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Whitewater Weighs Options for Municipal Broadband

Whitewater, Wisconsin, a city of just under 15,000 people that sits midway between Madison and Milwaukee, is considering its options for establishing a municipal broadband utility. As reported by the local Daily Union newspaper, members of the city council, the community development authority, other local bodies, and the public met this week to hear a feasibility presentation and discussion with Anita Gallucci, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in broadband utilities.

Whitewater already has some public fiber optic infrastructure, having gone live with their gigabit-capable Whitewater Unified School District network last fall. The network joins up with a larger fiber backbone on the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, and has allowed Whitewater schools to increase their connection speeds by 1,200 percent while holding costs steady. The city is now looking at options for how to expand the opportunity brought by such high speed access to the broader community.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two topics: the legal landscape for municipal broadband utilities in Wisconsin, and the varying levels of success that other Wisconsin cities have had with their own networks. On the legal front, Gallucci affirmed that “municipalities can get into the broadband business if they choose to do so,” but then went on to outline the hurdles created by Wisconsin law that make the process more challenging. From the Daily Union article:

Gallucci said that first, the city must prepare a formal report or feasibility study. The report must cover a three-year outlook which addresses revenues derived from constructing, owning, or operating the utility including such things as equipment, maintenance, and personnel requirements.

Given the upfront costs associated with building out a fiber optic network, a report focusing on a three-year outlook is unlikely to cast a favorable light on the project. Like any other significant investment in public infrastructure, municipal networks may take more than three years to break even. If we used that benchmark for roads, we wouldn't have many.

Wisconsin cities must also go through a public hearing and vetting process before voting on final authorization of a municipal utility. There is a shorter route on the books in Wisconsin, but one that effectively gives incumbents a veto:

Gallucci said that cities do not have to follow these steps in very specific circumstances, such as serving an area of the city that does not otherwise have service access; but cities must notify private companies (for example, AT&T, Verizon, or Charter Communications) of that project. However, if those companies say they currently, or plan to in the future, serve those areas, then the steps need to be followed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if a city like Whitewater were to approach AT&T or Verizon and ask if they have any “plans to expand in the future” that might preempt the building out of a public network.

Wisconsin law is more obliging towards open access networks, according to Gallucci:

She said the steps could be avoided if the city acts as “a wholesaler of broadband services.” By this, she said, the intention would be to build the infrastructure and private companies would use those fibers to provide service.

“That would require the city itself to not provide any service to the end-user,” she explained.

While the legal environment in Wisconsin is generally unfavorable towards municipal broadband utilities, the meeting also highlighted some recent success stories. Reedsburg, which we wrote about here, was touted as the only Wisconsin city offering a “triple play” bundle through its broadband utility. Also mentioned was Sun Prairie, as fellow city seriously considering a FTTH network.

The next step will be for the Whitewater Community Development Agency to bring the issue before the City Council, which the city manager expected to happen “in the very near future.”  

Another Colorado Community May Reclaim Local Telecommunications Authority

Boulder's City Council is considering November ballot question to restore local authority for municipal telecommunications services. The measure, if passed, will create an exemption to the 2005 Colorado law allowing Boulder to better use its existing fiber optic infrastructure.

Apparently, the Boulder community has a self-reliant streak. This is not the first time the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has reported on the community of 97,000. John Farrell, Director of the Democratic Energy initiative, has followed the grassroots campaign to establish a city-owned electric utility in Boulder.

The Daily Camera reports that City Council staff, in a memo to Members, recommend the community seek authority to make use of existing assets. The City owns an extensive network of conduit that it began developing in the 1990s. Boulder has aggressively expanded the network, leasing it to private partners and using the space for a fiber I-Net to connect over 50 municipal facilities.

The Boulder Research and Administration Network (BRAN) serves the City, the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Each of the four entities shared equally in funding the $1.2 million eleven mile network. Boulder is an administering partner for BRAN and hopes to capitalize on that relationship even further.

