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Wilson's Greenlight Leads North Carolina in Connectivity: Community Broadband Bits Episode #70

Greenlight, a muni FTTH network in eastern North Carolina's city of Wilson, is proving to be a powerful tool in attracting new residents and businesses. We spoke with General Manager Will Aycock about the network and how it has benefited the community.

Our interview covers a number of subjects, including how the network is attracting new residents to the area and helping businesses to be more competitive in part by providing an incredibly reliable product - more than five years without an outage to its major commercial subscribers.

The schools in the entire County are connected, allowing them to take advantage of all major technological innovations. First responders, especially fire fighters, are better able to train and respond to incidents because of benefits from the fiber network. All this and more in the audio below.

We previously published a case study of Wilson's Greenlight and also wrote about how Time Warner Cable responded to the network by lobbying for a law to make sure no other community could copy Wilson. And last year, we interviewed Catharine Rice about that law in episode 5 of this series.

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 18 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 Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Update on Baltimore's Municipal Fiber Plan

Kevin Litten, of the Baltimore Business Journal has published a good discussion of why Baltimore is considering a public investment to expand the City's fiber network.

Councilman William H. Cole IV still bristles when he talks about the absence of FiOS in the city, a decision industry observers say has played out in other urban areas where the suburbs outrank the city in wealth. “When you look at a map of Maryland and what counties they chose to skip, Baltimore stands out, and it stands out for all the wrong reasons,” Cole said. “We need to explore every option we have to remain competitive. You can’t talk about being a great city for biotech and trying to attract startups and continue to expand the [University of Maryland] BioPark and not continue to invest.”

Litten also explored how Comcast is damaging area businesses by abusing its position as the sole citywide provider of fast Internet access (Verizon does poor DSL):

At No Inc., a 10-employee tech firm that develops software for commercial real estate, Chief Technology Officer Alex Markson said that Comcast wanted to charge $20,000 to build infrastructure to the company’s small office building on Water Street downtown.

The company had to settle for an affordable, but vastly inferior wireless connection from Clear using WiMAX. Keep this in mind the next time you hear that wireless is providing an alternative to the cable and telephone monopolies.

But that setup, which includes a barbecue grill-like satellite dish pointed out the window of the company’s offices, isn’t ideal. Productivity plummets when employees have to wait for long downloads. When using technology such as GoToMeeting to make sales pitches, “you’re not crushing it because you look like you’re slow,” Markson said.

And finally, Litten quotes some guy named Christopher Mitchell that seems to know what he is talking about:

“What Baltimore wants to do is alter the equation by making it less expensive for either a private competitor to compete or build enough assets to compete on its own,” Mitchell said. “What they need to do is figure out how they can get more fiber into more places to lease to potential companies.”

A Baltimore blogger has also weighed in on the City's decision to evaluate the best means of expanding Internet access and real choices, even if it annoys massive cable companies that prefer not to deal with subscribers that could go elsewhere.

Big telecommunications firms send lobbyists to the legislative bodies of state government to block building such networks, mainly because they have their intended effect on broadband pricing, provided a city can clear the initial hurdle of finding the capital to build its own fiber network.

No one expects Baltimore to suddenly bond for and build a massive FTTH network. The most likely plan will involve Baltimore expanding its existing conduit and fiber assets in coordination with other projects (to keep costs low) in order to entice new providers in short term but more generally, to give the City more options and levarage in taking charge of its digital future.

But when a city owns its fiber resources, it can offer the bandwidth for lease to the lowest bidder — which could be Comcast, as Tonjes told the Baltimore Business Journal — while enjoying some happy externalities, among then increased property values and a 21st-century infrastructure, which might do more to attract companies to Baltimore than tax-increment financing just to abate this city’s high property tax rate.

Indianola's Community Network Spurs Entrepreneurship

When Indianola decided to invest in a municipal fiber network, the decision was part of a larger economic development plan that included a startup incubator in partnership with Simpson College - which we wrote about earlier this year. Located near Des Moines in Iowa, Indianola is one of a few communities that has partnered with a local trusted provider, MCG in this case, that offers services over a publicly owned network.

According to Chris Draper, Director of Indianola + Simpson College Entrepreneurial Development Initiative (EMERGE), his program would not exist if the city did not decide to invest in economic development and municipal broadband as a package deal. Less than a year after launch, EMERGE has nine active startups, some of which are already seeing significant growth and seizing new opportunities. Collective Labor (collectivelabor.com) has created an online platform to facilitate collective bargaining negotiations.

