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Calls Grow for Community Network in Syracuse

Last week, we noted some comments made by Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner indicating her interest in a municipal broadband network and her promise to develop a plan for how to build it. Now it appears others in Syracuse are picking up her refrain. 

Two columns appearing recently in the Syracuse Post-Standard offered support for Miner’s idea: one from the paper’s editorial board, and another written by a former Republican candidate for mayor.  

Stephen Kimatian, a lawyer and former local TV station general manager, penned an enthusiastic op-ed in favor of Miner’s idea; this despite the fact that he was the Republican candidate for mayor that lost to Miner in 2009. If his Twitter feed is any guide, Kimatian is quite conservative and not a huge fan of Miner’s, but he appears to recognize the nonpartisan advantages of community network ownership:

Connecting broadband throughout the city of Syracuse makes a clear statement that we embrace the 21st century digital economy, we "get" it. The practicality of building a backbone of interconnectivity enables communication between all levels of government and citizens and sets us up for the many more uses to come. It builds a sense of community that we are all connected, from Eastwood to Winkworth, from the Valley to the North Side and that we have a stake in each other's neighborhoods…

Broadband also creates economic equality. Not every home is able to afford broadband and its data usage can be expensive. That means many students don't have the essential research tool of Internet access at home. By providing a common connection, we are putting the less advantaged kids on the same plane as everyone else.

….Broadband should be a utility just like water, gas, electricity and phones.

The Syracuse Post-Standard’s editorial board offered a bit more qualified support, but still lauded Miner’s goals and supported the effort to study broadband deployment: 

….[L]et's hand it to Miner for recognizing that affordable, high-speed Internet service is a necessity in today's world. A city without it is going to be left behind -- and so are its residents and businesses.

Let's also recognize that the for-profit Internet service providers that built high-speed networks have largely given up on some urban areas like Syracuse. Yet the industry fears municipal broadband enough to lobby furiously for state and federal laws banning it.

Should Syracuse step into the breach? It's worth study and debate.

Hopefully Syracusans have been reading their local paper and are primed for informed public discussion whenever Miner brings her plan for community broadband forward. 

Ellensburg Considers Muni Fiber Network Expansion

Last year, we covered this central Washington city’s first foray into publicly owned fiber optics. The local incumbent, Charter Communications, began charging the city $10,000 per month for services it had been providing for free for a decade as part of its franchise agreement. Ellensburg officials did some quick math and realized that they could save money building their own network.

They ultimately awarded a contract for $960,000 to build 13 miles of fiber connecting various public facilities throughout the city including the police department and Central Washington University. Thanks to Charter’s high rates, the direct cost savings alone could pay for the entire project in about eight years, leaving aside all the other direct and indirect benefits of public network ownership. 

Now, with the original construction project not even quite complete, Ellensburg is already considering expanding to serve residents and the local business community. According to the local Daily Recorder newspaper, the city council has unanimously voted to issue a request for qualifications from contractors for a long term strategic plan.

“Typically, for this type of an activity, (a strategic plan) would include a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis for the telecom utility,” city Energy Services Director Larry Dunbar said. “We would look at different business cases for different service opportunities like providing Internet access to perhaps commercial businesses, perhaps Internet access to the general public. A variety of other service opportunities are possible.”

The new strategic plan is expected to be finished before construction on the current institutional network ends. The construction plan for the institutional network was designed to be “future-ready,” with contingency funds set aside for possible later alterations or expansions. It seems those funds may be tapped sooner rather than later.

The Ellensburg Business Development Authority has been a major advocate of the city’s fiber network, pushing the city to expand it to new areas, offer service to businesses, and look into how it could compete with Charter Communications. As city councilmember Tony Aronica put it:

“It impacts Ellensburg at the business level but also at the consumer level, because there’s not really any other options,” he said. “I think it’s responsible of us to do this.”  

