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Speeds Up, Prices Steady (or Down!) With EC Fiber

The East-Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (EC Fiber) recently announced plans to increase speeds across tiers with no increase in prices.

Changes will look like this:

  • "Basic" will increase from 7 to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps)
  • "Standard" will increase from 20 to 25 Mbps
  • "Ultra" will double from 50 to 100
  • The new "Wicked" plan will increase from 100 to 500 AND will include a price decrease. (Current subscribers to the Wicked tier who pay for 400 Mbps will also get the bump up to 500 Mbps and the price decrease.)

All speeds from EC Fiber are symmetrical so both download and upload are equally fast.

Self-Funded at the Start

Twenty-four communities in Vermont make up the consortium which began in 2009. The towns joined forces to deploy a regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network when large corporate incumbent providers chose to invest elsewhere. Slow DSL was the best option in the area and local residents, businesses, and local institutions needed better connectivity.

Individual investors funded the initial network buildout but last year a new Vermont law took affect that allows towns to create "communications union districts." EC Fiber now functions under such a governance structure and organization officials expect to more easily attract larger investors and borrow at lower interest rates. EC Fiber hopes to answer requests to expand beyond its 24 member towns.

Characteristic Altruism

Increasing speeds with little or no rate increases is typical of publicly owned network communities. Tullahoma's LightTUBe, Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, and Lafayette's LUS Fiber have done it, often with little or no fanfare.

Publicly owned networks are also known to shun data caps, another tool big players like Comcast use to squeeze every penny out of subscribers. EC Fiber summed up why data caps are inconsistent with the publicly owned network philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

New Vermont Law Bolsters Prospects for Investing in Community Broadband Networks

A new state law is on the books in Vermont that supporters expect will encourage more investor activity supporting community broadband networks. 

The new law, which took effect this past June, allows for the creation of “communications union districts,” enabling towns and cities to band together to form geographic entities dedicated to establishing fiber-optic broadband networks for their area’s residents and businesses. 

A New Nomenclature

While Vermont towns have been able to work cooperatively via inter-local contracts, the new law is less cumbersome and uses a governmental nomenclature more familiar to most people—the union district. The union district governance model has been used for many years throughout Vermont, including by various utilities that have multi-town operations to handle, for example, sewer and water service.  

Carole Monroe; general manager of the East Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (ECFiber), a consortium of 24 Vermont communities that have banded together to provide broadband service; told our Christopher Mitchell there isn’t much practical difference for her group operating now as the East Central Vermont Telecommunications District instead of by an inter-local contract.  

“But I can say that in the municipal investment markets, they’re much more familiar with the municipal utility district, whether it’s a water district or sewer district or something along those lines,” Monroe told Chris in a recent edition of Community Broadband Bits podcast. “A municipal utility district is a common language for them. Inter-local contracts, not so much.” 

ECFiber Grew From Inter-Local Contract 

Irvin Thomae, chairman of the EC Vermont Telecommunications District board, agreed. He noted that seven years ago the east central Vermont communities created ECFiber through an inter-local contract. “But this (the inter-local contract) was unfamiliar to investors beyond our state borders,” Thomae told us.

“We needed a structure more capable of being recognized by large institutional investors. It (the communications union district) makes it easier for community broadband networks to appeal more for large investors.”

Jerry Ward, an ECFiber delegate from Randolph Center, earlier in 2015 urged residents of his community to vote to approve the governance change to a telecommunications utility district. He predicted in an opinion article in The Herald of Randolph, the union district model will be a boon for ECFiber: 

“Most of the money we’ve raised until now has come in small multiples of $2,500. The governance structure allowed by a Telecommunications Municipal Utility District should help ECFiber attract larger investors at more favorable interest rates. We expect that reorganizing along the lines of a municipal utility district will make it significantly easier to borrow enough money to build out our network much more rapidly than the 50 miles/year we’ve averaged so far.”

