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Morristown FiberNET in the Spotlight

In a recent report, WBIR Knoxville shined the spotlight on Morristown. The article and video discuss how FiberNET has improved its telecommunications landscape by inspiring competition, offered better connectivity to the region, and how state law prevents other towns from reaping similar benefits. We encourage you to watch both of the videos below.

Morristown's utility head describes how it considers high-speed Internet access to be a necessary utility:

"You had railroads, you had interstates, and this is the new infrastructure cities need to have," said Jody Wigington, CEO of Morristown Utility Systems (MUS). "To us, this really is as essential to economic development as having electricity or water."

Morristown began offering gigabit service via its FTTH network in 2012. It began serving residents and businesses in 2006 because the community was fed up with poor service from incumbents. Since then, FiberNET has stimulated economic development, saved public dollars, and boosted competition from private providers. 

Prices for Internet access are considerably lower in Morristown than similar communities. From the article:

Morristown's Internet service is more expensive than Chattanooga, but much faster than the rest of the region at a comparable price. A 100 Mbps synchronous connection is $75 per month. Advertised rates for Comcast in Knoxville show a price of almost $80 per month for a 50 Mbps connection with much slower upload speeds. A 50 Mbps connection in Morristown costs $40 per month. The cable Internet option in Morristown is Charter, with an advertised price of 35 Mbps for $40 a month.

As we have seen time and again, the presence of a municipal network (nay, just the rumor of one!) inspires private providers to improve their services. AT&T offers gigabit service in Morristown and Comcast has announced it plans on offering 2 gigabit service in Chattanooga.

"Without a major disruptor like we've seen in Chattanooga and in Morristown, there's really no reason for these guys [private companies] to go out of their way to make a big spend to make bandwidth faster. It just simply doesn't make good business sense," said [Dan] Thompson, [senior analyst for Claris Networks].

Thompson said he does not believe there should be any concern that municipal Internet would result in a monopoly akin to other utilities.

"If you go to Chattanooga, Comcast advertises like crazy on billboards down there. You don't see that here [in Knoxville] at all. Comcast is still there. AT&T is still there. They're still viable options."

Beyond offering better service to residents, FiberNET also attracts more employers. In 2013, we reported on 228 new jobs in the community, attracted here in part because of FiberNET's reliability. Most recently:

"There is a new call center that is looking at relocating to Morristown. They told us the local provider can get them fiber in the building for around $1,000. The guy from our utility company told him we've already got fiber to your front door and we'll put it in the building for free because you're going to be helping our economy and jobs. Their jaws drop. Businesses really are shocked by what we have here," said [President of the Morristown Chamber of Commerce Marshall] Ramsey. "They looked at Blount County and looked at Knoxville, but the confidence in the networks just isn't there right now."

Even though the FCC struck down state restrictions on municipal networks in Tennessee, local communities are not rushing to deploy their own networks. The state is challenging the federal action, and no local community has announced an expansion due to the uncertainty around the appeal. With this appeal, the state of Tennessee is wasting taxpayer dollars to deliberately slow the deployment of essential infrastructure in rural communities.

As Wigington acknowledges in the story, a municipal fiber network is no small endeavor. Nevertheless, only a local community can know if it has the ability, drive, and need to venture into Internet access as a utility.

Wigington said the decision of whether to compete with private industry should ultimately be made by the cities, not made for them by the legislature or the cable companies.

"Cities need to be able to make this decision."

Longmont's NextLight Offers Businesses, Residents Third Fastest Internet In the U.S.

Ookla finds the third fastest Internet access in the U.S. is located in Longmont, Colorado, reports the Times Call. NextLight, Longmont's gigabit municipal fiber network, is the source of the increase in speeds, driving Longmont's Internet access speeds far beyond any other service in the state.

Ookla clocks average download speed in Longmont as 105 Mbps, which includes all providers in the community. Incumbents Comcast and CenturyLink are dragging down NextLight's average download speed of 221 Mbps. Statewide, Colorado's average is 40 Mbps.

According to the article:

Ookla shows Internet speeds in Longmont shooting up in January and February, when LPC crews began hooking up customers to NextLight in earnest. 

NextLight continues to attract residential and business customers. In February, NextLight announced it would be hiring more install crews to meet the high demand for connections. Places without the speed, affordability, and reliability NextLight can offer will find themselves at a disadvantage as economic development increasingly relies on next-generation networks.

