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Colorado's Unique Environment of Local Collaboration - Community Broadband Bits Episode 178

A few weeks back, Colorado voters overwhelmingly chose local authority and community networks over the status quo Internet connections. Approximately 50 local governments had referenda to reclaim authority lost under the anti-competition state law originally called SB 152 that CenturyLink's predecessor Qwest pushed into law in 2005.

This week, Virgil Turner and Audrey Danner join us to discuss what is happening in Colorado. Virgil is the Director of Innovation and Citizen Engagement in Montrose and last joined us for episode 95. Audrey Danner is the Executive Director of Craig Moffat Economic Development and co-chair of the Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference. We previously discussed Mountain Connect in episode 105 and episode 137.

In our discussion, we cover a little bit of history around SB 152 and what happened with all the votes this past election day. We talk about some specific local plans of a few of the communities and why Colorado seems to have so many communities that are developing their own plans to improve Internet access for residents, anchor institutions, and local businesses.

Over the course of this show, we also talked about Rio Blanco's approach, which we discussed previously in episode 158. We also discuss Steamboat Springs and previously covered that approach in episode 163.

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

This show is 24 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."

Member Owned Networks Collaborate for Rural Georgia Libraries

A member-owned nonprofit network and a telecommunications cooperative are helping seven regional libraries in mountainous northeast Georgia improve services for patrons with fast, affordable, reliable connectivity.

Collaboration for Community

The North Georgia Network Cooperative (NGN), in partnership with member-owned Georgia Public Web (GPW), recently launched 100 Megabit per second (Mbps) symmetrical broadband access speeds in seven library facilities in the Northeast Georgia Regional Library system (NEGRLS). Upgrades in some of the locations were significant. At the Helen library campus, the facility switched from a 6 Mbps download DSL connection to the new service.

The new initiative also enables the complementary “NGN Connect” service which includes hosted Wi-Fi service and a VoIP telephone system at each location. The upgrade extends from the cooperative's role in the Education Exchange, Georgia's only regional 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) private cloud for exclusive use by school systems launched last September.

Helping Rural Georgians Help Themselves

Donna Unger, director of member services for NGN, explained NGN’s mission for the project:

I've often heard libraries build communities, it's very fitting that we are here today celebrating the new 100 Mbps connection to the Northeast Georgia Regional Library System provided by NGN Connect. This is what we're about, NGN's foundation was built upon the communities in which we serve. It's becoming more critical for libraries, government, education and businesses alike to have reliable and affordable bandwidth to meet the daily demands of the ever-changing dynamics of today's digital world.

NEGRLS Director Delana L. Knight highlighted the initiative’s benefits:

Offering free access to this important resource is another way that our local public libraries are empowering our communities by providing support for job seekers, students, as well as almost limitless educational and entertainment opportunities for all citizens.

The 21st Century Library

At a time when our economy depends so heavily on fast, affordable, reliable connectivity, centralized libraries with high-speed Internet access remain vital to those still lacking it at home. GPW and NGN display a manner common among publicly owned networks - they are concerned less with profit than with serving their communities. Paul Belk, NGN's CEO, explained the philosophy behind this approach:

The strength of our communities, our economy, and workforce all starts in our a community-owned company, it’s our job to give back and use our resources to better the next generation.

Read more about the NGN and listen to Chris interview David Muschamp of GPW in episode 156 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Wally Bowen, Rural Broadband Advocate, Passes

We received the sad news today that Wally Bowen, one of the leading advocates fighting to bring affordable broadband to rural communities, especially in Appalachia, recently passed away.

In addition to many other contributions, Wally served as founder and executive director of the nonprofit Mountain Area Information Network in Asheville, North Carolina. He spoke on media reform at a number of venues, including the Aspen Institute, the New America Foundation, and the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA).

Having collaborated with Wally, Chris understood his passion and dedication and gave this tribute:

Wally Bowen was an inspiration in many ways. He worked tirelessly to improve Internet access in the rural mountains of western North Carolina and for media justice. When I began working in this area, Wally was already a champion of community networks and incredibly welcoming.

Over the years, I always respected him and even enjoyed our occasionally friendly disagreements because I always knew we was thinking deeply about these issues and cared so very much about connecting people that the market was leaving behind.

Because we respected Wally's work, over the years we published a number of his pieces. We already feel the void left by the loss of Wally Bowen but are encouraged by the positive results he left behind.

Other coverage celebrating Wally Bowen:

Harold Feld's Tribute to Wally: In Memoriam: Wally Bowen — Internet Pioneer, Community Activist, and A Hell of God Guy.

Free Press: Mourning Wally Bowen, a Leading Light in Bringing Communications to All

Daily Yonder: Wally Bowen: He Put Rural On The Map – And On The Internet

Wally was honored at the 2015 Parker Lecture.

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."

West Virginia Coop Expands Rural Internet Access

As in the rest of the country, broadband is now a necessity for rural economic development in West Virginia. Taking on the challenge, Spruce Knob Seneca Rocks Telephone (SKSRT) cooperative overcame impressive obstacles to build a state-of-the-art fiber optic network. 

The cooperative operates in some of the most serene landscape in the United States and some of the most difficult terrain for fiber deployments. The region’s economy primarily relies on ski resorts and tourism from its namesake, Spruce Knob, the highest peak in the Allegheny Mountains. 

SKSRT’s service area also includes the National Radio Quiet Zone, which creates unique challenges for the cooperative. Established in 1958 by the FCC, the National Radio Quiet Zone protects the radio telescopes at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from interference.  Because these telescopes are incredibly sensitive, the region is greatly restricted in deploying different types of telecommunication technologies. In certain areas of the quiet zone, closest to the observatory, wireless routers and two-way radios are prohibited. 

