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Columbia Takes Next Step Toward Municipal Network Infrastructure

A consultant report recommends the City of Columbia tap into its existing fiber resources to develop an open access municipal telecommunications network. The City recently issued a request for proposals for a business plan to press forward with the recommendation, reports the Columbia Daily Tribune.

Last year the City, Boone County, and the University of Missouri jointly hired a firm to conduct a survey and analyze existing connectivity. An August Tribune article by Andrew Denney reported that the the community was found lacking in reliable connectivity. The survey indicated that 84% of businesses reported "moderate, severe, or total disruption of their business from Internet problems related to reliability or speed." The survey also revealed 84% of businesses contend with Internet speeds "insufficient for their business needs due to reliability and speed issues." The reasonable conclusion is that commercial Internet access in Columbia is too expensive, too slow, and too unreliable for local businesses.

The Columbia Water and Light Department (W & L) now leases its dark fiber to approximately 30 entities, reports the Tribune. The leases bring in approximately $876,000 per year. The consultant recommends expanding existing resources in order to entice more providers who want to serve last-mile customers.

The report also examined continuing the W & L dark fiber leasing program without significant changes and expanding the dark fiber leasing program by adding last-mile deployment. Maintaining the current dark fiber program will not require capital but won't stimulate the area's economic development possibilities either.

Expanding the dark fiber program would improve the broadband infrastructure situation because providers would be able to offer leases to customer premises rather than only within the middle-mile network. This type of change would not improve affordability because it would not increase competition.

The August Tribune article reported:

[The consultant] suggests if the city decides to light up its fiber network, it would be able to enter into public-private partnerships with service providers but remain a neutral party to providers. The network would increase competition by allowing users to access multiple providers over the city’s network, the consultants’ report said.

More recently, the Tribune reported:

[The consultant] estimates that the city would be able to develop a broadband network to serve businesses and organizations based in the “downtown core” for a price ranging between $2.5 million and $3.5 million, which the firm suggested could be paid through debt instruments like loans and bond sales.

At an August 18th City Council meeting, CenturyLink area operations manager Kevin Czaicki addressed the Council before they voted to instruct staff to move forward. In true incumbent fashion, Czaicki told the Council that a network would create financial challenges for the city. The Tribune reported:

Czaicki also said that, if the city proceeded with the idea, it would amount to a taxpayer-subsidized entity wading into competition with private business. “This violates the spirit of the law, if not the rule,” Czaicki said.

Last August, CenturyLink announced some properties in Columbia and Jefferson City would obtain access to gigabit service. Once again, the prospect of a municipal network appears to inspire private investment.

“We would be paving a road that currently, in our opinion, does not exist now,” [W & L Assistant Director Ryan] Williams said.

Read the PDF of the report Executive Summary online for more details.

Hudson Issues RFP for Broadband Needs Assessment, Business Plan

Hudson, Ohio, located in the Akron area, recently released a Request For Proposals (RFP) for a Broadband Needs Assessment and Broadband Business Plan. The community of 22,000 hopes to connect all municipal facilities, connect business parks, and eventually implement an FTTH network.

A May 4 Hub Times article covered an April city council discussion to expand existing fiber resources throughout the city. Internet Service Manager Bill Hillbish described a plan to connect traffic, security cameras, and possibly provide Internet access to other entities in Hudson. The original plan was to spend approximately $47,000 for fiber and hardware to connect remaining municipal facilities with Hudson Public Power managing the expansion.

At that meeting, the City Council also discussed using the network to connect local businesses and, eventually, residents. Apparently, local businesses are not happy with the incumbent provider: 

Some Council members wanted the work completed sooner than the five-year forecast by Hilbish. Hanink suggested 2016 instead of 2019.

"The business community is screaming for Internet connectivity and speed," said Council President Hal DeSaussure. "We can use it as an economic development and business retention tool."

Economic Development Director Chuck Wiedie said businesses were frustrated with Windstar, which was slow and lacked customer service.

"Our businesses need the Internet," Wiedie said.

