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Amherst, Massachusetts Exploring Fiber for Economic Development Downtown

The Amherst Business Improvement District (BID) recently hired a firm to prepare an engineering study aimed at bringing fiber connectivity to its downtown reports MassLive. 

In 2007, the community began offering free Wi-Fi downtown after receiving a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to build a wireless mesh network. The city worked with UMass Amherst, DARPA, and NSF to deploy the system. In 2013, the city invested in upgrades which increased speeds and extended the network's geographic coverage area.

Community leaders feel Amherst needs fiber to boost economic development now and in the future. Sean Hannon, Amherst Information Technology director, told MassLive:

"Fiber is needed because it's the only medium that can support those speeds at the distance we need.  It also should support new network equipment 20 to 30 years from now."

The study will examine optimal routes, methods, and cost estimates for deployment.

The Amherst BID is a nonprofit economic development organization whose members include local property owners, business owners, and residents. Their focus, as defined by the community's 2011 Improvement Plan, is to improve the downtown area through economic development, events, marketing, beautification, and special projects.

Hudson Developing Plans for Muni Fiber Open Access Network in Ohio

Hudson is moving ahead with plans to develop a publicly owned fiber network, reports the Hub Times. The City Council recently approved a contract with a consultant to develop a conceptual design, implement the plan, and recruit service providers interested in operating over an open access network.

In January, the town of about 23,000 conducted a residential and business survey to determine the overall state of broadband in the community. At a February meeting, the Council reviewed the survey results. Almost 1,000 residents and 133 businesses answered the survey which revealed that Internet services were lacking in coverage, speed, performance, and reliability. From a February Hub Times article:

Hudson's small and medium business community reported many issues with their current broadband services, citing poor reliability and performance as negatively affecting their ability to do business in the city. Many businesses wanted to upgrade to a better service but found that they could not afford to do so.

Consultants recommend building off the community's fiber I-Net to improve connectivity for local businesses. According to the city's Broadband Needs Assessment and Business Plan, Hudson will also consider offering services as a retail provider if no ISPs express interest in using an open access city infrastructure.

If the city  decides to pursue the open access model, consultants estimate Hudson will need to spend approximately $4.9 million to four commercial areas of town. With the added expenses and responsibilities as a retail provider, the costs would likely run closer to $6.5 million. The plan suggests deploying to businesses first and later add a residential buildout.

Bozeman's Public-Private Approach In-Depth - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 142

In Montana, local businesses and the city of Bozeman have been working on a public-private partnership approach to expanding Internet access that is likely to involve the city building an open access fiber network. We discuss their approach this week with Brit Fontenot, Economic Development Director for the city of Bozeman; David Fine, Bozeman Economic Development Specialist; and the President of Hoplite Industries, Anthony Cochenour.

Bozeman has long been known as a city with opportunities for outdoor activities but it also has a significant tech presence though like nearly every other community in the United States, many recognize the need for more investment in better options for connectivity.

A group of citizens, local businesses, and city staff have been examining their options, how they might finance it, and how to encourage the existing providers to work with them in improving Internet access.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 22 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Yolo County, California Ready for Better Broadband

The Yolo County Board of Supervisors in California voted unanimously recently to accept consultants' recommendations to take steps improve broadband in the county. Some of those recommendations included investing in infrastructure to improve both urban and rural areas in the northern county. 

The Davis Enterprise reported on the meeting from February 24th:

With its diverse mix of rural and urban areas, the county has communities where little or no broadband service is available. And even in urban areas with greater access to service and providers, many residents complain of slow and unreliable connections, according to the Yolo Broadband Strategic Plan, which also provided direction for county officials on closing the divide in the coming years.

The strategic plan, commissioned in 2013, notes that in some areas residents must rely on dial-up or satellite:

“Residents are generally limited to low-speed connections that prevent these users from accessing the majority of online content,” reported John Honker of Magellan Advisors LLC, which prepared the report.

“Using the Internet for anything but simple Web browsing is challenging in these communities,” he said.

The situation is especially critical for farming communities in the county, reports the study:

Yolo's agricultural populations are also challenged by poor access to broadband, especially in the farming and seed technology industries. Yolo farms are often unable to keep up with the technological advancements in the agricultural field that would allow them achieve greater productivity and better management of their natural resources.

