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Grant PUD in Washington Aiming to Connect Entire County - Soon!

December 7, 2018

At their November 27th meeting, Commissioners from the Grant County Public Utility District (Grant PUD) in Washington approved the funds to complete countywide fiber optic deployment. They’ve decided to dedicate an additional $12.6 million in new funding toward infrastructure to speed up the project. The total 2019 fiber budget is now set for $18.4 million to pay for expansion, maintenance and operation, and new customer connections.

According to Wholesale Fiber senior co-manager Russ Brethower, Grant PUD will have a more accurate and detailed timeline calculated in the spring. Approximately 30 percent of Grant County residents have yet to be connected to the network. While some communities have partial connectivity, there are still a few with no connections to the fiber and the new accelerated plan aims to change that.

Big Ambition for A Big County

With approximately 3,000 square miles, connecting the entire county is no small feat. Grant County, known for its large potato farms, contains expansive tracts of rural areas and several dense population centers. Add in the fact that soil varies from rock to easily plowed soil, and the Grant PUD has faced an extensive education in all manners of deploying fiber.

Christopher talked with Brethower for episode 279 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast about the network and the start of Grant PUD's efforts in 2000. Brethower discussed the fact that the county is an ideal place for data centers, as companies are encouraged by inexpensive real estate, the climate, low electric rates, and the fiber network.

Brethower also described how connecting the remaining residents and businesses in the county has become a priority for the Grant PUD and that their open access network, as required by state law, has attracted two dozen service providers.

With the additional funding for 2019, the Grant PUD will reduce the original deployment goal from 10 years to five.

Listen to the November 2017 interview with Russ Brethower here to learn more about the story behind Grant PUD’s fiber network:

Tags: grant countygrant utility districtpublic utility districtruralwashingtonFTTHopen access

Malicious Michigan Bill in Committee December 6th

December 5, 2018

Update: HB 5670 was removed from the agenda prior to the committee hearing.

Representative Michele Hoitenga from Michigan is at it again. Last year as Chair of the House Communications and Technology Committee, she attempted to pass a bill to discourage her state’s self-reliant municipalities from improving local connectivity. Deja vu as her committee’s agenda for tomorrow, December 6th, picks up HB 5670, a bill sponsored by a different lawmakers and deceivingly titled the “Broadband Investment Act.”

View the language of the bill.

Money is Good, Who Gets it Matters

The bill, sponsored by Mary Whiteford (R - Laketown Township) establishes a fund that will provide grants for broadband infrastructure deployment; the fund will be created by the state treasury. The bill doesn’t specify a dollar amount, which likely would vary from year to year. Recognizing that the state needs to make a financial investment in rural Internet infrastructure deployment is certainly a step forward, but the details in HB 5670 will end up doing more harm than good for people living beyond urban centers.

Municipalities and other government entities are specifically denied eligibility for grants. Not only does the restriction prevent local communities the ability to offer Internet access to the general public, but without an equal opportunity at state funding for infrastructure, municipalities and counties can’t pursue a public-private model. In short, by locking out local governments from state funding, the bill is harming both local citizens and the local ISPs that tend to offer services via publicly owned infrastructure.

10/1 Isn’t Broadband!

Michigan’s State Legislators are considering a bill that uses the term “broadband” to describe minimum service as 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 1 Mbps upload. The FCC increased the standard to 25 Mbps/3 Mbps back in 2015 and it remains today. HB 5670 will siphon money from the state treasury to Frontier, AT&T, and any other telco that refuses to invest in anything better than DSL in rural Michigan. Fail. Needs improvement.

The vague language of the bill would also thrust satellite and mobile Internet access into the “served” parameters of HB 5670. These loose qualifications greatly reduce the number of households across the entire state that would qualify as underserved or unserved. Looks like lip service legislation as is.

No Dough for Planning

While building the infrastructure to deliver high-quality Internet access is the ultimate goal, smaller grants are best suited for planning. HB 5670 as written only allows funds to be used for infrastructure and, while no definite dollar amount has been attached to the bill yet, unless the grants are sizable enough for deployment purposes, they may only be helpful to a large Internet service provider with the resources to self-fund planning.

By changing the language of the bill to include planning grants, Michigan’s Legislators could help new entrants that want to serve rural areas. Let's get some choice in the Great Lake State!

Maintaining the Monopoly Mindset

Once again, a state bill focuses in on only providing funding for areas deemed “unserved” or “underserved.” While arguing that they need to first bring Internet access to regions that don’t have it, this approach prevents overbuilding, which encourages choice.

In this case, the bill is particularly problematic because of the vague eligibility language pretty much zeros out any “underserved” premises. Many of the “unserved” households would not qualify either, because satellite Internet access renders them as “served” due to, once again, poor legislative construction. The bill also requires "unserved" premises to obtain priority eligibility for the first five years. Does that mean NO funds will be disbursed for the first half-decade of the fund?

We’re sick of writing about crappy state bills like this. Do better.

Are You Sick, Too?

If you’re a Michigan resident and are also sick of this, you can express yourself to the members of the Communications and Technology Committee and let them know that you’d like to see a bill that provides funding for rural broadband, but that HB 5670 has too many flaws to pass as is. Feel free to point out where the problems are and let them know that you’re a voter, especially if your representative is on the committee.

Members of the Communications and Technology Committee:

Michele Hoitenga (R) Committee Chair, 102nd District

Beth Griffin (R) Majority Vice-Chair, 66th District

Gary Glenn (R) 98th District

Jim Runestad (R) 44th District

Jason Sheppard (R) 56th District

Jim Tedder (R) 43rd District

James Lower (R) 70th District

Phil Phelps (D) Minority Vice-Chair, 49th District

Kevin Hertel (D) 18th District

Jewell Jones (D) 11th District

Donna Lasinski (D) 52nd District

 

Read the bill.

HB 5670 as IntroducedTags: michiganlegislationhb 5670 mi

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 334

December 4, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. In this episode, Christopher Mitchell speaks with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna, board members of the Municpal Broadband Coalition of America, about Municipal Broadband PDX, an initiative to develop a publicly owned broadband network in the Portland, Oregon, region. View the transcript below, or listen to the episode here.

 

 

Michael Hanna: Once it's explained that a publicly owned, not-for-profit Internet utility is an option, people's eyes light up.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. Internet access in Portland, Oregon isn't as good as it could be. For years, the city and various citizens groups have grappled with ways to improve connectivity. This week's guests are Russell Senior and Michael Hanna. They're involved in the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America. The nonprofit organization is working on the Municipal Broadband PDX project, an initiative to develop publicly owned broadband infrastructure in Portland and across Multnomah County. Christopher, Russell, and Michael spend some time discussing past efforts, including Russell's work with the Personal Telco Project. Michael and Russell describe the way the Municipal Broadband PDX project moved from a centralized Portland initiative to a broader, county-wide project. They also discuss how they're organizing a large number of people across the county and in the metro area and the possible tensions that might arise as they move forward. Russell and Michael offer tips for others and share their visions of success for the Municipal Broadband PDX project. Now, here's Christopher with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna discussing the Portland and Multnomah County, Oregon, Municipal Broadband PDX initiative.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis. We have a fresh little blanket of snow on the ground, but today I'm talking to folks where I suspect the weather's a bit nicer. Russell Senior, the president of the Personal Telco Project and a member of the board of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America, welcome to the show.

Russel Senior: Thanks.

Christopher Mitchell: And we also have Michael Hanna, a data engineer at Multnomah County IT and — [laughs] I was going to say, "and spends his nights also on the board of Municipal Broadband Coalition of America." Welcome to the show.

Michael Hanna: Great. Thanks for having us on.

Christopher Mitchell: Russel, you and I go back quite a ways. Michael, we met when I was in Portland recently — Portland, Oregon — which is the focus of a project of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America. But let me ask Russell, let me ask you first to tell me a little bit about Municipal Broadband PDX, and then I'll ask Michael to tell us more about the coalition more largely. So Russell, what's happening in Portland?

Russel Senior: Municipal Broadband PDX is an effort to get a publicly owned, telecommunication utility started in the Portland area. This is something we've been thinking about here for quite a while. The city of Portland did a feasibility study back in 2007, and for a cavalcade of reasons that never quite got traction. Basically, kind of initiated by the recent FCC actions with the rescinding of the net neutrality rules, it was injected with a lot of new energy and so a new effort kind of got launched to get something moving again.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, there's a proud history throughout Portland's history of fighting for better Internet, back to the Brand X decision and even before then.

Russel Senior: Right. Yeah, we had the fight for open access when the cable utility here started offering Internet back in the late 1990s. Following on that, it was the effort with the city of Portland in about 2006-7 or so. The group that I was involved in at that time was — well, I'm still involved with that — was the Personal Telco Project, that just had its 18th birthday. We basically build free, public access Wi-Fi networks in the Portland area, but we really started out as an effort to build alternative infrastructure to route around what we saw as dysfunctional telecommunications options in the area.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I saw that on Twitter, and happy birthday to the Personal Telco Project.

Russel Senior: Thank you.

Christopher Mitchell: So, Michael, tell us a little bit more about the organization that is kind of really organizing this effort in the Portland region.

Michael Hanna: The Municpal Broadband Coalition of America, we formed it as a 501(c)(4) organization so we can do political advocacy. And the purpose was, our first campaign is focused on the Portland metro area, as Russell mentioned, but in the broader purpose of our nonprofit is to create templates or an open source toolkit — a lot of different ways we could call it — but the fundamental idea is to make it easier for other grassroots organizations or elected officials in other jurisdictions to move forward with a municipal broadband project themselves. So rather than creating something from whole cloth each time, you know, can we create some templates and some patterns, design patterns if you're thinking in the software world, to be able to do this in a more turnkey fashion in other jurisdictions?

Christopher Mitchell: Great, and both of you have a fair amount of technical expertise. Michael, you've been with Multnomah County in IT for awhile, and Russell, I forget what your background is, but you're quite technical as well, right?

Russel Senior: I call myself a Linux nerd. With Personal Telco Project, I spend most of my time building router firmware.

Christopher Mitchell: Okay. That's more technical than — that puts you in the top one percent.

Russel Senior: We have a kit of software that we install on our networks, so I spend most of my time doing that.

Michael Hanna: I would say that I jokingly call myself a data geek. And so, you know, not as much on the hardware side, but definitely I've been working with data my entire IT career, technology career. But for about a decade now, I've been involved in local political campaigns outside of work, and one of them was a successful effort to secure permanent, stable funding for the Multnomah County library system, which has the second highest circulation in the United States after New York library system. And so my day job versus, you know, outside work volunteer efforts, it's a mix of day job being much more technical and data driven and then nonwork kind of volunteer efforts are all around political organizing and trying to move innovative things forward in the Portland metro area.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that political organizing experience really showed up in the launch event for Municipal Broadband PDX. And I'm wondering if maybe you can just briefly describe the video, that we will have on our page, that you did for the launch and what role it plays in terms of driving enthusiasm for your effort.

Michael Hanna: So we developed this short video. The theme is basically the people rising up against the evil telcos, you know. There's kind of an opening scene of men in suits with cash flying everywhere and the logos of the large telcos, like Comcast, CenturyLink, etc., and basically, ordinary people turned superheroes to rise up and fight back is kind of the theme. But it really gets to the core of how we're trying to organize the community around this, which is that, you know, whether you're a resident or you're a business owner, there's broad dissatisfaction with the high cost and a crappy service provided by the monopolistic telcos. And you know, there's just a lot of interest among people — ordinary people — to have something different, and they know. Once it's explained that a publicly owned, not-for-profit Internet utility is an option, people's eyes light up. They go, "Wow!" You know, a lot of them never even imagined that something like that would be possible.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, I think a little bit of background — I mean, Russell's not the only Linux hacker out there. There's a very high proportion, a high number of people at least, in the Portland region who work for high tech companies, and yet you're mostly stuck with CenturyLink, which has DSL and a mix of Fiber-to-the-Home in some places, and then, you know, Comcast for the rest of them. And you don't really have a lot of other options for what I can tell. Is that right Russell?

Russel Senior: Going back to the early days of the Internet here, we had many, many dial-up ISP options. You know, there was probably 100 in the Portland area, and then in the early days of DSL, there was open access on DSL and you had a broad range of options. You know, this was all before cable came along. You had many, many options to choose from, which meant you could shop for price or you could shop for terms of service. And it was actually kind of wonderful from a market point of view. And then cable came along, and of course the phone company was not investing in infrastructure. The access to DSL was a little wobbly. There was large sections of Portland that could not get DSL at all and did not have that option, you know, from a market point of view. And increasingly, your only option was the cable company if you needed viable bandwidth. As things progressed, we had Google, which was quite interested in deploying here for two or three years. It totally looked like they were going to come build here, and then, you know, two or three years ago, they just pulled the plug on that. But the one nice thing about that is they finally got CenturyLink off the dime, and CenturyLink started deploying fiber. There are kind of a horrible company to deal with. You know, we've sort of evolved into a duopoly, but they don't compete against each other on price very much and they're both kind of horrible to deal with.

Christopher Mitchell: On that note, I'll just note that we finally received a power supply for a phone. We wrote about this saga back on Halloween. I think it took on the order of four to six months, and we talked to between 10 and 15 CenturyLink employees. In the end, we actually just kept doing it to see if we would ever actually get the power supply for the phone that they forgot to send us. So yeah, I fully agree.

