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Being a Gig City: Incubating Small Businesses

This is the first in a series of posts examining a premier Gigabit Community - Wilson, North Carolina.

According to the U.S. Small Business Administration, 85% of all jobs originate from companies with fewer than 30 employees, and 87% of businesses which started through business incubators have succeeded after five years. So Wilson, North Carolina, focused its "Greenlight" gigabit beam on its local business incubator, the Upper Coastal Plan Business Development Center. "Greenlight is driven by three guiding principles," said Will Aycock, the network's General Manager. "Supporting the economic health of the community, improving the delivery of city services, and enhancing the quality of life for the citizens of Wilson." Providing access to symmetrical gigabit speeds has allowed the community's small business incubator to take its services to the next level, to give budding entrepreneurs access to the future today and in a uniquely affordable way.

According to Greg Goddard, Executive Director of the Upper Coastal Plain Council of Government, access to gigabit speeds has meant "Taking our incubation to the next level." Historically their business incubator has attracted "low tech" entrepreneurs: consultants, counselors, state associations, childcare and healthcare providers, people who need work space after normal office hours, even Chic Fil-A administrators, for employee training. The incubator provides a full suite of services including a receptionist, copy and fax machines, phones, 24 hour secure entry, kitchen, meeting rooms, training classes, access to experts, parking, and now, symmetrical gigabit speeds, all for an affordable price. "An 8' by 8' cubicle with those full-suite services leases at $275/month," he said. The goal is to stimulate budding internet-age businesses.

Free Wi-Fi in Wilson

And it has, even for young entrepreneurs elsewhere in the state. For a tech entrepreneur like Dan Holt from Wake Forest, renting space at this Wilson-based incubator lets him be part of the future, and to experience the possible which is impossible at his home in Wake Forest only 30 miles away. Dan is a self-described techie for a local Raleigh defense subcontractor but he likes to be known as founder of the Wake Forest Fiber Optic Initiative.

Dan wanted to put together research for his town government on why they needed to establish a fiber to the home network in Wake Forest. That search led him to Wilson. "They are the only Gigabit City in North Carolina. It's 30 minutes from my home. Not every town has an incubator where you can rent a cubical or office space affordably, giving you access to things like a receptionist, mailroom, fax machine, office space, and gigabit fiber internet. If I were to branch out into any major city, it would be in the $1000's of dollar range, just for the internet service alone. They are passionate" about their Gigabit network in Wilson. "They are mentoring the rest of the state."

Having access to Gigabit speeds in Wilson's business incubator has allowed Dan to connect servers and to mirror "what normal life would be if I had Gigabit access in my Wake Forest home." "The future is all about video," he reiterated. "I have several computers tied into virtual machines I can load up with Netflix and run at the same time." In Wilson, he said "It works." "You can connect easily to places that can take advantage of these upload speeds: DropBox, Google Drive, YouTube, sending large files through Microsoft Exchange. Some websites can't even take advantage of these speeds. The bandwidth at their end is not there."

Wake Forest Gigabit Logo

According to Dan, Wilson is set for the future because of its Gigabit network, and he wants the same for Wake Forest. "If you look at South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, there are no networks like this and it won't stop at 2 gig, it's going to 10 and then multiples." He continues, "As time goes on, as more folks find out about Wilson, the City is going to lure alot of people in from around our region, and from other states. If you look at the broadband maps out there, Virginia is the only state close to DC that comes anywhere near this capacity."

When asked if he'll move to Wilson, Dan responded "As a techie, in a heartbeat," but he owns his home in Wake Forest. For now, his Gigabit City incubator has provided him the ability to explore a public/private relationship with the Town of Wake Forest, a place where he could take his Mayor and IT Director and show them what is possible. He would, he added with a virtual wink, like to show Wilson's gigabit capability to his defense industry boss.

In July 2013, Wilson was honored to be North Carolina's first Gigabit City (community-owned). Folks keep asking us "What is it like to be a GigCity?" We plan to release a series of vignettes on how our gigabit infrastructure contributes to why Wilson is a great place to live, work and play in the 21st Century. For more information, contact Jerry Stancil at jstancil@wilsonnc.org (252) 293-5313.

OnLight Aurora Partners with the City for Better Connectivity in Illinois

Nine years ago, Aurora officials decided it was time to reduce telecommunications costs and upgrade to a faster, more reliable network. The local government built a fiber network to service municipal government, but developed long-term ideas for the network to benefit the entire community.

Nonprofit OnLight Aurora now uses the City's fiber optic network to provide high-speed connectivity to educational institutions, businesses, healthcare facilities, social service entities, and major non-profits. The organization leases fibers from the City's fiber optic network and provides Internet access at affordable rates.

Aurora is the second most populous city in Illinois. The municipal government spans 52 buildings over 46 square miles. Before the city's fiber network, connections were a patchwork of varying speeds and capabilities. Employees in a building with a slow connection would need to travel to City Hall to access a high-speed connections to use the city's bandwidth intensive applications. The network was old, unreliable, and expensive. The Director of Onlight Aurora recently spoke with Drew Clark from Broadband Breakfast :

"In 2005-2006, we came to the conclusion that we were paying $500,000 a year [to telecommunications providers] for leased line expenses,” said Peter Lynch, Director and President of Onlight Aurora.