During the past four years, ECFiber, under its inter-local contract, has borrowed more than $7 million from predominantly about 450 local investors, connecting nearly 1,200 customers in parts of about a dozen towns, along 200 road miles of fiber-optic cable. Its customers include residents, businesses and institutions. The vast majority of the 24 towns in the ECFiber district are communities of less than 2,000 residents with a handful boasting between 4,800 to 10,000 people. 

Ward noted thousands of other residents still don’t have access to high-speed Internet.  “The rate at which we (ECFiber) can grow depends almost entirely on capital,” he said.  EC Fiber became a communications union district shortly after Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin signed the new law on June 1, 2015.

ECFiber offers latest Internet speeds

Currently, ECFiber offers the latest generation symmetrical Internet access and a choice of five speeds (from 7 Mbps to 400 Mbps) that do not vary by time of day or according to the weather - as well as phone service with unlimited long-distance calling in the U.S. and Canada, according to its website.

Under Vermont’s communications union districts, the member towns can help facilitate the broadband networks with obtaining easements from property owners along the fiber-optic cable routes, including putting up poles and laying conduit. ECFiber’s union district board is comprised of one delegate per town with each community also able to send one or two alternate delegates to the board’s monthly meeting. 

Under the new Vermont law, a communications union district, such as EC Vermont Telecommunications, isn’t allowed to assess taxes for the initiative. (Note: This was also true for ECFiber when it carried out its operations under its inter-local contract.) A communications union district’s revenue come from subscriber fees. Currently, the ECFiber district is generating about $125,000 a month in subscriber fees, Thomae told us. 

Currently, while ECFiber is the only communications union district in Vermont, Thomae said he has had a few inquiries from other people in the state asking about the new governance structure. 

Monroe said the creation of the ECFiber network has given people in Vermont’s rural east central region an alternative to DSL service, which usually is poor at best. For people not connected to a high quality network, fast and reliable Internet service also can be a problem because the East Central region’s mountainous terrain inhibits satellite service and reception from cell towers, she told us.   

Maine House Representative Pushes for Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 180

Eleven months ago, we noted the incredible energy in the Maine Legislature around improving Internet access. Maine State Representative Norm Higgins joins us this week for Community Broadband Bits Podcast episode 180.

Rep. Norm Higgins, a newcomer to the Legislature, pushed hard for legislation to encourage municipal open access networks as well as removing barriers to increased investment including a tax on the Three-Ring Binder project. He was part of a large majority that moved some key bills forward despite fierce opposition from Time Warner Cable and others.

We talk with Rep. Higgins about the various bills, including LD 1185, which would have created planning grants for community owned open access networks but passed without any funding.

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.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Local Internet Improvement Districts in New Hampshire - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 179

Local governments in New Hampshire are quite limited in how they can use public financing to invest in fiber optic networks, but Hanover is exploring an approach to create voluntary special assessment districts that would finance open access fiber optic networks. Town Manager Julia Griffin joins us for Community Broadband Bits Episode 179 to explain their plans.

Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against municipal networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has certainly limited local authority to ensure high quality Internet access.

But Hanover is one of several communities around the country that is exploring special assessment districts (sometimes called local improvement districts) that would allow residents and local businesses to opt into an assessment that would finance construction and allow them to pay it off over many years. This approach is well suited to Hanover, which has access to the Fast Roads open access network.

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.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Falmouth Saves With Cape Cod I-Net

Out on Cape Cod, municipal networks are taking hold. Public buildings throughout the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts, experience great connectivity and the town saves $160,000 each year with its own Institutional network (I-Net).

Public Savings

The Falmouth Area Network, maintained by CapeNet, connects 17 buildings throughout the town for a total of $3,000 each month ($2,500 from the school; $500 from the town). Were the town to go through a private provider, it would cost $1,000 for each building every month or $17,000 per month. By saving $14,000 each month, Falmouth's annual savings add up to approximately $160,000 a year. That’s a lot of money to be reinvested in the community of 31,000.

Falmouth Area Network intends to reach even more institutional buildings in the next few years. The 17 that are connected now are the libraries, the schools, the town hall, the police stations, the fire stations, the harbormaster’s office, and a senior center. Soon the Gus Canty Community Center will also gain a connection. At the Annual Town Meeting last week, the town approved the Capital Improvement Plan which included $80,000 to upgrade the network, including hooking up the community center. There are also plans to add a new wastewater treatment plan to the network in 2017.

