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Hamilton, Ohio Connects Local Schools with City Fiber

Just over a year ago, we wrote about Hamilton’s plans to expand their extensive fiber optic infrastructure to offer services to schools and businesses in the area. Last month, the first example of such expanded services came online, with three area schools getting fiber optic internet connections through a partnership between the City utility and the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). 

The press release announcing the collaboration describes SWOCA as: 

“...a council of governments consisting of 33 public school districts plus several private and charter schools in the area. The organization provides numerous software and technical services to schools, libraries, and municipalities as well as very high capacity Broadband Internet.” 

Under the arrangement, the City will be responsible for the physical connections and laid fiber, while SWOCA will provide the active internet service. This approach fits the city’s stated goal of remaining a source of neutral infrastructure:

“The City will remain carrier-neutral and does not intend to compete with providers or offer end user services directly. Instead, Hamilton’s goal is to make an additional source of last-mile fiber available to service providers at competitive rates to expand the availability of business-class broadband services in our community. As such, service providers will have equal access to all facilities, transport, and other services on Hamilton’s network.”

With the growth of online testing, electronic textbooks, and other online media in the classroom, existing connections were proving inadequate. The schools will pay the City $18,000 per year for connectivity, decreasing their costs while increasing bandwidth. From the press release:

“‘Schools in the region are getting more technology focused. Regionally, we've seen school bandwidth needs grow as much as 60% in a year. The City is in a great position to help us meet this demand,’ said Marc Hopkins, Network Services Manager for SWOCA.”

Hamilton has had a fiber optic network for internal government use since 2004, and in 2012 began contemplating ways to leverage this existing asset to spur economic development and expand educational opportunities. The City did a feasibility study on network expansion, and in July of 2013 authorized a city team to find partners to work with.  

Mark Murray, the project manager for Hamilton’s broadband initiative, made clear the City’s intention to expand further: "We see this as just the first step to bigger things to come with broadband in Hamilton," Murray said.

Whitewater Weighs Options for Municipal Broadband

Whitewater, Wisconsin, a city of just under 15,000 people that sits midway between Madison and Milwaukee, is considering its options for establishing a municipal broadband utility. As reported by the local Daily Union newspaper, members of the city council, the community development authority, other local bodies, and the public met this week to hear a feasibility presentation and discussion with Anita Gallucci, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in broadband utilities.

Whitewater already has some public fiber optic infrastructure, having gone live with their gigabit-capable Whitewater Unified School District network last fall. The network joins up with a larger fiber backbone on the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, and has allowed Whitewater schools to increase their connection speeds by 1,200 percent while holding costs steady. The city is now looking at options for how to expand the opportunity brought by such high speed access to the broader community.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two topics: the legal landscape for municipal broadband utilities in Wisconsin, and the varying levels of success that other Wisconsin cities have had with their own networks. On the legal front, Gallucci affirmed that “municipalities can get into the broadband business if they choose to do so,” but then went on to outline the hurdles created by Wisconsin law that make the process more challenging. From the Daily Union article:

Gallucci said that first, the city must prepare a formal report or feasibility study. The report must cover a three-year outlook which addresses revenues derived from constructing, owning, or operating the utility including such things as equipment, maintenance, and personnel requirements.

Given the upfront costs associated with building out a fiber optic network, a report focusing on a three-year outlook is unlikely to cast a favorable light on the project. Like any other significant investment in public infrastructure, municipal networks may take more than three years to break even. If we used that benchmark for roads, we wouldn't have many.

Wisconsin cities must also go through a public hearing and vetting process before voting on final authorization of a municipal utility. There is a shorter route on the books in Wisconsin, but one that effectively gives incumbents a veto:

Gallucci said that cities do not have to follow these steps in very specific circumstances, such as serving an area of the city that does not otherwise have service access; but cities must notify private companies (for example, AT&T, Verizon, or Charter Communications) of that project. However, if those companies say they currently, or plan to in the future, serve those areas, then the steps need to be followed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if a city like Whitewater were to approach AT&T or Verizon and ask if they have any “plans to expand in the future” that might preempt the building out of a public network.

Wisconsin law is more obliging towards open access networks, according to Gallucci:

She said the steps could be avoided if the city acts as “a wholesaler of broadband services.” By this, she said, the intention would be to build the infrastructure and private companies would use those fibers to provide service.

“That would require the city itself to not provide any service to the end-user,” she explained.

