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"Fusion Splicing" to Light Up Village Network

Mahomet, Illinois, population 7,200, wanted to do something special to mark the official launch of its community fiber network. The network connects local public facilities as well as some area businesses. Instead of the old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Village held a very 21st century event in November to commemorate the occasion: a "fusion splicing" ceremony.

The local Mahomet Citizen described the proceedings:

With the press of a button, Acting Village President Sean Widener fused two strands of fiber about the width of a human hair. A computer screen showed the progress of the splice for the crowd, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce, elected officials and Mahomet-Seymour administrators.

It was an occasion that might otherwise call for a ribbon-cutting, “but in our industry, cutting is bad,” quipped Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the CIRBN.

A Collaborative Initiative

According to a press release, the network is a collaborative effort between the Village of Mahomet, the Mahomet-Seymour School District #3, and the Central Illinois Regional Network (CIRBN), a non-profit organization that operates a statewide fiber optic network in cooperation with the Illinois Century Network (ICN). The CIRBN connects more than 20 communities in Central Illinois with high-speed connectivity.

The Mahomet-Seymour school district initiated the first phase of the new network in 2013 when they connected area schools to the nearby CIRBN. In the next phase of the project, the Village extended the fiber network to reach other areas of the Village and provide gigabit service to businesses and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). By the end of 2014, local hospitals, museums, and city government facilities also had gigabit connectivity. Village officials hope the network can eventually provide service to residents as well.

City leaders consider the project important to the community’s economic future:

“A reliable and affordable fiber-optic broadband network is important and fundamental for Mahomet to be competitive in our efforts to help drive economic development growth from new business attraction and to retain current businesses," Village of Mahomet Administrator Patrick Brown said. 

Saving

Connecting to CIRBN’s existing network allowed the Village of Mahomet and its schools to switch from an expensive private provider service contract. Mahomet-Seymour school district is getting ten times the bandwitdth while also saving $35,000 annually under the new agreement.

According to terms of the four year contract, the CIRBN will manage and maintain the network at a charge of just $1 per year. The school district and Village will retain ownership of the network. All told, the Village has spent about $300,000 on the project. 

Under the contract the CIRBN retains the right to choose either to provide Internet services over the network or to lease the lines to private entities. The CIRBN can also charge commercial customers a one-time infrastructure access fee. Proceeds from these fees will then be used for the purposes of expanding the infrastructure. 

Learning

Mahomet-Seymour school district Superintendent Rick Johnston also notes that the new community network’s core educational mission coincides with one of the CIRBN’s central objectives:

“The grant funding that started CIRBN targeted K-12 schools, so a child at school in Mahomet would have the same educational opportunities as children in large major metropolitan areas. Between our investment in the infrastructure and CIRBN’s gigabit Internet access, we have the foundation and are moving towards a 1:1 program where every student in grades 3 through 12 will have access to their own computer with internet access while at school.”

Going Faster, Farther, Safer

Prior to the installation and connection of the new network to the CIRBN, Mahomet already owned and used a limited amount of fiber optic infrastructure. The latest installation of this new fiber loop gives the Village redundancy over a larger geographic area and can carry the bandwith needed for faster speeds. The average speed for public facilities used to be about 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) but now is 250 Mbps. 

Mahomet Public Library Director Lynn Schmidt is trumpeting the impact of these upgrades for the quality of services she can deliver to the community:

“Since joining the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour School District in receiving internet services over fiber through CIRBN, Mahomet Public Library increased our internet speed fivefold, cut our monthly bill in half, and decreased downtime significantly. This allows us to better serve our community with fast, reliable internet access.”

Overall, the new network is fast, reliable, and affordable. The school district reduces connectivity costs while improving their curriculum, security procedures, and standardized testing. The Village is saving public dollars and increasing efficiencies.

“We’re going to be on a level playing field” with larger communities, [Acting Village President Sean] Widener said at the event.

Chicago Alderman Advocates Public Fiber For Municipal Savings

At a Chicago City Council meeting this month, a newly elected alderman proposed the city stop relying on incumbent ISPs and start using its existing fiber network for connectivity.

