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Athens, Ohio Learns from Neighbors and Considers Fiber Investments

Recently, we ran a story on the Columbus suburb of Dublin, which has a growing fiber optic network that has paid huge dividends in public savings, economic development, and facilitating technology research with the Ohio State University. Apparently others are taking notice of Dublin as well: Athens, a city 90 miles to the Southeast, has its city council discussing how to get fiber in the ground and the possibility of a public WiFi network. 

After meeting representatives of Dublin’s economic development department at a conference in November, Athens mayor Paul Wiehl came away impressed enough to start a discussion with the city council about how the Dublin model of extensive conduit networks and fiber access for businesses and public buildings might be adapted to Athens.  Athens is a college town, home of Ohio University, which may mean that like Dublin (which is only a few miles from the Ohio State University) it could be well positioned for research partnerships using fiber optics.

While specific plans have not yet been worked out, 

[Mayor] Wiehl said that the city's public works director, Andy Stone, recently has been looking at ways to incorporate fiber-optic line capacity into city infrastructure projects. The lines likely would be maintained by the city, and probably would run only to local businesses, who would pay the city for use of the Internet service.

Unfortunately, Athens’ city leaders may be overly enamored with the idea of citywide Wi-Fi. DubLINK launched a citywide WiFi network several years ago, but like nearly every other citywide WiFi system in the country it has not been able to deliver reliable high speed connections blanketing the entire city due to technological limitations. WiFi can still provide considerable value if deployed intelligently in specific public spaces as a supplement to other forms of access. But if Athens officials are expecting a cheap and easy answer to providing robust home access over a wide area, they are likely to be disappointed. 

Still, Athens offers an encouraging example of how good connectivity policy ideas can spread from one community to another. Dublin’s example has helped to put fiber investments on the agenda and in the minds of city leaders in Athens. Where the discussion goes from there will be up to the locals. 

Minnesota's Chaska.net to End Service in 2015

The rumors have been swirling for months now that the city of Chaska was considering putting an end to its municipal Wi-Fi service, Chaska.net. A recent Chaska Herald article confirms that city staff recommends the Council choose to end its residential service. If the Council follows the recommendation, the remaining business Wi-Fi customer, KleinBank data center, and School District 112 will still receive Wi-Fi service.

According to the article, the city explored the possibility of selling the system to the private sector, but the idea did not garner a favorable deal:

[City Administrator Matt] Podhradsky said that it appeared that the proposals were more of an attempt to gain access to the city’s water towers. “We started asking ourselves, ‘Should we be in the business of picking winners and losers?’” said Podhradsky. “We decided that’s just not the right direction for us.” 

City staff is recommending that the service end when the contract for support for the existing equipment ends in July. They also recommend that the last four months of service be offered free of charge. Customers will be notified by letter in early 2015.

The end of Chaska.net is bittersweet. When it was new, it was much celebrated as one of the first municipal Wi-Fi networks in the U.S. The past few years, however, have proved difficult. Waning subscriptions, competition from private providers, and old equipment have taken a toll. In order to replace the aging equipment, the city needs to spend $3 million. 

Podhrasky said the city is proud of what it accomplished with Chaska.net. “When you think back, there were a lot of cities that tried things and spent a lot of dollars to get something like this off the ground.”

He noted that the goal of the Internet utility was to provide high-speed service at an affordable cost until the market caught up. “We were a gap,” he said.

Today, that market has caught up. “It sort of feels like we completed our goal,” said Podhradsky.

Read more about Chaska's fiber network and Wi-Fi investment in our recent report, All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 19

This was a big year for local governments and many year-end discussions have noted the role of cities in expanding high quality Internet access. Among them, The Free Press' Timothy Karr:

The rise of homegrown Internet infrastructure has prompted industry lobbyists to introduce state-level legislation to smother such efforts. There are at least 20 such statutes on the books. But in June, the FCC stepped in with a plan to preempt these state laws, giving communities the support they need to affordably connect more people.

and Broadband Breakfast's Drew Clark:

...viewed from the vantage point of the future, the far more significant development will be the emergence of opportunities outside of Washington for high-capacity broadband networks. It’s a world in which cities and municipalities are playing the leadership role...

The most direct crystallization of our municipal broadband moment is the new non-profit coalition dubbed Next Century Cities. Launched less than two months ago in Santa Monica, it now boasts membership from 50 cities, representing 25 states. From Los Angeles to communities along the Pacific Northwest, from Lafayette in Cajun country to Chattanooga, and from patrician Boston to a city that got its start as a cow town, Kansas City, each of these 50 cities have different motivations and approaches to Gigabit Networks.

