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High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community it a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

Russellville EPB Logo

According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

Word of Mouth graphic

In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast. 

Morristown Network Creates Cost Savings and Spurs Job Growth

Located in the northeast corner of Tennessee, Morristown Utility Systems (MUS) offers gigabit broadband throughout a region that covers 30,000 residents and businesses. I recently spoke with MUS General Manager and CEO, Jody Wigington, about FiberNET’s progress and he had much to report, starting with over $5 million in cost savings for local businesses, residents, and the local government itself.

Asked about cost savings to Morristown’s city government, Wigington pointed to $840,000 in total savings from a smart meter program - a combination of lower annual power consumption and operational efficiencies. Another $20,000 in annual savings is due to the county not having to pay out-of-town IT contractors to maintain its network because the required expertise can now be found locally thanks to MUS’s dedicated network specialists.

Morristown businesses and residents are also saving, to the tune of $3.4-million annually thanks to FiberNET’s introduction of lower prices in the local broadband market. That’s $3.4-million, every year, which can be spent locally rather than being siphoned out of the community to corporate shareholders.

In terms of revenue, FiberNET generated $8.6-million during the most recent fiscal year and is projected to generate $8.8-million during the current one. FiberNET's solid financials have translated into increases in MUS’s payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT) to the city, which now amount to $350,000 per year, up from $150,000 in 2010. FiberNET’s strong financial performance resulted in MUS becoming cash flow positive just two years after launch, and net income positive after five years. Both of these key milestones were reached significantly quicker than initially projected.

MUS FiberNET’s impact on economic development is also notable. Oddello Industries, a contract furniture manufacturer that relies on FiberNET for its communications, recently announced a $4-million expansion in Morristown, resulting in 228 new jobs. Oddello CEO, Tom Roberts, cited “reliable utilities” among the reasons for investing in Morristown. This growth is part of a larger trend for Oddello, which has grown its Morristown presence from 35 to 415 employees in just the past year. 

Another sign of FiberNET’s impact on economic development is the recent decision by Molecular Pathology Laboratory Network (MPLN), a global leader in personalized laboratory medicine, to locate its primary backup facility in Morristown. As a global provider of diagnostics to hospitals, medical labs and physician groups, MPLN requires ultra-reliable data replication and disaster recovery services, which FiberNET enables.

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber on Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode #59

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber is the highest profile community network in the U.S. It was the first network in the nation to offer a symmetrical gigabit tier to every last address in the community. On today's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Danna Bailey joins us to discuss the network.

Danna Bailey is EPB's Vice President of Corporate Communications and has long helped behind the scenes to keep our site informed of Chattanooga's progress. We talk about why Chattanooga built the network and the role of the stimulus award for smart grid in expediting the build out long after the project had started.

We also talk about job growth - both large firms and small entreprenurs locating in Chattanooga while citing the community fiber network as a big part of the reason.

The conversation updates the Chattanooga case study we published last year. Chattanooga remains far ahead of its business plan and is doing very well financially. Read all the stories we have published about Chattanooga 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 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Jim Baller Discusses Municipal Broadband History - Community Broadband Bits Episode #57

Jim Baller has been helping local governments to build community owned networks for as long as they have been building them. He is the President of and Senior Principal of the Baller Herbst Law Group in Washington, DC. Jim joins us for Episode #57 of the Community Broadband Bits[/glossary] podcast to discuss some of the history of community owned networks.

Jim has a wealth of experience and helped in many of the most notable legal battles, including Bristol Virginia Utilities and Lafayette.

We start by noting some of the motivations of municipal electric utilities and how they were originally formed starting in the late 19th century. But we spend the bulk of our time in this show focusing on legal fights in the 90's and early 2000's over whether states could preempt local authority to build networks.

In our next interview with Jim, we'll pick up where we left off. If you have any specific thoughts or questions we should cover when we come back to this historical topic, leave them in the comments below or email us.

You can learn more about Jim Baller on his website at Baller.com.

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 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Ames Tribune Editorial Board Wants a Gig

We continue to see more and more of what we might call "gigabit fever." This is not just a "me too" bubble centered around superfast Internet access. It is a recognition by more and more communities that the refusal of their cable and DSL duopoly to invest in next-generation networks is materially harming their future.

