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First Muni Fiber Net in Maine - Community Broadband Bits Episode 115

By building a fiber line to allow some local businesses to get next-generation Internet access, Rockport became the first municipal fiber network in the state of Maine. Town Manager Richard Bates joins us for episode 115 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

We discuss the financing behind the network and their partnership with local Internet Service Provider, GWI, to improve access to the Internet.

Bates also explains how they had to ask voters for authorization to use a tax-increment financing approach to paying for the network to spur economic development. Nearby communities have been watching to see what happens.Read our story about this network 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 15 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 The Bomb Busters for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Good To Be Alone."

Rockport Builds Maine’s First Municipal Network

Rockport, a coastal town of just 3,300, became a statewide leader last month by launching Maine’s first municipal broadband network. Offering symmetrical gigabit speeds to businesses and residents, Rockport’s network is a carrier-neutral dark fiber system, with local private provider GWI offering retail services. 

The reach of the network is limited, as it consists of only 1.2 miles of fiber. While only about 70 homes and businesses currently have the option to purchase a connection, GWI offers symmetrical gigabit per second internet access for just $69 per month and the city has left the option open to expand the network in the future.

As noted in a Bloomberg View article on the network, it massively outpaces the only broadband competitor in Rockport, Time Warner Cable. Time Warner also offers a $70 service package, but its download speeds are 20 times slower and its upload speeds 200 times slower.  

The network was the product of a partnership between the town board, GWI, the University of Maine system, and Maine Media Workshops + College. Maine Media is a nonprofit college with 1,500 students learning photography, videography, and other digital media skills, and has a large economic footprint in such a small town.

Students’ coursework requires the storing and sharing of massive files, something that was previously difficult or impossible to accomplish given limited network capacity. Town officials are hoping that the new network will not only allow students to learn more easily, but enable them and others to establish small businesses in town.    

U.S. Senator Angus King, a vocal champion of broadband access, was among the officials on hand last week for the official unveiling ceremony. Speaking to the need for greater internet access, Senator King stated:

“In my opinion it’s exactly like water, it’s exactly like electricity, it is a public utility that is necessary in order for our economy and our country to flourish…We want to work where we live, rather than live where we work."

The total cost of the project is estimated at $60,000, half of which came from the University of Maine’s Networkmaine program and half of which came from the Town of Rockport. Interestingly, the town’s contribution came from tax increment financing (TIF), and required town voters to approve two measures to rewrite the local TIF statute and allow funds to be used for fiber optic investments.

Despite this encouraging sign in Rockport, a recent report from a Montana-based research firm ranked Maine 49th out of the 50 states in broadband availability and speed. Hopefully other Maine communities will be inspired by Rockport to look at their own broadband landscape and have a conversation about how they can expand internet access. 

Local TV covered the network unveiling. For those interested in the bigger picture, a piece from Engine.is, a technology research and advocacy group based in San Francisco, looks at Rockport’s network in the context of the larger nationwide need for fiber infrastructure and broadband competition. 

Fiber Infrastructure Helping Turn San Leandro into Tech Hub

San Leandro, a Bay Area city of about 85,000 bordering Oakland, is in the news for its fiber optic infrastructure policies. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News describes how this post-industrial city is turning itself into a center for tech jobs and investment through cheap rents, streamlined permitting, and the ease and low cost of fiber connectivity for businesses in some areas of town. 

We featured San Leandro in an episode of our Broadband Bits podcast last year, when Christopher spoke with San Leandro Chief Innovation Officer Deborah Acosta and a Lit San Leandro consultant Judi Clark. Acosta and Clark gave the details on San Leandro’s innovative public-private partnership, which combines smart public investments in conduits and “dig once” concepts with private investment in the actual fiber optic strands themselves. The city has been able to access fiber for it’s own needs at minimal cost, while some businesses have access to up to 10Gbps connectivity, either through privately provided lit fiber or leasing their own dark fiber. 

As the Mercury News article notes, the fiber assets have begun to pay off. Several technology parks have taken up residence in the area, including a hub of 3-D printing companies, sharing space and ideas while taking advantage of incredible data transfer speeds. One entrepreneur quoted in the article describes the office park, located in a former car factory, as “the world's largest cluster of 3-D desktop printer companies.”

The article also notes the growing awareness of San Leandro’s economic comeback, and the role played by fiber optic infrastructure: 

"San Leandro is establishing itself as a city-scale lab for innovation. Only months ago, (it) was a relatively unknown Bay Area city," said Greg Delaune, CEO of UIX Global.