Almost 60% of the United States has access to 100 Mbps Internet connections, but only 3% can get a gig. Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin and Anne L. Kim from Roll Call both take a look at a new report from the Department of Commerce this week. 

The ESA report titled, “Competition Among U.S. Broadband Service Providers,” finds that far more competition exists at slower speeds than at higher speeds (only 8% can choose from at least two 100 Mbps providers.) 

"This report gives policymakers a deeper understanding of what is occurring in the ISP marketplace," says U.S. Commerce Department Chief Economist Sue Helper. “We know that competition typically drives down prices. And we also know that increasingly, higher Internet speeds are required for optimal functionality of popular, high-bandwidth computing applications. As more and more commerce and information move online, we risk further widening the digital divide if access to affordable, higher speed Internet doesn’t keep pace.”  

Anders Bylund with Motley Fool posted an article this week about why AT&T might nervous about the days to come. Bylund asks whether municipal broadband projects like those in Chanute, Kansas, and Google Fiber’s entry into the market are rendering AT&T obsolete. 

“You might think that AT&T would shrug its shoulders over new competition in such a laughably small market. But the company sees this as the beginnings of a much larger threat: Allow one high-sped service at incredibly low prices, and other cities will surely follow. Soon enough, this tiny insurgent will have turned into a nationwide trend, putting enormous pressure on AT&T's existing business model.”

Small towns, larger cities, counties and cooperatives all over the United States are catching on. 

In Renville, Nicollet and Sibley Counties in rural Minnesota, residents have a lot to look forward to in 2015. Cassandra Sepeda with KEYC Mankato reported on RS Fiber’s growing momentum. The fiber-to-the-home initiative could reach more than 6,000 residents by 2016. The groups financial planner, and local business man, Phil Keithahn works from home and is definitely on-board:

"...That's what this does. It levels the playing field for people who live and work in rural America with people who are in the twin cities. So it's an economic development tool for south central Minnesota."

In Virginia’s rural Bedford County— a cooperative partnership could soon connect thousands of homes. Last week the county’s board announced they would collaborate with Mid-Atlantic Broadband Cooperative to get high speed Internet in the area.

“[Internet infrastructure] is a public utility build-out — the biggest one so far in this century — and it’s pretty much equal to the rural electrification that happened at the turn of the last century,” said Allen Boaz, who presented the advisory proposal to the supervisors.

“That’s how important I believe it is, and a whole lot of other people are with me.”

The county’s economic development director says that residents might be connected within six months.

And, speaking of development, 10 Connecticut communities are rolling forward with high speed Internet goals in mind. According to Brian Fung with the Washington Post, half of the state's population could some day be wired for high-speed, fiber-optic Internet. Stephen Singer with the Associated Press writes that while the cities have committed to wanting businesses to build and finance Internet service, they don't want to get into the business themselves: 

Among the goals are to create a gigabit-capable network for targeted businesses and residential areas with a "demonstrated demand" to drive job creation and stimulate economic growth. The call [out to a business or partner] also seeks to provide free or heavily discounted Internet service of between 10 and 100 megabits to underserved and disadvantaged residential areas and deliver gigabit Internet service at prices comparable to other gigabit fiber networks in the United States.

Students in South Bend, Indiana are now fiber-connected. Metronet's grant program helped pay for the high-performing school to connect to Metronet's dark fiber network. Before the upgrade, students often had to do their Internet research from their own homes. 

McHenry County’s Northwest Herald, and Charleston, South Carolina’s The Post and Courier, put their support behind competitive Internet this week. In Charleston, the paper threw down on South Carolina’s 2012 law that prohibits public networks, saying that the state cannot afford to continue to be left behind in terms of speed and connectivity: 

“South Carolina communities with limited or inadequate bandwidth access stand virtually no chance of attracting industries that increasingly rely on high speed Internet connections to do business. Gov. Nikki Haley's record on job creation is strong, but her decision to sign the 2012 bill dealt a serious blow to the state's ability to attract investments.

Perhaps regulating the Internet under a labyrinthine federal communications code would indeed slow innovation and hurt the economy. But preventing competition - the inevitable effect of South Carolina's law - can be equally harmful.

Companies like Comcast, Time Warner and AT&T operate like monopolies in too many markets, and monopolies require rules to prevent actions that harm consumers and other businesses.”

