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Another Washington Coastal City Considers Community Network

Out on the coast of the great state of Washington, community networks are making waves. Orcas Island residents recently made headlines with their homegrown wireless network, and Mount Vernon’s fiber network previously appeared in the New York Times. Now, the city of Anacortes is considering its options.


Anacortes: Fiber-to-the-Home?

The city is negotiating with an engineering firm to develop a fiber network that best provides connectivity for the 16,000 residents. The engineering firm is expected to present to the city council next on November 16th.

Public Works Director Fred Buckenmeyer estimates the cost of fiber optic installation at about $15 million. The city of Anacortes has applied for a $375,000 grant from Skagit County to help pay for the construction, but the city would likely need a take-rate (homes to subscribe to the network) of 35 - 40% to break even on the project. 


Mount Vernon: Open Access

Anacortes’ plan is rather distinct from that of its neighboring community Mount Vernon. The network in Mount Vernon is an open access fiber available to government and local businesses, not residents, in Mount Vernon, Burlington, and the Port of Skagit. 

Mount Vernon made the New York Times last year with the story of an information security firm relocating from Seattle to Mount Vernon thanks to the fiber connectivity available there. Currently, the network has 267 drops (locations with connections) throughout the three communities. In Mount Vernon alone, there are 185 drops with 37.3% being for government maintenance and the city of Mount Vernon. 9.7% are dark fiber leases, and all the rest are ISP service drops to businesses. 


What will Anacortes do?

We will have to wait to see the model laid out by the engineering firm next week in Anacortes. If the plans are approved, the city could start laying cable as early as next year. Bruce McDougall, an Anacortes resident who volunteered to lead the feasibility study, expressed hope that the project will be approved, saying: “small cities are good places for things like this.”

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.”

Peachtree City, Georgia Approves Resolution to Establish Municipal Broadband Utility

At a September meeting, the City Council in Peachtree City, Georgia unanimously approved a resolution to construct and operate a fiber-optic broadband network.  According to the City Council minutes from the meeting, the initial 22.54-miles of fiber will provide 1 Gbps broadband access to various facilities in the City Service area.

In addition to providing connectivity for government buildings, utility services, and medical and educational buildings, the city will target business customers in the “high end user category.”

Officials estimate the network will cost $3.23 million. To pay for the project, the Peachtree City Public Facilities Authority, an independent local government authority created by the state legislature in 2011, will enter into an intergovernmental agreement with Peachtree City. According the August 2015 Fiber Initiative plan, capital for the project will come from the Authority; the city will issue a bond and pay installments to the Authority under an Agreement of Sale.

For several years now, the city located 30 miles southeast of Atlanta has explored options to improve local connectivity. City leaders tried and failed to bring Google Fiber to the community of 35,000 people in 2010. The city attempted repeatedly to urge private ISPs like AT&T to address the problem with no success. In February of this year, city leaders began work on a study to explore the feasibility of a publicly owned fiber network.

City Council members citizens at the recent City Council meeting expressed concerns that the network will not pay for itself and taxpayers will be left to cover unpaid costs. According to a recent survey of local businesses, 100% of respondents reacted positively to the prospect of a municipal network for connectivity.

In order to achieve the plan’s objectives, the network will need 12 “high-end” commercial customers by the end of year 2.  The city’s consultant expressed confidence in meeting that first goal:

“If we had a different experience, I would be standing up here in front of you saying 12 is going to be a stretch. However, we found exactly the opposite to be the case,” said Davis. “I was amazed by that. It’s a surprise to me that the demand was so great, and that the existing customer base out there was so positive about becoming a user. From a pure business standpoint, that gave me a lot of confidence to come in and say I believe we can hit this number and I believe we can exceed this number.”

The city’s Financial Services Director Paul Salvatore added that the business plan for the project is based on conservative assumptions.  It relies on a 20-year financial model projecting success for the network if the city secures at least 12 non-governmental customers in addition to 17 serviceable government sites. Thereafter, if it reaches at least 19 total non-governmental customers by year 6, the network will start to achieve positive gains, a 10-year bond payoff, and profitability after 16 to 20 years.  

