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Education Week Shines Light on Rural Schools' Plight

A recent series of in-depth articles from Education Week brings to light a persistent aspect of the digital divide: the lack of fast, affordable, reliable connectivity in rural schools. Throughout the country, schools struggle to pay exorbitant fees for aging copper networks. Teachers and students are cut off from digital learning opportunities as whole regions fall farther behind. Education Week brings these issues to the forefront - and community-owned institutional networks could be the answer.

The Education Week articles describes the harsh impact of these grim statistics. The nonprofit EducationSuperHighway found that for rural schools, the median price for connectivity is more than double that of urban or even suburban schools. Although the number of students without access to sufficient bandwidth has been cut in half since 2013, at least 21 million students do not have access to adequate connections. 

In extremely rural communities, large service providers do not have an incentive to build high-speed networks, and small private providers often cannot take on those high upfront costs. This leaves communities with no choice, but to pay skyrocketing rates for slow, unreliable Internet access over aging infrastructure.

East and West: Students Face Similar Challenges

The articles present two compelling case studies of Calhoun County, Mississippi, and Catron County, New Mexico, to tell the story of how high-speed connectivity is so often out-of-reach for rural schools.

Two schools in sparsely-populated western New Mexico split 22 Megabits per second (Mbps) of bandwidth for $3,700 per month. An increase to 50 Mbps wouldn’t require  new fiber, but the upgrade would cost an extra $1,003.47 each month. The local provider has a de facto monopoly in the region so the schools have no choice but to pay the going rate; with no competition they have no leverage for negotiating. According to the New Mexico Public School Facilities Authority, monthly rates range from $1.35 to $3,780 for each Mbps of speed across the state.

In Calhoun County, the district is even worse off: 2,500 students share a 3 Mbps connection on a T1 copper line. Students can’t take state-mandated online tests or even perform online research. Teachers can’t access media or lesson plans, let alone enter attendance. For this nonfunctional connection, the district paid $9,275 each month.

After class, 17 year old Clemmie Jean Weddle describes her growing anxiety. She’s worried about falling behind students at neighboring schools, with whom she will soon be competing for a slot at Mississippi State University.

“I had those 15 pages, and they had the Internet at their fingertips,” she says.

In addition to losing out because Clemmie and her classmates didn't learn how to use the Internet for research, a significant amount of public dollars was spent inefficiently on poor quality telecommunications. With better, more affordable options, Clemmie's school could have redirected those same dollars toward classroom learning needs.

According to the Consortium for School Networking, more than half of rural districts reported that only one Internet provider operates in their area - which means no competition and high-prices. Now, the FCC is overhauling the E-rate program to empower schools to build their own networks. 

Community-Owned Networks: A Possible Solution

At MuniNetworks, we have collected stories on our Community Anchor Institutions page to draw attention to the ways local community networks save public dollars and bridge the urban/rural digital divide.

For instance, the schools in Ottawa, Kansas, save $3,000 a month for twice as much bandwidth they used to get. In Carroll County, Maryland, the school district saves $400,000 annually. In rural northern Georgia, schools have real-time virtual music collaborations; schools have live interactive science demonstrations online in rural southwest Georgia. These savings and opportunities would have been difficult, if not impossible, without community-owned networks.

Rural communities often do not have a large tax-base to draw upon to support school levies to afford the exorbitant rates that private carriers charge each year. But a community network is an investment that sometimes provides an opportunity to later expand from schools and other public buildings to bring connectivity to homes and businesses.

Improvement Is Not That Far Away

In the Education Week articles, the E-rate changes empowered Calhoun County, Mississippi. In February 2015, the county requested bids from private providers to either offer faster, cheaper service or to build a network the district could own or lease for itself. The possibility of competition - the possibility of a community network - the incumbent provider offered 1 Gbps for $600 a month per school building. The threat alone was enough to get better rates.


Image courtesy of Chris Carey, Pics for Learning.

