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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 schools...as 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

Chris Visits Burlington to Talk About Local Telecom Challenges

Burlington Telecom customers love their local muni. Throughout the community's political, legal, and financial challenges, residents and businesses have rallied behind the ability to control their access locally. As part of their efforts to educate the community, Code for BTV and Keep BT Local brought Chris to town to discuss community ownership. The video of his presentation is now available online at Burlington's Town Meeting Television.

Chris discussed a variety of community ownership and said of Burlington:

"When it comes down to getting community support to raising capital and understanding the value of a cooperative, Burlington's about the best place in the country to be trying to do that."

Keep BT Local began officially organizing in late 2012. Their goal is to transform the municipal network into a cooperative structure on order to protect local interest in the service. The gigabit network has won awards, partnered with local nonprofits to improve digital inclusion, and offered local services such as computer repair, setting it apart from the distant corporate providers with no interest in local communities.

No wonder Burlingtonians want to keep their network! This is an informative conversation that touches on a variety of topics including how to fire up potential cooperative members, strategies to entice community anchors, and promoting the unique characteristics of a local network.

The video runs about one hour and twenty minutes.

 

Community Broadband Media Roundup - September 19, 2014

The media is picking up on Chairman Wheeler’s notice to big telecom: 4Mbps is not going to cut it anymore. Wheeler said speeds closer to 10Mbps should be classified as high speed. A good step, but by the end of this Media Roundup, you’ll be questioning what that paltry 10 Mbps can do for communities…

Michael Nielsen with Motley Fool pointed out reasons that big telecom should be scared: competition, competition, competition. Meanwhile, AT&T patted itself on the back because they say 98% of its customers have download speeds of 6 Mbps or higher (so they claim). So yes, congratulations are in order, in the most minor way possible. 

Want another reason big telecom should be scared? Free Marketeers are on board with Net Neutrality. From James J. Heaney: 

“… it seems odd for a conservative – whether an old-guard big-business Bush-era conservative or a new-guard Paulite libertarian conservative – to support Net Neutrality.

Except I do Internet for a living, and I am one of the lucky ones who actually knows what Net Neutrality means and what it’s responding to.  And, folks, I’m afraid that, while L. Gordon Crovitz and Rich Lowry are great pundits with a clear understanding of how Washington and the economy work, they don’t seem to understand how the Internet works, which has led them to some wrong conclusions.”

AT&T/DirecTV Merger:

Ars Technica’s Jon Brodkin reported on our comments about the AT&T/DirecTV merger, noting what the merger could mean for aging infrastructure:

“AT&T’s proposed $48.5 billion acquisition of DirecTV will reduce competition for TV subscribers, increase AT&T’s “incentive to discriminate against online video services,” and give AT&T more reasons to neglect its aging copper network, consumer advocacy groups argue in a petition to deny the merger.”

The Hill also published an article citing ILSR and Public Knowledge’s comments:

‘"[the organizations] told the agency in a petition that the merger would be bad for consumers, especially against the backdrop of other media deals such as Comcast’s bid to buy Time Warner Cable. “Companies may think they need greater scale to enter new markets or keep up with their rivals. But unless they can show how this would benefit consumers, it is immaterial,” they wrote. “If anything, the FCC should be more skeptical of mergers that come in waves, since in the aggregate consumers suffer from a more highly concentrated, centralized marketplace, with fewer choices, homogenous offerings and increased likelihood of coordinated effects.”’

Internet Access Competition Update:

Did you know that communities that have a service provider that offers a 1 Gig service have a per capita GDP that’s 1.1 percent higher than other communities that have little or no gigabit services? That’s the report from Sean Buckley on Fierce Telecom this week.

But cities that didn’t win the “gigabit google lottery” are taking action on their own. According to Denise Linn of Next City, Louisiville has identified three companies that will invest in a gig in areas of town. 

“Though Louisville’s future network will not be supported with public funds (in contrast to projects in Wilson, North Carolina or Lafayette, Louisiana, for example), initial momentum certainly came from the bottom up. Demand for faster speeds was fostered and articulated by the city’s residents, academics and the business community.”

Of course we think a publicly-owned network is a better bet for the city, but this is a good step.

Meantime, a conference on gigabit networks sparked three communities in Connecticut to explore their options. They modeled their request after Louisville.  Fierce Telecom and The Westminster Dispatch had the story: 

"As soon as we started the conversation about gig networks, we heard from businesses, universities, high-tech start-ups, mayors and first selectmen – really such a variety of stakeholders – about how greater Internet speeds at lower costs are essential to their functioning," Katz said in a West Hartford Patch article. "We knew it was an important economic development tool, but we've learned gig networks are also essential for medicine, precision manufacturing, education, e-government, many different people in different sectors clamoring for gig networks."

