our current satellite feed is really expensive and only lets us provide limited email services to our customers, which has had a negative impact on our corporate conference business.

“It will be transformational once we’re connected, and will finally allow us to manage our businesses in Balquhidder, Callander, and Glasgow from our home in Balquhidder.”

Read more: SpaceX successfully blasts broadband into space

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After a decade of campaigning, this community project should be applauded for saying “enough is enough” to the UK’s big service providers. In many cases, those companies have failed to provide anything like a world-class service to their customers – particularly in rural areas, but in other parts of the UK too.

At the heart of the problem is BT. As the big beast that sits, one way or another, on much of the UK’s ageing infrastructure, BT has arguably been the single biggest brake on the UK’s digital ambitions.

This is because instead of investing in upgrading the network to world-class standards for the good of the whole economy – as South Korea, Singapore, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and others have done – its policy has long been to regard true high-speed broadband as an expensive premium add-on.

In short, it has no economic incentive to do better, and the world rankings prove that BT has no basis for claiming that its basic services are “super fast”, as it has been doing for years. The UK barely scrapes into the world top 30.

In some areas of the country, including some cities, standard BT services are anything but super fast, with speeds that are often slower than 10Mbps. That’s 100 times slower than the service that villagers in Balquhidder will soon be receiving. 

Residents in a property in central Brighton – a city that is home to countless digital startups and app providers – told Internet of Business, “We salute Balquhidder for rolling up their sleeves and fixing this problem themselves. It’s brilliant that a rural community, where broadband connectivity is often non-existent, will soon have some of the fastest broadband in the country.

“In the centre of so-called ‘digital Brighton’, in the affluent south of England, the BT broadband in our building is currently 3.5Mbps on a good day – about half the speed that it was five years ago. That’s slower than the average speed available in Venezuela, which has the slowest broadband in the world.

“Once we complained to the Chairman’s office at BT. They told us, ‘Broadband isn’t a utility and it never will be’. That’s an unbelievable statement for a company like BT to make, but it says it all. They don’t believe it’s an essential service, and they’re only interested in their premium customers.

“We’re stuck with BT until a cable provider moves onto our street. Unfortunately, we can’t just grab some spades and dig up the road ourselves, much as we’d like to. It’d be simpler for us to move to rural Scotland.”

Read more: Researchers use wearables to keep sheep farmers one step ahead

Read more: IoT in Agtech: Australia invests millions in robots, digital farming


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UK to let Brits tear up broadband contracts over slow speeds

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There are so many factors that can affect home broadband speeds, the "up to" figures providers like to throw around are tantamount to guesswork. UK telecoms regulator Ofcom isn't a great fan of inaccurate claims, so it's forcing ISPs to change how th…
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SpaceX wins backing to build broadband network using satellites

Test launch approved for Saturday onboard Falcon 9 rocket.

SpaceX, the company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, has received backing from the US communications regulator to build a broadband network using satellites.

SpaceX made an application to provide the broadband services in the US and worldwide. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman, Ajit Pai, said the network would solve one of the biggest headaches in technology today: poor internet connectivity in rural areas.

“Satellite technology can help reach Americans who live in rural or hard-to-serve places, where fibre-optic cables and cell towers do not reach,” Pai said in a statement to Reuters.

To boldly go where no WAN has gone before

In a letter sent to the FCC earlier this month, SpaceX confirmed plans to launch a pair of experimental satellites on one of its Falcon 9 rockets. The launch has been approved by the FCC, and is set for Saturday.

The rocket will carry the PAZ satellite for Hisdesat, a satellite communications services provider to government agencies, based in Madrid, Spain. It will also carry multiple secondary payloads.

Pai wants SpaceX to get approval for the scheme, and for it to become the first US-based organisation to provide broadband services using low-Earth-orbit satellites.

Others have backed the move. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel claimed that a satellite internet service would “create extraordinary new opportunities”. She urged the FCC to move quickly to approve the scheme.

In space, no one can hear you stream

Musk has previously stated that SpaceX wants to launch a satellite internet business to help fund a future city on Mars. He suggested that the move would be about “rebuilding the internet in space”, making a global communications system that would be faster than existing connections.

However, while SpaceX may be the only company to blast a roadster into space, it isn’t the only one aiming to deploy satellites for broadband services. The FCC has also approved bids by OneWeb, Space Norway, and Telesat, and is still processing requests from other businesses.

In January, Telesat launched a satellite operated by the (state) Indian Space Research Organization. Its aim is to deliver “high-performing, cost-effective, fibre-like broadband anywhere in the world”, with tests to be conducted later this year.

Internet of Business says

These technologies could be a game changer for the broadband market, which has long been hampered by a lack of progress in boosting connectivity in rural areas. In the US, it is estimated that at least 14 million people lack mobile broadband.

In the UK – where BT’s belief that 10Mbps is “superfast” has probably done more to set back the digital economy than any other factor – the government is investigating which technologies could provide internet access to rural communities, without being cost-prohibitive.

However, many communities have been frustrated by the British government’s lack of progress, with some launching a range of independent projects that have a more earthbound perspective than Mr Musk’s.

B4RN – a fibre-optic broadband network registered as a non-profit, community-benefit society – is one such project. It is run by a dedicated local team with the support of landowners and volunteers. It offers a 1,000Mbps FTTH (fibre to the home) connection to every property in its coverage area, costing households just £30 per month.


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SpaceX is launching its broadband satellites into orbit this weekend


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