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Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 14, 2014

Communities all over the country have nearby examples of successful broadband networks at their fingertips, and this week more communities are moving ahead with plans to take back their authority to build them.

Rockford, Illinois city leaders announced a proposal that would tap in to 900 miles of existing fiber optic cable. Kelsie Passolt with NBC13 in Rockford reported on the city’s steps to connect its community.    

Ansel Herz with The Stranger in Seattle expresses frustration with the city’s pace of progress. He interviewed a former broadband task force member, Bill Covington for context surrounding the city’s decision to move forward on another study. 

"I want to see if the Murray administration will say, 'Let's put the money on the table, and take the heat, and we will follow the Chattanooga or Tacoma Click! model. Chattanooga's model, with the city's public utility taking the lead and overcoming lawsuits from the likes of Comcast, has been a rousing success.

Put a pin in Berkshire County in Western Massachusetts. The state’s broadband institute is discussing strategies for high speed Internet. Tony Dobrowolski with the Berkshire Eagle reports that “If officials are interested, Holahan said the MBI is willing to help town governments with the cost of connecting residents and businesses.”

And your nugget of joy for this week is a gem from Opelika Power in Opelika, Alabama. Their clever advertisement makes us smile, we hope you enjoy as well!

The New York Times’ Edward Wyatt dug deep to reveal that even sweet potatoes have a connection to community broadband. His story highlights what happens when state laws get in the way of Internet competition.  

“…A three-year-old state law prohibits the city of Wilson’s utility from expanding its broadband network outside its home territory.

“The technology is right there across the county line,” Mr. Bissette said on a recent afternoon, after plowing up a field of sweet potatoes for harvest. “If we could get the service, we could make sure the temperature is right, that air is circulating. It would make life a whole lot simpler.”

It’s not new that there’s big money in telecommunications legislation, but just how much is going into elected official's coffers? Sarah Zhang with Gizmodo breaks down the numbers, collecting the campaign contributions to politicians from Comcast, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T, and their trade group the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. See where your legislator ranks on the list. 

 

Net Neutrality

President Obama's call for reclassification of Internet access caused a stir this week. Fortune's Peter Sucio explained what that would mean for consumers.

“Comcast and Verizon want to scare the public and Congress by calling Title II ‘regulation of the Internet,’” says Evan Greer, campaign director of the advocacy group Fight for the Future. “Title II is about preventing a select few companies from regulating what people can and can see and do on the Internet.”

But Brian Heaton wrote in GovTech this week that it's definitely much more complex than President Obama's public statement led many to believe. 

Christopher Mitchell, director of the Telecommunications as Commons Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and an advocate for improved Internet access, wasn’t sure how Obama’s words will impact the commission’s decision. But he felt the president should be taking a stronger lead on the issue.

“I think the president is trying to provide cover for the FCC to take the necessary steps to protect the open Internet despite incredibly strong opposition from the cable/telephone companies and their proxies,” Mitchell said. 

Mitchell also provided insight on a number of other news reports on the issue this week. OPB's "Think Out Loud", MPR's "Daily Circuit", and KCRW's "To the Point" were among them. 

Rachel Swan with San Francisco Weekly wrote that her city might not be waiting for the FCC to decide what happens to the Internet. It’s a message we hope other communities hear loud and clear:

“There's a glimmering possibility that the agency might not rule in favor of an open Internet. And even if it does side with Obama, consumers are still left with the fundamental problem of a small group of companies controlling a critical resource. 

"We have to realize that net neutrality is not a silver bullet, when it comes to giving consumers freedom," Electronic Frontier Foundation activist April Glaser says.

Local Entities Coordinate to Deploy Fiber in Illinois

Several entities in northeast Illinois are hoping to improve connectivity, reduce costs, and spur economic development with a publicly owned $2.11 million fiber optic investment. 

McHenry County, the City of Woodstock, McHenry Community College (MCC), and Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 are working together to develop the McHenry County Broadband Fiber Network Consortium. The county's Emergency Telephone System Board will also will belong to the consortium. The purpose of the group will be to oversee and manage the network, reports an October 26th Northwest Herald Article.

The Woodstock City Council recently unanimously approved participation in the project and the proposed intergovernmental agreement. District 200 soon followed with unanimous approval on October 28th, and on November 6th the McHenry County Board also agreed unanimously to participate in the project. The agreement and details about the project are available in the Agenda Packet [PDF] from the November 6th County Board meeting.

Each entity expects to see significant savings as they eliminate leased lines. Woodstock's annual projected operational costs will be $33,784, reducing municipal connectivity costs by about $13,448 per year by eliminating leased lines. Woodstock will also enjoy the ability to budget from year to year without the threat of unpredictable rate increases from current provider Comcast. City Manager Roscoe Stelford told the Northwest Herald:

The potential economic development opportunities, allowing area businesses to buy and use the new network, alone makes the project significant, he said.

