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Baltimore Mayor: You Can't Grow Jobs with Slow Internet

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake sees expanding Internet access as a justice issue and wants to make sure every Baltimore resident benefits from City assets, including fiber optic cables. To that end, the City is examining how it can use its conduit and fiber to improve Internet access.

We have previously covered Baltimore and its consideration of public investments to expand Internet access after both FiOS and Google decided not to invest there.

In the interview below, Mayor Rawlings-Blake expands on why this is important, saying "You can't grow jobs with slow Internet... people don't want to invest in communities where they feel like they are running through sludge, trying to catch up with other businesses," going on to say, "People want to be on the cutting edge."

Update on Baltimore's Municipal Fiber Plan

Kevin Litten, of the Baltimore Business Journal has published a good discussion of why Baltimore is considering a public investment to expand the City's fiber network.

Councilman William H. Cole IV still bristles when he talks about the absence of FiOS in the city, a decision industry observers say has played out in other urban areas where the suburbs outrank the city in wealth. “When you look at a map of Maryland and what counties they chose to skip, Baltimore stands out, and it stands out for all the wrong reasons,” Cole said. “We need to explore every option we have to remain competitive. You can’t talk about being a great city for biotech and trying to attract startups and continue to expand the [University of Maryland] BioPark and not continue to invest.”

Litten also explored how Comcast is damaging area businesses by abusing its position as the sole citywide provider of fast Internet access (Verizon does poor DSL):

At No Inc., a 10-employee tech firm that develops software for commercial real estate, Chief Technology Officer Alex Markson said that Comcast wanted to charge $20,000 to build infrastructure to the company’s small office building on Water Street downtown.

The company had to settle for an affordable, but vastly inferior wireless connection from Clear using WiMAX. Keep this in mind the next time you hear that wireless is providing an alternative to the cable and telephone monopolies.

But that setup, which includes a barbecue grill-like satellite dish pointed out the window of the company’s offices, isn’t ideal. Productivity plummets when employees have to wait for long downloads. When using technology such as GoToMeeting to make sales pitches, “you’re not crushing it because you look like you’re slow,” Markson said.

And finally, Litten quotes some guy named Christopher Mitchell that seems to know what he is talking about:

“What Baltimore wants to do is alter the equation by making it less expensive for either a private competitor to compete or build enough assets to compete on its own,” Mitchell said. “What they need to do is figure out how they can get more fiber into more places to lease to potential companies.”

A Baltimore blogger has also weighed in on the City's decision to evaluate the best means of expanding Internet access and real choices, even if it annoys massive cable companies that prefer not to deal with subscribers that could go elsewhere.

Big telecommunications firms send lobbyists to the legislative bodies of state government to block building such networks, mainly because they have their intended effect on broadband pricing, provided a city can clear the initial hurdle of finding the capital to build its own fiber network.

No one expects Baltimore to suddenly bond for and build a massive FTTH network. The most likely plan will involve Baltimore expanding its existing conduit and fiber assets in coordination with other projects (to keep costs low) in order to entice new providers in short term but more generally, to give the City more options and levarage in taking charge of its digital future.

But when a city owns its fiber resources, it can offer the bandwidth for lease to the lowest bidder — which could be Comcast, as Tonjes told the Baltimore Business Journal — while enjoying some happy externalities, among then increased property values and a 21st-century infrastructure, which might do more to attract companies to Baltimore than tax-increment financing just to abate this city’s high property tax rate.

Glasgow EPB Helps Community Hospital Expand

When a local hospital saw an opportunity to deliver services from an abandoned big box store, the community broadband network sealed the deal with connectivity both advanced and affordable. That store had been an anchor for nearby businesses; allowing it to remain empty put them at risk.

In 2011, officials from T.J. Samson Community Hospital approached the Glasgow Electric Plant Board (EPB) to inquire about the feasibility of connecting the hospital and other facilities to an abandoned shopping plaza which once housed a Wal-mart. The officials were interested in converting the old shopping plaza into a state-of-the-art healthcare facility. But that would only be possible if the the abandoned shopping plaza could be connected to existing facilities with an advanced fiber optic network, including multiple diverse routes to assure the necessary level of reliability.