By centralizing the process of calculating proposals and editing contract terms, Collective Labor decreases negotiation time, reduces errors and ultimately makes the negotiation process more efficient. In Iowa alone, Collective Labor believes it can save schools upwards of $35-million a year by streamlining their collective bargaining efforts, freeing up budgets to hire more teachers and improve schools.

Even more promising, the platform can handle all collective bargaining scenarios from teachers to municipal workers, and trade unions to public safety professionals. The demand for Collective Labor’s service is proving solid. Less than a year after launching (in February), Collective Labor has signed up five school districts and has thirteen contractor requests pending. In fact, Collective Labor President, David Gaus, just announced on Twitter that a Colorado firm has agreed to invest cash and expertise that will result in a new office and additional staff to support a nationwide expansion. Not bad for a startup that’s barely seven months old.

indianola-partners.jpg

With other ventures ranging from biofuels trading to book publishing, EMERGE has successfully engaged a wide cross section of the community, from English students to professional engineers. Another startup seeing early success is LNR, which has developed an innovative way of “painting” stripes and other road marks. Instead of using actual paint, which eventually wears off, LNR has developed a colorable quick-setting concrete and application device that produces road markings which last 20 times longer than paint. Having just launched in April, LNR has already secured a $100,000 loan from the Iowa Innovation Acceleration Fund for market development.

Chris Draper says the key to the program is the combination of resources it brings together for the benefit of local entrepreneurs. Before the program, a member of the community with an idea would have to seek advice on diverse topics from various individuals - a daunting task that hinders untold numbers of would-be entrepreneurs. Now, EMERGE offers all of the necessary expertise in one place. And with a community fiber network at its disposal, the expertise offered by EMERGE is in-tune with the most advanced communications technology available.

Collective Labor is a good example of EMERGE’s ability to quickly enable high-tech ventures. Collective Labor's founder, David Gaus, previously used Excel spreadsheets to manage the collective bargaining process as a school business official. When he brought the idea and spreadsheets to Draper’s team at EMERGE, they converted it into an online cloud-based platform in a matter of months. This is the type of expertise seen in high-profile big-city startup incubators, but it's now available in a small-town community of 15,000 people in Iowa.

WindomNet Creates Jobs, Benefits for SW Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Episode #64

The small town of Windom in southwest Minnesota has long been one of the smallest FTTH networks in the nation. I have long wanted to bring WindomNet General Manager Dan Olsen on our show because it has some of the best anecdotes in the world of community owned networks. We finally got him!

To understand WindomNet, you should know that it has fewer households than what many of us consider to be the minimum threshold for a viable triple-play FTTH network. Not only have they made it work, they have attracted numerous employers to town, as our interview discusses. It also kept a local employer located just outside of town in the area after a massive telelphone company operating in Minnesota found itself unable to provide the service that business requested. Tiny Windom ran a fiber out to the business and kept them in the region.

The network has expanded to nearby farm towns with the help of a broadband stimulus award. Even now, after bringing connections to a rural region that the big providers have largely ignored,
the big cable and CenturyLink lobbyists that live in the capital in Saint Paul have relentlessly lied about Windom, calling it a failure and presenting skewed figures to suggest the investment had not succeeded.

In our discussion, Dan and I explore the reality of WindomNet and how it is benefiting a much larger region beyond its own borders. Read all of our coverage about Windom 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 18 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe 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 Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Metronet Zing's Dark Fiber Saves Big Bucks in South Bend

Indiana's Metronet Zing winds its way through South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County providing dark fiber service to businesses, government and education. The project started as an economic development initiative when community leaders in the area realized that the high cost and lack of high-speed connectivity in the area kept businesses away.

Project Future, the economic development organization serving South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County until 2012, studied the potential benefits that might flow from better telecommunications in the region. The nonprofit inspired the county Chamber of Commerce, local government, nearby universities, healthcare, and businesses to develop a new nonprofit network model. The 100 mile network offers a dark fiber open access model that encourages competition, keeping prices in check. Nineteen carriers deliver services over the network. Average price for 1 gig service is $1,000 per month.

In the early 2000s, South Bend leaders wanted to take advantage of the regional long-haul fiber that runs directly under South Bend. There was very limited access to fiber connections in the area from providers and rates were high. St. Joseph's County, city government, and the University of Notre Dame needed better, faster, more reliable telecommunications.

A study commissioned by nonprofit Project Future confirmed what community leaders suspected. Education, economic development, healthcare, research and a better quality of life in South Bend depended on the community's access to a dark fiber network. Project Future developed a plan that would involve public investment in an open access dark fiber network. Community leaders joined together to form nonprofit St. Joe Valley Metronet, Inc. in 2004. Metronet's purpose was to build the infrastructure the region so desperately needed. Revenue would be passed back to the community through reasonable rates. 

