Virginia Town Provides Free Wi-fi in City Park, Fiber to Community Anchors

Last summer, the city of Staunton, Virginia, sent out a press release about its new citywide free wi-fi service. Four hours later, a destructive storm ripped through Gypsy Hill Park knocking down trees and damaging buildings. Nevertheless, the equipment held on. Five days later, celebrants at the city's July 4th party used the free service in droves.

A William Jackson GCN article from December, 2012, highlights the popularity of the network:

Wi-Fi use in the park had begun well before the formal launch. Almost as soon as installation of the access points began in May, park workers noticed people congregating with their laptops in areas near the points, Plowman said, demonstrating the demand for Wi-Fi access.

Public Wi-Fi has become a popular feature at the park. “People are finding creative uses for it,” [chief technology officer for Staunton, Kurt] Plowman said, such as the woman who used a laptop Web camera to send a ball game in the park to a player’s grandmother.

As we have seen in other communities, a wireless network enhances local connectivity as a complement to a fiber network. Staunton is the County seat of Augusta and home to nearly 25,000 people.

The City owns two separate networks. In addition to the fiber used by city facilities, there is a separate dark fiber network. The city installed the dark fiber with the intention of leasing it to the Staunton Economic Development Authority. The Authority then leases it to local phone, Internet, and wireless provider, MGW. MGW serves residential and commercial customers in south and west Virginia.

In 2012, the city built a new fiber institutional network to avoid having to lease from the private sector.

We touched base with Kurt Plowman who told us that the fiber connects twelve major city facilities, including libraries, fires stations, and public works facilities. There are also over fifty traffic signal cabinets and ten facilities in Gypsy Hill Park on the fiber.

When compared with the city's past lease payments for fiber and data circuits, payback will be complete in 10 years. Additionally, there are more facilities connected and bandwidth is increased.

Plowman also told us that the $1.25 million cost of the project was well below estimates. The build was a Public-Private Educational Facilities Infrastructure Act (PPEA) project in conjunction with Lumos Networks from Waynesboro, Virginia. Lumos performed the engineering, contracting, and project management in exchange for several strands of the fiber. Plowman tells us that all connections are 1 gig but that there is considerable room to increase capacity. Additional dark fiber was engineered into some routes for future expansion. Schools and libraries are connected for free. Update: We connected with Kurt Plowman again who told us that prior to Staunton's infrastructure investment, schools were paying $2,000 per month just to lease fiber.

Orange Wireless logo

In addition to serving schools, libraries, and government facilities, the fiber supports the free wi-fi. From the article:

For Staunton, the driver for public Wi-Fi was the creation of a 30-mile fiber optic city backbone about two years ago to replace the city’s leased lines. Thirteen years ago, telecos had leased the city’s dark fiber, but over the years they had become more interested in selling services than capacity, and the city decided to build out its own infrastructure in cooperation with a local carrier.

“Cost was a driving factor, along with bandwidth,” Plowman said. “We built a better network as a public-private partnership and saved a lot of money in the long run.”

The fiber links about 30 government locations, including Gypsy Hill Park, which has heavy use all summer. The park’s bandstand offers entertainment four or five times a week throughout the summer and there are frequent festivals and other activities. Officials decided that, “for what we’re spending putting fiber in, let’s put something in to give the public something for the expense,” Plowman said.

Staunton first invested in wi-fi about 10 years ago when it was installed in the public library. While city leaders considered providing it in other areas, they did not feel technology was ready to meet their needs. They were also concerned about competing with private carriers. Technology has since advanced and the city has taken special steps to avoid competing with private carriers in the vicinity of the park.

“I’m almost embarrassed to say how easy it was,” Plowman said of the wireless segment. “It was an opportunity to give something back to the public.”

In Washington, Mt. Vernon Attracts Businesses with Open Access Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode 38

Nearly 20 years ago, a small community between Seattle and Bellingham, Washington, began building a fiber optic network to connect key municipal facilities. In the years since, Mt Vernon has expanded the network to many community anchor institutions and businesses locally, including in two nearby towns.

Information Systems Director Kim Kleppe and Community & Economic Development Director Jana Hansen join me to explain how they began the network and what benefits they have seen from the investment.

They did not borrow or bond for the network and they don't have a municipal electric department, which makes them particularly interesting in this space. They also run an open access network that allows eight providers to compete in delivering the best services to subscribers. The network has encouraged several businesses to move to the community.

Our interview begins with an introduction from Mayor Jill Boudreau.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Cedar Falls Utility Gets High Bond Rating from Moody's

We have long been impressed with Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) in Iowa. They built an incredibly successful municipal cable network that has now been upgraded to a FTTH network. CFU transfers $1.6 million into the town's general fund every year, reminding us that community owned networks often pay far more in taxes than the national cable and telephone companies.

