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North Carolina Coop Fibers Up Rural Counties and More - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 188

North Carolina is increasingly split between those in urban areas, where some private sector providers are investing in next-generation gigabit networks, and rural areas where the big providers have no plans to invest in modern networks. But coming out of Wilkes County, a cooperative ISP called Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks is taking fiber where the big companies won't.

This week, Wilkes Communications and River Street Networks President & CEO Eric Cramer joins us for Community Broadband Bits episode 188 to discuss their approach, history, and plans for keeping rural communities well connected. They offer gigabit fiber, telephone, and cable television services.

Wilkes has already upgraded all of its original 8800 member-owners from copper to fiber, with some help from the broadband stimulus programs to reach the costliest areas. It is now expanding to nearby areas and has overbuilt the population center of the county after CenturyLink continued plugging away with last century solutions.

Coops like Wilkes are especially important as North Carolina's Legislature has created barriers to prevent municipal networks like Wilson (coverage here) from serving their rural neighbors.

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Thanks to Kathleen Martin for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Player vs. Player."

Mount Washington Muni: Permission to Move Ahead Granted

The town of Mount Washington, Massachusetts, has successfully streamlined its ability to invest in a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network.

On January 22nd, Governor Charlie Baker signed a home-rule bill specifically granting the tiny town of 124 residents a special authority:

"Notwithstanding any general or special law to the contrary, the town of Mount Washington may own, operate, maintain, manage or hire others to do so on its behalf, and to take any reasonable action necessary to establish and operate broadband high speed internet infrastructure and services without the establishment of a municipal light plant."

Another Underserved Rural Town

Mount Washington is located in the southwest corner of the state; much of the community is covered by the Mount Washington State Forest and Mount Everett State Reservation. Large incumbents do not feel investment in fast, affordable, reliable network infrastructure would pay off. Due to a small population, the Taconic Mountains, and thickly wooded geography, any return on investment will take longer in Mount Washington than in urban areas.

Brian Tobin from the town's Select Board told WAMC:

“The town of Mount Washington is about as underserved as you can get in terms of broadband,” Tobin said. “Some people have long-distance wifi and others have satellite internet, but neither of those are satisfactory and it’s certainly not a 21st century solution to having reliable broadband.”

The community recognized that if they want 21st century connectivity they would have to build a municipal network.

Not Sold On Wired West

Many other communities in western Massachusetts have committed to joining the Wired West Cooperative, which requires member towns to establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP). The MLP is a state-required municipal entity responsible for the administration of a municipal network. Wired West officials describe it as a "cooperative of MLPs."

This new law, which applies only to Mount Washington, allows the community to move forward with their project without establishing an MLP. Tobin told WAMC that the community did not feel comfortable committing to Wired West. They wanted to be solely responsible for their own telecommunications future and:

“We also believed, or at least I did, that we could easily be at the end of the line, because we are physically, in terms of getting it built out,” Tobin said. “We thought we could probably move faster on our own and so far I think about right about that.”

Mount Washington appears to have made a prudent choice. The current feud between Wired West and the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) over the release of $40 million of state funds has halted deployment of the regional network.

Confident Rural Town

The town has already released a Request for Proposals (RFP) for an FTTH network; responses are due March 14th. They have set aside $250,000 for the project and are exploring additional funding options such as borrowing and a possible grant from MBI.

Tobin told the Berkshire Eagle that a town-wide poll in 2015 resulted in overwhelming support for the project:

"There are a handful of residents who have satellite Internet," said Tobin. "But we believe that even they will support this, if only in terms of improved property values."

The final town approval for the plan will happen at an upcoming regular or special town meeting. That will require a two-thirds majority," and while I don't want to speak for the voters, I'm confident we'll get that."

Speeds Up, Prices Steady (or Down!) With EC Fiber

The East-Central Vermont Community Fiber-Optic Network (EC Fiber) recently announced plans to increase speeds across tiers with no increase in prices.

Changes will look like this:

  • "Basic" will increase from 7 to 10 Megabits per second (Mbps)
  • "Standard" will increase from 20 to 25 Mbps
  • "Ultra" will double from 50 to 100
  • The new "Wicked" plan will increase from 100 to 500 AND will include a price decrease. (Current subscribers to the Wicked tier who pay for 400 Mbps will also get the bump up to 500 Mbps and the price decrease.)