At a later City Council meeting, Members delved deeper into the possibility of using fiber for more than an I-Net. From a June 22nd Hub Times article:

Interim City Manager Scott Schroyer June 10 asked for direction for the broadband infrastructure work. The city wants to circle the city with fiber to provide communications for all its city facilities. Council members suggested offering the broadband service to businesses and residents.

Broadband would provide a competitive advantage for economic development for attracting businesses, said Council member Dennis Hanink.

"I'd like to see us try to get to the business parks within a couple years," Hanink said.

At that meeting, Schroyer said the City would seek assistance from a consultant to create a financial and business plan. On July 9th, Hudson released its RFP.

For the past decade, Hudson has incrementally expanded a fiber network to connect major buildings and facilities (see page 3 of the RFP for a map of existing fiber). Some of the facilities include public safety buildings, town hall, schools, and utility buildings. The proposed project will connect remaining electric substations and the City Cemetery.

Through the RFP, Hudson hopes to determine the best way to complete its network for municipal purposes and explore a possible open access network. Hudson expects infrastructure recommendations, business plan possibilities, and needs assessment review. Proposals are due August 15.

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].

Resort Town In Utah Seeks Partner to Expand Economic Base with FTTH

Park City wants to be one of the first resort communities to employ an FTTH gigabit network. Currently, over 22 million visitors come to the northern ski town each year bringing approximately $500 million in tourist spending. The community of 7,600 permanent residents seeks to diversify its economic base. According to a recent Park City News article, community leaders see broadband as an essential tool. 

Utah, one of the states that impose barriers to community networks, imposes de facto wholesale-only requirements on municipal networks. Park City's April Request for Proposals [PDF] clearly states that they seek a private partner to own, operate, and manage a network across the city. Proposals are due May 16.

Park City has smaller segments of fiber in place now for internal operations. The company securing the project will have access to that fiber for the network. The City also plans to allow access to existing conduit, rights-of-way, and city-owned poles as part of the new network. Park City does not operate its own electric utility.

Four years ago, Park City competed to attract Google Fiber, which eventually went to Kansas City. In the spring of 2013, city leaders developed a broadband roadmap. At the time, community leaders began contemplating the economic development benefits associated with better connectivity. From a May 2013 Park City News article:

Leaders want to create a diversified economy stretching beyond the sectors tied to the resort industry. Doing so, they say, would make the economy less susceptible to warm, dry winters that do not attract skiers in large numbers.

Technology upgrades, they say, are important as officials attempt to attract new businesses to Park City not tied to the resort industry.

Network Progressing in "Sugartown" Michigan

Last summer we reported on Sebewaing, the community of 1,700 in the tip of the "thumb" in Michigan. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water (SLW) was exploring the possibilities of deploying its own FTTH network. Like other small communities, Sebewaing could not get the service it needed from large corporate providers. We recently caught up with SLW's Superintendent, Melanie McCoy, to get an update.

The community released its RFP [PDF] and received responses from two bidders. McCoy tells us that in Michigan, such a low response rate allows the municipality to deploy its own network, so SLW decided to proceed.

The construction bid for the fiber backbone went to Earthcom, located in Lansing. Air Advantage successfully bid to supply bandwidth and the headend. Calix will provide the customer premise equipment that will offer data and voice services.

Sebewaing's network is 90% aerial and the final estimate is $1-2 million. The network will provide 1 gig capacity with the potential to expand to 10 gigs. Because the utility has its own poles and in-house expertise to handle labor, SLW is able to perform make-ready work themselves, lowering the final cost of the deployment. SLW will use an interdepartmental loan from its electric, water, and wireless utilities to fund the investment. According to McCoy, the RFP responses were both about $1 million higher than the final estimate.

In 2003, SLW began providing wireless Internet access to residents in Sebewaing so staff has experience as a broadband utility. They also installed a small fiber loop in the downtown area to serve businesses and municipal facilities. The old fiber loop will be retired because it has fewer strands and has been maxed out for some time.

The new fiber will replace connections between fifteen public facilities, including wells, public safety, and administration buildings. Each facility currently pays only $15-25 per month to be connected, saving thousands in yearly fees for leased lines from incumbents. Rates will not change, even though the new network will offer higher capacity.

