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Howard County Fiber Encourages New Jobs, Competition in Maryland - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 133

While at the Broadband Communities Economic Development conference in Springfield last year, I had the good fortune to catch a panel with Chris Merdon, the CIO of Howard County, Maryland.

Howard County has become an Internet Service Provider, not just to itself, but to private firms as well. To improve Internet access for businesses, it is both leasing dark fiber to existing providers and directly offering services to businesses and buildings.

We are grateful that Chris could join us for a Chris2 interview! We discuss how and why Howard County chose this strategy and how it is benefiting the community.

Read the transcript of our discussion here.

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

This show is 19 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 Persson for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Blues walk."

Missouri Bill Creates New Barriers to Community Networks

Republican State Representative Rocky Miller began the new legislative session with a bill designed to yank authority from local communities that need better connectivity.  Even though the state already preempts local authority to sell telecommunications services and requires a referendum for cable, there is a current exemption for "Internet-type services." HB 437 [PDF] removes that exemption and would make it all but impossible for a local community to ensure they had access to the same types of services now available in Kansas City.

The bill prohibits communities from offering services if there are any private providers with no regard to the type or quality of those services. There can be no mistake that bills such as these are aimed directly at communities contemplating building their own gigabit networks because the existing service providers have refused to invest in the needed infrastructure.

Cities like Columbia, Nixa, and Carl Junction have taken proactive steps to encourage investment economic development growth that this bill would prevent. In Springfield, the city would have more than 1,000 fewer jobs without the city-owned SpringNet, which we have covered multiple times.

The Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) released this statement about the bill:

The state of Missouri is the latest legislature to attempt to erect barriers to the deployment of broadband networks that are critical to the future of its local economies and the nation, via House Bill 437. High-bandwidth communications networks are the electricity of the 21st century and no community should be stymied or hampered in its efforts to deploy new future-proof communications infrastructure for its citizens – either by itself or with willing private partners. It is ironic that while the International CES show in Las Vegas spotlighted hundreds of new devices and applications that require big bandwidth, legislation would be introduced in Missouri that would impair the development of networks that enable that bandwidth.

The hundreds of communities, companies, and private citizens that make up the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) urge the Missouri legislature to reject this ill-informed effort to tie the hands of Missouri’s own communities.

Over the past year, the community of Columbia contended with incumbent CenturyLink's efforts to block its attempt to improve connectivity for local businesses. Consultants recently found that 84% of local businesses do not get the Internet speeds they need. While Columbia Water & Light now offers dark fiber, the consultants suggested developing an open access fiber network for commercial customers.

Miller's district includes Jefferson City, one of the communities where CenturyLink announced it would offer limited gigabit services.

HB 437 is not scheduled for a hearing yet, but we are watching and will post relevent updates.

Update: Missouri removed the referendum requirement for municipal cable in 2010. It is unclear but cities do not appear to have the authority to offer cable services in any circumstance presently.

ECFiber Continues to Grow; Plans to Expand in 2015

In early December, the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network (ECFiber) announced that it is once again expanding, bringing the network to 200 miles by the end of 2014. According to the press release, the network will reach into an additional 8 towns in 2015, in part due to dark fiber deployed in cooperation with the Vermont Telecommunications Authority.

From the press release:

 “We’re pleased that residents of these areas are now able to enjoy the benefits of locally grown, full time, state-of-the-art real broadband,” said Irv Thomae, Chairman of ECFiber and Governing Board delegate from Norwich.

Over 400 households have invested in the network thus far, but Thomae goes on to note that the consortium will pursue larger scale funding in 2015 in order to obtain the necessary funds to expand at a quicker pace. Currently, local investors fund the network by purchasing tax-exempt promissory notes.

Subscribership has continued to climb. Last spring, we reported on the 600th sign-up but now ECFiber is at nearly 1,000 customers. There are currently 24 member towns in the consortium. 

Metronet Dark Fiber Network Expanding Education in South Bend, Indiana

In South Bend, the Trinity School at Green Lawn recently connected to the Metronet Zing dark fiber network thanks to a grant from Metronet and nCloud. According to Broadband Communities Magazine, the new connection has brought new opportunities to teachers and students at the high performing school.

