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Chicopee Official Encourages Residents to Share Support for Muni Through Online Petition

October 12, 2018

Sometimes city councils don’t quite have their fingers on the pulse of their constituents. It can be difficult to know what everyone wants, so there are instances when taking a direct approach it the best way to share our thoughts. In Chicopee, Massachusetts, City Councilor Joel McAuliffe is giving constituents from across the city a chance to express their support for municipal broadband with an online petition…and people are responding.

Read the petition here.

More Wait and See

McAuliffe took the unorthodox approach after his colleagues on the governing body voted not to support his resolution to move forward on municipal broadband for Chicopee. Instead, they decided to refer the resolution to the Utilities Committee for further review. He decided to create the petition, he said, because other councilors stated that they have not heard from their constituents about the issue.

Members of the council didn’t react favorably to the resolution, several wondering what consequences would await them and the city if they committed themselves if they passed it. Others stated that they weren’t against municipal broadband, but wanted more information before moving ahead, especially related to cost, funding, and whether or not the city could afford the investment.

In 2015, the city hired consultants to complete a feasibility study. The results concluded that the city would benefit from a publicly owned fiber optic network for several reasons. In addition to the fact that many in the community now obtain Internet access via Verizon DSL or Charter Spectrum, the survey shows that households in Chicopee tend to use more than the national average number of Internet- connected devices. As the community moves forward, consultants warned, stress on the already overtaxed copper infrastructure will only increase.

Chicopee owns an operates a municipal electric utility, which gives the town an advantage should they decide to also invest in Internet access infrastructure. Consultants estimate the cost of citywide deployment will reach between $30 and $35 million, but McAuliffe believes the community can reduce that figure by engaging the electric utility for a significant portion of the work. As is often the case where a municipal electric utility serves residents and businesses, there are already existing fiber resources within Chicopee.

It's An Issue...Really

McAuliffe posted the petition October 5th and almost 500 people have signed as of this writing, many taking the time to express their thoughts. Some people describe frustrations with poor service from incumbents Charter Spectrum and Verizon, others want choice or better prices, and many would like to have Internet access as a utility.

Nearby Holyoke Gas & Electric has been offering Internet access to dozens of businesses in Chicopee for about 10 years, but doesn’t extend that service to residents. Learn more about their publicly owned network from the 2015 Berkman Center report.

McAuliffe told his colleagues on the council that during his campaign, the topic of municipal broadband has been one of the issues voters has brought up most often. He’s made a short video to promote the petition:

Tags: massachusettschicopee mapetitionelected officialsconsideration

Craw-Kan Co-op Bringing Gigabit to Rural Heartland Communities

October 11, 2018

City Officials in Fort Scott, Kansas, located about 95 miles south of Kansas City, say that they haven’t been able to entice national providers to bring high-quality Internet access to their town of about 8,000 people. That may be a good thing — Craw-Kan Telephone Cooperative is building out fiber in Fort Scott as early as 2019.

Working With the City

Planning for the network has involved collaboration between Fort Scott and the cooperative. Before bringing connectivity to residents, the cooperative has been deploying to a local industrial part, the airport, and the golf course. 

The plan has included an Exchange Agreement between the city and Craw-Kan which allows the co-op to use vacant conduit to connect Fort Scott’s Water Treatment Plant to the golf course and the airport. Fort Scott will also provide an easement for a fiber node at the golf course. Craw-Kan will provide six fibers for the city to use along this part of the route, and will also install vacant conduit for the city during construction at another location. The additional conduit will be earmarked exclusively for the city’s use.

City officials and representatives from Craw-Kan have been working on the deal and the project since the fall of 2017. At a recent City Commission meeting, City Manager Dave Martin said that Fort Scott was excited that the cooperative was bringing gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to town, noting that they’d tried to attract ISPs that would offer better services. Suddenlink offers services in parts of town and AT&T’s DSL is also available. 

Craw-Kan will provide $70 per month symmetrical gigabit connections  with no data caps in addition to 10/10 and 50/50 for $50 per month and $60 per month respectively. Installation is free and a Wi-Fi router is included in the monthly rate.

Working With Other Communities

The Fort Scott project is the latest in the Craw-Kan portfolio as they work with local communities in the region. Further south in Pittsburg, Craw-Kan has been building their fiber optic network for about two years. They’re also serving Frontenac, Franklin, and Arma. This summer, the cooperative took up residence in a new Pittsburg development where they offer gigabit connectivity, Block22. The project is a collaboration between the city, Pittsburg State University, a real estate developer, and Craw-Kan.

In addition to student housing on the upper floors, there is more than 16,000 square feet of workspace for entrepreneurs on the lower floor of the restored space. What was at one time the National Bank and Opera House buildings now contains a business incubator, conference room, and environment where students and entrepreneurs can mingle. Craw-Kan provides the Internet access for the business incubator and has space on the main floor.