South Bend and nearby Mishawaka owned fiber networks that ran through conduit to serve the cities' traffic monitoring systems. New fiber, dedicated to the telecommunications network, would be installed in the conduit to reduce the need for excavation. The community did not want to be a telecommunications provider but no existing ISPs wanted to deliver services via publicly owned infrastructure. Metronet, Inc. would need to take on the role. 

South Bend Logo

Funding for the project began with contributions from the University of Notre Dame, Memorial Health Systems, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, South Bend Medical Foundation, Teachers Credit Union, Robert Bosch Corp. and Madison Center. In exchange, these organizations would receive 10 years of access to the network. The initial subscribers contributed over $2 million which funded the first phase of the network.

In order to attract employers, the group established SJVM, Inc. to serve only business clients. SVJM, Inc. is a for-profit enterprise that pays income and property taxes like other ISPs. Metronet serves only government and educational entities.

As the network develops, its leadership expands economic development strategies. From the website:

Benefits are not reserved to large business and institutional users. Metronet continues to find new and better ways to foster economic and community development. More multi−tenant buildings are connecting to Metronet, providing service and savings to small and medium−size businesses. The Socially Responsible Computing Initiative uses Metronet as the backbone of a project allowing nonprofit organizations to share IT services and realize significant savings on telecommunications and internet access costs.

Teachers Credit Union, one of the many locally based businesses on the network:

"The Metronet is what connects all our information and keeps it moving smoothly and efficiently," says [President Rick] Rice. "While that is a significant benefit of the Metronet, another important advantage is the big savings in cost."

As subscribers of the Metronet, the Teachers Credit Union saves approximately $6,000 in cost each month, compared to the costs of its prior service, for an annual savings of $72,000. "We estimate that due to our switch to the Metronet, we will ultimately gain a total savings of $250,000 to $300,000 each year," says Rice.

Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend, and Saint Mary's College use Metronet Zing's underground network. The St. Joseph County Public Library pays only one-third of its pre-Metronet connectivity costs to serve over 125,000 patrons. Several large healthcare clinics need the high capacity for telehealth services and to consolidate past networks that operated independently. Metronet's video shares the story of Riverland Medical Center that uses the network for advanced healthcare applications.

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Washington State Law Change Transformed Fiber Project in Poulsbo

The story has been updated to fix errors. The original story described the project as a partnership but we have since learned it is a project of the Kitsap Public Utility District that is encouraged by the City.

We reported on Poulsbo, Washington, last fall after the community began a wireless pilot project providing a free high-capacity wireless mesh network throughout downtown. Kitsap Public Utility District is running the project, with encouragement from the City. An interview with Poulsbo City Council member Ed Stern filled in more details on this local project.

A wireless mesh pilot project was not the original plan. The public utility district had been investing in a fiber optic network to reduce costs for local government and provide better broadband for schools and hospitals. Stern and other city leaders also recognized that encouraging telecommuting would keep local dollars in the community. Poulsbo is very close to Seattle and city leadership hoped to draw employees from Seattle offices and encourage economic development. They offered a high quality of life and knew better broadband would draw more employers to Poulsbo.

The partners installed a fiber backbone throughout the city and had planned to expand last mile connections in the near future. Poulsbo also codified changes in conduit policy with new ordinances to better manage public rights-of-way. The code requires private providers to first use existing city conduit and the city reserves the right to lease it to them. This policy prevents unnecessary wear and tear and traffic disruption on local streets.

However, the state legislature erected barriers that derailed the full project by revoking PUD authority to offer direct retail services. To this day, public utility districts are required to wholesale access, which rarely creates enough revenue to justify the initial cost of building networks. Community leaders knew that wholesale-only models carry more risk because they split an already tight revenue stream. With the change in state law, the community re-evaluated the fiber network plan. 

Rather than abandon the plan, Poulsbo and the PUD adjusted it to use the existing fiber assets. They created the wireless mesh pilot project that went live in Poulsbo in November 2012. They funded the project with a Local Improvement District (LID) loan from the State of Washington. LID works with specific geographic areas; the neighbors in an area collaborate to form each district. The City heads up the project by handling the design, financing, and construction of the improvements, selling bonds for financing. The property owners in the geographic area payback the bonds through special assessments over 10 or 20 years. 

