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"Little Gig City" And Friends Go to Nashville to Fight for Local Authority

As the people of Tennessee wait for the court to determine their broadband future, state and local leaders in Nashville are hearing municipal network advocates and foes.

The bipartisan Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, anticipating state legislation aimed at removing state anti-muni laws next session, recently heard from advocates of municipal networks. Those in favor of keeping state barriers in place also took a seat at the table. The Commission includes state legislators and local community leaders. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering Tennessee's petition to vacate FCC's February decision to overturn state laws against local authority.

The Same Old Argument

The Tennessee Cable Association (TCA), representing large incumbent cable providers, repeated the same misinformation we have heard before - that municipal networks are "failures." Their lawyer pointed to debt as proof-positive that "these communities that have gone into this business have done very poorly," reported the Johnson City Press.

Chattanooga's EPB President Harold DePriest summed up the weakness of that statement when he said, “It’s the same reason you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, instead of a 5-year mortgage.” It's about long-term vision and planning.

A number of representatives from Tennessee communities served by municipal networks attended the meeting and presented the facts. Chattanooga's world-famous fiber network is often in the limelight, but smaller Tennessee towns with networks like Erwin and Jackson have benefitted from their investments and other communities, such as Cleveland, have plans to follow suit.

Erwin Making Strides

Erwin Utilities sent fiber optic engineer John Williams who called out TCA for using the word "failure" and describing it as a mischaracterization. Williams noted that Erwin Utilities, who initiated a pilot project last March, is already serving 200 of 300 potential customers after only 7 months of operation. Customers in Erwin have access to symmetrical 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 1 Gbps connectivity along with telephone service. Internet access from Erwin Utilities is available for $49.95, $69.95, and $199.95 respectively; you can call Erwin "Little Gig City."

The fiber system was originally deployed to manage the electric utility smart meter system, so much of the infrastructure is already in place.


Erwin has not incurred any debt to deploy its fiber pilot project, says Williams. The utility has taken an incremental approach, leasing out excess capacity from the electric system and using proceeds to build out one section at a time. For phase one, scheduled to start any day, Erwin Utilities only needs 15 percent of current electric customers with smart meters to sign up for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services for the network to pay for itself. They plan on offering FTTH across the entire service area within five years.

A small town like Erwin, population 6,000, does not have the density to attract large providers for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Their municipal utility has a plan to serve people which will not violate Tennessee's state restrictions, but Williams spoke before the Commission in support of removing those limitations:

I would argue that every municipal broadband deployment has been successful...The biggest thing we like to point out about municipal projects, specifically ours, is the availability to rural customers who may be underserved by existing services. In Unicoi County, only 75 percent is covered by a cable company, so 25 percent of our electric service area doesn’t have access to broadband.

A Cooperative Point of View

In addition to Erwin Utilities, Cleveland Utilities CEO Ken Webb and Ben Lovins, Senior Vice President from Jackson Energy Authority's Telecommunications Division (JEA) supported the notion of removing state prohibitions blocking Chattanooga, Erwin, and others from expanding to other areas. Also providing perspective was Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association's Mike Knotts, reported the Chattanoogan.

Knotts drew a parallel between the expansion of broadband today and the roll out of electrification in the 1930s in which rural cooperatives played in instrumental role. He suggested nonprofit entities with the ability to spread costs out over long periods of time, rather than private companies, would be the best option to get the job done once again:

That was the very simple magic that took, in 10 years, less than 10 percent of American farms being electrified to 100 percent — not much more in the secret sauce other than that.

Pilots and Plans: It's All About The Local

In addition to serving 18,000 customers, the JEA telecom division brings in annual revenue of approximately $30 million, according to Lovins. Small-businesses, students, and ratepayers are only a few of the many who benefit. Lovins went on to provide numerous examples of how the investment has improved the quality of life in Jackson.

The network has kept the town competitive when, in the late 1990s, the incumbent provider told community leaders there was no need to upgrade because Jackson didn't need high-speed connectivity. Lovins told the Commission, "All of this was achieved through local choice, no taxes and no government funding."