Bandwidth is currently purchased as part of a consortium that includes the school district. The district purchases bandwidth through a link to the Merit Network, the Michigan statewide fiber network that reaches educational and research facilities.

When SLW finishes the installation, it will work primarily with Air Advantage, a wireless and fiber provider specializing in connecting rural customers in the area. SLW will maintain the connection to the Merit Network for redundancy.

Pricing for connections is still being determined, but SLW anticipates more speed for less. According to McCoy, SLW sees this venture as another way to serve the public. The network will provide an essential service and will also boost economic development. Sebewaing, nicknamed "Sugartown," has a thriving sugar beet industry but when the auto industry took a downturn, the local economy suffered. To date, no other industry has stepped in to fill the gap.

Local establishments are ready to make a switch. Businesses and residents, frustrated with poor service from incumbents AT&T and Comcast, are already asking to be connected. McCoy also notes that the network is expected to offer telecommuting opportunities for a number of people. For example, an astronomer from the University of Michigan, located about 2 hours south, anticipates a possible move to the area. The rural night sky is ideal for his work but he needs a high capacity connection to share data with colleagues.

The Huron Daily Tribune spoke with McCoy in January, who hinted at more developments in Michigan:

Because of the many benefits involved in a FTTH project, other municipalities around the Thumb and in other areas are watching what Sebewaing is doing, McCoy said. The town could very well become the model for FTTH systems for rural areas all over the state, and beyond.

Los Angeles Wants Better Networks

The City of Los Angeles has announced a confusing intention to release an RFP for a vendor to install a gigabit fiber network. A recent Government Technology article touches on the broad plan to build a massive fiber and wireless network to every public and private premise. 

GovTech spoke with Steve Reneker, general manager of the Los Angeles Information Technology Agency. We last spoke with Reneker in Episode #11 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In that interview, he described how Riverside, California, used the publicly owned network to revitalize the economy and support the community's digital inclusion plan. Los Angeles wants to emmulate Riverside's success. From the GovTech article:

“[The plan] is really focused on fixing the operational issues that due to the economy have been left by the wayside over the last three and four years,” Reneker said. “So, correcting the lack of investment, the lack of technology refresh, the reduction in staff that make operational aspects of our infrastructure difficult to keep going forward, tries to deliver an incremental approach to starting a long, lengthy rebuilding process.”

Councilman Bob Blumenthal introduced a proposal in August, 2013 to also blanket the city in free Wi-fi. Blumenfield's website states the city has 3,500 existing wireless hotspots.

Engadget reports that the City Council unanimously approved the proposal to move forward with the plan at a November 5th meeting. A Request for Proposals will be issued in the coming months for the fiber and free wireless network:

It's expected that the fiber will also supply residents with free internet access at speeds between 2Mbps and 5Mbps, with paid plans scaling up to a gigabit. Naturally, the city expects the effort will bring free or affordable WiFi to kids who've scored iPads through the school district. The entire scheme is expected to cost $3 billion to $5 billion, but the outfit that builds the network will have to foot the bill. 

Ars Technica Logo

Experts wonder if large providers, who may be the only ones with the resources to make such an investment, would be willing to invest. Harold Feld from Public Knowledge spoke with Ars Technica:

"My first reaction is 'I look forward to their RFP for a unicorn supplier, because I think it's about as likely under these terms,'" Harold Feld, senior VP of the technology-focused consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, told Ars.

The Ars piece pointed out some advantages to a winning bidder in such an arrangement:

While the vendor would have to provide free Internet to everyone at the network's slowest speeds (potentially with ads to support the service), it could also charge a premium for everything up to gigabit lines and could sell TV and phone service to everyone in LA. Moreover, the winning bidder could get contracts to provide the city government with data center hosting and perhaps other IT services like e-mail.

"I like to think of it as limited at this point only by your imagination," Los Angeles City Council member Bob Blumenfield, who came up with the idea, told Ars.

