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UC2B and Partner Bringing Fiber to More Urbana-Champaign Communities in Illinois

The UC2B Network and its partner, iTV-3, will soon bring gigabit capabilities to more people in the Champaign-Urbana community in Illinois. According to the UC2B press release [PDF], iTV-3 will expand existing fiber to areas of the community to serve residents and businesses. iTV-3 will take subscriptions for commercial and residential access online at www.theperfectupgrade.com.

In a statement from the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler commented:

"Congratulations to Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) and iTV-3 on making gigabit services over fiber available throughout the community. This public-private partnership provides a valuable model for communities and companies throughout the country and a demonstration of the creativity that is stimulated when localities are free to work with the private sector to improve broadband offerings.”

UC2B and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to deploy an urban FTTH network in Illinois. The not-for-profit corporation offered economical Internet service to residential subscribers in economically disadvantaged areas, some as low as $19.99 per month. The network also connected a number of community anchor institutions including schools, hospitals, and municipal facilities throughout the Urbana-Champaign metropolitan area.

According to a fact sheet on the project [PDF], the company is a subsidiary of a family-owned business that started in Springfield, Illinois. iTV-3 has been an ISP since the mid 1990s but also owns and operates over 775 Family Video stores in 19 states and Canada. UC2B chose iTV-3 because the company operates in a manner consistent with the Community Broadband Principles, core values guiding UC2B since inception. iTV-3 will also contribute to UC2B's Community Benefit Fund, established to improve digital literacy and digital inclusion. 

iTV-3 will offer wholesale access via the existing structure and, if neighborhoods do a not connect after five years, other companies will have the opportunity to offer services via the infrastructure. iTV-3 will lease the existing infrastructure and equipment from UC2B and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of the network. If the two part ways in the future, UC2B will have the option to purchase the infrastructure deployed by iTV-3.

iTV-3 has offered services in other Illinois communities since 2009. According to the iTV-3 press release [PDF], the ISP will be bringing services into neighborhoods of 150 - 350 homes once 50% of homes sign-up. iTV-3 will begin by offering Internet and voice and plans to add video in the future.

Service rates will be:

  • 50/10 Mbps Internet - $49.95
  • 50/10 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $64.90
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet - $59.95
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $74.90
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet - $79.95
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $94.90

For more on the UC2B project, listen to Chris' interview with Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from the network's policy committee and Carol Ammons of the U-C Independent Media Center. He spoke to them in episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

GAO Report: Government Telecom Investments Help Local Businesses

The Government Accountability Office released a report today examining economic development and government-spurred broadband deployment. The report, titled Telecommunications: Federal Broadband Deployment Programs and Small Business looks at the effects of stimulus projects on opportunities for small business. 

According to the press release:

“GAO’s investigation confirms the success of the Recovery Act’s broadband programs," said Rep. Waxman.  “In rural and urban areas across the country, small businesses are benefitting from higher speeds and lower prices thanks to federal investment in this essential infrastructure.  Expanding broadband access and quality is critical for American competiveness in the 21st century global economy. These were public dollars well spent.”

The report reviews communities around the country where either federal dollars have been invested in networks or local governments have made such investments. The results were consistent with our findings over the years - municipal networks create a business-friendly environment and contribute to economic development. 

According to the report summary:

According to small businesses GAO met with, the speed and reliability of their broadband service improved after they began using federally funded or municipal networks.

Regarding competition, the GAO find that municipal networks spur competitor investments:

For example, following the construction of a fiber-to-the-home municipal network in Monticello, Minnesota, the two other broadband providers in the area made investments in their infrastructure to improve their broadband speeds. One of these providers stated that all of its networks undergo periodic upgrades to improve service, but upgrade schedules can change in order to stay competitive when there is a new service provider in a particular market.

OpenCape: Local Ideas to Maximize Fiber Infrastructure

The OpenCape Network launched about eight months ago to bring better middle mile connectivity to Cape Cod. Reporter Sean Gonsalves explored other possibilities for the 350-mile infrastructure in a recent Cape Cod Online article.

Gonsalves spoke with OpenCape CEO Dan Vorthems. The network was funded with $32 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants and approximately $8 million in funds from the state, county, and private-sector partner CapeNet. It brings connectivity to 91 community anchor institutions from Provincetown as far west as Providence and Brockton. The idea for the network began with Cape Cod Community College and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. Today, OpenCape is a non-profit with Board members from healthcare, higher education, public education, government, and the private sector.

