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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.

Billy Ray on the Origins of the First Muni Broadband Network: Community Broadband Bits Episode #74

Last month, we unveiled a video teaser of our interviews in Glasgow, Kentucky over the summer regarding its municipal broadband network. This week our podcast features a few clips from those interviews with Billy Ray, the Superintendent of Glasgow's Electric Plant Board.

He offers more context on the history of their network, including how they became "savvy marketers" when faced with stiff competition from Telescripts - a cable company that cared nothing for Glasgow until they dared to build a rival system operated for community benefit.

He details how they began producing local content and the surprisingly most popular show they developed - what would eventually come to be known as "reality TV."

We thank Media Working Group, our partners in this documentary for the high quality interviews.

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 10 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.

GRUCom Gives Gainesville Gigabit Broadband

Gainesville Regional Utilities (GRU) has been deploying fiber in the north-central Florida home to the University of Florida (UF) since the late 1990s. We briefly mentioned them last year when Gig.U teamed up with GRUCom, GRU’s telecom division, to connect neighborhoods and businesses surrounding the University with fiber broadband. We’ve since taken a deeper look at GRUCom’s work and like what we see.

GRUCom was born after the FCC reclaimed the spectrum GRU used for microwave control of its SCADA systems. GRU naturally switched to fiber, and in the process of running lines for its utilities, it ran into crews doing the same for Shands Hospital, part of the University. Realizing the substantial demand for fiber broadband across the county, GRU created GRUCom to serve that demand more efficiently.

GRUCom Director, Ted Kellerman, points out that, as an enterprise division of GRU, GRUCom has a mandate to generate profit. This essentially means that the network only expands on a business case basis, so prices can vary across customers depending on connection costs. Despite this constraint, GRUCom manages to provide reliable high-speed data services at reasonable prices. 

GRUCom connects 100 public facilities including government, fire department, utilities and Alachua County Schools and Libraries. All facilities are on redundant fiber rings with route diversity and 10-Gbps capacity. Seven locations receive 1 Gbps service while the rest take either 10 or 100 Mbps. The average cost for 10 Mbps connections is $400 and $900 for the 100-Mbps links.

GATORNET

While GRUCom doesn’t serve residential customers directly (with a few exceptions), it does offer bulk Internet access to apartment complexes where many students live. As Mr. Kellerman explained it, GRUCom strives to fill growing demand for high-speed broadband from students who come to Gainesville, a Tier 2 market , from homes in Tier 1 markets where high-speed options are more readily available. GRUCom’s response is GATORNET, a 50 Mbps Internet access package that retails for $29.95 per month. This beats most Tier 1 market prices for comparable services, many of which advertise “up to 50 Mbps” over crowded cable networks but deliver only a fraction of that speed most of the time.

GRUCom brings another key benefit of community networks to Gainesville - local control accommodating local needs. When the music streaming service Grooveshark, started by two UF students, took off, its need for bandwidth exploded. Director Ted Kellerman recalls having regular discussions with Grooveshark’s founders during those times and making arrangements to get them the bandwidth they needed without breaking their startup budget. That’s what a community network is all about - meeting local needs.

Thomasville Removes Local Tax, Citing Strong Broadband Revenues

Thomasville is one of six cities served by Community Network Services (CNS) in rural southwest Georgia. We’ve covered Thomasville and CNS in the past, highlighting the benefits of reliable high-speed broadband in these remote rural communities. But one benefit we haven’t covered yet is quite remarkable - Thomasville residents have been paying zero fire tax thanks in large part to revenues from CNS. The City’s fire tax first hit zero in 2012 and was recently maintained there by a Thomasville City Council vote in September.

Thomasville feeds its General Fund with net income (what the private sector would call profit) from its utility services. For 2013, this net income is estimated to reach $8.5 million. What’s more, Thomasville residents enjoy utility prices below the state average. So nobody can complain the City is taking advantage of utility customers by charging excessive rates.

According to a recent Public Service Commission survey, Thomasville residents pay $3.32 per month below the state average per 1,000 kilowatt hours of electricity. And CNS customers who bundle services see annual savings of up to $420. It’s a true win-win - residents get affordable utilities and the City applies the net income to running public services like the police and fire departments, lowering property taxes in the process.

The result is millions in tax savings for Thomasville residents since 2009, when the City set its sights on phasing out the fire tax. In that year, the City collected $1.7-million in fire taxes. In 2010, the City dropped the rate to bring in $995,000. And in 2011, the last year a fire tax was levied, $610,000 was taxed. Based on the 2009 fire tax collection, Thomasville residents have been spared almost $5.2-million in fire taxes since 2010. Speaking about the zero fire tax accomplishment in 2012, Thomasville Mayor, Max Beverly, said “Without the City's enterprise funds like Electric and CNS, we would not have been able to meet this goal.”

CNS is remarkable for another reason. It represents a high degree of collaboration among multiple cities in different counties - a model which could help more rural communities build successful networks. Thomasville could have built a network on its own, but it saw greater benefit in combining forces with nearby municipalities, despite the extra coordination effort involved. The added scale and cost sharing afforded by this model likely played a big role in the benefits Thomasville has reaped from CNS. Rural communities, take note.