Cleveland's Webb advocated for striking down the law because it prevents the Chattanooga EPB from serving neighbors who want and need fast, affordable, reliable service.

Cleveland, also working on a pilot project, points out that access to connectivity is no longer a luxury. The community's pilot project aims to fill in gaps in service created by poor coverage from incumbents. According to Webb, he recently spoke with a local attorney who finally obtained adequate Internet access at office after 24 years of requests to the local incumbent. Cleveland leaders don't want to wait another 24 years to fill the gaps in service that plague local businesses.

Webb told the Commission:

Cleveland wants to offer its citizens the absolute best that we possibly can. … We don’t want to fall behind in Cleveland.

Legislative state barriers accomplish nothing except prevent better connectivity in urban and rural areas. Local communities feel the impact of local decisions. As the Court considers the Tennessee petition, they will understand local communities better if they take to heart the words of JEA's Ben Lovins:

Give local leaders the choice to work solutions that best fit their communities and that includes allowing our municipal systems to work together to help our neighbors.

Ting! Holly Springs, NC to Get a Gig

While Google Fiber and AT&T focus on the large cities of the Research Triangle of North Carolina, the small town of Holly Springs is pursuing a third option. 

Holly Springs will be the third town to see Ting’s “crazy fast fiber Internet.” After a successful foray into the U.S. mobile service market, the Toronto-based company Ting has started to provide Internet service by partnering with local governments. Ting will offer 1 Gbps in Holly Springs by building on the town’s $1.5 million municipal fiber network. 

Muni network restricted by state law

Holly Springs, with a population of almost 30,000, has worked hard to improve its connectivity. In mid-2014, they completed a 13-mile fiber Institutional network (often called an “I-Net”) to connect the municipal buildings and other public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. 

Unfortunately, when business and residents wanted to connect to the network, a North Carolina state law prevented the town from providing Internet services directly.  As it became obvious that Google Fiber would not pass through the town, leaders worked with a consulting company to try to draw in a private Internet service provider (ISP).

Ting! Innovative Partnerships

The locked-up potential of that fiber helped attract Ting. The municipal network's unused fiber will function as a backbone for Ting to deploy its own last-mile infrastructure, which will provide connectivity directly to homes and businesses.

Ting has had success with small towns. The first Ting town was Charlottesville, Virginia, where the company bought a local ISP’s existing fiber network, improving the speeds and prices. Most recently, Ting partnered with the city of Westminster, Maryland, to expand broadband access. The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors dubbed it 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year” and presented the partnership with an award in September. Check out our podcast conversations with Dr. Robert Wack from Westminster and Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows (parent company of Ting).

Local networks are the solution

Construction on the Holly Springs network is likely to begin in early 2016. Although not all public private partnerships prove successful, Ting’s approaches support the philosophy that communities should be empowered to make these decisions locally. Noss explained in the press release [PDF]:

The problem of slow, expensive and unreliable Internet access is national but agreements like the one reached with Holly Springs further demonstrate that the solution is local.

SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown, USA

Publication Date: 
November 9, 2015
Hannah Trostle
Christopher Mitchell

Many of the most beautiful communities in the United States are in remote areas where incumbent cable and telephone companies have decided not to offer modern, high-quality Internet connectivity. Sandy, Oregon, is one of them. Some 10,000 people live there among the lush green forests and beautiful vistas of the “Gateway to Mount Hood,” 25 miles east of Portland. But Sandy decided to build its own gigabit fiber optic system and now has one of the most advanced, affordable networks in the nation.

A new report by The Institute for Local Self-Reliance details the rise of SandyNet, Sandy's publicly owned high-speed Internet service. "SandyNet Goes Gig: A Model for Anytown USA" charts the growth of this community network.

Sandy, Oregon joined nearly 100 other local governments that have municipal fiber-to-the-home networks to give residents and businesses access to world-class Internet connections. However, the overwhelming majority of municipal fiber networks were built by local governments that already owned their local electrical grids. As Sandy does not have a municipal electric utility, it pioneered a low-risk incremental strategy to build its telecommunications utility, SandyNet.

