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"We Should Build A Muni In Vallejo"

The Times Herald in Vallejo posted a letter to the editor in early May from Chris Platzer; we want to share it with our readers. There are approximately 115,000 people in Vallejo and people like Platzer are looking for ways to better connectivity options. In the article, Platzer suggests his community take advantage of several well-considered steps to deploy its own fiber network.

Platzer suggests the community begin with an investment to create a network to connect a series of public facilities. He notes savings from discontinued leased lines could then be reinvested to incrementally expand the initial investment. He suggests maximizing use of fiber and conduit planted years ago; fiber planted with state funds to create and intelligent traffic system.

This approach would allow Vallejo to build a vast fiber optic network without issuing debt. The plan should encourage extra fiber, so when high tech companies ask for access to its fiber, Vallejo can oblige.

As more businesses request access, i.e. Kaiser and the CHP call center, a city fiber network can develop various ways to meet these needs. It can lease dark fiber to businesses that want it, including other carriers that want to connect their customers. 

Platzer also notes that Vallejo could lease infrastructure to ISPs to generate revenue for the network and the general fund. A muni would open up other possibilities for  and improve access for the community at large.

The accumulated savings could fund many public amenities, including free WiFi through out the City. In addition to synchronizing all the traffic signals in the City, the addition of video cameras on the network would assist public safety, and drivers would have several ways of getting real-time parking information. The telecommunications services the city could make available (telephone, cable and broadband) to local residents and/or business would have a profoundly positive impact on the General Fund and do much to enhance Vallejo as a "digital" destination!

We published a case study on how Santa Monica built a network using this very model.

Connecting Arlington, From Anchors to Businesses - Community Broadband Bits Podcast #97

Located just outside Washington DC, Arlington is the dense, high tech county that houses the Pentagon. This week's Community Broadband Bits podcast features Arlington County CIO Jack Belcher. Having already built a top-notch fiber network to connect community anchor institutions, the County is now preparing to improve connectivity for local businesses.

We discuss a range of topics from how local governments can take advantage of all kinds of capital projects to expand conduit and fiber assets to how Arlington County responded to 9/11 as it happened.

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 30 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

ConnectArlington to Offer Dark Fiber Services to Local Businesses in Virginia

We last reported on Arlington County, Virginia, in the summer of 2012 when they were into phase II of their publicly owned fiber network deployment. At the time, the community planned to use the dark fiber network for public schools, traffic management, and public safety. That plan will now include local businesses.

ARLnow reports that ConnectArlington will work with a third-party consultant to manage dark fiber leasing to multiple service providers. They will also dedicate a portion of the dark fiber for government use. The County expects the project to be complete by early 2015. From the press release:

Additionally, the County will work directly with property owners and various businesses to ensure they have the opportunity for this high-speed and secure fiber line via direct access to buildings. Arlington universities, research centers, government buildings and Federal agencies will also be connected – providing additional collaboration opportunities at unprecedented levels of speed and security.

When the Arlington County government developed the network, they installed additional conduit for future use. A public safety initiative to connect several radio towers allowed ConnectArlington to expand the anticipated footprint. An Intelligent Traffic System (ITS), funded with a federal grant, required street excavation so the county installed additional conduit and fiber. Arlington County also took advantage of an electric power grid upgrade, co-locating dark fiber along the grid placed by the local electric provider.

Other communities have taken a multi-faceted long-term approach, considering their own needs with an eye on economic development. Capitalizing on unique opportunites can reduce costs, speed up a deployment, and allow the local community to better manage their projects.

Sandy, Oregon and Mount Vernon, Washington have maintained smart conduit policies for years. Developers are required to install conduit to reduce later costs. In Santa Monica, City Net began as a way to meet the needs of government and now offer lit and dark fiber to businesses. (Learn more about Santa Monica in Chris' interview on episode 90 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast or download our report.)