In addition to Craw-Kan, a few of the committed businesses to Block22 include a coffeehouse, a web development and mobile app company, an investment consulting firm, digital marketing firm, and art gallery.

Craw-Kan Growth

The cooperative, headquartered in Girard, began with a group of locals in 1952 and started with 14 telephone subscribers in 1954. They grew rapidly by purchasing other nearby telephone exchanges and by the end of 1954, the co-op had 24 employees, seven exchanges, and 1,422 subscribers. They continued to add exchanges and were even operating in Oklahoma and Missouri by the mid-1970s.

They plan to take the same approach and continue to grow their fiber optic offerings. With a recently approved $59 million RUS loan, Craw-Kan plans to continue to expand in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Missouri. Zach Adams from the cooperative, recently told Fox 14:

“We see a need in the area for better internet connections, for faster Internet connections, so we don't see ourselves slowing down. We're gonna go and keep looking where this is some need and as long as we're supported, we're gonna try to make that work."

By cjuneau (Wheat Field) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: craw-kankansasFTTHgigabitruralcooperativecollaboration

Owensboro's FiberNet Continues to Expand

October 10, 2018

Close to connecting subscriber number 500, Owensboro, Kentucky’s OMUFibernet is also ready to continue expansion to more neighborhoods as they develop their publicly owned Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) gigabit network.

Incremental Growth

In 2016, Owensboro Municipal Utilities (OMU) decided to experiment by engaging in a pilot project that offered gigabit connectivity to approximately 500 premises. The project also allowed businesses within the geographic areas to lease fiber if they chose a more flexible option. 

The success of the pilot project encouraged OMU to expand OMUFiberNet to the rest of the city. Now that almost 30 percent of potential subscribers have signed up, OMU is ready to move into yet another neighborhood. OMU Telecommunications Superintendent Chris Poynter recently told the Messenger-Inquirer:

"We have been very deliberate in how we grow our service area. It has to be both cost-effective and fair. What we really did not want to do is cherry-pick desirable demographics. What we said from the very beginning was that we are a municipal utility and we’re all about serving the community, so we’re going to let technology and cost determine how we deploy it."

OMUFiberNet offers three tiers of service with all speeds symmetrical. A one-time installation fee of $49.99 applies:

50 Megabits per second (Mbps) for $49.99 per month

100 Mbps for $69.99 per month

1 Gigabit per second (Gbps) for $99.99 per month

"Can We Go to Grandma's?"

Subscriber Connie Singer and her grandkids have been using OMUFiberNet for about a year; Singer moved into a new home that was already connected to the network. Her grandchildren are gamers, she says, and OMUFiberNet provides “the fastest Internet service she’s ever seen.” The symmetrical gigabit service allows the household to run two gaming computers at once.

She also likes the fact that all her utilities, including Internet access, are on one utility bill. “It’s amazing,” she says.

Deliberate Growth

OMU installed fiber optic infrastructure in the 1990s to support its electric grid and began using the asset to connect local businesses in 1999. OMUFiberNet is a division of the electric utility, but the electric utility does not fund the telecommunications division. Subscriber revenue pays for network deployment through revenue bonds.

"Our growth has been deliberate because of costs," said OMU spokeswoman Sonya Dixon. "We pay as we go, and we pay to cover costs. We do that because we have to, and we do it so that services don't denigrate as we grow."

Tags: owensborokentuckyFTTHmuniexpansion

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 326

October 9, 2018

This is the transcript for episode 326 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher talks with representatives from the City of Mont Belvieu, Texas, about their community fiber network MB Link. They discuss some of the legal challenges the city had to overcome to establish MB Link and how Mont Belvieu has managed to successfully market the network to city residents. Listen to the episode here.

 

 

Nathan Watkins: And the courts ruled that electricity was a public improvement, similar to public works and utilities, and we argued that reliable high speed broadband Internet is also a public utility and a public works. And the judge ruled in our favor.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 326 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. In this episode, four folks from Mont Belvieu, Texas, talk with Christopher about their network MB Link. Nathan Watkins, Dwight Thomas, Scott, Swigert, and Brian Ligon discuss their experiences with the network that the community has been quick to embrace. They talk about some of the challenges they faced, including a hurdle put in place by the state of Texas, and the many ways overcoming those challenges have paid off. Mont Belvieu has a thriving oil and gas industry, but they're quickly becoming known for their gigabit connectivity. Now, here's Christopher with Nathan Watkins, Dwight Thomas, Scott Swigert, and Brian Ligon.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, and today we're breaking a record. We're going to have more people on this show than we have had in any other episode. So let me start by introducing these folks from Mont Belvieu, Texas. Nathan Watkins is the City Manager. Welcome to the show.

