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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.

CTgig Effort in Connecticut Now Backed By 46 Communities

Last fall, three Connecticut communities banded together to form what has now become a statewide effort to improve connectivity across the state. The CTgig Project has since blossomed to include 46 municipalities, or 50% of the state's population according to a recent press release.

The initiative began when Stamford, New Haven, and West Hartford issued a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) [PDF] to open up dialogue with potential private sector partners. The goal was described as an open access gigabit fiber network for residents, businesses, and community anchor institutions.

State officials traveled to various communities to share information on the project in a series of community meetings. We interviewed Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and Broadband Policy Coordinator Bill Vallee about the project in Episode 118 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

As an increasing number of Connecticut communities joined the initiative, others followed suit. In part because they recognized the need for better connectivity to improve the quality of life, but also because they recognized their perilous economic position if they chose to remain behind.

Southington's Town Council, debated whether or not to join the collaboration in early December. From a recent MyRecordJournal.com article:

“The way industry and business is moving these days, they all require a high level of Internet speed and access," [Rod] Philips [Southington’s director of planning and community development] said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to be at a disadvantage.”

Southington voted to participate in the RFQ.

In the press release, Bill Vallee provided more details about what state leaders hoped to see from RFQ responses:

"The RFQ expressly seeks financing to be invested by the potential fiber network builders and Internet service providers expected to respond to the RFQ on January 13, 2015.  Neither the state nor the municipalities will be investing funds in the networks or Internet service provisioning, but the municipalities will contribute in-kind assets and support.”   Vallee stated that “the RFQ seeks to increase competition in the Internet access market to boost the currently low levels of access speeds available in Connecticut and reduce the exceedingly high rates compared to peer states and other nations charged by the incumbents.  That said, incumbent telephone and cable operators are logical respondents since they are already providing Internet service across the state, and they are, of course, encouraged to respond to the RFP.” 

 

Connecticut Communities Want Better Internet Access - Community Broadband Bits Episode 118

While in Springfield, Massachusetts for the Broadband Communities Municipal Broadband and Economic Development event, I met several of the people that have been working on an initiative that aims to bring better Internet access to many in Connecticut. Two of them, Connecticut Consumer Counsel Elin Katz and Broadband Policy Coordinator Bill Vallee join me this week for episode 118 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Three cities have already issued an RFQ to begin the process of evaluating what options are available to them in improving Internet access for their residents and businesses. New Haven, Stamford, and West Hartford kicked the initiative off but others may soon join.

We also discuss how Connecticut has greatly simplified the process of pole attachments to encourage investment from any interested provider.

Read the transcript of this show here.

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 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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Lexington Plans RFI for Gigabit Network in Kentucky

Lexington, Kentucky, the second biggest city in the state with the second slowest broadband speeds in the nation, has announced plans to issue a request for information for a gigabit network within the next six months. The idea is to gauge interest from private providers in forming a public private partnership and get at least a rough estimate of the costs and benefits of a city-wide fiber optic network. 

The Lexington area currently has average download speeds of 16.2 Mbps, which puts it 38th among cities in Kentucky alone. While many in Lexington have been unhappy with slow speeds, poor reliability, and high prices provided by the incumbent Time Warner for years, the local government appeared divided last spring over the potential Comcast-Time Warner merger. Some felt, inexplicably, that service would improve after the second most hated company in America was acquired by the most hated. But others realized the need for competition, and during the course of renegotiating Time Warner’s expiring cable franchise over the last year, city staff have been meeting with private providers to determine how to improve access. 

Mayor Jim Gray said he would like Lexington to become a gigabit city, though he stopped short of endorsing a fully public network along the lines of EPB in Chattanooga:   

"We're going to be looking for partners who can create competition and who are willing to serve neighborhoods throughout Lexington," Gray said. "Increasing our Internet speed is crucial, but so is tackling the digital divide."

Whether or not private providers will answer the mayor’s call with a deal that works for both the city and their bottom line remains to be seen, but Gray does at least seem to grasp the need for competition to break up the local monopoly. Step 1 is admitting you have a problem - the next steps take some real (political) will. Others have given this deeper thought:

Roy Cornett, who attended Tuesday's meeting and has been passionate about improving Lexington's Internet speed and expanding access, said Lexington trails not only Louisville and Russellville, but Glasgow and other Kentucky cities. Cornett, an appraiser, said that some estimates show that it could cost as much as $200 million to provide the fiber-optic infrastructure to make Lexington a "gigacity."

That might sound like a lot, but it really isn't, Cornett said.

"We were going to spend $350 million on a new Rupp Arena," Cornett said. "This is the most important infrastructure investment we can make."

Business, Education Call on Culver City to Invest in Muni Fiber in L.A. County

Last fall, Culver City hired a consultant to develop a design and business plan for a possible fiber network project. Recently, prominent business leaders and parents of local school children have publicly expressed their support for a municipal network.

Culver City, also known as "The Heart of Screenland" is situated in west L.A. County, surrounded primarily by the City of Los Angeles. Approximately 39,000 people live in this community that is beginning to draw in the tech industry. In addition to Disney's Maker Studios, Apple owns Culver City's Beats Electronic, known for high-tech headphones. Culver City wants to stay current to compete with Santa Monica, home to a number of tech businesses that connect to its publicly owned City Net.

The L.A. Weekly reports billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of NantWorks, has encouraged city leaders to move forward with the project. His specific request is that five business districts be included in the network deployment. NantWorks, located in one of those districts, provides cloud-based operating systems to support telehealth. According to the article, Soon-Shiong is rallying other business leaders:

Soon-Shiong has been encouraging other business owners in the area to support the plan, which is expected to come before the City Council sometime in October.

"He feels this is key," said Mike Sitrick, a spokesman for Soon-Shiong. "He’s talked to various city officials and told them how important he thinks it is, not only to his business, but to attracting additional businesses to Culver City."

Local elected officials report positive feedback as the city reaches out to determine interest in the project:

"We're still attempting to gauge the degree of interest," said Councilman Andy Weissman, though he added, "I'm confident it's going to happen."

The business community is not the only sector in Culver City seeking better connectivity. The Front Page Online recently published an op-ed from the group United Parents of Culver City. Regarding Soon-Shiong's statement about the importance of the project, the President of the parents' organization writes:

We agree.

We will take it a step further: This is key to the future of our schools, too.

...

Parents interested in technology issues are well aware that bandwidth limitations have created problems in our district. Those problems only will grow worse as technology becomes more integrated in the classroom environment and as online testing becomes more prevalent.

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.