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Auburn Essential Services; A Workhorse in Northeast Indiana Saves Jobs, Serves Public

In 1985, Auburn Electric became one of the first communities in the midwest to deploy fiber. At the time, the purpose was to improve electric and voice systems substation communications within the municipal utility. That investment laid the foundation for a municipal network that now encourages economic development and saves public dollars while enhancing services.

Auburn expanded its fiber network beyond electric systems in 1998. The utility began using the network to serve city and county government operations. It is not well known, but Auburn offered gigabit service to its public sector customers way back in 1998.

The benefits from the deployment prompted community leaders to develop an Information Technology Master Plan in 1998 that would answer the question of what other ways the fiber could serve the community? As part of the Master Plan, Auburn leaders collected information from other communities that were capitalizing on their own local fiber. While Auburn made no immediate plans, they kept an open mind, waiting until the time was right.

In 2004, Cooper Tire and Rubber (now Cooper Standard) was about to be sold from its parent company. The $1.6 billion auto component manufacturer needed a data center but bandwidth was insufficient and inconsistent in Auburn. Cooper considered leaving because the incumbents, Mediacom and AT&T, could not or would not provide the broadband capacity the company needed. If Cooper left town, an estimated $7 million in wages and benefits from 75 high-paying tech jobs would also leave. At the time, Auburn was home to 12,500 people.

County Courthouse in Auburn, Indiana

According to Schweitzer, the City tried to persuade the telephone company to find a solution with Cooper but the two could not reach an agreement. Rather than lose Cooper, the City of Auburn stepped in to fill the connectivity gap in 2005.

In a 2007 interview with Public Power magazine, Schweitzer noted advantages in Auburn that facilitated the project:

“We also had a major tier-one Internet provider with a point of presence in Auburn, so we had some primary pieces in place to affordably and quickly extend business-class Internet service to this customer. We were preparing for this growth, but the trigger was this company that was going to leave unless we could serve them,” Schweitzer said. 

Shortly after connecting Cooper Standard, Auburn began serving several other businesses. The success of the venture lead to a feasibility study which included a market survey. The results showed residential and commercial interest in a municipal network, encouraging Auburn Electric to ask the community for guidance on how to proceed. From the 2007 interview:

“Our town hall meetings were very open,” said Schweitzer. “This broadband effort is about our community, and our community has told us we need to pursue this important project. We have tried to do a thorough job of communicating with customers to determine their needs as we moved forward.”

In pursuing the high-speed broadband project, the city follows the same philosophy it has used for other city infrastructure projects, Schweitzer said.

“We have good communication with the community, as this is a grass roots effort, rather than a top-down approach,” Schweitzer said. “We are also doing due diligence in all new areas we encounter. We aren’t making any assumptions on this project. The only thing we would like to do differently is to move more quickly on the project, but we know our steady approach will serve us well.”

Auburn Electric, the owner of the network, operates and maintains the fiber infrastructure. The utility expanded the network incrementally to serve its core business. The network is approximately 205 miles and cost approximately $12 million for fiber and electronics. Auburn Electric uses the network for Advanced Metering, SCADA, and smart grid applications. Auburn Essential Services (AES) leases fiber from Auburn Electric to offer customers data, voice, and video services.

Auburn Essential Services Map

The electric utility created AES as a sub-department to operate the electronics that provide telecommunications services. In order to purchase the electronics to light up the network, AES borrowed $2.5 million from Auburn Electric via an interdepartmental loan in 2005. Within seven months, AES was cash flow positive.

By 2007, AES was also serving small business and residential Internet and phone needs. In 2012, the utility started offering television service. The network has passed approximately 6,500 properties after eight years of incremental expansion.

In a recent interview on the Broadband Bits podcast, Schweitzer told Chris Mitchell the network has helped keep local prices in check. Residential Internet prices vary from $22.95 (1.5 Mbps/512 Kbps) to $169.95 (55 Mbps/10 Mbps) per month. AES does not use pricing gimmicks, reinforcing the philosophy that every customer matters. From the podcast interview:

"We are not going out there trying to lure customers with the lowest price," says Schweitzer,"we going out there to serve the community with a healthy, sustainable, quality product."

AES kept the public informed of how the build was proceeding with interactive maps, available here. This kind of transparency is well in keeping with the traditional of community ownership of infrastructure.

"It Opens Up Our World," Dark Fiber Coming to Marshall County Indiana

Marshall County Council recently approved a motion to join several other entities to bring Indiana's dark fiber Metronet to the area. WNDU reports St. Joseph County and the city of Plymouth are also contributing to the project (video available at WNDU link). The St. Joseph Regional Medical Center and a local company, Hoosier Racing Tire, will also provide funding. 

