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Princeton Voters Authorize FTTH Make-Ready Funds in Record Turn-Out

On November 18th, 90% of voters at Princeton's special town meeting approved a measure to fund $1.2 million in make-ready costs bringing the community one step closer to fiber connectivity. The number voters who attended the meeting broke the previous attendance record set 15 years ago by 30%.

We introduced the central Massachusetts town of 3,300 in 2013. The community suffered from poor Internet connectivity negatively impacting its schools, real estate market, and economic development. Since then, the community voted to create a Municipal Light Plant and to appropriate funds to keep the project moving forward.

Community leaders have investigated several options and last fall entered into a relationship with the Matrix Design Group. According to the Memorandum of Understanding [PDF], Matrix will design, build, and operate the FTTH network for a period of 20 years. At the end of that time period, Princeton Broadband Municipal Light Plant has the option of renewing that relationship or purchasing the network for $1.

As their contribution, Princeton will provide rights-of-way, police details during construction, powered telecom shelters, and will pay for utility pole make-ready costs. According to an article in the Landmark:

The make ready work includes replacing approximately 80 utility poles, and moving telephone and electrical lines on 450 poles, providing housing for the electrical components needed to operate the system, and paying for police details during the make ready work.

The borrowing is expected to cost the owner of a home valued at $300,000, about $10 a month or $115 a year increase on their taxes for 12 years. Internet service plus telephone will cost $115 a month. Once a contract is negotiated with Matrix, construction on the make ready phase would start in January 2015 and the project would be completed by January 2016.

It looks like the network will offer Internet connections of 30-50 Mbps; currently options for residents vary from an average 1 Mbps download over Wi-Fi to 1 - 3 Mbps download DSL. According to the PrincetonBroadband.com summary of the deal, 4G LTE in town ranges from 2 - 18 Mbps download. It is not clear if people can purchase a connection faster than 50 Mbps with the current plans.

Princeton Broadband Logo

Preliminary subscription rates are $95 per month for Internet and $115 per month for Internet and voice; video will not be offered. The prices are comparable with what some Princeton residents pay now for much slower "up to" speeds though some do pay less for DSL currently. More detailed info on subscriber costs is also available on the PrincetonBroadband website.

Residents who subscribe during the initial fiber hookup will pay an early discounted installation fee of $250 - $350 if the house is within 250 feet from the road. Early subscribers are committing for two years from the date the network is live. Customers who subscribe later will pay $1,250 - $1,550 to connect.

In compliance with state law, the community must hold a second vote to approve a Proposition 2.5% debt-limit waiver. The town will need to pass the measure by a majority, at which time it will be able to proceed with funding for the make-ready costs. The second vote is scheduled for December 9th. Leverett went through a similar process.

While Princeton's approach minimizes financial exposure, they still carry some risks associated with private ownership of the infrastructure. The network could be sold to a different provider, for instance. From the PrincetonBroadband website:

But we should all be very careful with basing our vote on quibbles with the plan or dreams of a knight in shining armor just around the corner. There are no Plan B’s. There are no other suitors waiting in the wings. Comcast, Charter, and Verizon have even gone so far as to formally decline an offer to come into town. And, doing it ourselves would cost taxpayers over three times more than the Matrix plan would.

Compared to any imaginable alternative, the Matrix plan significantly reduces our tax burden, minimizes our town’s risk, maximizes services to the entire town (not just the most densely populated areas), and is future proofed for generations to come.

Princeton Voters

Voters at the November 18th Town Meeting display pink cards that represent their approval of the Princeton Broadband project. (Thank you to Stan Moss for the photo.)

Small Town Volunteers in Massachusetts Begin Pole Inventory

Volunteers in Shutesbury will fan out this weekend to perform a "pole inventory blitz" reports the GazetteNet.com. The town of approximately 1,800 people sits near Leverett and faces many of the same difficulties with connectivity. 

Shutesbury and Leverett were working together a few years ago hoping to develop a solution to bring infrastructure to both communities. The two communities approached Verizon and Comcast asking for better connectivity, but their requests led to nothing. Eventually, Leverett became frustrated and broke out on their own. They are now deploying their own fiber network.

