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"Little Gig City" And Friends Go to Nashville to Fight for Local Authority

As the people of Tennessee wait for the court to determine their broadband future, state and local leaders in Nashville are hearing municipal network advocates and foes.

The bipartisan Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, anticipating state legislation aimed at removing state anti-muni laws next session, recently heard from advocates of municipal networks. Those in favor of keeping state barriers in place also took a seat at the table. The Commission includes state legislators and local community leaders. The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is now considering Tennessee's petition to vacate FCC's February decision to overturn state laws against local authority.

The Same Old Argument

The Tennessee Cable Association (TCA), representing large incumbent cable providers, repeated the same misinformation we have heard before - that municipal networks are "failures." Their lawyer pointed to debt as proof-positive that "these communities that have gone into this business have done very poorly," reported the Johnson City Press.

Chattanooga's EPB President Harold DePriest summed up the weakness of that statement when he said, “It’s the same reason you have a 30-year mortgage on your house, instead of a 5-year mortgage.” It's about long-term vision and planning.

A number of representatives from Tennessee communities served by municipal networks attended the meeting and presented the facts. Chattanooga's world-famous fiber network is often in the limelight, but smaller Tennessee towns with networks like Erwin and Jackson have benefitted from their investments and other communities, such as Cleveland, have plans to follow suit.

Erwin Making Strides

Erwin Utilities sent fiber optic engineer John Williams who called out TCA for using the word "failure" and describing it as a mischaracterization. Williams noted that Erwin Utilities, who initiated a pilot project last March, is already serving 200 of 300 potential customers after only 7 months of operation. Customers in Erwin have access to symmetrical 25 Mbps, 100 Mbps, and 1 Gbps connectivity along with telephone service. Internet access from Erwin Utilities is available for $49.95, $69.95, and $199.95 respectively; you can call Erwin "Little Gig City."

The fiber system was originally deployed to manage the electric utility smart meter system, so much of the infrastructure is already in place.


Erwin has not incurred any debt to deploy its fiber pilot project, says Williams. The utility has taken an incremental approach, leasing out excess capacity from the electric system and using proceeds to build out one section at a time. For phase one, scheduled to start any day, Erwin Utilities only needs 15 percent of current electric customers with smart meters to sign up for fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services for the network to pay for itself. They plan on offering FTTH across the entire service area within five years.

A small town like Erwin, population 6,000, does not have the density to attract large providers for fast, affordable, reliable connectivity. Their municipal utility has a plan to serve people which will not violate Tennessee's state restrictions, but Williams spoke before the Commission in support of removing those limitations:

I would argue that every municipal broadband deployment has been successful...The biggest thing we like to point out about municipal projects, specifically ours, is the availability to rural customers who may be underserved by existing services. In Unicoi County, only 75 percent is covered by a cable company, so 25 percent of our electric service area doesn’t have access to broadband.

A Cooperative Point of View

In addition to Erwin Utilities, Cleveland Utilities CEO Ken Webb and Ben Lovins, Senior Vice President from Jackson Energy Authority's Telecommunications Division (JEA) supported the notion of removing state prohibitions blocking Chattanooga, Erwin, and others from expanding to other areas. Also providing perspective was Tennessee Electric Cooperative Association's Mike Knotts, reported the Chattanoogan.

Knotts drew a parallel between the expansion of broadband today and the roll out of electrification in the 1930s in which rural cooperatives played in instrumental role. He suggested nonprofit entities with the ability to spread costs out over long periods of time, rather than private companies, would be the best option to get the job done once again:

That was the very simple magic that took, in 10 years, less than 10 percent of American farms being electrified to 100 percent — not much more in the secret sauce other than that.

Pilots and Plans: It's All About The Local

In addition to serving 18,000 customers, the JEA telecom division brings in annual revenue of approximately $30 million, according to Lovins. Small-businesses, students, and ratepayers are only a few of the many who benefit. Lovins went on to provide numerous examples of how the investment has improved the quality of life in Jackson.

The network has kept the town competitive when, in the late 1990s, the incumbent provider told community leaders there was no need to upgrade because Jackson didn't need high-speed connectivity. Lovins told the Commission, "All of this was achieved through local choice, no taxes and no government funding."

Cleveland's Webb advocated for striking down the law because it prevents the Chattanooga EPB from serving neighbors who want and need fast, affordable, reliable service.