Gonsalves and Vorthems touched on the high hopes for economic development that accompanied the network deployment. When the project began, the dream was to turn Cape Cod into a "Silicon Sandbar." The network is still in its infancy, but new jobs in the area are retail, service, and tourist related rather than high-tech. Residents of Cape Cod were hoping the network would bring better paying positions to meet the high cost of living in the area.

Gonsalves takes it one step further and proposes using the network for last mile connections:

Getting the Cape's big data users online opens up all sorts of possibilities. But [what] I wanted to know is when the Cape would get to the point where residential users could access this Internet autobahn capable of reaching speeds of a gigabit per second.

Once that happens, the Cape suddenly becomes a really attractive place for tech-savvy entrepreneurs, small business start-ups, and potential work-from-home employees who now spend hours commuting off-Cape. In the super high-speed tech world, they call that "the last mile."

Governor Patrick expressed his intention to bring better connectivity to underserved communities in his State of the Commonwealth address in January. There are a good number of underserved communities in Massachusetts, especially on the western side of the state, so Vorthems does not anticipate large amounts of state funding to find its way to Cape Cod.

There is a group working to optimize the asset that is already in place. From the article:

In the last few years, an ad hod group called Smarter Cape Partnership — comprising Open Cape, the Cape Cod Commission, Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, the Cape Cod Technology Council and the Cape Cod Young Professionals — have been working to establish plans to develop shared work spaces for technology oriented start-ups.

"We've been approached by a number of organizations who are interested in doing fiber-to-the-home projects here," he said. "It's a very exciting time."

Vidalia's Broadband Initiative Moves Forward as Free Wi-Fi Comes to Town

Vidalia's plans to offer free Wi-Fi are becoming reality. The Natchez Democrat recently reported that the City launched its free Wi-Fi in its new municipal complex.

Vidalia received a $30,000 grant from the Telecommunications Development Fund (TDF) Foundation to invest in a wireless network to cover the complex. Apparently, visitors to the complex were often surprised to learn that there was no Wi-Fi available. From the article:

[Mayor Hyram] Copeland said the project came about after multiple teams coming to participate in tournaments at the recreation complex asked about Wi-Fi access.

“I was embarrassed to say, ‘No,’ but now I can say we do,” Copeland said. “But the end result of all this is that we will have moved this community forward.”

The next step will be free Wi-Fi along the City's riverfront.

Even though federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to Louisiana were pulled back, Vidalia decided to press on with its broadband plans. The City has since cultivated several grant sources and is piecing together the funds needed to proceed with its estimated $9 million fiber network. Vidalia wants to develop a smart-grid and potentially provide fiber to every premise.

The community, with some of the highest unemployment rates in the country, sees the presence of better broadband as critical to economic survival. From the article:

“Broadband is such a routine infrastructure for companies nowadays that they almost assume you have it, and us not having it could have hurt us in the long run,” [Concordia Parish Economic Development Director Heather] Malone said. “Now, we’ll be able to use this as a tool to recruit new businesses and offer it to our existing businesses.”

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

A recent press release from the Merit educational and research network in Michigan announces a new connection to its Ohio sister, OARnet. Member entities and local communities now enjoy better redundancy, expanded reach, and better services. Local communities continue to benefit from the presence of the middle mile infrastructure.

The network helps local Hillsdale College to cut connectivity costs; the Merit announcement quotes Hillsdale College leadership:

"Hillsdale College has been a Merit member since 1992," stated David Zenz, executive director of information technology services for Hillsdale College, "and it was always a dream to figure out some way to eliminate expensive data circuit costs to free up funds to purchase more bandwidth. In 2008 The City of Hillsdale, the Hillsdale Intermediate School District, Hillsdale College, and Merit figured out how to do just that."

Through a long term collaborative effort, Merit, the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, and Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) came together to establish the Hillsdale Community Network. Each entity now benefits from lowered connectivity costs, better infrastructure, and improved opportunities. 

A 2009 story from Merit, describes the situation at ISD:

In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations [ISD and Hillsdale College] and others in the area began to make sense. 

According to the article, Merit managed the project from start to finish. The City has cut costs and improved economic opportunity. Also from the article:

"We saw a cost reduction for the city," according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. "We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off." 

"We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development." 

