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Montrose Moves Toward Muni Network -Community Broadband Bits Podcast #95

Nestled in a valley in the Colorado rockies, the city of Montrose has voted overwhelmingly to reestablish local authority over whether to build a municipal fiber network. With nearly 20,000 people, Montrose does have cable service from Charter and DSL from CenturyLink but neither service is meeting local needs.

Virgil Turner, Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement for the City, joins us in episode 95 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss the need for a better network and how the big cable and telephone companies have failed to meet local needs.

Montrose has all options on the table as it now plans to engage the public and determine how to move forward with possible investments to improve their access to the Internet.

View our other posts on Montrose 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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Voters Approve Local Telecommunications Authority in Montrose, Colorado

By a 3,982 in favor and 1,397 opposed, the voters in Montrose decided on April 1st to take back local authority for telecommunications services. The state revoked the community's ability to establish a telecommunications utility in 2005. 

Jim Branscome covered the election results in the Daily Yonder. Branscome, a resident of Montrose, knows the local broadband situation:

Internet service here is currently a hodgepodge. Some of us depend on broadcast towers, some on DSL from CenturyLink and some on cable service from Charter. Service is generally at less than 10MB. It’s expensive, and customer service is erratic.

Community leaders state that they want to encourage fair competition and ensure every one has the opportunity to fast, reliable, affordable connectivity. 

In addition to ensuring that local businesses are in a position to compete with any large corporations that might attempt to establish a major share of the market, Turner said the city also wanted measures to enable lower income households to benefit from the advantages of gigabit speeds and capacity. “We don’t want to create two levels of society here, those who are connected and those who are not,” he said.

While Montrose is a long way from getting every person connected, the community is discussing the idea of financing a network with revenue bonds. 

This election result demonstrates Montrose's desire to be in control of their own connectivity. They understand the need to think of the future. From the Daily Yonder article:

It used to be that if a town wanted to prosper, it needed a river, then a railroad, then an Eisenhower Interstate highway, and then a cell phone tower. Today it needs to be a “gigabit city.”

Montrose Asks Voters to Take Back Authority to Establish A Telecommunications Utility

Colorado communities continue to seek to restore local authority for telecommunications. In April's election, elected officials of Montrose will ask voters to approve a measure that gives the municipality the right to establish a telecommunications utility.

Centennial, a Denver suburb, approved a ballot initiative last fall to use city fiber resources as a way to provide indirect telecommunications services. Centennial's community leaders want to create the most business friendly environment as possible to spur economic development

Montrose is taking a similar approach, although the language on this ballot does not limit the City to "indirect services." Elected officials have not mentioned the desire to provide any specific services yet, but the language of the ballot question suggests they do not want limited possibilities.

The City Council approved the following language for the April 1, 2014 ballot:

"Without increasing taxes, shall the citizens of the City of Montrose Colorado re-establish their City's right to provide all services restricted since 2005 by Title 29, article 27 of the Colorado Revised Statutes, described as "advanced services," "telecommunications services" and "cable television services," including any new and improved high bandwidth services based on future technologies, utilizing community owned infrastructure including but not limited to the existing fiber optic network, either directly or indirectly with public or private sector partners, to potential subscribers that may include telecommunications service providers, residential or commercial users within the City?"

A Montrose Daily Press covered the decision:

“We’ve been working on improving our broadband in the community for quite some time,” Virgil Turner, city director of innovation and citizen engagement, said. “The city has recognized that broadband is an area where we are not on equal footing with the Front Range.”

The city sees the lack of broadband connectivity as such a hindrance, particularly in the business sector, that it is ready to explore options to provide that service itself, either directly or through a public ­private partnership.

In 2005, Colorado's state legislature passed new rules that prevented municipalities from providing any telecommunications services unless the community passes a referendum reclaiming the authority. As we saw in Longmont, large incumbents use their deep pockets to launch astroturf campaigns, media blitzes, and price gimmicks to mislead the community into a negative result.

