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Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 31

More cities around the country are taking action and joining the Next Century Cities coalition. What started as a league of 32 is poised to double in size after the NCC launch, according to Jason Koebler with Motherboard. 

“The group includes cities that have built their own municipal broadband networks, cities that want to build their own, and cities that have worked with companies such as Google to bring fiber, gigabit-speed internet to their residents—the idea being that cities that don't have ultrafast internet can learn how to jump through legislative and logistical hoops from those who have been there before.”

Boston is one of the Next Century Cities founding members and the Boston Herald’s Jordan Graham writes that the city is facing some unique challenges.

“The city has been plagued by slow internet access for years — blamed in part on Verizon’s refusal to build its FiOS network in the city as well as the infrastructure challenges that any old city faces.” 

Meanwhile in Michigan, more than 400 policy makers, tech providers and broadband champions came together to talk about broadband strategies and implementation plans for Michigan communities. 

While cities and states are forming coalitions, individuals can make an impact as well. Andrew Banchich of Buffalo, NY is rooting for his city to get on the municipal Internet super-highway. The Buffalo native announced the creation of the “Free the Web” forum to help get the message out to local policymakers.

“Municipal Internet would provide Buffalo residents with faster, more reliable Internet speeds, at a lower cost. It would help stimulate Buffalo’s economy, improve the quality of life for our residents, provide service to some people who might not currently have access to the Internet, help attract people from other cities, promote healthy competition between other Internet providers, and support our booming medical campus, where scientists and researchers rely on fast Internet connections.” 

Many reporters seem to be hung up on trivial matters like how long it takes you to download a movie, but Claire Cain Miller with the New York Times gets it, she really gets it!

“America’s slow and expensive Internet is more than just an annoyance for people trying to watch “Happy Gilmore” on Netflix. Largely a consequence of monopoly providers, the sluggish service could have long-term economic consequences for American competitiveness.”

The Consumerist's Kate Cox thinks this kitty will help you understand why US consumers seem to be content to pay more for slower Internet. Spoiler Alert: even the cat doesn't get it.

Following the same story, Gerry Smith with Huffington Post, Anne L. Kim with Roll Call,  and Elizabeth Hagedorn with Cleveland’s News 5 and Newsy covered New America Foundation’s new Open Technology Institute report, that says very clearly: big US cities are falling behind, while (no surprise here) Chattanooga, Lafayette, and other smaller cities are the ones competing globally with the likes Seoul, Hong Kong, Tokyo and others. 

As Susan Crawford shows in an article this week, a new investigation reveals that your Internet Service Provider may already be intentionally slowing down Internet speeds.

 “M-Lab’s data suggests the logical conclusion that Verizon and Comcast, as well as Time Warner Cable, CenturyLink, and AT&T, are intentionally squeezing data coming from some incoming networks — in particular, networks associated with Netflix, which competes with these companies in video entertainment. Customers of these eyeball networks are getting degraded service that cannot be explained by anything other than business decisions.” 

Lots of questions surround building broadband networks, and this week, Chris Mitchell took part in a unique conversation on with Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica. As a follow-up to Brodkin’s coverage of cities taking control of their broadband futures, Mitchell joined former FCC official Blair Levin, Wilson NC broadband operations manager Will Aycock, and Ted Smith with the Civic Innovation Office in Louisville, KY for UNITE Live: a discussion on cities revolutionizing broadband. But, as Brodkin continued, it’s not quite time to uncork the champagne.

As always, we have much more work to do. 

Network Progressing in "Sugartown" Michigan

Last summer we reported on Sebewaing, the community of 1,700 in the tip of the "thumb" in Michigan. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) was exploring the possibilities of deploying its own FTTH network. Like other small communities, Sebewaing could not get the service it needed from large corporate providers. We recently caught up with SLW's Superintendent, Melanie McCoy, to get an update.

