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High Speed in the Blue Grass State: Russellville's Gig

The Logan Journal recently reported that the Russellville Electric Plant Board (EPB) now offers gigabit service to local businesses. The article notes that Net Index, an online tool to measure download and upload speeds, recognizes EPB as the first Gig city in Kentucky. To learn more about the community and its network, we talked with Robert White, General Manager of EPB.

The community of 7,000 is the county seat of south central's Logan County. Russellville is located in the center of several other larger communities: Nashville, Bowling Green, Hopkinsville, and Clarksville, Tennessee. Manufacturing has been a large part of the local economy for generations, but community leaders recognize the vulnerability of a narrow economic base. In order to encourage a versatile economy, Russellville invested in its telecommunications utility.

The community wants to encourage small business while simultaneously providing manufacturers the connectivity they need. Leadership sees the ability to remain competitive directly tied to their network. In addition to the economic development opportunities a fiber network can provide, communities like Russellville rely on electricity revenue from large consumers. Retaining the large electric consumers that also provide jobs in the community it a must.

Russellville's electric utility created a strong advantage when it was time to venture into telecommunications. EPB had already established a strong relationship with its Russellville customers, says White, and locals felt they could trust their municipal electric provider.

EPB began offering wireless Internet to the community in 2005; at the time, there was very little choice for wireless or wired Internet. The product was competitively priced and it performed well for wireless service at the time but EPB eventually shifted focus to its next generation high-speed network. The wireless service is still available to customers who subscribed prior to the construction of the fiber network but EPB no longer offers it to new customers. Wireless speeds vary from 1-2 Mbps download and approximately 500 Mbps upload. The area now has several options from the private sector - Verizon and Bluegrass Cellular provide wireless up up to 10 - 15 Mbps.

Russellville EPB Logo

According to White, Russellville's inspiration to build the network was not to compete, but to fill the services gap. He told us:

"We support Logan County residents having the best product. If that means us offering the product, that's fine. If it means the private sector will step up to the plate and serve the areas we can't serve…that's fine as well. We want our residents to be served, whether by us or an incumbent."

Larry Wilcutt, White's predecessor at EPB, began studying the possibility of a fiber network in 2007, but external forces motivated Wilcutt and EPB to seriously pursue the project a few years later.

In early 2010, EPB learned that its power supplier, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), would switch to time-of-use wholesale rates and begin using smart grid technology by 2012. In order to participate in the new technology, EPB needed meters that could communicate with its electrical system operations. EPB installed fiber optics for Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and for future expansion into telecommunications. A News-Democrat & Leader article from October, 2010 (reprinted at MobilityTechZone.com) reported:

The EPB's goal is to eventually install fiber optic cable to every home and business in Russellville, is installing the cable to every home in the Russellville, city limits -- even those that are serviced by other electricity providers. There are also plans to include some locations outside of the city limits to extend service to the more populated areas adjacent to the city limits of Russellville. 

The article quoted Wilcutt:

"The Board has been working on this project for over two years and we are extremely excited to finally start construction on this project. We want to provide the citizens of Russellville with a system that is second to none, one they will be proud of, one that will entice new investment in the community. Whether that new investment is in the form of capital, technology or people, we believe the City of Russellville and Logan County will benefit well into the future" Wilcutt said.

AT&T Logo

At the time, the best connectivity in Russellville was AT&T's DSL at 6 Mbps download. Satellite Internet was available but was unreliable, expensive, and maximum speeds were 1 - 2 Mbps download.

The community was also starved for quality video service. Suddenlink did not offer HD channels and made it clear that HD service was not planned for Russellville. Large corporate providers had no interest in Russellville so EPB felt it was time to take control of their own connectivity.

Construction of the 99% aerial, 120-mile network began in October 2010; EPB began offering services in December 2011. White presented the results of an audit in November 2013 to the City Council showing that 8% of EPB's total revenue came from its broadband division. The audit also showed that the network was ahead of its projected take-rate with 1,300 active subscriptions out of 4,000 passed homes. 

The network capital costs were approximately $11 million with approximately two-thirds designated for electrical system expenditures. In 2010, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered Build America Bonds (BABs), some of which provide federal subsidies to help communities pay back interest to bondholders. BABs, backed by electric system revenue, provided funding for the entire project and contributed to interest expenses.

