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Member Owned Networks Collaborate for Rural Georgia Libraries

A member-owned nonprofit network and a telecommunications cooperative are helping seven regional libraries in mountainous northeast Georgia improve services for patrons with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

Collaboration for Community

The North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN), in partnership with member-owned Georgia Public Web (GPW), recently launched 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband access speeds in seven library facilities in the Northeast Georgia Regional Library system (NEGRLS). Upgrades in some of the locations were significant. At the Helen library campus, the facility switched from a 6 Mbps download DSL connection to the new service.

The new initiative also enables the complementary “NGN Connect” service which includes hosted Wi-Fi service and a VoIP telephone system at each location. The upgrade extends from the cooperative's role in the Education Exchange, Georgia's only regional 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) private cloud for exclusive use by school systems launched last September.

Helping Rural Georgians Help Themselves

Donna Unger, director of member services for NGN, explained NGN’s mission for the project:

I've often heard libraries build communities, it's very fitting that we are here today celebrating the new 100 Mbps connection to the Northeast Georgia Regional Library System provided by NGN Connect. This is what we're about, NGN's foundation was built upon the communities in which we serve. It's becoming more critical for libraries, government, education and businesses alike to have reliable and affordable bandwidth to meet the daily demands of the ever-changing dynamics of today's digital world.

NEGRLS Director Delana L. Knight highlighted the initiative’s benefits:

Offering free access to this important resource is another way that our local public libraries are empowering our communities by providing support for job seekers, students, as well as almost limitless educational and entertainment opportunities for all citizens.

The 21st Century Library

At a time when our economy depends so heavily on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, centralized libraries with high-speed Internet access remain vital to those still lacking it at home. GPW and NGN display a manner common among publicly owned networks - they are concerned less with profit than with serving their communities. Paul Belk, NGN's CEO, explained the philosophy behind this approach:

The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.

Read more about the NGN and listen to Chris interview David Muschamp of GPW in episode 156 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Peachtree City, Georgia Approves Resolution to Establish Municipal Broadband Utility

At a September meeting, the City Council in Peachtree City, Georgia unanimously approved a resolution to construct and operate a fiber-optic broadband network.  According to the City Council minutes from the meeting, the initial 22.54-miles of fiber will provide 1 Gbps broadband access to various facilities in the City Service area.

In addition to providing connectivity for government buildings, utility services, and medical and educational buildings, the city will target business customers in the “high end user category.”

Officials estimate the network will cost $3.23 million. To pay for the project, the Peachtree City Public Facilities Authority, an independent local government authority created by the state legislature in 2011, will enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Peachtree City. According the August 2015 Fiber Initiative plan, capital for the project will come from the Authority; the city will issue a bond and pay installments to the Authority under an Agreement of Sale.

For several years now, the city located 30 miles southeast of Atlanta has explored options to improve local connectivity. City leaders tried and failed to bring Google Fiber to the community of 35,000 people in 2010. The city attempted repeatedly to urge private ISPs like AT&T to address the problem with no success. In February of this year, city leaders began work on a study to explore the feasibility of a publicly owned fiber network.

City Council members citizens at the recent City Council meeting expressed concerns that the network will not pay for itself and taxpayers will be left to cover unpaid costs. According to a recent survey of local businesses, 100% of respondents reacted positively to the prospect of a municipal network for connectivity.

In order to achieve the plan’s objectives, the network will need 12 “high-end” commercial customers by the end of year 2.  The city’s consultant expressed confidence in meeting that first goal:

“If we had a different experience, I would be standing up here in front of you saying 12 is going to be a stretch. However, we found exactly the opposite to be the case,” said Davis. “I was amazed by that. It’s a surprise to me that the demand was so great, and that the existing customer base out there was so positive about becoming a user. From a pure business standpoint, that gave me a lot of confidence to come in and say I believe we can hit this number and I believe we can exceed this number.”

The city’s Financial Services Director Paul Salvatore added that the business plan for the project is based on conservative assumptions.  It relies on a 20-year financial model projecting success for the network if the city secures at least 12 non-governmental customers in addition to 17 serviceable government sites. Thereafter, if it reaches at least 19 total non-governmental customers by year 6, the network will start to achieve positive gains, a 10-year bond payoff, and profitability after 16 to 20 years.  

