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West Virginia Coop Expands Rural Internet Access

As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network. 

The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains. 

SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference.  Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited. 

Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.

Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:

“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.” 

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The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:

“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."

When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.  The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.

Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.

Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.

College Station Wants Competition: Finds It In Their Fiber

Elected officials hope competition via city-owned fiber will give businesses and residents some connectivity headway in College Station, Texas.

The community will lease its city-owned fiber to local ISP, WireStar, in order to foster local competition. City Councilmember James Benham told KBTX that community leaders want high-speed connectivity for businesses and residents and want to create a competitive environment to encourage affordable prices. He described incumbent Suddenlink as "not always the best fit," pointing to the need for high-speed access in multi-family dwellings.

WireStar will begin by offering Internet access up to 1 gig download to businesses and large apartment complexes. Expansion to single-family homes will depend on the demand. WireStar is taking a similar approach as iTV3 in Urbana-Champaign - asking potential subscribers to sign up at their website and offering service in areas that show demand.

WireStar will pay more than $21,000 per year plus maintenance fees to lease the city's fiber; the partners have agreed to a 10-year agreement.

The city, located in the east central part of the state, is home to approximately 94,000 people and part of the Bryan-College Station metro where about 229,000 people live. College Station is home to A & M, along with laboratories for a number of research entities such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. 

Benham told KBTX:

"Competition is good for prices and for consumers and for businesses and for this case having multiple choices is good for them."

Watch KBTX coverage:

 

Hudson Brings Velocity to Businesses in Ohio

In mid-September, Hudson, Ohio launched its Velocity Broadband service, bringing 1 gig connectivity to a large business complex. The commercial site is the first in series of industrial areas where the city officials plan to bring the network in the coming years. The community, located near Akron, hopes to eventually bring Velocity Broadband to residential areas.

The network is already exceeding expectations. Less than a month after the initial network launch, City Manager Jane Howington said local officials expect to surpass their goal of 50 customers by the end of 2015:

"It's moving faster than we thought," said City Manager Jane Howington. "Demand has been much greater than we thought."

Merchants are embracing Hudson’s new status as a “Gig City,” offering “Giga Specials” during the month of October and the city’s mayor declared October “Gigabit City Month.”

According to the city’s Broadband Needs Assessment, Hudson is building the network in response to significant problems with the city’s existing broadband options. Small and medium sized companies complained to the city’s consultants on the network that they have “learned to live with” problems of poor reliability, performance, and affordability of the city’s broadband services. They said even the best available broadband service options over DSL and cable are inadequate and negatively affect their ability to do business.

City officials plan to continue rolling out access to the city’s downtown area next year and to other business areas soon after. Although the city of 22,500 has no timeline on residential service, city officials have expressed the intent to eventually bring the fiber optic network to every home.

We first reported on Hudson's plans in July 2014 when the community began exploring the idea of using fiber from its existing I-Net to serve local businesses. Hudson will deploy incrementally with its own public power utility crews and will provide only voice and data services to keep expenses manageable.

At a City Council meeting on September 16th when community leaders announced the network launch, Howington explained the importance of the project for the city’s business community:

“When no one else would provide it, we decided to do it ourselves; it’s that important to our business base,” she said. “The City’s investment in Velocity Broadband will continue to change Hudson for the better, ensuring continuous success for the future of our community. We are taking speed, reliability and affordability to a whole new level…. It’s clear that fast, efficient Internet drives business growth which is key to economic vitality of our City.”

Sanford, Maine Plans Largest Municipal Network in the State

A lot has happened in Sanford, Maine since our last report on their municipal fiber optic network discussions. After a year of deliberations over different proposals, the city recently announced plans to begin building a 32-mile municipal fiber-optic network.

The city of Sanford is inside York County, situated about 35 miles southwest of Portland. The network will provide connectivity to businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and residences in Sanford along a limited route where there is sufficient customer density. City leaders plan to also provide a foundation for future expansion of the network to additional residential areas in the city. The network will be open access, allowing multiple ISPs to provide services via the publicly owned infrastructure.

The city will partner with Maine-based company GWI (Great Works Internet) to operate the network. Readers may recognize GWI as the same company working with Rockport, Maine's first community to invest in a municipal fiber network.

Once they complete the buildout, Sanford will be in an elite class of a just few cities nationwide that provide widespread access to 10 Gbps broadband. It is a bold plan for this city of just over 20,000 in a state that last year ranked 49th in the nation in average broadband speeds.

