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Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks

Publication Date: 
March 19, 2014
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell
Author(s): 
Lisa Gonzalez

Local governments in Minnesota have been at the forefront of expanding fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access - often in some of the most challenging areas of the state. ILSR has just released a policy brief to explore some of these approaches: Minnesota Local Governments Advance Super Fast Internet Networks.

The full report is available here.

The brief examines five communities that have taken different approaches to expanding access, from working with a trusted local partner to creating a new cooperative to building community-wide FTTH networks.

Lac qui Parle County has worked with Farmers Mutual Telephone cooperative to bring fiber networks to those who had been stuck on dial-up. Finding itself in a similar situation with no reliable partner, Sibley County is creating a new coop to work with.

Scott County built a fiber ring to connect community anchor institutsion to dramatically expand access to high capacity networks and lower telecommunications budgets. That network has helped to lure several major employers to the area by leasing fiber to them.

Windom and Monticello have built FTTH networks in extremely challenging conditions. Though Windom is far smaller than most have believed is feasible to build such a network, it has thrived and is now connecting many of the small towns surrounding it. It was essential in retaining jobs in the community that would have been lost without it and has attracted new jobs to the region. Monticello is a younger network and has remarkably benefited the community even as it has struggled financially due to dirty tricks from the telephone and cable companies.

The policy brief makes some policy recommendations while focusing on some local solutions to difficult problems in ensuring all Minnesotans have fast, affordable, and reliable Internet access.

OnLight Aurora Partners with the City for Better Connectivity in Illinois

Nine years ago, Aurora officials decided it was time to reduce telecommunications costs and upgrade to a faster, more reliable network. The local government built a fiber network to service municipal government, but developed long-term ideas for the network to benefit the entire community.

Nonprofit OnLight Aurora now uses the City's fiber optic network to provide high-speed connectivity to educational institutions, businesses, healthcare facilities, social service entities, and major non-profits. The organization leases fibers from the City's fiber optic network and provides Internet access at affordable rates.

Aurora is the second most populous city in Illinois. The municipal government spans 52 buildings over 46 square miles. Before the city's fiber network, connections were a patchwork of varying speeds and capabilities. Employees in a building with a slow connection would need to travel to City Hall to access a high-speed connections to use the city's bandwidth intensive applications. The network was old, unreliable, and expensive. The Director of Onlight Aurora recently spoke with Drew Clark from Broadband Breakfast :

"In 2005-2006, we came to the conclusion that we were paying $500,000 a year [to telecommunications providers] for leased line expenses,” said Peter Lynch, Director and President of Onlight Aurora.

The 60-mile network, constructed from 2008 - 2011, cost approximately $7 million to deploy. At the beginning of the process, payback was estimated at 10 years. While the short-term goal was to cut municipal connectivity costs, community leaders intended to expand its use in other ways. The City now saves approximately $485,000 each year from having eliminated leased lines. From a Cisco case study on Aurora [PDF]:

Conduit

“With local governments increasingly facing limited resources, you have to be able to find efficiencies in operations.” Although the cost savings are gratifying, [Ted] Beck,[Chief Technology Officer] notes that that was just the beginning: “The priority for the fiber optic network was initially cost savings; however we’re realizing that the benefits don’t end there. We’ve had some super wins with this technology, and we’re going to keep leveraging the infrastructure.” Mayor Weisner confirms these successes: “Pretty quickly, we saw a return on investment, both financially and otherwise. We have a much greater capability and fewer problems.” 

In 2011, Aurora received a Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) grant from the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) administered through the Illinois Department of Transportation. When the FHWA sought communities for the pilot program and accompanying grant, Aurora's existing fiber network was a plus. During construction of the city network, Aurora had installed extra fiber strands in its conduit. City traffic engineers used several strands to synchronize intersections to improve traffic flow. The grant, of approximately $12 million, upgraded 60 traffic signals. It also allowed Aurora to eliminate all remaining debt on the network.

From the Broadband Breakfast article:

“We have been able to see better movement of traffic, which alleviates congestion and air quality,” said Eric Gallt, the city’s Traffic Engineer. The fiber loop enables city traffic officials “to see what is going on remotely, and it decreased the cost of the project by 50 percent or more.”