While nothing has been decided yet, Ellensburg’s discussion of expanding municipal network services is already turning envious heads in Spokane and other nearby cities. Ellensburg itself consulted with Tacoma, which has operated a city cable utility for years, in crafting its institutional network construction plan. It's always encouraging to see expertise and ideas spread from one local community to another, shortening the learning curve for small cities seeking to get out from under the local cable incumbent's thumb. 

Austin, Minnesota Releases Fiber Network Feasibility Study Results

Austin has been thinking about getting a gig for a while now. The city of 25,000 near Minnesota’s southern border had campaigned to be picked for the initial Google Fiber deployment, but was disappointed when Google selected Kansas City instead in 2011. As with some other cities around the country, however, the high profile Google competition got Austin thinking about the benefits of a gigabit fiber network, and how they might bring it to their residents. Last month, a committee tasked with bringing such a network to every premises in Austin released a feasibility study they commissioned, with generally favorable results.    

The study recommended further exploration of a universal fiber optic network, but found the idea to be generally feasible. The cost of such a network was estimated at $35 million, and would cover the entire footprint of the Austin Public School District, which extends to rural addresses well beyond the city limits. The study recommended universal fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) for many of the same reasons we’ve been talking about it for years: its nearly unlimited data capacity and speed, future-proof and damage-resistant properties, and reliability.  

The study was commissioned by the Community Wide Technology committee of the Vision2020 campaign, a broader planning movement to revitalize the greater Austin area. The Technology committee has since launched the GigAustin website and campaign to advocate for a FTTP network.

The GigAustin team has representation from the Austin Public School District, the city public power utility, private companies and foundations, and other potential anchor institutions. Hormel, the food products giant headquartered in Austin (and the people who brought you the SPAM Museum), is a major employer in the area and their presence on the GigAustin team and support of the feasibility study is notable.   

This is no slam dunk, however. The study did not recommend a specific funding source, and there appears to be little appetite for significant public expenditure

Committee members say the project could be funded in large part by state and federal grants and don’t currently plan to seek local tax dollars to pay for Gig Austin.

...The FCC set $100 million aside for broadband projects on July 11. In addition, Minnesota created the Office of Broadband Development in 2013 and budgeted $20 million to it earlier this year.

Securing grant funding from outside sources is nice, but not always possible - particularly when much of the community already has DSL and cable available. Given that the Austin network alone is projected to cost $35 million, it is easy to see how quickly $20 million or even $100 million could dry up on a statewide or federal scale. There are also hopes in Austin for securing grants from private nonprofits, which also seems like a long shot to make a significant dent in project costs. It is worth noting, however, that the funding for the feasibility study itself came from private sources: the Blandin Foundation, Hormel Foundation, and Ag Star Financial. 

There also does not appear to be any consensus yet on an ownership model, with both public and private options on the table. The public power utility, while participating in the GigAustin campaign, does not appear interested in ownership:

Austin Utilities General Manager Mark Nibaur said the company will likely partner with Vision 2020 and may contribute dollars to Gig Austin, but the utilities board may decide not to operate the fiber network.

“I don’t think there’s any interest in ownership,” he said.

While leaving the governance and ownership structures as an open question, the study did note that private providers were unlikely to build such a FTTP network any time in the foreseeable future (a finding that will surprise exactly no one). 

The next step in the process is a survey of Austin area residents to determine the level of interest in ultra high speed connectivity. The feasibility study estimated a take rate of 40-50% would be necessary for the network to be sustainable. The survey got under way in July, and should be completed in August or September.

