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Connected Communities in an Age of Digital Learning: Webcast Archive Available

On February 27, the New America Foundation presented the live webcast, "Connected Communities in an Age of Digital Learning: A Vision for a 21st Century E-rate Program."

The webcast addressing the modernization of the E-rate program is now archived and available to view.

As technology advances, schools must find ways to keep up. At the root of their success is connectivity in the communities. From the announcement:

Yet many communities lack robust Internet connectivity, which is a key prerequisite to using these tools. Libraries and schools across the country report that they do not have the necessary speeds and equipment to support the digital learning environments of today, let alone tomorrow. Sustaining and upgrading the Internet infrastructure that supports these community anchor institutions is critical. And in addition to physical infrastructure, these communities need investments in social infrastructure: support systems in and around community institutions that help facilitate digital literacy, support broadband access, and encourage meaningful broadband adoption. 

The panel included experts in education, library science, and technology. Featured speakers were:

Video: 
See video

In California, Tough Economic Times Led Shafter To Adjust Network Plan

In the 1990s, the community of Shafter, California, began developing its strategic plan; the move would eventually lead them to build a municipal broadband network. The town of 17,000 still depended primarily on agriculture but manufacturers were relocating to the community, drawn by its proximity to the railroad and its open space. Potential employers increasingly focused on broadband access as a priority and Shafter realized broadband would be critical to continued growth.

Shafter’s Assistant City Manager Scott Hurlbert recently explained to us how the community built its own fiber network to serve commercial clients, local government, and schools. This incremental approach is not unique but Shafter has no municipal electric nor gas utility, which does puts it in the company of Santa Monica, Mount Vernon, and a few other communities that have built networks without having a municipal power company.

Shafter’s City Council examined its strengths and its weaknesses and found a way to build a network with no borrowing or bonding. The community continues to expand its fiber network, attracting businesses and improving quality of life in this central California town.

In the 1990s AT&T was the main business services provider and it would only improve business telecommunications on an order-by-order basis. Companies that wanted to build beyond the developed town had to pay for the installation themselves, often waiting months to get connected. Prices were "obscene" and the delays almost killed several commercial deals. Even today AT&T takes the same approach in Shafter.

When he joined the City in 2005 as the IT Director, Hurlbert and his staff researched wireless technologies but determined that fiber-optic deployment would be the best option. At that time, the bandwidth demand was already intense and a wireless network would need fiber for backhaul. Hurlbert and staff also investigated other communities, including Chelan, Washington, to look for workable models.

In 2006, three master planned residential subdivisions were approved for expansion of the City of Shafter. The city saw this as an opportunity to start a large-scale FTTH network to serve both business and homes. They developed a triple play model, planning to connect to each of the 11,000 future homes. The city would use revenue from the FTTH network to expand out to surrounding areas for more industrial customers and build a new network for government, schools, and public safety. But when faced with a troubled economy in 2008, plans for the subdivisions evaporated and the FTTH plan was also put on hold.

The community decided to adjust course with a focus on economic development, improving municipal connectivity, and improving public safety. “Jobs, education, safety” became the new mantra. “It’s a cycle,” Hurlbert says, “and if you break that chain the whole thing starts to fall apart.” Community leaders wanted to create a broadband network to draw in more local businesses, serve students, and generate public savings.

Shafter City Seal

At the time the City spent $6,000 per month for six T1 connections. In 2006, Shafter asked AT&T for a quote to connect City Hall to a nearby correctional facility. The relatively small fiber upgrade would have cost $140,000 to build and up to $5,000 per month to lease for a 100 Mbps connection. Rather than depend on AT&T, Shafter decided it was time to start investing in community fiber infrastructure. Budgeting would be predictable and the City would control a network that would provide more capacity.

With less than $200,000 from the general fund, Shafter built fiber connections to city government offices, police offices, the county library, volunteer fire department facilities, the veterans’ hall, the county court house, a local youth center, school district facilities, and a fiber-to-fiber connection with the county sheriff's private network. The city also connected the correctional facility that is now no longer in use. From the day they lit the network, they have never experienced a failure. The existing fiber network consists of four miles in the city core and provides 10 gigabit capacity between its municipal facilities.

Prior to the connecting to the network, the school district used a T1 connection for its main campus and wireless connections to a second campus. Hurlbert tells us that the county superintendent provided multimedia courseware and the T1 lines were sufficient, but the wireless connection did not support it. A large segment of the student body could not access the material, putting any Shafter students behind the learning curve.

