EPB Offering Services Local Businesses Need

EPB in Chattanooga offers a service to business clients that offers a good reminder that local service providers have to be able to offer a variety of business services because different businesses have vastly different wants and needs. In 2012, the publicly owned utility began offering telephone service with cloud characteristics.

The service saves money by limiting the need of small businesses to commit to capital investment and personnel costs while offering the capabilities that larger firms with larger IT staffs have. A TimesFreePress article on the service from 2012 reported:

"We looked at an average business that had nine sets and eight lines, and it comes to about $320 per month, instead of thousands of dollars in up-front costs," [Katie] Espeseth [EPB's head of product development] said.

When businesses install them on their own, the systems and devices require employees to maintain, at a time when many companies are looking to streamline their IT departments.

"It really takes the burden of installing and maintaining your telephone equipment off your own employees and puts it with our company," said Espeseth. "In Chattanooga, if a small business can take the capital they were going to spend on a new phone system and invest it in their business, it makes sense to spread that cost out over time."

EPB did their homework and now provides a service that small businesses need at affordable rates. Understanding the needs of local businesses and offering a range of options is key to the success of local providers.

Fork in the Road For UTOPIA: Forward or Backward? Community Broadband Bits Episode #85

The Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, which we have written about many times, is at a crossroads. An Australian corporation specializing in infrastructure is prepared to infuse $300 million into the project but the Utah Legislature may prohibit it from expanding and even from using existing connections outside member cities.

We asked Jesse Harris of Free UTOPIA and Pete Ashdown of XMission to join us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #85 to sort out the stories.

Jesse explains the potential Macquarie investment and how the bill HB60 could hurt both that deal and more broadly, connectivity in the area. Pete Ashdown discusses how he learned of the bill and what it would mean to his business if the network were able to be expanded.

We previously spoke with Pete Ashdown and Todd Marriott about UTOPIA in Episode 3 of this podcast.

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 15 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Chris Mitchell to Speak at Fiber Event in Stockholm Feb. 21

On Friday, February 21, 2014, Christopher Mitchell will be speaking in Stockholm at the Stockholm Waterfront Congress Center. The event, titled Fibre: The key to creating world-class IT regions, will begin at 8:30 a.m. in Sweden (1:30 a.m. CST for viewers in the U.S.) and will be livestreamed.

Chris will be providing an update on fiber efforts in the U.S. He will join a distinguished line-up of speakers including Benoit Felton. Felton joined us for Broadband Bits podast episode 21 to talk about his work in Stokab.

From the announcement:

The 21st century has presented a major shift into the digital age and enabled us to make fundamental progress in areas such as connectivity and sustainability. Access to the digital age is to a great extent made possible thanks to high-speed connectivity through fibre infrastructure.

Experience and international rankings show that fibre roll-outs and open networks are crucial in order to fully exploit the possibilities a connected society offers – stronger regional development, increased growth and sustainability. We can also see that when public and private sectors cooperate competitive, affordable and sustainable infrastructures have been accomplished.

Community Fiber Is Not Just About the Fiber

The focus on community networks tends to linger on the technology - FTTH is much faster and more reliable than cable or DSL services. But community fiber is only partially about the superior technology, as evidenced by a recent story over at Broadband Reports - "Verizon has been Quietly Increasing FiOS Fees."

We don't see this behavior in Chattanooga, which has gone over four years without raising the fees for Internet access to telephone services. Community networks rarely increase their fees because the cost of delivering Internet and telephone services declines over time. Television prices go up, though less rapidly for community networks than big cable firms because the big firms demand a bigger margin.

Further, we see that Verizon has been sneaking its price increases into things like the router rental fee, as Comcast and most providers have long done. At one point, renting the Comcast modem cost me $2, then $5, now $7, and in some places $9 I hear. Per month. I bought my own now - took less than a year to payback. But my bill has gone up even more since then, so I didn't gain much.

