Maine House Representative Pushes for Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 180

Eleven months ago, we noted the incredible energy in the Maine Legislature around improving Internet access. Maine State Representative Norm Higgins joins us this week for Community Broadband Bits Podcast episode 180.

Rep. Norm Higgins, a newcomer to the Legislature, pushed hard for legislation to encourage municipal open access networks as well as removing barriers to increased investment including a tax on the Three-Ring Binder project. He was part of a large majority that moved some key bills forward despite fierce opposition from Time Warner Cable and others.

We talk with Rep. Higgins about the various bills, including LD 1185, which would have created planning grants for community owned open access networks but passed without any funding.

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.

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.

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."

What's Next For Southern Tier Network?

With construction of a major community broadband network behind them, local leaders in New York State’s Southern Tier region are now considering the potential for the recently completed dark fiber network.

Since becoming operational in 2014, the Southern Tier Network (STN) is already serving over 100 industrial and government service entities across the region. STN is a not-for-profit, local development corporation that built, owns, and manages the network for the region.

Jack Benjamin, president of economic development organization, Three Rivers Development Corporation, explained the value of the network to the region in a July Star Gazette article:

This backbone fiber that we've got here is a huge benefit for us going forward. As this technology piece continues to be even more important in the future, because it's going to be changing all the time, we will have the base here that allows us to change with the marketplace. Part of our thought process here is we want to keep what we've got in terms of businesses and provide the infrastructure that allows them to stay here and be competitive.

Building Out for the Future

When we wrote about the STN in 2011, the planned backbone of the network included a 235-mile fiber-optic ring stretching across Steuben, Schuyler, and Chemung counties. Glass producer Corning paid for $10 million of the initial $12.2 million cost to deploy with the remaining balance paid for by the three counties where the network is located. The STN is now 260 miles total, including strands that run to city centers and select business areas in the tri-county area.

Additional expansions on the network are pending, including a 70-mile extension to neighboring Yates County. Thanks to a $5 million award from New York’s Regional Economic Development Council, the STN will also expand the network into “targeted business development areas” in Broome County and Tioga Counties. The network connects to the existing Axcess Ontario, another nonprofit fiber network in neighboring Ontario County.

Businesses Waiting for Fiber

Despite the network’s early success, major city areas continue to lack fast, reliable broadband connectivity because connections are happening slowly. Mike Mitchell owns multiple businesses in an Elmira industrial area in Chemung County, New York, where lit service is not yet available. Mitchell, who owns other businesses in neighboring counties, is eager for better connectivity to his business properties in the STN region. He described his frustration with his current poor service to the Star Gazette: 

It's very, very slow. It's hurting our productivity. We hear complaints from our tenants and all the other businesses on this side of the street. We have 15 employees here, and they're all on the Internet probably 90 percent of the time. If we can increase our productivity, obviously, it would be better for our business and better savings for our customers.

Closer than They’ve Ever Been

Community leaders are envisioning ways the network will improve the region’s economic development. George Miner, president of Southern Tier Economic Growth, Inc., a private not-for-profit organization aimed at economic development in Chemung County, sees growth potential in large industrial and governmental entities because they need to frequently and efficiently transport large data files.

Other community leaders see STN as a tool to serve residents in ways other than through economic development. Steve Manning, chief executive officer of STN, notes that home property values hinge today on broadband access. Prospective homebuyers see a fast, affordable, reliable broadband connection as essential as other utilities. Manning also points to a more holistic community service role for the STN. Again, from the Star Gazette:

Why was this done? It was done for public safety reasons. It was done for education and healthcare, for the community, developing fiber capacity that we didn't have. It's a civic utility. That's really what this is.

No Love Lost Between North Carolina A.G. And State Barrier

The State of North Carolina is currently awaiting a decision from the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals as the court considers the FCC's February decision to roll back state barriers. North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper's office is heading up the state's appeal, but is his heart in it?

Cooper is running for governor and, in a recent interview, expressed his views about H129, the focus of the appeal in North Carolina [emphasis ours]:

The Legislature has passed a lot of bad laws, but it is the job of the attorney general to defend state laws...And I wish the governor and the General Assembly would stop passing so many bad laws that create litigation. We’ve seen that in many instances. This is another situation where the attorney general’s office is duty bound to defend state law.