Syracuse Mayor Calls for Community Broadband

Syracuse, a city long frustrated by its lack of broadband options and in thrall to a monopolistic cable incumbent Time Warner Cable, is facing an even bleaker future. Comcast’s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable would shift Syracuse residents who need broadband from one of the two most hated companies in America to the other, while of course also ensuring that the combined company is even larger and more influential. Verizon gave up plans to compete in the Syracuse market several years ago when it ceased expanding FiOS

Fortunately for Syracusans, mayor Stephanie Miner doesn’t appear to be taking all this lying down. A Post-Standard article from Monday reports the mayor is considering plans for a city-owned fiber optic system that could bring gigabit connectivity to the area:

“I’m putting together a plan that we can do it ourselves, as a community,”

Syracuse has had rumblings of interest in municipal broadband for years, including a citizens group called the Syracuse Community Broadband Initiative that advocated and educated locals on the topic. Now, with mayor Miner’s comments, it appears the idea is again gaining traction. 

Miner’s plan seems to be in its very early stages, with little in the way of specifics yet:

"Would we have to do that in phases? What would that look like? How would we pay for it? What would the model be? Those are all things that we are currently looking at, '' Miner said.

Stop the Cap has a take on the issue as well. We hope to hear more details in the future as mayor Miner develops her plan. 

Missoula Pursues Open Access Fiber for Jobs - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 112

After having met City Councilmember Caitlin Copple at last year's Broadband Communities event in Austin and seeing the progress Missoula, Montana, has made in considering a municipal fiber network, I knew we should ask her to be on the show. This week, she joins me and Karen Palmer, the Director of Operations for a local tech company in Missoula, LMG, for episode 112 of Community Broadband Bits.

After surveying local businesses, Missoula found a strong need for better services and is examining its options for an open access fiber network. They are fortunate to have already identified some service providers that want to work with them on the project.

Additionally, the network would be a boon for community anchor institutions, from schools to hospitals, and facilities owned by either the County or City.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 112, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 17 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Missoula Releases Results of Broadband Feasibility Study

The culmination of more than a year of discussion, funding searches, vendor selection, and research, Missoula has released the results of its broadband feasibility study. The study’s final report makes a range of recommendations, highlighted by the urging to invest $10.5 million from various sources to construct an open access fiber optic network connecting local businesses and over 50 key anchor institutions. 

Beginning in early 2013, Missoula City and Missoula County governments collaborated with the Bitter Root Economic Development District to win a grant from the Montana’s Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, which they matched with local funds. The result was a $50,000 pot from which to finance the feasibility study.

The long-awaited final study results indicate a significant demand for affordable, reliable high speed connectivity in the Missoula area from both businesses and public institutions, especially in the unincorporated areas outside the central city. In a survey (page 31 of the report), a shocking 73% of Missoula businesses reported moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed. A further 38% said their connections were insufficient for their businesses needs, but the vast majority of those reported that they were unable to upgrade because the needed connections were either unavailable or the price was out of reach. 

The total cost of the network, which would include over 60 miles of fiber, is estimated to be just over $17 million. That figure is a conservative estimate, however, as it assumes 100% of the network would be built underground and minimal existing assets would be used or shared (neither of which is likely to be the case when all is said and done). 

The study recommends bringing in local anchor institutions as key network tenants, while making dark fiber available to third party service providers who can sell connections to local businesses, in what the Bitter Root Economic Development District refers to as a public-private partnership:

The proposed network would connect more than 50 public entities to each other including K-12 schools, the University of Montana, healthcare centers and city and county facilities.  Businesses could also take advantage of the network and what the study anticipates would be much more affordable pricing. The study recommends working in cooperation with Internet providers in a public-private partnership.

According to an article in the Missoulian, the local share of network costs would come not come from taxes:

As proposed, the city and county together would invest $10 million toward a $17 million system, with the local government funds leveraging other money, [Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin] Copple said. The local money would be paid through user fees, not taxes, and it would build roughly 60 miles of an “open access” fiber-optic network.

The report also made recommendations for outreach, education, and changes in city and county policy. Notably, it emphasized the need for “dig once” policies that ensure conduit is laid during unrelated construction projects and can be shared by different entities, eliminating the cost and disruption of tearing up streets multiple times to lay different lines. The report also recommended updating city and county building codes to account for broadband engineering requirements, as well as streamlining permitting processes and reducing fees for broadband projects. 