The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, a major driving force behind the project, sees the project as critical to their broader economic development efforts:

Like the growth council, this project is a public-private partnership stemming from the exploration of a best business model allowing for municipal investment and input while leveraging the strengths and expertise of private sector for-profit business. The growth council recognizes the collaboration of the public private partnership as the best means to accomplish the City’s economic development strategies.

The new network is also the first major loop in Maine that will connect to the state’s existing Three Ring Binder network. Constructed in 2012, the middle-mile Three Ring Binder spans 1,100 miles around much of Maine. The network was a product of private investments and $25 million in stimulus money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

According to a study commissioned by the Economic Growth Council, the network could generate between $47 million and $192 million in economic benefits over the next decade. The Economic Growth Council and the the city are still seeking funding to build the network, estimated at $1.5 million. The city expects to cover costs through agreements they’re pursuing with anchor institutions and savings they'll see by eliminating the cost of leasing lines to city government buildings and schools.

The city is also considering Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a process we described in a previous article about another network using the process:

“Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a 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.”

A small number of municipal broadband projects have been funded with TIF, but this arrangement can be controversial as it removes substantial property value from the general taxbase. Most choose revenue bonds, interdepartmental loans, or by redirecting savings gained when city can build incrementally thereby avoiding payments for leasing lines from providers. Fortunately, Maine remains one of the states where local communities have the freedom to choose whether or not they invest in Internet networks and how they finance such a project.

At the meeting to announce plans for the network, U.S. Senator from Maine, Angus King, summed up the network's importance to the state's future:

“High-speed broadband is a gateway to economic and educational opportunity in the 21st century,” King said. “But right now, there are too many people who are denied those opportunities simply because they don’t have adequate Internet access.”

Peachtree City, Georgia Approves Resolution to Establish Municipal Broadband Utility

At a September meeting, the City Council in Peachtree City, Georgia unanimously approved a resolution to construct and operate a fiber-optic broadband network.  According to the City Council minutes from the meeting, the initial 22.54-miles of fiber will provide 1 Gbps broadband access to various facilities in the City Service area.

In addition to providing connectivity for government buildings, utility services, and medical and educational buildings, the city will target business customers in the “high end user category.”

Officials estimate the network will cost $3.23 million. To pay for the project, the Peachtree City Public Facilities Authority, an independent local government authority created by the state legislature in 2011, will enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Peachtree City. According the August 2015 Fiber Initiative plan, capital for the project will come from the Authority; the city will issue a bond and pay installments to the Authority under an Agreement of Sale.

For several years now, the city located 30 miles southeast of Atlanta has explored options to improve local connectivity. City leaders tried and failed to bring Google Fiber to the community of 35,000 people in 2010. The city attempted repeatedly to urge private ISPs like AT&T to address the problem with no success. In February of this year, city leaders began work on a study to explore the feasibility of a publicly owned fiber network.

City Council members citizens at the recent City Council meeting expressed concerns that the network will not pay for itself and taxpayers will be left to cover unpaid costs. According to a recent survey of local businesses, 100% of respondents reacted positively to the prospect of a municipal network for connectivity.

In order to achieve the plan’s objectives, the network will need 12 “high-end” commercial customers by the end of year 2.  The city’s consultant expressed confidence in meeting that first goal:

“If we had a different experience, I would be standing up here in front of you saying 12 is going to be a stretch. However, we found exactly the opposite to be the case,” said Davis. “I was amazed by that. It’s a surprise to me that the demand was so great, and that the existing customer base out there was so positive about becoming a user. From a pure business standpoint, that gave me a lot of confidence to come in and say I believe we can hit this number and I believe we can exceed this number.”

The city’s Financial Services Director Paul Salvatore added that the business plan for the project is based on conservative assumptions.  It relies on a 20-year financial model projecting success for the network if the city secures at least 12 non-governmental customers in addition to 17 serviceable government sites. Thereafter, if it reaches at least 19 total non-governmental customers by year 6, the network will start to achieve positive gains, a 10-year bond payoff, and profitability after 16 to 20 years.  

City officials have no plans to bring the network to residential subscribers at this stage, choosing instead to focus on direct and indirect economic development benefits, public safety improvements, and better cell phone coverage that will likely result from the fiber deployment. They did not rule out the prospect of fiber for residents in the future. (Watch a complete video of the September 17th City Council meeting here, the city’s municipal broadband network discussion starts at 28:20.)

At a workshop earlier in September, city leaders met with the consultant to finalize the business plan for the network. At the meeting, Interim City Manager Jon Rorie quizzed the City Council about the risks involved with investing in the new broadband network. By the time the City Council met 9 days later, Rorie was convinced of the plan’s prospects for success: 

“We recognize this is a big decision, and it is of a visionary nature, but we also recognize that there is a risk exposure as a business model,” he said. “As far as providing an opportunity from an economic development perspective, I do think it is a huge opportunity as we move forward.