Dublin, Georgia: Offering Connectivity to Businesses, Schools, Government Since 1999

Dublin, home to 16,000 people, is also home to a network that snakes through the city and parts of Laurens County. In addition to a natural gas utility that serves the region, the city provides connectivity to two area school districts and local businesses. We contacted Guy Mullis, IT Director for the City of Dublin.

The fiber optic network was installed in 1999 to provide connectivity for the two separate school systems in the community, Laurens County Schools and Dublin City Schools. The school districts needed better connectivity because dial-up was the only option at the time. The school districts could not afford the cost of installing their own fiber networks.

The City used its own funds to construct a network that is 85% aerial. Mullis was not an employee of the City at the time, but he estimates the network cost approximately $1.5 - $2 million. He also believes the funds were a combination of capital improvement funds and economic development funds. From the start, the plan has been to serve the schools but also to provide connectivity to spur economic development.

Eight city school facilities and six county school facilities use the network today for connections between buildings. Dublin City Schools have 10 Gbps speeds between facilities; Laurens County Schools have equipment in place for 1 Gbps connections between schools. Both school districts use the Georgia Technology Authority for Internet access.

Once the network was in place, AT&T and Charter Communications began building in Dublin. Mullis says he does not believe AT&T and Charter would have invested in Dublin in 2000 if not for the presence of the community network. He notes that AT&T begin installing DSL in areas of town within a year of the fiber network deployment. 

During the first few years, the City connected its network to the Internet with a 45 Mbps AT&T connection but needs quickly outgrew capacity. The City looked for alternate ways to connect to the Internet. City staff discovered that a major dark fiber backbone ran through Dublin from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Florida. The company that owned the line (the company has since been purchsed by Level 3) allowed Dublin to splice into the dark fiber to connect to Atlanta. The opportunity allowed Dublin to buy bandwidth at Atlanta prices rather than being stuck with massive markups by the few firms that can provide access. The City has since spliced another line to the backbone to achieve redundancy.

In 2006, the City received a grant through the Georgia Telecommunications Authority to expand wi-fi in the community. With matching funds, the community installed over forty wireless access points and now provide wi-fi hotspots within the City. The presence of the fiber network for backhaul helped secure the grant.

Dublin Wi-Fi Logo

Twelve Laurens County and Dublin City facilities connect to the network. The City also uses the network for voice between city facilities, saving significantly by avoiding dedicated phone lines to each building. When new companies consider moving to the community, the ability to work beyond agency silos is a positive factor, says Mullis. Businesses recognize that cooperative government helps them achieve their goals.

There are forty-five business customers including YKK fastening and architectural products and  Farmer's Home Furniture. The network serves a variety of businesses, including banks, CPA firms, law firms, and hospitals. Prior to the deployment, incumbents could not offer the high-speed connections businesses needed. Since the deployment, cable and DSL have come to Dublin, but the City's commercial customers stick with their City service. Mullis believes local businesses appreciate working with a local provider. When a customer calls with an issue, they know exactly who will address the problem. "They are going to talk to me," says Mullis.

The City currently supplies 200 Mbps for Internet traffic; business and government customers share the bandwidth. Businesses with multiple offices in the area like being able to use the network for local traffic rather than sending sensitive data across the open Internet.

We have reported on many Georgia communities in the past (e.g. MonroeLaGrange, and Thomasville). Unlike the states that surround it, the Peach State does not presently impose barriers on local communities that consider publicly owned networks.  In 2013, ALEC affiliated legislators sponsored sponsored HB 282 but failed to revoke local authority. We anticipate the fight will continue into 2014 and beyond.

AT&T and Charter did not get the job done in Dublin so the community took care of themselves. If large incumbents do not find value in a community like Dublin, it is of course their choice to limit investment. But they should not be able to prevent a community from investing in itself.

HB 286 Refined for New Hampshire Legislature

We caught up with Carole Monroe from New Hampshire FastRoads to get an update on what is happening in the legislature this sesssion. We reported last spring on HB 286, intended to allow local communities more decision making power. The bill did not advance last session, but new language may breath new hope into the proposal.

If the bill passes, it will remove restrictions that prevent local governments from bonding to finance broadband infrastructure. This and similar bills have been introduced in the past, but large incumbent providers always seem to stop them.

Monroe tells us that this session the bill clarifies the definition of "open access network." The bill also changes language regarding "unserved and underserved" areas. Now the bill requires municipalities to include areas without "adequate" broadband if they choose to finance through bonds. "Adequate" in the bill language relies on the FCC definition of broadband as it changes over time, currently 4 Mbps download and 1 Mbps upload. The change does not restrict building in all areas as long as some areas without "adequate" coverage are included.

The new language also clarifies that municipal networks built only for government purposes do not have to be part of the open access model. Past versions of the bill questioned application of the open access model to municipal I-Nets.

While some of the language of the bill has changed, the fundamental goals remain the same. Local communities need to make the decision to bond. In order to do so, state barriers must be removed. Current state law only allows bonding for broadband infrastructure under strict criteria which only apply in a fraction of the state. 