Nathan Watkins: Thank you for having me.

Christopher Mitchell: And we have Dwight Thomas, the Director of Broadband and IT.

Dwight Thomas: Thank you for having me as well.

Christopher Mitchell: We also have Scott Swigert, the Assistant City Manager. Welcome.

Scott Swigert: Thank you. Welcome. Thank you for having me today.

Christopher Mitchell: And Brian Ligon, the Marketing and Communications Director for the city. Welcome to the show.

Brian Ligon: Thank you very much. Happy to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's start with Nathan with a little bit of background. Mont Belvieu [is] a little bit east of Houston. Tell me a little bit more about the community and the size, and just give the audience a sense of where you're at.

Nathan Watkins: Okay. The City of Mont Belvieu is located on Interstate 10 — just north of Interstate 10. We're approximately 14 square miles, just under 8,000 population. We were incorporated in the '60s. Primarily, we were an industrial town. There was oil and gas drilling here that started in the early 1900s, and that evolved into storing natural gas liquids in underground salt formations here. It's the largest and highest quality salt dome in the world, and that's kind of what makes Mont Belvieu special. Um, 85 percent of the natural gas liquids, the United States are processed here. We have pipelines that come in from the East Coast, all the way from Pennsylvania, and then to the west of us from New Mexico and north to Nebraska — kinda all pipelines merge here. We have 10,000 linear miles of pipeline in two square miles located on the salt dome complex. So, an oil and gas industrial town, and that's where our revenue comes from and that's what gives us the opportunity to do great projects like MB Link.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about MB Link, because it sounds like one of the other things that sets you apart is you're probably one of the better connected cities in all of Texas now. Tell us about that.

Nathan Watkins: We're definitely one of the better connected cities in all of Texas now, but that wasn't always the case. About four or five years ago, we started hearing complaints from our businesses and our residents about our internet connectivity and reliability and the frustrations associated with that. We went out and conducted a survey, and [it was] pretty conclusive that 90 percent of our residents felt that we didn't have broadband and that they felt that modern day Internet was a critical utility just like water and sewer. So that's what really kicked us off into looking at becoming the first city in the state of Texas to do a 100 percent rollout and become an ISP for the community.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm curious, if anyone else wants to jump in and give a sense of what it was like to make this decision and what motivated it.

Nathan Watkins: Yes, Nathan, I'll add to that. So it was really driven by our residents' need for reliable Internet. I mean, that doesn't seem — you know, in 2018 and previously 2015/16, that doesn't seem like a challenge a lot of communities face, especially one that's 30 miles east of Houston. But it's definitely one that we were facing. The fastest speeds that were available in the City of Mont Belvieu, whenever we get started, were 1.5 megs DSL and 5 megs over cable, and there [were] basically two providers for the entire 14 square miles. Ultimately, we had new subdivisions going in — we've kinda been in a high growth area for the last six to seven years, growing at about eight percent a year — but we had new homes going in and new sections of subdivisions where broadband providers and Internet service providers just simply refused to go in. [They] said, "Hey, we're not gonna bring service to these 120 new homes in the community." So people were having to rely on cell phone connections and mobile hotspots to address their needs for Internet.

Christopher Mitchell: So let me ask you, Dwight, Mb Link was your answer to that. What exactly is MB Link in terms of the services that are available and who offers them?

Dwight Thomas: Sure. So MB Link is a 100 percent fiber optic, and we can call this probably Fiber-to-the-User, network. [It's] a system that we've taken a little bit farther than most of your typical Fiber-to-the-Home implementations., whereas we bring the fiber directly inside to you. Just as Nathan mentioned, this was to address a big need, one that I definitely came to learn more about as being part of this project and ultimately for the city. So at the moment, MB Link, we only offer one plate, which is data at the moment. The initial package was what some called the Google package. It's up to a gig up, up to a gig down is what we're doing for residential. [We're] rolling out residential services now, and looking forward to bringing on businesses first of the year.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me know a little bit about the competitive environment. Have you seen the incumbents step up now that you've set the bar so high?

Dwight Thomas: Yes. And actually, I've spoken to probably all except Comcast at the moment. So in this area, we have two major [providers], which is Verizon — Frontier and of course Comcast, and then we also have a sort of a WISP, which is called ims. And at some point I've talked to all of them about this, about what we're offering, and they understand it. Of course, they are definitely aware of all the challenges and ultimately could not believe that we were able to get this off of the ground and it'd be as successful as it is.

Christopher Mitchell: Brian, let me ask you as the marketing [and] communications person, have you faced a challenge in terms of marketing a city-owned service and what I assume is a pretty standard conservative-thinking town in Texas?

