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Longmont to Vote a 3rd Time on Fiber Network

The Longmont community will soon have the chance to decide how quickly they want ubiquitous FTTH. On July 23rd, the City Council unanimously approved a proposal to ask voters in a referendum if they want to bond for funds to speed up construction of the LPC fiber network. Absent bond financing, the network will expand much more slowly over many years.

Readers will remember the 2011 referendum to allow the electric utility to offer broadband services to the people and businesses of Longmont. At the time, Comcast spent over $300,000 via the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association to fund an unsuccessful Vote No astroturf campaign. The community approved the measure with 60% of the vote. There was an earlier referendum in 2009 that ended in a victory for Comcast following a successful astroturf campaign. Records showed a similar infusion of cash to sway the vote. 

In the recent meeting, some Council Members expressed concern over the city bonding to invest in the telecom business. The Longmont Times Call reported on the meeting:

"We're again a government playing in the private world of capitalism," [Councilman Brian] Bagley said. "What if we don't know what we're doing?"

City Manager Harold Dominguez noted that even if voters approved a bond, the city could still take on a partner. If it passes, he said, the city would have a pretty good idea of how big a piece of the market it could get. And implementation wasn't a huge risk, he said, because the city already knew it could provide the service; it had been doing so for itself, the school district and a few other large users for years.

"Based on the information we've received, yes, we can do it," Dominguez said.

Finance Director Jim Golden outlined several options, including sales tax bonds, utility bonds, and certificates of participation, which use existing city assets as collateral. After discussion, Council agreed that the revenue bonds from the electric utility was the best option. If the voters approve the referendum, the City will bond a total of $44 million for capital costs ($35.4 million), interest, and debt-service reserve.

Plans are already set to bring FTTH to all of Longmont, the referendum will determine when residents can expect to connect to LPC. Councilman Gabe Santos commented:

With or without the bonding, he said, the voters had already given the city permission to get to work.

"If it doesn't pass, we're still going to roll it out," he said. "It's just going to take a long time. We have established the right to do this."

You can watch the archived video of the July 23rd meeting from the City website. The Council took up several issues that night which are listed on the Index. Broadband financing was item D of General Business. Click on the heading and the video will jump to the discussion.

"Olds" is First Gigabit Town in Canada

We introduced you to Olds, Alberta and their community network O-Net in 2012. Now this community of 8,500 will be the first Canadian "gig town" where residents will have access to a gig at incredibly low prices. 

CBC News reports that the Olds Institute for Community and Regional Development, the nonprofit organization building the network, recently approved the upgrade. Residents with 100 Mbps will have access to a gigabit with no increase in price. Depending on how they bundle, the price for Internet will range between $57-90 per month.

CBC's Emily Chung noted how much of rural Canada offers only dial-up or satellite. Olds used to have the same problem; businesses were considering leaving town:

"We had engineering companies here who were sending memory chips by courier because there wasn't enough bandwidth to deal with their stuff," recalls Joe Gustafson, who spearheaded the project to bring a fibre network to Olds.

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"Now there's no talk about people leaving because of bandwidth challenges."

The $13-14 million project, which also included a video conference center and 15 public use terminals for residents, launched in July 2012. The organization acquired a $2.5 million grant from the province of Alberta and a $6 million loan from the town of Olds. When incumbents were not interested in providing service over the network, O-Net adapted:

"We said, 'Well I guess if we're going to do this, we have to do our own services,'" Gustafson recalled.

The Olds Institute spent $3.5 million to buy the necessary electronic equipment to run internet and other services on the network and to build a central office to house it all. Last July, it launched O-Net.

The community-owned service offers not just internet, but also phone and IPTV services — TV signals carried on the network that includes dozens of SD and HD channels, and movies on demand that can be paused and later resumed.

The network will be available to the entire town by 2014. The residential plan brings one gig to access points in town that each serve four or five households. According to [Director of Marketing Nathan] Kusiek, that gig will be shared between households at each access point. There will be no data caps. Dedicated business gig access will be available for $5,000 per month.

