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Business, Education Call on Culver City to Invest in Muni Fiber in L.A. County

Last fall, Culver City hired a consultant to develop a design and business plan for a possible fiber network project. Recently, prominent business leaders and parents of local school children have publicly expressed their support for a municipal network.

Culver City, also known as "The Heart of Screenland" is situated in west L.A. County, surrounded primarily by the City of Los Angeles. Approximately 39,000 people live in this community that is beginning to draw in the tech industry. In addition to Disney's Maker Studios, Apple owns Culver City's Beats Electronic, known for high-tech headphones. Culver City wants to stay current to compete with Santa Monica, home to a number of tech businesses that connect to its publicly owned City Net.

The L.A. Weekly reports billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of NantWorks, has encouraged city leaders to move forward with the project. His specific request is that five business districts be included in the network deployment. NantWorks, located in one of those districts, provides cloud-based operating systems to support telehealth. According to the article, Soon-Shiong is rallying other business leaders:

Soon-Shiong has been encouraging other business owners in the area to support the plan, which is expected to come before the City Council sometime in October.

"He feels this is key," said Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for Soon-Shiong. "He’s talked to various city officials and told them how important he thinks it is, not only to his business, but to attracting additional businesses to Culver City."

Local elected officials report positive feedback as the city reaches out to determine interest in the project:

"We're still attempting to gauge the degree of interest," said Councilman Andy Weissman, though he added, "I'm confident it's going to happen."

The business community is not the only sector in Culver City seeking better connectivity. The Front Page Online recently published an op-ed from the group United Parents of Culver City. Regarding Soon-Shiong's statement about the importance of the project, the President of the parents' organization writes:

We agree.

We will take it a step further: This is key to the future of our schools, too.

...

Parents interested in technology issues are well aware that bandwidth limitations have created problems in our district. Those problems only will grow worse as technology becomes more integrated in the classroom environment and as online testing becomes more prevalent.

Fiber Infrastructure Helping Turn San Leandro into Tech Hub

San Leandro, a Bay Area city of about 85,000 bordering Oakland, is in the news for its fiber optic infrastructure policies. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News describes how this post-industrial city is turning itself into a center for tech jobs and investment through cheap rents, streamlined permitting, and the ease and low cost of fiber connectivity for businesses in some areas of town. 

We featured San Leandro in an episode of our Broadband Bits podcast last year, when Christopher spoke with San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta and a Lit San Leandro consultant Judi Clark. Acosta and Clark gave the details on San Leandro’s innovative public-private partnership, which combines smart public investments in conduits and “dig once” concepts with private investment in the actual fiber optic strands themselves. The city has been able to access fiber for it’s own needs at minimal cost, while some businesses have access to up to 10Gbps connectivity, either through privately provided lit fiber or leasing their own dark fiber. 

As the Mercury News article notes, the fiber assets have begun to pay off. Several technology parks have taken up residence in the area, including a hub of 3-D printing companies, sharing space and ideas while taking advantage of incredible data transfer speeds. One entrepreneur quoted in the article describes the office park, located in a former car factory, as “the world's largest cluster of 3-D desktop printer companies.”

The article also notes the growing awareness of San Leandro’s economic comeback, and the role played by fiber optic infrastructure: 

"San Leandro is establishing itself as a city-scale lab for innovation. Only months ago, (it) was a relatively unknown Bay Area city," said Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global.

Lit San Leandro, the private company that worked with the city to do the initial fiber runs, is apparently also in talks with other Bay Area cities on potential similar projects. However, it is worth noting that there is no plan for connecting residents and this model may in fact make it more difficult to expand residental gigabit access.

The business case for residential access is always hard but is improved when high margin businesses can be connected at the same time. But when high margin businesses have their needs met first, there is little incentive for a profit-maximizing firm to invest in connecting lower margin customers, a phenomenon called cream-skimming in economics. 

Communities should understand there is no magic bullet in solving the problem of expanding high quality Internet access. Lit San Leandro is seeing success but may not be the best model for all communities.

Comcasts Invests in Theme Parks Rather than Better Broadband

While its network continues to offer last generation speeds at high prices and their customer service reps go viral harassing customers who try to leave their grasp, Comcast executives have decided it is time to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to upgrade... their theme parks. That's right, as they shift call centers to the Philippines to save money, they are reinvesting it into roller coasters.

Having acquired Universal Orlando Resorts as part of their 2011 merger with NBC Universal, Comcast has decided to step outside its core business of providing Internet access, cable TV, and phone service in noncompetitive markets. According to a March CED Magazine article, Comcast plans to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in both Florida and California in an effort to challenge Disney’s traditional dominance of the field. Attractions in Orlando will include an 1,800 room beach resort and a new Harry Potter ride.

This investment in rides occurs against the backdrop of falling infrastructure investment in the broadband industry, despite rapidly increasing bandwidth demands and claims by ISPs that services such as Netflix are straining their networks and must pay extra for “fast lane” service.