Hurlbert established E-rate provider status for the city, and now supplies a dark fiber connection for the school at a $1,000 per month. Shafter’s school district qualifies for a 90% E-rate reimbursement, so the school district actually pays $1,200 per year for 1 gigabit connectivity between facilities. Hurlbert says the city recouped the cost of the expansion in three years and increased the network’s footprint for future expansion.

The City later received a grant from Homeland Security to build a communications tower, which connects to the network. Security cameras on the tower have prevented theft and documented criminal activity at a relatively remote industrial campus. The next phase for the network will include increased public safety applications such as traffic light control and more cameras in industrial areas. 

Shafter has not abandoned its dream of an extensive FTTH network. Hurlbert tells us they have a "guinea pig" subdivision where the developer installed conduit to each property. As the network continues to grow, he sees the "jobs, security, education" chain expanding along with it. Hurlbert says a patient community willing to stick to its long-term vision is critical for success. 

Joanne Hovis on Business Plans for Municipal Fiber

Joanne Hovis, President of CTC Technology and Energy, recently published a must-read article in Broadband Properties Magazine. Whether you are a community leader investigating the possibility of a publicly owned network or an engaged citizen looking for pros and cons, this piece explains practical benefits succinctly. In her article, The Business Case For Government Fiber Networks [PDF], Hovis looks at life beyond stimulus funding. She points out how we should evaluate municipal networks in an environment where shareholder profit is not the first consideration.

Hovis gives a brief history of how local communities reached this point of need. As many of our readers know, local communities used to be able to negotiate with cable providers for franchise opportunities and rights-of-way. Often cable providers would construct broadband infrastructure in exchange for a franchise to operate in a given community, creating I-Nets for local government, schools and libraries. Once states inserted themselves into the process with state-wide franchising, local negotiating power evaporated. Many of those franchise agreements are ending and local leaders are considering municipal fiber optic networks.

Hovis stresses that municipalities do not function in the same environment as the private sector. While they still have a fiscal responsibility to their shareholders (the taxpayers) the main function is providing public safety, encouraging economic development, offering education, and using tax dollars to better the quality of life. Hovis describes how redefining return on investment (ROI) needs to go beyond the balance sheet bottom line. 

These benefits have nothing to do 
with traditional financial measures. Rather, they represent the return 
to the community in terms of such largely intangible societal benefits 
as enhancing health care quality, narrowing the digital divide, providing enhanced educational opportunities to school children, delivering job search and placement opportunities at public computer centers and helping isolated senior citizens make virtual social connections.

joanne-hovis.jpg

Even without the intangible benefits, Hovis argues the financial benefits to local communities cannot be ignored:

First, a government network can help avoid existing and future costs by replacing services for which the government previously paid third parties. Second, a network can bring revenues to a community, especially given new E-Rate regulations that make government networks eligible for subsidy if they serve schools and libraries. Together, these cost savings and revenue streams can add up to significant dollars – potentially to amounts that justify financing the necessary construction.

Hovis explains the economics of government need to lease circuits, an extremely lucrative practice for phone companies or providers. In addition to being expensive, Hovis notes they are often low-bandwidth. Hovis takes it one step further:

Build the network and you will shave this amount from your accounts payable.

In fact, because a government network can deliver far higher-capacity connectivity than the jurisdiction
 had previously leased, its value is even greater than simple cost avoidance. 
A government that owns a network 
can use inexpensive, off-the-shelf equipment to connect its facilities to one another at no cost for bandwidth (because the traffic is “on network”
 and not going out to the Internet). It can also deliver Internet connections to these facilities at a per-unit cost much lower than that of leased connections because it can aggregate the needs of all departments and purchase commodity bandwidth. This is particularly true for a jurisdiction that can develop a mutually beneficial partnership with a provider of wholesale bandwidth.

Considering the fact that capacity needs continue to grow, savings with a publicly owned next-generation network increase exponentially. Eliminating the need to lease now eliminates the need to lease more later.

Hovis also examines in detail the different ways municipal networks can provide revenue. She examines:

  • Dark or lit fiber to community anchor institutes (CAIs): We have documented hundreds of communities that lease dark fiber to CAIs and also to commercial customers. That list continues to grow.
  • Middle Mile Capacity: Providing infrastructure to private ISPs is more speculative, but encourages economic growth and provides connectivity to businesses and individuals who would not otherwise have it.
  • E-Rate Subsidies: As of September 2010, nonprofit and public networks are eligible for E-rate subsidies for providing broadband to schools and libraries. This potential source can contribute toward network self-sustainability.