In the more urban areas, such as the City of Davis (home of UC Davis), residents complain they cannot get the service they need in households with multiple devices. In those cases, the bandwidth they need is just too expensive if it is available. These same communities complain of unreliable networks.

Almost a third of Yolo County residents who responded to the study survey reported that they use satellite or dial-up for Internet access, 35 percent said they use AT&T DSL, 18 percent reported they use Frontier DSL, and 18 percent reported they use mobile Internet. Eighty-five percent of respondents reported download speeds of slower than 6 Mbps, reports the Yolo County profile from the study.

“Yolo County is on the wrong side of the digital divide,” [Honker] told county supervisors. “The more devices we’re using, we’re taxing our connections more, creating demand for the services and the networks can’t keep up.”

Dakota County Considering Expanding to Open Access for Businesses, Residents

In a recent meeting of the Dakota County Administration, Finance and Policy Committee, Dakota County's Network Collaboration Engineer David Asp provided an update to Commissioners on the status of their broadband plan. Dakota has saved millions of dollars with their network through collaborative efforts, innovative dig-once approaches, and specially deveoped software.

As part of its long term strategy, the county is now considering ways to offer connectivity to local businesses and residents via open access infrastructure. Blandin on Broadband's Ann Treacy attended the February 3rd meeting and, thanks to Asp, posted the PPT from his presentation.


We spoke with David Asp in Episode #117 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In 2011, Dakota County was named one of the Intelligent Community Forum's 21 Smart Communities. 

We learned while developing our case study on Dakota County that their efforts to coordinate excavation, including specialized software they developed themselves, has reduced the cost of installing fiber by more than 90 percent. We estimated the County has saved over $10 million in fiber and conduit deployment costs.

For more on this network, download a copy of our case study that includes the stories of Dakota County and eleven other Minnesota communities: All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber internet Access.

Thank you, Ann, for attending the meeting and sharing your videos:

Video: 
See video
See video

Isleboro, Maine, Will Vote to Bond for Municipal Network in May

Isleboro, the Maine island community of 566, will decide in May whether or not they want to bond to build a municipal fiber network, reports The Working Waterfront. The network will be owned by the town who plans to partner with GWI to operate and manage it. 

Currently, about 2/3 of residents on the island use DSL from Fairpoint. While a few locations can reach 15 Mbps download, most residents pay from $20 - $70 for around 3 Mbps download. Upload speeds are much less. GWI also offers point-to-point wireless from the mainland and one side of the island has cellphone.

The firm estimated costs to cover the island to be between $2.5 and $3 million, which would include construction and leasing of poles from Central Maine Power (CMP).  Community leaders will ask voters to approve a municipal bond to fund the project:

The $3 million bond would raise property taxes on a house assessed at $300,000 by about $13.77 per month ($164.25 per year). As a per-month cost, with both the pay-back on the bond and the standard service fee for Internet, the resident of a house valued at $300,000 would pay $48.77, according to [Arch] Gillies, [chairman of the Board of Selectmen]. (This appears to be for the lowest level of service.)

In 2012, the community formed a Broadband Working Group to dig deeper in to the state of broadband on the island and search for ways to improve it. The community hired a consultant to do an assessment and make recommendations. Traditional large scale providers do not find the community ripe for investment with its small number of households.

After reviewing the recommendations, community leaders decided it was in the community's best interest to deploy a network that would be owned by the public. They then engaged in a Request for Information process and received responses from three vendors. Eventually, they chose to work with GWI, in part because it is a local company. Fairpont and Time Warner Cable also responded, but their proposals did not stipulate that the infrastructure would belong to the town. There were other inferiorities in their proposals.

Community leaders have determined that they will need approximately 50% of the community to subscribe in order to cover the operating costs. They also hope that, with more subscribers, they can reduce the prices below the proposed rates. At this time, they anticipate offering service at $35 per month for 3 Mbps/1 Mbps, $75 per month for 500 Mbps symmetrical, and $125 per month for gigabit service. 

