The town of Decorah, Iowa, population 8,000, lies along the winding banks of the Iowa River. So close to the river, in fact, that in 2008 its floodwaters swamped parts of the town, including the emergency operations center. That unfortunate event got city leaders thinking about how to ensure secure and redundant communications in future emergencies. The city, county, and school district decided to partner on a fiber optic network build that would meet their shared needs.
The resulting project, called the Decorah Metronet, has lead to the city being named an “All-Star Community” by the Iowa League of Cities. The award was given last month in recognition of Decorah’s innovative policies, and specifically singled out the fiber optic network for its contributions to public safety, cost savings, and intergovernmental cooperation. The award is given each year “based on innovative efforts in areas such as urban renewal, development, preservation, service sharing or quality of life improvements.”
Completed in the fall of 2013, Metronet boasts an 11-mile, 144-strand fiber optic loop. It connects 18 facilities belonging to six different anchor institutions: the city of Decorah, Winneshiek County, Decorah Community Schools, Luther College, the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, and the Winneshiek Medical Center. Metronet not only provides redundancy and savings on connectivity costs, but data center services and offsite backup for its member institutions as well.
When the network went live last November, City Manager Chad Bird emphasized its economic potential and indicated it would eventually offer extensions to individuals and businesses:
"I see the Metronet fiber being an economic development tool for our community -- having it in place and having excess fiber available for the commercial industrial segment of our economy. I can think of technology heavy business -- call centers or data centers - that might appreciate having excess fiber capacity."
The project was the recipient of a $520,000 federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant in 2010 which provided the bulk of the initial construction budget, although each anchor institution contributed $75,000 in matching funds over three years as well.
Congratulations to Decorah, and notch another victory for Iowa’s rural community network movement.
The Southeast Assocation of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors has announced Christopher Mitchell will receive its 2014 Community Broadband Advocacy Award at its upcoming conference on March 24 and 25 in Raleigh, North Carolina.
I am honored to receive this recognition alongside Jim Baller and the Georgia Municipal Association, with whom I have worked on several occasions to further the public interest. I've long wanted to attend the SEATOA conference and hope readers will join me there.
I am excited to travel back to North Carolina after several years away from the state, to see how networks like Wilson's Greenlight have progressed and to learn more about efforts to expand universal access to fast, affordable, and reliable Internet connections.
The interview is embedded below and runs approximately one hour and is sandwiched between a one hour interview with Chattanooga about smart grid economics and an hour interview with Todd Marriot about UTOPIA -- so if you want to hear the portion on Kutztown, skip 60 minutes into the show.
In the interview, Craig and Frank discuss how the municipal network, Home Net, started out of necessity. The community wanted to link their utilities with a telecommunications network and government facilities needed a cohesive option. FTTH became part of the equation later, but was not the main impetus. Kutztown issued RFPs for a new network, but the response was silence. The community investigated the next option - building it themselves.
After several conflicting feasibility studies, the Burough decided to go ahead and build the network with the hope that "if we build it, they (ISPs) will come." Kutztown issued taxable bonds and built their own fiber network. The goal was to provide the infrastructure for government purposes and in the future create real choice for consumers. Again, no ISPs answered the call.
According to Caruso, large providers were not able to accept a business model which created a "middle man" between them and their customers. The only interest from the private market was from a small local telecommunications company that eventually leased a line from the city to expand their footprint for telephone service.
Caruso goes on to describe how, even though no companies were interested in an RFP bid, curiosity grew as the launch date approached. The Public Utilities Commission and the FCC met with Kutztown leaders to inquire but expressed no objections. Large telcos came to meetings and even spoke up about the design of the network, but none signed on to offer services over this incredible asset.
At the State Capitol, legislative changes changed the future for Pennsylvania communities who might follow Kutztown's lead. Interestingly, the Governor actually gave Kutztown an award (news article at right) just under a year before signing a bill to ensure no other community could duplicate their success. Pennsylvania was one of the first states to begin passage of crippling legislation (at the behest of Verizon) that has moved across the country. While Kutztown was grandfathered in and can continue to provide services, laws prevent any expansion. Caruso even fears new legislation may one day bring an end to Home Net.
As long as they are able to operate, says Caruso, they will continue to offer high quality service and find new ways to offer more options and better technology. Home Net provides fiber-ro-the-home at a take rate of 51%. Caruso credits much of the network success to the fact that customers receive service on a local level. They know the people who run the network and make the decisions. We previously ran a photo of one marketing campaign.
