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Orlando Sentinel Op-Ed - Local governments should make broadband choices

The Orlando Sentinel published this op-ed about local government action for broadband networks on March 11, 2015. 

Local governments should make broadband choices
By Christopher Mitchell

Community broadband must be a local choice, a guest columnist writes.

When Comcast announced plans last year to invest hundreds of millions in theme parks in Florida and California, its customers may have wondered why the cable giant wasn't using those funds to deliver a faster or more reliable Internet connection. While Comcast's Universal Studios faces competition from Walt Disney World, most people don't have a real choice in high-speed Internet access.

The Federal Communications Commission has just boosted the broadband definition from 4 megabits per second to 25 mbps. At that speed, some 75 percent of Americans have no choice in providers — they are stuck with one or none.

The rest of America is living in the future, often because their local government rolled up its sleeves and got involved. In some of these communities, the local government built its own network and others worked with a trusted partner. Chattanooga's city-owned electric utility built the nation's first citywide gigabit network, which is about 100 times faster than the average connection today.

Google is famously working with some bigger cities, whereas local provider GWI in Maine has partnered with several local governments to expand gigabit access.

However, the big cable and telephone companies have almost always refused to work with local governments. Instead, they've lobbied states to restrict the right of local governments to build or partner in this essential infrastructure.

In Florida, the law puts restrictions on local governments that do not apply to the private sector, such as a strict profitability timetable that can be unrealistic for large capital investments regardless of being privately or publicly owned. Some 20 states have such barriers that limit competition by effectively taking the decision away from communities.

In January, President Obama spoke out in favor of local governments being able to make these investments and partnerships without state interference. He was in Cedar Falls, Iowa, which has one of the oldest municipal broadband networks in the country, but it's the first city in the state with citywide gigabit access. A local business owner, whose business had been able to thrive in its hometown due to the public network and its world-class access, introduced the president.

Both Obama and the FCC are taking actions to remove barriers to local authority, but they are seeing strong opposition from some Republicans in Washington, D.C.

National Republicans may be less likely to support an effort that Obama has now championed. But they can't just oppose the president; they will have to oppose their own base, which tends to believe decisions should be made locally. The Institute for Local Self-Reliance analyzed all citywide municipal networks, over 150 communities, and found more than 70 percent reliably vote Republican.

It may be surprising, but at the local level, there tends to be little partisan divide over whether local governments should get involved in a service so dominated by big monopolies. In the city council, it is a practical matter: Do local businesses have the connections they need to be competitive? If not, how can we make sure they do?

A bipartisan group of mayors has already come together to form Next Century Cities, a collaborative nonpartisan organization that includes a diverse group of cities. Some own and operate their own networks, as in Opelika, Ala. Some are working with partners, as Kansas City does. Some, as in Ammon, Idaho, can be hard to find on a map. And then there are cities like Los Angeles that recognize they need something better also.

Fortunately, Florida's law has slowed but not stopped smart local approaches. Martin County built a fiber network that has saved millions of dollars in connections for public facilities and is used by health-care facilities. The city of Palm Coast's FiberNET has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the community, while dramatically improving connections for the Flagler County School District and other entities.

Building a modern fiber-optic network is no theme-park ride, but hundreds of local governments have already demonstrated it is well within their capacity. And given that they have to live with the consequences of action or inaction, shouldn't it be their decision?

Christopher Mitchell is the director of Community Broadband Networks at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis.

Waverly: The Next Gigabit Community in Iowa

Remember Waverly, Iowa? We introduced you to the town of 10,000 back in 2013 when they revived the community choice to develop a telecommunications utility. Recently in February, the Waverly Light and Power Board of Trustees approved a long awaited gigabit project reported American Public Power.

According to a WLP press release, the $12 million project will be financed with revenue bonds which have already been secured. As we note in our Financing Municipal Networks fact sheet [PDF], this is one of the most common ways of funding deployment. Revenue from subscribers pays the private investors that buy the bonds used to finance the deployment.

Construction is scheduled to begin in May and WLP expects to begin serving customers in 2016. WLP serves approximately 4,800 customers in town and in the rural areas around Waverly. Early plans include incentives for early sign-ups such as a free first month of service and a reduced installation fee. The fiber network will also be used for smart metering.