"Fusion Splicing" to Light Up Village Network

Mahomet, Illinois, population 7,200, wanted to do something special to mark the official launch of its community fiber network. The network connects local public facilities as well as some area businesses. Instead of the old-fashioned ribbon-cutting ceremony, the Village held a very 21st century event in November to commemorate the occasion: a "fusion splicing" ceremony.

The local Mahomet Citizen described the proceedings:

With the press of a button, Acting Village President Sean Widener fused two strands of fiber about the width of a human hair. A computer screen showed the progress of the splice for the crowd, which included members of the Chamber of Commerce, elected officials and Mahomet-Seymour administrators.

It was an occasion that might otherwise call for a ribbon-cutting, “but in our industry, cutting is bad,” quipped Mark DeKeersgieter, executive director of the CIRBN.

A Collaborative Initiative

According to a press release, the network is a collaborative effort between the Village of Mahomet, the Mahomet-Seymour School District #3, and the Central Illinois Regional Network (CIRBN), a non-profit organization that operates a statewide fiber optic network in cooperation with the Illinois Century Network (ICN). The CIRBN connects more than 20 communities in Central Illinois with high-speed connectivity.

The Mahomet-Seymour school district initiated the first phase of the new network in 2013 when they connected area schools to the nearby CIRBN. In the next phase of the project, the Village extended the fiber network to reach other areas of the Village and provide gigabit service to businesses and other Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). By the end of 2014, local hospitals, museums, and city government facilities also had gigabit connectivity. Village officials hope the network can eventually provide service to residents as well.

City leaders consider the project important to the community’s economic future:

“A reliable and affordable fiber-optic broadband network is important and fundamental for Mahomet to be competitive in our efforts to help drive economic development growth from new business attraction and to retain current businesses," Village of Mahomet Administrator Patrick Brown said. 

Saving

Connecting to CIRBN’s existing network allowed the Village of Mahomet and its schools to switch from an expensive private provider service contract. Mahomet-Seymour school district is getting ten times the bandwitdth while also saving $35,000 annually under the new agreement.

According to terms of the four year contract, the CIRBN will manage and maintain the network at a charge of just $1 per year. The school district and Village will retain ownership of the network. All told, the Village has spent about $300,000 on the project. 

Under the contract the CIRBN retains the right to choose either to provide Internet services over the network or to lease the lines to private entities. The CIRBN can also charge commercial customers a one-time infrastructure access fee. Proceeds from these fees will then be used for the purposes of expanding the infrastructure. 

Learning

Mahomet-Seymour school district Superintendent Rick Johnston also notes that the new community network’s core educational mission coincides with one of the CIRBN’s central objectives:

“The grant funding that started CIRBN targeted K-12 schools, so a child at school in Mahomet would have the same educational opportunities as children in large major metropolitan areas. Between our investment in the infrastructure and CIRBN’s gigabit Internet access, we have the foundation and are moving towards a 1:1 program where every student in grades 3 through 12 will have access to their own computer with internet access while at school.”

Going Faster, Farther, Safer

Prior to the installation and connection of the new network to the CIRBN, Mahomet already owned and used a limited amount of fiber optic infrastructure. The latest installation of this new fiber loop gives the Village redundancy over a larger geographic area and can carry the bandwith needed for faster speeds. The average speed for public facilities used to be about 20 Megabits per second (Mbps) but now is 250 Mbps. 

Mahomet Public Library Director Lynn Schmidt is trumpeting the impact of these upgrades for the quality of services she can deliver to the community:

“Since joining the Village of Mahomet and the Mahomet-Seymour School District in receiving internet services over fiber through CIRBN, Mahomet Public Library increased our internet speed fivefold, cut our monthly bill in half, and decreased downtime significantly. This allows us to better serve our community with fast, reliable internet access.”

Overall, the new network is fast, reliable, and affordable. The school district reduces connectivity costs while improving their curriculum, security procedures, and standardized testing. The Village is saving public dollars and increasing efficiencies.

“We’re going to be on a level playing field” with larger communities, [Acting Village President Sean] Widener said at the event.

