muninetworks.org

Syndicate content
Updated: 10 hours 3 min ago

How Anza Electric Cooperative Keeps Growing Grassroots and Overcoming Challenges

March 22, 2018

In southern California, an electric cooperative provides high-speed Internet service and continues to expand, meeting the needs of its 4,000 rural members. With community support, Anza Electric has navigated paperwork, construction delays, and more challenges. In May 2018, the California Public Utilities Commission will decide whether or not to award a grant of $2.2 million for Anza Electric’s fiber network project, Connect Anza.

We spoke with Anza Electric’s General Manager Kevin Short to learn more about the grant proposal and the project timeline. In July 2017, we reported that Anza Electric had submitted the grant application for a rural area south of Mount Jacinto in Riverside County. Short provided us with an update and more information on why this area was not part of the co-op’s first Internet access project.

2018 Grant Application

This area in Riverside County follows scenic highway 74 and includes the communities of Pinyon Pines, Garner Valley, and Mountain Center. The project will provide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) Internet service to the rural co-op members. The co-op will also provide free high-speed Internet access to local fire stations and the Ronald McDonald camp for children with cancer. 

In total, the project costs $3.7 million, but the co-op has about $1.5 million to devote to the project. They hope to obtain the remaining $2.2 million from the California Advanced Services Fund through the California Public Utilities Commission. Anza Electric applied for the grant last year. More than 600 people have already signed onto a petition to support the co-op’s application. (Read the petition here.) The California Public Utilities Commission vote in May 2018 on the grant, which will significantly reduce the amount of time the co-op will need to connect the proposed project area.

Initial Speed Bumps

In 2010, when Anza Electric started plans to build a Fiber-to-the-Home network, this area in Riverside County was part of the original project area. The cooperative, however, ran into some unexpected challenges and had to delay building the network in this specific region.

The first speed bump came from highway 74 itself, also known as the Pines to Palm Scenic Byway. Although Anza Electric has access to the utility poles along the highway, state scenic highways have special protections, preventing companies from adding new structures in the right-of-way along the road. The co-op would have to either put the fiber lines underground in rocky terrain or get a specific type of permit, significantly increasing the cost of the project. Due to the rocky geography of the area, the cooperative decided that the most cost-effective and timely decision was to obtain the special permit for aerial deployment.

The next hiccup came from a sale in 2015 - 2016. At the time, Verizon was the incumbent provider in the area and provided Internet service to several of those rural communities. The company decided to sell its service area to Frontier Communications, which used some of the Connect America Fund to build DSL service in a few parts of that service area. This, however, effectively sideswiped Anza Electric’s project plan, which had included those residents in their cost-model, by eliminating several areas as potential subscribers.

Anza Electric regrouped and decided to remove the areas of Pinyon Pines, Garner Valley, and Mountain Center from their initial project plan. The co-op moved ahead with the majority of the project and agreed to return to that area after they had secured more funding. Rather than allow one area with multiple issues to distrupt the entire project, they decided to come back to this region later.

The First Project

In 2010, the initial plan had started out simple, a fiber backbone connecting three electric substations and a single switch station as part of a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system. The co-op, however, recognized that the community had a high demand for residential broadband service, and explored how to build out slowly. In 2015, by an overwhelming margin, the co-op membership voted at their annual meeting to include high-speed Internet service in their bylaws.

Anza Electric also began to explore grant opportunities. They looked into the Connect America Fund, but the requirements were too restrictive. Short gave a an anecdote about a Federal Communications Commission field representative who pointed out that since the co-op members had access to 4G service, they did not qualify for the grant.

The California Public Utilities Commission, however, administers the California Advanced Services Fund. In 2015, Anza Electric hired a grant writer who worked to improve the application. Frontier challenged some areas of Anza Electric’s proposal, and the co-op removed areas from the grant application where Frontier offered service. The Public Utilities Commission awarded the co-op a grant of a little more than $2.6 million that December 2015. Anza Electric also borrowed some funding from Co-Bank and refinanced their federal Rural Utilities Service (RUS) loans.

The project brings high-speed Internet access to about 3,000 households in the Riverside County communities of Anza, Aguanga, Lake Riverside Estates, and Reed Valley. About 2,000 potential subscribers are waiting to be connected; 800 are subscribed and obtaining Internet access from Anza. At first, Anza Electric advertised speeds of 50 Mbps for both download and upload speeds at $49.95 each month. In December 2017, the co-op upgraded the speed offer to 100 Mbps symmetrical with no cost increase with no data limits and no contracts. Short explained that the co-op is currently completing the last few hundred feet of the “last mile” of fiber line to each resident’s house. They experienced a few construction delays in the 2016-2017 winter, and people are clamoring for reliable Internet service. 

Moving Forward

The 4,000 electric members will be the first to receive Internet service before Anza Electric considers any possibility of expanding further. The co-op currently has 23 employees for the entire organization, including the new telecom department. Short clarified that, after the grants for the cost of building the fiber network, the co-op will be able to cover its operating expenses. This second California state grant has the potential to bring much needed, high-speed Internet service to these hard-to-connect rural communities. 

The California Advanced Service Fund is just one of a number of state grant programs that community networks have tapped into to serve their rural members. Colorado and Minnesota administer similar programs and have seen progress in connecting communities with local Internet service providers.  Anza Electric General Manager Short described the California state grant program in 2015 was “an absolute blessing.”

Image of the Pines to Palms Scenic Byway courtesy of Ken Lund via flickr through a creative commons license [Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)]. Thanks, Ken!

Tags: FTTHrural electric coopcaliforniacooperativeruralgrantsymmetryfundinganza electric cooperative

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 298

March 21, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell interviews Jeremy Hansen from Berlin, Vermont, on how he organized for a Communications Union District in Central Vermont. Listen to this episode here.

 

Jeremy Hansen: It was 100 percent success rate. You know some towns it was unanimous in all 12 that voted on it so far. That's past.

Lisa Gonzalez: You were listening to episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. March 6th was Town Meeting Day and many local communities in Vermont in addition to specific budget issues and land use questions. Citizens of a dozen towns in the central area of the state voted to join together to form a Communications Union District. The Communications Union District is an entity formed to create telecommunications infrastructure in much the same manner as towns in Vermont form sewer or water districts Communications Union Districts first took shape a few years ago when the state created the designation .Communications Union Districts have the ability to issue revenue bonds in order to deploy Internet network infrastructure. Since then east central Vermont fiber has become a Communications Union District which has allowed the network to expand more efficiently and quickly. In this episode Christopher talks with Jeremy Hansen a Select Board Member from Berlin, Vermont, who has led the effort to begin a Communications Union District in his region. He and Christopher discuss how the need for better connectivity inspired voters to support a central Vermont internet in addition to the situation there we hear about the steps that Jeremy took. And what's next. Now here's Christopher with Jeremy Hansen from Berlin, Vermont..

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the community broadband booths podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in St. Paul, Minnesota where for once I'm interviewing a guest that has more snow on the ground than we do so. Welcome to the show Jeremy Hansen.

Jeremy Hansen: Thanks Chris. Good to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Jeremy you're a Select Board Member of Berlin, Vermont.. You're in the middle of a sizable snowstorm but the reason we're having you on is because you're a founder of central Vermont a project and a professor of computer science. So I think the first thing to ask you is what does Berlin, Vermont, like?

Jeremy Hansen: It's pretty rural. I mean most of most of Vermont is fairly small.

Jeremy Hansen: We're right next door to the capitol city which is Montpelier smallest capitol city in the United States with about 8000 people. Berlin only has about 3000. But we are a bit of a commercial hub around here. We have a lot more businesses than most of the surrounding towns. We have an airport. We actually have an Amtrak station interstate passes through here so there's a lot of stuff going on here. But all of that infrastructure notwithstanding we don't actually have reasonable internet speeds in most places around here in central Vermont. A little bit of cable but it's mostly really poor quality DSL everywhere else.

Christopher Mitchell: Some of the people in your town or just in Montpelier have cable?

Jeremy Hansen: So it's scattered it's really really the low hanging fruit. The denser places around in Montpelier here in Berlin actually two doors down from where I live. They do have cable but the way that the utility poles are situated it's not it's not going to reach me via that route.

Jeremy Hansen: So I'm in a slightly more sparse area where the economics for the larger incumbent providers are just not there.

Christopher Mitchell: So you decided to do something about it. The central Vermont Internet project I think a good place to start is what is your vision when this project is rolling. What's it going to look like.

Jeremy Hansen: I'm looking for this to be fibre to the home so gigabit speeds to basically everyone in the number towns all homes businesses civic institutions and all towns. Now this is a structure that's I don't totally familiar but it's not new here in Vermont. See fiber which I believe you had on the show before. They've done this and it's working in much sparser towns than what we're talking about you know around the Capitol and in this county just to the north of D.C. fiber's territory. So we're looking to essentially duplicate our success and you know bring people high quality reasonably priced fibre to the home.

Christopher Mitchell: You see fiber which is short for the East Central Vermont fiber network for some reason the seems to disappear in their radiation. Thought they included Montpellier and I realized they could be Igloolik 25 towns. At some point it must have confused myself.

Jeremy Hansen: No you didn't confuse yourself at all. They Montpelier is actually an fiber town and now it's essential from the Internet town.

Jeremy Hansen: Also strangely enough but because Montpelier was so geographically separate from all of the other member towns it wasn't contiguous with those other towns. Their business model would have had to be had to be rather different. To get to Montpelier they would have had to know paid for back hauling their connection or run a rather long spur of their existing network of and that just doesn't make sense. Not to mention that Montpelier is basically 100 percent covered by cable so their take rate is going to be rather a lot lower than some of the towns they were working with before. All that said because Montpelier is contiguous with a lot of the towns that were interested in this and actually in another city that's roughly the same size next door to Berlin here very city is about the same size has about the same amount of coverage of cable. So it may not make sense for us to start there just because of the competition there but we would essentially be running cables through them anyways in order to get to the other communities in the area. So if we're running cable there anyways that makes sense to have them onboard and sign people up that are not easily accessible at least with some of the initial builds.

Christopher Mitchell: Sure and I'm guessing you've been in touch with Carole Monroe then and presumably a lot of other people have easy fiber.

Jeremy Hansen: Absolutely yeah and they've been extremely helpful. I actually learned more about their structure. Funny enough. Right through this podcast. So I went tonight. I visited their facility so I know what their operations look like.

Jeremy Hansen: I talk to their tech geeks because I'm fluent in geek myself you know and they came and presented to a couple of other Select Board Members and city councillors up here in central Vermont kind of gave us the lay of the land and have an extremely extremely indispensable for us to at least wrap our minds around what this looks like when they took many years with false starts to get their funding.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's hope that the model is more proven now. But I'm curious to what extent you're going to be doing a similar sort of thing I mean there as I think of it there are municipally owned but it's effectively run by a non-profit it seems like. And the main thing that they did they didn't actually really issue revenue bonds or anything like that which is pretty common. They sold private debt to people who wanted to buy it and supported a lot of local folks from what I understand.

Jeremy Hansen: And that's and that's where they started. They did that sort of crowdfunding mechanism before they went and got revenue bonds and they were able to then use those revenue bonds and actually pay off some of that higher interest rate debt from previous years. Just given the the way that the bond market works I'm expecting that there's going to be a certain amount of that with Central Vermont Internet as well where we will have to start smallish and look for private local investors and once we have proven that we're not incompetent and that we can have revenue with the limited build out for the first few years then we'll be able to go and say to the to the bond markets like hey you know we're here we want to borrow here's you know here's our model and go from there.

Jeremy Hansen: And we have some other opportunities there's a there's a bill floating around in the legislature I actually have a check where it is right now here in Vermont that would actually add two million dollars which on most states budgets is not all that much. But for Vermont it's actually decent size some that would actually add quite a bit of funding to what's called the connectivity initiative here and that would give us the ability to or I should say we give the state the ability to put out some more grants for building building fiber and building high speed internet out to underserved and unserved addresses in Vermont.

Jeremy Hansen: So I'm optimistic that we can probably net some of that like fiber has in the past.

Christopher Mitchell: It sounds like you've already had a referendum on your ideas a bunch of the towns around you voted on it. How did that go it went.

Jeremy Hansen: It was amazing actually so in order for us to create the district the statute says that you have to put it on the town meeting ballot or have a town meeting vote from the floor. So New England and Vermont in particular having a rich and a directly democratic town meeting tradition in Berlin for example. You know there was a motion on the floor that I made that was part of our meeting seconded and went through the process and then I gave a give a bit of a presentation and it was voted you know eyes and nays from the floor and it was unanimous so I also talked to a bunch of other towns and said You know I ask their legislative bodies their select boards or city councils to go and put this in front of the voters. A couple of Tuesdays ago it was 100 percent success rate. You know some towns it was unanimous like in Berlin but in all 12 that voted on it so far that's passed. It's a very very exciting.

Christopher Mitchell: It is very exciting and it fits very well with what we've seen. People really want something better. And particularly in New England there's a real value on keeping it local.

Jeremy Hansen: Now that's that's definitely true and that's one of my one of my slides and I talk about you know why did you do this. One of the things that really resonates with people aside from the fact that the internet will actually be fast is that we get local governance local control local accountability and then I usually add after that and local tech support. So if you call somebody you know that they're going to be somebody probably within 20 miles. The technician is could be somebody that you already know.

Jeremy Hansen: Yeah Vermont Vermonters certainly put a lot of importance on the local economy and having local personal contacts with businesses.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk a little bit more about how you got here. You know I think from what we talked about so far you kind of had an idea. You checked Odissi fiber. You give a presentation and when boom there you are. But I'm guessing there's a few steps in between for someone else who might be thinking about this and inspired to take action. How did you start educating yourself. And what were some of the steps that you took to make it happen.

Jeremy Hansen: This actually goes back a number of years so I started started looking at what are the other Internet options that are out there. And in my my academic life I do teach networking and I've published in networking and stuff about mesh networks and that sort of thing so I'm sort of familiar with some of the protocols and whatnot that are out there. And I started looking at places like before or end up in rural northwestern England.

Jeremy Hansen: The broadband for the rural north and looking at the model of what they had in which they would essentially encircle villages and they would have with fiber and they would have the farmers bring out the Trenchers and they would just dig the trenches right in the farm fields and lay the fibre and then connect the village sort of a hub and spoke model and then connects know continued down to the next village and such. And I thought you know this is a very Vermont thing to do. But even before that you know I've been in touch with the folks that do Fry folk in Berlin which I visit with some of my students every every year and that's a wireless mesh network.

Jeremy Hansen: The idea is to essentially provide more more even access to the Internet. And they've had some really good success there but it's such a dense place that we're just simply not work in Vermont so looking at all of these different possibilities do we be looking at WiMAX you know that that can work here to a certain extent and we do have a small WiMAX deployment in some of the what are now the current Central Vermont Internet number towns.

Jeremy Hansen: But looking at what is really the way forward what's really the right way to do this. I kept coming to fiber us you know that kept coming up that that's really going to be the way forward. It's not going to be putting up a bunch of towers which a lot of people here are resistant to.

Christopher Mitchell: That's perhaps a mild way of putting it. No it's for the entire tower.

Jeremy Hansen: Yeah and lots of you know plenty of lawsuits. You know even even some hearings of various regulatory boards here in Vermont you know as on the select board we had we had a chance to weigh in on a tower siting in our town. And that was yeah that generated a lot of feedback and I'll put that lightly.

Christopher Mitchell: Right right it may have been unanimous in the other direction perhaps.

Jeremy Hansen: Yeah I mean and that the tower got built anyways frankly which rubbed a lot of people the wrong way but you know using existing poles and adding you know adding another bundle of fiber on the poles. Nobody really cares a lot about that. And that was that was pretty effective.

Christopher Mitchell: Well I don't think it is worth noting I mean their importance. Use of towers for public safety radio and other things as well. I mean sometimes I would prefer never to have a sightline disturbed but sometimes we have to do that.

Jeremy Hansen: You know Vermont bans billboards for this reason. So people get really irritated when there's no other things that are going to prevent you know prevent us from seeing trees or Pennis from seeing the mountains and such.