All speeds from EC Fiber are symmetrical so both download and upload are equally fast.

Self-Funded at the Start

Twenty-four communities in Vermont make up the consortium which began in 2009. The towns joined forces to deploy a regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network when large corporate incumbent providers chose to invest elsewhere. Slow DSL was the best option in the area and local residents, businesses, and local institutions needed better connectivity.

Individual investors funded the initial network buildout but last year a new Vermont law took affect that allows towns to create "communications union districts." EC Fiber now functions under such a governance structure and organization officials expect to more easily attract larger investors and borrow at lower interest rates. EC Fiber hopes to answer requests to expand beyond its 24 member towns.

Characteristic Altruism

Increasing speeds with little or no rate increases is typical of publicly owned network communities. Tullahoma's LightTUBe, Chattanooga's EPB Fiber, and Lafayette's LUS Fiber have done it, often with little or no fanfare.

Publicly owned networks are also known to shun data caps, another tool big players like Comcast use to squeeze every penny out of subscribers. EC Fiber summed up why data caps are inconsistent with the publicly owned network philosophy:

An uncapped internet environment encourages entrepreneurs and economic growth. Despite the trend toward instituting data caps among commercial internet providers, ECFiber believes that caps are inconsistent with its mission as a community network. An unconstrained online environment frees businesses and individuals to be creative and innovative.

Fiber-to-the-Home May Be the Cherry on Top in Traverse City

In Traverse City, Michigan, big plans are underway. The local electric utility is considering constructing a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network for next-generation high-speed Internet access.

About 10,000 people call the "Cherry Capital of the World" home. The area primarily relies on tourism and high-speed Internet access can help diversify the local economy. At the moment, Traverse City Light & Power (TCLP) is holding planning meetings with community stakeholders to discuss how to build a network to meet the needs of the community.

An Opportunity for Connectivity

The city has been mulling over the possibility of general connectivity for a while - especially citywide Wi-Fi. In 2007, TCLP had just finished installing fiber optic cables to connect electrical substations. They leased some lines to large nonprofit institutions, such as school systems and health facilities, but they still had spare capacity. TCLP realized that they had the potential to expand to residents.

They partnered with the Downtown Development Authority to create a downtown Wi-Fi zone in 2014. The zone automated parking meters and connected tourists, but the Wi-Fi's technological limitations, such as signal strength, soon became apparent. TCLP concluded that citywide Wi-Fi would not be the best option for Traverse City.

Now community leaders are considering using existing fiber, which is already planted throughout the community. TCLP, city and county officials, and other stakeholders have discussed how to develop fiber assets for a FTTH network. The city has several options: a phased approach (connecting the city section by section), a pre-subscriber approach (connecting neighborhoods where people pre-subscribe in great number), an incremental build (slow and steady), or an immediate citywide build (all at once). They also still have to figure out exactly how to cover the costs. 

Economic Development and Community Vitality

Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity drives the discussion. Charter offers cable service and CenturyLink DSL is available in limited areas but both are offered over aging infrastructure. Big corporations, such as AT&T and Time Warner Cable are announcing speed upgrades in large cities throughout the country, but have no plans to invest in Traverse City.

TCLP Technical Director Scott Menhart explained in our interview that Traverse City cannot wait another 10 or 15 years for the private sector to "maybe" invest in their home town. Traverse City needs the network now to ensure the growth of the community. 

Menhart described northern Michigan as a great place for data centers if they could only solve the problem of reliable connectivity. A fiber network should do just that, and FTTH could make the community an even better place to live and work. For instance, a FTTH Council study links FTTH to increases in home values. Community life is the focus for Menhart:

 “It’s why I got into the government sector - to improve the city that I grew to love.”

Holding Their Breath in Bradley

Cleveland Utilities (CU), serving Bradley County, is carefully searching for the best way to improve connectivity for its southeast Tennessee customers. After exploring a number of possibilities, CU sees a partnership with Chattanooga's EPB as the brightest opportunity but their collaboration rests on lawmakers in Nashville or the U.S. Court of Appeals.

The Need Is There, The Neighbors Are Close

CU President, Ken Webb knows the community needs and wants something better than AT&T for Internet access or cable TV from Charter Spectrum, especially in rural areas. Residents and business owners have gathered at community meetings. Local community leaders have passed resolutions asking the state to roll back restrictions and contacted CU directly but the utility's hands are tied as long as state barriers remain in place.