The Star Tribune and MSP Business Journal are reporting that Chaska’s city-owned Internet service will be switched off next year. The city opted out of the wireless Internet offerings rather than pay the $3 million to upgrade. Since it launched in 2004, the city has seen a rise in competition, with more providers offering service. 

“We never wanted to compete with the private sector,” Podhrasky said. “We just wanted to make sure our residents had access to [wireless Internet] until there were more options out there.” He said the city concluded the time has come, with people now having a variety of choices, including bundled services at high speeds through cable modems at prices close to chaska.net’s."

The city will continue to provide its fiber service to the school district and one data center.

And Susan Crawford came out another good piece: “The 3 Big Myths that are holding back America’s Internet.”

TING!

Charlottesville, Virginia could soon be home to what one alternative wireless carrier calls, “Google Fiber lite.” Ting announced this week they will build their own 1Gbps fiber-to-the-premises when they purchase Blue Ridge InternetWorks to serve Charlottesville customers— and, as Sean Buckley with Fierce Telecom reports, they don’t plan to stop there. 

"We'll be on the lookout for the next town or city in which we can lay down roots," wrote [Andrew] Moore-Crispin, [senior content manager at Ting.] “Roots made of fiber optic cable and ultimately leading right to the home. If you'd like to see Ting Internet in your town, let us know on the Ting Internet page… We admire what Google is doing with and for gigabit fiber Internet access, but for the Internet giant, access is more of a side project," wrote Moore-Crispin. "Also, Google is a lot of great things but human scale isn't one of them."

Jason Koebler with Motherboard covered the story as well

"When we got into mobile, we just took the same business processing and billing and applied them to mobile, which was suffering from incredibly high pricing and a low level of service," he added. "We thought, where else can we take these things we've gotten good and apply them to?"

Hypocrisy Department

And Time Warner Cable is fighting to keep its Broadband expansion projects private.

"'As outlined in our appeal, disclosure of Time Warner Cable build-out plans, including details like completion dates and the areas and number of potential customers served, would clearly harm our competitive position,' Time Warner Cable spokesman Scott Pryzwansky said Monday."

Time Warner Cable and other private providers regularly demand this information from local government providers. This is a frank admission that local governments operate from a position of disadvantage relative to private sector providers.

DubLINK Network Supports Economic Development, Health Care, and Supercomputing

Award-winning supercomputing apps, medical research, economic development, and quantum computing advances. What do they all have in common? They all depend on the DubLINK network running underneath Dublin, Ohio, a suburb on the Northwest edge of Columbus. The city of 43,000 people has 125 miles of fiber optics in the ground, both within its own boundaries and in the form of fiber purchased by the city within metro and regional networks. 

DubLINK began in 1999 as a public private partnership with the Fishel company to build an institutional network. In the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Dublin worried that a recent massive investment of $70 million in streetscaping would be undone as competing providers dug up newly paved streets to install fiber optics. To avoid this, the City signed a franchise agreement with Fishel to install a multi-conduit system, with the city receiving some conduit for its own use.  

Using 1.25” conduits installed in the city’s existing sewer system, the network runs for 25 miles underneath Dublin’s business district and connects six city buildings, who use their own lit fiber for data and voice services, eliminating expense leased line fees. This has allowed the city to save approximately $400,000 per year for the last 12 years in connectivity and information technology expenses.

In 2004, Dublin spent $3.5 million to purchase 96 strands running 100 additional miles through Columbus FiberNet, bringing the total length of the DubLink network to its current 125 miles. FiberNet is a duct system that runs throughout a significant portion of central Ohio, including Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.

The following year, the City of Dublin struck a deal with the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet). OARnet is a 1,600 mile statewide fiber backbone connecting K-12 schools, colleges, universities, federal research labs, and other institutions. A $500,000 grant from the Ohio Board of Regents allowed DubLINK to make its connection with OARnet, and the city gave OARnet an indefeasible right to use 4 of its 96 fiber strands throughout its entire 125 mile network. They called their partnership CORN, for the Central Ohio Research Network. Earlier this year, the Ohio State Legislature awarded DubLink $300,000, which along with a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant and a $328,000 local contribution, will allow DubLINK to match OARnet’s 100 Gbps speeds throughout its entire network.

