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Waverly: The Next Gigabit Community in Iowa

Remember Waverly, Iowa? We introduced you to the town of 10,000 back in 2013 when they revived the community choice to develop a telecommunications utility. Recently in February, the Waverly Light and Power Board of Trustees approved a long awaited gigabit project reported American Public Power.

According to a WLP press release, the $12 million project will be financed with revenue bonds which have already been secured. As we note in our Financing Municipal Networks fact sheet [PDF], this is one of the most common ways of funding deployment. Revenue from subscribers pays the private investors that buy the bonds used to finance the deployment.

Construction is scheduled to begin in May and WLP expects to begin serving customers in 2016. WLP serves approximately 4,800 customers in town and in the rural areas around Waverly. Early plans include incentives for early sign-ups such as a free first month of service and a reduced installation fee. The fiber network will also be used for smart metering.

From the WLP press release:

“It may have taken 15 years of planning and hard work to finally come together, but knowing what’s to come, it’s worth the wait,” explains Ael Suhr, Waverly Light and Power Chairman of the Board. “This approval opens the door for new alternatives for high-speed internet, cable and phone services in Waverly for both residents and businesses.”

Rural Electric Co-Mo Coop Goes Gig - Community Broadband Bits Episode 140

As high quality Internet has become more essential for business and quality of life, those who realized that the existing telecom providers had no intention to invest in better connections in their rural Missouri communities began to ask their electric cooperative - Co-Mo - to step up and do it.

This week, we talk with Randy Klindt, General Manager of Co-Mo Connect, which is building a gigabit fiber network out to its members despite having not been chosen to receive any stimulus funds.

We discuss how they have structured the network, why they felt compelled to get into the business, and some of the results from their approach.

Read the transcript from our discussion here.

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

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

Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Issues RFP

The Roanoke Valley in Virginia has taken a deliberate pace on the road to improving local connectivity. On December 10th, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority (RVBA) released an RFP for proposals for an open access fiber optic network.

The RVBA is seeking a partner to build the network that will remain a publicly owned asset but will be managed by a private partner. According to the RFP, the City of Salem Electric Department has fiber in place that will be integrated into the the network. The RVBA has already invested in design, engineering, and permitting of 42 miles of a fiber network to jumpstart the process. Construction should begin this year.

In November, the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported:

The valley is often described as being caught in a “doughnut hole” for broadband service because it’s not a large enough area for the marketplace to drive creation of a truly high-speed network, but it’s too large to qualify for grants available to more rural locales.

The Times-Dispatch reports the estimated cost for the project is $4 million. 

Rock Falls to Expand Business Fiber Network

The community of Rock Falls, Illinois, recently decided to move ahead with a project to develop a municipal broadband utility, reports SaukValley.com. At a City Council meeting in early December, members unanimously voted to accept the findings of a feasibility study and move on to develop a formal business plan and preliminary engineering design. From the article:

Alderman Glen Kuhlemier said the table has been set for this project, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of what has already been done.

"To go backward is untenable after the foresight of the past," Kuhlemier said.

Rock Falls has an advantage because it already has substantial fiber resources in place. In the 1990s, the municipal electric utility installed fiber to connect substations. Thinking of the future, the electric utility installed ample fiber, which will significantly reduce the cost and burden to establish a network for business connectivity.

Rock Falls is no stranger to improving local connectivity. In the past, they used excess capacity to connect the city's schools and municipal facilities, reported American Public Power Magazine in 2010. The electric utility partnered with Essex Telecom, an ISP located in nearby Sterling, leasing some of their excess capacity to Essex so they could serve commercial customers.

The plan proposed by consultants would expand the network to connect half of the 350 businesses in the community. The consultanting firm estimates the deployment would cost $700,000 and the city would break even in 7 years.

Rock Falls, population approximately 9,200, is located on the Rock River in the northwest corner of the state; Sterling is immediately across the river. The community's municipal electric utility uses the river to generate hydroelectric power and customers pay rates 10-30% lower than those offered by neighboring investor-owned and cooperative utilities.

In recent years, the population has started to decline. Community leaders intend to jumpstart economic development with the added investment in fiber infrastructure.

SpringNet Sells Underground Colocation Facility

SpringNet has spurred economic development in Springfield, serving small businesses but also providing high-speed data to big employers such as Expedia. The network has steadily increased revenue over the years, even though it serves only commercial and public sector customers.