Christopher Mitchell: That's right. It would be remiss if I didn't know that Vermont is a place that has a lot of quirks but it has a lot of local thriving businesses. It's wonderful for small businesses in part because these quirks are things that are navigable by local businesses and tend to keep the big chains out. So there's some value there and a little bit off topic. But we're talking about what you were doing to prepare. Once you settled on the technology what came next.

Jeremy Hansen: I already knew of a fair number of other Select Board Members in other towns. So I just started reaching out to them and I created a little presentation based on what I knew and what I learned from U.S. fiber and invited some folks to a presentation where they got to hear from me they got to hear from urban Carol at UC fibre and to the folks that didn't know the Select Board Members that didn't show up to that meeting. I just started getting on their agendas and showing up to their meetings giving them the presentation answering all the questions that they had and saying you know there's really not a drawback to this. You know with the structure that's that's here in Vermont there's no there's no tax implications.

Jeremy Hansen: This is not paid for cannot be paid for with tax money. So they would always ask me what's what's the drawback.

Jeremy Hansen: And I said I don't really know that there is one. You're essentially just giving us permission you know to create this structure and you have serve the residents of the town. And regardless of whether it was a you know a conservative group on the board or whether it was a you know a more progressive group on the board so it was always almost always I should say supportive. And so they voted they put it on the ballot and then you know I sort of went out and let folks in the media know they got wind of it themselves when they saw that had the same question was on all these Town Meeting Day agendas and then just a little bit outreach on Facebook. And that was that was really it. I mean I really started in earnest meeting with the select boards and getting the information out there.

Jeremy Hansen: I would say the end of October and then with a successful vote of these 12 towns in the beginning of March. And we've actually got you know there's another there's another town that has it on its Town Meeting ballot. But it's town meeting isn't until May and then there's a there's a 13th town that's probably going to be the 13th to adopt this. That's just to the north of us. The current member towns and other actually hopefully are going to be calling a special town meeting to get people to vote on this. You know from the floor not with the ballot and to send a delegate. When we meet for the first time in May. So it's essentially just networking and talking to people it was remarkably straightforward but fairly time consuming but for the most part with the exception of a couple of other people who you know attended meetings with me or wrote letters to the editor or otherwise to help me collect signatures in some cases. It was it was mostly just a one person job.

Christopher Mitchell: Given the problems that Bullington went through although as we frequently noted it sounds from our analysis that we did significantly more benefits them than problems that resulted from their network. I'm curious if you anticipated people raising that as an objection or concern. And what actually happened.

Jeremy Hansen: They would often raise that and I would say honestly I don't want to be in the position where I'm on the select board and I'm not holding a Monday night meeting until midnight for three weeks in a row because we can't decide what to do with our you know municipal broadband provider. It was not a not a great situation and I know some of the Burlington City Councillors and they were not you know super happy about the situation either you know but I wanted to make sure that I made clear was that a no tax dollars can be used.

Jeremy Hansen: It's clear in statute the town is not held responsible should something go wrong. This is a completely separate municipality. It's sort of overlays the existing municipalities but it is itself a different district with a different governing board and the individual select boards and city councils don't have to be involved in any of this stuff so at no point if something goes wrong. Not that I expect that it will bar any of these select boards of city council is going to be having meetings worrying about what's going to happen next.

Christopher Mitchell: I think my final question is whether or not this is happening elsewhere in Vermont. To me it sounds like there's still a lot of need in Vermont. It sounds like you know the incumbent telephone company just got resoled again. And there's no hope on the horizon for communities taking action like this. Are you seeing others trying to organize in other parts of the state a similar way.

Jeremy Hansen: Yes actually. So I got a message from another group. They use a they're using a slightly different organizational structure it's not called a communications union district which is what we're doing. They're calling you doing something called an r e d i a rural economic development infrastructure district and that's over in Newbury Vermont and they're essentially looking at just building fiber up just in that town and they are I think they're hoping to start building actually maybe this year. They have a similar idea you know as this effort that work that we have up in central Vermont with central internet it's been getting media attention. There's some folks in far southern Vermont down in the neighborhood of Brattleboro and a bit to the west and a bit to the north there there's some folks down there saying you know this is something that we want to do too you know how did you do it. Asking No many of the same questions that you're asking now Chris. You know how do we how do we go and do this.

Jeremy Hansen: And you know I had a meeting meeting with one of those folks on Monday and sort of laid out all of the details for how I approached it.

Jeremy Hansen: And then there. So he's pretty pretty encouraged that he can get this on the ballot in time for their town meeting next year and then have something like a southern Vermont Internet or whatever they decide to call themselves. It's not really a heavy lift creating the organizational structure. You know the heavy lift is than actually doing the raising of the money and the actual feasibility studies and making sure that everything actually gets built.

Christopher Mitchell: for those who are listening to this after Lisa has edited we just got cut off in part because of what Skype describes as too weak of a connection. Jeremy do you have a comment about that.

Jeremy Hansen: No it's not totally surprising at all I would joke when I would go to the Select Board meetings and I would say there's a common refrain in my house as I have two kids in my house and I always hear them, somebody shouting, Is anybody downloading anything because invariably if somebody is downloading something everything else grinds to a halt.

Jeremy Hansen: You know folks that live here in Berlin who only have DSL have work telecommuting which there's a surprising number of them. There are times when they can't do their work because of the the local speeds and that's really too bad.

Christopher Mitchell: Is there anything else that we should touch on. I feel like we've covered a lot of ground.

Jeremy Hansen: Well one of the other things that really was important as I was pitching this to the various boards and whatever was that the notion of net neutrality that was something that seemed for some people anyways to be of more importance than cost. You know they got challenged by somebody in one of the cities that has some existing infrastructure and they say you know I pay it I pay an decent amount and it's my speeds are fine. But if you know you offered you know the same service or you know even even a slightly higher rate you're saying or you're definitely not going to filter my traffic you're going to respect net neutrality. You said I'm switching. Wow. Very clear about that.

Christopher Mitchell: Tell me how you react to this. But it seems to me that the people are much more emotional about their Internet connections. Them I think most people appreciate and certainly more than they were five years ago.

Jeremy Hansen: I would say that's absolutely true. The fact that this is a local effort the fact that it's not a for profit effort and the fact that there's no net neutrality in subscriber privacy is something that is a hot button issue for people I think makes it really attractive. I mean I had somebody walk up to me after my town meeting presentation's says I want to loan you a thousand dollars right now. I say well hold on. I need a bank. I need a bank account first before that's even going to be a possibility.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Well thank you so much for coming on the show telling us what you're doing and providing some hope for folks that are still trying to figure out what they can do.

Lisa Gonzalez: Thanks for having me Chris. That was Christopher with Jeremy Hansen from central Vermont internet. For more about the project check out their Facebook page. We're also keeping up with the project and publishing stories on their progress at uni networks that work. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handlers @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Link: Tags: transcript

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 297

March 21, 2018

This is episode 297 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell speaks with Gary Evans from Hiawatha Broadband Communications. They discuss the history of the company and what Disney learned from them. Listen to this episode here.

 

Gary Evans: I'm proud of HBC. I'm proud of what it did. I am proud of what it's doing.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 297 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Every once in a while Christopher gets the opportunity to interview established voices in the industry for our podcast. It's always a pleasure to hear from people who've been working for many years to bring better connectivity to businesses and residents in America's communities. This week Christopher talks with an old friend, Gary Evans, who has served as president and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications. In this interview, Gary shares the history of the company that serves southeastern Minnesota. He describes some of the early challenges and triumphs along with the partnerships and collaborations he and HBC have established over the years. We wanted to bring Gary on the show because we feel it's important to document the history of the Internet and the role small companies played in bringing Internet access to America. In many places, it was the relatively small unknown companies that were the first to deliver internet access not the large national ISPs we all know today. Because Gary has so many interesting stories to share and we didn't want to exclude anything that could be helpful for our listeners, this interview runs longer than most Community Broadband Bits episodes -- about an hour. Now here's Christopher with Gary Evans.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell and I'm on the road today with Gary Evans, the now retired founder of Hiawatha Broadband Communications. Welcome to the show, Gary.

Gary Evans: Chris, it's wonderful to be with you.

Christopher Mitchell: We were joking just before we started recording that you said you were the unhappily retired. I defy anyone who listens to this to find the moment in which you appear to be unhappy.

Gary Evans: I doubt that. The fact of the matter is I think that I'm working on my fifth retirement so that sort of tells you that it's been an uneasy time for me .

Christopher Mitchell: Sure, yes, and I believe that you've been active in many things as well cover this will be a longer interview than are that are most which we aim for 20 to 30 minutes because every now and then when I have a chance to interview someone like you who's been so active for so long and has so many different insights I want to take a little extra time. So I think maybe we'll start with what is HBC Hiawatha Broadband Communications?

Gary Evans: HBC is a community centric organization that seeks to create community betterment through connectivity and that that was the second vision for HBC if you will. Let me just take you back to 1992 when -- it's sort of interesting to be sitting here with you because I was visiting with Bob Kierlin who really gets the credit for the initial vision. Bob as you probably know was the founder of Fastenal company was also a state senator for a time in Minnesota and a long time ago there were a group of us who went to work very early in the morning, and if we talked we talked very early in the morning and Bob, Bob sometimes talked cryptically and I got a call at

5:00 one morning saying Gary you're going to get a call this afternoon from a friend of yours and I hope you're going to say yes. And that ended the call. Now interestingly enough two years prior I got a similar call and he said Gary you're going to get a letter from the Bishop this afternoon and I hope you'll say yes. That was a bit disconcerting because being Lutheran I wasn't certain what the bishop would want.

Gary Evans: I said the advice of the Catholic friend who told me he thought in my case maybe they'd consider human sacrifices. In any event I had been part of the meeting that had asked Bob and his Fastenal partners to consider the purchase of the College of St. Teresa campus in Winona, a campus that was going to be vacant at the end of the 1988-89 school year and less than 10 hours after the meeting ended I got a call from Bob saying they'd purchased the campus and the Bishop wrote to ask if I would be part of a task force to plan how that campus would be used. There doesn't perhaps seem to be a great connection between the two except that, as Bob and his partners moved to put the campus again to productive use, state of the art telecomm became part of the vision for that campus.

Gary Evans: And although Bob and I argued and still do about whether it fulfilled its mission because it was entirely Apple based and I thought it should be mixed platform. When the campus opened in 1990, it was in fact a wonderful, wonderful mecca of communication. It had everything including a TV studio, if you a commercial TV studio.

Christopher Mitchell: So these are these are the seeds of HBC and for people who didn't grow up in the area around here it's Winona is in the southeastern part of Minnesota and Fastenal is a very successful company that is based out of there.

Gary Evans: It is and the Fastenal partners have been uncommonly generous and so they sought to create an education park on the campus. Let's go back then to the call that said I'd get a visit or a call from a friend. That was my backyard neighbor saying that Bob wanted us to take a look at this new stuff called fiber-optics to see if there was any advantage in it for education.

Gary Evans: We met in Bob's home in February of 1993 and gave Bob what he had requested which was a three page feasibility study including the budget and we said that fiber-optic connectivity for Winona's educational institutions could be a real benefit but would also be costly. We got up dusted off our hands. My partner Bud Baechler who's a rather well-known personality in southeastern Minnesota as the result of his work in public relations. And I got ready to leave Bob's house when he tapped me on the shoulder. Handed me a check for $600,000 and said, "You guys must think you know what you're doing why don't you get at it?" That was a little heart-stopping. To be honest with you Chris as I don't know if we really did know how to do it or what we were doing but ultimately we connected all of the city's educational institutions with fiber. We also included City Hall purely for political purposes. I might add we had met with the mayor and city manager who suggested their approval would be routine if we would make sure they were connected and we readily agreed to that. We also included our hospital because it was both a provider and a consumer of education and we thought that would be beneficial. Luminet, that venture began in 1995 and along the way we created a number of user groups. Interestingly enough. Dan Pecarina the current CEO of HBC was the information systems manager at Winona State where I also worked. And Dan wound up chairing that Gateway Internet group. And after the first meeting of that group he came to me and said Gary can I get Somsen auditorium for our next meeting. And that totally puzzled me because Somsen was a 900 seat auditorium and they filled that doesn't it. That's how -- if we go back to 1992 -- that's how veracious the appetite for internet connectivity. You know most of us were making cold calls to AOL in Chicago for our connectivity and and so Luminet diverted from let's not for profit status to become also one of the nation's first small town Internet services. And I joke all the time about that being the best and worst decision we ever made. All wrapped up into one decision. It was clearly the best because of all it did for Winona and it was clearly the worst because our human resource never quite equaled what was necessary to deliver superb service.

Christopher Mitchell: So you are always struggling to get to where you wanted it to be.

Gary Evans: We absolutely were. There was a time in about 1996 when 80 percent of Winona's 27,000 residents had e-mail addresses, if you can believe it, as the result of what was then known as Luminet. In 1997 and trying to catch us up here and not be so verbose we were at a Luminet board meeting both by Baechler and I were on the board along with Bob Kierlin , Bob Hyne [spelling?] who was a local CPA and Kant Gernander [spelling?] a local attorney who had been instrumental in helping get Luminet going when Bob said, "Is this that time?" and it was one of those questions delivered in such a way that it sort of caught you up short and made you think a minute. And I remember saying that time for what? And he said were you guys in the last sentence of that feasibility study you gave me said that it wouldn't be a complete project until we enable connectivity to all Winonans who wanted.

Christopher Mitchell: So that was something that was sticking around in his head probably more so than your head.

Gary Evans: It absolutely was. I mean we were scrambling to try and keep up with the demand on the Internet site. And I remember making those same comment. Yeah. I had made earlier when I said "Jeepers, Bob, that's going to be expensive." And he said "Well you know didn't it work out OK last time? I sort of handled the money. You guys handled the other stuff and we got it done."

Gary Evans: And the higher education foundation which was comprised of Bob and his four partners gave us the first $8 million to get the build started. We activated the first node in Winona in 2000. We finished the fifty seventh node in 2001 and that's when all were known and did have access to high speed communications although high speed communication then was far different than than it is today. And that first network we built was in hype was a hybrid fiber coax network that was sort of the state of the art back then right.

Christopher Mitchell: And when you say nodes those are in the way that I think a number of people are more familiar now you had fibre to the node and then you had the cable system out to Rezko X to the residences right.

Gary Evans: Those are regional nodes were built to serve 500 customers

Christopher Mitchell: Which is a pretty small split at the time.

Gary Evans: It was a very small split at the time. It was funny because we made a major marketing mistake. We decided to publicize our progress with a map in the Winona newspapers that showed node by node where connectivity was and that simply enabled Charter our competition to move ahead and offer multi-year deals to people in exchange for contracts.

Christopher Mitchell: Now if we just pause for a second here this is a time of incredible predatory pricing. And I happen to have followed some of the HFC networks. In retrospect I wasn't paying attention at the time but I looked back in history and in the very early 2000s as when Charter was in some places offering people effectively free internet services seems like and giving them like $200 cash if they sign up for a multi-year contract.

Gary Evans: So it's this is bad worse than it is today even where we see that practice you know as as we talk about HBC which at least I consider to be an incredible success story. We made a heck of a lot of mistakes. And the first one is exactly what you talk about. We opened up with prices that were lower than charterers and soon we were in a downward cycle that we knew we couldn't survive. And so we had to stop our second communities St. Charles from Minnesota. It's a very interesting story for me as well. In 2005 the HBC story was spreading pretty pretty incredibly across Minnesota. In our pre planning stages tonight I need to include but backward here because he was very influential in helping us with the planning and what we did, Chris, was we sat down and talked about every negative we could think of that was connected to modern day telecom service was terrible.

Gary Evans: If you wanted to sign up you got a day window and you had to take a whole day off from work.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm glad we don't do that anymore now we have four hour windows

Gary Evans: But in Winona you have time specific and and and if the installer is going to be late the customer gets a call

Christopher Mitchell: From you?

Gary Evans: Yes. I mean it's you know so we look at everything and we decided that the hallmark of our business had to be customer first you know in retrospect that's kind of interesting because Fassino House measure is growth through customer service so that the companies had had the same base of if you will. And and we tried very hard. We also had a rule that said if something breaks today it's fixed today.

