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OneCommunity's Middle Way - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 135

OneCommunity is a nonprofit organization in northeastern Ohio that has connected thousands of community anchor institutions with high capacity connections. Created as OneCleveland before expanding, it has remained a rather unique approach to expanding high quality Internet access. This week, CEO Lev Gonick joins us to talk about OneCommunity and its contributions to the region.

As neither a private company nor a local government, Lev believes that OneCommunity offers a third way, something they often call a "community-driven" approach. We discuss how a big city like Cleveland needs to think about solving the problem of expanding Internet access broadly.

OneCommunity has just announced the recipients of its Big Gig Challenge and Lev shares some of the lessons they learned in evaluating proposals and working with the communities that competed for the prize.

Lev and I will be on a panel together again with some other great folks in Austin for Broadband Communities in the middle of April. Great deal to attend here.

Read the transcript of this show here.

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

This show is 23 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."

OneCommunity Announces "Big Gig Challenge" Award Recipients

Last fall, nonprofit ISP OneCommunity  created the "Big Gig Challenge" to jump start expansion and promote gigabit applications in northeast Ohio. The organization recently announced the winners and provided some information about their projects.

The West 25th Corridor project, running through Ohio City, Tremont, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre, and Old Brooklyn is a four mile stretch that will affect small business, the Cleveland Clinic, two MetroHealth Systems campuses, and several other large employers. This project also reaches 14 sites that could be developed and over 900 properties. It is a collaborative project that includes four Cleveland Wards.

The Village of Greenwillow plans to expand its existing network and work with private sector business owners and land developers. Likewise, Lorain County Community College will build off its existing network connections to create a community fiber road map. From a press release on the award, as printed in BBC Mag:

In response to receiving the grant, Dr. Roy Church, president of Lorain County Community College said, “We are honored to be selected as a grant recipient. This award will enable our community to dramatically increase access to the existing fiber network, positioning us to become a more globally competitive region. The funds will be used to engage stakeholders from government, healthcare, higher education and local businesses to create an implementation plan to increase high-speed connections and foster greater efficiencies.”

South Euclid, currently utilizing the OneCommunity network, received a grant to expand to to the city's municipal facilities and build out to its industrial area.

The Big Gig Challenge offered funds to cover up to 25% of the projects costs up to $2 million.

In addition to the Challenge launched last fall, OneCommunity launched a new collaborative effort with the City of Cleveland in November. A new fiber pipe, capable of 100 Gbps speeds, will be deployed along Cleveland's Health-Tech Corridor (HTC) connecting downtown to University Circle.

The $1.02 million project is funded by a $700,000 Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, funding from the City, and a contribution from OneCommunity. Construction is expected to start early this year. It will be available for local businesses, many of which have already expressed an interest. From a Cleveland City Hall Press Release:

“We are extremely enthusiastic about our partnership with the City of Cleveland and excited to be at the forefront of a project that is destined to become the new “Gold Standard” for broadband connectivity. Consistent with our mission, we embrace 100 gigabit as a job creation engine for the City. Offering the first 100 gigabit capability, specifically in the Health-Tech Corridor, incentivizes local and national fast-growing companies to locate and remain here,” says OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick.

We just spoke with Lev Gonick from OneCommunity on Community Broadband Bits.

Community Broadband Media Roundup - January 23

We continue to see reverberations from President Obama's speaking out in favor of municipal networks. The presidential nod sparked state lawmakers to propose bills, news organizations to write editorials, and to give communities a better sense of how they can take action locally.

As Claire Cain Miller with the New York Times wrote in her article for “The Upshot”:

“The goal is not to replace the big companies with small, locally run Internet providers. It is to give people more than one or two options for buying Internet – and spur everyone, including the incumbents, to offer more competitive service and pricing.”

Jeff Ward-Bailey reported on Obama’s interest in tech issues in the State of the Union, specifically the laws limiting local deployment of networks.

“Obama has said that he wants to end these laws, and the White House’s new broadband plan includes a program, BroadbandUSA, that will encourage communities to deploy their own high-speed networks. BroadbandUSA will offer guidance on planning, financing, and building municipal broadband networks, and even includes funding for “in-person technical assistance to communities.”

The always-worth-reading Harold Feld explained the significance of President Obama's short mention of Internet access in his address:

“Which brings me to the last point. Yes, the President is clearly signalling that Dems need to see investment in broadband infrastructure (including by local governments) and protecting the open Internet not as isolated issues or peripheral techie issues, but as part of a comprehensive plan to ensure that the United States has a robust 21st infrastructure necessary to support a prosperous nation with opportunity for all. At the same time, Republicans should stop thinking of this as “regulation of the Internet” and think of it in the same way we think of highway fund investment and maintaining public roads. This doesn’t have to be a partisan issue, and it didn’t use to be.”

Reactions from cities and news organizations around the country showed that people support the right to build networks for job creation, business development, education, and healthcare. 

Alex Keefe and Lynne Mccrea with Vermont Public Radio talked to Irv Thomas with central Vermont’s ECFiber for reactions to the president’s message. More than 30 percent of Vermonters did not have access to high download speeds in 2013 – that’s one of the highest percentages of any state in the nation. 