The expansion to bring OARnet and Merit together is part of the REACH-3MC project, funded by American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) grants. We recently reported on Merit's completed segment expansion to rural Alpena, also part of the project.

Local Efforts Will Bring Free Wi-Fi to Vidalia, Louisiana

Vidalia joins the growing list of communities with plans to offer free Wi-Fi. A recent Miami Herald article reports on recent plans. Community leaders hope to get the project ready for launch in spring 2014.

Vidalia, home to 4,300 residents, hoped to use funds from a 2010 Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) grant to build a fiber network. Unfortunately for the entire state, the grant was revoked due to Governor Jindal's shenanigans. Jindal's plans for the funds violated the terms of the grant. Vidalia, with its own electric utility, then sought funding from other sources. 

According to the Herald article:

The Telecommunications Development Fund Foundation awarded the city a $30,000 grant, announced last week, to deploy a wireless network. The foundation was founded in 2008 with the mission of bringing communications technology and opportunities to areas underserved by Internet providers.

The Natchez Democrat reports that the service will cover 77 acres that include the Vidalia municipal complex, including City Hall and public safety facilities, and recreation fields used by Concordia Recreation District No. 3. Mayor Hyram Copeland told the Democrat that visitors to the complex repeatedly ask for Wi-Fi access.

The Democrat also reports Senator Mary Landrieu is leading the effort to improve connectivity in the area:

The senator said the Wi-Fi project perfectly complements Vidalia’s ongoing work to build a technology center and install high-speed fiber optic Internet access throughout the city.

“This project will add to Vidalia’s excellent quality of life for residents and promote additional entrepreneurial opportunities for local businesses,” Landrieu said.

Local media coverage of the project:

Video: 
See video

NoaNet and Benton PUD Finish Expansion in Washington, Celebrate Completion of Fiber Network

South central Washington's Benton PUD and the Northwest Open Access Network (NoaNet) recently finished a 50-mile fiber-optic expansion [PDF of the press release]. The new construction brings high-speed Internet service to the Paterson School District. The District serves 110 kids in grades K-8.

A $1.8 million Broadband Technologies Opportunity Program (BTOP) award paid in part for the expansion of the 100% underground network. The network includes 230 miles of middle-mile connectivity across rural Benton County. 

The recently completed NoaNet project totaled $140 million for 1,831 fiber miles over three years. The open access network hosts 61 last mile providers and ten Washington State Public Utility Districts (PUDs) belong to the nonprofit.

In a Yakima Herald article on the network completion, Governor Jay Inslee noted:

“It is underground, but its results are above ground,” he said. “In every place, it reaches about 500 communities from Asotin to Zillah and places between.”

Video: 
See video

Washington's Okanogan County PUD Expanding Fiber Network

Okanogan County, located along the extreme north central border of Washington State, is expanding its wholesale fiber optic network to more small local communities. The Okanogan Public Utility District (PUD) received a $5.5 million grant and a $3.7 million loan through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and will extend service to about 80% of the PUD service area. The county is home to about 41,000 people.

According to a recent Methow Valley News article, the construction began in February and the project is schedule for completion by the end of 2013. The network will be about 200 miles long and will also include 143 wireless access points along the power line route. Construction will also include new poles, tall enough to host both power and fiber optic lines. According to the PUD's director of power:

Some people who will now have the option of faster Internet connections were previously served only by dial-up or satellite services, said [Ron] Gadeberg. Even with the expanded “last-mile” network, “there are still tons of unmet needs, because it’s such a big county and some people are so remote that it is cost-prohibitive to serve them,” he said.

A local ISP, MethowNet.com, offers service to customers on the PUD's existing fiber network and will expand northward to serve additional communities north of its current service area.

Governments Should Focus on Infrastructure Despite False Statistics Peddled by NY Times and Others

Having just read the New York Times story "Most of U.S. is Wired, but Millions Aren't Plugged In," I was reminded that even the top mainstream telecom journalists really have little understanding of what they write. This is a bit ranty but comes back together constructively at the end.

I just read that "nearly 98 percent of American homes now have access to some form of high-speed broadband." Really? Just what exactly does that mean? It is definitely not the current FCC minimum standard speed required to engage in basic Internet activities: 4 Mbps downstream and 1 Mbps upstream. Not even close.