EPB offers services to every home and business in its service area and hopes to expand further. They expected video to be the lead product, but  Internet service is the most popular. White considers the lack of high-speed Internet in the region the driving force. The commercial gigabit product is new and no customers subscribe yet but local businesses take advantage of the fiber network. One local contractor tells White he enjoys the ability to share documents and bid for projects online without fear of technical glitches. When he used unreliable DSL connections to transmit data, he was perpetually concerned about deadlines and the status of data sent via DSL.

Local public safety agencies, the local library, Russellville City government, and Russellville Independent Schools now use the network. EPB and the Logan County Schools may soon be working together.

Word of Mouth graphic

In addition to providing much needed connectivity to the community, the network provides an increased stream of revenue. EPB submits a payment in lieu of taxes (PILoT) to county and city governments based on electrical and broadband services revenue. As EPB gains customers transitioning away from satellite video service, its contribution to the City increases; satellite providers do not pay a franchise fee to Russellville. At a July 2010 City Council meeting, EPB expected broadband services to add approximately $25,000 in PILoT within the first five years. EPB also pays a separate and voluntary video franchise fee to the local municipality. 

These days, White and EPB are concentrating on raising awareness of the commercial gig product and service to residents. To spread the word, EPB holds regular workshops for the community to explore ways to maximize the the network's possibilities. Commercial gig service is available for $1,499.95 per month.

White and the EPB understand that the private sector must make decisions based on returns. In the case of this publicly owned network, some key returns take the form of benefits to the community. Since EPB lit its network, White and his crew often hear from customers who rave about their service. White says:

"They hate to pay electric bills but they say getting superior broadband services from EPB is all worth it."

EPB's residential fiber Internet services begin at 20/5 Mbps for $39.95 per month with higher speeds at 100/25 Mbps for $69.95 per month. Video services from EPB range from $29.95 per month to $62.95 per month with the option to add over 100 HD channels. Voice packages start at $14.95 per month.

For Chris' recent interview with White, check out episode #82 of the Broadband Bits podcast. 

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.

Small Minnesota Town, Annandale, Fed up With Slow DSL

Yet another Minnesota town is fed up with slow, unreliable Internet access and is examining what it can do to make sure it has the network it needs to succeed in the modern economy. Annandale is 50 miles northwest of Minneapolis with a population of 3,200 and has Windstream as the telephone company.

Windstream, as with other large firms that primarily serve rural America, offers a DSL more suited to the late 1990's than 2013. It has little capacity to invest in better networks, even if it had the willingness. We've covered Windstream several times in previous stories.

After a flood of complaints from residents to City Hall about slow speeds and frequent outages, the City issued a request for proposals for a feasibility study that will explore alternatives to the present reliance on Windstream.

Local leaders understand that the private sector is not likely to invest significantly in its community due to its density and rural location. But the town needs modern Internet access to retain and attract good jobs. The Annandale Advocate newspaper ran a story on September 17 but it is not available for non-subscribers.

At a chamber of commerce meeting later in the week Gunnarson added that strong broadband is a basic, essential feature of modern commerce.

"New businesses expect good Internet. When you buy a car you expect tires on it. Unfortunately, our car has wooden tires," he said.

logo-annandale-advocate.jpg

The same paper published a guest editorial by City Council members to explain how little power the City has over private providers. Many people falsely believe that towns are actively keeping competition out:

We even had some people angrily ask our staff why are we keeping the competition out. So to set the record straight, the city can't do much about it because it is all private wires, equipment, operations and corporate customer service.

Also, a recent call to the PUC, the Public Utilities Commission, confirms that not much can be done since broadband is not regulated. Sorry folks. As far as letting in competition, we have zero say in that. Any other provider can come in any time. In fact, many of us citizens would throw the welcome party.

If any provider believes it is being denying the right to offer service in Annandale, there is a legal process to rectify the situation. Since 1992, no local government has had the power to offer a cable monopoly and the same is true for telephone or Internet access since the 1996 Telecommunications Act.

The problem is not local governments, it is the extremely high cost of building networks and the difficulty of competing with entrenched incumbents that can lower costs temporarily to deny subscribers to new networks.

Annandale has not committed to any specific course of action; it is gauging what opportunities are available and how a business model might work. And like most towns, they are leaving the door open to working with the incumbent:

Does our current provider still have an opportunity to be rock star in Annandale? They sure do. They just need to upgrade and make the city hall phone stop ringing.