City officials have no plans to bring the network to residential subscribers at this stage, choosing instead to focus on direct and indirect economic development benefits, public safety improvements, and better cell phone coverage that will likely result from the fiber deployment. They did not rule out the prospect of fiber for residents in the future. (Watch a complete video of the September 17th City Council meeting here, the city’s municipal broadband network discussion starts at 28:20.)

At a workshop earlier in September, city leaders met with the consultant to finalize the business plan for the network. At the meeting, Interim City Manager Jon Rorie quizzed the City Council about the risks involved with investing in the new broadband network. By the time the City Council met 9 days later, Rorie was convinced of the plan’s prospects for success: 

“We recognize this is a big decision, and it is of a visionary nature, but we also recognize that there is a risk exposure as a business model,” he said. “As far as providing an opportunity from an economic development perspective, I do think it is a huge opportunity as we move forward.

Rio Blanco County Has Big Plans for Open Access Network

In Rio Blanco County, you’re almost more likely to find a dinosaur fossil than a human being. This rural county in northwestern Colorado has about two people for every square mile, but its sparse population is not stopping it from advancing an ambitious open-access broadband initiative

More than a year into the rollout of the network plan, Rio Blanco County (RBC) has already succeeded in soliciting $2 million in matched funds from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), contracted a network operator, and secured easements (land-use rights) from the county’s two largest municipalities to begin construction on the FTTx network. The bulk of the funding will come for the County budgeting for the infrastructure.

The network will initially touch every block and ultimately be expanded to deliver a fiber connection to each premise in the two towns. 

Rio Blanco’s network will be a four-tier open access arrangement. The county will own the infrastructure - from the data center to the optical network terminal (ONT) within the home and everything in between. A private company, Colorado.Fiber.Community, will operate the network. And a combination of independent middle-mile Internet service providers and last-mile value-added resalers will offer services directly to residents. 

For Rio Blanco County IT Director, Blake Mobley, this arrangement is what makes Rio Blanco County’s initiative both unique and feasible. Mobley gave a presentation at the MountainConnect conference in Vail, Colorado, where he spoke about the challenges and the early successes of Rio Blanco County community broadband network. Because the network is open-access, he said, the county can focus on what it does best - laying the groundwork and setting larger policy objectives, not taking the mantle of Internet service provider: 

We look at this just like a county building county roads. You build those roads out. You as a county aren’t anticipating a large return on that investment from those roads up front. It’s the utilization of those roads that builds an economy that’s going to be to your benefit.

Mobley, who along with presenting at MountainConnect also spoke with Chris on the Community Broadband Bits podcast this week, emphasized that it was the business community that came to the county in search of better broadband options. In his words:

The drive to do this project originated with the community itself. They came to the commissioners about a year and a half say... "You’ve got to solve this problem. We have businesses that have come in and looked in communities, large and far-from-large ones, that said we don’t have the bandwidth we need and we’re not going to locate here. We have residents that are having challenges."

Community members demanding better broadband from municipalities is hardly a new phenomenon. Local demand for community broadband networks has forced the hand of municipal and county governments in multiple Colorado locations. In the state of Colorado, underserved communities that wish to build a network must vote to override a barrier (Senate Bill 05-152) that prevents municipalities from building their own broadband networks. Last November, a resounding 82 percent of Rio Blanco County citizens voted to override this barrier. Rio Blanco County joined five municipalities (Boulder, Yuma, Wray, Cherry Hills Village, and Red Cliff) and one other county (Yuma) in overriding SB05-152 and thereby exercising their right to build a community network.  

Along with providing FTTx capacities, Rio Blanco County’s open access network plan includes a goal of expanding of cellular towers and emergency services. The county intends to construct 11 towers initially, which will serve up to 80 percent of the community, and provide FTTB connections of 25 Mbps upstream and 5 Mbps downstream, slightly better than the FCC definition of basic broadband.

