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Muscatine, Iowa, Upgrading to FTTH

Muscatine Power & Water (MP&W) announced in late November that it will upgrade its municipal hybrid fiber coaxial (HFC) communications network to an FTTH network. The upgrade will allow Muscatine to offer gigabit speeds. Construction is set to begin in 2016; the FTTH network is scheduled to go live in 2017.

According to the press release, the community hopes to capitalize on the new technology for economic development opportunities, better residential services, and replace an aging system with future proof infrastructure. From the press release [PDF]:

Consideration was also given to two other plans that would have either maintained or incrementally improved the existing HFC system. As stewards of the public trust, the Board of Trustees felt the other options were costly short-term fixes and that FTTH was clearly the superior option.

“Tonight’s decision assures that Muscatine Power and Water will continue to be a leader in telecommunications,” said LoBianco, “the new system will be able meet the bandwidth needs of the community for years to come while reducing maintenance and improving reliability. It ensures that the communications capabilities in Muscatine are as good as in any large city which enjoys the benefits of FTTH technology.”

Muscatine sits in the far southeast corner of the state and is home to approximately 29,000 people. The community established a municipal water utility in 1900, an electric utility in 1922, and its communications utility in 1997. According to the press release, the community was unhappy with the previous incumbent and an overwhelming majority of local voters elected to establish what is now called MachLink. The network offers video and Internet access.

A Muscatine Journal article reporting on a recent meeting of the Board of Water, Electric, and Communications Trustees notes that the project will be funded with an interdepartmental loan, one of the three most common funding mechanisms. (For more on funding municipal networks, check out our fact sheet [PDF].)

The article also reported that the communications utility posted a $64,000 profit in October which was higher than expected. In fact,  the entire year has been better than expected, even though revenues were down: 

The communications utility posted profit of $64,134 in October, compared to the budgeted profit of $43,928. A 3.7 percent decrease in revenue was driven by a lower number of cable television subscribers, but expenses were lower due to lower programming fees. A loss of $26,723 was budgeted for the year through October. Instead, profit of $470,960 was posted.

Decorah Fiber Network Wins Civic Award

The town of Decorah, Iowa, population 8,000, lies along the winding banks of the Iowa River. So close to the river, in fact, that in 2008 its floodwaters swamped parts of the town, including the emergency operations center. That unfortunate event got city leaders thinking about how to ensure secure and redundant communications in future emergencies. The city, county, and school district decided to partner on a fiber optic network build that would meet their shared needs.

The resulting project, called the Decorah Metronet, has lead to the city being named an “All-Star Community” by the Iowa League of Cities. The award was given last month in recognition of Decorah’s innovative policies, and specifically singled out the fiber optic network for its contributions to public safety, cost savings, and intergovernmental cooperation. The award is given each year “based on innovative efforts in areas such as urban renewal, development, preservation, service sharing or quality of life improvements.”

Completed in the fall of 2013, Metronet boasts an 11-mile, 144-strand fiber optic loop. It connects 18 facilities belonging to six different anchor institutions: the city of Decorah, Winneshiek County, Decorah Community Schools, Luther College, the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, and the Winneshiek Medical Center. Metronet not only provides redundancy and savings on connectivity costs, but data center services and offsite backup for its member institutions as well. 

When the network went live last November, City Manager Chad Bird emphasized its economic potential and indicated it would eventually offer extensions to individuals and businesses: 

"I see the Metronet fiber being an economic development tool for our community -- having it in place and having excess fiber available for the commercial industrial segment of our economy. I can think of technology heavy business -- call centers or data centers - that might appreciate having excess fiber capacity."

The project was the recipient of a $520,000 federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant in 2010 which provided the bulk of the initial construction budget, although each anchor institution contributed $75,000 in matching funds over three years as well. 

Congratulations to Decorah, and notch another victory for Iowa’s rural community network movement. 

Spencer Municipal Utilities Expands Upgrade to Fiber in Iowa

Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) in Iowa is expanding an upgrade project to bring fiber to approximately 2,000 additional premises. A little over a year ago, we reported on the switch from coax cable to fiber for 700 municipal network customers with no rate increase. According to the Spencer Daily Reporter, the original project is almost completed; the expanded upgrade will cost approximately $4.5 million.

Amanda Gloyd, marketing and community relations manager, told the Daily Reporter:

Since SMU first began offering Internet service to customers the amount used by customers has increased and we expect to see that continue. For example, the average peak usage from customers in the fall of 2010 was 125MB and today it averages around 800MB with maximums over 1,200 MB. The project to convert the whole town of Spencer will take several years and we continue to develop plans for future projects.

In April, the SMU Board of trustees approved a modest rate increase for video and Internet access to help defray increased costs for video content and increased demand on the system. The last time rates went up for video service was early 2013; residential Internet access rates have remained the same since November 2011.

New rates went into effect on June 1. Internet access rates range from $20 per month for 1 Mbps/256 Kbps to $225 per month for 100 Mbps/10 Mbps. Basic level video service begins at $14 per month; "Basic Plus" is $50.75 per month. Digital service and a range of channel choices are available as add-ons.

SMU also provides voice and partners with T-Mobile to provide wireless phone service in the community. The network began serving customers in 2000.

Spencer, population 11,300, is located in the northwest section of the state. In the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #13, Chris spoke with Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (IAMU). Dean shared a story about Hansen's Clothing, a local upscale clothier in Spencer. Thanks to the presence of the SMU network, Hansen's was able to expand its sales to the online marketplace. Hansen's was struggling until it obtained the ability to reach clientele in New York and Los Angeles. The fresh business allowed Hansen's to flourish.

Davenport, Iowa, Releases RFP for Feasibility Study

Davenport recently issued an RFP, hoping to hire a vendor to complete a feasibility study. The community wants to learn more about connectivity options that build on its current fiber assets.

According to a May 2014 Government Technology article by Colin Wood, the city has installed fiber throughout the community over the past decade. CIO Rob Henry told Wood:

“For years, residents and businesses have been asking us to do this,” Henry said. “We always knew we were going to get to this point.”

Henry goes on to note that current services from incumbents in Davenport are not sufficient for economic development. The first step will be to connect businesses then follow with fiber to each premise.

Davenport's population is approximately 103,000. During the 70s and 80s, manufacturing was the predominent industry but today tech firms are moving into the area. It is considered part of the Quad Cities region, midway between Chicago and Des Moines from east to west and the Twin Cities and St. Louis from north to south.

According to the article, government facilities began using fiber first, with schools, hospitals, and parks following. The network saves Davenport $400,000 per year because the city serves its own telecommunications needs rather than buying service from a provider.

Wood reported that the city has spoken to CenturyLink and Mediacom; Chris told GovTech:

It’s good that Davenport is trying to cooperate with local Internet service providers (ISP), Mitchell said, but it’s unlikely to produce much substance because, in some cases, ISPs will attempt to starve the municipality for customers. “Every local government at first tries to work with incumbent providers,” said Mitchell, adding that, “my thinking is the city is not going to get a whole lot out of trying to work with them.”

The feasibility study will include several components, including a business case needs analysis, an evaluation of Davenport's current fiber optic capabilities, and recommendations. Bids are due in mid-July; the RFP is available online [PDF].

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.