From the WLP press release:

“It may have taken 15 years of planning and hard work to finally come together, but knowing what’s to come, it’s worth the wait,” explains Ael Suhr, Waverly Light and Power Chairman of the Board. “This approval opens the door for new alternatives for high-speed internet, cable and phone services in Waverly for both residents and businesses.”

Co-Mo Cooperative: Bringing Some of the Fastest Speeds in the Nation to Rural Missouri

Co-Mo Cooperative and the Co-Mo Connect Board of Directors recently voted to proceed with the final phases of its gigabit FTTH project. The decision assures the plan to bring to triple-play to all Co-Mo members by the end of 2016.

We checked in on Co-Mo about a year ago, when the cooperative announced it would increase speeds without increasing prices for both residential and business members. Residential fiber Internet service ranges from $39.95 per month for 5 Mbps to $99.95 per month for gigabit service; all speeds are symmetrical.

Triple-play service extends beyond the electric service territory. During the first phase of the project, the city of California (pop. 4,200) opened up city poles for Co-Mo in space that was previously used by a cable company that no longer operated in the area. The project then expanded to Tipton (pop. 3,200) and Versailles (pop. 2,500). In a story on the expansion on the Co-Mo website, General Manager Randy Klindt said:

“We’re creating this wide swath of the most advanced communications network in the country right here in rural Missouri. Part of the cooperative’s mission statement is to improve our communities, and these city projects definitely qualify. It is important the everyone in our region has access to broadband because the economic health of our cooperative members and our local towns are intertwined.”  

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“Despite what other telecommunication companies say, it’s not only doable, but it’s happened. The broadband speeds we deliver are 100 times what the FCC now determines to be broadband in rural areas,” Klindt said.

Ookla recognized Tipton as the community with the fastest Internet speeds in Missouri in 2014 with and average of 88.86 Mbps for those who ran speed tests on the network reported Lake Expo.com. Co-Mo Connect was also ranked 18th in the U.S. of fastest ISPs with at least 100 speed tests run from subscribers.

“Our little piece of rural America is 18th fastest in the entire nation,” said Randy Klindt, general manager for Co-Mo Connect. “Just stop and think about that for a second.”

This past December Co-Mo Connect enabled a Watch TV Everywhere feature, which allows member to use devices other than TV sets to watch programming. The cooperative does not charge for the feature, but warns subscribers to be mindful of cellphone carrier's data caps and roaming charges.

Co-Mo has also recently launched a new tool using the network to help members monitor and reduce their energy consumption. SmartHub was developed by Co-Mo's technology partner, the National Information Solutions Cooperative (NISC). In addition to paying their bill, members can report outages and view a consumption history. The cooperative has posted a series of SmartHub instructional videos on YouTube.

The remaining phases of the project will allow Co-Mo Cooperative to bring better connectivity to a greater number of households and businesses in central Missouri. The plan will also ensure the financial success of the investment. From the Lake Expo.com article:

“What we’re trying to prevent from happening is the reverse of what happened when investor-owned electricity providers came through in the early 1900s and cherry-picked the profitable cities and left the rural areas without electricity,” said Ken Johnson, Co-Mo Connect’s president the CEO/general of Co-Mo Electric Cooperative. “We didn’t want to see all the outlying areas with this amazing communications network but have holes in the middle with the cities that got left behind.”

The city projects also are providing an additional revenue stream that wasn’t expected when the business plan was developed. That revenue comes with comparably less expense because of the larger number of potential subscribers per mile of fiber.

“That revenue is going to make the entire project more likely to succeed, all the way to the very end of Co-Mo Electric’s lines where there are very few potential subscribers per mile,” Klindt said.

So far, customers have had nothing but rave reviews:

“I love that I am saving money, first of all, and then really loving that we don't lose our signal, whether it be the TV or the Internet, when it rains,” said subscriber Diana Davis.

Added Peggy Liebi: “I love it. I’ve never had HD or a DVR before. I didn't lose signal during the really bad storms, not even once.”

