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2014 IAMU Broadband Conference Fast Approaching

The Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities is presenting the 2014 IAMU Broadband Conference on March 26 - 27. The event will be held at the Ramada Tropics and Resort Center in downtown Des Moines. (Psst! Take your swimsuit - there is a water park in the Resort Center!)

Christopher Mitchell will be presenting on March 26 along with Craig Settles at 10:15 a.m. Central. The discussion will focus on economic impacts of broadband. Check out the schedule to see the broad range of topics, speakers, and vendors.

You can register online or contact Curtis Dean at IAMU for more info on the event.

 

A Look at Mediacom Propaganda in Emmetsburg, Iowa

Earlier this month, a majority of voters in Emmetsburg supported a proposal to issue bonds to build a fiber network. Nevertheless, the measure failed because Iowa requires a 60% majority when general obligation bonds fund all or part of a proposed project.

Years ago, the community voted to establish a municipal cable communications or television system. Emmetsburg leaders feel the time is right to realize the community vision. The proposed project would have used revenue bonds in addition to general obligation bonds.

We reported on Mediacoms' efforts to derail the vote with misleading lit drops across the community and we recently received new details on Mediacom's propaganda. The literature does not contain a "Vote No" statement, which may have allowed Medicom to avoid reporting it as an election expense.

Both pieces read like a talking point primer for industry executives. The letter from Senior Vice President Dan Templin, suggests that Mediacom is already operating gigabit service over fiber in Emmetsburg and that they intend to expand that service to business clients. The letter does not suggest that their gigabit service is affordable or reliable, neither of which are terms commonly used to describe Mediacom's services.

Mediacom was ranked last in a 2012 Consumer Report survey of 50,000 people. He, or rather his legal and marketing team, suggests the people of Emmetsburg and Mediacom "work together to leverage our [Mediacom's] investment." The people of Emmetsburg can begin working with Mediacom to "leverage" that investment by sending an email to a vague "info" email address. 

Mediacom also wrote a letter from Delbert Witzke, a Mediacom employee and local resident. It contains the classic anti-muni talking points used by these big companies headquartered far from the communities where they want to preserve their monopoly. The letter aims to inflame fears of local taxes increasing and misleads readers by implying by citing an irrelevant FCC statistic (which itself is also quite flawed).

In our experience talking with people about their cable companies, few people are so consistently critical and vehement as those stuck with Mediacom. However, enough people were swayed by Mediacom's campaign against competition in Emmetsburg to at least slow the prospect of a new network there.

Cedar Falls Schools Get 1 Gig from Cedar Falls Utilities

As of December 2, students and staff in Cedar Falls schools have access to 1 gig Internet service from Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU). The WCF Courier reports that the Board of Education recently decided to switch from the Iowa Communications Network (ICN):

Doug Nefzger, the district's financial officer, said though Des Moines-based ICN has been a great partner for a number of years, it's always best to go with a local group.

"We may be paying a little bit more money but what this provides for our kids far outweighs the added expense associated with that," Nefzger said.

The District will pay CFU approximately $11,400 per year for gigabit Internet access to be shared between nine schools and three other District facilities. ICN provided 130 Mbps Internet service for $8,200 per year. The District will now have the capacity to provide a tablet or laptop to each student by 2015. The 1:1 goal is part of the District's five-year technology plan.

According to Rob Houlihan, Network Service Manager at CFU, each building is already connected via CFU fiber. As a result, District buildings will also enjoy a 1 gig WAN. Robust Internet access is important, but a high capacity WAN improves communication between facilities with no need to send data to the Internet. CFU provides fiber connections at no charge to the District, saving significant public dollars. Shane Paige, Supervisor of Technology Services at the Cedar Falls Schools noted via email:

That could easily cost us $5,000-$10,000 per month after discounts if we were leasing lines. We have been extremely fortunate in the fact that we have never been put in that position of having to deal with the extra costs of point to point connections for our buildings.

CFU also provides free cable television service to twelve District facilities, saving approximately $600 per month.

For more on how CFU is serving the community, listen to our recent conversation with Rob Houlihan, Network Services Manager, and Kent Halder, Communications Sales Manager. Christopher recently interviewed them on Episode 75 of the Broadband Bits podcast.

We also have numerous stories on the CFU network.

Cedar Falls Shows Long Term Muni Network Success: Community Broadband Bits Episode #75

Cedar Falls Utilities operates one of the oldest community owned networks in the nation. It started as a cable network in the 90's, upgraded to FTTH recently, and this year began offering the first citywide gigabit service in Iowa. CFU Communication Sales Manager Kent Halder and Network Services Manager Rob Houlihan join me for Community Broadband Bits podcast 75.

