Columbia Takes Next Step Toward Municipal Network Infrastructure

A consultant report recommends the City of Columbia tap into its existing fiber resources to develop an open access municipal telecommunications network. The City recently issued a request for proposals for a business plan to press forward with the recommendation, reports the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Last year the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri jointly hired a firm to conduct a survey and analyze existing connectivity. An August Tribune article by Andrew Denney reported that the the community was found lacking in reliable connectivity. The survey indicated that 84% of businesses reported "moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed." The survey also revealed 84% of businesses contend with Internet speeds "insufficient for their business needs due to reliability and speed issues." The reasonable conclusion is that commercial Internet access in Columbia is too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable for local businesses.

The Columbia Water and Light Department (W & L) now leases its dark fiber to approximately 30 entities, reports the Tribune. The leases bring in approximately $876,000 per year. The consultant recommends expanding existing resources in order to entice more providers who want to serve last-mile customers.

The report also examined continuing the W & L dark fiber leasing program without significant changes and expanding the dark fiber leasing program by adding last-mile deployment. Maintaining the current dark fiber program will not require capital but won't stimulate the area's economic development possibilities either.

Expanding the dark fiber program would improve the broadband infrastructure situation because providers would be able to offer leases to customer premises rather than only within the middle-mile network. This type of change would not improve affordability because it would not increase competition.

The August Tribune article reported:

[The consultant] suggests if the city decides to light up its fiber network, it would be able to enter into public-private partnerships with service providers but remain a neutral party to providers. The network would increase competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over the city’s network, the consultants’ report said.

More recently, the Tribune reported:

[The consultant] estimates that the city would be able to develop a broadband network to serve businesses and organizations based in the “downtown core” for a price ranging between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the firm suggested could be paid through debt instruments like loans and bond sales.

At an August 18th City Council meeting, CenturyLink area operations manager Kevin Czaicki addressed the Council before they voted to instruct staff to move forward. In true incumbent fashion, Czaicki told the Council that a network would create financial challenges for the city. The Tribune reported:

Czaicki also said that, if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business. “This violates the spirit of the law, if not the rule,” Czaicki said.

Last August, CenturyLink announced some properties in Columbia and Jefferson City would obtain access to gigabit service. Once again, the prospect of a municipal network appears to inspire private investment.

“We would be paving a road that currently, in our opinion, does not exist now,” [W & L Assistant Director Ryan] Williams said.

Read the PDF of the report Executive Summary online for more details.

Connecticut Communities Want Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Episode 118

While in Springfield, Massachusetts for the Broadband Communities Municipal Broadband and Economic Development event, I met several of the people that have been working on an initiative that aims to bring better Internet access to many in Connecticut. Two of them, Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and Broadband Policy Coordinator Bill Vallee join me this week for episode 118 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Three cities have already issued an RFQ to begin the process of evaluating what options are available to them in improving Internet access for their residents and businesses. New Haven, Stamford, and West Hartford kicked the initiative off but others may soon join.

We also discuss how Connecticut has greatly simplified the process of pole attachments to encourage investment from any interested provider.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

New Report Details Local Government Efforts to Improve Minnesota Connectivity

In our latest report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access, we analyze how local governments in 12 Minnesota communities are expanding 21st century Internet access to their citizens.

In 2010, the Minnesota legislature set a goal for 2015 - universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state. Even though we have the technology to make that vision a reality, large swaths of the state will not meet that goal. Nevertheless, local folks who have chosen to take control of their connectivity are finding a way to exceed expectations, surpassing the choices in many metropolitan regions.

Some of the communities we cover include:

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

We delved into networks in Anoka, Carver, Cook, Lake, and Scott Counties. The report also shares developments in the municipalities of Chaska, Buffalo, and Monticello. We tell the story of RS Fiber, located in Sibley and part of Renville County. These communities provide examples of municipal networks, a variety of public private partnerships, and "dig once" policies.

