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MuniWireless Works in Lompoc…Just The Way They Like It

The early 2000s created a boom of both public and private wireless projects throughout the U.S., but many struggled with unrealistic expectations and flopped. Successful muni wireless networks transformed themselves, adapting to the changing needs of the communities. Some, such as Sandy, Oregon, have transitioned to Fiber-To-The-Home (FTTH) networks where the high-speed fiber-optic cable is hooked up directly to the home. Others repurposed their networks to provide other needed services -- like in Lompoc, California.

Lompoc transformed its $4 million muniwireless network, LompocNet, into a full-fledged Broadband Utility. Originally, the city council hatched the idea of a subscriber-based Wi-Fi network, but times changed quickly. Now, the Broadband Utility primarily provides much-needed internal connectivity for city services.

New Role: City Services

In this small city of about 42,000 people, the Broadband Utility operates a Wide Area Network (WAN) for municipal services. The electric and water utilities use the network for their smart-meters, which automatically provide usage information to the city utilities. Police video cameras transmit their feeds across the service, improving public safety. The Broadband Utility also provides the city’s phone and data services, and and has begun to connect some municipal buildings with fiber-optic cable. The Broadband Utility’s role has increased in importance; Lompoc’s franchise agreement with Comcast expired at the end of 2014, so now the Broadband Utility is beginning to function as an Institutional Network, connecting public buildings.

Lompoc’s approach to broadband may seem inverted to those used to the concept of incremental build-outs, but it worked for the city. In an incremental build-out, a small section of the network is built for a specific purpose and the revenues from that section pay for the next expansion. Lompoc decided to do the opposite: blanket the city completely and immediately with low-cost Internet access via Wi-Fi.

From Being a Flop to Being On Top

More than 10 years ago, in 2002, Lompoc faced a common, but frustrating problem – Comcast’s services. Comcast was slowly rolling out DSL in the community, but the cost of cable TV services still seemed too high to the city council. The Mayor Pro Tem at the time, DeWayne Holmdahl, traveled to Florida with the city manager to a municipal broadband conference to explore solutions. Inspired by the stories at the conference, they returned with an idea: a municipal utility for cable and Internet services.


The City Council agreed to look into the matter and hired a consultant to perform a study[PDF] in 2003. The options:

  1. Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network, financed through bonds, with a capital cost of $26.5 million (not including the cost of operation and maintenance)
  2. Wi-Fi mesh network, financed through a loan from the municipal Electric Utility to be repaid with revenue funds from the network, with a capital cost of $1 million (not including the cost of operation and maintenance)

The FTTH project would be city-wide and include triple-play: phone, TV, and Internet. The Wi-Fi plan would blanket the city with affordable basic Internet access. According to Holdmahl, the city council recognized that the FTTH project would be too costly. Although a Wi-Fi network could not provide triple-play services, the network could still serve residents.

Technical problems delayed the network from taking off with residential users, and the network languished until the end of 2007. Then Richard Gracyk came on as Broadband Services Administrator changing the network’s technical management system. The number of subscribers quickly leapt to about 1,000 and plateaued.

After the city spent $4 million to construct, operate, and maintain the network, the project was declared 'revenue neutral' in 2012, and LompocNet could begin to recoup its investment. Generating revenue from the network now looked promising.

Residential Users: Cord Cutters and the Digital Divide

Although the Broadband Utility has started to focus more on city services, the residential program is still robust. The network has about a 1,000 customers a month - LompocNet does not use the term "subscribers." The residential Wi-Fi requires no contract. The Internet bill is added to their city utility account - an easy, all-in-one payment. People are not locked into the service, but have the option to use it as needed. 

The services they offer have expanded since the early days of the network. The technology has grown more extensive as the Broadband Utility uses a blended network of different equipment and providers. Offering three tiers for residential users (ranging from $15.99 - $35.99) and base-level packages for visitors (from $4.99 - $9.99), the network appeals to cord-cutters (people who want to move away from subscriptions) and lower income people, priced out by other Internet services.

Former Mayor Pro Tem, and current city councilmember, Holmdahl explained that he has been a loyal customer of the Broadband Utility since its inception. He uses it for both his home and for his business as a travelling notary, saying “it works just the way we like to have it work.” That’s the key to any successful program: it works just the way the community likes it to work.

AnchorNETS Conference Nov. 16th - 17th in Mountainview, CA

The Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will present the first AnchorNETS Broadband Summit this November 16th & 17th in Mountainview, California. The event is designed to help leaders from anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals, and libraries connect and learn about solutions to help them achieve gigabit connectivity. The conference will be held at the Computer History Museum. Our own Christopher Mitchell will be there as well.

