On March 17, 2022, the monthly Los Alamos League of Women Voters Lunch with a Leader program featured the new County Broadband Manager, Jerry Smith. You can see a recording of the event on youtube. Having watched the video, I believe that the County did well in hiring Mr. Smith. He understands the many aspects of broadband: technology; politics; business; etc.
Happy New Year
Here are some high points from the last year’s progress on broadband for Los Alamos:
- December 4, 2020: I launched blabnow.blog
- January 12: County Council makes broadband one of 7 strategic priorities for 2021
- April 6: County Council discusses broadband. All seem to favor County involvement
- April 26: County Council adopts budget for FY2022 that includes a recurring item of $161,664 for a Broadband Manager and $500,000 for Broadband design services
- December 27: The first day that Jerry Smith, the new Broadband Manager, is on the job at the County
The County has posted the new Broadband Manager position. It closes at the end of September. If you know anyone qualified who might be interested, tell them about it. I have written a separate page promoting the position.
On Thursday 2021-09-16 I posted a request on Hacker News with the title “Ask HN: Advice on bringing community broadband to Los Alamos? ” I was pleased with the discussion which you can read by clicking on the link. There was good advice from several people with a variety of knowledge and backgrounds. southerntofu from France wrote in part “social justice is an important part of public service“. At least three folks who have lived in Los Alamos commented including brianolson who wrote that in the 1990s, “I was the student representative on the committee setting up the first internet service to all the schools.” Five people invited me to send them email which I’ve done. I believe that the discussion will lead to some interesting applications for the Broadband Manager position.
From the agenda for the 2021-6-29 County Council meeting, here is the position description for the Broadband Manager and the proposed Salary Plan for FY22. The two documents are inconsistent and reflect uncertainty about what’s required.
The position description mixes two goals: First someone who will start up a new utility; Second someone who can do IT support for County staff. The description specifies technical work and skills, but the County needs a big picture person who can lead an evaluation of the telecommunication infrastructure and business here and if appropriate start a new County owned utility. The salary range is $91K – $135K. On the other hand Deputy Utility manager positions are ranked 303 and range from $106K – $156K.
While the description in the agenda packet has long lists of duties and skills, it doesn’t convey the need for a big picture person. Among the essential duties that are missing from the description are:
- Evaluate and document the telecommunication infrastructure and business in Los Alamos County
- Evaluate communication technologies. In particular be able answer questions about the likely future of satellite, microwave, DOCIS (cable modem) and fiber technology.
- Develop options for how County Government can improve telecommunication services in the County
- Ensure franchise / right of way agreements with telecommunication businesses are current and serve the interests of County residents
- Keep track of options for external (state and federal) support for broadband
- If a bond measure is necessary, design one that voters would support
- Coordinate with LANL and LA-Schools to support work and study from home
- Keep track of broadband initiatives in other communities. Know what works and what doesn’t.
In an earlier version of this post, I took the rank from the job code in the position description and the title of the broadband manager agenda item, namely “H-203 Broadband Manager”, as specifying the level to be 203 and read the proposed compensation from the “Salary Grades” agenda item. Now the post reflects agenda items 8.J.A, the detailed list of salaries, and 8.J.H, the job description for the broadband manager. I think the inconsistency in the agenda documentation reflects uncertainty among the County staff about the nature of the position.
Rather than using my copies of those documents with the links above, you can fetch them from legistar at:
Broadband Manager Position
The 2022 fiscal year for Los Alamos County starts on July 1, and the FY22 budget that the County Council approved in April includes a recurring item for a Broadband Manager. The current staff will bring Council a new position description and salary to approve on June 29.
I think that the Broadband Manager will be key to improving broadband access in the County. It will require an unusual set of activities and skills. The same set of circumstances that has moved Los Alamos to begin moving again on broadband now has led a large number of other communities to make similar decisions. So there will be more competition for people and resources than there would have been even a year ago.
Here’s what I want the Broadband Manager to do:
- Understand and document the current state of the telecommunication business in the County. Take charge of the franchise agreements with telecommunication businesses in the County. If a bond measure is necessary, design one that voters would support.
- Understand and explain/document options for external support, eg, state or federal programs, and be ready to apply for grants or loans as needed.
- Develop several options for how County Government can improve telecommunication options, with estimates of cost, time to implement, and performance that residents and businesses would see. Coordinate with LANL and LA-Schools to support work and study from home.
- Understand and explain/document broadband initiatives in other communities in the US. Know what has succeeded and what has failed and what others are trying now.