Hospital officials ultimately asked EPB to provide a redundant 10-gigabit network interconnecting all of their facilities with the abandoned shopping plaza and EPB's network operating center. The hospital needed advanced connectivity for advanced telemedicine practices, such as sharing high-resolution images and transferring large data patient files. The hospital also needed a collocation deal with EPB in order to install mirrored servers in a safe, storm-hardened facility.

Asked about the decision to meet the hospital’s request, Billy Ray, CEO of the EPB said "We knew it was us or nobody. It would’ve been cost prohibitive for the private sector to do the job, if they would bother at all."

The converted shopping plaza, now known as the T.J. Samson Health Pavilion, added 126,000 square feet to its capacity that houses 30 new physicians' offices, advanced diagnostics, preventative treatment and educational services. The $36-million project also created administration and healthcare related jobs while reinforcing the basic infrastructure of the community. And it was all made possible by Glasgow’s public utility having the flexibility and public interest mandate to serve the community first, rather than focusing on short term profits.

Shafter Network Expands To Serve Local Businesses in California

The community of Shafter enjoys savings, better public safety, and more educational opportunities with the municipal fiber network that we wrote about two weeks ago and discussed in last week's podcast. In 2006, Shafter spent $200,000 on its I-Net to serve local schools and government in the core of the downtown area. While the community had originally planned to build a FTTH network, the tumultuous economy dictated otherwise and the community adjusted its course.

The community is now expanding infrastructure to several areas closer to the edge of town in order to serve local business. With next-generation fiber infrastructure in place, Shafter expects to attract several providers interested in serving businesses over its open access network. Completion is scheduled for the fall of 2013.

A 25 mile fiber backbone ring is now under construction and will loop to two industrial areas near the edge of town. Both complexes sit very close to the two main railroad lines that run through the town and provide easy access to transport. In addition to the larger loop, one of the industrial areas, will contain a 10 gigabit ring and the city will light two separate commercial rings to provide 1 gigabit service. This phase of Shafter's project will cost $1.5 million and required equipment will cost another $600,000. The network is underground, with 99% in city road rights-of-way. The entire path travels through greenfield areas so there is almost no infrastructure to avoid or remediate. General fund dollars, rather than bonding, borrowing, or grants paid for the entire open access network.

We learned from IT Director Scott Hurlbert that oilfield services company, Baker Hughes, invested $70 million to build a campus in Shafter. AT&T serves the company now with copper lines but "they don't like it," says Hurlbert. A 2.1 million square feet Target distribution center sits nearby waiting to switch to the Shafter fiber network.

Ross Dress-for-Less is now developing a 1.7 million square feet distribution center in the area and will likely take service from AT&T and from a different provider over the Shafter fiber for redundancy. CenturyLink's longhaul fiber runs through the Union Pacific railroad line and Shafter's network will link to it for external connections. 

Hurlbert told us there will also be a separate ring in one industrial area that is only for city security cameras, traffic control and for commercial customers specifically requesting a redundant diverse path.

Waverly, Iowa: Community Fiber Network Possible Thirteen Years After Vote

The Waverly City Council in Iowa recently voted 5-2 to establish a communications utility and to move ahead with a feasibility study. We spoke with Diane Johnston, Waverly Light and Power (WLP) General Manager, who told us the decision to get this far started over a decade ago.

In 2000, the community passed two ballot measures that sat dormant until this year. At the time, incumbents Mediacom and Qwest (now CenturyLink) did not meet the needs of residents, who were increasingly frustrated with poor service and shoddy customer relations. Incumbents cherry-picked the local commercial segment, ignoring smaller businesses and establishments more challenging to serve. When asking for better connectivity, Johnston says local businesses "hit the wall." Incumbents flatly refused to invest in Waverly.