The network has transformed teaching and learning. Local Olds College used to connect with 40 Mbps for 4,000 students. 

That made it impossible to push any kind of mobile learning — something that the college was starting to get into with initiatives such as an entrepreneurship course that required students to play an online game as part of its requirements.

Now, every space on campus allows each student to connect two devices at the same time. This September, every new student will receive an iPad and all textbooks will be web-based.

Kusiek said, "Because we're a community-owned project we get to balance out profitability versus what's best for the community."

Reading the comments on the CBC story is instructive of the different culture - the comments are overwhelmingly in support of Olds and castigate incumbent providers.

Wilson's Greenlight Getting the Publicity It Deserves

WUNC 91.5, North Carolina Public Radio, recently introduced Greenlight to its audience. We have covered Wilson and Greenlight extensively since 2009. Will Michaels spoke with Will Aycock, highlighting the network's gigabit status.

"We're able to support the surveillance cameras and different sensors throughout the community to make us a smarter city.  Certainly, we're able to support many institutions here such as schools and libraries," Aycock says.

"It's really about removing the barriers between our residents, our institutions and the Internet so that people have all the bandwidth they need."

In our 2013 case study, Carolina's Connected Community: Wilson Gives Greenlight to Fast Inernetwe documented the benefits to the community. Aycock commented on the role the network plays in bringing new residents and business to Wilson:

"We're actually seeing folks deciding to move to Wilson from other areas because they want access to this next-generation network," he says.

"People even decide, if they're going to build a house, where to build a house.  For instance, radiologists want to be on the network because it helps them to more efficiently do their jobs from home."

Now if North Carolina's Legislature would just undo the 2011 power grab, when it passed legislation to revoke authority from communities to decide locally if building their own network made sense.

New Hampshire FastRoads to Partner With Sovernet

New Hampshire FastRoads will soon be working with Vermont's Sovernet to bring access to southern New Hampshire. According to the Brattleboro Reformer, Sovernet is ready to begin offering data and voice service as soon as the fiber infrastructure is complete.

"It's really exciting because while we do some business in New Hampshire we have not been able to do anything to the extent that we will be able to do on this fiber network," said Sovernet Vice President of Sale and Marketing Peter Stolley. "Needs over the Internet are constantly evolving and this gives us a virtually unlimited amount of speed to get to people."

Sovernet managed a similar project to New Hampshire Fastroads in Vermont, but in Vermont Sovernet installed and manages the fiber network.

FastRoads' open access model will provide infrastructure on which independent ISPs will offer service to community anchor institutions, businesses, and residents in underserved areas. The $7.6 million project is about 98% finished after a year-long installation period. New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, Monadnock Economic Development Authority and 42 towns in New Hampshire comprise the FastRoads collaborative effort.

Carole Monroe, New Hampshire FastRoads Executive Director told the Reformer:

"This project was done to reach the most rural and least served communities in this part of the state," Monroe said. "Up to now there has been no way to bring fiber to these homes and this is a great opportunity to get them that big broadband. We think that as more people come on board it will entice growth and allow us to expand our footprint to reach more businesses and homes."

We spoke with Monroe in Episode #36 of the Broadband Bits podcast. She shared a history of the challenges facing the collaborative and how the network was already bringing benefits to the community, even before launch.

Opelika, Alabama On the Verge of Municipal FTTH

We last checked in with Opelika, Alabama, as they began testing their FTTH network in a pilot project. The community previously overcame Charter Cable's campaign of lies and passed a referendum. Voters approved the plan for a $41 million fiber optic communications and smart grid network. The community has been constructing the network, expanding testing, and building a network hub facility.