As smart communities realize broadband's increasing role in economic vitality, they explore local options. Arlington County takes a gigantic step forward as it opens up ConnectArlington to the business community. Also from the press release:

"World class cities are not only creating fiber networks to meet their own enterprise needs, but are also making dark fiber available to high technology companies to keep or attract these companies to their communities,” said Professor Joseph Pelton, Chair of the Arlington County IT Advisory Commission.

Jack Belcher, CIO of Arlington County's Department of Technology Services Leadership Team, sums it up:

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OnLight Aurora Partners with the City for Better Connectivity in Illinois

Nine years ago, Aurora officials decided it was time to reduce telecommunications costs and upgrade to a faster, more reliable network. The local government built a fiber network to service municipal government, but developed long-term ideas for the network to benefit the entire community.

Nonprofit OnLight Aurora now uses the City's fiber optic network to provide high-speed connectivity to educational institutions, businesses, healthcare facilities, social service entities, and major non-profits. The organization leases fibers from the City's fiber optic network and provides Internet access at affordable rates.

Aurora is the second most populous city in Illinois. The municipal government spans 52 buildings over 46 square miles. Before the city's fiber network, connections were a patchwork of varying speeds and capabilities. Employees in a building with a slow connection would need to travel to City Hall to access a high-speed connections to use the city's bandwidth intensive applications. The network was old, unreliable, and expensive. The Director of Onlight Aurora recently spoke with Drew Clark from Broadband Breakfast :

"In 2005-2006, we came to the conclusion that we were paying $500,000 a year [to telecommunications providers] for leased line expenses,” said Peter Lynch, Director and President of Onlight Aurora.

The 60-mile network, constructed from 2008 - 2011, cost approximately $7 million to deploy. At the beginning of the process, payback was estimated at 10 years. While the short-term goal was to cut municipal connectivity costs, community leaders intended to expand its use in other ways. The City now saves approximately $485,000 each year from having eliminated leased lines. From a Cisco case study on Aurora [PDF]:

Conduit

“With local governments increasingly facing limited resources, you have to be able to find efficiencies in operations.” Although the cost savings are gratifying, [Ted] Beck,[Chief Technology Officer] notes that that was just the beginning: “The priority for the fiber optic network was initially cost savings; however we’re realizing that the benefits don’t end there. We’ve had some super wins with this technology, and we’re going to keep leveraging the infrastructure.” Mayor Weisner confirms these successes: “Pretty quickly, we saw a return on investment, both financially and otherwise. We have a much greater capability and fewer problems.” 

In 2011, Aurora received a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) administered through the Illinois Department of Transportation. When the FHWA sought communities for the pilot program and accompanying grant, Aurora's existing fiber network was a plus. During construction of the city network, Aurora had installed extra fiber strands in its conduit. City traffic engineers used several strands to synchronize intersections to improve traffic flow. The grant, of approximately $12 million, upgraded 60 traffic signals. It also allowed Aurora to eliminate all remaining debt on the network.

From the Broadband Breakfast article:

“We have been able to see better movement of traffic, which alleviates congestion and air quality,” said Eric Gallt, the city’s Traffic Engineer. The fiber loop enables city traffic officials “to see what is going on remotely, and it decreased the cost of the project by 50 percent or more.”

That same year, Mayor Tom Weisner formed a broadband task force to field specific ideas for best utilizing the fiber optic network. In 2012 the group created non-profit OnLight Aurora. The organization received a $25,000 grant and a three-year $150,000 loan from the City. OnLight and Aurora entered into a 20-year agreement for OnLight to lease network fiber strands from the City. OnLight would then lease access to the fiber backbone to other entities at affordable rates.