"Bad law" accurately describes H129, which is the reason why the FCC rolled it back in February. Perhaps Cooper's candid comment suggests that, if he one day becomes Governor, he will work with his colleagues in the state legislature to repeal it.

Rather than having to contend with this type of "bad law," local communities need the authority to make their own telecommunications decisions. After all, local folks are the ones that live with the results.

Montana Coop Turns Up the Speed: 16 Counties, 23,000 Square Miles

Montana may have high speed limits on roads, but this Montana coop’s network will let you surf the web even faster. Triangle Communications received an almost $30 million loan from the USDA to provide rural Central Montana with high-speed Internet access.

Triangle Communications will finish upgrading its aging copper network - a technology mostly used for telephone - to a fiber network that can support both telephone and high-speed Internet. The loan comes from the USDA’s initiative, announced in July, promising $85 million to improve connectivity in rural areas. The Triangle Communications coop is upgrading its entire system spanning 16 counties (that’s more than 23,000 square miles from the Canadian to the Wyoming border!). 

Since 1953, the coop has been at the forefront of changing technologies. It’s based in Havre but expanded in 1994 with the purchase of 13 exchanges from US West (now known as CenturyLink). The coop began upgrading to fiber in 2009 in order to provide its members with state-of-the-art service and technology.

For more information about the network and the award, check out local news coverage of the almost $30 million loan and Triangle Communications’ video.

 

Madison, Wisconsin Pilot: Fiber In The Fall

Four low-income neighborhoods in Madison will soon have access to fast, reliable, affordable Internet access, thanks to a municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) pilot program.

Fast, Affordable, Reliable...Soon!

According to a recent Cap Times article, installation will begin in the spring of 2016; community leaders anticipate the network will start serving residents in the fall. The cost of the pilot is estimated at $512,000. The original plan was to offer the pilot in two areas, but in the City Council recently approved an amendment to the city budget to cover the cost of expanding the pilot. Funds for the construction will come from the city's capital budget.

When the city first released its RFP, it received 3 proposals. Ultimately, the city selection committee chose the only FTTH proposal over two wireless proposals, citing reliability and speed as determining factors. Local Internet service provider ResTech will build the network, which will be owned by the city. Residential subscribers will have access to a minimum 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 10 Mbps upload (symmetrical) service for $9.99 per month. There will be no data caps.

Testing the Waters

The Cap Times reports that the results of the pilot will determine the next steps for the city, population 243,000, which has flirted with the idea of a citywide municipal network in the past:

In conjunction with the pilot, Madison will be pursuing a feasibility study and cost-benefit analysis to determine whether to expand the Internet service to other parts of the city in the future.

The city is working with Columbia Telecommunications Corporation for the feasibility study component as a parallel track to the pilot.

The pilot will be two years, and [Chief Information Officer Paul] Kronberger said they hope to have enough data to do the cost-benefit analysis after about one year of operation.

TN For Fiber's New Video On Family Life In Bradley County

In a new video, Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities profiles what it is like for a family living in Bradley County, just outside of the reach of Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optic network. Debbie Williams describes how she and her family struggle with a long list of issues most of us associate with the bygone era of dial-up Internet. 

Watch this video and you will realize how families just outside of statutory limitations of EPB Fiber are living a different life than families served by the network. No one should have to deal with these kinds of problems. As Debbie puts it, "It's just wrong."


DebbieWilliams from TN For Fiber on Vimeo.

Local Internet Improvement Districts in New Hampshire - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 179

Local governments in New Hampshire are quite limited in how they can use public financing to invest in fiber optic networks, but Hanover is exploring an approach to create voluntary special assessment districts that would finance open access fiber optic networks. Town Manager Julia Griffin joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode 179 to explain their plans.

Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against municipal networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has certainly limited local authority to ensure high quality Internet access.

But Hanover is one of several communities around the country that is exploring special assessment districts (sometimes called local improvement districts) that would allow residents and local businesses to opt into an assessment that would finance construction and allow them to pay it off over many years. This approach is well suited to Hanover, which has access to the Fast Roads open access network.