That same year, Mayor Tom Weisner formed a broadband task force to field specific ideas for best utilizing the fiber optic network. In 2012 the group created non-profit OnLight Aurora. The organization received a $25,000 grant and a three-year $150,000 loan from the City. OnLight and Aurora entered into a 20-year agreement for OnLight to lease network fiber strands from the City. OnLight would then lease access to the fiber backbone to other entities at affordable rates.

Aurora Illinois

In 2012, OnLight Aurora received a $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge award. The Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity awarded the grant as seed money. OnLight Aurora also received another $1 million in matching public and private funds. The organization used the funds to offset costs of connecting customers and to expand to better reach developing business parks and healthcare facilities. Schools, medical centers, social services agencies, arts & entertainment entities, and businesses now connect to the network at speeds of up to 10 Gbps.

In August 2013, Indian Prairie School District 204 announced its plans to expand its technology program. The connection allows the District to connect two of its data centers. District 204 obtains a 10 Gbps connection from OnLight Aurora for $39,600 per year. OnLight provides ample bandwidth for the district's bring-your-own-device initiative. A portion of the $1 million Illinois Gigabit Communities Challenge grant paid for the cost of connecting the fiber.

OnLight also offers wireless connections as an economical way to serve small- and medium-sized businesses. OnLight uses city-owned towers and buildings that are already connected to the fiber for wireless point-to-point connections. The wireless complement will connect schools, businesses, and other entities when a lengthy fiber connection is too costly.

Businesses in Aurora are connecting to the fiber. An August Beacon-News article on the wireless plan also tells the story of security company Alarm Detection Systems (ADS). The company went from T1 connections at 1.5 Mbps to 20 Mbps connections from OnLight for approximately $500 per month. From the aricle:

While cases vary based on a number of factors, the upfront installation cost for Alarm Detection Systems offices to connect directly to the fiber network are about $19,000, according to [company IT Manager Mark] Schramm. But the reliable and fast connection will save the company money in the long run.

“We’re saving money and believe we’re getting a better product,” he said.

According the a recent Beacon-News article, OnLight Aurora is now reaching out to local businesses through seminars. An article about the January 29th seminar quoted a city official:

“Attendees will receive the necessary tools to better understand and employ the OnLight Aurora network resource for their businesses and organizations,” said Clayton Muhammad, Aurora Director of Communications.

OnLight Aurora's three year plan includes doubling it's current length to 100 miles. The network is completely underground and any carrier has access to the infrastructure.

Merit Collaborates With OARnet and Local Community in Hillsdale, Michigan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"It Opens Up Our World," Dark Fiber Coming to Marshall County Indiana

Marshall County Council recently approved a motion to join several other entities to bring Indiana's dark fiber Metronet to the area. WNDU reports St. Joseph County and the city of Plymouth are also contributing to the project (video available at WNDU link). The St. Joseph Regional Medical Center and a local company, Hoosier Racing Tire, will also provide funding. 

Marshall County, located in the north central part of Indiana, will contribute $500,000 to the project. Plymouth anticipates significant public savings and economic growth and will contribute $1.3 million. Hoosier Racing Tire needs higher bandwidth than is now available in Marshall County.

We previously reported on Metronet Zing, the dark fiber network in the South Bend, Mishawaka, and St. Joseph County region. The dark fiber network is open access and multiple carriers provide services via the fiber. The network was funded by public and private entities. St. Joe Valley Metronet (SJVM) is a for-profit entity that serves only business clients and pays income and property taxes. Non-profit Metronet serves only government entities and educational institutions.

From the article:

Communities are coming together to gather the funds for the more than $3 million project.

“It opens up our world,” said county commissioner Kevin Overmyer.

“Dark fiber today is what electricity was back in the 40s and 50s. We are the trend-setter. Set the standard. We have a plan in place. We have accomplished it locally not with help from anybody else.”

The community hopes to have the network up and running by September 2014.

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.

Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network Saves Millions for Taxpayers

Austin, Texas, with a little over 820,000 people, is home to several centers of higher ed, the Southwest Music Festival, and a next generation network known as the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN).