Community Broadband Efforts

Danielle Kehl and Patrick Lucey with the Open Technology Institute wrote about the significance of Obama’s announcement for other small cities that want to restore local authority to build networks: 

“The digital divide becomes even more pronounced when you compare access in urban and rural parts of America, or consider the fact that four out of five Americans who aren’t online live below the poverty line. A big part of the problem is competition: Most Americans live in areas where only a single provider offers truly high-speed connectivity (more than 25 megabits per second), and it often comes with a steep price tag.”  

Some states are wasting no time moving forward with their community Internet networks. Kudos to Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey for his proposal. The Hill’s Mario Trujillo reports:

“Booker's legislation — the Community Broadband Act — would block any state "statute, regulation, or other legal requirement" that restricts cities from providing their own Internet network. His legislation to tweak the Telecommunications Act of 1996 will be introduced Thursday.”

Booker's office framed the issue as one that could help rural and low-income communities. At least 19 states around the country have laws on the books setting limits on the creation or expansion of municipal broadband networks. 

The state with some of the slowest Internet in the nation may have hope yet for high speed Internet access thanks to a huge push by state lawmakers. Maine lawmakers on both sides of the isle submitted a whopping 35 bills that could help the state make some serious moves up the list. Darren Fishell with Bangor Daily News covered the story.

“I think most people understand that in this day and age for us to be competitive, that’s one of the necessary tools,” [Rep. Norman] Higgins (a Republican) said, noting he’s found bipartisan support on the issue. “The question, I think becomes: How do we do it? And who does it?”

One of the key proposals is a change in definitions. Whit Richardson with The Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel writes that Maine’s broadband service authority is raising the standard of broadband from 1.5 Mbps to download and upload speeds of at least 10 Mbps. Currently just 20 percent of households there have access to those speeds. The new standard would mean about 80 percent of the state’s communities (up from just 5 percent) would be eligible for ConnectME funding and it be the most aggressive state in terms of requiring fast upload speeds - a boon to small businesses and people who work remotely.

But Broadband DSL Reports’ Karl Bode reports that the state may find they want to raise that bar even higher in coming months. He reports on Netflix CEO’s push for making 25 Mbps download the “new baseline.”

Another Minnesota broadband effort is nearing its financial goals. The Belle Plaine Herald report that RS Fiber’s 10 member cities re-committed to the fiber project this week. Backers are seeking another level of commitment before moving ahead with the sale of bonds in March. The first phase of building for the project is expected to begin in 2016.

Cleveland’s OneCommunity “Big Gig Challenge Grant” is going toward helping create a fiber network to connect several businesses, non-profits and the Cleveland Clinic. The West 25th Corridor project is earmarked to be municipally-led, community-wide fiber. 

“The impact of introducing fiber to this burgeoning district cannot be overstated,” according to OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick. “Hospitals, industry and businesses of all sizes, regardless of their scope will benefit from the network. We are proud to be part of this major leap into the future as outlined by the West 25th Street Corridor Initiative.”

In Utah, UTOPIA is reaching a settlement that gives hope to the struggling network. Antone Clark with the Standard Examiner reported the good news for network, which had been running at a loss for several years. 

“Even as we speak, our revenue picture is frankly outstanding,” Paul Isaac, acting director of UTOPIA, told the Standard-Examiner recently when pressed on the operational status of the network as it heads into the 2015 year.”

Just “down the road” in San Francisco, you can access high speed Internet from all city parks, and many businesses.  Josh Harkinson with Motherboard reported on how the telecom industry has developed such a successful obstacle course for communities: 

“Like many cities, San Francisco already has a robust fiber network in place to serve government offices.  [Ron Vinson, the city's chief marketing officer] believes that the $1.7 million that the city has spent to outfit its network with public wifi (not including a $600,000 grant from Google) is totally worth it. "There's absolutely no downside being able to provide access to the internet, whether you are parking your car or waiting for a MUNI bus," he says. "It's one of those fundamental things. We fill potholes, we clean the streets, and yes, now we provide wifi. And our citizens expect that."

Seattleites hopes for a city-owned network were rekindled this week! KING5 News reported on a new group forming that will push for affordable Internet access across the city. If the group is successful, Seattle would be the largest city in the United States with a municipal network.

Missouri Considers Revoking Local Authority

Despite the positive news from the White House, another state— Missouri— will consider a bill that creates barriers for community broadband. Rep. Rocky Miller introduced the bill, Sean Buckley with Fierce Telecom.

"Miller's bill includes a provision that would require a town or city to make a majority vote to offer a "competitive service." If residents voted to build a community network, the municipality would not be able to use the revenue from other services like water and sewer to pay for the buildout of the network and services, which would create a challenge in being able to pay for the initial construction costs to extend services to homes and businesses."

Kansas City, Missouri, is concerned how the proposed legislation would stifle the torrent of tech startups and economic development activities that are tied to faster speeds. 

"[Communications litigation expert Robert] Cooper said that state laws that restrict municipal broadband deployment are "antithetical to those FCC mandates because they enshrine barriers to investment by local governments." There is "ample" evidence that advanced broadband capability is not being deployed in a reasonable and timely fashion."