One of the first steps in determining the feasibility and costs to deploy a fiber network is accurately evaluating assets. Many local communities do not have an up-to-date inventory of utility poles or what entities own those poles. In Lake County, Minnesota, Frontier Communications asserted ownership of utility poles in the town of Two Harbors after fiber had been strung on those poles. Unfortunately, the county's records had not been revisited in some time and Frontier was able to produce records put ownership in question. The project was significantly delayed; planners eventually moved more fiber underground to avoid many of those poles. Pole inventories and due diligence, as in Shutesbury, help avoid delays and unanticipated cost increases. (Read all about Lake County's project in our recent report, All Hands on Deck: Minnesota Local Government Models For Exanding Fiber Internet Access)

Most Shutesbury residents use Verizon DSL, satellite, or dial-up and the community knows it needs better access. In an effort to obtain connectivity that will ensure fast, affordable, reliable services in the future, Shutesbury is taking inspiration from its neighbor. The city does not have any specific plans for a municipal network but is realistic about lack of interest from private investment.

The committee originally formed to work on the issue with Leverett began meeting again last April and has organized volunteers to get the process started. On November 8th, 60 volunteers will go out in teams of 3 in order to accurately collect information on utility poles in the 27.2 square-mile town. They will use a special iPad app developed by one of the Shutesbury Broadband Committee Co-Chairwomen, Gayle Huntress.

Asha Strazzero-Wild, another co-chairwoman of the Broadband Committee told the GazetteNet that the community is painfully aware of the lack of connectivity in Shutesbury:

“Everyone who’s involved in this is saying we need broadband and we need it yesterday.”

Monticello Public Partners Light Up Fiber in Illinois

Kids in the Monticello Community Unified School District #25 (CUSD #25) are now enjoying a new publicly owned fiber optic network. The School District is one of four public partners that collaborated to install the network and share the $306,000 in deployment costs. The City of Monticello, Piatt County, and the Allerton Public Library began the project a year ago with the School District to execute a plan to improve local connectivity.

Approximately 5,000 people live in Monticello, the Piatt County Seat, located in the center of Illinois. The City operates water and wastewater services but not an electric utility. CUSD #25 includes approximately 1,600 students.

According to a Piatt County Journal article, the partners will equally share the annual $12,000 maintenance costs. They will also divide fees for managing the system, estimated at $5,000 - $10,000 per year; the partners will hire a third party to handle network operations. In the future, the School District may manage the network themselves to eliminate that expense.

We connected with Vic Zimmerman, Superintendent for CUSD #25 to find out more.

Until now, the District depended on a patchwork of T1 lines and DSL to connect their five facilities. The schools used four lines to obtain 170 Mbps bandwidth for which they paid $3,500 per month. According to Zimmerman, CUSD #25 rarely received speeds faster than 50 Mbps.

The school has added wireless access points to its five schools to enable Wi-Fi, but lacked the necessary bandwidth to run the system efficiently. Student smartphones on the guest network exacerbated the problem. Zimmerman and CUSD knew they needed more bandwidth to handle future technology demands; they needed fiber.

Piatt County, the City of Monticello, and the Library suffered similar problems. When they approached incumbent providers Verizon and Frontier, they were told fiber would be brought into the area but neither knew when.

Approximately two years ago, Metro Communications (Metro) was deploying a fiber network to service cell phone carriers. The planned route went directly through the center of Monticello. 

The partners approached Metro with a proposal. They would pay for half of the deployment costs for the section that went throught town. In exchange, Metro would bury an additional conduit and allow the partners to access some of the fiber. Metro ran fiber to the edge of properties lines of each entity.

CUSD #25 was the first to connect their facilities. Zimmerman expects the other three partners to be connected and lit by the end of the summer. Once the Library, the County, and the City connect the facilities, the total number of facilities on the network will be 20 - 25.

Through their intergovernmental agreement, the County paid for Metro for the total and each if the entities will reimburse one fourth of the cost. None of the entities bonded or borrowed.

The fiber network will allow the District to purchase 200 Mbps of bandwidth for $1,750 per month. Zimmerman notes that a bump up to 750 Mbps would cost about the same amount they paid when leasing four T1s. With the new infrastructure, CUSD #25 will be able to increase bandwidth in the future; speed between facilities reaches 1 Gbps.