The Role of OpenCape

The Falmouth Area Network came about thanks to another community-owned network project, the nonprofit OpenCape. Recently featured in an episode of eSTEAMers, OpenCape provides much needed middle mile connectivity throughout the Cape. The middle mile network does not connect business or residential users, but instead focuses on serving as a backbone of connectivity for towns. County, state, and federal grants funded construction of the $40 million OpenCape, which launched in 2013. The Falmouth Area Network connects to OpenCape, and a percentage of the city's annual fees go to OpenCape. 

Falmouth has more buildings connected than any of the other 15 Cape communities. The town’s success in capitalizing on access to OpenCape’s network has inspired other towns, such as Mashpee and Provincetown, to model their own networks after Falmouth.

In New England, Greenfield Votes For a Municipal Network Too

It wasn’t just Colorado cities and counties along with Iowa communities voting this week. Back east, Greenfield, Massachusetts also rushed to the polls to support local Internet choice.

Greenfield is planning to use a combination of fiber and Wi-Fi to deliver services - an approach that has had limited success in the past due to the technical limitations of Wi-Fi. 

The Vote

At Tuesday’s Annual Meeting, residents voted on the future of high-speed Internet access in the town. The referendum, the first step in creating a municipal broadband network, saw a landslide victory. 

The people gave a resounding message that they wanted to pursue a network: 3,287 people voted in favor; only 696 were opposed. According to the local paper the Recorder, this nonbinding ballot referendum allows the town to create a nonprofit to run the municipal broadband network. 

Currently there is a pilot program on two streets – giving residents a taste of community-owned high-speed Internet. This pilot program started in mid-October and provides free Wi-Fi on Main and High Streets. If voters had rejected the ballot referendum, the town would have ended the pilot program and only created an institutional network for the municipal and school buildings. Now, with the referendum passed, they can implement the plan for high-speed Internet access.

The Plan for Broadband

When the state built a middle-mile network running through the cities of Greenfield and Holyoke, the mayor contacted Holyoke’s municipal light plant to find out how to best utilize the opportunity. Holyoke is now the Internet Service Provider for City Hall and the police station. These will then serve as Internet access nodes for Greenfield’s new network.

The community's goal is to construct a 60-mile hybrid fiber-wireless network throughout the entire town by the end of 2016. The network will have a 10 Gigabit-per-second fiber backbone.  Now that the referendum passed, the project will go out to bid and construction will begin in early January. The total cost is estimated at about $5 million – the town intends to use revenues from the network to pay for the construction.

In an October, Mayor Martin described the community's initiative to replace the old infrastructure the community now relies on:

Martin said the goal of the project is to improve the business climate and quality of life in Greenfield. He said he wants everyone who wants high-speed Internet to be able to afford it.

We have yet to see a robust Wi-Fi network that actually sees meaningful adoption by households because the technology has such limited range and variable reliability. The result is that very few people are willing to pay for Wi-Fi connectivity, especially as they have come to expect higher capacity connections than a shared Wi-Fi network can deliver. We will be watching to see how Greenfield develops.

Video on OpenCape: How Cape Cod Created a Fiber Network

Almost ten years ago, Dan Gallagher, a technology director at Cape Cod Community College, could not get the bandwidth the college needed from incumbent service providers. After communicating with others in the areas, it soon became clear that a number of others shared the same experience.

“We asked anyone who thinks this is a problem for their business or entity here on the cape to come to cape cod community college to talk about it and a hundred people showed up.” - Dan Gallagher in eSTEAMers

The community formed non-profit OpenCape, and created a 350 mile fiber optic network and a colocation data center with $40 million in combined BTOP grants, state grants, and private funding. Completed in late 2012, the project proved to be well-worth the wait. Three large entities almost immediately became customers on the network: the Joint Base, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, and Hydroid, Inc, a private company.

