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Nonprofit ISP Offers “Big Gig Challenge” To Connect Northeast Ohio

OneCommunity, a nonprofit ISP and data services provider in northeast Ohio, recently announced an interesting initiative to spur the expansion of fiber optic connectivity in the region - it will help pay the costs. For municipalities (or organizations with municipal support) that build “community-wide” networks with gigabit speed, OneCommunity is offering grant funds to cover 25% of project costs, up to $2 million. According to their website, the ISP hopes to make it’s “Big Gig Challenge” a recurring yearly program. 

OneCommunity, which has network operations in 24 counties and 2,500 miles of fiber assets throughout northeast Ohio, offers services to a wide variety of anchor institutions, businesses, schools, and local governments. The 11 year old nonprofit does not offer residential services, but does serve over 2,300 public facilities. 

In an interview with GovTech, OneCommunity COO Brett Lindsey described the “Big Gig” grant program as an “opportunity to drive fiber expansion deeper into communities that we traverse through with our middle-mile network. We thought that if we put some skin in the game, it would be the impetus to get people to act.”

Connecting to OneCommunity’s existing network is not a requirement for the grant program, but may prove useful since their long haul fiber assets are already in the ground nearby in many places. The program appears to be very flexible on the nature, scope, and scale of network proposals, as well as the degree to which OneCommunity would be involved. The idea seems to be, as Lindsey stated, “getting people to act” in one way or another. 

Lindsey also emphasized the difficulty of attracting large businesses and private investments into the economically depressed region, particularly in rural areas underserved by data connections. In 2010, OneCommunity was the recipient of a $44 million federal stimulus grant that allowed it to add over 1,000 miles of fiber in predominantly rural areas.

The “Big Gig Challenge” represents an interesting example of the kinds of opportunities a community-focused ISP can create. For smaller communities with limited internet access and infrastructure, dangling an offer of financial support could result in some interesting project proposals. In other places, it may simply get people thinking and talking about the status quo, and what ways they would like to see it change. In either case, it is a debate more communities across the country could benefit from having. As Brett Lindsey put it in the GovTech interview:

We tell city officials: You are really going to have to take charge of your own fate. If you don’t do that, you could be waiting for years — or never — to get fiber infrastructure of any significant level brought into your community. 

Letters of Interest are due by October 3rd. 

Hamilton, Ohio Connects Local Schools with City Fiber

Just over a year ago, we wrote about Hamilton’s plans to expand their extensive fiber optic infrastructure to offer services to schools and businesses in the area. Last month, the first example of such expanded services came online, with three area schools getting fiber optic internet connections through a partnership between the City utility and the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). 

The press release announcing the collaboration describes SWOCA as: 

“...a council of governments consisting of 33 public school districts plus several private and charter schools in the area. The organization provides numerous software and technical services to schools, libraries, and municipalities as well as very high capacity Broadband Internet.” 

Under the arrangement, the City will be responsible for the physical connections and laid fiber, while SWOCA will provide the active internet service. This approach fits the city’s stated goal of remaining a source of neutral infrastructure:

“The City will remain carrier-neutral and does not intend to compete with providers or offer end user services directly. Instead, Hamilton’s goal is to make an additional source of last-mile fiber available to service providers at competitive rates to expand the availability of business-class broadband services in our community. As such, service providers will have equal access to all facilities, transport, and other services on Hamilton’s network.”

With the growth of online testing, electronic textbooks, and other online media in the classroom, existing connections were proving inadequate. The schools will pay the City $18,000 per year for connectivity, decreasing their costs while increasing bandwidth. From the press release:

“‘Schools in the region are getting more technology focused. Regionally, we've seen school bandwidth needs grow as much as 60% in a year. The City is in a great position to help us meet this demand,’ said Marc Hopkins, Network Services Manager for SWOCA.”

Hamilton has had a fiber optic network for internal government use since 2004, and in 2012 began contemplating ways to leverage this existing asset to spur economic development and expand educational opportunities. The City did a feasibility study on network expansion, and in July of 2013 authorized a city team to find partners to work with.  