Shortly after Cedar Falls announced it was the first community in Iowa with universal access to a gigabit courtesy of the municipal utility, the Ames Tribune made the case for a gigabit there also.

Ames is home to the excellent Iowa State University (as is Cedar Falls, with U of Northern Iowa). I can praise them as long as I don't say anything about the Hawkeyes, rivals to my beloved Gophers.

Unfortunately, the municipal utility in Ames is less than enthusiastic about following the Cedar Falls approach.

Yet Don Kom, director of the City of Ames Electric Department, tells us: “There has been no discussion at my level of bringing fiber from the city to our customers. We’re not having that discussion.”

Certainly the city has many pressing issues and priorities to address, but super-fast Internet service ought to be high on its list. Besides the fact that it’s the wave of the future and we ought to try to keep pace with that wave, Ames has an impressive history of ambitious and innovative achievements. From burning trash for power to building a large man-made lake, from CyRide to the Main Street revival, Ames is a leader, not a follower, in tackling big things.

Ames provides a reminder that while municipal electric utilities have been at the forefront of investing in FTTH networks historically and gigabit networks more recently, many municipal electric utilities are spending a lot of energy trying to avoid stepping outside their historic business models.

I'm reminded of an interview with Harold DePriest, the visionary CEO of Chattanooga's Electric Power Board, who runs the first network in the US capable of delivering a gig anywhere in the city at a moment's notice (see our case study, Broadband at the Speed of Light).

Story County Iowa Logo

I asked Harold about the role of a municipal electric utility and he said the municipal utilities were formed to ensure the community could take full advantage of the new technology of the day because the private sector was not investing in a way to allow everyone to benefit. It was not about electricity, it was about doing what needed to be done for a community to have the infrastructure it needs to thrive.

That said, either Ames or Story County could move forward with a project absent assistance from the utility. Seattle found its electric utility quite reluctant as well and has settled with a public-private partnership. Other local governments have moved forward with no electric utility - it is a harder path, but by no means impossible.

At the risk of copying too much from the Ames editorial, I do want to highlight how they finished it. Very well written:

And, to take this a step further, while Ames should be taking steps to become a gigabit city, Story County should be looking for ways to extend broadband service to everybody in the county. It’s disturbing, frankly, to imagine that some rural residents are still coping with the sluggish Internet speeds of the 1990s.

It’s pretty clear now that the Internet is not just a fad. It’s equally evident that most of America’s future economy will involve the Internet in some way. Let’s get started now on making Ames a gigabit community on a par with anybody else in the country. It’s not overly dramatic to argue that our economic future depends on it.

Alex Marshall Examines Electricty / Internet Parallels

“My answer has been, as it is tonight, to point out these plain principles,” Roosevelt told the crowd. “That where a community -- a city or county or a district -- is not satisfied with the service rendered or the rates charged by the private utility, it has the undeniable basic right, as one of its functions of government, one of its functions of home rule, to set up ... its own governmentally owned and operated service.”

While FDR was referring to electricity in 1932, he could easily be speaking about today's critical need for Internet connectivity. Fortunately for a growing number of people in our country, many local leaders share his sentiments and those communities are investing in community owned telecommunications networks.

Government Technology recently reposted a Governing article by Alex Marshall, a Senior Fellow at the Regional Plan Association in New York City. The Director of our Telecommunications work, Christopher Mitchell, tells me he just bought Alex's new book from a local bookstore and has put it at the top of his reading list: The Surprising Design of Market Economies.

Marshall sees fiber optic connectivity as the utility of today and tomorrow. He explores the question of who should provide access - public institutions or the private market? In his research, Marshall finds that many local communities are not waiting for an "official" answer to that question and are taking control of getting their citizens online.

Marshall spoke with Nick Braden from the American Public Power Association (APPA):

“As was the case when America was electrifying a century ago, many unserved or underserved communities are ready, willing and able to take matters into their own hands, if necessary, to deploy the sophisticated broadband communications networks that will enable their communities and America to continue to be a leader in the global economy,” says Braden. “Many have already done so.”

Marshall notes the private sector's intense efforts to stop local public invest and how those efforts have permeated nineteen state legislatures, even contrary to overwhelming evidence of success. While court battles often end in the defendant's favor, when the private sector sues to stop municipalities and loses, the next step is money and lobbyists. Marshall talked to our own Christopher:

Given that the evidence shows that cities could offer better service at better prices than private companies, the logic behind these laws makes little sense. “They are the kind of arguments that can only work when accompanied by an army of lobbyists and large campaign contributions,” says Mitchell.