No Longer Just a Luxury: Tennessee Communities Need Broadband Access Now

Sandi Wallis, a resident of northern Bradley County in Tennessee, doesn’t simply want to have ultra-fast, reliable broadband access for the fun of it. She needs it to run her home business. Her school-age children need it too:

“I've had to send my kids into town to do their homework. We’ve had to go into town with our business laptops to download updates to our programs for our accounting business because we can’t do it at home. We need service — not just reliable service and not just for entertainment.”

Wallis made the comments at a recent meeting hosted by the Bradley County Chamber of Commerce in Tennessee. The meeting focused on a persistent problem in many parts of Bradley County - residents and businesses lack the fast, affordable, reliable, broadband access that is available via Chattanooga’s EPB fiber network in neighboring Hamilton County. The deficiency is taking its toll.

Cleveland, a city of about 43,000 in Bradley County, has explored the idea of building their own community broadband network. But business leaders, government officials, and residents across Bradley County and the State of Tennessee are all anxiously awaiting the results of the ongoing legal struggle over the state’s anti-muni law. In addition, a bill set for consideration at the next state legislative session would, if passed, allow municipalities like Chattanooga to expand their existing fiber broadband services to adjacent communities in Bradley County. 

Don’t Mind the Gaps

Alan Hill, a representative from AT&T, suggested that rather than focusing on the broadband service gaps in the state, Bradley County should acknowledge AT&T’s positive contributions in the area:

“Instead of talking about the gaps, we need to celebrate what all has happened here because there is a lot of opportunities here for businesses that have services both wired and wireless.” Hill said.

Much like hiding a dirty family secret, large corporate providers believe that by ignoring a problem, it doesn't exist. Tell that to the thousands of residents and businesses that slug along on inadequate connections while gazing longingly toward Chattanooga. For community members like Dr. Terry Forshee, president of the local Cherokee Pharmacy, all that matters is that private competition is not getting the job done:

“The problem is I am one of the gaps,” Forshee said. “In my opinion, you had 27 years to bring cable down to me. I’m three miles away to the closest that you come. I’m waiting. I call every month.”

The Marvel of the Free Market?

The problem is not just about expanding broadband service to the rural, unserved parts of Bradley County. The broadband service in downtown Cleveland, Tennessee, is so poor, in fact, that business owners like Clark Campbell say they’ll soon have to leave town if something doesn’t change:

"We have multiple businesses in downtown Cleveland that compete with Chattanooga, but I had to move my family to Ooltewah this year in order to have adequate Internet service. We will consider moving our business to Hamilton County if the high-speed Internet problem is not solved in the next 12 months because we just can't compete with the speed, reliability and customer service of EPB in Chattanooga."

Send in the Munis

For the time being, the people of Cleveland and other communities throughout Bradley County and the rest of the state can only wait and wonder what it would be like to get the kind of broadband access that the residents of neighboring Chattanooga now enjoy. Meanwhile, Ken Webb, CEO of Cleveland Utilities (CU), is looking ahead at solving a problem where private enterprise has failed:

“‘I do not come in an adversarial role toward anyone or any other interest in this room,’ Webb said. ‘I do, in addition to representing Cleveland Utilities, come representing a significant number of citizens who realize and understand access to reliable and reasonably priced high-speed internet is no longer a luxury. Broadband availability has become such a necessity we can no longer wait for the service issues to be addressed.’”

PILOTing Positive in Tennessee

As the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals reviews the FCC's February decision to scale back state anti-muni laws in Tennessee, at least two munis in the Volunteer State are giving back by saving dollars. Networks are also contributing substantially to  public coffers via Payment in Lieu of Taxes.

Clarksville, Tennessee, Network Becomes Revenue Positive in 2015

As of June 2015, the city’s utility provider CDE Lightband paid off all outstanding expenses related to their fiber optic network. General manager Brian Taylor described how the network has improved the city’s utility services and overall economic picture:

Our fiber project has proven to be an investment that benefits the electric system, the customers and the community. It has allowed us to enhance our distribution system and improve our system reliability; provide customer choice in video, Internet and telephone services and offer another tool in economic development. Every year access to high speed Internet becomes more critical in the recruitment of new business. We are proud to be an integral part of the growth and development of our community.