Mark Murray, the project manager for Hamilton’s broadband initiative, made clear the City’s intention to expand further: "We see this as just the first step to bigger things to come with broadband in Hamilton," Murray said.

Hudson Issues RFP for Broadband Needs Assessment, Business Plan

Hudson, Ohio, located in the Akron area, recently released a Request For Proposals (RFP) for a Broadband Needs Assessment and Broadband Business Plan. The community of 22,000 hopes to connect all municipal facilities, connect business parks, and eventually implement an FTTH network.

A May 4 Hub Times article covered an April city council discussion to expand existing fiber resources throughout the city. Internet Service Manager Bill Hillbish described a plan to connect traffic, security cameras, and possibly provide Internet access to other entities in Hudson. The original plan was to spend approximately $47,000 for fiber and hardware to connect remaining municipal facilities with Hudson Public Power managing the expansion.

At that meeting, the City Council also discussed using the network to connect local businesses and, eventually, residents. Apparently, local businesses are not happy with the incumbent provider: 

Some Council members wanted the work completed sooner than the five-year forecast by Hilbish. Hanink suggested 2016 instead of 2019.

"The business community is screaming for Internet connectivity and speed," said Council President Hal DeSaussure. "We can use it as an economic development and business retention tool."

Economic Development Director Chuck Wiedie said businesses were frustrated with Windstar, which was slow and lacked customer service.

"Our businesses need the Internet," Wiedie said.

At a later City Council meeting, Members delved deeper into the possibility of using fiber for more than an I-Net. From a June 22nd Hub Times article:

Interim City Manager Scott Schroyer June 10 asked for direction for the broadband infrastructure work. The city wants to circle the city with fiber to provide communications for all its city facilities. Council members suggested offering the broadband service to businesses and residents.

Broadband would provide a competitive advantage for economic development for attracting businesses, said Council member Dennis Hanink.

"I'd like to see us try to get to the business parks within a couple years," Hanink said.

At that meeting, Schroyer said the City would seek assistance from a consultant to create a financial and business plan. On July 9th, Hudson released its RFP.

For the past decade, Hudson has incrementally expanded a fiber network to connect major buildings and facilities (see page 3 of the RFP for a map of existing fiber). Some of the facilities include public safety buildings, town hall, schools, and utility buildings. The proposed project will connect remaining electric substations and the City Cemetery.

Through the RFP, Hudson hopes to determine the best way to complete its network for municipal purposes and explore a possible open access network. Hudson expects infrastructure recommendations, business plan possibilities, and needs assessment review. Proposals are due August 15.

Shaker Heights Considers Expanding Fiber in Ohio

The Shaker Heights City Council is considering expanding an existing fiber network, reports Cleveland.com. The project would allow OneCommunity, the nonprofit managing a regional fiber network, access to the city's rights-of-way for 15 years.

OneCommunity, created in 2003, received a $44 million broadband stimulus award to extend fiber in northeast Ohio. The organization's network spans approximately 2,000 miles, providing connectivity for over 2,300 public facilities. Cuyahoga County, Medina County, and the town of New Brunswick are just a few communities that worked with OneCommunity to improve local connectivity for anchor institutions. 

According to the article, one commercial district in town, the Chagrin-Lee area, connects to the OneCommunity network. The Shaker LaunchHouse, a business accelerator, is the hub of Ohio's first "fiberhood." The LaunchHouse is also the first entity on the network offering gigabit speeds to the private sector:

"We work with a lot of start-up companies, and some of them are high-tech and having those higher Internet speed capabilities is key, " [director of entrepeneurial programming Katie] Connelly said. "We had more people coming in who are doing things like writing software, so our numbers have definitely increased." 

The City Council is seeking more information before they make a decision on granting access. Shaker Heights, home to 28,000 people, sits adjacent to Cleveland's eastern edge. A large number of buildings in Shaker Heights are listed on the National Register of Historic Places because the town started as a planned community in 1905. Shaker Heights adheres to strict zoning and building codes to preserve its historic feel.