Pointing to nearby cities like Aurora, where municipal government elimnated leased lines to reduce costs by $485,000 per year, Alderman Brian Hopkins suggested the switch could save the city “tens of millions of dollars” annually. He also advocated the change in order to provide more efficient services.

“We already have a robust infrastructure in place to build from. Fiber optic resources currently controlled and managed by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] for traffic, first-responder, and emergency services is an example,” Hopkins said. "Given the debt Chicago faces, we should follow other cities by switching all municipal government broadband access from private incumbent providers to a taxpayer-owned fiber network. The money saved can be reinvested into the expansion of the municipal network to finally reach those communities that need fast affordable access. Why would we not do this?”

Hopkins’s comments come on the heels of a resolution we reported on earlier this year from four powerful Chicago City Council members calling for hearings on how to use city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines for a wireless network that could raise the city millions.

The city is trying to find ways to generate revenue amidst a major $30 billion employee pension crisis that led Moody’s to downgrade the city’s bond rating to junk status in May.

One of the most obvious benefits to local government of self-provisioning is saving taxpayer dollars. In addition to direct savings from allowing municipalities to switch from expensive leased lines, the community at large benefits from ancillary savings. Municipal government, businesses, and residents can save from the need for fewer telephone lines, lower utility costs due to more efficient operations, and even lower rates from incumbents who sense possible competition.

Illinois Munis Partner with Local ISP for Gigabit Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode 160

The southern Illinois cities of Urbana and Champaign joined the University of Illinois in seeking and winning a broadband stimulus award to build an open access urban FTTH network. After connecting some of the most underserved neighborhoods, the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) network looked for a partner to expand the network to the entire community.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, we talk with UC2B Board Chair Brandon Bowersox Johnson and the private partner iTV-3's VP and Chief Operating Officer Levi Dinkla. The local firm, iTV-3, already had a strong reputation as an Internet Service Provider as well as operating other lines of business as well.

In our conversation, we talk about iTV-3's commitment to customer service, their expansion plan, and how the network remains open access. Read our continuing coverage of UC2B here. See the neighborhood signups here.

Read the transcript from this show here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Lessons Learned from Community Outreach in Gilberts, Illinois

Earlier this year, we reported on the Village of Gilberts, Illinois, where voters defeated a measure to approve general obligation bonds for a municipal network project. Our story got the attention of Bill Beith, Assistant Village Administrator from Gilberts who contacted us to talk about the project and provide detail on their efforts to educate the voters prior to the election.

The project would have raised property taxes 1.8 percent or approximately $150 per year on a property with a $250,000 market value. Even though the network would have been a publicly owned asset, Beith believes the idea of any new taxes defeated the measure. As the community considered the project, voters stated repeatedly that Comcast or one of the other incumbents should pay for deployment of infrastructure. Unfortunately, the Village had approached incumbents who had no interest in building in Gilberts. They felt the investment would not pay off in a community that is home to about 6,800 people.

The proposed project was to be deployed along side a private fiber network. When the developer of a new housing development learned that fiber significantly increases the value of real estate, he chose to include it to each new home. He also chose to bring the network to a nearby school along with several public safety and municipal facilities at no charge to the Village. 

The project on which voters denied funding would have extended fiber to the rest of the community. According to Beith, the developer still plans to continue his fiber build in an incremental fashion. In addition to the homes in the new housing development, he will focus on commercial connectivity in the Village of Gilberts.

Even though the measure failed in April, the Village will continue to explore ways to work with the developer. According to Beith, he and other advocates for improving connectivity in Gilberts walked away with some valuable lessons for the future.

Ultimately, timing played an important role. Because referendum rules precluded the Village from advocating a position on the project, Beith felt their ability to share the potential benefits was compromised. If the Village needs to ask a similar question to the voters in the future, they will begin educating the public long before the referendum question is determined.