Cleveland, also working on a pilot project, points out that access to connectivity is no longer a luxury. The community's pilot project aims to fill in gaps in service created by poor coverage from incumbents. According to Webb, he recently spoke with a local attorney who finally obtained adequate Internet access at office after 24 years of requests to the local incumbent. Cleveland leaders don't want to wait another 24 years to fill the gaps in service that plague local businesses.

Webb told the Commission:

Cleveland wants to offer its citizens the absolute best that we possibly can. … We don’t want to fall behind in Cleveland.

Legislative state barriers accomplish nothing except prevent better connectivity in urban and rural areas. Local communities feel the impact of local decisions. As the Court considers the Tennessee petition, they will understand local communities better if they take to heart the words of JEA's Ben Lovins:

Give local leaders the choice to work solutions that best fit their communities and that includes allowing our municipal systems to work together to help our neighbors.

College Station Wants Competition: Finds It In Their Fiber

Elected officials hope competition via city-owned fiber will give businesses and residents some connectivity headway in College Station, Texas.

The community will lease its city-owned fiber to local ISP, WireStar, in order to foster local competition. City Councilmember James Benham told KBTX that community leaders want high-speed connectivity for businesses and residents and want to create a competitive environment to encourage affordable prices. He described incumbent Suddenlink as "not always the best fit," pointing to the need for high-speed access in multi-family dwellings.

WireStar will begin by offering Internet access up to 1 gig download to businesses and large apartment complexes. Expansion to single-family homes will depend on the demand. WireStar is taking a similar approach as iTV3 in Urbana-Champaign - asking potential subscribers to sign up at their website and offering service in areas that show demand.

WireStar will pay more than $21,000 per year plus maintenance fees to lease the city's fiber; the partners have agreed to a 10-year agreement.

The city, located in the east central part of the state, is home to approximately 94,000 people and part of the Bryan-College Station metro where about 229,000 people live. College Station is home to A & M, along with laboratories for a number of research entities such as NASA, the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the Office of Naval Research. 

Benham told KBTX:

"Competition is good for prices and for consumers and for businesses and for this case having multiple choices is good for them."

Watch KBTX coverage:


Hudson Brings Velocity to Businesses in Ohio

In mid-September, Hudson, Ohio launched its Velocity Broadband service, bringing 1 gig connectivity to a large business complex. The commercial site is the first in series of industrial areas where the city officials plan to bring the network in the coming years. The community, located near Akron, hopes to eventually bring Velocity Broadband to residential areas.

The network is already exceeding expectations. Less than a month after the initial network launch, City Manager Jane Howington said local officials expect to surpass their goal of 50 customers by the end of 2015:

"It's moving faster than we thought," said City Manager Jane Howington. "Demand has been much greater than we thought."

Merchants are embracing Hudson’s new status as a “Gig City,” offering “Giga Specials” during the month of October and the city’s mayor declared October “Gigabit City Month.”

According to the city’s Broadband Needs Assessment, Hudson is building the network in response to significant problems with the city’s existing broadband options. Small and medium sized companies complained to the city’s consultants on the network that they have “learned to live with” problems of poor reliability, performance, and affordability of the city’s broadband services. They said even the best available broadband service options over DSL and cable are inadequate and negatively affect their ability to do business.

City officials plan to continue rolling out access to the city’s downtown area next year and to other business areas soon after. Although the city of 22,500 has no timeline on residential service, city officials have expressed the intent to eventually bring the fiber optic network to every home.

We first reported on Hudson's plans in July 2014 when the community began exploring the idea of using fiber from its existing I-Net to serve local businesses. Hudson will deploy incrementally with its own public power utility crews and will provide only voice and data services to keep expenses manageable.

At a City Council meeting on September 16th when community leaders announced the network launch, Howington explained the importance of the project for the city’s business community:

“When no one else would provide it, we decided to do it ourselves; it’s that important to our business base,” she said. “The City’s investment in Velocity Broadband will continue to change Hudson for the better, ensuring continuous success for the future of our community. We are taking speed, reliability and affordability to a whole new level…. It’s clear that fast, efficient Internet drives business growth which is key to economic vitality of our City.”

LeverettNet Meets Demand for Better Connectivity in MA

On October 2nd, a group of residents, business owners, and educators met with elected officials to celebrate the early success of LeverettNet. The municipal gigabit fiber network now serves 650 of 800 households in the Massachusetts town of 1,800.

