Rural Kansas Cooperative Continues Fiber Network Expansion

In July, the Columbus Telephone Company (CTC), a cooperative in rural Cherokee County, Kansas, announced plans to expand its fiber-to-the-home network to the nearby city of Pittsburg. 

When CTC built the fiber network in 2004, it was the first 100% fiber-optic network in the state. This expansion marks the first time the coop has expanded outside Cherokee County, located in the southeast corner of the Sunflower State. 

New Branding for New Expansion

Last year, CTC announced the creation of Optic Communications, a new brand the company started to expand beyond their original footprint. The news of the expansion to Pittsburg comes after the network’s first expansion project last year. They built a fiber-optic ring that now links together Cherokee County’s three major cities: Columbus, Galena, and Baxter Springs. The coop has also acquired Parcom, LLC, the leading Verizon retailer in the region.

Subscription Details

Residential rates for stand alone Internet access from Optic Communications are $40 for 10 Megabits per second (Mbps), $50 for 20 Mbps, $65 for 50 Mbps, and $90 for 100 Mbps. All speeds are the same for both upload and download. Gigabit service is also available but rates determined on a case-by-case basis. Optic also offers customized bundles including subscription options for any combination of Internet access, phone, and cable TV service. 

Rates for the different bundled packages vary based on the number of cable TV channels the customer wants, access to DVR and HD capability, and which tier of phone service. The network also offers designated Internet access and phone rates for business customers.

A Long History of Innovation

The people in this rural community have a long legacy of telecommunications innovation. In 1905, a group of Columbus-based farmers started the CTC coop to bring telephone service to their rural homes. Throughout the 20th century, CTC provided phone service to people living within the 2.4 square mile serving area within the City of Columbus.

Now, over 100 years later, CTC continues to innovate and expand its publicly owned fiber-optic network, bringing fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to the people of rural Cherokee County and beyond.

Grassroots Springing Up In Holyoke, Massachusetts

For years, the city of Holyoke, Massachusetts, has built up a treasure trove of fiber that the municipal buildings [and some businesses] use to connect to the Internet. Now, some residents want to share in the bounty. The newly-formed Holyoke Fiber Optic Group plans to drum up grassroot support for a fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) project to bring high-speed Internet to the 40,000 residents of Holyoke. 

The group recently spoke with members of the city utility and are now on their way to the mayor's office in an effort to bring better connectivity to the city. The meeting with the mayor's office is scheduled for next Tuesday. The Holyoke Fiber Optic Group aims to form an exploratory committee of community stakeholders to dive into the possibility of a FTTH project.

Grassroots Effort

The group formed in November of 2015 and hosted its first meeting in early December. Members highlighted their frustration with the lack of access to high-speed Internet and pointed to the April 1999 Master Plan for the city. It specifically stated the need to capitalize on the fiber available.

Organizers maintain a Facebook group to discuss the issue in Holyoke and the latest developments in high-speed Internet. They call for an open access network to encourage competition and enable residents to pick their own service provider. The group now has over 200 members.

The group recently spoke with the manager of the city utility, Holyoke Gas & Electric. It maintains the fiber and provides telecommunication services to municipal buildings and other nearby towns. The city utility’s efforts to better connect communities was highlighted in a recent report from the Berkman Center (for more info check out our podcast interview with [David Talbot], a Fellow at the Berkman Center). On January 4th, the Holyoke Gas & Electric manager unexpectedly attended the group's meeting and explained how the city utility is continually considering this idea.

An Often Considered Possibility

Holyoke Gas & Electric has been contemplating the idea of a FTTH project for quite sometime. In our Community Broadband Bits podcast from 2013, Chris discussed the possibility with Senior Network Engineer Tim Haas:

"That's something that we have looked at for a long time here, Chris.  We've looked extensively at it for the past ten years, three different times -- probably every three years -- in depth.  And what the cost structure would be.  And it's one of those things where if we're going to deliver a service like that, to residences, it's -- well, we really have to deliver it to everyone.  And we've struggled with the return on investment of delivering fiber-to-the-home, and how we manage those services being delivered to the customer."