RBC believes that by the end of 2015, it will have begun construction on its FTTB network in the county’s primary urban areas, the towns of Meeker and Rangely, as well as its more rural areas. For Mobley, a 5th generation Rio Blanco County resident, it is important that the project is done in a way that is transparent for both community members and private partners. He joked: 

I’m building the solution for my friends and family so I have a vested interest to do a very good job because if I get fired and have to leave that will be very uncomfortable.

Hamilton Partners With Local Provider to Serve Businesses in Ohio

Hamilton, Ohio, has entered into a partnership with local firm, CenterGrid, to use city-owned fiber to boost economic development. The firm will offer Internet access and data transport to local businesses via existing infrastructure as the two enter into a five-year pilot project agreement, reports the Journal-News.

The city's business incubator, the Hamilton Mill, is the initial pilot site where emerging businesses are already receiving high-speed connectivity:

“As the initial pilot site, CenterGrid’s service has resulted in the Mill receiving network connectivity that is better than 83 percent of Internet connections throughout the US — that is huge,” Chris Lawson, executive director of the Hamilton Mill said. “For the types of companies that we are attracting, this level of connectivity is imperative for them to be successful.”

A press release from CenterGrid describes rates as economical, competitive, and determined by individual business requirements. According to the press release, entrepreneurs at The Mill are already taking advantage of the service:

"We've wanted a better high-speed internet option for quite some time. Now having something locally provided by the City of Hamilton and CenterGrid makes the idea that much more appealing. This high-speed circuit will allow us to transform our IT infrastructure and deliver value to our business," said Jon Corrado, IT Director at Tedia.

In 2014, the community of Hamilton connected local schools to city fiber allowing them to obtain Internet access from the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). That opportunity decreased school connectivity costs while increasing bandwidth.

City leaders hired a consultant in 2012 who determined that opening up their existing 60-mile I-Net loop to schools and businesses was feasible and would contribute to economic development. Over the course of three years, the project estimate is $4.3 million for network expansion, equipment, ongoing capital, and operating and maintenance expenses. The community is on schedule and, if all goes according to plan, expects to see positive operating revenue in 2017 and net income in 2018.

“This initiative is a new beginning for Hamilton Fiber. Using the high-speed ‘fiber grid’ to connect its business community with our Hamilton data center, we can now deliver next generation computing solutions at previously unheard of cost,” [Director of Public Utilities Doug Childs] said.

Hamilton, located near Cincinnati in southwest Ohio provides electricity, gas, sewer, and water to residents and businesses. Located on the Ohio River, the community operates an extensive hydroelectric system to provide power to its 63,000 residents.

Danville's Incremental Strategy Pays Off - Community Broadband Bits Episode 166

Danville, Virginia, has long been one of the municipal network approaches that we like to highlight. Built in a region hard hit by the transition away from tobacco and manufacturing economies, the open access fiber network called nDanville has led to many new employers coming to town and has shown the benefits of a low-risk, incremental investment strategy for building a fiber network.

Jason Grey, Interim Utilities Manager, is back on the show to update us on their approach. He introduced the network to us three years ago on episode 22.

Since we last checked in, Danville has continued expanding the fiber network to a greater number of residents and Jason talks with us about the importance and challenges of marketing to residents. We also discuss how they lay conduit as a matter of course, even in areas they do not plan to serve immediately with the fiber network.

Read all of our coverage of Danville 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 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 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."

Sun Prairie Passes Resolution to Begin Initial Stage of Fiber Project

On July 21, the City Council of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin passed a resolution to fund construction on a segment of what could become a citywide, high-speed fiber optic project. Construction will take place in the city’s Smith’s Crossing subdivision, parts of Main Street, and the Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District 9/St. Mary’s development area. It is slated to begin in early September and last through December 1, weather permitting, and will cost an estimated $640,000.