Now Verizon is even charging for battery backup units:

In addition to price hikes, promotion cuts, the new gateway rental fee and the activation fee, Verizon also recently started charging users for the backup batteries in their ONT units, first charging users for backup battery replacement, then charging users to get any backup battery in the unit to begin with.

Anytime you hear someone arguing that munis should only be able to build their own networks where the private sector absolutely refuses, recall that community owned networks are not simply a consolation prize, they are often superior. Better customer service, lower rates over the long term, and more likely to invest in upgrades as needed - there is no good reason to condition this investment on the refusal of some other distant company to provide an inferior alternative.

Being a Gig City: Incubating Small Businesses

This is the first in a series of posts examining a premier Gigabit Community - Wilson, North Carolina.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 85% of all jobs originate from companies with fewer than 30 employees, and 87% of businesses which started through business incubators have succeeded after five years. So Wilson, North Carolina, focused its "Greenlight" gigabit beam on its local business incubator, the Upper Coastal Plan Business Development Center. "Greenlight is driven by three guiding principles," said Will Aycock, the network's General Manager. "Supporting the economic health of the community, improving the delivery of city services, and enhancing the quality of life for the citizens of Wilson." Providing access to symmetrical gigabit speeds has allowed the community's small business incubator to take its services to the next level, to give budding entrepreneurs access to the future today and in a uniquely affordable way.

According to Greg Goddard, Executive Director of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Government, access to gigabit speeds has meant "Taking our incubation to the next level." Historically their business incubator has attracted "low tech" entrepreneurs: consultants, counselors, state associations, childcare and healthcare providers, people who need work space after normal office hours, even Chic Fil-A administrators, for employee training. The incubator provides a full suite of services including a receptionist, copy and fax machines, phones, 24 hour secure entry, kitchen, meeting rooms, training classes, access to experts, parking, and now, symmetrical gigabit speeds, all for an affordable price. "An 8' by 8' cubicle with those full-suite services leases at $275/month," he said. The goal is to stimulate budding internet-age businesses.

Free Wi-Fi in Wilson

And it has, even for young entrepreneurs elsewhere in the state. For a tech entrepreneur like Dan Holt from Wake Forest, renting space at this Wilson-based incubator lets him be part of the future, and to experience the possible which is impossible at his home in Wake Forest only 30 miles away. Dan is a self-described techie for a local Raleigh defense subcontractor but he likes to be known as founder of the Wake Forest Fiber Optic Initiative.

Dan wanted to put together research for his town government on why they needed to establish a fiber to the home network in Wake Forest. That search led him to Wilson. "They are the only Gigabit City in North Carolina. It's 30 minutes from my home. Not every town has an incubator where you can rent a cubical or office space affordably, giving you access to things like a receptionist, mailroom, fax machine, office space, and gigabit fiber internet. If I were to branch out into any major city, it would be in the $1000's of dollar range, just for the internet service alone. They are passionate" about their Gigabit network in Wilson. "They are mentoring the rest of the state."

Having access to Gigabit speeds in Wilson's business incubator has allowed Dan to connect servers and to mirror "what normal life would be if I had Gigabit access in my Wake Forest home." "The future is all about video," he reiterated. "I have several computers tied into virtual machines I can load up with Netflix and run at the same time." In Wilson, he said "It works." "You can connect easily to places that can take advantage of these upload speeds: DropBox, Google Drive, YouTube, sending large files through Microsoft Exchange. Some websites can't even take advantage of these speeds. The bandwidth at their end is not there."

Wake Forest Gigabit Logo

According to Dan, Wilson is set for the future because of its Gigabit network, and he wants the same for Wake Forest. "If you look at South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, there are no networks like this and it won't stop at 2 gig, it's going to 10 and then multiples." He continues, "As time goes on, as more folks find out about Wilson, the City is going to lure alot of people in from around our region, and from other states. If you look at the broadband maps out there, Virginia is the only state close to DC that comes anywhere near this capacity."