“Having that high-tech infrastructure in the City of Woodstock is going to be another feather in our cap for us to secure economic development opportunities,” Stelford said.

The network will bring a 10 gigabit fiber back bone from the MCC campus through downtown to the County Government Center. Laterals will branch out to municipal and school facilities. The current plan includes gigabit connections to 24 municipal buildings, public safety sites, schools, recreation centers, a library, a work force center, and an opera house.

Comcast now charges District 200 approximately $109,000 per year for connectivity. When leased lines are eliminated, the District will spend approximately $48,500 as their share for operational and management costs. In addition to saving over $60,000 per year, District 200 will be able to offer students future-proof infrastructure. From the Woodstock Independent:

“It’s an exciting position to be in, and there are other things we’ll see savings on,” said [school] board member William Nattress. “Technical refreshment, new applications will be easier and less expensive now that we have this backbone.”

District 200's share is the largest because it requires more connections. Budgetary uncertainties at the state level have created concern for District 200 so Woodstock and McHenry County will cover District 200's $806,526 share with an interest-free, four-year loan.

For the total project, McHenry County will be responsible for $760,526; Woodstock will contribute $386,624; MCC will provide $54,423; and the Emergency Telephone System Board will contribute $105,800.

The Northern Illinois University's Broadband Development Group will coordinate the project; the network may be up and running as early as summer 2015.

Aurora's Nonprofit Approach with Muni Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Episode 123

Aurora, Illinois, has been named one of the "Smart 21" most intelligent communities of 2015 according to the Intelligent Community Forum. We have been tracking Aurora for a few years and wrote about OnLight, its nonprofit ISP, that we wrote about earlier this year.

With some 200,000 people, it is the second largest city in Illinois but it has one of the most interesting hybrids of municipal fiber and nonprofit partnerships we have come across. For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Lisa Gonzalez takes the reins and interviews Rick Mervine, Alderman of the 8th Ward in Aurora.

Alderman Mervine explains why the city first invested in the fiber network and why they later decided to create OnLight to serve community anchor institutions as well as others in the community.

Read the transcript of this episode 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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Illinois' Monticello Local Partnership Leads to Big Savings - Community Broadband Bits Episode 102

Following up on Lisa's in-depth story on Monticello, Illinois, we asked Vic Zimmerman to join us for episode 102 of the Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about how rural Monticello started by reaching out to the existing service providers, only to be stalled for months and then years. Eventually they realized they would have to take a stronger hand in making sure community anchor institutions, including the schools, would have the fast, affordable, and reliable connections they need.

Local public entities began working together and partnered with a private firm building a fiber line through town to get in the trench with them. That was the beginning of an impressive network that now connects community anchors and ideally will lead to more investment for connections to businesses and residents.

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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

UC2B and Partner Bringing Fiber to More Urbana-Champaign Communities in Illinois

The UC2B Network and its partner, iTV-3, will soon bring gigabit capabilities to more people in the Champaign-Urbana community in Illinois. According to the UC2B press release [PDF], iTV-3 will expand existing fiber to areas of the community to serve residents and businesses. iTV-3 will take subscriptions for commercial and residential access online at www.theperfectupgrade.com.

In a statement from the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler commented:

"Congratulations to Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) and iTV-3 on making gigabit services over fiber available throughout the community. This public-private partnership provides a valuable model for communities and companies throughout the country and a demonstration of the creativity that is stimulated when localities are free to work with the private sector to improve broadband offerings.”

UC2B and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to deploy an urban FTTH network in Illinois. The not-for-profit corporation offered economical Internet service to residential subscribers in economically disadvantaged areas, some as low as $19.99 per month. The network also connected a number of community anchor institutions including schools, hospitals, and municipal facilities throughout the Urbana-Champaign metropolitan area.

According to a fact sheet on the project [PDF], the company is a subsidiary of a family-owned business that started in Springfield, Illinois. iTV-3 has been an ISP since the mid 1990s but also owns and operates over 775 Family Video stores in 19 states and Canada. UC2B chose iTV-3 because the company operates in a manner consistent with the Community Broadband Principles, core values guiding UC2B since inception. iTV-3 will also contribute to UC2B's Community Benefit Fund, established to improve digital literacy and digital inclusion. 

iTV-3 will offer wholesale access via the existing structure and, if neighborhoods do a not connect after five years, other companies will have the opportunity to offer services via the infrastructure. iTV-3 will lease the existing infrastructure and equipment from UC2B and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of the network. If the two part ways in the future, UC2B will have the option to purchase the infrastructure deployed by iTV-3.

iTV-3 has offered services in other Illinois communities since 2009. According to the iTV-3 press release [PDF], the ISP will be bringing services into neighborhoods of 150 - 350 homes once 50% of homes sign-up. iTV-3 will begin by offering Internet and voice and plans to add video in the future.

