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Understanding the Georgia Communications Cooperative - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #92

While at the SEATOA Conference in Raleigh last week, I met Mike Foor, the President and CEO of the Georgia Communications Cooperative (GCC). Given the important role GCC is playing in expanding great Internet access in rural Georgia, we wanted to interview him for Community Broadband Bits.

Back in episode 46, we spoke with Paul Belk about the North Georgia Network (NGN). This week we learn more about how cooperatives have worked together to form the GCC and help the NGN to expand.

Mike and I also discuss what it will take to connect rural homes, businesses, and anchor institutions with fiber optics - the real challenges and the imagined ones.

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."

To Overbuild or Underbuild? A Rural Policy Conundrum - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #91

Lisa Gonzalez and I, Christopher Mitchell, are back in studio for a short conversation about the implications of a municipal network or a coop receiving subsidies from government to engage in overbuilding, where it builds a fiber network in an area already served by slow DSL and cable networks.

This has become an important issue as Minnesota considers a fund that would encourage networks in areas currently unserved and possibly underserved.

We discuss the economics, fairness, and practial realities of both allowing "overbuilding" and disallowing it as Minnesota features two similar networks that have come to different conclusions, to the advantage and disadvantage of different local stakeholders.

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 13 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."

Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks

Publication Date: 
March 19, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez

Local governments in Minnesota have been at the forefront of expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access - often in some of the most challenging areas of the state. ILSR has just released a policy brief to explore some of these approaches: Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks.

The full report is available here.

The brief examines five communities that have taken different approaches to expanding access, from working with a trusted local partner to creating a new cooperative to building community-wide FTTH networks.

Lac qui Parle County has worked with Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative to bring fiber networks to those who had been stuck on dial-up. Finding itself in a similar situation with no reliable partner, Sibley County is creating a new coop to work with.

Scott County built a fiber ring to connect community anchor institutsion to dramatically expand access to high capacity networks and lower telecommunications budgets. That network has helped to lure several major employers to the area by leasing fiber to them.

Windom and Monticello have built FTTH networks in extremely challenging conditions. Though Windom is far smaller than most have believed is feasible to build such a network, it has thrived and is now connecting many of the small towns surrounding it. It was essential in retaining jobs in the community that would have been lost without it and has attracted new jobs to the region. Monticello is a younger network and has remarkably benefited the community even as it has struggled financially due to dirty tricks from the telephone and cable companies.

The policy brief makes some policy recommendations while focusing on some local solutions to difficult problems in ensuring all Minnesotans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

GAO Report: Government Telecom Investments Help Local Businesses

The Government Accountability Office released a report today examining economic development and government-spurred broadband deployment. The report, titled Telecommunications: Federal Broadband Deployment Programs and Small Business looks at the effects of stimulus projects on opportunities for small business. 

According to the press release:

“GAO’s investigation confirms the success of the Recovery Act’s broadband programs," said Rep. Waxman.  “In rural and urban areas across the country, small businesses are benefitting from higher speeds and lower prices thanks to federal investment in this essential infrastructure.  Expanding broadband access and quality is critical for American competiveness in the 21st century global economy. These were public dollars well spent.”

The report reviews communities around the country where either federal dollars have been invested in networks or local governments have made such investments. The results were consistent with our findings over the years - municipal networks create a business-friendly environment and contribute to economic development. 

According to the report summary:

According to small businesses GAO met with, the speed and reliability of their broadband service improved after they began using federally funded or municipal networks.

Regarding competition, the GAO find that municipal networks spur competitor investments:

For example, following the construction of a fiber-to-the-home municipal network in Monticello, Minnesota, the two other broadband providers in the area made investments in their infrastructure to improve their broadband speeds. One of these providers stated that all of its networks undergo periodic upgrades to improve service, but upgrade schedules can change in order to stay competitive when there is a new service provider in a particular market.

MassBroadband 123 Complete in Massachusetts

The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) just announced that the 1,200-mile fiber network MassBroadband 123 is now complete.

According to the official announcement, the middle-mile network will eventually serve over 1,200 community anchor institutions. The open access network, constructed with $45.4 million in stimulus funding and an additional $40 million in state bond proceeds, lit up in March 2013. Schools, hospitals, and municipal government are some of the entities already connected.

Communities with a history of little or no middle-mile options will now have some level of connectivity via MassBroadband 123. The Commonwealth hopes to attract last-mile providers to connect homes and businesses, something we have yet to see succeed. We are afraid a more likely scenario will be a few providers seeking to connect the highest revenue customers with no intention to connect everyone, an outcome that would perversely make it more expensive to build financially sustainable networks in these areas.

A few places, like Leverett and Princeton, plan to invest in their own publicly owned infrastructure and will have the option to connect to the outside world through MassBroadband 123. This is an excellent approach that we applaud because it leads us to universal access.