We interviewed Klindt for the Community Broadband Bits podcast. At the time, he estimated members were saving over $1.5 million per year; he has since revisited the calculations and discovered members are saving even more. With 16,000 subscribers saving approximately $20 per month, members are saving around $4 million annually. The service has proved so popular, other cooperatives have approached Co-Mo for information on their decision to invest in the fiber network.

Co-Mo Cooperative has produced a number of creative videos and posted them on their YouTube channel. Below is their video, the Road to Rural Broadband:

Republican Tennessee Leader Endorses Local Authority

Republican State Senator Janice Bowling from Tennessee is once again speaking out in favor of local telecommunications authority. On Monday, she published an op-ed in the Tennessean titled "Don't limit high-speed broadband to big cities," noting that rural communities often have no choice but to build their own infrastructure to obtain fast, reliable, affordable Internet access for residents and businesses.

Bowling refers to Tullahoma, her own home town, where economic growth is strong and Internet access is affordable. Tullahoma has a history of increasing speeds without increasing rates and now offers gigabit service for around $100. Unfortunately, Tullahoma is surrounded by communities it cannot help due to the state limitations.

Tennessee's restrictive laws prevent other communities from following in Tullahoma's footsteps. She sees the way these laws hold back people in her home state:

Unfortunately, public broadband networks are impeded by restrictive state laws that limit the power municipals have in providing services. In Tennessee, a 1999 law prohibits municipalities that operate broadband networks from providing service to anyone outside of the boundaries of their electrical footprint. This means that people in rural towns and small communities are still without high-speed Internet.

They’re without educational and employment opportunities, improved modern health care, enhanced public safety or better-quality government services, among other benefits.

As a senator representing seven rural counties and a resident of a small community myself, I am speaking out for all of those who are being held hostage to 20th-century technology. Let us grow our economies, improve our governments’ performance and create jobs for in our communities. Let us have Internet choice(s).

In November, Senator Bowling spoke at the Next Century Cities event "Envisioning a Gigabit Future." Below is her presentation on the need for high-speed connectivity and local authority in rural communities.

Photo available as a creative commons work from Senator Bowling's Campaign website.

Video: 
See video

Broward County Saves with Fiber Network in Florida

In 2014, Broward County completed its transition from an expensive leased data, video, and voice communications system to its own fiber network. The southern Florida county is now saving $780,000 per year with plenty of room to grow. With the transition to an IP-based telephony system, the County also saves and additional $28,000 per year.

Pat Simes, Assistant CIO of the county, recently contributed a profile on the project to Network World.

In 2009 when the network was too slow to be effective, county staff knew they had to act. Costs were increasing 15% each year as the number of lines grew and the demand for bandwidth increased. The County also had to provide funding to reach locations that the carrier's network did not serve. The situation made it difficult to budget; there was always a need to fund unexpected expansions and increasing service.

Several groups in Enterprise Technology Services (ETS) began working together to develop a way to improve systems for both groups:

Working together the teams developed a 3-year strategic initiative to upgrade Broward County to a 10 GigE core network infrastructure.   Part of the plan called for reducing complexity and duplication of infrastructure, so the County also decided to converge the voice and data networks and, with voice and data traversing the same circuits, network redundancy would have to be increased because a single line outage could cause a location outage for both critical services.

As Broward County developed the new network, they faced an 18 month deadline. The contract with the incumbent was set to expire and the parties would then move to a month-to-month arrangement. That plan would increase the County's costs by 50%. Martin County, located north of Broward, faced a similar situation when they set to develop their county-woe network. Read more about Martin County's incredible savings in our report, Florida Fiber: Martin County Saves Big with Gigabit Network.

Fortunately, the ETS Team was able to share conduit space with the state Department of Transportation (DOT) to cut costs and reduce deployment time. Martin County struck up a similar working relationship to dramatically reduce time and expense.

After a six-month design phase and a four-year construction period, the County's 41-mile underground fiber optic backbone now provides voice, video, and data. The network provides 10 gig capacity to 21 county facilities. The County spent approximately $2.5 million to build the fiber network.

One of the most important characteristics of local government will always be accessibility to constituents; reliable telephony is a must. Broward County knew that the new network would mean a phone system change. ETS chose an IP-based system, which was half the cost of a non-IP based system.