After Gutting the Gulf, BP Funds Pave Path to Better Broadband

Communities along Mississippi's Gulf coast have recently suffered through disasters both natural and not, from Hurricane Katrina to BP's Deepwater Horizon blowout and aftermath. But they are investing some of the relief funds into infrastructure of the future to help recover. 

Biloxi and Gulfport city officials recently passed resolutions approving an intergovernmental agreement to bring better connectivity to Mississippi Coastal communities. The vote was the next step in the Mississippi Gulf Coast Fiber Ring initiative announced this summer by Biloxi Mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich to encourage municipal networks in the region.

The agreement will establish the Gulf Coast Broadband Commission, a public utility  charged with deploying, operating, and maintaining a fiber optic network in and between the two cities. The agreement also specifically grants the Commission the ability to seek out financing to perform its function. Other municipalities and counties can join the agreement as members after the Commission is established.

If other local governments want to participate, they must agree to minimum standards for expansion. Members must promise to offer symmetrical gigabit connectivity, commit to serve every residence and business within a community within 7 years of joining, agree to offer free public Wi-Fi, and require ISPs using the infrastructure to have a local customer service presence. The agreement requires state approval before it is finalized.

In July, Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant pledged $15 million to the project from the fund created by the Restore Act. The Act establishes how the state will disburse $2.2 billion paid by British Petroleum as fines for the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010. Biloxi settled with BP in a separate suit, accepting approximately $5 million and is considering directing at least some of those funds toward municipal fiber deployment.

In addition to Deepwater Horizon, the area never fully recovered from Hurricane Katrina. The region has lost thousands of jobs since 2008 and local officials hope improved connectivity will help bring a new economy to the Coast.

Newly elected Biloxi mayor Andrew "FoFo" Gilich says strong broadband capabilities are critical for bringing in new development.

"What's your bandwidth? That's one of the first things people ask," he says. "If I'm going to put 10 jobs here, support jobs or even R&D jobs, it's very important."

Nonprofit Bozeman Fiber Secures Funding From Eight Local Banks

Good news from Montana! Bozeman Fiber has secured funding to begin construction of a 23-mile open access community fiber network. Through an impressive partnership among eight local banks, Bozeman Fiber secured $3.85 million.  

First Interstate Bank, Rocky Mountain Bank, Big Sky Western Bank, Opportunity Bank, U.S. Bank, American Bank, First Montana Bank and Bank of Bozeman all came together to support the fledgling network. During a press conference, First Interstate Bank President Bruce Parker described how this level of collaboration was possible. He initially approached twelve banks in April about the project. Now, six months later, eight banks have committed to providing funds. Parker expressed a high level of confidence for the network’s impact:

The project really speaks for itself in terms of what this infrastructure will do for the Bozeman community. 

Bozeman Fiber is itself a remarkable collaboration between public and private sector interests. The city of Bozeman will not manage the network themselves. Instead, the City Commission voted to form a separate nonprofit entity to direct the project. In order to consider the many diverse needs of Bozeman from the economic to the educational, the board of this newly formed nonprofit features seven members from the public and private sector. The end result is this unique public-private partnership. 

A purpose for the fiber network is economic development, in part by providing affordable fiber access to small businesses and startups. The press conference took place at the headquarters of Elixiter, an online marketing company that has grown rapidly in the past four years. The founder, Andrew Hall explained how Bozeman Fiber will benefit companies like Elixiter:

“We are on the Internet all day long, all of our consultants. So literally our business exists because the Internet exists and so for us there isn't anything more important, short of our consulting staff, then having great, high speed, reliable internet access.”

Learn more about the Bozeman Fiber in episode #142 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Watch local news coverage of Bozeman Fiber’s funding below:

 

LeverettNet Meets Demand for Better Connectivity in MA

On October 2nd, a group of residents, business owners, and educators met with elected officials to celebrate the early success of LeverettNet. The municipal gigabit fiber network now serves 650 of 800 households in the Massachusetts town of 1,800.

This spring, the network began serving limited areas of town, offering telephone service and gigabit Internet access. LeverettNet's instant success is no surprise, considering a number townsfolk depended on unreliable, slow dial-up service over antiquated copper infrastructure for years. Some in town used DSL, satellite, and wireless devices; others had no Internet access at all. Telephone service was equally dismal - sometimes the community would lose service when it rained.

Leverett connects to MassBroadband 123, the statewide middle-mile network deployed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Greenfield, Massachusetts Internet service provider Crocker Communications, is partnering with Leverett to offer gigabit service via the publicly owned infrastructure. 