It is possible to imagine a world in which broadband markets are sufficiently competitive to force Comcast, CenturyLink and other incumbents to invest sufficiently in building out and upgrading their networks, delivering better service to their customers. But in our world, Comcast can spend the comparatively small sum of $18.8 million on lobbying (in 2013 according to OpenSecrets.org), becoming the seventh biggest campaign contributor in the nation and pushing legislation like the recent Blackburn amendment that eliminates potential public sector competitors.

Conduit Policy the Foundation for Affordable Gig Service in the Bay Area

Smart conduit policy, implemented in 1999, is now paying off in Brentwood. The Bay Area community of 52,000 recently reached an agreement with Sonic.net to bring fiber to the community via city-owned conduit. The partners anticipate a fall 2015 project completion.

The City requires all new development be constructed with conduit to the premise via a joint trench. Over the past 15 years, the amount of conduit has expanded to approximately 150 miles reaching more than 8,000 homes and all commercial construction. Brentwood has grown exponentially in the past 15 years. Between 2000 and 2010, its population more than doubled as it transitioned from farms to suburbs.

A number of other communities have implemented similar conduit policies to improve connectivity options. Mount Vernon, Washington, and Sandy, Oregon, are only a few towns where conduit policy for new development has facilitated fiber deployment. 

We checked in with Kerry Breen, Assistant Finance Director for Brentwood, who offered more details on the partnership. Sonic.net will pay to lease the conduit, connect City facilities, provide dedicated fiber to the City, fill in any gaps in the conduit network, and maintain the network. The ISP will also develop a pilot program to install conduit in a pre-1999 subdivision containing 250-500 homes. 

Sonic.net will connect public facilities that are adjacent to existing conduit. If the City wants to connect facilities situated in other areas, it will pay Sonic.net to complete the connections. Brentwood will save approximately $15,000 per year immediately because Sonic.net will provide gigabit service to City Hall at no charge.

The company will also pull fiber through traffic conduit and connect City traffic signals at no extra cost in these locations. If Sonic.net ultimately provides Wi-Fi, the City will have access at no charge, increasing efficiencies and reducing costs for municipal employees that work in the field such as city inspectors or public safety personnel.

In May, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the agreement. The Contra Costal Times reported on the proceeding:

"This basically takes Brentwood from being a bike path or footpath in technology to being a superhighway in technology," Vice Mayor Joel Bryant said before council members voted. "I'm very, very excited about this. This is an opportunity to improve the quality of life for our residents, the quality of businesses we are able to attract."

Business customers will enroll on a per-desk basis, paying $39.95 per month per desk for gigabit service. 

Residential customers with existing conduit who agree to pay a one-time connection fee will receive free broadband service (although not gigabit speeds) for five years. Residential gigabit service will cost $39.95 per month, which includes phone service. Homes that are not on the conduit network can purchase 20 Mbps service via copper for $39.95 per month.

In areas of town where 30% or more of eligible residential customers take services from Sonic.net, schools will receive free gigabit service. Sonic.net is taking an approach much like Google Fiber, developing an interest list to determine where to deploy. Interested residents can sign up online; Sonic.net will begin connecting customers within nine months.

"We Should Build A Muni In Vallejo"

The Times Herald in Vallejo posted a letter to the editor in early May from Chris Platzer; we want to share it with our readers. There are approximately 115,000 people in Vallejo and people like Platzer are looking for ways to better connectivity options. In the article, Platzer suggests his community take advantage of several well-considered steps to deploy its own fiber network.

Platzer suggests the community begin with an investment to create a network to connect a series of public facilities. He notes savings from discontinued leased lines could then be reinvested to incrementally expand the initial investment. He suggests maximizing use of fiber and conduit planted years ago; fiber planted with state funds to create and intelligent traffic system.

This approach would allow Vallejo to build a vast fiber optic network without issuing debt. The plan should encourage extra fiber, so when high tech companies ask for access to its fiber, Vallejo can oblige.

As more businesses request access, i.e. Kaiser and the CHP call center, a city fiber network can develop various ways to meet these needs. It can lease dark fiber to businesses that want it, including other carriers that want to connect their customers. 

Platzer also notes that Vallejo could lease infrastructure to ISPs to generate revenue for the network and the general fund. A muni would open up other possibilities for  and improve access for the community at large.

The accumulated savings could fund many public amenities, including free WiFi through out the City. In addition to synchronizing all the traffic signals in the City, the addition of video cameras on the network would assist public safety, and drivers would have several ways of getting real-time parking information. The telecommunications services the city could make available (telephone, cable and broadband) to local residents and/or business would have a profoundly positive impact on the General Fund and do much to enhance Vallejo as a "digital" destination!

We published a case study on how Santa Monica built a network using this very model.

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.