The mayor of Sun Prairie, Paul Esser, believes that going through with this project is the correct move for the City. He was recently quoted in the Sun Prairie Star

Moving ahead with the pilot project in Smith’s Crossing is the right way to go. I believe that as an early adopter of this technology we will have an economic development advantage which will attract companies that require this broad bandwidth.

The fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP) construction at Smith’s Crossing is seen as a testing ground for a larger FTTP network construction that would extend 200 miles of fiber and have the potential to connect all of the city’s homes and businesses. Currently Sun Prairie has about 30 miles of fiber. If Sun Prairie can successfully build out this citywide network - costing an estimated $26.7 million for the whole city - it could rival that of Reedsburg, Wisconsin, which began construction on its fiber-to-the-home network in 2003. Reedsburg has seen numerous economic development benefits and has created a considerable amount of community savings from lower prices.

The city of Sun Prairie initially invested in fiber optic technologies in 1999. In that year, the City built a fiber ring for the school system. Rick Wicklund, the manager of Sun Prairie Utilities, estimates the fiber ring will save the school $2 million by 2019. The fiber also runs to about 28 businesses and more than 130 Multiple Dwelling Units (MDUs), according to Wicklund. Now, Sun Prairie Utilities is looking towards residential markets. 

Officials are calling the Smith’s Crossing construction a “pilot program.” They chose the location on account of its pre-existing physical infrastructure and population density. According to the Sun Prairie Star:

Wicklund said Smith’s Crossing is a good location because the neighborhood has existing ducts through the subdivision and is a dense area with positive demographics for the service: those who have dropped phone land lines and cable.

An upgrade to fiber could be exactly what Sun Prairie residents need in order to stimulate economic development and attract businesses to the city, which sits just more than 10 miles from the college town of Madison. Sun Prairie residents are currently served by incumbents Charter and Frontier - ISPs that rely on outdated technologies unable to provide the gigabit speeds that fiber can supply. Sun Prairie Utilities initially wondered if these incumbents might be willing to build a fiber optic network themselves, but they were unwilling to offer fiber optic services. City alder John Freund, speaking in 2014, indicated the incumbent’s unwillingness to make the switch to fiber:

It was a good conversation and certainly as we looked at partners they would be the most likely partner in the community, but it was pretty clear that they weren't interested in taking this project on themselves and providing us this service at no cost to the city. 

Now, it appears these industry competitors are actively opposing the proposed municipal network. In early July, incumbent ISPs pitched city officials about the negatives and past failures of municipal projects. As the Star reported earlier this month:

Industry competitors spent more than 90 minutes telling city officials why it’s a bad idea, highlighting failures in other municipalities, questioning the utilities’ ability to handle operations, and even hinting, if it goes through, they’ll cut jobs in the Sun Prairie area. 

Incumbent pressure is nothing new for municipal networks, but it is more unsettling in the case of Sun Prairie, where City officials have gone out of their way to work with these companies - as we reported back in January of 2014. Incumbents often threaten to invest less if faced with a municipal network, but an increase in competition often spurs more investment, not less, as they suddenly fear losing customers that have a real choice in providers.

Wicklund believes that the pilot project would be cash positive within three years if it can achieve a 30 percent take rate. According to a feasibility study, a city-wide network would be cash flow positive by year four and net income positive by year six, assuming a 35 percent take rate across the 13,500 homes passed.

SandyNet Sharing Awesome Gig Deal With Local Businesses

SandyNet has introduced some incredible fiber connectivity deals for local businesses. Like residents, businesses can now get gigabit service for $60 per month and 100 Mbps for $40 per month. The utility also continues to offer enterprise connections, with rates established on a case-by-case basis.

Speeds are symmetrical which can be a critical factor for businesses that often must upload large amounts of data to work with clients. 

Until SandyNet began to deploy the FTTH network, business customers that needed more bandwidth relied on the town's dedicated Wi-Fi service which offered advertised speeds of up to 30 Mbps download, however, that cost $175 per month.

