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Andrew Cohill Explains Common Mistakes in Community Networks - Community Broadband Bits #45

This is a show I have been wanting to do for years - discussing some of the common mistakes that have been make by community owned networks. Offering broadband and other telecommunications services is a difficult business for any entity, public or private and all network owners make mistakes. The vast majority of these errors can be and are fixed so the network may carry on.

While in Dallas for the Broadband Communities Summit, I asked Design Nine founder Andrew Cohill about common problems faced by community owned networks and how to prepare for them or avoid them entirely.

We discuss how having a strong business plan is essential, with some of the requirements that should be included. We agree that a reliance on grant funding is a giant warning flag. We also discuss a number of other things new networks should watch out for, especially overstaffing.

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 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Mount Carmel for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

FastRoads Set to Bring Fiber to Southwestern New Hampshire

In 2011, we brought you information about New Hampshire FastRoads, an open access project. At the time, the discussion centered around legislative events. We decided to look into the FastRoads project for an update.

The FastRoads project received partial funding from the Network New Hampshire Now (NNHN) project and its American Recovery and Reinvestment grants. Private donations and matching funds added to the $65.9 million budget to expand broadband across the state. The entire NNHN network planning includes middle- and last-mile fiber installations, along with a middle-mile microwave public safety network. The NNHN network will span ten counties, some of which are still relying on dial-up.

The FastRoads network will bring together 22 communities and 220 Community Anchor Institutions on the western side of the state. The project also includes last-mile networks in Rindge and Enfield and is expected to connect approximately 1,300 businesses and residents in those two towns, many who rely on dial-up.

In March, 2011, FastRoads began the first phase of the project when it awarded the design and project management contract to Design Nine. According to the Design Nine website, the fiber build- out will cover 25% of the entire state.

Shortly after hiring Design Nine, FastRoads released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) for the building phase of the network. The contract went to Clemsford, Massachusetts' Waveguide last October.

Completion of the project is scheduled for June 30, 2013.

Design Principles from Virginia's nDanville Open Access Network

The nDanville network of rural southern Virginia has long been a favorite of ours (previous coverage is available here). The network has helped Danville go from being notable for having the highest unemployment rate in Virginia to being ranked as the third top digital city in the nation, according to a recent article.

Danville's City Manager was honored by the Southern Piedmont Technology Council for developing the nDanville network:

Danville City Manager Joe King received the Chairman's Award for his leadership in advancing the development of a modern telecommunications infrastructure in the region, a key factor in Danville's economic development renaissance.

King had been the director of the city-owned utility when it drew up plans for a fiber-optic network to be built incrementally until it could connect every home, business, and community anchor institution in Danville Utility's territory. At the time, Danville was suffering tremendously from the loss of tobacco and textile industries.

Today, the nDanville net-work connects hundreds of businesses, has sharply re-duced costs for local gov-ernment, health care provid-ers, and local schools, and has introduced more competition into the telecommunications marketplace.

Danville Utilities has 44,000 electric meters, half of which are located in Danville (44 sq miles). The others are scattered across over 450 sq miles surrounding the city. The Southern Piedmont Technology Council serves the technology industry in Danville as well as nearby counties and another city.

Even in 2004, many in Danville did not have broadband access to the Internet, as outlined in an early document explaining the network. Verizon barely offered DSL and Adelphia offered limited cable modem service.

Andrew Cohill, a consultant assisting the project, has offered more background in a recent article of Broadband Communities. In it, he notes that the network was a piece of a larger strategy of investment in the community to develop local expertise in technology.

Danville was the first municipality to deploy a fully automated, Layer 3 open-access network; nDanville, with more than 135 miles of fiber, passes more than 1,000 business locations, including every parcel in all five business parks. Current customers have access to 100 Mbps fiber connections capable of delivering a wide variety of services, and 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps connections are available upon request.

And as we noted back in August, the network is starting to connect residents in a pilot project starting with up to 500 homes.

The network is profitable, connects over 150 businesses, and is creating significant economic development.

An interesting resource that Andrew shares are the principles behind the network. Communities just starting to consider a community broadband network may want to adopt a similar statement of principles.