Last week, Moody's Investor Service gave an investor-grade A-3 rating to revenue debt from CFU, another sign of its strong success.

Moody's rating report noted the utility's large market share, competitive pricing and product offerings, expansive fiber optic network, long-term financial planning and conservative budgeting practices as reasons for the continued strong rating of the utility's revenue debt.

CFU also compiles the community savings resulting from each of its services by comparing its rates to nearby communities (see most recent comparison [pdf]). The benefits total $7.7 million each year, almost $500 per family. This includes a $200 difference in cable TV bills and a $130 difference in Internet service.

Video: Burlington Telecom Coop Effort Moving Ahead

In December, 2012, a group of local residents decided to engage in an effort to turn beleaguered Burlington Telecom into a coop. The effort has advanced and the organization, Keep BT Local, continues to gain pledges. To date, the organization has collected pledges in the amount of $108,000 for equity and $156,000 in loan pledges.

Keep BT Local is ultimately shooting for membership pledges from about 4,000 residential and business customers. The goal has been to collect $250,000 worth of pledges to move forward with incorporation this month.

Local Chanel 17 carried a discussion on the effort to get more info on the business plan. Alan Matson and Don Schramm, who head up the Steering Committee talked with host, Matt Kelly, about the venture and took calls from viewers.

In addition to a discussion about the the heart of what is "local," the group discussed the business plan and where challenges may arise.

The discussion is about 30 minutes long.

To Improve Minnesota Broadband, Look to Lessons of Electrification

Steve Downer is the Associate Executive Director of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, MMUA, and he previously served on the Blandin Foundation Strategy Board. He offered these thoughts on page 4 of the "The Resource" [pdf] from January 2013 and has allowed us to reprint them below.

According to online reports, House Commerce Chairman Joe Atkins has listed his top 10 issues for his Committee in 2013. Included on the list, at No. 4, is Telecommunications and Broadband Law Update. As municipal involvement has been a hot-button topic over the years, this should be of interest to municipal utilities.

The idea of re-writing state telecom law was a priority of the Ventura administration but, even with agreement among various parties that state law was antiquated the discussion never gained much steam, largely because the telecom companies decided the law was just fine after all. Efforts have been made over the years to remove or reduce the super-majority referendum requirement to build a municipal telephone exchange, but have withered in the face of vociferous opposition.

On the other hand, efforts to further restrict municipal provision of broadband service, a concern in recent legislative sessions, have also languished. So, what does Chairman Atkins have in mind?

Perhaps local interests, working through organizations like MMUA, could suggest the state needs to be more open to partnerships and local government projects, if it is ever to reach its broadband goals.

Cities have proven fully capable of providing a full range of telecommunications services over the years. Counties are providing cutting-edge communications services. The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services project (a consortium of eight cities) shows how ordinary people, working through their local governments, can work together to provide high-quality voice, video and data service at reasonable prices.

Renville Sibley Fiber Project

After much work, a similar project in Renville and Sibley counties has recently been stymied due to concerns over the ability of city-county partnerships to issue bonds. The project itself has been enthusiastically supported by rural and city interests and was well on its way to construction before last-minute legal concerns were voiced.

This is just the type of project the state should be fostering.

Yet, instead of recommendations to clearly allow this type of partnership in state law, it appears there may be efforts to stack the deck against local interests heading into the session.

The Minnesota Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, for example, recently released its Annual Report and Broadband Plan, including recommendations for the 2013 legislative session. The Report, while the result of much good work, bears the traditional hallmarks of large group writing efforts, and tilts toward the input of private interests that comprised the bulk of the members.

The report notes the obvious, saying, the private sector will play the leading role in expanding broadband access (it might as well have said ‘the sky is blue’).

Two sentences later, the report promotes “public-private broadband projects” but makes no specific mention of how to foster such projects.The recommendations that are made generally provide “incentives” (read tax breaks or subsidies) to private companies and doesn’t even mention local government, which has played a leading role in broadband provision in certain locales.

A number of recommendations are made, but a clear and consistent road map is lacking.

Some recommendations prove the point that governmental ‘pork’ is money that is going to somebody else. Current perks have apparently not been enough to ‘incent’ private providers to extend highspeed service in many areas. Yet, in some of these areas locals are more than willing to invest their own money to provide the service if they could just get the lawyers out of the way.

Minnesota Seal

On the other hand, calls for new positions in state government, to untangle the web of available programs, only seem to prove the point that if bureaucracy grows large enough, you will need more of it to make its purposes clear.