According to a Bershire Eagle article, the state legislature plans to bring more funding to the initiative for last-mile connections:

But state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, pointed out in an interview that much investment is needed before individual homeowners and businesses can connect to the network.

The state Senate is poised to move on a bond bill which includes $50 million to be put toward the project's phase, Pignatelli said.

"The state has made a very big commitment in hopes that the private sector would step up," Pignatelli said. "The time is now."

In our experience, middle mile networks change the economics of the operating costs for fiber networks, not the capital costs. The high upfront capital costs are what deter investment and robust middle mile networks do little to change that reality, which is why communities are smart to step up and make the necessary investments.

New Hampshire's Bill Would Allow Munis to Bond for Open Access

A recent in-depth article from the Keene Sentinel updates us on the status of New Hampshire's HB 286, which would expand bonding authority for local governments. New Hampshire law currently restricts bonding authority for Internet infrastructure to towns with no access to the Internet, but nearly all communities have at least some slow broadband access in a few pockets of town.

We have been tracking this bill, most recently four months ago just before it overwhelmingly passed the house.

Unfortunately, the bill does not give many options to local governments. It settles to only allow bonding when the local government is not providing retail services, a business model that has only worked well when local governments have expanded very slowly. That said, New Hampshire already has a promising open access network called Fast Roads that would allow nearby towns to connect and access the four service providers already using it.

Connecting to an already-operating open access network is a much better prospect than having to start one from scratch, particularly in areas with low population density. Nonetheless, we continue to find it counter-productive for state legislatures to limit how local governments can invest in essential infrastructure. We know of no good policy reason for doing so - these limitations are a result of the lobbying power of a few cable and telephone companies that want to preserve scarcity to ensure high profit margins.

Kaitlin Mulhere's article, "Broadband access could be improved in NH through new bill," demonstrates the need for better networks in the granite state and notes that Fast Roads is starting to meet those needs in the areas it operates.

People often hear, for example, that 95 percent of the state has access to broadband, she said. But that’s only by including all New Hampshire Internet speeds, some of which fall below the speed considered fast enough to be broadband, which is 4 megabits per second (Mbps). Most of the state, more than half, doesn’t have access to speeds that meet the 4 Mbps threshold, she [Carole Monroe, Executive Director of Fast Roads] said.

...

So far, there are four providers on the network, which passes through 19 towns, including Fitzwilliam, Gilsum, Keene, Marlow, Richmond, Rindge and Swanzey. Now that construction is complete, FastRoads is working to add more providers to the list, as well as looking for ways to expand its network to more residential areas.

FastRoads also included two areas of “last mile” construction, enabling 1,300 residents and businesses in specific areas of Rindge and Enfield to connect directly to the FastRoads fiber, though a service provider has to bring the connection from the cable box on the street into the home.
So far, about 180 residents or businesses are using the network, Monroe said.

For Rindge resident Tim Wessels, the FastRoads network has made a “world of difference.”
Before it, he paid $130 a month for a satellite and two DSL circuits. Combining all three, he had a download speed of just over 3 megabits per second.

Now, Wessels pays $70 to one Internet service provider for 20 Mbps of download and upload speed.

Fast Roads was assisted with an award from the federal broadband stimulus programs.

OpenCape: Local Ideas to Maximize Fiber Infrastructure

The OpenCape Network launched about eight months ago to bring better middle mile connectivity to Cape Cod. Reporter Sean Gonsalves explored other possibilities for the 350-mile infrastructure in a recent Cape Cod Online article.

Gonsalves spoke with OpenCape CEO Dan Vorthems. The network was funded with $32 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants and approximately $8 million in funds from the state, county, and private-sector partner CapeNet. It brings connectivity to 91 community anchor institutions from Provincetown as far west as Providence and Brockton. The idea for the network began with Cape Cod Community College and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Today, OpenCape is a non-profit with Board members from healthcare, higher education, public education, government, and the private sector.

Gonsalves and Vorthems touched on the high hopes for economic development that accompanied the network deployment. When the project began, the dream was to turn Cape Cod into a "Silicon Sandbar." The network is still in its infancy, but new jobs in the area are retail, service, and tourist related rather than high-tech. Residents of Cape Cod were hoping the network would bring better paying positions to meet the high cost of living in the area.

Gonsalves takes it one step further and proposes using the network for last mile connections:

Getting the Cape's big data users online opens up all sorts of possibilities. But [what] I wanted to know is when the Cape would get to the point where residential users could access this Internet autobahn capable of reaching speeds of a gigabit per second.

Once that happens, the Cape suddenly becomes a really attractive place for tech-savvy entrepreneurs, small business start-ups, and potential work-from-home employees who now spend hours commuting off-Cape. In the super high-speed tech world, they call that "the last mile."

