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Exploring Santa Monica's Incremental Fiber Approach - Community Broadband Bits Episode 90

Just a few weeks after releasing our case study of Santa Monica's City Net, we have an opportunity to interview Jory Wolf, CIO of Santa Monica, and the chief driver of City Net. This is episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We talk about how City Net got its start with a smart approach to the cable franchise negotiation. Adelphia built a number of fiber paths that Santa Monica would mange to connect anchor institutions. The savings from no longer leasing services provided the basis for expanding a network that would meet Santa Monica's needs long into the future.

They took that network and added on, eventually serving businesses with dark fiber and even some lit service. The model is applicable to any local government - financed by saving money and reinvesting that back into the 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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Richmond Neighborhood Gets Free Wi-Fi in California

Residents in the Iron Triangle neighborhood of Richmond are now receiving free Wi-Fi as part of a new pilot program. The pilot, sponsored by Building Blocks for Kids (BBK), hopes to make Internet access widely available to the many local families who cannot afford it. New towers have been placed on local homes to extend access to approximately 400 houses.

BBK is a collaborative of 30 government agencies, nonprofit groups and community leaders. The pilot project is funded by a $500,000 grant from the California Emerging Technology Fund to address digital literacy in areas of Richmond where affordable Internet access is not readily available.

A recent Contra Cost Times article covered the story. According to the article, an Internet connection tower is mounted on local resident, Yolanda Lopez's roof:

The Internet tower installed on Lopez's house receives signals from Internet Archive, a nonprofit organization that has a 40-foot tower at 2512 Florida Ave. Lopez's transmitter sends free Internet signals for a radius of a few hundred yards, providing the web to dozens of neighbors, said Internet Archive engineer Ralf Muehlen.

The ongoing costs to provide the signal, now that the hardware is in place, is "negligible," Muehlen said.

By summer, BBK partners hope to outfit 20 houses in the Iron Triangle with signal towers, providing free high-speed Internet signals to more than 400 homes, said BBK Executive Director Jennifer Lyle. A second tower has already been installed at a home in Atchison Village, Lyle said.

The BBK press release notes that several public and private entities worked together to enhance the Wi-fi service:

Because of the technical skills of collaborative member ReliaTech and the IT infrastructure expertise of City of Richmond’s Department of Information Technology, low-income Richmond residents will have access to wi-fi at an impressive 12-16 megabits per second.

The neighborhood of just under 20,000 has had problems with high rates of crime for many years. A 2013 survey reflects that residents of the neighborhood are not embracing connectivity because it is too expensive for them. The results of the survey are part of a larger study from BBK examining home Internet access and usage in the Iron Triangle neighborhood. The study indicates that one-third of local residents do not have access at home and 40% do not own a working computer.

The grant has also allowed BBK to distribute 1,000 free refurbished computers and provide training to over 900 families.

Lopez told the Times:

"All my neighbors are coming up and thanking me for the free Internet," Lopez said in Spanish. "A lot of people can't pay $50 per month."

Santa Monica City Net Case Study

Publication Date: 
March 5, 2014
Author(s): 
Eric Lampland
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

Santa Monica has built a fiber network called City Net that has lowered its own costs for telecommunications, helped to retain businesses, and attracted new businesses to the community. Built incrementally without debt, it offers a roadmap any community can draw lessons from.

Unlike the majority of municipal fiber networks, Santa Monica does not have a municipal power provider – City Net is run out of the Information Systems Department. The vision for the network and its expansion was created in the Telecommunications Master Plan in 1998, standardizing the procedure that we now call “dig once.” Careful mapping and clever foresight laid the foundation for growth.

Santa Monica's Telecommunications Master Plan

In 1998, Santa Monica created a Telecommunications Master Plan that has guided it for the past fifteen years in building an impressive fiber network connecting all community anchor institutions and many business districts. We have just released a case study detailing this effort, entitled: Santa Monica City Net: An Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network.