  • Universal access: The long-term goal of the project is that every business and home should have the same level and quality of service. This commitment supports the open-access business model by aggregating the largest possible number of potential customers for service providers.
  • Level playing field: Every service provider should be able to play by the same rules. nDanville has a single public price list available to all providers. There are no special deals or unpublished rates.
  • Public-private partnerships: City investments in broadband infrastructure should create private sector business opportunities. The city sells no services to businesses or residents.
  • Multiservice network: nDanville is an open-access network that supports multiple providers and a wide variety of services well beyond the traditional triple play to create true competition and lower prices.
  • Symmetric bandwidth: The availability of services offering affordable symmetric bandwidth was viewed as critical to the economic revitalization of Danville. Any transport service requested by a provider can be configured with equal upstream and downstream data capacity to support business- class services and applications. This early decision is now becoming increasingly important with the rapid increase in the use of business videoconferencing, which requires symmetric bandwidth to perform adequately.
  • Unlimited bandwidth: Another early design goal was that any home or business should have the capacity to use any service needed to compete in the global economy. nDanville’s active Ethernet fiber network offers 100 Mbps, 1 Gbps and 10 Gbps connections as standard, and DWDM lightpaths are available on request.

Some of the high profile economic development achievements include an Ikea plant and the expansion of CBN Technologies, which produces secure identification documents. While Ikea and CBN did not choose Danville solely for the publicly owned fiber-optic network, they rely upon it and almost certainly would not have picked Danville in its absence.

New Hampshire Bill Fails to Expand Community Broadband Authority

New Hampshire law makes it more difficult for communities to build broadband networks by only allowing bonds to finance broadband networks in "areas not served by an existing broadband carrier or provider." (See Title III, Chapter 33 of NH law.)

Such a requirement means that local governments could only build networks in areas with absolutely no service providers. Seeing as how most communities have at least one pocket with access to the Internet one way or another, communities are prevented from bonding for the essential infrastructure they need.

The only areas totally without a single service provider could probably only be served by a network that also serves an area where some service providers already operate, as those are the areas capable of generating enough revenue to balance rural areas with less revenue potential.

Because this law significantly retards the ability of communities to encourage economic development, we have seen previous attempts to update it (one of which we covered last year). This year, HB 389 offered a compromise to existing service providers. Nonetheless, it was also killed.

HB 389 would have allowed local governments to bond for broadband infrastructure but not allowed municipalities to provide retail services. Communities would be able to build open access networks but not allowed to offer services directly to subscribers.

Though we ardently defend the right of communities to build the networks they need using the business model they choose, this bill would have been an improvement for communities in New Hampshire.

logo-fastroads.png

One organization that certainly would have benefited from this law's passage would have been FastRoads, an open access network that has moved forward with federal broadband stimulus funding.

The network is currently being designed and will start connecting communities next year.

The network design will begin immediately, with construction of the first phase of the network to be completed in spring 2012. This phase will bring fiber connections between Orford and Enfield. The second phase of the project should be completed in the fall of 2012, allowing connections for those living between Keene and Rindge. The third phase should be finished by spring of 2013, with faster connections available for those living between Enfield and Lempster.

The new connections will provide speeds that are 100 to 130 times faster than the current minimum federal standard for broadband Internet at 768 kilobits per second download speed, and 200 kps upload speed.

FastRoads is partnering with Network New Hampshire Now, a collaboration of public and private organizations to develop a high-speed broadband network throughout the state. A $44.5 million grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and $22 million in matching funds and private donations fund the project.

Examining Virginia's Broadband Problems

The Roanoke Times recently published an extensive story about broadband, covering everything from what it is to why it is needed and who doesn't have it.

Aside from providing an excellent primer on these issues to those who are new to broadband discussions, Jeff Sturgeon writes about problems often ignored by the media, like the difficulties for companies and other entities can encounter when they need extremely high capacity connections:

Skip Garner directs the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute, which unites the powers of biology and information technology to advance medicine. It is at Virginia Tech. Garner said he, too, finds computing power a constraint. In spite of a 1 gigabit connection, "we are limited in what we could do," Garner said.

When the lab's DNA sequencers pile up data, "we will often put it on a 1-terabyte drive ... and FedEx it to our customers," Garner said.

An upgrade to 10 gigabits is coming. He expects it still won't be enough.

It might appear that new facilities would not have such problems, but even the 5-month-old Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute near downtown Roanoke is not satisfied with its Web service. While the speed is good at 10 gigabits, the cost it pays to service providers is staggering.