Russel Senior: Either intentionally or unintentionally, they seem to have a serious internal communication problems. So the sales people will tell you one thing and the billing people will tell you a completely different thing.

Christopher Mitchell: So one of the things that's interesting about your effort is that right away you were looking at an area outside of just Portland though. I mean in Portland, pretty much anyone who has the money can get broadband I would guess, but you have people that are a part of this effort for Municipal Broadband PDX that are living in parts of Multnomah county that do not have any broadband at any price, I think. Is that right, Michael?

Michael Hanna: Yes. So within the Portland Metro area, there's three primary counties. Multnomah County is the one obviously where I live and work and Russell as well, but then there's Clackamas County and Washington County. Then there's cities and unincorporated areas within those three counties. And you're right. Very early on, I reached out to a contact out in east Multnomah county, which is outside of the city of Portland city limits, and found that the situation for people living outside of the Portland city core is even worse. And so that really shifted our thinking to be much more focused on county-wide so that we could address the gaps in the these outlying areas.

Christopher Mitchell: And how is that going? I mean, in terms of the organizing principle, you're well aware that the largest municipal network that we have in existence in Chattanooga would be, I think, less than half of the population that you're talking about, so this is something wholly different. How is the effort going to organize on such a large basis?

Michael Hanna: So yeah, interestingly, we had much more interest — you know, we started our efforts right after the repeal of net neutrality last year by focusing on city of Portland elected officials and really thinking that. But very quickly that pivoted to Multnomah County government and then the east county cities. And Multnomah County jumped on board and allocated funds for the feasibility study very quickly, and then we got the four east county cities to join as well. So what's interesting is that it's actually everything other than the city of Portland who has really jumped on board. And in Washington County where the city of Hillsboro is, the city of Hillsboro has already moved forward and is already laying fiber cables for their broadband network. There's discussions underway with the city of Beaverton in Washington county. Similarly in Clackamas County, there's efforts underway. There's discussions in the city of Milwaukie, which is in Clackamas County. So really, most areas in the Portland metro region are either exploring this, thinking about it, or have already kind of committed to move forward. Really the one outlier is the city of Portland, and that's where we've focused all of our recent lobbying and organizing efforts is to get the city of Portland to agree to fund their portion of the feasibility study so that we can move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: And is there a deadline on that?

Michael Hanna: We submitted a grant proposal to the city of Portland. It's called the Special Appropriations Grant; it's a pool of money. And they've told us that in January we will hear something — you know, we'll get a response of whether our grant has been approved or not. The grant is the most straightforward way to get the funds. There are other ways to get funds from the city of Portland, but that's the most straightforward way, so we're focusing our efforts on securing that so that the rest of the jurisdictions can move forward.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk about how you're organizing. And Russell, I'm curious because this has been something that I think has been a dream for you. You've recognized the potential that this could do for [the] digital divide, for entrepreneurs, for all the benefits that a well-run municipal network can bring to a community. How are you organizing this time in order to try to make it happen?

Russel Senior: In the Pacific northwest, we have a large public utility called the Bonneville Power Administration, which is back from the same era as the Tennessee Valley Authority. FDR basically built a bunch of a large federal hydro projects on the main stem of the Columbia river and then marketed power to the region to provide very low-cost hydro power, which had, you know, what I like to call immense economic benefits for the entire region.

Christopher Mitchell: Also, I think it helped to win World War II, so the world is thankful for that.

Russel Senior: Absolutely. When I was growing up as a young person, my father worked for the Bonneville Power Administration. I was well aware of the existence of that and its impact. [I had] become well educated in all the benefits of that. In fact, I grew up in a house that was built with all electric heat because electricity was so cheap here. You know, people will quibble sometimes about the prices, but they actually get a pretty sweet deal. The water is excellent. And so, I approached all of this knowing that there was a publicly owned utility model that could deliver these kinds of services, and what I saw in telecommunications — I got a modem, you know, back in 1986 or '87 or something and was communicating with people on the Internet all the time. I was watching computing capacities shoot upwards at Moore's Law rates, and I saw telecommunications not growing very fast. I saw that problem and I saw the solutions that public utilities could provide. So I've been a big advocate for saying, "Hey, look, people, here's a model that can actually deliver the services that you want on much better terms and in a way that really focus[es] on the needs of the user rather than just you as a resource to be exploited by the big companies who just have you over a barrel."

Christopher Mitchell: Sure.

Russel Senior: So that's where my energy comes from, is seeing the gap between what could be and what is.

Christopher Mitchell: So that gives you energy and vision. How are you going to achieve the vision?

Russel Senior: I've been engaged with the city of Portland on and off for pretty much the entire time I've been involved with the Personal Telco Project. There has been — the bureaucracy in the city of Portland actually recognizes this problem pretty clearly and has been an advocate over the years for doing something. The issue has been very much that the city council has been skeptical about it. Going back to the 2007 era, basically there was a lot of internal energy in the city of Portland, and they got this feasibility study going, and it got to city council, and for a bunch of reasons, mostly some fear about the risks involved, they kind of pulled the plug on it. And the person who was overseeing it at the time kind of had cold feet, and he felt like he'd spent a lot of effort on this and it didn't seem like it was somewhere that he wanted to go. And that's kind of put the damper on the enthusiasm inside city hall. So our efforts have been focused on letting the public know that this is an option that they can consider and that this actually might be very much in their interest to pursue. You know, in the midst of many, many other issues that the city is facing, primarily homelessness, we kind of get their attention and say, "Hey, this is something that can generate large benefits for all of your constituents and by the way, your internal operations and that this is something worthy of making initially a very small investment in doing a feasibility study." Our organizing efforts have been around mobilizing the public to let the city council know that we need the city council to come up with some money to help fund the feasibility study. We managed to get Multnomah County initially willing to spend a little money and they allocated some money but that money is insufficient to cover the cost of the feasibility study, so we need the participation of the various constituent cities.

Michael Hanna: In terms of Multnomah County, one of the core reasons that Multnomah County recognized the value of this relates back to Multnomah County's core mission. In addition to the library, Multnomah County's core missions is being the safety net for our community and really providing services for the neediest in our communities. And so we know because we're part of this digital inclusion network, also with the city of Portland, that knows the data, where 30 percent of Latinx households lack broadband access in Multnomah County and I believe 25 percent of African American households. 28 percent of households over age 65 lack broadband. We know that there are these huge gaps in terms of, you know, certain demographics in Multnomah County that do not have access to broadband, which is a core equity issue. It really hinders their ability to participate in society fully. And then if we look at households with students, you know, that's just a whole other level with the homework gap and the inability to have online access. So for Multnomah County, immediately the primary driver was that municipal broadband aligns with our mission as a county around serving the neediest in our communities and really bridging the digital divide and addressing that directly. And so that was the core reason of why Multnomah County jumped in to lead on this issue. And similarly with east county, the cities, some of the lowest income neighborhoods in the entire state of Oregon are in east Multnomah County. And so again, there's these low income households, there's this gap, and that's really what's driving a lot of this. And it's also part of the organizing where we've reached out to community organizations who focus on those populations and addressing the needs of those populations, and really so that they are partners with us in moving this forward. And I do think that's really one of the unique things about what we're doing here in the Portland metro area is not just looking from a technology lens or a market lens, but also really including this equity and inclusion lens so that we're really sticking — our values are core to this effort from day one.

Christopher Mitchell: Although, I have to say I was very impressed with the launch party and with the amount of support, both in the number of people and the way that those people represented different interest groups and parts of the community. It seems unlikely that, you know, three or four years from now, that Multnomah County would be able to build a fiber to connect everyone's home immediately, which I think would kind of be the dream goal. But, what's success, you know, in terms of a realistic approach for a community the size of Multnomah and given the resistance of Portland historically?

Michael Hanna: In the short term, the success is getting the remaining funding for the feasibility study and getting that underway because as we know, something of this scale, we really need to crunch the numbers and do a hard look at the technical, economic, and other aspects of municipal broadband. So that's really core in the short term. We just have to get that underway. But in the medium term, we want to continue to organize, continue to build a very broad coalition because once the feasibility study comes back, the results come back, and you know, if there is a viable path forward, we still need to have either the elected officials agreeing to move forward or some sort of ballot measure. So either way, there's kind of a political aspect to this. One of the things you touched on is the timeframe and the build out. You know, there's definitely going to be a tension between those who want this as quickly as possible and those who want to do this in a more measured, gradual approach. So for example, the city of Hillsboro, has decided that they're going to build out their network over a 10 year period, and that's a very conservative, gradual, lower-risk approach. For Multnomah County, you know, until we get the feasibility study back, it's really hard to say, but a lot of people have been thinking more along the five year build out. But I think no matter what, there's going to be this balance between building out in a timely manner because there's high demand for residents and businesses, and then just doing it in a measured approach. Ultimately it's going to cost in the hundreds of millions of dollars. We do want to do it in phases so that we're learning iteratively through each phase and reducing the risks.

Christopher Mitchell: Russell, do you want to add any additional goals?

Russel Senior: Over the summer, I was traveling and visited some existing municipal fiber projects. One of which was in Longmont, Colorado, and I had a nice conversation with them. Some of the practical issues is that they had designed their rollout in a way that, you know, stepped their way around their geographic footprint. One of their challenges was the demand for the service that they were providing was not nicely focused in the areas that they were just starting to build on. Everybody wanted it at the same time. So certainly, there are tensions there because there are people that will be very excited about getting access [and] some people who don't quite understand what it is we're doing because it completely breaks the mold of what they've been trained to understand what was possible, you know, in America.

Michael Hanna: Just another note about that is that our campaign here in Portland metro has been picked as one of Neighborly's 18 Broadband Accelerator cities around the country. [Editor's note: the Community Broadband Accelerator actually includes 35 communities in 18 states.] One of the efforts is around marketing and educating the public and possibly doing pre-signups of residents and businesses to demonstrate the demand. And I think, just kind of piggybacking on what Russell was saying, is that there's this tension between the residents and then the elected officials. I think if we can really demonstrate broad interest and excitement around it, I think that will accelerate the build out. And the city of Hillsboro said the same thing. You know, they have their kind of 10 year, very conservative build out plan. But if residents and businesses really want to step up and demand that that speed up, then it can be a partnership. And that's really what I'm hoping, from my grassroots organizer hat on, is really developing enough grassroots push to kind of hold the elected officials', the government agencies' feet to the fire and really accelerate this, you know, reasonably. Obviously we want, we don't want to do it recklessly, but we want to do it [in a way] that balances those tensions.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's really a key point that some people miss in terms of the promise of the incremental effort is that it can create political will that was not there before and lead to a much more rapid build out than one may have thought in year one when you're getting started. And that also depends on cities making sure that they're doing it right, you know, executing it well because if you start to stumble and make mistakes and don't correct them quickly, then political support can evaporate, and so that's the problem. But I think that those are some good things that other people should be keeping in mind when they're thinking about this in their own communities. What other things should people keep in mind when they're trying to build an organizing campaign like you're doing here in the Portland area?

Michael Hanna: We're trying to learn from other efforts in other cities for municipal broadband, and one of the reasons that efforts stalled in other cities was that it was often driven by an enthusiastic elected official or government bureaucrat of some kind and didn't have the corresponding grassroots coalition to support it. And so if that person left, let's say they were voted out of office or they left the jurisdiction, then the effort quickly could fall apart. And so I think learning from that, I think that that building as broad of a coalition as possible that is really separate from the elected officials or any one administration or any one set of bureaucrats is really key. And so that's where we've got — unions have endorsed this. We have hundreds of businesses that have endorsed it. We have community organizations that have endorsed it. And I think really trying to build that broad coalition is key, so that's definitely something I would say. And I think secondarily is that for groups, grassroots groups, to be really clear about what their asks are going to be of the elected officials before they approach the elected official. So if the ask is we want you to allocate funds for a feasibility study, for example, then just be really clear about what are you asking the elected officials. Because when you go meet with elected officials, you're lobbying them, you need to be succinct and clear about what you're asking them to do.

Christopher Mitchell: Michael, you glossed over something that I think some people would be interested in. You know, you just sort of candidly mentioned, oh, we've got a bunch of businesses and unions that have supported us. Could you just give us a sense of how you did that. I mean, did you show up in the union hall or, you know, go just walk into businesses and talk to them about it. Like, how did you go about getting that interest and demonstrating it?

Michael Hanna: Because I had been involved in a lot of other political campaigns, I already had a lot of connections with unions. And so, for example, AFSCME, which is the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, I've already worked with them for many, many years. Similarly with IBEW — electrical workers. So I had connections, but ultimately it really was getting on their agenda, going to their meeting, and making an ask. And the way that we did it was first round we explained what this campaign was and what municipal broadband was and asked for their support, their endorsement, and then we came back a month or two later and then asked for some funding to help support the campaign. So there was that, and then with the businesses, a lot of it has — we did some canvassing, like you would do canvassing of residents' homes. We did some canvassing of businesses — you know, literally going in to talk to managers and owners of businesses and found a lot of support. And just from the minimal amount of canvassing we did, we found a lot of support. And with businesses, there's many reasons for them to support this. At a very direct way, it would be likely lower cost, much better service than what they're receiving today, but there is — among the local businesses for sure — there's also this sense of civic duty or civic engagement, and so they really also resonate with the values and vision of what this could do in terms of equity and bridging the digital divide. So I think it's a relatively easy ask for businesses, and then I think community organizations similarly. It just aligns with their existing mission. So I think a lot of community organizations already have within their mission bridging the digital divide, and so when I reached out to them, similarly to unions, just going to one of their meetings and say[ing], "Hey, this is municipal broadband, this is how it could work, and this is how it aligns with what you value and what you want to see in the community."