Lit San Leandro, the private company that worked with the city to do the initial fiber runs, is apparently also in talks with other Bay Area cities on potential similar projects. However, it is worth noting that there is no plan for connecting residents and this model may in fact make it more difficult to expand residental gigabit access.

The business case for residential access is always hard but is improved when high margin businesses can be connected at the same time. But when high margin businesses have their needs met first, there is little incentive for a profit-maximizing firm to invest in connecting lower margin customers, a phenomenon called cream-skimming in economics. 

Communities should understand there is no magic bullet in solving the problem of expanding high quality Internet access. Lit San Leandro is seeing success but may not be the best model for all communities.

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.

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:

Spencer Municipal Utilities Expands Upgrade to Fiber in Iowa

Spencer Municipal Utilities (SMU) in Iowa is expanding an upgrade project to bring fiber to approximately 2,000 additional premises. A little over a year ago, we reported on the switch from coax cable to fiber for 700 municipal network customers with no rate increase. According to the Spencer Daily Reporter, the original project is almost completed; the expanded upgrade will cost approximately $4.5 million.

Amanda Gloyd, marketing and community relations manager, told the Daily Reporter:

Since SMU first began offering Internet service to customers the amount used by customers has increased and we expect to see that continue. For example, the average peak usage from customers in the fall of 2010 was 125MB and today it averages around 800MB with maximums over 1,200 MB. The project to convert the whole town of Spencer will take several years and we continue to develop plans for future projects.

In April, the SMU Board of trustees approved a modest rate increase for video and Internet access to help defray increased costs for video content and increased demand on the system. The last time rates went up for video service was early 2013; residential Internet access rates have remained the same since November 2011.

New rates went into effect on June 1. Internet access rates range from $20 per month for 1 Mbps/256 Kbps to $225 per month for 100 Mbps/10 Mbps. Basic level video service begins at $14 per month; "Basic Plus" is $50.75 per month. Digital service and a range of channel choices are available as add-ons.

SMU also provides voice and partners with T-Mobile to provide wireless phone service in the community. The network began serving customers in 2000.

Spencer, population 11,300, is located in the northwest section of the state. In the Community Broadband Bits podcast episode #13, Chris spoke with Curtis Dean of the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities (IAMU). Dean shared a story about Hansen's Clothing, a local upscale clothier in Spencer. Thanks to the presence of the SMU network, Hansen's was able to expand its sales to the online marketplace. Hansen's was struggling until it obtained the ability to reach clientele in New York and Los Angeles. The fresh business allowed Hansen's to flourish.

Conduit Policy the Foundation for Affordable Gig Service in the Bay Area

Smart conduit policy, implemented in 1999, is now paying off in Brentwood. The Bay Area community of 52,000 recently reached an agreement with Sonic.net to bring fiber to the community via city-owned conduit. The partners anticipate a fall 2015 project completion.

The City requires all new development be constructed with conduit to the premise via a joint trench. Over the past 15 years, the amount of conduit has expanded to approximately 150 miles reaching more than 8,000 homes and all commercial construction. Brentwood has grown exponentially in the past 15 years. Between 2000 and 2010, its population more than doubled as it transitioned from farms to suburbs.

A number of other communities have implemented similar conduit policies to improve connectivity options. Mount Vernon, Washington, and Sandy, Oregon, are only a few towns where conduit policy for new development has facilitated fiber deployment. 

We checked in with Kerry Breen, Assistant Finance Director for Brentwood, who offered more details on the partnership. Sonic.net will pay to lease the conduit, connect City facilities, provide dedicated fiber to the City, fill in any gaps in the conduit network, and maintain the network. The ISP will also develop a pilot program to install conduit in a pre-1999 subdivision containing 250-500 homes. 

Sonic.net will connect public facilities that are adjacent to existing conduit. If the City wants to connect facilities situated in other areas, it will pay Sonic.net to complete the connections. Brentwood will save approximately $15,000 per year immediately because Sonic.net will provide gigabit service to City Hall at no charge.

The company will also pull fiber through traffic conduit and connect City traffic signals at no extra cost in these locations. If Sonic.net ultimately provides Wi-Fi, the City will have access at no charge, increasing efficiencies and reducing costs for municipal employees that work in the field such as city inspectors or public safety personnel.