This spring, the network began serving limited areas of town, offering telephone service and gigabit Internet access. LeverettNet's instant success is no surprise, considering a number townsfolk depended on unreliable, slow dial-up service over antiquated copper infrastructure for years. Some in town used DSL, satellite, and wireless devices; others had no Internet access at all. Telephone service was equally dismal - sometimes the community would lose service when it rained.

Leverett connects to MassBroadband 123, the statewide middle-mile network deployed by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute. Greenfield, Massachusetts Internet service provider Crocker Communications, is partnering with Leverett to offer gigabit service via the publicly owned infrastructure. 

The community chose to fund the network with a modest property tax increase and from revenue collected from subscribers. After they did the math, Leverett realized they could obtain better, faster, more reliable services for less if they built their own network. Take a few minutes to listen to Chris interview Peter d'Errico from Leverett's Broadband Committee and Select Board, in episode #113 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

At the celebration, d'Errico described the way the community came together:

“The project has been huge for the town and mostly undertaken by our volunteer broadband committee, which met weekly for four years to make it happen,” said Peter d’Errico of the Leverett Broadband Committee. “With each phase taken a step at a time we have managed to complete something we all thought was a dream when it was first conceived. Now that it’s complete, residents are thrilled to see what they can do at home on the Internet.” 

Leverett residents are already using their new network to work from home, explore educational opportunities for their kids, and discover ways to make the gig work for them. At the October event, a number of elected officials in attendence recognized that fiber networks give small towns an edge that can draw in more businesses and more people:

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, observed that 13 of the 19 towns he represents in the Legislature are either unserved or underserved.

“You’re the first. You’re blazing a new trail here,” Kulik said.

But he cautioned that it might give people impulse to buy property in Leverett if their own towns don’t make the investment.

“If they don’t do what you do, they’re all going to move to Leverett,” Kulik said.

EPB Turns Up The Speed To 10 Gigs

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics now offers 10 gigabit Internet service to all households and businesses in its service area. The ultra-fast service is available for $299 per month with free installation, no contracts, and no cancellation fees, announced community leaders at a press conference on October 15th.

In addition to 10 gig service, EPB is also offering "Professional" products available in 3 gig, 5 gig, and 10 gig for large businesses. Smaller businesses have the option of choosing 5 gig or 10 gig Internet products. According to the press release, prices on all the new products vary.

Since the network was launched in 2010, Chattanooga has transformed from one of the "dirtiest cities in America" to a haven for the entrepreneurial culture. Chattanooga experienced explosive economic development leading to thousands of new jobs, substantial public savings due to the network's smart grid capabilities, and new educational opportunities for students and workforce development.

From the press release:

Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has produced tangible results. A study recently released by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Finance professor Bento Lobo shows “the Gig Network” helped the Chattanooga area generate at least 2,800 new jobs and at least $865.3 million in economic and social benefits. The study also found the EPB smart grid, which is the cornerstone application of the utility’s community-wide fiber optic network, has allowed customers to avoid an estimated 124.7 million minutes of electric service interruptions by automatically re-routing power (often in less than a second) to prevent an outage or dramatically reduce outage durations.[read the study here

The city created a standard other communities strive to achieve; we often see communities aiming for the $70 gigabit price point offered by EPB. As a leader for other municipalities, it is only fitting that Chattanooga has taken this next step forward.

Also from the press release:

“Chattanooga’s 10 Gig fiber optic network is a world-class platform for innovation,” [Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB] said. “In recent years, the need for faster Internet speeds has increased rapidly. Chattanooga is the perfect place for companies to enhance their productivity today and test the applications everyone in the country will want tomorrow.”

Read more about Chattanooga's journey to become a gigabit community in our 2012 report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks.

Fibrant Rolls out 10 Gbps, A Look At Salisbury's Challenges in FTTH

Salisbury, North Carolina's Fibrant, now holds the distinction of offering the fastest Internet access in the country. The municipal network is making 10 Gbps symmetrical connectivity available for residents and businesses.

Fibrant's first 10 Gbps customer is Catawba College, a local school that will use the ultra-fast connections for its new Digital Media Creation and Collaboration labs. In a press release Joanna Jasper, Catawba CIO stated:

"By moving to Fibrant's 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications."