Brian Ligon: I got to tell you, it's actually been a lot easier than you might think. We understand that the national providers have the greatest minds with all the bells and whistles and national marketing and advertising campaigns, but we have one thing that they can't buy. And that's hometown. We are their hometown Internet service. We're the ones that are building the network. We're installing the network. We touch these customers every day. The same people that they rely on for water, sewer, they now can trust for Internet. You know, when people go and they turn the water faucet on, they don't think about, "Well, is my water going to come on today?" If they go and flush the toilet, they don't go, "Is the toilet gonna flush today?" It just works. And so we've been able to take that brand equity as the city as — I mean people live inside of our brand. They chose to live here for a reason. We've been able to take that and, and, and use that to our advantage to gain that adoption of the service, to let people know that when they call us it's going to be different. It's not odd for Dwight to actually go and meet with a customer and address their needs individually. He won't tell you this because he's too humble, but I will tell you that, you know, he was actually at a customer's house the other day. He was telling me about a call he had, and he went to a resident's house and helped them address their issue individually. And [he] got them, where they were like, "Nah, this doesn't work, this is new, and I shouldn't have jumped on this train," to, "Oh man, this really works. Thank you." And that customer told him, "I never would have gotten the time and attention that you gave me today to get this running the way that I would from a national provider. I don't understand, why did you do this?" And that's the thing — it's because it's hometown service. You know, that's what's differentiating us in the marketplace, and it's the one thing the big providers can't buy.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. Those are the stories that we love to collect. Scott, you know, I'd like to bring you in as Assistant City Manager and ask you, are you seeing any changes in the community as a result of this? You know, [is there] anything that comes to mind and gives you some pride about your community doing this service?

Scott Swigert: Well I know one of the things that I've heard in conversations with some of the families actually getting on MB Link, is the fact that now they are able to enjoy some of the amenities a lot of people have already been able to enjoy across the country. You know, now that we've got a [gigabit] service that they're able to tap into, they're able to get smart devices for their homes. They're able to get Alexas, they're able to get the air conditioner controls that you can control through your Internet, and your security cameras and security system that they haven't been able to utilize in the past, and now they can use those smart devices. And so that's been a great positive for our community.

Christopher Mitchell: That's really good to hear. Now, I was just at an event last week in Ohio, and I was speaking with a community from Texas up in the region around Dallas. And Nathan, I'm going to ask you this as a city manager. They were under the impression that they could not even build a municipal network, and they said that they had reached out to the Attorney General of Texas who told them that they couldn't. And I know there's been some confusion because Texas is quite clear that cities cannot build a local exchange services, like telephone or cable services. So can you tell us a little bit about Texas law and how you went about building your network?

Nathan Watkins: Yeah, that's definitely a similar position we were in once we conducted a feasibility study and it looked like this was something that was going to be feasible and we wanted to take on. So we started going through the case law, and just like you mentioned, there's a very specific law around switched access and municipalities are prohibited from attaining the required certificates for doing telephone services. And it was really unclear whether or not a broadband network was included in that or not. So as part of this process, we sought a declaratory judgment from the attorney general regarding our ability to issue debt for a solely-owned broadband Fiber-to-the-Home network. The court ruled in our favor and the attorney general accepted that ruling. We issued the debt and it's kind of history in the books. And we're building them. We've got customers on the system now. The interesting thing is we use case law regarding public utilities from the early 1900s. We specifically used electrical case law where cities were getting into electrical service in 1913 and 1925. We used a case from Nacogdoches and a case from the City of Clifton regarding this matter. And the courts ruled that electricity was a public improvement, similar to public works and utilities, and we argued that reliable high speed broadband Internet is also a public utility and a public works. And the judge ruled in our favor.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that's interesting on two levels because you actually solved two problems. I think one was whether or not the city could own and operate and the second is financing, and you were able to achieve both goals.

Nathan Watkins: That's correct, and those were specifically the two things that we had to address. One, could we issue the debt to do the project? I know other cities have included fiber in other bond packages, but there had never been a sole issuance for the construction of a broadband network. So we had to get that addressed and the attorney general agreed with us there, and then the legislation regarding electrical utilities and how that was comparable to a modern day broadband network. And the judge ruled in our favor and said, yes, it's critical infrastructure, just like water and sewer, and everybody should have access to it.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, and now everyone will.

Nathan Watkins: That's correct.

Christopher Mitchell: Dwight, let me come back to you. What's the plan? You said that you're serving residents today and you're going to start serving businesses next year. What's the plan for when it will be available to everyone?

