Ponca City Fiber: Serving Businesses, Schools, and Offering Free Wi-Fi

Its extensive free Wi-Fi has brought Ponca City into the limelight but the mesh network did not appear overnight. The community effort began with miles of fiber network that provide connectivity and enable the mesh network financially and technically.

Ponca City, home to 25,000, is located on Oklahoma's north central border; Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Wichita are all more than 90 miles away. The petroleum industry flourished in Ponca City until the oil bust in the 1990s and the population began to decline as workers moved away. Community leaders sought ways to salvage the local economy through economic development. They began to focus on the technology, manufacturing, and service industries.

The municipal electric department, Ponca City Energy, installed the first five miles of fiber in 1997 and five more in 1999 to connect outlying municipal buildings to City Hall. Line crews from the utility and the City Technology Services Department handled all installation to keep expenses down. The City continued to add to the network incrementally, exapanding it to over 350 miles. The network also serves the City's SCADA system.

In 2003, Ponca City Energy connected the local schools, and the Ponca City Medical Center to the network. The network also began providing Internet to the University Learning Center of Northern Oklahoma, now named the University Center at Ponca City. The Center collaborates with thirteen higher education institutions to provide distance learning in 48 online degree programs.

Ponca City eventually began offering Internet access via the fiber to commercial customers. According to Craige Baird, Technology Services Director, most businesses in the community purchase Internet access from the City. Revenue from commercial Internet customers, approximately $36,000 per month, pays for the wireless mesh network.

In 2008, Ponca City installed the wireless network for the City's public safety entities. The wireless complement allowed employees in the field to immediately transfer information that in the past required a drive back to the office. In addition to police and fire, employees such as electrical linemen, ambulance attendents, and code enforcement officers use the network. The City connected 25 percent of its 500 wireless routers to the fiber optic network, creating a robust mesh with ample bandwidth over 150 square miles. The City chose to use the excess bandwidth to provide free Wi-Fi to the public.

Wi-Fi logo

City officials estimate the network saves residents almost $4 million a year in Internet fees. Over 17,000 people use the free service, allowing them to keep more dollars in the local economy. The Wi-fi speeds range from 7 - 12 Mbps download. The network will support the community's upcoming technology plan to supply laptops and tablets for students. 

The City has also implemented a virtual desktop solution, allowing city employees to access their desktop from any Internet connection. To insure redundancy, the City has mutual fiber lines between its server rooms and its Disaster Recovery site, located miles away. The City received a 2013 Municipal Innovations Award from the Oklahoma Municipal League for its infrastructure and disaster recovery. From the Oklahoma Municipal League announcement:

Overall, Ponca City has started the technology move over twelve years ago with the first installation of fiber optic cable. But now that basic installation has grown to provide the backbone for an entire network that provides services not only to the employees but to the citizens and businesses in Ponca City. Technology will continue to be an important part of Ponca City’s future.

Kansas Legislature Introduces Bill to Limit Internet Investment

Get updates to this story here.

With Senate Bill No. 304 [pdf], the Kansas Legislature will consider a bill to revoke local authority to build networks. If passed, this bill would create some of the most draconian limits on building networks we have seen in any state.

The language in this bill prohibits not only networks that directly offer services but even public-private partnerships and open access approaches. This is the kind of language one would expect to see if the goal is to protect politically powerful cable and telephone company monopolies rather than just limiting local authority to deliver services.

The bill states that the goal is to

encourage the development and widespread use of technological advances in providing video, telecommunications and broadband services at competitive rates; and ensure that video, telecommunications and broadband services are each provided within a consistent, comprehensive and nondiscriminatory federal, state and local government framework.

Yet the bill does nothing but discourage investment, with no explanation of how prohibiting some approaches will lead to more investment or better services. It does not enable any new business models, rather it outlaws one possible source of competition for existing providers.

The bill contains what will appear to the untrained eye to be an exemption for unserved areas. However, the language is hollow and will have no effect in protecting those who have no access from the impact of this bill.

The first problem is the definition of unserved. A proper definition of unserved would involve whether the identified area has access to a connection meeting the FCC's minimum broadband definition delivered by DSL, cable, fiber-optic, fixed wireless or the like. These technologies are all capable of delivering such access.

However the bill also includes mobile wireless and, incredibly, satellite access. As we have noted on many occasions, the technical limits of satellite technology render it unfit to be called broadband, even if it can deliver a specific amount of Mbps. Satellite just does not allow the rapid two-way transmitting of information common to modern Internet applications. Mobile wireless comes with high costs, prohibitively low monthly caps, and often only works in some areas of a rural property. This is not a proper measure of having access to the Internet.

