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ACLU Report: Publicly Owned Networks Offer Better Connectivity And So Much More

March 30, 2018

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ALU) examines municipal networks as a way to protect network neutrality and privacy, and to improve local access to broadband. The report, titled The Public Internet Option, offers information on publicly owned networks and some of the most common models. The authors also address how community networks are better positioned to preserve privacy, bring equitable Internet access across the community, and honor free speech. There are also suggestions on ways to begin a local community network initiative.

Read the full report.

Preserving Online Expectations

The ACLU report dives into the changes the current FCC have made that have created an online environment hostile toward preserving privacy and innovation. When FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and the Republican Commissioners chose to repeal federal network neutrality protections, they handed a obscene amount of power to already overly-powerful corporate ISPs. Ever since that decision, local communities have been looking for alternatives.

Authors of the report describe the ways local communities are using their existing assets and investing in more infrastructure in order to either offer connectivity themselves or work with private sector partners. In addition to having the ability to require network neutrality from partners, communities with their own infrastructure are able to take measures to protect subscribers’ data and implement other privacy protections. The current administration removed privacy protections for subscribers in 2017.

The ACLU offers best practices that rely on three main principles:

1. High-speed broadband must be accessible and affordable for all.

2. Community broadband services must protect free speech. 

3. Community broadband services must protect privacy.

Within each principle, the report offers specific information and considerations. As we would expect from the ACLU, they cover the principles as they intercept between individual freedoms, human rights, and the practicalities of municipal networks. We were happy to help out with information from our map and articles, and we're pleased the authors suggest MuniNetworks.org as a clearinghouse of information to get people started on educating themselves.

From the conclusion:

There are many reasons for Americans to want their municipalities to offer broadband directly or indirectly to their residents. With internet service becoming ever more central to modern social, political, economic, and political life, access to functional and affordable broadband, like access to running water and electricity, must be available to all. Given the poor choices offered to so many Americans by corporate broadband carriers, many cities are finding they need to take matters into their own hands. And as the Trump-era FCC works to terminate important protections for the integrity and privacy of communications, many Americans are also deciding they want a broadband provider that they can trust and that is locally accountable and responsive.

As cities respond to these needs by providing internet access, they must take care to respect constitutional values of free speech and privacy and to ensure that access is provided equally to all. And communities that don’t offer Internet services should consider doing so as a way to advance and protect those values.

Download The Public Internet Option.

The Public Internet Option: How Local Governments Can Provide Network Neutrality, Privacy, and Access for AllTags: municommunity broadbandnetwork neutralityprivacydataaclureportuniversal accesslocal

Cortez Community Network Pilot; Ready To Connect Residents

March 29, 2018

Cortez is ready to use its publicly owned infrastructure to begin a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) pilot project. At the March 27th City Council meeting, members unanimously approved fees and rates for the Cortez Community Network Pilot, which marks a shift as the city moves to offer retail Internet access to residents and businesses.

Time To Serve Residents

Earlier this month, General Services Director Rick Smith presented information to the City Council about the pilot at a workshop so they could ask in-depth questions. At the workshop, City Manager Shane Hale described the challenges of finding ISPs willing to offer residential Internet access via Cortez’s fiber infrastructure. “We found that there were very few providers that actually wanted to go Fiber-to-the-Home,” he said. “Homeowners are a lot of work.”

The city’s network has provided open access fiber connectivity to municipal and county facilities, schools, community anchor institutions (CAIs), and downtown businesses for years. They officially launched the network in 2011 after serving public facilities and a few businesses on an as-needed basis. A 2015 expansion brought the network allowed Cortez to offer fiber connectivity to more premises. There are at least seven private sector ISPs using the infrastructure to offer services to local businesses.

The open access model will remain for commercial connections in Cortez, but for now the city plans to operate as a retail ISP for residents who sign up on the pilot program. At the March 27th meeting, the City Council established rates for subscribers, who will pay $150 for installation and $60 per month for 100 Megabits per second (Mbps) for upload and download speeds. Subscribers will also need to rent a GigaCenter Wi-Fi router for $10 per month.

Waiting On The Wings Of The Pilot Program

According to Smith, potential subscribers are already interested in signing up to participate in the pilot program. He told the Cortez Journal that 11 residents were in the process of being connected and 58 residents and businesses had requested broadband through the Cortez Community Network Pilot as of mid-March. Premises where fiber is already in place are eligible to participate.