Kitsap PUD Logo

The City and the PUD put up main antennas connecting to its existing fiber for backhaul. Each node, or wireless networking device, connects with at least two other nodes creating a quilt-like series of connections. As the number of participants increase, the reach of the network expands. The mesh network provides symmetrical Wi-Fi connectivity at no charge throughout downtown. Stern described the network in a January 2013 Stop the Cap! article:

“It’s not a typical ‘hot spot’ limited to that business or specific location, but rather like ‘umbrella’ coverage, in that the antennas join together to create seamless coverage of everything and everybody throughout the area,” Stern said, adding network expansion is now inching into residential neighborhoods as well. “It’s really exciting.”

The proposed and altered projects caused telecommunications providers to take a second look at Poulsbo. They have since improved service and lowered rates. Stern describes the project as the epitome of democracy. The community created the network, use it, and care for it. Also from the Stop the Cap! article:

One local resident told the newspaper it was about time.

“The privatization business model has proven a failure,” wrote one reader. “Kitsap PUD needs to offer retail broadband to residents and businesses. These fiber cables are just sitting there doing nothing. There is one at the end of my driveway, but no one will sell me the service. Why would CenturyLink bother when they can continue to get overpaid for very slow speeds. In most places, there aren’t choices.”

Morristown Network Creates Cost Savings and Spurs Job Growth

Located in the northeast corner of Tennessee, Morristown Utility Systems (MUS) offers gigabit broadband throughout a region that covers 30,000 residents and businesses. I recently spoke with MUS General Manager and CEO, Jody Wigington, about FiberNET’s progress and he had much to report, starting with over $5 million in cost savings for local businesses, residents, and the local government itself.

Asked about cost savings to Morristown’s city government, Wigington pointed to $840,000 in total savings from a smart meter program - a combination of lower annual power consumption and operational efficiencies. Another $20,000 in annual savings is due to the county not having to pay out-of-town IT contractors to maintain its network because the required expertise can now be found locally thanks to MUS’s dedicated network specialists.

Morristown businesses and residents are also saving, to the tune of $3.4-million annually thanks to FiberNET’s introduction of lower prices in the local broadband market. That’s $3.4-million, every year, which can be spent locally rather than being siphoned out of the community to corporate shareholders.

In terms of revenue, FiberNET generated $8.6-million during the most recent fiscal year and is projected to generate $8.8-million during the current one. FiberNET's solid financials have translated into increases in MUS’s payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the city, which now amount to $350,000 per year, up from $150,000 in 2010. FiberNET’s strong financial performance resulted in MUS becoming cash flow positive just two years after launch, and net income positive after five years. Both of these key milestones were reached significantly quicker than initially projected.

MUS FiberNET’s impact on economic development is also notable. Oddello Industries, a contract furniture manufacturer that relies on FiberNET for its communications, recently announced a $4-million expansion in Morristown, resulting in 228 new jobs. Oddello CEO, Tom Roberts, cited “reliable utilities” among the reasons for investing in Morristown. This growth is part of a larger trend for Oddello, which has grown its Morristown presence from 35 to 415 employees in just the past year. 

Another sign of FiberNET’s impact on economic development is the recent decision by Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network (MPLN), a global leader in personalized laboratory medicine, to locate its primary backup facility in Morristown. As a global provider of diagnostics to hospitals, medical labs and physician groups, MPLN requires ultra-reliable data replication and disaster recovery services, which FiberNET enables.

Glasgow EPB Helps Community Hospital Expand

When a local hospital saw an opportunity to deliver services from an abandoned big box store, the community broadband network sealed the deal with connectivity both advanced and affordable. That store had been an anchor for nearby businesses; allowing it to remain empty put them at risk.

In 2011, officials from T.J. Samson Community Hospital approached the Glasgow Electric Plant Board (EPB) to inquire about the feasibility of connecting the hospital and other facilities to an abandoned shopping plaza which once housed a Wal-mart. The officials were interested in converting the old shopping plaza into a state-of-the-art healthcare facility. But that would only be possible if the the abandoned shopping plaza could be connected to existing facilities with an advanced fiber optic network, including multiple diverse routes to assure the necessary level of reliability.

Hospital officials ultimately asked EPB to provide a redundant 10-gigabit network interconnecting all of their facilities with the abandoned shopping plaza and EPB's network operating center. The hospital needed advanced connectivity for advanced telemedicine practices, such as sharing high-resolution images and transferring large data patient files. The hospital also needed a collocation deal with EPB in order to install mirrored servers in a safe, storm-hardened facility.

Asked about the decision to meet the hospital’s request, Billy Ray, CEO of the EPB said "We knew it was us or nobody. It would’ve been cost prohibitive for the private sector to do the job, if they would bother at all."