The Metrolink Fiber Grant program, new this year, awards grants to schools to encourage innovative approaches focused on outcomes improving broadband capacity to implement innovation. To receive the grants, schools must have a specific plan, an implementation strategy, a way to measure success, and an accountability plan. Schools must also demonstrate that there will be adequate training and that staff will remain supportive and committed to the plan.

Like many other schools, Trinity at Greenlawn had to limit technology in teaching because its capacity was so poor. In classes where students exchanged information for projects, they often emailed from home where connections were better or exchanged flash drives.

Bandwidth is no longer an issue. From the BBPMag article:

Danielle Svonavec’s seventh-grade students study music composition using online software. A year ago, just half the class could be connected at a time. Even with that limited number, slow connections meant wasted time as students waited for the software to store and process their work. This year, all students are online. Response is seamless. Instead of being frustrated by computer issues, students work without distraction. The class is able to take full advantage of the software and learning is enhanced as students hear their compositions played back instantly as they work.

Trinity also has campuses in Minnesota and Virginia and are making plans to use the network for distance learning opportunities with students at all three campuses.

We introduced you to Metronet Zing in 2013. The dark fiber open access network provides connections through South Bend, Mishawaka, and St. Joseph County. The non-profit serves government and education while its for-profit sister entity, St. Joe Valley Metronet, serves commercial clients.

DubLINK Network Supports Economic Development, Health Care, and Supercomputing

Award-winning supercomputing apps, medical research, economic development, and quantum computing advances. What do they all have in common? They all depend on the DubLINK network running underneath Dublin, Ohio, a suburb on the Northwest edge of Columbus. The city of 43,000 people has 125 miles of fiber optics in the ground, both within its own boundaries and in the form of fiber purchased by the city within metro and regional networks. 

DubLINK began in 1999 as a public private partnership with the Fishel company to build an institutional network. In the wake of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, Dublin worried that a recent massive investment of $70 million in streetscaping would be undone as competing providers dug up newly paved streets to install fiber optics. To avoid this, the City signed a franchise agreement with Fishel to install a multi-conduit system, with the city receiving some conduit for its own use.  

Using 1.25” conduits installed in the city’s existing sewer system, the network runs for 25 miles underneath Dublin’s business district and connects six city buildings, who use their own lit fiber for data and voice services, eliminating expense leased line fees. This has allowed the city to save approximately $400,000 per year for the last 12 years in connectivity and information technology expenses.

In 2004, Dublin spent $3.5 million to purchase 96 strands running 100 additional miles through Columbus FiberNet, bringing the total length of the DubLink network to its current 125 miles. FiberNet is a duct system that runs throughout a significant portion of central Ohio, including Columbus and its surrounding suburbs.

The following year, the City of Dublin struck a deal with the Ohio Academic Resources Network (OARnet). OARnet is a 1,600 mile statewide fiber backbone connecting K-12 schools, colleges, universities, federal research labs, and other institutions. A $500,000 grant from the Ohio Board of Regents allowed DubLINK to make its connection with OARnet, and the city gave OARnet an indefeasible right to use 4 of its 96 fiber strands throughout its entire 125 mile network. They called their partnership CORN, for the Central Ohio Research Network. Earlier this year, the Ohio State Legislature awarded DubLink $300,000, which along with a $250,000 National Science Foundation grant and a $328,000 local contribution, will allow DubLINK to match OARnet’s 100 Gbps speeds throughout its entire network.

Seal - Dublin, Ohio

According to Dana McDaniels, Dublin's Director of Development, the city has spent approximately $5.5 million over the years in building, purchasing, and upgrading DubLINK. For this investment, he estimates that the city has received at least a $35 million return on investment already. This includes avoided costs around $4.8 million ($400,000 per year over 12 years), leases to telecoms and other entities of about one third of the city's dark fiber that amount to $3.2 million, and the much more significant gains in employment and thus tax revenue that have resulted from companies expanding or relocating in Dublin to take advantage of its incredible connectivity.

Dublin has a two percent income tax, one quarter of which is dedicated to a wide variety of capital improvement projects. It also uses a small part of this revenue as collateral for tax-increment financing bonds, which it has used to fund some of its share of network construction costs, with the rest of the $5.5 million in total network investments coming from the regular capital improvements budget.

The network is currently being used by a wide variety of public, private, and nonprofit institutions, including National Mutual Insurance, Nestle, Dublin Methodist Hospital, and online reference catalogue company OCLC Inc. OCLC connects to 70,000 libraries around the world, but relies on DubLINK to secure its data by connecting to backup data centers throughout the region.