The second problem with the fake unserved exemption is the challenge of demonstrating an area meets it. If one suspected that a territory with over 90% of the residents did not meet the overly broad definition, one would have to engage in an expensive survey to prove it at the census block level. Data is not ordinarilly collected at that granular level - and even when it is, it is often based on unverified claims by existing carriers.

Even if anywhere in Kansas qualified as unserved under this definition, the cost of proving it would only add to the extremely high cost of building to such a low density population, breaking any business plan that could attempt it.

This is not the absolute most restrictive bill we have seen revoking local authority to build networks, but it is second. It does allow communities to build networks for public purposes, including schools, which is the differentiator in this case.

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These types of bills make a mockery of our political system. Whether to invest in essential infrastructure (or how to) is a decision that should be made at the local level, where people know how their unique mix of assets and challenges relate to ensuring everyone has fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet. There is no need for the state or federal authority to overrule local decision-making. The only reason we see it popping up in state after state (most recently Georgia) is because powerful cable and telephone companies want to ensure they face no competition - even in the most rural areas of the country.

This is not a matter of taxes. As we note in a recent fact sheet, most community networks have not used taxpayer dollars. Meanwhile, the cable and telephone companies have a history of benefits from the public sector, from ongoing subsidies to having built their networks originally as monopolies protected from competition.

For those new to this issue, I highly recommend our fact sheets on community networks, videos, and our interactive map of community networks.

We have covered many stories in Kansas over the years, including the network in Chanute that has helped many local businesses (see our case study) and a more recent investment by the city of Ottawa.

We will provide ongoing coverage as this bill moves forward.

The Real Threats from Monopoly - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #83

When we think about the threat of monopoly, we almost always focus on how monopolies can raise prices beyond what is reasonable. But there are many threats from monopolies and many are much more dangerous to a free society than higher prices. This week, monopoly expert Barry Lynn joins us for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lynn is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation and author of a book that I recommend very highly - Cornered: The New Monopoly Capitalism and the Economics of Destruction. Buy it a local bookstore or from an independent bookstore online.

We discuss whether companies like Comcast are correctly termed "monopoly" when they face some nominal competition and what the threat from monopoly is. Barry explains how both political parties have encouraged centralization even as both parties have had vocal opponents of such policies. And finally, we discuss how policies dealing with monopoly now are fundamentally different than they were for the vast majority of American history.

This is a great discussion - one of the most important we have done.

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 20 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Policy Brief: Building Community Broadband Access

In partnership with the Center for Popular Democracy, we have created a new policy brief: Building Community Broadband Access. We offer examples of communities that have acted to improve access by using smart strategies that facilitate community owned networks.

This fact sheet provides information to legislators, advocates, or concerned citizens who want to educate others about the benefits of publicly owned networks. This is the latest in our growing collection of convenient, compact, and instructive fact sheets. 

The Center for Popular Democracy works with a long list of local, state, and national groups to exercise grass-roots democracy. 

Download the Policy Brief [PDF].

Minnesota Broadband Conference February 4 - 5

Mark your calendar to attend Boarder to Boarder Broadband: A Call to Action on February 4 - 5 in St. Paul, Minnesota. The event is sponsored by the Blandin Foundation and a long list of organizations concerned with connectivity, economic development, and education ni Minnesota.

ILSR's Chris Mitchell will be presenting on February 5 as part of 9:15 CST Breakout Session, Broadband Infrastructure Development. Other Breakout Sessions are Digital Inclusion, Business and Economic Development, and Applications. A detailed agenda and speakers list is available [PDF].

A description of the conference from the registration page:

The time is ripe for Minnesota legislators and residents to have a “So what? Now What?” conversation about our shared aspirations for Border to Border Broadband:

  • The Governor’s Broadband Task Force is issuing their 2013 report and recommendations soon.
  • The director of the Office of Broadband Development will be in place in January 2014
  • Minnesota state legislators have been touring rural areas to hear directly from Minnesotans about their technology needs and dreams.

Conversations have been happening but…What does it all add up to?

The event will be at the RiverCenter in downtown St. Paul. Attendee tickets are $120 ($60 per day) and Exhibitors pay $300 or $60 if your organization is a nonprofit. You can secure your ticket by registering online. See you there!

Sun Prairie Ponders Fiber Network Investment in Wisconsin

The Sun Prairie City Council met on January 14th to discuss a possible investment in a municipal fiber network. Thank you to local resident Jonathan Kleinow for alerting us to developments in the south central Wisconsin town.

The Star published an article about the meeting in which The Motive Group presented information to the Committee of the Whole. According to the story, the consulting firm has been working with Sun Prairie Utilities for a year to find ways to improve local connectivity and spur economic development with fiber. The community is considering the possibilities of a triple-play FTTH network for the areas 30,000 residents.

Sun Prairie Utilities solicited responses to a community survey. They received 700 responses with 88% in favor of a fiber investment. 

From the article:

The recommended plan put for[th] by The Motive Group has a total cost of near $27 million, with $21 million of that as year-one capital expenditures to serve roughly 13,550 homes and businesses in the city.

Budgeted in the initial year's expense total is $11 million for aerial and underground construction and equipment.

Once the fiber system is operational and available for customers, [The Motive Group's Beth] Ringley said projections show $9.97 million in annual operating revenue by year 20 of the system to go along with expenses of $1.26 million.

By year 20, total assets are projected to be at $27.16 million, with total cash at $12.56 million.

Councilman Jon Freund commented that he was opposed to the idea at first but that he now believes Sun Prairie Utilities and the City could partner to distinguish the community. From the article:

“Technology has become a greater and greater need for both businesses and residents,” Freund continued. “This is an opportunity for us to basically differentiate Sun Prairie from all the other communities in Dane County.”

...

He added that fiber installation would “put Sun Prairie on the leading edge” for economic development and local and long-distance education opportunities.

Sun Prairie Wisconsin Logo

The Star also reported on Jaunary 25th that city officials want to provide ample opportunity to incumbents:

“The worst they can say is ‘No’ and we say ‘Thank you for your time‘ and we come back to this body and say we've ruled that out,” [Mayor John] Murray remarked.

Freund said he and others spoke Tuesday with Frontier representatives and the provider expressed little interest.

“It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city,” Freund said.

City Council members plan to reach out to the people of Sun Prairie through informational meetings. The first is scheduled for March 4th.

“My hope is that we continue to put additional information out over the next month to continue to educate the public,” Freund said.

Sun Prairie is located about an hour southeast of Reedsburg, where the community has benefitted from a community network since 1998. Reedsburg recently began offering gigabit service for less than $300 per month.

A local news story notes that an existing beer distributor is already using the utility's fiber and it has been important to its business:

Colbert Covers Network Neutrality

Enjoy...

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

A recent press release from the Merit educational and research network in Michigan announces a new connection to its Ohio sister, OARnet. Member entities and local communities now enjoy better redundancy, expanded reach, and better services. Local communities continue to benefit from the presence of the middle mile infrastructure.

The network helps local Hillsdale College to cut connectivity costs; the Merit announcement quotes Hillsdale College leadership:

"Hillsdale College has been a Merit member since 1992," stated David Zenz, executive director of information technology services for Hillsdale College, "and it was always a dream to figure out some way to eliminate expensive data circuit costs to free up funds to purchase more bandwidth. In 2008 The City of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, Hillsdale College, and Merit figured out how to do just that."

Through a long term collaborative effort, Merit, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, and Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) came together to establish the Hillsdale Community Network. Each entity now benefits from lowered connectivity costs, better infrastructure, and improved opportunities. 

A 2009 story from Merit, describes the situation at ISD:

In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations [ISD and Hillsdale College] and others in the area began to make sense. 

According to the article, Merit managed the project from start to finish. The City has cut costs and improved economic opportunity. Also from the article:

"We saw a cost reduction for the city," according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. "We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off." 

"We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development." 

The expansion to bring OARnet and Merit together is part of the REACH-3MC project, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. We recently reported on Merit's completed segment expansion to rural Alpena, also part of the project.

High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community it a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

Russellville EPB Logo

According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

Word of Mouth graphic

In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast. 

Burlington's Civic Cloud Collaborative Wins Knight Foundation Award

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded a Knight Prototype Fund grant to the Civic Cloud Collaborative of Burlington, Vermont.

The Civic Cloud Collaborative is a group of eight organizations using Burlington's gigabit network to create civic and public spaces. The group describes the Civic Cloud project on their website:

The Civic Cloud will be available for the community to use as a platform for public, non-commercial Internet applications and digital creative works. Several applications will be deployed during an initial prototyping phase of the Civic Cloud. High-definition live streaming will be provided for community media outlets to webcast live public meetings and cultural events. WordPress websites will be hosted for several Vermont non-profits including rescue squads, food shelves, job banks and historical societies. A collection of volunteer-developed applications and a state-of-the-art website deployed to the Civic Cloud will help Big Heavy World preserve and promote Vermont-made music. Lakecraft, an educational, multi-user game aimed at youth and adults that gamifies the Lake Champlain Basin, will also be one of the first applications to run on the Civic Cloud.

Vermont Public Radio also reported on the award. From the article:

“We’re interested in it being a non-commercial space on the Internet,” said Bradley Holt, a Burlington-based developer who heads CodeForBTV, the local chapter of Code For America, an organization for public service software developers.

The cloud service, Holt said, will provide hosting capacity for local community organizations seeking to use the Internet to advance the public interest.

For more, check out the press release from Code for BTV, one of the collaborative members.