Below, you will find the original Master Plan and Exhibits. Santa Monica got it right - this document can still be a model today for communities across the United States. This document is particularly important for local governments that do not have a municipal electric department because it offers an alternative model run out of the IT department.

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.

White Space Pilot Project Brings Basic Internet From Library to Residents … For Free!

The Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN) has orchestrated a pilot project to optimize white space technology for connectivity in and near community libraries and schools. We discussed this approach on our most recent podcast with Don Means, coordinator of the project.

White spaces wireless, sometimes referred to as "Super Wi-Fi" or "TVWS," can provide limited access in rural areas with limited funds and limited connectivity options. The technology is still in the development stage but creative people working in community libraries are finding new ways to use it.

GLN's goal is to bring next generation connectivity to all 16,000 libraries in the U.S. The organization grew out the 2007 "Fiber to the Library" Campaign from the Community TeleStructure Initiative. The initiative is a collaboration of institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education technology market, and related entities. GLN advances the idea that anchor networks, like those at the library, are cost effective ways to serve populations and to create middle mile access.

"White spaces" are the unlicensed low-frequency spectrum that was reserved for television signals prior to digitization of television. (If you are REALLY old, like me, you remember the "UHF" and "VHF" dials on the ol' black-and-white.) As we transitioned to digital TV, the spectrum was abandoned. White spaces differ from traditional point-to-point wireless spectrum because they do not require a line of sight. Buildings, trees, or other obstacles do not stop the signals. Thurman, New York, and New Hanover County in North Carolina use white space technology for limited Internet access in their areas.

White space technology is not a replacement for next generation high-speed networks but can operate as a complement to an existing connection, expanding the reach of a library's free Wi-Fi. The network is not mobile but can be used for a nomadic fixed wireless remote as on a bookmobile. Early testing of pilot networks indicates the signal provides an average of 5 Mbps from the anchor station throughout the hotspot, depending on the conditions. The technology provides a basic level of service for email and web surfing. Users cannot stream video or use bandwidth hungry applications but when a user has no other access, "The value of the first Mbps is worth more than the next ninety-nine," says Don Means, GLN Coordinator.

GLN published an open call in July 2013 to libraries seeking proposals for innovative uses for white space technology. Sixty communities submitted proposals, surprising them by the volume and creativity of proposals. GLN considered a variety of factors, including innovative ideas that would benefit the community, the presence of access to backhaul to support the Wi-Fi, and accessibility of Internet access.

Humbolt County Library

Ultimately, they chose six respondents to participate, including the Humbolt County Library in California; the Skokie Public Library in Illinois; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Delta County Libraries in Colorado; the University of New Hampshire WhiteSpace Consortium; and several libraries in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library System. When the pilot is complete the libraries will have the option to purchase the equipment or to return it to the vendor. Prices vary from $5,000 - $8,000 for a base station and one to three remote location equipment packages. The Paonia, Colorado, library has created a kickstarted campaign to raise the funds for purchasing the equipment. 

White space is not yet available for commercial use, making it ideal for a pilot project. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi, white space technology requires cognitive radios to function. There are three FCC Certified TVWS Databases: iconnectiv, SpectrumBridge, and Google. When a device is activated, it connects with one of those databases to find available channels. Each device must be certified with one of those databases to access a chanel. At this point, there are no vendors that have certification for the equipment they provide. Once the vendors receive certification from the FCC, commercial use will follow. 

According to GLN, the distance between many U.S. library branches is consistent with the reach of white space technology, approximately five miles. If plans to connect them all include schools as base stations or remotes, much of the United States could have access to free, basic Wi-Fi Internet access.