City officials have no plans to bring the network to residential subscribers at this stage, choosing instead to focus on direct and indirect economic development benefits, public safety improvements, and better cell phone coverage that will likely result from the fiber deployment. They did not rule out the prospect of fiber for residents in the future. (Watch a complete video of the September 17th City Council meeting here, the city’s municipal broadband network discussion starts at 28:20.)

At a workshop earlier in September, city leaders met with the consultant to finalize the business plan for the network. At the meeting, Interim City Manager Jon Rorie quizzed the City Council about the risks involved with investing in the new broadband network. By the time the City Council met 9 days later, Rorie was convinced of the plan’s prospects for success: 

“We recognize this is a big decision, and it is of a visionary nature, but we also recognize that there is a risk exposure as a business model,” he said. “As far as providing an opportunity from an economic development perspective, I do think it is a huge opportunity as we move forward.

AT&T, Comcast, Lies Hurt Homeowners

As of this January, the FCC defines broadband as 25 Mbps downstream and 3 Mbps upstream, but in some rural areas in the United States, people are still struggling to access DSL speeds of 768 kbps. In a few extreme cases, individuals who rely on the Internet for their jobs and livelihoods have been denied access completely. 

The sad state of affairs for many Americans who subscribe to the major Internet service providers like AT&T and CenturyLink was recently chronicled in an article on Ars Technica that examined AT&T’s stunning combination of poor customer service, insufficient infrastructure, and empty promises to subscribers. It tells the unfortunately common story of the little guy being systematically overlooked by a massive corporation focused solely on short-term profit maximization. 

Mark Lewis of Winterville, Georgia, and Matthew Abernathy of Smyrna, Tennessee, are two examples of AT&T subscribers who, upon moving into new homes, found that not only were they unable to access basic DSL speeds, but that they had no Internet access whatsoever. Alternatively citing a lack of DSL ports and insufficient bandwidth, AT&T failed to provide Lewis Internet access over the course of nearly two years. As for Abernathy, the corporation strung him along for 9 months without providing DSL, forcing him and his wife to rely on a much more expensive Verizon cellular network to go online. 

The struggle that Lewis and Abernathy, as well as others cited in the article, face speaks to the larger problem of individuals relying on large, absentee corporations for their Internet access. Though AT&T has claimed that it intends to expand broadband access to rural and underserved communities, it hasn’t lived up to that promise. Ars Technica estimates that even if AT&T’s merger with DirecTV is approved, which the company says would facilitate the construction of new copper lines in underserved regions, 17 million subscribers would be stuck with slow DSL connections or no Internet at all. 

This isn’t the first time that a company like AT&T has been called out for promising broadband service and failing to deliver it. Ars Technica reported on a similar story in April of this year. And tales of Comcast’s incompetence are also easy to find. 

For residents of rural communities who rely on the Internet for work, the paucity of broadband options can even be a legitimate reason for individuals to sell their houses and move, which — spoiler alert — is what Lewis eventually did:  

With no wireline Internet available, Lewis and his wife have relied on Verizon Wireless service. This has limited Lewis’ ability to work at home. Luckily, they won’t be there much longer — Lewis, his wife, and their kids are putting their house on the market and moving to Massachusetts, where he’s secured a new job at a technology company. 

The new job is "the main reason we're moving," he said. "But in the back of my mind this whole time, I'm saying we can't continue to live here."

And while things turned out OK for Lewis and his family, limited broadband access in rural communities remains an obstacle for many. Individuals and communities should continue to demand accountability from their ISPs, who have for too long reneged on their not-so-ambitious broadband promises.

CNS Expanding Fiber in Rural Georgia

Community Network Services (CNS) has been serving six rural southwest Georgia communities since the late 1990s. Recently, we learned that the network added two more communities to its service area when it took over a small municipal cable system in Doerun and purchased a private cable company in Norman Park.

CNS has been our radar since 2012 when we learned how Thomasville, Cairo, Camilla, Moultrie, Baconton, and Pelham joined together to create a regional network that reached into 4 counties. The network has brought better access to rural Georgia, improved educational opportunities, and helped lower taxes.

Mike Scott, Moultrie City Manager, gave us details on the expansions into both of these very small communities. Scott repeated the CNS philosophy:

We don't look at it as a just a business plan…we look at it as economic development for the entire county.