While the legal environment in Wisconsin is generally unfavorable towards municipal broadband utilities, the meeting also highlighted some recent success stories. Reedsburg, which we wrote about here, was touted as the only Wisconsin city offering a “triple play” bundle through its broadband utility. Also mentioned was Sun Prairie, as fellow city seriously considering a FTTH network.

The next step will be for the Whitewater Community Development Agency to bring the issue before the City Council, which the city manager expected to happen “in the very near future.”  

Harford County Network Goes Live in Maryland

Harford County, a mixed suburban and rural area in northeast Maryland, flipped the switch in late May on its Harford Metro Area Network (HMAN). The network includes 160 miles of fiber bringing high speed broadband to 150 sites, including all area schools, fire stations, libraries, and county and municipal buildings.

The project required $13.8 million in general obligation bonds from the county's capital improvement budget to construct four main fiber optic loops, with lateral connections leading to local anchor institutions. Not all planned facilities are connected yet, but construction will continue throughout the summer, as will the development of a business plan to determine how best to offer connections to local businesses and residences. Connections in the more rural northern area of the county will be wireless, due to the higher cost of building out to each home in lower density areas.

County Director of Information and Communication Technology Ted Pibil estimated that the county will save approximately $1 million per year by owning its own network, allowing it to cut ties with Verizon and Comcast. All of Harford County’s 54 public schools will see benefits as well, with increases in bandwidth of 50-100 times.

Harford County Sheriff Jesse Bane emphasized the public safety benefits of having a reliable communications network built with multiple contingencies in mind:

"This is going to provide the sheriff’s office with redundancy. That’s something we do not have at this time. It is something we have always considered a very precarious situation to be in… this will move us forward.”

While HMAN is funded entirely by county bonding, it builds on the backbone infrastructure of the OneMaryland Network, a stimulus-funded project that connects every county in the state. The press conference announcing the start of network operations can be seen here.

Chanute City Commission Approves FTTH Plan

Chanute City Commission decided on June 9th to take the next step to bring ftth to the community; Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue and finalize funding to deploy a municipal network.

The City's current fiber network provides connectivity to schools, hospitals, electric utility and municipal facilities, the local college, and several businesses. Chanute has worked since 1984 to incrementally grow its network with no borrowing or bonding. Plans to expand the publicly owned infrastructure to every property on the electric grid began to take shape last year.

At a work session in May, Director of Utilities Larry Gates presented several possible scenarios, associated costs, and a variety of payback periods. The favored scenario includes Internet only from the City, with video and voice to be offered by a third party via the network. Residential symmetrical gigabit service will range from $40 - $50 depending on whether or not the subscriber lives in the city limits. Commercial service will be $75 per month. Advanced metering infrastructure will also be an integral part of the network.

The Commission authorized the pursuit of up to $14 million to get the project rolling.

Wisconsin Local Governments Collaborate for Schools, City, and County

Sheboygan County, the City of Sheboygan, and the Sheboygan Area School District (SASD) plan to collaborate to deploy a fiber network. According to an article in the Sheboygan Press, all three entities seek cost savings and higher capacity connections.

Approximately, 49,000 people live in the City of Sheboygan; there are 10,000 students attending SASD. Over 115,000 people live in the County located on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

The County, the City, and SASD will split the cost of constructing the ring, approximately $1.4 million. Each entity will then pay for laterals to connect its facilities to the ring. The total to construct the ring and connect each entities' facilities will be approximately $3.58 million. 

To build its laterals, SASD will pay $865,000. The District will save approximately $220,000 per year on connectivity fees, paying back the total investment ($1.4 million + $865,000) in about 10 years even without putting any value on the considerable benefit of much high capacity connections. When factoring in the reality that their connectivity fees would undoubtedly increase signficantly under the status quo arrangement and the much higher capacity connections, the payback period will be even shorter than 10 years.

The district is already providing a device for each student and its current connection is struggling to meet the demand. The state has a program, TEACH Wisconsin, which subsidizes the high cost of leasing connections from existing providers but given the high rates often charged by a company like AT&T, it can only go so far.

Wayne Eschen, information services coordinator, said the district pays about $220,000 per year for its online capacity...

“(TEACH Wisconsin) is limited,” Eschen said. “If you go beyond that, you pay full retail for it. We’ve exceeded the base that’s available to us and we’re now paying retail as well. As the need continues to increase, the retail cost goes up substantially.”