Service rates will be:

  • 50/10 Mbps Internet - $49.95
  • 50/10 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $64.90
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet - $59.95
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $74.90
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet - $79.95
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $94.90

For more on the UC2B project, listen to Chris' interview with Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from the network's policy committee and Carol Ammons of the U-C Independent Media Center. He spoke to them in episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Monticello Public Partners Light Up Fiber in Illinois

Kids in the Monticello Community Unified School District #25 (CUSD #25) are now enjoying a new publicly owned fiber optic network. The School District is one of four public partners that collaborated to install the network and share the $306,000 in deployment costs. The City of Monticello, Piatt County, and the Allerton Public Library began the project a year ago with the School District to execute a plan to improve local connectivity.

Approximately 5,000 people live in Monticello, the Piatt County Seat, located in the center of Illinois. The City operates water and wastewater services but not an electric utility. CUSD #25 includes approximately 1,600 students.

According to a Piatt County Journal article, the partners will equally share the annual $12,000 maintenance costs. They will also divide fees for managing the system, estimated at $5,000 - $10,000 per year; the partners will hire a third party to handle network operations. In the future, the School District may manage the network themselves to eliminate that expense.

We connected with Vic Zimmerman, Superintendent for CUSD #25 to find out more.

Until now, the District depended on a patchwork of T1 lines and DSL to connect their five facilities. The schools used four lines to obtain 170 Mbps bandwidth for which they paid $3,500 per month. According to Zimmerman, CUSD #25 rarely received speeds faster than 50 Mbps.

The school has added wireless access points to its five schools to enable Wi-Fi, but lacked the necessary bandwidth to run the system efficiently. Student smartphones on the guest network exacerbated the problem. Zimmerman and CUSD knew they needed more bandwidth to handle future technology demands; they needed fiber.

Piatt County, the City of Monticello, and the Library suffered similar problems. When they approached incumbent providers Verizon and Frontier, they were told fiber would be brought into the area but neither knew when.

Approximately two years ago, Metro Communications (Metro) was deploying a fiber network to service cell phone carriers. The planned route went directly through the center of Monticello. 

The partners approached Metro with a proposal. They would pay for half of the deployment costs for the section that went throught town. In exchange, Metro would bury an additional conduit and allow the partners to access some of the fiber. Metro ran fiber to the edge of properties lines of each entity.

CUSD #25 was the first to connect their facilities. Zimmerman expects the other three partners to be connected and lit by the end of the summer. Once the Library, the County, and the City connect the facilities, the total number of facilities on the network will be 20 - 25.

Through their intergovernmental agreement, the County paid for Metro for the total and each if the entities will reimburse one fourth of the cost. None of the entities bonded or borrowed.

The fiber network will allow the District to purchase 200 Mbps of bandwidth for $1,750 per month. Zimmerman notes that a bump up to 750 Mbps would cost about the same amount they paid when leasing four T1s. With the new infrastructure, CUSD #25 will be able to increase bandwidth in the future; speed between facilities reaches 1 Gbps.

Savings

The District used Capital Improvement funds for their share of deployment. When factoring in CUSD #25's total costs for monthly access, estimated maintenance fees, and estimated operating costs, CUSD #25 will save $16,750 per year on the new network. In other words, the district's investment will pay for itself in 4.5 years. This calculation only considers direct cost savings and does not take into account indirect savings. CUSD #25 will pay about half as much for four times as much capacity.

Technology staff at the District, spoke to the Piatt County Journal:

Todd Wiegel, a school district technology assistant, said it sets up the district for having the ability for all students to log in with a device at school.

“We could not handle that amount of machines on our (previous) infrastructure,” said Wiegel. “It was like trying to fit an elephant through a garden hose.”

...

“The speeds have definitely stabilized,” added Wiegel.

When the remaining partners begin using the network, all four will share bandwidth from Metro and reimburse the School District, reducing costs even further.

Earlier this year, a private buyer approached the joint committee charged with planning and executing the project. A February article described the situation:

A preliminary meeting with the potential buyer showed the company was not interested in providing the faster fiber optic speeds to residential customers, which did not sit well with Monticello City Superintendent Floyd Allsop.

"I just want assurances that they would work something out with somebody on residential so that we're meeting our goals," said Allsop. "And you would think they would want to do that, but we don't know they want to do that."

Selling the system would relieve local entities from the cost of maintaining the fiber, but Keith did not think it made sense to do it this soon.

"Once we sell it, we've got no say over it, where if we hire an outside company to maintain it, we've still got a say," said Keith.

As the network is fired up, the partners are considering future uses. Eventually, they hope to expand the network to a ring structure to improve redundency. They intend to lease dark fiber to a private provider to spur economic development and possibly provide residential services. The partners do not want to become and ISP:

It may be a while before businesses and homes can hook into the fiber, but it is on the committee’s radar. A plan that would lease extra fiber – the entities will likely use just 20 of the 78 thin fibers that were installed – in exchange for maintenance was discussed, but that plan fell through.

Now the plan is to take bids for a company to lease or purchase fiber with the intention of eventually providing commercial and residential service.

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

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.