Then there is this recommendation, rich in irony: “to coordinate highway construction and broadband deployment projects,” and have the state install conduit that would presumably contain privately owned fiber optic cable.

Does anybody remember Connecting Minnesota? This was a late-90s proposal for MnDOT, in cooperation with a private partner, to lay 2,000 miles of fiber optic cable in interstate highway right-of-ways. Legal battles, largely with US West (now CenturyLink) led to the demise of this public-private initiative.

A perfect example of public-private partnerships exists in the electric utility industry. Despite animosities, largely in the formative years, municipal, investorowned and cooperative utilities jointly invest in capital-intensive projects on a regular basis.

Utilities do this because they recognize the level of capital needed to improve service to their customers, and realize an effective way to raise the needed capital is to partner with others willing to invest, regardless of philosophical differences.

Enacting guidelines to allow similar investment in our broadband infrastructure would similarly benefit citizens of Minnesota.

We are encouraged by Rep. Atkins’s inclusion of telecommunications on his 2013 session “To Do” list and encourage him to recognize the important and effective role municipals can play to help the state reach its 2015 broadband goals.

In Georgia, Monroe Muni Network Created Jobs, Lowered Bills

As we monitored Georgia's HB 282, a bill to limit the capacity of local governments to invest in Internet networks that spur economic development, we learned of many existing networks that have helped communities to thrive.

Brian Thompson, Director of Electric and Telecommunications in Monroe took some time to tell us a little about their city network.  Located in the north central section of Georgia, with a population of 13,000, the network now offers triple play services to residents and businesses. Its network started in the 1970s with a municipal cable tv network. Today, the network is a hybrid with fiber having been added as an expansion to its cable network.

Monroe's investment in its fiber began as a way to improve connections for education. The Walton County School District could not find a private provider willing to collaborate on an affordable network between school facilities. The city took on the challenge and built a point-to-point network which the School District paid for in 10 years. In the mean time, the city expanded its network in other areas. Now, the Walton County Schools have gig service between facilities and to the Internet. The District pays only $500 per month for a service that would cost five times more from a private provider.

Thompson also confirmed what we hear from other communities with publicly owned networks - prices for business and residential services are very competitive and service is superior. He notes that customers often express appreciation for local representatives, rather than dealing with a huge bureaucracy like those at Verizon or AT&T. New connections can be created in a matter of hours or days instead of weeks.

Residential service for Internet access from MonroeAccess.Net includes affordable basic service (1 Mbps / 256 Kbps) for $21.95 per month. Two faster tiers include $34.95 (6 Mbps / 512 Kbps) and $44.95 (15 Mbps / 1 Mbps). Cable tv rates vary from $15.50 to $62.95 per month and residential phone service starts at $29.95 per month. Thompson notes that, when Monroe added phone service, rates dropped for every one regardless of carrier. 

There are over 100 fiber customers and the network has been critical for economic security. T1 connections for businesses used to go for $1,000 per month; now higher capacity connections cost $250. Notable customers include Minerva, a beauty salon supplier with a large showroom and distribution center in Minerva. The multi-million dollar salon equipment company has headquarters in China but has nearly 30,000 customers in the U.S. Company owners required a fiber connection to communicate with the facility in real time. Monroe was happy to oblige.

Hitachi Logo

Monroe is also home to a Hitachi plant that makes parts for several auto companies. The fiber network allows the plant to communicate efficiently with the Hitachi headquarters located in Harrodsburg, Kentucky. The plant employs about 250 people.

Monroe never borrowed or bonded to build out its network. Thompson tells us the network has always progressed slowly and community leaders leverage partnerships with local interests along the way. The city used its capital investment fund for initial construction and continues to expand slowly with revenue obtained from offering services. Thompson tells us that their approach works for Monroe and shudders at the thought of legislators in Atlanta claiming otherwise.

Monroe's network travels well outside the city limits, over a nine county area, and HB 282 could have put an end to its expansion. Fortunately the bill was defeated on the House floor and for at least one more year, this community does not have to worry that the state will revoke its power to encourage economic development locally.

Christopher Mitchell at Freedom to Connect 2013

My presentation from Freedom to Connect on why we should support Community Owned Internet networks. Unfortunately, the video starts about 1 minute into the presentation. Please leave feedback below.

Rural Leverett Network in Western Massachusetts Moves Forward

Leverett, Massachusetts' broadband initiative has moved to the next phase in bringing fiber to residents. The town selectboard recently decided on a bidder to build the community owned network. G4S designed the network and also works with the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) as it brings a middle mile fiber network to towns across the western half of the state [PDF of service area].