Doerun, population 774, had its own municipal DSL and cable TV system but it needed significant upgrades. Doerun also faced increased costs for content, technology, and personnel challenges, and customers wanted faster connectivity. CNS and the community of Doerun had discussed the possibility of a CNS take over of the system in the past but network officials hesitated to take on the investment until Doerun upgraded due to the condition of the system. Doerun's school was already connected to the CNS network.

In addition to the problems with the network, an upgrade required considerable make-ready work. CNS estimated that preparing existing utility poles for fiber would be expensive, according to Scott, and network officials did not feel comfortable making that additional investment. 

Like many other small rural communities, Doerun operates its own municipal electric utility. The electric system was also in need of upgrades but due to lack of available capital, the city would need to borrow to fund the work. CNS and Doerun worked out an agreement to transfer the cable TV and Internet access system to CNS for mutual benefit.

CNS paid $100,000 as an advance franchise fee for 10 years, which reduced the amount Doerun needed to borrow to upgrade its municipal electric utility. In exchange, Doerun entered into the pole attachment agreements with CNS in order to string fiber on electric utility poles. As Doerun electric utility crews worked to upgrade the electric system, CNS fiber deployment crews worked alongside Doerun's construction crews replacing the old cable lines with fiber in the correct positions on Doerun's utility poles.

Rates in Doerun are the same as in other CNS communities. Internet access is as economical as $19.95 for 3 Mbps / .5 Mbps but published rates also list 35 Mbps / 3 Mbps for $49.95. A variety of bundles are available that include video, Internet, and phone. For a complete list of packages and rates, check out the CNS Moultrie residential pricing brochure [PDF].

The story in nearby Norman Park was somewhat similar. A private cable TV provider that did not offer Internet access served Norman Park, population 972. The small local company had passed to the deceased founder's son but the system, which covered the town's 3 square miles, was outdated. Rather than invest in the necessary repairs and updates, he sold it to CNS. As in Doerun, CNS eventually decided the best choice was to rebuild with fiber.

Prior to the purchase, CNS had leased a line to connect the Norman Park school to the CNS backbone; this expansion eliminated the need for the lease. Now all the schools in Colquitt County are served by CNS and each has 10 gigabits of bandwidth.

CNS provides Internet access to the Doerun and Norman Park city halls and both are in the process of transferring over to VoIP.  Scott did not have figures for city halls in Doerun and Norman Park, but noted that the city of Moultrie cut its phone costs in half by switching to VoIP and eliminating multiple phone lines. In addition to eliminating lines for office phones, Moultrie was able to cancel lines to pump stations, lift stations, and other facilities used to monitor facilities for their SCADA system.

Now the citizens of Doerun and Norman Park can utilize the same fast, affordable, reliable services available in neighboring towns. These two rural communities with limited options needed better connectivity so CNS stepped in.

Connecting Georgia's Munis - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 156

For years, we have urged municipal networks to cooperate in various ways to lower costs. For instance, by building a shared middle mile network to aggregate their bandwidth and get a better deal due to the higher volume. So it came as a bit of a shock that Georgia Public Web has been helping many municipal networks in these ways for well over a decade.

David Muschamp, President and CEO of Georgia Public Web (GPW), joins us for episode 156 of Community Broadband Bits to discuss what the member-owned nonprofit organization does to improve Internet access across the state.

GPW operates over 3000 miles of fiber connecting businesses and even entire communities. They operate a 365-24-7 network operations center and provide consulting, focusing particularly on the needs of the nearly 30 local governments that own the company.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 18 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

ALEC in Savannah: Local News Video Exposes the Corrupt Process of Lawmaking

We have reported on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) in the past and stories about ALEC sponsored legislative retreats pop up in the news on a regulary basis. Most recently, NBC Channel 11 from Atlanta reported on the shadowy world of big corporate influence in Georgia. 

None of this will be new to anyone familiar with ALEC's shadowy way of doing business, but having it on video makes it more compelling.

Brendan Keefe visited Savannah and tried to observe one of these meetings between ALEC corporate members and state legislators. Even though Keefe and his crew had an official press pass, they were blocked from entering the meeting.

Keefe spoke with a Georgia State Senator Nan Orrock, who once belonged to ALEC. She told him about the meetings, paid for with ALEC funds or "legislator scholarships," and pointed out the true nature of the closed door gatherings:

It's really a corporate bill mill…the truth be told, they write the bills.

Even though Keefe was not able to attend one of the meetings, he did encounter a legislator and several lobbyists in the bar the night before. They didn't mind describing what they were doing in Savannah and who paid the bill. Watch the brief expose below.