Christopher Mitchell: Let me ask a similar question for you, Russell, but I'll rephrase it in the Linux world: what would you put in your how-to, or you got any tips and tricks for us?

Russel Senior: One thing I want to just add on frosting on what Michael just said: there are two larger organizations in the Portland metro area and of course across the country that have been doing marketing for this project for decades, and that's Comcast and CenturyLink and the way that they treat —

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs]

Russel Senior: So, you know, I've been saying for years to people that there are gas fumes everywhere, that people are starving for an alternative, an option that really serves their needs. And you know, because of the abuse that's been heaped upon them by the telcos, that's there and all somebody needs to do is show them that there's an alternative, that it will be better, and it will make their lives fulfilled in a way that feels much better about how they're participating as effectively as an owner of the infrastructure that's serving their needs — just like the streets and the water system and the sewer system and a bunch of other things that are intended to serve their needs and not just generate profit for somebody far, far away. So I think that atmosphere is here, and it's our job to exploit that, to take advantage of that latent feeling that people have and show them a path that can take them to where they want to go.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I think that's a good way to wrap it up. Thank you both for coming on, and thank you especially for your organizing efforts in the Portland area. I think, you know, in 10 years we could see a tremendous number of municipal broadband connections throughout the Tri-County region, I guess.

Russel Senior: I certainly hope so.

Michael Hanna: Yep. Yep, that's the goal, and nationwide.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Russell Senior and Michael Hanna on the Municipal Broadband PDX initiative. Be sure to check out their website, MunicipalBroadbandPDX.org for details. They also have a Facebook presence and are on Twitter so you can follow their progress. We have transcripts for 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 handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 334 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Organizing for Better Broadband in the Portland, Oregon, Region - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 334

December 4, 2018

This week on the Community Broadband Bits Podcast, we hear from Russell Senior and Michael Hanna from Portland, Oregon. Russell is President of the Personal Telco Project and Michael is a Data Engineer for Multnomah County; both are on the Board of the Municipal Broadband Coalition of America.

In this interview Christopher, Russell, and Michael discuss the goals of the Coalition and their current work grassroots organizing in Portland and across and Multnomah County for the Municipal Broadband PDX initiative. In addition to hearing how Portland and the surrounding county has reached a point where residents and businesses are ready for better connectivity, we also find out how these two organizers became involved in the efforts.

Michael and Russell describe the way the project has evolved after years of attempts to improve Internet access in the region and their approach toward organizing such a large area with a high population. Our guests describe some of the challenges they have coped with and other issues they anticipate along the way as well as the basic principles that create the foundation for their initiative. They also define their visions for a successful outcome and offer suggestions for others who are considering organizing for better Internet access.

Check out the clever short film created to help launch Municipal Broadband PDX:

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 37 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript for this episode 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: audiopodcastbroadband bitsportlandoregonmultnomah county orgrassrootsregionalruralurban

Community Broadband Media Roundup - December 3

December 3, 2018

Colorado

Centennial aims for future with fiber-optic backbone by John Aguilar, The Denver Post

Broadband grant application withdrawn, YVEA announces plans for Craig buildout, Craig Press

 

Florida

Clermont, Fla., to expand public Internet access downtown by Roxanne Brown, Daily Commercial

 

Indiana

Timing right to expand broadband by Erica Quinlan, AgriNews Publication

 

Iowa

City begins search for Internet solutions by Michael Crumb, Ames Tribune

City council looks at Internet service issues, discusses public Internet option by Talon Delaney, Iowa State Daily 

 

Maine

Ellsworth broadband speeds still have some catching up to do by Kate Cough, The Ellsworth American 

Fast Internet is critical for nearly every aspect of life in the 21st century. Hospitals require it for electronic medical records and telehealth; schoolchildren need it for homework and research, businesses use it for sales and inventory. Seniors may take advantage of virtual health care to be able to stay in their homes. But access across the country is not equal, leading to what is often called “the digital divide.”

 

Ohio

Lack of Internet service in Cleveland neighborhoods linked to serious health issues, study reveals by Joe Pagonakis, News5

 

Oregon

Broadband coalition seeks to build public support by Richard Hanners, Blue Mountain Eagle

 

Texas

Survey seeks to determine Lampasans’ level of interest in faster Internet service, Lampasas Dispatch Record

 

Wisconsin 

Internet co-op to build fiber infrastructure for rural Crawford County, Guttenberg Press

 

General 

Gigabit? More like, you can gigabet the US will fall behind on super-fast broadband access by Kieren McCarthy, The Register

While the US is weighed down by an oligopolistic market with a small number of large broadband companies that avoid competing with one another to form local monopolies and maximize profits, China is focused on the end goal of getting gigabit to the masses.

House Democrats who haven’t supported net neutrality yet have all taken money from telecoms by Kaleigh Rogers, Motherboard

Broadband for farmland? Here's why it matters for America by Mike Stern, Forbes 

But when 29 % of U.S. farms have no access to the Internet, it's impossible for them to access these tools. That means they can't utilize things like weather stations, in-field sensors, farm equipment, drones and satellites, all of which can produce data that can help farmers make more informed decisions on how to manage their crops and increase the productivity on their fields.

 

 

Tags: media roundup

Another Texas Town Considers Fiber Infrastructure

December 3, 2018

People in Lampasas are fed up with outages that have repeatedly plagued the community due to lack of redundant infrastructure connecting the central Texas municipality. Now, the city and the Lampasas Economic Development Corporation (LEDC) are asking the community to complete an Internet survey to help determine how best to move forward an achieve better connectivity.

Cuts to the Line

In the spring, summer, and early fall of 2017, Lampasas experienced four outages totaling 45 hours when local construction projects accidentally cut AT&T fiber, the only Internet connection into town. Without a redundant line, the community’s residents, businesses, emergency services, and hospitals were cut off for days as AT&T repaired the breaks. To add insult to injury, AT&T didn’t respond well to the town’s requests to resolve the situation:

“We felt like we weren't a priority on AT&T's list, so when we had outages, and we had businesses that were losing thousands of dollars, and we were calling and we were trying to get reimbursements, and we were trying to get answers, and we were trying to see if there were future projects for infrastructure for Lampasas, we just weren't getting a good response from AT&T,” Lampasas Economic Development Director Mandy Walsh said. 

Within a few months, local leaders had started searching for a firm to help them assess their options. After considering proposals from six different companies, Lampasas chose Foresite Group for a project that includes a market analysis and a technology assessment. As part of the project, Foresite Group has helped the city and the LEDC prepare the current survey.

The survey has divided the community into Service Zones in order to obtain a detailed analysis of which areas of town residents and businesses are most interested in better Internet access. The Service Zones approach will also help the city, the EDC and Foresite discover Internet access speeds in each area of town.

Mandy Walsh, Economic Director from the LEDC, suggests that the city is interested in an open access or dark fiber model. In the Lampasas Dispatch Record, Walsh described publicly owned infrastructure leased to multiple providers as a possible solution to Lampasas's woes. She went on to tell the Dispatch:

The purpose of the survey is to determine whether enough citizens in each neighborhood are interested, she said.

“If we reach these [ideal] take rates, we can attract more providers in the community,” Walsh said. “We want to find other providers to come into the city to have better options for our businesses and residents. [These providers] have to see there is enough demand in this market.”

In Texas, It’s All About the “Home”

Recently, we shared information about the Texas community of Mont Belvieu. Established as a “home rule” municipality, Mont Belvieu determined that it had the authority to establish a broadband utility and offer Internet access to the community. They chose to solidify that decision by asking the State Court for confirmation, which it did. Listen to Christopher talk with several representatives from Mont Belvieu about the court case and their network in episode 326 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Lampasas, however, doesn’t share that same authority. As a “general powers” city, the community only has the authorities granted to it by the state constitution. Home rule communities have broad authority that is only limited by the state. If the survey results indicate sufficient interest, Lampasas plans to build it's own fiber infrastructure and then lease it to private sector providers, which will then offer Internet access to the community.

“It will not be run by the city,” Walsh said. “We cannot legally run a network. We can have our own infrastructure and lease to providers.”

The community has developed a broad plan that approaches the issue in phases. The results of the phase I survey will determine whether or not they move forward with the next phase, sign-up, which will help determine where construction occurs.

Economic Development Concerns

According to Walsh, residents aren’t the only ones feeling the pinch of low bandwidth. AT&T and Suddenlink offer DSL in town and one lone fiber provider offers limited fiber to businesses in a few areas of town, but Lampasas businesses don’t have the kind of connections they need to operate in the 21st century. 

The problem is driving away potential jobs:

"A lot of them [employers] rely heavily on the internet, and currently as we stand, most of them don't have the required bandwidth to continue to be successful," the economic development director [Walsh] said. "And if they're looking at expanding their business in Lampasas, a lot of them are unable to at this point due to their Internet -- their lack of connectivity and speeds."

Walsh said one business has sent employees out of town or out of state to work from home, where the Internet service is faster and more reliable than at the business site.

Read more about the early plans from the LEDC.

Lampasas

With about 8,000 people, Lampasas is the county seat and has grown in recent years. The city is about 25 miles from Fort Hood and 70 mils from Austin. Large employers in the community include the public school system, Walmart, food manufacturer Windsor Foods, and Oil States.

The city has several industrial and commercial sites where they hope to attract new employers and where connectivity from the area’s lone fiber ISP is available.

Image of the Lampasas County Courthouse by Travis K. Witt [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: lampasas county txtexasconsiderationsurveyat&tredundancyopen accessreliability

Mississippi Public Service Commission Requests Law Change: "Let Electric Co-ops Offer Broadband!"

November 30, 2018

When it comes to high-quality Internet access, the big corporate ISPs have failed rural Mississippi. Other states with similar digital divide issues are starting to see rural electric cooperatives make efforts to connect members. In some places, legislatures have adjusted state laws that complicated co-ops' ability to deploy fiber optic infrastructure. Now, the Public Service Commission (PSC) in Mississippi has formally requested that state lawmakers update an antiquated statute to allow rural electric cooperatives to expand high-quality Internet access.

Waiting for Action

When Magnolia's State Legislators convene in January, they’ll have a unanimous resolution waiting for them from the state’s PSC. The resolution requests that lawmakers take action to adjust Miss. Code 77-5-205 to allow electric cooperatives the authority to offer Internet access. 

James Richardson, Policy Director and Counsel from the Office of Commissioner Brandon Presley, explained that the law currently only allows electric cooperatives the authority to form “…for the purpose of promoting and encouraging the fullest possible use of electric energy…” — electric cooperative are precluded from operating for any other purpose. The law was passed in the 1930s when cooperatives formed across the state to bring electricity to the many farmers in rural Mississippi. The matter has been tested and confirmed at the state Supreme Court

The PSC asks that the State Legislature create an exception in statute in order to allow rural electric cooperatives the the ability to also offer Internet access. Earlier this month, the three Commissioners on the PSC approved the resolution requesting the law change.

Presley has been leading the effort to open the door for electric cooperatives. This past summer, he’s taken his initiative public with a series of opinion pieces in local media. He also traveled to Hamilton, Alabama, with more than 40 Legislators to showcase the work done in that state by Tombigbee Electric Cooperative. 

Hamilton is only 14 miles away from the Mississippi state line, Presley said at the gathering he hosted there, but “it might as well be 14,000 miles away because the Alabama efforts are so far ahead of Mississippi.” Presley wanted to compare the drastic difference between Alabama, where there is no restriction on electric cooperatives. In Alabama, Tombigbee Electric Cooperative’s Freedom FIBER network is deploying gigabit connectivity and signing up subscirbers in Hamilton, Winfield, and in more service areas where they plan future deployment.

“The first electric cooperatives in the nation were formed right here in Mississippi, and they weren’t formed just to sell electricity. They were formed to enhance the quality of life for rural people. While folks in the big cities had lighting and electric appliances, people who lived on farms or in rural areas were still lighting candles and cooking on wood stoves. These industrious people of Mississippi formed America’s first electric cooperatives because they wanted rural people to be able to enter the 20th century. Today, we simply ask for rural Mississippi to be allowed to enter the 21st century.”

Strong Support

In addition to the full PSC, Mississippians appear to agree with Presley. Chism Strategies, an advocacy and public opinion firm, conducted a survey this past fall of 646 voters across the state. Seventy-seven percent of respondents supported the idea of allowing electric cooperatives to offer Internet access in Mississippi. Support was bipartisan, but strongest among those that identified as Republican. 

A few Legislators who have been asked their thoughts also appear to support the change.

Sen. Neil Whaley, R-Potts Camp, said he has a family member living in rural Marshall County in north Mississippi, working for a tech company, who had the opportunity to work from home for the company, but could not because of the lack of high speed internet.

“I am definitely interested in this issue,” he said.

No other state restricts electric cooperatives with this type of language. It’s a common sense adjustment that can help expand rural broadband in a state where people living outside metro areas struggle with lack of high-quality Internet access. When it comes to the legislative process, however, nothing is ever over until the final gavel comes down.

Those who don’t seem so enthusiastic about changing the law include lawmakers like Rep. Jody Steverson, who have a history with big cable and ISPs. Steverson, Vice Chair of the House Public Utilities Committee, has worked in the industry for companies that might see electric cooperatives as a competitive threat. Nevertheless, he describes himself as “open-minded” on the possibility of legislation to remove the restriction.