Rather than narrowly focusing on network revenue, Dublin takes a broader economic development approach to its fiber resources. Development Director McDaniels uses fiber connectivity to lure businesses to locate or expand in Dublin the way other cities use tax credits or land giveaways. Ohio Health, which runs six hospitals in the state and has various other facilities, was granted 4 strands of DubLINK's fiber, which helped them decide to headquarter in the city. They now light and manage the fiber themselves, using it connect to all of their facilities throughout the region. Because they are able to so easily run their operations from Dublin, they have expanded their employment in the city from 300 to 1,200 people.

This September, one of DubLINK’s institutional anchors announced that they would be using DubLink to test new applications for quantum computing. Battelle Memorial Institute, a nonprofit applied science and technology company, signed a five-year deal with DubLINK to use the city’s fiber for their Quantum Key Distribution network, the first commercially-funded network to use quantum computing to encrypt information. Using subatomic particles instead of binary code to transmit information, Battelle claims they have created a form of encryption that will be hack-proof even if quantum computers make traditional encryption techniques obsolete. 

DubLINK proved its usefulness in 2013 as well, when a collaborative including representatives from the City of Dublin, the University of Missouri, and The Ohio State University were recognized for creating the “Best Application for Advanced Manufacturing” at the Next Generation Application Summit in Chicago. The team developed an app called Simulation-as-a-Service, which allows small businesses and labs to remotely access supercomputing capability. Small manufacturers would be able to use the app (in combination with a robust fiber optic connection) to run design simulations through supercomputers on the Ohio State campus, as well as trade design information in massive data files. 

According to Prasad Calyam, an assistant professor of computer science at the University of Missouri and the leader of the team developing the app: 

“The app really requires the infrastructure,” said Calyam. “The infrastructure is not the end goal of the project. It’s really the app. But we couldn’t build the app without the infrastructure.”

“Our work on Simulation-as-a-Service is one example where having a city invest in broadband infrastructure will help economic development,” said Calyam. “It helps companies to move there, to use the infrastructure, and essentially build new kinds of collaborations.”

Expedient Logo

The combination of DubLINK’s fiber infrastructure and proximity to The Ohio State University has also helped attract a growing number of data centers and medical research operations. Dublin-based Cardinal Health opened a research center in the city earlier this year, and Expedient Data Centers recently announced plans for a $52 million data center.

An even bigger fish is on the line for Dublin, which is competing with neighboring suburb Hilliard to be the location for a new $1.1 billion Amazon data center. Amazon has been secretive about its plans, but Ohio Governor John Kasich recently confirmed earlier leaks that the center would be located in the Columbus area. 

Dublin is pushing ahead with the expansion of DubLINK in the coming months and years. In conjunction with the upgrade to 100 Gbps speeds, the network is also beginning to move towards an open access Fiber-to-the-Premise model for major office and multitenant buildings in the city. Rather than bringing fiber to the curb and waiting for building owners to take advantage, the city will be bringing the fiber directly into at least 20 buildings this year and about 10 each year thereafter, with the option to increase the pace if it incents businesses to locate or expand in Dublin.

DubLINK has also struck a deal with a local data center that will serve as a "meet me" room and is in talks with ISPs, which will allow those intitutions using DubLINK fiber to connect to whatever ISP they wish over the publicly owned fiber. It will also allow them to connect to OARnet, the National Science Foundation's GENI rack, and the Ohio State University's supercomputer remotely - all at 100 Gbps. 

The local schools are on the docket for connections as well, with the three city high schools and administration building at the head of the line. They all stand to gain 100 Gbps network connections, and will also benefit from the nearly limitless educational resources of Ohio's universities and research organizations available through OARnet.

Whether or not Dublin successfully woos Amazon, its fiber optic network has proven to be a valuable community asset. It has allowed the city to partner with a local provider to launch a city-wide Wi-Fi system over 24 square miles, which uses DubLINK for backhaul and in return allocates 25% of its bandwidth to the city for its own uses, such as police communication and logistical support for large public events. It has supported medical and computing research, creating good jobs in the process. For all these achievements, Dublin has twice been named a Top 7 Community by the Intelligent Communities Forum, and last year Dana McDaniels, who oversaw DubLINK's development, was given ICF's Lifetime Achievement Award.  