If voters approve the bond issue at the annual town meeting on May 9th, they will be asked to commit to a level of service in order to accurately assess the project's viability. If there is not a 50 percent commitment, the town may not proceed with the bond issue. If the bond is approved and sign-ups suggest a favorable future, construction would begin in the fall.

Rochester Pursues Business Case Study for Muni Network in Minnesota

The Rochester City Council recently voted unanimously to move forward with a study on the possibilities of publicly owned broadband in this southeastern city. Rochester will then decide whether to move forward with bids to form a public-private partnership for a network, or pursue another path.

After receiving dozens of calls from his constituents, City Councilman Michael Wojcik is asking his colleagues to consider a municipal network. Rochester’s area holds a population of about 110,000, and is home to the world-famous Mayo Clinic

According to the Rochester Post-Bulletin, Charter Communications operates its cable TV and Internet services under a franchise agreement with the city. That agreement is up for a renewal on March 31.

Wojcik said his constituents have been angered over issues such as digital box fees, but most of the complaints are about broadband service, which Wojcik said is essential. He said Charter's recent price increase for stand-alone broadband from $55 to $60 per month makes the service unobtainable for a percentage of area families with children in school.

"Broadband is key for information for a lot of people, particularly younger generations, and going forward, it becomes more and more critical," he said.

In 2010 Wojcik asked the council to investigate options for publicly owned infrastructure, but the measure did not advance. Wojcik says he hopes that citizen outrage with poor Charter service and contract negotiations will encourage city council members to take action.

The Council invited Chris to offer expert opinion. KIMT TV covered the decision and spoke with him after the meeting: 

“I think it’s a necessary step for the Rochester City government to get involved, because over ten years of experience suggests that the private sector alone is not going to solve this problem, that if Rochester needs higher quality internet access it may have to do it itself.”

Here is vide of KIMT TV's coverage:

Seattle Grassroots Muni Initiative Kicks Off With Campaign Survey

Seattleites tired of waiting for incumbents to provide better services, have decided to launch a campaign to establish Internet access as a public utility. In order to get the campaign off to a strong start, the founding group has launched a survey to choose a name.

Seattle has significant fiber resources in place, an electric utility, and strong grassroots support. Unfortunately, incumbent Comcast has been trying to curry favor within City Hall. But given that Seattle has joined Next Century Cities, the City seems focused on exploring all of its options.

When Chris presented in Seattle, he strongly encouraged them to organize a grassroots effort to support a community network. Now, a group of community organizers, artists, tech workers, and students are taking the next step forward because:

A 2014 report by the city found that "nearly 20% of Seattle residents do not have any Internet access.” Entire neighborhoods still lack access to Internet speeds necessary to take part in the modern economy. Without access, residents may not be able to apply for jobs, utilize city websites, finish their homework, operate a small business, display art, shop online, or video chat with a doctor from the comfort of their homes.    

Even those with home access to Internet have too few options. The same city report showed that 45% of residents wanted better prices, and 33% wanted higher speeds than currently offered by the two dominant Internet providers: Comcast and CenturyLink.  

Some of the names they suggest are "Seattle for Homegrown Internet," "Connecting Seattle," and "Seattle's Own Internet." They also offer the chance for participants to offer their own ideas.

Seattleites, we encourage you to share your opinion by taking the survey. In addition to naming the campaign, your participation will help organizers gauge the level of interest. You can also connect with the group and let them know you are willing to volunteer.

According to a Brown Paper Tickets Blog post, the new campaign name will be revealed on February 13th at the launch day for new Puget Sound radio stations and World Radio Day.

Local channel 5 also covered the story:

 

Missoula Maps Local Fiber Assets, Encourages New Installation

Last August, we wrote and podcasted about the results of a broadband feasibility study for the City of Missoula, which recommended developing an open access network with approximately 60 miles of underground fiber through a public private partnership. The study also demonstrated a significant need for improved connectivity in the central business district, with almost 40% of businesses saying their connections were insufficient for their needs. The study also recommended a variety of fairly small policy changes to encourage the spread of fiber optics, such as a “dig once” conduit policy. 