The community released its RFP [PDF] and received responses from two bidders. McCoy tells us that in Michigan, such a low response rate allows the municipality to deploy its own network, so SLW decided to proceed.

The construction bid for the fiber backbone went to Earthcom, located in Lansing. Air Advantage successfully bid to supply bandwidth and the headend. Calix will provide the customer premise equipment that will offer data and voice services.

Sebewaing's network is 90% aerial and the final estimate is $1-2 million. The network will provide 1 gig capacity with the potential to expand to 10 gigs. Because the utility has its own poles and in-house expertise to handle labor, SLW is able to perform make-ready work themselves, lowering the final cost of the deployment. SLW will use an interdepartmental loan from its electric, water, and wireless utilities to fund the investment. According to McCoy, the RFP responses were both about $1 million higher than the final estimate.

In 2003, SLW began providing wireless Internet access to residents in Sebewaing so staff has experience as a broadband utility. They also installed a small fiber loop in the downtown area to serve businesses and municipal facilities. The old fiber loop will be retired because it has fewer strands and has been maxed out for some time.

The new fiber will replace connections between fifteen public facilities, including wells, public safety, and administration buildings. Each facility currently pays only $15-25 per month to be connected, saving thousands in yearly fees for leased lines from incumbents. Rates will not change, even though the new network will offer higher capacity.

Bandwidth is currently purchased as part of a consortium that includes the school district. The district purchases bandwidth through a link to the Merit Network, the Michigan statewide fiber network that reaches educational and research facilities.

When SLW finishes the installation, it will work primarily with Air Advantage, a wireless and fiber provider specializing in connecting rural customers in the area. SLW will maintain the connection to the Merit Network for redundancy.

Pricing for connections is still being determined, but SLW anticipates more speed for less. According to McCoy, SLW sees this venture as another way to serve the public. The network will provide an essential service and will also boost economic development. Sebewaing, nicknamed "Sugartown," has a thriving sugar beet industry but when the auto industry took a downturn, the local economy suffered. To date, no other industry has stepped in to fill the gap.

Local establishments are ready to make a switch. Businesses and residents, frustrated with poor service from incumbents AT&T and Comcast, are already asking to be connected. McCoy also notes that the network is expected to offer telecommuting opportunities for a number of people. For example, an astronomer from the University of Michigan, located about 2 hours south, anticipates a possible move to the area. The rural night sky is ideal for his work but he needs a high capacity connection to share data with colleagues.

The Huron Daily Tribune spoke with McCoy in January, who hinted at more developments in Michigan:

Because of the many benefits involved in a FTTH project, other municipalities around the Thumb and in other areas are watching what Sebewaing is doing, McCoy said. The town could very well become the model for FTTH systems for rural areas all over the state, and beyond.

Louisiana and Michigan Towns Pass Resolutions to Support Municipal Network Authority

Two more communities have gone on the record as supporting local authority for telecommunications infrastructure investment. Communities in Vidalia and Sebewaing passed resolutions supporting the FCC's efforts to use its authority to discourage, prevent, and remove state barriers.

Vidalia, on the west side of the Mississippi in Louisiana, recently began offering free Wi-Fi in its new sports complex and along its riverfront. According to Mayor Hyram Copeland, the lack of free public access left local leaders feeling behind the times. From a Natchez Democrat article in February:

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

Vidalia seeks funding for a fiber network. Apparently, they are ready with a design and have the technical expertise in-house, but lack of funds have held up the project.

Vidalia's Resolution is almost identical to those in Ammon, Moultrie, Westminster, and Chanute.

Vidalia Seal

We reported on Sebewaing, located in Michigan's "thumb," last summer. The community runs its own electric utility and, due to lack of interest from incumbents, decided a FTTH network was a project they needed to pursue. According Melanie McCoy, from Sebewaing Light and Water, the project is proceeding as planned.