The last few years have seen a race among Montana cities to increase their communications infrastructure through a variety of methods. Butte recently debuted a limited private fiber optic network run by Fatbeam, spurred by long-term contracts with public and private anchor institutions. Bozeman, as we’ve reported, kicked off their own broadband feasibility study and planning process in July.  

Huntsville Considers a Network Investment, as Its Businesses Consider Chattanooga

We reported back in June on Huntsville, Alabama's decision to undertake feasibility study to evaluate its options for increasing next generation fiber optic internet access throughout the city. AL.com is now reporting that Huntsville Utilities hopes to hear the results of the study within 90 days, allowing it to decide whether it will take steps to expand its minimal existing fiber infrastructure and offer connections to businesses and the public. 

The sense of urgency in Huntsville is not surprising, given that it sits just South of the Tennessee border and a less than 100 miles from Chattanooga, the Gig City. News coverage in Huntsville on the possibilities of a future municipal fiber network make constant reference to Chattanooga's example, including this list of valuable lessons Huntsville can learn from its neighbor.

The scenario Huntsville fears is laid out in another AL.com article, featuring the story of Matt Barron, a young tech entrepruener who moved his startup from Huntsville to Chattanooga this summer. Barron describes the attraction of a city with a commitment to next generation infrastructure, above and beyond the advantages of speed:

 "I want to live in the sort of city that puts a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "It might have nothing to do with the bandwidth. It has everything to do with the community and the people, the people that stand behind what is basically a human right, right now."

Barron sees the Internet as fundamental. People "can't even apply for a job without bandwidth," he said, and "you have the right to free speech, but speech happens largely on the Internet these days. So, it's a human right."

Chattanooga is forward-thinking enough "to even think about putting a high-speed Internet in," Barron said. "Those are the people I want to be around."

It should be noted that Barron gave those quotes at the annual GIGTank event in Chattanooga, a conference designed to help startups and web-based firms, while surrounded by like-minded entrepreneurs and investors eager to capitalize on Chattanooga's network.

Huntsville itself has a history of being a tech- and innovation-friendly environment, having served as the home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center since 1960. Marshall is a rocketry and spacecraft propulsion research facility, and played a crucial role in the Saturn, Apollo, and Space Shuttle programs. With a community full of rocket scientists, doing the math on a municipal network for Huntsville shouldn't be too hard.  

Sanford, Maine Studies Municipal Broadband Deployment

Sanford, a city of about 21,000 in far southwestern Maine, is weighing its options for a limited fiber optic network. The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council has been the driving force behind the project, hiring Tilson Technology Management of Portland earlier this year to develop a Broadband Plan for Sanford.

The Growth Council began exploring broadband issues only after realizing late last year that they had been left out of Maine’s “Three Ring Binder,” a federally-funded high capacity fiber backbone running through much of the state in three loops. Wary of being left behind economically by neighbors with better communications infrastructure, the Growth Council hired Tilson to evaluate their options.

The resulting report has not been made publicly available, but according to an op-ed by James Nimon, the Growth Council’s executive director:

Tilson has completed their assignment and provided “Good,” “Better” and “Best” alternatives, with the conclusion that the implementation of the Broadband Plan’s ‘Best’ scenario, which connects all the key CAIs [community anchor institutions] in Sanford, “has the potential to provide impressive public economic benefits, including adding between $47 and $192 million to the Sanford-Springvale region’s economic output over the next ten years.”

The anchor institutions to be connected include municipal buildings, local schools, a mill yard, a hospital, and industrial parks. According to a recent Sanford News article, the costs projected by Tilson range from $362,000 for the most limited deployment to $961,000 for the “best” alternative.

The city and the Growth Council will now begin the process of exploring federal, state, and private partnership funding opportunities, in an effort to bring the advantages of a high speed fiber network to their community.

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."