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Avoid Partisan Fights with a Personal Face on Economic Development

The following commentary comes from Mike Smeltzer, one of the key people responsible for the UC2B network in the Illinois twin cities of Urbana and Champaign. Mike had this comment after a question about how we can elevate local bipartisan conversations from the local level to the state and federal level without getting lost in political bickering. He wrote this and gave us permission to republish it.

The Urbana City Council could be confused for Madison's, while Champaign's Council is far more conservative. I spoke to both of them on a regular basis in the early days of UC2B seeking their support. I learned early on that I could not tell Urbana's Council what they wanted to hear on Monday night, and then change the message to better please Champaign's Council on the next night. Those dedicated public servants watch each other's meetings on the PEG channels.

The only message that rang true with both councils was economic development. That should not come as any surprise, but as we look to elevate the discussion, I believe that we need to personalize that message. Joey Durel does it more eloquently than anyone, but I have heard the same theme from other mayors and elected officials from across the country.

The first time I heard Joey was on a NATOA field trip to Lafayette 4 or 5 years ago. After he served us his home-made gumbo, he told us the bottom line on how a conservative businessman became a leading advocate for Lafayette's fiber broadband system.

Joey saw fiber broadband as his community's best opportunity to create a local business environment that would allow his adult children (and their children) to work and live in Lafayette. There is no greater gift to parents than to be able to participate in the lives of their adult children and grandchildren. Without fiber in Lafayette, Joey was concerned that his kids would have to move away to find jobs after college or high school in order to find rewarding work.

Any parent from any political perspective understands that. I am lucky that both of my daughters live in Champaign. I get to see them and my grandchildren often. Wouldn't it be great if my luck was more generally shared?

On a state level, many states lose population every year. At the current pace, some time later this century, the last person living in Iowa will turn off the lights and leave the cows and corn behind. Creating local opportunities for our kids is a personal issue, a local issue and a state issue for many states.

We can gain support by putting this personal face on economic development.

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

Orono and Old Town Receive Funding for Fiber in Maine

The Old Town-Orono Fiber Corporation (OTO Fiber), the entity created by the cities of Old Town and Orono in Maine to design, install, maintain and manage a planned fiber network, recently received a grant for $250,000.

The funds, awarded by the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), will help the communities commence their open access network project. According to a statement released by Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, this was one of six awards to Maine communities. The other grants included road, sewer, and other municipally-owned facilities needed to maintain or grow jobs in the northern counties of Maine.

Congress created NBRC in 2008 as a state-federal partnership to encourage job growth in several northern counties of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York that experience economic distress. 

In 2014, Old Town and Orono, working with the University of Maine, had been awarded ConnectME funds for the project but the funding was blocked by Time Warner Cable. Those funds were meant to string approximately 4 miles of cable intended for integration into a much larger network to eventually connect to the state's Three Ring Binder network. The ConnectME Authority chose to withhold the funds, based on TWC's argument that this open access network would overbuild potentially 320 subscribers but OTO Fiber vowed to continue and seek funds elsewhere. The funding blocked by TWC amounted to $125,000.

Approximately 7,800 people live in Old Town; Orono is home to a little over 10,000 people and the Unversity of Maine where over 11,000 students attend classes.

Albany, NY Proposes Feasibility Study for Municipal Broadband Service

In July, the city of Albany, NY released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified consulting firms to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal broadband service. As the RFP states, the study will look to develop strategies, find gaps in service and adoption, and develop a business plan to explore partnerships between the city and private ISPs.

According to Broadband Communities magazine, a working group comprised of several important community organizations and business groups in Albany will help to steer plans for the possible municipal broadband initiative. Jeff Mirel, a technology professional in Albany and a member of the working group, explains the group’s goals for the feasibility study:

“The first step is asking the right questions, which is what we want this study to do. What are the real broadband needs and issues that both businesses and residents experience here? Is it infrastructure, technology, education, affordability? How do we address the gaps to not only keep and attract companies, but bring these employers and a connected local workforce together? By taking a deep, comprehensive look at broadband access and usability, along with best practices, we can move towards meaningful, actionable strategies.”

This news out of Albany, a city of about 100,000 people, comes as major gaps persist in high speed broadband access in many parts of the state. FreeNet, Albany’s free wireless network, received a $625K state grant in 2009 earmarked to expand its service. But neither FreeNet nor Time Warner Cable and Verizon, the two biggest providers of broadband service in Albany, provides the fast, affordable, reliable connectivity a municipal fiber-based network could provide

At recent hearings in front of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) in the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem, political leaders and consumers expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they are asking the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.