This week in Minnesota, the governor’s office began accepting applications for the state’s new $20 million initiative Border-to-Border program. We hope this new report will serve as a resource for potential applicants and other community leaders across the U.S. interested in taking charge of their broadband destinies.

Read and download the full report [PDF].

City Net Brings 100 Gbps to Santa Monica, California

For one of the fastest municipal networks in the U.S., travel to Santa Monica and sample City Net. The City just announced network capacity and speed upgrades to 100 Gbps. City Net is available to many local businesses and connects key community anchor institutions.

The entertainment, tech, and healthcare industries have a strong presence in Santa Monica and City Net officials expect them to be among the first to take advantage of the upgrade. Other area businesses are applauding the upgrade. From the press release:

Jeremy Foint, IT Manager of Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel overwhelmingly approves, “With the annual American Film Market campus, tech expos, and Fortune500 corporate events convening in Santa Monica, it’s comforting to know Loews can accommodate the most demanding network requirements. I know CityNet will take care of us.”

We dug deep into the story of this publicly owned network for our case study, Santa Monica City Net: In Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. We also spoke with CIO Jory Wolf for episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Santa Monica took a measured approach by reinvesting funds they saved when they ended leased services. They now offer dark and lit fiber. The community has won numerous awards.

Community-Owned Dark Fiber Expands in Vermont

Last week, we criticized the draft version of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan for its conflicting goals, misplaced priorities, and all-around lack of vision. Fortunately for Vermonters, there are good things happening in the state as well: the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) and EC Fiber are partnering on a new 51 mile run of dark fiber that will bring new connection options to over 1,000 businesses and residences. 

VTA will be building the central fiber lien, which runs North-South along the I-91/I-89 corridor, and will be open to any carrier. EC Fiber, a nonprofit, community-owned open access network, will be an anchor tenant on the new fiber optic line, and will contribute $200,000 to project costs and be responsible for making last mile connections to the premises of homes and businesses that purchase them. 

The new fiber line will connect designated “Broadband Business Improvement Districts” in the towns of Braintree, Pomfret, Brookfield, North Randolph, and Sharon, making speeds of up to 400 mbps symmetrical available along the way. The project is expected to be completed in the first half of 2015, along with dark fiber projects in Reading, Stockbridge, Rochester and Hancock.   

These projects show that at least some in Vermont are aware of the need for fiber, and why the focus on new investments in last generation technologies embodied in the draft Vermont Telecommunications Plan are so misguided. 

Lexington Plans RFI for Gigabit Network in Kentucky

Lexington, Kentucky, the second biggest city in the state with the second slowest broadband speeds in the nation, has announced plans to issue a request for information for a gigabit network within the next six months. The idea is to gauge interest from private providers in forming a public private partnership and get at least a rough estimate of the costs and benefits of a city-wide fiber optic network. 

The Lexington area currently has average download speeds of 16.2 Mbps, which puts it 38th among cities in Kentucky alone. While many in Lexington have been unhappy with slow speeds, poor reliability, and high prices provided by the incumbent Time Warner for years, the local government appeared divided last spring over the potential Comcast-Time Warner merger. Some felt, inexplicably, that service would improve after the second most hated company in America was acquired by the most hated. But others realized the need for competition, and during the course of renegotiating Time Warner’s expiring cable franchise over the last year, city staff have been meeting with private providers to determine how to improve access. 

Mayor Jim Gray said he would like Lexington to become a gigabit city, though he stopped short of endorsing a fully public network along the lines of EPB in Chattanooga:   

"We're going to be looking for partners who can create competition and who are willing to serve neighborhoods throughout Lexington," Gray said. "Increasing our Internet speed is crucial, but so is tackling the digital divide."

Whether or not private providers will answer the mayor’s call with a deal that works for both the city and their bottom line remains to be seen, but Gray does at least seem to grasp the need for competition to break up the local monopoly. Step 1 is admitting you have a problem - the next steps take some real (political) will. Others have given this deeper thought:

Roy Cornett, who attended Tuesday's meeting and has been passionate about improving Lexington's Internet speed and expanding access, said Lexington trails not only Louisville and Russellville, but Glasgow and other Kentucky cities. Cornett, an appraiser, said that some estimates show that it could cost as much as $200 million to provide the fiber-optic infrastructure to make Lexington a "gigacity."