Here are some skills and experience that the Broadband Manager will need:
- Work with bureaucrats and elected officials
- Develop and evaluate business plans
- Evaluate communication technologies. In particular be able answer questions about the likely future of satellite, microwave, DOCIS (cable modem) and fiber technology.
- Manage contracts
Here are some links that I found while thinking about what I’ve written:
- The National Conference of State Legislatures has a list of pending and enacted legislation in 47 states about broadband in 2021.
- Block Island, RI uses 2 percent municipal bonds with 40-year terms to fund conduit.
- Google Fiber’s wireline broadband is expanding to a new city for the first time in several years as part of a public-private partnership to build an open-access network that any ISP can use to offer service. The new network will be in West Des Moines, Iowa.
- We need a miracle, it’s very important.
Council Chair Ryti has alerted me to an updated version of budget options prepared by staff in which there are two more lines for broadband, namely: 12b a recurring item of $161,664 for a Broadband Manager; 12c $500,000 for Broadband design services. I like the revisions.
As Emily Litella would have said, “Never mind”.
Broadband in the 2022 County Budget
As I said in the previous posting, I was pleased that in the discussion of broadband at the April 6 meeting of the County Council there was consensus that it’s time for the County government to run fiber in Los Alamos County. The FY2022 PROPOSED BUDGET does not reflect that consensus. A search for “broadband” finds that only on four of the 448 pages is it mentioned. Here is what it says:
- On page 4 “Improving access to high quality broadband” is listed as one of seven “Priority Areas” specified by the Council. The text is “Enabling reliable high-speed broadband service throughout the county by determining appropriate investments (e.g., conduct a community needs analysis, evaluate technical options).”
- On page 28 amongst 10 pages of Management Action Plans in response to Council Priority Goals of “Improving access to high quality broadband” broadband gets 1/3 of a page. The Management Action Plan there is “Pursue ‘middle mile’ of high speed broadband network”, and the Narrative/Analysis is “ASD is working on broadband options with PW. A phase one project has been identified and included in the new FY budget options request that will go to Council in April. It will include a community needs analysis to evaluate what level of service is currently available from which vendors, where, and at what price (detailed capacity analysis). It will also include an evaluation of what customers (residential and commercial) want and what they are willing to pay – with consideration of whether or not customers might switch to obtain more for less (this will include a detailed market analysis and absorption projection).” Cross-cutting impacts: Housing, Business Environment. The Lead Staff is CMO/ASD/IM, and the Status/Deadline is On Going.
- On page 178 in “FY2022 Budget Options” the second B level option is a one-time expense of $175K for “Broadband Consulting”. The Detailed Notes are, “Consulting services for the Broadband study initiative. Provide community needs analysis to evaluate what level of service is currently available from which vendors, where, and at what price (detailed capacity analysis) along with detailed market analysis and absorption projection.”
- On page 430 the budget option from page 178 is repeated.
In the sections on broadband, the text of the proposed budget uses the following abbreviations for units in the County: PW Public Works; ASD Administrative Service Department; CMO County Managers Office; IM Information Management. The text also refers to the “middle mile” which I think means a connection off of the hill to the trunk that Redi-Net runs from Santa Fe to Taos. At the April 6 Council meeting there was speculation that Xfinity and LANet share the use of a middle mile link off of the hill that Lumen (the phone company) built for the benefit of LANL. I recommend the brief Wikipedia article on “middle mile” which says in part “However, middle-mile access, where bought from the incumbent operator, is often much more expensive than either, and typically forms the major expense of non-incumbent broadband ISPs. The alternative, building out their own fibre networks, is capital-intensive, and thus unavailable to most new operators.”
The budget proposal fails to take County responsibility for broadband seriously. A recurring budget item for staff oversight of broadband in the County is appropriate whether or not the County owns or operates any part of a telecommunication utility. The level of staff understanding demonstrated at recent Council meetings is not sufficient. Here is a list of some staff activities that the budget should fund:
- Know what telecommunication utilities residents are using. That is to include what they are paying for and what they are getting.
- Make public the knowledge of telecommunication services available in the County.
- Know how telecommunication utilities that operate in the County provide the services that they offer. That includes the last mile technology and the middle mile.
- Understand how residents connect with schools and LANL.
- Know what telecommunication services other community owned utilities, eg, Kit Carson Electric Co-op, are offering. Understand the technologies, financing, and business models that they use.
- Understand the technical and financial aspects of various last mile technologies, eg, is it plausible that in the near future wireless to the house will bypass fiber as the optimal technology.
- Keep track of external funding opportunities that exist and as they emerge.