Dwight Thomas: Maybe first quarter of next year. I mean, it'll be available to everybody. The preference though was to take care of the citizens, our residential customers. They have the greatest need and of course, part of our implementation and layout — I know some cities may have more businesses than they do homes. Ours was a little bit of a mix, whereas our residential customers kind of were a little bit larger than our businesses at the moment. So that's been our focus. We've been attacking that with great fervor ,and now we're moving over to the business which all have a sense that they want and they've expressed their interest in it. They're ready to move forward with it, so we're looking to do that. And just to add to that, Chris, this is really just the start of some of the things that we're doing here. We're looking to move over into the smart city space as well, which the fiber that we're laying a provides a great foundation for that too. So a lot of big things happening here in Mont Belvieu.

Christopher Mitchell: Are you seeing other communities around you that were in a similar position to what you were in? Are they looking at what you're doing and thinking, "Man, I'd like to get me some of that here"?

Nathan Watkins: Yeah. We've reached out and spoken to several different city manager groups, city manager study groups, city manager luncheons. And then there's actually other city councils we've heard of that have initiated this process. I think the scenario was kind of a perfect storm for the City of Mont Belvieu to be the first to try it out. One, we didn't have the connectivity that our community desired. We had the means to issue the debt and service the debt to deliver the project. And the business model was built around a 65 percent penetration rate. So, our goal was to have 800 homes connected by the end of the third year. We had 700 homes connected before we even went live to the first customer. So, there was so much pent up demand, we had all of our residents pay their deposit, put their money down, and say, "Hey, we want to be on the list" before we even had the first person connected. And really the biggest challenge we face now, is there's a wait to get on it. As Dwight mentioned, it'll probably be the first quarter or early next year before we can get everybody connected that has signed up. And so the challenge we face now is how fast we can get everybody online. It's not a matter of if we're gonna meet our penetration rates and if we're going to meet the business model projections. It's just getting it out there and getting it delivered and getting it done.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great to hear. I mean, I think 65 percent is ambitious and you know, I'm curious, Brian, if you would have any words of advice for other communities that are looking at that because, you know, in our experience, word of mouth and existing demand is enough to get you 20 or 30 percent of the market. But, it often takes some savvy marketing to make sure you're cracking above 50 percent.

Brian Ligon: I would agree. You know, the thing I would tell other broadband marketers or potential broadband marketers that are getting into this space — and I've had to learn very quickly being that we're the first in Texas and one of a handful. I don't have a lot of other government communicators that I can say, "Hey, so what did you do for your broadband network?" I mean, it doesn't exist. So I've had to make a lot of this up as I go. But one of the things that I would say is just making sure that that brand, that co-branding, happens. We co-brand — we make every effort to co-brand the city with the network. I've even gotten to the point now to where I've got our city utility workers and parks and rec guys wearing MB Link hats when they're out in the field. They're gray and DayGlo green, so it meets their OSHA requirements. But whether someone is out there cutting the grass or fixing a pothole, our residents see that, those city functions, but they see them, even in their roles, integrated into MB Link as a brand. We make sure that we're always putting that impression out there, the brand impression, for the network along with the city. We've gotten a lot of mileage on that, and it's helped us a lot. Beyond that, just leveraging the power of a social has been huge for us, even to the point that Dwight and I are now doing a scheduled Friday post every Friday at noon to help people make the most out of this new power that they have with these high speed connections. We're doing a Fiber Facts Friday, and if anyone wants to follow that, it's #FiberFactsFriday and you can see what we've done so far and what we'll do in the future. But we help people make the most out of the technology they have in their home. And people are loving it. We're getting great feedback on it.

Nathan Watkins: Yeah, this is Nathan. I would like to add to that. You know, that's something that we were definitely concerned about, going up against a huge marketing dollars of the national telecommunication companies, and how we were going to be able to address that and get the word out. But part of what has made us successful is, it is a hometown service. We have just one bill that goes out. So you get your water, your sewer, your trash, and your Internet bill all in one place. If you've got any questions or concerns, you know, most of our residents are driving by city hall every day and they're just a phone call away from being able to talk to Brian or myself or Dwight and get the answers they need. And then, the biggest thing is the service is exactly as we've advertised. We don't have interruptions. We don't have reliability issues. We don't have connectivity issues. We made sure that we had all the right equipment and that it's set up properly in the houses so that everybody has the service that we've promised. And it just works. And when something just works, it spreads like wildfire through the community. And the people that were kinda on the fence and said, "Man, is this really going to work? No city's ever done this before." and taking the wait-and-see approach, those people are the ones that I was talking about earlier that are the most disappointed that now they've got to wait 60 to 90 days before they can get service because they missed that opportunity to jump on the bandwagon at the beginning of it. It's really been a huge PR success for the city. Certain cities have reputations and challenges they face and I think we had a very positive reputation, but getting outside the box and delivering a service that was a critical need for the community and doing it successfully — just about anywhere you go now in the community, there's people talking about MB Link and how great it is, and you know, they're just so thankful and appreciative that the city council was willing to take this challenge on and make it work.