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.

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.

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 - November 27

Colorado

More questions and answers on county's broadband project by The Herald Times

 

Minnesota

Local telecom companies receive broadband grants, local projects supported by Nancy Madsen, Mankato Free Press

15 rural areas picked to benefit from $11M in broadband Internet funding by Adam Uren, Bring Me the News

 

New York

City of Rochester, Monroe County unite to improve fiber ring by Nate Dougherty, Rochester Business Journal

 

Tennessee

EPB, state attorey general clash over FCC rule on municipal broadband by Dave Flessner, Chattanooga Times Free Press

 

Washington

Seattle mulls building its own Gigabit fiber network by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

"No" vote isn't stopping push for municipal broadband in Seattle by Josh Cohen, Next City

Upgrade Seattle, a grassroots campaign fighting for municipal broadband, says this is actually a big step forward on their long road to public Internet.

“It was wonderful to just further the conversation with council and the media,” says Sabrina Roach, one of Upgrade’s volunteer organizers. “We were able to make the case for why Seattle needs municipal broadband.”

That case, according to Upgrade, is that existing Internet service providers — Comcast, CenturyLink and WAVE — are prohibitively expensive for some (and just regular expensive for many others) and don’t cover all areas of the city. The combination exacerbates the digital divide between wealthy and poor in an era when Internet access is a life necessity.

 

West Virginia

W. Va. must invest in broadband infrastructure by The Exponent Telegram Editorial Board

 

General

Internet giants come out in support of municipal broadband by Chris Morran, Consumerist

In response to that lawsuit, big-time Silicon Valley trade group the Internet Association, has filed an amicus brief [PDF] in support of the FCC and muni broadband expansion in general.

“Access to the Internet is today the modern equivalent to access to railroads, electricity, highways, and telephony in previous eras,” reads the brief. “And just as the federal government recognized and executed its role in encouraging, promoting, and facilitating universal access to those services, the federal government today similarly recognizes its role in promoting and facilitating access to broadband services.”

Markey backs FCC municipal broadband preemption by John Eggerton, Broadcasting & Cable

Broadband for the people, built by the people by John Turi, EnGadget

Levers to intensify broadband competion - Part 1: Spectrum by Blair Levin, Benton Foundation

“Crazy Fast” Connectivity Expands in Westminster, Maryland

Gigabit Internet access will soon be reaching more residents in Westminster. The high-speed municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network in Maryland will soon add more than 2,000 new homes to the network map.

The Incredible Expanding Network

The network is a product of a public-private partnership with telecommunications company Ting. The expansion provides more evidence of the continuing success of the network in this city of just under 19,000 people about 35 miles northwest of Baltimore.

The network was originally planned as a pilot project confined to small, select areas of Westminster, but high demand prompted community leaders to broaden the reach of the project. Eventually, Westminster budgeted for citywide infrastructure.

City Manager of the Ting project, Valerie Bortz, recently said of the network "we are super busy and happy with our progress.” In October 2015, the city released an RFP calling for bids from contractors to provide maintenance on the expanding network - more proof of the city's commitment to ensure the network’s growth and success.

More Money, More Fiber

The Phase 2 expansion was made possible by a $21 million general obligation bond agreement with SunTrust Bank, approved at a September City Council meeting. According to Common Council President Robert Wack, the bank’s willingness to buy the bonds came in part as a result of the proven high demand for fast, reliable, affordable, symmetrical fiber service in Westminster. He also added:

We don't want to spend money unless there is revenue from the payments to support the debt payments. The bank liked the fact we were being cautious about this. I'd like to go full steam ahead but we need people to sign up.

The bond agreement has been in the works for some time now:

All along, our plan was to borrow the money necessary to continue the build out. We are getting ready to take down the first draw that will be spent on engineering the next phase.

The city will pay off the bonds on a 30-year amortization schedule but have the option to convert the debt to a 15-year schedule if they find profits from the network allow a faster payment schedule. The city’s ability to pay off the loan faster will depend on the success of the network. The city can draw off the $21 million in bonds for five years.

