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My Public Comment at the 2022-06-28 County Council Meeting

My name is Andrew Fraser. I live at 197 Taos Street in Los Alamos.  I’ve read Mr. Smith’s slides and the draft survey in the attachments to the agenda. It is critical to do the survey well.  I want to focus on the following three broadband issues:

1. Privacy
2. Censorship and
3. Pricing

With respect privacy, let me ask if after sending email about your vacation in Europe does it bother you to see more adds about ways to spend money in Europe? Beyond reading your email, ISPs can record and monetize the sequence of WEB sites you visit.

With respect to censorship, recall the fuss about net-neutrality a few years ago. ISPs were giving preferential treatment to the traffic in which they had financial interests.  Now, Fox-News does not provide a platform for Nancy Pelosi, and Twitter doesn’t provide a platform for Donald Trump, but Trump and Pelosi can both use the Post Office without any trouble. Fox-News is not a common-carrier and the Post Office is. What about Twitter, and what about your ISP?  I don’t know about Twitter, but I think an ISP should be a common-carrier.

With respect to pricing, I find the DPU rate schedule pretty clear, but I have found it difficult to get firm information about what broadband options are available. That’s the kind of behavior an economist would expect from a discriminating monopolist.

In summary, I would like the survey to ask:

  1. Do you trust that your current ISP respects your privacy?
  2. Do you trust your current ISP to act as a common-carrier?
  3. Do your trust your current ISP to be open, honest and fair about pricing?

Thank you for your attention.

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Upcoming County Council Presentation and Community Survey

The effort to get better broadband access in Los Alamos County needs community input now. Please show up at the next County Council meeting in person or via the link. The meeting starts at 6:00 PM on Tuesday June 28, and the presentation “Community Broadband Network Study Progress Update” is item B on the agenda.

  • Ultimately I want Los Alamos County to own communication infrastructure (fiber).
  • However in the interim and even if we never own such infrastructure, I want County staff to be responsible for supporting access to affordable high quality broadband by members of the community.

Yesterday Akkana Peck alerted me by email that Jerry Smith, the County Broadband Manager, will make his presentation to the County Council this week. You can see the slides here  and a draft of a survey for the community is here.  Akkana’s email noted that Mr. Smith’s slides may overestimate what’s available in the County, and they suggest a reduced interest in County owned fiber. I share her concerns.

While members of the community can influence the future of broadband in Los Alamos by contacting the Council at countycouncil@lacnm.us, the survey may be more important. The ISP (Internet Service Provider) business intersects with other electronic communication (cell phone, land line, TV, etc.) and content businesses. The survey should touch on all of that. I believe the goals of the survey are: Find out what electronic communication people are using now; Find out what they use it for; Find out what the County can/should do to help; Get people thinking about what the County can/should do to help.

Here are some thoughts about each of those goals:

* Find out what electronic communication people are using now.

Questions 3 and 5 of the draft ask who is your primary ISP and what do you pay. We should find out about the whole electronic communication business in the County: Broadband; Cell Phone; TV; Streaming Content; Newspaper and Information Service Subscriptions; etc.  In addition to price, we should ask about the quality of service. I believe that I have used four different ISPs in the 17 years I’ve lived in Los Alamos. In each case: I got speed test results that fluctuated over the course of each day; The service sometimes stopped entirely; And with the exception of LA-Net, contacting customer service was difficult and unpleasant.

I know of families that drop service every year and have a different family member restart it with a new name to get introductory pricing. As a consumer, I find it difficult to discover the availability and pricing of broadband service. I would like for the County to post such information. We could use this survey to get started on that.

From anywhere else I access my home network on LA-Net via home.fraserphysics.com. That would violate the terms of service of some other ISPs. I know others use techniques to watch some content in violation of their terms of service. The survey should ask if people find their terms of service onerous and if they honor them.

* Find out what they use it for.

Question 6 asks if the ISP fee includes TV and/or phone, and question 7 asks about several use purposes. While the questions are adequate, I feel they miss some cases. For example, I know people who use the Internet to work (mostly writing code) either for a single employer or on contracts thousands of miles away. And although I’m retired, I’m working on a technical book and attending technical meetings (in person and remotely). Scientists rely on the Internet almost continuously for information. The options in question 7., “Connecting to work” or “Running a home business”, don’t seem to fit. I think “Professional activity” is a better description. And of course there should be a place to say that one operates a blog.

* Find out what the County can/should do to help.

While I want the County to install fiber to the premises, there are other needs. In particular, I noticed during remote Council meetings, that at least one Councilor said that the poor quality of the connection was due to weak infrastructure at home. We should think about how to help people with their home networks.

* Get people thinking about what the County can/should do to help.

I have neighbors who oppose any County involvement in broadband. One opposes government in general, and the other thinks he’s getting a great deal from Xfinity. The survey should ensure that such views are easy to express.

I (an unbiased former Chair of the Board of Public Utilities) think that the County does a good job delivering the other (not broadband) utilities. The survey should ask people to compare the quality of service from the County DPU to the service that they get from their ISP.

Other utilities in the US are either government owned (like our DPU) or regulated as monopolies. The survey should ask if people agree that broadband is a utility, and then ask if it should be: 1. Owned by government; 2. Regulated as a utility; 3. Be subject to market competition; 4. None of the above (the current situation).

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Broadband Manager Presentation to the County Council

Council Chair Ryti told me that Jerry Smith, the County Broadband Manager, would give a presentation to the County Council at their June 14th meeting entitled “Community Broadband Network Study Progress Update”, but the presentation is not on the most recent agenda. I watched the recording of Mr. Smith’s lunch presentation to the League of Women Voters in March which is available online, and I was pleased to see that he understands the technology and the current funding opportunities.

To prepare for Mr. Smith’s presentation, a small group of us have exchanged some email. As a result, I have the following observations and questions:

  1. Question for Mr. Smith: Do you believe that you have been assigned the task of establishing a County owned community broadband network? If not, what are your tasks?
  2. Question for Council: What do you want Mr. Smith to do?
  3. Question for Mr. Smith: What projects are the County pursuing that are eligible for federal and or state funds?
  4. I have heard that Comcast has installed fiber to each neighborhood in the County, and I have seen a map of Redinet fiber in the County. Question for Mr. Smith: Does anyone at the County (you?) know what telecommunication infrastructure exists in the County?
  5. I have heard both that the County can’t provide broadband service till it has a path off of the hill and that all of Internet traffic in the County now goes via a link owned by Lumen that crosses the Rio Grande at Buckman.   I’ve also heard that that link has plenty of capacity. Question for Mr. Smith: Which if any of those claims are true?
  6. I have heard that fiber conduit is not routinely installed either in new developments or when roads are dug up for other utilities. Question for Mr. Smith: Is that true? Is that a mistake?
  7. I would like to have the County discover and publish information about the broadband options that are currently available to County residents. As a consumer, I find it difficult to discover the technology and pricing that’s available. Question for Mr. Smith: How difficult would it be for the County to discover and publish such information? (I would not want the effort to discover such information to distract from pursuing projects that have a limited funding window.)
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Lunch with Jerry Smith

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.

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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
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Los Alamos County Broadband Manager Position

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.

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Broadband Manager Position on the Consent Agenda for June 29

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:

Position description
http://losalamos.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=0ab3b103-dc12-463e-aab0-046ac9c2e6b1.pdf

Salary Plan
http://losalamos.legistar.com/gateway.aspx?M=F&ID=6ce12708-5f02-48f1-8f11-a60a895c9787.pdf

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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.
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Never Mind

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”.

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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.