A CBS Atlanta investigation has previously found that Windstream blatantly lies to consumers about their services.

CBS Atlanta News

Given Annandale's size, it is impractical to build a standalone triple-play FTTH network but it may find that an incremental fiber approach could work. Start with municipal facilities and businesses and expand to residents as necessary. Without a strong cable provider, most households probably already have a satellite TV service. This would leave open the possibility of doing an Internet and telephone double-play as Longmont, Colorado is doing. They could also partner with another network that wants to expand.

Regardless, you can expect the same big companies that refuse to invest in Annandale will publicly argue that the town should do nothing. But doing nothing is the best way to ensure nothing changes.

Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network Saves Millions for Taxpayers

Austin, Texas, with a little over 820,000 people, is home to several centers of higher ed, the Southwest Music Festival, and a next generation network known as the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN).

It was also the second metro area selected by Google for the Google Fiber deployment. But before they got Google Fiber, a local partnership had already connected key community anchor institutions with limitless bandwidth over fiber networks. The network measures its success in terms of cost avoidance, and averages out to a savings of about $18 million per year combined for its 7 member entities.

In 2011, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named GAATN the Community Broadband Organization of the Year. Today, GAATN also serves the  City of Austin, the Austin Indepedent School District (AISD), Travis County, local State of Texas facilities, Austin Community College (ACC), the University of Texas at Austin (UT), and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

GAATN's bylaws prevent it from providing service to businesses or individual consumers. Texas, like 18 other states, maintains significant barriers that limit local public authority to build networks beyond simply connecting themselves. As a result, local entities must tread lightly even if they simply want to provide service for basic government functions.

Austin Logo

Decades ago, Austin obtained an Institutional Network (I-Net) as part of a franchise agreement with a private cable company, Cablevision. At that time, AISD used the I-Net for video and data transmission, with frequent use of video for teaching between facilities. In the late 80s, the district experienced large growth, which required adding facilities and phone lines. Phone costs for 1988 were estimated as $1 million and the 10 year estimate was $3 million. In 1989, AISD hired a telecommunications design company to conduct a study and make recommendations. JanCom recommended a 250 mile fiber network connecting schools. The network was expected to pay for itself in 10 years when only considering the cost of phone.

During this time period, Cabelvision sold off its assets in the Austin area to Time Warner Cable. TWC kept rising the cost of mainentance of the old coaxial I-Net until estimates reached $500,000 per year to keep the failing technology alive. The network repeatedly went down. Connected entities were still using modems to transfer data and the amount TWC wanted to upgrade the I-Net was out of the question.

In what would become a lasting collaboration, AISD approached the City of Austin about sharing the cost and ownership of a new fiber network. The proposal was received enthusiastically and soon two additional partners came on board. AISD, the City of Austin, Travis County, and ACC developed an interlocal agreement to construct, own, and manage a fiber network that would eventually serve schools, libraries, local government facilities, and several higher ed institutions.

The group quickly determined the school should be the entity to contract for the construction. Texas law allowed more flexibility for schools when dealing with contractors. The school was also to be the financial administrator of the GAATN organization and the member with the largest share of the network.

In 1991, the group released an RFP for construction of a new network and Southwest Bell won the contract with a bid of $18 million. Original construction, which begin in 1994, consisted of 8 rings and 2 superrings, each consisting of 114-strand fiber optic cable. After some problems, due to Southwest Bell's low quality work, construction was completed in 1998. The initial network was 345 miles long and has since expanded to 371 miles. Three points of presence (POPs) have been in place since day one of the network, including POPs to Level Three, AT&T, and CenturyLink. Approximately 30% of the fiber is currently lit and providing service to members.

Austin School District Logo

The original members used a combination of bonding, loans, and money on hand to build the network. While the City of Austin has been a member since the beginning, all of its contribution is in-kind. Donating access to rights-of-way, network management, and maintenance, the city receives 12 strands wherever the network is expanded. The network is 80% aerial and 20% underground. As the network expands, the installation type varies depending on current construction, geography, and cost. Routes are often adjusted to pass city facilities to allow the city optimal use of the network. All members of the network take advantage of the 10 Gbps interconnectivity.

Wayne Wedemeyer, Director of UT Systems Office of Telecommunication Services, describes one of the biggest challenges in developing GAATN. Reaching a high level of trust between all the members and memorializing that trust into the agreement  was difficult. Since each member had such specific missions and goals and all were very diverse, attaining the necessary collaborative balance took over two years. Wedemeyer also describes the arrangement with the City as a "stroke of genius." The automatic grant of five strands to the city streamlines rights-of-way negotiations.