We also include a 2013 Real News video with Branden Fischer from the Center for Media and Democracy. He goes more indepth on ALEC's modus operandi and its membership.

See video
See video

North Georgia Town Considering Fiber for Business

The City Council of the city of Commerce is considering using its existing fiber resources to offer connectivity to local businesses. At a November 3rd work session, Council members reviewed the plan and, according to the Main Street News, members voiced support for the idea.

“We’ve been actively working on this for months,” [City Manager Pete] Pyrzenski told the council. “We’ve been counseled on, we’ve talked through the options… this is a pretty viable utility for Commerce.” 

“We are ready to pull the fiber,” Pyrzenski declared. “Our role is to supply the fiber. We’re not going to get into cable TV, not going to get into telephone, just high-speed Internet.”

“Businesses have been looking for an alternative,” noted Mayor Clark Hill.

Windstream now serves the community of 6,500 but there have been significant complaints and there are no other options in this north Georgia town.

The city will need to invest $70,000 for equipment and legal fees. The network plan will use an existing line and will run additional fiber to expand the reach to more commercial customers. At this point, the city estimates a 5 - 10 year payback but that period may be reduced if local businesses respond positively. The city will fund the deployment with an interdepartmental loan from their municipal electric utility. Commerce also owns a municipal gas utility.

Rural Cooperative Launches Educational Network in Northern Georgia

There was some good news at the end of August in Georgia, just in time for the new school year: a fiber optic network spanning 3,600 miles and potentially tying together up to 330 schools with 10 gigabit connections was announced. Dubbed the “Education Exchange,” the network is the product of an agreement between the rural cooperative North Georgia Network (NGN), private cable provider ETC Communications, and a private fiber optic ISP and infrastructure company called Parker Fibernet. Each of these three carriers’ existing fiber optic assets will provide a piece of the network, and all are connected to each other and to the broader internet in Atlanta.

While formed through a partnership of cooperative and private providers, the network will be governed by the schools themselves, which are spread throughout 30 different counties and reach across the northern third of the state, from the western border with Alabama to the eastern border with South Carolina. Both public and private schools will be able to connect. 

The new network should allow schools to realize some significant cost savings from replacing phone lines with VOIP and dropping slower leased data connections. More interesting, however, are the educational and administrative applications of such fast direct connections: video conferencing for teachers and administrators between and within school districts; accessing bandwidth-intensive online educational materials; expanding access to wi-fi devices throughout schools; and pooling purchasing power of many districts to get discounts and expanded digital course content.

How each district and each school use the network will be up to them, but the possibilities are considerable. Some of the early schools that beta tested the network have already experimented by hosting real time virtual music collaborations between schools. Paul Belk, NGN’s CEO, described the motivations driving his cooperative to establish the network: 

“The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.”

NGN has been connecting business parks, hospitals, government buildings and other anchor institutions in northern Georgia since it’s inception in 2007. It received a large boost in 2009 when it was chosen for a Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant as part of the federal stimulus effort. With $33.5 million in federal funding, supplemented by nearly $10 million in additional state and local funding, NGN built out an 1,100 mile network in the hilly country north of Atlanta, bringing high speed connections to areas previously only reached by slow and unreliable DSL

Media Roundup: Blackburn Amendment Lights Up Newswires

Rep Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and her love for large corporate ISPs was all over the telecommunications media this week. She attempted to kneecap the FCC as it explores options to restore local telecommunications authority to communities. Blackburn introduced an amendment attacking local options as the House took up general appropriations bill H.R. 5016.

The amendment passed 223-200, primarily along party lines, with most Republican Reps voting with Blackburn and all but two Democrats opposing the amendment.

Democrats voting to support the amendment included Georgia's 12th District's John Barrow and Jim Matheson from Utah's 4th District. If either of these gentlemen represent you, take a moment to call their offices and point out their voting mistake.

Republicans that voted No were Mike Rogers and Mo Brooks from Alabama's 3rd and 5th Districts. Charles Boustany from the 3rd District in Louisiana and Chuck Fleischmann from the 3rd District in Tennessee (includes Chattanooga) also opposed the restriction. If these elected officials represent you, please take a moment to contact them and thank them for breaking ranks to support local authority.

Coverage this week was fast and furious.