When asked if he'll move to Wilson, Dan responded "As a techie, in a heartbeat," but he owns his home in Wake Forest. For now, his Gigabit City incubator has provided him the ability to explore a public/private relationship with the Town of Wake Forest, a place where he could take his Mayor and IT Director and show them what is possible. He would, he added with a virtual wink, like to show Wilson's gigabit capability to his defense industry boss.

In July 2013, Wilson was honored to be North Carolina's first Gigabit City (community-owned). Folks keep asking us "What is it like to be a GigCity?" We plan to release a series of vignettes on how our gigabit infrastructure contributes to why Wilson is a great place to live, work and play in the 21st Century. For more information, contact Jerry Stancil at jstancil@wilsonnc.org (252) 293-5313.

March 7th Deadline for Connect America Fund Expressions of Interest

We reported last month on a decision from the FCC to make Connect America funds available to expand broadband. At the time we did not have much detail on the measure, but on January 30th, the FCC released its official statement. The agency reached a unanimous decision to open up Connect America Fund dollars for experimental projects.

The FCC restructured the Universal Services Fund (USF) in 2010 to create the Connect America Fund. Until now, those funds were only available to large incumbents. Because some incumbents did not want to be bound terms associated with the funds, they did not take the money and so a portion of it has not been distributed.

In the January 30th announcement, the FCC stated that it will open up funding to entities other than large incumbents in experimental processes, including nonprofits, cooperatives, municipal and tribal governments, and private businesses. The FTTH Council reported:

Specifically, the Commission’s order outlines a call for multiple pilot projects to examine how best to make the technology transition while preserving consumer welfare and promoting the widespread deployment and use of broadband networks. As part of those projects, the Commission, informed by recommendations of the FTTH Council, will be using “test beds” to experiment with different models of bringing next-generation high-speed broadband to rural areas. 

Interested parties must first file an expression of interest, describing how they would invest the funds. In keeping with the original goal of the Connect America fund, the FCC hopes to hear from organizations with rural broadband project plans. According to a Daily Yonder article on the process:

[Jonathan Chambers, the chief of the FCC’s Office of Strategic Planning and Policy Analysis] said the initial “expression of interest” isn’t a complex document. The FCC wants to hear who is interested in applying for support, what homes or institutions they want to serve and an estimate of the cost to get the job done.

Once they have that information, the commissioners will consider the next steps in creating the funding stream, Chambers said. A background report on the funding experiment asks rhetorically whether the FCC should fund the program at $50 million or $100 million and whether the funding should be spent in one year or over several.

March 7, 2014 is the deadline to submit expressions of interest. The FTTH Council is holding a webinar on February 6, at noon Eastern to share tips on filing an expression of interest. If you are unable to sign up for the webinar, it should soon be archived and able to view.

Information is also available on the January 30, 2014 FCC meeting report. Flip to page 31, paragraph 86 for more specifics on the report and order. Page 38, paragraph 105 provides detailed information on the expression of interest.

UTOPIA Again Targeted by Bill in State Legislature

Kansas is not the only place where the cable and telecom lobbies are attacking publicly owned networks. Jesse Harris from FreeUtopia.org reports that State Rep. Curt Webb has introduced HB60, aimed at UTOPIA. From the story:

As the bill is currently written, UTOPIA wouldn’t just be prevented from building to people willing to pay for it. They could also be required to shut down any existing services and be prohibited from maintaining their backbone that links cities together. It would effectively be a death sentence on any network that isn’t entirely within member cities AND can connect to an exchange point to reach ISPs and the rest of the Internet.

FreeUtopia also reports that the bill does not affect cable, DSL, wireless, or any other technology. Harris writes:

Naturally, I had to follow the money and it explains a lot. Rep. Webb has taken contributions from CenturyLink and the Utah Rural Telecom Association. 