Smaller businesses could sign up for traditional Wi-Fi - the system residents also used - but speeds maxed out at only 5 Mbps or 10 Mbps download. Prices were $25 per month and $35 per month respectively.

Wi-Fi business customers can now make the switch to fiber for no extra fee. Those that are new customers to SandyNet will need to pay a one-time $350 connection fee.

Hungry for more on the SandyNet story? For more on how they did it, check out our video Gig City Sandy: Home of the $60 Gig. You can also listen our interview with Joe Knapp in Episode #17 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. 

Holyoke Success Spurs Interest in Mass Muni Networks - Community Broadband Bits Episode 162

A few weeks back, we noted an excellent new report on Holyoke Municipal Light Plant in Massachusetts published by the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. This week, we discuss the report and lessons learned from it with David Talbot, Fellow at the Berkman Center.

David gives us some of the key takeaways from the report and we discuss what other municipal light plants are doing, including how Holyoke Gas & Electric is using the state owned middle mile network to partner with other municipalities like Greenfield and Leverett.

Finally, David offers some insight into how the municipal light plants that have not yet engaged in expanding Internet access think about the challenges of doing so. You can listen to (or read the transcript of) episode 65, where we interviewed Tim Haas of Holyoke Gas & Electric.

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 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 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."

Holyoke Case Study from Berkman Center Explores Massachusetts Muni Fiber

A few weeks ago, Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society released a report that documents the achievements of Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) Telecom, a municipal electric utility that now provides fiber-optic broadband Internet to local businesses in several western Massachusetts towns. The utility’s move into fiber-optics has led to municipal savings for the City of Holyoke, as well as increased high-speed access in neighboring cities, and driven economic development. We interviewed Holyoke's Senior Network Engineer, Tim Haas, in a previous episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Because the state of Massachusetts has no barriers that prevent the creation of municipal Internet networks, HG&E has been able to compete on a level playing field with incumbent ISPs Comcast and Charter. HG&E is among 12 MLPs (Municipal Light Plants) out of 41 in the state to offer fiber Internet services. Researchers at the Berkman Center believe that MLPs could play a large role in expanding Internet access and business opportunities throughout the state as electricity revenues experience diminishing returns and data needs grow. For example, HG&E’s fiber connection was a factor in the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center’s decision to open a $90 million data center in Holyoke. 

HG&E is a somewhat unique municipal network in that it offers services not only in Holyoke, but also in nearby Chicopee. It also assists Leverett and Greenfield with their own networks. In Chicopee, the utility provided fiber access in a collaboration with 35 local businesses. In Leverett, it is managing the municipal network, with services provided by a local private company. As for Greenfield, HG&E now serves as the ISP for City Hall and the city’s police station, both of which will function as Internet access nodes as the town looks to create a fiber and wireless network that extends into homes and businesses. 

Unlike in North Carolina and Tennessee, where public interest groups had to petition the FCC to strike down a law preventing cities from extending fiber into neighboring municipalities, in Massachusetts cross-municipal collaboration can happen at the drop of a hat. The authors of the report write: 

These deals provide modest revenue streams and also illustrate how a MLP telecom division can extend its offerings far beyond the usual geographic boundaries of electricity service.

Though HG&E currently only offers municipal fiber optic services to business and community anchor institutions, the next step for other MLPs is the provisioning of fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) services. The report highlights Westfield’s plans to use its public utility to roll out an FTTH offering: 

The offering will include optional phone service, but no TV bundle. WGE [Westfield Gas and Electric Department] had rejected the idea of residential service several times over the past 10 years because it would have meant providing TV content. Now, however, on-demand video services are becoming popular. 

The Berkman Center report, which runs 21 pages, illustrates both the shifting demands for broadband access, as well as a collaborative method for addressing these needs. The hope is that reports of this nature can contribute to an ever-increasing wealth of knowledge with regards to the variety of municipal approaches in play for expanding high-speed, reliable Internet access.