Meanwhile, the County now pays approximately $29,000 per year for just 25 Mbps Internet access. They estimate they will pay $9,000 per year for gigabit connectivity via the new infrastructure. We do not know how much the County currently pays for connectivity beyond Internet access but it will pay approximately $455,000 in one time fees to connect laterals to its 13 - 14 facilities.

The City has plans for its faster connections:

“What we want to do is look at different ways we can get them connected with high speed and yet have it cost-manageable,” [IT Director David] Augustin said. “If we go with those avenues (the current system), we’ll still never get the speed capacity that we would with fiber and yet we’d still have to pay the monthly charge.”

One thing the city is especially interested in is conducting some fire department training by video conference, which would require much faster speeds than they now have.

The City expects to pay approximately $664,000 to establish connections to a future network.

Apparently, a road project has inspired the partners to move forward this summer. They have determined that burying conduit as part of that project will reduce the costs by $400,000. They hope to have the network completed and lit by 2016.

Illinois' Monticello Local Partnership Leads to Big Savings - Community Broadband Bits Episode 102

Following up on Lisa's in-depth story on Monticello, Illinois, we asked Vic Zimmerman to join us for episode 102 of the Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about how rural Monticello started by reaching out to the existing service providers, only to be stalled for months and then years. Eventually they realized they would have to take a stronger hand in making sure community anchor institutions, including the schools, would have the fast, affordable, and reliable connections they need.

Local public entities began working together and partnered with a private firm building a fiber line through town to get in the trench with them. That was the beginning of an impressive network that now connects community anchors and ideally will lead to more investment for connections to businesses and residents.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show - please e-mail us or leave a comment below. Also, feel free to suggest other guests, topics, or questions you want us to address.

This show is 15 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

Listen to previous episodes here. You can can download this Mp3 file directly from here.

Thanks to Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

Plan for FTTH in Chanute Looking Positive in Kansas

Chanute has been exploring available options for a citywide FTTH network. In addition to offering residential service, city leaders want to expand the business use of its municipal fiber network. A limited number of businesses currently join schools, government, and utilities on the fiber infrastructure.

The community incrementally built a fiber network to serve government, utilities, and schools with no borrowing or bonding. The broadband utility continues to expand and uses WiMAX for public safety and to connect several businesses. For the full story of this central Kansas community, download our case study Chanute’s Gig: One Rural Kansas Community’s Tradition of Innovation Led to a Gigabit and Ubiquitous Wireless Coverage

As we reported previously, the City Council began reviewing potential scenarios to bring fiber to each premise. The Wichita Eagle reported that Utilities Director Larry Gates recently presented price and speed estimates to a City Council study session:

When complete, the city system will offer service at a speed of one gigabit per second.

City residents will pay $40 a month; it will cost $50 outside the city limits and $75 for businesses.

To put that in perspective, Chanute will offer the same ultra-fast connection speed as the Google Fiber system being rolled out across the Kansas City metropolitan area, but 42 percent cheaper than Google’s $70-a-month charge.

Or, to use another comparison, Chanute’s fiber-to-home system will be 14 times faster and cost 60 percent less than the best Internet service the town’s residents can get today.

Wow! And recall that this would not be possible if the cable lobbyists had their way earlier this year in the Kansas legislature. Kansas briefly considered making it impossible for communities to build their own networks and will likely take up the matter again next year.

We contacted Gates, who elaborated on Chanute's plan. The City will provide Internet only; a third party provider would use the network to offer voice and video. The service area will include the Utilities' three mile territory outside of the city limits.

The community is especially interested in bringing access to unserved students in the community and to patients who need access to telehealth from home. Seventeen percent of area students cannot afford or do not have access to the Internet from home. USD 413 and Neosho Memorial Regional Medical Center are each working with Chanute Utilities to develop solutions using the muncipal network.

Businesses have expressed their frustration with service from the existing cable and DSL service on many occasions. The City's network serves a limited number of commercial clients and others have asked to be connected. City Commissioner Martha McCoy is also a local business owner; she owns and operates a downtown antique and home-decor business. She told the Eagle:

“What I have today (at home), I can hardly ever get on,” she said. “And then I watch the ads they have on TV: Oh, we have super streaming and everything. It just isn’t happening here.”

The service at her business is “better, but it’s still not good,” she said. “It still knocks me off, so I still get upset with that. I have a lot of work to do and I don’t have time to wait.”