The 2000 ballot measures, establishing the municipal telecommunications utility per Iowa law (requiring a majority vote) and having the entity governed by WLP's board of trustees passed with 86 percent and 80 percent of the votes. Clearly the public wanted more choices but Johnston told us the time was just not right. A feasibility study, focused on phone and video service, prompted Mediacom and Qwest to make some improvements and improve customer service. As far as WLP was concerned, the problem was solved and Ordinance 970 went on the shelf.

Since 2000, businesses and residents have approached WLP about establishing the utility but the proposal did not gain traction until six months ago. When reviewing the strategic plan for the electric utility, WLP's Board of Trustees concluded that Waverly and WLP needs a telecommunications utility to stay vital.

Johnston notes that advanced metering infrastructure is essential for the future of electric services. WLP wants to be able to provide customers with the ability to monitor their electric usage, control the use of appliances, and conserve. The utilty also needs its own connectivity. Johnston and WLP recognize that access to a high speed network is critical to economic development and WLP needs economic development for healthy electricity sales. In order to supply affordable electricity for all customers, WLP's wants to continue to increase sales. A fiber ring around the city provides connectivity between substations today and will likely become part of any new project.

K-12 schools in Waverly struggle to get the capacity and speed they need, Johnston says. Administrators also want to move to a textbook-free environment and support this measure as a way to service iPads for students. Likewise, the local college sees a network as a way to offer more to students on campus and expand distance learning programs.

The community of 10,000 is 25 minutes northwest of Cedar Rapids and maintains its rural small-town feel, says Johnston. With a telecommunications network in place, she anticipates the high quality of life would draw more telecommuters and businesses.

Johnston tells us that WLP will entertain all types of business models. They want to provide access to high-speed connectivity to every home and business in the community and will work with any entity that can help realize that vision. WLP has a stellar reputation with the community, she says, and WLP will only work with partners that can ensure the same level of reliability and customer service. Johnston hopes the initiative will also improve private provider rates and service.

Next, a task force will commission an updated feasibility study. 

Small Michigan Town Issues RFP for FTTH Network

The community of Sebewaing, located in the "thumb" of Michigan is moving closer to its own FTTH network, which will be the first new municipal FTTH project in the state.

Because of a state law impinging on local authority in Michigan, local governments must first issue an RFP and can build a telecommunications network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualified bids. If the community builds the network themselves, it probably must adhere to the RFP as if it were a private entity. This approach ignores the fact that a community operates a network with different incentives than a private company, so the two are not interchangeable. 

We wanted to know more about this effort, so we contacted Melanie McCoy, Superintendent of the municipal utility Sebewaing Light and Water. We discovered that the town of 1,700 residents, known for its beet farming, has several factors going for it. 

Communities with their own utilities already in place have personnel, equipment, and expertise which saves money and time. And because they already own the utility poles, they are often able to get started quickly rather than waiting for other firms to do "make-ready," which can take months as wires are shifted on poles. Sebewaing has a municipal fiber loop currently in place - another plus. McCoy tells us the fiber was installed in 2001 and 2002 at a cost of about $50,000.

Private Internet choices were limited to dial-up for about $20 per month or a T1 connection for around $1,000 to $1,500 per month. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water shared a T1 connection with local businesses.

Residents, business and government needed better connectivity and community leaders also realized the need to boost economic development. Sebewaing Light and Water leadership also wanted to increase efficiency with a SCADA system and considered a telecommunications utility a good investment. And looking toward the future, they knew installation of the fiber would position them favorabley for future investment. 

Sebewaing Map

Changes in community leadership, tight budgets, and legislative changes interrupted plans to connect the fiber to homes in Sebewaing. The community did the most they could with what they had, however, and connected city facilities to the fiber loop.

Within a couple years, local business owners who could not get the speeds they needed from incumbent cable and DSL providers, approached Sebewaing Light and Water asking to be connected to high-speed Internet.

In 2011, Sebewaing commissioned a feasibility study from Pulse Broadband based on the concept of serving 1,000 households with an open access model. The RFP calls for 1 gig capacity symmetrical service. McCoy estimates the network to be about 18 miles of fiber on the mostly aerial network in the service area. The project estimate is around $1 million and the city council plans to use funds from the city capital improvement fund.