Montrose, home to about 15,000 people, is on the far west of the state in Montrose County. Elected officials know that lack of broadband is a hindrance to schools, government, and the business community. Like other rural communities who have been left behind by large providers, Montrose wants to retain a quality workforce by bringing employers to the area. From the article:

“Those communities like Montrose have a different motivation than do the incumbent telecommunication providers,” Turner said. “Our motivation is that we have a great quality of life here, but our lack of broadband availability ... is degrading that quality of life. It’s forcing people to move to the areas where they can get the level of service they need. We see that as something that we can’t stand for.”

The language of the ballot measure clearly eliminates a tax increase as part of the initiative. According to the article, general support is strong:

“I don’t think it’s a tough sell,” [Mayor Judy Ann Files] said. “We can expect some opposition from the big corporations; it’s the big companies that have the state of Colorado tied down.”

Colorado and Mississippi Test White Space Technology

We recently reported on the WhiteSpaces Pilot Project from the Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN). In order to find out the results in the trenches, we contacted two participant communities: Delta County, Colorado and Pascagoula, Mississippi.

The project connects libraries with vendors that supply equipment tapping into what has been television spectrum, or "white spaces." A Wi-Fi signal travels farther on white space spectrum and can travel through obstacles such as buildings and trees. 

The five libraries in the Delta County Libraries system serve a community of approximately 30,000 people. Most residents live on farms or in small towns scattered throughout the county. The libraries all offer free Wi-Fi and serve as places to socialize, connect, and hold community meetings. Library District staff installed the equipment in the library in Paonia, population 1,500.

TDS Telecom and Skybeam offer limited Internet access in the area, but many people do not live in the service areas or cannot afford the steep rates. John Gavan, IT Manager of the Libraries system, predicts that 90% of visits to the facilities focus on Internet access.

When the Delta County Library in Paonia closes down every night, the parking lot is usually filled with people tapping into the library's free Wi-Fi. The GLN WhiteSpaces Pilot went live in Paonia in October 2013. The library's Wi-Fi now sends a signal down the main street in town. They recently created a second hotspot to extend free Wi-Fi even farther. The community hopes to transmit the signal to a park located one mile from the library so summer festival vendors can to use the Wi-Fi for credit card transactions.

Gavan describes the technology as an easy set-up with minimal tech support from the vendor. The terrain in Delta County includes significant hills and trees. The ability to send the signal through obstacles is a major plus in Paonia, where the terrain can be challenging. As an IT Manager, he especially appreciates the ability to monitor and manage the white space network from any Internet connection.

The pilot project will run through 2013. Delta County Libraries will then have the option to purchase the equipment or to return it to the vendor. In Paonia, the equipment will cost approximately $5,800. According to Gavan, it is a small price to pay for the benefit the community receives from the technology.

Unfortunately, tough economic times have negatively impacted budgets in Paonia and Delta County. A proposed mill levy that would have paid for the equipment did not pass. One of the area's major employers - a coal mining facility - announced it will soon be closing down. The loss of jobs will remove $400 million worth of income from the region and community leaders are understandably concerned. Gavan and the Delta County Libraries have launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to keep the equipment. They realize access to the Internet will be even more crucial as people search for employment.

Pascagoula Mississippi logol

In Pascagoula, Mississippi, the School District is also a pilot project participant. In addition to extending the school's Wi-Fi, the coastal community will explore public safety uses. Pascagoula was affected by Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and community leaders are considering white space technology for disaster readiness preparation.

Pascagoula also plans to use the technology to replace a DSL connection to their Adult Learning Center. According to Toby Bradley, School District Network Administrator, the connection will triple the bandwidth and save approximately $200 per month in service charges. Bradley notes:

We approached the pilot a bit differently than the other applicants, in that we were looking at rapid and easy deployment for both permanent and portable connections at a variety of locations that we cannot justify permanent Internet connections to our fiber network or the high cost of leasing services from an ISP on a regular basis. 

