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Whitewater Weighs Options for Municipal Broadband

Whitewater, Wisconsin, a city of just under 15,000 people that sits midway between Madison and Milwaukee, is considering its options for establishing a municipal broadband utility. As reported by the local Daily Union newspaper, members of the city council, the community development authority, other local bodies, and the public met this week to hear a feasibility presentation and discussion with Anita Gallucci, a Wisconsin attorney specializing in broadband utilities.

Whitewater already has some public fiber optic infrastructure, having gone live with their gigabit-capable Whitewater Unified School District network last fall. The network joins up with a larger fiber backbone on the nearby University of Wisconsin Whitewater campus, and has allowed Whitewater schools to increase their connection speeds by 1,200 percent while holding costs steady. The city is now looking at options for how to expand the opportunity brought by such high speed access to the broader community.

Tuesday’s meeting focused on two topics: the legal landscape for municipal broadband utilities in Wisconsin, and the varying levels of success that other Wisconsin cities have had with their own networks. On the legal front, Gallucci affirmed that “municipalities can get into the broadband business if they choose to do so,” but then went on to outline the hurdles created by Wisconsin law that make the process more challenging. From the Daily Union article:

Gallucci said that first, the city must prepare a formal report or feasibility study. The report must cover a three-year outlook which addresses revenues derived from constructing, owning, or operating the utility including such things as equipment, maintenance, and personnel requirements.

Given the upfront costs associated with building out a fiber optic network, a report focusing on a three-year outlook is unlikely to cast a favorable light on the project. Like any other significant investment in public infrastructure, municipal networks may take more than three years to break even. If we used that benchmark for roads, we wouldn't have many.

Wisconsin cities must also go through a public hearing and vetting process before voting on final authorization of a municipal utility. There is a shorter route on the books in Wisconsin, but one that effectively gives incumbents a veto:

Gallucci said that cities do not have to follow these steps in very specific circumstances, such as serving an area of the city that does not otherwise have service access; but cities must notify private companies (for example, AT&T, Verizon, or Charter Communications) of that project. However, if those companies say they currently, or plan to in the future, serve those areas, then the steps need to be followed.

It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen if a city like Whitewater were to approach AT&T or Verizon and ask if they have any “plans to expand in the future” that might preempt the building out of a public network.

Wisconsin law is more obliging towards open access networks, according to Gallucci:

She said the steps could be avoided if the city acts as “a wholesaler of broadband services.” By this, she said, the intention would be to build the infrastructure and private companies would use those fibers to provide service.

“That would require the city itself to not provide any service to the end-user,” she explained.

While the legal environment in Wisconsin is generally unfavorable towards municipal broadband utilities, the meeting also highlighted some recent success stories. Reedsburg, which we wrote about here, was touted as the only Wisconsin city offering a “triple play” bundle through its broadband utility. Also mentioned was Sun Prairie, as fellow city seriously considering a FTTH network.

The next step will be for the Whitewater Community Development Agency to bring the issue before the City Council, which the city manager expected to happen “in the very near future.”  

Early Lessons from Longmont - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 106

Longmont is about to break ground on the citywide FTTH gigabit network but it is already offering services to local businesses and a few neighborhoods that started as pilot projects. Vince Jordan, previously a guest two years ago, is back to update us on their progress.

Until recently, Vince was the Telecom Manager for Longmont Power and Communications in Colorado. He has decided to return to his entrepreneurial roots now that the utility is moving forward with the citywide project. But he has such a great voice and presence that we wanted to bring him back to share some stories.

We talk about Longmont's progress and how they dealt with a miscalculation in costs that forced them to slightly modify prices for local businesses shortly after launching the service. And finally, we discuss the $50/month gigabit service and how Longmont has been able to drive the price so low.

You can read our full coverage of Longmont from this tag.

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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

Gainesville Plans Gigabit Ring for City and Businesses in Texas Town

The Gainesville City Council recently approved a plan to deploy a fiber ring throughout the Texas town of 16,000. The network will connect municipal facilities and offer gigabit connectivity to local businesses. Gainesville is located seven miles from the Oklahoma border in Cooke County.

According to City Manager Barry Sullivan, the planned route will provide access to 95% of local businesses. Sullivan told KXII:

"That is key to economic development now. People used to look at streets, water and sewer. Now the first thing a lot of companies look at is the communication infrastructure because that is more limited than streets, water and sewer in most communities," said Sullivan.

The project will cost $525,000; the City will pay $425,000 and the Economic Development Board will contribute the remaining $100,000.

Watch the news video or read the story for more information.