The 60-mile network, constructed from 2008 - 2011, cost approximately $7 million to deploy. At the beginning of the process, payback was estimated at 10 years. While the short-term goal was to cut municipal connectivity costs, community leaders intended to expand its use in other ways. The City now saves approximately $485,000 each year from having eliminated leased lines. From a Cisco case study on Aurora [PDF]:

Conduit

“With local governments increasingly facing limited resources, you have to be able to find efficiencies in operations.” Although the cost savings are gratifying, [Ted] Beck,[Chief Technology Officer] notes that that was just the beginning: “The priority for the fiber optic network was initially cost savings; however we’re realizing that the benefits don’t end there. We’ve had some super wins with this technology, and we’re going to keep leveraging the infrastructure.” Mayor Weisner confirms these successes: “Pretty quickly, we saw a return on investment, both financially and otherwise. We have a much greater capability and fewer problems.” 

In 2011, Aurora received a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) administered through the Illinois Department of Transportation. When the FHWA sought communities for the pilot program and accompanying grant, Aurora's existing fiber network was a plus. During construction of the city network, Aurora had installed extra fiber strands in its conduit. City traffic engineers used several strands to synchronize intersections to improve traffic flow. The grant, of approximately $12 million, upgraded 60 traffic signals. It also allowed Aurora to eliminate all remaining debt on the network.

From the Broadband Breakfast article:

“We have been able to see better movement of traffic, which alleviates congestion and air quality,” said Eric Gallt, the city’s Traffic Engineer. The fiber loop enables city traffic officials “to see what is going on remotely, and it decreased the cost of the project by 50 percent or more.”

That same year, Mayor Tom Weisner formed a broadband task force to field specific ideas for best utilizing the fiber optic network. In 2012 the group created non-profit OnLight Aurora. The organization received a $25,000 grant and a three-year $150,000 loan from the City. OnLight and Aurora entered into a 20-year agreement for OnLight to lease network fiber strands from the City. OnLight would then lease access to the fiber backbone to other entities at affordable rates.

Aurora Illinois

In 2012, OnLight Aurora received a $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge award. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity awarded the grant as seed money. OnLight Aurora also received another $1 million in matching public and private funds. The organization used the funds to offset costs of connecting customers and to expand to better reach developing business parks and healthcare facilities. Schools, medical centers, social services agencies, arts & entertainment entities, and businesses now connect to the network at speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

In August 2013, Indian Prairie School District 204 announced its plans to expand its technology program. The connection allows the District to connect two of its data centers. District 204 obtains a 10 Gbps connection from OnLight Aurora for $39,600 per year. OnLight provides ample bandwidth for the district's bring-your-own-device initiative. A portion of the $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge grant paid for the cost of connecting the fiber.

OnLight also offers wireless connections as an economical way to serve small- and medium-sized businesses. OnLight uses city-owned towers and buildings that are already connected to the fiber for wireless point-to-point connections. The wireless complement will connect schools, businesses, and other entities when a lengthy fiber connection is too costly.

Businesses in Aurora are connecting to the fiber. An August Beacon-News article on the wireless plan also tells the story of security company Alarm Detection Systems (ADS). The company went from T1 connections at 1.5 Mbps to 20 Mbps connections from OnLight for approximately $500 per month. From the aricle:

While cases vary based on a number of factors, the upfront installation cost for Alarm Detection Systems offices to connect directly to the fiber network are about $19,000, according to [company IT Manager Mark] Schramm. But the reliable and fast connection will save the company money in the long run.

“We’re saving money and believe we’re getting a better product,” he said.

According the a recent Beacon-News article, OnLight Aurora is now reaching out to local businesses through seminars. An article about the January 29th seminar quoted a city official:

“Attendees will receive the necessary tools to better understand and employ the OnLight Aurora network resource for their businesses and organizations,” said Clayton Muhammad, Aurora Director of Communications.

OnLight Aurora's three year plan includes doubling it's current length to 100 miles. The network is completely underground and any carrier has access to the infrastructure.

Baltimore Mayor: You Can't Grow Jobs with Slow Internet

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees expanding Internet access as a justice issue and wants to make sure every Baltimore resident benefits from City assets, including fiber optic cables. To that end, the City is examining how it can use its conduit and fiber to improve Internet access.

We have previously covered Baltimore and its consideration of public investments to expand Internet access after both FiOS and Google decided not to invest there.

In the interview below, Mayor Rawlings-Blake expands on why this is important, saying "You can't grow jobs with slow Internet... people don't want to invest in communities where they feel like they are running through sludge, trying to catch up with other businesses," going on to say, "People want to be on the cutting edge."

Ponca City Fiber: Serving Businesses, Schools, and Offering Free Wi-Fi

Its extensive free Wi-Fi has brought Ponca City into the limelight but the mesh network did not appear overnight. The community effort began with miles of fiber network that provide connectivity and enable the mesh network financially and technically.