We warned in 2012 that Verizon would never bring FIOS to Albany and many other cities in the state. Then, as now, it’s clear that Albany’s feasibility study offers a way forward towards the only certain strategy for bringing the fast fiber-based broadband to Albany: taking matters into their own hands.

Dark Fiber Network Saving Money, Generating Revenue in Burbank

ONE Burbank, the dark fiber network that has provided connectivity for studios since 1997, is bringing a number of benefits to Burbank schools and taxpayers, reports the Burbank Leader. The network is saving public dollars, generating revenue, and providing better connectivity to schools and public facilities.

Five years ago, we reported on Burbank's asset and its primary customers - Hollywood studios. That trend has continued but now the network generates even more revenue. As a result, all electric customers served by Burbank Water and Power save with lower utility bills:

Last year, ONE Burbank generated $3.4 million in revenues for the utility, [General Manager Ron] Davis said in May. That’s compared to roughly $205,000 in 1997 and about $1.5 million five years ago, according to data Davis presented to the City Council.

“The bulk of that [$3.4 million] is all margin and helps keep electric rates down,” Davis said. “[We do] basically zero marketing and collect that margin.”

By connecting city facilities rather than leasing from a private provider, Burbank has all but eliminated past telecommunications expenses, lowering costs by 95% and saving, $480,000 in total thusfar. The school district has saved $330,000 since connecting to ONE Burbank.

ONE Burbank is also providing four times as much bandwidth to the school at a much lower rate that it once paid to the private sector, cutting its costs from $18,000 per year to $9,000 per year.

In August, Burbank Water and Power began using the dark fiber network as backhaul for free Wi-Fi service available throughout the city. There is no service level guarantee but it is open to any device:

“It’s just out there if you can get it,” Ron Davis, the utility’s general manager, told the City Council last week.

The dark fiber has helped retain and attract business, reports city leaders, and they want to continue the current trajectory to bring in high-tech companies and turn Burbank into a "Silicon Beach."

Louis Talamantes, president of Buddy’s All Stars, said his business has been using the service for about 18 months. While it’s more expensive than the prior service provider, he said, it makes up for it in reliability. The Internet would go down three or four times a month, sometimes for half a day, with his previous provider.

Though he was skeptical at first, Talamantes said the service “delivered” and he’s had no downtime with ONE Burbank, allowing him to keep his 24 employees productive, and it’s helped keep up morale.

Fiber Sailing into the Port of Lewiston, Idaho

The Port of Lewiston, the most inland seaport of the West Coast, will soon be deploying a dark fiber network, according to a July city media release. The network will serve several of the community's largest businesses, the medical center, the state college, and the airport. Although the plan calls for $950,000 to construct the network, port officials intend to have it operational by year’s end.

“This is what ports do, we develop infrastructure to support, attract and grow businesses in order to build a stronger economy,” said Port Manager David Doeringsfeld. “In today’s world, businesses must have adequate bandwidth and redundancy to remain competitive.”

The project has been highly supported by the nearby Port of Whitman County which already has maintained their own open access fiber network for over 10 years. Connecting a fiber line through the Port of Lewiston would create a loop, improving redundancy on the Port of Whitman County’s network. Better redundancy could prevent outages and ensure the ongoing reliability of the network.

The Port of Whitman’s network is fairly successful - just one section of the network near Pullman, Idaho makes $250,000 annually. The Port of Lewiston plans to follow the same open access model in designing and constructing its network which will run throughout the 32,000-person City of Lewiston.

The two ports are already collaborating on a different fiber line through North Lewiston. The Port of Lewiston is paying $30,00 for construction costs, and the Port of Whitman County will build and administer the network. This fiber line will later connect to the planned Port of Lewiston's open access network.

Chattanooga Best Place For Startups and Outdoor Play

Chattanooga was hot in August - and we don't mean just weather-wise. EPB Fiber Optics achieved a major milestone, raising subscribership to over 75,000. The Gig City also outpaced the rest of the state in new startup activity and received recognition from Outside Magazine as the 2015 Best Place to Live in America.

The Times Free Press covered the Chattanooga startup scene in a recent article, describing how the city is leading the state in economic investment for new business ideas. When compared to the same period in 2014, Hamilton County's initial business filings rose 12.6 percent in the April - June 2015 period. Statewide that figure for the same timeframe was 9.9 percent.