Another Colorado Community May Reclaim Local Telecommunications Authority

Boulder's City Council is considering November ballot question to restore local authority for municipal telecommunications services. The measure, if passed, will create an exemption to the 2005 Colorado law allowing Boulder to better use its existing fiber optic infrastructure.

Apparently, the Boulder community has a self-reliant streak. This is not the first time the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has reported on the community of 97,000. John Farrell, Director of the Democratic Energy initiative, has followed the grassroots campaign to establish a city-owned electric utility in Boulder.

The Daily Camera reports that City Council staff, in a memo to Members, recommend the community seek authority to make use of existing assets. The City owns an extensive network of conduit that it began developing in the 1990s. Boulder has aggressively expanded the network, leasing it to private partners and using the space for a fiber I-Net to connect over 50 municipal facilities.

The Boulder Research and Administration Network (BRAN) serves the City, the University of Colorado, the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. Each of the four entities shared equally in funding the $1.2 million eleven mile network. Boulder is an administering partner for BRAN and hopes to capitalize on that relationship even further.

Approximately 10% of Boulder's residents have home-based businesses, reports City Council staff. The community ranks high in the concentration of software engineers, innovators, and scientists. Businesses with less than 100 employees comprise 97% of firms in Boulder. Local surveys indicate the business community is hungry for better services. From the Daily Camera article:

[Director of Information Technology Don] Ingle said the city has no concrete plans in place to pursue partners, but he believes there will be a lot of interest if Boulder can get the authority.

"The broadband capacity currently offered by the private sector is not large enough," he said. "Given all the business innovation going on with the tech center, that level of connectivity would be a huge asset."

In the past, City leaders hoped to catch Google's attention but the election successes in Longmont, Centennial, and Montrose have inspired Boulder to take action rather than wait indefinitely. Boulder policy advisor Carl Castillo, told the Daily Camera city leaders believe the 2005 law poisoned the city's chances of becoming a Google Fiber community.

"The way we look at it is that our taxpayers have paid for these assets, and we're not able to leverage these assets to offer higher-speed Internet at lower cost," Castillo said. "Right now, we can't really engage in these discussions. We're really going to be behind the ball if we don't have this authority."

Erwin, Tennessee Bringing Fiber to Businesses, Residents

Erwin, population 6,000, is planning a pilot project to bring fiber to downtown homes and businesses, reports local media. The project may be lit by November, serving approximately 1,200 premises.

According to the Johnson City Press, Erwin Utilities has already developed a plan to offer Internet and phone service:

The network would offer customers high-speed broadband Internet and telephone services. [Erwin Utilities General Manager Lee] Brown said the project would offer initial Internet of 100 Mbps with the future potential of providing up to 1 Gbps. Brown said a service such as the one Erwin Utilities intends to offer is typically only available in large metropolitan areas.

“Our beginning package is basically the equivalent of what the fastest speed available is currently,” he said.

Erwin Utilities will use the infrastructure for electric system demand response, meter reading, outage reporting, improved communications and operations of electric, wastewater and water equipment, and future load management. If customers are happy with the service in the pilot project area, Erwin Utilities hopes to deploy the technology throughout its entire service area.

Brown told the Press that the municipal utility began investigating the possibility of municipal broadband about 15 years ago, but until now the community could not afford the investment. Costs have gone down bringing the project to approximately $925,000.

The Erwin Utilities Board approved the plan but the Tennessee Comptroller needs to review it. Next the community will hold a public hearing then on to final approval by the Board of Mayor and Alderman.

Chanute City Commission Approves FTTH Plan

Chanute City Commission decided on June 9th to take the next step to bring ftth to the community; Commissioners voted unanimously to pursue and finalize funding to deploy a municipal network.

The City's current fiber network provides connectivity to schools, hospitals, electric utility and municipal facilities, the local college, and several businesses. Chanute has worked since 1984 to incrementally grow its network with no borrowing or bonding. Plans to expand the publicly owned infrastructure to every property on the electric grid began to take shape last year.

At a work session in May, Director of Utilities Larry Gates presented several possible scenarios, associated costs, and a variety of payback periods. The favored scenario includes Internet only from the City, with video and voice to be offered by a third party via the network. Residential symmetrical gigabit service will range from $40 - $50 depending on whether or not the subscriber lives in the city limits. Commercial service will be $75 per month. Advanced metering infrastructure will also be an integral part of the network.

The Commission authorized the pursuit of up to $14 million to get the project rolling.