Christopher Mitchell: So I have two questions to finish up with, and I'll throw the first one to Scott first and that's one about structure. A lot of the cities that have built their own networks already had electric departments and they often would put the network under the electric department. How did you structure it in Mont Belvieu, for oversight and things like that?

Scott Swigert: Well basically, we stood up a whole brand new utility. We created a department from scratch, and of course Dwight was our first employee of that new utility, who was coming in and helped us create and develop and design that structure and to grow it. It's a fast growing department, as it started with one, you know, six [to] nine months ago and now we're getting closer to seven employees that we're trying to pull on and bring on board at this time to kind of service this. And we know that we're going to continue to grow as we continue to bring on additional users, and as our city continues to grow, and as Nathan mentioned earlier, as we get our businesses on and to be able to provide the services that we need for that. And so, again, it's one of those things that we had to basically start from scratch, but there wasn't a place that we could really put this new utility. It's totally different and unique from the other things that we provide, but it's something that we were able to do. And it goes back to just the ability that cities and municipalities have, that we're able to hear the need of our citizens and to be able to bring something that our community needs that even the private sector was not able to provide to our community. But we were able to stand up and bring that service to them, and it provided an excellence they're not going to be able to get anywhere else.

Christopher Mitchell: It's good information for communities to have because I think a lot of people have those same questions about where to put it in terms of the structure of the city. Dwight, I'm curious — a technical question for folks that are listening and starving for some technical details, did you go with the GPON network or you want to tell us a little bit about the technology behind it?

Dwight Thomas: Sure. And Chris, you are right. This is definitely a GPON and active Ethernet network, primarily GPON, due to the flexibility that I get from it and then of course the ability to be able to split and serve many customers. I don't know how deep you want to go into the technical stuff. I can talk about this stuff for days. But that's essentially what it is. We're going to layer services on top of the dotted line. Well, we will offer some MPLS focused services, even add LAN services, you know, we get close to the business side, but right now it's primarily GPON and of course active Ethernet.

Christopher Mitchell: And so it will be more active for the businesses which are likely to want the dedicated circuits. Is that what you're saying?

Dwight Thomas: Sure. Businesses, and of course, you know, you have the occasional customers who are big gamers and really, really need the bandwidth or exceed bandwidth of the service that GPON requires, right? So we'll kind of walk them over to the active Ethernet side.

Christopher Mitchell: That's great. Is there anything else anyone wants to throw in before we sign off — things people should know about Mont Belvieu and MB Link?

Brian Ligon: If they don't believe it, they should try it for themselves and their community. It can be done. And if you need to try it, come on down. We'll let you hop on the network and test the speed for yourself. You'll be surprised what a city with some "can do" attitude can do.

Christopher Mitchell: Well, I like that idea. I want to take my wife and kid down to east Texas, Louisiana area sometime in the near future, so I'll be swinging through when I do that.

Nathan Watkins: Definitely, come on by, Chris.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me thank you all for sharing your background, your information with us. I think it's just terrific to see a small town figuring this out, moving forward, being an inspiration to others. Thank you so much.

Dwight Thomas: Thank you very much, Chris. What a pleasure.

Nathan Watkins: Thank you, Chris.

Brian Ligon: Thank you, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Nathan Watkins, Dwight Thomas, Scott Swigert, and Brian Ligon. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at muninetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and while you're there, take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 326 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Small Town Does Fiber Bigger In Texas - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 326

October 9, 2018

We don’t often get the opportunity to interview people from Texas, so when we heard about Mont Belvieu’s gigabit fiber optic network we knew we had to have them on the show. When we learned that four officials from the east Texas town would join us we said, “Even better!” City Manager Nathan Watkins, Director of Broadband and IT Dwight Thomas, Assistant City Manager Scott Swigert, and Communications and Marketing Director Brian Ligon are on the show this week to talk about their publicly owned network, MB Link.

Before they were able to provide the fast, affordable, reliable service to residents all over town, Mont Belvieu had to assert themselves in a legal proceeding against the State of Texas. In this conversation, the guys discuss their elegant argument that won over the court. You’ll also hear why community leaders decided that, even though Mont Belvieu had a thriving oil and gas industry, they felt that investing in high-quality Internet access for residents was a goal they aimed to achieve for the public good. The residents in Mont Belvieu drove this project.

People in Mont Belvieu have clambered to sign up for the network. Our guests discuss how they’ve used their town’s strengths to market the services they offer and how they continue to use communications to help subscribers get the most from MB Link. The guys also talk about how the city plans to add businesses to the network and the reactions from incumbents.

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

This show is 27 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Read the transcript of the show.