For over 7 decades, CU has served residents and businesses, providing electricity, water, and sewer. After a 2015 feasibility study revealed a $45 million estimate to build out a triple-play fiber to the entire county, CU began considering a limited pilot project.

They have been talking with their neighbors, EPB, about the possibility of partnering for some time Webb told the Times Free Press:

"We don't want to reinvent the wheel," Webb said Tuesday. "We continue to study our options (for adding telecommunications services), but we would prefer for the state to allow us to have the option of working with EPB."

Waiting...Waiting...Waiting

Right now, the prospect of fiber in Bradley County appears to hinge on two possible outcomes. First, if last year's FCC decision to roll back state barriers is affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit and legal review stops there, the EPB will not need to worry about a legal challenge. 

Bradley County residents and businesses may also have a chance at fiber if the state legislature adopts legislation introduced last year by Cleveland's Representative Kevin Brooks. Senator Janice Bowling sponsored the Senate version last year and the two vowed to carry on advancing the bill this year. The bill, that would restore local authority to invest in Internet networks, received backing from a number of organizations and local communities.

Hamilton County, home to Chattanooga and its world famous gigabit municipal fiber, is located immediately west of Bradley County and ready to expand to the communities that want access to the EPB gigabit. Due to Tennessee's restrictive state laws, EPB cannot serve beyond its current electric service footprint:

DePriest, who is also chairman of the Tennessee Fiber Optic Communities, said the Chattanooga utility is eager to expand into the parts of Hamilton County it doesn't currently serve, which includes about 9,000 homes in east Hamilton County, and into all of Bradley County, which has more than 50,000 homes and businesses.

"We have developed some plans and we will develop more," DePriest said. "We've already had more than a thousand people from that area write us, email or call us asking when they can get our (broadband service)."

"We think we have the expertise and the infrastructure already in place so that expanding into these areas would help them and help us," he said. "We would have to work out the arrangement with Cleveland Utilities and Volunteer Electric because this is their territory and we're not going to go anywhere where we are not invited and where it doesn't make good business sense."

Missouri Legislature Off to Another Anti-Muni Session: Pick Up Your Phone and Call!

If you pay attention to state laws affecting municipal networks in Missouri, you are experiencing an unsettling feeling of deja vu right now. On January 7, Representative Lyndall Fraker introduced HB 2078, a bill much like last year's Senate anti-muni bill. Fraker is Chair of the House Utility Infrastructure Committee, where  the bill is now awaiting a hearing, so it has a good chance of being heard sooner rather than later. 

Your Phone Call Required! 

Time to call Members of the Committee, especially if any of them represent you, and let them know that you expect them to vote against this bill. It is anti-competitive, opposed to local authority, and prevents new investment. Bad bill! 

Preventing Partnerships to Maintain The Status Quo

This bill would not only make it extremely difficult for local communities to invest in publicly owned Internet networks, but would complicate and delay public-private partnerships. A number of communities across the country already own infrastructure and are exploring ways to partner with private providers who want to use it to serve schools, businesses, and residents. If a community wants to lower telecommunications costs or obtain better services, this legislation would have them first jump through a series of obscure, expensive, and cryptic hoops. This legislation creates barriers that serve no purpose except to erect hurdles that discourage local communities from finding better providers.

The requirements in HB 2078 and its companion bill SB 946 are clearly intended to limit competition - to maintain the existing de facto monopolies and duopolies within Missouri. As we have seen in places like Westminster, Rockport, and in Missouri's North Kansas City, partnerships are filling a gap in places where incumbents don't feel justified investing or communities are not ready for their own high-quality Internet networks. A key benefit to allowing partnerships is the establishment of competition in areas where there is only one provider who has no reason to work to please its subscribers.

According to HB 2078, before a community can even consider offering any type of service:

"...the competitive service is not being offered to fifty percent of the addresses by any combination of service providers within the boundaries of such city, town, or village."

In other words, existing de facto monopoly status in places where there is only one provider can be easily preserved by the Missouri State Legislature if this piece of legislation passes.

State Lawmakers Impose Their Will On Local Decisions

The bill also dictates specific criteria for feasibility reports, waiting periods, and fiscal impacts. HB 2078 directs the city on specific loan requirements, limits borrowing to $500,000, and dictates interest terms. Along with other restrictions, the bill shackles local governments to the point where investing in better infrastructure is not practical.