"The future is all about rich immersive digital media and being able to communicate and collaborate with others in real-time regardless of where people are in time and space."

The city of Salisbury hopes this new standard will set it apart from other North Carolina communities and entice more economic development. From a BizJournals article:

“It helps us differentiate ourselves” among cities and states seeking technology companies, [says Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure Services]. “It will attract international companies. It’s not sniping businesses from Charlotte.”

Winrich sees Salisbury attracting technology companies that need the bandwidth for real-time connections to clients and suppliers — software developers and data centers, for example.

The network, which already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents for around $100 per month, has attracted several businesses to a community that once struggled with job loss. Mayor Paul Woodson told WFAE that the investment in Fibrant grew out of necessity:

"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."

Listen to the entire WFAE story below and check out episode #168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for a conversation between Chris and Kent Winrich, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure.

Salisbury has had to deal with a variety of challenges, having built the network during the worst economic downturn in 70 years and seeing Time Warner Cable slash its prices to undermine the municipal network. We thought the following background would be helpful.

Salisbury is located in west central North Carolina and home to approximately 34,000 people. In the early 2000s, the community suffered from high unemployment and businesses could not get the connectivity they needed from incumbents. There were key commercial areas in town that had no Internet access at all. Local leaders hoped the network would spur economic development an area that had previously been known for textile and other manufacturing.

Incumbent providers Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T did not see enough profitability to justify upgrades, so community leaders had to take action without them.

seal-north-carolina_0.jpgIn 2005 the city began to investigate the idea of a municipal fiber network. An early survey suggested 30 percent of households would purchase at least one service from the city by the end of year three - TV, telephone, or Internet access. The local community expressed support for the project, including businesses, potential anchor institutions, and residents.

The city issued approximately $29 million in revenue bonds to finance its network deployment in November 2008. At the time of the issue, Moody's rated Salisbury at A-1 and Standard & Poor listed the city as A-plus which are equivalent ratings and considered "investment grade."

As plans moved forward, a series of setbacks delayed deployment and launch. Even though the city reached an agreement with AT&T to place city fiber on the incumbent's poles, preparing the poles took longer than expected. Synchronizing audio and video proved to be a challenge at first due to software glitches and there were also problems with remote controls accompanying set-top boxes. 

Incumbent Time Warner Cable, however, was able to take advantage of its substantial market share and cross subsidize to offer exceptionally low prices in the region. Certainly the stiff competitive prices negatively affected Fibrant's ability to reach its subscription goals.

In 2014, two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded the bond rating for the city, citing financial struggles with the Fibrant network as a major factor in the decision. As Moody’s wrote, the city’s reduced bond rating from Aa2 to A3...

“...primarily incorporates the city's outsized enterprise risk associated with its broadband enterprise (Fibrant), with considerable operating pressure should the Fibrant continue to underperform.” 

Moody's also based its rating on the city's decision to redirect $7.6 million from its sewer and water enterprise fund to support the network. The investor service described the city's situation as "a narrowed but still acceptable cash position for the water & sewer fund."

Moody's decision to downgrade, we should note, came after a decision by Standard & Poor to upgrade, which sheds some light on the fragile and complicated bond rating process.

In 2011, North Carolina was also a battleground for TWC's intense lobbying efforts to block initiatives like Fibrant through state legislation. TWC managed to push through a restrictive bill that negatively impacted municipal networks, including Fibrant, by limiting its ability to expand.

Nevertheless, Fibrant has slowly and steadily added customers bringing subscribership to 3,000 in the summer of 2014 and in December reported that 3,200 customers took Fibrant service. By that time, Fibrant was already offering gigabit service for around $100 per month, having upgraded top tier customers to gigabit symmetrical speeds with no rate increase.

According to Winrich, the switch to even faster speeds was not as difficult as one might expect:

"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."

Rates will vary but will cost around $400 per month, approximately $100 per month higher than the 2 Gbps residential service recently announced by Comcast. In other words, 25 percent higher for 5 times the speed with the added bonus of reliability from a local provider that cares about the welfare of its community.

An increasing number of communities are considering the benefits of municipal networks and places with 1 Gbps offerings have an even greater advantage. The ability to offer 10 Gbps lets businesses know that Fibrant has an entrepreneurial approach just as their business customers do; Salisbury is positioning itself and the region for the future:

“This whole area could be so vibrant, and Salisbury would be in the center of it,” [Winrich] says.