UT provides Internet service to AISD, ACC, Travis County, the City of Austin, and LCRA. UT is able to purchase Internet service at educational rates and then sell it to the other members at cost. Wedemeyer says UT "exploded" in the ways it uses interconnectivity once GAATN was up and running. In addition to their tech incubator, UT uses GAATN's 10 Gbps to connect to its Applied Research Laboratories, dedicated to national security. Distance learning at UT and ACC have expanded significantly and AISD has plenty of bandwidth for virtual classroom activities. LRCA uses GAATN fibers to transfer wholesale power to a 50 county region.

The original $18 million investment in GAATN has been returned several times over. For AISD, the largest contributor and the entity that owns the most number of fibers, the network paid for itself in 2-3 years. In 2011, AISD saved almost $5.8 million by using GAATN instead the private market. The city of Austin saved $4.7 million, ACC saved $437,000, Travis County avoided almost $3.4 million, and the State of Texas saved $883,000. UT avoided almost $1.3 million in connectivity and LCRA saved almost $1.1 million. GAATN is a win for local and state taxpayers and for the entities it serves.

American Crafts' New Muse is UTOPIA

If you are a 21st century crafter, you are probably prolific at finding inspiration online. You may be familiar with American Crafts of Orem for ideas or products. The company, founded in 1994, is now a customer of UTOPIA and reports significant bandwidth improvement after the switch from old T-1 connections. From the UTPOIA blog:

With a robust e-commerce presence, American Crafts has to rely on its network. According to Kris Barlow, IT Manager, before switching to UTOPIA, the firm used a single T-1 connection, along with two additional T-1 connections to connect a remote warehouse in Provo. “Our Provo location was using an iProvo connection at the time. By switching to UTOPIA, we could use a single fiber connection to our headquarters building which provided much faster Internet speeds—up to 10 Mbps on our service plan, as compared with traditional T-1 speeds.”

Barlow also notes how the switch has allowed the company to consolidate headquarters and warehouse locations. Reliablity has also been a key improvement:

“In the three years that we've had UTOPIA service, I can remember only two or three service interruptions, all of which were resolved within the same day and were not related specifically to our connection,” he says. “Using the UTOPIA network has allowed us to drastically reduce the fee that we pay for Internet service when compared to the T-1 connections we were previously using, all while also drastically increasing the bandwidth of the connection.”

Because UTOPIA is open access, the company could keep the same phone provider, as it is an ISP on the UTOPIA network. The switch was seamless:

“This allowed for us to simply add the UTOPIA service to our current provider’s bill and allowed us to avoid the hassle of establishing a new account with a new provider,” Barlow says.

Massachusetts Electricity Debate Mirrors Community Broadband Networks

An interesting article earlier this week on Boston.com says a number of Massachusetts towns are studying muni electric plants after the privately owned electrical company took too long restoring power in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene.

“We are at the very beginning. We want to see if municipal control is even possible,’’ said Norwell Town Administrator James Boudreau.

“We want a faster response. This was a tropical storm. What if it was a category 2 hurricane? What if it was the winter?’’ he said, noting the efficient restoration of power in towns with electric utilities under municipal control, such as Hingham, Hull, and Braintree.

Braintree's municiple utility also runs a broadband network for the community. If these communities are looking at am uni utility, they should ceratinly consider improving their broadband access at the same time. As we have covered previously, Wired West (on the other side of the state) is a collection of many communities that recently formed municipal "light plants" (in the parlance of Massachuesetts) as a legal structure for building a community fiber network.

As we have observed time and time again, local control tends to improve the quality and response time of customer service. And in those cases where it doesn't, at least they have no one to blame but themselves. It is well within their power to fix it.

Curiously, National Grid was formed by combining privatized former muni electric utilities -- a warning to communities that may look to privatize their community broadband networks over time due to the mistaken notion that community ownership was only necessary to establish the network rather than ensure it continues operating for the benefit of the community. Community broadband is about far more than technology, it is about ownership by an entity with the right incentives to operate essential infrastructure.

The company's response to this movement is fascinating:

National Grid offers a different opinion. Communities are “best served by a company with established practices, resources, and programs that can serve them in an evolving, challenging energy environment,’’ said Deborah Drew, a spokeswoman for the utility.