OANow.com reporter Tamiko Lowery reports "lightning in a bottle" will soon be serving the public. Customer service operations at City Hall will end on August 2nd when all Opelika Power Services (OPS) offices move to the new facility. June Owens, manager of marketing and communications spoke with Lowery about the anticipated launch:

“Fiber is going to put Opelika on the map like never before,” Owens said. “Opelika should be very proud. Nobody in the state is doing a project like this. And there is not much outside the state of Alabama like this. This is 100 percent fiber to the home. Fiber to the house doesn’t require the electronics in the field – this eliminates problems in the field that you might have with other types of systems. It is truly state-of-the-art equipment at its best.”

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Still in “Testing Mode,” there is not a pin-pointed launch date for the fiber-optic network services.

“But we’re getting close,” Owens said.

She says that once operational, OPS will be able to offer lower rates than surrounding areas to the approximately 12,000 electric customers in Opelika. Once up and running full-speed, OPS will be competing with Charter, Dish and Direct-TV for Opelika customers. In the future, OPS will offer back-up data services to Opelika businesses.

Mayor Gary Fuller spoke with Christopher for Episode #40 of the Broadband Bits podcast. They discussed the community's decision to take connectvity in their own hands after years of dissatisfaction with Charter Cable.

Clearly, the community is excited to get the new triple-play network up and running. The local television, KTVM, also covered the story.

Tennessee Town Tullahoma Tells us Why They Built a Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode #54

For our 54th episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, we are back in Tennessee to interview Brian Skelton, General Manager of the Tullahoma Utilities Board. They built the network in 2008 and have weathered the tough economy, meeting the business plan while greatly benefiting the community.

This is a particularly content-rich interview, covering the importance of non-gimmick pricing, benefits to schools, local programming, and why they decided to become a gigabit community.

They haven't increased prices of the Internet or telephone service even though they have increased speeds five times for subscribers and added new telephone features. Despite facing tough competition and deep discount pricing, Tullahoma has experienced extremely low churn, which itself is a sign of how valued the service is. You can read our historic coverage of Tullahoma here.

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 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Consultant Argues Never Used Financing Mechanism Also Won't Work in Palo Alto

I was troubled to see Broadband Communities publish an odd and misleading story about Palo Alto in the May-June issue [pdf]. Authored by Stephen Blum of Tellus Venture Associates, a consultant that has been hired by Palo Alto in the past, it showed a remarkable level of ignorance about community owned fiber networks and broadband more generally.

The title alone, "Can FTTP Work in Palo Alto?" is just odd. Why exactly would FTTP not work in Palo Alto? It works in hundreds of other cities and towns, most of whom are less well positioned than Palo Alto for such a venture. A more honest title would have been "Consultant Argues Never Used Financing Mechanism Also Won't Work in Palo Alto." Blum made a very good case for that narrow argument but fails to lay out any convincing evidence that a variety of other models are doomed.

Parts of the article can only be called cable and DSL boosterism - such as repeating the talking point that AT&T's U-Verse and Comcast already offer "high levels of service at competitive rates." Competitive to what? Neither can deliver the speeds offered by modern fiber networks and are only "competitive" if one ignores the much slower upstream speeds, higher prices, lesser reliability, problems of oversubscription, and poor customer service one gets from those providers.

Reminds me of "Slick Sam" from Lafayette and the "functional equivalence" between DSL and FTTH.

Blum apparently knows better - that Palo Alto residents are "happy" with the existing services because they have not spontaneously marched down El Camino Real demanding faster speeds at lower prices. This is the wrong measure - reminiscent of the now oft-quoted Henry Ford line that if he asked people what they wanted, they would have said "faster horses."

The number of specific errors in this piece are many, and have been well documented by those familiar with the history of Palo Alto's studies. I want to focus on just a few. Let's start here:

Overall, 79 percent of households would have to pay $3,000 apiece to fully fund FTTP construction costs.

YIKES! Cue the foreboding music! Palo Alto has something like 25,000 households. If 20,000 of them paid $3,000 then the City would have $60 million in addition to its present $14 million dark fiber reserve - a staggering $74 million of theoretical money that has nothing to do with anything. I know of no network that has been built in this manner.