Sam Gustin from Motherboard reported on Blackburn's efforts. Gustin checked in with Chris:

"Blackburn's positions line up very well with the cable and telephone companies that give a lot of money to her campaigns," said Mitchell. "In this case, Blackburn is doing what it takes to benefit the cable and telephone companies rather than the United States, which needs more choices, faster speeds, and lower prices."

Mitchell says that he's sympathetic to the arguments against "preemption"—after all, he works for an organization called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance—but points out that while Blackburn opposes the federal government inserting itself into state law, she apparently has no problem with the states telling cities and municipalities what they can and cannot do.

"The argument that Blackburn puts forth is not coherent," Mitchell said. "It's just politics."

Gustin and the International Business Times were only a few of the many reporters that connected the dots between Blackburn's campaign balance sheet and her concern for big ISPs. From IBT:

Blackburn’s top campaign donors include private telecommunications firms that do not want to have to compete with publicly owned ISPs. Her state is home to EPB, a taxpayer-owned power company in Chattanooga that also provides local residents some of the fastest Internet speeds in the world at market-competitive rates. EPB is now aiming to expand its services beyond Chattanooga.

However, to go forward with its expansion plan, EPB needs the FCC to enter the fray, applying its authority to preempt a Tennessee law backed by the private telecom industry that restricts the utility’s ability to move into new regions.

According to campaign finance data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, two of Blackburn’s largest career donors are employees and PACs affiliated with AT&T (NYSE:T)  ($66,750) and Comcast (NASDAQ:CMCSA) ($36,600). Those are two of EPB’s private-sector competitors in Chattanooga. Blackburn has also taken $56,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the lobby for the big telecoms.

Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin also notes that EPB has turned away local communities that repeatedly request help in areas where broadband is not available. Tennessee law prevents EPB from serving beyond its electric service area. As Brodkin reports, Blackburn is not willing to look beyond the State Capitols.

EFF Logo

Brian Fung, who offered our community networks map for his Washington Post article, delved into the history of the issue. He noted growing support in D.C. for local telecommunications authority. Multichannel News also reported on the opposition to the amendment voiced on the House Floor by New York Representative Jose Serrano. Serrano said:
Whatever happened to localism or local control? This amendment means the Federal Government will tell every local citizen, mayor, and county council member that they may not act in their own best interests. Any such amendment is an attack on the rights of individual citizens speaking through their local leaders to determine if their broadband needs are being met.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation wrote about consumer concerns - the lack of competition and state policy that maintains large corporate monopolies and duopolies:
Projects like community mesh networks and mayors’ attempts to bring fiber to their cities should never be illegal or stifled by misguided state laws. On the contrary, they should be encouraged. That’s because community and municipal high-speed Internet projects provide users more options.
Municipal and community broadband projects offer alternatives, so when companies like Comcast and Verizon are behaving badly, users have somewhere else to go. But right now there are 20 states that have laws that make it make it hard or impossible for communities to take their Internet into their own hands.
The National Journal also published a brief account.
Karl Bode at summed up the legislative formula that brings us to this point in political time:
The underlying argument from Blackburn and friends continues to be that municipal broadband is the devil -- but letting local massive corporations write state telecom laws (laws that often completely eliminate your right to choose for yourself what your town does or doesn't do, while also resulting in less competition, higher prices, and worse customer service) is perfectly ok.
And my snarky favorite came from Brad Reed, who offered a little sarcasm at with "Congresswoman bravely stands up for ISPs’ rights to deliver inferior service with no competition":
Either way, we’re still glad to see that some patriots in this day and age are still standing up to protect our freedoms from the municipal broadband menace. As certain historical figure might have said were she alive today, “Let them eat dial-up!”

Understanding the Georgia Communications Cooperative - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #92

While at the SEATOA Conference in Raleigh last week, I met Mike Foor, the President and CEO of the Georgia Communications Cooperative (GCC). Given the important role GCC is playing in expanding great Internet access in rural Georgia, we wanted to interview him for Community Broadband Bits.

Back in episode 46, we spoke with Paul Belk about the North Georgia Network (NGN). This week we learn more about how cooperatives have worked together to form the GCC and help the NGN to expand.

Mike and I also discuss what it will take to connect rural homes, businesses, and anchor institutions with fiber optics - the real challenges and the imagined ones.

Read the transcript from our conversation here.

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.

Find more episodes in our podcast index.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."