As time goes on, we will discover more sites, and expand our TVWS equipment inventory. It fills a niche between very expensive dedicated links, or expensive service contracts. We have also worked on simplifying setup and teardown, and we can have a remote site up and running in less than 10 minutes. Testing remote locations has allowed us to pre-program locations, sources of electrical power, antenna positioning, etc. 

Badley describes the technology as promising but notes that performance levels are inconsistent. He sees a fair degree of trial and error as the community learns the limits of the technology.

For more on the GLN WhiteSpaces Pilot Project, listen to Christopher interview Don Means in Episode 79 of the Broadband Bits podcast.

White Space Pilot Project Brings Basic Internet From Library to Residents … For Free!

The Gigabit Libraries Network (GLN) has orchestrated a pilot project to optimize white space technology for connectivity in and near community libraries and schools. We discussed this approach on our most recent podcast with Don Means, coordinator of the project.

White spaces wireless, sometimes referred to as "Super Wi-Fi" or "TVWS," can provide limited access in rural areas with limited funds and limited connectivity options. The technology is still in the development stage but creative people working in community libraries are finding new ways to use it.

GLN's goal is to bring next generation connectivity to all 16,000 libraries in the U.S. The organization grew out the 2007 "Fiber to the Library" Campaign from the Community TeleStructure Initiative. The initiative is a collaboration of institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education technology market, and related entities. GLN advances the idea that anchor networks, like those at the library, are cost effective ways to serve populations and to create middle mile access.

"White spaces" are the unlicensed low-frequency spectrum that was reserved for television signals prior to digitization of television. (If you are REALLY old, like me, you remember the "UHF" and "VHF" dials on the ol' black-and-white.) As we transitioned to digital TV, the spectrum was abandoned. White spaces differ from traditional point-to-point wireless spectrum because they do not require a line of sight. Buildings, trees, or other obstacles do not stop the signals. Thurman, New York, and New Hanover County in North Carolina use white space technology for limited Internet access in their areas.

White space technology is not a replacement for next generation high-speed networks but can operate as a complement to an existing connection, expanding the reach of a library's free Wi-Fi. The network is not mobile but can be used for a nomadic fixed wireless remote as on a bookmobile. Early testing of pilot networks indicates the signal provides an average of 5 Mbps from the anchor station throughout the hotspot, depending on the conditions. The technology provides a basic level of service for email and web surfing. Users cannot stream video or use bandwidth hungry applications but when a user has no other access, "The value of the first Mbps is worth more than the next ninety-nine," says Don Means, GLN Coordinator.

GLN published an open call in July 2013 to libraries seeking proposals for innovative uses for white space technology. Sixty communities submitted proposals, surprising them by the volume and creativity of proposals. GLN considered a variety of factors, including innovative ideas that would benefit the community, the presence of access to backhaul to support the Wi-Fi, and accessibility of Internet access.

Humbolt County Library

Ultimately, they chose six respondents to participate, including the Humbolt County Library in California; the Skokie Public Library in Illinois; Pascagoula, Mississippi; Delta County Libraries in Colorado; the University of New Hampshire WhiteSpace Consortium; and several libraries in the Kansas City, Kansas Public Library System. When the pilot is complete the libraries will have the option to purchase the equipment or to return it to the vendor. Prices vary from $5,000 - $8,000 for a base station and one to three remote location equipment packages. The Paonia, Colorado, library has created a kickstarted campaign to raise the funds for purchasing the equipment. 

White space is not yet available for commercial use, making it ideal for a pilot project. Unlike traditional Wi-Fi, white space technology requires cognitive radios to function. There are three FCC Certified TVWS Databases: iconnectiv, SpectrumBridge, and Google. When a device is activated, it connects with one of those databases to find available channels. Each device must be certified with one of those databases to access a chanel. At this point, there are no vendors that have certification for the equipment they provide. Once the vendors receive certification from the FCC, commercial use will follow. 