In a recent press release, CDE Lightband said their 1,200 mile fiber optic network saves the City of Clarksville a total of $4.5 million annually through technological upgrades that have improved the overall safety, reliability, and speed of electrical maintenance and service. The city has also seen 27% growth in broadband service customers over the past year. The network’s cost savings, along with direct revenues from electrical and broadband services, spell major dividends for CDE Lightband coupled with continued optimism for future growth.

Total revenues since the inception of CDE Lightband in the form of Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT or PILT) exceed $37 million, with annual PILOT compensation payments of $5 million to continue indefinitely. PILOT compensation is a type of recurring payment that non-taxable organizations make to government entities for the use of government-owned property.

Chattanooga’s Unstoppable EPB

Chattanooga’s EPB network also continues to see remarkable evidence of success. PILOT compensation since Chattanooga built the EPB network six years ago is at $140.5 million with $19.2 million paid out this year alone. Today, EPB contributes more in PILOT compensation than any other taxpayer or PILOT contributor in all of Chattanooga and Hamilton County.

It Doesn't Stop with PILOT

Clarksville and Chattanooga are well-established networks that have served the community well in a number of ways. In addition to providing PILOT and more efficient electric services, benefits extend to better connected schools and anchor institutions, savings for public facilities, and economic development.

new study from a University of Tennessee-Chattanooga economist reveals EPB’s fiber network has added an estimated $865.3 million to $1.3 billion to the local Chattanooga economy in the past 6 years. In addition, the study says Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has also generated at least 2,800 new jobs in the local economy. The same study estimates that job growth due to the network may be as high as 5,200 new jobs, depending on the parameters.

Chattanooga and Clarksville are two examples of what is possible when local communities have the ability to exercise their own authority. Those that will live with the results and reap the benefits are best suited to decide the strategy to improve local connectivity.

Two Fiber Networks Collaborate: Aim to Bridge Digital Divide in Georgia

In October, the North Georgia Network (NGN) cooperative announced the formation of a new partnership with Georgia Public Web (GPW), a pairing that will conjoin two large fiber optic networks that together cover most of the State of Georgia. The newly announced partnership will enable the two organizations to more effectively confront their shared mission to improve broadband access across the state. Paul Belk, president and CEO of NGN, expressed his enthusiasm for the new partnership:

GPW is a great company for NGN to work with, as we have similar goals to serve communities challenged with ‘the digital divide.’ The companies are great links to each other because GPW serves most of the state with the exception of NGN’s footprint. Together we create a complete solution.

Two Networks Become One

This partnership connects GPW’s nearly 3,500 mile fiber optic network that stretches across most of the state to NGN’s 1,600 mile network. As Mr. Belk noted, a look at NGN’s network map shows that it covers one of the few remaining service areas in Georgia that GPW’s massive network map does not reach.

The North Georgia Network is a “corporation of cooperatives” with a mission to bring fast, reliable and affordable broadband access to rural Georgian businesses, government facilities, educational institutions, and medical centers and to more broadly help advance the state's economic development objectives. Georgia Public Web is a non-profit corporation in Georgia owned collectively by 32 city governments that strives to bring broadband connectivity to underserved communities in rural and urban Georgia. The partnership will allow the organizations to combine technologies, resources, and their unique areas of expertise to form a more efficient single network that spans their shared coverage areas.

GPW/NGN Podcasts

In a June podcast, we spoke with GPW’s President and CEO David Muschamp about the organization’s efforts to improve broadband access across the Georgia. We also spoke to NGN’s CEO Paul Belk in a 2013 podcast about the history and objectives of the North Georgia Network.

EPB Turns Up The Speed To 10 Gigs

Chattanooga's EPB Fiber Optics now offers 10 gigabit Internet service to all households and businesses in its service area. The ultra-fast service is available for $299 per month with free installation, no contracts, and no cancellation fees, announced community leaders at a press conference on October 15th.

In addition to 10 gig service, EPB is also offering "Professional" products available in 3 gig, 5 gig, and 10 gig for large businesses. Smaller businesses have the option of choosing 5 gig or 10 gig Internet products. According to the press release, prices on all the new products vary.