The Times Free Press article focused on Platt Boyd, an architect and entrepreneur who came to Chattanooga with his 3-D printing business. He moved his business there after competing in the 2014 GigTank. His 3-D printer large enough to create walls may one day change the way buildings are constructed.

"If you are searching for a place to open up a business and looking for a community to grow in, I think the very positive experience of our startups here and the rather unique network of support that Chattanooga offers (are) a really big advantage and draw for a lot of enterpreneurs," said Mike Bradshaw, executive director of The Company Lab, a nonprofit group that works to help startup ventures get off the ground. "Branch Technology, and many other similar companies, have found they can succeed in Chattanooga."

Apparently when measuring quality of life, some people consider factors outside of Internet connectivity: Outside Magazine applauds the Chattanooga sandstone climbing cliffs, its 120-mile mountain bike trail, and the Tennessee and Oconee Rivers where kayakers can find thrilling rapids. But outdoor adventure is not all Outside considered when handing out the award; the presence of the fiber network and its value to young entrepreneurs favored Chattanooga:

“The Gig showed that Chattanooga was committed to developing business,” says Joda Thongnopnua, communications director of Lamp Post, a venture fund that invests in local startups. 

It might be too early to start calling it Silicon Gorge, but people are relocating to Chattanooga because it has something that many other recreation meccas don’t: opportunity.

Watch Outside's video below to learn more about Chattanooga's adventure appeal.

Salisbury Fibrant Launches 10 Gbps Citywide - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 168

Salisbury's municipal FTTH network, Fibrant is the first citywide 10 Gbps network in the nation. Located in North Carolina, Salisbury is also one of very few municipal citywide fiber networks that was built by a city without a municipal electric plant. This week, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure, Kent Winrich, joins us for Episode 168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We talk about why Salisbury opted to build its own fiber network and then supercharge it with enough upgrades to be able to offer 10 Gbps capacity throughout the community. We discuss economic development opportunities and how those outside of Salisbury would like to see it expand.

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

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

RS Fiber Cooperative Breaks Ground

Six years after an initial feasibility study was conducted to assess bringing broadband to Renville and Sibley Counties in southeastern Minnesota, members of the RS Fiber Cooperative board were finally able to dust off their shovels for a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9. Although those shovels may have ended up being more symbolic than they were practical, the ceremony marked an important and long-awaited step in the fight to extend broadband to 10 cities and 17 rural townships across the largely agricultural region.

The groundbreaking ceremony marked the start of stage one of a two-stage project that will take five to six years to complete. By the end of 2015, the RS (Renville-Sibley) Fiber Cooperative plans to connect 1,600 homes and businesses with fiber, with 90 percent of its service area covered by high-speed wireless. It hopes to connect another 2,600 homes and businesses by the end of 2016, with the eventual goal of reaching 6,200 potential customers. At the event, Toby Brummer, RS Fiber General Manager, highlighted the importance of broadband Internet to rural development:

This technology is to this generation what rural electric and rural telephone was to generations years ago.

The RS Fiber Cooperative is member-owned and member-driven, led by a Joint Powers Board that formed in 2009. In order to provide FTTH to the rural locations across the two counties, the cooperative partnered with a network operator, Hiawatha Broadband Communications, that already serves 17 communities in southeast Minnesota. RS Fiber will offer residential Internet speeds up to 1 gigabit for $129.95. It will also connect schools, bolster home and farm security systems, and even facilitate high school sports broadcasts and telemedicine initiatives.

The local governments each sold a General Obligation Tax Abatement Bond that in aggregate totalled $15 million that was loaned to the cooperative, which helped offset the cost of the initial phase of construction. It was a seed that allowed the coop to gather the rest of the necessary funding. The project’s overall funding includes both bonds and commercial loans from community banks.

Community Broadband Networks has followed the RS Fiber project closely as it jumped through several hurdles to create a financially sustainable plan to provide both urban and rural residents FTTH and fiber-to-the-farm services, respectively. ILSR highlighted the cooperative in its 2014 report - All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access. Chris also interviewed Co-op Vice Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson last May in a Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Board members, according to a recent Gov Tech article, are hopeful that an osteopathic medical school that is coming to Gaylord will use the cooperative’s service.

Bringing broadband to rural communities like the ones in Renville and Sibley counties is critical to the future of the region. Without proper Internet access companies will not think of relocating to the area and when young generations leave, they will leave for good. As Vice Chair Gerholz told Chris:

One of the things that I'm looking at, too, for this whole project is that hopefully it will expand companies, and make invitations to companies, to come to this area. Which will then give more jobs for our kids, and keep our kids at home. Because we lose our kids. They go to college, and they're gone.

