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Rockport Builds Maine’s First Municipal Network

Rockport, a coastal town of just 3,300, became a statewide leader last month by launching Maine’s first municipal broadband network. Offering symmetrical gigabit speeds to businesses and residents, Rockport’s network is a carrier-neutral dark fiber system, with local private provider GWI offering retail services. 

The reach of the network is limited, as it consists of only 1.2 miles of fiber. While only about 70 homes and businesses currently have the option to purchase a connection, GWI offers symmetrical gigabit per second internet access for just $69 per month and the city has left the option open to expand the network in the future.

As noted in a Bloomberg View article on the network, it massively outpaces the only broadband competitor in Rockport, Time Warner Cable. Time Warner also offers a $70 service package, but its download speeds are 20 times slower and its upload speeds 200 times slower.  

The network was the product of a partnership between the town board, GWI, the University of Maine system, and Maine Media Workshops + College. Maine Media is a nonprofit college with 1,500 students learning photography, videography, and other digital media skills, and has a large economic footprint in such a small town.

Students’ coursework requires the storing and sharing of massive files, something that was previously difficult or impossible to accomplish given limited network capacity. Town officials are hoping that the new network will not only allow students to learn more easily, but enable them and others to establish small businesses in town.    

U.S. Senator Angus King, a vocal champion of broadband access, was among the officials on hand last week for the official unveiling ceremony. Speaking to the need for greater internet access, Senator King stated:

“In my opinion it’s exactly like water, it’s exactly like electricity, it is a public utility that is necessary in order for our economy and our country to flourish…We want to work where we live, rather than live where we work."

The total cost of the project is estimated at $60,000, half of which came from the University of Maine’s Networkmaine program and half of which came from the Town of Rockport. Interestingly, the town’s contribution came from tax increment financing (TIF), and required town voters to approve two measures to rewrite the local TIF statute and allow funds to be used for fiber optic investments.

Despite this encouraging sign in Rockport, a recent report from a Montana-based research firm ranked Maine 49th out of the 50 states in broadband availability and speed. Hopefully other Maine communities will be inspired by Rockport to look at their own broadband landscape and have a conversation about how they can expand internet access. 

Local TV covered the network unveiling. For those interested in the bigger picture, a piece from Engine.is, a technology research and advocacy group based in San Francisco, looks at Rockport’s network in the context of the larger nationwide need for fiber infrastructure and broadband competition. 

Fiber Infrastructure Helping Turn San Leandro into Tech Hub

San Leandro, a Bay Area city of about 85,000 bordering Oakland, is in the news for its fiber optic infrastructure policies. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News describes how this post-industrial city is turning itself into a center for tech jobs and investment through cheap rents, streamlined permitting, and the ease and low cost of fiber connectivity for businesses in some areas of town. 

We featured San Leandro in an episode of our Broadband Bits podcast last year, when Christopher spoke with San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta and a Lit San Leandro consultant Judi Clark. Acosta and Clark gave the details on San Leandro’s innovative public-private partnership, which combines smart public investments in conduits and “dig once” concepts with private investment in the actual fiber optic strands themselves. The city has been able to access fiber for it’s own needs at minimal cost, while some businesses have access to up to 10Gbps connectivity, either through privately provided lit fiber or leasing their own dark fiber. 

As the Mercury News article notes, the fiber assets have begun to pay off. Several technology parks have taken up residence in the area, including a hub of 3-D printing companies, sharing space and ideas while taking advantage of incredible data transfer speeds. One entrepreneur quoted in the article describes the office park, located in a former car factory, as “the world's largest cluster of 3-D desktop printer companies.”

The article also notes the growing awareness of San Leandro’s economic comeback, and the role played by fiber optic infrastructure: 

"San Leandro is establishing itself as a city-scale lab for innovation. Only months ago, (it) was a relatively unknown Bay Area city," said Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global.

Lit San Leandro, the private company that worked with the city to do the initial fiber runs, is apparently also in talks with other Bay Area cities on potential similar projects. However, it is worth noting that there is no plan for connecting residents and this model may in fact make it more difficult to expand residental gigabit access.

The business case for residential access is always hard but is improved when high margin businesses can be connected at the same time. But when high margin businesses have their needs met first, there is little incentive for a profit-maximizing firm to invest in connecting lower margin customers, a phenomenon called cream-skimming in economics. 

Communities should understand there is no magic bullet in solving the problem of expanding high quality Internet access. Lit San Leandro is seeing success but may not be the best model for all communities.

Muni Fiber as Real Estate - Community Broadband Bits Episode 111

Hunter Newby is back for his second appearance on Community Broadband Bits to discuss his thoughts on carrier neutral approaches to spur our economy with more investment in better networks. We just talked with Hunter in episode 104 on carrier neutral approaches to middle mile networks.