Give the Locals What They Want!

Once again, state lawmakers are stepping over the line when they should be stepping back from it. Missouri has existing barriers that discourage publicly owned networks and negatively impact rural communities overlooked by large corporate providers. Rather than perpetuate this harmful state of affairs, state lawmakers should look to the future, strike down the state's existing barriers, and give local communities full authority to decide their own connectivity future.

Shoot-Out Over the WiredWest: MBI Pulls Funding in Massachusetts Saga

Officials from WiredWest Communications Cooperative in western Massachusetts spent years working with small towns creating a collaborative plan to develop a regional fiber network. The deadline for participation was, January 9th, a little more than a month away, and even though the trail had been thorny, the path now seemed clear. Suddenly, the state revoked critical funding, sending the carefully planned and negotiated project into shambles.

WiredWest Coop Born, Reborn, Ready to Ride

More than five years ago, a group of small towns in Western Massachusetts formed a communications cooperative that evolved into the WiredWest Communications Cooperative Corporation. Their goal was similar to that of any cooperative organization: use the collective resources of the member towns to construct a much needed utility - a fiber-to-the-home network (FTTH) - that could address a persistent problem for a group rural communities - the lack of quality Internet access.

The number of participating towns in the coop has fluctuated over the years; 44 towns are currently official members. Its business plan and operating agreement have also changed as member towns come to consensus on what presents the best path for their local needs.

As the coop refined its model, the business plan, and the operating agreement, WiredWest volunteers worked to secure early subscriber commitments from residents and businesses. Each community obtained a certain threshold of commitment in order to join the coop. To date, WiredWest communities have obtained approximately 7,000 early subscribers.

Each town must establish a Municipal Light Plant (MLP), a process consistent with Massachusetts State Law. The MLP is the entity that is responsible for owning and operating a municipal fiber network. WiredWest describes itself as a cooperative of MLPs with delegates from all 44 member towns as decision makers. The coop's business model also requires a series of votes to ensure local accountability before a town can be considered a member of WiredWest:

  • 40% of townsfolk have to pledge to take the service and each submit a $49 deposit
  • Each town needs to pass a vote by 2/3rds majority to join the coop and commit to funding the venture
  • After that, each town is responsible for choosing its own best course of funding (whether municipal bonding or not). 

The WiredWest operating agreement requires each member community to commit for a period of 10 years. If member towns decide to then withdraw from the coop, the other member towns will buy them out. According to the agreement, WiredWest will use revenue from the network for operating expenses and, once earnings are at a break-even point, excess revenue will be used to pay the member towns' debt service. The network as a whole will belong to all member towns of the cooperative.

With the roster at 44 and each community seemingly satisfied with the cooperative model, business plan, and operating agreement, cooperative member towns chose January 9th as the deadline to approve the operating agreement.

A Look Back

MBI's 1,200-mile open access network, MassBroadband 123 was completed in 2014. The middle-mile network was funded with American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funding and state funding. The hope was that private providers would then build out the last-mile to subscribers which would connect to MassBroadband 123. When that plan did not come to fruition, the state agreed to supply more funding to jump start local projects in order to get residents and businesses connected.

The local communities needed the funding, but taking the money put them in the position of meeting the needs of a powerful partner - the partner that controlled the much needed funds on which the entire project depended.

In June 2014, the state legislature provided addition funding for rural connectivity in Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI), the state entity that owns and operates the middle mile MassBroadband123 fiber network, was chosen as steward of $40 million, a large percentage of that funding.

logo-mass-broadband-institute.png

For the past several years MBI has met with WiredWest board members, provided funds for a planning grant, and helped the group develop plans to connect the WiredWest network to MassBroadband123. In April 2015, MBI conditionally promised up to 40% of the funding for the WiredWest project; the funding would cover approximately one-third of the estimated $120 million to deploy the network. Word of the state grants helped build momentum and towns that wavered in the past decided to join the cooperative.

Throughout the talks with MBI, WiredWest representatives continued to meet with local communities to discuss the possibility of joining the coop. For towns that were committed to joining the effort, WiredWest offered advice on how to proceed. Most of the communities needed to form an MLP and all of the towns needed to take the proper steps to fund their share of the network costs. 

