Newark, Delaware, prides itself on its small-city status: a bike-friendly place with a great main street and home to 30,000 residents. Some, however, consider poor Internet access Newark's biggest small-city problem.
In December, the City Council decided to move forward with a feasibility study for a municipal broadband network. In a 4-3 vote, the city council hired a consulting firm to investigate the city’s options for connectivity. For $69,000, the firm will answer Newark's questions, and the city will attempt to make an informed decision on the possibility of a municipal network.
Process for a Feasibility Study
As we reported in September, residents have driven the push toward a publicly owned network; the city council took notice and began considering the possibility. In October 2015, They hosted a public meeting to bring together community stakeholders and interested residents. At that point, community leaders heard from a consulting company about what a feasibility study would entail.
Originally priced at $10,000 for a basic analysis, the cost of the feasibility study increased to $69,000 over the next several months because the city council chose to expand the depth of the study. They wanted an extensive analysis of all the options, especially connecting to the local University of Delaware to any proposed municipal network. At the city council meeting in December, members decided to greenlight the feasibility study. The funding will come out of the budget for the Legislative Department’s legal and consulting services.
Why A Municipal Network?
In 2014, the city installed smart electric and water meters which run on a Wi-Fi mesh network. Having greater connectivity could encourage expansion for other uses. High-quality Internet access for businesses and residents, high-speed data transport for local healthcare clinics, parking meters, surveillance, public safety, and cloud computing are only few potential uses for a municipal fiber network.
With the city’s thriving downtown and strong sense of community, it takes little to imagine the addition of a municipal network:
Is It Worth It?
Whether or not to fund a feasibility study was a point of contention among the city council. Councilwoman Marge Hadden pushed back on that notion. Even if the feasibility study reveals that a municipal network is not the best choice for Newark, the potential benefits should be explored:
“$69,000 is a big investment, but it’s an investment in the community,”
The newly formed Utilities Task Force in the City of Redding, Connecticut, is exploring the potential of bringing fiber connectivity to this rural town of about 9,000 people. Redding is about 65 miles northeast of New York City and just 25 miles north of Stamford.
As part of their feasibility analysis, the task force sent a survey to residents and businesses to gauge interest in bringing a fiber network to Redding. While the analysis is still ongoing, task force board member Susan Clark expressed optimism. “I’ve been energized by how many people have shown interest in this,” Clark told the News Times.
The task force believes if the survey reveals strong interest in the community for the nascent project, private Internet providers would be more inclined to help the community build the network. Community leaders hope that a new fiber network would attract new residents such as “knowledge workers” who depend on reliable, highspeed Internet access that allows them to work from home.
A second member of the task force, Leon Kervelis, told the The Redding Pilot that the task force has hopes the proposed network, if built, could eventually grow beyond Redding:
“It’s not intended to be a single town project…we’d get several towns together in a conglomerate, and that municipal conglomerate decides procedures and financing for the infrastructure,” he said.
Kervelis also explained the task force’s proposed plan for how to pay for the network, saying residents and businesses would pay a small surcharge on their property taxes, a far cry from current rates:
“The benefit would be significant,” he added. “Some people are already paying $120 a month to the cable company. Compared that to an [estimated] $10 to the town of Redding. For businesses and residents, this would drastically cut the cost of communicating rapidly and instantaneously. This would be a vast improvement over the services currently available in town.”
Clark said she originally got her inspiration to pursue a fiber optic network project in Redding after learning about the state’s CT Gig Project. The project involves “a coalition of municipalities, state officials, and other interested parties committed to bringing high-speed, low-cost internet to all residents and businesses in Connecticut.”
We wrote about the development of the CT Gig Project in early 2015. For more information on the goals and current happenings with the CT Gig Project, you can visit their website here.
Lake Oswego, Oregon, was pegged as a potential target for Google Fiber in 2014 but this town of 35,000 may not wait for the tech giant to bring fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. They may just do it themselves.
In order to get more information about municipal fiber networks, our Chris Mitchell visited during an October City Council meeting at the request of community leaders. The Lake Oswego Review covered the meeting.