Settles and Caruso also discuss lessons learned. One of Caruso's key recommendations is separating government from business. He sees numerous possibilities in the nonprofit or coop model, especially now that state law prevents more municipal investment. In Kutztown, the network is administered by a Telecommunications Advisory Commission made up of residents. The entity is legally able to operate in a more competitive manner but is still answerable to community voices.
Operating under the purview of open meeting laws and the public sector's high level of transparency create competitive disadvantages for Home Net. Caruso comments on how business plans, prices, products, and other information closely guarded by the private sector must be disclosed early in the process by Hometown Utilitcom. Marketing efforts can be thwarted and promotions are often one-upped by the private sector before they even take effect.
Nevertheless, competition has been good for the community. The presence of another network has lowered rates for every consumer in Kutztown. Caruso calls it a win-win. He notes that over the course of 10 years, more than $8 million has stayed local because rates have reflected the competitive environment. The savings per household is about $375.
Caruso sees economic devlopment from the network as immeasureable. He sees better roads, fewer empty houses, more businesses operating on main street. He believes there are more home businesses, more online commerce for local businesses, and more data driven possibilities for extant large companies than there were before the network. Caruso returns again and again to what he considers a priceless benefit - an improved quality of life in Kutztown.
We encourage you to listen to the rest of the interview for a great discussion on the policy and practicalities of Home Net, municipal networks in Pennsylvania, and predictions for the future.
Congratulations to the city of Santa Monica, for adding another award to their long list. On September 18th, city leaders announced that InformationWeek 500 named the city to the 2012 list of technology innovators. Santa Monica is among the Top 15 Government Innovators.
The award specifically acknowledges the Advanced Traffic Management System (ATMS) that uses Santa Monica's fiber network to improve traffic safety. From a Santa Monica Daily Press Article about the recognition:
The ATMS connects traffic signals, cameras, controllers and wireless devices on transit corridors through Santa Monica’s fiber-optic network. The entire system is managed in one room where traffic is monitored and controlled in real time. Traffic signals can be adjusted on the fly to deal with shifting traffic patterns during peak travel times, holidays, special events and traffic accidents.
Emergency vehicles can also trigger green lights, helping them move quickly through the city. The number of parking spaces available in city-owned lots and structures is also monitored and displayed on signs and on City Hall’s website. There are also Wi-Fi equipped parking meters that take payments by credit cards and cell phones.
A special website — smconstructs.org — provides the latest information on development projects, as well as road closures, detours and other impacts on traffic, according to the press release.
The city also runs parkingspacenow.smgov.net, which allows users to find a place to park their vehicles and provides information on all things parking related.
The National Association of Telecommunication Officers and Advisors (NATOA) has recognized our work by naming us one of the Community Broadband Organizations of the Year for 2012. The award will be celebrated along with other 2012 Community Broadband Awards at their annual conference in New Orleans on September 27-29.
In the press release, NATOA noted our work "…for persistent reporting on community broadband initiatives and their opponents, thereby educating and informing the public and policy-makers nationwide."
John Windhaousen, Blair Levin, Clakamas County, Oregon, the Cities of Wilson, North Carolina, and Port Angeles, Washington, and the Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) project.
From the Press Release:
We are thrilled to recognize such a broad spectrum of people, communities, and organizations that lead the nation in advocating for and improving government and public options in broadband technology," said Joanne Hovis, president of the NATOA Board of Directors. "These pioneers have distinguished themselves in their extraordinary efforts, achievements and innovation in community-based approaches to broadband.
Ponca City made the list and was specifically singled out for the wireless network owned by the City:
This town has a very progressive economic development organization. They even have their own Youtube video promoting Ponca City as the place to locate your business. The city’s history has been shaped by the petroleum industry since Conoco Oil once had their headquarters here. Now, they highlight their fast-track permitting, workforce training, state and local incentive programs and a completely wireless community. [emphasis in original]
Riverside, California was just named the Intelligent Community of the Year 2012 by the Intelligent Communities Forum. It is only the fourth U.S. city to win in the 14-year history of the award. Among its top qualifications are a publicly owned fiber optic network linking public buildings (eliminating the need for any leased lines) and a free Wi-Fi network that aids an impressive digital inclusion approach.
The path to the award began in 2005, when the City hired a full time CIO, Steve Reneker, and launched SmartRiverside as a way to attract technology companies. In addition to efforts to connect to California's reputation as a technology leader, the City invested in the basics. From a Government Technology article:
A year later, the City Council addressed physical infrastructure needs by approving Riverside Renaissance, a $2 billion effort to improve traffic flow; replace aging water, sewer and electric infrastructure; and expand and improve police, fire, parks, library and other community facilities.
