We continue to see more and more of what we might call "gigabit fever." This is not just a "me too" bubble centered around superfast Internet access. It is a recognition by more and more communities that the refusal of their cable and DSLduopoly to invest in next-generation networks is materially harming their future.
Ames is home to the excellent Iowa State University (as is Cedar Falls, with U of Northern Iowa). I can praise them as long as I don't say anything about the Hawkeyes, rivals to my beloved Gophers.
Unfortunately, the municipal utility in Ames is less than enthusiastic about following the Cedar Falls approach.
Yet Don Kom, director of the City of Ames Electric Department, tells us: “There has been no discussion at my level of bringing fiber from the city to our customers. We’re not having that discussion.”
Certainly the city has many pressing issues and priorities to address, but super-fast Internet service ought to be high on its list. Besides the fact that it’s the wave of the future and we ought to try to keep pace with that wave, Ames has an impressive history of ambitious and innovative achievements. From burning trash for power to building a large man-made lake, from CyRide to the Main Street revival, Ames is a leader, not a follower, in tackling big things.
Ames provides a reminder that while municipal electric utilities have been at the forefront of investing in FTTH networks historically and gigabit networks more recently, many municipal electric utilities are spending a lot of energy trying to avoid stepping outside their historic business models.
I'm reminded of an interview with Harold DePriest, the visionary CEO of Chattanooga's Electric Power Board, who runs the first network in the US capable of delivering a gig anywhere in the city at a moment's notice (see our case study, Broadband at the Speed of Light).
I asked Harold about the role of a municipal electric utility and he said the municipal utilities were formed to ensure the community could take full advantage of the new technology of the day because the private sector was not investing in a way to allow everyone to benefit. It was not about electricity, it was about doing what needed to be done for a community to have the infrastructure it needs to thrive.
That said, either Ames or Story County could move forward with a project absent assistance from the utility. Seattle found its electric utility quite reluctant as well and has settled with a public-private partnership. Other local governments have moved forward with no electric utility - it is a harder path, but by no means impossible.
At the risk of copying too much from the Ames editorial, I do want to highlight how they finished it. Very well written:
And, to take this a step further, while Ames should be taking steps to become a gigabit city, Story County should be looking for ways to extend broadband service to everybody in the county. It’s disturbing, frankly, to imagine that some rural residents are still coping with the sluggish Internet speeds of the 1990s.
It’s pretty clear now that the Internet is not just a fad. It’s equally evident that most of America’s future economy will involve the Internet in some way. Let’s get started now on making Ames a gigabit community on a par with anybody else in the country. It’s not overly dramatic to argue that our economic future depends on it.
Jon Ericson reported in the Courier that the city hopes to boost economic development in Cedar Falls with the new 1 gig offering:
Bob Seymour, economic development manager for the city of Cedar Falls, said the "gigabit city" label will help with business recruitment.
"This is a great tool for promoting Cedar Falls as a place to locate or expand a business," Seymour said. "It's an important part of the complete infrastructure package we bring to the table, and it means we can compete with the best broadband communities anywhere in the country."
Business customers already at the most expensive tier will be upgraded automatically. Residential 1 gig service will be $275 per month and businesses will pay $950. CFU anticipates the growing demand for online video and gaming will drive residential requests.
Betty Zeman, marketing manager, said CFU wanted to lead, not follow, the technology curve.
"We want to be on the front end of that, not the tail end of that. We've just seen year after year customers use more bandwidth faster than you ever thought they would. By the time you think you need additional bandwidth, it's already too late," Zeman said.
Congrats to CFU as they join the 1 gig club!
You can find out more about the community and the network in episode #13 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Find out more about CFU's new service in this video.
Flash back to May 5, 1998 and the community of Emmetsburg, Iowa. This town of just under 4,000 people voted to establish a municipal cable communications or television system. It has taken fifteen years, but Emmetsburg is on the verge of joining the many other Iowa communities with municipal networks. Jane Whitmore of the Emmetsburg News reported on April 2 that the City Council adopted Ordinance #577, establishing the Board of Trustees of the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility.
Emmetsburg will be joining four other local communities as part of The Community Agency (TCA), a coalition of cities in northwest Iowa that collectively own a hybrid fiber coaxial cable network. TCA began as a cable television system in 2000 and now offers Internet, telephone, and limited wireless Internet in O'Brien County. Emmetsburg will build a FTTH network as part of TCA.
