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.

Defender of Big Telecom Admits Copper Can't Compete

The incomparable Diane Rehm show on WAMU recently tackled the network neutrality ruling [listen to it there]. Guests included Cecilia Kang, Susan Crawford, and Jeffrey Eisenach from the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank famous for promoting what is best for massive, politically influencial firms. Jeff and I both took part in a debate about municipal networks a few years ago - watch here.

It is a good panel with numerous perspectives and back and forth. But I was surprised to hear Eisenach confirming a main argument Susan, myself, and many others have been making: that copper is insufficient. People like Eisenach are forever over-estimating what DSL can do, claiming that we don't need massive fiber investment.

But the conversation turns to Europe about 34 minutes into the interview and in explaining why he thinks Europe has fallen behind the U.S., he says "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Now, he was quoting in the previous paragraph, so he may claim that his recognition of copper limits was nothing more than a quote to someone else - but he quoted it quite approvingly. And most of us in the United States are stuck with that same technology as our only competitor to the local cable monopoly.

Make no mistake. We do need fiber networks, as even industry concedes in more and more cases - see Cox suddenly investing in FTTH - but we also need accountability. Just convincing big, unaccountable global corporations to invest in fiber won't improve our local economies as much as we need.

The Challenge of Open Access - Lessons Learned Part III

To finalize our series on reflections from Seattle and Gigabit Squared, I discuss open access networks and how the requirement that a network directly pay all its costs effectively dooms it in the U.S. Read part one here and part two here. I started this series because I felt that the Gigabit Squared failure in Seattle revealed some important truths that can be glossed over in our rush to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.

The benefits of public-private-partnerships in these networks have often been overstated while the risks and challenges have been understated. We have seen them work and believe communities should continue to seek them where appropriate, but they should not be rushed into because they are less controversial than other solutions.

Sometimes we have to stop and remember that we will live for decades with the choices we make now. It was true when communities starting building their own electrical networks and is still true today. I hope the series has provided some context of how challenging it can be without removing all hope that we can stop Comcast, AT&T, and others from monopolizing our access to the Internet.

In this final piece, I want to turn to a different form of partnership - the open access network. I think it follows naturally as many in Seattle and other large cities would be more likely to invest in publicly owned fiber networks if they did not have to offer services - that being the most competitive, entreprenuerial, and difficult aspect of modern fiber networks.

Chattanooga construction

The desire to focus on long term investments rather than rapidly evolving services is a natural reaction given the historic role of local governments in long term infrastructure investments. Fiber certainly fits in that description and as many have noted, the comparison to roads is apt. An open access fiber network allows many businesses to reach end users just as roads allow Fedex, UPS, and even the Post Office, to compete on a level playing field.

In an open access approach, the local government would build the network out to connect all residents and businesses but not directly deliver services. Instead, multiple independent Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would compete on the network for business, ideally specializing in different niches - some providing great video game optimizations and others focusing on meeting small business needs.

Unfortunately, there are reasons we have not seen this approach gain widespread traction. The model is more difficult than is readily apparent.

A large part of the difficulty comes from incumbent providers that refuse to use the fiber network. The cable and the telephone companies claim that they don't want to abandon their assets, but that is not the main reason they have refused to participate in these networks. The big cable and telephone companies know that they have terrible reputations and would be slaughtered in a competitive market - so they put great effort in ensuring that they face as little competition as possible. Allowing the open access market to develop would all but ensure mighty Comcast would have to compete against local providers that offer much better customer service, lower prices, and more.

From an economic perspective, an ideal open access network would be one physical fiber network on which all ISPs compete. With a take rate over 80 percent, the revenue would likely be sufficient to pay the costs of building the network, operating costs, AND the ISP costs. But because the cable and telephone companies have fought against open access, subscribers are often split among three different physical infrastructures (cable, copper telephone lines, and the fiber network), generating too little revenue to pay the costs of building the fiber network.