Gary Evans: If you want it fixed today it will be. And I remember my son not being too happy one day when one of our repairman wound up at his house at

10:00 at night wanting to fix his TV service which was out.

Gary Evans: But I think that HBC did in those early days try very hard to be a very different telecom company if you will a very customer centric one.

Christopher Mitchell: Did you look at the record of others? I mean there is a history of overbuilding as the industry calls it are just competitive companies that tried to do this believing that there was a market opening because of the bad service and all the problems that you describe most of them went out of business. It seems like or or you know consolidated into RCN or something like that.

Gary Evans: We didn't. And it's probably a good thing we didn't we might not have started if we had. And so we learned as we went to you know I can't tell you that we were a perfect story from the get go.

Gary Evans: We had to make modifications along the way and everything that we did. But I I think that our penetration statistics which frequently ranged up in the 80s would demonstrate that we were certainly better than the competition. And I think that the customer feedback that we got and solicited by the way would demonstrate that people thought we were a good deal better than the competition but back to St. Charles for just a minute for the listeners who don't understand Minnesota Winona is about where Iowa Wisconsin and Minnesota come together and 20 miles west of Winona is St. Charles and 20 miles west of St. Charles is Rochester, home of the Mayo Clinic.

Gary Evans: I mention that because in 2005 Rochester and Mayo were beginning to flex their muscles around a new initiative to create a super clinic in Rochester if you will. And St. Charles who had a bunch of visionary residents on their economic development association wanted to be the number one bedroom community to Rochester. And and a whole EDA [Economic Development Association?] came to visit me at HBC one day and said, "We want you to build the network in St. Charles. Will you think about it? We'll give you whatever you want need money. You've got it. Need rights of way. You've got it whatever you want. Just let us know." After meeting with them on several occasions we realized how serious they were about their vision and we said yes said we do it ourselves with our own money which we did. We built St. Charles richer in fiber than Winona was.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say richer in fiber, do you mean it was all fiber?

Gary Evans: No it was still hybrid fiber coax but the nodes were built with 200 residents customers in mind. When we started the network there were two tiny housing developments underway in St. Charles a year and a half after the network was activated St. Charles had doubled in size and was completely ringed by new housing developments so I think the people there who were on the EDA at the time would tell you that they achieved their goal and many of them are new residents are people with high incomes who want small town life. Rochester has now ballooned to more than 100,000 residents because of mail and there are a number among them who want smaller communities.

Christopher Mitchell: I think a lot of those people are a little crazy because I want to live as close to John Hardy's as I possibly can -- possibly the best pulled pork in otherwise barbecue in the upper Midwest.

Gary Evans: My now now I'm probably going to have to go back through Rochester Thank you for that.

Gary Evans: In any event St. Charles was another wonderful success story for HBC the third community that we built was Wabasha. Wabasha is the Mississippi River community like Winona about 30 miles north

Christopher Mitchell: And Walter Matthau lived there for a while in the movie Grumpy Old Men.

Gary Evans: That is correct. And by the way Grumpy Old Man was written by a Winona State student was written about a Winona State professor who was played by Ann-Margaret. And it's pretty true to life story for those of us who know it and lived it kind of. But Wabasha was our first all fiber community and Wabasha represented another first. We decided after St. Charles that when we activated the community or when we got ready to build one we would hold the community dinner and we would invite everybody in town to come out and enjoy dinner on us.

Gary Evans: We would make a brief presentation on what we were doing and we would allow people to sign up for service promising them that they would be installed in the order that they signed up. We also used every restaurant here in town to provide food for the community dinners so they wouldn't miss out on a pay day. As a result of us inviting everybody out. We did the dinner at the Wabasha high school and we signed up more than 80 percent of the residents in town and had a original night. That's incredible.

Gary Evans: Yeah. And so community dinners became part of that strategy. From there forward although in the case of Redwing when we built that we had to do neighborhood barbecues because there wasn't a place large enough to hold the whole town. HBC is now 21 communities we're sitting today in one of the newer ones. Cannon Falls Minnesota. Cannon came to us while I was still at HBC we began talking with the community at that time. We provided some help to their economic development association early on and now HBC is building the town. We pretty much blanket southeast Minnesota and penetration rates have remained very very high above 70 percent in the aggregate. It was it was for me a marvelous marvelous ride both educationally and from a results point of view.

Gary Evans: But but the biggest thing was I will say this probably causing some of my former fellow board members to cringe. Profit was never as important to me as customer satisfaction. And we tried to make that the hallmark of what we did.

Gary Evans: We we were not as profitable as we might have been. For instance one of the things we did was in the rush to create community television stations Winona didn't get a station price and Rochester had stations.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say the rush to create their community TV stations this was not HBC this was the more the community media movement absolutely public access and back and I'm guessing 50s out probably 60s and 70s cable television gets introduced people start thinking we need to make sure it's not all commercialized but Winona kind of misses out on that.

Gary Evans: Yes. Yes. And and so part of HBC's program was local television programming. We did daily newscasts. We produced lots of local shows. We did a lot of local sports HBC still does.

Christopher Mitchell: And you didn't charge for us was just content that you--.

Gary Evans: We created almost all of it at our expense and we did sell advertising. Not enough but people got the offering for free as part of our service.

Christopher Mitchell: And it's worth noting people in Winona have a certain fondness for Winona State basketball.

Gary Evans: Very much so.

Christopher Mitchell: It's a lot of help. I think that you know that everywhere may not have that exact same advantage.

Gary Evans: Well that's true because during that time that HBC was really moving along and gearing up. Winona won two Division 2 NCAA national championships and sandwiched between the two was a runner up.

Gary Evans: So the fact that HBC did all the Winona State games was indeed a big deal to Winona.

Christopher Mitchell: And let's talk about one other sports thing which if I'm remembering correctly this is something that I believe I learned 10 years ago from either you or Dan Pecarina was that widows and baseball had had a certain impact on your bottom line.

Gary Evans: Absolutely. I will never forget it. We discovered that the Twins We're a can't-get-along-without-it commodity for elderly spinsters if you will or widows. And if if we go back, Chris, to this moment you will remember that there was a period when the twins started their own television network. It didn't last very long. But HBC was the first customer of that network.

Christopher Mitchell: And you didn't know this at that time no way.

Gary Evans: We found out as the result of our purchase of that channel that day that the women in Winona were absolutely rabid baseball fans.

Gary Evans: You know we're known it has a phenomenal baseball history. Many of us remember the old Southern many way that wasn't as popular as triple A baseball. I think at one point in time and and Winona was was a member and people still talk about the good old days with with the Chiefs. Something else happened that that I count among the really really big successes. And you know I've learned in life that vision is perhaps the greatest treasure of Bill. You know people always point to money. I think vision vision is good enough. I think money follows. But another thing that we learned is that sometimes accident isn't as important as on purpose. I get a cold one day in early 2000 from a friend who had worked for me back in the very early 1960s who said to me I'm sitting here with the CEO of Cerner Corporation in Kansas City and he just got done telling me that there is no place that he can find that meets his criteria.

Gary Evans: He wants to find a community of 50,000 or less with a single hospital system, a predominant clinic and a broadband network and he can find all of the first three but he can't find a broadband network. And I told him Winona had one. Well that afternoon Neil Patterson, who just died a couple of months ago, and I talked by phone and he was astonished to find out that yeah Winona did have a broadband network and a week later a very big airplane filled with Cerner executives flew into Winona allegedly going to make a 20 minute stop and stayed for nine hours. Looking at what we had done and were doing and at the end of nine hours produced a partnership saying that they would like to make Winona there their testbed community for their technological advances and so Winona health benefited from millions of dollars of investment by Cerner.

Gary Evans: You know we had the first electronic, one of them, well one of the first perhaps the first working electronic medical records in the country. We had one of the first physician order entry on the Pharmaceutical front. I mean it's amazing and all of that all came all that investment because of the broadband network that was in place in Winona. So you know as as I look back on that time that 5 a.m. telephone call from Bob Kierlin ultimately set a path for me. That was an incredible. Unplanned but incredible as we plan to move into HBC. I don't know. Chris, if you ever met a fellow by the name of Tom Vistrecky [spelling?]. Tom is a Twin Cities resident wonderful wonderful man.

Christopher Mitchell: I don't know them all.

Gary Evans: I know you don't didn't. But perhaps not.

Gary Evans: In any event Tom was the number two man in US West at the time that HBC was gearing up

Christopher Mitchell: and US West would go on to become what is now CenturyLink so a very large income a telephone company yes

Gary Evans: Yes. And interestingly enough we had partnerships with both I met a fella by the name of Will Ketchen [spelling?] who was sort of popular man about town if you will. I think he might now live abroad will had just been named the head of communities of interest networks for US West. And I remember encountering him at the state capital and asking him what he was doing. And he said you know I need to figure that out. And I said well what are communities of interest. He said well I need to figure that out too. And so he said Well can we sit down and figure it out together sir. And and we did that. And so as you know moving through a large corporation is a big challenge and we didn't make very much progress. And finally I said to Will isn't there anybody we can talk to in your company who might be interested. And you know I'm a story teller and this is a favorite one of mine but Will said. "Well you know there's the number two guy in US WEST There's a guy by the name of Tom Vistrecky [spelling?] I'd never met him but I'm guessing that he could make a decision. So I wrote this well frankly it was a nasty letter about not making decisions and so on. And at that time I was vice president at Winona State and three days later I'm in my office and the student receptionist says there is a Mr. Vistrecky [spelling] in the line. Who wants to talk to you.

Gary Evans: Not a common name. No no. So now I'm cringing a bit.

Gary Evans: And so I picked up the phone and he said So what in the world is so important about well known. My response was you know Mr. biassed Ricky if you'd get out of your ivory tower and make a trip down river we'll leave and send a plane to get you. What a dumb comment that was. Yeah isn't it in any way will send a plane to get you but you need to come down and know what we're doing because we'd like your help.

Gary Evans: So about a month later that meeting was set and I got a call from Will Ketchen early in the morning and you could hear his voice trembling with nervousness. He said, "Gary biassed Ricky just got on the airplane here for the trip to went on and he grabbed me by the knee and said well kid this better be worth my time. Right. And he said So boy it better be worth his time. So Bob Dylan's airplane which was on lease to US West flew into went on with a group of US West executives and they spent a number of hours kicking around Dhari Quitman and the College of Saint Teresa campus and then they laughed and and Tom was very cordial but noncommittal. The next call I got was about 20 minutes later from Wilcke kitchen. They were back in the cities and well was saying how he got on the airplane and said you know kid I'm really grateful to you for free.

Gary Evans: We missed a great opportunity. So US West became our partner and put money into the project Lumina project in Winona and was our partner and when we decided to go to HBC Tom was a leading influence. He by then had become a good friend. He made regular trips to him went on I need to back up because he said I suppose you think I'm calling you because of your letter. That was the original call and I said well I can't think of why else you call. And he said Well you know I know something you don't know. And I said Yeah I suppose you know a lot of things I don't know and he said My wife is a graduate of Winona state and if she knew I got a letter from a vice president that I didn't respond to I'd be in trouble sir. So Tom was really the genesis for the thinking about Hiawatha Broadband because he said you know Gary as I look ahead we're not going to be investing much money in tier 2 and Tier 3 markets.

Christopher Mitchell: But this is this is a time when people are mostly on dial up. This is a time in which what you're doing is terrific for them because you're making people excited about having much more time on the phone. I mean when I lived in Rochester in high school I was fortunate enough my dad would move to Rochester so he could work at IBM. Computers were a very big part of my life. In junior high and high school so we had a second telephone line. We could be on much more often and when other people were fighting over it with their families so that made a lot of money for us.

Gary Evans: Yes yes Tom said you know we probably aren't going to be making those investments. If I were you guys I'd think a move moving ahead as you're planning with the build and your vision probably shouldn't stop with Winona.

Christopher Mitchell: So he's this is a time also this is on the on the horizon are also being deployed in some places and he's basically telling you to to build a network that's going up because they're not going to build theirs so the market is yours.

Gary Evans: Yep that's right actually. And I think I can say this now since it's a long time later time was scheduled to be the first CEO of HBC. And remember him saying to me one day as we sat and talked he said you know Gary I'm just not happy. I'm a builder and now I sit in my office and I don't build anything. And I said Well you know Tom you had to get out of that office and come down and join us. And he said you'd have me. I said yes well bottom line he didn't come for reasons of personal finance and no compete clause. And I became a poor second choice. Well when when he quit I remember calling Cantor and are on my way home from St. Paul I'll tell him that time couldn't be interested because of personal circumstances.

Gary Evans: And this. It's kind of funny to think about because this was back in the days of early cell service when you needed a weight lifter to carry your phone. Right. And so I called them when I was going through Redwing because there was service.

Gary Evans: And as I got to the end of Redwing I heard him say Call me when you get to Lake City. Well I talked to him again in Lake City. And by the time I talked to him and while I show I he was saying I needed to become the CEO of HBC. So that's sort of how all that unfolded.

Gary Evans: It's a situation, Chris, of marvel, a marvelous series of stories. Yes there was investment but mostly there was vision. You know people call me the vision behind HBC. I wasn't. It was Bob Kierlin . It was Bud Baechler . It was Tom Bistrickey [spelling]. Sprint was our partner and a fellow by the name of rich Cal Brenner who was a Winona native and an executive in Sprint was another part of the story.

Gary Evans: So because we were new because we were early we made a lot of friends that helped us sell.

Christopher Mitchell: I don't think that's unique and you know I think one of the things that we find is these businesses succeed in that way. ISPs particularly, you know, I'll say a lot of the ISPs that I know of even if they might be hostile to some of their competitors they're often their engineers are talking or they're taking some sort of a brotherhood or a sisterhood of --

Gary Evans: There is that there definitely is that. And it's a good thing. It enables progress. The synergistic approach enables progress that wouldn't otherwise be achieved I think.

Christopher Mitchell: There was a time when you visited the Federal Communications Commission I think and you said that you were profitable and people who their job is to understand the U.S. telecom communications market. Their jaws dropped. You remember that.

Gary Evans: I sure do. Well there are a lot of things happened as a result of that. I don't remember all of the names but back in the day when the broadband plan was being written by 2009 I think maybe we got a call one day asking if we would come out and tell the committee our story and they didn't believe that there was an overbilled or in the country that was profitable. And I didn't have enough brains to be frightened of the people I was meeting with. So I just told that as I saw it.

Christopher Mitchell: You didn't grow up going to elite colleges and things like that.

Gary Evans: I certainly figured out as you went along and so you know I just told them about the business as I saw it and I told them that there were a number of things that they were doing that were inhibiting progress and and maybe they should see it differently.

Gary Evans: I got a call from Blair Levine inviting HBC to become one of their advisers as they went through the broadband plan and we wrote a lot of white papers for them. I'm disappointed to say that I would have liked to see more of the input included in the plan. I didn't think it then was friendly to competition. I thought you know you learn in politics that money talks. And big money was being spent to make sure that companies like HBC didn't gain any particular foothold. I think we were very fortunate to start where we started. There wasn't a lot of attention on a market like Winona and if you're building in Minneiska with 68 people in it nobody looks at that.

Christopher Mitchell: Well this is this is something I really want to follow up with you on because I think most of the overbilled there were building in Boston. They were building in the Lehigh Valley where I grew up and there -- that had more density maybe had higher build costs because there was a sense that you absolutely needed to hit that density to make your business model work.

Gary Evans: You know I don't think that was that was true at all. I think what we discovered was that you could build an all fiber network you couldn't leverage resources in such a way that you could build a community of 68 residents if you will you could deliver outstanding at least an arm mind customer service and you could be profitable. And you know we also discovered that sharing that story with people with our customers didn't bring a negative reaction the fact that you were profitable I think was pretty much understood to be the basis for continuing to exist.

Christopher Mitchell: I don't think I don't think most people are going to be upset when they go to grocery stores that are profitable they think they would renting videos or video stores. I think the concern was always that with the cable and telephone companies it's not that they are profitable the big ones that they were excessively so it's that you had a sense that they weren't happy just to give the money that you offered they wanted to pick your pocket for the rest of it.