Because of the mountainous terrain and the technology restrictions, large telecoms had completely bypassed the sparsely populated communities, leaving them with few options for any sort of connectivity. Much of the isolated region still used the old ringdown operator-telephone system until 1972 when the community created SKSRT as a non-profit cooperative. SKSRT installed the latest in telephone infrastructure at the time and committed to encouraging economic development in the region.

Thirty years later, in 2008, the copper infrastructure that SKSRT had originally installed was in bad shape. The coop went to the Rural Utility Service to fund the needed copper improvements. RUS instead encouraged future-proof fiber. While other telecoms have integrated fiber slowly, General Manager Vickie Colaw explained in an interview with us that SKSRT took a different approach:

“It was evolving to a fiber world. That was when we decided to be total fiber-to-the-home.” 


The coop obtained a $7.7 million loan from the USDA and added 57 subscribers to their system, upgraded all of their equipment, and began providing fiber-to-the-home. The presentation of the loan was a celebrated, public event with federal and state officials, local business leaders, and community stakeholders. At that time, then U.S. Rep (now U.S. Sen.) Shelley Moore Capito described the importance of the loan for Pendleton County:

“It’s time for you to be a part of cutting edge technology that exists in the country. It opens up a world of opportunity, a world of learning and a world of the future for Pendleton County."

When the network was completed in 2012, SKSRT became one of the first coops in the country to offer FTTH to everyone in its service area. The small coop then expanded after receiving another $8.5 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to provide broadband service throughout Pendleton County and northern Pocahontas County, a region at the very heart of the National Radio Quiet Zone.  The added restrictions from deploying so close to the observatory proved challenging, but the project made fiber available to an additional 762 full-time households and 560 seasonal houses. With construction of the network mostly finished in these areas, homes have been utilizing the fiber network since late 2014.

Because fiber offers so many more possibilities than copper, SKSRT can offer triple-play service, including IPTV, telephone, and Internet access. For Internet access, most residential users choose a low-tier of 3 Mbps / 1 Mbps or 6 Mbps / 1 Mbps, while businesses prefer to have 15 Mbps down. Business customers can negotiate higher speeds when standard offerings are not sufficient; SKSRT provides 50 Mbps download speeds to a few local businesses. The coop is currently in the process of upgrading the speeds they offer.

Thanks to their local coop, these rural communities in the Alleghenies are connecting to the rest of the world through the latest technology, just as they did 40 years ago.

Audio Available: Financing Fiber for the New Economy Conference in Lexington

At a September conference in Lexington, Kentucky, Next Century Cities (NCC) hosted an influential and diverse group of leaders from the municipal broadband arena to share their experiences as leaders in community broadband. Four audio recordings, which you can find on NCC’s website, include panel discussions on a variety of issues surrounding the topic of financing for next generation broadband.

Recording #1: “Lexington Mayor Jim Gray and the Kentucky Wired Story”

In the first recording, Lexington Mayor Gray and the city’s Chief Information Officer discuss their ongoing efforts to make Lexington a gigabit city. These efforts are part of a broader initiative also discussed on building a statewide 3,000 mile fiber optic ring. Several Kentucky government leaders make remarks about the project, called Kentucky Wired, including their thoughts about the public-private partnership model that is helping make the project possible.

Recording #2: “Achieving the Last Mile

Our own Christopher Mitchell, the Director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at ILSR and the Policy Director for Next Century Cities, moderates this panel that includes officials who have led municipal broadband initiatives in their communities. These officials share some of the challenges they have faced and solutions they discovered in their efforts to finance last mile infrastructure.

Recording #3: “Exploring Options and Approaches for Broadband Financing”

Scott Shapiro, the Senior Advisor to the Mayor of Lexington Kentucky, moderates the panel discussion that includes a group of people with varied knowledge and perspectives on the community broadband issue.  They discuss models and approaches communities can use to finance their broadband networks, with a particular focus on the public-private partnership model.

Recording #4: “Federal Support for Broadband Projects” 

Hilda Legg, former Rural Utilities Service Administrator and current Vice Chair of Broadband Communities, leads a panel of several experts examining funding supports and offering recommendations and next steps for communities.

If you could not make the conference or if you need a refresher on information you found compelling, this is your opportunity to revisit the discussion.

Small Town Coop, Big Gig Connection

In an April 2015 press release, the telecommunications cooperative Nemont Communications announced their plans to make the small, rural town of Scobey, Montana the first gigabit community in the state. The network will serve commercial, governmental, and residential customers in this Northeastern Montana town of just over 1,000 people. This speed increase to gig-level is a result of upgrades to the existing fiber network.

Scobey is inside of Nemont’s 14,000 square mile service territory where they began upgrades to fiber in 2007. The cooperative dates back to 1950 when farmers in the area organized to form their own telephone systems. The current service territory spans parts of Northeastern Montana, Northwestern North Dakota, South Central Montana, and Northern Wyoming. 

Bridging the Rural Digital Divide 

Nemont CEO Mike Kilgore sees the plan for Scobey as a first step for the largely rural state of Montana to push toward ultra high-speed Internet in every corner of the US:

“On January 18, 2013, former FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski issued the Gigabit City Challenge to bring at least one ultra-fast Gigabit Internet community to every state in the U.S. by 2015. Today, thanks to the tireless efforts of our talented employees, Nemont is proud to report that Montana now has a Gigabit community.”

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.”