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Self-Financed EC Fiber Continues to Grow - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 177

Carole Monroe is back on Community Broadband Bits for Episode 177 this week, to discuss the East Central Vermont Fiber network and its unique financing model. Carole is now the General Manager for EC Fiber. She previously joined us for episode 36 to discuss Fast Roads in New Hampshire. And we previously discussed EC Fiber with Leslie Nulty in episode 9.

Years later, EC Fiber is approaching 1,200 subscribers in rural Vermont and is growing much more rapidly with some open access dark fiber connections created by the state in a specific effort to enable last mile connectivity.

We discuss the impact on the community, how much people in rural regions desire high quality Internet access rather than slow DSL, and also a brief mention of some progress in New Hampshire to expand the Fast Roads network.

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 21 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority Moving Forward

After multiple delays, the much anticipated Roanoke-Salem fiber network in Virginia has its feet on the ground. The network has secured an executive director who will provide greater project oversight and find Internet service providers (ISPs) to operate on the open access network.

Now that the project is under way, it is moving at a rapid pace. The Broadband Authority already secured a contract for $2.9 million to lay the conduit for the fiber optic cable, and crews are already at work. By year’s end, the project should finally be complete.

Two years ago, a completion date seemed far-fetched. The cities of Roanoke and Salem and the counties of Roanoke and Botetourt met to discuss the growing problem of poor Internet access in the region. The area had the reputation for being in a "doughnut hole" - too large to qualify for federal grants but too sparsely populated to attract investment from large telecom providers. The city of Roanoke, for instance, ranked 409th out of 429 US metropolitan areas for basic Internet access.

Officials knew the situation was bad for economic development. Affordable, reliable broadband access could help grow, and keep, local companies in the region and attract new businesses and institutions - especially the important textile and manufacturing jobs that had driven the local economy for generations. The two cities and two counties came together to fund a $50,000 study. The study recommended the creation a Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority and a 60-mile, $8.2 million, open access network.

After the initial stage, disagreements between the entities complicated the project. Botetourt County already had open access fiber managed by Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation and felt additional redundancy from another fiber line was not worth the investment. Botetourt County Administrator Kathleen Guzi:

“We don’t believe we need the redundancy yet.” 

In Roanoke County, officials were hesitant to fund the network. Each government entity had agreed to provide $2 million to the project, and that presented a budget concern for Roanoke County. The county board also saw it as government encroachment on the private sector, distinct from an infrastructure project. Eventually, both Roanoke and Botetourt Counties withdrew from the project.

The cities of Roanoke and Salem expressed disappointment but acknowledged that they would move forward without the counties, according to Salem City Manager Kevin Boggess:

“If whatever we decide to do ends up going into a community that’s not fully participating, it’s still open access broadband for whatever business happens to be there. We’re not going to restrict anybody’s access to it. That’s the whole idea of this. We’re going to create something that’s open to every potential provider, every potential customer. It’s open access. That’s what it’s there for.”

After Botetourt and Roanoke counties withdrew, Roanoke and Salem entirely revamped the project. Scaling back the network to just 47 miles, they cut down the cost to less than $4 million. Salem's Municipal Electric Department uses existing fiber that can be integrated into the project, so the majority of the new fiber will run through Roanoke. Some of the fiber will still extend into parts of Botetourt and Roanoke counties.

The Virginia Resources Authority has issued a $6.2 million bond to cover the network’s construction and any unforeseen costs. Both cities have committed to repaying the debt on the bond until the network generates enough revenue to cover network costs and debt service. 

From philosophical disagreements to changing plans, it has been a long road for the fledgling Roanoke-Salem network. Now with an executive director and a $6.2 million bond, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority should complete the 47-mile, open access network by the end of 2015.

Roanoke Valley map from Foundation For Roanoke Valley

Maine Model for Muni Fiber - Dark and Open - Community Broadband Bits Episode 176

An interesting confluence in events in Maine have resulted in what some are calling the "Maine model" of fiber optic networks that are available to multiple Internet Service Providers to encourage competition and high quality services. The CEO of GWI, Fletcher Kittredge, joins us this week to explain this model and where it is currently being implemented.

GWI is a local firm, rooted in Maine and focused on delivering high quality services with great customer support. It is working with Rockport (which we wrote about here and podcasted on here) and Islesboro (podcast here) as well as others.

Fletcher starts by telling us more about Maine's Three Ring Binder network and then goes on describe the dark fiber model, benefits of that approach, and how he thinks about public vs private ownership of the open access physical assets.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

Note: This podcast was posted a day late due to the very poor Internet connectivity at a retreat center in Minnesota. Thanks CenturyLink for a reminder why communities cannot rely on the national carriers to invest in modern infrastructure.

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

This show is 22 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 Arne Huseby for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Warm Duck Shuffle."