"It's in the tens of thousands of dollars a month," said Executive Director Michael Friedlander.

This is one world. Communities with their own fiber networks are another -- where these connections are not prohibitively expensive. And yet another world is the world of several rural Minnesota Counties, who cannot even get T.1 lines from incumbent phone providers. In Cook County, in 2008, a company was quoted $600,000 to install a T.1 line. Yes, $600,000 - I had to hear it twice to make sure I wasn't imagining it.

The article explores Design Nine founder Andrew Cohill's thoughts on improving broadband access. Cohill mentions Wired West, a network we have written about previously.

"We think it's got to be treated like essential public infrastructure," he said.

That way, access would be open to any service provider on equal footing. Just as anyone could launch a cab company or food delivery service over the road system, anyone will be able to use the information highway's new lanes. This creates competition, and competition lowers prices.

Cohill has seen it happen elsewhere. One of about 100 U.S. regions getting aggressive in this area is western Massachusetts, where 47 localities combined efforts to install fiber-optic Internet cabling to homes covering about one-quarter of the state, he said.

"Their vision is fiber everywhere. Fiber to every home, every business," Cohill said.

In western Massachusetts, Cohill ran into Douglas Trumbull, the 68-year-old film director behind the special effects in such films as "2001: A Space Odyssey," "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "Silent Running" and "Brainstorm."

At his home in the area, Trumbull wants a 300 mbps connection to support his continued work in the special effects business; his phone company-provided Web access is too slow. Trumbull said that if high-speed connectivity were available through the region where he lives, "he'd bring 100 more, very high paying movie jobs, technical jobs to western Massachusetts. Why western Massachusetts? He thinks it's a beautiful place to live. It's the same mountain chain as down here. So there's tremendous opportunities, but it's not about attracting another manufacturer," Cohill said.

And finally, the article returns to a network in their own backyard -- the Wired Road, a publicly owned open access network.

Fiber optic-based Web service from three providers is available at 60 buildings in downtown Galax over lines installed by a three-government authority. The Galax-based Wired Road Broadband Authority expects to finish this year with $3 million raised and spent out of a $42 million plan to connect every home, business and community institution in Galax and the counties of Carroll and Grayson, a region of about 54,000 people, that will want Internet services that require fiber.

Private telecommunications providers could not be counted on to do the work, because the payback would have been too low, said Mike Maynard, a Grayson County supervisor who chairs the Wired Road board.

"The only reason we're in this is to get people connected," Maynard said. "If we had to wait for private entities to invest $42 million in the region, I don't know that it would ever happen."

Exactly. Many communities are realizing they need to invest in themselves before anyone else will invest in them. Unfortunately, Virginia is one of many states that have created unique barriers to discourage community networks. We should be long past coddling monopolies with laws to restrict communities from building the networks they need. But in Virginia, we aren't.

Burlingon Telecom Audit and Nulty Response

Vermont's Department of Public Service has released its audit of Burlington Telecom. The audit is highly flawed and a disappointment in terms of actually illuminating what went wrong with Burlington.

We have been awaiting this audit in the hopes that it would actually explain how the network could have gone into such great debt so quickly. The few answers provided from this audit are entirely unsatisfactory, due in large part to its overall sloppiness. We will soon put up a more substantial post about Burlington and lessons learned, but we wanted to post this information now as readers are undoubtedly wondering.

The audit should be read by any community running or considering a network because it describes a number of bad practices that should not be duplicated. That said, it isn't yet clear how accurate the audit is (they did not even attempt to interview key people), as explained by Tim Nulty in his response to it (linked below). Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the audit simply did not explain where the money went. Steve Ross examined this question more than a year ago, but we appear no closer to an answer. A longer explanation on this, next week.

Finally, Andrew Cohill's thoughts about lessons learned from BT is well worth a read as well. Regardless of whether BT really did make all those errors, Cohill's post should serve as an educational item to any community considering such an important investment.

Our Balkanized Broadband Future

Andrew Cohill has made some apt observations regarding a likely future of broadband in the United States. The thesis is that a few providers can effectively disrupt the likelihood of an entire community getting next-generation services by locking up key customers. And I agree.