In a recent opinion piece in the Clarion Ledger, Bill Moak from Consumer Watch encouraged lawmakers to move quickly on the proposal. He shared the story of his parents, who live in rural Mississippi and who are caught in one of the state's many "broadband deserts."

Moak writes:

Solving the broadband question isn’t likely to be solved overnight or in one fell swoop, but by using innovative solutions such as that proposed earlier this month [by the PSC], we can get Mississippians connected — one house at a time.

Ready to Move

The state’s rural electric cooperatives are ready to move forward. According to Michael Callahan from Electric Cooperatives of Mississippi:

“At this time, 19 of our 25 electric distribution cooperatives are involved in feasibility studies regarding offering rural broadband services. They will be reviewing all aspects and, at the appropriate time, each will make a decision whether to enter the business. If the studies are positive and legislation is passed to allow us to offer broadband, we believe some will offer the services.”

If the Mississippi Legislature corrects its outdated law, we look forward to adding some electric cooperative "pins" to our Community Network Map, which reveals a notably empty Mississippi.

Within the past few years, both rural and telephone cooperatives have filled in the gaps in rural areas where large corporate telecommunications and cable companies don’t feel motivated to provide high-quality Internet access. Contrary to distant companies that answer to shareholders, member cooperatives belong to the people they serve. With personnel, equipment, and a certain amount of infrastructure already in place, the decision to add high-speed Internet access is a logical step. Read more about how cooperatives are helping rural communities obtain the connectivity they need in our 2017 policy brief, Cooperatives Fiberize Rural America: A Trusted Model For The Internet Era.

As Commissioner Presley says:

“We cannot continue to wait on the big telecommunications giants to serve rural people. One of my constituents from rural Lee County, John Henson, was told by an AT&T representative that he would get high-speed internet service at his home in the Blair Community when the day came that he could rent a condominium on the moon. That is unacceptable. Telecom companies unwilling to serve rural areas should not prevent rural people from serving themselves through the cooperatives that they own. The members of rural electric cooperatives are simply asking for the right to do what they did a century ago and take the reins themselves and bring service to rural Mississippi. I hope this resolution makes clear that the Public Service Commission is behind them 100%.”

Tags: mississippirural electric coopcooperativeruraldigital dividelegislation

Grant County, Oregon, Getting Closer to Bridging the Digital Divide

November 29, 2018

The Grant County Digital Network Coalition is moving forward with plans to expand connectivity and close the digital divide in Grant County, Oregon.

We first reported on the creation of the coalition, which includes Grant County and the cities of John Day and Seneca, last year. Since then, the group has held three Board of Directors meetings and is making progress toward deploying a fiber optic network in Grant County. The coalition plans to build the network in phases, and once completed, it will connect public facilities, homes, and businesses along the fiber route. To offer Internet access to subscribers, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition will partner with local company Oregon Telephone Corporation (Ortelco).

Working Together to Solve Connectivity Woes

The local governments, led by John Day, established the Grant County Digital Network Coalition to improve the region's inadequate Internet access. Out of all Oregon counties, Grant County ranks second highest on the Digital Divide Index, a measurement of broadband access disparities, according to a presentation prepared by John Day City Manager Nick Green. In 2017, Green told the Blue Mountain Eagle that average Internet download speeds in Grant County are around 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) and that some people don’t have any access at all to the Internet.

Though the county desperately needs better connectivity, the region’s rugged hills make deploying a broadband network to the small communities difficult. Grant County is also home to Malheur National Forest and other federally owned land, further complicating network construction.

The coalition hopes that closing the digital divide in the county will promote local economic development. A press release pointed out that “Grant County has had the highest unemployment rate in Oregon since 2012 and has experienced more than 30 years of population decline.” It also notes that more than half of the households in the proposed project area are low- to moderate-income. Former State Senator Ted Ferrioli said of the broadband project, “It could turn out to be the key piece to attracting a few new employers and growing local businesses.”

Building the Network, Connecting the County

Earlier this year, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition formally announced their partnership with Ortelco. The current plan is for the consortium of local governments to finance, build, and own the fiber network, while private provider Ortelco will offer Internet access to individual homes and businesses. The coalition will operate as a wholesale provider, and Ortelco will provide retail services.

Construction of the fiber network is expected to proceed in stages. In phase one, the coalition will bring the fiber backbone from the town of John Day to Seneca, connecting homes and businesses along the route and in Seneca with Fiber-to-the-Premise (FTTP). Fiber drops will likely be completed as the city undertakes water and sewer system projects. The network will also connect a communications tower, outdoor recreation facilities, and public buildings in Seneca, for a total of approximately 100 connections in the first phase. In addition, the coalition is considering extensions to various public facilities in John Day and to a CenturyLink location, for network redundancy. Phases two and three will extend the fiber network further south to Burns and then expand service throughout the county, where possible.

The coalition plans to work with various companies, including Commstructure Consulting, CTC Technology & Energy, and Cohen Law Group, to design and build the fiber network.

Waiting for Federal Grant Results

To finance the fiber network, the Grant County Digital Network Coalition is looking toward state and federal funding. Blue Mountain Eagle reported that John Day has already received $1.8 million from the state of Oregon for deployment. Earlier this year, John Day also applied for a $2.9 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Community Connect program, leveraging a portion of the state funding to meet the the grant program’s mandatory 15 percent match. The USDA has not yet announced the winning Community Connect grant awards, but regardless of the results, the coalition will have enough funds from the state to begin construction.

Tags: grant county ororegondigital divideruraljohn day or

Dalton, Georgia, Officially A Gig City

November 28, 2018

In a recent episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast, host Christopher Mitchell spoke with Hank Blackwood from Dalton Utilities in Georgia about their publicly owned network, OptiLink. Hank described an upcoming milestone for the community of around 35,000 and a few surrounding rural areas with access to the network. Now it’s official — OptiLink is the first municipal network in the state that offers residential gigabit Internet access to subscribers.

Updates, Updates

Gigabit connectivity is coming on the heels of another improvement for OptiLink subscribers. This fall, officials at Dalton Utilities launched their new video product, VidLink. Hank described that the old video equipment needed a facelift after providing services to the community for 15 years.

With VidLink and the new subscriber base it began to attract, and the desire to give Dalton the economic development tools for a truly tech-centered economy, network officials decided it was time to expand gigabit connectivity. They had offered the service to businesses for about four years and on November 19th, 2018, officially launched residential symmetrical gig service.

Residential GIGLink service is an affordable $79.95 per month when bundled with VidLink and voice. Stand alone GIGLink service costs $84.95 per month.

Households can still sign up for three other symmetrical tiers as low as $41.95 per month for 50 Megabits per second (Mbps). Bundling with voice and video saves subscribers $5 per month.

It All Began With SCADA

Dalton Utility customers have enjoyed OptiLink since 2003, but the fiber infrastructure took root in Dalton in the 1990s. Like many other municipal networks that have been serving subscribers since the early 2000s, Dalton Utilities needed better communications between facilities and the ability to better manage and control their electric, gas, water, and wastewater utilities. They developed their Supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) system; soon some of the larger local businesses were approaching Dalton Utilities requesting connectivity. As a major center for carpet manufacturing, some of the community’s largest employers needed the kind of high-speed connectivity a fiber network could provide.

Within a few years, community leaders recognized the economic development potential of a citywide fiber optic network. By 2003, OptiLink was serving the entire city and a few of the smaller areas beyond Dalton where rural population centers obtain services from Dalton Utilities.

Not All About Gaming and Netflix

From the press release:

“We have offered Gigabit service to our large business customers since 2014,” noted [Hank] Blackwood. “We have upgraded our network to enable a Gigabit to our entire community because we recognize that high-speed connectivity is an essential service inside the home. We also realize that Gigabit internet is an economic development tool that drives businesses to relocate to places where they can get the bandwidth they need.”

Dalton’s economy still retains manufacturing, but now it has diversified as entrepreneurs, including home-based businesses, are taking advantage of OptiLink. As Hank described in his conversation with Christopher, Dalton wants their new status as a Gig City to continue to bring tech innovators and employers to town. Dalton Utilities has plans to offer 10 Gig residential service in the future, a move to support their long-term vision.

Listen to Christopher and Hank Blackwood in episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Tags: daltongeorgiagigabitFTTHvideoupgrade

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 333

November 27, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 333 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Will Mitchell and Sean Myers of VETRO FiberMap about how communities have been using their mapping platform to design, build, and manage their broadband networks and about the importance of GIS data. They also discuss the many broadband projects happening in Maine and what other communities can learn from them. Listen to the episode here.

 

 

Sean Myers: The real strength in these towns and the way towns are set up in Maine is that there's a lot of local control so the community can get together, they can get together with the adjacent community as well, but it's pretty easy to get together to make decisions like this — you know, do we want broadband or not?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 333 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week Will Mitchell and Sean Myers from VETRO FiberMap joined Christopher. The company serves the telecommunications industry with open source mapping software. VETRO FiberMap helps entities in both the private and public sectors with fiber deployment. Will and Sean explain how they've worked with ISPs and other entities in unexpected ways, including marketing and planning. They share that working with Internet service providers and communities has helped them explore new uses for their product. During the conversation, Christopher, Will, and Sean touch on the data that VETRO FiberMap uses and the different sources for GIS information. They also get into some of the various projects they've worked on and the types of projects where they anticipate growth, including projects in Maine where local and state efforts are improving Internet access. Now here's Christopher with Will Mitchell and Sean Myers from VETRO FiberMap.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in Minneapolis, and I've got a guest who's trying to steal my name, Will Mitchell, the CEO of VETRO FiberMap. Welcome to the show.

Will Mitchell: Thanks Chris. Happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Now with him we also have Sean Myers, recently moved out of Buffalo into Portland, Maine, Chief Operating Officer of VETRO FiberMap. Welcome to the show.

Sean Myers: Thanks Chris. Looking forward to talking with you.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes. So it's worth noting, Will, we have no relation whatsoever. At least none that we've discovered, I suppose.

Will Mitchell: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: So for people who are thinking, "VETRO FiberMap, what is that?" — what is it?

Will Mitchell: VETRO FiberMap is a fiber management GIS mapping platform. It's one that we've built from the ground up and launched into this marketplace of broadband design and planning and development. It's being used to deploy broadband networks, most specifically fiber optics and Fiber-to-the-Home networks, throughout the life cycle of that process.

Christopher Mitchell: And how does having a map make that easier to manage or to do?

Will Mitchell: It's interesting. Sean and I are both coming from mapping careers, careers in GIS and applied mapping, and it's really hard to imagine an industry that is more spatial in nature than wireline telecommunications. Everything relies on mapping: doing designs, laying out fiber into communities, backbones and trunks and distribution cables. You got to know where all the targets are and how you're going to get there, how splicing occurs along the way. So we're all about the physical outside plant, the physical infrastructure of the network, inventorying that and providing a container for broadband operators and network builders to design these networks and then to build and operate them as well.

Christopher Mitchell: Sean, I'm curious how you fit into this. You have a mapping background as well. What sort of stuff are you bringing to it?

Sean Myers: When we first started off as a company of course, about 11 years ago, we were just providing, you know, web mapping services to really anybody who was interested. So whether it was a government entity, nonprofit, or private organization, we were delivering these web mapping services. My particular background is in utilities and GIS for utilities, so we actually had this one customer who was interested in building this product. It's still out there. It's called FiberLocator, and we built it for them and we still maintain it for them. But we were looking at this and I said, "Wow, this is really just another network," so I said "There's probably more we can do in this industry." And sure enough, we started going to different shows, Fiber Broadband Association, Broadband Communities, and what we found out was a lot of people were just using what we'd call fairly primitive tools (a lot of Google Earth, a lot of KMZs and KMLs being passed back and forth), and we just thought it could be done better. So we started prototyping this product out. We worked with certain ISPs here in Maine. We worked with GWI and Fletcher Kittredge, who provided a lot of insight and information about what it is they need this kind of mapping tools to do, so we set out to do it. And you know, we started about three years ago, maybe four years ago — it's hard to tell with difference between Beta and prototype and all that — but we started moving forward and it started getting traction. And what we saw was people are saying, "Hey, I'm over here doing my mapping in Google Earth. I'm over here managing my circuits in an Excel spreadsheet," and we are now coming in there with a solution so you don't have to do that anymore. You can do it in one place through this map based, cloud based solution called VETRO. And so that's where it kind of all started.

Christopher Mitchell: So I'm just trying to have a sense of how this works. So people were using Excel spreadsheets to manage — I think anyone who's operated a network knows exactly what you're talking about, but I think everyone who hasn't is thinking, "What?!"

Sean Myers: Right. Yeah. And to be honest, we were kind of in the same boat when we first started this. We asked a lot of questions. But what it boils down to, when our customers think of a circuit they're thinking of that light path. So they know that it starts with, you know, to put it simply, it starts with some kind of switch in a central office, some kind of centralized building or location, and it terminates at a customer location. So whether it's a residence or a business, that's the termination point, and there's a path that originates at the CO and ends at the service location. So they were using spreadsheets to define that. So it starts here at central office number one, for example, and it ends here at 14 Maple Street, and here are the speeds that are being provided, and so forth. What we're adding to that definition is everything in between, right? So we're saying here's splice closure number one, here's fiber access terminal number two with certain kinds of equipment in it that help define the path, so now they can define a complete path from CO to service location, not just in a tabular form but in a graphical form. So it's the circuit, the electronic pieces that define it, as well as the mapped assets, that being the cables. So you're not just seeing a red line on a map; you can also see the red line and all of the circuits that are underneath it. So put simply, I click on the line, I'm seeing all of the circuits that pass through that line, i.e., that cable, and I can do that for my entire network right in one simple interface.