Marshall County, located in the north central part of Indiana, will contribute $500,000 to the project. Plymouth anticipates significant public savings and economic growth and will contribute $1.3 million. Hoosier Racing Tire needs higher bandwidth than is now available in Marshall County.

We previously reported on Metronet Zing, the dark fiber network in the South Bend, Mishawaka, and St. Joseph County region. The dark fiber network is open access and multiple carriers provide services via the fiber. The network was funded by public and private entities. St. Joe Valley Metronet (SJVM) is a for-profit entity that serves only business clients and pays income and property taxes. Non-profit Metronet serves only government entities and educational institutions.

From the article:

Communities are coming together to gather the funds for the more than $3 million project.

“It opens up our world,” said county commissioner Kevin Overmyer.

“Dark fiber today is what electricity was back in the 40s and 50s. We are the trend-setter. Set the standard. We have a plan in place. We have accomplished it locally not with help from anybody else.”

The community hopes to have the network up and running by September 2014.

In Indiana, Auburn Built Fiber Network Incrementally - Community Broadband Bits Episode 77

When a major employer in Auburn, a town of 13,000 in northeast Indiana, told the local government that it would have to move jobs to a different location unless it had improved Internet access, the local government first encouraged it to work with the telephone company. But when that telephone company, headquartered far from Auburn, refused to meet local needs, the town formed Auburn Essential Utilities and extended city fiber to the business.

Chris Schweitzer, Director of Auburn Essential Services, joins us for episode 77 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss how Auburn was prepared for that moment and how it expanded the network in future years to now offer services on a citywide basis.

Listen to the show to learn more about Auburn, including how they have structured the project financially. See all of our coverage of AES here.

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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Op-Ed: Baltimore Makes Smart Move with Fiber Investment

On November 25, the Baltimore Sun ran this opinion piece by me regarding Baltimore's approach to expanding Internet access in the city.

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake recently spoke the plain truth: “You can’t grow jobs with slow Internet.”

This simple statement is the best explanation for why Baltimore is examining how it can use existing City assets and smart investments in the near future to expand access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access. It is also a slap across Comcast’s face.

The big cable and telephone companies have insisted for years that they already deliver the services residents and businesses need. But they also claim to offer reasonable prices that just happen to increase year after year with few customers having other options to choose from.

Baltimore’s reality is that Comcast does indeed offer speeds that are faster than many in rural Maryland can access. But they are not even in the same league as cities like Chattanooga, where every address in the community has access to the fastest speeds available anywhere in the nation, and at some of the lowest prices. There, as in hundreds of communities across the country, the local government built its own next-generation network.

Whenever a city announces the possibility of investing in a network, the cable industry public relations machine kicks into high gear. They argue that we have a plethora of choices for Internet access. The sleight of hand behind this claim is to include LTE wireless networks as a replacement for cable – something almost no household does because replacing your home wired connection with LTE will break your budget. According to bandwidth-management firm Sandvine, the average household uses more than 50 gigabytes of data each month. Between the data caps and overage fees from AT&T, that will cost over $500/month.

Meanwhile, the overwhelming majority of community owned networks are doing exactly what they intended – breaking even financially while providing a valuable public service. Big cable companies argue that these networks have failed if they aren’t making big profits each year, a misunderstanding of public accounting. Community owned networks aim to break even, not make a profit.

When Windom, Minnesota, ended a year with a $50,000 deficit from a network that kept many local jobs in the community, few complained. Ask any local government official what is more important: 10 jobs or $50,000 in the general fund. No contest, especially when the accounting does not include the tens of thousands saved by a local government that no longer has to lease expensive voice and data connections for schools and municipal facilities.

Chattanooga is often cited out as the most successful municipal network after becoming the first US city with universal gigabit access and having helped created 6,000 jobs. But Thomasville, Georgia, and Spanish Fork, Utah, have operated networks for over a decade and generate more than a million dollars each year for the general fund from the telecommunications net income.

However, a few community owned networks have failed, just as thousands of privately owned telecommunications companies have disappeared or declared bankruptcy in a very difficult business. Provo is a favorite of the cable lobbyists, who generally neglect to note that it had to compete with one hand tied behind its back due to Utah state laws pushed by Comcast and US West (now CenturyLink). Some 19 states have created special barriers to discourage publicly owned networks.

Let’s be clear, very few expect Baltimore to suddenly build a citywide fiber optic network offering residential services in competition with Comcast.