Sebewaing's Resolution uses the same language to address the points we see in Resolutions from the other communities: the need for better access, the importance of broadband infrastructure to local economies, and the important role of local government in the decision making process. Each community has expressed its support of the FCC's decision to exercise its authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

A recent press release from the Merit educational and research network in Michigan announces a new connection to its Ohio sister, OARnet. Member entities and local communities now enjoy better redundancy, expanded reach, and better services. Local communities continue to benefit from the presence of the middle mile infrastructure.

The network helps local Hillsdale College to cut connectivity costs; the Merit announcement quotes Hillsdale College leadership:

"Hillsdale College has been a Merit member since 1992," stated David Zenz, executive director of information technology services for Hillsdale College, "and it was always a dream to figure out some way to eliminate expensive data circuit costs to free up funds to purchase more bandwidth. In 2008 The City of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, Hillsdale College, and Merit figured out how to do just that."

Through a long term collaborative effort, Merit, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, and Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) came together to establish the Hillsdale Community Network. Each entity now benefits from lowered connectivity costs, better infrastructure, and improved opportunities. 

A 2009 story from Merit, describes the situation at ISD:

In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations [ISD and Hillsdale College] and others in the area began to make sense. 

According to the article, Merit managed the project from start to finish. The City has cut costs and improved economic opportunity. Also from the article:

"We saw a cost reduction for the city," according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. "We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off." 

"We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development." 

The expansion to bring OARnet and Merit together is part of the REACH-3MC project, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. We recently reported on Merit's completed segment expansion to rural Alpena, also part of the project.

Merit Network Completes Another Segment in Rural Michigan

Last fall we shared news about the Merit fiber optic network moving across Michigan. An October 24th press release from Merit announced that engineers recently completed another 3,000 foot segment. The expansion created a 10 Gbps connection between Alpena and Powers, Michigan. Powers is a rural community of less than 400; approximately 10,000 people live in Alpena.

The network began in 1966 as a way to connect state and research facilities. Since then, it has evolved to connect an extensive list of schools, libraries, and government facilities. 

From the press release:

"We've built fiber-optic infrastructure all the way to Superior, Wisconsin," said Michael Milliken, director of network engineering at Merit Network. "In Michigan, we have built and lit most of the REACH-3MC network in the Upper Peninsula, with routes going to Ironwood, Menominee and Houghton. Just the connection between Houghton, Hancock, and Calumet remains to be completed in Michigan. We also need to complete the DWDM network paths into Wisconsin and Minnesota." 

The REACH-3MC (Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Heath care – Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative) project is funded by two American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. The project will expand the original Merit network by an additional 2,287 miles. The project overview PDF provides a detailed map and information on Merit members.

Small Michigan Town Issues RFP for FTTH Network

The community of Sebewaing, located in the "thumb" of Michigan is moving closer to its own FTTH network, which will be the first new municipal FTTH project in the state.

Because of a state law impinging on local authority in Michigan, local governments must first issue an RFP and can build a telecommunications network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualified bids. If the community builds the network themselves, it probably must adhere to the RFP as if it were a private entity. This approach ignores the fact that a community operates a network with different incentives than a private company, so the two are not interchangeable. 

We wanted to know more about this effort, so we contacted Melanie McCoy, Superintendent of the municipal utility Sebewaing Light and Water. We discovered that the town of 1,700 residents, known for its beet farming, has several factors going for it. 

Communities with their own utilities already in place have personnel, equipment, and expertise which saves money and time. And because they already own the utility poles, they are often able to get started quickly rather than waiting for other firms to do "make-ready," which can take months as wires are shifted on poles. Sebewaing has a municipal fiber loop currently in place - another plus. McCoy tells us the fiber was installed in 2001 and 2002 at a cost of about $50,000.

Private Internet choices were limited to dial-up for about $20 per month or a T1 connection for around $1,000 to $1,500 per month. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water shared a T1 connection with local businesses.

Residents, business and government needed better connectivity and community leaders also realized the need to boost economic development. Sebewaing Light and Water leadership also wanted to increase efficiency with a SCADA system and considered a telecommunications utility a good investment. And looking toward the future, they knew installation of the fiber would position them favorabley for future investment. 