Keynote Speakers include:

Attend AnchorNETS to:

  • Gain information and practical guidelines to access funding from Federal, State and Local government
  • Learn about the economics of middle-mile fiber deployment and the role of next generation wireless technology
  • Develop new community engagement practices and programs

More information is available on the web:, where you can check out the agenda, information on the speakers, and register online.

Download the flyer below for more information.

Dark Fiber Network Saving Money, Generating Revenue in Burbank

ONE Burbank, the dark fiber network that has provided connectivity for studios since 1997, is bringing a number of benefits to Burbank schools and taxpayers, reports the Burbank Leader. The network is saving public dollars, generating revenue, and providing better connectivity to schools and public facilities.

Five years ago, we reported on Burbank's asset and its primary customers - Hollywood studios. That trend has continued but now the network generates even more revenue. As a result, all electric customers served by Burbank Water and Power save with lower utility bills:

Last year, ONE Burbank generated $3.4 million in revenues for the utility, [General Manager Ron] Davis said in May. That’s compared to roughly $205,000 in 1997 and about $1.5 million five years ago, according to data Davis presented to the City Council.

“The bulk of that [$3.4 million] is all margin and helps keep electric rates down,” Davis said. “[We do] basically zero marketing and collect that margin.”

By connecting city facilities rather than leasing from a private provider, Burbank has all but eliminated past telecommunications expenses, lowering costs by 95% and saving, $480,000 in total thusfar. The school district has saved $330,000 since connecting to ONE Burbank.

ONE Burbank is also providing four times as much bandwidth to the school at a much lower rate that it once paid to the private sector, cutting its costs from $18,000 per year to $9,000 per year.

In August, Burbank Water and Power began using the dark fiber network as backhaul for free Wi-Fi service available throughout the city. There is no service level guarantee but it is open to any device:

“It’s just out there if you can get it,” Ron Davis, the utility’s general manager, told the City Council last week.

The dark fiber has helped retain and attract business, reports city leaders, and they want to continue the current trajectory to bring in high-tech companies and turn Burbank into a "Silicon Beach."

Louis Talamantes, president of Buddy’s All Stars, said his business has been using the service for about 18 months. While it’s more expensive than the prior service provider, he said, it makes up for it in reliability. The Internet would go down three or four times a month, sometimes for half a day, with his previous provider.

Though he was skeptical at first, Talamantes said the service “delivered” and he’s had no downtime with ONE Burbank, allowing him to keep his 24 employees productive, and it’s helped keep up morale.

Mendocino County Worried About Their Copper During IP Transition

This is not our first look at problems with communications service in rural Mendocino County, California, but we continue to see concerning stories coming from it. The tenuous situation along the North Coast, where large private providers have refused to invest in redundant networks, is heightening concern among first responders, community leaders, and citizens.

The problem stems from the tendency of incumbents to neglect existing copper systems that need to be replaced with fiber based VoIP. Randy MacDonald, assistant fire chief of the Camptche Volunteer For Department of rural Mendocino County recently presented the department's concerns to congressional and regulatory staff in D.C. The Press Democrat quoted him in a recent article that examines the issue in their region:

“We’ve built a second-to-none 911 system,” MacDonald said. But “we’re almost by default allowing it to become degraded as technology changes.”

For decades, people have been paying bills with an expectation that they were helping to maintain the network. Uncle Sam has spent billions subsidizing carriers to ensure the network worked. But now it seems that some carriers are preparing to harvest as much as they can without delivering reliable communications to those paying the bills:

Verizon’s biggest union, the Communication Workers of America, has accused the company of refusing to fix broken copper lines and pushing customers to move to fiber or wireless systems. Verizon has flatly denied the charges.

Some, like MacDonald, believe other telecommunications corporations are attempting to abandon their copper systems through neglect.

“There is a lot of concern the telecom giants are basically allowing the copper infrastructure to just deteriorate,” Mendocino County Supervisor John McCowen said.

The FCC knows that there is growing concern over the attitude of the incumbents. In order to address some of these problems in Mendocino and similar rural areas as we trade in copper for glass, in August the FCC adopted a number of rules for carriers:

“Carriers may not let their legacy networks silently ‘die on the vine,’ ” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement after the Aug. 6 vote.

As urban and suburban areas benefit from the transition, rural areas like Mendocino must still contend with older infrastructure for Internet as well as telephone service.