It was also the second metro area selected by Google for the Google Fiber deployment. But before they got Google Fiber, a local partnership had already connected key community anchor institutions with limitless bandwidth over fiber networks. The network measures its success in terms of cost avoidance, and averages out to a savings of about $18 million per year combined for its 7 member entities.

In 2011, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors (NATOA) named GAATN the Community Broadband Organization of the Year. Today, GAATN also serves the  City of Austin, the Austin Indepedent School District (AISD), Travis County, local State of Texas facilities, Austin Community College (ACC), the University of Texas at Austin (UT), and the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA).

GAATN's bylaws prevent it from providing service to businesses or individual consumers. Texas, like 18 other states, maintains significant barriers that limit local public authority to build networks beyond simply connecting themselves. As a result, local entities must tread lightly even if they simply want to provide service for basic government functions.

Austin Logo

Decades ago, Austin obtained an Institutional Network (I-Net) as part of a franchise agreement with a private cable company, Cablevision. At that time, AISD used the I-Net for video and data transmission, with frequent use of video for teaching between facilities. In the late 80s, the district experienced large growth, which required adding facilities and phone lines. Phone costs for 1988 were estimated as $1 million and the 10 year estimate was $3 million. In 1989, AISD hired a telecommunications design company to conduct a study and make recommendations. JanCom recommended a 250 mile fiber network connecting schools. The network was expected to pay for itself in 10 years when only considering the cost of phone.

During this time period, Cabelvision sold off its assets in the Austin area to Time Warner Cable. TWC kept rising the cost of mainentance of the old coaxial I-Net until estimates reached $500,000 per year to keep the failing technology alive. The network repeatedly went down. Connected entities were still using modems to transfer data and the amount TWC wanted to upgrade the I-Net was out of the question.

In what would become a lasting collaboration, AISD approached the City of Austin about sharing the cost and ownership of a new fiber network. The proposal was received enthusiastically and soon two additional partners came on board. AISD, the City of Austin, Travis County, and ACC developed an interlocal agreement to construct, own, and manage a fiber network that would eventually serve schools, libraries, local government facilities, and several higher ed institutions.

The group quickly determined the school should be the entity to contract for the construction. Texas law allowed more flexibility for schools when dealing with contractors. The school was also to be the financial administrator of the GAATN organization and the member with the largest share of the network.

In 1991, the group released an RFP for construction of a new network and Southwest Bell won the contract with a bid of $18 million. Original construction, which begin in 1994, consisted of 8 rings and 2 superrings, each consisting of 114-strand fiber optic cable. After some problems, due to Southwest Bell's low quality work, construction was completed in 1998. The initial network was 345 miles long and has since expanded to 371 miles. Three points of presence (POPs) have been in place since day one of the network, including POPs to Level Three, AT&T, and CenturyLink. Approximately 30% of the fiber is currently lit and providing service to members.

Austin School District Logo

The original members used a combination of bonding, loans, and money on hand to build the network. While the City of Austin has been a member since the beginning, all of its contribution is in-kind. Donating access to rights-of-way, network management, and maintenance, the city receives 12 strands wherever the network is expanded. The network is 80% aerial and 20% underground. As the network expands, the installation type varies depending on current construction, geography, and cost. Routes are often adjusted to pass city facilities to allow the city optimal use of the network. All members of the network take advantage of the 10 Gbps interconnectivity.

Wayne Wedemeyer, Director of UT Systems Office of Telecommunication Services, describes one of the biggest challenges in developing GAATN. Reaching a high level of trust between all the members and memorializing that trust into the agreement  was difficult. Since each member had such specific missions and goals and all were very diverse, attaining the necessary collaborative balance took over two years. Wedemeyer also describes the arrangement with the City as a "stroke of genius." The automatic grant of five strands to the city streamlines rights-of-way negotiations.

UT provides Internet service to AISD, ACC, Travis County, the City of Austin, and LCRA. UT is able to purchase Internet service at educational rates and then sell it to the other members at cost. Wedemeyer says UT "exploded" in the ways it uses interconnectivity once GAATN was up and running. In addition to their tech incubator, UT uses GAATN's 10 Gbps to connect to its Applied Research Laboratories, dedicated to national security. Distance learning at UT and ACC have expanded significantly and AISD has plenty of bandwidth for virtual classroom activities. LRCA uses GAATN fibers to transfer wholesale power to a 50 county region.