Cortez is taking the same route as an increasing number of communities that want to improve local connectivity with publicly owned infrastructure. Places like Ellensburg, Washington; Owensboro, Kentucky; and Holland, Michigan, have all engaged in pilot programs to cut their teeth on offering residential Internet access. Cooperatives have also used pilot programs to test out their broadband programs. Launching broadband in a limited fashion before offering it to a wide area allows a cooperative or municipality the opportunity to anticipate challenges and respond proactively.

Looking Forward, Looking Good

With so many years of experience under their belts, Cortez is likely to have no problem contending with challenges that arise during the pilot program. Community leaders are excited about the new venture.

Mayor Karen Sheek said she hoped the program would lead to the city taking a more active role in Internet services.

“I’m so glad that we’ve reached this point because for a long time, I’ve felt that the city should be an ISP,” she said.

Check out our conversation with Rick Smith about the Cortez network from 2014 for the Community Broadband Bits podcast, episode 98.

View the City Resolution establishing rates for the pilot project here.

Watch the City Council discuss the pilot project and the resolution here:

 

Image of Mesa Verde National Park by Tobi 87 (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Cortez City Council Resolution For Pilot RatesTags: cortezcoloradomuniretailFTTHopen access

Tacoma RFI/Q For Partnership: Responses Due April 27th

March 28, 2018

In recent years, leadership in Tacoma, Washington, has debated the future of the Click! Network. They recently released a Request for Information and Qualifications (RFI/Q) to gather ideas and proposals from potential partners. Responses to the RFI/Q are due by April 27.

A Dozen Goals

The Tacoma Public Utility Board and the City Council have established a list of 12 policy goals that they plan to adhere to while moving forward. At the top of the list is, “Continuing public ownership of the telecommunications assets, especially those assets necessary for Tacoma Power operations.” Back in 2015, the Tacoma community began discussing the possibility of leasing out operations of the network. In our four part series, "The Tacoma Click! Saga of 2015", we examined the history, challenges, and potential future of the municipal network.

Other goals are designed so that low-income residents will not be left behind, network neutrality principles are respected, user privacy remains protected, and open access is preserved to encourage competition. The City Council and the Public Utility Board also want to be sure that the infrastructure continues to be used for the city’s power utility and that the telecommunications business operations are financially stable. You can review all the goals on the city’s press release.

Click!

Tacoma invested in its network back in the 1990s. The coaxial cable network passes about 115,000 premises in the Tacoma Power Utility (TPU) service area. In addition to wholesale Internet connectivity in keeping with state law, the network offers cable television service. TPU used the network for smart metering in the past, but is switching to a wireless system, which will only require the fiber backbone. They feel that now is the time to find a partner to take over broadband operations to reduce their operational costs.

The city wants to find a partner that will pick up marketing and increase take rates, upgrade the network when needed, and offer more services to residents and businesses. In their RFI/Q, the city notes that retail ISPs that use the Click! infrastructure account for about 15 percent of the market; incumbents are Comcast and CenturyLink. While Click! passes about 90 percent of the available TPU customer premises in the city of Tacoma, there are still a significant percentage of premises outside of the city that aren’t able to connect to Click!. The city and TPU want to find a way to reach more of TPU electric customers.

For more specific information, check out the full RFI/Q here and read the press release.

Request for Information and Qualifications for Partnership Arrangements For Tacoma's Click! NetworkTags: tacomawashingtonrfirfqpartnershipmuniclick!

Straight Talk About 5G; Potential, Limitations, Hype - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 299

March 27, 2018
Community Broadband Bits Episode 299 - Eric Lampland, Founder and Principal of Lookout Point Communications

If we want to talk technical stuff on the Community Broadband Bits podcast, we know Eric Lampland is one of the best guys to call. Eric is Founder and Principal of Lookout Point Communications. Earlier this month, he and Christopher presented information about 5G at the Iowa Association of Municipal Utilities Telecommunications Conference. They took some time during the conference to sit down with the mics and have a conversation for episode 299 of the podcast.

