In January, Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) announced they would begin connecting businesses located within 500 feet of the existing network. As we reported, local businesses were chomping at the bit to get hooked up and enjoy the high-speed next generation network. Even without efforts at marketing or advertising, more businesses have added themselves to the queue. LPC will present the formal business plan for expanding the network to the City Council on May 14th. Tony Kindelspire recently reported on the race to get on LPC's network in the Longmont Times-Call:
"We are bringing to council a business plan to build out all of Longmont," [Vince] Jordan, [Broadband Services Manager], said. "It's the whole enchilada."
The fact that there has so far been only limited rollout is due to economics. Currently, the installations are being paid for from a reserve fund that Longmont Power has built up over the years leasing portions of its fiber-optic loop to entities such as Longmont United Hospital and a third-party provider that services the school district. Those leases bring in about $250,000 annually, Jordan said.
For 2013, the Longmont City Council authorized LPC to use $375,000 of that reserve fund to begin connecting businesses and residents to the loop.
This model works, but does not connect everyone fast enough for their liking:
To expedite the build-out, extra up-front dollars will have to be allocated, but where those dollars will come from is yet to be determined, Jordan said, adding that ultimately, the decision will lie with City Council.
Right now, Longmont will cover the initial cost of connecting subscribers except in cases of extraordinarily high cost cases. If it would cost $10,000 to install but the payback to the utility in 2.5 years is only $6,000, a customer would have to cover the $4,000 difference presently. While there are over 1,300 businesses with in 500 feet of the network, connection costs vary depending on proximity to roads, structures, and geography.
Jordan notes LPC's first priority is to boost economic development:
"We're really focused on economic development, so the ones that will put the most dollars (they save on broadband costs) back into their business, those are the ones we're working with first."
Businesses and organizations that are on the network appreciate fast symmetrical service, affordability, and the fact that they get service from the city rather than a commercial provider:
"I emailed Vince asking when I could get on," said Michael Jurey, network/telecommunication specialist for Longmont Clinic. "Luckily, the loop ran right by Longmont Clinic. On our side of the street no less."
Jurey said the city's network is three times faster than the speeds the clinic got before at a cost savings of $1,600 a month.
"We use it for two reasons," said one of the other three owners [of the Pumphouse, a restaurant and brewpub in Longmont], Dave D'Epagnier. "No. 1 is our business functions -- we process credit cards with it ... just normal day-to-day business activities. Plus, it's a big place, and we could have 50 customers that are using the broadband all at once."
The other thing that attracted him and the other owners was that the business was finally able to tap into the city-owned network after so many years of having to buy high-speed service from a commercial provider. And that is all thanks to the voters, D'Epagnier said.
According to a Scott Rochat article in the Times-Call, the business plan for a FTTH network to anyone in town is possible within three years with a $41 million investment. That plan eliminates the usual $500 - $15,000 hook-up fee:
"We have to be competitive," said Tom Roiniotis, director of LPC. "None of the incumbents charge an install fee, so we won't as well."
Uptown Services prepared the business plan and included residential fees from $39.95 for 10 Mbps to $99.95 for 100 Mbps for Internet. Residential Internet would be symmetrical. Business rates would range from $49.95 for 20 Mbps/5 Mbps to $499.95 for 250 Mbps symmetrical.
If LPC wants to pursue a triple play offering, Uptown estimates it would cost another $6 million. At this point, LPC does not consider triple play a good investment:
"The young generation that's active now, they don't watch TV in the conventional way," Jordan said. At a recent presentation, he said, when he asked a college student how often he watched traditional scheduled TV programming, the response was "Never."
According to a survey conducted for the business plan, about 68 percent of respondents said they would either definitely or probably switch to the city for Internet service if it were cheaper than existing services. Only about 20 percent said they had a "triple play" or wanted it.
Uptown's estimates were based on a take rate of 35% and the business plan estimates a broadband utility to be in the black within four years and to pay for itself in ten years.
Possible funding mechanisms include:
Certificates of participation, using city property as collateral
A bond issue backed by sales tax
A bond issue backed by electrical revenue
If the city council considers the plan favorable, it will go to the city finance department for more detailed review.
Here is a quick video from LPC, as technicians install connections at the Pumphouse:
Ottawa, located in east central Kansas, recently launched its own municipal fiber network. The community of 13,000 in Franklin County watched nearby Chanute build and establish its own broadband utility. Ottawa plans a similar incremental strategy. Both communities boast strong farming traditions and host industrial employers that could not get what they needed from the existing providers.
I spoke with Chuck Bigham, IT Director for the City of Ottawa, who gave me some nuts and bolts on the network. I also touched base with City Manager Richard U. Nienstedt, both are heavily involved in the establishment of the network.
Like in Chanute, local leaders have long nourished a vision for better connectivity. In recent years, they realized the vision was not only attainable, but necessary for the community to thrive.
Approximately seventeen miles of fiber, installed by USD 290 and Franklin County in the 1990s, was already in the ground when the project began. Students and staff connected to the Internet and linked the 8-10 school district facilities via its fiber network. These pre-existing resources became the backbone of Ottawa's new utility. Cooperation between the City Municipal Utility, USD 290, and Franklin County facilitated the configuration of the new network. Ottawa now provides business Internet access, expanded educational opportunities, and a higher level of service than was previously available.