Wilson Business Thrives With Muni Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 171

When Wilson decided to build its municipal fiber network in North Carolina, it found a strong opponent in Tina Mooring, store manager of Computer Central. One of the local business' sources of revenue was connecting people to the Internet and they were fearful that they would lose customers to what became Greenlight, the municipal fiber network that delivered the first 100 Mbps citywide service in the state and later the first citywide gig as well.

As we noted in a post in August, Computer Central became a strong supporter of Greenlight and now believes that Computer Central would be best served by allowing Wilson's municipal fiber to expand to nearby communities.

In this week's Community Broadband Bits, Tina Mooring gives us the background and reasoning for this interesting change of heart. This is a short interview, but we hope to see more of these collaborations and partnerships in other communities, where local businesses can use municipal fiber networks to sell business-to-business services.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 10 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Owensboro, Kentucky, Developing Muni FTTH Pilot

Owensboro Municipal Utilities (OMU) is now expanding its Fibernet services with a pilot FTTH program to connect residents this fall. There are approximately 500 homes in the selected area where OMU will test out the new venture. People living in the project area can sign-up online.

Businesses in Owensboro have had access to OMUFibernet for data transport since 1999 and in 2014 the utility added VoIP to its commercial product line. The pilot will offer gigabit Internet access to residents, but OMUFibernet has only advertised speeds up to 100 Mbps to business customers thus far, according to the OMU website. Businesses are also able to lease dark fiber, which allows them to have more flexibility with data transport speeds.

The city, home to approximately 58,000 people, is the county seat of Daviess County and sits on the south side of the Ohio River. The entire metropolitan population is over 116,000 people. OMU has offered electric and water service since 1900 and describes itself as the largest municipal electric and water system in the state.

OMU plans to offer three tiers for symmetrical Internet access in the city's Town & Country neighborhood. Gigabit service will be priced at $99.99 per month, 100 Mbps at $69.99 per month, and 50 Mbps at $49.99 per month. All subscriptions will require a $49.99 installation fee. 

Spanish Fork Building Gig Fiber over Cable Network - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 170

The Spanish Fork Community Network has long been among the most successful community broadband projects. And now that the community has finished paying off the debt of the network, they are using the net income to upgrade to a fiber network that will be capable of delivering a symmetrical gigabit to anyone in town.

John Bowcut, Director of Information Systems and SFCN Director, speaks with us again this week to explain how the project is doing and how they plan to upgrade to fiber. They are pursuing a unique upgrade to our knowledge -- they are building fiber over the coax and will operate both. Telephone and Internet access will run over the fiber and television over the cable.

The network has paid back its debt and continues to generate impressive community savings. With a take rate of 80 percent of the community, the network saves a cumulative $3 million each year. That is a lot of money circulating in the city of 35,000 people.

We previously spoke with John in episode 60. You can read all of our coverage of Spanish Fork here.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

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

This show is 25 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 other episodes here or view all episodes in our index. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to bkfm-b-side for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Raise Your Hands."

Paul Bunyan Communications Wins Award for GigaZone

Sometimes we just want to celebrate a small victory for local communities. Back in June, Paul Bunyan Communications won the 2015 Leading Lights National Award for Most Innovative Gigabit Broadband Service.

This small cooperative from rural northern Minnesota beat both innovative local firms like C Spire and national companies like Google. Whereas Comcast is rolling out Gigabit Pro in Silicon Valley, Paul Bunyan Communications is serving sparsely populated, often-ignored, rural areas. Gary Johnson, the Paul Bunyan Communications CEO/General Manager was honored to accept the award and explained their approach to gigabit access:

“It is one of the first gigabit network initiatives that will encompassas a large rural area and I think that is significant. Many of the gigabit network projects taking place are in small portions of densely populated metropolitan areas. Too often, the more challenging rural America gets overlooked.”

Paul Bunyan Communications has created a GigaZone passing 7,800 locations, and will soon include 20,000 locations by the end of this year. Those in the GigaZone will have the opportunity to buy a Gigabit connection for only $100 a month. The goal for the small telecom cooperative is to expand the GigaZone to encompass the entire 5,000 square mile service area. Now, that deserves an award.