If a major metro area does a feasibility study to build a citywide open access network fiber, it will find that the network will almost certainly not pay for itself using a conventional private sector accounting system. The interest on the debt required to build the network accrues faster than revenue. Of course, the roads and bridges don't pay for themselves via user fees either, but we still invest in them.

Community BB Logo

In a recent podcast, we discuss how over the first five years, a network can save more in aggregate for the community that it costs to build. But those benefits acrue individually to households. Thus far, very few communities have used this approach - to raise monthly taxes by $3 to save $10 on household telecom bills, for instance. Leverett is a rare example of this approach.

That does leave another option - building an open access network incrementally, as Danville has done in Virginia and Palm Coast FiberNet in Florida, among others. This is a viable option for just about any community but comes with the difficult reality that connecting everyone could take decades. And there are still other gotchas.

Some communities that wanted to build an open access network have found it can be challenging to find service providers that will operate on the network. Sometimes a local ISP can step up, as in Danville and in other cases, but not always. Until a network has thousands of potential subscribers, ISPs may not be interested in offering services. But incremental approaches will often start with just tens or hundreds of subscribers.

We have written elsewhere of how important it is to have at least one strong, trusted provider on the network. An important lesson from Provo, among other places, is the difficulty in recovering once a network has a bad reputation. A bad provider can ruin the name of a perfectly good network, especially as most people will not know whether to attribute any problems to the physical network or ISP.

UTOPIA Logo

All of that said, open access offers a tremendous promise. Networks like UTOPIA and Chelan PUD (Washington) have been unable to pay the capital cost of building the network solely from revenues but offer some of the fastest speeds in the nation at a fraction of the price we pay elsewhere. I recall the testimony of a local business to the Utah Legislature who basically said, "Yeah, my taxes went up a little -- but my monthly telecom bill went down a lot."

Nonetheless, nearly every municipal fiber network has been built and financed with the expectation that it would pay for itself - generally breaking even years after the high upfront investments have been made. Each community should be free to choose what expectations it has in building the network it needs to ensure a vibrant economy and high quality of life for everyone. Our role has been to help them understand that choice and push back on those who want to take it away. I hope this series helps in that effort.

Many of the municipal fiber networks that now directly provide services started with a hope of working with a local partner or building an open access network. As they considered their options, they found they effectively had to choose between doing nothing and venturing into a very challenging business.

There are few easy answers for communities stuck with subpar Internet access, or even for those that regard "par" as unacceptable. When Lafayette Mayor Joey Durel was presented with the idea of a municipal fiber network shortly after taking office, he was skeptical. But he ultimately decided they should examine it - saying "shame on us" if they didn't at least see what they could do. Maybe they would hit a brick wall... or maybe they would build one of the most impressive broadband networks in the country. That was good advice.

No one solution works for every community. Thus our guiding philosophy: communities should be free to choose for themselves the solution they prefer.

Construction photo courtesy of Chattanooga Electric Power Board

Over the Top Video: A Peak or a Path Forward?

About six months ago, I was quite bullish on advances in over-the-top (OTT) video making it easier for communities to build fiber networks because they would no longer have to deal with the challenges of securing and delivering traditional cable television channels. I explored these challenges in a recent post.

OTT video includes Hulu, Netflix, Apple TV, and similar services that deliver video content over your broadband connection, ideally to your television. Last summer, we were anticipating more devices and services that would expand OTT options.

In the time since, I have been disappointed. There have been advances - the Google Chromecast dongle works well (if you have a good Wi-Fi signal near your TV - no ethernet option unfortunately). But Chromecast works with a limited suite of video services.

Hulu works well enough, but seems to have fewer shows that I want to watch available on Hulu plus. Also, Comcast owns it and won't always be shackled by the temporary conditions it agreed to in order to secure permission to buy NBC Universal.

Aereo continues to be a very interesting model but will be fighting in the courts for awhile yet, creating an air of uncertainty over its future. Additionally, its business model hurts public access media (locally produced content), which often depends on franchise fees that Aereo and broadband providers don't have to pay. On the other hand, Aereo solves the problem of getting sports programming over the top and that is a big deal.