Reflections on European Broadband - Community Broadband Bits Episode 127

I was recently invited to speak in Brussels on the experience of U.S. cities and fiber optic investment. Videos from the seminar are available here. I took some extra time around the seminar to visit Amsterdam and then Bruges in Belgium. On this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Lisa and I discuss broadband in the European context.

We talk about how much people pay in Amsterdam for better services than we commonly get and note that most European cities have much better access to the Internet than do U.S. cities, with the possible exception of Brussels, which has poor access.

We also talk about how the incumbents in Europe are not so different from the incumbent providers in the U.S. and are trying to invest as little as possible while preventing meaningful competition. Some things are just universal...

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 Dickey F for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Florida Mama."

The Dalles Pays off Its Network Debt Ahead of Schedule

Of the more than 400 communities around the country that have built and benefitted from community networks, the town of The Dalles in Oregon may have a case for the title of “most bang for the buck.” Their commitment of $10,000 12 years ago to leverage a $1.8 million “QLife” fiber optic network has lead to a massive, $1.2 billion dollar investment from Google in the form of a huge data center, employing nearly 200 people and generating millions in tax revenues for the local community. And at the end of September, the QLife board of directors announced that they had paid off the loans used for network construction more than three years ahead of schedule. 

We covered part of The Dalles’ network story two years ago: a small city of just 13,000 was told by Sprint in 2000 that it would have to wait 5 to 10 years for broadband Internet access. Meanwhile, local manufacturing was declining and employers were overlooking the town due to its outdated infrastructure. Before building the QLife network, The Dalles had no access to the major long haul fiber pathway that happened to run right through town. As city manager Nolan Young told Andrew Blum in an interview for his book “Tubes,” it was like “being a town that sits next to a freeway but has no on ramp.” 

The city decided enough was enough, and partnered with the county and the local public utility district on a plan for a $1.8 million, 17 mile fiber optic loop through the community that would connect anchor institutions and offer middle mile access to private providers. 

The nascent network faced opposition from a local telecom in the form of a lawsuit, which scared the public utility district away from the partnership. It had another setback when a private partner declared bankruptcy, saddling the public agency with an $800,000 loan. The city and Wasco County pressed forward with their partnership, however, and secured half of the needed $1.8 million in state and federal grants while covering the rest with loans. The city made a one-time contribution of $10,000. QLife pursued a cautious strategy, building in successive phases only after enough subscriber revenue commitments were in place to cover the requisite loan payments.  

The city’s small investment has paid off many, many times over. Major network construction was completed in 2003, and in 2005 Google announced they would locate a major new data center in the town, bringing 150 jobs and a $600 million investment. Pleased with their easy access to major fiber optic infrastructure and seeing massive growth in the demand for cloud-based applications, Google announced last year that they would double down on The Dalles, investing another $600 million and creating dozens more jobs to grow their already huge facility. 

The benefits of the network aren’t limited to a single major employer. Schools, a community college, a hospital, and a network of medical offices all use QLife’s fiber directly for fast, reliable, and secure data services. Seven different telecom and internet providers also lease fiber from QLife, increasing the competition and service quality available in the area.

Even Sprint, the incumbent who told the city to wait a decade for broadband, started upgrading their own network six months after QLife construction began. QLife and Google have even partnered to provide free WiFi throughout downtown and many of the surrounding areas. Now, with their debt retired ahead of schedule, the network is running an operating surplus in the hundreds of thousands that could be put to any number of good uses. 

Of course, not every town that builds a fiber optic network will immediately get a $1.2 billion data center. The Dalles had several factors working in their favor when wooing Google, including cheap hydroelectric power from Bonneville Power Administration dams along the Columbia River and long haul fiber optic lines running right past their doorstep. However, City leaders were smart enough to see the opportunities in front of them and determined enough to persevere in the face of opposition. Their bet has paid off immensely.

Columbia Takes Next Step Toward Municipal Network Infrastructure

A consultant report recommends the City of Columbia tap into its existing fiber resources to develop an open access municipal telecommunications network. The City recently issued a request for proposals for a business plan to press forward with the recommendation, reports the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Last year the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri jointly hired a firm to conduct a survey and analyze existing connectivity. An August Tribune article by Andrew Denney reported that the the community was found lacking in reliable connectivity. The survey indicated that 84% of businesses reported "moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed." The survey also revealed 84% of businesses contend with Internet speeds "insufficient for their business needs due to reliability and speed issues." The reasonable conclusion is that commercial Internet access in Columbia is too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable for local businesses.