ILSR's Christopher Mitchell also spoke to Ars:

"As I understand California law at this point, LA would be asking someone to do something that they could do now. LA doesn't appear to be giving them any specific inducement to do so. And a lot of providers, if they were going to do this they would just pick a part of LA and do it there. There's no reason they would choose to do it everywhere."

Mitchell suggested LA take an approach similar to award winning Santa Monica - installation of conduit in all construction projects. Over time, the city could have an extensive network of pathways for fiber. City Net leases dark fiber to area businesses, connects government facilities, and provides affordable lit fiber to local commercial customers.

At this point, the city tech department has been directed to draft an RFP [see the PDF of the Innovation, Technology and General Services Committee Recommendation]. The RFP will list "available assets and services that would entice a vendor to provide a build out of some level of free broadband service to all City residents while respecting the commercial carrier's basic levels of service and to not significantly influence carrier competition." Developing that list may take some time. Blumenfield notes that a map or catalog of total city fiber may not exist.

When pressed for details on what the city could offer any vendor, Blumenfield told Ars:

"You're asking me to define these things and at this point I'm hesitating to define them, because at this point we're just really at the early phases. It's what you imagine it to be. We're issuing these RFPs to get people to think big and to bring forth proposals to the city of how they would partner with the city."

Update on 11/19 from Christopher - The more I learn about the approach, the worse I think it is. Craig Settles interviewed Steve Reneker and it sounds like Los Angeles will be making itself more dependent on a provider that almost certainly will not be rooted in the community. It is proposing to subsidize a rollout by promising contracts for city services (also known as the failed Minneapolis Wi-Fi model). This is particularly disappointing for a city that has significant resources that would allow it, at a minimum, to move toward an actual partnership as Seattle settled on this year. This RFP is a refusal of the local government to take responsibility, not a smart plan.

Rhode Island's Aquidneck Community Considers Last Mile Options

Approximately 60,000 people live on Aquidneck Island in the towns of Portsmouth, Newport, and Middletown. The Ocean State Higher Education Economic Development and Administrative Network (OSHEAN) travels to the island but community leaders want to find a way to provide services to more residents, businesses, and institutions. OSHEAN is an under utilized middle mile network and most on the island still receive single digit Mbps service.

The Aquidneck Broadband Advisory Board hopes an investment in a last mile network will spur economic development, expand the use of OSHEAN, and increase telecommuting possibilities on the island. The group includes members from each of the three municipalities, local business leaders, and citizens. A recently released Request for Information seeks input regarding a potential gigabit last mile network that can support data, video, and voice. According to the RFI:

This effort will result in the development of a master plan for improving broadband infrastructure island‐ wide, including finance options, grants, and policies for the installation of high speed fiber optic broadband.

The Board will accept responses until November 15, 2013. A PDF of the RFI is posted on the Newport website.

Central Coast Californians Choose Cost Savings Over Charter

California's Watsonville, population 51,200, joins the ranks of municipalities considering the benefits of a publicly owned fiber optic network to connect key facilities. At a September 10 the City Council passed a resolution approving plans and calling for an RFP for a next generation fiber network. Bids will be accepted until October 8, 2013.

According to a Register Pajaronian article, the City Council expects the network to cost $480,000. An August 27 memorandum [PDF] provides more detail on the project.

Charter Communications currently provides fiber optic I-Net service to Watsonville local government. The network provides data connections, Internet, gate controls, and security systems throughout the City. The fiber I-Net also provides backhaul for wireless systems for the police department and various remote city locations.

As has happened many in states that have revoked local franchise authority, Watsonville's favorable long term cable franchise agreement with Charter is ending. Charter will no longer provide the I-Net services for no cost as part of its agreement to place its equipment in the public rights-of-way. Instead, it has proposed expensive lease options.

Charter has offered two quotes: $43,115 per year for a reduced level of service and $149,153 per year for the same level of service the city now receives. The memorandum goes on to note that a reduced level of service would require reduction of some uses for the current network, such as eliminating a number of security cameras.