Talks to join TCA began last summer; City Administrator John Bird commented for the article:
"It's important for our readers to know that when the Board (of Trustees) started talking about this late last summer, their reasons for wanting to get into this (communications utility) are noble. Their goals, their objectives are noble from an industrial and economic development standpoint," Bird noted.
He continued, "They believe that we're at a gross disadvantage, considering today's global economy. In the global market, people can work from their home in Emmetsburg, Iowa, for a corporation located anywhere in the world, or higher tech industries who really need quality, high speed broadband. We're at a disadvantage."
DJ Weber, General Manager of TCA, noted the lack of interest from the incumbents to invest in the area. He also commented on how the existence of municipal networks often lower rates and improve service for all customers due to increased competition.
Emmetsburg currently provides sewer, water, and gas to residents. The network will be financed with municipal revenue bonds, but the other utilities will also contribute some revenue toward it as each will benefit from benefits such as remote meter reading.
A 1998 study on a potential communications system priced the network at $10 million. According to Bird, today's estimate is less than $7 million. From the article:
"It comes back to the commitment of the community," added Weber. "We've said this all along to John [Bird], the council and the utility board and the staff, it really comes back, ultimately, to the citizens of this community."
"Just like internet service has evolved from dial up to DSL and cable modem, fiber will give customers the next level of service to continue to improve the way they live, work and play here in Spencer," Amanda Gloyd, SMU marketing and community relations manager," said.
"We want to keep our customers on the cutting edge," she said.
Plans are to upgrade around 700 customers in one section of town during this first phase at a cost of around $2 million.
"This project is all paid for with cash in the bank," [General Manager Steve] Pick said. "This is an investment in the system."
SMU has offered telecommunications services to customers since 2000 and supplies water, electric, cable tv, Internet, telephone, and wireless service in the town of about 11,000. Rates for Internet range from $20 to $225 per month with cable tv analog Basic service as low as $14 and Basic Plus at $46. As options are added, monthly fees increase.
We see regular upgrades in service with little or no increase in price from many municipal networks. Comparatively, increases in price with little or no increase in service is a typical business decision from the private sector. Unlike AT&T, CenturyLink, or Time Warner Cable, municipal networks like SMU consider customers to be shareholders, and do what is best for the community at large.
We spoke with Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities for episode 13 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He told us about the tradition in Iowa for self-reliance and its manifestation in the telecommunications industry.
Curtis also told us about Hansen's Clothing, a century-old men's clothier in Spencer. This community staple was on the edge of closing its doors until broadband came to town. Hansen's was able to begin selling high quality clothing online, offering pieces that were not available in places like New York or Los Angeles. Hansen's, a third-generation Spencer establishment, quickly developed a profitable online audience.
We have long been impressed with Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) in Iowa. They built an incredibly successful municipal cable network that has now been upgraded to a FTTH network. CFU transfers $1.6 million into the town's general fund every year, reminding us that community owned networks often pay far more in taxes than the national cable and telephone companies.
Last week, Moody's Investor Service gave an investor-grade A-3 rating to revenue debt from CFU, another sign of its strong success.
Moody's rating report noted the utility's large market share, competitive pricing and product offerings, expansive fiber optic network, long-term financial planning and conservative budgeting practices as reasons for the continued strong rating of the utility's revenue debt.
CFU also compiles the community savings resulting from each of its services by comparing its rates to nearby communities (see most recent comparison [pdf]). The benefits total $7.7 million each year, almost $500 per family. This includes a $200 difference in cable TV bills and a $130 difference in Internet service.
Rep. Tom Latham (R-IA), recently recognized the city of Indianola on the US House Floor to recognize the community's municipal network. On February 15th, he spoke to the body about Indianola's recent certification as Connected by Connected Nation and Connected Iowa.
Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize the City of Indianola, Iowa, for earning the Connected program's Connected certification. Indianola is the first community in the state of Iowa and the third in the country to garner this technology designation.
The Connected certification is a title applied to communities that display top-tier proficiency in the access and utilization of broadband-supported technologies. This coveted certification is awarded by Connected Nation and its subsidiary Connect Iowa, who advocate for broadband access on the state and national levels.
The City of Indianola is one of more than 30 communities across Iowa actively participating in the Connected program, and the first to become formally certified. Indianola has a team in place that has developed a comprehensive plan to increase broadband access by assessing the broadband landscape, identifying gaps, and establishing manageable goals. Attaining the Connected certification adds to the long list of desirable attributes that make Indianola such a great place to raise a family or grow a business.