According to the article, new retail, residential, and office space is coming to the community as part of a redevelopment project; the proposed expansion would service that area of town.

"Our goal as a city is to bring new development into Shaker Heights," city Economic Development Director Tania Menesse said. "For some companies, the availability of high speed Internet access could be a reason they decide to move their company across the country from an area where it's not available."

An Increasing Call for Community Owned Networks

While Comcast focuses on increasing its market power rather than improving services in the communities it monopolizes, no one should be surprised that we are seeing a surge in interest for building community owned networks.

We've heard from many people who want to learn how they can start - more than we can always respond to, unfortunately. We are working on a resource to answer many of those questions, but it always boils down to 2 things: building a supportive network of people and getting informed. Get the word out - especially to local business leaders and anyone else who may be supportive.

There are many potential business models and financing opportunities, but some will work better than others in each community. That said, there are some basics that every community should be immediately considering.

The first is building a fiber network to connect anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, first responders, municipal facilities, and the like (see our Fact Sheet on savings from such networks). These networks should be constructed in such a way as to enable future expansions to local businesses, residents, and generally everything in the community or even beyond for rural areas. That means choosing the backbone routes carefully and ensuring that as much fiber is available as possible. Using conduit with channels and always leave at least one channel free to pull a future bundle (replacing a smaller count bundle that can then be removed to continue having a free channel).

Another smart move is to begin getting conduit and fiber in the ground as part of other capital projects, like street rebuilds, water main replacement, and the like. We will discuss how Santa Monica did this in an upcoming case study. In the meantime, there is no better resource than CTC Technology & Energy's recent report, Gigabit Cities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in your Community.

We have additional resources organized in two places: on MuniNetworks.org and on ILSR.org. If you can't find a piece of information you need, let us know.

Of the recent voices calling for at least consideration of a publicly owned network in their community, two recent ones stand out. Lev Gonick, head of OneCommunity in northeast Ohio (our coverage of them here) recently called on the region to take its future into its own hands rather than waiting for Google.

logo-onecommunity-2014.png

City Halls across the land are asking how they can attract Google Fiber and extend the Google brand to their city. Of course, we can and should invite Google to the North Coast.

We can wait for Google or we can continue building our own future.

OneCommunity, with the support of our hundreds of forward-thinking public benefit organizations, has built and now manages the largest community fiber optic network in the country. Built right here, our $200 million network has become a reference model for national programs and communities across the country aspiring to take their future into their own hands when it comes to broadband.

It is worth noting that this is no slap across the face of Google. Google has said many times that it is not going to build everywhere and that communities need to be proactive - which means either making investments to build their own networks or finding worthwhile partners. This is a slap across the face of incumbent cable and telephone providers that are not meeting local needs.

In Massachusetts, some in Cambridge are also making the case for local investments in a fiber network. Saul Tannenbaum calls for a community network to meet the needs of everyone in the community. In his well-reasoned piece, he writes:

Cambridge does have an established method of tackling complex, controversial planning issues. It appoints an external body, composed of residents, experts, and stakeholders who engage in a public process. In cases where the City has neither the expertise nor resources to address an issues, this is accompanied by an appropriation of funds to employ consultants. That's what should happen next.

City Manager Richard Rossi should appoint a commission composed of experts, residents and scholars, the innovation community and the social justice community and charge them with developing a municipal broadband proposal for Cambridge.

Those who want to know how their community should proceed should read the final third of his post (though it is all worth reading). This is especially true for communities without municipal electric utilities.

Finally, stay tuned for next week - when we release a case study on Santa Monica, one of the most successful municipal networks to have been built by a community without a municipal electric utility.

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

A recent press release from the Merit educational and research network in Michigan announces a new connection to its Ohio sister, OARnet. Member entities and local communities now enjoy better redundancy, expanded reach, and better services. Local communities continue to benefit from the presence of the middle mile infrastructure.