Beith also believes that the citizen Facebook page could have played a more instrumental role if it had been developed earlier. He found that it became a place for online debate and felt that, if it had been up and running earlier, advocates could have used the forum as a way to address arguments or misinformation early in the process.

The Village created NetworkGilberts.com and Beith believes that branding the idea of the network was a good way to introduce the initiative to the public. They also posted some basic videos to provide basic information on connectivity. If they had offered videos earlier in the process, the Village could have presented a waider range of material. Beith noted that they were also restricted in what links the the Village could provide and could only offer factual resources that did not advocate for or against the project.

According to Beith, the Village held an open house where they provided live demonstrations of 300 Mbps Internet access via fiber, a pair of 4K big screen TVs and eight assorted devices streaming simultaneously. Approximately 50 or 60 people attended the open house but Bill described the atmosphere as skeptical. It is his belief that the people attending the open house were undecided while those that stayed away had already determined how they would vote.

The Village of Gilberts must wait two years until this issue can be presented to the voters again. Beith is hopeful that by that time word will spread that access to fiber is unsurpassed and demand will grow. Many things can happen in two years and, as we have seen in other communities, it often takes several attempts for referendums to pass.

Chicago Aldermen Want to Explore Fiber Potential

Chicago is moving in the direction of using municipal fiber to improve connectivity for residents and businesses. According to the Chicago Sun Times, three Aldermen and the Vice Mayor recently introduced a Resolution calling for hearings on ways to use existing fiber assets for personal and commercial use. Text of Resolution R2015-338 [PDF] is now available online.

The City has flirted with a greater vision for its publicly owned infrastructure in the past, including Wi-Fi and fiber. In February 2014, the community released a Request for Qualifications for Broadband Infrastructure [PDF].

This time the City plans to collect information and educate leadership with hearings on ways to utilize the fiber that grace Chicago's underground freight tunnels. They also want to explore city-owned light poles and government rooftops as potential locations for wireless network equipment. From the article:

“These hearings would be a fact-finding mission to help the City Council fully understand the size and scope of Chicago’s fiber-optic infrastructure and explore how it could be shared or expanded to raise revenue for city coffers while making our city more competitive,” [Finance Committee Chairman Edward] Burke said in a press release.

Burke was joined by Zoning Committee Chairman Danny Solis, Economic Capital, Technology Development Committee Chairman Tom Tunney, and Vice Mayor Marge Laurino.

R2015-338 lists many of the communities we have researched as examples to follow, including Chattanooga, Wilson, Lafayette, and Scott County in Minnesota. In addition to exclusively municipal projects, the Resolution acknowledges partnerships between public entities and private organizations, regional projects, and statewide efforts. Clearly, Chicago is open to a variety of possibilities.

While creating more options for businesses and residents is a primary motivator, the City Council is also considering the potential for revenue:

“A Chicago broadband network would be an asset that could be monetized. During these challenging economic times, we need to examine all options to help balance the budget,” Tunney said in the release.

It is true that municipal networks often generate revenue in the long term. It is also true that they share one characteristic with private networks: it can take a significant number of years to reach that stage.

Locals Celebrate iTV-3 and UC2B Expansion in Champaign-Urbana

The expansion in Champaign-Urbana has begun! On May 8th, iTV-3 held a ribbon cutting to celebrate the start of its plan to bring fiber to the homes of neighborhoods that sign up for service. IllinoisHomePage.net reported on the event with the video below.

An April press release announced the celebration that kicked off efforts to meet iTV-3's ultimate goal:

This will enable iTV-3 to expand the network and provide Gigabit service to more than 250,000 homes including 45,000 households and businesses in the Champaign-Urbana area. 

The company has promised to expand to neighborhoods where they achieve a 50 percent commitment. 

Earlier this year, the ISP increased speeds for free in order to offer service that meets the minimum speeds as revised by the FCC. The lowest tier available from iTV-3 via the UC2B network is now 30 Mbps. All speeds are symmetrical.