Two years ago, the City and its Chamber of Commerce reached out to major businesses to determine the need for broadband. They found businesses in Ottawa were connected through existing providers, but were unhappy with price and level of service. The community's industrial park seemed especially disadvantaged. Businesses needed better upload speeds than the existing T1s, which ran up to $600 per month. While DS3 connections were available, they were unaffordable and there was no level of service between the two options. Businesses could not convince AT&T to offer something they could afford and, as Bigham noted, the telecom giant appeared to be "milking the cow."
This is a common complaint among communities - the big national telephone and cable companies often refuse to upgrade their level of service because the lack of alternatives for local business connectivity means the firms cannot switch away from the existing provider.
The City approach USD 290 and Franklin County and proposed a partnership. The City would use several available fibers on the existing infrastructure to serve as the community network backbone. The School District and the County would still own the fiber asset already in place, while the City would own any added segments and the routers and switches to make it work. The City and its utility would support and manage the network 24/7. The school board and county commission approved the proposal in the fall of 2012.
The School District now pays the City $3,000 per month with monitoring and network support from the City all day, every day. USD 290 gets double the bandwidth it used to get from AT&T, when it paid nearly $6,000 per month for a DS3 connection. Paying less, but getting double, seems like a very smart investment.
Ottawa followed Chanute's example by providing a floor instead of a ceiling as the foundation for service. In other words, customers contract for minimum capacity but are allowed to burst to whatever capacity is available at any given time. For example, the School District will soon connect with a minimum 250 Mbps with the ability to burst to 500 Mbps.
Over the course of ten years, Ottawa has spent less than $500,000 on its next-generation community owned network. All the revenue from the network goes back into maintenance and upgrades. City government facilities and two electric substations, which used to connect only to each other, now link to the main power plant via fiber.
Neosho Community College's Ottawa Campus connects to the network. Ottawa Cooperative Association recently joined the network to take advantage of the fast upload speeds needed to send data rich reports and get timely information on grain prices. The Coop previously had a slower DSL connection. Bigham and Nienstedt both expect to see more business customers when the network expands to the Northeast Ottawa Industrial Park, the next expansion project.
Nienstadt tells us via email:
Our main emphasis has been to use it [the network utility] as a recruiting and retention tool and be able to say that, "We have your broadband needs solved and you do not have to worry about that issue when locating in Ottawa, Kansas." Most assuredly, some of the businesses have been able to benefit from lower broadband costs since we started surveying and talking about a fiber optic utility. That, quite frankly, was one of our goals.
"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.
Morristown, Tennessee, is one of very few communities where anyone in town can immediately get a gigabit delivered to their home and business. General Manager and CEO Jody Wigington of the municipal electric utility, Morristown Utility Systems, joins me to discuss why they built their network and how it is has benefited the community.
The network has also attracted businesses that otherwise might not consider the community for an investment. Competing providers have kept their prices lower than they do in communities with less competition, a tremendous benefit. MUS Fiber keeps more than $3 million in the community each year. Just think of that -- distributing $3 million among the residents of a community each year. That is real money that helps boost the local businesses.
We also talk about the origin of the system, how it has benefited the electric utility, and advice for other communities that are considering their own network investments. Read our additional coverage of MUS Fiber.
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The following news report suggests that some in Knoxville, Tennessee, are starting to get a little jealous of the incredible FTTH network built by Chattanooga's publicly owned electric company. A number of Knoxville businesses are finding it more convenient to expand and add jobs in Chattanooga, where access to the Internet is faster and more affordable due to public investments.
Knoxville is located 100 miles northeast of Chattanooga. And 100 miles to the northeast of Knoxville is Bristol, Virginia, which has also been seeing significant job gains as a result of its publicly owned fiber-optic network that stretches into most of southwestern Virginia. In short, Knoxville should start worrying about its future and broadband competitiveness.
The Chattanooga Times Free Press discusses the state of the economy in Hamilton County. They have seen impressive new jobs (credit to the EPB Fiber network) but some existing companies have had to continue downsizing in the weak economy. From the article:
Chattanooga’s high-speed Internet service already is showing some promise. The Knoxville-based Claris Networks, a cloud-based IT provider, recently acquired two Chattanooga IT companies — SRC Technology and Allied IT — and has expanded the staff in its Freight Depot office downtown to eight employees.
“Connectivity for us is about eight to 10 times cheaper in Chattanooga than it is in Knoxville and other cities,” said Dan Thompson, manager of advanced infrastructure service and product development for Claris. “We see a great potential for growth in Chattanooga.”
Interestingly, Knoxville's public power utility had previously considered a public investment in a fiber network but decided against it. Not every publicly owned utility can duplicate EPB's success in Chattanooga, but most could if they gave it the effort demanded of perhaps the most important piece of the future economy: fast, affordable, and reliable access to the Internet.
Chattanooga and other similar pioneers are incredibly open when others look to them for lessons. So places like Knoxville have a choice: sit back and watch as innovative industries move to innovative cities or invest in yourself.
While critics charge that municipalities "crowd out" private investment, the reality in Florida shows that where municipalities invest in broadband, there are more private providers of broadband services. Municipalities frequently sell broadband services to private communications firms, and the result is a more competitive and symbiotic environment that benefits both consumers and the private sector.