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An Increasing Call for Community Owned Networks

While Comcast focuses on increasing its market power rather than improving services in the communities it monopolizes, no one should be surprised that we are seeing a surge in interest for building community owned networks.

We've heard from many people who want to learn how they can start - more than we can always respond to, unfortunately. We are working on a resource to answer many of those questions, but it always boils down to 2 things: building a supportive network of people and getting informed. Get the word out - especially to local business leaders and anyone else who may be supportive.

There are many potential business models and financing opportunities, but some will work better than others in each community. That said, there are some basics that every community should be immediately considering.

The first is building a fiber network to connect anchor institutions such as schools, libraries, first responders, municipal facilities, and the like (see our Fact Sheet on savings from such networks). These networks should be constructed in such a way as to enable future expansions to local businesses, residents, and generally everything in the community or even beyond for rural areas. That means choosing the backbone routes carefully and ensuring that as much fiber is available as possible. Using conduit with channels and always leave at least one channel free to pull a future bundle (replacing a smaller count bundle that can then be removed to continue having a free channel).

Another smart move is to begin getting conduit and fiber in the ground as part of other capital projects, like street rebuilds, water main replacement, and the like. We will discuss how Santa Monica did this in an upcoming case study. In the meantime, there is no better resource than CTC Technology & Energy's recent report, Gigabit Cities: Technical Strategies for Facilitating Public or Private Broadband Construction in your Community.

We have additional resources organized in two places: on MuniNetworks.org and on ILSR.org. If you can't find a piece of information you need, let us know.

Of the recent voices calling for at least consideration of a publicly owned network in their community, two recent ones stand out. Lev Gonick, head of OneCommunity in northeast Ohio (our coverage of them here) recently called on the region to take its future into its own hands rather than waiting for Google.

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City Halls across the land are asking how they can attract Google Fiber and extend the Google brand to their city. Of course, we can and should invite Google to the North Coast.

We can wait for Google or we can continue building our own future.

OneCommunity, with the support of our hundreds of forward-thinking public benefit organizations, has built and now manages the largest community fiber optic network in the country. Built right here, our $200 million network has become a reference model for national programs and communities across the country aspiring to take their future into their own hands when it comes to broadband.

It is worth noting that this is no slap across the face of Google. Google has said many times that it is not going to build everywhere and that communities need to be proactive - which means either making investments to build their own networks or finding worthwhile partners. This is a slap across the face of incumbent cable and telephone providers that are not meeting local needs.

In Massachusetts, some in Cambridge are also making the case for local investments in a fiber network. Saul Tannenbaum calls for a community network to meet the needs of everyone in the community. In his well-reasoned piece, he writes:

Cambridge does have an established method of tackling complex, controversial planning issues. It appoints an external body, composed of residents, experts, and stakeholders who engage in a public process. In cases where the City has neither the expertise nor resources to address an issues, this is accompanied by an appropriation of funds to employ consultants. That's what should happen next.

City Manager Richard Rossi should appoint a commission composed of experts, residents and scholars, the innovation community and the social justice community and charge them with developing a municipal broadband proposal for Cambridge.

Those who want to know how their community should proceed should read the final third of his post (though it is all worth reading). This is especially true for communities without municipal electric utilities.

Finally, stay tuned for next week - when we release a case study on Santa Monica, one of the most successful municipal networks to have been built by a community without a municipal electric utility.

Sun Prairie Ponders Fiber Network Investment in Wisconsin

The Sun Prairie City Council met on January 14th to discuss a possible investment in a municipal fiber network. Thank you to local resident Jonathan Kleinow for alerting us to developments in the south central Wisconsin town.

The Star published an article about the meeting in which The Motive Group presented information to the Committee of the Whole. According to the story, the consulting firm has been working with Sun Prairie Utilities for a year to find ways to improve local connectivity and spur economic development with fiber. The community is considering the possibilities of a triple-play FTTH network for the areas 30,000 residents.

Sun Prairie Utilities solicited responses to a community survey. They received 700 responses with 88% in favor of a fiber investment. 

From the article:

The recommended plan put for[th] by The Motive Group has a total cost of near $27 million, with $21 million of that as year-one capital expenditures to serve roughly 13,550 homes and businesses in the city.

Budgeted in the initial year's expense total is $11 million for aerial and underground construction and equipment.

Once the fiber system is operational and available for customers, [The Motive Group's Beth] Ringley said projections show $9.97 million in annual operating revenue by year 20 of the system to go along with expenses of $1.26 million.