Enhanced broadband capacities will give those kids reason to stay, and make the region - which has experienced a steady population decline since the 1970s - economically competitive once again.

Fiber-optic Community Broadband Service in the Washington State Wilderness

The Spokane Business Journal recently wrote about the community broadband system in Pend Oreille County, a long a favored destination for all seasons outdoor recreation.  Beginning in 2013, the Pend Oreille County Public Utility District (PUD) began providing residents and tourists with high-speed fiber to the premises broadband via a 573-miles fiber network.  The network was made possible by a $27 million American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grant.

Private companies commonly say that such rural areas are not densely populated enough to justify investing in high-speed broadband infrastructure, leaving many rural communities on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide.  High-speed community broadband systems like the one in Pend Oreille County cancel out this potential problem as they allow tourists, residents, and businesses alike to be closely connected with nature while staying connected for business demands. Indeed, as the website for Pend Oreille County’s Economic Development Council makes clear, the community broadband service is at the core of the county’s ambitious plans to attract people and businesses to the area.

In our recent report, ”All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access,” we wrote about rural communities in Minnesota like Cook County where the tourist industry is a large part of the local economy. As in Pend Oreille, insufficient Internet negatively impacted resorts, lodges, and outfitters that depended on customers who needed more than dial-up Internet access. To solve their problem, they invested in a municipal fiber network.

Local community and business leaders report that they have also started to see people and businesses relocating to the county, encouraged by the area’s combination of fiber-optic broadband and outdoor recreation offerings.  

Alex Stanton, an IT executive whose company is stationed near the banks of the Pend Oreille River in the small town of Newport, confirms the positive impact of the network:

“Today, because of access to high-speed Internet structure in Newport and Pend Oreille County we run a full half of the team out of Newport, and we’re in the process of moving the entire remote support and network operation to Newport,” he says. “We’ve been able to build a local team of people who live and want to work here. Fiber has made that possible.”

Another anecdote comes from a man explaining the pivotal role the fiber-optic broadband service in Pend Oreille County played in convincing him to relocate to the area: 

"My wife and I both work primarily from home, and we have spent the last year and a half trying to find the spot that would allow us to experience nature while still being able to pay for it!  We have searched all over the USA and have discovered that this type of internet access is almost always reserved for large cities.... My wife and I look forward to calling Newport home…"

Hamilton Partners With Local Provider to Serve Businesses in Ohio

Hamilton, Ohio, has entered into a partnership with local firm, CenterGrid, to use city-owned fiber to boost economic development. The firm will offer Internet access and data transport to local businesses via existing infrastructure as the two enter into a five-year pilot project agreement, reports the Journal-News.

The city's business incubator, the Hamilton Mill, is the initial pilot site where emerging businesses are already receiving high-speed connectivity:

“As the initial pilot site, CenterGrid’s service has resulted in the Mill receiving network connectivity that is better than 83 percent of Internet connections throughout the US — that is huge,” Chris Lawson, executive director of the Hamilton Mill said. “For the types of companies that we are attracting, this level of connectivity is imperative for them to be successful.”

A press release from CenterGrid describes rates as economical, competitive, and determined by individual business requirements. According to the press release, entrepreneurs at The Mill are already taking advantage of the service:

"We've wanted a better high-speed internet option for quite some time. Now having something locally provided by the City of Hamilton and CenterGrid makes the idea that much more appealing. This high-speed circuit will allow us to transform our IT infrastructure and deliver value to our business," said Jon Corrado, IT Director at Tedia.

In 2014, the community of Hamilton connected local schools to city fiber allowing them to obtain Internet access from the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). That opportunity decreased school connectivity costs while increasing bandwidth.

City leaders hired a consultant in 2012 who determined that opening up their existing 60-mile I-Net loop to schools and businesses was feasible and would contribute to economic development. Over the course of three years, the project estimate is $4.3 million for network expansion, equipment, ongoing capital, and operating and maintenance expenses. The community is on schedule and, if all goes according to plan, expects to see positive operating revenue in 2017 and net income in 2018.

“This initiative is a new beginning for Hamilton Fiber. Using the high-speed ‘fiber grid’ to connect its business community with our Hamilton data center, we can now deliver next generation computing solutions at previously unheard of cost,” [Director of Public Utilities Doug Childs] said.

Hamilton, located near Cincinnati in southwest Ohio provides electricity, gas, sewer, and water to residents and businesses. Located on the Ohio River, the community operates an extensive hydroelectric system to provide power to its 63,000 residents.