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City of Urbana Passes Resolution Supporting FCC Section 706 Authority

The Illinois community of Urbana, home of UC2B, recently passed a resolution in favor of FCC's section 706 authority. The community's fiber project is bridging the digital divide in this community of 41,000.

On March 17, the City Council voted unanimously to support the FCC as it considers action to discourage, prevent, and remove state legislative barriers that block municipal networks. 

The language is similar to resolutions from communities such as Sebewaing, VidaliaAmmon, and Moultrie. Urbana noted in its resolution that it has made substantial efforts to bring access to more people in the community.  We interviewed Carol Ammons from the U-C Independent Media Center and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from UC2B in episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Chris, Carol, and Brandon discussed the way the community is capitalizing on the rare urban FTTH network.

RESOLUTION NO. 2014-03-017R

A RESOLUTION TO SUPPORT FCC EFFORTS IN PROTECTING LOCAL AUTHORITY

TO BUILD BROADBAND INFRASTRUCTURE

WHEREAS, the universal availability of affordable high speed Internet access for all citizens has been identified as a national priority; and

WHEREAS, community/municipal broadband networks provide an option for market competition, consumer choice, economic development, and universal, affordable Internet access; and

WHEREAS, historically, local governments have ensured access to essential services by banding together to provide those services that were not offered by the private sector at a reasonable and competitive cost. This involvement has included electrification, public libraries, and other important services; and

WHEREAS, residents of Urbana have a history of advocacy for expansion of Internet access worldwide and the City has invested in local projects to achieve broader access that would not have been realized using private investment alone; and

WHEREAS, local government leaders recognize that the ability to thrive economically and to improve quality of life depends on connecting their communities, and they understand that it takes both private and public investment to achieve this goal; and

WHEREAS, attempts have been made in other states to limit or stop further local government deployment of municipal Internet services through legislation, which has the potential of reducing the ability of local government to provide important information and services to their citizens in a timely, efficient, and cost effective manner; and

WHEREAS, the DC Circuit Court has determined that Section 706 of the Federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 unambiguously grants authority to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to remove barriers that deter network infrastructure investment;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THE CITY COUNCIL OF THE CITY OF URBANA, ILLINOIS, supports FCC efforts to ensure local governments are able to invest in essential Internet infrastructure, if they so choose, without state-imposed barriers to discourage such an approach.

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.

White Space Pilot Project Brings Basic Internet From Library to Residents … For Free!

The Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN) has orchestrated a pilot project to optimize white space technology for connectivity in and near community libraries and schools. We discussed this approach on our most recent podcast with Don Means, coordinator of the project.

White spaces wireless, sometimes referred to as "Super Wi-Fi" or "TVWS," can provide limited access in rural areas with limited funds and limited connectivity options. The technology is still in the development stage but creative people working in community libraries are finding new ways to use it.

GLN's goal is to bring next generation connectivity to all 16,000 libraries in the U.S. The organization grew out the 2007 "Fiber to the Library" Campaign from the Community TeleStructure Initiative. The initiative is a collaboration of institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education technology market, and related entities. GLN advances the idea that anchor networks, like those at the library, are cost effective ways to serve populations and to create middle mile access.

"White spaces" are the unlicensed low-frequency spectrum that was reserved for television signals prior to digitization of television. (If you are REALLY old, like me, you remember the "UHF" and "VHF" dials on the ol' black-and-white.) As we transitioned to digital TV, the spectrum was abandoned. White spaces differ from traditional point-to-point wireless spectrum because they do not require a line of sight. Buildings, trees, or other obstacles do not stop the signals. Thurman, New York, and New Hanover County in North Carolina use white space technology for limited Internet access in their areas.

White space technology is not a replacement for next generation high-speed networks but can operate as a complement to an existing connection, expanding the reach of a library's free Wi-Fi. The network is not mobile but can be used for a nomadic fixed wireless remote as on a bookmobile. Early testing of pilot networks indicates the signal provides an average of 5 Mbps from the anchor station throughout the hotspot, depending on the conditions. The technology provides a basic level of service for email and web surfing. Users cannot stream video or use bandwidth hungry applications but when a user has no other access, "The value of the first Mbps is worth more than the next ninety-nine," says Don Means, GLN Coordinator.

GLN published an open call in July 2013 to libraries seeking proposals for innovative uses for white space technology. Sixty communities submitted proposals, surprising them by the volume and creativity of proposals. GLN considered a variety of factors, including innovative ideas that would benefit the community, the presence of access to backhaul to support the Wi-Fi, and accessibility of Internet access.

Humbolt County Library

Ultimately, they chose six respondents to participate, including the Humbolt County Library in California; the Skokie Public Library in Illinois; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Delta County Libraries in Colorado; the University of New Hampshire WhiteSpace Consortium; and several libraries in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library System. When the pilot is complete the libraries will have the option to purchase the equipment or to return it to the vendor. Prices vary from $5,000 - $8,000 for a base station and one to three remote location equipment packages. The Paonia, Colorado, library has created a kickstarted campaign to raise the funds for purchasing the equipment. 