While the question will, of course, be debated far into the future, Marshall suggests a look back at 1932 for the right approach:

If the politicians falter, they should remember FDR’s words. It’s clear that fiber networks are a natural monopoly and need to be either run directly by the government, or so heavily regulated that it amounts to the same thing.

Jefferson County, Washington, Set to Build New Fiber Network

Another county in Washington will soon be connected via a community owned fiber network. Peter Quinn, of the Economic Development Committee Team Jefferson, tells us that the Public Utility District of Jefferson County will be investing in the new infrastructure. The Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet), will operate the Jefferson County network for at least the next five years.

Nonprofit NoaNet has been expanding wholesale fiber infrastructure across Washington since 2000. NoaNet works with local communities to bring the fiber backbone to community anchor institutions (CAIs) such as schools, libraries, hospitals, and government facilities.

The Jefferson County project is funded with a $3.2 million American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) stimulus grant and a county contribution of $500,000. The network should measure approximately 70-100 miles, and connections to CAIs are expected to be 100 Mbps, however the planning is still in process.

The network will connect community anchor institutions including county schools, public safety facilities, city and county government facilities, several local libraries, healthcare clinics and hospitals, and state parks. Towns that will receive anchor connections include the City of Port Townsend, Port Ludlow, the Port of Port Townsend, Quilcene, Brinnon, and Chimacum. Approximately 90 community anchor institutions will be connected through fiber or the planned wireless network. Wireless will be offered where geography and expense preclude fiber installation.

Construction will start April 8th with a planned completion date of August 5th, 2013. Jefferson PUD will own the network and independent ISPs will provide service to the anchor institutions and have the option of expanding the network to serve local businesses and residents.

The plan is divided into three "tiers" and described on the Jefferson PUD Broadband Project website:

Tier 1 are anchor institutions that must have service to be compliant with the grant. 

Tier 2 are sites of anchor institutions that weren't initially submitted with the grant.

Tier 3 are locations that will be provided service if resources are available.

Tier 2 will include expansion of connections to mor CAIs and will also connect with PUD SCADA sites. In addition to the build, Jefferson County PUD is purchasing the existing electrical system in the eastern part of the county from Puget Sound Energy. Jefferson County PUD took over delivery of power via the system on April 1st. 

Opelika Builds First Full Fiber Network in Alabama - Community Broadband Bits Episode 40

Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and Jennifer McCain, partner of the Motive Group discuss why this Alabama town is the first to build its own fiber optic network in the state.

In short, Opelika had long been fed up with the services offered by Charter Cable and Charter was not amenable to meeting the community's needs. They decided to build a FTTH network that would meet Smart Grid needs as well as delivering telephone, television, and Internet access. Due to state law, they had to hold a referendum to offer television services. Despite a misinformation campaign, the community overwhelmingly supported building a community owned network.

Toward the end of our discussion, Mayor Fuller offers some thoughts on what it takes for an elected official to commit to an expensive investment where one has to pay all the costs and stand for re-election before the benefits start to accrue. In short, it takes courage. And having the unanimous support of the City Council is helpful also!

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 30 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to D. Charles Speer & the Helix for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

To Improve Minnesota Broadband, Look to Lessons of Electrification

Steve Downer is the Associate Executive Director of the Minnesota Municipal Utilities Association, MMUA, and he previously served on the Blandin Foundation Strategy Board. He offered these thoughts on page 4 of the "The Resource" [pdf] from January 2013 and has allowed us to reprint them below.

According to online reports, House Commerce Chairman Joe Atkins has listed his top 10 issues for his Committee in 2013. Included on the list, at No. 4, is Telecommunications and Broadband Law Update. As municipal involvement has been a hot-button topic over the years, this should be of interest to municipal utilities.

The idea of re-writing state telecom law was a priority of the Ventura administration but, even with agreement among various parties that state law was antiquated the discussion never gained much steam, largely because the telecom companies decided the law was just fine after all. Efforts have been made over the years to remove or reduce the super-majority referendum requirement to build a municipal telephone exchange, but have withered in the face of vociferous opposition.