The community chose to fund the network with a modest property tax increase and from revenue collected from subscribers. After they did the math, Leverett realized they could obtain better, faster, more reliable services for less if they built their own network. Take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Peter d'Errico from Leverett's Broadband Committee and Select Board, in episode #113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

At the celebration, d'Errico described the way the community came together:

“The project has been huge for the town and mostly undertaken by our volunteer broadband committee, which met weekly for four years to make it happen,” said Peter d’Errico of the Leverett Broadband Committee. “With each phase taken a step at a time we have managed to complete something we all thought was a dream when it was first conceived. Now that it’s complete, residents are thrilled to see what they can do at home on the Internet.” 

Leverett residents are already using their new network to work from home, explore educational opportunities for their kids, and discover ways to make the gig work for them. At the October event, a number of elected officials in attendence recognized that fiber networks give small towns an edge that can draw in more businesses and more people:

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, observed that 13 of the 19 towns he represents in the Legislature are either unserved or underserved.

“You’re the first. You’re blazing a new trail here,” Kulik said.

But he cautioned that it might give people impulse to buy property in Leverett if their own towns don’t make the investment.

“If they don’t do what you do, they’re all going to move to Leverett,” Kulik said.

EPB Turns Up The Speed To 10 Gigs

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics now offers 10 gigabit Internet service to all households and businesses in its service area. The ultra-fast service is available for $299 per month with free installation, no contracts, and no cancellation fees, announced community leaders at a press conference on October 15th.

In addition to 10 gig service, EPB is also offering "Professional" products available in 3 gig, 5 gig, and 10 gig for large businesses. Smaller businesses have the option of choosing 5 gig or 10 gig Internet products. According to the press release, prices on all the new products vary.

Since the network was launched in 2010, Chattanooga has transformed from one of the "dirtiest cities in America" to a haven for the entrepreneurial culture. Chattanooga experienced explosive economic development leading to thousands of new jobs, substantial public savings due to the network's smart grid capabilities, and new educational opportunities for students and workforce development.

From the press release:

Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has produced tangible results. A study recently released by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Finance professor Bento Lobo shows “the Gig Network” helped the Chattanooga area generate at least 2,800 new jobs and at least $865.3 million in economic and social benefits. The study also found the EPB smart grid, which is the cornerstone application of the utility’s community-wide fiber optic network, has allowed customers to avoid an estimated 124.7 million minutes of electric service interruptions by automatically re-routing power (often in less than a second) to prevent an outage or dramatically reduce outage durations.[read the study here

The city created a standard other communities strive to achieve; we often see communities aiming for the $70 gigabit price point offered by EPB. As a leader for other municipalities, it is only fitting that Chattanooga has taken this next step forward.

Also from the press release:

“Chattanooga’s 10 Gig fiber optic network is a world-class platform for innovation,” [Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB] said. “In recent years, the need for faster Internet speeds has increased rapidly. Chattanooga is the perfect place for companies to enhance their productivity today and test the applications everyone in the country will want tomorrow.”

Read more about Chattanooga's journey to become a gigabit community in our 2012 report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks.

Businesses in Fort Collins, Colorado, Advocate for Local Authority

As the city of Fort Collins prepares for a November ballot issue seeking to reclaim local telecommunications authority, local business leaders are articulating their support. Walt Lyons, the owner of a Fort Collins-based video production company and member of the Fort Collins Citizens Broadband Committee, believes slow broadband access should be a central priority for this city of more than 150,000:

“This is more important than widening I-25,” Lyons said. “This is not going to make much difference to me because I’m getting ready to retire. But it will make a difference for my kids and my grandchildren. The kinds of places they will work and what they do will depend upon it."

The city has access to many miles of fiber optic networks as Fort Collins is connected to a ring that the Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) built to connect its four partners: Fort Collins, Loveland, Estes Park and Longmont. At present, only government-owned facilities in Fort Collins can use the fiber network.  Because Colorado State University is among the places that can access the PRPA network, the school’s vice president of IT and dean of libraries, Pat Burns, sees firsthand the enormous gap between the broadband speeds he gets at home versus those available on campus:

“The best service you can buy from the private sector, like to a residence in Fort Collins, is not as good as the crappiest service we deliver on the CSU campus,” Burns said. “It just cripples what can be done.”

A number of Colorado communities have voted to reclaim local authority in the past year. A few places, like Rio Blanco County and Firestone, have moved forward with feasibility studies or are already planning for public investment. An increasing number of Colorado communities like Fort Collins realize that they need better connectivity to retain existing businesses and attract new development.