Since the network was launched in 2010, Chattanooga has transformed from one of the "dirtiest cities in America" to a haven for the entrepreneurial culture. Chattanooga experienced explosive economic development leading to thousands of new jobs, substantial public savings due to the network's smart grid capabilities, and new educational opportunities for students and workforce development.

From the press release:

Chattanooga’s fiber optic network has produced tangible results. A study recently released by University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Finance professor Bento Lobo shows “the Gig Network” helped the Chattanooga area generate at least 2,800 new jobs and at least $865.3 million in economic and social benefits. The study also found the EPB smart grid, which is the cornerstone application of the utility’s community-wide fiber optic network, has allowed customers to avoid an estimated 124.7 million minutes of electric service interruptions by automatically re-routing power (often in less than a second) to prevent an outage or dramatically reduce outage durations.[read the study here

The city created a standard other communities strive to achieve; we often see communities aiming for the $70 gigabit price point offered by EPB. As a leader for other municipalities, it is only fitting that Chattanooga has taken this next step forward.

Also from the press release:

“Chattanooga’s 10 Gig fiber optic network is a world-class platform for innovation,” [Harold DePriest, president and CEO of EPB] said. “In recent years, the need for faster Internet speeds has increased rapidly. Chattanooga is the perfect place for companies to enhance their productivity today and test the applications everyone in the country will want tomorrow.”

Read more about Chattanooga's journey to become a gigabit community in our 2012 report, Broadband At the Speed of Light: How Three Communities Built Next-Generation Networks.

Fibrant Rolls out 10 Gbps, A Look At Salisbury's Challenges in FTTH

Salisbury, North Carolina's Fibrant, now holds the distinction of offering the fastest Internet access in the country. The municipal network is making 10 Gbps symmetrical connectivity available for residents and businesses.

Fibrant's first 10 Gbps customer is Catawba College, a local school that will use the ultra-fast connections for its new Digital Media Creation and Collaboration labs. In a press release Joanna Jasper, Catawba CIO stated:

"By moving to Fibrant's 10 Gbps speeds, the College is in a better position to differentiate itself. We can bring world-class broadband services to our campus community to support the next generation of educational applications."

"The future is all about rich immersive digital media and being able to communicate and collaborate with others in real-time regardless of where people are in time and space."

The city of Salisbury hopes this new standard will set it apart from other North Carolina communities and entice more economic development. From a BizJournals article:

“It helps us differentiate ourselves” among cities and states seeking technology companies, [says Kent Winrich, Director of Broadband and Infrastructure Services]. “It will attract international companies. It’s not sniping businesses from Charlotte.”

Winrich sees Salisbury attracting technology companies that need the bandwidth for real-time connections to clients and suppliers — software developers and data centers, for example.

The network, which already offers gigabit connectivity to businesses and residents for around $100 per month, has attracted several businesses to a community that once struggled with job loss. Mayor Paul Woodson told WFAE that the investment in Fibrant grew out of necessity:

"All we were trying to do was differentiate ourselves from other cities. We lost our mills, we lost our furniture factories. We decided we need to do something to replace the manufacturing the whole country was losing, not just Salisbury, the whole country, so that’s how we got started."

Listen to the entire WFAE story below and check out episode #168 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast for a conversation between Chris and Kent Winrich, Salisbury Director of Broadband and Infrastructure.

Salisbury has had to deal with a variety of challenges, having built the network during the worst economic downturn in 70 years and seeing Time Warner Cable slash its prices to undermine the municipal network. We thought the following background would be helpful.

Salisbury is located in west central North Carolina and home to approximately 34,000 people. In the early 2000s, the community suffered from high unemployment and businesses could not get the connectivity they needed from incumbents. There were key commercial areas in town that had no Internet access at all. Local leaders hoped the network would spur economic development an area that had previously been known for textile and other manufacturing.