Aurora Illinois

In 2012, OnLight Aurora received a $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge award. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity awarded the grant as seed money. OnLight Aurora also received another $1 million in matching public and private funds. The organization used the funds to offset costs of connecting customers and to expand to better reach developing business parks and healthcare facilities. Schools, medical centers, social services agencies, arts & entertainment entities, and businesses now connect to the network at speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

In August 2013, Indian Prairie School District 204 announced its plans to expand its technology program. The connection allows the District to connect two of its data centers. District 204 obtains a 10 Gbps connection from OnLight Aurora for $39,600 per year. OnLight provides ample bandwidth for the district's bring-your-own-device initiative. A portion of the $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge grant paid for the cost of connecting the fiber.

OnLight also offers wireless connections as an economical way to serve small- and medium-sized businesses. OnLight uses city-owned towers and buildings that are already connected to the fiber for wireless point-to-point connections. The wireless complement will connect schools, businesses, and other entities when a lengthy fiber connection is too costly.

Businesses in Aurora are connecting to the fiber. An August Beacon-News article on the wireless plan also tells the story of security company Alarm Detection Systems (ADS). The company went from T1 connections at 1.5 Mbps to 20 Mbps connections from OnLight for approximately $500 per month. From the aricle:

While cases vary based on a number of factors, the upfront installation cost for Alarm Detection Systems offices to connect directly to the fiber network are about $19,000, according to [company IT Manager Mark] Schramm. But the reliable and fast connection will save the company money in the long run.

“We’re saving money and believe we’re getting a better product,” he said.

According the a recent Beacon-News article, OnLight Aurora is now reaching out to local businesses through seminars. An article about the January 29th seminar quoted a city official:

“Attendees will receive the necessary tools to better understand and employ the OnLight Aurora network resource for their businesses and organizations,” said Clayton Muhammad, Aurora Director of Communications.

OnLight Aurora's three year plan includes doubling it's current length to 100 miles. The network is completely underground and any carrier has access to the infrastructure.

San Francisco's Market Street Now Offering Free Wi-Fi

San Francisco now offers free Wi-Fi along Market Street. The city of approximately 825,000 joins a growing number of local municipalities that provide the service in select parts of town or in the entire city limits. The San Francisco Chronicle reports private companies donated hardware and a gigabit of bandwidth. The final cost was $500,000 to deploy the service, which extends approximately three miles.

According to Govenment Technology, the City Department of Technology developed the system and installed the equipment on traffic lights and other city-owned property. After several attempts to partner with private sector providers failed, city leaders decided it was time to act on their own:

"It was simpler, faster, better to do it on our own," said San Francisco CIO Marc Touitou in a release. "The quality is higher, with the technical design by the Department of Technology. We wanted high capacity. ... We wanted it to be cool -- no strings attached, no ads."

On December 10th, Mayor Bloomberg announced that the City of New York would soon provide free Wi-Fi in Harlem. We have also reported on many of the other communities that offer free municipal Wi-Fi including: Ponca City, OklahomaAztec, New Mexico; and San Jose, California

San Francisco Mayor Edwin M. Lee noted the free service is only the beginning of larger plans to improve connectivity. From the city news release:

“Nearly a quarter-million people walk down Market Street every day, and now they will be able to connect to the Internet through our free public Wi-Fi,” said Mayor Lee. “Providing Wi-Fi on our City’s main busy thoroughfare is a big first step towards a larger vision of connectivity for our City as a whole, bridging the digital divide and ensuring that our diverse communities have access to innovation.”

Denver Suburb Seeks to Take Back Local Authority

Centennial is asking its voters to reclaim local authority this election. City leaders want to make better use of an existing fiber optic system but a 2005 Colorado state law pushed by a corporate telephone company precludes it. If the citizenry reclaims its local authority through referendum, the City can take the next step toward providing indirect services via its fiber network. 

We contacted City Council Member Ken Lucas to find out more about the ballot question. Centennial is a relatively young city that was incorporated in 2001 and has about 100,000 residents. Lucas told us that this ballot question is not only about using their fiber resources. The community of Centennial considers this a critical step toward maintaining a business friendly environment.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) provided grants to install the existing network for traffic control, security cameras, and public works monitoring. The City contributed only approximately $100,000 to the network, valued at $5 million. Traffic and public safety now use only two strands of the network that runs through the center of town. City leaders want to use the remaining 94 strands to improve access in the community. To see a map of the fiber and open conduit in Centennial, check out the City's PDF.

