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Being a Gig City: Incubating Small Businesses

This is the first in a series of posts examining a premier Gigabit Community - Wilson, North Carolina.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 85% of all jobs originate from companies with fewer than 30 employees, and 87% of businesses which started through business incubators have succeeded after five years. So Wilson, North Carolina, focused its "Greenlight" gigabit beam on its local business incubator, the Upper Coastal Plan Business Development Center. "Greenlight is driven by three guiding principles," said Will Aycock, the network's General Manager. "Supporting the economic health of the community, improving the delivery of city services, and enhancing the quality of life for the citizens of Wilson." Providing access to symmetrical gigabit speeds has allowed the community's small business incubator to take its services to the next level, to give budding entrepreneurs access to the future today and in a uniquely affordable way.

According to Greg Goddard, Executive Director of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Government, access to gigabit speeds has meant "Taking our incubation to the next level." Historically their business incubator has attracted "low tech" entrepreneurs: consultants, counselors, state associations, childcare and healthcare providers, people who need work space after normal office hours, even Chic Fil-A administrators, for employee training. The incubator provides a full suite of services including a receptionist, copy and fax machines, phones, 24 hour secure entry, kitchen, meeting rooms, training classes, access to experts, parking, and now, symmetrical gigabit speeds, all for an affordable price. "An 8' by 8' cubicle with those full-suite services leases at $275/month," he said. The goal is to stimulate budding internet-age businesses.

Free Wi-Fi in Wilson

And it has, even for young entrepreneurs elsewhere in the state. For a tech entrepreneur like Dan Holt from Wake Forest, renting space at this Wilson-based incubator lets him be part of the future, and to experience the possible which is impossible at his home in Wake Forest only 30 miles away. Dan is a self-described techie for a local Raleigh defense subcontractor but he likes to be known as founder of the Wake Forest Fiber Optic Initiative.

Dan wanted to put together research for his town government on why they needed to establish a fiber to the home network in Wake Forest. That search led him to Wilson. "They are the only Gigabit City in North Carolina. It's 30 minutes from my home. Not every town has an incubator where you can rent a cubical or office space affordably, giving you access to things like a receptionist, mailroom, fax machine, office space, and gigabit fiber internet. If I were to branch out into any major city, it would be in the $1000's of dollar range, just for the internet service alone. They are passionate" about their Gigabit network in Wilson. "They are mentoring the rest of the state."

Having access to Gigabit speeds in Wilson's business incubator has allowed Dan to connect servers and to mirror "what normal life would be if I had Gigabit access in my Wake Forest home." "The future is all about video," he reiterated. "I have several computers tied into virtual machines I can load up with Netflix and run at the same time." In Wilson, he said "It works." "You can connect easily to places that can take advantage of these upload speeds: DropBox, Google Drive, YouTube, sending large files through Microsoft Exchange. Some websites can't even take advantage of these speeds. The bandwidth at their end is not there."

Wake Forest Gigabit Logo

According to Dan, Wilson is set for the future because of its Gigabit network, and he wants the same for Wake Forest. "If you look at South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, there are no networks like this and it won't stop at 2 gig, it's going to 10 and then multiples." He continues, "As time goes on, as more folks find out about Wilson, the City is going to lure alot of people in from around our region, and from other states. If you look at the broadband maps out there, Virginia is the only state close to DC that comes anywhere near this capacity."

When asked if he'll move to Wilson, Dan responded "As a techie, in a heartbeat," but he owns his home in Wake Forest. For now, his Gigabit City incubator has provided him the ability to explore a public/private relationship with the Town of Wake Forest, a place where he could take his Mayor and IT Director and show them what is possible. He would, he added with a virtual wink, like to show Wilson's gigabit capability to his defense industry boss.

In July 2013, Wilson was honored to be North Carolina's first Gigabit City (community-owned). Folks keep asking us "What is it like to be a GigCity?" We plan to release a series of vignettes on how our gigabit infrastructure contributes to why Wilson is a great place to live, work and play in the 21st Century. For more information, contact Jerry Stancil at jstancil@wilsonnc.org (252) 293-5313.

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].

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:

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 is 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. 

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.

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.

Cox Ditches Cable for Fiber in Upscale Housing Development

John St. Julien covered this story last month, but I couldn't resist amplifying it. Cox Cable, which has undoubtedly told hundreds of communities that they don't need anything better than what it delivers over its cable network, has opted for a full FTTH in a wealthy new development in California's Orange County.

CED has the details, but the key point for us is yet another recognition that cable networks are yesterday's technology, unable to deliver the services that communities need today and will certainly need tomorrow.

Communities are smart to invest in their own fiber networks not only because the technology is superior, but because local, community ownership results in a more accountable network that will continue to meet community needs long into the future. Municipal electric networks have offered less expensive, more reliable services for over 100 years in some cases - a track record that reminds us how powerful this model can be.

Wisconsin Gets a Gig in Reedsburg

The latest addition to the growing list of gigabit communities is Reedsburg, Wisconsin. For residential customers, the service is available for $274.95/month when bundled or $299.95/month standalone. The network has long delivered gigabit services to local businesses but the residential offer is new.

In a recent press release the Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) announced it now offers gigabit service to business and residential customers. From the press release:

“More and more businesses and homes need a faster connection to consume and produce large amounts of data.  Our gigabit network will accommodate those needs well into the future,” said RUC General Manager Brett Schuppner. “Offering gigabit broadband services is very rare in this country and I am proud to be part of a community that is so technologically advanced.  RUC strives to reach new levels of innovation with our 100% fiber optic network serving Reedsburg, Loganville, Lake Delton, and surrounding rural communities.”