We had high hopes for an announcement from Intel that it would begin marketing a service offering television channels over the top but it ran into the steep barriers to entry we have previously noted. Now the Intel effort is dead to us: Verizon has purchased it.

Maybe Sony or Samsung or some other manufacturer will suddenly come out with a breakthrough, but given my experience with their user interfaces, I would be shocked if it were usable, to say nothing of desirable.

It is distinctly possible that we will see breakthroughs that make OTT video more accessible and therefore help to drive new investment in fiber networks that don't require large investments in cable head end technology and acquiring hundreds of channel contracts. But I think it more likely that we are going to see OTT content hold steady or even draw back - we may see still fewer popular programs available on Hulu in the near future, for instance.

Regardless, we should not assume that we are in the midst of a linear progression from little OTT video to much more. Given the massive power of Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and the channel owners, we could well see a return to content only being available to those who pay ever-increasing fees to the local cable monopoly.

There is a reason Google decided it needed to offer television channels to get enough subscribers to make their investment worthwhile. Communities may not need the same high subscriber rates that Google wants, but it is a sign of where they think the market is staying.

Meet Russellville, Kentucky's Broadband Speed Leader - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #82

The municipal electric utility in Russellville has launched Kentucky's first citywide gigabit service on its FTTH network. Russellville Electric Plant Board General Manager Robert White joins us to share their motivations for building a fiber network.

The utility had originally offered some telecommunications services over a wireless system but recognized the need for a more robust fiber system, in part because of the lack of investment in modern telecommunications by incumbent cable and telephone providers.

Now Russellville has much better options for residents, local businesses, and schools. We expanded on this interview with a mini case study of their network.

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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Danger of "Sponsored Data" via AT&T, Others

AT&T has announced a program that has put many of us on edge - "Sponsored Data." As an example, I may have a 500 MB cap on my monthly AT&T plan, but Facebook could pay AT&T so that its content does not count against my cap. Both Free Press and Public Knowledge have taken strong stands against the program, arguing that the FCC should not allow it. And the L.A. Times explains that it won't save consumers any money.

But those who defend the program argue that it is nothing more than a modern day 1-800 number, where the other party pays for the call. I find the argument unpersuasive.

For decades, 800 numbers were a fraction of calls made. Most phone calls have been local in nature, so even if 800 numbers were a substantial amount of long distance calls, it didn't really impact how we used our phones. By contrast, here AT&T will be targeting the most common applications on the Internet, further centralizing power among those with deep pockets to build a moat around their services and hamper innovation.

Additionally, we had unlimited local calling in combination with tolled long distance. If all calls were tolled individually, the 800 number would be a more appropriate comparison. All data counts against the monthly cap except for companies that pay to exempt their data. So if you have a choice between two video streaming services, which would you pick? The one that runs up your AT&T bill more or the one that doesn't?

Finally, with this "pay to play" program, the big wireless carriers have a strong incentive to keep data caps low because if companies like Facebook, Google, and others are willing to pick up the tab.

The whole approach may harm innovation in ways that were spelled out quite well on AVC:

Entrepreneur: I plan to launch a better streaming music service. It leverages the data on what you and your friends currently listen to, combines that with the schedule of new music launches and acts that are touring in your city in the coming months and creates playlists of music that you should be listening to in order to find new acts to listen to and go see live.

VC: Well since Spotify, Beats, and Apple have paid all the telcos so that their services are free on the mobile networks, we are concerned that new music services like yours will have a hard time getting new users to use them because the data plan is so expensive. We like you and the idea very much, but we are going to have to pass.

This isn't the make-believe world of Chicago economists. It is a world where making it big means finding investors - and investors rarely want to go after massive corporations with moats around their products. This is the same reason investors rarely see any prospect of making a quick buck by competing against Comcast.