Ponca City, home to 25,000, is located on Oklahoma's north central border; Tulsa, Oklahoma City, and Wichita are all more than 90 miles away. The petroleum industry flourished in Ponca City until the oil bust in the 1990s and the population began to decline as workers moved away. Community leaders sought ways to salvage the local economy through economic development. They began to focus on the technology, manufacturing, and service industries.

The municipal electric department, Ponca City Energy, installed the first five miles of fiber in 1997 and five more in 1999 to connect outlying municipal buildings to City Hall. Line crews from the utility and the City Technology Services Department handled all installation to keep expenses down. The City continued to add to the network incrementally, exapanding it to over 350 miles. The network also serves the City's SCADA system.

In 2003, Ponca City Energy connected the local schools, and the Ponca City Medical Center to the network. The network also began providing Internet to the University Learning Center of Northern Oklahoma, now named the University Center at Ponca City. The Center collaborates with thirteen higher education institutions to provide distance learning in 48 online degree programs.

Ponca City eventually began offering Internet access via the fiber to commercial customers. According to Craige Baird, Technology Services Director, most businesses in the community purchase Internet access from the City. Revenue from commercial Internet customers, approximately $36,000 per month, pays for the wireless mesh network.

In 2008, Ponca City installed the wireless network for the City's public safety entities. The wireless complement allowed employees in the field to immediately transfer information that in the past required a drive back to the office. In addition to police and fire, employees such as electrical linemen, ambulance attendents, and code enforcement officers use the network. The City connected 25 percent of its 500 wireless routers to the fiber optic network, creating a robust mesh with ample bandwidth over 150 square miles. The City chose to use the excess bandwidth to provide free Wi-Fi to the public.

Wi-Fi logo

City officials estimate the network saves residents almost $4 million a year in Internet fees. Over 17,000 people use the free service, allowing them to keep more dollars in the local economy. The Wi-fi speeds range from 7 - 12 Mbps download. The network will support the community's upcoming technology plan to supply laptops and tablets for students. 

The City has also implemented a virtual desktop solution, allowing city employees to access their desktop from any Internet connection. To insure redundancy, the City has mutual fiber lines between its server rooms and its Disaster Recovery site, located miles away. The City received a 2013 Municipal Innovations Award from the Oklahoma Municipal League for its infrastructure and disaster recovery. From the Oklahoma Municipal League announcement:

Overall, Ponca City has started the technology move over twelve years ago with the first installation of fiber optic cable. But now that basic installation has grown to provide the backbone for an entire network that provides services not only to the employees but to the citizens and businesses in Ponca City. Technology will continue to be an important part of Ponca City’s future.

Sun Prairie Ponders Fiber Network Investment in Wisconsin

The Sun Prairie City Council met on January 14th to discuss a possible investment in a municipal fiber network. Thank you to local resident Jonathan Kleinow for alerting us to developments in the south central Wisconsin town.

The Star published an article about the meeting in which The Motive Group presented information to the Committee of the Whole. According to the story, the consulting firm has been working with Sun Prairie Utilities for a year to find ways to improve local connectivity and spur economic development with fiber. The community is considering the possibilities of a triple-play FTTH network for the areas 30,000 residents.

Sun Prairie Utilities solicited responses to a community survey. They received 700 responses with 88% in favor of a fiber investment. 

From the article:

The recommended plan put for[th] by The Motive Group has a total cost of near $27 million, with $21 million of that as year-one capital expenditures to serve roughly 13,550 homes and businesses in the city.

Budgeted in the initial year's expense total is $11 million for aerial and underground construction and equipment.

Once the fiber system is operational and available for customers, [The Motive Group's Beth] Ringley said projections show $9.97 million in annual operating revenue by year 20 of the system to go along with expenses of $1.26 million.

By year 20, total assets are projected to be at $27.16 million, with total cash at $12.56 million.

Councilman Jon Freund commented that he was opposed to the idea at first but that he now believes Sun Prairie Utilities and the City could partner to distinguish the community. From the article:

“Technology has become a greater and greater need for both businesses and residents,” Freund continued. “This is an opportunity for us to basically differentiate Sun Prairie from all the other communities in Dane County.”

...

He added that fiber installation would “put Sun Prairie on the leading edge” for economic development and local and long-distance education opportunities.

Sun Prairie Wisconsin Logo

The Star also reported on Jaunary 25th that city officials want to provide ample opportunity to incumbents:

“The worst they can say is ‘No’ and we say ‘Thank you for your time‘ and we come back to this body and say we've ruled that out,” [Mayor John] Murray remarked.

Freund said he and others spoke Tuesday with Frontier representatives and the provider expressed little interest.

“It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city,” Freund said.

City Council members plan to reach out to the people of Sun Prairie through informational meetings. The first is scheduled for March 4th.

“My hope is that we continue to put additional information out over the next month to continue to educate the public,” Freund said.

Sun Prairie is located about an hour southeast of Reedsburg, where the community has benefitted from a community network since 1998. Reedsburg recently began offering gigabit service for less than $300 per month.

A local news story notes that an existing beer distributor is already using the utility's fiber and it has been important to its business:

High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community it a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

Russellville EPB Logo

According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

Word of Mouth graphic

In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast. 

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.