We discuss why Cedar Falls Utilities decided to add cable to their lineup originally and how it has achieved the incrediblely high take rates it maintains.

We also discuss the importance of reliability for municipal network and why they decided to transition directly to a FTTH plant rather than just upgraded to DOCSIS 3 on their cable system. Finally, we discuss its expansion into the rural areas just outside of town.

Read all of our coverage of Cedar Falls on MuniNetworks.org.

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

This show is 20 minutes long and can be played below on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Haggard Beat for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.

Election Day 2013 Community Owned Network Referendum Roundup

Starting with the good news, voters in Colorado overwhelmingly supported municipal network intiatives. Longmont voted 2:1 in favor of bonding to fast track network expansion. We have covered this issue in great depth recently. Read all of our coverage of Longmont here.

The local paper covered the referendum results in this story:

2B's passage means approval for the city to issue $45.3 million in bonds to build out the city's 17-mile fiber optic loop within three years.

Longmont Power & Communications has estimated that the payback time on the bond will be 11 years. If revenues from commercial and residential customers fall short, LPC's electric service revenues will be used to make up the shortfall, LPC staffers have told the Longmont City Council.

South in Centennial, voters supported restoring local authority to build a network by a 3:1 margin. We most recently wrote about this referendum here.

In Seattle, the mayor that campaigned on a citywide fiber network and backed off it but created a partnership with Gigabit Squared to bring gigabit fiber to 12 neighborhoods lost in his bid for reelection to the candidate that that was strongly supported with Comcast donations. However, the election does not appear to have turned on broadband issues:

McGinn’s fate was forecast two years ago, when voters slapped back his efforts to obstruct the Highway 99 tunnel project, opting to move ahead with the long-debated project. McGinn’s anti-tunnel agitating was viewed as a reversal from his 2009 election-eve pledge not to stand in the project’s way.

We continue to be disappointed in the lack of serious discussion in many races about how local governments can make meaningful improvements in Internet access for residents and businesses. We most recently covered the Seattle story here.

And finally, the disappointing news from Iowa. Though Emmetsburg received majority approval for its bond issue to build a fiber network, the 54% fell short of the 60% required for a general obligation bond. They planned to finance the investment with both a revenue bond and a general obligation bond. They will continue to seek opportunities to build the network despite this temporary setback.

As Emmetsburg Plans to Vote on Muni Network, Mediacom Misinforms

The Iowa community of 4,000 will take up Public Measure D on November 5th. Voters will decided whether to approve a $3.5 million bond issue to cover approximately half the cost to build a FTTH system. Incumbent Mediacom is distributing flyers throughout the community urging a "no" vote. Community leaders are doing their best to combat Mediacom's propaganda by educating the voters.

We reported about the community's 1998 vote to establish a municipal cable communications or television system. The city did not act on the vote at the time because the project was cost prohibitive. The estimated cost of the project is now about $3 million less than it was in the late 1990s. Emmetsburg wants to seize the opportunity by joining The Community Agency (TCA), a coalition of municipalities in the region that collectively own a hybrid fiber coaxial cable network. Emmetsburg would join with a full fiber network.

The town currently provides natural gas, water and wastewater services through its municipal utility.

In a flyer [pdf] aimed at convincing locals to vote no, Mediacom brags that "Customers in Emmetsburg get the same services as those in larger cities..." Unfortunately, Mediacom's service in larger cities is also awful and more suited to the late 1990's than the modern digital economy. Consumer Reports has rated Mediacom among the absolute worst Internet providers in the United States.

Public Question D reads:

"Shall the City of Emmetsburg, Iowa issue its notes in an amount not to exceed $3,500,000 for the purpose of paying costs of constructing and equipping all or part of the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility, including the acquisition, construction and installation of a fiber to the premise broadband communications system and related equipment and distribution facilities, and including all or a portion of the costs associated with connecting the Emmetsburg Municipal Communications Utility fiber system with the system of the Community Cable Television Agency of O'Brien County a cooperative undertaking among the cities of Hartley, Paullina, Primghar and Sanborn pursuant to the provisions of Chapter 28E, Code of Iowa?" 

In addition to $3.5 million in General Obligation bonds, the Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities would issue $2.63 million in Revenue bonds.

Emmetsburg Utilities

A recent Reporter/Democrat article covered an October 29th information session in Emmetsburg. Representatives from the Emmetsburg Municipal Utility Board of Trustees hosted the meeting to educate voters. A panel of technical experts and community leaders answered residents' questions. 