The article also stresses one of the factors we find most compelling when considering investment in publicly owned networks - keeping local money in the local economy:

Circuits leased from a large national provider require the delivery of a big monthly check to a potentially far- away corporate entity, but monthly fees paid to a government-owned network stay in the community to be spent on other government services and to be multiplied when network employees go out to eat or spend money at other local businesses.

The concept of planning, financing, and building a municipal network is daunting to many communities; it should be a unique local decision. Few people have experience like Hovis, who does an excellent job of laying out critical considerations.

FCC Survey: 80% of Schools/Libraries Have Insufficient Broadband Connections

The Federal Communications Commission released the results of a survey of libraries and schools, the 2010 E-Rate Program and Broadband Usage Survey - announcement here [pdf] and full report here [pdf].

As critical as we are of the FCC, I would like to note that the FCC is doing a better job of collecting data than it did in the past.

I want to highlight a few interesting pieces from the report. Of the respondents, only 21% of schools and 13% of libraries have connections riding on fiber-optics. Half of schools and libraries are stuck on T1 lines.

Schools and libraries reported 63% and 65%, respectively, connections that were under 10Mbps. Considering these connections are likely serving many concurrent connections, they should have faster connections.

The vast majority want to have faster connections:

FCC Chart of those desiring faster connections

The question is why they want faster connections. Only 20% say their current connection completely meets their need to conduct online testing and assessment applications - with another 44% saying it "mostly" meets those needs.

Chart

These gaps represent a tremendous opportunity for growth - communities should be building their own fiber-optic connections to connect these key institutions and ensure they will have affordable, fast, and reliable connections well into the future. By owning the network, these institutions will have greater control over future costs and their capacity to take advantage of even newer applications.

The FCC should favor locally owned networks to encourage self-reliance instead of never-ending subsidies to private carriers who have little incentive to lower prices and increase investment.

Broadband for Libraries and Schools

Following up on my previous post "Institutional Networks and Cherry Picking," I want to briefly note that the U.S. should reform how it funds Internet connections at schools and libraries.

Let me start with an assumption: we do not want to use federal taxes to support these local institutions except where most necessary. It strikes me that wherever possible, communities should take responsibility for their own community institutions.

With that in mind, the eRate program concerns me. Basically, eRate is a means for the federal government to aid local schools and libraries in affording broadband. I'm afraid that it indirectly encourages monopolistic service providers (mainly telephone incumbents) to overcharge for T-1 lines while removing any incentive for the school or library to invest in a better connection.

If a school or library is only paying 20% of the cost of a slow and overpriced line, it has considerably less motivation to seek a better connection -- especially as the only alternative to an existing connection may be building new fiber paths - as noted in "Libraries dying for bandwidth."

But another problem is simple availability. As the ALA's report (PDF) points out, "moving from a 56Kbps circuit to 1.5Mbps is one thing. Moving from 1.5Mbps to 20Mbps or to 100Mbps or even to a gigabit—depending on the size and need of the library—is another." Even when they can pay for it, many libraries are finding that higher speeds simply aren't available.

This program has been around since 1998 and has paid out $25 billion. Imagine if the program had encouraged the schools and libraries to build their own networks from the start - a truly sustainable approach rather than an approach that brought slow broadband to these anchor institutions while rewarding telephone companies significantly overcharging for slow services.

Consider Joanne Hovis of Columbia Telecommunications Company -

In Montgomery County schools connected to a community-owned fiber network are getting access to 100Mbps speeds and paying $71 per Mbps per month, whereas neighboring schools not on the network are paying $2,000 a month for T1 service at 1.54Mbps, and that price is subsidized by matching e-rate funds of an additional $2,000 a month.[quoted by App-Rising.com]

This is not to say eRate is a total failure because without it, many schools and libraries would not have been able to offer the services they do. Additionally, some smart communities have used eRate the help build publicly owned networks - as in Danville, Virginia, where the publicly owned utility successfully bid for contracts to the schools under eRate programs. But eRate should go further in encouraging these innovative and sustainable solutions rather than continuing to pay for connections that will only increase in price -- a rather unsustainable approach.

Many of these networks will be able to pay for the operating costs but they need assistance in being established. Thus, a smart program would push communities in the direction of local self-reliance rather than enabling endless, expensive dependence on companies that have little incentive to improve connectivity.

Federal programs should prioritize public ownership, if for no other reason than it pushes funding recipients to become responsible for the solution. Requiring responsibility encourages sustainable solutions, rather than defaulting to a lousy status quo.

Photo Courtesy of Christopher Chan on Flickr, used under creative commons license.