Seal - Dublin, Ohio

According to Dana McDaniels, Dublin's Director of Development, the city has spent approximately $5.5 million over the years in building, purchasing, and upgrading DubLINK. For this investment, he estimates that the city has received at least a $35 million return on investment already. This includes avoided costs around $4.8 million ($400,000 per year over 12 years), leases to telecoms and other entities of about one third of the city's dark fiber that amount to $3.2 million, and the much more significant gains in employment and thus tax revenue that have resulted from companies expanding or relocating in Dublin to take advantage of its incredible connectivity.

Dublin has a two percent income tax, one quarter of which is dedicated to a wide variety of capital improvement projects. It also uses a small part of this revenue as collateral for tax-increment financing bonds, which it has used to fund some of its share of network construction costs, with the rest of the $5.5 million in total network investments coming from the regular capital improvements budget.

The network is currently being used by a wide variety of public, private, and nonprofit institutions, including National Mutual Insurance, Nestle, Dublin Methodist Hospital, and online reference catalogue company OCLC Inc. OCLC connects to 70,000 libraries around the world, but relies on DubLINK to secure its data by connecting to backup data centers throughout the region.

Rather than narrowly focusing on network revenue, Dublin takes a broader economic development approach to its fiber resources. Development Director McDaniels uses fiber connectivity to lure businesses to locate or expand in Dublin the way other cities use tax credits or land giveaways. Ohio Health, which runs six hospitals in the state and has various other facilities, was granted 4 strands of DubLINK's fiber, which helped them decide to headquarter in the city. They now light and manage the fiber themselves, using it connect to all of their facilities throughout the region. Because they are able to so easily run their operations from Dublin, they have expanded their employment in the city from 300 to 1,200 people.

This September, one of DubLINK’s institutional anchors announced that they would be using DubLink to test new applications for quantum computing. Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit applied science and technology company, signed a five-year deal with DubLINK to use the city’s fiber for their Quantum Key Distribution network, the first commercially-funded network to use quantum computing to encrypt information. Using subatomic particles instead of binary code to transmit information, Battelle claims they have created a form of encryption that will be hack-proof even if quantum computers make traditional encryption techniques obsolete. 

DubLINK proved its usefulness in 2013 as well, when a collaborative including representatives from the City of Dublin, the University of Missouri, and The Ohio State University were recognized for creating the “Best Application for Advanced Manufacturing” at the Next Generation Application Summit in Chicago. The team developed an app called Simulation-as-a-Service, which allows small businesses and labs to remotely access supercomputing capability. Small manufacturers would be able to use the app (in combination with a robust fiber optic connection) to run design simulations through supercomputers on the Ohio State campus, as well as trade design information in massive data files. 

According to Prasad Calyam, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Missouri and the leader of the team developing the app: 

“The app really requires the infrastructure,” said Calyam. “The infrastructure is not the end goal of the project. It’s really the app. But we couldn’t build the app without the infrastructure.”

“Our work on Simulation-as-a-Service is one example where having a city invest in broadband infrastructure will help economic development,” said Calyam. “It helps companies to move there, to use the infrastructure, and essentially build new kinds of collaborations.”

Expedient Logo

The combination of DubLINK’s fiber infrastructure and proximity to The Ohio State University has also helped attract a growing number of data centers and medical research operations. Dublin-based Cardinal Health opened a research center in the city earlier this year, and Expedient Data Centers recently announced plans for a $52 million data center.

An even bigger fish is on the line for Dublin, which is competing with neighboring suburb Hilliard to be the location for a new $1.1 billion Amazon data center. Amazon has been secretive about its plans, but Ohio Governor John Kasich recently confirmed earlier leaks that the center would be located in the Columbus area. 

Dublin is pushing ahead with the expansion of DubLINK in the coming months and years. In conjunction with the upgrade to 100 Gbps speeds, the network is also beginning to move towards an open access Fiber-to-the-Premise model for major office and multitenant buildings in the city. Rather than bringing fiber to the curb and waiting for building owners to take advantage, the city will be bringing the fiber directly into at least 20 buildings this year and about 10 each year thereafter, with the option to increase the pace if it incents businesses to locate or expand in Dublin.

DubLINK has also struck a deal with a local data center that will serve as a "meet me" room and is in talks with ISPs, which will allow those intitutions using DubLINK fiber to connect to whatever ISP they wish over the publicly owned fiber. It will also allow them to connect to OARnet, the National Science Foundation's GENI rack, and the Ohio State University's supercomputer remotely - all at 100 Gbps. 

The local schools are on the docket for connections as well, with the three city high schools and administration building at the head of the line. They all stand to gain 100 Gbps network connections, and will also benefit from the nearly limitless educational resources of Ohio's universities and research organizations available through OARnet.