According to the Review, the northwest community issued an RFP in June and received two responses. City leaders are still pondering the responses and feelings are mixed over whether or not to make the investment.
City Manager Scott Lazenby told the Council:
Just getting this network would put Lake Oswego on the map…I think increasing that level of service, especially for the demographics we have here — highly educated, many tech-oriented folks in our community — that would be a real service to make available.
Chris pointed out that the area is ripe with a number of high-tech companies and other entities that will find a fiber network attractive. “Not everyone has that regional connectivity that you have here,” he told the Council.
He also asked them to consider all the long term possibilities if Google does eventually enter into the market in Lake Oswego:
“When I think about relying on Google, if Google decides to get out of this business, the community has no say about who takes it over,” he said.
After discussion, the Council voted to negotiate an agreement with one of the RFP respondents for further review, contingent on a market study.
To view Chris's entire presentation to the Lake Oswego City Council, watch the video below:
While other communities in Colorado are just starting to reclaim local control over their broadband futures, the city of Grand Junction has moved forward. In April, the people overwhelmingly overturned SB 152 – the state law that prohibited them from pursuing the best broadband solution for their community. Now Grand Junction is investigating its options.
The city council and the Downtown Development Authority (DDA) are in the process of hiring a consulting firm to develop a broadband strategic plan for the city of 60,000 and seat of Mesa County. One of the main tasks is to determine where to locate the fiber backbone of the proposed municipal network.
Where Will the Fiber Go?
In September, months after the vote, the city agreed to enter into a contract with the consulting firm. The city will pay for the majority of the cost – up to $83,000. According to DDA meeting minutes from September, the Authority will pitch in up to $16,000 [pdf].
The study will take two or three months and will look specifically at the pros and cons of a fiber backbone deployment through downtown Grand Junction. The downtown area houses many banks and businesses, as well as both city and county government buildings. Fiber would provide much needed high-speed connectivity for those facilities, reports the Daily Sentinel. Available office space, ideal real estate for tech firms, is also plentiful in downtown Grand Junction.
After the consultants complete the study, the city may choose to issue bids for Requests For Proposals (RFPs) from contractors interested in constructing the network. The DDA has a $1 million line of credit backed by the city and will take responsibility for the cost of installing fiber in the downtown area.
The hope is to encourage tech start-ups to come to Grand Junction, as the DDA Board Chairman Jason Farrington explained:
“Any company that needed to play in that (world wide web) sandbox would have Grand Junction as a place to relocate.”
When communities consider building their own network, they are often venturing outside their areas of expertise and have to get advice from consultants and industry experts. This week, we talk with two guests from Vantage Point, an employee owned engineering and consulting firm that works with a variety of clients, from private companies to municipalities on telecommunications matters.
President Chad Glanzer and Assistant Director of Engineering Carmen O'Neill explain the early stages of planning around community fiber networks and some of the trade-offs that can be made. For instance, paying more in upfront planning can lower the costs and uncertainty of future construction.
We talk about the importance of financial forecasts and how those estimates interact with the network design process. We hope this discussion helps local officials and activists better understand what early stages look like if they want to build a community fiber network.
At a Chicago City Council meeting this month, a newly elected alderman proposed the city stop relying on incumbent ISPs and start using its existing fiber network for connectivity.
Pointing to nearby cities like Aurora, where municipal government elimnated leased lines to reduce costs by $485,000 per year, Alderman Brian Hopkins suggested the switch could save the city “tens of millions of dollars” annually. He also advocated the change in order to provide more efficient services.
“We already have a robust infrastructure in place to build from. Fiber optic resources currently controlled and managed by [the Office of Emergency Management and Communications] for traffic, first-responder, and emergency services is an example,” Hopkins said. "Given the debt Chicago faces, we should follow other cities by switching all municipal government broadband access from private incumbent providers to a taxpayer-owned fiber network. The money saved can be reinvested into the expansion of the municipal network to finally reach those communities that need fast affordable access. Why would we not do this?”