The Holyoke Fiber Optic Group, however, thinks that it’s now the right time to pursue FTTH. An organizer, Peter Palombella, explained in an email Wednesday to MassLive

“The Holyoke Fiber Optic group feels the city is ready to start exploring this issue and we hope to meet with Jim Lavelle [Holyoke Gas & Electric Manager] sometime in January to discuss forming an exploratory committee. … Not a full broadband committee with the power of a city agency, but a committee to explore the issue, in stages, with members from different stakeholder groups in the city."

Back in 2013, Senior Network Engineer Haas did say that Holyoke Gas & Electric has considered expanding to FTTH just about every three years. If the Holyoke Fiber Optic Group is right, perhaps 2016 will be the year for fiber to come to the homes of Holyoke.

#RightToConnect Twitter Town Hall Jan. 21

On January 21st, join the Media Action Grassroots Network and its partners for the #RightToConnect Twitter Townhall. The event takes place at 3 p.m. EST/12 p.m. PST. The conversation will focus on lifeline and finding ways to bring more low-income families online. MAG-Net and partners will bring together a number of those families with elected officials and advocates pursuing change.

The event will be hosted by comedian W. Kamau Bell, @wkamaubell. Guests will include:

  • FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, @MClyburnFCC
  • Senator Cory Booker, @CoryBooker
  • Van Jones, DreamCorps, @VanJones68
  • Panel of Eligible and Current Lifeline Subscribers

RSVP for the event, share the announcement with your friends, and send your questions to angella@mediajustice.org. Check it out, participate, be heard.

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Urban Renewal In Bozeman: Fiber Required!

Bozeman, Montana, continues to move forward toward a future of fiber optics connectivity. Last we checked in, the community had formed a nonprofit, Bozeman Fiber, to own and operate the community network, had started to secure private funding, and were well on their way to their end goal.

City leaders have now approved an update to the Downtown Bozeman Urban Renewal Plan to allow Tax Increment Financing (TIF) as a way to fund the project. This is an important step to ensure that the fiber infrastructure project maintains a sustainable funding source.

Amending the Plan

Ten years ago the city adopted an ordinance creating the Urban Renewal Plan and the TIF districts. The plan uses 9 principles to guide the development and growth of the community. City leaders approved amendments to the ordinance this past December to better prioritize the current needs of businesses and residents. The amendment in question would add the importance of fiber optics to the first principle, “Strengthen Downtown’s Economic Vitality.” Brit Fontenot, Director of Economic Development, described the necessity of the changes (from local news station KTVM):

"A lot of commerce happens downtown. It's not just art galleries and restaurants. We also have things like hardware stores and high-tech companies. In order to keep up with the demand downtown, we need infrastructure that can accommodate and, in this case, it's fiber optics." 

Tax Increment Financing

By amending the ordinance, the city can more easily use TIF funding for the construction costs of the fiber network. The idea behind TIF is that a community can borrow against the future increases in the property tax revenue of the area where the particular project will be developed. We’ve reported on this funding method before: it has been considered in Sanford, Maine, and Wabash County, Indiana.

The Proposed Network

Since early 2014, Bozeman city officials have actively pursued plans for a fiber network to encourage economic development for the community. Most recently, Bozeman Fiber secured $3.8 million in funding from a partnership of eight local banks. Check out Community Broadband Bits Episode 142 for more details on Bozeman’s plan for an open access community network.

Local Governments and Internet Access Debate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 185

For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are trying a discussion/debate format between myself, Christopher Mitchell, and Ryan Radia, Associate Director of Technology Studies at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. We have debated previously and prefer a style of seeking to flesh out the argument rather than merely trying to win it.

We start by discussing the role of incumbents in limiting competition and what might be done about it. Next we move to bandwidth caps. On both of those points, we have pretty significant disagreement.

We finish by discussing the role of conduit and poles, where we have some agreement. If you like this show, please do let us know and we'll try to have more in this style.

The transcript from this episode is available here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

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.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 19

California

Catching fiber by Kara Guzman, Good Times Weekly

“We’re solving our own market problems with a local company, through local government, to protect our community’s interests,” says Guevara. “This isn’t solely about technology. The Internet is access to the world and all the ideas and all the things to come that we can’t even foresee. 