There’s been scores of hype around the potential of 5G and, while the technology certainly opens up possibilities, Eric and Christopher explain why much of that hype is premature. 5G networks have been touted as an affordable answer to the pervasive problem of rural connectivity, but like other wireless technology, 5G has limitations. Eric breaks down the differences between evolutions of wireless technologies up to now and explains what needs they will fulfill and where we still have significant work to do.

Eric also helps us understand GPON and NG-PON2, the technology that much of Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) relies upon. He describes how the technology is evolving and how new possibilities will influence networking.

For information on 5G, we recommend you check out these resources from Next Century Cities:

Guest Blog: What Can Cities Do To Prepare for the Next Generation of Mobile Networks? by Tony Batalla, head of Information Technology for the city of San Leandro, California.

Next Century Cities Sends Mayoral Letter to FCC in Defense of Local Decision-Making, Releases New Market Research on 5G, Smart City Deployments - Read the full letter here.

Report: Status Of U.S. Small Cell Wireless/5G & Smart City Applications From The Community Perspective, by RVA, LLC Market Research & Consulting

Fact sheet on the RVA report.

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.

Read the transcript for this show here.

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

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

Fact Sheet on Status Of U.S. Small Cell Wireless/5G & Smart City Applications From The Community Perspective, by RVA, LLC Status Of U.S. Small Cell Wireless/5G & Smart City Applications From The Community Perspective, by RVA, LLC Mayoral Letter to FCC in Defense of Local Decision-MakingTags: 5GWirelesstechnologytechnicaleric lamplandgponmarketingmobilebroadband bitsaudiopodcast

Electric Co-ops Finding Funding To Connect Folks In Rural Virginia

March 27, 2018

Electric cooperatives in Virginia are continuing to transform connectivity in the state’s rural communities. With funding assistance from state and local government, projects in Mecklenburg and Appomattox Counties will soon be moving forward.

Building Out Mecklenburg

The Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission (TRCC) was formed when the state, along with Florida, Minnesota, Mississippi, and Texas, chose to break off from a Master Settlement Agreement between the largest tobacco companies and the remaining 46 states. The proceeds from their separate settlement have been used for broadband and other projects to diversify the economy. The TRCC administers grants and a loan fund.

Last fall, the Mecklenburg Electric Cooperative (MEC) announced that they planned to upgrade their fiber optic network infrastructure to connect substations and district offices. The board of directors decided that the upgrade would give them the perfect opportunity to engage in a Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) pilot project. As part of the project, MEC entered into an agreement to use the Mid-Atlantic Broadband Communities Corporation (MBC) fiber backbone.

The cooperative applied for a grant from TRRC and recently learned that they've been awarded $2.6 million for the $5.2 million project. They've dubbed the initiative the EmPower Broadband Cooperative.

EmPower will begin by offering 50 Megabits per second (Mbps) symmetrical Internet service for approximately $65 - $75 per month; VoIP will also be available. Members within 1,000 feet of the backbone that MEC deploys will have the ability to sign up for the service. Like other pilot projects, MEC will use the opportunity to fine tune the service and gage interest before they decide whether or not to take EmPower to the rest of their electric service area and possibly beyond.

President of MEC John Lee:

Electric cooperatives are, far and away, the best positioned entities to bring ultra-high-speed broadband to the unserved or underserved rural areas of the Commonwealth, and MEC has been down this path before, providing electric service in the 1930’s when no one else would. This time, we are addressing the injustice by leveraging a vast network of existing infrastructure including easements, poles and wires that connect every home and business in our service territories. Several Virginia electric cooperatives are already investing in fiber to accommodate increasing communications needs and, in those instances, the only remaining step is deploying fiber to the doorstep of the homes and businesses to whom they provide electric service.  While the story of rural “Internetification” is still being written, it is clear that the electric cooperatives will have a significant effect on provisioning last-mile broadband services. We are committed to bringing economic and educational opportunities back to our region and believe this effort is a strong step towards meeting that objective.

The MEC pilot project will bring FTTH to members in Brunswick, Charlotte, Greensville, Halifax, Mecklenburg, and Pittsylvania counties. 

Collaborating In Appomattox

The Central Virginia Electric Cooperative (CVEC) recently received good news about funding for their proposed 450-mile FTTH network. In addition to also receiving around $980,000 in funding from the TRRC, the Appomattox County Board of Supervisors voted earlier this month to approve the co-op's proposal and is considering assisting CVEC with tax rebate incentives.