The Times Call spoke with Bret McInnis, vice president for information technology for Circle Graphics. The local business switched from CenturyLink to NextLight because it needed better connectivity. Before taking service from NextLight, their maximum capacity connection was 50 Mbps download or upload and it wasn't enough:

Because the images for the canvases use high-resolution photos, they are sent in large files that can range from 100 to 300 megabits in size. The company prints anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 canvases a day during the busy holiday season.

"We've got more bandwith," McInnis said, standing in front of the five tall black towers of computing equipment that make up the business's data center. "So the NextLight fiber feeds right into this and we used to see peaks with CenturyLink ... you would see periods when we were bursting at our capacity."

Switching to NextLight, McInnis said, means employees can download and upload the high-resolution images much more quickly.

"Now, we can't really overuse it and you don't see peaks like you used to," McInnis said. "That reduced latency, which means we get the files faster, which means we can print faster and get it to the customer faster. So that's the end result."

Tom Roiniotis, Longmont Power and Communications Manager, notes how the Ookla recognition brings the community one step closer to a  critical goal:

"One of the reasons we're doing this project is to strengthen us from an economic development perspective," Roiniotis said. "There are people who access this (Ookla) information when deciding where to locate." 

Video Available: Connecticut Gigabit State Event

On May 5th, Christopher participated in a panel conversation presented by the City of New Haven and the Connecticut Office of Consumer Counsel. Video of the event, Moving Towards A Gigabit State: Planning & Financing Municipal Ultra-High-Speed Internet Fiber Networks Through Public-Private Partnerships, is now available.

You can watch it from the Connecticut Network website. The final panel has, in order of appearance, Bill Vallee, Joanne Hovis, Christopher, Monica Webb, and Jim Baller. It begins around 3:18 and Christopher begins his presentation at 3:36. The entire video is approximately 4 hours, 30 minutes.

The event included a number of experts from the industry. From the event announcement:

A conversation on the “Nuts and Bolts” of Internet Fiber Networks targeting municipal officials and other public officials to provide information for municipalities interested in creating ultra-high-speed networks. The networks would be created via public-private partnerships through Connecticut to enable innovations in areas such as health care, education, business development and jobs creation, and public safety.

Gigabit Networks and Utah: March 24th Luncheon and Webcast

On Friday, April 24th, make plans to attend the Utah and Broadband Breakfast Club Luncheon Event. If you can't make it in person, attend the webcast. The topic: Gigabit Networks in Utah.

From the announcement:

In announcing in late March that Google Fiber will expand to Salt Lake City (its eighth metropolitan area nationwide), the broadband world turned its envying eyes on Utah. With Google Fiber in Provo and now Salt Lake -- and with Gigabit Networks available in the 11 cities served by the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency, or UTOPIA -- Utah is poised to be the first state where a substantial portion of its residents have access to the fastest-possible broadband internet services.

What does Google's investments say about the economic health and technology-savvy nature of Utah? What do cities and citizens get from Google Fiber that they haven't gotten from traditional telecom companies? And, for cities and states seeking to get a Gig, what are the best options to build and enhance Gigabit Networks?

A panel of experts will discuss what Google and Gig networks mean to Utah and its citizens. The webcast is free and the event is $25 for Nonmembers of the Utah Breakfast Club or $15 for Members. Lunch will be served at the Utah State Capitol at 11:30 a.m. MT and the panel discussion will and webcast will start at 2 p.m. ET/Noon MT.

As a bonus, you may now obtain a free three-month trial membership to the Utah Breakfast Club.

Panelists will be:

  • Devin Baer, Head of Fiber Business, Salt Lake, Google
  • Paul Cutler, Mayor, City of Centerville, Utah
  • Justin Jones, Vice President, Public Policy and Communications, Salt Lake Chamber
  • David Shaw, Shareholder, Kirton McConkie; Chair, Government and Utilities Practice Group
  • Moderated by Drew Clark, Of Counsel, Kirton McConkie; Founder, Utah Breakfast Club

Register online for the webcast or buy tickets for the live event.

Leverett Starts to Light Up in Massachusetts

The celebrated municipal network in Leverett, Massachusetts, is starting to serve select areas of the community. Customers' properties on the north side of town are now receiving 1 gigabit Internet service from the town's partner Crocker Communications. These early subscribers are considered "beta sites." Telephone service will become available when the network has been fully tested.

