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Aurora's Nonprofit Approach with Muni Fiber - Community Broadband Bits Episode 123

Aurora, Illinois, has been named one of the "Smart 21" most intelligent communities of 2015 according to the Intelligent Community Forum. We have been tracking Aurora for a few years and wrote about OnLight, its nonprofit ISP, that we wrote about earlier this year.

With some 200,000 people, it is the second largest city in Illinois but it has one of the most interesting hybrids of municipal fiber and nonprofit partnerships we have come across. For this week's Community Broadband Bits podcast, Lisa Gonzalez takes the reins and interviews Rick Mervine, Alderman of the 8th Ward in Aurora.

Alderman Mervine explains why the city first invested in the fiber network and why they later decided to create OnLight to serve community anchor institutions as well as others in the community.

Read the transcript of this episode here.

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 Jessie Evans for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Is it Fire?"

Longmont Schools Save, Increase Bandwidth With Help from LPC

Schools in Longmont recently began working with Longmont Power and Communications (LPC) to increase bandwidth, save money, and begin implementing a new technology plan. As part of the plan, every middle school student in Longmont was assigned an iPad mini this school year.

Jon Rice from the Longmont Compass alerted us to the program that takes advantage of the new 10 Gig wide area network. LPC installed the WAN this summer for the St. Vrain Valley School District. The network has a 20 Gbps ring and each school has an active 10 Gbps link with a second 10 Gbps ring for redundancy. The district's Chief Information Officer, Joe McBreen summed up the situation:

“We really needed to give ourselves some breathing room,” he said. The new LPC  “pipe,” he said, gave St. Vrain 10 times the bandwidth while saving $100,000 a year and allowing teaching and learning to be exponentially improved.

According to McBreen, bandwidth demands used to take up 80 - 90 percent of the district's bandwidth, but now only requires 5 percent on a typical day, even with the new devices.

Not long ago, LPC announced a new $49.95 per month gigabit service for residents and businesses. If customers sign up early, LPC guarantees the price for an extended period. The price remains the same at that residence, regardless of who owns the home. LPC expects to finish its current expansion work in 2017. 

In the short video below, School Board Member Paula Peairs notes that the district's savings on connectivity costs allows them to direct more funds to devices, staff training, and classes for students.

"The fact that the City has established that and built us the infrastructure to apply it is enormous. We have a community that supports that and really puts us in a unique position."

Matt Scheppers, Electrical Operations Manager at LPC, said of the utility's new service to the school:

"We are really excited to see what they do with it and we are going to accommodate them in the future; if they need more speed we will be able to provide that too. We're real excited about that opportunity." 

Video: 
See video

Decorah Fiber Network Wins Civic Award

The town of Decorah, Iowa, population 8,000, lies along the winding banks of the Iowa River. So close to the river, in fact, that in 2008 its floodwaters swamped parts of the town, including the emergency operations center. That unfortunate event got city leaders thinking about how to ensure secure and redundant communications in future emergencies. The city, county, and school district decided to partner on a fiber optic network build that would meet their shared needs.

The resulting project, called the Decorah Metronet, has lead to the city being named an “All-Star Community” by the Iowa League of Cities. The award was given last month in recognition of Decorah’s innovative policies, and specifically singled out the fiber optic network for its contributions to public safety, cost savings, and intergovernmental cooperation. The award is given each year “based on innovative efforts in areas such as urban renewal, development, preservation, service sharing or quality of life improvements.”

Completed in the fall of 2013, Metronet boasts an 11-mile, 144-strand fiber optic loop. It connects 18 facilities belonging to six different anchor institutions: the city of Decorah, Winneshiek County, Decorah Community Schools, Luther College, the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission, and the Winneshiek Medical Center. Metronet not only provides redundancy and savings on connectivity costs, but data center services and offsite backup for its member institutions as well. 

When the network went live last November, City Manager Chad Bird emphasized its economic potential and indicated it would eventually offer extensions to individuals and businesses: 

"I see the Metronet fiber being an economic development tool for our community -- having it in place and having excess fiber available for the commercial industrial segment of our economy. I can think of technology heavy business -- call centers or data centers - that might appreciate having excess fiber capacity."

The project was the recipient of a $520,000 federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant in 2010 which provided the bulk of the initial construction budget, although each anchor institution contributed $75,000 in matching funds over three years as well. 

Congratulations to Decorah, and notch another victory for Iowa’s rural community network movement. 

SHLB Coalition Offering October Symposium on Anchor Institution Broadband Deployment

On October 2nd in Washington, D.C., the Schools, Health & Libraries Broadband Coalition (SHLB) will be hosting a symposium on "School-Library Partnerships and Other Anchor Institution Broadband Strategies." Speakers will include FCC representatives, Obama Administration officials, and service providers such as One Community, among others. 