“We’ve done a number of things that have changed Riverside to make us competitive,” said Mayor Ron Loveridge.
Part of being competitive was capitalizing on the City's existing fiber network ring, managed and maintained by the City Public Utility. The fiber network was originally focused on running the operational facilities for power and water but according to Reneker, via email:
...over the past 4 years, IT was able to work with our City Manager’s office and finance the construction of fiber to every City facility. So all telco lines have been eliminated and now all voice, data and video traverses the 1Gb network to City Hall. In addition, the City went live with City wide WiFi in May 2007, and the fiber was run to 6 tower locations to enable WiFi coverage city wide.
The fiber network provides the needed infrastucture to offer free Wifi all over the City. From the Intelligent Communities website:
A free WiFi network now offers up to 1 Mbps service through 1,600 access points, and exploding demand has led multiple commercial carriers to deploy high-speed broadband across the city. Riding the network is an array of award-winning e-government applications, from dynamic traffic management to graffiti tracking and removal.
The city recognized it also needed to invest in digital inclusion in addition to network infrastructure. Thirty percent of Riverside residents earn less than $45,000 a year and 70 percent of the student population qualifies for the free or reduced lunch program. The community network would only be as good as the number of residents using it, so bridging that divide was critical.
SmartRiverside procured a grant from Microsoft in 2006, which allowed the City to start the Digital Inclusion Program. The program provides free refurbished computers to household earning less than $45,000 and provides classes on computer skills. Signing up is easy - residents can call 311 and talk to a City representative who will complete the application for them over the phone. New clients are taken on a first come first served basis and taught by instructors from Riverside's school district. Upon completion of about eight hours of classroom instruction, the participant receives their free refurbished computer.
As of October 2011, the program had served 5,000 families and currently serves 100 - 150 families per month. With free Wifi over 78% of the City (equal to approximately 54 square miles), graduates have ample opportunities to use their computers. Reneker sees the free Wifi as a key to the success of the Digital Inclusion Program.
Naturally, the ability to provide computers to so many families requires a steady input of donated equipment and the staff to prepare and configure them. Computers are donated by the public, schools, and local businesses. Project BRIDGE (Building Resources for the Intervention and Deterrence of Gang Engagement), a City Park's program, places at-risk youth in positions throughout the City. Project BRIDGE members work at the Digital Inclusion e-waste facility cleaning hard drives, configuring donated computers, and installing software for Digital Inclusion families. Project BRIDGE members get the opportunity to start training for A+ certification, which can lead to advanced training and positions in the IT industry.
For more about the network and the program, check out the video below.
Quickly locating and localizing power outages will continue to limit power loss which will save tens of millions of dollars each year. According to Harold DePriest, CEO of EPB, "Nobody has applied them (IntelliRuptors) in the numbers we've applied them." A tornado on March 2nd tested the new system and, while 3,470 customers lost power, estimates are that the number would have been double without the use of the smart switches. Smart meters are also being installed, allowing customer usage data sent to the utility, which means that EPB will immediately know who has power and who does not in the aftermath of storms.
EPB saved about 5 million customer minutes in 2011 with half of the switches installed and half of installed switches set up to function automatically. EPB estimates and annual saving of up to $40 million to $45 million for businesses, and between $6 million and $7 million in savings for the utility because of fewer and limited outages.
Putting a dollar amount on loss due to power outages is no easy task. Estimates for losses in the United States vary but a 2005 research study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) put the figure at $80 billion dollars annually. With more smart grids like the EPB system, that figure could be significantly reduced. Community fiber networks are uniquely poised to offer the best option to electric utilities that need reliable, robust connections across their footprint.
A significant number of smart meters (approximately 60,000) and automation points (approximately 300) remain to be installed in Chattanooga.
With all the great community broadband network projects out there that are owned by local governments, I hope readers will take some time to nominate some of them for the "Innovations in American Government" awards from the Ash Center at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Deadline for nominations is March 1.
Winners of the Innovations competition are eligible for awards of up to $100,000 for replication and dissemination. You may apply directly or you can be referred through an adviser to the program, which assures that program staff will follow up with you to make sure you are eligible and that you successfully complete the application.
Local governments do not favor themselves on taxes or right of ways or otherwise compete unfairly with incumbent telecommunications and incumbent cable companies. To the contrary, private incumbents enjoy a wealth of state and federal subsidies, guaranteed rates of return, regulated rates for pole attachments, etc. In addition, local telephone companies enjoyed years of regulated monopoly status to build positions of dominance they continue to enjoy. To pretend that these local incumbents, with their subsidies and regulated access, need to “level the playing field” to protect a “free market” against local government systems flies in the face of reality.