According to the press release:

The Town's initial plan was to turn on all subscriber locations at the same time; but interest from pre-subscribers was so strong that the Town's Broadband Committee arranged to offer sequential connections as individual homes are spliced into the network distribution cable. 

We learned about Leverett in 2012 as they explored the possibility of a municipal network. Lack of Internet access and problems with traditional phone service drove the community to take the initiative. Since then, they have been heralded as a model for self-reliance by the press, featured in case studies, and included in a white paper from the National Economic Council and Council of Economic Advisors.

LeverettNet subscribers pay a monthly $49.95 fee to the local Municipal Light Plant (MLP), the agency that maintains and operates the infrastructure. As more subscribers sign-up, that fee will decrease.

For stand-alone gigabit Internet access, subscribers pay an additional $24.95 per month. Stand-alone telephone service will be $29.95 per month. Those services will be $44.95 per month when bundled together.

A subscriber with bundled services of 1 gigabit symmetrical Internet access and telephone service pays a total of $94.90 per month, which includes the MLP fee. 

According to the press release, LeverettNet currently has 600 pre-subscribers, a take rate of 70%. Community leaders expect the network to be completed by August.

For more on Leverett, listen to the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #113, in which Chris interviewed Peter d'Errico from Leverett's Select Board and the Broadband Committee.

What Does It Mean to Be A Gigabit City? Sharing Positive Outcomes Together (SPOT)

In North Carolina, Wilson’s Greenlight gigabit fiber network is doing everything it can to ensure everyone benefits from this important municipal investment. The city-owned network is a key partner in a digital inclusion program, Sharing Positive Outcomes Together (SPOT), which focuses on the children least likely to have high quality Internet access in their homes.

Though the digital divide remains a serious policy challenge, Wilson Greenlight and SPOT demonstrate s that solutions can be inspiring and fun. 

Training With a 4-Dimensional Approach

SPOT is an after-hours educational program focused on children ages 5 to 18 and attracts youth from all backgrounds, including those who are homeless or fostered to those with professional parents burdened by demanding work schedules. Among other components, its mission is to promote an atmosphere of accountability, confidence, and self-esteem. SPOT invites its children to dream, be “ambitious, inspired, high school graduates,” while “addressing and closing society's darker cracks that way too many young lives fall into.” “Leave it at the door and come grow” is part of its motto.

To reach such lofty goals, SPOT uses a four-dimensional approach called “project-based learning.” This New Tech School method requires that all elements of STEAM (science, technology, engineering, math and the arts) are part of the program and must utilize technology. According to SPOT’s Executive Director, Matt Edwards, “Learning is activity-based. Kids learn by seeing, touching, doing, and  incorporating technology into their program … and everything is interactive and Internet oriented with kids.”  Embodying this approach, SPOT recently won a $53,000 grant from the state of North Carolina to realize its 21st Century Learning Initiative. The initiative  will hinge on access to high capacity bandwidth and wireless access throughout its 30,000 square foot former Tabernacle church building. 

SPOT Kids at computers

The  Kids Are Teaching Us

“Let’s be honest,” explained Edwards, 
“When it comes to technology, the kids are teaching us.” Adults can now be a hurdle  to closing the technology side of the digital divide. “We put our kids in a box and think they can’t learn this because they are kindergarteners. I can tell you now. My kindergarteners and first graders probably know more about computers than my high schoolers.” A first grader or kindergartener will be stumped on a project, and “you’ll have another one go over there and show them how to look something up. You just sit back and watch. I mean, it is awesome.” This means in the computer lab, SPOT only needs an advisor or a volunteer, not a computer teacher. 

Putting the World in their Hands and Guiding Them

SPOT’s Executive Director described how his experience in closing the digital divide is on a whole new level. “The kindergartner today, they are going to be able to look at their computer and say ‘Find me (the game) Roadblocks’  and the computer will find it. You don’t need to teach the kids how to use the computers and the keyboards and the mouse, you just need to get them access and guide them on how to learn and utilize them in different ways...Get them the iPad. Put the protections on it and let them go. Our role is to guide.” With high capacity broadband, the world is in their hands. “We make sure they go to the best part of the world.” 

Overall, for SPOT, closing the digital divide is about teaching critical thinking, team work, and providing the bandwidth to keep up with the speed of their young minds. Wilson’s Greenlight community owned fiber network is part of that process by providing SPOT no-cost, 75 Mbps upstream and downstream broadband speeds. 