Savings

The District used Capital Improvement funds for their share of deployment. When factoring in CUSD #25's total costs for monthly access, estimated maintenance fees, and estimated operating costs, CUSD #25 will save $16,750 per year on the new network. In other words, the district's investment will pay for itself in 4.5 years. This calculation only considers direct cost savings and does not take into account indirect savings. CUSD #25 will pay about half as much for four times as much capacity.

Technology staff at the District, spoke to the Piatt County Journal:

Todd Wiegel, a school district technology assistant, said it sets up the district for having the ability for all students to log in with a device at school.

“We could not handle that amount of machines on our (previous) infrastructure,” said Wiegel. “It was like trying to fit an elephant through a garden hose.”

...

“The speeds have definitely stabilized,” added Wiegel.

When the remaining partners begin using the network, all four will share bandwidth from Metro and reimburse the School District, reducing costs even further.

Earlier this year, a private buyer approached the joint committee charged with planning and executing the project. A February article described the situation:

A preliminary meeting with the potential buyer showed the company was not interested in providing the faster fiber optic speeds to residential customers, which did not sit well with Monticello City Superintendent Floyd Allsop.

"I just want assurances that they would work something out with somebody on residential so that we're meeting our goals," said Allsop. "And you would think they would want to do that, but we don't know they want to do that."

Selling the system would relieve local entities from the cost of maintaining the fiber, but Keith did not think it made sense to do it this soon.

"Once we sell it, we've got no say over it, where if we hire an outside company to maintain it, we've still got a say," said Keith.

As the network is fired up, the partners are considering future uses. Eventually, they hope to expand the network to a ring structure to improve redundency. They intend to lease dark fiber to a private provider to spur economic development and possibly provide residential services. The partners do not want to become and ISP:

It may be a while before businesses and homes can hook into the fiber, but it is on the committee’s radar. A plan that would lease extra fiber – the entities will likely use just 20 of the 78 thin fibers that were installed – in exchange for maintenance was discussed, but that plan fell through.

Now the plan is to take bids for a company to lease or purchase fiber with the intention of eventually providing commercial and residential service.

Image of Piatt County Courthouse used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Dual Freq.

Catching Up with the RS Fiber Coop in Minnesota - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #99

In the nearly two years since we launched this podcast with an interview from Minnesota's rural Sibley County, the project has evolved significantly but the need for better Internet access remains a constant.

Today, we interview Coop Vice-Chair Cindy Gerholz and Winthrop Town Manager Mark Erickson to get an update on the fiber-to-the-farm project. The Renville-Sibley Fiber project has transitioned from a municipal project to a cooperative. Local towns and a sizeable majority of townships will together issue an economic development bond to provide seed capital to the coop.

We discuss the project, financing arrangements, and the need to make sure that no one is left behind. Stay up to date with the project on their website and Facebook.

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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Open Technology Institute Report Offers Overview of Public Broadband Options

Publication Date: 
May 6, 2014
Author(s): 
Ben Lennett, Open Technology Institute
Author(s): 
Patrick Lucey, Open Technology Institute
Author(s): 
Joanne Hovis, CTC Technology and Energy

The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation, along with ctc Technology and Energy, have released an overview of options for local governments that want to improve Internet access. The report is titled, "The Art of the Possible: An Overview of Public Broadband Options."

The paper has been released at an opportune time, more communities are now considering what investments they can make at the local level than ever. The Art of the Possible offers different models, from muni ownership and partnerships to coops. The paper examines different business models and assesses the risk of various approaches.

It also includes a technical section for the non-technical to explain the differences between different types of broadband technology.

From the introduction:

The one thing communities cannot do is sit on the sidelines. Even the process of evaluating whether a public network is appropriate can be beneficial to community leaders as a means to better understand the communications needs of their residents, businesses, and institutions and whether existing services and networks are keeping pace.

The purpose of this report is to enable communities to begin the evaluation of their broadband options. The report begins with an overview of different network ownership and governance models, followed by an overview of broadband technologies to help potential stakeholders understand the advantages and disadvantages of each technology. It then provides a brief summary of several different business models for publicly owned networks. The final two chapters focus on the potential larger local benefits and the risks of a publicly funded broadband project.

No Scale Advantage in Netflix Speed Ranking

Netflix has continued to publish monthly rankings of ISPs average speed in delivering Netflix video content to subscribers. Though they first published data about the largest, national ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and the link, they have an expanded list with many more ISPs.