Reedsburg is located approximately 55 miles northwest of Madison and is home to 10,000 residents. Reedsburg began dabbling in fiber optic infrastructure in 1998 to connect electric substations and provide Internet service to several public schools. The RUC provides water, electricity, and triple-play to the community. Community leaders took advantage of opportunities over the years to extend the reach of its network, including a 2010 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) award to expand the FTTH network.

Fact Sheet on Financing Municipal Networks

We are adding a new fact sheet to our growing collection with the new, Financing Municipal Networks Fact Sheet. Many have assumed that municipal networks are funded with taxpayer dollars, but this is not true in the overwhelming number of cases.

When a community decides it needs to establish its own publicly owned network infrastructure, one of the biggest challenges is financing the investment. Each community is unique but three main methods of financing are most popular. This fact sheet offers a quick look at these common approaches and provides real-world examples.

Download the Fact Sheet [pdf]

Seattle, Gigabit Squared, the Challenge of Private Sector Cable Competition

This the second in a series of posts exploring lessons learned from the Seattle Gigabit Squared project, which now appears unlikely to be built. The first post is available here and focuses on the benefits massive cable companies already have as well as the limits of conduit and fiber in spurring new competition.

This post focuses on business challenges an entity like Gigabit Squared would face in building the network it envisioned. I am not representing that this is what Gigabit Squared faced but these issues arise with any new provider in that circumstance. I aim to explain why the private sector has not and generally will not provide competition to companies Comcast and Time Warner Cable.

Gigabit Squared planned to deliver voice, television, and Internet access to subscribers. Voice can be a bit of hassle due to the many regulatory requirements and Internet access is comparatively simple. But television, that is a headache. I've been told by some munis that 90% of the problems and difficulties they experience is with television services.

Before you can deliver ESPN, the Family Channel, or Comedy Central, you have to come to agreement with big channel owners like Disney, Viacom, and others. Even massive companies like Comcast have to pay the channel owners more each year despite its over 10 million subscribers, so you can imagine how difficult it can be for a small firm to negotiate these contracts. Some channel owners may only negotiate with a provider after it has a few thousand subscribers - but getting a few thousand subscribers without good content is a challenge.

Many small firms (including most munis) join a buyer cooperative called the National Cable Television Cooperative (NCTC) that has many of the contracts available. But even with that substantial help, building a channel lineup is incredibly difficult and the new competitor will almost certainly be paying more for the same channels as a competitor like Comcast or Time Warner Cable. And some munis, like Lafayette, faced steep barriers in just joining the coop.

FCC Logo

(An aside: if we are going to pretend that competition can work in the telecommunications space, Congress and/or the FCC have to ensure that small providers can access content on reasonable terms or the ever-consolidating big providers will be all but unassailable by any but the likes of Google. Such regulations should include rigorous anti-monopoly enforcement on a variety of levels.)

Assuming a new provider can secure a reasonable channel lineup, it now needs to deliver that to the subscribers and this is more complicated than one might imagine. From satellite dishes to industrial strength encryption to set-top boxes, delivering Hollywood content is incredibly complicated.

When confronted with this challenge for its Kansas City network, Google evaluated all the options and decided the only option was to build its own technology for delivering television signals to subscribers. Google has the some of the best engineers on the planet and even they encountered significant challenges, suggesting that route is ill-advised for new companies. Even if Google were willing to share their approach, it was written for the Google eco-system and would need significant porting to work for other firms.

Several of the recent triple-play municipal FTTH networks used Mediaroom, a technology developed by Microsoft that was recently sold to Ericsson, which has strong connections with AT&T. All of which suggests that delivering television channels is not becoming easier for small, local networks.

From the tremendous challenges of securing television channels to the difficulty of delivering them to subscribers, investors are aware of the mountain a new entrant has to climb before even starting to compete with a massive firm like Comcast.

Longmont Power and Communications Logo

It remains to be seen whether a network delivering only Internet access (or with telephone as well) will succeed today, but most have believed that television is needed to effectively compete for subscribers (and generate enough revenue to pay for the network). Longmont is bucking that wisdom in deploying a gigabit and phone network throughout its footprint north of Denver and many are watching intently to see how it fares (our coverage here).

The main lesson from Part II of our Seattle Gigabit Squared analysis is the difficulty of a small firm competing against a massive cable company like Comcast and the subsequent reluctance of most investors to fund such firms.

This is not to say it is impossible for small entities to compete, especially entities that can handle a distant break-even point or justify its network by the many indirect benefits created by such an investment - including more jobs, lower prices for telecommunications services, and improved educational opportunities to name three (see our recent podcast on this subject). In most cases, the kinds of entities that are willing to include indirect benefits on their balance sheets in addition to cash revenues are nonprofit entities.

We strongly support the right of communities to decide for themselves how to ensure their residents and businesses have the connections they need to thrive in the 21st century. We also recognize that many cities, particularly the larger metro areas, would prefer not to directly compete with some of the most powerful firms on the planet, even if they are also tops among the most hated. Few local governments relish the opportunity to take on such a new challenge and understandably search for firms like Gigabit Squared that can assist them, reduce the risks of building a network, and shield them from charges of being godless communists by think tanks funded by the cable and telephone companies.

However, we are not optimistic that many communities will find success with this public-private-partnership approach. Indeed, with recent news suggesting that Gigabit Squared left at least $50,000 in unpaid bills behind, the risks of going with such a solution may indeed be greater than previously appreciated.

It is for the above reasons that we continue to believe most communities will be best served by building and operating their own networks, though some may choose to do so on an open access basis where multiple ISPs operate on the network.

That is where we will turn in the final segment of this series. Read that post here.