Say what? When presented with the evidence that self-reliant communities responded faster and more effectively, they reiterate that their approach is better. Just like the telco and cableco incumbents, we see the same "just trust us, no matter what the evidence says" mentality. This is not the first strike against National Grid - they were already on the hot seat for their slow response to a winter storm in 2010.

The path forward is a hard one.

Massachusetts Legislature

Over the past few weeks, an array of community officials, legislators, and residents from the area have begun pushing for movement on Beacon Hill, said state Representative Jay Kaufman, a Lexington Democrat responsible for repeatedly filing what is now called bill H869, or the “muni-choice bill.’’ It would grant cities and towns the option, under state authority, to form a municipal utility by making it possible for them to acquire electric wires and other assets at a fair price from the current investor-owned utilities.

The passage of such a bill would mark the first step in the multilayered efforts necessary to extract a town from its established reliance on private electric utilities. Change would first require legislative action; then economic and engineering feasibility studies; the accumulation of necessary infrastructure, such as electric wires and poles; securing long-term power supplies; as well as operating and improving the system.

But we see the same barriers to re-establishing public power as we do in community broadband -- too much money corrupting the political process:

This year, NStar spent more than $70,000 opposing the municipal utility bill and other legislation; National Grid spent $25,000.

Sadly, it does not take a big investment to block good ideas in many state legislatures.

Photo of State Capital courtesy of Tony the Misfit on Flickr

Comcast Customers Call for Competition

Two cities, located on opposite coasts, have recently cried out for cable competition in their communities.

A few weeks ago, SunBreak ran a story under "Why Comcast Needs Competition...Badly." The post describes a significant outage in Seattle and Comcast's slow response to fix the problem.

You may think to yourself, Hey, come on, it's 90 minutes out of your day. But what I think about is how much time cumulatively was wasted in Seattle this morning, much of it simply because people would not have been sure where the problem was. An early, all-hands-on-deck announcement from Comcast would have been a big help. It seems slightly insane that a company that provides internet service isn't very good at using the internet.

The folks at Sunbreak apparently were not aware that the City is still slowly considering building a network to ensure everyone in the community has affordable high speed broadband access (which would likely be far more reliable than Comcast's network). After I noted this in the comments, they reprinted one of my posts about Seattle's deliberations.

Meanwhile, the folks in Scranton, Pennsylvania, (immortalized in the television show The Office) have been asking when they get the faster broadband now available in Philly, Pittsburgh, and parts of the Lehigh Valley. The answer came bluntly from Stop the Cap: Sorry Scranton, You’re Stuck With Comcast Cable… Indefinitely

An article from the Times Tribune explains why the private sector fails to provide competition:

"Offering out television service is expensive, too expensive for most smaller telephone companies," said telecom industry analyst Jeff Kagan. "So many are reselling satellite service to keep customers who want one bundle and one bill."

Because of that, satellite television providers, who were never a formidable challenge to conventional cable companies, gained market share, Mr. Kagan said.

A stand-up comic from Comcast responded:

Comcast spokesperson Bob Grove said the Comcast upgrades originated from the demands of customers, not the offerings of competitors.

And the crowd went crazy! Hilarious joke! I guess the people who have slower services just didn't beg enough… also Comcast ignores competitive pressures, something their shareholders may be interested to know.

Stop the Cap's article noted that the private sector even suggest that competition in cable networks is impractical:

As far as the cable industry is concerned, they’d prefer Verizon just stay out of the video business altogether.  Dr. John “Darth Vader” Malone, a former cable kingpin that owned Tele-Communications, Inc. (TCI), said there is room for only one player in the wired video business — cable companies.

“I’ve never seen overbuilds work … it always ends up badly,” Malone has said repeatedly about cable competition.

Of course, as we have carefully documented, community networks have thoroughly succeeded… though whether they should be considered "overbuilds" when they are offering far superior services is perhaps a contentious question.

Unfortunately, the article author, David Falchek, fails to note that Pennsylvania law preempts the authority of local governments to step in and build faster networks that would offer broadband for lower prices (see our preemption map for more details).

Here we find the reality for thousands of communities: the private sector cannot provide sufficient competition to drive proper investment or lower prices and state laws protect incumbent providers from competitive pressures.

Photo used under Creative Commons license, courtesy of Titanas on flickr.