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Howard County Fiber Encourages New Jobs, Competition in Maryland - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 133

While at the Broadband Communities Economic Development conference in Springfield last year, I had the good fortune to catch a panel with Chris Merdon, the CIO of Howard County, Maryland.

Howard County has become an Internet Service Provider, not just to itself, but to private firms as well. To improve Internet access for businesses, it is both leasing dark fiber to existing providers and directly offering services to businesses and buildings.

We are grateful that Chris could join us for a Chris2 interview! We discuss how and why Howard County chose this strategy and how it is benefiting the community.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 19 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access

Publication Date: 
September 23, 2014
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell

Minneapolis, MN —In 2010 the Minnesota legislature set a goal: universal access to high speed broadband throughout the state by 2015. It is now 2015 and large parts of Greater Minnesota will not achieve that goal, even as technological advances make the original benchmarks increasingly obsolete.

But some Minnesota communities are significantly exceeding those goals. Why? The activism of local governments.

A new report by ILSR, widely recognized as one of the most knowledgeable organizations on municipal broadband networks, details the many ways Minnesota’s local governments have stepped up. “All Hands On Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models for Expanding Fiber Internet Access” includes case studies of 12 Minnesota cities and counties striving to bring their citizens 21st century telecommunications.

 

  • Windom, which is one of the most advanced networks in the state, built their own network after their telephone company refused to invest in their community.
  • Dakota County showed how a coordinated excavation policy can reduce by more than 90 percent the cost of installing fiber.
  • Lac qui Parle County partnered with a telephone cooperative to bring high speed broadband to its most sparsely population communities.

Read how these and other communities took control of their own connectivity and their community vitality. Some did it alone while others established partnerships; each chose the path they considered the best for their own community.

 

Mendocino County Analyzes Losses From Communications Outage

In November, the Broadband Alliance of Mendocino County (BAMC) released a report documenting the results of an online survey to determine the effects of a summer communications outage. The Willits News reported that the survey revealed losses of over $215,000 in the county, although actual losses likely reach the millions.

In August, an accident wiped out Internet, telephone, cell, and 911 services for eight communities along the coast in Mendocino County. AT&T aerial fiber optic cable was destroyed. Approximately 17,400 people lost access to 911 services. Depending on the location, 911 service was out for 24 to 45 hours.

Only about 6.5 percent of the people in Mendocino County participated in the survey according to the report. Ninety-five percent of those responding said they were directly impacted.

The article quotes the BAMC report:

According to the BAMC, the outage was lengthy because "the AT&T backbone fiber network was not configured to be redundant nor diverse with protection routing. This was not due to the lack of fiber in the surrounding routes. AT&T did provide diverse fiber and protection for their cable station, but elected not to provide the same for the surrounding community and emergency services."

Mendocino County has been working for several years on an initiative to improve connectivity along California's north coast. They are now part of a larger collaboration called the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium.

The incident in Mendocino County is much like a similar event in 2010 in which Cook and Lake Counties in Minnesota were cut off in the same way. At that time, a single Qwest line was cut and, since there was no redundancy, 911 service, Internet, and many business services came to a screeching halt.

Yet another reminder of the risks that come with depending on distant mega-corporations for essential infrastructure.

Local Entities Coordinate to Deploy Fiber in Illinois

Several entities in northeast Illinois are hoping to improve connectivity, reduce costs, and spur economic development with a publicly owned $2.11 million fiber optic investment. 

McHenry County, the City of Woodstock, McHenry Community College (MCC), and Woodstock Community Unit School District 200 are working together to develop the McHenry County Broadband Fiber Network Consortium. The county's Emergency Telephone System Board will also will belong to the consortium. The purpose of the group will be to oversee and manage the network, reports an October 26th Northwest Herald Article.

The Woodstock City Council recently unanimously approved participation in the project and the proposed intergovernmental agreement. District 200 soon followed with unanimous approval on October 28th, and on November 6th the McHenry County Board also agreed unanimously to participate in the project. The agreement and details about the project are available in the Agenda Packet [PDF] from the November 6th County Board meeting.

Each entity expects to see significant savings as they eliminate leased lines. Woodstock's annual projected operational costs will be $33,784, reducing municipal connectivity costs by about $13,448 per year by eliminating leased lines. Woodstock will also enjoy the ability to budget from year to year without the threat of unpredictable rate increases from current provider Comcast. City Manager Roscoe Stelford told the Northwest Herald:

The potential economic development opportunities, allowing area businesses to buy and use the new network, alone makes the project significant, he said.

“Having that high-tech infrastructure in the City of Woodstock is going to be another feather in our cap for us to secure economic development opportunities,” Stelford said.

