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Graphic: LD 1185 Proposes Planning Grants for Munis in Maine

In late April, LD 1185 and several other broadband bills came before the Maine House Energy, Utilities, and Technology Committee. We have seen a flurry of activity in Maine this year as local communities deploy networks, develop plans, or begin feasibility studies. Likewise, the state legislature has been active as House and Senate members try to defibrillate the barely beating heart of the state listed as 49th for broadband availability.

The national providers in Maine - Time Warner Cable and FairPoint have little interest or capacity to invest in high quality services in Maine. Time Warner Cable is more focused on major metros and being acquired. FairPoint is laying off workers and also, positioning itself to be acquired. Fortunately, these big companies aren't the only option for improving Internet connectivity in Maine.

LD 1185, presented by Representative Norm Higgins, seeks to establish $6 million this year in funds for local communities that wish to deploy municipal networks. Maine already has the middle mile Three Ring Binder in place; the focus of this proposal is to help communities get the infrastructure they need to connect to it. In an effort to get the word out about the bill and grow support, Higgins and his team created this graphic explaining the proposal (a 2-page printable edition of the graphic is available for download from the link below):

LD 1185 Graphic

LD 1185 Graphic

According to a recent Legislative Bulletin from the Maine Municipal Association, LD 1185 and LD 1063, which redirects ConnectME towards issuing planning grants, appear to have the most traction of all the Maine bills. Testifying in support of both bills were the Maine Office of the Public Advocate, the ConnectME Authority, the University of Maine, Great Works Internet, Maine Fiber Company, the AARP, and the Coastal and Island Institutes. The Mayors' Coalition, and community officials from Rockport, Isleboro, South Portland, and Orono also testified in favor of the bills.

From the Office of the Public Advocate's Testimony on LD 1185:

The bill proposes to provide municipalities with matching grants to fund broadband planning efforts, and provide technical support to those communities. Providing this kind of assistance to communities is important to ensuring that those communities make informed decisions regarding use of public funds for broadband investment. The bill offers several novel and useful concepts not seen in other legislation that are particularly promising.

As can be expected, Verizon, Fairpoint, Time Warner Cable, and the Telecommunications Association of Maine testified in opposition.

Chicago Aldermen Want to Explore Fiber Potential

Chicago is moving in the direction of using municipal fiber to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. According to the Chicago Sun Times, three Aldermen and the Vice Mayor recently introduced a Resolution calling for hearings on ways to use existing fiber assets for personal and commercial use. Text of Resolution R2015-338 [PDF] is now available online.

The City has flirted with a greater vision for its publicly owned infrastructure in the past, including Wi-Fi and fiber. In February 2014, the community released a Request for Qualifications for Broadband Infrastructure [PDF].

This time the City plans to collect information and educate leadership with hearings on ways to utilize the fiber that grace Chicago's underground freight tunnels. They also want to explore city-owned light poles and government rooftops as potential locations for wireless network equipment. From the article:

“These hearings would be a fact-finding mission to help the City Council fully understand the size and scope of Chicago’s fiber-optic infrastructure and explore how it could be shared or expanded to raise revenue for city coffers while making our city more competitive,” [Finance Committee Chairman Edward] Burke said in a press release.

Burke was joined by Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis, Economic Capital, Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney, and Vice Mayor Marge Laurino.

R2015-338 lists many of the communities we have researched as examples to follow, including Chattanooga, Wilson, Lafayette, and Scott County in Minnesota. In addition to exclusively municipal projects, the Resolution acknowledges partnerships between public entities and private organizations, regional projects, and statewide efforts. Clearly, Chicago is open to a variety of possibilities.

While creating more options for businesses and residents is a primary motivator, the City Council is also considering the potential for revenue:

“A Chicago broadband network would be an asset that could be monetized. During these challenging economic times, we need to examine all options to help balance the budget,” Tunney said in the release.

It is true that municipal networks often generate revenue in the long term. It is also true that they share one characteristic with private networks: it can take a significant number of years to reach that stage.

