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Chris in Mount Vernon, Washington: Video Now Available

Over the past few months, Chris has been globe trotting to communities giving presentations and learning more about municipal networks across the country. After spending some time in Seattle, he headed to Mount Vernon, Washington to present at the Connect with the World conference on October 9th.

The event took place at Skagit College and included other speakers such as Craig Settles, Susannah Malarkey, and Mark Anderson. The video of his presentation is now archived and available to view.

Mount Vernon has operated its open access fiber network since 1995, serving public facilities and local businesses. We spoke with Kim Kleppe, Information Systems Director, and Jana Hansen, Community & Economic Development Director, in episode 38 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

For Chris's presentation, watch the video below.

Video: 
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Susan Crawford on the Responsive City - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 125

Susan Crawford, author of Captive Audience and now co-author of The Responsive City: Engaging Communities Through Data-Smart Governance joins us for Community Broadband Bits #125. We discuss the idea of a Responsive City.

Susan contrasts her visions of a Responsive City with more traditional notions of a "smart" city and notes that having fiber throughout a community is a necessary base.

We discuss a few of the examples from the book that discuss how local governments are being transformed and how we would like to see them continue to transform in coming decades.

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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Cortez To Expand Open Access Network

A recent vote by the Cortez city council cleared the way for a major expansion in the city’s open access network. By committing $1 million in local funds, the city unlocked a matching $1 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which disperses revenues from federal mineral leases in the form of a variety of economic development grants around the state.

This $2 million infusion will enable Phase II of the city’s network plan to go forward next year, making connections newly available to 400 businesses along two major highways. This builds on the existing Phase I network, which is capable of offering connections to about 650 businesses along Main Street. About 250 businesses have already signed on in Phase I, good for nearly a 40% take rate. The city plans to add 27 miles of fiber in 2015. 

The $1 million in local matching funds that enabled the Department of Local Affairs grant are pledged from a combination of sources. The network's own reserve fund will contribute $250,000, while the remainder will come in the form of interdepartmental loans from the city's general fund ($250,000) and equipment fund ($500,000). 

The city does not offer its own services over its fiber, favoring an open access model that lets independent service providers compete using its infrastructure. The network currently has seven mostly local ISPs competing for customers. The long term plan, as described by City General Services Manager Rick Smith in a Broadband Bits podcast back in May, is to build a fiber to the home network throughout the city. Smith sounds pretty determined to make that happen:

“Just because we live here in rural Cortez, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t have access to affordable broadband. It’s a necessity in today’s digital age.” 

“It would probably take more than $10 million to finish out the entire city,” Smith said. “That could take at least five years, but we have a roadmap. We have a plan.”

Cortez has taken a gradual approach towards developing its fiber infrastructure, beginning with an I-Net for local anchor institutions in 1999. Over time, the town of less than 9,000 residents has become a regional fiber optic hub, thanks to several grants from the state, partnerships with neighboring governments, and smart local investments. Cortez serves as the nexus for the western half of the Southwest Colorado Access Network (SCAN), which connects public institutions in a five county region to backbone fiber. 

Cortez has also benefitted from good timing: it began leasing extra capacity on a few of its fiber optic lines to a handful of private companies in 2005. This allowed Cortez to be grandfathered in as an exemption to SB 152 which passed later that same year, meaning that unlike nearly all other Colorado municipalities, Cortez did not have to pass a referendum to use its fiber optic infrastructure to offer retail services. 

Layton Resident Breaks Down the Numbers on UTOPIA Service: Letter to the Editor

Thane Packer, a Layton resident, attended a community meeting this fall to learn what he could about UTOPIA. Packer is like many others who consider his costs for Internet, TV, and phone as an important factor in whether or not to support UTOPIA. After attending the meeting, he considered the presentation and what he described as "some very heated, and some very biased opinions."

He then examined his existing triple play costs and shared his findings in a letter to the Standard Examiner. The rest of his letter is reproduced below (emphasis ours):

The total bundled bill for home phone, Internet, and a TV package was $273.63. That is $93.25 per month for the internet and home phone plus $180 for TV. The telephone service is fine but the Internet is frustrating. The signal fluctuates, is spotty and unreliable.

In Provo, because there is competition from a fiber optic network, this exact same package, which includes, total Internet, home phone and the TV package is available from a provider for only $99.94 a month.

This means that even if I didn’t use a fiber network like the one in Provo the competition price from the provider would save me $178.69 a month. That means that without the competition from a fiber system like UTOPIA, the provider stands to make, (from me) a total of $2,144.28 a year and in 25 years (the pay-off time for the current bond, for which we receive nothing) is over $53,000

If I were able to switch to fiber system here in Layton a much better service would cost even less and I can certainly find a better place to use my $53,000.

So ask yourself this question. What is your current service costing you, how much extra are you paying, and what are you getting for it? For me the advantage of saving at least $178.69 a month and getting better service for it is obvious.