Christopher Mitchell: Thanks, that's a very lucid explanation. This gets a little bit beyond mapping, but I know that you'll know the answer to it and I can jump back to Will for this, but I'm curious. Just briefly, you know, I can imagine if someone cuts a fiber that would be useful. What are some of the other things that ISPs would want to have that capacity to be able to do? What does it tell them?

Will Mitchell: What Sean's describing is kind of inside the cables and inside the network. The engineering detail — the inventory of strands and splicing and ports and equipment — it's a lot of detail that needs a database to be managed. As you suggested, you might use that in an operational or maintenance context to figure out who is downstream of a problem, where do I have capacity along this route, or am I at max capacity. Then that brings us over to another piece of the puzzle that we also try to support. I'll mention two parts. One is at the very outset. It's evaluating the marketplace and planning at a feasibility level. What would it take to build a network over here? What's the potential return on the investment? You can model business case in our mapping platform as well. And this is before you draw any cables or any design out. You can also implement both manual and automated design techniques to take that to the next level and get sort of build level costs, build materials, and so forth. So you're doing a feasibility planning market assessment, costing and down, and then you're getting into some of the stuff Sean was talking about, the engineering and that detail. Another thing we're finding a lot of need for and interest in is a sales qualification. We're trying to record the paths of the network and in doing so you're getting to homes passed at a very granular level. We maintain address points of businesses and residences, and you can see exactly who's along the route. And maybe more importantly, you can invite the public, the would-be customer, to check their address and say, "Can I get service here?" So we're marrying the planning, the selling and the operational and engineering aspects all in one mapping database.

Christopher Mitchell: Again, I'm running a risk of trying not to reveal how ignorant I am of some of this, but Sean, I'm curious about where some of the data goes that fits into this because — let me ask you where or how the VETRO FiberMap solution fits in when — I'm guessing you have a whole bunch of data already where utility poles and things like that are. My understanding is it's best practice for when you are designing the network to basically walk all along it and to be taking notes, like "gravel driveway" or you know, a number of different features that you'd have to worry about when you're doing drops to the home and things like that. Is that something that then gets recorded in the VETRO FiberMap or what sort of information do you come prepopulating it with?

Sean Myers: Yeah. No, that's a good question because it is a GIS, right? So we can basically bring in any kind of — we call them layers — so any kind of layer or constraint or asset that you see in order to properly design your network. So for example, poles, and poles are these elusive creatures, right? Everybody wants to know where they are. We've actually talked to some fairly large customers, and I'm sitting in this room with engineers and they go, "Great, I want to buy it. Do the poles come with it?" And I kind of have to chuckle a little bit and go, "No. No, there's work to be done." Now some of our customers, particularly here in Maine, are very lucky in that the towns themselves may have conducted a large scale mapping effort. And when I first started getting into GIS, back in the nineties, I was working with a lot of municipalities, particularly in New England, and one of the first things these municipalities would do is they would literally map their assets, so whether that would be roads and sidewalks. A lot of it was driven by sanitary sewer and storm water concerns, so they were mapping manholes, they were mapping catch basins, different things like that. But in some cases, they were also capturing poles. So for example, here in south Portland, we were able to go into the community, we were able to kind of do an inventory of what they have, and lo and behold, they had an inventory of poles. So we've made that available in our platform, and our customers, those who are proposing to do work in south Portland, have been effectively using that. So as we're placing down the cables, the equipment with them, and so forth, they can align that with the poles. But it can be hit or miss whether or not a community actually has that information. Where we have been very lucky, and Will was talking about this earlier, where we're talking about helping in those planning stages where they want to know where the potential customers are and so forth, we can go into a community [and] look at their land records. Most communities have really gotten their act together in terms of generating GIS data, and they usually start with parcels or cadastral information. So we can go in there, gather the parcel information, it's all digitized, and develop points from those parcels that begin to represent the locations of homes. There's some work to be done. Most of the points start in the middle of the parcel and we might have to move it to the structure itself, but it's a great starting point. Will and I talk a lot about locations. There's lots of sources for that kind of information. We start with the community because we can get it quickly. Most of the time it's free — some communities do charge for it — but we can quickly gather that information and it's a great starting point. So we say, "Here. Here are all your potential locations, and if they have all that other mapping, like poles, we'll bring that in to.

Christopher Mitchell: So just between us, does this break down along state lines? Like, is Utah the best and Florida's the worst? Who's really good at having this mapping information available and who's not so good?

Sean Myers: Yeah. Will, what do you think?

Will Mitchell: Well, we've had a lot of experience and it's interesting. There are some jackpots that you stumble into. I'll mention a couple. One is in Montana, one is in Arkansas, one's here in Maine, where you might have a state GIS authority or office compiling data, oftentimes submitted upstream from counties and then compiled and redistributed down. If you can get a unified source of parcel and assessing type information to start with at that level, or address points by the same token, you're way ahead of the game. We've run into trouble in some states where certain counties treat this data not as a kind of public domain, but rather want to charge hefty fees to dole it out. There are also commercial vendors that we can turn to to source parcel mapping and address points. It's actually — that's something that we wrestle with quite a bit. You know, when we're working with a smaller local ISP who has a fairly local focus, it's definitely sensible to go to the county and compile this data ourselves because we're pretty good at it. If you're talking to a large regional player or a national player, you know, you don't have that same luxury and you might turn to a commercial source.

Christopher Mitchell: It's worth noting what Sean had mentioned regarding the asset mapping, that this is something that it strikes me if communities are thinking about doing, whether it's trying to form a partnership or build their own network, they probably should be trying to collect this information if it's not already available.

Will Mitchell: Yeah, absolutely. You know when Google Fiber put out their community checklist, there were a number of data layers [and] GIS data sets that they recommended communities put together and in fact required that they put together if they wanted to be considered. We tell people that now, I mean when we're talking to community organizers who are getting into municipal broadband or want to. You can do some good legwork upfront collecting — it may not be poles, but even just your address records, your map of houses and targets and businesses. That's a good starting point because believe it or not, it's not always easy or accurate or available, and you gotta have rooftop mapping. We also deal with some customers who are accepting funding, like from the FCC, maybe A-CAM or CAF, and there are new reporting requirements that require them to report back upstream the latitude and longitude of the actual rooftop or the structure itself that's being served. Whereas in the past, you know, a lot of reporting is done at a polygon level, at census block level, which is not really good enough for a lot of the things that we're talking about.

Christopher Mitchell: I suppose we're going to have the data getting better and better over the years, hopefully a little more granular. Well, let's talk about real life use cases then. Who's using the platform and what are they doing with it?

Will Mitchell: We have a number of kind of segments I guess represented. We started building this input from small CLECs, competitive Internet service providers, ISPs, that you might call tier two or tier three or however many tiers down you want to go, right down to the smallest startup.

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Tier x.

Will Mitchell: Yeah, and you know, they all shared a common pain around this mapping, and it was sort of mapping chaos that we're trying to bring some order to help them operate more efficiently and to scale. There are also wireless ISPs, WISPs, using this in the very same way. They just need to add a few elements to the map: towers and where they can reach from those towers, rooftop access points, antennas. We're working with a good number of rural electric co-ops now, who are adopting the platform to build Fiber-to-the-Home networks alongside their traditional electric plants. We have some dark fiber providers, including the main fiber company here in Maine that provide leased strands for transport in an open access manner. We have some rural telephone companies and we have some consulting engineers that do design build work for the network owners. I did not mention municipal, which I can't forget them. Chris, I know that's your area of focus, and we do have a number of towns and groups of towns getting together to build open access, municipally-owned fiber networks as a utility. And we're excited to get more and more involved in that space.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, I think many of us are hoping that that will be rapidly growing space because of how it neatly solves a number of the challenges, both political and technological, that we see.

Will Mitchell: As Sean mentioned, we're a couple years in the market and in production capacity we're sort of the new kids on the block. There's a lot of traditional mapping tools out there that deal with networks, you know, wireline networks, and a lot of them are a little bit long in the tooth and a little bit hard to maneuver. We've designed ours, we hope, to be really easy and simple, and it kind of looks like a Google map but it has a lot of sophistication. And it's in the cloud, which means we can service anyone anywhere. We do have folks in 28 states and 13 countries using the platform, and they're signing up pretty quickly.

Christopher Mitchell: Will or Sean, are there any particular clients you've had that have come forward and just surprised you, and you thought, "Yeah, I never really thought about that or that we could use our tool in that way"?

Sean Myers: Yeah, all the time, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Ok, do you have any clients that have boring uses for your tool?

Sean Myers: Let me try to answer it this way. Building software, which is what we're doing, it can be a complicated process, but the real challenge is, you know, you're always trying to improve it, you're always trying to listen to your customers, but you have to filter here and there. For the most part, we're getting great input from our customers. They ask if they can do some very interesting things. We always explore it and we say yes, let's try to do that. Some of it's kind of boring and engineering related, but we constantly have to evolve, right? So things like multiplexing and how you manage circuits along that. We have a customer right now we're looking at where we've got to begin to model wireless last mile, so instead of a drop to the house, they're now looking at setting up wireline to the nodes and going wireless from that point. Nothing new essentially, but we're seeing more and more customers going to that kind of model, and so our software needs to evolve with that. So I guess in summary, I'd say we're always hearing some interesting things. At first our reaction was, "Wow, nobody does it the same way," but as you get into this more, you start seeing some general patterns and trends that make a lot of sense.

Will Mitchell: There's a type of customer I didn't mention. We're now working with the Connect Maine Authority. And, you know, these state broadband programs, they're coming in looking at things from a 30,000 foot level, and they want to know what would it cost on a macro scale to build Fiber-to-the-Home or build a broadband network in community A, community B, or statewide for that matter. And so we're sort of going upstream in altitude there and helping them with that.

Christopher Mitchell: So you mentioned Maine, and Maine is a place where a lot of things are happening. The Maine Broadband Coalition I think is a model for other states. You know, Sean, this would be a time and if I was right in that, I think you did recently move to Maine. You can talk about how great Portland is. That seems to be something that people who've just moved to Portland do.

Sean Myers: Yeah, Portland's a great town. I actually lived here — Will and I, we met — I lived here from '99 to 2007. Will and I met because we were in the same industry. We actually served on the Maine GeoLibrary Board together. Just yesterday we were in a state building. I was like, "Oh my gosh, I haven't been here in a long time." That's how we met. So I am familiar with Portland. It has changed a lot, I will say Chris, over — I've been gone for 11 years. It has changed a little bit. A lot of activity here. A lot of companies, new companies, that have kind of sprung up, tech companies in particular. I've noticed a fair amount of them. So it's become a pretty cool place to be. I don't think Portland always had that reputation, but I definitely think it's got it now.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you, as two people who have paid close attention then as Maine has been wrestling with its broadband challenges and I think laying the foundation. I mean, by no means is it solved. There's a lot of enthusiasm around solving it. What's unique to Maine and what should other people learn from Maine, based on your observations?

Will Mitchell: You know, I grew up here and I sort of went away and came back. I've been back for 20 years now in Portland doing this mapping stuff. And sometimes we're just the technicians or the map guys or the data guys, but it is fun to be involved at a community and a policy level in this stuff in particular in Main. And I guess I would just comment that we're seeing what I would call a groundswell of activity in communities and towns around the state, kind of stepping to the plate and saying, "You know, we're going to take matters into our own hands here and take a take a run at some sort of partnership, public-private partnership." And there's everything along the spectrum there coming into focus. We've got this new ability or authorization, I guess you would say, to have broadband utility districts. That's brand new. There's one. The first one is called Downeast Broadband, way down in eastern Maine. There are more in the works. There are a lot of other towns doing varieties of things to build little incremental starter projects. There's an RFP in Millinocket right now for that to get quotes to build out groups of three or four towns together. There's a lot going on in the municipal space. And I will also mention that they're well-supported by our small ISPs. There's a spirit of cooperation I would definitely point out, and there's technical expertise being shared. There are some leading voices. We mentioned Fletcher with GWI. He's done amazing things and has big plans. We work with Pioneer Broadband up in Aroostook County. They've gone ahead and built Fiber-to-the-Home in Houlton, Maine, which is an amazing project actually. Several thousand homes are now lit up with world class Internet at the northern tip of I-95. We've got cooperation with this project called the Three Ring Binder, which Maine Fiber Company runs as that open access middle mile. We have the rural telephone companies participating. We work with OTELCO. They're doing all kinds of stuff to facilitate and promote and partner on these projects. So it just feels like a spirit of cooperation and a whole lot of can do, roll up your sleeves kind of activity going on to build broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: I wanted to jump in before I give Sean a chance to weigh in on that. Also, just to note that you mentioned Pioneer — they're an incumbent, right?

Will Mitchell: Right.

Christopher Mitchell: And I just wanted to flag that because sometimes we use sloppy language, and we're talking about frustration with some of the bigger companies that are often incumbents that haven't done a good job. But, you know, in a number of states, not every state but in a number of states, there's companies that are incumbents that are locally rooted and still make a lot of investments and are really helping their communities.