Small ISPs and Paperwork - Community Broadband Bits Episode 151

Back in March, I spoke at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecom conference, which is always an event with interesting people. While there, I met Doug Hammer and Krista Allen of Harlan Utilities. With just over 5,000 people, Harlan is small but they actually have better Internet and cable choices than most of us, in large part due to the municipal utility.

Doug is the Director of Marketing and Krista the Director of Finance & Customer Service. We spoke again for this week's show about the challenge small ISPs have in just completing the paperwork required of ISPs by the federal government. Though small utilities like Harlan have only a few staff people, they are subject to many of the same forms as much larger companies.

We talk about the paperwork, but also some of the benefits that Harlan's municipal utility brings to the community.

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

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

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

Thanks to Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Morristown FiberNET in the Spotlight

In a recent report, WBIR Knoxville shined the spotlight on Morristown. The article and video discuss how FiberNET has improved its telecommunications landscape by inspiring competition, offered better connectivity to the region, and how state law prevents other towns from reaping similar benefits. We encourage you to watch both of the videos below.

Morristown's utility head describes how it considers high-speed Internet access to be a necessary utility:

"You had railroads, you had interstates, and this is the new infrastructure cities need to have," said Jody Wigington, CEO of Morristown Utility Systems (MUS). "To us, this really is as essential to economic development as having electricity or water."

Morristown began offering gigabit service via its FTTH network in 2012. It began serving residents and businesses in 2006 because the community was fed up with poor service from incumbents. Since then, FiberNET has stimulated economic development, saved public dollars, and boosted competition from private providers. 

Prices for Internet access are considerably lower in Morristown than similar communities. From the article:

Morristown's Internet service is more expensive than Chattanooga, but much faster than the rest of the region at a comparable price. A 100 Mbps synchronous connection is $75 per month. Advertised rates for Comcast in Knoxville show a price of almost $80 per month for a 50 Mbps connection with much slower upload speeds. A 50 Mbps connection in Morristown costs $40 per month. The cable Internet option in Morristown is Charter, with an advertised price of 35 Mbps for $40 a month.

As we have seen time and again, the presence of a municipal network (nay, just the rumor of one!) inspires private providers to improve their services. AT&T offers gigabit service in Morristown and Comcast has announced it plans on offering 2 gigabit service in Chattanooga.

"Without a major disruptor like we've seen in Chattanooga and in Morristown, there's really no reason for these guys [private companies] to go out of their way to make a big spend to make bandwidth faster. It just simply doesn't make good business sense," said [Dan] Thompson, [senior analyst for Claris Networks].

Thompson said he does not believe there should be any concern that municipal Internet would result in a monopoly akin to other utilities.

"If you go to Chattanooga, Comcast advertises like crazy on billboards down there. You don't see that here [in Knoxville] at all. Comcast is still there. AT&T is still there. They're still viable options."

Beyond offering better service to residents, FiberNET also attracts more employers. In 2013, we reported on 228 new jobs in the community, attracted here in part because of FiberNET's reliability. Most recently:

"There is a new call center that is looking at relocating to Morristown. They told us the local provider can get them fiber in the building for around $1,000. The guy from our utility company told him we've already got fiber to your front door and we'll put it in the building for free because you're going to be helping our economy and jobs. Their jaws drop. Businesses really are shocked by what we have here," said [President of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce Marshall] Ramsey. "They looked at Blount County and looked at Knoxville, but the confidence in the networks just isn't there right now."

Even though the FCC struck down state restrictions on municipal networks in Tennessee, local communities are not rushing to deploy their own networks. The state is challenging the federal action, and no local community has announced an expansion due to the uncertainty around the appeal. With this appeal, the state of Tennessee is wasting taxpayer dollars to deliberately slow the deployment of essential infrastructure in rural communities.

