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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.

Small Michigan Town Issues RFP for FTTH Network

The community of Sebewaing, located in the "thumb" of Michigan is moving closer to its own FTTH network, which will be the first new municipal FTTH project in the state.

Because of a state law impinging on local authority in Michigan, local governments must first issue an RFP and can build a telecommunications network themselves if they receive fewer than three qualified bids. If the community builds the network themselves, it probably must adhere to the RFP as if it were a private entity. This approach ignores the fact that a community operates a network with different incentives than a private company, so the two are not interchangeable. 

We wanted to know more about this effort, so we contacted Melanie McCoy, Superintendent of the municipal utility Sebewaing Light and Water. We discovered that the town of 1,700 residents, known for its beet farming, has several factors going for it. 

Communities with their own utilities already in place have personnel, equipment, and expertise which saves money and time. And because they already own the utility poles, they are often able to get started quickly rather than waiting for other firms to do "make-ready," which can take months as wires are shifted on poles. Sebewaing has a municipal fiber loop currently in place - another plus. McCoy tells us the fiber was installed in 2001 and 2002 at a cost of about $50,000.

Private Internet choices were limited to dial-up for about $20 per month or a T1 connection for around $1,000 to $1,500 per month. At the time, Sebewaing Light and Water shared a T1 connection with local businesses.

Residents, business and government needed better connectivity and community leaders also realized the need to boost economic development. Sebewaing Light and Water leadership also wanted to increase efficiency with a SCADA system and considered a telecommunications utility a good investment. And looking toward the future, they knew installation of the fiber would position them favorabley for future investment. 

Sebewaing Map

Changes in community leadership, tight budgets, and legislative changes interrupted plans to connect the fiber to homes in Sebewaing. The community did the most they could with what they had, however, and connected city facilities to the fiber loop.

Within a couple years, local business owners who could not get the speeds they needed from incumbent cable and DSL providers, approached Sebewaing Light and Water asking to be connected to high-speed Internet.

In 2011, Sebewaing commissioned a feasibility study from Pulse Broadband based on the concept of serving 1,000 households with an open access model. The RFP calls for 1 gig capacity symmetrical service. McCoy estimates the network to be about 18 miles of fiber on the mostly aerial network in the service area. The project estimate is around $1 million and the city council plans to use funds from the city capital improvement fund.

McCoy notes that suppliers, consultants, and bandwidth suppliers have already approached the city with inquiries. Closing for the RFP [PDF available online] is late June, so look for updates later this summer.

Response to Seattle RFP: More of the Same

We have an answer to the question of what a city gets when it commits the bare minimum to improving broadband access: more of the same. We were skeptical of Seattle's approach of using city-owned conduit to spur serious improvements to broadband and, it turns out, correct.

Only one company bid on the project, Comcast, a provider in much of Seattle already -- and a much maligned one at that. So Pioneer Square will have better access to the Internet, but from the dominant provider of high speed access in the City.

Seattle just helped Comcast consolidate its monopoly just a bit further. This is a small step forward for Pioneer Square, and a larger step backward for the City as a whole. With FiOS available in the suburbs, offering much faster and more reliable connections for the same prices, Seattle has done very little to stem the flow of techies to the burbs.

The RFP set certain requirements for use of the City's conduit, as noted in the Seattle Times article but one has to wonder if Comcast might be able to negotiate that down - few are better at exercising monopoly power than the Nation's largest cable and Internet provider.

Comcast is slated to pay $78,000 in one-time fees to cover part of the cable's installation, plus $4,057 in annual leasing fees, according to city documents.

The City elected a Mayor who promised to improve broadband access, but it seems the City Council is standing in the way of actually doing anything that would bring residents and businesses a meaningful choice in providers.

Photo, used under creative commons license, courtesy of Jeff Hathaway

Seattle Mayor Uses City Conduit to Connect Pioneer Square

In the campaign for Mayor, Seattle Mayor McGinn frequently proposed the city getting more involved in improving broadband access. Since becoming mayor, he has accomplished little in this area, perhaps due to a City Council that is not convinced it should get involved in broadband.

But the mayor held an event in Pioneer Square to announce a new initiative to start using City assets to expand broadband access:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn today laid out a proposal to encourage broadband Internet in a four-block area in Pioneer Square, allowing telecom and cable companies to lease some of the conduit that the city is now placing under First Avenue South. McGinn said it is a small, incremental step in a larger plan to bring high-speed Internet to the parts of the city that need it, tapping into some 500 miles of “dark fiber” that’s not being utilized.

Pioneer Square, with a mix of commercial and residential, currently has very poor access to the Internet:

Jeff Strain, the founder of Undead Labs, a 20-person game developer in Pioneer Square, said that fiber-optic cable would dramatically improve his company’s ability to create cutting-edge games.

“What we are able to get in Pioneer Square is about half the speed of what you’d be able to get in your home,” said Strain. “So, it is not really suitable for the sort of media rich businesses that we are trying to build down here.”

The Mayor's site explains that Jeff Strain was considering moving his company to a location with better access.

We’ve heard from Pioneer Square businesses that internet speeds there are just not what a 21st century economy needs. Jeff Strain, who founded a game development company called Undead Labs, worries that he might have to move his company from Pioneer Square if the “barely adequate” internet service isn’t improved. He needs high-speed, high capacity internet access to upload his content.

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Yet another reminder that simple DSL and even cable networks do not offer businesses the connections they need to take advantage of modern technology.

More background from the Request for Proposals:

The City of Seattle, through the Department of Information Technology (DoIT), is installing conduit between South Jackson Street and Cherry Street along 1st Ave South in Seattle’s Pioneer Square District. The installation is part of an ongoing street project led by the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) and the Seattle City Light Department (SCL). The City is installing the conduit to provide conduit capacity requested by King County Metro for future fiber installation to serve signal cabinets. Only part of the standard four inch installed conduit will be needed for King County Metro purposes. The City has determined that after reserving space for current and future governmental uses there will remain excess capacity in the conduit which can be leased to private parties. As further detailed in RFP Section 5, the City will install three or four inner ducts in the conduit, leaving two inner ducts available for lease to an ISP(s).

The city appears ready to select one or two ISPs (which must have more than 3 years of experience) to move forward with this project. Mayor McGinn said the City would look into offering services itself if the private sector does not step up.

This 22 minute video below explains Seattle's approach, with Bill Schrier demonstrating the conduit and inner ducts being installed.

The City has 500 miles of fiber-optic cable, much of which could be leased as dark fiber -- a topic McGinn suggested will be addressed in the future.

Mayor McGinn has called on the City Council to pass an ordinance that will allow the City to lease space in city-owned conduits. We have some reservations about this timid approach -- it is far from clear that leasing conduit space to a few additional providers will ensure universal, affordable, reliable, and fast access to the Internet over the long term. That said, it will almost certainly be an improvement over the status quo. But what happens when Comcast buys whatever company builds these connections?

Seattle may want to consider a stronger role -- perhaps starting to build an open services network on which independent providers would compete for customers. It would require greater investment and risk than this approach, but it offers more long term rewards. If we had to guess, the City Council is the bottleneck and will only agree to this "small policy step," in the words of Mayor McGinn.

McGinn also noted that policy conversations in Beacon Hill, a neighborhood with very poor access to the Internet, almost always start with that topic. Comcast and Qwest are not meeting Seattle's needs. The question is whether the City Council will continue to prevent the community from solving its own problems with smarter investments.

Photo of Seattle used under creative commons license from flickr