Will Mitchell: Actually, it's not Pioneer Telephone; it's Pioneer Broadband. I think it would be called a competitive ISP. OTELCO, on the other hand, would be called an ILEC or an incumbent. Although, as I mentioned earlier, a lot of these companies have multiple faces and facets and business lines. But in all those cases I mentioned, these are companies that are doing a lot of good work. Axiom is another one doing a lot of planning and broadband plans out there in Maine, and we've been fortunate to have arm's length exposure to some of these projects by some of our customers that are doing work in our platform for the towns, going back to Rockport and South Portland, and I'm sure you've heard about the project on Islesboro, the island that just recently completed the Fiber-to-the-Home build. So there's quite a few really interesting examples, and they're just really the tip of the iceberg I think.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, Page has been on the show in the past, and I was just thinking we need to get him back on now that the network is built. But Sean, let me ask you, what's going on in Maine that you think other people should be paying attention to and learning from?

Sean Myers: Yeah. I grew up in Rochester, New York, so you know, upstate New York and New York state as a whole behaves very differently from most new England states, meaning that there's a lot of local control. And someone who has a planning background, you know, it almost seems antithesis to the way decisions should be made. They should be made on a regional basis. But the real strength in these towns and they way towns are set up in Maine is that there's a lot of local control. So the community can get together, they can get together with the adjacent community as well, but it's pretty easy to get together to make decisions like this — you know, do we want broadband or not? There's referendums as well, so they're instruments to kind of facilitate this kind of stuff. And I think that this can do attitude, as Will mentioned, is very much a part of it. That Yankee can do attitude is very relevant because they know how to organize here pretty well. They know how to work through the issues very well. We were just up in Augusta yesterday talking with some people, and I was thoroughly impressed with the level of knowledge that the person we were talking to had. They understood what the issues were, you know, trying to do a statewide program. They had all the technical details we needed. I think they're well on the road to having a very successful program. I think Maine's going to be able to pull it off, and not just in this millieu. They also have a very robust ISP ecosystem, and I've talked to you several times and I know you've always said, "Well, you know, it's great to have these opportunities, but if there's no one to do it, right, then what are we going to do?" And I think Maine has enough ISPs to really kind of pull this off, and they're all engaged, right? As a community expresses interest, they know who to reach out to right away and they might even know them. It could be their neighbor. So the relationships are here, the ideas are here, and hopefully the money's coming to really make this work.

Christopher Mitchell: I've found this to be informative, but also fun and a reminder of what great things are happening up in Maine. For a few years, I think the legislature has been enthusiastic about expanding broadband while knowing that your governor would probably not implement anything they passed, so January is a whole new year. Legislature can can start working with the governor hopefully, and we'll see what happens next because there's a lot of potential.

Sean Myers: Yeah, I agree.

Will Mitchell: We totally agree, Chris. It's a turning of the page politically, and we're excited to see what comes.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, thank you both for coming on and sharing some of the background of what it takes to build these networks, to operate them, you know, some of these tools, your tool, the VETRO FiberMap, and then chatting with me about one of my favorite states.

Sean Myers: All right, Chris. Well thank you very much. We appreciate the time.

Will Mitchell: Yeah, thank you, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Will Mitchell and Sean Myers from VETRO FiberMap. You can learn more about the company VetroFiberMap.com. We have transcripts for 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 handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons. And thanks for listening to episode 333 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Beyond Mapping With VETRO FiberMap - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 333

November 27, 2018

Whether it’s a local government or ISP that chooses to invest in fiber optic infrastructure accurate, dependable, mapping is critical before, during, and after initial deployment. This week’s guests deliver that service through VETRO FiberMap. CEO Will Mitchell and COO Sean Myers join Christopher to discuss their mapping platform, the creative ways they use it, and their expectations for the future of fiber networks.

Will and Sean explain how in working with ISPs and local communities interested in providing better connectivity, they’ve found that they’ve been able to adjust FiberMap to deliver specialized services. FiberMap has provided the information needed to not only deploy, expand, and manage fiber networks, but it has also allowed companies and publicly owned networks to develop marketing plans and expand their future visions.

Christopher, Will, and Sean discuss GIS data, where they can access it and where it’s more challenging to obtain this data that is so important to creating a successful deployment plan. They also get into some of the many projects where local communities have used VETRO FiberMap, including some of the better-known deployments in Maine, where recent changes in the law have encouraged an increase in regional efforts.

Check out this video and learn more about VETRO FiberMap at their website.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

Read the transcript for the show here.

This show is 33 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

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: mappingexpansionFTTHfiberaudiobroadband bitspodcast

Creative Sources For Funding Fiber Infrastructure Fact Sheet to Spark Your Funding Search

November 27, 2018

As interest in publicly owned broadband network infrastructure increases, local communities seek out new ways to fund municipal networks. Revenue bonds, interdepartmental loans, and avoided costs have been the three most common methods for funding Internet network infrastructure, but local leaders are finding creative approaches to get the job done. The Creative Funding Sources For Fiber Infrastructure fact sheet presents new approaches, pros and cons, and provides examples for further study.

Download the fact sheet.

New Approach to an Ongoing Challenge

Communities that need better connectivity must consider numerous factors when fiber optic network infrastructure is on the table. In addition to the type of model that’s most appropriate, decisions include vendor selection, and the extent of the network footprint. A critical element to every community network are the choice of funding mechanisms local leaders choose to see the project from idea to implementation.

Communities such as Ammon, Idaho, and Kitsap County in Washington are using fresh ideas to fund their infrastructure development. In this fact sheet we describe the way these new mechanisms work and lay out some benefits along with some potentially negative implications. It’s important that communities take a frank look at all the possible repercussions as they move forward. 

This fact sheet will help your own creative funding ideas flow as you look for ways to finance your community’s high-quality Internet access project.

Download the fact sheet.

Tags: fundingfact sheetresourceammonkitsap public utility districtnelson county vacommunity development block grantlocal improvement districtlocal utility districtrs fiber coop

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 26

November 26, 2018

California

Napa County worried about spotty cell, Internet service, especially in emergencies by Barry Eberling, Napa Valley Register

 

Georgia

Muni broadband provider Dalton Utilities/OptiLink launches $80 gigabit broadband by Phil Britt, Telecompetitor

 

Iowa

FCC says satellite connectivity is good enough for rural Iowans. It’s not. by Katie Kienbaum, Des Moines Register

In more than 10 years of working with communities to improve Internet access, we have never found a household that chooses satellite when they have a wired option for broadband. But the FCC wants to claim that the 1 million Iowans who have a cable monopoly and one or two satellite options live in a thriving market.

 

Maine

Cumberland County picks consultant to develop broadband ‘playbook’ by J. Craig Anderson, Portland Press Herald 

 

North Carolina

Franklin County names consultant for broadband master plan by Casey Fabris, The Roanoke Times

 

Rhode Island

Pieces falling together for broadband by Lars Trodson, Block Island Times

 

Virginia

County looks to bring broadband to rural communities by Jason Dunovant, The Franklin News Post

 

Wisconsin

Internet co-op formed to build fiber optic cable infrastructure by Charley Preusser, SWNews.com

 

Wyoming

Laramie selected for broadband acceleration program by Matt Diffie, Laramie Live

 

General

Coalition looks to end rural digital divide by David Geiger, Agribusiness Report

How wired is your Dallas office? New certification lets building owners stand out by Melissa Repko, Dallas News

He said that Internet and mobile connectivity, historically a tenant problem, is now “an opportunity for landlords to differentiate their building."

USDA's rural broadband plan met with citizen criticism, concerns, KUNC

FCC to release report wednesday telling you if your broadband provider is screwing you [update: here it is!] by Jennings Brown, Gizmodo

Ajit Pai isn’t saying whether ISPs deliver the broadband speeds you pay for by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

Rural Americans are rebooting the spirit of the Internet by Clive Thompson, Wired

Ernst, Baldwin introduce bill to expand broadband access, Wallaces Farmer

"Without us, Wisconsinites in our rural community would lose access to high-speed broadband. Sen. Baldwin’s bill is a common-sense measure to provide targeted regulatory relief for small businesses in Wisconsin, and it will ensure that we can continue to make investments necessary to provide our communities with broadband”

The reality of rural broadband, Doug Dawson, POTs and PANs

Ajit Pai wants to raise rural broadband speeds from 10Mbps to 25Mbps by Jon Brodkin, Ars Technica

 

Tags: media roundup

Des Moines Register Runs Op Ed on Satellite, FCC Stats, and Risks to Iowans

November 26, 2018

When considering Iowa, what comes to mind? Open fields? Livestock? High-quality Internet access? According to the FCC, if you live in Iowa, your broadband problems are over. Of course, as ILSR Research Associate Katie Kienbaum points out in her recent piece in the Des Moines Register, the reality in the Hawkeye State is quite different than the FCC’s flawed stats report. The reason is the FCC’s infatuation with satellite Internet access — a view that has some real consequences for Iowa and its people. Read the piece in its entirety here or at the Des Moines Register:

 

FCC says satellite connectivity is good enough for rural Iowans. It’s not.

Everyone in Iowa has access to broadband, according to the federal government. In fact, two-thirds of Iowans can supposedly subscribe to at least three different broadband providers.

Surprised?

You should be. The hundreds of thousands of rural Iowans who struggle to get good connectivity are.

The sizable disconnect between federal statistics and reality is a result of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) classifying satellite Internet access as high-speed broadband. Since every census block in Iowa has access to satellite connectivity, everyone is officially considered served.

However, by accepting satellite Internet access as “good enough,” the federal government is dooming rural Iowans to second-rate connectivity, effectively shutting them out of the modern economy.

Anyone stuck with Internet access from a satellite provider will tell you that it’s not true broadband. Speeds are much slower than cable or fiber, and high latency, or signal transmission time, makes it practically impossible to use for video or phone calls. On rainy days, you might not get service at all. This poor quality isn’t even reflected in the price. Satellite providers often charge more than other types of Internet access providers, while forcing subscribers to decipher complicated data plans and sign on to long contracts.

If we exclude expensive and unreliable satellite Internet access from the data, Iowa actually has much worse connectivity than the federal government claims. More than 10 percent of the population (approximately 360,000 people) doesn’t have access to broadband, which the FCC defines as a minimum of 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Another 40 percent of the population (more than 1 million people) only has access through a single monopoly provider. 

In more than 10 years of working with communities to improve Internet access, we have never found a household that chooses satellite when they have a wired option for broadband. But the FCC wants to claim that the 1 million Iowans who have a cable monopoly and one or two satellite options live in a thriving market. This is statistical malpractice.

Labeling all of Iowa as "served" means the state may not receive further federal funding to invest in its broadband infrastructure. Rural Iowans will be stranded with satellite connectivity, while federal funds go instead to places that have less satellite coverage. For example, Missouri recently collected more than $25 million in the FCC’s Connect America Fund II reverse auction — five times as much as Iowa did.

While satellite Internet access is better than no Internet access at all, it isn’t enough to recognize the full economic benefits of high-speed broadband. Rural communities need high-quality connectivity for online education, telemedicine, precision agriculture, and more, but satellite connectivity can’t provide the speed or reliability those applications require. 

Some Iowa communities are taking their connectivity — and their economic future — into their own hands. Small towns, like Spencer and Waverly, and cooperatives, like Maquoketa Valley Electric, are building fiber networks that can deliver gigabits to local businesses and residents. This is the broadband that rural Iowa needs.

Internet via satellite may be an essential bridge technology while these networks are being built, but it cannot replace wireline connectivity. The federal government should not deny funding to high-quality networks in rural areas just because satellite happens to be marketed there.

 

Tags: iowafccilsrsatellitedata

Building Local Power Podcast Tackles "What's Going on With the Internet?"

November 23, 2018

The Community Broadband Networks Initiative is only one of several research areas at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. It’s common for people who follow the work of one initiative to find overlapping interests in other initiatives at ILSR. In addition to the effects of concentration of power from large corporate entities, local power and how best to exercise it for the community are common themes in all our initiatives. That’s why the ILSR Building Local Power Podcast and our host, Hibba Meraay, occasionally take time to touch base with initiative directors. In October, Hibba interviewed Christopher for episode 57 of the podcast.

In addition to sharing information about some of the publicly owned network models making recent headway, Hibba and Christopher discussed initiatives in Colorado, California’s network neutrality legislation, and 5G. It’s a broader level conversation we don’t always have on the Community Broadband Bits podcast. The show lasts about 30 minutes.

Check out the other Building Local Power podcasts, that span all the ILSR initiatives. Subscribe to the podcast feed: iTunes, Stitcher, or RSS/XML.

New episodes are published bi-weekly on Thursdays. Sign up to get new podcast notifications.

Tags: christopher mitchellinterviewinstitute for local self-relianceaudio

Thanksgiving Dinner at MuniNetworks.org

November 22, 2018

In the U.S., Thanksgiving is one of the busiest travel times of the year. Families and friends come together to catch up, to eat tons of food, and to appreciate their good fortune. It's a time to count our blessings and laugh at a few of the characters common to every family. This year, we've imagined some of those characters at Thanksgiving Dinner in the world of telecom...

Momma Greenlight

by Lisa

Thanksgiving would be just another TV dinner without someone willing to wake up at 4 a.m. to put the bird in the oven, prep the potatoes, and bake the pie. Just like Mom, Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina, has gone above and beyond for the community. In addition to  providing an important economic development tool and creating an innovative program for folks who might struggle a little with Internet access bills, Wilson connected their neighbor Pinetops. In much the same vein, we know that if the next door neighbor was alone on Thanksgiving, Mom would invite them over for turkey and pumpkin pie.