The city started by reselling DSL and building a modest wireless network. Now it offers symmetrical speeds of 100 Mbps for $39.95 or 1 Gbps for $59.95. Sandy’s experience offers lessons for local governments across the country.   

Click here to read and download the full report.

Click here to watch our short documentary about the Network:

Gig City Sandy: Home of the $60 Gig

Maine Model for Muni Fiber - Dark and Open - Community Broadband Bits Episode 176

An interesting confluence in events in Maine have resulted in what some are calling the "Maine model" of fiber optic networks that are available to multiple Internet Service Providers to encourage competition and high quality services. The CEO of GWI, Fletcher Kittredge, joins us this week to explain this model and where it is currently being implemented.

GWI is a local firm, rooted in Maine and focused on delivering high quality services with great customer support. It is working with Rockport (which we wrote about here and podcasted on here) and Islesboro (podcast here) as well as others.

Fletcher starts by telling us more about Maine's Three Ring Binder network and then goes on describe the dark fiber model, benefits of that approach, and how he thinks about public vs private ownership of the open access physical assets.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

Note: This podcast was posted a day late due to the very poor Internet connectivity at a retreat center in Minnesota. Thanks CenturyLink for a reminder why communities cannot rely on the national carriers to invest in modern infrastructure.

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

This show is 22 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

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

Baltimore City Council Ponders Options for Moving Muni Fiber Forward

Baltimore's City Council has decided it's time to move forward with a plan for city-owned fiber and they are putting pen to paper to get the ball rolling.

Since 2010, we have covered Baltimore's efforts to improve connectivity for businesses and residents. For a time, they expected FiOs from Verizon but when the provider announced it would not be expanding its network, Baltimore began to explore a Plan B.

Plan B included a publicly owned option, possibly making use of fiber assets already had in place. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has supported taking steps to improve connectivity for Baltimore's economy, education, and general livability. A crowd funding initiative from the Baltimore Broadband Coalition has raised over $20,000 and the community has commissioned several studies. Baltimore even has a city broadband czar.

City Leaders Push On

Members of the City Council have recently renewed the call to action. Council Member Mary Pat Clarke introduced a resolution in September calling on the city to quickly develop a broadband plan. The resolution calls for fiber to all homes, businesses, and institutions in Baltimore in order to bring better connectivity to low-income households, improve economic development, and improve options for anchor institutions

The resolution has been referred to the Departments of Planning, Transportation, Public Works, Finance, City Public School System, and is now in the Mayor's Office of Information Technology.

Westminster Inspires Immediate Action 

A recent Baltimore Sun article about the resolution reports that city leaders looked to Westminster for inspiration. With only 18,000 people, Westminster has struck up a partnership with Ting to provide gigabit connectivity to residents and businesses via its publicly-owned fiber network.

As a major urban center, Baltimore faces a different set of challenges but a recent study suggests that the city could use existing municipal fiber infrastructure as a starting point. The Inter-County Broadband Network, which includes at least 122 miles around Baltimore, can also be integrated into the city's efforts. 

In fact, two recent city-commissioned studies suggest investing to improve connectivity to attract the high-tech industry is a must. Otherwise, Baltimore will be left behind other communities that can provide the kind of high-speed environment companies require to bring new jobs to town.

Thirteen City Council members signed on to Clarke's resolution; it seems they feel the time to act is now. The resolution clearly states that the plan for a fiber network should not be delayed because "timely execution is critical."

"I'm sure we have enough studies now to do the unthinkable — move ahead," Clarke said.

Chattanooga Crushes It - Marketing, Technology, and Nearby Communities - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 175

Chattanooga returns to the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week in episode 175 to talk about their 10 Gbps upgrade, the fibervention campaign, TN4Fiber, and having surpassed 75,000 subscribers.

For so much content, we have three guests joining us from Chattanooga's Electric Power Board (the EPB in EPB Fiber): Danna Bailey is the VP of Corporate Communications, Beth Johnson is the Marketing Manager, and Colman Keane is the Director of Fiber Technology.

Danna gives some background on what they are doing in Chattanooga and how excited people in nearby communities are for Chattanooga to bring local Internet choice to SE Tennessee if the state would stop protecting the AT&T, Comcast, and Charter monopolies from competition.