The original $18 million investment in GAATN has been returned several times over. For AISD, the largest contributor and the entity that owns the most number of fibers, the network paid for itself in 2-3 years. In 2011, AISD saved almost $5.8 million by using GAATN instead the private market. The city of Austin saved $4.7 million, ACC saved $437,000, Travis County avoided almost $3.4 million, and the State of Texas saved $883,000. UT avoided almost $1.3 million in connectivity and LCRA saved almost $1.1 million. GAATN is a win for local and state taxpayers and for the entities it serves.

Metronet Zing's Dark Fiber Saves Big Bucks in South Bend

Indiana's Metronet Zing winds its way through South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County providing dark fiber service to businesses, government and education. The project started as an economic development initiative when community leaders in the area realized that the high cost and lack of high-speed connectivity in the area kept businesses away.

Project Future, the economic development organization serving South Bend, Mishawaka and St. Joseph County until 2012, studied the potential benefits that might flow from better telecommunications in the region. The nonprofit inspired the county Chamber of Commerce, local government, nearby universities, healthcare, and businesses to develop a new nonprofit network model. The 100 mile network offers a dark fiber open access model that encourages competition, keeping prices in check. Nineteen carriers deliver services over the network. Average price for 1 gig service is $1,000 per month.

In the early 2000s, South Bend leaders wanted to take advantage of the regional long-haul fiber that runs directly under South Bend. There was very limited access to fiber connections in the area from providers and rates were high. St. Joseph's County, city government, and the University of Notre Dame needed better, faster, more reliable telecommunications.

A study commissioned by nonprofit Project Future confirmed what community leaders suspected. Education, economic development, healthcare, research and a better quality of life in South Bend depended on the community's access to a dark fiber network. Project Future developed a plan that would involve public investment in an open access dark fiber network. Community leaders joined together to form nonprofit St. Joe Valley Metronet, Inc. in 2004. Metronet's purpose was to build the infrastructure the region so desperately needed. Revenue would be passed back to the community through reasonable rates. 

South Bend and nearby Mishawaka owned fiber networks that ran through conduit to serve the cities' traffic monitoring systems. New fiber, dedicated to the telecommunications network, would be installed in the conduit to reduce the need for excavation. The community did not want to be a telecommunications provider but no existing ISPs wanted to deliver services via publicly owned infrastructure. Metronet, Inc. would need to take on the role. 

South Bend Logo

Funding for the project began with contributions from the University of Notre Dame, Memorial Health Systems, St. Joseph Regional Medical Center, South Bend Medical Foundation, Teachers Credit Union, Robert Bosch Corp. and Madison Center. In exchange, these organizations would receive 10 years of access to the network. The initial subscribers contributed over $2 million which funded the first phase of the network.

In order to attract employers, the group established SJVM, Inc. to serve only business clients. SVJM, Inc. is a for-profit enterprise that pays income and property taxes like other ISPs. Metronet serves only government and educational entities.

As the network develops, its leadership expands economic development strategies. From the website:

Benefits are not reserved to large business and institutional users. Metronet continues to find new and better ways to foster economic and community development. More multi−tenant buildings are connecting to Metronet, providing service and savings to small and medium−size businesses. The Socially Responsible Computing Initiative uses Metronet as the backbone of a project allowing nonprofit organizations to share IT services and realize significant savings on telecommunications and internet access costs.

Teachers Credit Union, one of the many locally based businesses on the network:

"The Metronet is what connects all our information and keeps it moving smoothly and efficiently," says [President Rick] Rice. "While that is a significant benefit of the Metronet, another important advantage is the big savings in cost."

As subscribers of the Metronet, the Teachers Credit Union saves approximately $6,000 in cost each month, compared to the costs of its prior service, for an annual savings of $72,000. "We estimate that due to our switch to the Metronet, we will ultimately gain a total savings of $250,000 to $300,000 each year," says Rice.