That might sound like a lot, but it really isn't, Cornett said.

"We were going to spend $350 million on a new Rupp Arena," Cornett said. "This is the most important infrastructure investment we can make."

Nonprofit ISP Offers “Big Gig Challenge” To Connect Northeast Ohio

OneCommunity, a nonprofit ISP and data services provider in northeast Ohio, recently announced an interesting initiative to spur the expansion of fiber optic connectivity in the region - it will help pay the costs. For municipalities (or organizations with municipal support) that build “community-wide” networks with gigabit speed, OneCommunity is offering grant funds to cover 25% of project costs, up to $2 million. According to their website, the ISP hopes to make it’s “Big Gig Challenge” a recurring yearly program. 

OneCommunity, which has network operations in 24 counties and 2,500 miles of fiber assets throughout northeast Ohio, offers services to a wide variety of anchor institutions, businesses, schools, and local governments. The 11 year old nonprofit does not offer residential services, but does serve over 2,300 public facilities. 

In an interview with GovTech, OneCommunity COO Brett Lindsey described the “Big Gig” grant program as an “opportunity to drive fiber expansion deeper into communities that we traverse through with our middle-mile network. We thought that if we put some skin in the game, it would be the impetus to get people to act.”

Connecting to OneCommunity’s existing network is not a requirement for the grant program, but may prove useful since their long haul fiber assets are already in the ground nearby in many places. The program appears to be very flexible on the nature, scope, and scale of network proposals, as well as the degree to which OneCommunity would be involved. The idea seems to be, as Lindsey stated, “getting people to act” in one way or another. 

Lindsey also emphasized the difficulty of attracting large businesses and private investments into the economically depressed region, particularly in rural areas underserved by data connections. In 2010, OneCommunity was the recipient of a $44 million federal stimulus grant that allowed it to add over 1,000 miles of fiber in predominantly rural areas.

The “Big Gig Challenge” represents an interesting example of the kinds of opportunities a community-focused ISP can create. For smaller communities with limited internet access and infrastructure, dangling an offer of financial support could result in some interesting project proposals. In other places, it may simply get people thinking and talking about the status quo, and what ways they would like to see it change. In either case, it is a debate more communities across the country could benefit from having. As Brett Lindsey put it in the GovTech interview:

We tell city officials: You are really going to have to take charge of your own fate. If you don’t do that, you could be waiting for years — or never — to get fiber infrastructure of any significant level brought into your community. 

Letters of Interest are due by October 3rd. 

Dakota County is Fiber Rich Thanks to Dig Once Approach - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 117

Calls for "dig once" policies have resonated for years. The general idea is that we can more fiber and conduit in the ground at lower prices if we coordinate to include them in various projects that already disturb the ground. In the south Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dakota County has been tweaking its dig once approach for more than a decade.

This week, Network Collaboration Engineer David Asp and .Net Systems Analyst Rosalee McCready join us to discuss their approach to maximizing all opportunities to get fiber and conduit in the ground. They work in a county that ranges from rural farms in the south to urban cities in the north, offering lessons for any local government.

We discuss the award-winning software they developed to coordinate projects and the many benefits of the network that have already produced millions of dollars in savings. And now the county is examining how it can use its fiber to spur economic development and investment in better Internet access for area residents.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Local Businesses Suffer in Tennessee as State Prevents Chattanooga Expansion

As our readers know, the FCC is currently considering petitions submitted by Chattanooga and Wilson, North Carolina. Both communities want the ability to expand their ability to offer advanced telecommunications services, contrary to existing state anti-muni laws. As we glance through the comments, we notice that ISPs, advocacy groups, and local governments are not the only commenters with a vested interest in the outcome. 