Jason Myers reported that the initiative is “open to any and all municipalities in Connecticut." Organizers hope that network partners will be encouraged by more cities joining the initiative. 

Big News from the land of 10,000 lakes: Joan Engebretson reported in Next City that Paul Bunyan Communications — a co-op in Northern Minnesota will be home to the nation’s largest public gigabit service as early as 2015. The “GigaZone” will cover about five thousand square miles. 

“Expanding broadband is a great equalizing force for boosting rural economies. Today you don't need to live off a major highway or in a bustling city to find a good job, start a new business, or get a high quality education but today you do need a high-speed Internet connection," said Senator Amy Klobuchar, who has championed the effort of rural broadband access at the national level since being elected.”

Seattle’s new Chief Technology Officer has broadband on his mind. GovTech profiled Michael Mattmiller this week

“The Federal Communication Commission is now considering altering the definition of broadband Internet -- increasing the speed from 4 Mbps to 10 Mbps. For a city to keep up with the changing standards, it must consider new avenues, Mattmiller said, like eliminating red tape. The city council is now reviewing proposed changes to the Seattle Department of Transportation’sDirector’s Rule 2-2009, which made it difficult for broadband providers besides Comcast to develop their networks in the city.”

And finally, we thought Santa Monica’s public network was fast before— now they’re raising the bar yet again. The city now boasts a 100 Gigabit per second fiber network.

“This is only the latest milestone in a long line of advancements Santa Monica has made in the broadband arena. We are considered a leader in social tech and have leveraged our fiber optic network to advance free Wi-Fi in public parks and major bus routes, provide internet to our libraries, and connect our schools and college locations. These efforts have contributed to education, economic development, and provide impressive Internet speeds for large conferences and events. We are proud to be the 1st, 100 Gigabit municipal network in the U.S.,” said Jory Wolf, the City of Santa Monica’s Chief Information Officer.

Let that sink in.

Chris Mitchell In Burlington, Vermont on September 19th

Members of the Burlington community are hosting a luncheon on Friday, September 19th, to discuss ways to help keep BT local. Chris, as one of the leading experts on municipal broadband, will be leading the discussion. We have followed BurlingtonTelecom's challenges and victories since 2008.

The event is titled "How Do We Keep Burlington Telecom Local?" and will be at the CCTV Center for Media & Democracy in Burlington. From the announcement:

Many Burlington residents and activists are concerned about the City of Burlington’s plans to sell Burlington Telecom to a private entity by 2017. While the City is committed to BT as a driver for economic and community development, it currently has no specific plans to retain a meaningful ownership stake in the new entity. 

The event is part of a series of community talks aimed at maintaining public input as the City prepares to move forward. 

A free discussion will begin at 11 a.m.; it will be followed by lunch for $15. You can now register online. For those who want to learn more about the network and keep up on the latest developments, CCTV of Vermont has put together a resource page detailing upcoming steps with news coverage, video, and court documents. 

Rural Indiana Looks to Tax Increment Financing to Build Fiber Networks

Wabash County, Indiana wants to expand its access to high speed internet through a fiber optic network build out, and is planning to use a distinctive financial tool to do so. The Wabash County Redevelopment Commission has begun the process of assigning a special Economic Development Area designation for the purpose of helping to finance new fiber deployment through parts of the mostly rural county of 33,000 people.

Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is method of public financing that uses future gains in property or sales taxes within a defined area to subsidize a redevelopment or infrastructure project. A local jurisdiction can borrow money up front, build the project, and then use the increased tax receipts it generates to pay off the debt over a period of years. The concept is actually pretty simple: capture the value that something will have in the future to build it now.

TIF  has been a popular approach among local politicians around the country for decades as a way to work around tight budgets and finance improvements in blighted areas, often in the form of public infrastructure. It has sometimes drawn criticism, especially in cities like Chicago where it is very heavily used. One downside is that it effectively takes properties off the general tax rolls. 

More important for our purposes, however, is that the use of TIF for next generation fiber optic networks is a fairly new phenomenon. While municipal networks around the country have used a wide range of financing approaches to cover upfront costs, most have revolved in some way around bonds that are repaid from network revenue. Using TIF to capture the increased property value that a fiber optic network would create is an interesting approach.

In the case of Wabash County, it’s not yet clear exactly how the funds would be used. There is a local private incumbent provider, Metronet, which received $100,000 last year to match its own $1 million investment to bring fiber to a town on the north edge of the county. The county also has a cooperative utility (Wabash County REMC) that provides power and telephone services in rural areas and has expressed interest in using TIF to build out a fiber network. Whichever entity ultimately receives TIF money, it does not appear that the county is interested in owning the network itself. 

Wabash County is not alone it its pursuit of TIF-backed fiber networks. Other counties and municipalities in rural Indiana have been moving along the same lines, from Chesterton in the north to Dubois County in the south. The Indiana  Association of Cities and Towns, meanwhile, recently helped defeat an attempt by telecom industry lobbyists (ahem, AT&T) in Indianapolis to pass legislation eliminating the authority of local governments to use TIF - but only for fiber optics and other telecommunications equipment.  

Whether or not TIF eventually proves to be a good tool for building high speed fiber optic networks in rural areas and small towns remains to be seen. Taking a broader view of the value of a the public and private value a municipal network creates, beyond a simple glance at network revenues, is a step in the right direction. In any case, the right of local communities to make their own choices about how best to finance, plan for, and pursue their shared needs is paramount.

Rural Utilities Building Broadband Networks - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 109

If you have doubts that we can or will connect rural America with high quality Internet connections, listen to our show today. Alyssa Clemsen-Roberts, the Industry Affairs Manager at the Utilities Telecom Council, joins me to talk about how utilities are investing in the Internet connections that their communities need.

Many of these utilities are providing great connections, meaning that some of the folks living in rural America have better -- faster and more affordable -- Internet access than residents of San Francisco and New York City.

We discuss the demand for better Internet access and the incredible take rates resulting from investment in some of the communities that rural electric cooperatives are serving.

UTC has a been a strong ally of our efforts to prevent states from revoking local authority to build community networks. Within UTC, the Rural Broadband Council is an independent operating unit.

Read a transcript of this show, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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 17 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Get a Gig in Oklahoma: Rural Cooperative Deploying FTTH in Northeast Corner of the State

The Northeast Oklahoma Electric Cooperative, serving a five county rural region, plans to begin offering gigabit service in its territory by the end of 2014. The cooperative has formed Bolt Fiber Optic Services to offer connectivity to approximately 32,000 homes and businesses.

According to Light Reading, the infrastructure is funded with a $90 million loan from the Rural Utilities Service. Sheila Allgood, manager of Bolt, notes that the entity is separate, but "profit or loss will go back to the co-op."  Bolt will offer triple-play packages with a third party contracted to offer the VoIP services.

The project also includes a data center, already under construction, that will house network equipment and provide collocation services.

From the cooperative's newsletter announcing the project in December 2013:

The initial phase of the project will deliver fiber in areas of the largest population density (14-20 homes per mile) with subsequent phases eventually working their way into more remote, outlying areas. “We anticipate that the first phase of the project should be available to roughly one-third of Northeast Oklahoma Electric Co- operative’s membership,” explained Due. “A significant number of businesses and community institutions in our area would also be connected during this phase.”

The cooperative lists monthly residential prices as 20 Mbps for $49.99 per month, 50 Mbps for $63.99 per month, 100 Mbps for $83.99 per month, and 1 Gbps for $249.99 per month. All speeds are symmetrical. Bolt is asking interested customers to sign up with a $100 installation fee.

Project completion is scheduled for April 2017.

The Cooperative has produced a short promotional video to get the word out:

 

Video: 
See video

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

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.

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

Multiple Minnesota Projects Submit "Expressions of Interest" to FCC

We reported in February that the FCC sought "expressions of interest" from entities that want a share of Connect America funds. The agency sought feedback on the need and desire for projects across the country from entities that have not traditionally received universal service funds. The FCC received over 1,000 expressions of interest.

Minnesota leads the U.S. in proposed projects. According to a recent MPR News Ground Level article, 62 expressions of interests come from Minnesota. Projects vary in size; some focus on a small number of homes while others plan to bring services to many people.

All of the proposed projects address gaps in rural broadband service. MPR noted that several of the expressions of interest describe community experience with CenturyLink, Frontier, and Mediacom. The RS Fiber cooperative wrote:

“The communities have approached all three providers [CenturyLink, Windstream, and MediaCom] and asked them to work with the communities to build the fiber network. They all refused. Then the communities offered to put up the money to construct the network and the providers could operate and eventually own the network. None of them were interested.”

The MPR article reports the FCC will likely offer approximately $86 million to the three incumbents to bring broadband to unserved and underserved areas. If they refuse, a long line of interested parties are waiting.

Minnesota's desire for broadband caught the attention of state lawmakers. A bill to earmark funds for rural broadband was introduced earlier this session and has received bipartisan support. From the MPR article:

Even if the Minnesota projects go nowhere with the FCC, they already may have had an impact here in the state.

For the first time, lawmakers here are considering whether to spend money on broadband infrastructure, and the idea has backing from Gov. Mark Dayton. But “there was concern from the governor and others there might not be enough interest,” said Christopher Mitchell, analyst with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. “This answers that.”

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.

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.

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