So please Layton, find a way to make this or something like it work for us. A very vocal minority should not be able deprive the rest of us from better cheaper service.

Chanute City Leaders Approve Financing Strategy for FTTH in Rural Kansas

Chanute's City Commission passed a motion this month to fund its planned FTTH project with revenue bonds, bringing the entire community closer to fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, reports the Chanute Tribune

In addition to authorizing a plan to secure $18.9 million in revenue bonds, the motion also included funds for a pre-deployment baseline analysis focused on economic development and funds to hire an attorney. The bonds include debt service reserve funds and additional funding to make early interest payments. The plan determines the city will pay off the investment in a little over 14 years, based on a 45 percent take rate.

The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC) must approve the plan. The KCC is a state regulatory body with a variety of responsibilities, including regulating telecommunications utility rates. The KCC also handles rates for electricity, natural gas, and liquid pipeline services. They handle safety issues, licensing, energy conservation, etc. If the KCC does approve the plan, the bonds can be secured without a public vote unless the city receives any petitions. Chanute still plans on providing residential gig service for $40 per month.

According to the Tribune, 62 percent of 1,030 returned surveys indicated yes or maybe as to whether or not they would be interested in signing up for high-speed service at home or at work; 38 percent said no. City officials are optimistic that the project will blossom even beyond those figures:

“I think once it starts rolling out, a lot of people will see what type of services they’re getting through the city,” [Mayor Greg] Woodyard said, “and they’ll get those bundle packages and we’ll be able to offer them a better product than they’re currently getting at a cheaper price. I think more people will sign up for it in that point in time.”

Woodyard also noted that Chanute is setting an example for other Kansans suffering from poor connectivity:

“A lot of other communities are looking at starting to do this, possibly,” Woodyard said. “We are the trendsetters for the state of Kansas. Everybody’s looking at us to see how we go through the process of doing the fiber project.”

For the complete story on Chanute's network, download our 2012 report Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage.

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.

Missoula Pursues Open Access Fiber for Jobs - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 112

After having met City Councilmember Caitlin Copple at last year's Broadband Communities event in Austin and seeing the progress Missoula, Montana, has made in considering a municipal fiber network, I knew we should ask her to be on the show. This week, she joins me and Karen Palmer, the Director of Operations for a local tech company in Missoula, LMG, for episode 112 of Community Broadband Bits.

After surveying local businesses, Missoula found a strong need for better services and is examining its options for an open access fiber network. They are fortunate to have already identified some service providers that want to work with them on the project.

Additionally, the network would be a boon for community anchor institutions, from schools to hospitals, and facilities owned by either the County or City.

Read a transcript of this show, episode 112, 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 17 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."

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."

Missoula Releases Results of Broadband Feasibility Study

The culmination of more than a year of discussion, funding searches, vendor selection, and research, Missoula has released the results of its broadband feasibility study. The study’s final report makes a range of recommendations, highlighted by the urging to invest $10.5 million from various sources to construct an open access fiber optic network connecting local businesses and over 50 key anchor institutions. 

Beginning in early 2013, Missoula City and Missoula County governments collaborated with the Bitter Root Economic Development District to win a grant from the Montana’s Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, which they matched with local funds. The result was a $50,000 pot from which to finance the feasibility study.

The long-awaited final study results indicate a significant demand for affordable, reliable high speed connectivity in the Missoula area from both businesses and public institutions, especially in the unincorporated areas outside the central city. In a survey (page 31 of the report), a shocking 73% of Missoula businesses reported moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed. A further 38% said their connections were insufficient for their businesses needs, but the vast majority of those reported that they were unable to upgrade because the needed connections were either unavailable or the price was out of reach. 

The total cost of the network, which would include over 60 miles of fiber, is estimated to be just over $17 million. That figure is a conservative estimate, however, as it assumes 100% of the network would be built underground and minimal existing assets would be used or shared (neither of which is likely to be the case when all is said and done). 

The study recommends bringing in local anchor institutions as key network tenants, while making dark fiber available to third party service providers who can sell connections to local businesses, in what the Bitter Root Economic Development District refers to as a public-private partnership:

The proposed network would connect more than 50 public entities to each other including K-12 schools, the University of Montana, healthcare centers and city and county facilities.  Businesses could also take advantage of the network and what the study anticipates would be much more affordable pricing. The study recommends working in cooperation with Internet providers in a public-private partnership.

According to an article in the Missoulian, the local share of network costs would come not come from taxes:

As proposed, the city and county together would invest $10 million toward a $17 million system, with the local government funds leveraging other money, [Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin] Copple said. The local money would be paid through user fees, not taxes, and it would build roughly 60 miles of an “open access” fiber-optic network.

The report also made recommendations for outreach, education, and changes in city and county policy. Notably, it emphasized the need for “dig once” policies that ensure conduit is laid during unrelated construction projects and can be shared by different entities, eliminating the cost and disruption of tearing up streets multiple times to lay different lines. The report also recommended updating city and county building codes to account for broadband engineering requirements, as well as streamlining permitting processes and reducing fees for broadband projects. 