White space is not yet available for commercial use, making it ideal for a pilot project. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi, white space technology requires cognitive radios to function. There are three FCC Certified TVWS Databases: iconnectiv, SpectrumBridge, and Google. When a device is activated, it connects with one of those databases to find available channels. Each device must be certified with one of those databases to access a chanel. At this point, there are no vendors that have certification for the equipment they provide. Once the vendors receive certification from the FCC, commercial use will follow. 

According to GLN, the distance between many U.S. library branches is consistent with the reach of white space technology, approximately five miles. If plans to connect them all include schools as base stations or remotes, much of the United States could have access to free, basic Wi-Fi Internet access.

The idea of reserving some of this spectrum for public use has been debated. The idea of an extensive free "network of networks"  sounds radical at first blush. Here is Harold Feld and his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:

Hmmm . . . . a best effort “network of networks” voluntarily exchanging traffic through the use of common protocols . . . that sounds vaguely familiar.  Why yes, that’s the Internet! The “network of networks” that runs on best efforts. And some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of millions of independent networks voluntarily agreeing to exchange best efforts traffic would become a meaningful global medium of communications was laughed at, sneered and scorned by the carrier world and the Collective Wisdom generally. “Who on Earth would manage such a system? How could you get connections? Why would people possibly put meaningful traffic on a best efforts and therefore inherently unreliable network? Don’t sell the bike shop Orville, that’s just crazy talk!”

The idea of self organizing networks, where each individual network contributes some resource because it derives benefit of some sort from the contribution, happens around every day. If you are reading this blog post, then you are participating in and using precisely the same kind of network that would emerge from making enough high-quality spectrum available for bigger, better WiFi.

Means describes libraries as "natural community laboratories for innovation." As gathering places in the community that are funded with local dollars, libraries are the ideal place for white space experimentation on a local level. We'll follow this story with another post next week looking at some of the pilot projects.

Don Means on Libraries and White Spaces - Community Broadband Bits Episode 79

This week, Don Means joins us to talk about public libraries, their role in the modern era, and an interesting pilot project involving several libraries and white spaces wireless technology. Don is the coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network and has a passion for both libraries and expanding Internet access to all.

We offer some basic background on "TV white spaces" wireless technology (see our other coverage of that technology here). The pilot libraries in this project are using white spaces as backhaul from a library branch location to nearby areas where they have created Wi-Fi hot spots.

Libraries involved with the project are located in Kansas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi, and California.

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 15 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.

Small Illinois City Plans to Light Fiber Network By 2014

Monticello anticipates firing up its own fiber network by the start of 2014. The News-Gazette reports the town of 5,300 plans to use the network to serve government offices. 

The City, Piatt County, Monticello Community Unit School District #25, and the Allerton Public Library District collaborated to share costs for the installation. The four entities will split the $160,000 deployment costs for the underground network. The News-Gazette reports conduit is now in the ground and ready for fiber optic cable; construction began in the spring. The four entities are looking for a company to manage the system and exploring options for Internet access:

[Piatt County Board Member Randy] Keith said they also need to purchase high-speed Internet access, with one possibility being the Illinois Century Network. The state has installed about 1,000 miles of fiber along interstates in Illinois, including a swath that runs by Monticello.

Hopes are that the project will put the city on the technological cutting edge. For the school system, it will speed up a district goal to allow every student in the district to be on a computer or handheld device at the same time.

Platt County Courthouse used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Dual Freq.

UC2B Saves Public Money With Better Broadband in Illinois

The City of Champaign is now celebrating the transition to the UC2B fiber network. With underground fiber lines, the City will no longer be plagued by weather related interruptions. Champaign is also counting on significant savings on a network that is more than 1000 times faster than the old connections. From the City of Champaign website:

UC2B fiber and Internet access also means real cost savings to the City. The City will now save $30,240 annually by dropping all of our T1 data lines, and $31,200 annually by using UC2B as our Internet provider. While a significant portion of this savings is offset by annual maintenance fees for the fiber rings the City uses, we still save over $13,000 net annually and have a much faster, much more reliable system that will allow our digital data transfers and Internet use to expand for years to come!

For more on the UC2B network, listen to episode #42 of the Broadband Bits podcast. We spoke with Carol Ammons and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, both involved in Champaign's efforts to use the UC2B network to its full potential.

Evanston, Illinois, to Dabble in Community Owned Connectivity

Evanston, Illinois, home to Northwestern University, has decided to expand its fiber network in a new project to connect residents and businesses in a targeted area. In 2012, the city and NU joined forces to apply for an Illinois Gigabit Community grant and the pair won the award this past January. Together, the entities won $2.5 million with a plan to encourage entrepreneur retention with an information corridor. The City plans to integrate 1 gigabit residential connectivity in a new condominium development and to nearby commercial property.

Evanston had been using its fiber network to self-provision its own connectivity needs with a I-Net at municipal offices and the main branch of the library. At the intersection of Chicago and Main, city leaders plan to splice into existing fiber and extend it to the residential condo development. Nearby commercial properties will also connect to the expansion. The City will release an RFP in search of a third party provider to offer services via the extended network.