As Wigington acknowledges in the story, a municipal fiber network is no small endeavor. Nevertheless, only a local community can know if it has the ability, drive, and need to venture into Internet access as a utility.

Wigington said the decision of whether to compete with private industry should ultimately be made by the cities, not made for them by the legislature or the cable companies.

"Cities need to be able to make this decision."

Decorah, Iowa, Considers the Future of MetroNet

Decorah, named an "All-Star Community" in part due to benefits from their internal fiber network, is now exploring new ways to utilize MetroNet. According to a recent Decorah Newspapers article, the six community anchor institutions (CAIs) that collaborated to deploy the network recently met with the city council to discuss the future.

The 11-mile network began serving CAIs and an additional 18 facilities in 2013. After a 2008 flood that knocked out communications, the city, county, and school district began planning for the network. Eventually, the project grew to include Luther College, the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, and the Winneshiek Medical Center. BTOP funds paid for much of the approximate $1 million deployment but contributions from participants supplied an additional $450,000.

According to the article, MetroNet supplies each institution with its own fiber, leaving plenty to spare. Decorah City Manager and Chair of the MetroNet Board Craig Bird says that the network has a "vast amount" of dark fiber available that is not being used. Members of the community have approached the Board about using the fiber for better connectivity beyond current uses:

Bird said the MetroNet Board has to decide how to respond to a grassroots petition committee of citizens “demanding access to the MetroNet and faster broadband speeds and fiber capacities” for Internet access to private homes and businesses.

“The MetroNet Board is now starting to look at the future and what the MetroNet holds for the six anchor members, but also for the community,” he told the Councils.

At the city council meeting, Bird discussed the possibility of creating a municipal Internet utility, creating a cooperative, forming a nonprofit, or leaving MetroNet as a service for the existing members and facilities. They also considered the option of leasing dark fiber to private providers.

Bird also told the council that the MetroNet Board has agreed to participate in a regional feasibility study to include northeast Iowa. The Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities has commission the study that will include a number of towns:

“The feasibility study is going to look at a lot of things. Basically, what our current capacities are and what assets we already have. We know what the MetroNet has, we know what (the other communities have), what impact does that have for Northeast Iowa and what would it take to connect these existing infrastructures together so that we can take advantage of the traditional economies of scale for purchasing. Some of these communities are already purchasing video. They’re competing directly with Mediacom,” Bird told Decorah Newspapers.

“Part of the feasibility study is how can we collectively come together and do that same thing with larger volume and more efficiency. There is power in numbers – not just for video, but for the triple play as it’s called in the industry – video, voice and data (television, phone and Internet),” Bird said. 

Waverly will also be included in the study. The town of 10,000 is commencing deployment of its municipal gigabit fiber network and expects to be serving the community in 2016. Whether Decorah follows the same path remains to be seen:

Bird said the process of determining the MetroNet’s future is just starting.

“It needs more discussion – there’s no question on that,” Mayor Don Arendt said.

“We can make a better decision once we know if forming a utility is what is best for us and what the other entities want to do,” Niess said.

Yet Another Homeowner Led Astray By Giant ISP; Responds with Muni Fiber Initiative

Last month, we highlighted the story of Seth, a Washington state homeowner forced to put his home up for sale due to a perfect storm of sloppy customer service, corporate bureaucracy, and terrible Internet policy. Now meet Dave Mortimer from Michigan.

Dave in another person in a similar situation, reports Ars Technica. In 2013 incumbent AT&T told Dave three separate times that the house he had his eye on in rural Lowell had U-verse fiber network capabilities. Their website verified what customer service represenatives told him. Dave is an IT professional and wanted the opportunity to work from home. He must be on call while not in the office and so requires a fast residential Internet connection. 

After buying the home and moving in, AT&T backpedaled. Actually his best option was DSL offering 768 Kbps. Oops!

Working from home was a struggle. After Dave complained to AT&T, the FCC, the FTC, and the state Public Service Commission, the provider eventually updated their website but that didn't help Dave. He limped along but seldom worked from home as he had planned to do from the start. His office is 30 minutes away.