Approximately 10% of Boulder's residents have home-based businesses, reports City Council staff. The community ranks high in the concentration of software engineers, innovators, and scientists. Businesses with less than 100 employees comprise 97% of firms in Boulder. Local surveys indicate the business community is hungry for better services. From the Daily Camera article:

[Director of Information Technology Don] Ingle said the city has no concrete plans in place to pursue partners, but he believes there will be a lot of interest if Boulder can get the authority.

"The broadband capacity currently offered by the private sector is not large enough," he said. "Given all the business innovation going on with the tech center, that level of connectivity would be a huge asset."

In the past, City leaders hoped to catch Google's attention but the election successes in Longmont, Centennial, and Montrose have inspired Boulder to take action rather than wait indefinitely. Boulder policy advisor Carl Castillo, told the Daily Camera city leaders believe the 2005 law poisoned the city's chances of becoming a Google Fiber community.

"The way we look at it is that our taxpayers have paid for these assets, and we're not able to leverage these assets to offer higher-speed Internet at lower cost," Castillo said. "Right now, we can't really engage in these discussions. We're really going to be behind the ball if we don't have this authority."

Alabama City Exploring Fiber Options for Local Business

The people of Huntsville recently decided to delve into the possibility of deploying a fiber network. According to AL.com, the City Council approved funding for a feasibility study to look at ways to better use existing fiber assets.

Huntsville, with 180,000 people is located in Madison County in the extreme north central region of the state. The county seat, known for generations as a cotton producer, later became known as "The Rocket City." In the 1950s, the U.S. army developed missiles at its facilities there, setting the stage for our space program.

A recent unscientific poll by AL.com revealed that a countywide high-speed network is a high priority for locals. The online poll suggested potential projects for the community; 40% of respondents ranked a network at the top of the list.

Huntsville Utilities offers electric, water, and gas services to the community. The municipal utility owns a small amount of fiber for its own data purposes. At this point, local leaders want the study to focus on the possibility of expanding that network to serve the business community. 

Mayor Tommy Battle said it is crucial to take a serious look at citywide, high-speed, fiber-optic Internet service, whether it is provided by Huntsville Utilities or a private company. Dozens of U.S. cities are already wired for speed, including Chattanooga and Opelika.

Battle called high-speed fiber "the infrastructure of the future" and said it will eventually be as important as roads, water and sewer lines.

Plan for FTTH in Chanute Looking Positive in Kansas

Chanute has been exploring available options for a citywide FTTH network. In addition to offering residential service, city leaders want to expand the business use of its municipal fiber network. A limited number of businesses currently join schools, government, and utilities on the fiber infrastructure.

The community incrementally built a fiber network to serve government, utilities, and schools with no borrowing or bonding. The broadband utility continues to expand and uses WiMAX for public safety and to connect several businesses. For the full story of this central Kansas community, download our case study Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage

As we reported previously, the City Council began reviewing potential scenarios to bring fiber to each premise. The Wichita Eagle reported that Utilities Director Larry Gates recently presented price and speed estimates to a City Council study session:

When complete, the city system will offer service at a speed of one gigabit per second.

City residents will pay $40 a month; it will cost $50 outside the city limits and $75 for businesses.

To put that in perspective, Chanute will offer the same ultra-fast connection speed as the Google Fiber system being rolled out across the Kansas City metropolitan area, but 42 percent cheaper than Google’s $70-a-month charge.

Or, to use another comparison, Chanute’s fiber-to-home system will be 14 times faster and cost 60 percent less than the best Internet service the town’s residents can get today.

Wow! And recall that this would not be possible if the cable lobbyists had their way earlier this year in the Kansas legislature. Kansas briefly considered making it impossible for communities to build their own networks and will likely take up the matter again next year.

We contacted Gates, who elaborated on Chanute's plan. The City will provide Internet only; a third party provider would use the network to offer voice and video. The service area will include the Utilities' three mile territory outside of the city limits.

The community is especially interested in bringing access to unserved students in the community and to patients who need access to telehealth from home. Seventeen percent of area students cannot afford or do not have access to the Internet from home. USD 413 and Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center are each working with Chanute Utilities to develop solutions using the muncipal network.