But today, the market for bandwidth continues to grow along a nice smooth curve, with the demand doubling every two years, and we have fifteen years of data to back this up. While the incumbents are busy trying to convince us they can meet this demand with 1950s copper cable plant, smaller telecom firms are busy spreading bits of fiber through communities to cherry pick the more profitable business customers. These companies tend to have no interest in full fiber build outs, and instead just want to lock up a portion of the local business market.

Some [not Cohill] have argued that when local governments stop overpaying for T1 lines and build their own networks to be fiscally responsible, incumbent telcos will be unable to continue investing there due to the reduced revenue. Of course, incumbent telcos have long ago ceased investing in these communities, so the proposition is off from the start. But even if it were true, it is an incredibly inefficient system (no matter how lucrative for the incumbent telcos).

We need to actually start treating broadband as infrastructure (rather than simply talking about it as though it were infrastructure -- which most elected leaders seem to do). This means that when the community needs broadband, they are able to build it themselves and ensure the network will remain accountable to them in the future.

The longer communities wait to build these networks, the more difficult a prospect it will be as private companies continue to pick off the high-revenue easy-to-serve subscribers.

Wired West Decides on Coop Structure

Western Massachusetts' Wired West is an exciting approach to bringing next-generation broadband networks to rural areas. Thanks to Design Nine's news blog for alerting me to this decision.

For those unfamiliar with our coverage of Wired West, a two page write-up in Berkshire Trade & Commerce Monthly [pdf] offers a good background:

“You often hear that it is too expensive to bring fiber-optic lines to every home, business and institution in a rural area," said Webb, who lives in the remote southern Berkshire town of Monterey. “But that only means it’s too expensive for the business model of private-sector companies who have to show profitability in a very short period. It is not too too expensive if it is done by the communities themselves on a basis that does not have to meet those market demands."

Wired West has announced a decision on the difficult issue of governance structure. They are going to be a public co-operative, comprised of the member towns.

Now the member towns will have to approve the structure and the organization will move forward on the planning necessary to develop, finance, and build their broadband network.

In Massachusetts, Wired West Builds Momentum

The end of June brought an end to an initial phase of the Wired West campaign for real broadband in rural Massachusetts. When we previously looked in on the Wired West efforts, they had 39 towns supporting the idea.

By June 26th, that number had grown to 47.

The local paper outlined the overwhelming support and next steps.

Once the non-profit has been formed, financing options would have to be identified, and preliminary design and cost estimate work would start.

None of the cost of the project would be borne by the towns, Webb said.

Ongoing maintenance cost and debt service payments would come from money paid to the agency by the service providers, added Andrew Michael Cohill, president of Design Nine, a consultancy hired to help WiredWest through the next phase of development.

A previous article discussed a cost estimate of the network and how much money residents send outside their community for service.

Monica Webb, a spokesperson for WiredWest, said that a consultant who met last year with representatives from Mount Washington and 10 other towns in southern Berkshire County estimated the cost of building a fiber-optic network for that region at $27 million.

But, Webb said, the consultant calculated that the roughly 12,000 households in the region were already paying an average of $125 a month for Internet and other telecommunication services – an amount that adds up to $18 million a year that people “are putting in an envelope and sending outside of your region.”

The most recent announcement relating to the project discusses how a recent federal broadband stimulus grant to the Massachusetts Broadband Institute will aid the Wired West network.

This will enable a robustmiddle-mile network to be built by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) in Western and North-Central Massachusetts that will serve 123 communities. This wholesale network will bring MBI’s high-capacity fiber to the center of every town and connect Western Massachusetts community anchor institutions – town halls, fire stations and libraries – to the network. Even more importantly, it will provide the link to Wired West’s proposed last-mile network, enabling Wired West to extend fiber-optic connectivity to all of our homes, businesses and institutions in Western Massachusetts that desperately want service.

Broadband Properties on Muni Resurgence

The May/June issue of Broadband Properties has a number of articles about muni broadband networks, including one in Canada - Bruce Telecom. The magazine also includes a story I originally wrote for MuniNetworks about Chattanooga after I updated some of the numbers.

Craig Settles discusses "Strategies for Sustainable Broadband and they resumed the Muni FTTH Snapshot with a look at Auburn Essential Services in Indiana.

The cover story, "Resurgence of Muni Broadband," includes a census of muni-related projects, with a note that no single model defines the muni approach. Punctuating that theme is Andrew Cohill's "Third Way Approach," (which I had previously featured here).