Beth tells us about the Fibervention campaign and how excited people are once they experience the full fiber optic experience powered by a locally-based provider.

And finally, Colman talks tech with us regarding the 10 Gbps platform, branded NextNet. We tried to get a bit more technical for the folks that are very curious about these cutting edge technologies on a passive optical network.

Read the transcript from episode 175 here.

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

This show is 25 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can downl this Mp3 file directly from here.

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

West Virginia Coop Expands Rural Internet Access

As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network. 

The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains. 

SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference.  Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited. 

Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.

Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:

“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.” 


The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:

“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."

When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.  The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.

Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.

Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.

MuniWireless Works in Lompoc…Just The Way They Like It

The early 2000s created a boom of both public and private wireless projects throughout the U.S., but many struggled with unrealistic expectations and flopped. Successful muni wireless networks transformed themselves, adapting to the changing needs of the communities. Some, such as Sandy, Oregon, have transitioned to Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) networks where the high-speed fiber-optic cable is hooked up directly to the home. Others repurposed their networks to provide other needed services -- like in Lompoc, California.

Lompoc transformed its $4 million muniwireless network, LompocNet, into a full-fledged Broadband Utility. Originally, the city council hatched the idea of a subscriber-based Wi-Fi network, but times changed quickly. Now, the Broadband Utility primarily provides much-needed internal connectivity for city services.

New Role: City Services

In this small city of about 42,000 people, the Broadband Utility operates a Wide Area Network (WAN) for municipal services. The electric and water utilities use the network for their smart-meters, which automatically provide usage information to the city utilities. Police video cameras transmit their feeds across the service, improving public safety. The Broadband Utility also provides the city’s phone and data services, and and has begun to connect some municipal buildings with fiber-optic cable. The Broadband Utility’s role has increased in importance; Lompoc’s franchise agreement with Comcast expired at the end of 2014, so now the Broadband Utility is beginning to function as an Institutional Network, connecting public buildings.

Lompoc’s approach to broadband may seem inverted to those used to the concept of incremental build-outs, but it worked for the city. In an incremental build-out, a small section of the network is built for a specific purpose and the revenues from that section pay for the next expansion. Lompoc decided to do the opposite: blanket the city completely and immediately with low-cost Internet access via Wi-Fi.

From Being a Flop to Being On Top

More than 10 years ago, in 2002, Lompoc faced a common, but frustrating problem – Comcast’s services. Comcast was slowly rolling out DSL in the community, but the cost of cable TV services still seemed too high to the city council. The Mayor Pro Tem at the time, DeWayne Holmdahl, traveled to Florida with the city manager to a municipal broadband conference to explore solutions. Inspired by the stories at the conference, they returned with an idea: a municipal utility for cable and Internet services.


The City Council agreed to look into the matter and hired a consultant to perform a study[PDF] in 2003. The options:

  1. Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, financed through bonds, with a capital cost of $26.5 million (not including the cost of operation and maintenance)
  2. Wi-Fi mesh network, financed through a loan from the municipal Electric Utility to be repaid with revenue funds from the network, with a capital cost of $1 million (not including the cost of operation and maintenance)

The FTTH project would be city-wide and include triple-play: phone, TV, and Internet. The Wi-Fi plan would blanket the city with affordable basic Internet access. According to Holdmahl, the city council recognized that the FTTH project would be too costly. Although a Wi-Fi network could not provide triple-play services, the network could still serve residents.

Technical problems delayed the network from taking off with residential users, and the network languished until the end of 2007. Then Richard Gracyk came on as Broadband Services Administrator changing the network’s technical management system. The number of subscribers quickly leapt to about 1,000 and plateaued.

After the city spent $4 million to construct, operate, and maintain the network, the project was declared 'revenue neutral' in 2012, and LompocNet could begin to recoup its investment. Generating revenue from the network now looked promising.