By year 20, total assets are projected to be at $27.16 million, with total cash at $12.56 million.

Councilman Jon Freund commented that he was opposed to the idea at first but that he now believes Sun Prairie Utilities and the City could partner to distinguish the community. From the article:

“Technology has become a greater and greater need for both businesses and residents,” Freund continued. “This is an opportunity for us to basically differentiate Sun Prairie from all the other communities in Dane County.”

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He added that fiber installation would “put Sun Prairie on the leading edge” for economic development and local and long-distance education opportunities.

Sun Prairie Wisconsin Logo

The Star also reported on Jaunary 25th that city officials want to provide ample opportunity to incumbents:

“The worst they can say is ‘No’ and we say ‘Thank you for your time‘ and we come back to this body and say we've ruled that out,” [Mayor John] Murray remarked.

Freund said he and others spoke Tuesday with Frontier representatives and the provider expressed little interest.

“It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city,” Freund said.

City Council members plan to reach out to the people of Sun Prairie through informational meetings. The first is scheduled for March 4th.

“My hope is that we continue to put additional information out over the next month to continue to educate the public,” Freund said.

Sun Prairie is located about an hour southeast of Reedsburg, where the community has benefitted from a community network since 1998. Reedsburg recently began offering gigabit service for less than $300 per month.

A local news story notes that an existing beer distributor is already using the utility's fiber and it has been important to its business:

Ohio Community Wants to Expand Use of Existing Fiber

In Springfield, Ohio, community leaders are looking for ways to use their share of a commercially owned fiber optic loop on the eastern side of town. The community hopes to secure a $50,000 Local Innovation Fund grant from the state to finance a feasibility study reports the News-Sun.

Approximately 60,000 people live in Springfield, located 45 miles west of Columbus. Advanced Virtual Engine Test Cell, Inc. (AVETEC) owns and operates a 19-mile fiber optic ring connecting downtown to its facility. The fiber route passes the Clark State Community College and at least one public school. Springfield owns 24 unused strands of the AVETEC network and wants to build off that asset to save public dollars, improve school connectivity, and encourage economic development.

From the News-Sun article:

“From an economic development standpoint, it’s definitely capitalizing on an amenity that’s already in the ground that we can use then to leverage as an additional incentive or perk to doing business in Springfield, especially business that’s proximal to that fiber in the near-term,” said Josh Rauch, the city’s deputy economic development administrator. “Then as it builds out, you get more and more connectivity throughout the city.”

“The goal is to take the fiber build-out we’ve got and look at other places you could build fiber,” Rauch said.

The Miami Valley Educational Computer Association (MVECA) is a regional nonprofit consortium of twenty-five local K-12 school districts. MVECA leases and maintains a fiber network for the Springfield City School District and other Clark County school districts. The Executive Director of MVECA, anticipating the need for 10 gigabit connections, hopes to see a collaboration with the City to bring the fiber to Springfield and area schools. He believes working together will reduce costs for local school districts and MVECA.

“With the continuously increasing technology demands that schools are placing on our network, finding more affordable ways and long-term solutions for really robust network connectivity is essential,” [MVECA Executive Director Thor] Sage said.

The next round of approved applications to the Local Government Innovation Fund will be announced in February 2014.

In Kansas, Chanute One Step Closer to FTTH

Chanute's City Commission voted on November 25th to move forward with plans for a FTTH network. The community of approximately 9,000 began installing fiber in 1984 for electric utility purposes. They have slowly expanded the network throughout the community. Chanute's fiber and wireless broadband utility now serves government, education, and several businesses. We documented their story in our case study, Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage.

Beth Ringley from The Motive Group presented its feasibility study to the City Commission at the meeting. The proposal includes smart grid technology to support Automated Metering Infrastructure for the municipal electric, natural gas, and water utilities and enhanced triple-play service offerings. City leaders hope to eventually support multiple providers via the infrastructure.

The Motive Group predicts a 35% take rate with 5,000 premises passed. The estimated cost will be $19.5 million; revenue bonds would finance the deployment. Business models predict a positive cash flow after six years with capital costs paid off in approximately 20 years.

The City Commission voted unanimously to allow the City Manager to move forward by investigating financial options for the project and make recommendations for Commission approval. The City Manager will also proceed with negotiations with vendors needed to construct and manage the project. 

The City Commission meeting is available online. Discussion about the proposal begins approximately one hour into the meeting. You can also view slides of The Motive Group Presentation in the meeting documents.