Finally, AT&T billed him for a phone line he never requested leading to an auto-payment error and a shut-off of his Internet service. That was enough for Dave. He approached a local wireless provider Vergenness Broadband and, working with the installer, attached the receiver to a tree some distance from his house and buried the extra long cable in cracks in his driveway to his house. Dave now pays $60 per month and gets the 3 Mbps download / 1 Mbps upload he was promised.

Dave is no where near the 45 Mbps he had hoped to obtain from the phantom U-verse, but he has this to say about his local provider:

“This is a night and day difference since switching from AT&T," he said. "Everything that AT&T did wrong, this small local company is doing right.”

Dave was fortunate to have a local company able to bring him service, even though it is not broadband as defined by the FCC. Nevertheless, he considers this a temporary fix and the best he can get for the time being.

This small company lured away Dave from AT&T but the Telecom Death Star is probably not worried about a massive customer exodus in Lowell. The Lowell Ledger recently reported on an April City Council meeting where Dave discussed his problems with AT&T and hte lack of broadband competition in Lowell:

Ryan Peel, owner of Vergennes Broadband LLC, said that his company had no plans to offer Internet service within Lowell city limits.

“We go head-to-head with Comcast and AT&T and it is very difficult to compete, basically because their prices are so low,” Peel said. “We basically don't have a presence in the city of Lowell because of that..."

That leaves few options for rural dwellers. Peel continues:

"...They cover just about everybody that's here. The outlying townships, that's a completely different story. That's part of my vision, has been to cover the more rural areas and not focus so much on town, just because of the options that already exist.”

Which leaves few options for town dwellers. Two options - DSL or cable with no choice of providers - verges on being no options at all.

AT&T has no one to blame but themselves as Dave's idea, the Lowell Fiber Initiative, takes off. He has presented his idea to the City Council and assembled a collection of resources to educate others in the community. Lowell already has its own electric utility, much like Michigan's Sebewaing, that fired up its own gigabit FTTH network late last year.

Michigan is one of the 19 states with restrictions on the books but, in light of the FCC's February ruling striking down restrictions in Tennessee and North Carolina, the future for places like Lowell may be brighter. As long as AT&T continues to offer business as usual, more Daves will continue to build movements like the Lowell Fiber Initiative.

Longmont's NextLight Offers Businesses, Residents Third Fastest Internet In the U.S.

Ookla finds the third fastest Internet access in the U.S. is located in Longmont, Colorado, reports the Times Call. NextLight, Longmont's gigabit municipal fiber network, is the source of the increase in speeds, driving Longmont's Internet access speeds far beyond any other service in the state.

Ookla clocks average download speed in Longmont as 105 Mbps, which includes all providers in the community. Incumbents Comcast and CenturyLink are dragging down NextLight's average download speed of 221 Mbps. Statewide, Colorado's average is 40 Mbps.

According to the article:

Ookla shows Internet speeds in Longmont shooting up in January and February, when LPC crews began hooking up customers to NextLight in earnest. 

NextLight continues to attract residential and business customers. In February, NextLight announced it would be hiring more install crews to meet the high demand for connections. Places without the speed, affordability, and reliability NextLight can offer will find themselves at a disadvantage as economic development increasingly relies on next-generation networks.

The Times Call spoke with Bret McInnis, vice president for information technology for Circle Graphics. The local business switched from CenturyLink to NextLight because it needed better connectivity. Before taking service from NextLight, their maximum capacity connection was 50 Mbps download or upload and it wasn't enough:

Because the images for the canvases use high-resolution photos, they are sent in large files that can range from 100 to 300 megabits in size. The company prints anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 canvases a day during the busy holiday season.

"We've got more bandwith," McInnis said, standing in front of the five tall black towers of computing equipment that make up the business's data center. "So the NextLight fiber feeds right into this and we used to see peaks with CenturyLink ... you would see periods when we were bursting at our capacity."