Sanford, Maine Plans Largest Municipal Network in the State

A lot has happened in Sanford, Maine since our last report on their municipal fiber optic network discussions. After a year of deliberations over different proposals, the city recently announced plans to begin building a 32-mile municipal fiber-optic network.

The city of Sanford is inside York County, situated about 35 miles southwest of Portland. The network will provide connectivity to businesses, government entities, non-profit organizations, and residences in Sanford along a limited route where there is sufficient customer density. City leaders plan to also provide a foundation for future expansion of the network to additional residential areas in the city. The network will be open access, allowing multiple ISPs to provide services via the publicly owned infrastructure.

The city will partner with Maine-based company GWI (Great Works Internet) to operate the network. Readers may recognize GWI as the same company working with Rockport, Maine's first community to invest in a municipal fiber network.

Once they complete the buildout, Sanford will be in an elite class of a just few cities nationwide that provide widespread access to 10 Gbps broadband. It is a bold plan for this city of just over 20,000 in a state that last year ranked 49th in the nation in average broadband speeds.

The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council, a major driving force behind the project, sees the project as critical to their broader economic development efforts:

Like the growth council, this project is a public-private partnership stemming from the exploration of a best business model allowing for municipal investment and input while leveraging the strengths and expertise of private sector for-profit business. The growth council recognizes the collaboration of the public private partnership as the best means to accomplish the City’s economic development strategies.

The new network is also the first major loop in Maine that will connect to the state’s existing Three Ring Binder network. Constructed in 2012, the middle-mile Three Ring Binder spans 1,100 miles around much of Maine. The network was a product of private investments and $25 million in stimulus money from the 2009 American Recovery and Reinvestment Act

According to a study commissioned by the Economic Growth Council, the network could generate between $47 million and $192 million in economic benefits over the next decade. The Economic Growth Council and the the city are still seeking funding to build the network, estimated at $1.5 million. The city expects to cover costs through agreements they’re pursuing with anchor institutions and savings they'll see by eliminating the cost of leasing lines to city government buildings and schools.

The city is also considering Tax Increment Financing (TIF), a process we described in a previous article about another network using the process:

“Tax Increment Financing (TIF) is a method of public financing that uses future gains in property or sales taxes within a defined area to subsidize a redevelopment or infrastructure project. A local jurisdiction can borrow money up front, build the project, and then use the increased tax receipts it generates to pay off the debt over a period of years. The concept is actually pretty simple: capture the value that something will have in the future to build it now.”

A small number of municipal broadband projects have been funded with TIF, but this arrangement can be controversial as it removes substantial property value from the general taxbase. Most choose revenue bonds, interdepartmental loans, or by redirecting savings gained when city can build incrementally thereby avoiding payments for leasing lines from providers. Fortunately, Maine remains one of the states where local communities have the freedom to choose whether or not they invest in Internet networks and how they finance such a project.

At the meeting to announce plans for the network, U.S. Senator from Maine, Angus King, summed up the network's importance to the state's future:

“High-speed broadband is a gateway to economic and educational opportunity in the 21st century,” King said. “But right now, there are too many people who are denied those opportunities simply because they don’t have adequate Internet access.”

Muni Fiber in Idaho Helps 911 Dispatch and First Responders - Community Broadband Bits Episode 173

Ammon, Idaho, continues to quietly build a future-looking open access fiber network. Though the City won't be providing services directly to subscribers, the network it is building and the model it has created could revolutionize public safety.

I just spent several days with them shooting our next video on community fiber networks (look for that in January). In episode 173 of our Community Broadband Bits podcast, we talk with City Technology Director Bruce Patterson and Systems Network Administrator Ty Ashcraft.

Bruce explains how they plan to finance the network as it moves from the current residential pilot phase to being available broadly to any residents that want to connect, likely using a local improvement district model. Then Ty tells us about the portal that subscribers will be able to use to instantaneously pick and change service providers offering various services.

Additionally, we talk about the public safety implications of their technological and collaborative approach, specifically around the horrifying prospect of an armed shooter in a public space like a school or mall.

Read the transcript from this episode here.

We spoke with Bruce about Ammon's plans previously in episode 86. Read all our coverage of Ammon here.

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

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 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."

Nonprofit Bozeman Fiber Secures Funding From Eight Local Banks

Good news from Montana! Bozeman Fiber has secured funding to begin construction of a 23-mile open access community fiber network. Through an impressive partnership among eight local banks, Bozeman Fiber secured $3.85 million.  

First Interstate Bank, Rocky Mountain Bank, Big Sky Western Bank, Opportunity Bank, U.S. Bank, American Bank, First Montana Bank and Bank of Bozeman all came together to support the fledgling network. During a press conference, First Interstate Bank President Bruce Parker described how this level of collaboration was possible. He initially approached twelve banks in April about the project. Now, six months later, eight banks have committed to providing funds. Parker expressed a high level of confidence for the network’s impact:

The project really speaks for itself in terms of what this infrastructure will do for the Bozeman community. 