Baltimore will likely take another path, expanding the fiber-optic network it already owns to better benefit community anchor institutions, local businesses, and potentially even residents. This is a very low-risk approach similar to what Seattle has done for years. Now Seattle has a partnership with a company called Gigabit Squared that is building a gigabit network out to tens of thousands of households.

None of these successes mean local governments should rush unprepared into a network investment. Nor should they be scared off by cable lobbyists trying to preserve what is effectively a monopoly. Building a successful network is a challenge, but so is trying to grow an economy while relying on yesterday’s technology at artificially inflated rates.

SpringNet Continues Driving Jobs and Revenue for Local Community

A year has passed since we covered SpringNet in Springfield, Missouri, and its remarkable impact on local businesses and economic development. We recently spoke with SpringNet Director, Todd Murren, and Network Architecture Manager, Todd Christell, to get an update on how the network is progressing.

Demand for SpringNet’s high-speed data services continues to grow steadily. Financial statements for City Utilities of Springfield show the network generated $16.4-million in operating revenue last year against costs of $13.2-million. Better yet, revenues have increased around 3% per year while cost increases are closer to 0.5%. The end result is close to $3 million in annual net income for SpringNet. And all of this comes from a network that only serves commercial and public sector clients because Missouri state law restricts municipal network provision to only “Internet service,” meaning SpringNet cannot offer triple-play packages to compete with incumbent providers.

One of the highlights of SpringNet’s economic development success has been the attraction and retention of travel giant Expedia. After a large national provider failed to deliver on negotiations with the company, SpringNet stepped in to make sure Expedia brought its call center to Springfield. That effort has paid off handsomely for SpringNet and the local community. Expedia now employs close to 900 in the area after announcing in July that it was hiring another 100 employees in Springfield.

Up next for SpringNet is an effort to leverage its fiber infrastructure to create even more jobs. Believing that future job growth will revolve around the advancements enabled by gigabit networks, SpringNet is working with the Mid-America Technology Alliance (MATA) to host a hackathon with partners in Kansas City to explore what is possible between gigabit cities.

As Murren and Christell tell it, someone in Springfield can now send data to Kansas City with a 5-millisecond delay. It’s like they are in same building despite being hundreds of miles apart. This capability spells opportunity for new ways of doing business and delivering services. SpringNet wants to help the gigabit community develop these opportunities.

Oklahoma Free Wi-fi: Can Muskogee Follow Ponca City's Lead?

Muskogee, located in east central Oklahoma, is considering free Wi-Fi across the community to boost economic development. As a model, community leaders are looking at Ponca City. A recent Muskogee Phoenix article quoted the Interim City Manager:

“Our hope is that the public Wi-Fi initiative will distinguish us from other cities when it comes to attracting economic development, all the way from retail to industrial,” Interim City Manager Roy Tucker said. It “will most certainly increase the quality of life and educational opportunities of our citizens.”

Local citizens developed the Action in Muskogee (AIM) initiative to improve the community; the idea to provide free Wi-Fi grew out of the initiative. Muskogee hopes a Wi-Fi network will also improve public safety, government efficiency, and Internet access for citizens.

AIM participants hope to emulate Ponca City and its award-winning mesh network. City officials installed the wireless network in 2008. Residents of Ponca City save an estimated $3.9 million a year in avoided ISP costs. In other words, the network helps keep $3.9 million in the Ponca City economy.

Ponca City began its network in 1997 with a few miles of fiber to improve communications between municipal facilities. Each year the network grew and Ponca City now has over 350 miles of fiber. Municipal facilities, schools, hospitals, healthcare clinics, businesses, and even casinos use the fiber network. According to the article, Ponca City sells Internet access via the fiber to local business customers to fund the mesh network and free Wi-Fi for the community.

Muskogee has no plans to install a publicly owned fiber network like Ponca City's. Another Phoenix article suggested Muskogee leaders may pursue a public-private arrangement:

“Our intent is to partner with an Internet service provider, such as Suddenlink, to provide this service,” Tucker said. “And I don’t think the speeds we will be able to deliver — at least initially — will match what people can get through their regular providers.”

Ponca City has installed over 500 wireless routers covering 150 square miles. While the buzz focuses on their wireless mesh achievement, we want to point to Ponca City's significant fiber footprint. The fiber network provides necessary backhaul for the Wi-Fi network. Without the revenue it generates through business services, free Wi-Fi would probably not be available to the community. Ponca City leveraged their fiber asset to benefit the entire community several times over.