Whether or not Dublin successfully woos Amazon, its fiber optic network has proven to be a valuable community asset. It has allowed the city to partner with a local provider to launch a city-wide Wi-Fi system over 24 square miles, which uses DubLINK for backhaul and in return allocates 25% of its bandwidth to the city for its own uses, such as police communication and logistical support for large public events. It has supported medical and computing research, creating good jobs in the process. For all these achievements, Dublin has twice been named a Top 7 Community by the Intelligent Communities Forum, and last year Dana McDaniels, who oversaw DubLINK's development, was given ICF's Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 30, 2014

This week in community broadband, more communities are adding broadband to the list of essential utilities, and many of them are turning to Chattanooga as a model “gig city.”

As Times Free Press’s Dave Flessner reports, the great thing about Chattanooga's approach is that it’s not just about Internet. In fact, the broadband boom is really an unintended benefit of the city’s cutting edge smart grid, which keeps the city’s lights on and powers the economy as well. 

"What we're going to try to do is bring some of the brilliant people from Warner Bros., Fox, Disney and IBM down here to Chattanooga to help them get their heads wrapped around this notion that you've got to stop worrying about scarcity," [Annenberg Innovation Lab director Jonathan] Taplan said.

Last year, T-Bone Burnett, a Grammy Award winner, performed "The Wild Side of Life" from a Los Angeles studio with Chuck Mead, a founder of the band BR549 who was on stage in Chattanooga.

"They sang a song together over 2,000 miles apart," Taplin said. "That's the power of gigabit Internet. I think we're just beginning to think of the possibilities of what this thing can do."

And Android Authority’s William Neilson Jr. explores the desire for faster connections and more choices.

“Isn’t it amazing how much faster broadband speeds are in parts of the country where there are a number of broadband options available to residents? How many times am I going to write an article detailing a broadband provider telling a city that they don’t need “fast” speeds even though the city is universally angry at their lack of broadband options?”

Of course, we see the product of how increased competition brings better service even more clearly in communities that have municipal networks, not just in Google's Kansas City network. It is an outcome that all communities can achieve if they regain the authority to do so. 

In the beginning, Lafayette, Louisiana created its own utility system. And it was good. Steve Stackhouse Kaelble goes back to the very beginning of municipalization of utilities in his research on public power this week:

Lafayette is just one community, but it provides a great illustration of the forward-thinking mindset that led many American municipalities into the utility business. In some cases, local leaders got a glimpse of the future and worked to bring it to their communities ahead of the curve. In other cases, they found that the profit-driven business model that works so well in much of the American economy had left them behind when it comes to certain kinds of services.

The fruits of these local efforts are America’s public power communities — places where local governments and other public entities have taken charge to deliver services their communities need to prosper.

Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner is making her list and hoping for smarter sensors this Christmas. On Miner’s wish list: municipal broadband, and other essential smart grid infrastructure projects. The mayor requested close to a billion dollars in grant money from Gov. Cuomo for economic development in greater New York. It’s unclear if Syracuse is high enough on Cuomo’s list: 

Reality check: … [Miner is] well aware it's not terribly compelling to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on stuff you can't see. It's an "eat-your-peas'' approach that aligns with Miner's view of the role of government, versus the "shiny toys'' approach favored by Cuomo and the Buffalo Billion… Whether by accident or design, the mayor's plan leaves us wanting more. Think of it as an opening bid. Who's willing to push her vision farther?

And while all of these cities are moving forward with community broadband efforts of some kind, Jason Meyers with Light Reading spoke with the city’s Chief Technology Officer, Mike Mattmiller and noted that despite Seattle’s reputation as a tech leader, it is lagging in the gigabit connecitivity. Mattmiller suggests that a public-private partnership is still desired, depending on how a new study turns out.

Bozeman, Montana residents are urging leaders to help drive down prices and improve Internet speeds this week. Kenneth Silvestri voiced his opinion in the Bozeman Chronicle.

We could continue to be beholden to the monopoly imposed by the telecommunications companies, or we can invest in our future by laying the groundwork for a technology infrastructure that serves the community and expands access.

Sahara Devi seconded that sentiment in Bozeman, and we hope you will do the same in your own communities. When lawmakers on both sides of the isle hear your views on competition, local authority, and economic development, it is hard to back down from taking steps to increase local choices and better connectivity. 