An article in The Recorder alerted us to the development. Readers will recall that Leverett townspeople voted to ok a modest property tax increase as a way to help finance the ftth build out. From the article:

Indeed, after years of trying to convince private business to develop and offer high-speed telecommunication service in rural western Massachusetts, Leverett’s first-of-its kind network is being built with the help of a $40 million state bond, $47 million in federal stimulus funding and the town’s willingness to borrow to build infrastructure to attract service.

D’Errico said the cost of the project should be lower than $300 a year per median $278,000 property owner over 20 years.


...D’Errico said the $300 annual tax addition for the median value property is likely far lower than what residents are paying for their telephone, satellite dishes and cable service connections, and that having the town own the infrastructure likely means that the service contracts should also be a fraction of what they would cost otherwise.

Before construction can start, utility poles will need to be made ready for placement of the fiber optic cable. While this stage of the prep work is expected to take up to six months, hanging the cable would only take about three months.

MBI Logo

Leverett is inspiring other Massachusetts communities, who also want to own the infrastructure that will allow them to connect to MBI's network, MassBroadband 123.

In fact, Montague selectmen on Monday said they support a move by residents of their town’s Chestnut Hill section — which is contiguous to North Leverett — as they seek to connect with Leverett’s network. The North Leverett Firehouse, the connection point for Leverett’s fiber network to plug into MBI’s fiber network, would be the source of the connection into the system the roughly 50 Montague households seek to build.

As more local communities see how Leverett and similar communities overcome obstacles to achieve connectivity, we are confident that municipal networks will be options they consider.

An editorial in the Recorder points out how local leadership has played an instrumental role in the plan to expand connectivity in town and encourage other communities across the state:

However, it’s not only state government that has a role here. Leverett would not be poised to complete access without town officials seeing the role the town must play and an acceptance on the part of a solid majority of residents willing to see taxpayer money go toward this project.

Perhaps as the Massachusetts Broadband Initiative continues its work to provide access elsewhere, other towns will see that they, too, need to be part of the financial solution in wiring their community. Part of any persuasion, we think should start with what the governor said in October 2007. “Today’s global economy requires that every corner of our commonwealth be wired for the 21st century ... The digital divide that persists in too many Massachusetts communities has gone on for long enough.”

Thanks to the citizens of Leverett, we are closer to finally bridging that divide.

We will bring more on Leverett as the project progresses.

Colorado Town Plans Residential Survey For Community Owned Network

The town of Erie, Colorado, is conducting a residential survey as it considers a community owned network. Erie has about 18,000 residents and straddles Boulder and Weld Counties. 

The concerns facing Erie's community leaders were recently summed up in a John Aguilar article in the Boulder Daily Camera. According to the article, four companies were to be screened to complete a $50,000 feasibility study. The community owned broadband approach has both strong supporters and some doubters in town.

From the article:

Trustee Jonathan Hager, who has spent the last dozen years managing fiber-optic networks for a Westminster-based wholesale electric power supplier, championed the idea for Erie from both a local control perspective and an economic development one.

"If I'm a company and I'm going to relocate here with 100 employees and I need 100 megabits per second of speed and the town can provide that, I think that would be something I would look at," Hager said. "If we can make Erie stand out as a good place to live because we offer broadband, that puts us in a good position."

Internet access, he said, has become so ubiquitous and necessary that it could be seen as just another municipally provided utility, like water and electrical service.

"We can provide it ourselves and cut out the middle man," Hager said.

Those who are not sold on the idea of funding a study, express resignation at entering a challenging industry:

"I'm very sensitive to the speed of technology's progression," Mayor Joe Wilson said. "By the time we cut the ribbon on this technology, it's old news."

Wilson also voiced concerns about whether it is government's proper role to be providing broadband Internet service or whether that is better left up to the private sector. He said there hasn't been an outcry from residents to pursue such a service.

Clipboard for survey

The completion of a residential survey can clarify how the community feels about local broadband connectivity and help leaders decide how to move forward. Surveys are a common tool as part of feasibility studies, but in our experience the most important question to answer at this phase is whether the community has a vision and clear sense of what would be gained by investing in their own network.

Apparently, Erie is considering several different models. Also from the article:

Options for Erie included building and controlling the whole network itself or partnering with a private company to build and operate the system. The town is planning to issue a community survey later this year, which will now include a question about what priority the establishment of a municipal broadband system takes.

We will be sure to look in on Erie for future developments.

Democracy Now! Segment on Community Owned Networks

Last week, Catharine Rice and I were guests on a Democracy Now! segment filmed at the Freedom to Connect conference. We discussed what community broadband is, how it has benefited communities, and how a few big cable and telephone companies are trying to stop it.