Approximately 94% of Centennial businesses and 85% of households are within one mile of the fiber backbone. Residents and business owners can now choose between Comcast or CenturyLink and rates are high. Lucas tells of one business owner who asked Comcast to provide 1 Gbps service to his building. Comcast offered to lease a line to the business at a high rate, but the customer would still have to pay $20,000 for installation.

Community leaders want to encourage more competition and, if they eventually develop the fiber, will explore open access models. Centennial knows their authority to invest in fiber infrastructure will influence economic development. City leaders want to attract high tech jobs to the Denver suburb.

The incumbents have not yet launched an expensive astroturf campaign or lobbied heavily against the ballot question as we saw previously in Longmont. This is the ballot question language:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS WITH PRIVATE BUSINESSES, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES? 

Centennial does not want to compete with Comcast or CenturyLink - it wants to encourage other providers to compete with each other. Many communites express the same desire to improve telecommunications for their citizens without delivering the services themselves. However, many have found that they have to take an active role in order to ensure a real choice between slow DSL and modestly faster cable, each owned and operated by distant corporations.

Lucas told us that plans to use the fiber are far down the road. For now, the community wants to recapture the power the state preempted in 2005.

Metronet Zing's Dark Fiber Saves Big Bucks in South Bend

Indiana's Metronet Zing winds its way through South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County providing dark fiber service to businesses, government and education. The project started as an economic development initiative when community leaders in the area realized that the high cost and lack of high-speed connectivity in the area kept businesses away.

Project Future, the economic development organization serving South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County until 2012, studied the potential benefits that might flow from better telecommunications in the region. The nonprofit inspired the county Chamber of Commerce, local government, nearby universities, healthcare, and businesses to develop a new nonprofit network model. The 100 mile network offers a dark fiber open access model that encourages competition, keeping prices in check. Nineteen carriers deliver services over the network. Average price for 1 gig service is $1,000 per month.

In the early 2000s, South Bend leaders wanted to take advantage of the regional long-haul fiber that runs directly under South Bend. There was very limited access to fiber connections in the area from providers and rates were high. St. Joseph's County, city government, and the University of Notre Dame needed better, faster, more reliable telecommunications.

A study commissioned by nonprofit Project Future confirmed what community leaders suspected. Education, economic development, healthcare, research and a better quality of life in South Bend depended on the community's access to a dark fiber network. Project Future developed a plan that would involve public investment in an open access dark fiber network. Community leaders joined together to form nonprofit St. Joe Valley Metronet, Inc. in 2004. Metronet's purpose was to build the infrastructure the region so desperately needed. Revenue would be passed back to the community through reasonable rates. 

South Bend and nearby Mishawaka owned fiber networks that ran through conduit to serve the cities' traffic monitoring systems. New fiber, dedicated to the telecommunications network, would be installed in the conduit to reduce the need for excavation. The community did not want to be a telecommunications provider but no existing ISPs wanted to deliver services via publicly owned infrastructure. Metronet, Inc. would need to take on the role. 

South Bend Logo

Funding for the project began with contributions from the University of Notre Dame, Memorial Health Systems, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, South Bend Medical Foundation, Teachers Credit Union, Robert Bosch Corp. and Madison Center. In exchange, these organizations would receive 10 years of access to the network. The initial subscribers contributed over $2 million which funded the first phase of the network.

In order to attract employers, the group established SJVM, Inc. to serve only business clients. SVJM, Inc. is a for-profit enterprise that pays income and property taxes like other ISPs. Metronet serves only government and educational entities.