Governor Patrick expressed his intention to bring better connectivity to underserved communities in his State of the Commonwealth address in January. There are a good number of underserved communities in Massachusetts, especially on the western side of the state, so Vorthems does not anticipate large amounts of state funding to find its way to Cape Cod.

There is a group working to optimize the asset that is already in place. From the article:

In the last few years, an ad hod group called Smarter Cape Partnership — comprising Open Cape, the Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Cod Technology Council and the Cape Cod Young Professionals — have been working to establish plans to develop shared work spaces for technology oriented start-ups.

"We've been approached by a number of organizations who are interested in doing fiber-to-the-home projects here," he said. "It's a very exciting time."

Vidalia's Broadband Initiative Moves Forward as Free Wi-Fi Comes to Town

Vidalia's plans to offer free Wi-Fi are becoming reality. The Natchez Democrat recently reported that the City launched its free Wi-Fi in its new municipal complex.

Vidalia received a $30,000 grant from the Telecommunications Development Fund (TDF) Foundation to invest in a wireless network to cover the complex. Apparently, visitors to the complex were often surprised to learn that there was no Wi-Fi available. From the article:

[Mayor Hyram] Copeland said the project came about after multiple teams coming to participate in tournaments at the recreation complex asked about Wi-Fi access.

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

The next step will be free Wi-Fi along the City's riverfront.

Even though federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to Louisiana were pulled back, Vidalia decided to press on with its broadband plans. The City has since cultivated several grant sources and is piecing together the funds needed to proceed with its estimated $9 million fiber network. Vidalia wants to develop a smart-grid and potentially provide fiber to every premise.

The community, with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, sees the presence of better broadband as critical to economic survival. From the article:

“Broadband is such a routine infrastructure for companies nowadays that they almost assume you have it, and us not having it could have hurt us in the long run,” [Concordia Parish Economic Development Director Heather] Malone said. “Now, we’ll be able to use this as a tool to recruit new businesses and offer it to our existing businesses.”

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

A recent press release from the Merit educational and research network in Michigan announces a new connection to its Ohio sister, OARnet. Member entities and local communities now enjoy better redundancy, expanded reach, and better services. Local communities continue to benefit from the presence of the middle mile infrastructure.

The network helps local Hillsdale College to cut connectivity costs; the Merit announcement quotes Hillsdale College leadership:

"Hillsdale College has been a Merit member since 1992," stated David Zenz, executive director of information technology services for Hillsdale College, "and it was always a dream to figure out some way to eliminate expensive data circuit costs to free up funds to purchase more bandwidth. In 2008 The City of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, Hillsdale College, and Merit figured out how to do just that."

Through a long term collaborative effort, Merit, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, and Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) came together to establish the Hillsdale Community Network. Each entity now benefits from lowered connectivity costs, better infrastructure, and improved opportunities. 

A 2009 story from Merit, describes the situation at ISD:

In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations [ISD and Hillsdale College] and others in the area began to make sense. 

According to the article, Merit managed the project from start to finish. The City has cut costs and improved economic opportunity. Also from the article:

"We saw a cost reduction for the city," according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. "We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off." 

"We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development." 

The expansion to bring OARnet and Merit together is part of the REACH-3MC project, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. We recently reported on Merit's completed segment expansion to rural Alpena, also part of the project.

Local Efforts Will Bring Free Wi-Fi to Vidalia, Louisiana

Vidalia joins the growing list of communities with plans to offer free Wi-Fi. A recent Miami Herald article reports on recent plans. Community leaders hope to get the project ready for launch in spring 2014.

Vidalia, home to 4,300 residents, hoped to use funds from a 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant to build a fiber network. Unfortunately for the entire state, the grant was revoked due to Governor Jindal's shenanigans. Jindal's plans for the funds violated the terms of the grant. Vidalia, with its own electric utility, then sought funding from other sources. 

According to the Herald article:

The Telecommunications Development Fund Foundation awarded the city a $30,000 grant, announced last week, to deploy a wireless network. The foundation was founded in 2008 with the mission of bringing communications technology and opportunities to areas underserved by Internet providers.

The Natchez Democrat reports that the service will cover 77 acres that include the Vidalia municipal complex, including City Hall and public safety facilities, and recreation fields used by Concordia Recreation District No. 3. Mayor Hyram Copeland told the Democrat that visitors to the complex repeatedly ask for Wi-Fi access.

The Democrat also reports Senator Mary Landrieu is leading the effort to improve connectivity in the area:

The senator said the Wi-Fi project perfectly complements Vidalia’s ongoing work to build a technology center and install high-speed fiber optic Internet access throughout the city.

“This project will add to Vidalia’s excellent quality of life for residents and promote additional entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses,” Landrieu said.

Local media coverage of the project:

Video: 
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