Mr. Speaker, I commend the City of Indianola for its commitment to embracing and efficiently utilizing technology for the benefit of its residents and businesses. It is a great honor to represent the citizens of Indianola, and all of Warren County, in the United States Congress. I know that my colleagues in the House will join me in congratulating the City of Indianola in being selected to receive this certification, and I wish the city and its people continued success in the future.
Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) has built a wonderful network that an independent ISP uses to deliver services to the local businesses and residents of the community. This was a well-deserved recognition.
Customers of Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU), in Iowa, have recently been treated to an increase in fiber Internet service speeds with no increase in price.
We have reported on CFU for several years with news on its upgrades and expansions to unserved areas. The most popular CFU home service, 12/1 Mbps, is now at 16/8 Mbps. That service is available for a reasonable $43.50 in the city and $48.50 in rural areas. Residential plans range from $29.95/$34.95 (city/rural) for 2/1 Mbps for FiberHome Basic to $137.50/$142.50 (city/rural) for the 120/60 Mbps FiberHome Extreme.
According to the CFU blog:
We’re able to make this upgrade now because we are in the final neighborhoods connecting customers to our new all-fiber cable and internet system. The all-fiber system allows us to deliver faster connection speeds and better reliability. Upgrading speeds now is also good timing because we just activated a new high speed upstream internet link. This high speed link gives us the capacity needed at a very affordable cost, and also provides geographic and provider redundancy. With this in place no single fiber cut, hardware failure or weather event will impact our ability to deliver our normal peak internet usage.
Note that while Cedar Falls has decided not to offer fully symmetric services (same upload as download speed), the ratio is 2:1 rather than the 6:1, 10:1, or even bigger gap that we often see from the national providers. CFU recognizes the benefits of faster upstream connections that allow subscribers to be more productive by being better able to share their creations with the world.
“We want to grow our own new businesses in Indianola, and Simpson College is home to an entire group of potential entrepreneurs who we hope will find support for their efforts here and some day choose to locate their businesses here,” [Jerry Kelly, former Indianola mayor and executive director of the city's development association] said. ‘What we are doing is called ‘economic gardening.’ What grows here will stay here.”
Thanks to the Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) next-generation broadband network, the city and the college have fertile soil to nurture that garden. We previously wrote about this FTTH partnership here, explaining that the community owns the infrastructure and a local business provides services over the network.
Through the partnership, the incubator will have access to IMU's server platforms, wholesale bandwidth, local marketing and outreach efforts, and customer service activities. 25 students will develop senior Capstone Projects through the initiative. College and city leaders anticipate that number will continue to grow.
The Simpson College News Center also writes that the project will be led by Chris Draper. Draper is associated with Des Moines' Startup City, a technology-based business incubator. Draper is CEO of the first graduate of Startup City, Meidh Tech, which offers property management technology solutions.
“By engaging students in real-world problems, allowing them to own their successes and responsibilities, they will begin to see that their classes actually feature lessons learned instead of paths to follow,” he said. “While we expect that many students will grow their own jobs because of this program, and many of those jobs will remain in our communities, the greatest benefit that Simpson students will realize because of this program is that each day provides a lifetime of opportunity.”
Kevin Kirkpatrick from the Record Herald also talked to Draper, who acknowledged the critical role of local resources, including the network provided by IMU.
Because Iowa does not create barriers for local communities to invest in broadband infrastructure, programs like the Indianola + Simpson College Entrepeneurial Development can proliferate. More states need to take a similar approach and open the door for local communities to pursue economic development with the aid of local community owned networks.
In 2010, the Iowa Communications Network received a $16.2 million Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP). The project will connect all 99 counties in the state by upgrading an existing 3,000 mile network (PDF of the project summary). The state plans to bring 10 Gbps capacity points of presence to each county and to provide 1 Gbps service to about 1,000 anchor institutions. The project will be managed by the state's Department of Transportation, which will be using fiber primarily for traffic management.
A recent Ames Tribune article reports that the local community will be partnering with the state to capitalize on the existence of the fiber for connectivity. Story County, located in the very center of the state, will soon be using several strands in the Ames area to create a loop between city and county offices. The 20-year arrangement will cost the county $15,000 and provides ample capacity to support the county's work and support future uses. From the article:
“For us this is a huge windfall,” [Story County Information Technology Director Barbara Steinback] said. “If we were to go on to a project like this on our own, it would cost between $250,000 and $300,000.”