The network helps local Hillsdale College to cut connectivity costs; the Merit announcement quotes Hillsdale College leadership:

"Hillsdale College has been a Merit member since 1992," stated David Zenz, executive director of information technology services for Hillsdale College, "and it was always a dream to figure out some way to eliminate expensive data circuit costs to free up funds to purchase more bandwidth. In 2008 The City of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, Hillsdale College, and Merit figured out how to do just that."

Through a long term collaborative effort, Merit, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, and Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) came together to establish the Hillsdale Community Network. Each entity now benefits from lowered connectivity costs, better infrastructure, and improved opportunities. 

A 2009 story from Merit, describes the situation at ISD:

In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations [ISD and Hillsdale College] and others in the area began to make sense. 

According to the article, Merit managed the project from start to finish. The City has cut costs and improved economic opportunity. Also from the article:

"We saw a cost reduction for the city," according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. "We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off." 

"We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development." 

The expansion to bring OARnet and Merit together is part of the REACH-3MC project, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. We recently reported on Merit's completed segment expansion to rural Alpena, also part of the project.

Ohio Community Wants to Expand Use of Existing Fiber

In Springfield, Ohio, community leaders are looking for ways to use their share of a commercially owned fiber optic loop on the eastern side of town. The community hopes to secure a $50,000 Local Innovation Fund grant from the state to finance a feasibility study reports the News-Sun.

Approximately 60,000 people live in Springfield, located 45 miles west of Columbus. Advanced Virtual Engine Test Cell, Inc. (AVETEC) owns and operates a 19-mile fiber optic ring connecting downtown to its facility. The fiber route passes the Clark State Community College and at least one public school. Springfield owns 24 unused strands of the AVETEC network and wants to build off that asset to save public dollars, improve school connectivity, and encourage economic development.

From the News-Sun article:

“From an economic development standpoint, it’s definitely capitalizing on an amenity that’s already in the ground that we can use then to leverage as an additional incentive or perk to doing business in Springfield, especially business that’s proximal to that fiber in the near-term,” said Josh Rauch, the city’s deputy economic development administrator. “Then as it builds out, you get more and more connectivity throughout the city.”

“The goal is to take the fiber build-out we’ve got and look at other places you could build fiber,” Rauch said.

The Miami Valley Educational Computer Association (MVECA) is a regional nonprofit consortium of twenty-five local K-12 school districts. MVECA leases and maintains a fiber network for the Springfield City School District and other Clark County school districts. The Executive Director of MVECA, anticipating the need for 10 gigabit connections, hopes to see a collaboration with the City to bring the fiber to Springfield and area schools. He believes working together will reduce costs for local school districts and MVECA.

“With the continuously increasing technology demands that schools are placing on our network, finding more affordable ways and long-term solutions for really robust network connectivity is essential,” [MVECA Executive Director Thor] Sage said.

The next round of approved applications to the Local Government Innovation Fund will be announced in February 2014.

Hamilton, Ohio, to Expand Fiber to Businesses and Schools

A part of the Cincinnati metro region, Hamilton sits in the extreme southwest corner of Ohio. The community of 63,000 will soon expand its fiber resources to spur economic development and improve education opportunities. Eric Schwartzberg from the Journal News reports that the City Council recently voted to support the city-owned electric utility's proposal to create a broadband utility and build a data center. Hamilton is a full service community, also offering sewer, water, and gas.

Hamilton's municipal facilities have used the city's fiber I-Net for over nine years, reports Schwartzberg, and they believe it now makes sense to connect schools and local businesses while opening the network to independent service providers. 

[Mark] Murray [a project manager for the city’s underground utilities] said the opportunity to offer broadband to businesses and schools is similar to what Hamilton does with the electricity it generates.

“If we were putting up poles and stringing wires and only providing that to city institutions or city buildings … why wouldn’t we offer electric to businesses?” he said. “Well, that’s the same question that’s being asked of our fiber optic network. We’ve made great use of it here within the city, but why not take this asset and offer it as a service to the businesses?”

...

“When you start to see this type of facility go in, it’s not unusual for regional or national start ups to want to take advantage of the opportunity to tap into our fiber network,” [Murray] said.