Like other university communities, Evanston is a nest of technology start-ups and community leaders recognize the added draw of gig connectivity. Governor Pat Quinn's press release mentioned coLab Evanston, a shared workspace facility that will connect to the new expansion:

coLab Evanston is just one of many small and growing businesses that will reap enormous benefits from ultra-high speed gigabit Internet service. The company provides shared working space for companies and individual entrepreneurs who are often looking to take ideas and grow them into larger enterprises. The company acts as an incubator for innovation and provides its clients with the resources to be successful.

“At coLab, we’re committed to helping professionals by giving them the tools they need to be productive and innovative,” said Eric Harper, co-founder of coLab Evanston. “Gigabit will be a key benefit we offer as we strive to create an environment where ideas can turn into reality.”

Community leaders estimate around 1,000 residential and commercial subscribers will have access to the new 1 gig network. Comcast, the current provider in the area, cannot offer similar services on its cable network. Friends in Evanston's Information Technology Division tell us that the city is carefully considering price points for residential and commercial gig services. They see rates as a critical factor in the success if the project.

Leadership Panel Set For November Broadband Communities Conference

In November 2012, Broadband Communities Magazine hosted the first of its Economic Development Conference Series in Danville, Virginia. The second conference, scheduled for November 5-7, 2013, will bring another group of leaders together in Tinley Park, Illinois, just outside of Chicago.

This year, the conference will focus on the Midwest with discussions about Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.

As usual, our own Christopher Mitchell will speak there and will be generally available to discuss community owned networks with those who attend.

From the announcement:

We are assembling an outstanding multi-disciplinary roster of national, regional, and local experts who have extensive experience in using advanced communications capabilities to foster economic development and create jobs. We will examine what is working well, what is not, and what lies ahead, particularly as federal stimulus funding ends.

Our speakers will provide attendees a wealth of economic research, case histories, how-to materials, and other practical information that they can use effectively in their communities. We will address the latest "hot" topics, including Google Fiber, FirstNet, the Connect America Fund, the FCC's new Health Care Connect Fund, emphasizing their potential to foster economic development and job creation. We will also provide ample time for networking and learning about relevant cutting-edge products and services.

The leadership panel includes:

  • Jim Baller - Conference Chariman and President of Baller Herbst Law Group
  • Joel Mulder - Illinois Broadband Deployment Council, Illinois Municipal Broadband Association, and Senior Director of Business Development, G4S Technology
  • Gary Evans - Former CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications
  • James Salter - CEO, AEG
  • Susan Crawford - Roosevelt Institute Fellow
  • Lev Gonick - CEO, OneCommunity (as of July 2013)
  • Blair Levin - Executive Director, Gig.U
  • Diane Kruse - Former Chair, FTTH Council and President of Neo Fiber

You can register now until July 1 for the Special Early Bird Rate. The event will be at the Tinley Park Convention Center and the adjoining Holiday Inn offers a special rate for conference attendees.

Catching Up on UC2B in Illinois - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #42

The home of the first web browser (Mosiac) is now building an exciting open access network - the twin cities of Urbana-Champaign received a stimulus award for UC2B (2B = Big Broadband). Episode #42 of Community Broadband Bits features Carol Ammons of the U-C Indepedent Media Center and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, who is on the policy committee for the network and an Urbana City Council member.

In our interview, we discuss how Urbana-Champaign received a unique stimulus award - the only urban FTTH network and what they are doing with it. It came after many years of organizing and working toward a broadband solution for the community. Now the Independent Media Center is helping to teach people how to take full advantage of the network.

The network also received funds from the state, as Broadband Illinois has taken an active role in pushing for better broadband access and usage across the state.

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 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 Mount Carmel for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

UC2B in Urbana-Champaign Tackles Digital Divide With Network Revenue

The UC2B project broke ground in the fall of 2011 and is a joint effort by the cities of Urbana and Champaign and the University of Illinois. The project is funded with a $22.5 million federal stimulus grant, a $3 million grant from the state of Illinois, and a list of other grants from local agencies.

From the beginning, the project policy board resolved to set aside funding from the network to address the local digital divide. According to a Janelle O'Dea article in the Daily Illini, 2-5 percent of the annual revenue from the network will go into this fund. The policy board is now fielding ideas from the public. There will be a series of community meetings and the first brought several ideas. From the article:

Meeting attendees presented several ideas for how to spend the fund. Some suggested purchasing new computers for resident use and training residents to use computers.

Artice James, president of the Champaign chapter of the National Council of African-American Men, suggested using the funds to provide job training for the installation of fiber optic material to area homes. James said he hoped many of these jobs will employ minority residents.

Alkalimat also commented on the issue of creating permanent jobs for Champaign-Urbana residents. He said he could see potential for creating a group similar to Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

UC2B's approach brings more people to the network in a self-nourishing fashion. The local community knows where the digital divide is in their area. Funding and decisions come from the people who will live with the benefits of the network. UC2B is another example of how local communities can build networks to effectively address the digital divide.