McCoy notes that suppliers, consultants, and bandwidth suppliers have already approached the city with inquiries. Closing for the RFP [PDF available online] is late June, so look for updates later this summer.

Carroll County Public Network Changes Education, Saves School Funds

Carroll County is a bedroom community, with a variety of economies all around it. Washington, D.C., Camp David, Baltimore, Harrisburg, Fort Detrick, and the Aberdeen Proving Ground are a few of the places surrounding Carroll County. There is very little major transportation infrastructure and no major waterways. Many of the county's 167,000 people commute daily to jobs outside of the bullseye.

Gary Davis, Chief Information Officer at the Carroll County Public Schools (CCPS) and Chairman of the Carroll County Public Network (CCPN) started at the school district in 2002 and immediately recognized that the telecommunications arrangement was insufficient.

Schools and other facilities were connected to the hub via 1.5 Mbps T1 connections and the whole wide-area-network was connected to the Internet via an expensive Frame Relay DS3 connection. The total cost ran as high as $600,000 per year.  

When CCPS approached Verizon about increasing bandwidth, Verizon’s proposal was extremely cost-prohibitive. Verizon wanted a long-term commitment that resulted in more than 10 times their current costs. Basically, Verizon would own the network but capital costs would be funded by CCPS and maintained with ridiculously high recurring fees. The return on investment for Verizon was just too low owing the the community demographics.

At that time, Davis met Robert Wack of the Westminster City Council and the two compared notes. Davis' vision for Carroll County Public Schools and Wack's ideas for Westminster and Carroll County were very similar. Both involved a high-speed network and Westminster is currently involved in its own municipal network project (to be covered in an upcoming post).

A 2003 feasibility study on telecommunications upgrades for the school and a second broader feasibility study for the entire county in 2005 resulted in a loose confederation between CCPS, Carroll County Government, Carroll Community College, and the Carroll County Public Library system. Davis is proud of the fact that the CCPN has broken through past silos. The public sector has worked together in Carroll County, preventing the rampant duplication of efforts that used to be the norm. 

Davis says the first focus was on improving educational opportunities with the network. The four entities were able to work together as the CCPN to secure better pricing by leveraging economies of scale. Carroll County applied $7.4 million from its capital project fund to get the project started, the original estimate in the 2005 feasibility study. CCPS also applied funds from its technology budget that had originally been earmarked for upgrades to phone switches.

Carroll County Schools Logo

Switching from the old telephone system to a VoIP system for the district's approximately 1,000 phone lines amounts to about 40% of today's savings at CCPS. Davis estimates annual savings to CCPS to be around $400,000, which also factors in costs associated with the network. Turning off old T1 connections and abandoning the pricey DS3 connection also contribute significantly to annual savings. Connections between district facilities now vary between 1 and 10 gigs.

Reducing spending is great, he says, but what really matters is the way the network improves the ability to educate. The old T1s and DS3 would not have been able to deliver the bandwidth for applications educators use today. For example, CCPS is experimenting by using the network to connect kids across the county who want to participate in Advanced Placement classes. These classes might not be offered otherwise because there may not be enough students at one location. In the pilot program, several students from schools across the county participate through video streaming, concentrating educator efforts and creating a more vibrant learning experience.

CCPS shares a 500 Mbps Internet connection with the local public library, ten times faster than the old DS3. The public library is also on a separate power grid, which makes it attractive as a secure back up data center for the school district, Carroll County Government, and Carroll Community College.

As the network has expanded, the CCPN has used a variety of funding. A state awarded BTOP grant, with matching funds from the county economic development fund, added to the original school district and county investment. Davis estimates that the county has invested about $12 million over the course of 10 years.