Hopkins’s comments come on the heels of a resolution we reported on earlier this year from four powerful Chicago City Council members calling for hearings on how to use city buildings, light poles and high-speed fiber-optic lines for a wireless network that could raise the city millions.
One of the most obvious benefits to local government of self-provisioning is saving taxpayer dollars. In addition to direct savings from allowing municipalities to switch from expensive leased lines, the community at large benefits from ancillary savings. Municipal government, businesses, and residents can save from the need for fewer telephone lines, lower utility costs due to more efficient operations, and even lower rates from incumbents who sense possible competition.
In July, the city of Albany, NY released a Request for Proposals (RFP) seeking qualified consulting firms to conduct a feasibility study for a municipal broadband service. As the RFP states, the study will look to develop strategies, find gaps in service and adoption, and develop a business plan to explore partnerships between the city and private ISPs.
According to Broadband Communities magazine, a working group comprised of several important community organizations and business groups in Albany will help to steer plans for the possible municipal broadband initiative. Jeff Mirel, a technology professional in Albany and a member of the working group, explains the group’s goals for the feasibility study:
“The first step is asking the right questions, which is what we want this study to do. What are the real broadband needs and issues that both businesses and residents experience here? Is it infrastructure, technology, education, affordability? How do we address the gaps to not only keep and attract companies, but bring these employers and a connected local workforce together? By taking a deep, comprehensive look at broadband access and usability, along with best practices, we can move towards meaningful, actionable strategies.”
At recent hearings in front of the New York State Public Service Commission (PSC) in the New York cities of Poughkeepsie, Buffalo, and Bethlehem, political leaders and consumers expressed particular frustration with Verizon’s unwillingness to build its FIOS fiber service out to underserved parts of New York. In some cases they are asking the state’s Public Service Commission to strengthen regulations and require private companies to bring better Internet service statewide.
We warned in 2012 that Verizon would never bring FIOS to Albany and many other cities in the state. Then, as now, it’s clear that Albany’s feasibility study offers a way forward towards the only certain strategy for bringing the fast fiber-based broadband to Albany: taking matters into their own hands.
Back in February, voters in Estes Park, Colorado, enthusiastically reclaimed authority to decide locally on a community fiber network. Now the community is moving ahead by taking a detailed look at deploying a municipal gigabit network.
BizWest reports that a consultant hired to study connectivity in the town of 5,800 recently recommended five possible solutions to the community's poor connectivity problem. The Town Board of Trustees considered a municipal telecommunications utility to be the most promising and passed the issue to city staff for further research.
“Now it’s up to us to thoroughly research the feasibility of the town establishing a broadband service utility, considering our financial and operational abilities and the best interests of the community’s future,” said Mayor Bill Pinkham in a media release.
The Estes Park Light and Power Division give this Rocky Mountain town an advantage because it already has electricity distribution infrastructure, utilty poles, and personnel in place. As part of a regional public power initiative, Estes Park also has fiber connecting it to nearby towns, giving it affordable backhaul to the wider Internet.
The consultant recommended forgoing any television or telephone services to focus on delivering high quality Internet access. The cost of deployment will be approximately $27 - $30 million. With a take rate of 30-40 percent, the community should be able to pay off the investment in 10 - 12 years.
The consultant estimated monthly rates could run approximately $50 - $60 for 100 Mbpsdownload and 1 gig per second for $70 - $95 (specific upload speeds were not mentioned). Businesses will likely pay approximately $150 - $180 per month for 100 Mbps and $300 - $400 per month for gigabit speeds.
In 2014, the community received a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration. They had suffered significant damage due to flooding and the purpose of the grant was to seek out ways to diversify the local economy. Estes Park, very dependent on its tourist trade, has poor last-mile connectivity like many other similarly situated vacation destinations. Better connectivity is becoming a must-have for resorts and lodges, even in remote mountain areas.