As an observation, I take issue with the state's fiscal note on HB60. It reports that enactment of the bill "likely will not result in direct, measurable costs for local governments." The fiscal note also concludes that "enactment of this bill likely will not result in direct, measurable expenditures by Utah residents or businesses."  

If this bill ends UTOPIA in certain areas, affected government, residential, and business customers will lose the competitive rates they now enjoy - direct and measurable! See Pete Ashdown's comment on Jesse's story - he runs XMission, a beloved local ISP that uses UTOPIA to connect to some subscribers.

This bill is another example of how cable and telephone company lobbyists are not just trying to shut down municipal networks, but any possible public private partnerships. This is emphatically not about tax dollars, as Jesse rightly notes:

These extensions help lessen the burden on taxpayers as a whole by shifting more of the costs onto subscribers, but it doesn’t cost any city a red cent.

A Roadmap for the FCC To Ensure Local Authority to Build Networks - Community Broadband Podcast #84

When the DC Circuit Court handed down a decision ruling against the FCC's Open Internet (network neutrality) rules, it also clarified that the FCC has the power to overrule state laws that limit local authority to build community networks. Harold Feld, Senior Vice President for Public Knowledge, joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode #84 to explain the decision.

Harold exlains what Section 706 authority is and how all the DC Circuit judges on the case felt that the FCC, at a minimum, has the authority to strike down laws that delay or prohibit the expansion of broadband infrastrcturue.

We then discuss how the FCC can go about striking down such laws to reestablish local authority - a community in a state like North Carolina could file a petition with the FCC for action or the FCC could decide to take action itself. Either way, it will have to build a record that laws revoking local authority to build networks are harmful to expanding this essential infrastructure.

Finally, some of this power filters down to state public utility commissions, but just how much is unclear at present.

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 15 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

OnLight Aurora Partners with the City for Better Connectivity in Illinois

Nine years ago, Aurora officials decided it was time to reduce telecommunications costs and upgrade to a faster, more reliable network. The local government built a fiber network to service municipal government, but developed long-term ideas for the network to benefit the entire community.

Nonprofit OnLight Aurora now uses the City's fiber optic network to provide high-speed connectivity to educational institutions, businesses, healthcare facilities, social service entities, and major non-profits. The organization leases fibers from the City's fiber optic network and provides Internet access at affordable rates.

Aurora is the second most populous city in Illinois. The municipal government spans 52 buildings over 46 square miles. Before the city's fiber network, connections were a patchwork of varying speeds and capabilities. Employees in a building with a slow connection would need to travel to City Hall to access a high-speed connections to use the city's bandwidth intensive applications. The network was old, unreliable, and expensive. The Director of Onlight Aurora recently spoke with Drew Clark from Broadband Breakfast :

"In 2005-2006, we came to the conclusion that we were paying $500,000 a year [to telecommunications providers] for leased line expenses,” said Peter Lynch, Director and President of Onlight Aurora.

The 60-mile network, constructed from 2008 - 2011, cost approximately $7 million to deploy. At the beginning of the process, payback was estimated at 10 years. While the short-term goal was to cut municipal connectivity costs, community leaders intended to expand its use in other ways. The City now saves approximately $485,000 each year from having eliminated leased lines. From a Cisco case study on Aurora [PDF]:

Conduit

“With local governments increasingly facing limited resources, you have to be able to find efficiencies in operations.” Although the cost savings are gratifying, [Ted] Beck,[Chief Technology Officer] notes that that was just the beginning: “The priority for the fiber optic network was initially cost savings; however we’re realizing that the benefits don’t end there. We’ve had some super wins with this technology, and we’re going to keep leveraging the infrastructure.” Mayor Weisner confirms these successes: “Pretty quickly, we saw a return on investment, both financially and otherwise. We have a much greater capability and fewer problems.” 