Wisconsin Local Governments Collaborate for Schools, City, and County

Sheboygan County, the City of Sheboygan, and the Sheboygan Area School District (SASD) plan to collaborate to deploy a fiber network. According to an article in the Sheboygan Press, all three entities seek cost savings and higher capacity connections.

Approximately, 49,000 people live in the City of Sheboygan; there are 10,000 students attending SASD. Over 115,000 people live in the County located on the western shore of Lake Michigan.

The County, the City, and SASD will split the cost of constructing the ring, approximately $1.4 million. Each entity will then pay for laterals to connect its facilities to the ring. The total to construct the ring and connect each entities' facilities will be approximately $3.58 million. 

To build its laterals, SASD will pay $865,000. The District will save approximately $220,000 per year on connectivity fees, paying back the total investment ($1.4 million + $865,000) in about 10 years even without putting any value on the considerable benefit of much high capacity connections. When factoring in the reality that their connectivity fees would undoubtedly increase signficantly under the status quo arrangement and the much higher capacity connections, the payback period will be even shorter than 10 years.

The district is already providing a device for each student and its current connection is struggling to meet the demand. The state has a program, TEACH Wisconsin, which subsidizes the high cost of leasing connections from existing providers but given the high rates often charged by a company like AT&T, it can only go so far.

Wayne Eschen, information services coordinator, said the district pays about $220,000 per year for its online capacity...

“(TEACH Wisconsin) is limited,” Eschen said. “If you go beyond that, you pay full retail for it. We’ve exceeded the base that’s available to us and we’re now paying retail as well. As the need continues to increase, the retail cost goes up substantially.”

Meanwhile, the County now pays approximately $29,000 per year for just 25 Mbps Internet access. They estimate they will pay $9,000 per year for gigabit connectivity via the new infrastructure. We do not know how much the County currently pays for connectivity beyond Internet access but it will pay approximately $455,000 in one time fees to connect laterals to its 13 - 14 facilities.

The City has plans for its faster connections:

“What we want to do is look at different ways we can get them connected with high speed and yet have it cost-manageable,” [IT Director David] Augustin said. “If we go with those avenues (the current system), we’ll still never get the speed capacity that we would with fiber and yet we’d still have to pay the monthly charge.”

One thing the city is especially interested in is conducting some fire department training by video conference, which would require much faster speeds than they now have.

The City expects to pay approximately $664,000 to establish connections to a future network.

Apparently, a road project has inspired the partners to move forward this summer. They have determined that burying conduit as part of that project will reduce the costs by $400,000. They hope to have the network completed and lit by 2016.

A Short CLIC Background - Community Broadband Bits Podcast Episode 103

This week, Lisa and I discuss the Coalition for Local Internet Choice, CLIC, that was announced last week. This is a short episode that aims to answer some of the common questions about CLIC, including why we felt it was necessary to create this coalition now.

You can still sign up to become a member of CLIC if you agree with our statement of principles that these important decisions should be made by communities, not preempted by states.

We are compiling a long list of those that support local authority - businesses, trade groups, utilities, community organizations, local governments, and more!

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 8 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 Waylon Thornton for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Bronco Romp."

FCC Chairman Wheeler on Removing Anti-Competitive Bans on Muni Networks

If the people, acting through their elected local governments, want to pursue competitive community broadband, they shouldn’t be stopped by state laws promoted by cable and telephone companies that don’t want that competition.

I believe that it is in the best interests of consumers and competition that the FCC exercises its power to preempt state laws that ban or restrict competition from community broadband. Given the opportunity, we will do so.

"Localism Over Consolidation" Discussion Streaming from New America Foundation

If you missed Chris in D.C. at the New America Foundation on May 28th, you can still catch the action via the archived presentation.

Chris joined Joanne Hovis, Will Aycock, and Catharine Rice to discuss "Localism Over Consolidation: An Exploration of Public Broadband Options." New America Foundation writes:

Today, more and more communities are thinking of broadband as a local issue. Even large cities like Baltimore, Seattle and New York have recently begun public discussions about ways to improve broadband services and what role the local government could play in that improvement. Current technology policy debates about net neutrality and the potential Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger mean it is more important than ever that local governments play a more active role in ensuring their communities do not get left behind in the digital age.

New America’s Open Technology Institute presented a discussion of various approaches to local investment in broadband. The panel featured a diverse set of experts on public broadband networks and projects, including the manager of a municipal fiber network in Wilson, NC. Panelists discussed different approaches communities have taken so far and share thoughts on what steps other local governments can take going forward to support access to affordable and high-speed broadband.

The discussion runs just under 90 minutes.

Video: 
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