Now we discuss these types of approaches within communities - how to spur more competition without the owner of the infrastructure actually offering services directly. This has been a challenge historically, but we continue to see signs that this approach can be viable in the future.

Hunter Newby is the CEO and founder of Allied Fiber.

Read the transcript for episode 111 here, courtesy of Jeff Hoel.

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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Westminster Budgets for Open Access Fiber Network

On Monday, May 12, Westminster moved another step closer to deploying its open access citywide fiber network in Maryland. The Common Council approved a FY15 budget that includes $6.3 million for an FTTH network. The Carroll County Times reported that the $64.8 million budget was adopted 5-1. The opposing Council Member voted no on a different issue.

Last summer, the community launched two pilot projects; they installed fiber in a local retirement community and in the Westminster Technology Park. Community leaders decided to expand the pilots to the Air Business Center. They are already seeing results, with a women's fashion distribution center that decided to move from New York City to Westminster for the network.

We touched base with Dr. Robert Wack, Westminster Common Council President and the person spearheading the project. Dr. Wack told us businesses have been clamoring to get fiber service. Connectivity in the area is so bad, "they are desperate."

Community leaders want to connect 9,000 homes and 500 businesses. Dr. Wack told us the community expects to break even in 3 - 5 years; the build out should be complete in 2 years. Westminster expects to release an RFP for construction within the next week. They will release an RFP for a network operator in June.

Another Carroll County Times article described the basic plan for the project:

Westminster’s fiber network will be a “last mile” project, with the city paying to install “dark fiber” to the door of every home and business in the city and connect to the county’s fiber optic backbone, the “middle mile,” according to Wack.

Dark fiber is fiber optic cables which are connected but not in use, or “lit,” he said.

Wack compared the network to roads, explaining that 10 years ago — though fiber technology existed — if Westminster had laid the cables they would have been useless, similar to constructing roads in the city with no connection to the outside world.

Once the infrastructure is in place, a third-party service provider will install the necessary electronics and run the network, according to Wack.

Westminster's pilot project fiber is located near the Carroll County Public Network, allowing an easy connection to a more extensive infrastructure. From the Times article:

“We see the need and we’re ready to spend the money to get it done,” Westminster Common Council President Robert Wack said.

Connecting Arlington, From Anchors to Businesses - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #97

Located just outside Washington DC, Arlington is the dense, high tech county that houses the Pentagon. This week's Community Broadband Bits podcast features Arlington County CIO Jack Belcher. Having already built a top-notch fiber network to connect community anchor institutions, the County is now preparing to improve connectivity for local businesses.

We discuss a range of topics from how local governments can take advantage of all kinds of capital projects to expand conduit and fiber assets to how Arlington County responded to 9/11 as it happened.

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."

Crain's New York Business: New York City Conduit Jam Packed

Crain's New York Business recently published an article on the crowded conduit under New York City. The article complements the April 7 edition of This Week in Crain's New York podcast, hosted by Don Mathisen.

Empire City Subway (ECS), the crumbling subterranean network of conduit for telephone wires constructed in 1888, is so crowded underground construction crews regularly need to detour to reach their destination. Routes are no longer direct, adding precious nanoseconds to data delivery - a significant problem for competitive finance companies.

Verizon owns ECS and, according to the article, does not operate with competitors in mind:

But businesses that lease space in the ECS network for their own fiber-optic cable say that Verizon doesn't worry about keeping the system clear for others. Conduits are filled with cables from defunct Internet providers that went belly-up after the dot-com bust in 2000. Verizon itself left severed copper wire in lower Manhattan ducts after installing a fiber-optic network following Superstorm Sandy. (The company says the cables could be easily removed, if needed.)

Stealth Communications spent an extra $100,000 in March to re-route its fiber from Rockefeller Center to Columbus Circle. Conduit was so congested along the planned route, the independent ISP needed to go 6,500 feet out of its way. The re-route added almost two weeks to the project.

Crain's contacted Chris Mitchell from ILSR:

"It's foolish to think that we can just leave it to the market to use this limited space under the street efficiently," Mr. Mitchell said. "The fiber needs are tremendous, and if New York over time can expand access to a lot of fiber at low cost, we'll see all kinds of [innovation]."

He added that New York might be best served by the public-utility model embraced by Stockholm and Santa Monica, Calif., and under consideration now in Baltimore, in which the city builds a fiber backbone. Internet service providers lease access to that fiber at low cost and compete to offer specialized services as part of the "last-mile" connection to the home or business.