Cedar Falls Shows Long Term Muni Network Success: Community Broadband Bits Episode #75

Cedar Falls Utilities operates one of the oldest community owned networks in the nation. It started as a cable network in the 90's, upgraded to FTTH recently, and this year began offering the first citywide gigabit service in Iowa. CFU Communication Sales Manager Kent Halder and Network Services Manager Rob Houlihan join me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 75.

We discuss why Cedar Falls Utilities decided to add cable to their lineup originally and how it has achieved the incrediblely high take rates it maintains.

We also discuss the importance of reliability for municipal network and why they decided to transition directly to a FTTH plant rather than just upgraded to DOCSIS 3 on their cable system. Finally, we discuss its expansion into the rural areas just outside of town.

Read all of our coverage of Cedar Falls on MuniNetworks.org.

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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Danville Continues to Attract Jobs to Region After Building Fiber Network

Danville's open access network has fueled economic development in the Virginia community's resurgence after tobacco’s demise and job losses from a once thriving textile industry put a hurt on the local economy. Danville’s technological prowess is now attracting companies from China, in addition to other economic development gains we covered previously.

Jason Grey, nDanville’s Network Manager, told us that Zeyuan Flooring International, a Chinese wood floor manufacturer, is locating its first U.S. facility in Danville. Zeyuan CEO, Sindy Cui, said the company initially thought about locating in Los Angeles, but was eventually swayed by the hospitality and resources available in Danville. Zeyuan plans to invest $15-million in a 40,000 square foot manufacturing plant that will employ 100 people within three years.

Zeyuan is the second Chinese company to locate in Danville in the past year. Last September, Chinese furniture assembler GOK International announced it will invest $12.5-million to establish its U.S. headquarters and showroom in Danville. GOK International plans to employ 300 people within three years.

Not coincidentally, both companies are locating in Cane Creek Centre, one of Danville’s five industrial parks connected to nDanville’s fiber network. Serving businesses was a high priority in building the network. As the first fully automated open-access network in the country, nDanville passes more than 1,000 businesses including every parcel in each of the industrial parks. Many businesses take 100-Mbps fiber connections, some take advantage of 1-Gbps connections. 

These recent additions to Danville’s thriving commercial sector are just the latest in a steady string of economic development successes for the area that include the likes of Goodyear and IKEA. And it’s not just manufacturing. 

Danville is home to one of the first non-government sponsored next generation Cray supercomputers. The Cray XMT2 supercomputer is part of the Noblis Center for Applied High Performance Computing which is located in a former tobacco processing plant in Danville's River District. Noblis uses the computer to crunch data for clients in fields such as computational biology, DNA sequencing, air traffic management, fraud detection, and counterterrorism. "This [center] screams loudly and clearly that we are making a transition from the old to the new economy," said Danville Mayor Sherman Saunders at the 2012 ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Perhaps one drawback of Danville’s economic development success is that nDanville’s residential rollout has been slower than expected due to overwhelming demand from the commercial sector. Network Manager Jason Grey revealed there is a waiting list of businesses eager to connect to the network which is pushing residential connections back. Grey says it’s a problem he’s more than happy to deal with.

Dublin, Georgia: Offering Connectivity to Businesses, Schools, Government Since 1999

Dublin, home to 16,000 people, is also home to a network that snakes through the city and parts of Laurens County. In addition to a natural gas utility that serves the region, the city provides connectivity to two area school districts and local businesses. We contacted Guy Mullis, IT Director for the City of Dublin.

The fiber optic network was installed in 1999 to provide connectivity for the two separate school systems in the community, Laurens County Schools and Dublin City Schools. The school districts needed better connectivity because dial-up was the only option at the time. The school districts could not afford the cost of installing their own fiber networks.

The City used its own funds to construct a network that is 85% aerial. Mullis was not an employee of the City at the time, but he estimates the network cost approximately $1.5 - $2 million. He also believes the funds were a combination of capital improvement funds and economic development funds. From the start, the plan has been to serve the schools but also to provide connectivity to spur economic development.

Eight city school facilities and six county school facilities use the network today for connections between buildings. Dublin City Schools have 10 Gbps speeds between facilities; Laurens County Schools have equipment in place for 1 Gbps connections between schools. Both school districts use the Georgia Technology Authority for Internet access.

Once the network was in place, AT&T and Charter Communications began building in Dublin. Mullis says he does not believe AT&T and Charter would have invested in Dublin in 2000 if not for the presence of the community network. He notes that AT&T begin installing DSL in areas of town within a year of the fiber network deployment. 