Now the senior consultant for OpenCape, Dan Gallagher describes the project in depth in this episode of eSTEAMers by Cape Cod Community Media Center.

"Digital New England" Conference Set for September 27th, 28th in Portland

Over the past year, New England has been a hotspot for broadband initiatives, legislation, and experimentation. The trend will continue into September when Next Century Cities and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) host Digital New England: A Summit for Regional Broadband Leaders on September 27th and 28th in Portland, Maine.

From a description of the event:

Broadband is emerging as a critical driver of economic growth and prosperity in New England. The “Digital New England” broadband summit will bring together state, local and federal officials, industry representatives, community leaders and other key stakeholders to share real-world broadband success stories and lessons learned from across the region. The summit will also examine the gaps that remain and strategize on what still needs to be done to expand access to and adoption of high-speed Internet services for the benefit of all citizens.

The event will start with a welcome reception on Sunday evening. Monday's day-long summit will include discussions on numerous topics that cover investment, access, and adoption. Come listen to some panel discussions and participate in some break-out workshops.

The welcome reception will be held at the Gulf Maine Research Institute at 350 Commercial St. in Portland. Monday's summit will be at the Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring St. in Portland.

Take a look at the schedule for this free event and register online at the Eventbrite page.

KeepBTLocal Working on Plan to Purchase BT

Burlingtonians love their municipal network. We have reported in the past that, prior to the sale of the network to Blue Water LLC, a group of locals organized to create the KeepBTLocal cooperative. Recently, the organization reaffirmed its commitment to purchase the network when it goes up for sale, a condition of the Blue Water LLC transaction.

A customer satisfaction survey in April revealed that BT customers are more than twice as satisfied with their provider as those obtaining service from competitors. The VTDigger reported survey results:

· 87% customer satisfaction with BT’s Customer Service;

· 24% of customers chose BT’s services after being recommended by a friend or family member; and

· General impression of BT by non-BT customers saw a 10% “positive” increase over their 2014 impression.

The survey also reported that customers with other providers were 40% satisfied with their service.

BT offers 150 Mbps for $55 per month and gigabit service for $85 per month or $70 per month with a 12 month contract. All speeds are symmetrical.

It has been a long road for BT after prior city leadership covered up years' worth of cost overruns creating serious financial difficulties for the community. Eventually, CitiBank filed suit to recover the $33 million Burlington owed. The two settled and Burlington eventually transferred ownership to Blue Water with the city still leasing. The ultimate goal for the city is to sell the network. Enter KeepBTLocal.

According to a June VTDigger article, the coop has been working with a former telecommunications industry executive now working as a consultant. They are developing business and acquisition plans to purchase the network when it goes up for sale within the next few years.

Andy Mortoll, Chair of the Board of KeepBTLocal told VTDigger:

“It’s just so important for so many of us in Burlington to keep Burlington Telecom a local, community-owned asset,” Montroll said. “If the city is going to sell it, we want to be the ones to acquire it on behalf of the residents.”

Islesboro, Maine, Voters Approve First Round of Muni Funding

Islesboro residents voted on May 30th to move forward with their municipal network plan. According to the Islesboro Press Herald, approximately 75 percent of voters attending the annual town meeting approved a motion to spend $206,830 on an engineering study and contractor search. Approximately 200 residents attended.

As we reported in March, the community has been working since 2012 on a plan for a fiber network to improve connectivity for businesses and the almost 600 residents on the island. The infrastructure will belong to the Town of Isleboro; GWI will offer services via the network. The entire project estimate is $2.5 - $3 million to be funded with a municipal bond.

Many of the island's residents now obtain Internet access via DSL from Fairpoint, which has been described as spotty and unreliable, for $20 - $70 per month. GWI already operates on the island, offering wireless service.

This is the first in a several step approval process:

Town officials plan to hold a second public vote in the fall on 20-year municipal bond for up to $3 million that would fund the network’s construction, [Selectman Arch Gillies] said.

Completion is scheduled for the end of 2016.

“We’re a community intent on keeping up with the world, and maybe getting ahead of the world,” [Gilles] said.