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. 

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.

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.”

OneCommunity Helps More Ohio Towns Take Advantage of Fiber

In Cuyahoga County, OneCommunity is leading the effort of upgrade the County's networking ability. With a special focus on improving pubic safety, the project is estimated to save the county $10 million over the next 5 years. From the OneCommunity blog:

The project provides high-bandwidth connectivity and secure video conferencing to more than 60 county offices and public safety locations; will provide wireless high speed Internet to the Justice Center, Courthouse, and Administration Building; and will equip County employees with mobile wireless access.

In addition, the Cuyahoga Regional Information Services (CRIS) emergency system is now available in public safety vehicles, enabling law enforcement officers to pull up criminal records while out in the community.  Cuyahoga Community College benefits from this public safety broadband connection as emergency personnel can use CRIS to help coordinate response efforts.

In Mayfield Village, a new network is being installed by OneCommunity in a city-owned office and industrial area. Mayfield Village anticipates this new resource and its high capacity will bring new businesses to its facility on Beta Drive.

Mayfield Village Planning Development describes the service:

The Mayfield Village fiber optic network is a new facet of our Beta Drive commercial district. The network is intended by the Village to save our businesses substantial amounts of money on their internet and other IT costs. Mayfield Village not only partnered with regional dark fiber organization OneCommunity to install the fiber, but the Village and OneCommunity have teamed up to offer very competitive internet service prices to companies wishing to connect to the network.

Brunswick, Ohio, Uses County Fiber to Drive Economic Development

Last summer, Medina County Schools announced a savings of almost $90,000 a year by switching from Time Warner Cable to the new Medina County Fiber Network. Scheduled for completion in late November, the network consists of a 151-mile loop and will provide bandwidth to government facilities and businesses. The project is mostly funded by the Medina County Port Authority, which will own the loop, and receives support from a stimulus broadband grant administered by the NE Ohio nonprofit, OneCommunity.

Loren Genson reported on local businesses' enthusiasm as the network makes its way to Brunswick, where fiber will pass through the Brunswick Industrial Park. Genson attended a meeting to update the community. From the article:

LeHotan, who owns All Construction Services on Industrial Parkway North, said improved fiber-optic broadband speeds will keep business in the industrial park and recruit new businesses to the area.

...

Brunswick Economic Development Director Tim Smith said he promotes the fiber-optic network when talking to businesses interested moving their operations to Brunswick.

“I see leads that come in, and one of their requirements is high-speed broadband,” Smith said. “Our industrial park is right on the throughway. … Now we have this to offer as well.”

Clearly, current and potential Medina County employers recognize the value of the network. Dave LeHotan, owner of a local construction company, spoke at the gathering:

“It’s like a garden hose: You can only get so much water out of it, so much use at a time,” he said. “But this is like a fire hose, much more powerful.”

LeHotan said getting the upgraded infrastructure will help attract more businesses not only to Brunswick but all along the two loops that connect the entire county.

“This is really necessary even for small companies,” LeHotan said. “You can form a small company and all of a sudden the next thing you know you’re shipping 1 million products and only 15 percent of them are nearby.”

This is just one of many examples of community broadband networks allowing local businesses to thrive -- we have documented many more examples on our Community Broadband and Economic Development Fact Sheet.

Highland Schools in Ohio First to Connect to Medina County Fiber Network

Quite some time ago, we let you know about the plans and funding for the Medina County Fiber Network (MFCN). The network, owned by the Medina County Port Authority (MCPA) began construction in March, 2011, and is nearing completion. Jennifer Pignolet, reported in the Medina GazetteOnline, that the network just signed on their first customer, Highland Schools.

Apparently, the schools contract with its current provider, Time Warner Cable, is about to expire. While connecting Highland Schools now may be ahead of schedule, the county fiber committee can accommodate their needs. As an added bonus, the new relationship is more economical for the schools. From the article:

“Their situation needing to be addressed immediately certainly moved them to the front of the line,” [said Jim Gerspacher, chairman of the county’s fiber committee].

While the $14 million network is still months away from full completion, Gerspacher said there is enough infrastructure in place to get Highland online.

The school will have full Internet and phone service and will have all its buildings connected to one network.

Highland Technology Director Roger Saffle said the district will save close to $90,000 a year by switching from Time Warner to the Medina County network.

“It will maintain the access we already have with a cheaper cost,” Saffle said.

Highland Schools is moving from a $100,000 per year Time Warner Cable contract (or about $8,333 per month). The schools now will pay $1,500 each month to the MCPA and, according to Saffle, will be able to apply for federal grant funding to recover 40% of that monthly fee.

In 2008, OneCommunity and the MCPA began a partnership to plan and build the network. OneCommunity received a $44 million broadband stimulus grant in 2010 to extend fiber to 22 Ohio counties. MCPA received $1.6 million of that stimulus for their County network. The remainder of the $13.8 million project was covered by 20-year revenue development bonds issued by the MCPA.

OneCommunity will manage operations when the project is complete.