Sebewaing Map

Changes in community leadership, tight budgets, and legislative changes interrupted plans to connect the fiber to homes in Sebewaing. The community did the most they could with what they had, however, and connected city facilities to the fiber loop.

Within a couple years, local business owners who could not get the speeds they needed from incumbent cable and DSL providers, approached Sebewaing Light and Water asking to be connected to high-speed Internet.

In 2011, Sebewaing commissioned a feasibility study from Pulse Broadband based on the concept of serving 1,000 households with an open access model. The RFP calls for 1 gig capacity symmetrical service. McCoy estimates the network to be about 18 miles of fiber on the mostly aerial network in the service area. The project estimate is around $1 million and the city council plans to use funds from the city capital improvement fund.

McCoy notes that suppliers, consultants, and bandwidth suppliers have already approached the city with inquiries. Closing for the RFP [PDF available online] is late June, so look for updates later this summer.

City and School District Team Up for Fiber in Royal Oak, Michigan

The City of Royal Oak, Michigan, a Detroit suburb and home to 57,000 residents, just announced it will be partnering with the school district to build a fiber optic network. According to the Royal Oak Patch, the cost is estimated at $400,000 and will link together eight city facilities and nine school buildings. According to the article:

“We are spending money now to save money long term,” said Manager of Information Systems Scott Newman.  “The new network will be much quicker, more reliable, have increased capacity, and cost the City less to operate.”

The cost of the project is being split between the City and the School District.  The School District will own and operate the network, and the City will have dedicated fiber for its share of the network’s capacity.  Construction is scheduled to begin this summer, and is planned to be completed this fall.

Update: We contacted Shawn Lewis-Larkin, Superintendent at Royal Oak Schools, for more detail on the project. He replied via email:

We obtained a price from a vendor for meeting the needs we have without constructing our own fiber network.  For 60 months the cost was going to be $775,656

vs.

Our 5 Year Cost to build and operate our cooperative network with the City will be $205,192.

Savings for Royal Oak Schools:  $570,463 Over 60 Months or yearly savings of $114,092

We are still amazed when public schools report such incredible savings, even though we encounter these savings on a regular basis.

Extensive Fiber Route Snaking Its Way Across Michigan

The nonprofit Merit Network, Inc., of Michigan, started in 1966 as a way to provide networking help to the state's research and educational facilities across the state. Over the years, the organization has kept up with the times and is now spearheading the Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Healthcare - Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC II) project.

The project will bring connectivity to community anchor institutions and underserved rural communities in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. The exentive fiber project is funded with two Broadband Technologies Opportunities Program (BTOP) grants totaling $103.2 million. When completed, Upper and Lower Michigan will house an additional 2,287 miles of fiber.

Matt Roush recently reported on the project, which is well underway in Monroe County in the southern part of the state. Roush brought news about installation of telecommunications huts, an early step in expanding the network into northern Michigican. From the article:

REACH-3MC will connect 105 community anchor institutions as the network is built and will pass 900 more over time. Led by Merit Network, REACH-3MC includes sub-recipients from the private sector to make broadband readily available to households and businesses that lack adequate service options in the 52 counties that make up the project service area.

For more details on the project, including a map of the proposed routes, follow this link to a PDF of the project overview.

 

Tornado Destroys Homes, Cable Companies Charge Homeowners

When a tornado rips your town apart and destroys your home, should you have to pay extra fees to your cable provider? Of course not. But we continue to see these news stories about massive cable companies ripping off people who are just trying to find the energy to get by day to day.

Last year, we saw reports about Charter Cable telling Alabama tornado victims they had to "find" their cable boxes or pay for them.

According to the friend, Glenda Dillashaw, a Charter representative told her that Spain would need to find his cable box or be charged $212 for its loss.

