I met Jerry Smith, the Los Alamos County Broadband Manager, for coffee Thursday morning December 8.
Mr. Smith is about to finish his first year with the County. In January of 2021 the Los Alamos County Council set Improving access to high quality broadband as one of seven priorities in their Strategic Leadership plan. They kept broadband as a priority in their plan for 2022
- The priority was manifest in the budget for 2022 that Council approved in April of 2021. The budget included a one time line for broadband design services and a recurring line for a Broadband Manager. Responses to the initial posting were not satisfactory, it was re-posted, and the County issued a news release announcing the second posting. Ultimately Jerry Smith filled the position after Christmas in December last year.
Note the following two points from the news release announcing the second posting:
- The Broadband Manager position will direct, plan and oversee the research, development, design, implementation, construction, operation, and maintenance of the Community Broadband System.
- The Broadband Manager position will be aligned to provide successful and timely implementation of projects and initiatives in line with County Management and County Council strategic goals.
Smith was hired to get a Community Broadband System built, and he is supposed do it with direction from County Management and in alignment with County Council strategic goals. I think we are fortunate that the County was able to recruit Mr. Smith. He understands more clearly than anyone I know in the County (in particular me, County Management, and the Council) the technical, financial, and political options and constraints for getting better broadband for us.
A Spectrum of Local Network Solutions
When I asked to meet with Mr. Smith, I thought that he was probably writing applications for some of the state and federal funds for broadband that I’d vaguely heard something about. I was hoping that the County would combine those funds with money raised by issuing bonds to build a communication utility that would be operated by the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities. That scenario would require approval at the ballot box by the citizens of the County of both the bonds and the creation of a new County Utility. Around the country I expect such elections to elicit well organized campaigns of opposition funded by the incumbent communication utilities. In part I wanted advice from Mr. Smith about how to campaign in support of such measures. I learned that the scenario I had imagined is not the most likely path to better broadband in Los Alamos.
As we started our conversation, Smith first emphasized that there is not just one path to a Community Broadband System, or in my words, Better Los Alamos Broadband (BLAB). There is a spectrum of options spread on an axis that one can think of as the degree of control and involvement that the County will have over the ongoing operation. Smith said that any satisfactory solution must provide open access. And while we didn’t talk about technical details, I think fiber to the premises is another requirement. Smith said that my idea that the Los Alamos County Department of Public Utilities would ultimately operate a fiber network as a fifth utility is at one extreme of that spectrum. At the other end is contracting with a for-profit company to build, own, and operate a network in the County. Such a contract would share the financial risk and require open access. Some of the solutions that lie in between those options would have the County own the network, and leave the operation to an outside organization. Smith believes that a local presence for service by the operator will be a consideration.
For Smith the term open access is key. By that, I think he means residents and businesses in the County can choose from ISPs that are competing to use the same fiber plant. (Perhaps I can address the relationship between Smith’s notion of open access and the notion of open access science in another post.) He said that since 2013, the last time the County explored BLAB, other communities have implemented solutions at various points along the spectrum, and that we can use their experience to inform our choices. He talked about details of solutions several of those communities have used. I had heard about some of them before, and others were new to me. I may post a list with links in a subsequent post. Smith expects the County leadership to guide the option or options to pursue along the spectrum.
The Middle Mile
For many years leadership in Los Alamos used the absence of a middle mile solution to excuse delay in addressing BLAB. There is capacity available in the fiber that Lumen operates for LANL that crosses the Rio Grande at Buckman (failure of that link caused the December telecom blackout in Los Alamos), and I believe that all local ISPs either contract to use that fiber or use satellite links. Since Lumen has a monopoly, the prices are not attractive. Some time before Mr. Smith joined the County Staff, LANL began pursuing a redundant fiber link off of the hill. I had heard that PNM was going to allow fiber to run along side a new high voltage connection across the Rio Grand, and that the County would be able to participate. Mr. Smith explained that that solution may not be viable. He is working on alternatives that include a partnership with San Ildefonso and fiber through the Jemez.
While I had hoped that the County could combine our own money with state and federal money to build BLAB, I feared that we would not qualify for those programs because the service that Xfinity claims to offer would be deemed good enough. In a brief encounter with Representative Chandler some weeks ago, she explained that more severely under-served areas were the targets of her legislation. Smith confirmed that what Xfinity claims to offer will likely imperil our eligibility for either the state or federal programs. He explained that the FCC has a map that documents what broadband service is available anywhere in the US. The time window for challenging that map will close soon. As it stands the map makes us ineligible.
Here are links to the federal program BEAD, the NM program and the FCC map.
I don’t know exactly how Smith thinks the County can fund BLAB.
In his first year Mr. Smith has made some public presentations. By Zoom I attended presentations to the County Council and the League of Women Voters. I also attended the Community Broadband Forum in October at which the agenda was
- Listen to community members experience with internet speed and reliability,
- Answer questions about the survey/speed tests, and
- Discuss the project’s next steps.
I wish more people had shown up for that. If I am more concerned about community support for BLAB than Mr. Smith, it may be because it’s appropriate given our roles. I am a BLAB advocate, and he is a County employee.
- The opportunity to challenge the FCC broadband map ends January 13, 2023. A Google search on January 13 FCC map yields a host of articles encouraging citizens to check the map. Smith sent me a Tip Card that lists the following reasons one can challenge the map:
- Correct services or reported speeds that are not available for purchase.
- Report a provider denial of a request for service or demand for connection charges that exceed its standard installation charge.
- Report provider failure to schedule an installation within 10 business days of a request for service or failure to perform the installation.
- When the $42B federal BEAD money gets awarded and begins to be spent, the market for resources necessary to build broadband projects will shift in sellers’ favor. We should get our project started before that happens.
- The County Council presentation by Jerry Smith and representatives from the consultant, CTC, anticipated to be on the council agenda for January 24 will include results from the broadband survey. To be effective we, citizens who advocate for BLAB, should convey our concerns to Councilors before that meeting.
My Prepared Questions
Since the questions that I prepared were in part misguided, I have
left recounting them to the end of this post.
Q: What are your goals?
A: Smith wants to build open access broadband over fiber to the premises in Los Alamos County.
Q: What are you working on?
A: Funding, middle mile solutions, relationships with vendors who could build and perhaps operate a fiber plant in Los Alamos County, and community engagement.
Q: What can I do to help?
A: Perhaps invite speakers to educate the public.
Q: What kind of support from the community would help?
A: See above. Smith emphasizes educating the community more than advocacy.
Q: What were the results of the survey?
A: Smith doesn’t know yet because CTC, the consulting organization, is late getting the results. That’s in part because Patrick Mulhearn, the consultant assigned to Los Alamos, has left CTC.
Q: I sort of folded together the three questions about communication, namely: Answering questions from the public; Connecting with the County Council; Creating a board or commission.
A: My notion of communication involves advocacy, and I think Smith is reluctant to participate in advocacy.
Q: Have you thought about buying Lumen’s local phone business? I thought that would be a way to get the County into the communication utility business slowly, and that from there we could improve service incrementally.
A: Smith says vendors don’t want small projects. Rather than taking an incremental approach, doing a big project all at once will be easier to manage, and the result will be better and cheaper.