Switching to NextLight, McInnis said, means employees can download and upload the high-resolution images much more quickly.

"Now, we can't really overuse it and you don't see peaks like you used to," McInnis said. "That reduced latency, which means we get the files faster, which means we can print faster and get it to the customer faster. So that's the end result."

Tom Roiniotis, Longmont Power and Communications Manager, notes how the Ookla recognition brings the community one step closer to a  critical goal:

"One of the reasons we're doing this project is to strengthen us from an economic development perspective," Roiniotis said. "There are people who access this (Ookla) information when deciding where to locate." 

Huntington Determined to Bring Fiber to Town

Community leaders from Huntington, West Virginia, are the latest to announce they are determined to bring publicly owned infrastructure to town. The Charleston Daily Mail reported in April that Mayor Steve Williams described fiber as a "game-changer" for the city and is determined to find a way to bring it to Huntington.

From the article:

“This is something we need to have to compete at the level we expect to compete at in the city,” Williams said. “This is necessary for us to have Huntington transformed and frankly, to show that this can transform the region for the next 25 years. We intend to do this. What we have to determine is how do we use this study to define how we can get there. That’s what we’re in the midst of assessing right now.”

Huntington received a grant from the West Virginia Broadband Deployment Council in 2014 that it used to conduct a feasibility study. The study estimated that the cost of a network would be approximately $25 million. The city considers the study a working document and is currently seeking out grant funding to move forward. They aim to bring gigabit Internet access to Huntington for $70 per month for residents and $100 per month for businesses.

Like many other moderately sized communities, Huntington wants to capitalize on the higher quality of life attributed to small town life coupled with a high capacity next-generation network. Huntington's population is around 50,000 but it is also part of the larger Huntington-Charleston metro area of about 365,000.

Williams said the city is looking into the feasibility of forming a public-private partnership to develop the fiber network. Williams said it would be cost-prohibitive for the city to build and manage the network itself, but a public-private partnership would allow the city to retain ownership over the fiber while letting an outside company sell the service itself.

No matter how the city decides to approach building the network, Williams said it will happen.

Video Available: Connecticut Gigabit State Event

On May 5th, Christopher participated in a panel conversation presented by the City of New Haven and the Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel. Video of the event, Moving Towards A Gigabit State: Planning & Financing Municipal Ultra-High-Speed Internet Fiber Networks Through Public-Private Partnerships, is now available.

You can watch it from the Connecticut Network website. The final panel has, in order of appearance, Bill Vallee, Joanne Hovis, Christopher, Monica Webb, and Jim Baller. It begins around 3:18 and Christopher begins his presentation at 3:36. The entire video is approximately 4 hours, 30 minutes.

The event included a number of experts from the industry. From the event announcement:

A conversation on the “Nuts and Bolts” of Internet Fiber Networks targeting municipal officials and other public officials to provide information for municipalities interested in creating ultra-high-speed networks. The networks would be created via public-private partnerships through Connecticut to enable innovations in areas such as health care, education, business development and jobs creation, and public safety.

Seattle Times Supports Universal, Affordable Municipal Network

The Editorial Board of the Seattle Times wants Mayor Ed Murray and his administration to put affordability and ubiquitous access near the top of the list as it considers a municipal fiber network. In a May 7th editorial, the Board acknowledged that Internet access in the City is available, but apparently not at affordable rates for everyone. 

One of the next topics for Seattle Mayor Ed Murray to address is whether taxpayers in Software City should support a new broadband network.

...

But any attempt to create the broadband equivalent of Seattle City Light should be planned from the start as a citywide service, providing the same quality to everyone in the jurisdiction.

...

Rates for city broadband must be kept low enough to be accessible and appealing. This would be a challenge for a city that’s found ways to load utility bills.

A city broadband network may be worthwhile if it offers something unique and of great public value. Leveling the playing field and providing top quality service to everyone would meet this criteria.

Read the full editorial here!