Businesses have expressed their frustration with service from the existing cable and DSL service on many occasions. The City's network serves a limited number of commercial clients and others have asked to be connected. City Commissioner Martha McCoy is also a local business owner; she owns and operates a downtown antique and home-decor business. She told the Eagle:

“What I have today (at home), I can hardly ever get on,” she said. “And then I watch the ads they have on TV: Oh, we have super streaming and everything. It just isn’t happening here.”

The service at her business is “better, but it’s still not good,” she said. “It still knocks me off, so I still get upset with that. I have a lot of work to do and I don’t have time to wait.”

The Eagle reports that community leaders supported the initiative at the study session. The City Council formerly votes on June 9th whether to move forward.

In Kansas, Chanute Explores FTTH Options

Last December, we reported on Chanute's decision to move forward with plans for a FTTH network. The community has a fiber and wireless network in place that serves utilities, public facilities such as libraries and schools, and several businesses. The network also provides free Wi-Fi across the community. As we discussed in our 2012 case study, Chanute developed its network incrementally over two decades with no borrowing or bonding.

In a City Commission work session on May 5, officials reviewed several options for an FTTH network. In a nutshell, the City is contemplating their involvement in the operation of the future network.

Utilities Director Larry Gates presented several options, reported the Chanute Tribune. Two choices stood out for the working group members:

Scenario C calls for the build out of city provided fiber optic-to-home broadband internet services. Service drops would only be provided to homes that want the internet services.

Under Scenario C, the initial investment would be about $10,926,842 to build the fiber core. The city would need $9,468,033 in funding to complete the project. The project would become cash-flow positive in two years, one month. It would take five years, nine months to pay back financing for the project. The 20-year net present value for the entire system would be an estimated $40,623,151.

Scenario D calls for a build out of the fiber optic-to-the-home system for private communications companies to pay a fee to the city to lease the network and provide services to residential customers. The city would seek private companies for voice, video and internet services.

Under Scenario D, the initial investment would be about $13,906,416 to complete the build out. The city would need $9,468,033 in funding to complete the project. The project would become cash-flow positive in one year, seven months. It would take eight years, 10 months to pay back financing for the project. The -20 year net present value for the entire system would be an estimated $25,667,301.

Under an altered Scenario D, the City would lease out the network for five years to a private company that would offer triple-play services to residents. At the end of the time period, the City would take over.

Several city officials expressed an aversion to city run video services.

“There is not much profit in video,” Gates said. “Provisioners are pretty much naming the price on that.”

“From a business standpoint, providing video is going to cost us more,” [Mayor Greg] Woodyard said. “We’re not going to be able to see a return on that investment.”

An April Tribune article reported on an outreach meeting held by City Commissioners. Brian Inbody, president of local Neosho Community College shared his experience with the network:

“It is as necessary to us as electricity, water and gas,” Inbody said. “We save about $30,000 year over what we were paying through AT&T to provide that service."

Local schools Superintendent James Hardy also spoke to the value of the publicly owned fiber infrastructure:

“If we didn’t have fiber, we couldn’t have school anymore,” Hardy said. “When we’re buying text books and we have text book rotation, half of what we pay for a text book is web-based material. When those teachers turn on their smart boards that are hooked to a computer, everything they are pulling down is off websites, because everything is web-based.”

At the public meeting in April, commissioners addressed concerns about a five percent franchise fee that commenced in December 2013. The network serves public telecommunications and utility operations and now needs relacement equipment. The franchise the fee will cover the costs.

“We were talking about being short money for equipment,” [Senior City Commissioner Tim] Egner said. “We were trying to figure out a way, without raising mill levies, how to come up with this money. With the franchise fee you’re going out over a larger area. You’re going outside the city. With the franchise fee, you can choose how much electricity you use. You can choose how much gas you use.”

The lack of upgrading maintenance has caught up with the city, Egner said.

“When we cut mill levies,” Egner said, “we had to adjust. We had to stop buying things. We stop putting money back for equipment. At some point that catches up with you. So, we had to figure out the best way to do it.”

The working group will meet again later in May to continue the discussion.

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.

logo-onecommunity-2014.png

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.”

...

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.