Gary Evans: That's absolutely true. And in addition if something went down they weren't very aggressive about fixing.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. Right there wasn't really a contract. It was all one sided.

Gary Evans: Yeah it was a one sided thing. But you know along the way we many asked is a fun one to talk about because we had to run fiber from Winona to why be shy to serve that community because along the way one of the things that made us profitable was that we could leverage our head to India and were known to provide service to other communities. And you know that was also my biggest fear if something had happened to that had end it would have been terrible. I mentioned earlier that we had a partnership with CenturyLink and I remember walking into CenturyLink one day and meeting with Duane Ring who is now the chief executive in the Twin Cities and Bob Brown who is the Wisconsin president and asking them if they had ever thought about delivering television content. They seemed interested but not excessively so and although we had a good talk. Nothing happened until two years later when I got a call from Duane's saying "Are you serious about providing us with TV signal?" Man what a mess that was getting through with the red tape. That was crazy.

Christopher Mitchell: And this was essentially it was small comparatively.

Gary Evans: Yes. Yes. LaCrosse was was a major hub of theirs and Duwayne was the chief exec there but we provided them with television signal for two years until they proved that they wanted that to be part of their customer offerings and built their own head in Missouri. So we lost the business but you know what we had gained some real real friends. CenturyLink pledged to allow us to use their head and if we ever had trouble with ours.

Gary Evans: And the thing that just absolutely astounded me was that we had a phenomenal destructive flood in 2007. You remember that we had 28 inches of rain in a 40 hour period or something.

Christopher Mitchell: I remember coming down HBC one month after that happened because Jeff Daly someone who is unfortunately not as involved in telecom anymore he was going through I ran into him and that was my first introduction HBC but one of the things I remember learning is St. Charles still had standing water and your fiber was totally underwater but you're delivering signals just fine.

Gary Evans: We were but you know on Monday morning I got home from a golf trip to Ireland on Friday night. It was Saturday that we realized that much of a good view the suburb in which I live was underwater. And on Monday morning at seven o'clock I get a call from Bob Brown in LaCrosse, and he said Gary, every one of our construction companies are at your disposal if you need our help just call me. I'll have men and machines in Winona this afternoon. There are wonderful stories about friendship that exist in spite of competitive issues. You know we had eyes on LaCrosse at one point in time but when we got into the partnership with Redwing those sort of evaporated you must you must have looked at Rochester from time to time I mean it's right in the center of certainly now it's certainly the center.

Gary Evans: It's very hard to exist where we exist and not look at Rochester. I can tell you without fear of contradiction that we lusted after Rochester. We also know that it was going to be the biggest thing that we ever did. We grappled with how to how to deal with the time to build how we dealt with the outflow of money when there was no inflow and we would have huge huge expense lines there and then there was another factor. In many ways when our big push started IBM was on the decline in Rochester I just see that the building has been sold now. Oh wow. I think I read that last week.

Christopher Mitchell: Right this is Rochester is famous for the AS400s those big machines that boy when I was there in high school I had an internship working with a company that was working with them and the most impressive was three terabytes of hard drive space.

Gary Evans: It was amazing. And you know we had we had some experiments with mayo and we had some with IBM as well but we also didn't believe that those two industries were under or about. And we also believe that because they weren't underserved Rochester was going to be a more difficult sell than anything we had previously done. And before I retired we never got around to it.

Christopher Mitchell: So the. I just think it's worth revisiting that I mean you specifically went after areas that a lot of other people disregarded you pulled off take rates of 80 percent in these places. Not only that but 80 percent initial.

Gary Evans: Yes sometimes before an action or before connectivity.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And one of the ways you did that was was I think I mean once you've built up a reputation as nice but you treated people like they were people and you opened offices in those communities you didn't just send crews out from window and something broke.

Gary Evans: No that's correct. We determined early on that if we were going to exist successfully in St. Charles and Wabasha, Lake City, and Redwing that we were going to have to have offices and these are close enough proximity that presumably for a large telecommunications company today like one of the incumbents they probably have one office serving all of those. That's correct. I mean you know Winona has a limited personnel charter office I believe but but all of their repair and all of their maintenance comes out of LaCrosse opening offices was another big thing that helped us because that was an economic development advancement that was major in some communities. One of the things that was great to contemplate was the fact that I think when we were working with the FCC in 2009 and 10 that we discovered that every community that we had built was larger than it had been when we started to build.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah I forgot to put that in my notes that's one of the things you said some of them had had five decades of decline.

Gary Evans: Five and six and you know Minneiska here we go again 68 people. Right. And they wound up with two new residents who were professors one in the Dakotas and one in western Minnesota who were teaching classes online from their home in many Aska which which was great. So HBC enabled a lot of things. It helped save a lot of lives because of the medical partnership we had with Cerner. It tried to do the right thing. I'm sure we didn't always but we tried to make it right. I remember once we had a customer who we installed and we let their dog go and the dog got away and we had virtually every one of our employees after office hours looking for that dog. Well the dog came home and the next day our installers took over dog food and other things and it was funny because the gentleman was a physician in lacrosse and my wife my wife found that being referred to here. And he wound up telling Kurd's the story he'd be safe which you know there were there all those fun things that you know the kind of person that's going to take credit for that.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you how did you hire people that would also maintain that ethic and have that situation in which you didn't just say we're sorry we let your dog out but instead we're going to dedicate all of these staff has a purpose only that someone didn't call you and ask you that there was someone underneath you know there was a there was a moment in time.

Gary Evans: We did a strategic planning exercise every year.

Gary Evans: And I remember that we were ending one on Saturday and we had been talking about what our managers wanted and needed to do their job. And Dan Pecarina said to me Gary what do you want. And I said you know what Dan. Once before I retire I want to work for a company where people come to work because they want to not because they have to. And and Dan's comment and I will never forget it was. Oh you mean like Disney.

Gary Evans: And I said Well Dan I'm not sure all Disney employees feel as happy as they look.

Christopher Mitchell: I don't know that Dan spent a summer underneath the goofy man.

Gary Evans: Yeah right. But now just a minute because that afternoon I went to the Disney Web site just for fun.

Gary Evans: I discovered they had an institute and there was a questionnaire. And the third question and this is at the heart of right talent which is a Disney term. The third question was my company hires for attitude not aptitude. And that was like getting hit in the head with a baseball bat because and I'm thinking you know everyone we hired was for aptitude. Right. They had to have a background like you had coming out of Rochester right. And suddenly. And then we'd spend six months training them and then they do leave in two months. Right. And and so I wrote to Disney. I wrote on their little respon Tufts thing and on Monday I got a call and the guy said are you serious. You want to build the company where people come to work because they want to unsterile because they have to. And I said Yeah absolutely. Were you guys help us. And they said well you know we're really intrigued by this. We'd like to come up and visit. So Disney sent two guys to Minnesota in February and they have arrived without coats.

Gary Evans: Do those guys lose a bet. Probably and without boots and they spent a week with us and they just sat around and watched how everything worked.

Speaker 16: And then Friday rolled around and they were going home and we had a blizzard and they had to drive to the cities to catch an airplane and no courts no boots and you know driving on Minnesota roads when you're from Florida.

Gary Evans: You've got to be kidding me.

Christopher Mitchell: This is not interstate.

Gary Evans: From Winona to the city. So I just I am so frightened about the prospect. While they made it and now we got a call saying we'd like to have you bring your workforce down and we'd like to work with you for a week or so. And there was a price tag and there was also a commitment for numbers and we had a number of employees. But you can't just take a week off to go to Florida and send a note to your subscribers. We'll be back in a week. And so we partnered up with the hospital and the hospital. We split our workforce. The hospital took it's managers in two different teams and we went to Disney and we learned a lot and they helped us define a plan for finding and hiring right fit talent. So we started hiring for attitude made a lot of difference.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. All of our employees are stars. That's why we keep them on. But one that I'm particularly fond of, the story was she applied at our organization without a lot of the background that you might think were looking for someone in those telecom technology and whatnot. She graduated with a classics degree and doing the posting for the internship position we spelled internet we capitalized intern and it was just this goofy little thing you know and she saw that and saw that we are you know perhaps whimsical and decided to apply and she has made an incredible difference to our work.

Gary Evans: It's amazing isn't it? And from a simple little question. My company hires for attitude not aptitude. And do you stop hiring for aptitude? No. But does attitude become an equation? Absolutely. And I I think that has helped a lot.

Gary Evans: I think that Dan would tell you that turnover at HBC is incredibly small.

Christopher Mitchell: You have low churn in all aspects of business?

Gary Evans: We do! We do! You know our churn was was way under 1 percent on a customer level. You know if if we lost more than one employee to a different opportunity that would have been a large number in any given year. So I'm proud of HBC I'm proud of what it did. I'm proud of what it's doing and I think Dan is doing a marvelous job. He has new challenges now because the old HBC ownership is gone now. They have a new owner. I think the board of which I was a member until the end tried to do a great job in finding a new owner for HBC that would not get in the way of what it does and how it does.

Christopher Mitchell: Good. I want to I want to turn this into a two part interview now because we've spent more time this has been terrific. I would like to see there's several other topics that we didn't get through that I would like to. And so because I asked you have more stories that I realized that I thought you had a lot but we are going to wrap it there. I'll tell people that there is more of the story and we will aim to try. I will aim to talk Gary into telling more of it in this deal a little bit more with some of your role in the broader range of rural broadband policy some of the role of HBC and helping other networks other cities and a few other issues. But we're out of time for today so thank you very much Gary.

Gary Evans: You're quite welcome I've had a great time. Chris you been a wonderful friend for many years. And it's fun to sit down and reminisce with you.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes yes yes.

Christopher Mitchell: It's a long time from I remember 2000 eight years after the election. We knew Obama was going to be taking office we knew those who me a stimulus plan and I was working on e-mails at a chain with you and several of the people trying to figure out what we would suggest that they might do in terms of stimulus and my dad looking at me and thinking it's Christmas. Take a break. And I was thinking this is work I want to do. Yeah you're right. Well thank you very much.

Lisa Gonzalez: You're welcome. That was Christopher with Gary Evans former president and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications in southeastern Minnesota. For more about the company visit HBCi.com. You can also check out our coverage on MuniNetworks.org at the HBC tag. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handlers @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 297 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Link: Tags: transcript

Stillwater, Oklahoma, Releases RFQ For Feasibility Study

March 21, 2018

Stillwater, Oklahoma, recently released a Request for Qualifications (RFQ) in its search for a firm to complete a feasibility study. The city’s Utilities Authority is considering establishing a community owned and operated broadband utility to add to its electric, water, wastewater, and trash and recycling collection utilities. Responses are due April 30, 2018.

Open To Suggestions

Stillwater wants the firm they hire for the study to consider a range of possible models, including dark fiber, open access, and a retail model in which the utility offers services directly to subscribers. They also want partnerships considered that might include Oklahoma State University and Central Rural Electric Cooperative.

OSU’s Stillwater Campus serves about 23,500 students and is considered the flagship of the OSU system. More than 6,000 people work at the school. Central Rural Electric Cooperative doesn’t currently offer broadband to members, but cooperatives and local governments are exploring these types of partnerships more often. In Mecklenburg, Virginia, a project involving a rural cooperative and Mecklenburg County will bring Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to much of the county premises.

As part of the analysis, Stillwater Utilities Authority expect whomever they hire to also provide needs assessments, options for financing, capital costs estimates, and market analysis, in addition to other considerations that will help them move forward.

The Authority wants a self-sustainable gigabit network that offers fast, affordable, reliable symmetrical services to residents, businesses, and its industrial sector.

Stillwater, Oklahoma

The community’s located in the north central part of the state with around 50,000 people in the city. In addition to OSU, a medical center and the headquarters of convenience store franchise OnCue are some of the top employers.

As in other university communities, Stillwater has an active arts scene with a bustling country music and theatre scene. It’s the home of the Red Dirt Film and Music Festivals and since 1920, it’s hosted “America’s Greatest Homecoming Celebration”. A few other events in the community are the Oklahoma Special Olympics, the Tumbleweed Calf Fry, and the Payne County Fair.

The city’s economy is already diverse with sectors in printing and publishing, floor covering, software, food, and research. Entities from agribusiness to aerospace operate in Stillwater.

Read the RFQ here.

Stillwater, Oklahoma, RFQ for Community Owned and Operated Broadband UtilityTags: stillwater okoklahomarfqconsiderationmuni

Central Vermont Internet: Communities Commit To Communications Union District - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 298

March 20, 2018
Community Broadband Bits Episode 298 - Jeremy Hansen, Berlin Select Board Member and Founder of Central Vermont Internet

Earlier this month, twelve towns in central Vermont chose Town Meeting Day to ask local voters whether or not they want to band together to improve connectivity. Each community chose to participate in forming a regional Communications Union District, which will allow them to plan, bond for, and develop regional Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) infrastructure. For episode 298 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher interviews Jeremy Hansen, local Select Board Member and the person who spearheaded the effort to bring the issue to voters in his region.

As Jeremy tells it, he didn’t need to do much convincing when local Vermonters learned about the Communications Union District structure. Most of the people in central Vermont rely on DSL and they overwhelmingly find it inadequate for their needs. The Communications Union District allows several communities to combine their strengths to work toward a single goal. Like water of sewer districts, the entity can issue revenue bonds so the infrastructure is publicly owned, but user funded. ECFiber is organized as a Communications Union District and serves 24 member towns in the eastern part of the state.

Christopher and Jeremy talk about how Jeremy researched, heightened awareness, and how when voters understood the pros and cons, their own common sense led them to approve this first step. He describes what’s next and what he’d like to see happen with the Central Vermont Internet initiative.

This show is 24 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Tags: Vermontcentral vermont internetcommunications union districtelectionregionalruralplanningaudiopodcastbroadband bits

Call Of The Co-op Fiber In Northern Minnesota

March 20, 2018

As an increasing number of rural cooperatives make the decision to offer high-quality connectivity in their service areas, communities where local telephone and electric cooperatives already provide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) are seeing benefits today. Paul Bunyan Communications, offering broadband in Minnesota’s northwest region, has lured a new employer who will bring at least 150 new jobs to the area.

Nonprofit Building In The North

On March 16th, the nonprofit Delta Dental announced that it has decided to invest in a new operations and technology center in Bemidji, located about four hours and 200 miles north of the Twin Cities. The seat of Beltrami County, Bemidji’s population is around 14,300 and the community is the largest place for commerce between Duluth and Grand Forks, North Dakota. The Bemidji area is also home to three Native American Reservations and rests on the shore of Lake Bemidji. Several national and state parks and forests, along with a recreation area, attract tourists looking to escape the Twin Cities for more natural surroundings.

Paul Bunyan Communications started in Bemidji as the Paul Bunyan Telephone Cooperative when a group of local citizens organized as a cooperative after purchasing a small private telephone system and another municipal telephone system in a nearby town. After expanding over the years and taking the initiative to offer Internet access, cellular service, video, and several other services, the entity has shifted to become Paul Bunyan Communications in 2010.

The cooperative has been expanding the FTTH network ever since as The GigaZone. It’s received grants from the Minnesota Border-to-Border Broadband Program to help fund the expansions. As of December 2017, GigaZone connections reached more than 29,400 premises and covered more than 5,000 square miles in Beltrami County, also entering five additional counties.

According to Greater Bemidji Economic Development Executive Director Dave Hengel, access to the fiber network in the community was a “major factor” when deciding to locate the facility here. The nonprofit dental care provider was also interested in workforce, educational resources, and a community that was future minded. Delta Dental and community leaders haven’t yet determined the exact location of the $12 million to $13 million facility, but they hope to break ground this spring and open the location by the end of 2019.

More Jobs

The new facility will bring approximately 150 new positions with wages that range from $16 to $30 per hour. First positions opening up will be in the areas of administrative services, sales, and technology. Delta Dental predicts they will need to fill other positions at the facility in the future in development, web support, and finance.

“There will be entry-level and others that are more high-end, such as management and leadership type jobs,” Hengel said. “This will definitely be something that a BSU graduate would be very well positioned for, particularly those with a background in business development, marketing and information technology.”