Charter Prices Inspire Washington City to Consider its Own Network

Ellensburg, located in central Washington, is considering the pros and cons of a municipal fiber network. A big pro for the community of 18,000 is the ability to predict costs rather than depend on Charter Communications. Charter wants to begin charging $10,300 per month for municipal connectivity it previously supplied at no cost in return for access to the public rights-of-way.

The Ellensburg Daily Record recently reported that the City Council unanimously passed the first reading of an ordinance that will allow the city to establish a telecommunications utility. The city began using Charter's fiber optic network in 1997 as part of the city's franchise agreement. Educational institutions, public safety, and the county public utilities district also use the network. Ellensburg owns and operates its own electric and natural gas utilities. Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar was quoted:

“It’s clearly in the city’s best interest to just build it on its own and own it, compared to leasing it,” he said.

The community needs approximately 15 miles of fiber optic network to replace Charter's institutional network. The two parties are still negotiating and may still reach an agreement for a new contract although the article reports:

In June, Council directed the city to solicit vendor proposals for building a city network, and Dunbar said the city is close to granting the contract.

He declined to share a total cost because contract negotiations are ongoing, but said it makes more sense for the city to build the network now rather than pay in perpetuity, he said.

“A telecommunications network is like a 35-year endeavor,” he said. “If we would have done a lease, we could have bought two or three networks over 35 years.”

Local median KIMA TV recently covered the story:

We would go further and note the many more advantages of owning rather than leasing. When the city owns the fiber network, it can expand it to connect local businesses and/or residents who feel that Charter is not meeting their needs. The network can be expanded at low cost over time in conjunction with other projects, for instance as part of an effort to create a new commercial or industrial park. Owning provides much more flexibility than leasing, particularly with a massive and inflexible corporation like Charter.

Columbia, Missouri Hires Consultant for Fiber Network Review and Recommendations

The City Council of Columbia is moving forward with efforts to improve connectivity in the town of 113,000. In November, elected officials hired a consultant to analyze the community's current infrastructure and develop a broadband plan.

According to a Tribune article, the initiative will be a collaborative effort between the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri. Columbia hired Magellan Advisors who responded to a May Request for Proposals. A representative from Columbia Water and Light, Connie Kacprowicz, estimated a four month turn around on report. From the article:

Currently, Magellan Advisors is in the needs assessment stage of the process, Kacprowicz said, and that involves talking to different companies in town to gather information about their experiences with broadband services and suggestions for improvement.

"A lot of it is finding out what kind of resources we already have in town and what can be done with them," she said.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons under Creative Commons License.

Los Angeles Wants Better Networks

The City of Los Angeles has announced a confusing intention to release an RFP for a vendor to install a gigabit fiber network. A recent Government Technology article touches on the broad plan to build a massive fiber and wireless network to every public and private premise. 

GovTech spoke with Steve Reneker, general manager of the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency. We last spoke with Reneker in Episode #11 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In that interview, he described how Riverside, California, used the publicly owned network to revitalize the economy and support the community's digital inclusion plan. Los Angeles wants to emmulate Riverside's success. From the GovTech article:

“[The plan] is really focused on fixing the operational issues that due to the economy have been left by the wayside over the last three and four years,” Reneker said. “So, correcting the lack of investment, the lack of technology refresh, the reduction in staff that make operational aspects of our infrastructure difficult to keep going forward, tries to deliver an incremental approach to starting a long, lengthy rebuilding process.”

Councilman Bob Blumenthal introduced a proposal in August, 2013 to also blanket the city in free Wi-fi. Blumenfield's website states the city has 3,500 existing wireless hotspots.

Engadget reports that the City Council unanimously approved the proposal to move forward with the plan at a November 5th meeting. A Request for Proposals will be issued in the coming months for the fiber and free wireless network:

It's expected that the fiber will also supply residents with free internet access at speeds between 2Mbps and 5Mbps, with paid plans scaling up to a gigabit. Naturally, the city expects the effort will bring free or affordable WiFi to kids who've scored iPads through the school district. The entire scheme is expected to cost $3 billion to $5 billion, but the outfit that builds the network will have to foot the bill. 

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Experts wonder if large providers, who may be the only ones with the resources to make such an investment, would be willing to invest. Harold Feld from Public Knowledge spoke with Ars Technica:

"My first reaction is 'I look forward to their RFP for a unicorn supplier, because I think it's about as likely under these terms,'" Harold Feld, senior VP of the technology-focused consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.