Community leaders feel a fiber network might improve an already established tourist trade while ensuring future economic development opportunity for the entire region:
“It’s a game changer for us because we can attract year-round businesses that are location-neutral or IT software-development focused,” [President and CEO of the Estes Park Economic Development Corp., Jon] Nicholas said. “But it’s also a game changer for southwest Larimer County because home-based businesses would have access to 1-gig Internet as well as our hotels and downtown businesses.”
Staff anticipates offering a more detailed analysis of the recommendation some time in September.
The City of Newark, population 30,000 and home to the University of Delaware, is considering commissioning a feasibility study but first will host a workshop to discuss the potential of a municipal network. City leaders want to bring together members of the community, broadband providers, experts, and municipal employees before it commits to the $10,000 study.
Residents spoke at a recent city council meeting, demanding that the City inquire into the potential for a municipal broadband network, reported Delaware’s News Journal. Community interest led City Information Technology manager Josh Brechbuehl to research the City’s pre-existing Internet infrastructure, as well as speak with a wide array of broadband experts. Brechbuehl delivered a presentation to the city council on July 27 (transcript of the council meeting minutes here), during which he laid out his vision for bringing high-speed Internet to Newark:
Admittedly I started off pretty pessimistic about the opportunity and the possibility of achieving something like this, and I will say that through my research, I’ve become somewhat of a believer, a cautious believer, but definitely a believer that says this should be investigated.
The City currently has access to a wireless mesh network, but Brechbuehl believes fiber would be a better investment in the long term:
“We do have a WiFi network. It is very, very slow and that is by design. It was never designed to handle active devices such as smartphones, tablets, desktop computers, laptop computers...It was designed to carry very, very tiny bits of information a few times a day and that’s it,” he told the council.
Along with the wireless mesh network, used primarily for a smart metering system, the City could tap into pre-existing privately owned fiber networks, Brechbuehl noted in his presentation. Building its own fiber network is another option that would ultimately give the City more flexibility and autonomy going forward. Another option for Newark would be to provide free municipal Wi-Fi in public areas, such as on Main Street and public parks. Brechbuehl and others also have their sights on a potential partnership with the University of Delaware, which currently provides free Internet to the municipality in government facilities.
Deploying a city-wide fiber network would catapult Newark into a select group of forward-thinking municipalities, Brechbuehl states:
Doing something like this puts us on a map with very few other cities nationwide that said we could get this done.
The Board of Trustees for the city of Firestone, CO is evaluating the feasibility of a new municipal broadband service for this growing town of about 10,000 people that sits just 30 miles north of Denver. This according to a recent report in the Times-Call newspaper in Longmont, Colorado. The feasibility study will compare Firestone’s existing telecommunications infrastructure with those in nearby communities such as Longmont and Boulder that already have municipal networks. It will also assess the potential for growth of the service in Firestone to a nearby 3,500-home community development project.
It would be travesty to build a 3,500 home development without having a plan for high quality Internet access. Even if CenturyLink or Comcast were to deploy fiber optics there, the community should ensure there are plans for conduit or an open network to allow multiple service providers to provide a real choice.
A 2005 Colorado state law barring municipalities from providing internet service to their citizens has been an obstacle for Longmont and Boulder in their pursuit of their own city-run broadband services. Telecommunications companies in the Longmont area spent $200,000 on a campaign that helped defeat the referendum in 2009 and $400,000 more in 2011. But citizens in Longmont successfully voted in the 2011 referendum to exempt their town from the law and build their own community broadband network. As we wrote in May, Longmont’s NextLight fiber-based municipal broadband service, which started just 2 years ago, is now among the fastest internet services in the United States.
As the Longmont Times-Call wrote in December, Longmont’s struggles and eventual success in starting their own fiber-based municipal network helped to pave the way for Boulder. The success of those efforts also provide favorable local precedents for Firestone officials and other local advocates to demonstrate how well fiber-based municipal networks can benefit a community. According to Firestone spokeswoman Kristi Ridder, the possibility of Firestone eventually getting its own municipal broadband service is still a ways off, with no ballot question planned yet on Colorado State Bill 152. But she acknowledged that inquiries from residents have prompted town boards to discuss the possibility of a community broadband service over the past several years.