Notre Dame, Indiana University South Bend, and Saint Mary's College use Metronet Zing's underground network. The St. Joseph County Public Library pays only one-third of its pre-Metronet connectivity costs to serve over 125,000 patrons. Several large healthcare clinics need the high capacity for telehealth services and to consolidate past networks that operated independently. Metronet's video shares the story of Riverland Medical Center that uses the network for advanced healthcare applications.

Video: 
See video

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.

Silverton, Colorado, Breaks Ground in First Phase of Regional Network

In 2010, Silverton, Colorado, decided to build a fiber-optic loop for savings and better connectivity in rural San Juan County. At the time, Qwest (now CenturyLink) provided a microwave connection to the town of around 630 residents. After taking state money to connect all the county seats, Qwest decided to take fiber to everyone except Silverton, much to the frustration of local residents. We wanted to catch up with happenings in this former silver mining camp.

We spoke with Jason Wells, Silverton Town Administrator, who told us that Silverton's loop is part of a regional effort, the Southwest Colorado Access Network (SCAN). Silverton's loop broke ground in April and it will cost $164,000. Silverton and San Juan County contributed $41,000 and the remainder comes from a Southwest Colorado Access Grant. Wells says public institutions will be hooked up first, then downtown businesses. Connecting the schools will come later.

The community is limited by its remote geography. At 9,300 feet above sea level, the town is one of the highest towns in the U.S. and still served by microwave technology. Wells hopes future expansion will include wiring Silverton to Durango, the closest SCAN community. Durango connects municipal and La Plata County facilities with its municipal fiber and leases dark fiber to local businesses, private providers, and community anchor institutions.

Wells connected us to Dr. Rick K. Smith, Mayor of participating Bayfield and General Manager of the Southwest Colorado Council of Governments (SWCCOG). Dr. Smith shared some history on the SCAN project.

The Southwest Colorado Council of Governments officially formed in 2009 and the first items on the agenda was establishing better connectivity in the region. Fourteen town and county jurisdictions belong to the Council to capitalize on the benefits of cooperation and coordination. Each community receives oil and gas state mineral funds and at the time each wanted to use the money for local broadband infrastructure projects. The group decided to join forces and create a regional network.

In 2010, the SWCCOG received $3 million from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. Member communities matched with another $1 million in total. Each community will own the fiber assets and, while they are prevented from selling services to the private sector by state law unless they pass a majority referendum, they still hope to leverage their assets to attract private providers.

Silverton's fiber loop is at the top of the project list because it is geographically remote and private providers cannot justify the expense of building to such a small market. SWCCOG sees Silverton as an opportunity to prove their case and entice companies to serve businesses and link to outside networks. FastTrack Communications, located in Durango, has expressed interest in tapping into the Silverton market when the loop is complete. Plans estimate completion by the end of 2013.

Dr. Smith strongly recommends a regional approach for other communities considering broadband infrastructure investment. He credits much of their current success to collaboration between the SWCCOG member communities. Just as crucial, he says, is collaboration with private companies like FastTrack. Smith notes that SWCCOG invited large providers to participate two years ago and 25 or 30 seemed interested. Over the next two years all bowed out except a handful of local providers.

Nebraska Town Creates Fiber Partnership For Schools, City

Fremont Public Schools and the City of Fremont are joining forces to bring better connectivity to students and government. According to a Fremont Tribune article, work has already started on a fiber optic project that will increase bandwidth for both entities.

Fremont is a few miles northwest of Omaha and checks in with over 25,000 residents.

The schools will move from a 40 Mbps Internet connection to 10 Gbps. While each entity will own their own strands, they will share paths throughout the city. From the article:

“The benefits are going to be huge to the schools and the city,” [Heather] Tweedy, [media representative for Great Plains Communication] said.

The city and school district each will own their own strands, but will share paths throughout the city.

For example, the city would need to run a connection from the municipal building on Military Avenue to the power plant on the southeast side of Fremont, a path that also would go near Grant and Howard elementary schools.

The school district then would be responsible to get the fiber optics from the power plant to Fremont Middle School and Johnson Crossing Academic Center.

According to the article, Great Plains will do the install at a cost of $246,000 to the school and $149,000 to the city. We generally find that these types of arrangements result in tremendous cost savings for all entities involved.