Residential Users: Cord Cutters and the Digital Divide

Although the Broadband Utility has started to focus more on city services, the residential program is still robust. The network has about a 1,000 customers a month - LompocNet does not use the term "subscribers." The residential Wi-Fi requires no contract. The Internet bill is added to their city utility account - an easy, all-in-one payment. People are not locked into the service, but have the option to use it as needed. 

The services they offer have expanded since the early days of the network. The technology has grown more extensive as the Broadband Utility uses a blended network of different equipment and providers. Offering three tiers for residential users (ranging from $15.99 - $35.99) and base-level packages for visitors (from $4.99 - $9.99), the network appeals to cord-cutters (people who want to move away from subscriptions) and lower income people, priced out by other Internet services.

Former Mayor Pro Tem, and current city councilmember, Holmdahl explained that he has been a loyal customer of the Broadband Utility since its inception. He uses it for both his home and for his business as a travelling notary, saying “it works just the way we like to have it work.” That’s the key to any successful program: it works just the way the community likes it to work.

More "Fiberventions" In Chattanooga

Chattanooga EPB has selected two new winners of its "Fibervention" campaign. We introduced you to Ms. Martha in August; during September and October, the winners were the Rolles and a student named Monica.

Winners, nominated by a "Fiberventionist," receive three months of free EPB fiber optic service, a Roku online streaming player, and several other cool gifts. The Rolles also received a new laptop and Monica received a new TV.

Here are their stories and Fibervention videos:
Chris and Dorothy Rolle are making a difference in Avondale, one child at a time. Every morning, they arise at 4 a.m. to help provide a nutritious breakfast, healthy snacks and school supplies for nearly 100 children who gather at the bus stop across the street. EPB staged a one-of-a-kind Fibervention to give them a helping hand. Together we can all be neighbors helping neighbors.

A full time nursing student working her way through college, Monica needed faster Internet in order to download class materials and complete Web-based assignments. Her Internet speeds were so slow and inconsistent that Monica was forced to do her homework at a friend’s house with EPB Fi Speed Internet. Monica kept saying she wished she had Internet that fast and reliable so her good friend nominated her for an EPB Fibervention. And now Monica has the Gig – the nation’s fastest Internet.  

LeverettNet Meets Demand for Better Connectivity in MA

On October 2nd, a group of residents, business owners, and educators met with elected officials to celebrate the early success of LeverettNet. The municipal gigabit fiber network now serves 650 of 800 households in the Massachusetts town of 1,800.

This spring, the network began serving limited areas of town, offering telephone service and gigabit Internet access. LeverettNet's instant success is no surprise, considering a number townsfolk depended on unreliable, slow dial-up service over antiquated copper infrastructure for years. Some in town used DSL, satellite, and wireless devices; others had no Internet access at all. Telephone service was equally dismal - sometimes the community would lose service when it rained.

Leverett connects to MassBroadband 123, the statewide middle-mile network deployed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Greenfield, Massachusetts Internet service provider Crocker Communications, is partnering with Leverett to offer gigabit service via the publicly owned infrastructure. 

The community chose to fund the network with a modest property tax increase and from revenue collected from subscribers. After they did the math, Leverett realized they could obtain better, faster, more reliable services for less if they built their own network. Take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Peter d'Errico from Leverett's Broadband Committee and Select Board, in episode #113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

At the celebration, d'Errico described the way the community came together:

“The project has been huge for the town and mostly undertaken by our volunteer broadband committee, which met weekly for four years to make it happen,” said Peter d’Errico of the Leverett Broadband Committee. “With each phase taken a step at a time we have managed to complete something we all thought was a dream when it was first conceived. Now that it’s complete, residents are thrilled to see what they can do at home on the Internet.” 

Leverett residents are already using their new network to work from home, explore educational opportunities for their kids, and discover ways to make the gig work for them. At the October event, a number of elected officials in attendence recognized that fiber networks give small towns an edge that can draw in more businesses and more people:

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, observed that 13 of the 19 towns he represents in the Legislature are either unserved or underserved.

“You’re the first. You’re blazing a new trail here,” Kulik said.

But he cautioned that it might give people impulse to buy property in Leverett if their own towns don’t make the investment.

“If they don’t do what you do, they’re all going to move to Leverett,” Kulik said.