Incumbent providers Time Warner Cable (TWC) and AT&T did not see enough profitability to justify upgrades, so community leaders had to take action without them.

seal-north-carolina_0.jpgIn 2005 the city began to investigate the idea of a municipal fiber network. An early survey suggested 30 percent of households would purchase at least one service from the city by the end of year three - TV, telephone, or Internet access. The local community expressed support for the project, including businesses, potential anchor institutions, and residents.

The city issued approximately $29 million in revenue bonds to finance its network deployment in November 2008. At the time of the issue, Moody's rated Salisbury at A-1 and Standard & Poor listed the city as A-plus which are equivalent ratings and considered "investment grade."

As plans moved forward, a series of setbacks delayed deployment and launch. Even though the city reached an agreement with AT&T to place city fiber on the incumbent's poles, preparing the poles took longer than expected. Synchronizing audio and video proved to be a challenge at first due to software glitches and there were also problems with remote controls accompanying set-top boxes. 

Incumbent Time Warner Cable, however, was able to take advantage of its substantial market share and cross subsidize to offer exceptionally low prices in the region. Certainly the stiff competitive prices negatively affected Fibrant's ability to reach its subscription goals.

In 2014, two bond rating agencies, Moody’s and Fitch, downgraded the bond rating for the city, citing financial struggles with the Fibrant network as a major factor in the decision. As Moody’s wrote, the city’s reduced bond rating from Aa2 to A3...

“...primarily incorporates the city's outsized enterprise risk associated with its broadband enterprise (Fibrant), with considerable operating pressure should the Fibrant continue to underperform.” 

Moody's also based its rating on the city's decision to redirect $7.6 million from its sewer and water enterprise fund to support the network. The investor service described the city's situation as "a narrowed but still acceptable cash position for the water & sewer fund."

Moody's decision to downgrade, we should note, came after a decision by Standard & Poor to upgrade, which sheds some light on the fragile and complicated bond rating process.

In 2011, North Carolina was also a battleground for TWC's intense lobbying efforts to block initiatives like Fibrant through state legislation. TWC managed to push through a restrictive bill that negatively impacted municipal networks, including Fibrant, by limiting its ability to expand.

Nevertheless, Fibrant has slowly and steadily added customers bringing subscribership to 3,000 in the summer of 2014 and in December reported that 3,200 customers took Fibrant service. By that time, Fibrant was already offering gigabit service for around $100 per month, having upgraded top tier customers to gigabit symmetrical speeds with no rate increase.

According to Winrich, the switch to even faster speeds was not as difficult as one might expect:

"We changed out our router and realized we could actually bump this up, and be the first city in the world to do it. And we were just scratching our heads going, ‘really, we’re going to be the first ones?’ And we kept checking with everyone we knew, and they said ‘we don’t know of anybody.’ So, we just jumped all over it and it was really very easy to do. Surprisingly easy to do."

Rates will vary but will cost around $400 per month, approximately $100 per month higher than the 2 Gbps residential service recently announced by Comcast. In other words, 25 percent higher for 5 times the speed with the added bonus of reliability from a local provider that cares about the welfare of its community.

An increasing number of communities are considering the benefits of municipal networks and places with 1 Gbps offerings have an even greater advantage. The ability to offer 10 Gbps lets businesses know that Fibrant has an entrepreneurial approach just as their business customers do; Salisbury is positioning itself and the region for the future:

“This whole area could be so vibrant, and Salisbury would be in the center of it,” [Winrich] says.

New Video Series on Better Broadband in Cambridge, Massachusetts

Cambridge, Massachusetts has established a Broadband Task Force and is looking for ways to better its local connectivity. In order to educate the public about the advantages of broadband, the local community CCTV channel will televise presentations and sit-downs between local leaders who can describe how it will impact Cambridge.

The first episode of Cambridge Broadband Matters recently aired and is now available to view. It runs approximately 30 minutes long and features Georgiana Chevry of Cambridge Community Learning Center, Susan Flannery of Cambridge Public Library, and Jay Leslie of the Cambridge Housing Authority.  

One of the topics they address in this episode is the connection between broadband and adult education and workforce development. The issue is critical in Cambridge and many communities as we transition to an information based economy.