Local communities interested in diversifying and sparking economic development have often found that investment in fiber optic infrastructure for better connectivity attracts a range of new employers, especially in rural areas. Places like Danville, Virginia; Springfield, Missouri; and Tullahoma, Tennessee, have experienced job growth because they have fiber available for potential and existing employers.

For more on the project, check out Lakeland PBS News coverage:

Tags: paul bunyan telephone cooperativeeconomic developmentjobsFTTHrural

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 19

March 19, 2018

California

Mendocino County Broadband Alliance seeks input on community programs by Ariel Carmona Jr., Willits News

Los Angeles Eyes Greater Role for Community Broadband by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

 

Colorado

Boulder launches new online platform for citizen engagement by Alex Burness, Boulder Daily Camera

Improving rural internet about more than watching Netflix by Andrew Eversden, Durango Herald

Legislature moving at the speed of fiber to get internet service to rural Colorado by Marianne Goodland, Durango Herald

 

That’s what happened last year in Ridgway, in Ouray County. Elevate, a new telecom provider operated by the local nonprofit Delta-Montrose Electric Association co-op, won a grant to provide high-speed fiber optic service to about 2,000-area residents and businesses. The service would have reached speeds at 1 gigabyte, among the fastest currently available.

But CenturyLink has been operating in the area for years, so the company exercised its right of first refusal and took the broadband grant. And they elected to provide internet service through copper lines. That’s about 10 times slower than fiber optic and can be more expensive to customers.

 

Missouri

Senate discusses legislation to bring broadband to rural Missouri by Erin Achenbach, St. Louis Public Radio

Two bills aim to expand high-speed broadband in rural parts of Missouri through contracts with electric cooperatives.

“The intent of the bills is to codify for the first time that it is public policy of the state of Missouri to provide access to high speed, reliable broadband,” said Senate bill sponsor Mike Cunningham, R-Rogersville, in opening statements to a Senate committee last week.

Cunningham said Senate Bill 820 and its House counterpart, HB 1880, would also clarify existing laws relating to damage awards for property owners when rural electric cooperatives install fiber and other infrastructure on their land.

 

North Carolina

Study: Broadband expansion will be a community by community process by The Mountaineer

 

Washington

Spokane explores publicly owned broadband network intended to open up internet services, drive down costs by Kip Hill, The Spokane Spokesman

Spokane may be dipping its toe into the high-speed internet industry.

City lawmakers approved last month the creation of a working group to explore a publicly-owned municipal broadband network. City Councilman Breean Beggs, the sponsor of the plan, cautioned against an expectation that all citizens would soon be able to cut the cord with private internet companies. Instead he envisions a system where Spokane would lay the groundwork for other service providers. The councilman pointed to examples of cities in Idaho and elsewhere where public investments in fiber lines have led to lower prices for consumers.

 

West Virginia

Marion County Public Library expands digital, technological reach by John Mark Shaver, The Fairmont News

West Virginia Officials Look for Common Ground with State, FCC Internet Data by Max Garland, The Charleston Gazette [Government Technology]

 

Wyoming

Big Telecom Convinced Wyoming’s Politicians to Rewrite a Community Broadband Bill by Kaleigh Rogers, Motherboard Vice

A bill introduced in Wyoming that set aside money to invest in municipal-owned internet was revamped before it passed to favor Big Telecom. The bill originally listed “a city, town or county or joint powers board,” as eligible for state funding to set up a local ISP, but after consulting with industry lobbyists, elected officials changed the bill and it now limits funds to “public private partnerships.”

The bill, which has passed both the state house and senate and is expected to be signed by Governor Matt Mead, established a $10 million fund for building broadband infrastructure under the state’s ENDOW initiative—Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming. The original text of the bill was fairly flexible, allowing towns or counties to apply for funds to establish municipal networks: publicly-owned and operated ISPs that function kind of like a public utility.

 

General

Cities Form Municipal Broadband Companies To Attract Companies And People by Mark Urycki, IdeaStream

Ohio cities need three important utilities to stay viable: gas, electricity, and water. Now a fourth utility is pushing its way into the conversation: internet access. More specifically high-speed internet access. Where once communities have had to hope that private companies would provide that service, more and more local governments are taking on the responsibility themselves. 

The US fight for net neutrality can help Australians get fast Internet by Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie, Particle

Intrigued? Inspired? Frustrated? The US-based Institute for Local Self-Reliance has put together a Community Connectivity Toolkit for those looking to create their own community or municipal broadband. The first step is building support among local residents and businesses as well as supportive individuals who can champion the cause. The toolkit also provides a number of successful models and case studies that can be used to make the case as well as provide a proven structure for your local broadband network.

Communities lament 'rising tide' of broadband preemption by Ryan Johnston, StateScoop

If you’re a state or local public sector official, broadband has been on your mind lately — and if it hasn’t been, it needs to be, according to a panel of stakeholders at the National League of Cities (NLC) Congressional City Conference this week.

Held in Washington, D.C., the conference provided a platform for both municipal elected officials and advocates to address the question of local broadband deployment throughout the country. Questions were shared about the direction that states are heading as a result of the influence that large broadband providers have on state legislatures — concerns founded in recent Federal Communications Commission actions, and supported in the written NLC policy goals.

Can U.S. States Hang on to Net Neutrality? by Geoff Duncan, Tidbits

A new bill could finally ban predatory inmate phone costs by Sam Gustin, The Verge

AT&T-Time Warner merger would stifle competition by Adam Kline, Seattle Times

Combining AT&T and Time Warner would create a mega-media conglomerate with the incentive and ability to favor its own content over that of other entertainment companies and restrict competing distributors from accessing that content, ultimately limiting our choices as consumers.

Tim Berners-Lee: Monopolies and Lack of Public Infrastructure Are Ruining the Web by Kaleigh Rogers, Motherboard Vice

Cities Launch Plan to Protect Net Neutrality by Nicole Flatow, CityLab

 

Tags: media roundup

SEMO Fiber In Southeastern Missouri

March 19, 2018

For the past seven months, SEMO Electric Cooperative has been working on phase one of construction of a new fiber optic network in southeast Missouri. They recently announced that subscribers are hooked up and taking advantage of Fiber-to-the-Home in rural Scott County and in the towns of Miner, Advance, and Bloomfield.

A Necessity In Society

This is the first of five phases of a $40 million project that the cooperative decided to pursue in 2017. The co-op board saw that providing high-quality Internet access to was filling a demand that incumbents are not meeting, locals want, and assists the community. Homeowners, schools, and local businesses need broadband. Loyd Rice, the administrator of engineering services for SEMO Electric:

“Now we get to build out something that has become a necessity in society. The ability to have a broadband service that is effective now changes the whole quality of life for those folks. It’s definitely a necessity at schools. You can work from home.”

Like other electric cooperatives that have found value in offering broadband service, SEMO has certain advantages in both deployment and operations. Rice noted that they're finding that cost to construct are lower than expected because they’re able to build along existing infrastructure. “And so six seven months into now, we’re probably half to three-fourths the way through our first phase of the actual build,” he told CBS 12 KFVS.

Keeping Locals Updated

As they deploy GoSEMO Fiber, the cooperative provides video updates on its YouTube Channel, the GoSEMO website, and on FaceBook and Twitter. In addition to messages that provide updates on the progress of deployment, staff provides information on equipment. The videos are short and to the point. Here’s the latest, posted on March 11th, 2018:

There’s no installation fee and subscribers can choose from two symmetrical tiers:

100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $50 per month

1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps) for $80 per month

The cooperative will also be adding telephone and video services in the future.

Serving Rural Communities

SEMO started like many other rural electric cooperatives - with a group of farmers and business owners who wanted electricity in an area where private power companies and municipal electric utilities did not serve. In 1938, they obtained funding from the Rural Electrification Administration (REA) to build electric infrastructure. Since then, the service area has expanded and SEMO serves premises in six counties in southeastern Missouri. SEMO owns about 2,600 miles of electrical service line and their customer base is just under 16,000 members.

For more on how rural electric cooperatives are bringing broadband to rural America, check out our report Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model For The Internet Era.

Tags: semo electric cooperativerural electric coopmissouriFTTHruralcooperativesymmetrygigabit

Carroll County Continues Fiber Investment

March 16, 2018

In the early 2000s, Carroll County, Maryland, invested in publicly owned fiber infrastructure to reduce costs and improve services for public schools, county government, and Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs). In addition to meeting that goal, the county’s asset connected to the Westminster Fiber Network, a municipal Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) partnership that’s brought gigabit connectivity to a community that once struggled with poor Internet access. In order to build off that success in other parts of the county, the Carroll County Board of Commissioners recently voted to allocate $400,000 to provide grants for more Carroll County Fiber Network expansion.

Second Year In A Row

The funding for 2018 follows last year’s decision to provide $1 million to expand the network. Department of Economic Development executive director Denise Beaver told that Carroll County Times that the county’s broadband committee recommended the grants because ISPs’ reasons for not investing in the rural parts of the county were primarily connected to the cost of deploying fiber.

Carroll County's elected officials decided last year to focus on connecting industrial parks and directed staff to communicate with municipal leaders to learn more about opportunities for fiber in downtown areas to spur economic development.

The Carroll County Broadband Grant Program will provide grants of up to $25,000 per project to ISPs or other entities that ensure a 50 percent matching reimbursement. Each entity can receive no more than $100,000 per fiscal year. Eligibility includes a range of types of projects, including those that involve “…the construction, acquisition, or leasing of facilities or spectrum, land, towers or buildings used to deploy broadband service for business and residentially-based businesses.” 

Entities that want to apply for the grants need to be searching for funding that will bring connectivity to “unserved or underserved” areas. The county has decided to define those types of areas for purpose of the grants:

…Beaver said unserved would be defined as someone with no access to fixed Internet connection with speeds of 10 megabits per second downloads and one megabit per second uploads. Underserved would be defined as not have access to a fixed Internet connection of 25 megabits per second for downloads and three megabits per second for uploads from three or more providers.

Learn more about the Carroll County Network from Gary Davis, who spoke with us back in 2013 about the incredible savings and benefits the community has expereinced. Check out episode 43 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: carroll countymarylandregionalexpansiongranteconomic development

Holland BPW Expanding To Nearby Hudsonville

March 15, 2018

Holland, Michigan’s Board of Public Works (BPW) is in the process of incrementally deploying a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network and will offer Internet access to local subscribers. Holland BPW will also deploy fiber to the nearby town of Hudsonville to a new downtown development.

Upgrading Downtown Hudsonville

Located about 15 miles northeast of Holland, the community of approximately 7,300 received a $1 million state grant to help pay for redevelopment in Hudsonville’s downtown. They’ve been working on the plan to make the area more walkable for more than 10 years in order to appeal to older residents and millennials. 

Because the project involves significant excavation of streets and sidewalks, planners have taken the opportunity to install conduit for fiber. Because about 90 percent of the cost of underground fiber deployment is attributed to the price of digging up rights-of-way, Hudsonville’s smart conduit decisions will make it easier for Holland BPW to bring high speed Internet access to the project area.

BPW’s fiber runs along the main road to Hudsonville and through the center of town; the presence of this fiber will make deployment easier and expedite BPW’s ability to connect premises. 

Following Demand

As part of the expansion, BPW will have the opportunity to offer gigabit connectivity to Hudsonville’s new coworking space, Terra Square. As soon as a minimum of 12 subscribers commit to service from Holland BPW, construction will begin. BPW is using the same demand aggregation approach as they decide where to deploy in Holland neighborhoods, although the number of required commitments varies depending on factors such as density and geography of each neighborhood.

Daniel Morrison, a local resident who writes for the HollandFiber grassroots group website, wrote:

I was initially tempted to complain, “why Hudsonville before my home?” but we should see this a good thing. It further solidifies that Holland BPW is an ISP. It shows their intent to go into new areas. We expect to hear a plan for going into Holland neighborhoods soon. We’ll be working to push that forward as soon as we can.

Check out this map of Holland BPW Fiber:

Tags: holland mimichiganmuniexpansioneconomic developmentFTTH

Hiawatha Broadband Communications: One Of The Small Players That Helped Shape The Internet - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 297

March 14, 2018
Community Broadband Bits Episode 297 - Gary Evans, Former President and CEO of Hiawatha Broadband Communications

Before the days when Comcast, AT&T, and CenturyLink were some of only a few ISPs for subscribers to choose from, much of the country received Internet access from small Internet access companies. In episode 297 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, Christopher talks with one of the pioneers in bringing the Internet to everyday folks, Gary Evans. Gary is retired now, but he spent many years developing a company that is now known as Hiawatha Broadband Communications, or HBC.

HBC began more than 20 years ago in Winona, Minnesota, in the southeastern area of the state. The company evolved from an initiative to bring better connectivity to the community’s educational institutions. Since then, it has expanded, spurred local economic development, and helped drive other benefits. During its growth, HBC has always strived to work for the community.

Gary and Christopher reminisce about the beginnings of HBC, the challenges the company faced, and how they overcame those challenges. They also discuss some of the interesting partnerships that helped HBC continue to grow and that Gary and other HBC leaders used to develop the company’s culture. Gary’s been in the business a long time, and he has some great stories to tell, so we decided to make this an extended episode that runs a little over an hour.

You can play the show on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed.

Read the transcript of this show here.

You can download this mp3 file directly from here. Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Check out this short video from HBC's founders:

Image of the Winona bluffs courtesy of Kirs10 at English Wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: hbcminnesotaeconomic developmenteducationruralpartnershipaudiopodcastbroadband bits

2018 Broadband Communities Summit Approaching: Austin, Texas

March 14, 2018

Don't forget about the Broadband Communities Summit coming up in April. The weather should be optimal in Austin, Texas, for shaking off winter blahs. From April 30th - May 3rd, attendees will be learning all about FIBER: Putting Your Gigs To Work at the Renaissance Hotel; you can still make it if you register online.

The agenda has developed nicely since we first told you about the event a month ago. View it here

CLIC For Results

On the afternoon of the first day, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) will be ready to present a special program, The Vital Role of Local Choice.

Great nations are built on great cities and towns. Over the last few years, communities across America have come to realize that their ability to achieve greatness, or even success, in the years ahead will depend on their ability to acquire affordable access to fiber-rich communications networks.

...

We will continue to help members of CLIC and our allies to be as effective as possible in opposing barriers to local Internet choice.  Emphasizing the positive, we will showcase successful local initiatives reflecting the benefits of local control for the community’s economic and broadband future. We will discuss the factual and legal arguments that work best in refuting the new wave of objections to community broadband and public-private partnerships. And we will finish with a deep dive into the experience of a small rural community that furnishes – an excellent example of how the public and private sectors working together can build a great community and an inclusive and advanced workforce. 

Difficult To Choose

Christopher will present at several panels, as part of the Economic Development Track Blue Ribbon Panel, which kicks off the economic development track on Tuesday, May 1st at 3.p.m. central time. He'll also be stepping in to other conversations to answer questions and propose them to some of the other experts on hand.

Broadband Communities Summits are known for the broad range of discussion issues:

  • Electric Cooperatives
  • Open Access
  • IoT
  • MDUs
  • Rural Broadband
  • Healthcare
  • Smart Policies to Encourage Deployment
  • Legal Issues that Affect Broadband Deployment
  • 5G
  • Telecommuting

To see what other experts in the field will be at the Summit, check out the list of speakers

Check out the agenda and register for the event. See you there!

Image of Austin Winter Sunrise by Erik A. Ellison (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons Tags: eventconferencebroadband communities magazinejim ballerjoanne hoviscoalition for local internet choice

Grassroots Group Taking Action In Cambridge

March 13, 2018

We’ve reported on many communities where citizen grassroots groups mobilized to implement change for better connectivity which often resulted in publicly owned Internet networks. Each community is different and some places require a more active group of advocates to bring change. A group of citizens in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been working to bring attention to their community’s need for better options for several years. Recently, they formed Upgrade Cambridge, as a way to share information and spread the word about their initiative for a publicly owned fiber optic network.