The network will bring a 10 gigabit fiber back bone from the MCC campus through downtown to the County Government Center. Laterals will branch out to municipal and school facilities. The current plan includes gigabit connections to 24 municipal buildings, public safety sites, schools, recreation centers, a library, a work force center, and an opera house.

Comcast now charges District 200 approximately $109,000 per year for connectivity. When leased lines are eliminated, the District will spend approximately $48,500 as their share for operational and management costs. In addition to saving over $60,000 per year, District 200 will be able to offer students future-proof infrastructure. From the Woodstock Independent:

“It’s an exciting position to be in, and there are other things we’ll see savings on,” said [school] board member William Nattress. “Technical refreshment, new applications will be easier and less expensive now that we have this backbone.”

District 200's share is the largest because it requires more connections. Budgetary uncertainties at the state level have created concern for District 200 so Woodstock and McHenry County will cover District 200's $806,526 share with an interest-free, four-year loan.

For the total project, McHenry County will be responsible for $760,526; Woodstock will contribute $386,624; MCC will provide $54,423; and the Emergency Telephone System Board will contribute $105,800.

The Northern Illinois University's Broadband Development Group will coordinate the project; the network may be up and running as early as summer 2015.

Republicans and Democrats Alike Restore Local Authority in Colorado

Yesterday, Colorado voters in three counties and five municipalities were asked whether they want to restore local government authority to build or partner for broadband networks. A 2005 law, lobbied for heavily by incumbents, prevents local municipalities from offering telecommunications services, even if they already have the infrastructure in place.

According to the law, local communities can ask voters to reclaim local authority to establish a telecommunications utility. We have seen Longmont, Montrose, and Centennial take action in prior years. In Longmont, the community has successfully established a telecommunications utility and the community is loving it.

An interesting wrinkle in Colorado is the wide support across the state - communities that vote heavily for Democrats supported local authority for municipal networks in similar numbers that those in areas voting heavily for Republicans.

In Yuma County, where approximately 85% of voters supported the GOP Senate candidate, the measure to reclaim local authority passed with 72% of the vote.  Yuma County overwhelmingly voted for the Republican candidate for Governor and every race in Yuma County went to a Republican candidate. The cities of Yuma and Wray within the County also had their own ballot initiatives to reclaim local authority; those ballot measures also passed by 72%.

Rio Blanco County's numbers were very similar to those in Yuma County. The only exception was that their ballot question 1A on reclaiming local authority passed with 76%. Again, every race went to a Republican candidate in Rio Blanco County.

Boulder, with considerable fiber assets already in place, decided to take the possibility of using those assets to the voters this year and the voters said yes. Much like the voters in Yuma, Wray, Yuma County, and Rio Blanco County, Boulder voters approved their measure 2C by a high 83.6%. Unlike the voters in Yuma, Wray, Yuma County, and Rio Blanco County, Boulder chose to support Democratic candidates in every race. Many of those races were not close.

Approximately 80% of San Miguel County voters, another region supporting Democrats in this cycle, chose to reclaim local authority on ballot measure 1A [PDF].

If we see communities described as strongly supporting either Republican or Democratic candidates also supporting municipal network authority, it is logical that communities with mixed support of both parties would also support local authority initiatives. 

Cherry Hills Village in Arapahoe County and Red Cliff in Eagle County each presented similar ballot questions to voters and both passed. Red Cliff's results are not official as of this writing but are projected at about 60-70% and Cherry Hills Village results are around 80%. Arapahoe County voters elected a mix of Republican and Democratic candidates with some races very close. Eagle County voters also chose mixed representation.

Yesterday's election in Colorado showed us that supporting local government authority to build or partner in fiber networks is popular across the political spectrum. Regardless of their party affiliation, they agreed that those smart decisions should be made at home, not by legislators in Denver. And if they were going to give advice to the new Congress in DC, it would probably be to restore and preserve local decision-making on this issue.

Dakota County is Fiber Rich Thanks to Dig Once Approach - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 117

Calls for "dig once" policies have resonated for years. The general idea is that we can more fiber and conduit in the ground at lower prices if we coordinate to include them in various projects that already disturb the ground. In the south Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dakota County has been tweaking its dig once approach for more than a decade.

This week, Network Collaboration Engineer David Asp and .Net Systems Analyst Rosalee McCready join us to discuss their approach to maximizing all opportunities to get fiber and conduit in the ground. They work in a county that ranges from rural farms in the south to urban cities in the north, offering lessons for any local government.

We discuss the award-winning software they developed to coordinate projects and the many benefits of the network that have already produced millions of dollars in savings. And now the county is examining how it can use its fiber to spur economic development and investment in better Internet access for area residents.