The Board still needs to review and approve specifics of a plan for the rebates proposed by CVEC at their March 18th meeting. They plan to discuss the proposal in detail at their April meeting.

With a unanimous vote to support the proposal, the Board seems poised to do as much as they can to encourage the project for better connections in the rural county.

“I think the most important thing about it is the education avenue that it’s going to provide our county residents, our county schoolchildren, the opportunity to access the internet,” board chairman Sam Carter said.

“I believe it enhances our economic development opportunities to attract businesses and also attract businesses who might not have that capability now or are underserved by the capabilities they have, and hopefully that could help us create more employment and create more business expansion in the county,” Falling River District Chairman Chad Millner said.

The first phase of the project will connect about 1,650 premises. In total, CVEC will provide FTTH to 3,400 premises in the county.

Tags: virginiarural electric coopruralFTTHcooperativemecklenburg countymecklenburg electric cooperativecentral virginia electric cooperativegrantfunding

Colorado Legislature Revamps Incumbent Right Of First Refusal, Blocking Monopoly Battle Tactic

March 26, 2018

A bill making its way through the Colorado General Assembly is tackling one of the tools that big incumbent ISPs use to secure their positions as monopoly Internet access providers - the right of first refusal. If HB 1099 passes, and other states see the savvy behind this approach, community leaders and advocates for a competitive broadband market will be able to put a chink in the monopoly armor.

A Familiar Story

ISP entrepreneurs, cooperatives that want to offer high-quality Internet access, and entities planning publicly owned projects know the story. Grants are available, usually for an unserved or underserved area that the incumbent DSL provider has ignored. Said entity invests the time and money into developing a plan and applying for the grant, feeling good about the fact that they will likely be able to serve this community that no one else seems to want to serve. 

They apply for the grant, may even receive a preliminary approval, BUT then the incumbent ISP exercises its right of first refusal, which throws a very big wrench into the plans of the ISP entrepreneur, cooperative, or entity.

In June 2017, we interviewed Doug Seacat from Clearnetworx and Deeply Digital in Colorado who told us the story of how his company had applied for and won grant funding through the Colorado Broadband Fund to develop fiber Internet network infrastructure near Ridgway. CenturyLink exercised its right of first refusal, which meant that unless Seacat could change the mind of the board that considered the appeal, CenturyLink would get the funding rather than Clearnetworx.

CenturyLink prevailed because it had the attorneys and the experience to wield the right of first refusal as a weapon. When all was said and done, however, the people in the project area did not have access to the fast, affordable, reliable fiber connectivity they would have obtained from Clearnetworx. CenturyLink instead obtained state subsidies to deploy DSL that was better than the services it was already offering, but no where near as useful as the Internet access Seacat’s company had planned to deploy. Community leaders did not quickly forget the fiasco.

HB 1099

Democrat Barbara McLachlan from Durango Republican Marc Caitlin from Montrose introduced the bill this session. So far, the bill has passed through the committee process in the House and the Senate and has passed the Third Readings in both bodies. There have been no amendments in committee or on either floor. HB 1099 just needs to be signed by the President of the Senate and the Speaker of the House and then sent on to the Governor.

The bill, titled the "Broadband Deployment Level Playing Field Act", has had strong bipartisan support. In the House, the Third Reading passed 61 - 2 and in the Senate, the Third Reading passed unanimously. The bill signals an impatience with CenturyLink and its failure to deliver in rural areas while preventing other companies, municipalities, and cooperatives who want to offer high-quality connectivity.

HB 1099 puts conditions on the right of first refusal, rather than eliminating it outright. Rep. McLachlan explains the proposed measure in a recent opinion piece:

Under HB-1099, which I co-sponsored with Rep. Marc Catlin (R-Montrose), if a new provider bids to provide high-speed service for an unserved rural community, a company that is already active in the area and has the right of first refusal may either let the new company go ahead, or else they must match the speed and price the new company is offering. The bottom line? Unserved areas of Colorado get quality, affordable broadband. 

Here’s the language from the bill:

(g)(I) With regard to an applicant that has submitted a proposed 12 project to the board, affording each incumbent provider in the area that 13 is not providing access to a broadband network in the unserved area a -2- 1099 1 right of first refusal regarding the implementation of a project in the unserved area.