In 2011, Aurora received a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) administered through the Illinois Department of Transportation. When the FHWA sought communities for the pilot program and accompanying grant, Aurora's existing fiber network was a plus. During construction of the city network, Aurora had installed extra fiber strands in its conduit. City traffic engineers used several strands to synchronize intersections to improve traffic flow. The grant, of approximately $12 million, upgraded 60 traffic signals. It also allowed Aurora to eliminate all remaining debt on the network.

From the Broadband Breakfast article:

“We have been able to see better movement of traffic, which alleviates congestion and air quality,” said Eric Gallt, the city’s Traffic Engineer. The fiber loop enables city traffic officials “to see what is going on remotely, and it decreased the cost of the project by 50 percent or more.”

That same year, Mayor Tom Weisner formed a broadband task force to field specific ideas for best utilizing the fiber optic network. In 2012 the group created non-profit OnLight Aurora. The organization received a $25,000 grant and a three-year $150,000 loan from the City. OnLight and Aurora entered into a 20-year agreement for OnLight to lease network fiber strands from the City. OnLight would then lease access to the fiber backbone to other entities at affordable rates.

Aurora Illinois

In 2012, OnLight Aurora received a $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge award. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity awarded the grant as seed money. OnLight Aurora also received another $1 million in matching public and private funds. The organization used the funds to offset costs of connecting customers and to expand to better reach developing business parks and healthcare facilities. Schools, medical centers, social services agencies, arts & entertainment entities, and businesses now connect to the network at speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

In August 2013, Indian Prairie School District 204 announced its plans to expand its technology program. The connection allows the District to connect two of its data centers. District 204 obtains a 10 Gbps connection from OnLight Aurora for $39,600 per year. OnLight provides ample bandwidth for the district's bring-your-own-device initiative. A portion of the $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge grant paid for the cost of connecting the fiber.

OnLight also offers wireless connections as an economical way to serve small- and medium-sized businesses. OnLight uses city-owned towers and buildings that are already connected to the fiber for wireless point-to-point connections. The wireless complement will connect schools, businesses, and other entities when a lengthy fiber connection is too costly.

Businesses in Aurora are connecting to the fiber. An August Beacon-News article on the wireless plan also tells the story of security company Alarm Detection Systems (ADS). The company went from T1 connections at 1.5 Mbps to 20 Mbps connections from OnLight for approximately $500 per month. From the aricle:

While cases vary based on a number of factors, the upfront installation cost for Alarm Detection Systems offices to connect directly to the fiber network are about $19,000, according to [company IT Manager Mark] Schramm. But the reliable and fast connection will save the company money in the long run.

“We’re saving money and believe we’re getting a better product,” he said.

According the a recent Beacon-News article, OnLight Aurora is now reaching out to local businesses through seminars. An article about the January 29th seminar quoted a city official:

“Attendees will receive the necessary tools to better understand and employ the OnLight Aurora network resource for their businesses and organizations,” said Clayton Muhammad, Aurora Director of Communications.

OnLight Aurora's three year plan includes doubling it's current length to 100 miles. The network is completely underground and any carrier has access to the infrastructure.

Cable Industry Dumps Dark Money into DC

The Center for Public Integrity released data last year showing some of the ways big cable companies are distorting our republic by funnelling millions into political groups working to further the interests of massive corporations rather than local businesses and citizens.

The head cable lobbying group, the National Cable & Television Association, collects some $60 million in membership dues, and is currently headed by a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Michael K "Revolving Door" Powell makes some $3 million a year.

They spent nearly $20 million lobbying in 2012, employing 89 federal lobbyists of which 78 had worked in government jobs.

This cable cabal donates heavily to groups like Americans for Prosperity while also donating to both sides of the aisle, from the Democratic Attorneys General Association to the Republican Mayors and Local Officials coalition. One has to spread the wealth around to ensure they can continue their cozy relationship and not fear any real competition.

Until we fix the way elections are financed, we cannot hope to match the political might of a few massive monopolies.