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 18 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 The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Harford County Network Goes Live in Maryland

Harford County, a mixed suburban and rural area in northeast Maryland, flipped the switch in late May on its Harford Metro Area Network (HMAN). The network includes 160 miles of fiber bringing high speed broadband to 150 sites, including all area schools, fire stations, libraries, and county and municipal buildings.

The project required $13.8 million in general obligation bonds from the county's capital improvement budget to construct four main fiber optic loops, with lateral connections leading to local anchor institutions. Not all planned facilities are connected yet, but construction will continue throughout the summer, as will the development of a business plan to determine how best to offer connections to local businesses and residences. Connections in the more rural northern area of the county will be wireless, due to the higher cost of building out to each home in lower density areas.

County Director of Information and Communication Technology Ted Pibil estimated that the county will save approximately $1 million per year by owning its own network, allowing it to cut ties with Verizon and Comcast. All of Harford County’s 54 public schools will see benefits as well, with increases in bandwidth of 50-100 times.

Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane emphasized the public safety benefits of having a reliable communications network built with multiple contingencies in mind:

"This is going to provide the sheriff’s office with redundancy. That’s something we do not have at this time. It is something we have always considered a very precarious situation to be in… this will move us forward.”

While HMAN is funded entirely by county bonding, it builds on the backbone infrastructure of the OneMaryland Network, a stimulus-funded project that connects every county in the state. The press conference announcing the start of network operations can be seen here.

Wisconsin Local Governments Collaborate for Schools, City, and County

Sheboygan County, the City of Sheboygan, and the Sheboygan Area School District (SASD) plan to collaborate to deploy a fiber network. According to an article in the Sheboygan Press, all three entities seek cost savings and higher capacity connections.

Approximately, 49,000 people live in the City of Sheboygan; there are 10,000 students attending SASD. Over 115,000 people live in the County located on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

The County, the City, and SASD will split the cost of constructing the ring, approximately $1.4 million. Each entity will then pay for laterals to connect its facilities to the ring. The total to construct the ring and connect each entities' facilities will be approximately $3.58 million. 

To build its laterals, SASD will pay $865,000. The District will save approximately $220,000 per year on connectivity fees, paying back the total investment ($1.4 million + $865,000) in about 10 years even without putting any value on the considerable benefit of much high capacity connections. When factoring in the reality that their connectivity fees would undoubtedly increase signficantly under the status quo arrangement and the much higher capacity connections, the payback period will be even shorter than 10 years.

The district is already providing a device for each student and its current connection is struggling to meet the demand. The state has a program, TEACH Wisconsin, which subsidizes the high cost of leasing connections from existing providers but given the high rates often charged by a company like AT&T, it can only go so far.

Wayne Eschen, information services coordinator, said the district pays about $220,000 per year for its online capacity...

“(TEACH Wisconsin) is limited,” Eschen said. “If you go beyond that, you pay full retail for it. We’ve exceeded the base that’s available to us and we’re now paying retail as well. As the need continues to increase, the retail cost goes up substantially.”

Meanwhile, the County now pays approximately $29,000 per year for just 25 Mbps Internet access. They estimate they will pay $9,000 per year for gigabit connectivity via the new infrastructure. We do not know how much the County currently pays for connectivity beyond Internet access but it will pay approximately $455,000 in one time fees to connect laterals to its 13 - 14 facilities.

The City has plans for its faster connections:

“What we want to do is look at different ways we can get them connected with high speed and yet have it cost-manageable,” [IT Director David] Augustin said. “If we go with those avenues (the current system), we’ll still never get the speed capacity that we would with fiber and yet we’d still have to pay the monthly charge.”

One thing the city is especially interested in is conducting some fire department training by video conference, which would require much faster speeds than they now have.

The City expects to pay approximately $664,000 to establish connections to a future network.

Apparently, a road project has inspired the partners to move forward this summer. They have determined that burying conduit as part of that project will reduce the costs by $400,000. They hope to have the network completed and lit by 2016.

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

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."

Rural Colorado's Cortez Fiber Network Serves Region - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #98

Located in rural southwest Colorado, Cortez is just 20 miles from the famous four corners of the US southwest. When incumbents were either unwilling or unable to provide modern services in the region, Cortez stepped up with a plan. This week, Cortez General Services Director Rick Smith joins us to share how they incrementally built an open access fiber network.

Cortez is one of the growing number of local governments with no electric utility that has built its own fiber network - and they didn't just stop with one. They have built both a local loop for a business district and a larger regional loop to connect anchor institutions.

The network was financed in large part with grants from the state that were matched locally. Cortez has plans to continue growing both networks to ensure area businesses and residents have access to the services they need in the modern economy.

We covered Cortez when it first launched back in 2011 - see all our coverage here. Read more about the Cortez Community Network 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."