(II) If an incumbent provider proposes a project for the area, the incumbent provider commits to providing access to a broadband network:

(A) Within one year after the applicant's submission of a proposed project; 

(B) AT DEMONSTRATED DOWNSTREAM AND UPSTREAM SPEEDS EQUAL TO OR FASTER THAN THE SPEEDS INDICATED IN THE APPLICANT'S PROPOSED PROJECT; AND 

(C) AT A COST PER HOUSEHOLD IN THE AREA TO BE SERVED THAT IS EQUAL TO OR LESS THAN THE COST PER HOUSEHOLD INDICATED IN THE APPLICANT'S PROPOSED PROJECT.

Check out the entire bill here.

Over the past several years, Colorado has become one of the places where bipartisan local and state leaders have recognized the value of high-quality connectivity in rural areas and have taken steps to improve policies to encourage deployment. Lobbying from powerful incumbents still has some influence in the General Assembly, but measures like HB 1099 suggest that there are legislators in Denver that are tired of broken promises. This is a move worth watching in other states where big corporate incumbents have derailed new projects with the right of first refusal.

Image of Durango fromRim Drive by Ron Clausen (Own work) [CC0] via Wikimedia Commons.

HB 1099 Bill TextTags: coloradohb 1099 colegislationright of first refusalincumbentruralgrantappealcenturylink

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 26

March 26, 2018

Alaska

Alaska lawmakers, following other states, consider bills to keep net neutrality by Annie Zak, Anchorage Daily News

 

Colorado

Cortez announces new broadband pilot program by Stephanie Alderton, The Cortez Journal

Broadband deployment in rural Colorado by Rep. Barbara McLachlan, Durango Herald

Cortez council candidates talk business, broadband in forum by Stephanie Alderton, The Cortez Journal

Fiber service for faster internet on horizon in Centennial by Ellis Arnold, Centennial Citizen

Ting signed a lease March 1 to use the City of Centennial's fiber-optic cable system, an underground infrastructure that's currently built in the middle of the city — roughly from Interstate 25 to South Jordan Road — that the city is expanding to its east and west parts. Ting will be able to provide service by building its own local fiber network in certain neighborhoods by connecting to the city's fiber system.

Whether Ting can expand across the city depends on demand, but that is the goal, according to Mark Gotto, Ting's city manager for Centennial.

Fort Collins council tweaks election code, approves city broadband bonds by Nick Coltrain, The Coloradoan

 

Georgia

Commissioners Consider Starting City-Run Broadband Service by Blake Aued, Flagpole

 

Massachusetts

4 Berkshire towns team with state to find 'better approaches' on broadband, energy by Adam Shanks, Berkshire Eagle 

Group forms to push city-owned broadband in Cambridge by Abby Patkin, Wicked Local Cambridge

 

New York

NY says Charter lied about new broadband, threatens to revoke its franchise by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica

New York government officials have threatened to terminate Charter Communications' franchise agreements with New York City, saying the cable company failed to meet broadband construction requirements and may not have paid all of its required franchise fees.

The NY Public Service Commission said Charter should pay a $1 million fine for missing a deadline to expand its broadband network statewide and is questioning Charter over declines in franchise fees paid to New York City.

 

North Carolina

Rowan County commissioners establish broadband task force by Andie Foley, Salisbury Post

Report: North Carolina Cities Need Powers to Aid Broadband by The Associated Press

NC Towns And Cities Push For Expanded Broadband by Will Michaels, WUNC

The FCC's most recent report says about 20 percent of rural North Carolina does not have high-speed Internet access. 

"We have students and senior citizens who park daily in front of our senior center building. We thought something was going on, but no, they're sitting in their vehicles accessing our Internet because they can't do it at home," said Jacque Hampton, clerk for the town of Bolton in rural Columbus County.

The League of Municipalities wants the General Assembly to approve laws that make it clear local governments can enter public-private partnerships to expand coverage, and offer investments like bonds, taxes and economic incentives. A bill that includes such provisions stalled in the state Senate last year.