Organic Organizing

Local Saul Tannebaum has consistently led efforts to bring municipal fiber infrastructure to Cambridge. Tannenbaum is one of eight individuals that are on the Upgrade Cambridge steering committee. He recently told the Cambridge Day:

“This grew completely organically. Folks starting contacting me in January asking what was going on with broadband and how they could help. People pulled in others in their own networks and the effort just took off…The city already knows how the Broadband Task force feels about this. It’s time for them to hear from others.”

In 2014, the City Manager appointed the Cambridge Broadband Task Force, which developed recommendations that they presented in 2016; Tannenbaum was a member of the task force. According to the founders of Upgrade Cambridge, the lack of response from the City Manager is driving the formation of the group. They feel that if community leaders hear from everyday Cambridge citizens and realize the magnitude of the problem, city leaders will feel more compelled to act.

The city also hired a consultant who recommended that Cambridge develop a dark fiber network, but find a private sector ISPs to provide last mile connectivity to businesses and residents via the city owned fiber. Another recommendation from the consultant in 2016 was that the city provide last mile fiber only to the Cambridge Housing Authority (CHA) locations. The task force disagreed with these recommendations.

The Cambrige Broadband Task Force also felt that the consultant recommendation was inadequate and too general. They did not feel confident in the consultant’s estimate of $187 million and suggested the city move forward with a feasibility study. With a study that incorporated community outreach, surveys, and detailed analysis, Cambridge could better determine an accurate cost and weigh it against the benefits.

Why A Muni

Members of the Broadband Task Force considered control over the network, including pricing and services, the most important benefit of a publicly owned asset. Cambridge residents now lack choice in ISPs and the service they get from their provider leaves many residents calling elected officials to complain. In their recommendations, the task force also stressed the fact that a network owned by Cambridge would allow them to “make decisions based on social need rather than business needs.” 

Census figures estimate that as much as 60 percent of lower income households don’t have Internet connections. The consultant hired by Cambridge conducted a telephone survey, which revealed only 5 percent of high income local households don’t connect. If both sources are accurate, the digital divide issue in Cambridge needs to be resolved as the task force recognizes.

Task force members pointed out that Cambridge is unlike the communities the consultant used for comparison. At the time, the community had a higher rate of Internet connections, Cambridge had and still has no electric facility, and the reasons for investing in a network in Cambridge would be primarily to bring better options and services to residents, rather than to attract employers. In their report and recommendations, the task force provided many questions that they wanted answered in a feasibility study. They felt that while the report held useful information, it didn't provide an accurate picture of the community and so it's recommendations lacked credibility.

Read the full report and the recommendations from the Task Force here.

Net Neutrality Decision Raises Interest

When it became clear that Chairman Ajit Pai and the Republican Commissioners on the FCC would repeal federal network neutrality protections in February, Tannenbaum was one of many local municipal network supporters that suddenly became popular. He told the Cambridge Day in February:

In the last few weeks, people in Cambridge not associated with the task force have “come out of the woodwork and reached out and asked what they can do,” he said. “There is the very beginnings of some sort of grassroots group to work with the council so it gets the attention it needs. These are just people who think this should be done – and there are a lot of them. This has broad public support, so far as I can tell.” 

The issue has encourage many communities to consider options beyond relying on national ISPs that no longer have to follow rules against paid prioritization, throttling, and other network neutrality guidelines that protected subscribers. Like many other existing publicly owned networks and projects that are still being developed, Upgrade Cambridge addresses the issue on their FAQ page.

Changes, Requests, Moving Ahead

After unanswered requests for comment on what the city planned to do with the Broadband Task Force’s recommendations and a change in city leadership, Tannebaum and his group decided to form Upgrade Cambridge. The city did not appear ready to take action and has told local press that other priorities are more important than a municipal network. Nevertheless, the folks at Upgrade Cambridge feel that the consultant’s report was inadequate and they recognize that this is a multi-year process.

In order to educate the community and let elected officials know that citizens want to explore more options, they’ve decided to begin with public meetings. The first one is set for March 20 at 7 p.m.

Read the press release on Upgrade Cambridge here.

Check out this video from Cambridge TV:

2016 Broadband Task Force Recommendations Upgrade Cambridge Press ReleaseTags: cambridgemassachusettsgrassrootsconsiderationdigital divide

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 12

March 12, 2018

California

Bill to expand broadband access in tribal communities passes house by Jesus Reyes, KESQ - California News Service

The Tribal Broadband Deployment Act would direct the Federal Communications Commission to improve broadband access in tribal lands within 30 months, according to the office of Ruiz, who authored the bill.

The legislation also seeks an evaluation of broadband coverage in Indian country and solutions to address the "digital divide'' that Ruiz said exists in those communities.

L.A. councilman proposes new department to improve broadband internet access by LA Times City News Service

 

Colorado

The community discusses broadband at forum by Zach Clemens, Estes Park Trail Gazette

Boulder looks to Fort Collins in starting its own broadband network by Nick Coltrain, The Coloradoan

Fort Collins' broadband effort is earning attention in Buffs country.

Representatives from the city of Boulder are planning to visit with Fort Collins officials Tuesday to discuss the city's efforts to make municipal broadband a reality in the Choice City.

 

Georgia

Is Bad FCC Data Holding Back Georgia’s Rural Internet Push? by Tyler Jett, Chattanooga Times Free Press (Government Technology)

 

Kentucky

Rural Communities Take Broadband Into Their Own Hands by Benny Becker, National Public Radio

Massachusetts

Group forms to pressure city on broadband, saying ‘no alternative’ to municipal inaction by Marc Levy, Cambridge Day

A lobbying group has formed to pressure Cambridge into taking the next steps on investing in city-owned fiber for high-speed broadband Internet, members of a steering committee said in a press release today.

The group, Upgrade Cambridge, “intends to use the classic tools of grassroots organizing – meetings, leaflets, petitions and canvassing – as well as technological methods to mobilize residents,” according to the release, explaining that it was born out of frustration over the city’s lack of response to the findings of a municipal Broadband Task Force formed by the city manager in 2014.

Editorial: New broadband manager seems like a better fit for Greenfield by Greenfield Recorder

TMLP extending fiber-optic internet service to homes by Jordan Deschenes, Taunton Gazette

 

Michigan

Rural Washtenaw County communities fight to bring broadband internet online by Sarah Rigg, Second Wave Media

Sharon Township supervisor Peter Psarouthakis can see fiber optic cable running along the road 30 feet from his home, but he can't take advantage of the broadband internet access it provides. That's because Frontier Communications, the company that ran the cable through the township, won't serve small rural communities like Sharon Township.

But the township, which lies between Manchester and Grass Lake, isn't alone. Getting broadband service to rural areas of Washtenaw County is a problem that many townships and villages face, and they are implementing a variety of strategies to address the lack of service.

Why Low-Income Communities Are Building Their Own Internet Networks by Eillie Anzilotti, Fast Company

In that respect, EII is similar to networks like NYC Mesh, a community-based internet service provider in New York City–the type of which is growing in popularity in the wake of the FCC’s December decision to roll back net neutrality protections, because community members decide the terms of the service. But EII is as much about education and community advancement as it is about internet service.

“Internet is often a top-down model and the information of where the tech goes and how it works doesn’t get transferred, so you keep people in the dark,” Nucera says. “We wanted to combine high-level wireless with high-level organizing.”

 

New York

Community broadband forum should be emulated statewide by Sun Community News Editorial Board

 

North Carolina

North Carolina Community Welcomes Broadband Expansion by Micki Bare, Government Technology

The largest fiber optic network in the state has reached into Randolph County, providing more broadband access to organizations and citizens, and adding another piece to the infrastructure puzzle.

MCNC, the nonprofit owner and operator of the N.C. Research and Education Network (NCREN), celebrated the completion of its Central Carolina Fiber Project with an event Tuesday at Randolph Community College.

The fiber network reaches from Greensboro to Hamlet, running directly through the center of Randolph County and connecting 22 Community Anchor Institutions (CAIs), all of which now have direct connections on MCNC-maintained fiber network facilities.

Avery County Chamber of Commerce Receives Grant to Expand and Improve Internet Access by Nathan Ham, High Country Press

 

Tennessee

Bill to deregulate broadband killed by Steve Marion, Jefferson City Standard Bearer

Erwin, Tn: Evolving from Railroads to Fiber Optic Cables by Sean Doyle, Smart Growth America

 

Vermont

Town Meeting Day: Central Vermont looks to form fiber optic district by Elizabeth Gribkoff, VT Digger

 

Washington

Washington state’s net neutrality law is the beginning of a big headache for Internet providers by Brian Fung, Washington Post

Owning fiber, town considering broadband expansion by Scott Hunter, Grand Coulee Star

Washington state enacts net neutrality law, in clash with FCC by Klint Finley, Wired

Process to determine future of Click inches forward by Steven Dunkelberger, Tacoma Weekly

 

West Virginia

WV broadband council mulls combining federal, state data on internet access by Max Garland, West Virginia Gazette Mail

 

Wyoming

ISPs Buy a Wyoming Bill That Blocks Community Broadband by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

This is how big cable companies make sure they never face real competition by Chris Mills, BGR

The vast majority of Americans have no choice when it comes to home internet. By and large, a handful of cable companies have the nation divided up into a series of regional monopolies, giving the illusion of competition but no actual incentive to lower prices or offer good customer service. Realizing this, local municipalities have increasingly warmed to the idea of local, publicly-owned internet providers as an alternative to big telecom companies.

Where municipal internet has taken off, it’s overwhelmingly been loved by residents — which, of course, means that telecoms companies have to nip this potential threat in the bud. A truly incredible example of how telecoms companies use state-level politics to kill off the threat happened recently in Wyoming, where telecom lobbyists took a bill that would have given state grants to local communities to get high-speed internet, and used it instead to block public broadband.

 

General

Citizen engagement key to the success of Smart Cities by Guy Daniels, TelecomTV

“Dig Once” rule requiring fiber deployment is finally set to become US law by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

Congress is looking to bring fiber internet to you faster with the Dig Once bill by Lulu Chang, Digital Trends

No, AT&T hasn't created internet fast lanes. But… by Marguerite Reardon, CNET

Cities argue 5G internet rollout laws violate property rights by Carey L. Biron, Christian Science Monitor

5G is in Danger of Being Oversold by Stacey Higginbothumn, IEEE Spectrum

Tags: media roundup

Mapping Broadband Competition In Idaho

March 12, 2018

Like many other states, connectivity across Idaho is unequally distributed. Urban areas may have a choice of one or two broadband providers while many rural areas have no options whatsoever. We have compiled the latest data from December 2016 into a map to highlight competition and show these disparities.

According to the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) 2018 Broadband Progress Report, 98 percent of urban areas and 68 percent of rural areas in Idaho have broadband service, defined by the FCC as 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) downstream and 3 Mbps upstream. While about 1 million people in Idaho have access to two or more options, nearly half a million people are not nearly as lucky. Approximately 327 thousand of the state's 1.683 million people have only one option for broadband service, and 169 thousand still do not have access to broadband. This, however, is actually a best-case scenario.

Failures In Broadband Data

These statistics and this map, like most broadband data, rely on FCC Form 477. Internet Service Providers (ISPs) complete the form explaining which census blocks they serve or could serve. Census blocks are the smallest unit of measurement for the U.S. Census, and they vary in size. Rural census blocks often cover more land mass than urban areas. ISPs need only be able to offer service to one person in a census block in order to claim the entire census block. This can lead to an overstatement of how many people are actually served. The FCC launched an interactive map with this data, and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has invited people to submit corrections to broadbandfail@fcc.gov

This map of Idaho likely overstates coverage - not because the ISPs are untruthful or they break the rules they're required to follow when completing the form, but because Form 477 uses a benchmark that's too broad. Idaho likely has even more people without access to high speed Internet service and many more who actually have only one choice in broadband provider -- not two options -- despite what the data suggests.

Unequal Access

The unequal distribution of broadband service is most acute on the several Native American reservations in the state. Margaret Harding McGill, a technology reporter at Politico, dove into the details in her article “The Least Connected People in America.” At least 83 percent of the population on Idaho’s tribal lands does not have broadband access. At the same time, CenturyLink and Frontier have received funding to provide some service of 10 Mbps /1 Mbps, but this investment might not reach the reservations. 

McGill also highlights how the Nez Perce built a wireless community network in order to communicate data about the river otter and other wildlife populations. Residents can connect to the network, but the speeds are still too slow to be considered broadband at only about 3 Mbps. The tribe is considering pursuing Connect America Fund grants through the upcoming Phase II Auction. This would enable them to connect their salmon hatcheries and more residents to a high speed connection.

Other Tribal communities are taking steps to connect their members. To the north, the Coeur d’Alene constructed a network across their reservation. It’s called Red Spectrum Communications and is a mix of wireless and Fiber-to-the-Home. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided a loan of $6 million and a matching grant of another $6 million toward the project in 2010.

More Idaho Community Networks

On the outskirts of the Nez Perce reservation, the Port of Lewiston has a small community fiber network that serves the port, some businesses, and community anchor institutions, such as the medical center and the state college. The fiber network connects with similar small networks in the Ports of Whitman and of Clarkston.

In 2016, the small city of Emmett began to build a network for city facilities and community anchor institutions, including the library and city hall. The city now has some public Wi-Fi and can use secure connectivity in the public park for their annual Cherry Festival. We spoke with Mike Knittel from Emmett for episode 296 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, who told us how the city is discovering additional ways to use their investment. Idaho Falls also has a municipal dark fiber network that Internet Service Providers can lease to reach residents and businesses in an open access arrangement. 

The City of Ammon pioneered open access network in Idaho starting back in 2008. The city’s Technology Director Bruce Patterson focused on improving public infrastructure, and the department developed a cutting-edge software-defined network. The network improved competition among Internet Service Providers, offering city residents better options. Since then, Ammon’s network has won awards for public safety and been featured in a short documentary, Ammon’s Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies.

Idaho’s community networks seek to fill the needs of local Idahoans, from providing basic Internet service to increasing broadband competition. Many parts of the state still have no broadband service or no choice in service, and the maps that we have only provide a glimpse of the problem.

Watch Ammon’s Model: The Virtual End of Cable Monopolies Below

broadband competition in Idaho, similar to a population density map diagram showing possible overstatement of fcc broadband dataTags: mapidahocompetitionnative americansmappingfccincumbent

Port Partnership Power In Washington; Bill Passes

March 9, 2018

Last week we reported about the uncertain position that faced Washington ports might find themselves in, should they decide to bring better connectivity to the areas within and around their service areas. We are pleased to learn that the state legislature saw the light and chose to pass the bill without the proposed harmful Senate amendments. It's good news, but the final bill isn't ideal. 

The Problem; The Proposed Solution

Current law allows ports to develop and use fiber optic infrastructure for its own uses both within and beyond their geographic borders; they can only offer wholesale services to other entities within their borders. HB 2664, as introduced, removed the geographic restriction for wholesale services. Communities like Bellingham want to attract ISPs to their cities to compete with incumbents and encourage better prices and services. With the ability to use fiber from the port and possibly integrate it into an expanded network, a city like Bellingham could save time and considerable expense if they wish to invest in Internet infrastructure throughout the community.

Local advocate Jon Humphrey, who has been following this bill and others in his area, noted that the bill had much to do with population density. There had been a change to the original language of bill — the “rural” port requirement, which effectively protected national ISPs from any competition. Humphrey wrote, “This is where the modification of the bill should have ended.”

To The Senate

The bill had no problem passing the House, but when the Senate took it up, they added several amendments that distressed Humphrey and others watching the bill and rooting for it to pass.

We were also concerned about the amendments, including a change that required projects to prioritize unserved and underserved areas. Serving such areas is certainly critical, but this type of language in legislation serves to protect incumbent ISPs from competition rather than to bring high-quality Internet access to areas ignored by those same incumbents. Allowing some level of competition in more densely populated areas helps support projects that reach into less populated unserved and underserved areas.

Humphrey expressed concern over another amendment that, in his opinion, limited partnerships and would create de facto monopolies:

One amendment created a loophole allowing the telecoms to eliminate competition by Washington’s ports. The Amendment says, “A port district under this section may select a telecommunications company to operate all or a portion of the port district’s telecommunications facilities. For the purposes of this section, “telecommunications company” means any for-profit entity owned by investors that sells telecommunications services to end users. Nothing in this subsection is intended to limit or otherwise restrict any other authority provided by law.”