This is an absurd measure for whether a network is feasible. Networks are not financed in this way, partially because, as the author adroitly notes, it doesn't appear likely to work. Community owned networks are financed using a few common methods, most often revenue bonds issued by the utility. Palo Alto's past studies of this approach reflected a desire to avoid that path and the results of those studies in no way determine whether a city owned FTTH network is feasible in 2013 given the present assets and environment.

The user-financed model remains a peculiarity and quite possibly will have a role to play in the future (though almost certainly not to finance the entirety of a system). Palo Alto would be crazy to hinge its decision of whether to invest solely on the feasibility of each home owner paying its full connection cost up front.

Palo Alto Logo

In examining the likelihood of success for Palo Alto, it makes sense to consider similar communities that have made the investment:

Although there were some apparent FTTP successes (for example Bristol, Va., and Cedar Falls, Iowa), cities that had more in common with Palo Alto, such as Alameda and Provo, Utah, were failing.

There is nothing "apparently" successful about Cedar Falls or Bristol. They are unambiguously stunning successes, with take rates north of 70 percent and have led to thousands of jobs. And both can deliver a gigabit anywhere in town at a moments notice at rates a fraction of what major carriers charge. But he believes Alameda (with an older HFC cable system) and Provo (having to deal with strict state laws not present in California) are more relevant comparisons. There are some 140 other citywide networks that might be more relevant, but Blum ignores them.

google-gig.png

He ultimately concludes that Google's experience in Provo will somehow inform local government decisions around network investments. This is some of the worst advice I have read. First of all, Google's costs are different than any other firm, let alone a local government because it already runs one of the largest fiber networks on the planet (possibly the largest). The most brilliant engineers on the planet work for Google. It doesn't publish its costs and is a private sector firm with far different motivations and incentives than a local government.

In short, there might not be a worse comparison than Google for a local government evaluating its own plan for meeting long term telecommunications needs.

All of this being said, Palo Alto could rationally choose not to invest in a FTTH network. It would have to compete against Comcast and AT&T, who engage in predatory tactics while federal regulators ignore potential Sherman Anti-Trust violations.

Given the many wonderful aspects of the community, particularly for people who don't like winter, maybe DSL and Comcast cable will be good enough for the heart of Silicon Valley. That is their choice, not mine (my wife and I love Minnesota winter). I just hate to see such an imbalanced and inaccurate case made suggesting it could not work.

Westminster, Maryland, to Move Forward With Fiber Pilot Projects

Westminster, Maryland, began public consideration for community broadband investment last fall and has now decided to "stick our toe in the water and see how it works." The Carroll County Times recently reported that the community will move ahead with engineering for two community pilot projects.

Local leaders see this as an opportunity to flesh out any challenges for residential and business connectivity. Carroll Lutheran Village, a retirement community, was chosen for several reasons. From the article:

The residential pilot project, Carroll Lutheran Village, would cover approximately 90 acres, according to the feasibility study.

The area presents well-defined boundaries and enough population density to allow a relatively small fiber build to reach a relatively large group of currently unserved residents, the study states.

Carroll Lutheran Village will also provide insight into potential construction issues around single and multi-family housing, and the benefits and impacts of telehealth, according to the study.

Westminster's business pilot project, located in the Westminster Technology Park, is near the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN). The feasibility study notes the location as a good candidate for economic development and also a relatively dense area. We had a great conversation with Gary Davis from CCPN in episode #43 of the Broadband Bits podcast. Davis relayed how the CCPN is saving money and creating opportunities for Caroll County Public Schools.

Both Westminster projects include local cost sharing for construction; the city will use capital benefit assessment funds specially designated for such improvements. Estimate for both projects is $650,000.

Westminster's long-term goal is to connect every resident and business in the city. Like the situation all over the county, Westminster cannot convince large providers to bring the connectivity they need for economic development. 