As the network develops, its leadership expands economic development strategies. From the website:

Benefits are not reserved to large business and institutional users. Metronet continues to find new and better ways to foster economic and community development. More multi−tenant buildings are connecting to Metronet, providing service and savings to small and medium−size businesses. The Socially Responsible Computing Initiative uses Metronet as the backbone of a project allowing nonprofit organizations to share IT services and realize significant savings on telecommunications and internet access costs.

Teachers Credit Union, one of the many locally based businesses on the network:

"The Metronet is what connects all our information and keeps it moving smoothly and efficiently," says [President Rick] Rice. "While that is a significant benefit of the Metronet, another important advantage is the big savings in cost."

As subscribers of the Metronet, the Teachers Credit Union saves approximately $6,000 in cost each month, compared to the costs of its prior service, for an annual savings of $72,000. "We estimate that due to our switch to the Metronet, we will ultimately gain a total savings of $250,000 to $300,000 each year," says Rice.

Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend, and Saint Mary's College use Metronet Zing's underground network. The St. Joseph County Public Library pays only one-third of its pre-Metronet connectivity costs to serve over 125,000 patrons. Several large healthcare clinics need the high capacity for telehealth services and to consolidate past networks that operated independently. Metronet's video shares the story of Riverland Medical Center that uses the network for advanced healthcare applications.

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Centennial, Colorado: Voters To Decide on Authority to Build Fiber Network

The people of Centennial, Colorado, will have the opportunity to vote this fall on the option to allow their city to provide indirect telecommunications services. Located south of Denver in the metro area, Centennial has over 100,000 residents. Recently, the City Council unanimously approved the following ballot question for the upcoming elections. The city press release shared the wording voters will see in November:

SHALL THE CITY OF CENTENNIAL, WITHOUT INCREASING TAXES, AND TO RESTORE LOCAL AUTHORITY THAT WAS DENIED TO ALL LOCAL GOVERNMENTS BY THE STATE LEGISLATURE, AND TO FOSTER A MORE COMPETITIVE MARKETPLACE, BE AUTHORIZED TO INDIRECTLY PROVIDE HIGH-SPEED INTERNET (ADVANCED SERVICES), TELECOMMUNICATIONS SERVICES, AND/OR CABLE TELEVISION SERVICES TO RESIDENTS, BUSINESSES, SCHOOLS, LIBRARIES, NON-PROFIT ENTITIES AND OTHER USERS OF SUCH SERVICES, THROUGH COMPETITIVE AND NON-EXCLUSIVE PARTNERSHIPS, AS EXPRESSLY PERMITTED BY ARTICLE 29, TITLE 27 OF THE COLORADO REVISED STATUTES?

As we note on the Community Network Map, Colorado requires a majority referendum unless incumbents refuse to offer requested services. This vote would not establish a utility or approve funding, but would allow community leaders to investigate municipal network possibilities. From a Villager article:

“I’m not sure we know exactly where this could go in the future,” District 4 Councilman Ron Weidmann said at the Aug. 5 council meeting. “But let it breathe and let it take shape. I think we need to give this thing a chance.” 

Over 40 miles of city-owned fiber run under major rights-of-way to manage traffic signals. Centennial hopes to utilize the excess capacity and work with private providers to bring connectivity to local businesses, municipal government, schools, libraries, and possibly residents. 

Like other Colorado communities, Centennial realizes its vitality depends on its ability to ensure better Internet access to existing and potential employers. Centennial's business community complains that the lack of high-speed connections hold them back. 

Many business leaders agree. Vic Ahmed, founder of Innovation Pavilion, a Centennial-based incubator for about 75 mostly high-tech companies, thinks the move would put the city on the technological map.

“I think it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “The pipes are already in the ground and are absolutely underutilized. This would put us ahead by many years as opposed to other cities who first had to put the infrastructure in place. This would definitely put us at an advantage and bring positive attention to the city.”