- Understand the options for a County owned telecommunication utility in terms of technology, financing, and business model.
- Get rough estimates of design/business options. Choose one in consultation with Council. Flesh out the chosen design to get a good cost estimate, and then pursue funding.
While staff will need external help to understand some of those issues, staff should take responsibility for maintaining the expertise. It will take staff expertise and flexibility to move forward successfully. The 2012/2013 study and design was prepared with constraints imposed by Council at the time that forced the design into the most expensive possible regime, and when the price came in Council chose not to pursue it. If Council takes a more flexible approach this time that relies on staff expertise, it is more likely to be successful.
I attended almost the entire five hour meeting of the Los Alamos County Council on April 6 2021. I am pleased to report that the Councilors think it’s time for the County government to run fiber in Los Alamos County. The meeting is available on line, and you can click on the agenda items and watch just the parts you are interested in. In addition to participating live by zoom on the 6th, I watched the video of the first round of comments on the broadband issue by each Councilor to make the notes here (the times are approximate).
Presentation by Steve Lynn, 3:32:40-3:35:28: Proposed $175K for a needs analysis by an outside consultant.
Comments by Councilor Scott, 3:35:28-3:41:00: Instead of supporting handing off a new needs analysis to an external consultant, Scott believes the County needs a staff person in charge of broadband.
Comments by Councilor Williams, 3:41:00-3:50:55: Williams and LAC IT staff member John Roig talked about capacity off of the hill. They each believe that Lumen Technologies (formerly CenturyLink/QWest/U S West, ie, the phone company) owns a fiber link across the Rio Grande that LANL and all of the local ISPs use it to get off of the hill, and that there is not a capacity bottleneck. Williams believes that trenching the County for fiber is the only credible solution. He supports an analysis to discover what residents would save by having such fiber and the associated improvement in service quality. I don’t know if he meant to include the savings from the rate changes we would see from the incumbents in response to the emergence of credible competition. He said that if we are serious, it leads to a bond issue, and if we are serious, fiber is the technology.
Comments by Councilor Derkacs, 3:50:55-3:54:26: She said that it’s time to make a decision to move forward; we should forge forward. She started her comments by referring to the history of studies funded by the County, saying, “This page I’m looking at.” I believe that she was looking at blabnow.blog.
Comments by Councilor Izraelevitz, 3:54:26-4:04:55: He said that economic modeling will be important and raised the question of the County providing dark fiber or becoming a service provider. He mentioned an informal survey effort that he led in January. (He called me when I launched blabnow.blog to ask me to lead that effort, and I declined.) He also suggested that LANL might financially support broadband in the County so that LANL staff could work more effectively offsite. I believe that Councilor Izraelevitz is alone on the Council in opposing a bond issue for broadband infrastructure.
Comments by Councilor Robinson, 4:04:55-4:08:55: He led by saying that there’s not a chance that Triad, ie, the lab, is going to pay to support broadband for staff at home. Next he compared investing in fiber now to the investments decades ago in the El Vado and Abiquiu generating stations. He meant that it’s an opportunity for a once in a generation good move, and he said “It’s the greatest advantage we could give to attract people and business up here.” He wants a study of how to pay for fiber, not a needs analysis, and he says we should move quickly.
Comments by Councilor Reagor, 4:08:55-4:13:00: Reagor said that no more study is necessary. He believes that we need a fiber optic backbone in the County and that the next steps are an RFP (Request for Proposals) and a bond issue. His principal concern is that “wireless technology is moving really fast”. Rather than running fiber to the home where signals are then translated to WiFi, the best solution in the future may be to have that translation at the level of a block or even a mile from each residence. He noted that we can’t address that concern with a survey of the public. While I suspect fiber to the home is going to be the best option for many years, I don’t entirely discount Reagor’s concern about wireless bypassing the final link from fiber to devices in homes. I support getting external expert advice on the question.
Comments by Councilor Ryti, 4:13:00-4:15:36: Ryti would like to see options that could be implemented before we get fiber to every home because it will take so long to install all of the fiber. He believes that the County should move quickly before the telecom incumbents have time to get laws passed that would constrain our options. He also said the County needs a person on staff to manage broadband issues.
Comments by the public, 4:15:36: I made the first comment.
Summary: A 6 to 1 majority of the Los Alamos County Council wants to progress to a bond issue to fund an optical fiber plant of some sort.