The Eagle reports that community leaders supported the initiative at the study session. The City Council formerly votes on June 9th whether to move forward.

Monticello Public Partners Light Up Fiber in Illinois

Kids in the Monticello Community Unified School District #25 (CUSD #25) are now enjoying a new publicly owned fiber optic network. The School District is one of four public partners that collaborated to install the network and share the $306,000 in deployment costs. The City of Monticello, Piatt County, and the Allerton Public Library began the project a year ago with the School District to execute a plan to improve local connectivity.

Approximately 5,000 people live in Monticello, the Piatt County Seat, located in the center of Illinois. The City operates water and wastewater services but not an electric utility. CUSD #25 includes approximately 1,600 students.

According to a Piatt County Journal article, the partners will equally share the annual $12,000 maintenance costs. They will also divide fees for managing the system, estimated at $5,000 - $10,000 per year; the partners will hire a third party to handle network operations. In the future, the School District may manage the network themselves to eliminate that expense.

We connected with Vic Zimmerman, Superintendent for CUSD #25 to find out more.

Until now, the District depended on a patchwork of T1 lines and DSL to connect their five facilities. The schools used four lines to obtain 170 Mbps bandwidth for which they paid $3,500 per month. According to Zimmerman, CUSD #25 rarely received speeds faster than 50 Mbps.

The school has added wireless access points to its five schools to enable Wi-Fi, but lacked the necessary bandwidth to run the system efficiently. Student smartphones on the guest network exacerbated the problem. Zimmerman and CUSD knew they needed more bandwidth to handle future technology demands; they needed fiber.

Piatt County, the City of Monticello, and the Library suffered similar problems. When they approached incumbent providers Verizon and Frontier, they were told fiber would be brought into the area but neither knew when.

Approximately two years ago, Metro Communications (Metro) was deploying a fiber network to service cell phone carriers. The planned route went directly through the center of Monticello. 

The partners approached Metro with a proposal. They would pay for half of the deployment costs for the section that went throught town. In exchange, Metro would bury an additional conduit and allow the partners to access some of the fiber. Metro ran fiber to the edge of properties lines of each entity.

CUSD #25 was the first to connect their facilities. Zimmerman expects the other three partners to be connected and lit by the end of the summer. Once the Library, the County, and the City connect the facilities, the total number of facilities on the network will be 20 - 25.

Through their intergovernmental agreement, the County paid for Metro for the total and each if the entities will reimburse one fourth of the cost. None of the entities bonded or borrowed.

The fiber network will allow the District to purchase 200 Mbps of bandwidth for $1,750 per month. Zimmerman notes that a bump up to 750 Mbps would cost about the same amount they paid when leasing four T1s. With the new infrastructure, CUSD #25 will be able to increase bandwidth in the future; speed between facilities reaches 1 Gbps.

Savings

The District used Capital Improvement funds for their share of deployment. When factoring in CUSD #25's total costs for monthly access, estimated maintenance fees, and estimated operating costs, CUSD #25 will save $16,750 per year on the new network. In other words, the district's investment will pay for itself in 4.5 years. This calculation only considers direct cost savings and does not take into account indirect savings. CUSD #25 will pay about half as much for four times as much capacity.

Technology staff at the District, spoke to the Piatt County Journal:

Todd Wiegel, a school district technology assistant, said it sets up the district for having the ability for all students to log in with a device at school.

“We could not handle that amount of machines on our (previous) infrastructure,” said Wiegel. “It was like trying to fit an elephant through a garden hose.”

...

“The speeds have definitely stabilized,” added Wiegel.

When the remaining partners begin using the network, all four will share bandwidth from Metro and reimburse the School District, reducing costs even further.

Earlier this year, a private buyer approached the joint committee charged with planning and executing the project. A February article described the situation:

A preliminary meeting with the potential buyer showed the company was not interested in providing the faster fiber optic speeds to residential customers, which did not sit well with Monticello City Superintendent Floyd Allsop.

"I just want assurances that they would work something out with somebody on residential so that we're meeting our goals," said Allsop. "And you would think they would want to do that, but we don't know they want to do that."

Selling the system would relieve local entities from the cost of maintaining the fiber, but Keith did not think it made sense to do it this soon.

"Once we sell it, we've got no say over it, where if we hire an outside company to maintain it, we've still got a say," said Keith.