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: mont belvieu txtexasruralFTTHmunilawsuitgigabitsymmetrypodcastaudiobroadband bits

Reedsburg Goes All Gig in Wisconsin

October 9, 2018

In September, Reedsburg Utility Commission (RUC) in Wisconsin announced that they’re simplifying life for subscribers. They’ve eliminated service tiers and now everyone who signs up for the service receives affordable, symmetrical gigabit Internet access from their recently rebranded LightSpeed service.

Rebranding, Redefining Fast and Affordable

Back in May, RUC decided that they would renew their efforts at marketing by launching the new LightSpeed brand. At that time, they were already signing up new customers for the great gigabit deal, which translated into prices as low as $44.95 per month for 1,000 Megabits per second (Mbps or one gigabit) when purchased as part of a bundle. RUC also offers voice and video.

RUC has been offering Internet access to Reedsburg’s approximately 10,000 people since 2002. In 2014, they were the first in Wisconsin to offer gigabit connectivity. Over the past 16 years, they've expanded into different areas around the city in order to share the benefits of the network.

Growing That Gig

With the new gigabit offering to all, Reedsburg will venture out to two new areas. They received two grants from the state to expand to the Village of Spring Green and the Town of Delton.

In Spring Green, located about 30 miles due south of Reedsburg, town officials have been working with the RUC to obtain the funding to bring high-quality Internet access to town. The grant will help fund the first phase of the project, which will bring better connectivity to several community anchor institutions, the school district, and multiple government facilities. In bringing LightSpeed to Spring Green, approximately more than 260 residential and 35 commercial premises will also have access to fiber.

Lake Delton, which is south of the Village of Delton, will add another 134 residential and 19 premises to the network. The estimated cost of the expansions totals around $770,000; grants will reduce the cost to the RUC by contributing a little more than $443,000 to the projects.

“As we continue to grow our service territory and our fiber optic offerings into additional rural Sauk county communities, Reedsburg Utility remains customer focused and committed to providing the best service for the best price,” said Brett Schuppner, General Manager of the Reedsburg Utility Commission. “The Internet provider should not be a limiting factor in how quickly a customer can access content. With LightSpeed, we’ve removed the bandwidth restrictions to enable subscribers to utilize all of their connected devices and have the best online experience possible.”

Turning Consumers Into Participants

Reedsburg also recently received the new Telecommuter Forward! Community Certification. The designation, passed into law in April 2018, recognizes communities in rural areas that have taken steps to improve local connectivity in ways that encourage telecommuting. Communities apply through the Public Service Commission for the designation. The PSC determines if they are eligible by reviewing criteria such as economic development activity, telecommuter friendly work space, coordination with Internet service providers, and other factors that encourage telecommuting.

In Reedsburg, where a symmetrical, affordable gig is available to everyone, transforming subscribers from consumers into active participants in the online economy isn't a stretch.

Learn more about Reedsburg by listening to our 2015 interview with Brent Schuppner for the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Image of downtown Reedsburg courtesy of Country Time Gazette.

Tags: reedsburgwisconsinFTTHmunigigabitexpansionsymmetrytelecommutingeconomic developmentrural

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 8

October 8, 2018

Arizona

Internet on the range: Rural residents suffer with lack of broadband options by Wendy Howell, Williams News

 

California

Entire broadband industry sues California to stop net neutrality law by Jon Brodkin, ArsTechnica 

The FCC and DOJ claim that California's net neutrality law conflicts with the federal government's deregulatory policy for broadband. California argues that the FCC gave up its authority to regulate broadband and therefore cannot preempt states from regulating the industry.

The federal government and California are officially at war over net neutrality by April Glaser, Slate

Justice department sues to block California net neutrality law by Klint Finley, Wired

Expanded access to Wi-Fi is a keystone in San Leandro, Calif.'s smart city plan by Skip Descant, GovTech

Connections and advantages of the digital world elude rural California by Deborah Kollars 

 

Georgia

Georgia tackles broadband expansion and local control by Tasnim Shamma, WABE

Grantville eyeing city-wide Internet system by Winston Skinner, The Newnan Times Herald 

 

Idaho

Idaho Falls launching fiber optic pilot program for residents by Rett Nelson, EastIdahoNews.com

City Council approves Idaho Falls Power fiber network pilot program by Ryan Suppe, Post Register

 

Maine

Cumberland County working to provide models for municipal broadband networks by J. Craig Anderson, Press-Herald 

 

Massachusetts

Belmont Light looks to introduce town-owned broadband Internet by Lexi Peery, Wicked Local

Boston Public Library takes aim at the digital divide with new pilot by Jordan Graham, Boston Herald 

“The library has taken ownership of the challenge for many in our society for gaining access to the Internet,” said David Leonard, president of the Boston Public Library. “You can’t really participate in civic life in any way if you can’t get access to the Internet.”