The Columbia Water and Light Department (W & L) now leases its dark fiber to approximately 30 entities, reports the Tribune. The leases bring in approximately $876,000 per year. The consultant recommends expanding existing resources in order to entice more providers who want to serve last-mile customers.

The report also examined continuing the W & L dark fiber leasing program without significant changes and expanding the dark fiber leasing program by adding last-mile deployment. Maintaining the current dark fiber program will not require capital but won't stimulate the area's economic development possibilities either.

Expanding the dark fiber program would improve the broadband infrastructure situation because providers would be able to offer leases to customer premises rather than only within the middle-mile network. This type of change would not improve affordability because it would not increase competition.

The August Tribune article reported:

[The consultant] suggests if the city decides to light up its fiber network, it would be able to enter into public-private partnerships with service providers but remain a neutral party to providers. The network would increase competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over the city’s network, the consultants’ report said.

More recently, the Tribune reported:

[The consultant] estimates that the city would be able to develop a broadband network to serve businesses and organizations based in the “downtown core” for a price ranging between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the firm suggested could be paid through debt instruments like loans and bond sales.

At an August 18th City Council meeting, CenturyLink area operations manager Kevin Czaicki addressed the Council before they voted to instruct staff to move forward. In true incumbent fashion, Czaicki told the Council that a network would create financial challenges for the city. The Tribune reported:

Czaicki also said that, if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business. “This violates the spirit of the law, if not the rule,” Czaicki said.

Last August, CenturyLink announced some properties in Columbia and Jefferson City would obtain access to gigabit service. Once again, the prospect of a municipal network appears to inspire private investment.

“We would be paving a road that currently, in our opinion, does not exist now,” [W & L Assistant Director Ryan] Williams said.

Read the PDF of the report Executive Summary online for more details.

City Net Brings 100 Gbps to Santa Monica, California

For one of the fastest municipal networks in the U.S., travel to Santa Monica and sample City Net. The City just announced network capacity and speed upgrades to 100 Gbps. City Net is available to many local businesses and connects key community anchor institutions.

The entertainment, tech, and healthcare industries have a strong presence in Santa Monica and City Net officials expect them to be among the first to take advantage of the upgrade. Other area businesses are applauding the upgrade. From the press release:

Jeremy Foint, IT Manager of Loews Santa Monica Beach Hotel overwhelmingly approves, “With the annual American Film Market campus, tech expos, and Fortune500 corporate events convening in Santa Monica, it’s comforting to know Loews can accommodate the most demanding network requirements. I know CityNet will take care of us.”

We dug deep into the story of this publicly owned network for our case study, Santa Monica City Net: In Incremental Approach to Building a Fiber Optic Network. We also spoke with CIO Jory Wolf for episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Santa Monica took a measured approach by reinvesting funds they saved when they ended leased services. They now offer dark and lit fiber. The community has won numerous awards.

Community-Owned Dark Fiber Expands in Vermont

Last week, we criticized the draft version of the Vermont Telecommunications Plan for its conflicting goals, misplaced priorities, and all-around lack of vision. Fortunately for Vermonters, there are good things happening in the state as well: the Vermont Telecommunications Authority (VTA) and EC Fiber are partnering on a new 51 mile run of dark fiber that will bring new connection options to over 1,000 businesses and residences. 

VTA will be building the central fiber lien, which runs North-South along the I-91/I-89 corridor, and will be open to any carrier. EC Fiber, a nonprofit, community-owned open access network, will be an anchor tenant on the new fiber optic line, and will contribute $200,000 to project costs and be responsible for making last mile connections to the premises of homes and businesses that purchase them. 

The new fiber line will connect designated “Broadband Business Improvement Districts” in the towns of Braintree, Pomfret, Brookfield, North Randolph, and Sharon, making speeds of up to 400 mbps symmetrical available along the way. The project is expected to be completed in the first half of 2015, along with dark fiber projects in Reading, Stockbridge, Rochester and Hancock.   

These projects show that at least some in Vermont are aware of the need for fiber, and why the focus on new investments in last generation technologies embodied in the draft Vermont Telecommunications Plan are so misguided.