He said telecommunications giants have shown little interest in laying down fiber in the North Coast’s more remote reaches and those typically are places where wireless service is sketchy, at best.

“Copper has to be maintained until there’s a replacement” that is reliable, Persky said. In rural areas, “it could be decades,” he said.

Santa Cruz Fiber Project with Cruzio

Santa Cruz, California, and its 62,000 people with poor Internet connectivity near Silicon Valley, could be one of the larger municipalities to develop a citywide fiber network. The Santa Cruz Fiber project, which was announced on June 24, 2015, would be an open-access public private partnership (PPP) with the city constructing the network and a private company, Cruzio, serving as network operator. The plans are preliminary, but the announcement highlighted the project’s emphasis on local ownership: 

“A locally-owned, next-generation broadband network operated openly and independently and built for Santa Cruz, [the Santa Cruz Fiber Project] is uniquely tailored to fit the diverse needs of the Santa Cruz community.” 

Cruzio is one of the oldest and largest Internet service providers in California. Completely locally-owned and staffed, Cruzio is rooted in Santa Cruz County. The company’s name perfectly describes it. Cruz- from Santa Cruz and -io from I/O (Input/Output, communication between an information processing system and the rest of the world).  Our Christopher Mitchell is gushing over the name and says: “I seriously love it.”

Fiber is not a new commodity in Santa Cruz. Since 2011, Cruzio has installed fiber in several of its projects, and the fiber has wooed some 30 entrepreneurs and solo practitioners to stay in the downtown area at the Cruzio Works, a co-working space. Last November, Central Coast Broadband Consortium commissioned a study of the fiber networks in Santa Cruz (paid for with a grant from the California Public Utilities commission). They discovered more fiber under the city of Santa Cruz than in any other city in the counties of Santa Cruz, Monterey, and San Benito. Unfortunately much of it belonged to incumbent providers like Comcast and AT&T who are loath to lease dark fiber or make affordable fiber connections available to local businesses and residents. 

Then, just this past June, Comcast announced the planned rollout of Gigabit Pro near Silicon Valley, but not Santa Cruz. Even if Comcast changes its mind, the city has already found a local private partner in Cruzio. This local public-private partnership will almost certainly result in far more benefits to the community than Comcast’s Gigabit Pro. This network will be under local control and responsive to community needs.  

The intention of the partnership is to pursue an open access model. At first, the network will be solely a public-private partnership where the City of Santa Cruz will own the network and Cruzio will construct and operate it. During the initial stages, Cruzio will provide the expertise in network management that the city of Santa Cruz does not necessarily have. After a number of years, the network will open up to more service providers in order to promote competition, which is how Westminster has arranged its partnership with Ting in Maryland. 

The goal of the FTTH project proposal according to Cruzio is to connect 6,000 households and businesses by the end of the third year. Currently, the construction costs are estimated at $52 million. The City staff will present a report to city council by the end of this September on the potential Fiber Project’s feasibility. Early project estimates suggest the network would be mostly completed by late 2018. If the take-rate is feasible, the city intends to back the network with municipal revenue bonds. Revenue bonds are repaid through the sale of networking services, not through taxes. This ensures that those who use the network will pay for the network. Cruzio is now surveying residents to determine interest and creating an engineering report. 

Vallejo Commits to Develop Fiber Master Plan

Vallejo recently hired Jory Wolf, CIO from Santa Monica, to help develop a fiber optic master plan, reports the Times Herald. A fiber network now controls the city's intelligent transportation system (ITS) and Vallejo wants to build off that asset to encourage economic development.

Wolf was the key player behind Santa Monica's master plan, which led to the development of its Institutional Network and CityNet, a fiber optic network for business connectivity. According to the article, Vallejo's master plan is expected late this fall. 

Last year, we highlighted a letter to the editor from resident Chris Platzer who suggested using Vallejo's ITS fiber network as the foundation to deploy a municipal network. A number of communities we study take advantage of fiber assets and conduit put in place as part of transportation control, including Martin County in Florida; Arlington, Virginia; and Aurora, Illinois. The Vallejo ITS includes approximately 11 miles of fiber and was built in the 1990s.

In March, city staff included the same idea as part of their recommendations. They also advised developing a joint trench ordinance and fiber upgrade policy, collaborating with nearby Benicia, and joining Next Century Cities. 

From the article:

According to staff, a joint trench ordinance would be essential in upgrading municipal infrastructure as it would allow the timing of installation of conduit to coincide with other underground construction.