 

Ammon Brings Local Connectivity to Idaho Schools as State Education Network Goes Dark

The City of Ammon's municipal fiber network recently stepped in to provide primary broadband access for School District 93 as the state's educational network went dark reports Local News 8. Watch the video of local coverage below.

When a judge ruled last year that the Idaho Education Network (IEN) contract between the state Department of Administration was void, an education broadband crisis loomed across the state. As the drama played out, however, local networks such as Ammon's muni, have come to the rescue to keep students connected.

Ammon Mayor Dana Kirkham described an attitude characteristic of municipal networks:

"I think it's just something we do in the spirit of collaboration, and I think that's always important because when we talk about the school district and the city it's all the same people, and so anytime we can keep costs down it benefits everyone involved," Kirkham said.

CenturyLink and Education Networks of America (ENA) were providers under the contract voided last year. As CenturyLink and ENA cut off service to schools, forcing them to negotiate their own contracts, they have discovered better, more affordable broadband from local providers like Ammon.  A recent Idaho State Journal reported on several school districts:

The state, under the now-void IEN contract, had been paying Education Networks of America more than $6,000 a month for a 20 Mbps Internet service to Rockland School District. The school district will pay less than a third of that cost for a new 100 Mbps service next year.

The State Journal also discovered that numerous school districts had used fiber optic service from local providers but were forced to switch to slower service in order to obtain the IEN reimbursement. In order to get the reimbursement, West Side School District had to switch from fiber from Direct Communications, a local company, to a slow copper T1 connection from CenturyLink:

Once the IEN contract was in place, the Idaho taxpayers were saddled with paying over $8000 a month for outdated copper service to that same location.

[Direct Communications Marketing Director Brigham] Griffin said Preston [School District] was in the same boat. It had been getting fiber-optic Internet from Direct Communications, but had to switch to copper to have the state pick up the tab.

“Preston School District will now receive double their previous speed for about a fifth of the monthly cost,” Griffin said.

Though it is incredibly frustrating to see how Idaho has hurts its schools while funnelling extra tax dollars to CenturyLink, it is not as rare as you might think. Many states have these kind of "deals" with the large phone companies. We have long covered the depressing story in Wisconsin, where AT&T has successfully lobbied to hobble WiscNet, an arrangement that brings tremendous cost savings to local budgets and better connections to schools. 

This is more evidence for a point we have long made: building better networks does not necessary have to cost a lot more. We spend so much money inefficiently that eliminating these crony capitalism deals would free up significant funds to be spent more wisely.

In Ammon, Mayor Kirkham summed up the situation:

"This is always an argument for local control so whenever you have local control, then you aren't at the mercy of the decisions being made higher up the ladder and so this is one of those instances where you see that being played out," Kirkham said. 

Video: 
See video

Lincoln, Illinois, Once Again Looking at Fiber

Lincoln, Illinois, has contemplated investing in a fiber-optic municipal network since 2009 and, while they have not taken steps to deploy yet, the community appears to be ready to dive in. The Lincoln Courier reports that the City Council recently considered investing $100,000 to deploy fiber in the downtown business district.

Lincoln, located right in the center of the state, is home to approximately 14,500 people. At the meeting, City Administrator Clay Johnson described the need as essential for economic development:

"Fiber optics are the sewer and water for economic development; what businesses look for when they want to locate in your area or expand in your are is, ‘do they have access to high speed internet’ and in a lot of areas, no they don’t."

Johnson believes that existing fiber from local Lincoln College could be integrated into a network that would eventually lead to better access to businesses and as backhaul for downtown Wi-Fi. His "extremely preliminary" estimate is $140,000 - $160,000 for a fiber connection from the college down one of the main commercial corridors.

He also suggested that a long-term plan would include connectivity for local schools as a cost-saving measure.

In 2009, former Mayor Keith Snyder's administration embraced the idea of investing in municipal fiber infrastructure as part of a downtown revitalization plan. In 2012 the community received a $600,000 grant of which $16,500 was dedicated to develop an initial plan for a network. City leaders ultimately decided to direct remaining funds toward other projects in 2012 and the City Council is once again taking up the possibility of fiber.