In May, the City Council voted unanimously to approve the agreement. The Contra Costal Times reported on the proceeding:

"This basically takes Brentwood from being a bike path or footpath in technology to being a superhighway in technology," Vice Mayor Joel Bryant said before council members voted. "I'm very, very excited about this. This is an opportunity to improve the quality of life for our residents, the quality of businesses we are able to attract."

Business customers will enroll on a per-desk basis, paying $39.95 per month per desk for gigabit service. 

Residential customers with existing conduit who agree to pay a one-time connection fee will receive free broadband service (although not gigabit speeds) for five years. Residential gigabit service will cost $39.95 per month, which includes phone service. Homes that are not on the conduit network can purchase 20 Mbps service via copper for $39.95 per month.

In areas of town where 30% or more of eligible residential customers take services from Sonic.net, schools will receive free gigabit service. Sonic.net is taking an approach much like Google Fiber, developing an interest list to determine where to deploy. Interested residents can sign up online; Sonic.net will begin connecting customers within nine months.

Illinois' Monticello Local Partnership Leads to Big Savings - Community Broadband Bits Episode 102

Following up on Lisa's in-depth story on Monticello, Illinois, we asked Vic Zimmerman to join us for episode 102 of the Community Broadband Bits.

We talk about how rural Monticello started by reaching out to the existing service providers, only to be stalled for months and then years. Eventually they realized they would have to take a stronger hand in making sure community anchor institutions, including the schools, would have the fast, affordable, and reliable connections they need.

Local public entities began working together and partnered with a private firm building a fiber line through town to get in the trench with them. That was the beginning of an impressive network that now connects community anchors and ideally will lead to more investment for connections to businesses and residents.

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 15 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 Valley Lodge for the music, licensed using Creative Commons. The song is "Sweet Elizabeth."

UC2B and Partner Bringing Fiber to More Urbana-Champaign Communities in Illinois

The UC2B Network and its partner, iTV-3, will soon bring gigabit capabilities to more people in the Champaign-Urbana community in Illinois. According to the UC2B press release [PDF], iTV-3 will expand existing fiber to areas of the community to serve residents and businesses. iTV-3 will take subscriptions for commercial and residential access online at www.theperfectupgrade.com.

In a statement from the FCC, Chairman Tom Wheeler commented:

"Congratulations to Urbana-Champaign Big Broadband (UC2B) and iTV-3 on making gigabit services over fiber available throughout the community. This public-private partnership provides a valuable model for communities and companies throughout the country and a demonstration of the creativity that is stimulated when localities are free to work with the private sector to improve broadband offerings.”

UC2B and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign received American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds to deploy an urban FTTH network in Illinois. The not-for-profit corporation offered economical Internet service to residential subscribers in economically disadvantaged areas, some as low as $19.99 per month. The network also connected a number of community anchor institutions including schools, hospitals, and municipal facilities throughout the Urbana-Champaign metropolitan area.

According to a fact sheet on the project [PDF], the company is a subsidiary of a family-owned business that started in Springfield, Illinois. iTV-3 has been an ISP since the mid 1990s but also owns and operates over 775 Family Video stores in 19 states and Canada. UC2B chose iTV-3 because the company operates in a manner consistent with the Community Broadband Principles, core values guiding UC2B since inception. iTV-3 will also contribute to UC2B's Community Benefit Fund, established to improve digital literacy and digital inclusion. 

iTV-3 will offer wholesale access via the existing structure and, if neighborhoods do a not connect after five years, other companies will have the opportunity to offer services via the infrastructure. iTV-3 will lease the existing infrastructure and equipment from UC2B and will own any infrastructure it builds as part of the network. If the two part ways in the future, UC2B will have the option to purchase the infrastructure deployed by iTV-3.

iTV-3 has offered services in other Illinois communities since 2009. According to the iTV-3 press release [PDF], the ISP will be bringing services into neighborhoods of 150 - 350 homes once 50% of homes sign-up. iTV-3 will begin by offering Internet and voice and plans to add video in the future.

Service rates will be:

  • 50/10 Mbps Internet - $49.95
  • 50/10 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $64.90
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet - $59.95
  • 100/20 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $74.90
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet - $79.95
  • 1000/200 Mbps Internet + Unlimited US and Canada Voice - $94.90

For more on the UC2B project, listen to Chris' interview with Brandon Bowersox-Johnson from the network's policy committee and Carol Ammons of the U-C Independent Media Center. He spoke to them in episode 42 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

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.