The idea of reserving some of this spectrum for public use has been debated. The idea of an extensive free "network of networks"  sounds radical at first blush. Here is Harold Feld and his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:

Hmmm . . . . a best effort “network of networks” voluntarily exchanging traffic through the use of common protocols . . . that sounds vaguely familiar.  Why yes, that’s the Internet! The “network of networks” that runs on best efforts. And some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of millions of independent networks voluntarily agreeing to exchange best efforts traffic would become a meaningful global medium of communications was laughed at, sneered and scorned by the carrier world and the Collective Wisdom generally. “Who on Earth would manage such a system? How could you get connections? Why would people possibly put meaningful traffic on a best efforts and therefore inherently unreliable network? Don’t sell the bike shop Orville, that’s just crazy talk!”

The idea of self organizing networks, where each individual network contributes some resource because it derives benefit of some sort from the contribution, happens around every day. If you are reading this blog post, then you are participating in and using precisely the same kind of network that would emerge from making enough high-quality spectrum available for bigger, better WiFi.

Means describes libraries as "natural community laboratories for innovation." As gathering places in the community that are funded with local dollars, libraries are the ideal place for white space experimentation on a local level. We'll follow this story with another post next week looking at some of the pilot projects.

Don Means on Libraries and White Spaces - Community Broadband Bits Episode 79

This week, Don Means joins us to talk about public libraries, their role in the modern era, and an interesting pilot project involving several libraries and white spaces wireless technology. Don is the coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network and has a passion for both libraries and expanding Internet access to all.

We offer some basic background on "TV white spaces" wireless technology (see our other coverage of that technology here). The pilot libraries in this project are using white spaces as backhaul from a library branch location to nearby areas where they have created Wi-Fi hot spots.

Libraries involved with the project are located in Kansas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi, and California.

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.

San Francisco's Market Street Now Offering Free Wi-Fi

San Francisco now offers free Wi-Fi along Market Street. The city of approximately 825,000 joins a growing number of local municipalities that provide the service in select parts of town or in the entire city limits. The San Francisco Chronicle reports private companies donated hardware and a gigabit of bandwidth. The final cost was $500,000 to deploy the service, which extends approximately three miles.

According to Govenment Technology, the City Department of Technology developed the system and installed the equipment on traffic lights and other city-owned property. After several attempts to partner with private sector providers failed, city leaders decided it was time to act on their own:

"It was simpler, faster, better to do it on our own," said San Francisco CIO Marc Touitou in a release. "The quality is higher, with the technical design by the Department of Technology. We wanted high capacity. ... We wanted it to be cool -- no strings attached, no ads."

On December 10th, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the City of New York would soon provide free Wi-Fi in Harlem. We have also reported on many of the other communities that offer free municipal Wi-Fi including: Ponca City, OklahomaAztec, New Mexico; and San Jose, California

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee noted the free service is only the beginning of larger plans to improve connectivity. From the city news release:

“Nearly a quarter-million people walk down Market Street every day, and now they will be able to connect to the Internet through our free public Wi-Fi,” said Mayor Lee. “Providing Wi-Fi on our City’s main busy thoroughfare is a big first step towards a larger vision of connectivity for our City as a whole, bridging the digital divide and ensuring that our diverse communities have access to innovation.”

Solar Powered Wireless on the Reservation - Community Broadband Bits Episode #76

When it comes to building a community owned wireless network, few have more experience than Matthew Rantanen, our guest for the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week. Rantanen has an impressive list of titles, two of which are Director of Technology for the Southern California Tribal Chairmen's Association (SCTCA) and Director of the Tribal Digital Village Initiative.

We discuss the need for better network access on reservations generally and how several reservations in southern California were able to build their own wireless networks using unlicensed spectrum and the power of the sun. This success has inspired others, including in Idaho, to take similar approaches to ensure modern connectivity.

We also discuss the importance of unlicensed spectrum to ensure that underserved communities can build the networks they need without having to ask for permission and the role that Native Public Media plays in expanding access to media across North America.

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 16 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.

Los Angeles Wants Better Networks

The City of Los Angeles has announced a confusing intention to release an RFP for a vendor to install a gigabit fiber network. A recent Government Technology article touches on the broad plan to build a massive fiber and wireless network to every public and private premise. 