During the first few years, the City connected its network to the Internet with a 45 Mbps AT&T connection but needs quickly outgrew capacity. The City looked for alternate ways to connect to the Internet. City staff discovered that a major dark fiber backbone ran through Dublin from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida. The company that owned the line (the company has since been purchsed by Level 3) allowed Dublin to splice into the dark fiber to connect to Atlanta. The opportunity allowed Dublin to buy bandwidth at Atlanta prices rather than being stuck with massive markups by the few firms that can provide access. The City has since spliced another line to the backbone to achieve redundancy.

In 2006, the City received a grant through the Georgia Telecommunications Authority to expand wi-fi in the community. With matching funds, the community installed over forty wireless access points and now provide wi-fi hotspots within the City. The presence of the fiber network for backhaul helped secure the grant.

Dublin Wi-Fi Logo

Twelve Laurens County and Dublin City facilities connect to the network. The City also uses the network for voice between city facilities, saving significantly by avoiding dedicated phone lines to each building. When new companies consider moving to the community, the ability to work beyond agency silos is a positive factor, says Mullis. Businesses recognize that cooperative government helps them achieve their goals.

There are forty-five business customers including YKK fastening and architectural products and  Farmer's Home Furniture. The network serves a variety of businesses, including banks, CPA firms, law firms, and hospitals. Prior to the deployment, incumbents could not offer the high-speed connections businesses needed. Since the deployment, cable and DSL have come to Dublin, but the City's commercial customers stick with their City service. Mullis believes local businesses appreciate working with a local provider. When a customer calls with an issue, they know exactly who will address the problem. "They are going to talk to me," says Mullis.

The City currently supplies 200 Mbps for Internet traffic; business and government customers share the bandwidth. Businesses with multiple offices in the area like being able to use the network for local traffic rather than sending sensitive data across the open Internet.

We have reported on many Georgia communities in the past (e.g. MonroeLaGrange, and Thomasville). Unlike the states that surround it, the Peach State does not presently impose barriers on local communities that consider publicly owned networks.  In 2013, ALEC affiliated legislators sponsored sponsored HB 282 but failed to revoke local authority. We anticipate the fight will continue into 2014 and beyond.

AT&T and Charter did not get the job done in Dublin so the community took care of themselves. If large incumbents do not find value in a community like Dublin, it is of course their choice to limit investment. But they should not be able to prevent a community from investing in itself.

Denver Suburb Seeks to Take Back Local Authority

Centennial is asking its voters to reclaim local authority this election. City leaders want to make better use of an existing fiber optic system but a 2005 Colorado state law pushed by a corporate telephone company precludes it. If the citizenry reclaims its local authority through referendum, the City can take the next step toward providing indirect services via its fiber network. 

We contacted City Council Member Ken Lucas to find out more about the ballot question. Centennial is a relatively young city that was incorporated in 2001 and has about 100,000 residents. Lucas told us that this ballot question is not only about using their fiber resources. The community of Centennial considers this a critical step toward maintaining a business friendly environment.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided grants to install the existing network for traffic control, security cameras, and public works monitoring. The City contributed only approximately $100,000 to the network, valued at $5 million. Traffic and public safety now use only two strands of the network that runs through the center of town. City leaders want to use the remaining 94 strands to improve access in the community. To see a map of the fiber and open conduit in Centennial, check out the City's PDF.

Approximately 94% of Centennial businesses and 85% of households are within one mile of the fiber backbone. Residents and business owners can now choose between Comcast or CenturyLink and rates are high. Lucas tells of one business owner who asked Comcast to provide 1 Gbps service to his building. Comcast offered to lease a line to the business at a high rate, but the customer would still have to pay $20,000 for installation.

Community leaders want to encourage more competition and, if they eventually develop the fiber, will explore open access models. Centennial knows their authority to invest in fiber infrastructure will influence economic development. City leaders want to attract high tech jobs to the Denver suburb.

The incumbents have not yet launched an expensive astroturf campaign or lobbied heavily against the ballot question as we saw previously in Longmont. This is the ballot question language:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS WITH PRIVATE BUSINESSES, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES? 

Centennial does not want to compete with Comcast or CenturyLink - it wants to encourage other providers to compete with each other. Many communites express the same desire to improve telecommunications for their citizens without delivering the services themselves. However, many have found that they have to take an active role in order to ensure a real choice between slow DSL and modestly faster cable, each owned and operated by distant corporations.

Lucas told us that plans to use the fiber are far down the road. For now, the community wants to recapture the power the state preempted in 2005.