County staff now engage in video conferencing and have access to soft phone technology, allowing them to make phone calls over the Internet. The IP system is scalable to tens of thousands of phones as the county's needs grow. 

The IP-based system cost a total of $2.3 million, which included telephones, applications, licenses, voice mail, call centers and servers for 30 locations. The system costs $100,000 per year as compared to the legacy system, which was $700,000 per year.

We have encountered a number of other agencies that found significant savings by using publicly owned infrastructure for telephony. Notably, Austin Independent School District (AISD) in Texas. AISD partnered with several other Austin area agencies to eventually deploy the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN), completed in 1998. AISD faced an estimated $3 million cost for telephones in 1988. Their $18 million contribution to the project paid for itself in less than 3 years.

Broward County has positioned itself to save millions over time, ensured a reliable system, and controlled its telecommunications costs. Florida has state barriers limiting how the county can use its fiber for economic development or to improve residential service but if that situation changes in the future, Broward County has a valuable economic development tool already in place.

OneCommunity's Middle Way - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 135

OneCommunity is a nonprofit organization in northeastern Ohio that has connected thousands of community anchor institutions with high capacity connections. Created as OneCleveland before expanding, it has remained a rather unique approach to expanding high quality Internet access. This week, CEO Lev Gonick joins us to talk about OneCommunity and its contributions to the region.

As neither a private company nor a local government, Lev believes that OneCommunity offers a third way, something they often call a "community-driven" approach. We discuss how a big city like Cleveland needs to think about solving the problem of expanding Internet access broadly.

OneCommunity has just announced the recipients of its Big Gig Challenge and Lev shares some of the lessons they learned in evaluating proposals and working with the communities that competed for the prize.

Lev and I will be on a panel together again with some other great folks in Austin for Broadband Communities in the middle of April. Great deal to attend here.

Read the transcript of this show here.

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

This show is 23 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."

OneCommunity Announces "Big Gig Challenge" Award Recipients

Last fall, nonprofit ISP OneCommunity  created the "Big Gig Challenge" to jump start expansion and promote gigabit applications in northeast Ohio. The organization recently announced the winners and provided some information about their projects.

The West 25th Corridor project, running through Ohio City, Tremont, Clark-Fulton, Brooklyn Centre, and Old Brooklyn is a four mile stretch that will affect small business, the Cleveland Clinic, two MetroHealth Systems campuses, and several other large employers. This project also reaches 14 sites that could be developed and over 900 properties. It is a collaborative project that includes four Cleveland Wards.

The Village of Greenwillow plans to expand its existing network and work with private sector business owners and land developers. Likewise, Lorain County Community College will build off its existing network connections to create a community fiber road map. From a press release on the award, as printed in BBC Mag:

In response to receiving the grant, Dr. Roy Church, president of Lorain County Community College said, “We are honored to be selected as a grant recipient. This award will enable our community to dramatically increase access to the existing fiber network, positioning us to become a more globally competitive region. The funds will be used to engage stakeholders from government, healthcare, higher education and local businesses to create an implementation plan to increase high-speed connections and foster greater efficiencies.”

South Euclid, currently utilizing the OneCommunity network, received a grant to expand to to the city's municipal facilities and build out to its industrial area.

The Big Gig Challenge offered funds to cover up to 25% of the projects costs up to $2 million.

In addition to the Challenge launched last fall, OneCommunity launched a new collaborative effort with the City of Cleveland in November. A new fiber pipe, capable of 100 Gbps speeds, will be deployed along Cleveland's Health-Tech Corridor (HTC) connecting downtown to University Circle.

The $1.02 million project is funded by a $700,000 Economic Development Administration (EDA) grant, funding from the City, and a contribution from OneCommunity. Construction is expected to start early this year. It will be available for local businesses, many of which have already expressed an interest. From a Cleveland City Hall Press Release:

“We are extremely enthusiastic about our partnership with the City of Cleveland and excited to be at the forefront of a project that is destined to become the new “Gold Standard” for broadband connectivity. Consistent with our mission, we embrace 100 gigabit as a job creation engine for the City. Offering the first 100 gigabit capability, specifically in the Health-Tech Corridor, incentivizes local and national fast-growing companies to locate and remain here,” says OneCommunity CEO Lev Gonick.