Monroe reiterates that the bill intention is also to create a more competitive environment. She noted that the area is already benefitting from a competitive spirit. Broadband pricing proposals to community anchor institutions show significantly lower rates per Mbps. Service level agreements are more favorable to community anchor institutions since the creation of FastRoads.

Representative Charles Townsend told us via email that the House Science, Technology and Energy Committee met in an executive session on November 12. The committee voted to send the amended HB 286 to the House in January with an "Ought to Pass" recommendation. The vote was 13 to 5 in favor.

Bristol Virginia Utilities to Offer Home Management Services

BVU in Bristol is now offering Quantum Home, a security and home management system that uses the community's publicly owned fiber network. The system allows home owners to also manage lights, temperature, and appliances from anywhere using a computer, tablet, or smartphone. For a quick video demo, check out the BVU website.

Installation costs range between $200 to $2,000 for installation and monthly charges are $39.95 - $49.95. Comcast offers a similar service, Xfinity Home, and requires installation fees to be paid in full when the system is installed. BVU plans to allow customers to amortize the installation fees over 12 months if they wish.

BVU launched OptiNet in 2001 and offers reliable triple-play at affordable prices in Bristol and surrounding areas. We talked with Jim Baller about the history of publicly owned networks in Episode #57 and Episode #63 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. BVU's OpiNet played a prominent role as one of the first publicly owned completely fiber triple-play networks.

Tricities.com reporter David McGee recently attended a BVU Board of Directors meeting where management described the new service.

“This is an exciting new service that is actually in the market and we’ve already been selling it,” [Authority interim CEO Mike] Bundy told the board... "It will be not just home security but home automation. It’s cutting-edge technology.”

Washington Post Covers Big Longmont Referendum Victory

Last week, we were excited by the results of Longmont's referendum, but we sure weren't alone. The Washington Post's Brian Fung wrote, "Big Cable may have felled Seattle's mayor, but it couldn't stop this Colo. project.

Our regular readers know that Comcast succeeded in defeating the Longmont measure in 2009 but the electoral would not be swayed by false promises and lies the second time in 2011. This year's proposal asked voters to approve a revenue bond for $45.3 million to speed up a planned expansion, which voters approved 2:1.

Contrary to past experience, Comcast and allies did not launch a full frontal assault in Longmont this year to sway the vote. Fung's article looks at the math for a possible  explanation:

There are 27,000 households in Longmont. Even if the city were to connect all of the eligible homes [close to the fiber ring] to its existing fiber network overnight, it would still reach only 1,100 residences. Cable companies therefore spent over half a million dollars [in 2011] trying to prevent four percent of city households from gaining access to municipal fiber on any reasonable timescale. That's around $600 a home, or six months' worth of Xfinity Triple Play.

Even if the cable companies decide it was not worth the fight in Longmont, they have shown repeatedly that they have cash, will travel. Feung's article describes another 2009 election in which the cable industry spent large to prevent public investment in fiber:

In North St. Paul, Minn., a 2009 ballot measure to let muni fiber move forward was defeated by a resounding 34-point margin. Opposition to the fledgling network, PolarNet, was led by the Minnesota Cable Communications Association. In the weeks leading up to the vote, it and other opposition groups spent some $40,000 campaigning against the measure. MCCA alone contributed more than $15,000 to the effort over the same period.

Comcast also exhibits its willingness to spend money to seat industry-friendly candidates. We reported on coverage in Seattle where Comcast contributed heavily to Sen. Ed Murray who won the Mayoral race. Outgoing Mayor Mike McGinn's policy initiative to bring better Internet access to the community threatened Comcast's position. Comcast denies it, but speculation abounds that McGinn's position on broadband motivated Comcast's direct and PAC contributions to Murray. 

From the Fung article:

But what Longmont's experience does show is how large the gulf is between an incumbent industry that can spend money on a massive scale to promote its interests and advocates of municipal fiber that often lack deep-pocketed allies. Those odds made the triumph of Longmont's municipal fiber backers all the more remarkable.

Postcard to Welcome FCC Chair Tom Wheeler

As part of the Media Action Grassroots Network, we are releasing this postcard and have tweeted it to welcome FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and suggest an action the FCC should take.

Mag-Net Wheeler postcard

Education SuperHighway Wants Better Broadband for Schools - Community Broadband Bits Episode #71

This week's podcast features an interview with Education SuperHighway CEO Evan Marwell to discuss how we can make sure all schools have the Internet access they need to succeed. Education SuperHighway has a plan for connecting all schools with a fiber connection while also decreasing the need for long term federal funding of school connectivity.

We talk about how this can be achieved, as well as the role local ownership can play in ensuring schools get the connectivity they need today and tomorrow without exploding their telecommunications budgets.

This is an important discussion as the FCC is taking comments on how the E-Rate program should be reformed. This is a handy PDF explaining how to submit comments to the FCC on this matter. Education SuperHighway has made a convincing case for its approach and we would encourage any comments that reinforce a preference for local, publicly owned networks as a smart solution.

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 17 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 Mudhoney for the music, licensed using Creative Commons.