The network now consists of three rings with the fourth central ring in Westminster, the county seat. "Spokes" lead out to the southern end of the county, where community leaders hope to connect with Frederick or Baltimore County. Eight municipalities use the network's 110 miles of fiber over 450 square miles in Carroll County. There is one school in the northern part of the county that is not connected with fiber but uses high speed wireless supported by the fiber.

The network has changed education in Carroll County and done so with significant savings. Davis acknowledges that the change came about through the work of the CCPN Administration, which he describes as an ideal model. "Each member organization contributes its leaders' expertise and what all members CAN do together, they DO do together," says Davis.

For CCPS, the results speak for themselves.

Community Broadband Bits 10 - Vince Jordan from Longmont, Colorado

The tenth episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast features Vince Jordan, Telecom Manager for Longmont Power and Communication in Colorado. We have long followed the trials and tribulations of this community as they fought through two referenda against Comcast's deep pockets. Now they are expanding their network to connect businesses and residents.

You can learn more about Longmont's approach on its website for the project. Our interview discusses some of the history behind the network, reflections on referenda, and the interesting approach Longmont has taken to avoid getting involved in the cable television business while still making sure everyone can view the content they want.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 25 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

Listen to previous episodes here.

Thanks to Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Longmont Fiber Ring Set for Expansion, Local Service

Over the past few years, we provided continuing coverage as Longmont, Colorado, considered, and eventually approved, a referendum (two actually) to authorize the municipality to offer broadband services to local businesses and residents. The City installed the fiber as part of its electricity utility infrastructure long ago but Qwest then pushed a law through the state legislature limiting how it could be used. After two referendums and an expensive Comcast astroturf campaign, the residents supported Ballot Measure 2A in November, 2011. The City can now use the fiber network to spur economic development.

Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) recently held two meetings to field responses from the residents and local businesses. Results of the meetings, and an online survey, keep the community informed and will help decide several key elements to the roll-out plan. Scott Rochat of the TimesCall.com, reported on the July 16th meeting, focused on resident reaction. Longmont has some distinct advantages, that Jordan shared:

"We are unique in what we already have in place and what we can do with what we have in place," [Vince] Jordan, [LPC Telecom Manager] told a crowd of 43 at the Longmont Civic Center on Monday.

What's in place is an 18-mile fiber-optic loop that the city can now offer services on, thanks to a 2011 ballot issue. About 1,280 businesses sit within 500 feet of the fiber network; at least 1,100 homes already have the conduit and junction box that would let them join.

The meeting and the survey indicate a strong desire have the network up and functioning ASAP. From the article:

 An online survey at ci.longmont.co.us/lpc/tc/index.htm (which so far has gotten about 152 responses) found that given the choice, 63 percent wanted citywide service "immediately," while 21 percent said they'd settle for whenever the city could get it done.

The proportions were similar at Monday's meeting: 57 percent for immediately, 17 percent for whenever it could be done, and another 17 percent for a two-year timespan.

"My feeling is, get it done, whatever it takes," said one man who voted for "whenever it can be done."

Small map of Longmont Fiber

We spoke with Jordan, who mentioned a similar enthusiasm from the business community. On Friday, July 20th, LPC held a meeting to hear comments from potential business customers. Jordan said talks with local business leaders continue to uncover "more need, desire, and want for higher and higher broadband in the commercial sector." Tony Kindelspire of the TimesCall.com covered the meeting (reprinted here on TMCNet.com):

Nearly 1,300 Longmont businesses are within 500 feet of the city's existing fiber-optic lines, and they likely would be some of the first customers to lease that fiber, once Longmont Power & Communications gets the go-ahead from the City Council to begin leasing it.

The plan, currently being developed, should be presented to the City Council in August.

Jordan let us know that residents and businesses can take the online survey until August 10th, at which time the results will be tallied and posted online. Interim results will be posted within the next day or two.

"This is an exciting time," said Jordan, "Folks are very keen to move as quickly as the City can move."

Fiber Optic ConnectArlington Moving Forward in Virginia

Arlington County, Virginia is taking advantage of a series of planned projects to create their own fiber optic network, ConnectArlington. The County is moving into phase II of its three part plan to improve connectivity with a publicly owned fiber network.