The 44 member towns of WiredWest intended to split 2/3 of the project’s costs, and the remaining $40 million would have been covered by state and federal grants distributed through MBI. In keeping with state law, when a municipality needs to bond to fund a project, the decision must be taken up at a series of town meetings. The process requires community involvement and takes places over the course of months in Massachusetts. Over 20 towns had already committed to municipal bonding for the funding by the end of 2015.

State Funding: Here One Day, Gone The Next

The plan appeared to be on track. A consulting firm hired by WiredWest to review the business plan reported that it was sound and financially feasible. As local officials prepared to commit to the operating agreement, MBI contacted each of the 44 communities urging them not to sign on. MBI released a statement saying WiredWest would require “fundamental revision in order to succeed as a reliable framework.”

As part of their announcement, MBI stated that it would not release the $40 million in state funds for the project.

MBI also released a more thorough report, written with the help of a consultant, detailing their concerns with the plan. MBI determined the WiredWest plan to be “overly optimistic and perhaps unachievable” in its projections for the network’s expected subscriber base and revenues versus costs. MBI stated that is was concerned with the accuracy of projected take rates due to the percentage of seasonal properties in the region.

map-wired-west-2016.pngMBI also took issue with the cooperative structure of WiredWest and the fact that individual towns would not exclusively own the infrastructure in their own communities. MBI Director Eric Nakajima told the Daily Hampshire Gazette:

Nakajima said that WiredWest’s operating agreement contradicts a “Last Mile Broadband Policy” approved by MBI’s board in July [2015]. This policy states: “Last Mile local and regional broadband networks, having been constructed entirely through investments by the (state) and local residents, either as property-taxpayers, renters, or broadband subscribers, will be owned by their respective municipalities.”

Local public ownership is certainly the ideal when it comes to FTTH networks but where a town is small, investing in its own network can be impractical. Pooling resources in a regional effort like WiredWest may be the only option for rural communities like those clustered in western Massachusetts.

Ultimately, Nakajima wrote “the current draft of WiredWest’s operating agreement is not compatible with the best interests of the Commonwealth, the towns, or their residents.” 

WiredWest immediately scheduled a meeting about the withdrawl of promised funds. A coop chairman commented on the issue of ownership, throwing in a stab at the age-old conflict of state vs. local control:

“The ownership issue has been an ongoing issue, but WiredWest is nothing but the towns,” said Steve Nelson, chairman of WiredWest’s legal committee. “The question is, do the towns own individual little pieces, or can the towns pool their money into a larger, more sustainable network? The towns are putting up almost two-thirds of the money. We shouldn’t be dictated to by a bunch of Boston bureaucrats.”

WiredWest Responds

In response to MBI, about 75 WiredWest officials and town delegates crafted a rebuttal to MBI’s critique and wrote a response to MBI’s more specific breakdown of the business plan. They corrected what they felt were several mischaracterizations of their business plan.

For one, WiredWest’s consultant previously told them their projected overall costs for the network were “conservatively estimated.” In addition, WiredWest rejected MBI’s assertion that the projected take rate for the network is unrealistic. Instead, WiredWest said they expected their take rate to be in the 75 to 85% range, similar to the take rate that the nearby Town of Leverett has reached for its municipal network. While such a rate may seem high for a municipal network that faces competition from an incumbent, where there is no competition it is not so surprising, as in Leverett. WiredWest’s projections suggest this take rate to far exceed the 47% take rate they say is necessary for the network to at least break even.

In the rebuttal, WiredWest also took exception with MBI’s suggestion the 44 member towns will transfer ownership of the network to WiredWest and effectively lose out on the network’s potential profits while still being responsible for the debt obligation for the network. From WiredWest:

“It is misleading to imply that WiredWest...is an entity separate from the towns that would operate the network on their behalf. It is a cooperative of the towns, by the towns and for the towns. WiredWest is nothing but the towns.”

WiredWest further found fault with MBI’s claim that the coop model violated the state policies and regulations making it ineligible for funding. Coop Board Members especially criticized the claim that the coop structure did made the entity ineligible for funding due to MBI's Last Mile Broadband Policy passed around the same time WiredWest was changing its structure. WiredWest representatives felt that they had been excluded from any input into the new policy and that the implementation of such policy directly undermined local control and the will of the towns.