Early in December, the Missoula City Council acted on at at least one of those recommendations by lowering the fee the city charges for excavating and installing new fiber optic lines in the public right-of-way by 75 percent. City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who has spearheaded the efforts for better connectivity in Missoula and appeared on our Broadband Bits podcast in August, described lowering the fee this way to the Missoulian newspaper

“It’s a gesture of good will to the service providers that we want to work with them,” said Copple, who chairs the city’s Economic Development Subcommittee. “It was a unanimous vote, and it shows Missoula is serious about business.”

The city also released a map, compiled by a third party, that shows all the privately-owned fiber assets in Missoula’s central business district. It is purposely unclear which company owns which segments of fiber, as the providers would only participate if their information was anonymized to protect their competitive edge. While certainly not present on every street, the map shows that there is a significant amount of fiber already in the ground. From the Missoulian:

“What this map shows is that we don’t need to build an entirely new network,” said Copple. “We need to piece together what’s there and solve the ‘last mile,’ or 100-foot problem in an open-access way.”

Connecting to the network can be expensive for Main Street businesses. When construction fees are considered, tapping into the network can run as high as $20,000, experts said, and monthly service fees can run as high as $1,500.

Having fiber in the ground is nice, but ultimately unhelpful if it is owned by private providers who do not make connections available and affordable. The director of the Bitter Root Economic Development District (one of the parnership entities overseeing the network planning process) said that an RFP will be issued this summer soliciting plans for addressing the problem. 

“We’ve continuously heard from the providers that there’s a lot of fiber in the ground in Missoula,” said Marcy Allen, director of BREDD. “The big obstacle here is that it’s not being utilized. We want to reduce the costs and incentivize the private sector to deploy that to their customers.”

Open Access Network Proposal Goes Before Bozeman City Commission

At a December 15 Bozeman City Commission meeting, broadband advocates, local incumbents, and city staff all had their say on the idea of an open access network. The hearing was part of a process that began last year, when the idea of a public network was first brought up. Bozeman issued an RFP last spring for help in planning their next steps, and eventually selecting a consultant to shepherd the process from a feasibility study and public input through to final planning. We wrote in more detail about the start of this planning phase back in August.

At the December meeting, Bozeman Economic Development Director Brit Fontenot asserted that "The existing model of Internet service provision is outdated," and laid down for the Commissioners the broad outlines of plan for a public-private partnership to create an open access network involving anchor businesses, the city, the local school district, and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital. A memo submitted by Mr. Fontenot in advance of the meeting, as well as a series of other documents relating to the planning process including a consultant summary report, are available on the city’s website [PDF]. 

Several local citizens spoke on the proposal at the Commission meeting in addition to Mr Fontenot. According to the consultant, a survey of city businesses found that nearly two-thirds were dissatisfied with their current Internet service. This claim was supported by local business owner Ken Fightler of Lattice Materials, who according to the Bozeman Daily Chronicle

said that [his] company employs 50 people in Bozeman but struggles with "really abysmal Internet." They've talked to every major provider in town trying to find a better option, he said, but have found everything available involves either mediocre speeds or unaffordable pricing. 

Perhaps the most interesting comments came from a representative of one of the local incumbents:

Jason Weathers, with Charter Communication, one of the city's major Internet providers, told the commission that he agreed with much of what was being said.

The company has 130 miles of fiber cable in operation already, he said, but installing the final section to connect the existing network to homes or businesses tends to be expensive, driving up the price

The open-access network proposal "has a lot of things that benefit us as a provider," Weathers said.

By providing neutral last mile infrastructure for multiple independent ISPs to use, publicly-owned networks can lower barriers to entry and facilitate competition, driving down prices and improving service. There is nothing revolutionary in this idea, but it is unusual to hear an incumbent admit that it has merit. More often, incumbents who have already paid off their inferior copper or coaxial cable networks are reluctant to open themselves up to competition on a level playing field. 

The meeting concluded with the Bozeman City Commissioners directing Fontenot’s Economic Development Office to come back in February with a draft of an amendment to the city’s “Growth Policy” that incorporates elements of the Bozeman Master Fiber Plan - in effect, to draft a way to put the plan into legal action. With neighboring cities like Butte, Missoula, and Livingston in various phases of consideration or construction of their own networks, Bozeman is feeling the pressure to move forward and stay economically competitive.