Bozeman Fiber is itself a remarkable collaboration between public and private sector interests. The city of Bozeman will not manage the network themselves. Instead, the City Commission voted to form a separate nonprofit entity to direct the project. In order to consider the many diverse needs of Bozeman from the economic to the educational, the board of this newly formed nonprofit features seven members from the public and private sector. The end result is this unique public-private partnership. 

A purpose for the fiber network is economic development, in part by providing affordable fiber access to small businesses and startups. The press conference took place at the headquarters of Elixiter, an online marketing company that has grown rapidly in the past four years. The founder, Andrew Hall explained how Bozeman Fiber will benefit companies like Elixiter:

“We are on the Internet all day long, all of our consultants. So literally our business exists because the Internet exists and so for us there isn't anything more important, short of our consulting staff, then having great, high speed, reliable internet access.”

Learn more about the Bozeman Fiber in episode #142 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Watch local news coverage of Bozeman Fiber’s funding below:


Open Access Engineering Options - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 172

The holy grail of Internet access for many of us continues to be a situation in which multiple providers can compete on a level playing field, which should lower costs to subscribers and encourage innovation. Often called open access, this may involve a municipality building a fiber optic network and making it available on a wholesale level - a model that has been tried to various degrees of success.

This week, we talk with Tim Pozar, a long time Internet entrepreneur and community network enthusiast, about why he supports that model and his ideal method of engineering such a network. We talk about different possibilities for how to design the network and trade-offs involved with those choices.

Tim has worked for many years to encourage this model in San Francisco, which already has some of the locally rooted ISPs that we would hope would ultimately thrive if the City had that type of network available.

Read the transcript from this show here.

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

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 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."

Orono and Old Town Receive Funding for Fiber in Maine

The Old Town-Orono Fiber Corporation (OTO Fiber), the entity created by the cities of Old Town and Orono in Maine to design, install, maintain and manage a planned fiber network, recently received a grant for $250,000.

The funds, awarded by the Northern Border Regional Commission (NBRC), will help the communities commence their open access network project. According to a statement released by Maine Senators Angus King and Susan Collins, this was one of six awards to Maine communities. The other grants included road, sewer, and other municipally-owned facilities needed to maintain or grow jobs in the northern counties of Maine.

Congress created NBRC in 2008 as a state-federal partnership to encourage job growth in several northern counties of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, and New York that experience economic distress. 

In 2014, Old Town and Orono, working with the University of Maine, had been awarded ConnectME funds for the project but the funding was blocked by Time Warner Cable. Those funds were meant to string approximately 4 miles of cable intended for integration into a much larger network to eventually connect to the state's Three Ring Binder network. The ConnectME Authority chose to withhold the funds, based on TWC's argument that this open access network would overbuild potentially 320 subscribers but OTO Fiber vowed to continue and seek funds elsewhere. The funding blocked by TWC amounted to $125,000.

Approximately 7,800 people live in Old Town; Orono is home to a little over 10,000 people and the Unversity of Maine where over 11,000 students attend classes.

P3 between Westminster and Ting is “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year”

The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) recently named the public private partnership (P3) between the City of Westminster, MD and Ting Inc. as 2015’s “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year.”  NATOA will officially honor the partnership at their Community Broadband Awards ceremony in San Diego this week.  

In a press release NATOA praised the P3 “...for showcasing an entirely new approach in public private partnerships to reach the common goal of bringing next generation fiber broadband to communities while demonstrating the possibility of creative solutions.”  In Ting’s own press release announcing the award, they described their unique arrangement as private partners in Westminster’s initiative aimed at providing their rural community of more than 18,000 people with blazing fast fiber internet service:

“We have agreed to an open access model. For a period of time at launch, Ting will be both the exclusive network operator and the exclusive service provider. After that, while we will maintain the exclusive role of network operator, we will open up the network to competitive service providers. That gives Westminster the dual benefits of stability and competition. They know that the network will be managed competently by one closely managed relationship. They also know that their businesses and residents will benefit from having many providers competing to offer them the best service at the best price.”

As we wrote in our recent extensive piece about P3s, a company like Ting is seen as a useful partner with expertise that cities may not want to cultivate directly as broadband service providers. Cities like Westminster view such partnerships as offering the benefits of shared risk. Although the data and expert opinions are varied as to whether such partnerships actually offer a reduced risk for municipal networks, Ting’s parent company Tucows has proven itself a responsible and progressive telecommunications company. 

In a January 2015 podcast, we spoke to CEO of Tucows Elliot Noss about Ting’s enthusiasm to work with Westminster.  And in Episode #100 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast last May, Chris also talked to the City Council President of Westminster Dr. Robert Wack about the Ting/Westminster partnership.

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.