The UC2B partnership with iTV-3 has been heralded by public leaders. UC2B's private sector partner, iTV-3 is an Illinois company with a track record of business decisions that support local communities. Their agreement is structured in such a way that will protect the UC2B nonprofit and subscribers in the future. At the event, a representative from iTV-3 briefly described the company's approach to the communities it serves:

"We own and operate the Family Video stores nationwide as well, and for us, we've always enjoyed being part of the community and this in and of itself is a community wide effort," said Trevor Rice, who is the marketing director for iTV-3. "Without the community's involvement, we're not going to be able to expand." 

 

Lincoln, Illinois, Once Again Looking at Fiber

Lincoln, Illinois, has contemplated investing in a fiber-optic municipal network since 2009 and, while they have not taken steps to deploy yet, the community appears to be ready to dive in. The Lincoln Courier reports that the City Council recently considered investing $100,000 to deploy fiber in the downtown business district.

Lincoln, located right in the center of the state, is home to approximately 14,500 people. At the meeting, City Administrator Clay Johnson described the need as essential for economic development:

"Fiber optics are the sewer and water for economic development; what businesses look for when they want to locate in your area or expand in your are is, ‘do they have access to high speed internet’ and in a lot of areas, no they don’t."

Johnson believes that existing fiber from local Lincoln College could be integrated into a network that would eventually lead to better access to businesses and as backhaul for downtown Wi-Fi. His "extremely preliminary" estimate is $140,000 - $160,000 for a fiber connection from the college down one of the main commercial corridors.

He also suggested that a long-term plan would include connectivity for local schools as a cost-saving measure.

In 2009, former Mayor Keith Snyder's administration embraced the idea of investing in municipal fiber infrastructure as part of a downtown revitalization plan. In 2012 the community received a $600,000 grant of which $16,500 was dedicated to develop an initial plan for a network. City leaders ultimately decided to direct remaining funds toward other projects in 2012 and the City Council is once again taking up the possibility of fiber.

Gilberts Voters Say No to Tax Increase for Muni

On April 7th, voters in Glberts, Illinois, chose not to raise taxes to deploy a municipal fiber network, reports the Daily Herald. According to the article, 81 percent of ballots cast voted against the proposal. Voter turnout was low, with only 682 ballots cast out of 4,002 registered voters in town.

As we reported last month, local developer Troy Mertz plans to deploy fiber to each structure in a new housing development, The Conservancy. His fiber company will also install fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. The plan was to issue General Obligation (GO) bonds to finance a publicly owned network throughout the rest of the community. The proposal would have raised taxes approximately 1.8 percent or $150 per year on properties with a market value of $250,000.

For the developer the plan will remain the same:

Mertz still plans to go ahead and connect The Conservancy's planned fiber optic network to municipal and public safety buildings plus Gilberts Elementary School, saying it was built into his development plans.

"The goal of village was always to getting fiber to our industrial areas," said Gilberts Village President Rick Zirk. "As a community, we asked the rest of the village, 'Do you want the same service and the same options that the new part of town and the industrial park?' And it seems that they don't want to pay for it."

There is a definite lesson here for any other communities considering a similar plan - educate the voters and make sure they are excited about it! From what we can tell, there was little effort to make people aware of the plan and the turnout for the vote suggests that no one was particularly excited to make it happen.

Small Illinois Town Will Vote On Fiber Investment in April

The Village of Gilberts, Illinois, will ask voters in April to authorize up to $5 million in General Obligation bonds to deploy a FTTH network reports the Daily Herald. GO bonds are rarely used for network deployment but often used for public works projects and other publicly owned assets. Due to the funding mechanism in Gilberts, the network would be publicly owned.

"It's something that is not readily available in other communities," Village Administrator Ray Keller said. "It would set us apart and put us on a path to better meet the needs of our residents and businesses as their demands and needs for technology grows."

The community, home to 6,800 people, has experienced rapid population growth since 2000. At that time only 1,200 people lived in this northeast Kane County village.

According to the article and January Board of Trustee minutes [PDF online], the bond issue would increase property taxes 1.8 percent on most tax bills. Properties with a market value of $250,000, which is most common in Gilberts, would pay an additional $150 per year or $12.50 per month to fund the infrastructure deployment. There are approximately 2,400 taxable properties in Gilbert today but as more properties are built, each property owner's share would decrease. 