There are also compelling stories from individuals, local businesses, and organizations that are looking for better options. In some cases they have one provider but are unhappy with the service so support municipal network expansion. In other cases, they have dial-up (or no service at all) and are maddeningly close to an EPB or Greenlight connection but state restrictions forbid service to them.

We recently spoke with Joyce Coltrin, owner of J & J Nursery located on the edge of Cleveland, Tennessee, in Bradley County. She is about 32 miles from the heart of Chattanooga but only 3/8 mile from the edge of the EPB fiber optic service area. Her only choice for Internet at her nursery is AT&T dial-up. Joyce tells us:

"I could walk right to it - it is the closest provider and we don't have any broadband access!"

Joyce submitted comments early in the proceedings. She choose to send her comments via snail mail because her email is so unreliable.

For the past 15 years, Joyce and other people in her community have requested better service from AT&T. They were told repeatedly it would be 3 months, 6 months, 9 months until they would get upgrades but it never happened. They finally decided to look for connectivity elsewhere. Joyce and her neighbors approached their electric provider, Volunteer Energy Cooperative, in the hopes that they could work with EPB to bring services to the area. Volunteer and EPB had already discussed the possibility, but when the state law was passed that prevented EPB from expanding, the efforts to collaborate cooled.

Joyce uses her cell phone to access the Internet while she is at work. Like some of the other business owners in Cleveland, Joyce pays $200 - $300 per month because she is constantly running over data caps to conduct business. There are others who live or work in areas near her that do not have cell phone coverage.

Another local business owner that runs a poultry business almost lost a large number of chicks when their alarm system, dependent on wireless Internet access through a Verizon "MiFi" personal hotspot, failed during cold weather.

Joyce does not plan on expanding to an online store but she finds it difficult to adhere to state business regulations without better connectivity. For instance, she must do business taxes online from home, where she has a little better Internet access.

She knows that Tennessee's anti-muni laws came from giant cable and telco lobbying efforts. She also recognizes the negative impact it is having on Cleveland. In her comments to the FCC, Joyce writes:

College students drive to McDonald's to use Wi-Fi and work from their cars to do homework and projects. This situation is choking business and making our children third class citizens.

I have always been for free enterprise, but when some businesses win due to unfair protection, free enterprise dies.

To read the rest of Joyce's comments, visit the FCC website.

Three New Companies Move to the Silicon Bayou

In the past few months, Lafayette has drawn in three high tech companies that will create approximately 1,300 well-paying positions. In addition to the community's commitment to boost its high-tech workforce, better connectivity offered by LUS Fiber helped attract the new businesses.

According to a Daily World article, the most recent addition is Perficient, Inc. The information technology and management consulting company is based in St. Louis. Perficient will add 50 new positions by the end of 2015 and another 245 over the next 6 years; average annual salary will be $60,000. The area should also see 248 additional indirect jobs. Perficient leadership intends to recruit from South Louisiana Community College and University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

This past spring, CGI announced it would employ 400 high-tech employees in a new finance facility in Lafayette. CGI will also recruit from the local high-tech educational programs. James Peake from CGI told the Advocate that the company has made an effort to keep tech positions "onshore" rather than sending them overseas. From the article:

CGI Vice President Dave Henderson cited UL-Lafayette’s top-ranked computer science program and Lafayette’s growing workforce and fiber-optic network.

This past summer, start-up Enquero announced it would open a tech center in Lafayette. The Milpitas, California company plans to hire 350 new employees by the end of 2017. City officials also expect to see 354 new indirect positions. According to Bloomberg Business Week, Enquero executives considered New Orleans, Baton Rouge, and four other states.

From City-Parish President Joey Durel's official statement:

"These are exactly the kinds of jobs we had in mind when we launched Lafayette's fiber-optic initiative in 2004, so I am thrilled to see that companies are starting to recognize what Lafayette has to offer with its affordable, gigabit speeds...I know Enquero will not regret their decision to locate in Lafayette. This community’s investment in itself is paying off.”