On the other hand, efforts to further restrict municipal provision of broadband service, a concern in recent legislative sessions, have also languished. So, what does Chairman Atkins have in mind?

Perhaps local interests, working through organizations like MMUA, could suggest the state needs to be more open to partnerships and local government projects, if it is ever to reach its broadband goals.

Cities have proven fully capable of providing a full range of telecommunications services over the years. Counties are providing cutting-edge communications services. The Southwest Minnesota Broadband Services project (a consortium of eight cities) shows how ordinary people, working through their local governments, can work together to provide high-quality voice, video and data service at reasonable prices.

Renville Sibley Fiber Project

After much work, a similar project in Renville and Sibley counties has recently been stymied due to concerns over the ability of city-county partnerships to issue bonds. The project itself has been enthusiastically supported by rural and city interests and was well on its way to construction before last-minute legal concerns were voiced.

This is just the type of project the state should be fostering.

Yet, instead of recommendations to clearly allow this type of partnership in state law, it appears there may be efforts to stack the deck against local interests heading into the session.

The Minnesota Governor’s Task Force on Broadband, for example, recently released its Annual Report and Broadband Plan, including recommendations for the 2013 legislative session. The Report, while the result of much good work, bears the traditional hallmarks of large group writing efforts, and tilts toward the input of private interests that comprised the bulk of the members.

The report notes the obvious, saying, the private sector will play the leading role in expanding broadband access (it might as well have said ‘the sky is blue’).

Two sentences later, the report promotes “public-private broadband projects” but makes no specific mention of how to foster such projects.The recommendations that are made generally provide “incentives” (read tax breaks or subsidies) to private companies and doesn’t even mention local government, which has played a leading role in broadband provision in certain locales.

A number of recommendations are made, but a clear and consistent road map is lacking.

Some recommendations prove the point that governmental ‘pork’ is money that is going to somebody else. Current perks have apparently not been enough to ‘incent’ private providers to extend highspeed service in many areas. Yet, in some of these areas locals are more than willing to invest their own money to provide the service if they could just get the lawyers out of the way.

Minnesota Seal

On the other hand, calls for new positions in state government, to untangle the web of available programs, only seem to prove the point that if bureaucracy grows large enough, you will need more of it to make its purposes clear.

Then there is this recommendation, rich in irony: “to coordinate highway construction and broadband deployment projects,” and have the state install conduit that would presumably contain privately owned fiber optic cable.

Does anybody remember Connecting Minnesota? This was a late-90s proposal for MnDOT, in cooperation with a private partner, to lay 2,000 miles of fiber optic cable in interstate highway right-of-ways. Legal battles, largely with US West (now CenturyLink) led to the demise of this public-private initiative.

A perfect example of public-private partnerships exists in the electric utility industry. Despite animosities, largely in the formative years, municipal, investorowned and cooperative utilities jointly invest in capital-intensive projects on a regular basis.

Utilities do this because they recognize the level of capital needed to improve service to their customers, and realize an effective way to raise the needed capital is to partner with others willing to invest, regardless of philosophical differences.

Enacting guidelines to allow similar investment in our broadband infrastructure would similarly benefit citizens of Minnesota.

We are encouraged by Rep. Atkins’s inclusion of telecommunications on his 2013 session “To Do” list and encourage him to recognize the important and effective role municipals can play to help the state reach its 2015 broadband goals.

Billy Ray, Community Broadband Pioneer, Joins us For Community Broadband Bits #33

Glasgow was a true pioneer in community owned broadband networks, starting with its own cable plant in the 1980s. Billy Ray, CEO of Glasgow Electric Plant Board, has been an inspiration for municipal broadband networks -- one can't dig into the early history of LUS Fiber in Louisiana without running into something from Billy Ray, for instance. Glasgow's network has been a tremendous success, resulting in tens of millions of dollars of benefits to the community.

In our interview, we discuss the bitter legal fights of the early years as Glasgow built its own cable network and eventually began offering Internet access. Additionally, we discuss the important role of these information networks in creating more efficient (and less costly) electrical systems -- an incredibly important implication that does not get enough coverage.

Given the extraordinary history of Billy Ray and Glasgow EPB, we hope this will be the first of several conversations exploring that community. You can read more from Billy Ray on his blog.

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 27 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to mojo monkeys for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.