Fortunately, when Spain followed up with Charter after receiving another bill, the representative told him not to worry about it, suggesting that either Charter has an ambiguous policy to deal with it or Spain found a customer support person who's heart had not yet been crushed by soul-numbing job of being a customer support representative for a massive cable company.

At least one other company has a formal policy in place for these situations:

Bright House Networks, whose service area includes hard-hit Pratt City, also expects its customers to file claims under homeowners' or renters' insurance to pay for lost or destroyed cable boxes. "That's how we normally handle it," spokesman Robert L. Smith said.

Fascinatingly, an article in Michigan claims Comcast does not have a policy in place for these situations. Following recent tornados in Michigan, Comcast customers who lost their homes were given the option of paying a cancellation fee or paying a reduced "vacation" rate for a service they could not use.

Comcast Logo

Katherine Pfeiffer and Kathy Crawford soon found that residents were being told that they would be responsible for damaged or lost cable boxes and modems.

Initially residents were told their accounts with Comcast would be put on “vacation” status, where a monthly fee of between $15 and $20 would be charged.

Comcast is supposedly "working on a solution" for these people.

The hubris of this massive companies is unreal. People who are waiting to hear if their home is repairable or has to be destroyed should not be confronted by the cable company with exorbitant fees. The subject should, quite literally, be the last thing on their minds. Local businesses understand this, big absentee cable companies do not.

The big cable providers exist because they have market power, which limits competition, leaving people with few options. Comcast does not compete on the basis of good customer service, it competes on the basis of being the only local alternative to satellite video, which is plagued by its own problems.

Disasters are one of the many times when the difference between local companies and absentee companies becomes most visible. Ironically, it is the big cable companies who are best poised to simply write off the damage of natural disasters -- but they refuse to do so, choosing instead to make the lives of storm victims that much worse.

Community networks provide an alternative. They are a cooperative part of the community, not a leech upon it.

Update: I spoke to a local private company I hold in high esteem that saw a number of its customers hit by horrible floods a few years back and they confirmed that they do not charge customers who are devastated by events out of their control. Like us, they have a low opinion of those who would charge. Also interesting: they have insurance to deal with such situations rather than expecting the victims to cover it with homeowner policies. Score another point for local ownership.

Michigan's Failed Deregulation of Cable After 5 Years

Five years ago, Michigan decided to deregulate cable companies, preempting local authority to negotiate with cable companies in favor of a more relaxed statewide franchise. Many states have gone down this path in hopes of spurring competition and lowering the prices for service. All have seen very minimal gains (mostly from AT&T U-Verse and Verizon FiOS, deployments that have gone forward as well in states that did not preempt local authority). None have seen real decreases in prices.

Michigan also created greater hurdles for the public sector (click on Michigan on our Community Broadband Preemption Map for an explanation of the legislation). In short, Michigan made a big bet that the private sector would build the networks they need to remain competitive. The results are in.

"No matter how you look at it, 70 percent of Michigan's communities still have only one cable provider four years after deregulation," said Deborah Guthrie, President of MI-NATOA, in a statement. "Even in the places where two providers offer service, if serious competition existed, prices wouldn't run up several times faster than inflation and customer service wouldn't be so poor."

Michigan's National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Administrators joined with the Michigan Alliance for Community Media (neither of which seems to have much a web presence) to note that Comcast's prices for lifeline basic have gone up 18% with other services increasing 3x the rate of inflation. Most communities remain stuck with Comcast or Charter solely, two of the most hated corporations in America.

As we educate legislators around the country, we need to keep the lessons from Michigan in mind. Legislators often know very little about telecom issues and are bombarded by lobbyist talking points - but examples like Michigan clearly show what happen when the telco and cableco lobbyists make policy.

And so long as we are discussing Michigan, it is worth noting that the City of Detroit is pushing to have Michigan's statewide franchise law invalidated. Below you'll see the pdf of Detroit's recent motion for summary judgment, offering background for those who are interested.