We just spoke with Lev Gonick from OneCommunity on Community Broadband Bits.

Ting Delivering FTTH Is Great News for Community Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Episode 134

In recent weeks, we have been excited to see announcements from Ting, a company long known for being a great wireless provider (both Lisa and I are customers), that is now getting into FTTH deployments. The first announcement was from Charlottesville where it acquired another company. Last week they announced a partnership with Westminster, Maryland.

This week we interview Elliot Noss, CEO of Tucows, which is the parent of Ting. Elliot has long been active in preserving and expanding the open Internet.

We discuss many issues from Ting's success in wireless to cities dealing with permitting and access in rights-of-way to Ting's willingness and enthusiasm to operate on municipal fiber open access networks. We finish with some musings on upcoming over the top video technologies like SlingTV from Dish.

Both Elliot and I are presenting at the upcoming Freedom to Connect event in New York City on March 2 and 3rd.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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

This show is 27 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."

SandyNet Now Offering Gigabit FTTH in Oregon

Back in September, SandyNet announced that its FTTH gigabit network was officially up and running. The utility will continue to expand and eventually bring the network to all 4,000 households. Light Reading recently spoke with Joe Knapp, Sandy's IT Director and general manager of the broadband utility about the new offering. With a population of 10,000, Sandy is in Oregon between Portland and Mount Hood.

The network is completely underground. Sandy is one of many communities that have developed smart conduit policies, reducing the cost and preparing the environment for deployment over a period of years.

You can listen to our discussion with Knapp on Sandy's conduit policy in Episode 17 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We also spoke with City Manager Scott Lazenby about Sandy's conduit policies during Episode 48.

Like many other communities we study, Sandy invested in connectivity out of necessity. Knapp told Light Reading:

"We started out because we couldn't get a DSL line at city hall," says Joe Knapp, IT director for the City of Sandy and general manager of SandyNet. The utility first built a 900MHz wireless network, then WiFi, then a wireless mesh network to connect residents to broadband, he says. "That became so popular that we took about 40% of the market with wireless, but that was a hard thing to sustain."

The journey to FTTH was not an easy one:

"We started to realize that a lot of communities are doing this," Knapp says. "It took three years of beating my head against the wall to finally get it to happen."

Gigabit speeds are something to boast about, but Knapp says SandyNet will not go to extremes to push them:

"As a muni network, we view this as trying to benefit the community. I tell them to try the 100-Meg service first -- we're actually not pushing the gig that hard."

Pricing for gigabit service is $59.95 per month; 100 Mbps service is $39.95 per month. All speeds are symmetrical and there are no caps or contracts.

Hagerstown, Maryland Issues RFI for Gigabit Network

Hagerstown, population 40,000, recently released a Request for Information to field ideas to develop existing infrastructure for residents and local businesses.

According to the press release:

"The interest in our City and the potential shown for our market from industry professionals working with municipal broadband initiatives has been very promising. We look forward to moving ahead in collaboration with private partners to bring affordable technology to Hagerstown," says Mayor Dave Gysberts.

The RFI identifies five goals:

Goal 1: Create a 1 GB and/or greater fiber network in a targeted commercial corridor known as “City Center Hagerstown” to foster innovation, drive job creation, and stimulate economic growth

Goal 2: Establish free wireless networks in parks and public spaces across the City, with primary focus on the following areas: City Park, Pangborn Park, Hellane Park, Wheaton Park, and Fairgrounds Park.

Goal 3: Evaluate the opportunity to expand wired/wireless services to areas beyond our City Center urban core to include underserviced residential areas, business parks, and/or target commercial areas.

Goal 4: Provide connectivity opportunities from the proposed fiber paths for the existing City Police camera surveillance system including expansion into other developing areas of the City.

Goal 5: Establish a presence within the community in the form of co‐location facility and/or business branch office space in which to conduct business.

According to the RFI, the city is seeking entities that will finance the majority of the network themselves or identify sources of funding. View the full RFI on the city website.