Uncle Comcast

by Jess

He’s that uncle you don’t want to get stuck next to at the dinner table. Uncle Comcast will spend the entire time talking up his newest business venture while he ignores your aunt’s repeated request to pass the mashed potatoes. When you finally get a chance to talk he suddenly has to leave the table to take a call from one of his many lawyers. You’re a little worried he’s working on scheme to swindle grandma out of house and home in order to monopolize the inheritance

Cool Aunt Ammon

by Katie

Everyone in your family is always talking about your cool aunt, but in our world, everyone is talking about Ammon’s open access fiber network. Just like how your aunt shows up every year at Thanksgiving sporting the latest trends, Ammon is pioneering an innovative financing model. Your aunt brings you one-of-a-kind gifts from her travels around the world; Ammon brings the gifts of ultra-fast connectivity and consumer choice to its residents. While your aunt hasn’t won an award (yet) for being the hippest person in the family, Ammon Fiber Optics has been recognized as Community Broadband Project of the Year and as Consumer Product of the Year in Idaho.

Great-Grandma CenturyLink

by Lisa

With a vacant look in her eyes and a vapid smile on her face, Grandma CenturyLink is just happy to be here. Things aren’t like they used to be, no sireee, but DSL still works, doesn’t it? You young people don’t need anything faster than 1.5 Mbps and who uploads anyway? All you ever do is look at that MySpace thingy and check your AOL post office box, right? Do these yams have marshmellows in them and why do you need a power cord anyway?

The Sister’s Cute New Boyfriend Is A UTOPIA

by Lisa

Dad, brother, and the other football fans in the house retire to the family room to watch the game, but this guy takes time time to chat it up with Mom and help clear the table. Like the regional open access network in Utah, this guy understands how important it is to work hard on his image with the people who matter - the people in the community. He's experienced enough to know that the extra effort pays off. Wow, Sis, he’s a keeper!

 

Like every holiday dinner dynamic across America, each community can be thankful for their unique character this November 22nd. As you avoid your own Uncle Comcast and praise your Momma Greenlight on the fabulous yams, we hope you enjoy a warm and wonderful Thanksgiving.

Tags: funnycomcastcentury linkcenturylinkammonwilsongreenlightutopiaidahoutah

After Years of Consideration, South Hadley Electric Department Moves Forward With FTTH Network

November 21, 2018

Ninety miles west of Boston, the small town of South Hadley, Massachusetts, will soon have a new, municipal option for Internet access. In October, the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) Board of Commissioners unanimously approved plans to build a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network throughout the town of 17,000. The network would bring high-speed fiber connectivity to South Hadley businesses and residents, who can currently choose between Comcast and Verizon for Internet access, while also enabling the municipal electric utility to implement smart grid technologies.

SHELD has been considering offering fiber optic Internet access to residents for several years. After hiring the current General Manager, Sean Fitzgerald, in 2017, management started to seriously examine the possibility of building a FTTH network. “What we’ve really been focused on this last year and a half,” Fitzgerald shared at the SHELD Board of Commissioners meeting, “is being diligent in reviewing the costs, the risks, the economic benefits for our customers and the South Hadley community at large.” In approving the network, Commissioner Vern Blodgett said, “SHELD is really ready financially and management-wise to take on a project like this.”

Smart Grid, Economic Development Benefits

One reason for SHELD’s interest in a fiber network is the potential to deploy Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI). While evaluating plans to provide Internet access, electric department management realized that current meters needed to be replaced, providing a perfect opportunity to upgrade to smart meter technology that could be integrated into the fiber network. This technology could help the utility better manage the electric grid load and respond to outages, ultimately saving SHELD money and improving customer experience. “It’s the future [of electric service],” Fitzgerald explained to the board. “If your power goes out, we will know maybe even before you do.”

A community fiber network would also help the town attract and retain businesses as well as improve quality of life for residents. At the board meeting, Chairman Gregory Dubreuil commented, “It will be of great benefit to the citizens of the community. It will . . . make [South Hadley] a better, more attractive place for economic development.”

Furthermore, electric department officials recognize the importance of having public ownership over broadband infrastructure. Fitzgerald told the commissioners that the fiber network “will provide a locally-controlled choice for Internet, which is very important.”

Drawing on Existing Resources

SHELD isn’t building a new network from scratch. South Hadley already has access to fiber infrastructure through projects like the middle-mile network MassBroadband 123 and the dark fiber network Five College Net, which the town has used to connect schools and public facilities. Fitzgerald explained to 22News that SHELD would be “leveraging the existing system” of fiber rings and a data hub to deploy the new FTTH network.

In many ways, providing fiber optic Internet access is the logical next step for municipal electric departments such as SHELD. This is especially true when it can be combined with smart grid technology. While presenting to the Board of Commissioners, Fitzgerald said the fiber network would “capitalize on 114 years of utility infrastructure and over 20 years of fiber optic operational experience . . . It will fully exploit the already existing investment.”

Fitzgerald isn’t a newcomer to the municipal fiber world. Before coming to SHELD, he was the Key Accounts and Customer Service Manager for Westfield Gas and Electric, which started building its own network, Whip City Fiber, in 2015 and now is assisting neighboring communities interested in developing publicly owned networks. Listen to Fitzgerald discuss Whip City Fiber on Community Broadband Bits episode 205.

Building and Financing the Network

Construction on the fiber network will start next year and could take up to five years to complete. The Town Reminder reports [PDF] that SHELD will create a website where residents can express their interest in subscribing to the new network. Neighborhoods, or “fiberhoods,” that show the most enthusiasm will be prioritized during the build out.

South Hadley’s electric department is currently debt free and is planning to use reserve funds instead of loans to finance network construction, according to the Town Reminder. At the board meeting, Fitzgerald said he even anticipates that the revenue from selling Internet access could help SHELD keep electric costs low, as in Chattanooga, where Electric Power Board customers benefit from lower electric rates because of the utility’s fiber network.

SHELD hasn’t released details on service plans yet, but they estimate that monthly costs will be approximately $70.

Image of South Hadley by Denimadept [CC BY-SA 3.0 us] from Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: south hadleymassachusettsFTTHmunielectric

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 332

November 20, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Dalton, Georgia, has been offering high-speed connectivity to residents and businesses for over a decade, and for this episode, Christopher finally gets a chance to speak with Hank Blackwood from Dalton Utilities about their fiber network OptiLink. Read the transcript below, or listen to the episode here.

 

 

Hank Blackwood: So we got into that business sort of slowly but soon realized that, man, if we needed this and our biggest customers needed this, there's a need for this in the community.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. For 15 years, Dalton, Georgia, has been going about their business offering fast, affordable, reliable connectivity to the community. Well, we finally have them on the show to talk about the history of their fiber network, OptiLink, and what's next for them. Hank Blackwood from OptiLink took some time out of his schedule to talk with Christopher for this week's show. Hank describes the community's need for the network, which started with other utilities and as they soon realized extended to business and residential connectivity. He talks about the updates they've made and the new technologies they've introduced to the community, including their new video product that has been driving up subscriptions and the new gig offering. Christopher and Hank also discuss some of the many ways the infrastructure has helped Dalton from economic development and entrepreneurship to telehealth and meeting the diverse cultural needs of the community. Now, here's Christopher talking with Hank Blackwood from OptiLink in Dalton, Georgia.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance up in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Today I'm speaking with someone from one of the original Fiber-to-the-Home communities: Hank Blackwood, the Chief Technical Services Officer for Dalton Utilities and the network OptiLink. Welcome to the show, Hank.

Hank Blackwood: Hello. Glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm very excited to be speaking to you. You know, we've made it a habit of trying to talk to all of the citywide municipal networks, and you're one of the original ones. So maybe you could start by telling us a little bit about Dalton. What's the region like around Dalton?

Hank Blackwood: Dalton primarily has [been] referred to as the carpet capital of the world. It has been sort of a manufacturing community — and really the region also, the surrounding counties — in the textile business for years and years. The utility started supplying water to the industry around the turn of the 20th century, so we've been around since the late 1800s and helped fuel that industry because it was a very water intensive industry. And then years later, [we] offered electricity and then natural gas, and now we also do sewer collection. And recently, in the last 18 or so years, we've gone into telecommunications to support that. So Dalton is a unique part of the state of Georgia in this community because of the amount of manufacturing and the large amount of utility consumption in such a small place.

Christopher Mitchell: And Dalton's about 35,000 people I think I saw, but your utilities go well beyond that.

Hank Blackwood: That's right. We serve customers in portions of six counties and our footprints are different for each of the various utility sectors, but our largest utility is water.

Christopher Mitchell: You started at Dalton — as we talk a little bit more about the broadband — you started at Dalton well before they began offering residential services. Based on all the utilities we've spoken with, I'm guessing that Dalton has been involved with telecommunications internally for a long time, but tell us a little bit about how the utility got into it.

Hank Blackwood: Originally we were — you know, being what we were [with] facilities all over, we needed an ability to connect all of our pumping stations, substations, sewage lift stations, specific campuses with the ability to just, you know, [simply] make phone calls, transfer data. And we were approaching quickly the old Y2K, and we were not sure about our computer systems. Of course, a lot of things we had were very old. If it worked, we kept it, so —

Christopher Mitchell: [laughs] Right.

Hank Blackwood: — we were still on a lot of mainframe and dial up and those kinds of things. But we decided to start transitioning our SCADA system and went to the market for telecommunications products, and they just weren't there or they were so expensive they were just cost prohibitive. So we decided that we would build fiber optic cable to our facilities and just build our own little internal network, and we started doing that in the late nineties. It didn't take long for some of our larger customers to see what we were doing. Of course, our facilities, our largest facilities, are near the largest manufacturing facilities. So you know, having then at the time the three largest carpet manufacturers in the world located here, they started going, "Hey, we could use that. We need to do so and so." And so we decided [in the] late nineties that we would start offering simple point-to-point Ethernet-type services because all of the facilities, you know, that needed service were right next to our facility, so it was easy to do. So we got into that business sort of slowly but soon realized that, man, if we needed this and our biggest customers needed this, there's a need for this in the community. And [we] started talking to community leaders early 2000, and by 2003 we'd made the decision that we needed to build a system for our customers and our — you know, everybody that's in Dalton is either associated with the carpet industry, either directly or indirectly, or they're in a support role at another industry with chemical or machinery or any of those kinds of things. We thought this would be an opportunity to do that, so our board decided, our governing body decided in 2003, let's offer a Fiber-to-the-Home type product and go from there, and we'll offer services that were just not available at the time. So we launched at the end of 2003 and been doing it ever since.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, this is the kind of thing that's been a — it's about a business atmosphere is what I'm hearing. It's about the business climate in the community.

Hank Blackwood: Yes, absolutely. Absolutely.

Christopher Mitchell: So rather than going over all the things that have happened since then, let me just ask you if there's been any highlights over the years that you've been offering this service and presumably transitioning from BPON to GPON and doing who knows what else.

Hank Blackwood: Since we started, we've been able to do a lot of firsts here in town. One is, of course, our Internet service. We were able to offer speeds easily 10 times what the competition could do with DSL even before the days of DOCSIS modems, so you know, we introduced 10 Meg Internet service to residents at the same price you could buy DSL. And today that has moved up to our basic service [which] is 50 meg now, and we are in the process of launching one Gig and then soon after 10 Gig to the home. And so over the years, we've brought some of the first HD programming to town. We also [were] some of the first to bring PVR, home digital recording set-top boxes, to town. And now after being in the video business for 15 years, we've decided it's time to do something, you know, take that next step. Our video system's a little dated — maybe we want to use the word stale.

Christopher Mitchell: Got some dust on it?

Hank Blackwood: That's right. That's right. And we went out to the market, we hired Xcel Services to be sort of our guide in looking for what's the best of breed product. We wanted to go with something that had quality and features that we had come to expect, you know, with sort of enterprise-type gear in the field, but we also did not want to redo our cable TV head-end only to have to spend several million and only be marginally better than what we had. So we were trying to find what was that next generation. So with Xcel's help, we went out and put together an RFP, went out to the market, and came back with some great responses. And this company called MOBITV popped up, and it is basically a hosted video solution that did not require us to invest in a huge head-end all over again but gave us the ability to offer all HD programming, whole-home DVR services, being able to watch video on devices (smart phones and tablets and PCs), being able to watch all your recorded content outside the house. We were wanting to go with market-leading type product but also future-proof what we were putting in place because it seems the paradigm shift just keeps changing in the video market. We didn't want to build something and then two years later be, you know, ancient again. This quickening cycle of technology changes that, you know, continue to go and go and go and go. We've changed our internet speed half a dozen times over the years, but the cable product just sort of stayed the same. Even our voice product added feature sets and pricing advantages and long distance, you know, packages, all these things that have changed. But the video product — it needed a face lift. We've developed a product we call VidLink, which is our new video service, and it's been launched here for a few months. And we are converting our existing customer base, and we're also adding new customers to our video product, which there again, that had been sort of a flat business as far as customers go for some time. But now we're adding new customers, and so far the response has been — it's been well received.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's be clear about that then. I want to just clarify something. So is VidLink the MOBI product and that's how you've branded it?

Hank Blackwood: Yes.