 

Delaware

Newark, Del., to study municipal broadband options by Phil Goldstein, State Tech Magazine

 

Michigan

Charlevoix County to expand high-speed Internet to county transit by Jordan Spence, Petoskey News

 

Tennessee

Chattanooga, Tenn., utility's Smart Grid receives national environmental recognition by Dave Flessner, GovTech

 

Washington

Broadband adoption reaches a standstill in tech-savvy Seattle by Tod Newcombe, Governing

 

General

FCC Chair: 39% of rural America lacks broadband access by Chris Morran, The Consumerist

A big part of the problem with providing high-speed Internet to rural America is infrastructure. Many of these areas are served by old copper-line networks that telecom companies have repeatedly been accused of neglecting and allowing to fall into disrepair.

We still suck at bringing quality broadband to all Americans by Karl Bode, TechDirt

Big cable owns Internet access. Here's how to change that by Susan Crawford, Medium-Back Channel

Minnesota's Arrowhead Region Points to High-Speed Internet

Welcome to high-speed Internet on the Iron Range! This past fall, the Northeast Service Cooperative (NESC) completed a multi-year project, a fiber optic network spanning nearly 1,000 miles, on Minnesota’s north shore.

The project, the Northeast Fiber Network, connects public buildings, such as health care facilities, community libraries, colleges and universities, tribal facilities, and government offices. The fiber provides the opportunity for next-generation connectivity in many unserved and underserved areas of eight counties: St. Louis, Cook, Lake, Pine, Itasca, Koochiching, Carlton, and Aitkin. It’s exciting to see this rural project finally come to fruition.

Institutional Network: Now to Go the Last Mile

It’s an institutional network, which means it brings high-speed Internet to community anchor institutions throughout the region. So far, about 320 public entities, including 31 school districts, have connected to the network. The network is designed to provide middle mile connectivity for community anchor institutions, not to bring connectivity to residents and businesses of the region. As with most federally funded projects, the plan is to provide middle mile infrastructure with the hope that the private sector will be more able or willing to invest in last mile connectivity.

That last mile, to homes and businesses, presents a challenge. NESC is leasing fiber to public and private providers and working to ensure that the network can serve as a backbone to greater connectivity. Actively working with private providers, NESC offers a bright future for unserved and underserved communities on the Iron Range.

Collaboration & Funding

Through a combination of grants and loans from federal programs, the project began about four years ago. The total cost came to about $43.5 million: 50 percent loans and 50 percent grants. The federal programs supporting the project were the USDA (Department of Agriculture) Rural Utility Service broadband loan program and the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.  

Paul Brinkman, executive director of  NESC, described how the scope of this project would not have been possible without the collaboration of federal and local officials: 

“Although we have many people to thank for the success of this federal project, we are especially grateful for the spirit, dedication, and effort of USDA, elected officials, our board, our members, and our staff.” 

What’s Next for the Iron Range?

The completion of the network offers new opportunities for rural residents of Northeastern Minnesota to gain access to high-speed Internet. With the economy of the Iron Range in jeopardy, the network is a chance to improve economic development through next-generation technology.

Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight

A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.

The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections. 

In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.

East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges

The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.

Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require  new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.

In Calhoun County, the district is even worse off: 2,500 students share a 3 Mbps connection on a T1 copper line. Students can’t take state-mandated online tests or even perform online research. Teachers can’t access media or lesson plans, let alone enter attendance. For this nonfunctional connection, the district paid $9,275 each month.

After class, 17 year old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

In addition to losing out because Clemmie and her classmates didn't learn how to use the Internet for research, a significant amount of public dollars was spent inefficiently on poor quality telecommunications. With better, more affordable options, Clemmie's school could have redirected those same dollars toward classroom learning needs.

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than half of rural districts reported that only one Internet provider operates in their area - which means no competition and high-prices. Now, the FCC is overhauling the E-rate program to empower schools to build their own networks. 