Staff is also investigating the possibility of the city drafting a cooperative agreement with Benicia, to provide “better telecommunications service, faster implementation, lower costs ...”

Also on Thursday, the city announced that it has joined Next Century Cities.

Over 80 communities belong to Next Century Cities, an organization of local and regional leaders advancing fast, affordable, reliable Internet access. They provide support, resources, and collaboration to assist communities like Vallejo that want to exercise local control to improve connectivity.

From a city press release:

“Jory brings a wealth of unique experience to Vallejo in terms of how you build, operate and manage a municipal fiber network that will improve internet access and affordability, attract businesses and jobs, and generate revenue for the city,” said Mayor Osby Davis. “The City Council identified the development of a fiber network as a top priority in 2014 and 2015, and retaining Jory represents a significant step towards this goal.”

Yolo County, California Ready for Better Broadband

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors in California voted unanimously recently to accept consultants' recommendations to take steps improve broadband in the county. Some of those recommendations included investing in infrastructure to improve both urban and rural areas in the northern county. 

The Davis Enterprise reported on the meeting from February 24th:

With its diverse mix of rural and urban areas, the county has communities where little or no broadband service is available. And even in urban areas with greater access to service and providers, many residents complain of slow and unreliable connections, according to the Yolo Broadband Strategic Plan, which also provided direction for county officials on closing the divide in the coming years.

The strategic plan, commissioned in 2013, notes that in some areas residents must rely on dial-up or satellite:

“Residents are generally limited to low-speed connections that prevent these users from accessing the majority of online content,” reported John Honker of Magellan Advisors LLC, which prepared the report.

“Using the Internet for anything but simple Web browsing is challenging in these communities,” he said.

The situation is especially critical for farming communities in the county, reports the study:

Yolo's agricultural populations are also challenged by poor access to broadband, especially in the farming and seed technology industries. Yolo farms are often unable to keep up with the technological advancements in the agricultural field that would allow them achieve greater productivity and better management of their natural resources.

In the more urban areas, such as the City of Davis (home of UC Davis), residents complain they cannot get the service they need in households with multiple devices. In those cases, the bandwidth they need is just too expensive if it is available. These same communities complain of unreliable networks.

Almost a third of Yolo County residents who responded to the study survey reported that they use satellite or dial-up for Internet access, 35 percent said they use AT&T DSL, 18 percent reported they use Frontier DSL, and 18 percent reported they use mobile Internet. Eighty-five percent of respondents reported download speeds of slower than 6 Mbps, reports the Yolo County profile from the study.

“Yolo County is on the wrong side of the digital divide,” [Honker] told county supervisors. “The more devices we’re using, we’re taxing our connections more, creating demand for the services and the networks can’t keep up.”

Grover Beach Chooses Local Partner to Improve Local Connectivity for Businesses

After several years of considering options for a municipal network, the community of Grover Beach, California, is improving local connectivity options through a collaboration with private partner Digital West

According to the San Luis Obispo Tribune, the City struck a deal last fall with the local firm that will provide gigabit connectivity to local business customers. A city staff report states that Grover Beach will install and own a series of conduit that will house fiber owned by Digital West. 

The company, a data storage and web hosting firm located in nearby San Luis Obispo, will manage the fiber network. Digital West will lease conduit space from the city for 5.1% of its gross revenue from its operation of the private portion of the system. The initial lease is for a 10-year term. The company will also transfer ownership of some of the fiber to the city for public purposes. San Luis Obispo (SLO) County also wants to connect its facilities in the area and will contribute to the cost of the project. It appears as though SLO County will use the fiber provided to Grover Beach.

Grover Beach will contribute $500,000; SLO County will contribute $268,000; Digital West will contribute $159,000 to the total cost of $927,000 of the project. The parties agree that the city's contribution will be capped at $500,000. The staff report recommends an interdepartmental loan to finance the city's portion of the conduit installation.

Digital West has been an instrumental player in the city's quest for improved connectivity for several years. The company provides Internet service in SLO County and manages a private network offering connectivity, colocation, and cloud services to commercial clients. 

Grover Beach is also the location of the Pacific Crossing trans-Pacific fiber cable, connecting to Shima, Japan. In 2009, Digital West began working with Grover Beach to find ways to take advantage of the pipe. The city and Digital West have sence developed a Technology Master Plan and an Implementation Plan.