Cities have a way to expand internet access, and want the state to let them try it by Colin Campbell, Charlotte News & Observer

 

Texas

Digital Inclusion Alliance Looks At New Structure To Help Connect San Antonio Homes by Paul Flahive, Texas Public Radio

 

Virginia

Editorial: Lack of broadband may cost some of these workers their jobs by The Roanoke Times Editorial Board

Appomattox supervisors OK broadband proposal by Carrie Dungan, Lynchburg News and Advance

More broadband internet officially is coming to Appomattox County after the board of supervisors approved Central Virginia Electric Cooperative’s proposal for a 450-mile fiber optic network in parts of the county during a Monday night meeting.

CVEC received just less than $1 million in grant funding from the Virginia Tobacco Region Revitalization Commission last week to assist with the project. Total costs to construct the Appomattox portion of the project are estimated at $10 million.

Another Path to Rural Broadband: Electric Co-ops by James A. Bacon, Bacon’s Rebellion

 

Washington

City council creates group to find way to lower broadband rates, increase speeds by Kaitlin Riordan and Ryan Simms, KREM 2

 

General

Senators From Both Parties Say FCC Broadband Maps are a Joke by Karl Bode, DSL Reports

We've already discussed how the FCC's recently released broadband availability map is comically error prone, not only hallucinating competitors, but the speeds they're actually able to deliver. The map, which the FCC recently dusted off and re-launched without really fixing its core problems, also omits pricing data entirely. The accuracy and lack of price data stems from one core reason: ISPs fight tooth and nail to try and downplay coverage gaps and the overall lack of competition in the US broadband market, lest somebody try to actually do something about it.

And as it turns out, the map the FCC uses to determine which areas get subsidies for wireless deployment isn't much better.

‘Dig Once’ Now Policy, Not Mandate. You Dig? By John Eggerton, MultiChannel News

Opinion: FCC Set to Waste Billions on the Wrong Rural Broadband Provider by Matthew Marcus, The Daily Yonder

Rural communities have already proven that cooperatives are the way to get good, fast Internet access to underserved areas. So why are AT&T and other big corporations in line to get $2.5 billion in government funding to reach customers – again.

A wide gulf between federal agencies on broadband competition by Tom Wheeler, Brookings Institution

Preserving Local Voices in Broadband Deployment by Sharon Buccino, National Resource Defense Council

The Cable Industry Is Quietly Securing A Massive Monopoly Over American Broadband by Karl Bode, TechDirt

The Dangers of Big City Subsidies by Susan Crawford, Wired

In the American internet access world, public assets are privatized all the time. Sometimes this happens when private companies are handed direct payments in the form of subsidies: public money, amounting to at least $5 billion a year, which is showered on companies to incentivize them to provide access in places where they feel it is too expensive to build. Sometimes this happens when companies are handed low-cost or no-cost access rights to infrastructure by state legislatures. And sometimes it happens in the form of broad public/private partnerships for "smart city" services.

But the federal government doesn’t set high enough standards for the quality and price of the services the public subsidizes—and we're certainly no good at requiring competition. (Federal government support for fiber running to schools and libraries was supposed to be one of the bright spots in this murky story, but even there the Trump administration has been wavering and slow-rolling the process.) We'll take anything that seems to fill the gaps left by the private market. In particular, we'll throw poorer and rural people under the bus, relegating them to subpar services. 

Tags: media roundup

Federal Grants Available for Rural Broadband Projects

March 22, 2018

Federal broadband grant programs start accepting applications in the spring. 2018 is an especially exciting year because the Connect America Fund (CAF) II Auction is finally open. This program has been years in the making, but it still has its flaws. Learn more about the federal grant opportunities and how we can improve federal broadband data below.

Due March 30th, 2018 -- CAF II Auction

At noon ET on March 19, 2018, the much anticipated CAF II Auction opened. Application are due by 6pm ET on March 30th, 2018.  

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will distribute $2 billion to Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to build new Internet infrastructure in rural areas. This auction is the latest program of the larger CAF program that started offering funds in 2012. In the past, most CAF funds have gone to the largest incumbent ISPs, such as Frontier or Verizon. This auction is a chance for small rural ISPs to win funding for their communities through innovative projects.

Watch the FCC’s Application Process Workshop Video and then explore the map of eligible grant areas.

Due May 14th, 2018 -- Community Connect Grants

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) also announced that the Community Connect Grant program is open. Webinar presentations on the process will be available on April 5th and April 10th. Applications are accepted through May 14th.