Demand for services has lead to the need to expand so SpringNet is opting to go lean. In 2002, the utility developed SpringNet Underground, a secure data and colocation center. The venture has been successful, says General Manager Scott Miller, but SpringNet sees investing the fiber network paramount and recently sold the facility. Bluebird Network purchased the facility for $8.4 million and will continue to serve the existing customers.

OzarksFirst recently ran the story:

Erwin FTTH Pilot Project Moving Forward

Erwin, Tennessee announced last summer that it was planning an FTTH pilot project to connect 1,200 customers. After receiving the necessary approval from the state comptroller this summer, Erwin Utilities began construction in October, reported the Erwin Record.

The pilot project focuses in and around downtown and leadership at Erwin Utilities plan to use the network for the town's electric system, water system, and wastewater system in addition to high-speed connectivity. Lee Brown, General Manager of the municipal utilities, reported that the network will provide services up to a gig.

From an August Johnson City Press article:

“This project will enable Erwin Utilities to provide improved electric, water and wastewater services while enhancing the quality of life and creating economic opportunities for citizens within Erwin Utilities’ service area,” he said. “I expect the benefits of this project to our customers and community to be substantial.”

...

“It’s our intent to be able to deploy this over our whole customer service area in the future, and of course, the success of the pilot project will somewhat dictate how quickly we’ll be able to do that,” Brown said. 

The first phase of the project is scheduled for completion in early January.

LightTUBe Lowers the Price of a Gig; Increases Speeds for Free AGAIN

The Tullahoma Utilities Board (TUB) began offering gigabit service in 2013 through its municipal FTTH network, LightTUBe. In a recent press release the TUB announced it has lowered the price of residential gig service to $99.95 per month

In addition to slashing the price for the highest tier, TUB increased all other Internet speeds at no additional cost. This is the sixth time since its 2008 deployment that LightTUBe customers have enjoyed a free speed increase. From the LightTUBe website:

New LightTUBe Prices

Brian Skelton, TUB General Manager, said in the press release:

“We’ve grown our Internet business in such a way that we can offer Gigabit speeds at a more affordable price.” 

Skelton has said in the past that the decision to offer Gigabit Internet was an easy one. 

“We want to make Tullahoma a much more desirable location for technology companies to locate, due to our ultra-high speed Internet and our highly skilled workforce,” he explained in spring of 2013. “Tullahoma is light-years ahead of most cities in the United States with the ability to offer these incredibly fast Internet speeds.”

LightTUBe has brought jobs to the community, increased the efficiency of the electric utility through a smart metering program, and implemented a "TV Everywhere" option for customers. Even thought the network is restricted by state law, it has remained financially stable while keeping rates in check.

Muscatine, Iowa, Upgrading to FTTH

Muscatine Power & Water (MP&W) announced in late November that it will upgrade its municipal hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) communications network to an FTTH network. The upgrade will allow Muscatine to offer gigabit speeds. Construction is set to begin in 2016; the FTTH network is scheduled to go live in 2017.

According to the press release, the community hopes to capitalize on the new technology for economic development opportunities, better residential services, and replace an aging system with future proof infrastructure. From the press release [PDF]:

Consideration was also given to two other plans that would have either maintained or incrementally improved the existing HFC system. As stewards of the public trust, the Board of Trustees felt the other options were costly short-term fixes and that FTTH was clearly the superior option.

“Tonight’s decision assures that Muscatine Power and Water will continue to be a leader in telecommunications,” said LoBianco, “the new system will be able meet the bandwidth needs of the community for years to come while reducing maintenance and improving reliability. It ensures that the communications capabilities in Muscatine are as good as in any large city which enjoys the benefits of FTTH technology.”

Muscatine sits in the far southeast corner of the state and is home to approximately 29,000 people. The community established a municipal water utility in 1900, an electric utility in 1922, and its communications utility in 1997. According to the press release, the community was unhappy with the previous incumbent and an overwhelming majority of local voters elected to establish what is now called MachLink. The network offers video and Internet access.

A Muscatine Journal article reporting on a recent meeting of the Board of Water, Electric, and Communications Trustees notes that the project will be funded with an interdepartmental loan, one of the three most common funding mechanisms. (For more on funding municipal networks, check out our fact sheet [PDF].)