As the network is fired up, the partners are considering future uses. Eventually, they hope to expand the network to a ring structure to improve redundency. They intend to lease dark fiber to a private provider to spur economic development and possibly provide residential services. The partners do not want to become and ISP:

It may be a while before businesses and homes can hook into the fiber, but it is on the committee’s radar. A plan that would lease extra fiber – the entities will likely use just 20 of the 78 thin fibers that were installed – in exchange for maintenance was discussed, but that plan fell through.

Now the plan is to take bids for a company to lease or purchase fiber with the intention of eventually providing commercial and residential service.

Image of Piatt County Courthouse used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Dual Freq.

Princeton Voters Want to Bring FTTH to Their Rural Massachusetts Community

On May 13, Princeton voters decided to continue their municipal network planning. At the annual town meeting, 91.4% of voters passed Article 4 [PDF], authorizing a new Municipal Light Plant. A year ago, voters approved a measure to proceed with planning.

Princeton, a community of 3,300 residents and 1,270 households, has DSL access available to approximately 49% of residents. Satellite, dial-up, and wireless are the other options. 

Entrepreneurs rent office space in nearby communities with better connectivity. Real estate professionals bemoan bad Internet because it lowers property values. A 2013 survey revealed an overwhelming desire to take action. Residents and businesses want an FTTH option.

The Worcester Telegram reported that the community also voted to appropriate $17,000 to make-ready costs, possible legal fees, construction costs for telecommunications huts, and other possible network costs.

"Passing Article 4 will allow us to start negotiations with the vendor," said John Kowaleski of the Broadband Committee. "Without passing this article we will have to wait two years to approach this subject again."  

According to Selectman Stan Moss, the community continues to explore a variety of options. Community leaders have met with several providers to discuss public/private partnerships. Large corporate players, including Charter and Comcast, are not interested in working with Princeton.

The community is also considering a pilot project as a starting point. MassBroadband 123, the network of the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) will soon serve local schools and several public facilities in Princeton (it should be noted that MBI has been saying "soon" for a few years). The schools will transistion from T1 lines to the new MBI fiber. Community leaders hope to eventually capitalize on the infrastructure to reduce overall costs and expand the reach of Princeton's future infrastructure.

Gothenburg Considering FTTH in Nebraska, Survey Responses Needed

As the "Pony Express Capital of Nebraska," Gothenburg understands the value of speed. City leaders are now investigating the possibility of bringing a FTTH network to the community. Initiative leaders are asking the town's 3,500 residents to complete a broadband survey before April 15th.

According to a recent article in the Gothenburg Times, local schools will soon be surpassing the community's current telecommunications capabilities. The school district is considering a one-to-one Chromebook initiative:

Angie Richeson, an integrated technology integration specialist and Dudley Elementary librarian, said current telecommunications infrastructure has a glass ceiling.

“We can’t get bigger or faster without changing the infrastructure,” she said. “And speed is an issue in our community.”

Community leaders also want economic development benefits that flow from a fiber network. Four Fortune 500 companies operate in Gothenberg. CenturyLink, currently providing last-mile connectivity, has no plans to upgrade.

Nathan Wyatt, Chair of the Fiber Infrastructure Committee of the Gothenburg Improvement Company (GIC) recently told the Times:

"Right now the infrastructure that exists in Gothenburg is like the dirt roads. We don't have the fastest most direct infrastructure available that would give us the fastest speeds available. And as websites get more complex. We're going to need more data and more broadband to give our residents a better experience and we also need it to recruit businesses," said Wyatt.

GIC is a coalition of local businesses working to recruit new commerce to Gothenburg. Wyatt told the Times in another article that a local provider would be ideal:

“Can you imagine calling a local number to get service on your Internet, phone and cable?” he asked.

Wyatt said the GIC doesn’t want a call center but someone that people know and recognize in the community who would service the network.

Initiative leaders have already launched an aggressive grassroots campaign, "Get Up to Speed Gothenburg." The campaign Facebook page includes pics of information sessions, quotes from business owners, and promotional videos. Wyatt told the Times:

“Now we’re going 35 mph and with fiber optics, we could go 100 miles per hour,” he said. “As a community, soon we will need to drive 1,000 mph and new infrastructure will prepare us for this reality.”

Nebraska law makes many forms of municipal ownership difficult but we hope they are able to meet their local needs and wish the state would get out of their way.