Growth of the Partnership

Beyond this second phase of the project, Wack expressed optimism about the timetable for completing the two additional phases in the network map. "Ideally, we'd like to be done in three to four years, but it could easily go five to six," he said. Construction variables and the rate of new subscribership will influence the timetable.

In January 2015, Westminster and Ting entered into a partnership which was recognized as 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year” by the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA). The city owns, funds, and maintains the network while Ting has a 2 year exclusivity contract to lease the fiber and provide equipment and retail services. At the end of 2 years, the city will have the right to invite other providers to offer services via the infrastructure.

Ting, which markets itself as a provider of “crazy fast” fiber Internet service, also provides high speed broadband service in Charlottesville, Virginia with plans to make Holly Springs, North Carolina the next “Ting Internet Town.”

Listen to Chris interview Dr. Robert Wack, the man who spearheaded the initiative, in episode 100, and Tucows CEO Elliot Noss, parent company of Ting, in episode 134 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Fairlawn, Ohio Pursuing Design Plan for Muni Broadband Utility

Fairlawn, Ohio this fall took a “huge step forward” toward launching its own high-speed municipal broadband utility.

The City Council recently approved hiring a consultant to design and establish the business model for building “FairlawnGig,” a municipal broadband network. At completion, the city envisions the new utility will provide the community with comprehensive Wi-Fi connectivity and Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) service for businesses and residents.  

Faster Internet speeds  

“It will be a fiber network that will give one gig (i.e. gigabit per second or Gbps) of service, which is 1,000 times what people have right now,” City Deputy Service Director Ernie Staten said in an Akron.com news report. He added:

That’s a huge step forward for the City of Fairlawn. The future of TV, phone and Internet is to stream them all through the Internet. To do that with the current systems that we have is very difficult, but one gig of service would allow residents to stream as many videos as they want and to work from home as well as they possibly can.

In announcing plans for the project, earlier this year, the city said its goal is to:

...[O]ffer competitive fixed residential and business broadband services with speeds of 30 Mbps up and 30 Mbps down, and unique mobile Wi-Fi services with high-speed secure connections of 20 Mbps to smartphones and tablets throughout Fairlawn.

Besides the city of Fairlawn, a community of about 7,500 residents, the new municipal broadband utility would also include the Akron-Fairlawn-Bath Joint Economic Development District. The geographic area includes the communities of Akron and Bath in the new broadband utility service area. In Ohio, joint economic development districts are a vehicle to encourage communities to partner on infrastructure improvements, such as water and sewer service, without annexation. 

When the Fairlawn fiber network is completed, services up to 1 Gbps will be possible.

Public-private partnership planned  

Although many details of the project are still a few months off, the City anticipates forging a public-private partnership whereby it would own the fiber network but have it built and operated by someone else, Staten told us. The broadband utility would be funded through private financing and revenues from operations.

“Financing the construction of the network with private money will allow us to build the network much more quickly than we could on our own,” Fairlawn’s Mayor William Roth, a key project supporter, said in a news release earlier this year.

Staten told us, “The EDC (engineer design contract) should be complete by the end of the year with construction following close behind with the City Council’s blessing.” 

While building the high-speed, fiber-optic broadband network could take up to five years, the utility would also include carrier grade Wi-Fi service which could come online as early as 2016, city officials said in a news release earlier this year. The FTTH network will be open to multiple service providers in an open access arrangement.

Assuming no unforeseen wrinkles in the design and engineering phase, Fairlawn officials expect construction of the fiber-optic broadband network to begin next year. Roth said in the Jan. 12 news release:

Working with private partners who are experts in telecommunications will assure that FairlawnGig is a state­ of­ the ­art network that is built on time and on budget. The city of Fairlawn plans to provide right­-of-way access and other real estate assets to expedite the construction process. 

Improve the community with a “utility of the future”

City officials have said that building the broadband utility will be a boon to the community and the local business community. From the Jan. 12 press release:

Enhanced broadband services and fiber optic availability will strengthen and improve the delivery of police, fire and other vital municipal services and provide the city with access to cutting edge informational technology.

...

To be competitive in a global economy and attract new businesses and young professionals to our city, Internet access at a gigabit per second is imperative.