“Five years ago my grants would talk about the technology component needed to combat the technology divide. I don’t use that terminology anymore. It has changed to how do you use technology properly for advancement of our students and kids to enhance critical thinking … and teamwork. When you go out into the work place, very seldom are you an individual worker. You are going to have to get along with different people, work in groups, and solve difficult problems.”

SPOT’s activity-based, STEAM dimension locks into that teamwork. So the program’s focus is not as much on obtaining one to one computers, but having the children work in teams on whatever the project is. 

Greenlight Logo

And Then, of course, There’s Video

Closing the digital divide also means incorporating video, because “theirs is a world of daily Youtubes.” SPOT gives its children access to Kindle HDs where they can push a button, step back and do a video recording. “We teach them how to do it and work with the teenagers to control the uploading...They love watching themselves run in sports...dancing to music...discussing topics, like elections.”  

According to Jeff Fox, volunteer and IT Director, SPOT’s new 21st century classroom will allow students to beam images from their smart phones and tablets spontaneously to flat screens circling the room. The old divide between teachers and students dissolves. With the devices and the speed, everyone becomes a teacher. “It’s such an opportunity,” said Fox. “I’m hooked.” 

But video, especially uploading, requires much more bandwidth and, according to Edwards, “a third-grader’s mind goes very fast.”

“Greenlight’s symmetrical speeds keep up... most of the time,”  he laughs.  “I mean, [on the old system] there was a time when you could walk away, have lunch, and it would still be loading when you returned. Because Greenlight’s signal is strong, it makes the program stronger in all its facets.” 

This all makes sense to the General Manager of Greenlight, Will Aycock, who notes that enhancing the quality of life in Wilson is part of their mission. “Here is yet another example, where our community-owned network, is SPOT on. We give back to the community to benefit future generations, because we are the community.”

Longmonters Loving NextLight in Colorado

Longmont's NextLight municipal broadband service is surpassing projected take rates, reports the Longmont Compass. The business plan called for 34 percent but as LPC builds out the FTTH network, the first phase of the project has achieved 45 percent.

In response to the positive response, LPC will speed up completion of the project. From the Compass:

“Our schedule was already aggressive, but we’ve heard repeatedly that our community is eager to receive high-quality, high-speed broadband,” LPC general manager Tom Roiniotis said. “So we’re accelerating the deployment.”

LPC now plans to “close the circle” from two directions at once as it completes its citywide buildout, rather than move around Longmont in one counterclockwise sweep. That means the final phase of the build is now scheduled to start in the first quarter of 2016 instead of the first quarter of 2017.

As we reported last fall, gigabit symmetrical service for $50 is available for customers who sign up within three months of service availability in their area. That rate follows customers who move within Longmont and transferable to to the next home owner.

Cooperative Lights Up $88 Gigabit in Northeast Alabama

Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative (FTC) is now bringing gigabit service to its Alabama members. According to the Online Reporter, FTC is the largest member-owned cooperative in the state and offers symmetrical service to businesses and residents in two counties.

The cooperative began in 1952 when telephone companies of the time did not want to invest in the rural area of the state due to low expected returns. Years earlier, the community had organized its own electric cooperative and reproduced its success to bring telephone service to residents. The area, referred to as Sand Mountain, is a natural plateau at the southern tip of the Appalachian Mountain chain.

WHNT 19 News attended a lighting ceremony in Geraldine where the FTC CEO said that the cooperative has covered approximately 84 percent of its membership area. The fiber network runs between Chattanooga and Huntsville, consisting of approximately 2,770 miles of fiber.

“We’ve now covered about 84 percent of our traditional membership on Sand Mountain between the Tennessee River and the Georgia/Tennessee lines,” said Fred Johnson, CEO of Farmers Telecommunications Cooperative. “We’ve also been able to extend that network to communities of interest such as Fort Payne, Collinsville, Valley Head, Section, Dutton, and other areas in DeKalb and Jackson County that are part of our competitive area but not traditional area.  They now all have access to that fiber broadband network.”

“Geraldine, and every other municipality in DeKalb and Jackson County that we touch can say they’re a gig city just like the rest,” Johnson says.

FTC pricing for stand alone symmetrical  broadband is an affordable $67.50 for 100 Mbps and $88 for gigabit service. The cooperative also offers triple play and other bundling options.

WHNT 19's coverage:

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.”