AT&T, Level 3, CenturyLink, and Verizon operate in the area, but Digital West plans to offer more affordable options. The city's vision includes providing more options for the numerous small businesses and to encourage more home based business. The staff report quoted Digital West estimated pricing at $100 per month for 100 Mbps and $150 per month for 1 gigabit service. Similar services in the area run between $250 per month and $500 per month according to the report.

Mendocino County Analyzes Losses From Communications Outage

In November, the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC) released a report documenting the results of an online survey to determine the effects of a summer communications outage. The Willits News reported that the survey revealed losses of over $215,000 in the county, although actual losses likely reach the millions.

In August, an accident wiped out Internet, telephone, cell, and 911 services for eight communities along the coast in Mendocino County. AT&T aerial fiber optic cable was destroyed. Approximately 17,400 people lost access to 911 services. Depending on the location, 911 service was out for 24 to 45 hours.

Only about 6.5 percent of the people in Mendocino County participated in the survey according to the report. Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were directly impacted.

The article quotes the BAMC report:

According to the BAMC, the outage was lengthy because "the AT&T backbone fiber network was not configured to be redundant nor diverse with protection routing. This was not due to the lack of fiber in the surrounding routes. AT&T did provide diverse fiber and protection for their cable station, but elected not to provide the same for the surrounding community and emergency services."

Mendocino County has been working for several years on an initiative to improve connectivity along California's north coast. They are now part of a larger collaboration called the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The incident in Mendocino County is much like a similar event in 2010 in which Cook and Lake Counties in Minnesota were cut off in the same way. At that time, a single Qwest line was cut and, since there was no redundancy, 911 service, Internet, and many business services came to a screeching halt.

Yet another reminder of the risks that come with depending on distant mega-corporations for essential infrastructure.

California Law Offers New Way to Finance Broadband Projects

On September 29th, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a bill that may make building community networks in his state just a bit easier. The memorably-named “Assembly Bill No. 2292” allows broadband projects to be included among the types of public works that can be financed using Infrastructure Financing Districts (IFDs).

IFDs are entities formed by regional coalitions of city, county, or other governmental units. They are designed to provide upfront funding for infrastructure projects that have broad regional benefits (highways, water systems, etc.), and are paid for by earmarking the increased property or other tax revenue the projects are expected to generate over a specified future period (usually decades). 

The idea behind IFDs - capturing future value to provide upfront funding to the projects that will create that value - is much like Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts in other states. We have seen communities in other states turn to TIFs for broadband networks build outs, perhaps most notably throughout Indiana

The text of the bill is all of three lines long, and simply amends the existing authorizing law for IFDs to explicitly allow infrastructure financing districts to be used for “public capital facilities or projects that include broadband.” While the old wording of the statute did not explicitly reject using IFDs for broadband projects, it did not explicitly allow it either.

Removing the uncertainty around the issue should help encourage local governments to consider network investments, especially since one of the major unpredictable costs is incumbent lawsuits. This change will slightly reduce the opportunity for incumbents to slow a municipal network with a lawsuit.

The bill was written and sponsored by Representative Rob Bonta, who represents parts of both Oakland and San Leandro in the Bay Area. It is no coincidence that San Leandro is a city seeing the benefits of robust fiber optic infrastructure, and San Leandro mayor reportedly pushed the idea to Rep. Bonta, who made the case for the bill as an economic development driver:

Broadband provides cities and counties with an opportunity to stimulate the economic climate by providing businesses with the competitive advantage of being connected to high speed fiber optic networks. AB 2292 will help boost local economies, create local jobs and increase access for schools, libraries and other public facilities to state of the art telecommunications networks. 

While AB 2292 shows a growing awareness of the need for more public investment in broadband, it is far from a silver bullet. The political process necessary to create an IFD is cumbersome and challenging:

IFDs have to be approved by all the local agencies that would be contributing tax revenue, local property owners have to be consulted and then it goes through a series of public votes, including two – to form the IFD and then to issue bonds – that require a two-thirds majority to pass.

These are huge hurdles to clear for any major public project, and the California legislature recognized this by creating a new category of Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts (EIFDs) in this year’s session that are more flexible and lower the bar to a single public vote and 55 percent approval. Unfortunately, the bill creating EIFDs (SB 628) does not explicitly include or exclude broadband projects, falling into the same murky middle ground that the old IFD legislation did.

The end result of the California legislative session is a partial win for community broadband networks. They get new access to an existing financing tool, but only a taste of the new and improved system. The goal for the future should be clear: get next generation broadband projects definitively included in the Enhanced Infrastructure Financing District statute, so more local communities can start to enjoy the benefits of fiber the way San Leandro and Santa Monica do today.