GovTech spoke with Steve Reneker, general manager of the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency. We last spoke with Reneker in Episode #11 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In that interview, he described how Riverside, California, used the publicly owned network to revitalize the economy and support the community's digital inclusion plan. Los Angeles wants to emmulate Riverside's success. From the GovTech article:

“[The plan] is really focused on fixing the operational issues that due to the economy have been left by the wayside over the last three and four years,” Reneker said. “So, correcting the lack of investment, the lack of technology refresh, the reduction in staff that make operational aspects of our infrastructure difficult to keep going forward, tries to deliver an incremental approach to starting a long, lengthy rebuilding process.”

Councilman Bob Blumenthal introduced a proposal in August, 2013 to also blanket the city in free Wi-fi. Blumenfield's website states the city has 3,500 existing wireless hotspots.

Engadget reports that the City Council unanimously approved the proposal to move forward with the plan at a November 5th meeting. A Request for Proposals will be issued in the coming months for the fiber and free wireless network:

It's expected that the fiber will also supply residents with free internet access at speeds between 2Mbps and 5Mbps, with paid plans scaling up to a gigabit. Naturally, the city expects the effort will bring free or affordable WiFi to kids who've scored iPads through the school district. The entire scheme is expected to cost $3 billion to $5 billion, but the outfit that builds the network will have to foot the bill. 

Ars Technica Logo

Experts wonder if large providers, who may be the only ones with the resources to make such an investment, would be willing to invest. Harold Feld from Public Knowledge spoke with Ars Technica:

"My first reaction is 'I look forward to their RFP for a unicorn supplier, because I think it's about as likely under these terms,'" Harold Feld, senior VP of the technology-focused consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.

The Ars piece pointed out some advantages to a winning bidder in such an arrangement:

While the vendor would have to provide free Internet to everyone at the network's slowest speeds (potentially with ads to support the service), it could also charge a premium for everything up to gigabit lines and could sell TV and phone service to everyone in LA. Moreover, the winning bidder could get contracts to provide the city government with data center hosting and perhaps other IT services like e-mail.

"I like to think of it as limited at this point only by your imagination," Los Angeles City Council member Bob Blumenfield, who came up with the idea, told Ars.

ILSR's Christopher Mitchell also spoke to Ars:

"As I understand California law at this point, LA would be asking someone to do something that they could do now. LA doesn't appear to be giving them any specific inducement to do so. And a lot of providers, if they were going to do this they would just pick a part of LA and do it there. There's no reason they would choose to do it everywhere."

Mitchell suggested LA take an approach similar to award winning Santa Monica - installation of conduit in all construction projects. Over time, the city could have an extensive network of pathways for fiber. City Net leases dark fiber to area businesses, connects government facilities, and provides affordable lit fiber to local commercial customers.

At this point, the city tech department has been directed to draft an RFP [see the PDF of the Innovation, Technology and General Services Committee Recommendation]. The RFP will list "available assets and services that would entice a vendor to provide a build out of some level of free broadband service to all City residents while respecting the commercial carrier's basic levels of service and to not significantly influence carrier competition." Developing that list may take some time. Blumenfield notes that a map or catalog of total city fiber may not exist.

When pressed for details on what the city could offer any vendor, Blumenfield told Ars:

"You're asking me to define these things and at this point I'm hesitating to define them, because at this point we're just really at the early phases. It's what you imagine it to be. We're issuing these RFPs to get people to think big and to bring forth proposals to the city of how they would partner with the city."

Update on 11/19 from Christopher - The more I learn about the approach, the worse I think it is. Craig Settles interviewed Steve Reneker and it sounds like Los Angeles will be making itself more dependent on a provider that almost certainly will not be rooted in the community. It is proposing to subsidize a rollout by promising contracts for city services (also known as the failed Minneapolis Wi-Fi model). This is particularly disappointing for a city that has significant resources that would allow it, at a minimum, to move toward an actual partnership as Seattle settled on this year. This RFP is a refusal of the local government to take responsibility, not a smart plan.