Waverly, Iowa: Community Fiber Network Possible Thirteen Years After Vote

The Waverly City Council in Iowa recently voted 5-2 to establish a communications utility and to move ahead with a feasibility study. We spoke with Diane Johnston, Waverly Light and Power (WLP) General Manager, who told us the decision to get this far started over a decade ago.

In 2000, the community passed two ballot measures that sat dormant until this year. At the time, incumbents Mediacom and Qwest (now CenturyLink) did not meet the needs of residents, who were increasingly frustrated with poor service and shoddy customer relations. Incumbents cherry-picked the local commercial segment, ignoring smaller businesses and establishments more challenging to serve. When asking for better connectivity, Johnston says local businesses "hit the wall." Incumbents flatly refused to invest in Waverly.

The 2000 ballot measures, establishing the municipal telecommunications utility per Iowa law (requiring a majority vote) and having the entity governed by WLP's board of trustees passed with 86 percent and 80 percent of the votes. Clearly the public wanted more choices but Johnston told us the time was just not right. A feasibility study, focused on phone and video service, prompted Mediacom and Qwest to make some improvements and improve customer service. As far as WLP was concerned, the problem was solved and Ordinance 970 went on the shelf.

Since 2000, businesses and residents have approached WLP about establishing the utility but the proposal did not gain traction until six months ago. When reviewing the strategic plan for the electric utility, WLP's Board of Trustees concluded that Waverly and WLP needs a telecommunications utility to stay vital.

Johnston notes that advanced metering infrastructure is essential for the future of electric services. WLP wants to be able to provide customers with the ability to monitor their electric usage, control the use of appliances, and conserve. The utilty also needs its own connectivity. Johnston and WLP recognize that access to a high speed network is critical to economic development and WLP needs economic development for healthy electricity sales. In order to supply affordable electricity for all customers, WLP's wants to continue to increase sales. A fiber ring around the city provides connectivity between substations today and will likely become part of any new project.

K-12 schools in Waverly struggle to get the capacity and speed they need, Johnston says. Administrators also want to move to a textbook-free environment and support this measure as a way to service iPads for students. Likewise, the local college sees a network as a way to offer more to students on campus and expand distance learning programs.

The community of 10,000 is 25 minutes northwest of Cedar Rapids and maintains its rural small-town feel, says Johnston. With a telecommunications network in place, she anticipates the high quality of life would draw more telecommuters and businesses.

Johnston tells us that WLP will entertain all types of business models. They want to provide access to high-speed connectivity to every home and business in the community and will work with any entity that can help realize that vision. WLP has a stellar reputation with the community, she says, and WLP will only work with partners that can ensure the same level of reliability and customer service. Johnston hopes the initiative will also improve private provider rates and service.

Next, a task force will commission an updated feasibility study. 

Princeton, Massachusetts, Moves to Design Phase

Princeton, Massachusetts, continues to move steadily forward with its municipal broadband initiative. We first reported on the community's plans in the Spring of 2012. The community approved funding for design services in May and recently hired G4S Technology to design the FTTH network for municipal government, schools and residents.

The Digital Journal reports:

The design will take into consideration more than 1,350 homes situated on Princeton’s 80.62 miles of road resulting in more than 425,600 feet of fiber optic cable. It will encompass access to all homes, including those set back from the road and those with underground utility services. A small number of Princeton homes located on Route 140 that rely on electrical services provided by the town of Sterling will be excluded from the completed design.

“We are excited to work on the design phase of this project with the town of Princeton,” said Bob Sommerfeld, President of G4S Technology. “We believe bringing broadband into smaller communities across the state will make a tremendous impact on economic growth, education and public safety. Community members will also enjoy the speed, reliability and convenience that high-speed broadband services will provide them on a daily basis at their schools, libraries, offices and homes.”

The design will be developed this summer anticipating a town vote this fall based on the design. A two-thirds vote will be required at a special town meeting and will ask the voters to borrow funds for the project.