"Git Along, Little Doggie…"

As MBI and the WiredWest communities meet to decide how to proceed, the state agency encounters skepticism, frustration, and local ire.

fiber-town.jpg

On December 16th, an MBI scheduled meeting in Greenfield to present the consultant report was filled to capacity. People in the lobby bearing "We Want Wired West" signs had to be turned away so stood outside in angry protest.

At the meeting, MBI's consultant presented a series of slides suggesting that the WiredWest financials omitted a number of necessary expenditures. Jim Drawe, a Cummington resident who developed the cooperative's financial model, took issue with the consultant's analysis and pointed out that the consultants, "don't know us and don't know our region."

Kimberly Longey, an alternate WiredWest delegate from Plainfield, recently wrote to the Daily Hampshire Gazette, describing the need for flexibility from MBI. In small communities like Plainfield, she writes, MBI's solution of a city financed and owned municipal network is not a realistic option. There are only 648 residents and the town operating budget is only $1 million. Plainfield has voted repeatedly to join WiredWest because they do not have the means, financially or otherwise, to build or manage their own network. She writes:

We have more than 25 square miles of township and more than 50 miles of road, most of it dirt...[WiredWest] is a cooperative of some of the smallest, poorest and hardest to wire towns joining with wealthier communities to band together to build a regional network able to serve them all....Towns have the right and responsibility to choose their broadband solution.

My town has chosen WiredWest.

Meetings between MBI and WiredWest are scheduled as the two entities try to move forward to bring better connectivity to the people of western Massachusetts.

WiredWest map and Fibertown image courtesy of WiredWest.

This article written with considerable contributions from Hannah Trostle and Tom Ernste.

Hanover, New Hampshire, Taps New State Law for Network

The town of Hanover, New Hampshire (pop. 11,500), is considering building its own municipal fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) network following the enactment of a new state law that makes it easier for communities to take on such projects.

Under the new state law (Chapter 240, HB486-Final Version), New Hampshire towns and cities can now establish special assessment districts to finance telecommunications infrastructure, expanding a long-standing statute. Specifically, the law now includes “communication infrastructure” as among the types of “public facilities” for which a special assessment district can be formed.

Under the expanded law, communities can finance fiber optic networks by billing individuals who reside within the district for a prorated share of the cost of installing that communication infrastructure.

Prospects for Fiber Raised

Hanover town manager Julia Griffin told our Chris Mitchell in a recent podcast of Community Broadband Bits:

“For the first time I think there is a role here for a municipal entity to help ensure that fiber is installed and that homeowners and businesses have an opportunity to connect to that network."

...

“Prior to this we've been able to create districts for water and sewer and sidewalks and street lights and even for downtown maintenance; but never for communication infrastructure. Nor has the statutes that have been on the books for years, been as expansive as this one is in terms of laying out just how we make these assessment districts work.”

Since New Hampshire Gov. Maggie Hassan signed the special assessment districts measure into law last July, Hanover has started looking into building a municipal network. It is in the process of finalizing a contract with Wide Open Networks to perform the cost analysis and system network design.

Hanover Explores Building Fiber Network 

“We will likely have a completed design by late March at the latest,” Griffin told us. “We have asked them (Wide Open Networks) to develop cost estimates, recommend options of undergrounding the fiber and develop an implementation plan.”

Griffin adds:

“Ideally, Hanover employees would do all of the ditching and conduit installation which will save us the labor costs and avoid the pole attachment fiascos that tend to dominate the New Hampshire landscape.  We would then contract with FastRoads to install the fiber and property connections.  We could, potentially, coordinate with the town to our north, Lyme, New Hampshire.”

New Hampshire FastRoads, of which Hanover is a participating community, is a collaboration of the New Hampshire Community Development Finance Authority, the Monadnock Economic Development Corp., the 34 towns of the Monadnock region, and WCNH.net, the eight towns of the Upper Valley–Lake Sunapee region. Its goal is to help ensure that the businesses, institutions, and residents of the region have the right infrastructure to support jobs and sustainable economic development, including fast, affordable, reliable telecommunications infrastructure in rural areas. Griffin told us that Hanover envisions its fiber optic network would be open access

“We're really looking for how we can do this feasibly, economically for our residents in terms of making it as affordable as possible, but also streamlining the process by doing it ourselves in our own right of way. I'm looking forward to creating a working model that we hope other New Hampshire communities are going to be able to take hold of and run with it.”