Wi-fi

New York City and Seattle are both looking into wi-fi neighborhoods, with varying success. Last week a Seattle councilwoman announced her backing of Wi-Fi in tent cities, which would help serve the city’s homeless population. This week, T.C. Scottek with The Verge dug in to NYC’s effort to connect parts of the city with Wi-Fi.

One of the biggest problems is that LinkNYC will be funded by advertising, and as the Daily News correctly points out, the poorest neighborhoods in the city aren't worth as much to advertisers as tourist-packed Times Square. That's a reality that makes sense for profit-seeking businesses to build around, but not so much for public-facing utilities that ought to provide reasonably equal levels of service to everyone.

And “Mat Catastrophe” with Charleston City Paper lamented his city’s decision to let Comcast supply the bandwidth for the city’s new Wi-Fi-in-the-parks initiative. It seems Catastrophe is concerned that Comcast may not have the city’s residents real Internet interests at heart. 

… if you're hanging out in one of Charleston's lovely parks and you have a burning desire to do whatever it is you want with a free internet connection, by all means do so. But just don't believe for one second that it really makes the city more livable for any more than a small fraction of Holy City residents. And never forget that it's just another way that public money is siphoned into private hands.

If you want the City of Charleston to really make a name for itself, then you should support the idea of repealing the state law against municipal broadband providers and advocate for whichever mayoral and city council candidates are willing to take up that fight and move Charleston in the right direction in the 21st Century.

Corporate Monopolies and Mergers

Verizon claims it would *not* to sue the FCC to block net neutrality rules. But only if the commission promises it will not reclassify broadband providers as utilities. More and more citizens are making the connection between corporate monopolies and our poor broadband choices. Activists rallied in Brooklyn this week. Jay Cassano reported about the social justice argument for Waging Non-Violence.

Most concretely, the merger could result in higher prices for broadband Internet service, which would hit those who are economically disadvantaged the hardest.

'The merger could really negatively affect people who already have trouble accessing the Internet right now,” said Kevin Huang, campaign manager at Fight for the Future. 'When it comes to cable and Internet, the cost of service is crucial. It’s incredibly important for marginalized communities to participate in the 21st century ecology, but the prices for reliable Internet services have been going up.'”

The Dalles Pays off Its Network Debt Ahead of Schedule

Of the more than 400 communities around the country that have built and benefitted from community networks, the town of The Dalles in Oregon may have a case for the title of “most bang for the buck.” Their commitment of $10,000 12 years ago to leverage a $1.8 million “QLife” fiber optic network has lead to a massive, $1.2 billion dollar investment from Google in the form of a huge data center, employing nearly 200 people and generating millions in tax revenues for the local community. And at the end of September, the QLife board of directors announced that they had paid off the loans used for network construction more than three years ahead of schedule. 

We covered part of The Dalles’ network story two years ago: a small city of just 13,000 was told by Sprint in 2000 that it would have to wait 5 to 10 years for broadband Internet access. Meanwhile, local manufacturing was declining and employers were overlooking the town due to its outdated infrastructure. Before building the QLife network, The Dalles had no access to the major long haul fiber pathway that happened to run right through town. As city manager Nolan Young told Andrew Blum in an interview for his book “Tubes,” it was like “being a town that sits next to a freeway but has no on ramp.” 

The city decided enough was enough, and partnered with the county and the local public utility district on a plan for a $1.8 million, 17 mile fiber optic loop through the community that would connect anchor institutions and offer middle mile access to private providers. 

The nascent network faced opposition from a local telecom in the form of a lawsuit, which scared the public utility district away from the partnership. It had another setback when a private partner declared bankruptcy, saddling the public agency with an $800,000 loan. The city and Wasco County pressed forward with their partnership, however, and secured half of the needed $1.8 million in state and federal grants while covering the rest with loans. The city made a one-time contribution of $10,000. QLife pursued a cautious strategy, building in successive phases only after enough subscriber revenue commitments were in place to cover the requisite loan payments.  

The city’s small investment has paid off many, many times over. Major network construction was completed in 2003, and in 2005 Google announced they would locate a major new data center in the town, bringing 150 jobs and a $600 million investment. Pleased with their easy access to major fiber optic infrastructure and seeing massive growth in the demand for cloud-based applications, Google announced last year that they would double down on The Dalles, investing another $600 million and creating dozens more jobs to grow their already huge facility. 

The benefits of the network aren’t limited to a single major employer. Schools, a community college, a hospital, and a network of medical offices all use QLife’s fiber directly for fast, reliable, and secure data services. Seven different telecom and internet providers also lease fiber from QLife, increasing the competition and service quality available in the area.