The Ars piece pointed out some advantages to a winning bidder in such an arrangement:

While the vendor would have to provide free Internet to everyone at the network's slowest speeds (potentially with ads to support the service), it could also charge a premium for everything up to gigabit lines and could sell TV and phone service to everyone in LA. Moreover, the winning bidder could get contracts to provide the city government with data center hosting and perhaps other IT services like e-mail.

"I like to think of it as limited at this point only by your imagination," Los Angeles City Council member Bob Blumenfield, who came up with the idea, told Ars.

ILSR's Christopher Mitchell also spoke to Ars:

"As I understand California law at this point, LA would be asking someone to do something that they could do now. LA doesn't appear to be giving them any specific inducement to do so. And a lot of providers, if they were going to do this they would just pick a part of LA and do it there. There's no reason they would choose to do it everywhere."

Mitchell suggested LA take an approach similar to award winning Santa Monica - installation of conduit in all construction projects. Over time, the city could have an extensive network of pathways for fiber. City Net leases dark fiber to area businesses, connects government facilities, and provides affordable lit fiber to local commercial customers.

At this point, the city tech department has been directed to draft an RFP [see the PDF of the Innovation, Technology and General Services Committee Recommendation]. The RFP will list "available assets and services that would entice a vendor to provide a build out of some level of free broadband service to all City residents while respecting the commercial carrier's basic levels of service and to not significantly influence carrier competition." Developing that list may take some time. Blumenfield notes that a map or catalog of total city fiber may not exist.

When pressed for details on what the city could offer any vendor, Blumenfield told Ars:

"You're asking me to define these things and at this point I'm hesitating to define them, because at this point we're just really at the early phases. It's what you imagine it to be. We're issuing these RFPs to get people to think big and to bring forth proposals to the city of how they would partner with the city."

Update on 11/19 from Christopher - The more I learn about the approach, the worse I think it is. Craig Settles interviewed Steve Reneker and it sounds like Los Angeles will be making itself more dependent on a provider that almost certainly will not be rooted in the community. It is proposing to subsidize a rollout by promising contracts for city services (also known as the failed Minneapolis Wi-Fi model). This is particularly disappointing for a city that has significant resources that would allow it, at a minimum, to move toward an actual partnership as Seattle settled on this year. This RFP is a refusal of the local government to take responsibility, not a smart plan.

As Emmetsburg Plans to Vote on Muni Network, Mediacom Misinforms

The Iowa community of 4,000 will take up Public Measure D on November 5th. Voters will decided whether to approve a $3.5 million bond issue to cover approximately half the cost to build a FTTH system. Incumbent Mediacom is distributing flyers throughout the community urging a "no" vote. Community leaders are doing their best to combat Mediacom's propaganda by educating the voters.

We reported about the community's 1998 vote to establish a municipal cable communications or television system. The city did not act on the vote at the time because the project was cost prohibitive. The estimated cost of the project is now about $3 million less than it was in the late 1990s. Emmetsburg wants to seize the opportunity by joining The Community Agency (TCA), a coalition of municipalities in the region that collectively own a hybrid fiber coaxial cable network. Emmetsburg would join with a full fiber network.

The town currently provides natural gas, water and wastewater services through its municipal utility.

In a flyer [pdf] aimed at convincing locals to vote no, Mediacom brags that "Customers in Emmetsburg get the same services as those in larger cities..." Unfortunately, Mediacom's service in larger cities is also awful and more suited to the late 1990's than the modern digital economy. Consumer Reports has rated Mediacom among the absolute worst Internet providers in the United States.

Public Question D reads:

"Shall the City of Emmetsburg, Iowa issue its notes in an amount not to exceed $3,500,000 for the purpose of paying costs of constructing and equipping all or part of the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility, including the acquisition, construction and installation of a fiber to the premise broadband communications system and related equipment and distribution facilities, and including all or a portion of the costs associated with connecting the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility fiber system with the system of the Community Cable Television Agency of O'Brien County a cooperative undertaking among the cities of Hartley, Paullina, Primghar and Sanborn pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 28E, Code of Iowa?" 

In addition to $3.5 million in General Obligation bonds, the Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities would issue $2.63 million in Revenue bonds.

Emmetsburg Utilities

A recent Reporter/Democrat article covered an October 29th information session in Emmetsburg. Representatives from the Emmetsburg Municipal Utility Board of Trustees hosted the meeting to educate voters. A panel of technical experts and community leaders answered residents' questions. 