Washington is known for its open access networks and the fact that multiple ISPs provide services to residents and businesses via publicly owned infrastructure. The arrangement allows subscribers to have choice, which helps keep prices reasonable and encourages better customer service. Often Public Utility Districts, such as the Grant County PUD, provide open access infrastructure and multiple ISPs offer services to subscribers. When we spoke with Grant County PUD’s Russ Brethower for episode 279 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, 24 companies offered services via their fiber optic network.

As Humphrey pointed out, issues with network neutrality need to be considered before the state legislature imposes a restriction limiting partnerships. The amendment the Senate had proposed violated the spirit of Washington’s open access tradition.

House Substitution Prevails

Fortunately, when the amended bill came back to the House, they rejected the changes that the Senate had made to protect big incumbent ISPs. When the House returned the bill to the Senate without the changes, the Senate accepted the bill and sent it on to the Governor.

It was mostly good news, except that the House substitute bill the Senate had reviewed included the provision that port districts adhere to a much higher level of transparency than incumbent ISPs. Last week, we thought the provision had been a Senate amendment, but on closer inspection of the legislative process realized that the provision was already in the bill when the Senate received it. Regardless of when the provision became part of HB 2664, language like this can discourage private sector partners from working with communities that open up their publicly owned infrastructure. When competitors have access to so much information, it can be difficult to compete.

Humphrey describes the result as "a step in the right direction":

I'm happy with it because I live in Whatcom County/Bellingham and the population density clause was keeping our port from helping our citizens get better broadband solutions. I believe that we all need access to more ethical, locally provided, telecom solutions. In Bellingham, most people still are dealing with virtual monopolies provided by overpriced, expensive, anti-net neutral providers.

Read the final bill here.

HB 2664 as passed by the LegislatureTags: washingtonstate lawslegislationhb 2664 waopen accesspartnership

Broadband Bond On Ballot In Sharon Township, Michigan

March 8, 2018

On May 8th, voters in Sharon Township, Michigan, will decide whether or not they want to pursue an initiative to invest in a publicly owned fiber optic network. People in the community of less than 2,000 people don’t expect the national ISPs to bring them the connectivity they need, so they will decide if they should take another approach to connect every one with high-quality Internet access.

Like Nearby Lyndon

Sharon Township residents and businesses find themselves in the same type of situation Lyndon Township faced before they decided to take action to develop a network. There is limited wired Internet access in the community, but it’s almost always slow DSL from Frontier or AT&T. Many people must rely on expensive and unreliable satellite for service. Comcast also claims to have a small presence in Sharon Township.

When township supervisor Peter Psarouthakis tried to connect with representatives from incumbents to talk about improving services, he couldn’t reach anyone who could make decisions. Next, community leaders asked smaller companies to serve their areas, but "They told us they have no plans to operate in our township because we don't have enough people, and the return on investment isn't going to be there for them.”

Pressing On

When residents and business owners completed a survey in 2013 as the community considered what route to take, 70 percent of respondents said that their current ISP did not meet their needs; 95 percent expressed an interest in alternative choices for Internet access. Since then, community leaders have hired a consultant to develop a feasibility study and Sharon Broadband Yes, a grassroots group advocating for a fiber network, has formed to educate the public.

The group is asking voters to pass a broadband bond proposal to allow the community to issue $4.9 million in general obligation bonds to fund a fiber optic network project. Community leaders accepted the estimate from the consultant’s feasibility study, which was completed about a year ago. As in Lyndon Township, the bonds would be repaid with a “millage” in which local property owners pay a certain dollar amount per $1,000 of taxable value of their home. In Sharon Township, that figure is $3.2583 or 3.2518 mills.

Because higher valued property would pay a higher amount toward the project, the Sharon Broadband Yes group has offered a “High-Speed Internet Millage Calculator” on their website. The calculator allows property owners to input what they currently pay for Internet access and the taxable value of their property so they can make a comparison to what they will likely pay if the project proceeds. 

Sharon Broadband Yes also provides answers to many questions that people typically ask, addressing large matters about the project or practical questions potential subscribers might have about their service. They’re educating people in the community so voters can make an informed decision about the bonding proposal.

View the ballot language here.

Feasibility In Sharon

CCG Consulting presented the results of a feasibility study in February 2017 and their first recommendation was that Sharon Township partner with other communities in the region to create a larger ISP. According to the Sharon Broadband Yes FAQ page, the town plans to build and own the infrastructure and work with an operator. 

The nonprofit Michigan Broadband Cooperative (MBC) has worked closely with Sharon Township, Lyndon Township, and a list of other communities in the region that are considering investing in Internet infrastructure. Eight member communities, which include Sharon and Lyndon Townships, belong to the cooperative.

You can learn more about last year’s successful ballot measure in Lyndon Township and MBC by listening to episode 272 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher interviewed Ben Fineman from MBC along with Marc Keezer and Gary Munce from Lyndon Township.

Sharon Township Broadband Bond Ballot Sharon Township Feasibility Study February 2017Tags: sharon township mimichiganruralmichigan broadband cooperativeelectionbond

Central Vermont: "YES!" On Communications Union District

March 7, 2018

We recently learned that a group of communities in central Vermont had decided to ask voters if they should form a communications union district to develop a regional fiber optic network. On March 6th, twelve of thirteen communities who took up the proposal at Town Meeting passed it, and the thirteenth will address the subject in May.

Clearly A Demand

We reached out to Jeremy Hansen, a Board Member in Berlin and the person who’s spearheading the effort to improve connectivity in the region. He told us:

I'm humbled and encouraged by the outpouring of support for this effort here in Central Vermont. There is clearly a demand for an Internet Service Provider that we, as a community, are about to start building. Two more towns outside of those that had it on their Town Meeting agenda (Elmore and Moretown) discussed CVI today, too, and they both look poised to apply to join us once we have our first board meeting.

Communities that passed the measure are Barre City, Berlin, Calais, East Montpelier, Marshfield, Middlesex, Montpelier, Northfield, Plainfield, Roxbury, Williamstown, and Worcester. In Berlin, East Montpelier, Middlesex, and Worcester the community took up the question with a floor vote and it passed unanimously. The town of Barre will bring up the question at its Town Meeting in May.

Looking East For Inspiration

As an elected official, Hansen has heard many complaints from constituents about poor Internet access and inadequate customer service from ISPs in his town of Berlin. As he's researched the problem, he's found that other communities in the region have faced the same problems. 

When looking for solutions, Hansen learned about ECFiber, which serves 24 member towns to the east. The publicly owned fiber optic network is organized as a communications union district, a relatively new designation in Vermont that is similar to water or sewer districts. ECFiber is publicly owned infrastructure developed by multiple communities, which allows them to issue revenue bonds to fund a telecommunications project.

Learn more about ECFiber and communications union districts in episode 251 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. You can also read more about ECFiber; we've covered their success over the years.

Over the past year, Hansen has approached towns in the region and asked community leaders to consider bringing membership in the communications union district to voters. Based on results from yesterday’s vote, people in the area are ready for better Internet access. Comcast and Consolidated Communications (formerly Fairpoint) operate in the region.

What’s Next For CVI Member Towns?

Now that towns have decided to participate in the communications union district, each town will need to select a representative to belong to the governing board. Hansen has said he hopes to begin construction by 2020 and that the district will likely next seek out a company for a feasibility study and a develop a business plan.

Hansen:

Now the hard work begins as we work together to provide reasonably-priced, high-quality, community-owned, ultra high-speed Internet access to all homes, businesses, and civic institutions in our member towns!

Congrats and best wishes to these central Vermont communities who are beginning this journey of local self-reliance! 

via GIPHY

The image of the bridge in Berlin, Vermont, by Magicpiano (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: Vermontcentral vermont internetcommunications union districtregionalelectionlocal

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 296

March 6, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 296 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Emmett, Idaho, built a community network to connect public facilities and community anchor institutions. Mike Knittel, the Systems Administrator, joins the show to explain how the small city did it and what's next. Listen to this podcast here.

Mike Knittel: They never once asked about the cost or any of that. He simply asked me. When is it going to be there for me?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 296 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. We first took note of Emmett, Idaho, about two years ago when the city was in the process of constructing a fiber optic network to provide connectivity for its municipal facilities. At the time they had already made plans for the future which involved using publicly owned infrastructure to connect businesses and possibly one day Fiber-to-the-Home for residents. A lot has happened in Emmett since then. In this interview Christopher talks with Mike Knittel. He describes how the project is moving along and now Emmett has discovered new ways to use their infrastructure beyond what they'd initially planned and possibilities for the future. Mike also gets into how lack of quality connectivity has the community embracing the project. Now here's Christopher with Mike Knittel from Emmett Idaho.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Sitting under a fresh coat of snow waiting for the next fresh coat of snow wrapped in a proper Minnesota weekend up here today I'm talking with Mike Knittel the Systems Administrator for Emmett in Idaho. Welcome to the show.

Mike Knittel: Hey Chris, thanks a lot for having me. Really appreciate the invite.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely. I had a fun time sharing a table talking with you a bit at the Ammon unveiling maybe six months ago now. Ammon a longtime favorite community of ours. Sounds like you're doing really great things in Emmett. so I'm excited to learn more about them. But let's start with just a brief description of Emmett for I'm guessing most people who haven't been to Emmet.

Mike Knittel: Yeah absolutely. So you know Emmett sits just outside of Boise, Idaho. We're kind of a bedroom community to Boise, definitely rural. And we're about 7,000 people so hopefully a lot of people listening to the podcast can kind of relate to our similar situation and setup and, you know, you mentioned the city of Ammon. And I got to say you're right they are a leader in our state without a doubt for some of these projects and have definitely helped us along the way with advice and really appreciate everything they're doing on their end.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. And one of the things that we've been learning is the extent to which they're a leader in the nation. Actually we just found a city in Alabama that was considering what they could do to improve Internet access and they watched that video that we helped to do. I know that communities in Ohio have also benefited from that. So, you know, it's -- it's terrific. I'm really glad that they're lending that helping hand locally too. But you have an interesting approach I think, you know, in some ways you're definitely going your own way. You started with some investments for municipal assets as many communities have. Why don't you walk us through what you're doing.

Mike Knittel: I'll probably take even one step even further back from that just to kind of set that stage for, kind of, where we've come from and where we're at now and where we're going to but we're we're kind of a unique situation as is a lot of rural communities. You know like I said very small 7,000 people so up until just two years ago our city actually had really no structured I.T. support. So you know you have multiple departments throughout the city everything from police, fire, public works, cemetery, parks department, library, you know, all these different departments that were kind of literally doing their own thing. Right. So everybody had their own servers. Everybody had their own Internet contracts phone service contracts. It was -- it was very segmented. But you know I don't think it's necessarily untypical for communities our size to kind of be in that situation if you will.

Christopher Mitchell: You know, I actually think that that's not uncommon for cities of any size. It seems like, and just to give a sense, I mean one of the things that that's probably frustrating is as a person with the title systems administrator would be, you know, if you had to call another department you had to pick up the phone and dial 7 digit number rather than having an internal system that would be a lot easier and probably be up more.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely you're 100 percent correct. The city finally got to the point where they they recognized the value of having that in-house structured I.T. support. Right. So they created the systems administration department just two years or so ago. And I've been heading that up since then. And you know one of my main goals out of the gate was just getting our city facilities connected right so we could share those same type of resources like you mentioned something as well as a phone or phone system that would be you know internal on the city's network. So that was one of the first things that we set out to do. You know, we did what I think most people do and we went to an incumbent provider and said, hey, if we want fiber to each of our facilities. You know what, what does that look like? And when we got that quote back it kind of put us back on our heels a little bit because, again being a rural community, the city doesn't have a lot of you know capital expenditure especially for a brand new departments to facilitate some of those needs especially at those expenses. And so one of the things that you know we immediately identified. So I went to a guy that I worked very closely with, clients in our public works department, and, you know, went over this price quote with him and you know we were both fairly quickly identified like, hey we could probably build this for a lot cheaper than going this route with the incumbent and then we own the infrastructure. So, you know, we're in a good situation where the city owns the streets and the alleys and all the roadways we have the construction equipment on hand we have the crews on hand. And I will tell you what none of this for us would be possible without the help and teamwork with our public works departments. And you know, I always tell people that small communities are always resilient and they're very adaptive. So when they're faced with these things. You know I didn't have any experience building fiber. Clint and his staff didn't have any experience really building fiber but we made that determination. Like, we're going to do this as a team and our public works department really has that go getter attitude and let's get this done. So, you know, you start forming kind of those I guess inner city partnerships and you can really get a lot accomplished for a relatively low price point. So that's exactly what we did. We've started to even though again we're only a short term into our projects. That's what we've started to do. So we've we've essentially adapted the in-house kind of dig=once policy. Right. So now when public works has a road project or a water or sewer project we're evaluating that for space for fiber conduit. Right. And in fiber cable and saying hey is there value here two to comingle these projects. And once the trenches open we lay the conduit and fiber and the pull boxes and away we go. And so that's been working very very well.

Christopher Mitchell: I have to say that once again I you know this is a similar reaction I had and also had great coordination with the public works and maybe there's something in the water in Idaho. But one of the things that we hear that commonly derails projects is not getting that reaction. Let me just put an exclamation mark right there because it's really worth noting that public works when they react negatively they can really kill a project so having them not only on board but enthusiastic is tremendous and people should know that.

Mike Knittel: Oh it's a game changer. There's no doubt. And I said it before, I say it again, I could not do what we're doing without their camaraderie and teamwork that goes into it. There's no doubt. And you know that's one thing that I will say about our project so far too. We have literally done everything house whether it's fusion splicing the fiber. I take care of that. Public works helps with the construction side and does all that we pull our own cable. We've done it so far 100 percent in-house. Now I realize that there's that that may change from in time with some special needs that we might have that we don't have that capability but so far that's really what is driving us to. And there's a lot of sense of accomplishment with that too. It's been working very well so far.

Christopher Mitchell: And do you plan on doing locates? Is that something that the public works already did where if a homeowner's going -- going to dig up the yard, they're supposed to call a number and then you identify things under the ground for instance. Do you handle that yourself?

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. So you know our public works obviously has already does that for their utility for sewer, water, that kind of infrastructure. And so we are and when I say we the systems administration department is taking on that responsibility for the fiber utility. We take care of all that.

Christopher Mitchell: So what's what's next I mean you're -- you're serving your municipal functions and that's going to I'm sure results in some savings. But do you have greater ambitions to improve Internet access for others?