The SHLB Coalition is a group of public, nonprofit, and commercial institutions that "promotes government policies and programs to enable schools, libraries, health care providers, other anchor institutions and their communities to obtain open, affordable, high-speed, broadband connections to the Internet."  

For more details and registration information, see the attached flyer.

Hamilton, Ohio Connects Local Schools with City Fiber

Just over a year ago, we wrote about Hamilton’s plans to expand their extensive fiber optic infrastructure to offer services to schools and businesses in the area. Last month, the first example of such expanded services came online, with three area schools getting fiber optic internet connections through a partnership between the City utility and the Southwest Ohio Computer Association Council of Governments (SWOCA-COG). 

The press release announcing the collaboration describes SWOCA as: 

“...a council of governments consisting of 33 public school districts plus several private and charter schools in the area. The organization provides numerous software and technical services to schools, libraries, and municipalities as well as very high capacity Broadband Internet.” 

Under the arrangement, the City will be responsible for the physical connections and laid fiber, while SWOCA will provide the active internet service. This approach fits the city’s stated goal of remaining a source of neutral infrastructure:

“The City will remain carrier-neutral and does not intend to compete with providers or offer end user services directly. Instead, Hamilton’s goal is to make an additional source of last-mile fiber available to service providers at competitive rates to expand the availability of business-class broadband services in our community. As such, service providers will have equal access to all facilities, transport, and other services on Hamilton’s network.”

With the growth of online testing, electronic textbooks, and other online media in the classroom, existing connections were proving inadequate. The schools will pay the City $18,000 per year for connectivity, decreasing their costs while increasing bandwidth. From the press release:

“‘Schools in the region are getting more technology focused. Regionally, we've seen school bandwidth needs grow as much as 60% in a year. The City is in a great position to help us meet this demand,’ said Marc Hopkins, Network Services Manager for SWOCA.”

Hamilton has had a fiber optic network for internal government use since 2004, and in 2012 began contemplating ways to leverage this existing asset to spur economic development and expand educational opportunities. The City did a feasibility study on network expansion, and in July of 2013 authorized a city team to find partners to work with.  

Mark Murray, the project manager for Hamilton’s broadband initiative, made clear the City’s intention to expand further: "We see this as just the first step to bigger things to come with broadband in Hamilton," Murray said.

Missoula Releases Results of Broadband Feasibility Study

The culmination of more than a year of discussion, funding searches, vendor selection, and research, Missoula has released the results of its broadband feasibility study. The study’s final report makes a range of recommendations, highlighted by the urging to invest $10.5 million from various sources to construct an open access fiber optic network connecting local businesses and over 50 key anchor institutions. 

Beginning in early 2013, Missoula City and Missoula County governments collaborated with the Bitter Root Economic Development District to win a grant from the Montana’s Big Sky Economic Development Trust Fund, which they matched with local funds. The result was a $50,000 pot from which to finance the feasibility study.

The long-awaited final study results indicate a significant demand for affordable, reliable high speed connectivity in the Missoula area from both businesses and public institutions, especially in the unincorporated areas outside the central city. In a survey (page 31 of the report), a shocking 73% of Missoula businesses reported moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed. A further 38% said their connections were insufficient for their businesses needs, but the vast majority of those reported that they were unable to upgrade because the needed connections were either unavailable or the price was out of reach. 

The total cost of the network, which would include over 60 miles of fiber, is estimated to be just over $17 million. That figure is a conservative estimate, however, as it assumes 100% of the network would be built underground and minimal existing assets would be used or shared (neither of which is likely to be the case when all is said and done). 

The study recommends bringing in local anchor institutions as key network tenants, while making dark fiber available to third party service providers who can sell connections to local businesses, in what the Bitter Root Economic Development District refers to as a public-private partnership:

The proposed network would connect more than 50 public entities to each other including K-12 schools, the University of Montana, healthcare centers and city and county facilities.  Businesses could also take advantage of the network and what the study anticipates would be much more affordable pricing. The study recommends working in cooperation with Internet providers in a public-private partnership.

According to an article in the Missoulian, the local share of network costs would come not come from taxes:

As proposed, the city and county together would invest $10 million toward a $17 million system, with the local government funds leveraging other money, [Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin] Copple said. The local money would be paid through user fees, not taxes, and it would build roughly 60 miles of an “open access” fiber-optic network.

The report also made recommendations for outreach, education, and changes in city and county policy. Notably, it emphasized the need for “dig once” policies that ensure conduit is laid during unrelated construction projects and can be shared by different entities, eliminating the cost and disruption of tearing up streets multiple times to lay different lines. The report also recommended updating city and county building codes to account for broadband engineering requirements, as well as streamlining permitting processes and reducing fees for broadband projects. 