The article also reported that the communications utility posted a $64,000 profit in October which was higher than expected. In fact,  the entire year has been better than expected, even though revenues were down: 

The communications utility posted profit of $64,134 in October, compared to the budgeted profit of $43,928. A 3.7 percent decrease in revenue was driven by a lower number of cable television subscribers, but expenses were lower due to lower programming fees. A loss of $26,723 was budgeted for the year through October. Instead, profit of $470,960 was posted.

Burlington Sells Burlington Telecom, Continues to Operate the Network

In November, Burlington's City Council approved the much anticipated settlement with Citibank. Burlington Telecom, a nearly citywide gigabit FTTH network owned by the city, was run into the ground by a previous mayor. That Mayor's Administration hid major cost overruns from the public for years, resulting in a challenging situation for the community. In the the world of municipal broadband, this is a significant anomaly.

The City found itself owing CitiBank some $33 million with no clear path on how to pay it. After years of arguing in court, the situation is largely resolved. Early in 2014, Citibank and Burlington reached a settlement [PDF] in which the the city would pay $10.5 million and a share of BT's future value in exchange for Citibank to drop its $33 million lawsuit. The obligation will include funds contributed by the city's codefendant, McNeil, Leddy & Sheahan P.C. law firm.

BT revenues, net cash flow, and the city's insurance carrier will contribute to the city's obligation, but the lion's share will be paid for with bridge financing from a local source. Trey Pecor, a Burlington business owner, has secured funding and created Blue Water LLC. The city will transfer ownership of the network to Blue Water in exchange for $6 million and will continue to lease the network from Blue Water at about $558,500 per year for a maximum period of five years. The goal is to find a partner to purchase the network. At that time, Blue Water and the city will divide any proceeds from the sale. 

As part of the agreement, the City Council and the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) needed to approve the terms. The PSB is the state entity tasked with regulating utility rates and related financial matters in Vermont. On November 3rd, the PSB approved the transaction unanimously [PDF of the Order].

A Vermont Digger article reported that several organizations, including the Center for Media and Democracy, the Regional Educational Television Network and Vermont Community Access Media, requested a six month public engagement process before the deal be approved. The groups, known as Burlington Access Management Organizations (BAMOs) were concerned that a distant corporate owner that may purchase network, will not be community-minded in its decisions. The BAMOs also requested that three to five people with experience in telecom, alternative corporate structures, and public engagement, be added to the Advisory Board. From the VTDigger article:

The Public Service Board did not agree to the request. The board said it would be premature to impose conditions on a prospective sale, and that any future owner will be expected to comply with the same public access obligations the city must meet now.

“While the conditions requested by BAMOs may provide a useful mechanism to explore issues in connection with a prospective future sale of BT’s Assets, the Board declines to impose such conditions,” the PSB wrote.

Unfortunately, the PSB missed the fundamental point - the required public access obligations are quite small. Burlington Telecom, like most municipal fiber networks, went above and beyond the bare minimum required by law. The only way to ensure Burlington continues providing great customer service, high quality connections, and additional services to the community is by making it sure it is accountable to the community, not distant shareholders.

We cannot help but be disappointed at the continued pain caused by the failure of Mayor Kiss's administration to be honest with the people of Burlington - a reminder of how important transparency is for local governments.

We strongly support the efforts of local groups to ensure that when the network is next sold, it is to a locally rooted entity that will ensure the high level of service BT has delivered will continue.

The PSB did grant the city's requested reprieve from a condition that the network connect every address in Burlington. There are still approximately 3,250 addresses that BT does not reach, often in areas with underground utilities or condos where the owner is not cooperative. In order to make the system more enticing to potential buyers, the PSB removed the obligation from the utility's certificate of public good.

On November 17th, the City Council approved the settlement along with bridge financing documents, which will allow the process to move forward. The Council also decided to expand the BTAB and approved operating guidelines. WPTZ reported that there were local residents attending the council meeting who spoke out against the sale, but the Council voted to approve unanimously. From WPTZ:

"Given the circumstances that we were faced with over the past five years, this settlement is the best solution, the best possible outcome from our saga with Burlington Telecom," said Karen Paul, a Burlington city council member.

Local coverage on the City Council settlemet approval from WPTZ:

Video: 
See video

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 30, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wi-fi

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate Monopolies and Mergers

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

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

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