Christopher Mitchell: And so in a time in which we're seeing the major cable companies nationally losing hundreds of thousands of subscribers, you're picking up new ones.

Hank Blackwood: That's right. We have maybe seen the bottom and we're on the way back the other direction. Because it is a hometown product, we take a lot of pride in being that hometown provider, and so we took lots of input from our customer base, you know, to keep the channel packages a certain way and the feature sets that they really wanted to have. We feel like it's a product that not only we think is a great product, but there was a lot of customer input to get to this point. And I think everybody locally, you know, we all take pride in what we do here in Dalton, so I think folks want to be a part of that. And it is a new and exciting product. It's a great product with all the features. You use it once and you're hooked

Christopher Mitchell: As a sports fan, do you have a lot of local sports on it? You able to put high school sports on it and things like that?

Hank Blackwood: We do. Living where we do in Dalton, we're a part of the Chattanooga, Tennessee DMA, so we have all those networks there and they cover a lot of, you know, Friday night high school football — very important here. And then of course we live in Georgia, so we pick up some of the networks from Atlanta. So we get the local high school football. We get the Georgia football, Georgia Tech football, you know, pick up all those games. So yeah, and there's a local TV station that does a little more in depth coverage with coaches, shows, and that type of thing. So yeah, it's a great thing; everybody gets to see that programming. And one of the reasons we wanted to stay in this business, in the cable business, when so many folks are making decisions to move on or give their customers to somebody else, we still wanted to have that link to our customer base. And we thought if we can still provide a better value — and that's really how we got into the business — and something they can't get anywhere else, that's what we want to do.

Christopher Mitchell: I want to jump back into some of the broadband-related questions. And so, you know, you mentioned your slowest speed that you offer is 50 Megabit. You're offering 100 Megabit for those that wanted to jump up in a tier in between, and I noticed that you'd been doing 20 Megabit uploads — something that a lot of people that listen to us are gonna be interested in because many of us are doing production stuff as well as consumption. So I'm curious, as you're looking at that — I mean, it's pretty decent speeds for what most people need, but you decided to make that jump to gigabit. What made you think that this is the right time as opposed to waiting another year or two or something like that?

Hank Blackwood: We see our Internet besides the sheer number of customers increase all the time. We see that usage continue to rise as the sort of Internet of Things. So many people are using the Internet for different things now. Two things: One, with this new VidLink product, we deliver it over our Internet system here locally, so we wanted to be sure that we could offer a service say with gig that they could do anything they needed to plus add the video product without any issues with that. But two, as a way to sort of drive the economy, attract businesses. We've seen several other cities that have launched gigabit service and it be just a boon for their economic development. We've had the ability; we've offered gig service for several years to our larger industrial-type customers. We thought, you know, to be the provider that provides that to the home, people will recognize us as a technology city. So we've been pushing to get rid of all of our original Alcatel BPON gear, and now we've swapped everybody over to some sort of Gigabit PON equipment. And so we are ready to launch our gigabit product — matter of fact, we'll be launching that gigabit product next week.

Christopher Mitchell: This will air on Tuesday, so in fact it'll be this week.

Hank Blackwood: Okay. Okay. Well good.

Christopher Mitchell: Time travel.

Hank Blackwood: The 19th is the day.

Christopher Mitchell: That's exciting. So you mentioned the earlier in the show that you have service in six counties. Is your Internet service available to just about everyone in that area or is that different from your electric service?

Hank Blackwood: It is different. Our electric service primarily serves the City of Dalton. In the state of Georgia, you have territories that you're allowed to serve and whatnot with electric. We serve of course anywhere our electric footprint is, but we also serve outside of that. So we serve — Dalton is the county seat for Whitfield County. We serve a lot outside of the city in Whitfield County. We also offer services in a county east of here, which is Murray County. We serve a lot of the City of Chatsworth and a lot of their industrial sector, which they're again textile manufacturing related. The most number of our customers are in Whitfield County, but we do have a fair amount of service in the next county over. And that there again is primarily broadband service for business, and a lot of not only Internet service but point-to-point managed area network-type connections for businesses. We're doing a lot of businesses just like we did originally. They need phone service between their plants, Internet service between their plants, so now they have their own private network, and so we do a lot of that between these two counties.

Christopher Mitchell: And if you don't mind me asking, what's your take rate in the Dalton area in particular?

Hank Blackwood: If you look at all of our services combined, depending on the day you talk about it, it's between 60 and 65 percent, and there are pockets in our downtown district that's over 90 percent.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that we've seen in a number of places is regardless of how many people take the service — and that's a very impressive take rate compared to even other popular networks — is that still often the cable and telephone companies try to create anger and frustration and just try to give you a black eye. I haven't seen anything like that in the media in the times that we've looked. Have you mostly escaped that or are people just not buying it? What's the dynamic?

Hank Blackwood: To be honest, when we first launched, not too many municipals had done this, and I really believe that the thought was, "Well, it's a flash in the pan." At the time, the telephone company that was the incumbent telephone provider was in transition. They'd been bought out by another provider and they were in transition, and the same thing with a cable system. It had been a local or regionally-owned system and had just been bought out by a national company. And I believe everybody thought, "Well, you know, it's going to happen and go away. They don't know what they're doing." And it wasn't until we were probably two and three years into our buildout that we got a little bit of static in the newspaper. There were some articles trying to talk about other places that had tried to do this and they'd lost money, and you know, there was a little bit of that misleading information, but it didn't seem to last very long. I don't know if it's because now that national providers were offering services here, the cable and telephone companies are offering services here, maybe we were just small enough [that] we weren't on the radar. Or maybe with being a hometown company, people just liked it so much they just felt like they didn't have trash. Not sure what. We'll say it was the latter, but it might have been simply because we were just that small on everybody's radar.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, let me ask you then, you know, based on all the years you've been working on this, are there stories over the years that just make you really proud of offering this service? I mean, you seem like the kind of person who you certainly could have hooked on with a larger utility somewhere else in the southeast that wanted to build a network, but you've stuck around in Dalton. What keeps you just really enthusiastic in knowing that you've done the right thing over the years?

Hank Blackwood: Over the years [it's] been great. Just great stories. One of which was early on, we were able to — Dalton has a fairly significant Hispanic population. A lot of immigrants here because of the manufacturing part and because of the places where we sell the goods here and where those go. So we have a fairly large immigrant population. One of the things that was a part of that culture was sort of Internet cafes, which had not been — you know, in this country, we were sort of late bloomers for that because so many other countries, if you wanted Internet service, you had to go to an Internet cafe. So we supported one of those, helped get one of those off the ground for a local immigrant businessman, and that was hugely successful. We were able to work with him and get him the kind of bandwidth he needed for a lot of users [and] telephone service that was inexpensive for all of his customers. That was one big thing. And you know, that was a great thing for the community. Other things: a local doctor's office, the guy who was sort of innovative, trying to go to an all electronic-type system when nobody else was doing that. [He] needed the ability to tie his two offices together and his third party billing company closer to real time, so he would not have to have the staff to manage insurance and keep up with all those kinds of things. So he could do that stuff in almost real time, and basically the doctor or the physician's assistant from a laptop could have that information before they left your room — you know, verify that your prescriptions were covered and the procedure or condition you were there for was covered. And you were able to walk out the door with a printout of everything you needed and your prescription sent to a local pharmacy or whatnot. And that was another big thing that he sort of took advantage of and we were able to provide because at the time we were offering what was really high speed Internet. And now you mentioned the upload speeds. In those days, the upload speeds were 5 Megs and that was unheard of. They couldn't even get download speeds at that level, so that was a big change. More recently we've been able to, with companies that are doing distance learning for like safety and training and product training and safety, those types of things, we've been able to offer those guys the ability to do that and keep from bringing people to Dalton and having to house them locally and all those kinds of things. They can conduct those training seminars in all their facilities. Some of the carpet industries here, they've got offices across North America and some in Europe, and then we can help support that distance learning. Additionally, being a part of our local school systems, being able to provide service for local school systems, city and county school systems, all of the things that we hear about with now kids taking tablets home and being able to provide affordable Internet service for kids to be able to do video learning when they go home. They've got their textbooks on a tablet, and they can watch educational YouTube videos and Vimeo videos and all those types of things that comes along with the Internet age. We've been able to provide that also. And here in just the last couple of months, we've had a local company, a young fella developed a product for his his Lego building where he —

Christopher Mitchell: You have my attention. [laughs]

Hank Blackwood: He was able to develop a glue product that he could put on his Lego bricks when he built something, so when he dropped them they wouldn't bust into a thousand pieces and you could pull the glue off. He sort of described it as the sticky notes for Lego products. And he developed that here in town, and he credits being able to have not only high speed Internet but a stable low-latency Internet connection as he was helping develop this product. And he's since made it to Shark Tank, and he's been taken on with an investor to grow his business. That's a big plus. Also, we've got a lady that recently came forward that runs a local counseling center, and the ability to take specialists in a field that may not be available here locally because of the size of the town — she can put clients in touch with a specialist, doctors, or therapists in other places with real time, there again, low-latency, consistent video connection. So just a lot of good things that come out of that, that make you look forward to getting up and coming to work every day.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah. It certainly seems like, you know, there's a sense I think that if you live in a town outside of a metro region that you might be missing some things, but you're doing a lot of things down there that I can't do here in a major metro because I'm stuck on a cable connection I have no control over. One of the things you said that really resonated with me was discussing the video package and services that people actually wanted with the community. The only time I get a call from my cable company, they're trying to sucker me into taking another package or something like that. So, I can definitely see how —

Hank Blackwood: We would be more than happy for your company to move to Dalton. We've got a place for you. I'd be glad for you to move here.

Christopher Mitchell: I appreciate that. You let me know when you have proper winters with lots of snow.

Hank Blackwood: Okay. [laughs]

Christopher Mitchell: Well, this has been really great. I'm glad to learn more about the network, and I'm thrilled about your success. Excited about the new VidLink product, the 10 Gigabit services. It sounds like y'all are doing great.

Hank Blackwood: Yup. Yup. And like I said, this new VidLink video product, we had a beta trial that was going along and it was great. We've had a beta trial with our gig product, and all that has been very positive. So, lots of good things happening at Dalton Utilities.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today.

Hank Blackwood: Thank you, sir. I enjoyed it.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Hank Blackwood from OptiLink in Dalton, Georgia. We have transcripts for 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 handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other ILSR podcasts. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, please take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 332 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

After 15 Years, OptiLink Still Innovating in Dalton, Georgia - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 332

November 20, 2018

Dalton, Georgia’s OptiLink has served the community for around 15 years, making it one of the first citywide Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) municipal networks. In this interview, Chief Technical Services Officer of OptiLink and for Dalton Utilities Hank Blackwood talks with Christopher about the past, the present, and the immediate future of OptiLink.

Hank describes the original purpose for bringing fiber into the community. From utilities to businesses to residents, city leaders realized that Dalton needed better connectivity and that the best source was a hometown utility that cared about subscribers. In addition to economic development, advancing telehealth, and inspiring entrepreneurs, the OptiLink network has allowed the community to celebrate its diverse culture.

Now that it’s time to update their video offerings, says Hank, OptiLink has discovered a great new video product that is attracting new subscribers. Over the years, they’ve tried to introduce new technologies to Dalton in order to keep the community up to speed and now that they’re introducing gigabit service, they are truly a tech city.

We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.

This show is 28 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the trascript for this episode.

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: daltongeorgiabroadband bitsaudiopodcastFTTH

Community Broadband Media Roundup - November 19

November 19, 2018

California

Resilient rural communities built on upgraded infrastructure, faster broadband for all by Kevin Cann, California Economic Summit

Oxnard seeks input from local businesses as part of fiber optics plan by Wendy Leung, Ventura County Star

 

Colorado 

Colorado voters continue to opt out of state's protectionist, ISP-written broadband law by Karl Bode, TechDirt

The stark voter approval again highlights how issues like better broadband and net neutrality aren't actually partisan in the real world. ISP policy folks just like to pretend otherwise to sow division, hamstring consent, and stall meaningful reform. 

 

Massachusetts

WiredWest retools to advance last-mile broadband plans by Larry Parnass, The Berkshire Eagle

For Drawe, who helped steer the group through crisis in 2015 and 2016, it always made sense for small towns to find strength together — and not leave the many chores of actually managing a network to communities where officials, most of them volunteers, have limited expertise and time.

 

Michigan

Internet service in Marshall was slow, so the city built its own fiber-optic network by Kalea Hall, Battle Creek Enquirer

 

Mississippi

Is high-speed Internet service a state law change away for rural Mississippi?, Mississippi Clarion Ledger

 

North Dakota

 

How did North Dakota become the crown jewel of the Internet in the midwest? by Nick Thieme, New America

 

Virginia

Virginia state senators announce funding to bring broadband access to eastern shore, WBOC 16

Botetourt County hires consultant to draft broadband expansion plan by Alison Graham, Roanoke Times

 

Wyoming

Speakers discuss barriers, solutions to statewide broadband by Chrissy Suttles, Wyoming Tribune Eagle

 

General

The new frontier in protecting broadband privacy by Eric Null, Slate

Without the FCC’s broadband privacy rules in place, there are no rules on the books protecting consumers from misuse of their information collected by their broadband provider.  

$91 million in USDA rural broadband funding awarded in 12 states by Carl Weinschenk, Telecompetitor

Neighborly enters muni broadband market with ambitious accelerator project by Theo Douglas, GovTech

 

 

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