The last few years have seen a race among Montana cities to increase their communications infrastructure through a variety of methods. Butte recently debuted a limited private fiber optic network run by Fatbeam, spurred by long-term contracts with public and private anchor institutions. Bozeman, as we’ve reported, kicked off their own broadband feasibility study and planning process in July.  

Bozeman Kicks Off Broadband Planning Effort

With a meeting on July 17th of city officials, local residents, institutional stakeholders, and technology consultants, Bozeman officially began its process of creating a master plan for its Broadband Initiative. The process will be lead by Design Nine, a consulting firm based in Virginia, and will include a survey of existing assets and needs, feasibility studies, and public outreach, among other elements. The entire process is expected to take about 6 months, with the end goal being a road map for improving access and affordability for businesses and public institutions in the Bozeman area. 

The Montana city of almost 40,000 was initially inspired to examine the issue of municipal broadband by former Montana State University Chief Information Officer (CIO) Dewitt Latimer, who had previously worked on the Metronet Zing open access network in South Bend, Indiana, an innovative public-private partnership involving the University of Notre Dame that we have covered before. Unfortunately, Lattimer passed away in early 2013. But the seed of an idea had been planted.

In March of 2014, the City of Bozeman issued an RFP for a design firm willing to develop a plan for how the city could expand internet access going forward. After receiving a surprisingly competitive group of 12 responses, City officials eventually chose Design Nine to undertake the comprehensive study and make recommendations. 

The City was able to secure $55,000 in grants from state and federal sources to fund the planning process, and solicited a further $80,000 from supportive local institutions including Deaconess Hospital, the local school district, and several local Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts. 

The business community has been a driving force for the initiative as well, with the Bozeman Area Chamber of Commerce committing $5,000 to the planning fund and expressing its enthusiastic support in a letter to the Mayor in April:

Affordable broadband access is essential to the health of our community. Technology firms, banks, businesses, and startups require fast, reliable, and secure connections to their clients. Broadband connectivity is presently only available at high prices or at disparate locations. We believe that increasing the availability of affordable broadband is essential to [the] well-being of this community and we are invested in making this critical infrastructure widely available.

The City’s own press release about the July 17th meeting highlights the competitive atmosphere among Montana cities as they strive to upgrade their communications infrastructure and foster economic development:

Several Montana cities are evaluating their broadband options. The Montana Economic Revitalization and Development Institute (MERDI) built a fiber optic ring in Butte utilizing a public-private partnership with Fatbeam. MERDI’s fiber ring lured a Bozeman-based internet security firm, Hoplite Industries, to uptown Butte. Missoula is about to release the results of their community broadband feasibility study. Livingston is also considering developing a broadband master plan.

According to David Fine, an official with the City’s Economic Development Department (which is overseeing Design Nine’s planning process), the city would be open to public ownership of fiber infrastructure if that ends up being a recommendation of the nascent master plan. The city has no interest in operating the network itself, however, and does not have a municipal electric utility that might fit easily into that role. From the City’s press release:   

The City envisions a public-private partnership model in which broadband providers, anchor businesses, School District 7, the City of Bozeman, and Bozeman Deaconess Hospital collaborate to support a new community fiber optic network. The master plan will investigate options for public-private partnerships, viable business and financing models, and potential build plans. It will also explore regulatory options that can speed the deployment of broadband by the private sector.

Fine also emphasized the potential for direct public savings from a new fiber network. The city and county governments pay $70,000 and $50,000 per year, respectively, for their data connections from a private provider. The school district is charged $105,000 per year for internal ethernet connections, and another $50,000 per year for a shared gigabit connection to the broader internet. With recurring costs that high, it is not hard to imagine a capital investment in fiber infrastructure paying off in the long run through significantly lower monthly bills. 

The local Deaconess Hospital stands to benefit from a new public network as well, as they strive to meet electronic records requirements. Their need for fast and secure connections has grown quickly in recent years, as they have expanded their footprint to various clinics around town and look to make telehealth and remote medicine a viable option for patients in a large, mostly rural state.   

The problem is not that fiber is nonexistent in Bozeman. There are several firms in the area focused on cloud computing, including the tech giant Oracle. Large, well-capitalized firms that can afford to run their own fiber lines or exert serious leverage in negotiating prices can often meet their fiber needs. The problem is bringing affordable and adequate connectivity to small and mid-sized businesses, startups, schools, hospitals, and ordinary citizens. 