Curtis Dean [Broadband Services Coordinator from the Iowa Municipal Utilities Association] cited "a real world example: "I was in Spencer for the first decade of the Century, 2000 to 2010. People in Spencer saved over $10 million total on what they paid for their telecommunication vs comparable cities served by the same providers nearby. By the way, when we calculated those numbers in Spencer, we were using Emmetsburg as the comparison." 

If the referendum does not pass, the project will not move forward. If the community approves the measure, public officials estimate construction as early as next spring.

Community leaders urge voters to vote yes. The Mayor and five City Council members published an "Open Letter To Citizens Of The Emmetsburg Community" encouraging a positive vote:

We encourage each and every eligible voter in Emmetsburg to take the time to cast your respective vote on November 5th. This is a very important decision and is one that we should make as a community. Together, we've accomplished many great things in the past. We look forward to continuing to do more of the same in the future. 

A recent letter in the Reporter/Democrat from the Emmetsburg Municipal Utilities Board of Trustees summed up the critical situation that faces many small towns with little or no telecommunications competition:

Progress needs to be supported. If we are not trying to grow we are dying. Many small county seat towns in Iowa are suffering economically and shrinking in terms of population and their ability to be viable for their citizens. This initiative to bring local telecommunications ownership back to Emmetsburg is critical in these efforts to maintain and grow our small community.

Indianola's Community Network Spurs Entrepreneurship

When Indianola decided to invest in a municipal fiber network, the decision was part of a larger economic development plan that included a startup incubator in partnership with Simpson College - which we wrote about earlier this year. Located near Des Moines in Iowa, Indianola is one of a few communities that has partnered with a local trusted provider, MCG in this case, that offers services over a publicly owned network.

According to Chris Draper, Director of Indianola + Simpson College Entrepreneurial Development Initiative (EMERGE), his program would not exist if the city did not decide to invest in economic development and municipal broadband as a package deal. Less than a year after launch, EMERGE has nine active startups, some of which are already seeing significant growth and seizing new opportunities. Collective Labor (collectivelabor.com) has created an online platform to facilitate collective bargaining negotiations.

By centralizing the process of calculating proposals and editing contract terms, Collective Labor decreases negotiation time, reduces errors and ultimately makes the negotiation process more efficient. In Iowa alone, Collective Labor believes it can save schools upwards of $35-million a year by streamlining their collective bargaining efforts, freeing up budgets to hire more teachers and improve schools.

Even more promising, the platform can handle all collective bargaining scenarios from teachers to municipal workers, and trade unions to public safety professionals. The demand for Collective Labor’s service is proving solid. Less than a year after launching (in February), Collective Labor has signed up five school districts and has thirteen contractor requests pending. In fact, Collective Labor President, David Gaus, just announced on Twitter that a Colorado firm has agreed to invest cash and expertise that will result in a new office and additional staff to support a nationwide expansion. Not bad for a startup that’s barely seven months old.

indianola-partners.jpg

With other ventures ranging from biofuels trading to book publishing, EMERGE has successfully engaged a wide cross section of the community, from English students to professional engineers. Another startup seeing early success is LNR, which has developed an innovative way of “painting” stripes and other road marks. Instead of using actual paint, which eventually wears off, LNR has developed a colorable quick-setting concrete and application device that produces road markings which last 20 times longer than paint. Having just launched in April, LNR has already secured a $100,000 loan from the Iowa Innovation Acceleration Fund for market development.

Chris Draper says the key to the program is the combination of resources it brings together for the benefit of local entrepreneurs. Before the program, a member of the community with an idea would have to seek advice on diverse topics from various individuals - a daunting task that hinders untold numbers of would-be entrepreneurs. Now, EMERGE offers all of the necessary expertise in one place. And with a community fiber network at its disposal, the expertise offered by EMERGE is in-tune with the most advanced communications technology available.

Collective Labor is a good example of EMERGE’s ability to quickly enable high-tech ventures. Collective Labor's founder, David Gaus, previously used Excel spreadsheets to manage the collective bargaining process as a school business official. When he brought the idea and spreadsheets to Draper’s team at EMERGE, they converted it into an online cloud-based platform in a matter of months. This is the type of expertise seen in high-profile big-city startup incubators, but it's now available in a small-town community of 15,000 people in Iowa.