According to GLN, the distance between many U.S. library branches is consistent with the reach of white space technology, approximately five miles. If plans to connect them all include schools as base stations or remotes, much of the United States could have access to free, basic Wi-Fi Internet access.

The idea of reserving some of this spectrum for public use has been debated. The idea of an extensive free "network of networks"  sounds radical at first blush. Here is Harold Feld and his Tales of the Sausage Factory blog:

Hmmm . . . . a best effort “network of networks” voluntarily exchanging traffic through the use of common protocols . . . that sounds vaguely familiar.  Why yes, that’s the Internet! The “network of networks” that runs on best efforts. And some of us are old enough to remember when the idea of millions of independent networks voluntarily agreeing to exchange best efforts traffic would become a meaningful global medium of communications was laughed at, sneered and scorned by the carrier world and the Collective Wisdom generally. “Who on Earth would manage such a system? How could you get connections? Why would people possibly put meaningful traffic on a best efforts and therefore inherently unreliable network? Don’t sell the bike shop Orville, that’s just crazy talk!”

The idea of self organizing networks, where each individual network contributes some resource because it derives benefit of some sort from the contribution, happens around every day. If you are reading this blog post, then you are participating in and using precisely the same kind of network that would emerge from making enough high-quality spectrum available for bigger, better WiFi.

Means describes libraries as "natural community laboratories for innovation." As gathering places in the community that are funded with local dollars, libraries are the ideal place for white space experimentation on a local level. We'll follow this story with another post next week looking at some of the pilot projects.

Don Means on Libraries and White Spaces - Community Broadband Bits Episode 79

This week, Don Means joins us to talk about public libraries, their role in the modern era, and an interesting pilot project involving several libraries and white spaces wireless technology. Don is the coordinator of the Gigabit Libraries Network and has a passion for both libraries and expanding Internet access to all.

We offer some basic background on "TV white spaces" wireless technology (see our other coverage of that technology here). The pilot libraries in this project are using white spaces as backhaul from a library branch location to nearby areas where they have created Wi-Fi hot spots.

Libraries involved with the project are located in Kansas, New Hampshire, Colorado, Illinois, Mississippi, and California.

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 15 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 Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Election Day 2013 Community Owned Network Referendum Roundup

Starting with the good news, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly supported municipal network intiatives. Longmont voted 2:1 in favor of bonding to fast track network expansion. We have covered this issue in great depth recently. Read all of our coverage of Longmont here.

The local paper covered the referendum results in this story:

2B's passage means approval for the city to issue $45.3 million in bonds to build out the city's 17-mile fiber optic loop within three years.

Longmont Power & Communications has estimated that the payback time on the bond will be 11 years. If revenues from commercial and residential customers fall short, LPC's electric service revenues will be used to make up the shortfall, LPC staffers have told the Longmont City Council.

South in Centennial, voters supported restoring local authority to build a network by a 3:1 margin. We most recently wrote about this referendum here.

In Seattle, the mayor that campaigned on a citywide fiber network and backed off it but created a partnership with Gigabit Squared to bring gigabit fiber to 12 neighborhoods lost in his bid for reelection to the candidate that that was strongly supported with Comcast donations. However, the election does not appear to have turned on broadband issues:

McGinn’s fate was forecast two years ago, when voters slapped back his efforts to obstruct the Highway 99 tunnel project, opting to move ahead with the long-debated project. McGinn’s anti-tunnel agitating was viewed as a reversal from his 2009 election-eve pledge not to stand in the project’s way.

We continue to be disappointed in the lack of serious discussion in many races about how local governments can make meaningful improvements in Internet access for residents and businesses. We most recently covered the Seattle story here.

And finally, the disappointing news from Iowa. Though Emmetsburg received majority approval for its bond issue to build a fiber network, the 54% fell short of the 60% required for a general obligation bond. They planned to finance the investment with both a revenue bond and a general obligation bond. They will continue to seek opportunities to build the network despite this temporary setback.