Some creative thinking and inter-agency collaboration seem to be the keys to success in Arlington. Both the County and the Arlington Public Schools will own the new asset. Additionally, the network will improve the County Public Safety network. Back in March, Tanya Roscola reported on the planing and benefits of the ConnectArlington in Government Technology.

Arlington County's cable franchise agreement with Comcast is up for renewal in 2013. As part of that agreement, the schools and county facilities have been connected to each other at no cost to the County. Even though there are still active negotiations, the ConnectArlington website notes that the outcome is uncertain. The County does not know if the new agreement will include the same arrangement. Local leaders are not waiting to find out, citing need in the community and recent opportunities that reduce installation costs. 

Other communities, from Palo Alto in California to Martin County in Florida, have found Comcast pushing unreasonable prices for services in franchise negotiations. Smart communities have invested in their own networks rather than continue depending on Comcast.

Like schools all around the country, Arlington increasingly relies on high-capacity networks for day-to-day functions both in and out of the classroom. Digital textbooks, tablets, and online testing enhance the educational adventure, but require more and more bandwidth and connectivity. From the article:

Through ConnectArlington, Arlington Public Schools will be able to take advantage of Internet2 for distance learning. At no cost, students will be able to communicate with teachers and access electronic textbooks and online courses from wireless hot spots.

The County wants to use the network to provide continuity and expansion of its essential telecommunications services. Additionally, according the the County's Spring 2010 Telecommunications Overview (check out the PDF - there are some informative maps here), the County and the School District want to reduce the uncertainty of continued dependence on Comcast.

ConnectArlington

Three projects, all happening within a relatively short period of time, came together to solidify the planning and enthusiasm for ConnectArlington. 

1) Upgrades to the County's Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), funded with a federal grant, will involve significant digging up of streets to make way for new conduit and fiber. The ITS construction provides an opportunity for ConnectArlington to install additional conduit for expanding the fiber network. ITS uses fiber optic cables to allow real time monitoring and control of intersections for immediate traffic control. Additionally, the fiber allows Emergency Vehicle Preemption technology (EVP). Thirty-one additional intersections will be added to the network and outfit with EVP. From a County Press Release:

"Emergency vehicle preemption technology is critical to saving lives by giving responders safe, speedy passage through intersections and cutting precious minutes off the time it takes to get patients to life-saving care at a hospital,” said Chief James Schwartz of the Arlington County Fire Department.

EVP gives emergency vehicles the right-of-way at signaled intersections with an automatic green light. The emergency responder is able to safely navigate the intersection, while drivers and pedestrians are clearly directed to cede the right-of-way via the traffic signals.

2) A public bond, dedicated to replacing the current microwave emergency system, will  connect six public safety radio towers with a new fiber backbone. ConnectArlington will also lay fiber along that route. From the Roscola story:

Arlington Logo

When fiber goes through the county's approximately 168 traffic signals, these signals will become routers on the network. That will allow police and fire personnel who set up command villages for an event to connect to the network through traffic signals.

They'll be able to access broadband and wireless for video, audio and data connectivity during events including the Marine Corp Marathon and ceremonies at the Pentagon.

3) Lastly, local electric provider Dominion Power will be upgrading its power grid. The County will co-locate dark fiber with Dominion's fiber, saving even more on installation.

ConnectArlington will be a series of fiber optic rings that overlap in strategic circles to provide paths that avoid any single failure points. Arlington's present system is a patchwork of County-owned facilities, lines leased from commercial providers, and Comcast's fiber-optic network, is a "star" or "spoke and hub" topology. With the new lay out, any failure will be remedied with data traffic reroute, providing redundancy.

While more and more communities are beginning to see the value of a publicly owned fiber optic network, patience is a must, as noted in the Roscola article:

"It's going to take time to realize the cost benefit out of this," said Belcher, who also directs the county's Department of Technology Services. "You're going to have to invest a lot of money that could go elsewhere. But you're putting it here because you see a value to be achieved, and that's significant."