For local news coverage of the plan, highlighting its importance for local businesses, watch the video below:

Sanford, Maine Studies Municipal Broadband Deployment

Sanford, a city of about 21,000 in far southwestern Maine, is weighing its options for a limited fiber optic network. The Sanford Regional Economic Growth Council has been the driving force behind the project, hiring Tilson Technology Management of Portland earlier this year to develop a Broadband Plan for Sanford.

The Growth Council began exploring broadband issues only after realizing late last year that they had been left out of Maine’s “Three Ring Binder,” a federally-funded high capacity fiber backbone running through much of the state in three loops. Wary of being left behind economically by neighbors with better communications infrastructure, the Growth Council hired Tilson to evaluate their options.

The resulting report has not been made publicly available, but according to an op-ed by James Nimon, the Growth Council’s executive director:

Tilson has completed their assignment and provided “Good,” “Better” and “Best” alternatives, with the conclusion that the implementation of the Broadband Plan’s ‘Best’ scenario, which connects all the key CAIs [community anchor institutions] in Sanford, “has the potential to provide impressive public economic benefits, including adding between $47 and $192 million to the Sanford-Springvale region’s economic output over the next ten years.”

The anchor institutions to be connected include municipal buildings, local schools, a mill yard, a hospital, and industrial parks. According to a recent Sanford News article, the costs projected by Tilson range from $362,000 for the most limited deployment to $961,000 for the “best” alternative.

The city and the Growth Council will now begin the process of exploring federal, state, and private partnership funding opportunities, in an effort to bring the advantages of a high speed fiber network to their community.

North Carolina Town Saves Public Dollars With Its Own Network

On June 18 Holly Springs, home to approximately 25,000 people, started saving money with its new fiber I-Net. Last summer, the Town Council voted to invest in fiber infrastructure as a way to take control of telecommunications costs. Just one year later, the 13-mile network is serving community anchor institutions.

After exploring options with CTC Technology and Energy, Holly Springs determined that deploying their own $1.5 million network was more cost effective than paying Time Warner Cable for data services. Annual fees were $159,000; over time those costs certainly would have escalated. According to the Cary News, Holly Springs anticipates a future need for more bandwidth:

“And we wouldn’t have been able to actually afford as much (data) as we need,” [Holly Springs IT Director Jeff Wilson] said. “Our costs were going to be getting out of control over the next couple of years.”

Because state law precludes the town from offering services to homes or businesses, Holly Springs plans to use the new infrastructure in other ways. State law allows the community to offer free Wi-Fi; the town will also lease dark fiber to third-party providers. According to the News article, the town has already entered into a 20-year contract with DukeNet, recently acquired by Time Warner Cable. DukeNet may expand the fiber to the Holly Springs Business Park for commercial clients.

The community's free Wi-Fi in public facilities is approximately 20 times faster than it was before the deployment, reports the News:

When the town activated the network on June 18, “People told us they could tell the difference immediately,” said Jeff Wilson, Holly Springs’ IT director.

According to the News, the fiber network allows the city to expand free Wi-Fi to more green spaces. Cameras at baseball fields now stream live video of games; parents and grandparents can watch activities online if they cannot attend games in person.

For more on the community and the project, check out Chris' conversation with Jeff Wilson in episode #107 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Davenport, Iowa, Releases RFP for Feasibility Study

Davenport recently issued an RFP, hoping to hire a vendor to complete a feasibility study. The community wants to learn more about connectivity options that build on its current fiber assets.

According to a May 2014 Government Technology article by Colin Wood, the city has installed fiber throughout the community over the past decade. CIO Rob Henry told Wood:

“For years, residents and businesses have been asking us to do this,” Henry said. “We always knew we were going to get to this point.”

Henry goes on to note that current services from incumbents in Davenport are not sufficient for economic development. The first step will be to connect businesses then follow with fiber to each premise.

Davenport's population is approximately 103,000. During the 70s and 80s, manufacturing was the predominent industry but today tech firms are moving into the area. It is considered part of the Quad Cities region, midway between Chicago and Des Moines from east to west and the Twin Cities and St. Louis from north to south.

According to the article, government facilities began using fiber first, with schools, hospitals, and parks following. The network saves Davenport $400,000 per year because the city serves its own telecommunications needs rather than buying service from a provider.

Wood reported that the city has spoken to CenturyLink and Mediacom; Chris told GovTech:

It’s good that Davenport is trying to cooperate with local Internet service providers (ISP), Mitchell said, but it’s unlikely to produce much substance because, in some cases, ISPs will attempt to starve the municipality for customers. “Every local government at first tries to work with incumbent providers,” said Mitchell, adding that, “my thinking is the city is not going to get a whole lot out of trying to work with them.”

The feasibility study will include several components, including a business case needs analysis, an evaluation of Davenport's current fiber optic capabilities, and recommendations. Bids are due in mid-July; the RFP is available online [PDF].