Community Connect Grants are each $100,000 to $3 million and focus on improving rural broadband infrastructure. Areas are eligible if they do not have access to speeds of 10 Mbps (download) and 1 Mbps (upload). Nonprofits, for-profits, federally-recognized tribes, state governments, and local governments can propose projects. Winners must match 15% of the grant and the program has a budget of about $30 million.

Sign up for a webinar on how to apply for the Community Connect Grants: 

April 5th 1pm - 2pm ET  

April 10th 1pm - 2pm ET  

Federal Programs Still Rely On Flawed Data

These grant programs mainly rely on the FCC’s Form 477 to determine the locations of the biggest disparities in broadband access. This data has significant limitations. It is self-reported by the ISPs and reported twice a year. It also likely overstates the availability of broadband. An entire census block (the unit of measurement for the Form 477) may be counted as having broadband access if an ISP claims it can offer service to one resident there.

Jonathan Chambers, former Chief of the Office of Strategic Planning for the Federal Communications Commission, included this issue among the top five problems with the CAF II Auction in his post, “FCC to rural America: Drop Dead, part 2.” The CAF II Auction originally included an additional 432,302 households, but the FCC removed them from the grant process because of the latest Form 477 data from December 2016.

This data is also the basis for the FCC’s Broadband Map, and many have brought the discrepancies to light. The CityLab article, “The Problem With America's New National Broadband Map,” by Rob Pegoraro describes many people’s frustrations with the map. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel encourages people to submit errors to broadbandfail@fcc.gov to improve the map and correct the data. 

Tags: ruralfederal grantfederal fundingconnect america fundusdadatafcc

How Anza Electric Cooperative Keeps Growing Grassroots and Overcoming Challenges

March 22, 2018

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

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

2018 Grant Application

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

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

Initial Speed Bumps

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

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

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

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

The First Project

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

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

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

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

Moving Forward

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

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

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

Tags: FTTHrural electric coopcaliforniacooperativeruralgrantsymmetryfundinganza electric cooperative

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 298

March 21, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

Jeremy Hansen: Thanks Chris. Good to be here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Link: Tags: transcript

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 297

March 21, 2018

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: From you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gary Evans: Very much so.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: I don't know them all.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: This is not interstate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Mitchell: Yes yes yes.

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

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

Link: Tags: transcript

Stillwater, Oklahoma, Releases RFQ For Feasibility Study

March 21, 2018

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

Open To Suggestions

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

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

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

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

Stillwater, Oklahoma

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

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

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

Read the RFQ here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Vermontcentral vermont internetcommunications union districtelectionregionalruralplanningaudiopodcastbroadband bits

Call Of The Co-op Fiber In Northern Minnesota

March 20, 2018

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

Nonprofit Building In The North

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

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

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

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

More Jobs

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

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

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

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

Tags: paul bunyan telephone cooperativeeconomic developmentjobsFTTHrural

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 19

March 19, 2018

California

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

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

 

Colorado

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

Missouri

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

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

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

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

 

North Carolina

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

 

Washington

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

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

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

 

West Virginia

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

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

 

Wyoming

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

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

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

 

General

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tags: media roundup

SEMO Fiber In Southeastern Missouri

March 19, 2018

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

A Necessity In Society

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

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

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

Keeping Locals Updated

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

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

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

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

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

Serving Rural Communities

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

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

Tags: semo electric cooperativerural electric coopmissouriFTTHruralcooperativesymmetrygigabit

Carroll County Continues Fiber Investment

March 16, 2018

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

Second Year In A Row

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: carroll countymarylandregionalexpansiongranteconomic development

Holland BPW Expanding To Nearby Hudsonville

March 15, 2018

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

Upgrading Downtown Hudsonville

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

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

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

Following Demand

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

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

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

Check out this map of Holland BPW Fiber:

Tags: holland mimichiganmuniexpansioneconomic developmentFTTH

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the transcript of this show here.

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

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

Check out this short video from HBC's founders:

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

Tags: hbcminnesotaeconomic developmenteducationruralpartnershipaudiopodcastbroadband bits

2018 Broadband Communities Summit Approaching: Austin, Texas

March 14, 2018

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

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

CLIC For Results

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

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

...

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

Difficult To Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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