This is the second time the village has planned for a fiber network to improve connectivity throughout the community. In 2013, Gilberts entered into an agreement with i3, a British company that eventually folded, to deploy fiber using sewers as conduit. In that plan, i3 would have owned the fiber network.

Developer Troy Mertz is spearheading the project. His company is investing in a new housing development that will eventually include an additional 985 new homes. As part of that development and independent of the municipal fiber project, Mertz is installing fiber to each structure at his own expense. His company, iFiber Networks will also run fiber to nearby municipal and public safety buildings and the Gilberts Elementary School. According to the Daily Herald, iFiber is not charging the city for bringing fiber to its facilities or the school.

Mertz said it's hard to quantify how much additional money he's spending on granting access to village buildings and the elementary school, but it's something he's doing because it will benefit everyone, he said.

"It's a mutual success type of thing," he said. "I hope that by bringing these services into the village, it benefits not just my community but the community as a whole."

The housing development, called The Conservancy, was originally conceived prior to 2007 but the original developer filed for bankruptcy before the project could get off the ground. There is already some street infrastructure in place and the proximity to the elementary school makes the location attractive, says Mertz. Adding fiber to the new homes will make them more attractive and, according to a 2014 FTTH Council study, increases the value of propoerties up to $5,000.

In order to reduce the cost of the deployment, the Gilberts network will piggyback the iFiber network along the iFiber route.

Using GO Bonds will keep the interest rate down because the community pledges its full faith and credit to pay back the investors, resulting in very little risk. A benefit of tying the bonds to property taxes is that the investment increases the property value. Thus, if a homeowner moves out of town, the cost of paying back the bonds stick with the property that was improved with the network, not the homeowner him or herself. 

On the other hand, incumbent cable companies will often argue that this allows local governments to borrow at lower cost than the private sector providers can. Whether or not this is even true is hard to say give the incredible cash flow of these de facto monopolies that raise prices on an annual basis. Additionally, the benefits of having built the original cable networks as part of a government sanctioned monopoly are hard to quantify, so there is little reason to suggest that using GO bonds is actually unfair when compared to the many advantages of entrenched incumbent providers.

The referendum is set for April 7th.

iTV-3 Increases Speeds for Free on UC2B Network

As the FCC works to update current policy to encourage ubiquitous Internet access and adoption, community networks are also taking an active role. Earlier this month, customers of iTV-3 received a boost in speed with no increase in price. iTV-3, a community minded local provider, chose to make the change in order to ensure all its customers were well within the new broadband speeds as redefined by the FCC in January 2015.

Early last year, UC2B and iTV-3 announced their new partnership. The company, which has provided services to residents and businesses to Illinois communities since 2009, is leasing UC2B infrastructure and equipment and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of expansion. 

iTV-3 increased customers' speeds by 10 Mbps, according to a press release on the change:

20/20 Mbps increased to 30/30 Mbps

40/40 Mbps increased to 50/50 Mbps

50/50 Mbps increased to 60/60 Mbps 

“We are increasing the speed tier of all existing Champaign and Urbana iTV-3 customers by 10 Mbps at no additional charge to ensure that every user will exceed the new FCC definition of broadband speed,” said Dinkla. “New areas will be constructed beginning this Spring, bringing gigabit Internet speeds to businesses and neighborhoods throughout the community.  iTV-3 gigabit Internet is yet another reason for people to be excited to live, work, and do business in Champaign and Urbana.”

UC2B has been lauded by the FCC as a model for public private partnerships. The last-mile project, received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to bring fiber connectivity to urban homes in the Urbana Champaign area. It was deployed by the not-for profit corporation aimed at bringing high-speed service to residents in economically disadvantaged areas along with a number of community anchor institutions. Over the past year, iTV-3 has continued to expand and now also offers services in Peoria, in addition to its Dunlap and Tremont markets.