The converted shopping plaza, now known as the T.J. Samson Health Pavilion, added 126,000 square feet to its capacity that houses 30 new physicians' offices, advanced diagnostics, preventative treatment and educational services. The $36-million project also created administration and healthcare related jobs while reinforcing the basic infrastructure of the community. And it was all made possible by Glasgow’s public utility having the flexibility and public interest mandate to serve the community first, rather than focusing on short term profits.

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber on Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #59

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber is the highest profile community network in the U.S. It was the first network in the nation to offer a symmetrical gigabit tier to every last address in the community. On today's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Danna Bailey joins us to discuss the network.

Danna Bailey is EPB's Vice President of Corporate Communications and has long helped behind the scenes to keep our site informed of Chattanooga's progress. We talk about why Chattanooga built the network and the role of the stimulus award for smart grid in expediting the build out long after the project had started.

We also talk about job growth - both large firms and small entreprenurs locating in Chattanooga while citing the community fiber network as a big part of the reason.

The conversation updates the Chattanooga case study we published last year. Chattanooga remains far ahead of its business plan and is doing very well financially. Read all the stories we have published about Chattanooga 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 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Mudd Advertising and Cedar Falls Utility Talk Gigabit Broadband

As we reported back in May, Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) now offers citywide gigabit broadband. Mudd Advertising is one local company poised to take full advantage of the new blazing speeds. Mudd invited officials from CFU into its studio for a live panel discussion about the new gigabit service and what it means for the community. The video is embedded below and is available via MuddTV - look for the 6/19/2013 archived show.

When asked what gigabit service means for the community, CFU’s Director of Business Management Rob Houlihan said “We have a lot of businesses that transfer huge files to and from their customers and this enables them to do even more of that activity.” Houlihan elaborated by saying that gigabit broadband opens up “a whole new host of opportunities for them to innovate.”

The panel was moderated by Mudd’s Gary Kroeger and consisted of Steve Bernard, Director of Business Development, Robert Houlihan, CFU’s Network Services Manager, and Rob Mudd, President of Digital Media and Chief Futurist of Research and Development for Mudd Advertising.

Mr. Mudd followed Houlihan’s lead by explaining what gigabit broadband means to Mudd Advertising: “Anytime that you can communicate to the world via video, live, with no buffering, no latency, anywhere in the world that you pick, that gives an advertising agency, or anybody that has a message to tell people, a leg up.” He went on to explain how the live panel itself, along with similar demonstrations they recently conducted from Bangkok, Moscow and Shanghai, are examples of what gigabit connectivity brings his company.

CFU’s Steve Bernard made a telling remark when asked how to explain the seeming anomaly of a small town in Iowa having such world-class infrastructure on par with only a few major global cities. The simplicity of his answer was telling:

"We’re a municipally owned utility, so we’re owned by the citizens in town. And that’s who we answer to and that’s our job, to try to be with them and stay ahead of them. You’ve mentioned the Mudd Group is a very innovative organization, it’s folks like that we’re trying to serve and stay ahead of.”

In other words, CFU’s focus on meeting the needs of local stakeholders, as opposed to absentee shareholders, is what led it to bring world-class communications infrastructure to its small-town community in Iowa. Bernard went on to note that CFU’s decision to provide high-speed broadband is a “natural progression” from providing water to the community back in 1888. Houlihan jumped in to add that high-speed broadband is an “essential service” that the community relies on.

Pushed for more examples of how gigabit connectivity can be useful, Bernard pointed to a local assisted living center developing in-home diagnostic and sensor technology to monitor resident health and safety around the clock. He also pointed out that such critical applications require the highest level of network reliability, a criteria easily met by CFU’s citywide fiber-to-the-premises.

I was pointed to this video by Jim Sartorius, Mudd's Chief Information Officer, when I interviewed him about what CFU's fiber network meant to his company. When I asked him specifically whether CFU helped Mudd save money, he chuckled and then explained Mudd's efforts to establish an office in Chicago with similar live production and distribution capabilities as its Cedar Falls headquarters. After identifying what seemed like the perfect location in one of Chicago's suburbs, their plans were foiled by the prohibitive cost of connecting the facility with fiber. After many months of searching, they were forced into a much more expensive space in downtown Chicago with the necessary fiber capability. Sartorius concluded by pointing out how easy and afforable it is for a business in Cedar Falls to obtain the type of high-speed broadband it took him months to locate in the greater Chicago area at much greater cost. And he thanked CFU for that fact.

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