Dark Fiber Paying Off in Florida's Lakeland

Near the center of Florida sits Lakeland, the largest city between Orlando and Tampa with 98,000 residents. The area boasts 38 lakes, citrus crops, and a growing healthcare industry. Lakeland also owns a fiber optic network serving education, business, and government. To learn more, we spoke with Paul Meyer, Lakeland Electric City of Lakeland Fiber Optics Supervisor.

The city's municipal electric company, Lakeland Electric, began generating and providing electricity to customers in its service territory in 1904. In the mid 1990s, the utility began replacing older copper connections between substations with fiber-optic cable. Soon after, the Polk County School District asked Lakeland Electric to connect school facilities via the fiber network for video transmissions. By 1997, almost 50 school facilities were connected to each other via using dark fiber provided by Lakeland Electric. In 1994, the District paid $219,582 $84,737 to the utility to design, construct, and install equipment for video connections in four schools. The school received an indefeasible right of use for two fibers for twenty years. over which Verizon delivers data and voice services to the School District on its own lines.

Meyer noted that the fiber project likely cost more than the school paid but the installation gave them the opportunity to expand the network. Further expansion connected the police department, libraries, and water facilities. Over time, the electric utility has incrementally expanded to every building engaged in city business. The network is aerial, using the utility's own poles to mount the fiber.

Like a few other communities on our map, including Martin County Florida, Lakeland took advantage of the opportunity to expand when the state's Intelligent Transportation System expanded in the area. In 2003, the State of Florida funded fiber expansion to 177 additional intersections in Lakeland. The State and Lakeland Electric entered a 20 year dark fiber lease to serve the system at the new intersections. The expanded backbone allowed the utility to build out the network even farther.

Lakeland Electric soon began leasing dark fiber to its largest customer, Lakeland Regional Medical Center. Meyers also notes that associated clinics and healthcare facilities within the geographic area of the hospital connect to the network. The hospital's personnel manage its own network so costs are predictable and information systems talent is onsite.

Meyers estimates the hospital system would pay $5,000 - $6,000 per month at each location for managed services from Verizon. Now, the hospital pays significantly less at $100 per fiber, per mile, per month to lease dark fiber from the City. The hospital uses 10 gig connections between facilities for advanced telehealth applications. 

logo-Colo5

Colo5, offering colocation services, disaster recovery, and cloud services, is expanding to Lakeland and will be connected via Lakeland Electric. The company has recently finished constructing a secure building and will serve a number of customers, including Level 3, TW Telecom, Verizon, Fiberlight, and Brighthouse in the Lakeland facility.

Meyer says dark fiber leasing provides about $225,000 per year in revenue to the general fund though he declines to estimate how much the municipal government saves by using its own infrastructure instead of leasing from Verizon or some other provider. 

Recent articles from the Ledger.com also report Lakeland is a final candidate for the next Amazon distribution warehouse. While tax incentives will be part of the allure, the presence of Lakeland's dark fiber will also have a role in the decision. The Ledger reports the online seller will bring 248 - 385 jobs with a new fulfillment center.

Meyer also tells us that the State is currently constructing its new Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2014. Lakeland Electric's fiber network runs to the location of the future campus and the utility hopes to provide communications infastructructure.

Update: Paul Meyer contacted us to share more detail on the arrangement between the City and the Polk County School District. In addition to the original agreement, the two have entered into several other agreements over the past 20 years. To date, the City of Lakeland has connected 45 Polk County Schools with dark fiber for a total of $1,173,337. The agreements are for the life of the fiber, 20-25 years.

In California, Tough Economic Times Led Shafter To Adjust Network Plan

In the 1990s, the community of Shafter, California, began developing its strategic plan; the move would eventually lead them to build a municipal broadband network. The town of 17,000 still depended primarily on agriculture but manufacturers were relocating to the community, drawn by its proximity to the railroad and its open space. Potential employers increasingly focused on broadband access as a priority and Shafter realized broadband would be critical to continued growth.