Community-Owned Networks: A Possible Solution

At MuniNetworks, we have collected stories on our Community Anchor Institutions page to draw attention to the ways local community networks save public dollars and bridge the urban/rural digital divide.

For instance, the schools in Ottawa, Kansas, save $3,000 a month for twice as much bandwidth they used to get. In Carroll County, Maryland, the school district saves $400,000 annually. In rural northern Georgia, schools have real-time virtual music collaborations; schools have live interactive science demonstrations online in rural southwest Georgia. These savings and opportunities would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community-owned networks.

Rural communities often do not have a large tax-base to draw upon to support school levies to afford the exorbitant rates that private carriers charge each year. But a community network is an investment that sometimes provides an opportunity to later expand from schools and other public buildings to bring connectivity to homes and businesses.

Improvement Is Not That Far Away

In the Education Week articles, the E-rate changes empowered Calhoun County, Mississippi. In February 2015, the county requested bids from private providers to either offer faster, cheaper service or to build a network the district could own or lease for itself. The possibility of competition - the possibility of a community network - the incumbent provider offered 1 Gbps for $600 a month per school building. The threat alone was enough to get better rates.


Image courtesy of Chris Carey, Pics for Learning.

Reedsburg Utility Commission Receives State Grant for Expansion

In April 2015, Wisconsin's Brett Schuppner from the Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) had a conversation with Chris about the utility's plan to expand the municipal fiber network. Funding is one of the biggest challenges but in December, the RUC learned that it a state grant will help move those plans forward.

WisNews recently reported that the RUC applied for $110,000 to bring the triple-play fiber network to Buckhorn Lake in Sauk County. The Wisconsin Public Service Commission announced on December 11th that the RUC will instead receive $69,300 which will allow the network to extend to an additional 105 homes and 40 properties. From the article:

Schuppner said an informal survey of members of the Buckhorn Property Owners’ Association suggests the utility commission will likely recover its out-of-pocket costs for the project not covered by the grant of about $40,000 from new users in the first year.

RUC began serving the community in 2003, expanding in 2011, and offering gigabit service in 2014. The community is located about 55 miles northwest of Madison and home to approximately 10,000 people.

Ten other entities across the state also received grants. RUC anticipates construction to begin on this expansion early this year.

Task Force in Rural Connecticut Explores Community’s Appetite for Fiber

The newly formed Utilities Task Force in the City of Redding, Connecticut, is exploring the potential of bringing fiber connectivity to this rural town of about 9,000 people. Redding is about 65 miles northeast of New York City and just 25 miles north of Stamford.

As part of their feasibility analysis, the task force sent a survey to residents and businesses to gauge interest in bringing a fiber network to Redding. While the analysis is still ongoing, task force board member Susan Clark expressed optimism. “I’ve been energized by how many people have shown interest in this,” Clark told the News Times.

The task force believes if the survey reveals strong interest in the community for the nascent project, private Internet providers would be more inclined to help the community build the network. Community leaders hope that a new fiber network would attract new residents such as “knowledge workers” who depend on reliable, highspeed Internet access that allows them to work from home.

A second member of the task force, Leon Kervelis, told the The Redding Pilot that the task force has hopes the proposed network, if built, could eventually grow beyond Redding: 

“It’s not intended to be a single town project…we’d get several towns together in a conglomerate, and that municipal conglomerate decides procedures and financing for the infrastructure,” he said.

Kervelis also explained the task force’s proposed plan for how to pay for the network, saying residents and businesses would pay a small surcharge on their property taxes, a far cry from current rates:

“The benefit would be significant,” he added. “Some people are already paying $120 a month to the cable company. Compared that to an [estimated] $10 to the town of Redding. For businesses and residents, this would drastically cut the cost of communicating rapidly and instantaneously. This would be a vast improvement over the services currently available in town.”

Clark said she originally got her inspiration to pursue a fiber optic network project in Redding after learning about the state’s CT Gig Project. The project involves “a coalition of municipalities, state officials, and other interested parties committed to bringing high-speed, low-cost internet to all residents and businesses in Connecticut.” 

We wrote about the development of the CT Gig Project in early 2015. For more information on the goals and current happenings with the CT Gig Project, you can visit their website here.