Denver Suburb Seeks to Take Back Local Authority

Centennial is asking its voters to reclaim local authority this election. City leaders want to make better use of an existing fiber optic system but a 2005 Colorado state law pushed by a corporate telephone company precludes it. If the citizenry reclaims its local authority through referendum, the City can take the next step toward providing indirect services via its fiber network. 

We contacted City Council Member Ken Lucas to find out more about the ballot question. Centennial is a relatively young city that was incorporated in 2001 and has about 100,000 residents. Lucas told us that this ballot question is not only about using their fiber resources. The community of Centennial considers this a critical step toward maintaining a business friendly environment.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided grants to install the existing network for traffic control, security cameras, and public works monitoring. The City contributed only approximately $100,000 to the network, valued at $5 million. Traffic and public safety now use only two strands of the network that runs through the center of town. City leaders want to use the remaining 94 strands to improve access in the community. To see a map of the fiber and open conduit in Centennial, check out the City's PDF.

Approximately 94% of Centennial businesses and 85% of households are within one mile of the fiber backbone. Residents and business owners can now choose between Comcast or CenturyLink and rates are high. Lucas tells of one business owner who asked Comcast to provide 1 Gbps service to his building. Comcast offered to lease a line to the business at a high rate, but the customer would still have to pay $20,000 for installation.

Community leaders want to encourage more competition and, if they eventually develop the fiber, will explore open access models. Centennial knows their authority to invest in fiber infrastructure will influence economic development. City leaders want to attract high tech jobs to the Denver suburb.

The incumbents have not yet launched an expensive astroturf campaign or lobbied heavily against the ballot question as we saw previously in Longmont. This is the ballot question language:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS WITH PRIVATE BUSINESSES, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES? 

Centennial does not want to compete with Comcast or CenturyLink - it wants to encourage other providers to compete with each other. Many communites express the same desire to improve telecommunications for their citizens without delivering the services themselves. However, many have found that they have to take an active role in order to ensure a real choice between slow DSL and modestly faster cable, each owned and operated by distant corporations.

Lucas told us that plans to use the fiber are far down the road. For now, the community wants to recapture the power the state preempted in 2005.

Longmont Referendum: Haven't We Been Here Before?

November 5th probably seems like deja vu for the people of Longmont, Colorado. For the third time, the voters will respond to a ballot question that will impact their community's connectivity. Past referendums addressed whether or not the community could use its fiber ring for connecting businesses and residents.

They now have that authority. This year the question will be "when?"

Local incumbent providers grossly outspent municipal network supporters in 2009 and in 2011 with astroturf campaigns against referendums. Nevertheless, voters decided in 2011 to grant the local utility permission to use existing fiber resources to bring connectivity to businesses and residents. 

Since then, Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) began a slow build-out of fiber to businesses and homes within 500 feet of the existing loop. Local businesses, frustrated with poor service from Comcast and CenturyLink, jumped at the opportunity to have real high-speed connections. With a long list of businesses in queue for their connections, the City Council voted to use LPC reserve funds to connect businesses and residents to the loop. Clearly, the people of Longmont were ready for something better than the existing incumbent services.

Local blogger Steve Elliott connected to the service in September. To satisfy his curiosity, he ran speed tests immediately before and after he transitioned from Comcast service.

Comcast timed in at 26.08 Mbps download and 5.76 Mbps upload. LPC provided 89.99 Mbps download and 62.01 Mbps upload

From his post:

I also timed downloading movies on Netflix on my TV. Before, I could run upstairs, get an adult beverage and be back in my chair before the movie loaded. Now – if it takes 10 seconds – it’s a really long movie. 

Thumbnail of comic strip

After a month with LPC fiber and new computer system, Elliott ran more speed tests. Results topped out at 739.66 Mbps download and 534.75 upload for LPC Fiber.