To get 98%, I can only assume that the author has started with flawed stats from the FCC that are comprised on systematically overstated DSL availability in rural areas by carriers like Windstream, Frontier, CenturyLink, and others. He likely then included satellite Internet access availability, which is explicitly not broadband due to the inevitable lag of a 50,000 mile roundtrip to geosynchronous orbiting satellites.

But we don't know. We just know that Edward Wyatt knows that by some definition, nearly everyone in America has "high speed" broadband. This is news to the vast majority of rural communities I hear from, who see maps paid for by their tax dollars claiming they can get broadband in their homes. But when they call the company to get it, they find it is not actually available, even though that company had just told the government that it is available there.

These are the statistics that are now apparently official, without any need to even note where they come from. Note that this comes after the New York Times repeatedly erred in claiming few Europeans have access to high speed networks.

Wyatt goes on to laud the Obama Administration's stimulus effort to expand broadband networks:

The Obama administration allocated $7 billion to broadband expansion as part of the 2009 economic stimulus package. Most of it went to build physical networks. About half of those infrastructure programs have been completed, with Internet availability growing to 98 percent of homes from fewer than 90 percent.

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As far as federal programs go, this one worked pretty well at accomplishing its objectives. From what I could tell, a key objective was not overly upsetting existing carriers, which is why so much of the money was spent on middle mile connections that have recently been finished or are now being completed.

But very few households were directly served by the stimulus programs. NTIA chose to invest largely in middle mile networks that also connected community anchor institutions - rarely residents. If any last mile investment will result from the middle mile, it probably hasn't been built yet because the middle mile has just been completed or will be soon.

So while the stimulus was certainly better than doing nothing, it has had little impact on the growth from the invented 90% statistic to the invented 98% statistic.

The grand conceit of the article is what big cable and telephone companies have been telling us for years - we don't have an availability problem, the problem is that Americans just don't take advantage of these awesome connections we want to sell them! To paraphrase something I heard Yochai Benkler once say, Americans are not stupid, if you give them a crap product at a high price, they won't buy it.

The point of my frustration boils down to where we should focus our limited resources.

There is a real literacy component to the digital divide and that is a problem. However, solving that problem can be done with comparatively modest investments in programs to teach computer/technical/media literacy. This has been demonstrated by numerous foundations and others in civil society. Blandin Foundation in Minnesota does an excellent job of this. Existing Internet Service Providers can and should help fund these programs because it increases their customer base.

The danger of government focusing on the literacy divide rather than on actual availability, as some influential folks like Blair Levin have argued, is that solving the access divide - making fast, affordable, and reliable access truly available to 98% or more of US households - is a very challenging problem that civil society cannot solve and the private sector will not solve.

Some elected leaders LOVE to focus on the literacy divide because no one opposes those programs. That doesn't mean it is a good use of resources. Sometimes using resources effectively means challenging a few powerful firms that will vigorously oppose any change to an intolerable status quo because they are banking historically high profits by creating artificial scarcity.

Government exists so we can do together what we cannot do alone. Examples include electrifying the entire nation, building roads, and eventually an interstate highway system. Government should be focused on ensuring just about every American has access to fast, affordable, and reliable networks. Not by bragging about deeply flawed statistics provided by self-interested corporations but by making the necessary investments at the local level.

This is my final point - different levels of government have different strengths. We don't want to see a federal network. These networks should be responsive to communities, which means owned and operated locally. But the federal level needs to do its part in demanding accurate data that reflects the true nature of access to the Internet in America - not settling for whatever politically-connected firms want to offer.

UC2B Saves Public Money With Better Broadband in Illinois

The City of Champaign is now celebrating the transition to the UC2B fiber network. With underground fiber lines, the City will no longer be plagued by weather related interruptions. Champaign is also counting on significant savings on a network that is more than 1000 times faster than the old connections. From the City of Champaign website:

UC2B fiber and Internet access also means real cost savings to the City. The City will now save $30,240 annually by dropping all of our T1 data lines, and $31,200 annually by using UC2B as our Internet provider. While a significant portion of this savings is offset by annual maintenance fees for the fiber rings the City uses, we still save over $13,000 net annually and have a much faster, much more reliable system that will allow our digital data transfers and Internet use to expand for years to come!

For more on the UC2B network, listen to episode #42 of the Broadband Bits podcast. We spoke with Carol Ammons and Brandon Bowersox-Johnson, both involved in Champaign's efforts to use the UC2B network to its full potential.