The last few years have seen a race among Montana cities to increase their communications infrastructure through a variety of methods. Butte recently debuted a limited private fiber optic network run by Fatbeam, spurred by long-term contracts with public and private anchor institutions. Bozeman, as we’ve reported, kicked off their own broadband feasibility study and planning process in July.  

Utopia at a Crossroads: Part 3

This is the final installment of a three part series, in which we examine the current state of the UTOPIA network, how it got there, and the choices it faces going forward. Part I can be read here and Part II here

In Part I of this story, we laid out the difficult situation the open access UTOPIA network finds itself in and how it got there. Part II gave the broad outlines of Macquarie’s preliminary proposal for a public-private partnership to complete and operate the network. The numbers we deal with here are mostly from the Milestone One report, and assumed the participation of all 11 cities. It should be noted that since five of eleven UTOPIA cities opted out of proceeding to Milestone Two negotiations, the scope and scale of the project is subject to change. The basic structure of the potential deal is mostly set, however, allowing us to draw some reasonable conclusions about whether or not this deal is good for the citizens of the UTOPIA cities.

Let’s first turn to why Macquarie wants to make this investment.  This would be the firm’s first large scale broadband network investment in the U.S., allowing it to get a foothold in a massive market that has a relatively underdeveloped fiber infrastructure. To offset network build and operation costs, it will also be guaranteed the revenue from the monthly utility fee, which my very rough calculations put between $18 and $20 million for the six cities opting in to Milestone Two (or between $30 and $33 million per year for all 11 cities) depending on whether the final fee ends up closer to $18 or $20 per month.

Jesse Harris of FreeUTOPIA puts Macquarie’s base rate of return between 3.7% and 4.7%, which is slim enough that they should have the incentive to make the network successful and truly universal, boosting their share of the revenue from transport fees in the process.

The monthly utility fee is a difficult pill for UTOPIA cities to swallow politically, and has allowed opponents to paint it as a massive new tax.  But this claim ignores the costs of the existing $500 million debt (including interest), which will have to be paid regardless of whether the network is ever completed or any more revenue is generated.

The existing debt adds up to about $8.50 per month per address over 30 years, without accounting for ongoing operating losses (or bond prepayment penalties if the network goes dark) or necessary network maintenance and upgrades. Without completing the network, there is no hope that it could return to self-sufficiency, meaning it would likely require operating subsidies in perpetuity.

Again, Jesse Harris has paved the way by doing an analysis of what is in the best interest of taxpayers from a purely self-interested perspective (ignoring indirect benefits of the network) here and here. As he sees it, it all depends on the take rate: if Macquarie can reach a 38% take rate in the newly expanded network coverage area, the entire deal will cost the same for taxpayers as simply selling off the network. A higher take rate would mean the cities actually spend less to get a completed network than they would to sell it off. But that’s only a narrow look at the balance sheet.

Even at the point where the deal is a wash financially, cities still get a completed network with an included basic level of service for every resident. Comcast and CenturyLink will slash their prices substantially in response to the competition (at least 50% in Provo) so that every citizen benefits regardless of if they use the network. Even for someone with a very basic Internet connection that wouldn’t use the network, they would be paying no more than $11.48 to potentially save at least $15, a net gain. The cities also get a $100M annual revenue stream at the end of the 30-year contract, effectively making the worst case scenario break even after less than seven years of ownership.

Opponents, especially those from the CenturyLink-funded Utah Taxpayer Association (UTA), have focused on the extra cost from the new utility fee to the small segment of the population that neither has nor wants a telecommunications connection. However, some studies have also shown that a fiber connection increases the value of a property, so there really may be some gain for everyone under this deal.

As it stands today, 2,100 miles of fiber have already been built, 70% of it underground. 40% of UTOPIA addresses are passed by the network (meaning they are able to purchase a connection upfront or on a payment plan), but only 10% are actually connected. Some cities are almost completely covered, others less than 20%. Some neighborhoods have one side of a street where connections are offered and the other where services are unavailable. The result of constant funding constraints, frivolous incumbent lawsuits, and poor planning, these pieces of stranded infrastructure can still be reclaimed and capitalized on with additional investment. 

Essentially, UTOPIA city taxpayers are on the hook either way. They can either get something for their troubles with the Macquarie deal (and maybe even end up paying less), or they can call it quits and pay to shut it down. They‘ve taken out a mortgage and built most of the house, but run out of money before they put a roof on. They can either restructure the debt and get on a payment plan to finish the roof, or they can watch the house rot and pay the mortgage for 30 years anyway. 

It is important to note that UTOPIA has a unique dynamic because the network has struggled financially (unlike the vast majority of community networks, most of which use a different business model and learned from the early mistakes of UTOPIA). We have not yet seen any communities proposing to establish a utility fee from the start, but it is an interesting proposition and we will explore it at length in a paper later this summer.