City staff estimates that installation of a next generation network would cost approximately $480,000. They would connect the high school, the City Information Technology office, the Veterans Building, the local reservoir, the library, the airport and the fire station. Watsonville has a significant amount of fiber already in place for use in the citywide transportation system which will reduce the cost of installation. The project will be financed primarily with library and water enterprise funds and other city departments that connect will contribute to the project costs.

When compared to Charter's quote for services comparable to Watsonville's current level of service, the network will pay for itself in a little over three years. Even compared to the reduced services rate from Charter, the network will pay for itself in 11 years (likely even sooner as Charter would certainly raise the rate over the period). The memo also states that other entities have expressed an interest in leasing excess capacity from Watsonville when the network is up and running. The excess revenue would shorten the payback period still more.

Finally, just by owning its own infrastructure, the community will have security in knowing that moving bits will be cheaper over time due to technological innovation and they can budget more securely as they will plan the upgrade cycle rather than having to negotiate with other providers.

Leverett On Track for Fiber Network in Massachusetts

We have followed developments in Leverett since we first learned about the small town's decision to build its own next generation infrastructure. The community has faced some challenges but is determined to get its residents connected.

After an overwhelming vote to support a bond measure and minor tax increase to fund the network, Leverett encountered delay when the State attorney general ordered a new bid in April. According to a GazetteNet article, a technical glitch on the bid form allowed bidders to exclude themselves from parts of the project, affecting the overall bid. Leverett awarded the first bid to G4S, but two other firms submitted complaints prompting the review.

After reviewing revised bids in May, Select Board awarded the $2.27 million contract to Millennium Communications Group. The GazetteNet reports that Millennium met with town officials in June to answer questions and examine the bid in detail.

The GazetteNet spoke with Select Board Member Peter d'Errico: 

“When this is up and running, Leverett’s going to have state-of-the-art, worldwide telecommunications capability,” d’Errico said. “It’s comparable service to what Google is providing in Kansas City, and it means that Leverett will also become a desirable place for all kinds of people who work in the mediums that require that level of technology. I see it as having economic benefits for the town, cultural benefits for the town and when you add in things like telemedicine, it means that it’s more than lifestyle, it’s quality of life.”

Scheduled completion date is December 2014.

Evanston, Illinois, to Dabble in Community Owned Connectivity

Evanston, Illinois, home to Northwestern University, has decided to expand its fiber network in a new project to connect residents and businesses in a targeted area. In 2012, the city and NU joined forces to apply for an Illinois Gigabit Community grant and the pair won the award this past January. Together, the entities won $2.5 million with a plan to encourage entrepreneur retention with an information corridor. The City plans to integrate 1 gigabit residential connectivity in a new condominium development and to nearby commercial property.

Evanston had been using its fiber network to self-provision its own connectivity needs with a I-Net at municipal offices and the main branch of the library. At the intersection of Chicago and Main, city leaders plan to splice into existing fiber and extend it to the residential condo development. Nearby commercial properties will also connect to the expansion. The City will release an RFP in search of a third party provider to offer services via the extended network.

Like other university communities, Evanston is a nest of technology start-ups and community leaders recognize the added draw of gig connectivity. Governor Pat Quinn's press release mentioned coLab Evanston, a shared workspace facility that will connect to the new expansion:

coLab Evanston is just one of many small and growing businesses that will reap enormous benefits from ultra-high speed gigabit Internet service. The company provides shared working space for companies and individual entrepreneurs who are often looking to take ideas and grow them into larger enterprises. The company acts as an incubator for innovation and provides its clients with the resources to be successful.

“At coLab, we’re committed to helping professionals by giving them the tools they need to be productive and innovative,” said Eric Harper, co-founder of coLab Evanston. “Gigabit will be a key benefit we offer as we strive to create an environment where ideas can turn into reality.”

Community leaders estimate around 1,000 residential and commercial subscribers will have access to the new 1 gig network. Comcast, the current provider in the area, cannot offer similar services on its cable network. Friends in Evanston's Information Technology Division tell us that the city is carefully considering price points for residential and commercial gig services. They see rates as a critical factor in the success if the project.