I recognize two municipal networks on the expanded list of 60 ISPs. For March 2014, the Chattanooga EPB network is ranked 4th and CDE Lightband of Clarksville, Tennessee, is ranked 7th.

With the exception of Google Fiber and Cablevision, the top 10 are regional or somewhat smaller ISPs. Combined with the significant spread across the rankings of the biggest ISP, we see no empirical evidence for any kind of benefits to subscribers from scale. That is to say, Netflix data shows that bigger ISPs do not deliver better customer experience.

We do see more evidence that fiber networks deliver faster speeds on average, with cable following, and DSL trailing distantly. This is why DSL networks are losing customers where people have a choice and cable is gaining (most often where there is no fiber option).

Any claims by Comcast that allowing it to merge with Time Warner Cable would result in better service should be subject to extreme skepticism. Many much smaller networks deliver faster connections and raise rates far less often that Comcast, which is at the high end of frequency in rate hikes.

The problem with the biggest companies is that they focus on generating the highest returns for Wall Street, not delivering the best experience to Main Street.

Montrose Moves Toward Muni Network -Community Broadband Bits Podcast #95

Nestled in a valley in the Colorado rockies, the city of Montrose has voted overwhelmingly to reestablish local authority over whether to build a municipal fiber network. With nearly 20,000 people, Montrose does have cable service from Charter and DSL from CenturyLink but neither service is meeting local needs.

Virgil Turner, Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement for the City, joins us in episode 95 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. We discuss the need for a better network and how the big cable and telephone companies have failed to meet local needs.

Montrose has all options on the table as it now plans to engage the public and determine how to move forward with possible investments to improve their access to the Internet.

View our other posts on Montrose here.

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 20 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

American Enterprise Institute Scholar Calls DSL Obsolete

For the second time this year, one of the major defenders of the cable and telephone companies has admitted that DSL cannot provide the Internet access we need as a nation. This admission validates our research as well as that of Susan Crawford and others that show most Americans are effectively stuck with a cable monopoly.

On April 7, 2014, the Diane Rehm show hosted another discussion on telecommunications policy with guests that included Jeffrey Eisenach, the Director of the Center for Internet, Communications, and Technology Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.

During that show, Eisenach stated, "The vast majority of Europeans still only have DSL service available, which we in the United States consider really almost an obsolete technology now."

Interestingly, Eisenach and others have repeatedly claimed that there is no market failure in the US - that we have plenty of choices. But most Americans have to choose between what most now admit is an obsolete DSL product and cable. Eisenach would add 4G LTE as another competitor, but as we have noted many times, the average household would have to pay hundreds of dollars per month to use their LTE connection as a replacement for DSL or cable.

The average household uses something like 40-55 GB of data per month. Given the bandwidth caps from LTE providers, the overage charges quickly result in a bill of approximately $500 or more depending on the plan. This is why the overwhelming majority of the market uses mobile wireless as a complement, not substitute to wired networks.

We are left with one conclusion: there is no meaningful competition or choice for most of us in the residential telecommunications market. And no real prospect of a choice either as the cable companies only grow stronger.

This is not the first time Eisenach admitted that DSL is insufficient for our needs. Back in January, on Diane's show, he again used Europe's dependence on DSL as evidence that it was falling behind: "They are reliant on these 20th century copper networks which have real limits on the amount of speed that they can deliver."

Even those who only want the private sector to deliver services are starting to admit that the existing providers are failing us. What more do communities need to take an active role in ensuring their needs are met?

History of the Quickly Subverted 1996 Telecommunications Act - Community Broadband Bits Episode 89

If all had gone according to the plan behind the 1996 Telecommunications Act, we would have lots of competition among Internet service providers, not just cable and DSL but other technologies as well. Alas, the competing technologies never really appeared and various incarnations of the FCC effectively gutted the common carriage requirements at the heart of the Act.

Earl Comstock joins us today to explain what they had in mind when they spent years developing the goals and text of the Act. A staffer to Senator Stevens - and yes, we discuss the legacy of Senator "series of tubes" Stevens and you might be surprised when you learn more about him - Earl helped to craft the Act and then had to watch as the FCC and Courts misinterpreted it.

At the heart of our conversation is what they believed would be necessary to achieve the goals of expanding access to telecommunications service to all.

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 30 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community is a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

Russellville EPB Logo

According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

Word of Mouth graphic

In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast.