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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."

Tennessee Legislature Considers Four Pro-Muni Bills

Even though there are several publicly owned networks in Tennessee, existing state statutes create barriers discouraging investment. This year, there is a movement at the state Capitol that may change the environment.

The Jolt Digest and CivSource recently reported that four bills aimed at expanding municipal networks in Tennessee have strong support in Nashville. These Tennessee bills are a refreshing change from bills that are pushed by the cable and telephone companies to limit investment in next-generation networks.

However, these bills are often killed quickly in committee or subcommittee due to the tremendous lobbying power of the big cable and telephone companies.

According to the Jolt Digest, two bills are location specific. From the article:

S.B. 2005 and H.B. 1974 would expand the municipal electric system’s provision of broadband service in Clarksville, Tennessee’s fifth largest city, while S.B. 2140 and H.B. 2242 would allow Trousdale County  to contract with a rural electric cooperative to provide broadband services.  

As the rules stands, municipal electric utilities that offer broadband cannot expand beyond their electric service territory. Clarksville would like to reach out further to offer services to schools, hospitals, and industrial parks. CDE Lightband now provides a gig product that community anchors need. According to Christy Batts at CDE Lightband, the network recently upgraded residential customers without raising rates. The lowest Internet access speed available to new customers is now 50 Mbps for $44.95 per month.

The Jolt Digest describes the remaining bills as intended to redefine the state's current definition of "telecommunications." The change would allow electric cooperatives to use their existing dark fiber to reach customers that are not served by rural telephone cooperatives. The goal is to encourage economic development, education and health care.

As we so often find, these bills have bipartisan support. Though Republicans at the state and federal level tend to support big cable and telephone company positions more often than Democrats, both Republicans and Democrats at the local level overwhelmingly support the decision being made at a local level rather than state or federal preemption.

PDFs of the full text of the bills are available online:

SB2005, HB1974 - Affecting Clarksville

SB1240, HB2242 - Affecting Trousdale County

SB2428, HB2364 - Addressing the definition of "telecommunications"

SB2562, HB2482 - Facilitates the expansion of municipal utilities’ broadband services for economic development, education, and health care.

Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks

Publication Date: 
March 19, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez

Local governments in Minnesota have been at the forefront of expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access - often in some of the most challenging areas of the state. ILSR has just released a policy brief to explore some of these approaches: Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks.

The full report is available here.

The brief examines five communities that have taken different approaches to expanding access, from working with a trusted local partner to creating a new cooperative to building community-wide FTTH networks.

Lac qui Parle County has worked with Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative to bring fiber networks to those who had been stuck on dial-up. Finding itself in a similar situation with no reliable partner, Sibley County is creating a new coop to work with.

Scott County built a fiber ring to connect community anchor institutsion to dramatically expand access to high capacity networks and lower telecommunications budgets. That network has helped to lure several major employers to the area by leasing fiber to them.

Windom and Monticello have built FTTH networks in extremely challenging conditions. Though Windom is far smaller than most have believed is feasible to build such a network, it has thrived and is now connecting many of the small towns surrounding it. It was essential in retaining jobs in the community that would have been lost without it and has attracted new jobs to the region. Monticello is a younger network and has remarkably benefited the community even as it has struggled financially due to dirty tricks from the telephone and cable companies.

The policy brief makes some policy recommendations while focusing on some local solutions to difficult problems in ensuring all Minnesotans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

Central Missouri Coop To Offer Gigabit, Upgrades Speeds With No Price Increase

Residential customers of Co-Mo Connect in Missouri will see a free upgrade this spring. In a December announcement, the cooperative stated it will also begin offering gigabit Internet service for $99.95 per month.

“There are no strings attached,” said Randy Klindt, Co-Mo Comm's general manager. “We’re doing this because we can, because the network has the capacity and we received a good deal on bandwidth. We’re passing those speeds and savings onto our subscribers.”

New residential service options:

  • 5 megabits per second for $39.95 a month; 
  • 35 mbps (currently 20 mbps) for $49.95 a month; 
  • 100 mbps (currently 50 mbps) for $59.95 a month;
  • 1 gbps (currently 100mbps) for $99.95 a month.

According to the announcement, small businesses will also receive speed increases with no increase in price. Klindt notes that Co-Mo prides itself on gimmick-free pricing:

“Nothing is going to decrease after six months or whatever the other companies do,” he said. “And subscribers don’t have to do anything to get the extra speed. If you’re on the 20, 50 or 100 megabit tier right now, we’re simply going to turn up your speed when this becomes available sometime this coming spring.”

We reported on Co-Mo in 2012, as the cooperative began expansion of services. At the time, Co-Mo had been passed over for American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding. Coop members wanted to improve the broadband situation for better economic opportunity so Co-Mo pressed on without federal funding. The plan to bring FTTH to all 25,000 coop members has four phases with completion scheduled for 2016.

Video: Burlington Telecom Coop Effort Moving Ahead

In December, 2012, a group of local residents decided to engage in an effort to turn beleaguered Burlington Telecom into a coop. The effort has advanced and the organization, Keep BT Local, continues to gain pledges. To date, the organization has collected pledges in the amount of $108,000 for equity and $156,000 in loan pledges.

Keep BT Local is ultimately shooting for membership pledges from about 4,000 residential and business customers. The goal has been to collect $250,000 worth of pledges to move forward with incorporation this month.

Local Chanel 17 carried a discussion on the effort to get more info on the business plan. Alan Matson and Don Schramm, who head up the Steering Committee talked with host, Matt Kelly, about the venture and took calls from viewers.

In addition to a discussion about the the heart of what is "local," the group discussed the business plan and where challenges may arise.

The discussion is about 30 minutes long.

WiredWest Makes Significant Progress in 2012

We enjoy bringing you news from western rural Massachusetts and the WiredWest Cooperative. We want to share the update on 2012 activities and some of the plans for 2013.

Sixteen new towns became members in 2012, which brings the grand total to 42. Business planning progressed during 2012. From the WiredWest newletter:

Significant work was undertaken in 2012 to enable financing and buildout of the network. That work was made possible by grants from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and the Central Berkshire Fund, in addition to support from donations, Cooperative membership fees, and thousands of volunteer hours.

The group also conducted a market survey in member towns. WiredWest confimed that demand is strong in the region. The organization is using the information to determine what services to offer and to support pro-forma financial statements, developed with help from groups that know the ins and outs of community broadband:

WiredWest has created comprehensive pro-forma financial statements with input from other municipal fiber networks and appropriate financial expertise. The leadership team has met with a number of public and private financing sources and advisers to refine our financing strategy and put the project on track for financing in 2013.

WiredWest also commenced a Support Card Campaign in its member towns. Potential customers, commercial and residential, shared their support and the results will help with network design. The campaign will provide potential funders evidence of interest in future network services. Residents and businesses can still complete a Support Card and are encouraged to do so ASAP.

The organization completed network planning, also necessary to secure financing. There is now a database of detailed maps of the WiredWest towns. Network design options and cost estimates are being evaluated.

Plans for the next year focus on financing. From the newsletter:

WiredWest will be focused on finalizing the business plan, with a particular focus on the pro-forma financial statements, final network design and other information needed for financing, including the final numbers for the Support Card campaign.
 
WiredWest will also continue working with public and private financing sources to determine the best and most expedient strategy for financing the network.  We will also continue to solicit grants and donations for interim funding, and will be completing an economic impact study to quantify the regional economic impact of the network, which will be important to garnering grant support.

Electric Coops Natural Choice for Expanding Rural Internet Access

“The electric co-ops represent possibly the greatest potential for expansion of really good infrastructure in rural America,” [Todd] Pealock said, explaining how it’s a natural fit for co-ops to be infrastructure providers.

“It’s very synergistic for our linemen to hang cable, to lift the hardware up,” Pealock said. “The splicing is very natural for them.”

Todd Pealock is CEO of Habersham Electric Membership Corporation (EMC), and chairman of the board of North Georgia Network. In a recent article in the Electric Co-op Today news page, Pealock described how electric coops have a natural affinity for bringing broadband to rural America. We brought you a similar news story from Missouri earlier this year. Electric coops  are partnering with the public sector in a range of projects across the country.

The North Georgia Network project is funded primarily with a $42 million stimulus grant and state grants contributed to building the 260-mile backbone. Another 800 miles of middle and last mile installation was completed on November 30, 2012.

The project already connects schools, government, hospitals, higher ed, and other community anchor institutions across an eight county area. Over 2,000 homes are connected to the open access network. Businesses also trust their broadband needs to the network, intended to spur economic development in the region. In addition to Habersham EMC, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC is also a partner.

“It’s been a natural magnet of interest to the business community,” Pealock said. “I think they see this as tremendous infrastructure.”

Because they are cooperatives, owned by the customers, these organization are accountable to communities in ways that absentee-owned companies like Windstream, Frontier, and others are not.

Coop Status for Burlington Telecom? Maybe.....

Burlington Telecom may be headed for some changes. Due to the mismanagement of the prior Burlington Mayor Administration, the network took on an unsustainable amount of debt and damaged its reputation. Some of the plans to make the network sustainable again involve privatizing it. Unfortunately, as we have seen with public power privatizations, such an action typically results in worse services and higher prices due to the loss of local control.

Operating under the name Keep Our Telecom Local, a group of local residents and business leaders want to ensure BT remains owned by the community by turning it into a cooperative. At a December 13 public meeting, the group of about 50 volunteers gathered and talked strategy. According to a Burlington Free Press article on the meeting, attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss specific issues and plans.

The next step will be efforts to increase publicity for the movement and the creation of a business plan. Currently, a committee is forming to determine the best way to file for a Vermont Certificate of Public Good. Another committee is looking into formation of a board of directors.

Most municipal networks do not have to contend with the problems that have plagued Burlington Telecom. But even with all of the problems faced by this publicly owned network, the community still sees great value in rescuing it rather than abandoning it. The Burlington community appreciates the incredible value of keeping their broadband resource local. From the article:

Don Schramm, one of the organizers of tentatively named Green Mountain Broadband Fiber, said it makes sense to pursue a Third Way.

“Keeping our telecom locally owned means that the jobs stay here, the money spent stays here, the profit stays here — and most importantly, the control stays here,” Schramm said. “We will have a broadband cooperative responsible to our community needs, not the profit wants of out-of-state owners.”

We applaud the community for recognizing the value of this great asset, the importance of local control, and their efforts to keep BT local.

Rural Broadband Stimulus Project in New Mexico Threatened, Saved

A last mile broadband project in Taos, New Mexico, encountered a temporary snag and appears to be back on track. The situation highlights the potential conflict created between federal and state entities. State officials acted to show their support and now expect the project to continue.

Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) was awarded a $45 million grant and an accompanying $19 million loan from the American Recovery and Reinvestment (ARRA) stimulus funding. The project is expected to span about 3,000 square miles of New Mexico and will include smart grid technology in addition to high speed broadband to rural communities. From a story on the USDA website:

The Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC) “fiber-tohome” project will allow greater bandwidth, providing the quality necessary for applications such as telemedicine, teleconferencing and video sharing for education, business and entertainment. Once completed, the co-op’s project will make broadband service available to 29 communities, reaching about 20,500 households, 3,600 businesses and 183 community institutions, including hospitals, schools and other government facilities. Two Native American pueblos will also receive broadband service once the project is complete.

In September, 2011, the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission (PRC) included as part of a rate order that KCEC spin off its broadband business into an independent company.  J.R. Logan covered the story in the Taos News:

The PRC's original order stated that Kit Carson must create a separate Internet subsidiary to protect electric ratepayers from potential losses, or explain why such a separation was not feasible.

According to the article, KCEC received communication from the RUS looking for clarification on whether or not the order was entered and would be followed. The RUS wanted a definitive answer because divestiture would violate the terms of the agreement between KCEC and the RUS. The entire project was in jeopardy.

RUS Logo

According to another Logan article, feds froze funding last week for the project, which began construction in July. One hundred jobs halted immediately. With the potential loss of an additional 300 future jobs, the state PRC chose to act right away.

Jackie Jadrnak covered an October 16 hearing of the PRC for the ABQJournal North. The commission decided unanimously to remove the requirement for the spin off, hoping to save the project and get the money flowing again.

New Mexico’s utility regulators today removed an obstacle that had blocked funding for a just-started $64 million broadband project in northern New Mexico.

“We’re going to put this to rest,” Commissioner Patrick Lyons of the Public Regulation Commission told a crowd of people, who overflowed the hearing room into the hallway and lobby and cheered the commission’s actions. “We need to send the RUS (Rural Utilities Service) a message that we support this.”

If the project had been scrapped, the coop would likely have had to reimburse the $12 million already spent on the project. The project status looks to be restored and the community appears to be moving beyond this bump in the road.

Wired West Survey Shows Demand for Better Broadband in Rural Massachusetts

We have closely followed the efforts of WiredWest, the collaborative project involving 37 (and growing) towns in western Massachusetts. The group is currently collecting pre-subscription cards to show support for the project. The pre-subscription results will also assist efforts to finance the project by documenting the existing demand.

Plans for the 2,000 mile fiber optic network continue to inch forward with every new town that joins the group. Estimated cost for the network is between $60 million and $120 million and, as the cooperative grows, so does the group's ability to successfully apply for grants and issue bonds. Much of the cooperative's business and technical expertise comes from in-kind contributions from its members. We see Wired West as a prime example of communities coming together to take control of their own destiny.

A recent Berkshire Eagle article by Scott Stafford discussed some of the results from a March marketing survey. From the article:

Average survey respondents have two computers (desktop, lap-top or notebook devices) in the home. And while 88 percent currently have some type of home Internet service, 45 percent are dissatisfied with the speed of their Internet.

The survey also showed that 25 percent who responded currently run a business from home or telecommute. An additional 30 percent said they would likely operate a business out of their home or telecommute if they had better Internet access.

He spoke with Monica Webb, Chair of WiredWest's Executive Committee, who pointed out some economic realities:

"Many people are saying they would start a home-based business or telecommute if they had better broadband access," Webb said. "And there are a number of second homeowners that would stay in the county longer, or relocate here full time, if there was better Internet service."

The impact on the regional economy could be significant. Webb described the role of broadband access to the local economy as "fundamental infrastructure," comparable to the telephone service and electricity.

"We know it will be good for the economy, we're just not sure of the total impact," Webb said.

WiredWest expects the network design and cost estimate to be ready in October. The group will then need to secure funding. They are hoping construction will start in 2013.