New Law Long Time Coming 

Griffin, a member of the FastRoads board, says she was among people in New Hampshire who has been pushing for a change in state law for more than the past 10 years.

“We hear from our residents how important it is that they have robust Internet access, and, yet, as a municipality we're not enabled to invest in helping to bring that infrastructure to our region.” 

The new state law is a significant change for New Hampshire communities since the local governments have been very limited in how they can use public financing to invest in Internet networks. Though New Hampshire does not have any explicit barriers against publicly owned networks, the state has not authorized local governments to bond for them, which has limited local communities’ ability ensure high quality Internet access.

Griffin noted New Hampshire has technically allowed bonding under a statute that's been on the books for years:

“But it’s so impossible to implement because the telecommunication companies essentially made sure that it's ground rules are so onerous that it's virtually impossible for any municipality to take advantage of it."

Hanover borders Vermont. Although largely a rural community, the town is also home to Dartmouth College, a regional medical center, and numerous restaurants, shopping, and theater that make it an attractive draw for visitors and tourists.

Currently, about 50 percent of Hanover residents have Comcast or Fairpoint DSL, Griffin says, noting, “Both are OK but still have their limitations in today’s  streaming world.”

Meanwhile, the remaining 50 percent of town residents have no “high speed Internet service other than satellite which is expensive and really unreliable,” Griffin notes. “Many in-town customers would like faster Internet speeds while our outlying rural residents would settle for just about anything.”

Griffin explains, “We’re a community that is very heavily dependent on the Internet.”

Full Speed (and Price List) Ahead for the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority

After a rocky start and a long period of transition, the Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority in Virginia is preparing for the years ahead. Hoping to snag schools, hospitals, government offices, and Internet carriers with their prices, the Broadband Authority just released its proposed rate structure. 

They expect to complete construction of five major sections of the fiber network by early March. Starting in mid-April, customers will have service. The proposed rates are as follows:

  • Dark Fiber: $40-$100 per strand mile depending on whether the institution is a nonprofit
  • Transport Service (requires a 2 year term): speeds between 10 Megabits-per-second (Mbps) - 200 Gigabits-per-second (Gbps) for $350 - $4,510 
  • Dedicated Internet Service (requires a 2 year term): 10Mbps - 1Gbps for $550 - $5,687 

The full preliminary proposed rate structure [PDF] is available from the Broadband Authority’s website.

The Authority will hold a public hearing on Friday, March 18 at 8:30 a.m. on the rate structure. After the public hearing, the board may request to adopt the preliminary proposed rates. Local news has the rest:

Rural Kansas Cooperative Continues Fiber Network Expansion

In July, the Columbus Telephone Company (CTC), a cooperative in rural Cherokee County, Kansas, announced plans to expand its fiber-to-the-home network to the nearby city of Pittsburg. 

When CTC built the fiber network in 2004, it was the first 100% fiber-optic network in the state. This expansion marks the first time the coop has expanded outside Cherokee County, located in the southeast corner of the Sunflower State. 

New Branding for New Expansion

Last year, CTC announced the creation of Optic Communications, a new brand the company started to expand beyond their original footprint. The news of the expansion to Pittsburg comes after the network’s first expansion project last year. They built a fiber-optic ring that now links together Cherokee County’s three major cities: Columbus, Galena, and Baxter Springs. The coop has also acquired Parcom, LLC, the leading Verizon retailer in the region.

Subscription Details

Residential rates for stand alone Internet access from Optic Communications are $40 for 10 Megabits per second (Mbps), $50 for 20 Mbps, $65 for 50 Mbps, and $90 for 100 Mbps. All speeds are the same for both upload and download. Gigabit service is also available but rates determined on a case-by-case basis. Optic also offers customized bundles including subscription options for any combination of Internet access, phone, and cable TV service. 

Rates for the different bundled packages vary based on the number of cable TV channels the customer wants, access to DVR and HD capability, and which tier of phone service. The network also offers designated Internet access and phone rates for business customers.

A Long History of Innovation

The people in this rural community have a long legacy of telecommunications innovation. In 1905, a group of Columbus-based farmers started the CTC coop to bring telephone service to their rural homes. Throughout the 20th century, CTC provided phone service to people living within the 2.4 square mile serving area within the City of Columbus.

Now, over 100 years later, CTC continues to innovate and expand its publicly owned fiber-optic network, bringing fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to the people of rural Cherokee County and beyond.