Even Sprint, the incumbent who told the city to wait a decade for broadband, started upgrading their own network six months after QLife construction began. QLife and Google have even partnered to provide free WiFi throughout downtown and many of the surrounding areas. Now, with their debt retired ahead of schedule, the network is running an operating surplus in the hundreds of thousands that could be put to any number of good uses. 

Of course, not every town that builds a fiber optic network will immediately get a $1.2 billion data center. The Dalles had several factors working in their favor when wooing Google, including cheap hydroelectric power from Bonneville Power Administration dams along the Columbia River and long haul fiber optic lines running right past their doorstep. However, City leaders were smart enough to see the opportunities in front of them and determined enough to persevere in the face of opposition. Their bet has paid off immensely.

North Carolina Town Saves Public Dollars With Its Own Network

On June 18 Holly Springs, home to approximately 25,000 people, started saving money with its new fiber I-Net. Last summer, the Town Council voted to invest in fiber infrastructure as a way to take control of telecommunications costs. Just one year later, the 13-mile network is serving community anchor institutions.

After exploring options with CTC Technology and Energy, Holly Springs determined that deploying their own $1.5 million network was more cost effective than paying Time Warner Cable for data services. Annual fees were $159,000; over time those costs certainly would have escalated. According to the Cary News, Holly Springs anticipates a future need for more bandwidth:

“And we wouldn’t have been able to actually afford as much (data) as we need,” [Holly Springs IT Director Jeff Wilson] said. “Our costs were going to be getting out of control over the next couple of years.”

Because state law precludes the town from offering services to homes or businesses, Holly Springs plans to use the new infrastructure in other ways. State law allows the community to offer free Wi-Fi; the town will also lease dark fiber to third-party providers. According to the News article, the town has already entered into a 20-year contract with DukeNet, recently acquired by Time Warner Cable. DukeNet may expand the fiber to the Holly Springs Business Park for commercial clients.

The community's free Wi-Fi in public facilities is approximately 20 times faster than it was before the deployment, reports the News:

When the town activated the network on June 18, “People told us they could tell the difference immediately,” said Jeff Wilson, Holly Springs’ IT director.

According to the News, the fiber network allows the city to expand free Wi-Fi to more green spaces. Cameras at baseball fields now stream live video of games; parents and grandparents can watch activities online if they cannot attend games in person.

For more on the community and the project, check out Chris' conversation with Jeff Wilson in episode #107 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Holly Springs Finds Savings with Muni Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Episode 107

Holly Springs, a town of about 25,000 in the Triangle region of North Carolina, has built its own network to connect community anchor institutions and has an interest in using it to spur economic development and other community benefits but a 2011 law pushed by Time Warner Cable makes some of that more difficult.

City IT Director Jeff Wilson joined me for episode 107 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discussed why they decided to build a municipal network and how they have just finished the actual build.

We also discuss the savings they anticpate from owning the network and how local residents were hopeful that the network could be expanded to connect homes and businesses before learning that state law restricted them from doing that.

Read our additional coverage of Holly Springs.

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 13 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Wireless Commons Part 1: Interference Is a Myth, but the FCC Hasn't Caught on Yet

This is the first in two-part series on spectrum basics and how we could better manage the spectrum to encourage innovation and prevent either large corporations or government from interfering with our right to communicate. Part 2 is available here.

We often think of all our wireless communications as traveling separate on paths: television, radio, Wi-Fi, cell phone calls, etc. In fact, these signals are all part of the same continuous electromagnetic spectrum. Different parts of the spectrum have different properties, to be sure - you can see visible light, but not radio waves. But these differences are more a question of degree than a fundamental difference in makeup. 

As radio, TV, and other technologies were developed and popularized throughout the 20th century, interference became a major concern. Any two signals using the same band of the spectrum in the same broadcast range would prevent both from being received, which you have likely experienced on your car radio when driving between stations on close frequencies – news and music vying with each other, both alternating with static. 

To mitigate the problem, the federal government did what any Econ 101 textbook says you should when you have a “tragedy of the commons” situation in which more people using a resource degrades it for everyone: they assigned property rights. This is why radio stations tend not to interfere with each other now.

The Federal Communications Commission granted exclusive licenses to the spectrum in slices known as bands to radio, TV, and eventually telecom companies, ensuring that they were the only ones with the legal right to broadcast on a given frequency range within a certain geographic area. Large bands were reserved for military use as well.