Broadband is on the agenda for the April 6 County Council meeting, and I bet the County Council will approve a motion to study the issue. As revealed by the discussion of broadband at the October 27 Council Work Session, some study to develop the expertise and understanding of County Staff and Council would be good. As part of an email conversation about the upcoming meeting and a likely new study, I got copies of old studies from Laura Gonzales who retired from the County IT department several years ago. In view of the volume of that material I recommend restraint in commissioning yet another study by outside consultants. Instead, Council should direct Staff to develop and maintain knowledge and expertise about the infrastructure, technology and business of electronic communication in the County. Given the importance of electronic communication in the 21st century for everything from employment and education to entertainment and social cohesion, such expertise is appropriate for any local government. It is particularly appropriate for Los Alamos because of our status as a high-tech leader and because through our ownership of our other utilities we own the paths for distributing electronic communication.
To chart a path forward I propose accepting as the goal communication utilities in the County that are useful, appropriate, efficient, equitable, responsive and foresighted. In order to have power to move towards that goal, the County must have some control of communication utilities here. While we can use our ownership of rights of way and electric utility infrastructure to exert some level of influence over other actors, eg, through franchise agreements, I believe that owning and operating a communication utility based on optical fiber is the best mechanism for delivering the required product and having the necessary control.
No matter how the County chooses to exercise influence or control over communication utilities here, staff will need knowledge and expertise in the area. We should begin by understanding the current state of affairs. Staff and Council should understand and be able to weigh technical and business alternatives and their impact on other values, eg, free speech, economic productivity, intellectual development, social cohesion, equity, and support of innovation.
Electronic communication is more fungible now that it was when everyone thought NBC, ATT and the Post Office were in different markets that addressed different needs. Because of that fungibility, we need expertise that touches on at least the following current businesses:
- Landline telephone
- Cell phone
- TV (cable, satellite, etc.)
For each seller in our market we should know:
- What they offer to our residents (technical characteristics of utility, eg, data rate, latency, reliability)
- The technology that they use to deliver those services (eg, how they “get off of the hill”)
- The pricing available
- How much revenue are they collecting in the County
For each customer in the County we should find out the corresponding data:
- What are they buying including technical characteristics
- At what price
We should also understand how the County is currently supporting and using the communication utilities that operate here already.
We should understand the legal constraints on County participation in the business. Because we own and operate our other utilities, I believe that we are not treated like investor owned utilities by the NM PRC. Would the County see similar advantages if we operated a communication utility?
And ultimately we must understand the technical, business, organizational and legal options for the County to own and operate an electronic communication utility.
Other Thoughts and Questions
I believe that eventually we will have fiber running throughout the County. I want the County to own that fiber, and I support any action that will get us there faster and more certainly.
As the County learns about the current state of electronic communication in the County, making that knowledge available to the public will be a great service. Because the business is unregulated, residents currently have trouble discovering their options.
I would like to know why Internet signals from LANL to my house get routed through California. It makes working from home difficult.
I believe that signals between residences and the schools are similarly routed off the hill and back. Is that the case, and if so, why?
Why do the existing communication utilities have equipment on poles that the DPU has abandoned?
Why is the location of Xfinity cables not available in advance of digging as part of the location service provided by the DPU?
I believe that the existing communication utilities use Century-Link fiber to get off of the hill. Is that true? If so, why are we waiting for a second Century-Link fiber to cross the Rio Grande?
How Much Money is at Stake?
Because broadband is on the agenda for the April 6 County Council meeting, I’m thinking and writing about the issue again. Los Alamos County has spent a lot of Council and Staff effort and some money studying and talking about the communication business here since the 1990s. Over several years I’ve read a few sources about the communication business, and recently I did some searching as I set up this blog. I’ve found that people are saying that in the United States we are paying more for worse service than much of the rest of the world because each region is served by unregulated monopolies. In other words we are being charged monopoly rents. However, I have not seen a serious study that estimates the amount of those rents. I contacted two experts, Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self Reliance and Professor Susan Crawford at the Harvard Law School, and asked how to estimate those rents in Los Alamos County. They each
suggested that I contact Joanne Hovis at CTC (https://www.ctcnet.us/). Here are replies from Dr. Hovis to a couple of emails:
I wish I had a resource to which I could direct you but I don’t
know that anyone has done that analysis. It would be a valuable
contribution to the field if it were undertaken.
I appreciate you thinking of us, but I would recommend you speak to an economist on that. I suspect their work would be more persuasive on that kind of issue than that of a consultant like us.
So CTC has experience and expertise on technology, but not economics or business.
It would be nice to have an estimate of the monopoly rents that we as a community are paying because that amount is the floor for what we should spend to get better service.