Shafter’s Assistant City Manager Scott Hurlbert recently explained to us how the community built its own fiber network to serve commercial clients, local government, and schools. This incremental approach is not unique but Shafter has no municipal electric nor gas utility, which does puts it in the company of Santa Monica, Mount Vernon, and a few other communities that have built networks without having a municipal power company.

Shafter’s City Council examined its strengths and its weaknesses and found a way to build a network with no borrowing or bonding. The community continues to expand its fiber network, attracting businesses and improving quality of life in this central California town.

In the 1990s AT&T was the main business services provider and it would only improve business telecommunications on an order-by-order basis. Companies that wanted to build beyond the developed town had to pay for the installation themselves, often waiting months to get connected. Prices were "obscene" and the delays almost killed several commercial deals. Even today AT&T takes the same approach in Shafter.

When he joined the City in 2005 as the IT Director, Hurlbert and his staff researched wireless technologies but determined that fiber-optic deployment would be the best option. At that time, the bandwidth demand was already intense and a wireless network would need fiber for backhaul. Hurlbert and staff also investigated other communities, including Chelan, Washington, to look for workable models.

In 2006, three master planned residential subdivisions were approved for expansion of the City of Shafter. The city saw this as an opportunity to start a large-scale FTTH network to serve both business and homes. They developed a triple play model, planning to connect to each of the 11,000 future homes. The city would use revenue from the FTTH network to expand out to surrounding areas for more industrial customers and build a new network for government, schools, and public safety. But when faced with a troubled economy in 2008, plans for the subdivisions evaporated and the FTTH plan was also put on hold.

The community decided to adjust course with a focus on economic development, improving municipal connectivity, and improving public safety. “Jobs, education, safety” became the new mantra. “It’s a cycle,” Hurlbert says, “and if you break that chain the whole thing starts to fall apart.” Community leaders wanted to create a broadband network to draw in more local businesses, serve students, and generate public savings.

Shafter City Seal

At the time the City spent $6,000 per month for six T1 connections. In 2006, Shafter asked AT&T for a quote to connect City Hall to a nearby correctional facility. The relatively small fiber upgrade would have cost $140,000 to build and up to $5,000 per month to lease for a 100 Mbps connection. Rather than depend on AT&T, Shafter decided it was time to start investing in community fiber infrastructure. Budgeting would be predictable and the City would control a network that would provide more capacity.

With less than $200,000 from the general fund, Shafter built fiber connections to city government offices, police offices, the county library, volunteer fire department facilities, the veterans’ hall, the county court house, a local youth center, school district facilities, and a fiber-to-fiber connection with the county sheriff's private network. The city also connected the correctional facility that is now no longer in use. From the day they lit the network, they have never experienced a failure. The existing fiber network consists of four miles in the city core and provides 10 gigabit capacity between its municipal facilities.

Prior to the connecting to the network, the school district used a T1 connection for its main campus and wireless connections to a second campus. Hurlbert tells us that the county superintendent provided multimedia courseware and the T1 lines were sufficient, but the wireless connection did not support it. A large segment of the student body could not access the material, putting any Shafter students behind the learning curve.

Hurlbert established E-rate provider status for the city, and now supplies a dark fiber connection for the school at a $1,000 per month. Shafter’s school district qualifies for a 90% E-rate reimbursement, so the school district actually pays $1,200 per year for 1 gigabit connectivity between facilities. Hurlbert says the city recouped the cost of the expansion in three years and increased the network’s footprint for future expansion.

The City later received a grant from Homeland Security to build a communications tower, which connects to the network. Security cameras on the tower have prevented theft and documented criminal activity at a relatively remote industrial campus. The next phase for the network will include increased public safety applications such as traffic light control and more cameras in industrial areas. 

Shafter has not abandoned its dream of an extensive FTTH network. Hurlbert tells us they have a "guinea pig" subdivision where the developer installed conduit to each property. As the network continues to grow, he sees the "jobs, security, education" chain expanding along with it. Hurlbert says a patient community willing to stick to its long-term vision is critical for success.