Possible solutions being considered include municipal fiber to lower income neighborhoods, requiring changes from ECS, and stringing fiber along aboveground transportation tracks. The ultimate goal is to create conditions that will increase competition

But something must be done to improve ECS, industry veterans say; otherwise, the conduits will only become harder to use. "The more you have to get around, the more cable you put in the street," said Brad Ickes, president of independent provider Optical Communications Group. (OCG and Verizon have been locked in a legal dispute since 2008.) "And then everything gets more congested, because everyone is going that way."

ConnectArlington to Offer Dark Fiber Services to Local Businesses in Virginia

We last reported on Arlington County, Virginia, in the summer of 2012 when they were into phase II of their publicly owned fiber network deployment. At the time, the community planned to use the dark fiber network for public schools, traffic management, and public safety. That plan will now include local businesses.

ARLnow reports that ConnectArlington will work with a third-party consultant to manage dark fiber leasing to multiple service providers. They will also dedicate a portion of the dark fiber for government use. The County expects the project to be complete by early 2015. From the press release:

Additionally, the County will work directly with property owners and various businesses to ensure they have the opportunity for this high-speed and secure fiber line via direct access to buildings. Arlington universities, research centers, government buildings and Federal agencies will also be connected – providing additional collaboration opportunities at unprecedented levels of speed and security.

When the Arlington County government developed the network, they installed additional conduit for future use. A public safety initiative to connect several radio towers allowed ConnectArlington to expand the anticipated footprint. An Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), funded with a federal grant, required street excavation so the county installed additional conduit and fiber. Arlington County also took advantage of an electric power grid upgrade, co-locating dark fiber along the grid placed by the local electric provider.

Other communities have taken a multi-faceted long-term approach, considering their own needs with an eye on economic development. Capitalizing on unique opportunites can reduce costs, speed up a deployment, and allow the local community to better manage their projects.

Sandy, Oregon and Mount Vernon, Washington have maintained smart conduit policies for years. Developers are required to install conduit to reduce later costs. In Santa Monica, City Net began as a way to meet the needs of government and now offer lit and dark fiber to businesses. (Learn more about Santa Monica in Chris' interview on episode 90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast or download our report.)

As smart communities realize broadband's increasing role in economic vitality, they explore local options. Arlington County takes a gigantic step forward as it opens up ConnectArlington to the business community. Also from the press release:

"World class cities are not only creating fiber networks to meet their own enterprise needs, but are also making dark fiber available to high technology companies to keep or attract these companies to their communities,” said Professor Joseph Pelton, Chair of the Arlington County IT Advisory Commission.

Jack Belcher, CIO of Arlington County's Department of Technology Services Leadership Team, sums it up:

Video: 
See video

Exploring Santa Monica's Incremental Fiber Approach - Community Broadband Bits Episode 90

Just a few weeks after releasing our case study of Santa Monica's City Net, we have an opportunity to interview Jory Wolf, CIO of Santa Monica, and the chief driver of City Net. This is episode #90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We talk about how City Net got its start with a smart approach to the cable franchise negotiation. Adelphia built a number of fiber paths that Santa Monica would mange to connect anchor institutions. The savings from no longer leasing services provided the basis for expanding a network that would meet Santa Monica's needs long into the future.

They took that network and added on, eventually serving businesses with dark fiber and even some lit service. The model is applicable to any local government - financed by saving money and reinvesting that back into the network.

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."

Overview of Stockholm's Stokab - Community Broadband Bits Episode #88

Having just returned from a short trip to Sweden, Lisa Gonzalez and I discuss what I learned and how Stockholm has become one of the most connected cities on the planet.

We talk about how Stockholm built a massive dark fiber network that has enabled competition at the service layer, the status of telecommunications in Sweden, and what lessons we can learn in the U.S. from their experience.

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 15 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."

How Ammon, Idaho, Builds Digital Roads - Community Broadband Bits Episode 86

Ammon, a town of 14,000 in southeast Idaho, has been incrementally building an open access, fiber optic network that has connected community anchor institutions and is starting to become available to local businesses. Ammon Technology Director Bruce Patterson joins us to explain how the community has moved forward with its model for improving Internet access.

They first sought some stimulus support for the network but were not selected. But in the process, they had set aside the match funding and found that it would be less expensive to link municipal buildings across town with their own fiber rather than leasing from an existing firm.

It is worth emphasizing that Ammon has no municipal electric utility, but the water utility has been a key participant in the network. In fact, much of Ammon's success has to be attributed to the willingness of multiple departments to work together, supportive and thoughtful city council members, and a Technology Director willing to think outside the limits of how things had traditionally been done.

We've been covering Ammon for a few years, those stories are available 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 25 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 Fit and the Conniptions for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.