In January of 2012, the City's We Connect People Sub-Committee began investigating how best to use the City's fiber. They hired Magellan Advisors who estimates the project costs at $4.3 million to expand the fiber network, purchase equipment and build the data center, and to use for future capital improvements and maintenance. Murray said positive operating revenue would be expected in 2017 and 2018 would very likely show net income.

In addition to serving local business, the utility also hopes to establish the Hamilton City School District as a community anchor institution. Murray noted that the utility is not interested in providing phone, video, or data to the school; they will build the infrastructure for private providers. 

Medina County Offices Will Connect With Community Network

The newly completed Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN) in Ohio will soon add Medina County government as the next customer.

The Medina-Gazette reports the County Commission recently voted unanimously to enter into a five-year agreement with MCFN and drop Armstrong Cable. County Administrator Chris Jakab says the county will save $600 per month. Currently Medina County pays $3,300 per month and the new monthly fee will be $2,700 per month.

Apparently, Armstong Cable did not take the news well. At the County Commissioners meeting, Armstrong questioned the decision:

Minutes after the commissioners unanimously approved changing service providers, Armstrong’s General Manager Karen Troxell disputed Jakab’s figures.

Troxell said the Armstrong bill is made up of a $2,474 fiber-optic lease and an $826 Internet fee. She said the new agreement only covered the fiber-optic lease. She said the county still would have to pay for Internet access, which would bring the total bill to more than $3,500.

“I think this decision needs to be rethought,” she told the commissioners. “Or I need an explanation as to why you’re willing to pay more money for these services.”

Jakab said Troxell was mistaken, saying the fiber network’s $2,700 fee includes a $300 fee for Internet access.

The community recently celebrated completion of its 151-mile network, owned by the Medina County Port Authority. Last summer, the Highland School District connected to the network when its contract with Time Warner Cable ended. The move saves the school district approximately $82,000 in annual connectivity fees.

Business and community leaders began planning for the network 10 years ago as a way to spur economic development and create a more competitive telecommunications environment. A Port Authority revenue development bond issue and a stimulus grant administered by OneCommunity paid for the $13.8 million project. 

Medina County, Ohio, Celebrates Fiber Network Completion

Community leaders in Medina County, Ohio, recently celebrated the completion of the Medina County Fiber Network (MCFN). Loren Grenson of the Medina Gazette reported on the celebratory breakfast event where officials proclaimed, “The monopoly is dead. Long live the fiber loop."

Local businesses already rave about the county owned MCFN, which offers Internet access, data tranport, and dark fiber leasing. From the article:

Automation Tool and Die in Brunswick is one of 20 entities already tied into the fiber network. The network provides better service to the company’s four buildings in Brunswick’s Northern Industrial Park, said Jacob Mohoric, company IT manager.

“It’s a blazing-fast Internet connection at all four of our buildings at an effective cost,” Mohoric said.

Company co-owner J. Randy Bennett said the network provided the first decent bandwidth for his company since it moved to Brunswick in 1983.

“We had no good bandwidth source and we paid through the nose for what we did have,” Bennett said.

Last July, the Highland School District was near the end of an expensive contract with Time Warner Cable. The network was not complete, but enough MCFN infrastructure was in place to connect the schools for Internet and phone service. Highland Schools now pay about $82,000 less per year for connectivity.

Community leaders began working on the project over ten years ago. After years of planning, the Medina County Port Authority (MCPA) secured $14.4 million in bonds and a $1.4 million stimulus award. The stimulus funding is part of a 2010 grant to nonprofit OneCommunity, charged with extending fiber to 22 Ohio counties. OneCommunity will manage the network.

The 151-mile asset belongs to the MCPA but the entire community considers itself an "owner." Bethany Dentler, executive director of the Medina County Economic Development Corp., also spoke at the celebration:

Dentler said the 151 miles of line through Medina County are a source of pride for the community and a unique collaborative investment in infrastructure.

“The best part is that this network belongs to all of us,” she said. “Not just the Medina Port Authority, not just the Medina County Economic Development Corp., but it’s a publicly owned network that belongs to the entire Medina community.”