Mike Knittel: Yeah absolutely and it's very interesting because you always kind of think start small. Right. So back to getting our own facilities connected, you know, that was our focal point. But one thing that we really took on the mindset of is let's make sure and build in the capacity for future growth. We don't know what future growth necessarily he's going to look like let's build the capacity and what would. Specifically what I mean is we're putting in three or four conduits at a time right because the conduits the cheap part it's the construction and getting it in the ground that's the expensive part. So. So we've really taken that mindset of OK we don't know what this is going to bring for the future but let's build plenty of growth. So you kind of start there right. And then the focus being OK we're going to get our city facilities connected. That's all great. But then you start to really realize what you can leverage the network for and the infrastructure for beyond just kind of those immediate needs. So. So we've fortunately just geographically the way we were laid out we were able to get fiber to our city water tower very quickly. And the way that our cities are kind of set -- we're in a valley. So the water towers a pretty high point. So I was almost immediately able to connect all of our facilities through a fixed base wireless deployment that's backhaul by our fiber optics. And so, you know, with that we were able to immediately change to a you know an IP based phone system like you mentioned earlier that's, you know, saved us a ton of money shared broadband infrastructure for the city facilities. Again as things kind of evolve you realize wow okay there's some more stuff we can do here. So for instance we get cameras up at our city facilities for public safety that sort of thing that is all backhauled on the fiber infrastructure. One of the other things that we are excited about doing is as we build out the network in the infrastructure we're deploying public access Wi-Fi right. So we are Wi-Fi systems set up to where, you know, our staff can connect and stay connected at any city facility whether that be a park or the cemetery or well sites so that they can stay connected to the infrastructure they need to. But we're also able to segregate a part of that network to allow guest access for the public to enjoy being connected at those various facilities. So I'll give you one quick example. Our main city park, which is the largest one that we have, is we have that blanketed with Wi-Fi access points. So one of the things we're able to do that we're very excited about is we have a yearly event like many communities do. Ours is called the Cherry Festival where you have the carnival and vendors and so forth come in and it's sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce is the one who really facilitates that event. Historically the vendors would come in and the Chamber would have to facilitate some sort of connectivity for those vendors to be able to process credit card transactions or whatever that might be. And now for the last couple of years we've really been able to help them facilitate where we were actually set up a secure private section of the Network for Those vendors. So we prevision the network give them secure connective access and maybe even a higher rate than what we would the normal public. We don't charge them a dime for that. We're able to facilitate that in just a few minutes of me provisioning the network to do it. So those are some things that we're starting to see. One of the other things that we realized we could start leveraging. And this seems like such a small scale maybe to some folks but, you know, in the same city park we have a set of two different sets of bathrooms. So for bathrooms historically in the evening either the police departments or public works department was responsible for getting out and locking those bathrooms to prevent vandalism over the nighttime hours. When you do that that's all fine and that method works. But if there's a better more efficient way. That's what we're starting to look to leverage our broadband infrastructure. So what we ended up doing is installing Wi-Fi connected locks on all those bathrooms. Well now we can set locks schedules back to things or events like the Cherry Fest where we can issue out special entry codes to fourth for folks to be able to get in. For certain folks to be able to get in to utilize the facilities. And now we've eliminated that and been more efficient of our staff's time they no longer have to go out and if the police department's busy with calls as they usually are sometimes those those jobs wouldn't even get done. So we've really started to leverage this broadband infrastructure for kind of those outside the box things to improve the efficiency and operations of the city.

Christopher Mitchell: That's been really exciting and I think it's worth noting that your ability to add these sorts of things to your network. I think you're unconstrained. You know if you were leasing even if you find the park but you were leasing access to it you might be thinking a little differently because you don't have full control over it. You don't know if it's going to be there in future years or this and that but you know in my rider you have a set of certainty because you have ownership of the network that allows you to think differently of how to use it.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. I mean we've really cut our own red tape. Right. So the mindset changes from, you know, whether I'm contracting it out or so forth what are they going to let me do as opposed to what can we do. What's the most, you know, what we're we're really trying to be creative with different avenues that will not only improve our efficiency but service citizens better. So that's, you know, another thing to lead into that too is you know we recently started to deploy our first air quality sensor. Right. Once again leverages our broadband infrastructure to pull real time data for air quality that can then be disseminated to the citizens to make better decisions right. So in Idaho we are, especially our county where we reside, we have a lot of forestry in the nearby counties so when we get say like a forest fire during the summer it's not uncommon to get a huge influx of smoke and other pollutants and you know then there's there's decisions that start to be made by things like the school district and so forth that like, hey do we need to cancel sports practices? and there's resources out there. Right. That you can get things like air quality reports for your area. But it's not the same when you can have direct localized pinpointed accuracy of those readings to be able to help the public make better decisions.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's one of the things that we're seeing from more of these devices being deployed is just how variable it can be just even over you know a square mile you can have dramatically different readings in different areas.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely and again the more detailed the data that you can provide. And realistically especially at the price point. I mean we're not talking about very much money to be able to deploy things like this. It's just a no brainer you have the infrastructure there. You add on to the leverage the broadband that you have. So it's huge and we're looking forward to deploying more of those sensors. But like I said we literally just put out our first one a couple of months ago and have really been testing with it lately and look forward to moving forward with that more.

Christopher Mitchell: Now when you were financing the network or figuring out you know how to put the money together did you benefit from a grant from the state.

Mike Knittel: We did. So one of the most recent grants that we received was around $40,000 which actually when we are doing our own construction. $40,000 does go a long way for us. It'll enable us to deploy conduit and fiber for about 13 block lengths of main streets in our city and we have married this up with, it's actually, a number of different projects. There's a new water transmission line, new water service lines for the residents, a section of it includes a sewer replacement, and then there's a road project. And now we've -- we've comingled with this project as well. So we're really maximizing tax dollars in these projects and these deployments. Does it sometimes take a little bit longer? You bet. I mean if we had all the money in the world we could contract it all out and get it done very quickly. But we're being very smart about it and it allows us to scale ourselves as well when it comes to the maintenance and operations of the network.

Christopher Mitchell: And you mentioned that there's some cost savings from having your own voice system rather than obviously leasing to each different physical location a different bill and in charge on the overall. Would you say that this is saving the city money or has it been something where it may cost more but the benefits are worth it?

Mike Knittel: So it is absolutely saving us money. There's no doubt we did that study. It is saving us a huge chunk of money which then allows us to reinvest that money in other parts of the network or the build out. Right. So again improving the efficiency and the way that we do things allows us to really stretch that tax dollar and maximize it to its full potential.

Christopher Mitchell: So where would you like to see yourself in five years? I mean what -- how will telecommunications look different in it in five years, Mike?

Mike Knittel: It's very interesting and again we're still very much in that phase of connecting our facilities and building out with a broader concept in mind. So although I don't have all of the answers yet as to where I see it the things that I am seeing is that there's there's very much community support for for this. And I'll give you an example. I recently was asked to do a presentation on the fiber optic for our rotary group, so Rotary being the civic organization that's across the country. It was interesting because it was my first kind of public presentation on the fiber and the concepts of fiber and kind of how it works. And as I was setting up for that presentation that at a lunch meeting I'm kind of looking around the room and let me remind you I mean Idaho's one of the most conservative states in the union. I mean we're very very red. And especially them it's very agricultural based so I'm looking around the room and I'm seeing like these old farmers and I'm thinking to myself oh boy I'm not sure how they're going to react and what I mean by react is do they feel like the local municipalities should be in this realm of building their own fiber optic network.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. I mean there is a stereotype of these people even care about internet access. I mean this is something they feel is important to their livelihood to their quality of life.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. Absolutely. And even if they found it to be important to them once again do they believe that we should be the ones right meddling in it? So. So those are the things that are kind of going through my mind some kind of getting a little nervous but as I go through the presentation it's very interesting to see people's reactions and I'll never forget one gentleman that was there owns a business in our in our downtown heart district and he never once they never once asked about the cost or any of that. He simply asked me when is it going to be there for me. That's what he cared about. I want it now. When's it going to be there. Right. So even as the meeting progressed these farmers are sitting kind of quietly. As it progresses what I'm finding is that the questions that they're starting to ask are more of why isn't the incumbent providers? shame on them. Why have they not built out and improved our speeds in our access? Shame on them. So I'm I'm getting a lot of actually support saying thank you. Type of thing right. And never forget one of the farmers that came up to me after the meeting and I'll be honest with you I'm not a farmer I'm not in the agriculture business. I don't know how farmers specifically use broadband. I know there's a lot of technology out there that that is being leveraged in the agricultural sector but it was very intriguing to me because I asked him if he's this particular farmer is on a fix based wireless service. You know slower speeds, pretty high bill, and I said hey what so tell me what do you use broadband for your business. And he says it's a lot for us. We do everything from our supply ordering, feeding schedules. He says My Tractors are all connected through cellular four rotations of planting that sort of. I was just kind of blown away. I'm like wow that's that's awesome. And so he was again. He was very supportive of of kind of that initiative and the presentation wasn't even necessarily a this is what we're going to do and this is how we're going to do it to get to you guys. It was more of a this is why the city started to head down this path to save money to connect. Here's kind of what we have in mind. You know broader scope and here's how fiber kind of functions and what sets it apart from you know a typical corporate type network. So even with limited details they were I would say energized. I have not received any negative pushback in anybody that I've come across in in my city as we talk about it. It's been very interesting.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah that fits broadly with the experience that we've heard from others. I think that elected officials are often cautious about this and I certainly think that they have some good reasons to be but I think those who are demonstrating some real leadership on the issue often find that people are hungry for it and they really want to see more action because they have given up on hoping that some big company that is headquartered you know 3,000 miles away is actually going to do anything for them right right. So is there anything else we should touch on from Emmet before we wrap it up?

Mike Knittel: You know, I think just as again just to give people ideas in other municipalities the project that we're going to start to explore and I don't know how this will pan out yet but we're going to we're going to give it a test run. And again this comes back to that making efficient use of our time and money leveraging our broadband. But one of the things that we're going to be looking at is automated water collection water meter collections. Right. So deploying a device that connects to the network that will receive those water readings from all of the the water utilities out there. So currently right now we have staff that goes out with wireless handheld devices and literally has to walk the routes of the water meters to collect that data and bring it back to the city hall for billing purposes and that sort of thing. We're going to look at this leveraging the network to deploy essentially kind of small sites that would collect that data. That would eliminate staff time. A lot of staff time having to go out and collect that information. But it's it's one more step. The icing on the cake for the citizens is that right now they have really no way unless they call City Hall and request to go have their water meter read to see what their current usage is. Well with a system like this the system automatically takes readings every 15 minutes. So again we're back to that real time data to be able to provide the citizens to make smart decisions. You know a lot of the problems that we see kind of day in and day out are things as simple as water leaks cost people a lot of money because they have no idea that they might have a water leak under their house or something like that. But a system like this then all of a sudden sets it up for not only efficient use of your employees time. I mean that's what pays for the system but then the icing on the cake is being able to be alerted they're notified that hey you might have a problem you might check your water service. So it turns to your local government to be more proactive rather than reactive to those types of issues. So we're excited about exploring that and seeing where that takes us.

Christopher Mitchell: Excellent. It's a great place to wrap up. Thank you so much for coming on the show and telling us about what you're doing. And now I think serving as an inspiration for many other communities that are trying to do something like this.

Mike Knittel: Absolutely. We're always willing to help. Chris I appreciate you having this on the show. And if anybody ever has questions comments were always available I'm willing.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Mike Knittel from the city of Emmett in Idaho discussing their fiber optic network project. We have transcripts from this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handlers @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts --Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules. podcasts you can access them on Apple podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org. We want to thank Arnie Huseby for the song "Warm Duck Shuffle" licensed through Creative Commons, and we also want to thank you for listening to episode 292 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Link: Tags: transcript

Tennessee Local Authority Bill Halted In Committee

March 6, 2018

Senator Janice Bowling has long been a champion for rural broadband in Tennessee. On March 6th, her bill SB 1045 came before the Tennessee Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and the members chose not to advance the bill. Once again, big telephone and cable company interests win out over the needs of rural Tennesseans.

Download SB 1045 here.

Information Session 

Sen. Bowling presented information about the bill at a February 27th meeting of the committee. She introduced SB 1045 last year and it was added and removed from committee hearing schedules several times; HB 1410, the companion House bill from Rep. Weaver, encountered similar treatment. SB 1045 would allow municipal networks and cooperatives to provide broadband service beyond their service areas. Communities that don’t have municipal networks, will regain local authority to invest in Internet infrastructure.

Explaining The Need

In her February 27th presentation, Sen. Bowling described how rural areas in the state are crippled in various ways by the lack of high-quality connectivity. She provided a map that visualizes the disparities between rural areas, communities with fiber optic networks, and urban areas.

She described the need for fiber for economic development:

In rural Tennessee, if we have what is called an industrial park, and we have electricity…you have running water, you have some paved roads, but if you do not have access to fiber at this point, what you have is an electrified cow pasture with running water and walking trails. It is not an industrial park.

Bowling, whose district includes Tullahoma, has been working in this space for a long time and has gained knowledge from technical experts and business leaders. LightTUBe, her community's municipal fiber optic network, has been serving residents, businesses, and municipal facilities since 2009. The network has boosted economic development, improved education, and public savings, but nearby towns still suffer with older Internet infrastructure because LightTUBe is precluded by current law from expanding beyond its service area.

 It’s clear that she’s listened to their needs and encapsulated those needs into a smart vision for rural Tennessee’s broadband future. During her presentation, she discussed the fact that SB 1045 relies on a symmetrical 25 Megabit per second (Mbps) definition of broadband; any size business needs to be able to send data as efficiently as it receives it.

The Senator also took some time to dispute one of the common misconceptions about how munis are funded. She noted that ratepayers, not taxpayers, fund Tennessee’s municipal networks that bring benefits to everyone in the community. She stressed that municipal networks and cooperatives in Tennessee are managed well and provide the connectivity that people need when large corporations won’t serve their areas. 

We can no longer leave the people of Tennessee hostage to profit margins of large corporations. We appreaciate what they’re doing. We appreciate where they do it, but in rural Tennessee we will never meet their profit margins and so we can no longer be held hostage when we have the ability to help ourselves.

Sen. Frank Nicely from Strawberry Plains commented that his community was very supportive of the bill. He noted that the state had “done well” through deregulation, which is the goal of SB 1045 and he wondered why the administration did not support a deregulation bill when the current President was an advocate for deregulation. Apparently, the current Governor does not support SB 1045, instead continuing his support of last year’s action, which provided funding to rural communities without removing limits to authority. 

Nicely expected the Governor’s office to also support SB 1045.

"I just don’t understand with what’s wrong with taking the bridle off and letting the horse run,” he asked an official from the state’s Department of Economic Development. “I haven’t heard a good argument agains this bill yet,” he said.

Co-ops And SB 1045

The bill would also eliminate the limitations that hamper where electric cooperatives can offer broadband services. Telephone cooperatives are now able to collaborate with other telephone systems beyond their service area by interconnecting their lines for telephone service; this bill expands that authority to broadband service. Likewise, electric cooperatives obtain the express ability to collaborate in a similar fashion with other entities for broadband connectivity to members and nonmembers.

Fixed Wireless And Fiber

Sen. Kerry Roberts from Springfield asked Sen. Bowling a few questions about fixed wireless. Often we see legislators argue that fixed wireless is a better alternative than fiber for both rural and urban areas because it’s cost effective. 

What legislators and others tend to forget is that, even though fixed wireless technology seems to improve every year, it still requires fiber for backhaul. The more we rely on fixed wireless, the more fiber we will need. As Sen. Bowling pointed out, rural Tennessee’s trees and mountains make widespread deployment and dependency on fixed wireless an unrealistic option with existing fixed wireless technology. While the situation may change in the future, rural folks need to connect now with future-proof fiber to participate in the 21st century economy.

No Debate, Just A Bad Decision

On March 6th, the Committee took up the bill after using a week to study it. At the hearing, Sen. Bowling presented petitions from several rural counties signed by residents and businesses in areas without high-quality connectivity. Many of these communities are neighbors to places like Morristown, Chattanooga, and Tullhoma, an would like to receive Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) from their neighbors, but current law prevents it.

Joe Malgeri, a consultant from rural Jefferson County, Tennessee. He presented research that supported the connection between municipal networks and economic development. Mr. Malgeri used historical and geographical analysis and made connections between a 1999 law that allowed municipal electric utilities to offer Internet access and economic improvements in the communities that now have fiber networks.

Sen. Nicely once again expressed support for the bill. He described how his district is near Morristown and Newport but communities in his district are not able to receive services from them. He “doesn’t have a good reason to give them” for why people in his community don’t have access to high-quality Internet service.

No testifiers opposed the bill and none of the members offered comments in opposition to the bill or gave reasons for their votes other than Sen. Nicely. Members voted against advancing the bill with 3 yeas and 4 nays. In the end, the Committee let down rural folks in Tennessee and chose to vote to preserve the telephone and cable monopolies. We hope rural Tennesseans were watching and remember moments like this the next time they go to the voting booth.

Sen. Bowling, who’s dealt with this kind of result in the past told the Committee that she will be back with another bill to help rural Tennesseans get the Internet access they need. Thank you, Senator Janice Bowling.

You can watch the discussion about SB 1045 at the February 27th Committee meeting:

 

Image of the Tennessee State Capitol by Andre Porter (imagN Images) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

SB 1045Tags: tennesseesb 1045 tnlegislationruralcooperativestate lawseconomic developmentvideo