Iowa Municipal Utilities on Gigabit Nation

We were glad to hear our friend, Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities join Craig Settles on his Gigabit Nation Internet Radio show. Listen below to learn more about what local utilities are doing to help their communities thrive in the digital age.


Mudd Advertising and Cedar Falls Utility Talk Gigabit Broadband

As we reported back in May, Cedar Falls Utilities (CFU) now offers citywide gigabit broadband. Mudd Advertising is one local company poised to take full advantage of the new blazing speeds. Mudd invited officials from CFU into its studio for a live panel discussion about the new gigabit service and what it means for the community. The video is embedded below and is available via MuddTV - look for the 6/19/2013 archived show.

When asked what gigabit service means for the community, CFU’s Director of Business Management Rob Houlihan said “We have a lot of businesses that transfer huge files to and from their customers and this enables them to do even more of that activity.” Houlihan elaborated by saying that gigabit broadband opens up “a whole new host of opportunities for them to innovate.”

The panel was moderated by Mudd’s Gary Kroeger and consisted of Steve Bernard, Director of Business Development, Robert Houlihan, CFU’s Network Services Manager, and Rob Mudd, President of Digital Media and Chief Futurist of Research and Development for Mudd Advertising.

Mr. Mudd followed Houlihan’s lead by explaining what gigabit broadband means to Mudd Advertising: “Anytime that you can communicate to the world via video, live, with no buffering, no latency, anywhere in the world that you pick, that gives an advertising agency, or anybody that has a message to tell people, a leg up.” He went on to explain how the live panel itself, along with similar demonstrations they recently conducted from Bangkok, Moscow and Shanghai, are examples of what gigabit connectivity brings his company.

CFU’s Steve Bernard made a telling remark when asked how to explain the seeming anomaly of a small town in Iowa having such world-class infrastructure on par with only a few major global cities. The simplicity of his answer was telling:

"We’re a municipally owned utility, so we’re owned by the citizens in town. And that’s who we answer to and that’s our job, to try to be with them and stay ahead of them. You’ve mentioned the Mudd Group is a very innovative organization, it’s folks like that we’re trying to serve and stay ahead of.”

In other words, CFU’s focus on meeting the needs of local stakeholders, as opposed to absentee shareholders, is what led it to bring world-class communications infrastructure to its small-town community in Iowa. Bernard went on to note that CFU’s decision to provide high-speed broadband is a “natural progression” from providing water to the community back in 1888. Houlihan jumped in to add that high-speed broadband is an “essential service” that the community relies on.

Pushed for more examples of how gigabit connectivity can be useful, Bernard pointed to a local assisted living center developing in-home diagnostic and sensor technology to monitor resident health and safety around the clock. He also pointed out that such critical applications require the highest level of network reliability, a criteria easily met by CFU’s citywide fiber-to-the-premises.

I was pointed to this video by Jim Sartorius, Mudd's Chief Information Officer, when I interviewed him about what CFU's fiber network meant to his company. When I asked him specifically whether CFU helped Mudd save money, he chuckled and then explained Mudd's efforts to establish an office in Chicago with similar live production and distribution capabilities as its Cedar Falls headquarters. After identifying what seemed like the perfect location in one of Chicago's suburbs, their plans were foiled by the prohibitive cost of connecting the facility with fiber. After many months of searching, they were forced into a much more expensive space in downtown Chicago with the necessary fiber capability. Sartorius concluded by pointing out how easy and afforable it is for a business in Cedar Falls to obtain the type of high-speed broadband it took him months to locate in the greater Chicago area at much greater cost. And he thanked CFU for that fact.

Video: 

Waverly Waits 13 Years to Build Fiber Network - Community Broadband Bits Episode #53

Waverly, a town of 10,000 in Iowa, decided to create a city owned telecommunications utility with a successful referendum vote in 2000 but has only recently decided to move forward with a major investment to offer services. Mike Litterer, Interim General Manager of Waverly Light and Power, joins us to discuss the project.

Following the vote, the cable and telephone company suddenly decided to upgrade their services, which led the town to hold off on a community owned network. But over time, those companies failed to upgrade the networks and Waverly again finds itself struggling with inadequate access.

He explains why Waverly believes it will struggle to bring new jobs to town unless it has a better network - the economic development director of the town hears that directly from businesses making siting decisions.

Waverly already had a ring and leased dark fiber but is now moving forward on a more ambitious project to allow it to thrive in the digital economy. We previously wrote about Waverly here.

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

This show is 13 minutes long and can be played below on this page or subscribe via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed. Search for us in iTunes and leave a positive comment!

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

Thanks to Eat at Joe's for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.