The opportunity comes at a good time for Story County. The sheriff’s office recently began using new mobile laptops that Steinback said have been putting a strain on the network and, along with some other projects, has been resulting in some slowness issues.
“So we do need to take advantage of this opportunity,” she said.
We have covered developments in the town of Indianola, Iowa, where the community decided to build their own network in 1998. The original purpose for investment was to use the network to enhance public safety and increase efficiency with SCADA applications. In 2005, however, the network began offering telecommunications services to local businesses. As of October, Indianola Municipal Utilities (IMU) began offering fiber-to-the-home to residents as it gradually begins expanding the use of its fiber asset.
You can now hear firsthand about the network, its history, and how the municipal utility navigated the journey to its next-generation open access network. Craig Settles interviewed Todd Kielkopf, General Manager of IMU, in an August Gigabit Nation podcast. The two discuss IMU's evolution since 1998. They also talked about the unique advantages that exist when a community considering network infrastructure investment already has a municipal utility in place.
Kielkopf tells how the driving factor for the fiber installation was to allow easier management and communication between utilities. When a 1990 franchise agreement with MediaCom was about to expire, the city investigated options. Hopes were that that the city could build a fiber network and MediaCom would offer services over that network, but that vision was never embraced by MediaCom.
Iowa law allowed the city to hold a referendum asking residents for permission to provide telecommunications services through the municipal utility's network. The referendum passed and they created a five year financial plan. Financing was with taxable and tax exempt bonds. The electric utility would build and own the network and a new telecommunications utility would license to a private partner that would offer retail services. Now, IMU and Mahaska Communication Group (MCG) have an agreement whereby MCG provides retail services over the network. While the agreement is not exclusive, no other providers currently use the network.
Kielkopf discusses three distinct phases in the development of the network's current status. First the network connected schools, libraries, government entities, and other anchor institutions. Next, IMU began connecting and serving businesses. Now, IMU is in the third stage of connecting homes. Along the way, says Kielkopf, the utility took its time and proved to the community that the investment was well spent and that IMU could manage the resource wisely.
Money saved on customers' telephone service, the willingness to work to finance installation, and treating customers well, contributed to IMU's positive reputation in the community. Accordingly, the community continues to support IMU's ambitions and goals for new uses of the network. The main objective for the network has been to provide a public necessity while paying off debt service and earning enough to maintain and improve the network. So far, IMU has met that goal.
In addition to cost savings and increased accessibility for Indianolans, IMU works with the local community college as part of an economic development program. Additionally, IMU is planning slow expansion and is committed to finding ways to simplify utilities and save energy for customers with the fiber network.
Kielkopf and Settles also discussed challenges from opposition to community owned networks and the search for local champions to lead efforts. Kielkopf notes that being proactive and knowing where hot button issues may exist before they ignite can make or break efforts.
He also stresses how Indianola has consciously tried to be different than surrounding communities as a way to attract talent and economic development. As one of many bedroom communities in the Des Moines area, Indianola competes with other similarly sized towns for new jobs, residents, and other resources. Kielkopf sees a direct connection between the network and what Indianola has to offer its residents, two thirds of which commute to Des Moines every day. Businesses (and now residents) can't get this caliber of affordable, reliable, and fast broadband in local areas served by the private sector.
Lastly, Kielkopf notes that successfully managing utilities depends on strong research, testing, and growth from an already existing knowledge base. He suggests that communities recognize strengths and weaknesses and capitalize on them both when venturing into the realm of broadband. The strategy has proved successful for IMU, its partners, customers, and the community.
The new residential service from IMU and its partner MCG includes triple play service of 25/25 Mbps Internet, unlimited local calls, and 105 of the most popular digital television channels for $99.95. For an additional $10, residents can upgrade to 100/100 Mbps. Stand alone Internet service is available for as low as $39.95 for 25/25 and double play packages (data and phone) are also available for as little as $49.95. MCG provides a broad range of bundling variety and 25/25 is available for as little as $5 per month in some packages.
Opponents of municipal broadband initiatives contend that public broadband projects are “failures” if they do generate “profits” in the amounts, and within the short time periods, that investors and the financial community expect of private corporations. To define success this way is to miss two fundamental points: (1) public entities have fundamentally different ways of creating economic benefits for the community than the private sector; and (2) municipalities often undertake a public communications initiative precisely because the project would not be profitable enough for a private company.