Curtis Dean [Broadband Services Coordinator from the Iowa Municipal Utilities Association] cited "a real world example: "I was in Spencer for the first decade of the Century, 2000 to 2010. People in Spencer saved over $10 million total on what they paid for their telecommunication vs comparable cities served by the same providers nearby. By the way, when we calculated those numbers in Spencer, we were using Emmetsburg as the comparison." 

If the referendum does not pass, the project will not move forward. If the community approves the measure, public officials estimate construction as early as next spring.

Community leaders urge voters to vote yes. The Mayor and five City Council members published an "Open Letter To Citizens Of The Emmetsburg Community" encouraging a positive vote:

We encourage each and every eligible voter in Emmetsburg to take the time to cast your respective vote on November 5th. This is a very important decision and is one that we should make as a community. Together, we've accomplished many great things in the past. We look forward to continuing to do more of the same in the future. 

A recent letter in the Reporter/Democrat from the Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities Board of Trustees summed up the critical situation that faces many small towns with little or no telecommunications competition:

Progress needs to be supported. If we are not trying to grow we are dying. Many small county seat towns in Iowa are suffering economically and shrinking in terms of population and their ability to be viable for their citizens. This initiative to bring local telecommunications ownership back to Emmetsburg is critical in these efforts to maintain and grow our small community.

Rhode Island's Aquidneck Community Considers Last Mile Options

Approximately 60,000 people live on Aquidneck Island in the towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Middletown. The Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network (OSHEAN) travels to the island but community leaders want to find a way to provide services to more residents, businesses, and institutions. OSHEAN is an under utilized middle mile network and most on the island still receive single digit Mbps service.

The Aquidneck Broadband Advisory Board hopes an investment in a last mile network will spur economic development, expand the use of OSHEAN, and increase telecommuting possibilities on the island. The group includes members from each of the three municipalities, local business leaders, and citizens. A recently released Request for Information seeks input regarding a potential gigabit last mile network that can support data, video, and voice. According to the RFI:

This effort will result in the development of a master plan for improving broadband infrastructure island‐ wide, including finance options, grants, and policies for the installation of high speed fiber optic broadband.

The Board will accept responses until November 15, 2013. A PDF of the RFI is posted on the Newport website.

Franklin County, Alabama, Task Force Investigates Internet Options

In a reminder of just how poor telecommunications can be in this country, Franklin County in rural northwest Alabama has formed a Task Force to investigate how it can get something better than dialup.

“The Internet has become an important as having electricity and water,” said Cole, an extension agent in Franklin County. “For our businesses to attract customers and to attract other businesses to come in here, we have to have broadband Internet access.”

But it turns out that they don't even have access to modern telephones in some instances:

Some Franklin County residents have access to dial-up Internet, which is slower than broadband high-speed Internet service. However, some Franklin residents still have a “party line” for phone service.

Who has refused to invest in these exchanges? AT&T is the major provider in the area (followed by CenturyLink) and it came to a Task Force meeting to talk about what "needs to be done to bring high-speed Internet to the county."

Unfortunately the report doesn't note what the ideas were but we would be surprised to learn it doesn't involve some form of federal or local subsidy to get AT&T to invest in this area. There is not much profit to be made, so AT&T is more likely to push these people into expensive 4G LTE wireless solutions than anything that would compete with modern connections.

This is not the first such meeting - as noted by a previous article:

Commission Chairman Barry Moore said meetings were previously held to discuss the lack of high-speed Internet, but nothing materialized.

When it comes to local governments solving their problems by investing in themselves, AT&T falls over itself to stop them - even if it means an area will remain unserved.

We read of a conservative Republican holding out hope for federal grants to subsidize such a project.

In addition, Kreg Kennedy, a district field representative for U.S. Rep Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, discussed the possibility of federal grants to help get the project underway.

It is a fascinating situation when AT&T angling for taxpayer money from the federal government is seen by many as the "private sector" in action while local governments building networks without any use of taxpayer dollars (as the vast majority are) is cast as an illegitimate intervention in the sacred market.

Solving problems locally whenever possible is a wiser decision. When it comes to better access to the Internet, local governments should be investing in their own community, not trying to bribe companies to expand that have a history of terrible customer service and reluctance to invest in next-generation networks.

If Franklin County really wants to solve its problem, it should look to the community networks in Tennessee or the new network in Opelika, Alabama.