Originally, these licenses came free of charge, on the condition that broadcasters meet certain public interest requirements. Beginning in 1993, the government began to run an auction process, allowing companies to bid on spectrum licenses. That practice continues today whenever any space on the spectrum is freed up. (For a more complete explanation of the evolution of licensing see this excellent Benton foundation blog post.)

Although there have been several redistributions over the decades, the basic architecture remains. Communications companies own exclusive licenses for large swaths of the usable spectrum, with most other useful sections reserved for the federal government’s defense and communications purposes (e.g. aviation and maritime navigation). Only a few tiny bands are left open as free, unlicensed territory that anyone can use. 

NTIA Spectrum Map

This small unlicensed area is where many of the most innovative technologies of the last several decades have sprung up, including Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID), and even garage door openers and cordless phones. A recent report by the Consumer Electronics Association concluded that unlicensed spectrum generates $62 billion in economic activity, and that only takes into account a portion of direct retail sales of devices using the unlicensed spectrum. 

On its face, the current spectrum allocation regime appears an obvious solution; an efficient allocation of scarce resources that allows us to consume all kinds of media with minimal interference or confusion, and even raises auction revenues for the government to boot. 

Except that the spectrum is not actually a limited resource. Thanks to the constant evolution of broadcasting and receiving technologies, the idea of a finite spectrum has become obsolete, and with it the rationale for the FCC’s exclusive licensing framework. This topic was explored over a decade ago in a Salon article by David Weinberger, in which he interviews David P. Reed, a former MIT Computer Science Professor and early Internet theorist. 

Reed describes the fallacy of thinking of interference as something inherent in the signals themselves. Signals travelling on similar frequencies do not physically bump into each other in the air, scrambling the message sent. The signals simply pass through each other, meaning multiple signals can actually be overlaid on each other. (You don’t have to understand why this happens, just know that it does.) Bob Frankston belittles the current exclusive licensing regime as giving monopolies on colors. 

As Weinberger puts it:

The problem isn’t with the radio waves. It’s with the receivers: “Interference cannot be defined as a meaningful concept until a receiver tries to separate the signal. It’s the processing that gets confused, and the confusion is highly specific to the particular detector,” Reed says. Interference isn’t a fact of nature. It’s an artifact of particular technologies.

In the past, our relatively primitive hardware-based technologies, such as car radios, could only differentiate signals that were physically separated by vacant spectrum. But with advances in both transmitters and receivers that have increased sensitivity, as well as software that can quickly and seamlessly sense what frequencies are available and make use of them, we can effectively expand the usable range of the spectrum. This approach allows for squeezing more and more communication capacity into any given band as technology advances, without sacrificing the clarity of existing signals. In other words, (specifically those of Kevin Werbach and Aalok Mehta in a recent International Journal of Communications paper) “The effective capacity of the spectrum is a constantly moving target.”

In the next post, we’ll look at how we can take advantage of current and future breakthroughs in wireless technology, and how our outdated approach to spectrum management is limiting important innovation.

New York Media's MetroFocus Talks With Chris About City Wi-Fi

In an effort to bring better connectivity to New Yorkers, the City is transforming old pay phones into free Wi-Fi hotspots. Rick Karr, reporter for MetroFocus from New York Public Media, reached out to ILSR's Chris Mitchell to discuss the project.

Chris and Karr discuss the challenges faced by lower income people in our digital age, many of whom depend on mobile devices for Internet access. From the video:

“Low income people and especially minority populations really depend on mobile devices. So having WiFi that they can use when they’re on the go is going to be a good way of keeping their costs down. But you’re not going to see kids writing term papers on mobile devices,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell said that low-income people need better and more affordable options. “Possibly, something run by the city so that it can ensure that low-income people have access in their homes and they don’t have to go outside in order to use their devices.”

According to the New York City Information Technology & Telecommunications website, over 20 locations already offer free municipal Wi-Fi. The City intends to expand the current program and has called for proposals from potential private partners due by the end of June.

Mayor de Blasio has stated that his administration will make free Wi-Fi a priority in order to help reduce the City's income inequality. Maya Wiley, de Blasio's chief counsel told the New York Daily News:

“High-speed Internet access is now as fundamental as water, as fundamental as the railroads were in the 18th century,” Wiley said in an interview with the Daily News.

“If you are low-income and you want to find a job, increasingly, you need high-speed broadband to do it,” Wiley said.