Elliott also compared prices:

Comcast: $71.95 per month ($863.40 per year)

LPC Fiber $49.95 per month ($599.40 per year)

We compared Comcast to Longmont fiber in this entertaining comic strip.

Elliott is not the only Longmont resident who wants to connect to LPC fiber. Calls to "get it done" from residents and businesses did not fall on deaf ears at the May Longmont City Council meeting. The Council voted unanimously to bring fiber to every resident and business that wants it. Next, community leaders and LPC investigated financing. The reserve fund, developed from years of dark fiber lease revenue, could pay for the expansion but the project would drag out over a decade.

Rather than see the project finished in more than ten years, the community can become entirely connected within three years with a $44 million revenue bond issue. LPC will use $35.4 million as capital to build out the network and the remaining as reserve for debt-service. State legislation sponsored by USWest from 2005 imposed the referendum requirement on local communities; the voters must decide. USWest became Qwest became CenturyLink.

The Times-Call reproduced the 2B Ballot Question language:

"Without raising taxes, shall city of Longmont debt be increased in an amount not to exceed $45,300,000 by the issuance of revenue bonds for the purpose of financing fiber optic system capital improvements to provide high-speed broadband service, including but not limited to internet, voice and video services; and shall the bonds be paid solely from the city's electric and broadband utility enterprise revenues and be sold in one series or more at a price above, below or equal to the principal amount of such Bonds and with such terms and conditions, including provisions for redemption prior to maturity with or without payment of a premium of not more than 3%, as the city council may determine?"

Friends of Fiber in Longmont

Unlike past referendums, gigantic telecom providers have not spent large amounts of cash to fuel misinformation campaigns this time. Local citizen group, Friends of Fiber, is prepared to face-off against Comcast and CenturyLink. From a Times-Call article:

"It's as baffling to us as it is to you," said Scott Converse of the pro-2B group Friends of Fiber, which had been expecting to see another large push by the telecom companies. So far, he said, the only "anti" activity anyone in the group had seen was a telephone poll in September by Frederick Poll, a Virginia-based firm.

"We're wondering if maybe there's going to be a push near the end," Converse said. "I can't imagine why they're waiting."

The silence is welcome but a little eerie.

The City provides a PDF brochure on Ballot Question 2B that addresses many common questions. For more about the measure and the benefits springing from the network, listen to Chris' interviews with LPC's Vince Jordan. In the Broadband Bits podcast, Episode #10, Jordan describes the challenges LPC Fiber faced. Episode #68 deals with the upcoming referendum. Chris talks with Jordan and George Oliver from Friends of Fiber.

Update: In a letter to the editor, George Oliver wrote:

We have been providing our own electricity for more than 100 years and our rates are among the lowest in the nation. The same will be true if we expand our own fiber network. Because Longmont Power & Communications is a not-for-profit agency of the city, our low rates and network availability will help to retain and attract businesses to our city. This is the kind of visionary investment that will pay big dividends down the road.

New Comic: Longmont Fiber Crushes Comcast's Cable Outhouse

Longmont Power and Communications, a city-owned utility north of Denver in Colorado, is slowly rolling out a FTTH network to local businesses and residents that are in close proximity to its existing fiber loop. They are offering a symmetrical gigabit of Internet access for just $50/month.

Longmont Fiber Comic Strip

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The local newspaper notes that some local businesses have already signed on, including a clinic:

Jurey said the city's network is three times faster than the speeds the clinic got before at a cost savings of $1,600 a month.

On November 5, citizens will decide a referendum on whether to expedite the building by issuing revenue bonds without increasing local taxes. A brochure explaining pro and con is available here [pdf]. Approving the bonds means building the network to everyone in a few years while not approving it will mean building the network over several decades.

We recently did a podcast with Longmont Power and Communications Broadband Services Manager Vince Jordan and a local citizen campaigning for the referendum. Listen to that show here.

Read the rest of our coverage about Longmont here.