 

Minnesota

Fond du Lac Indians are creating their own broadband provider by John Reinan, The Star Tribune 

 

Rhode Island

Broadband build begins by Cassius Shuman, The Block Island Times

 

Tennessee

Governor candidates want better Internet in rural areas by Dave Flessner 

 

West Virginia

Lewis County Commission looking into grant to help expand broadband by Francesca Constantini, WDTV 

 

General 

98 percent of U.S. public school districts connected to high-speed broadband, but 2.3 million students still left behind, The Virginian-Pilot

Broadband subscriptions are up, but too many households are still disconnected by Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbane, Brookings 

FCC, please speed the deployment of broadband by Bartlett Cleland, The Heartland Institute

National broadband coverage grossly over-represented by FCC data, report says by Colin Wood, StateScoop

The main offender is the FCC's broadband availability collection process, according to the researchers. Every six months, Internet service providers are required to submit a document called Form 477 to the agency, showing where they provide service, census block by census block. But census blocks can be big, particularly in rural areas, and the FCC defines access in a way that does not reflect reality for most consumers, the researchers said.

The FCC is tasked with solving the digital divide and it's making things worse by Cat Blake, The Hill 

Why broadband and telehealth are interconnected by Craig Settles, MedCity News

Sen. Thune slams FCC over high-cost broadband subsidies shortfall by John Eggerton, Multichannel News

 

 

Tags: media roundup

Cumberland County, Maine, RFP for Regional Broadband Utility Plan

October 8, 2018

Local governments in Maine have been going all out in the past few years to address the problem of lack of high-quality Internet access in rural areas. Now, Cumberland County is using Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) to help develop a resource they hope will assist local communities interested in publicly owned Internet access infrastructure. They’ve released a Request for Proposals (RFP) to Develop Regional Broadband Planning and Management; proposals are due October 31, 2018.

Read the full RFP here.

The Playbook

Elected officials in Cumberland County report that local community leaders from different towns throughout the county have expressed an interest in a regional initiative for better connectivity. At least four towns and the Greater Portland area have been working to develop broadband plans with an eye toward regional possibilities. This RFP is an effort to bring all those separate plans together and examine the possibility of a regional utility.

The county has determined that the playbook should provide information in three main areas: resource mapping, financing, and utility development. 

Information to be included in the document will provide estimated costs and challenges of building fiber networks to each municipality in Cumberland County. This mapping portion of the playbook should compare last mile connectivity costs to middle mile network costs, consider specific plans for some of the county’s hard-to-reach areas, and examine working with privately owned fiber that is currently in place.

County officials want respondents to investigate and propose ways to finance a regional utility. They also want to know more about models that include both publicly owned and privately owned infrastructure. As part of the playbook, county officials expect a survey of residents in Cumberland County.

Lastly, the county wants a resource that will help local communities band together to form a broadband utility that can serve the region. According to the RFP, county officials want to know more about what it would require to establish a regional broadband utility that could negotiate contracts with Internet service providers (ISPs), work with companies to complete maintenance and construction, serve as a fiscal agent, and handle legal requirements for the utility. One place they could look for inspiration is Baileyville and Calais, about four hours northeast. The two communities have joined forces and are developing their own dark fiber network, the Downeast Broadband Utility (DBU). The publicly owned DBU infrastructure will connect approximately 3,000 premises with Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) and will work with private providers to get subscribers online.

We interviewed Julie Jordan, the Director of DBU in June 2018 for the Community Broadband Bits podcast; listen to our conversation.

Cumberland County

People to be served by the DBU needed to establish their own broadband utility in part because, due to the rural nature of the area, the big incumbents wouldn’t upgrade infrastructure. While Cumberland County is more populous, with approximately 293,000 people in they most densely populated area of the state, many of the towns still don’t have access to broadband as defined by the FCC — 25 Megabits per second (Mbps) download and 3 Mbps upload. Lack of fast, affordable, reliable connections occurs even in the most densely populated areas of Cumberland County. Portland is the county seat, but there are also a significant number of communities that are unincorporated along with towns and the additional cities of South Portland and Westbrook.

Earlier this year, officials obtained a $25,000 federal CDBG to dedicate toward planning a regional broadband utility. Planning is only one of the ways communities have been using CDBG to improve local connectivity. In Virginia, Nelson County and the Eastern Shore of Virginia Broadband Authority have both used the funding source to expand.

Read the full RFP here.

Important Dates:

Questions Due: October 12, 2018

Answers to Questions Released: October 24, 2018

Proposals Due: October 31, 2018

Decision: November 9, 2018

Work Begins: November 23, 2018

RFP for Broadband Resource Guide, Cumberland CountyTags: mainecumberland county meregionalrfpcommunity development block grantplanning

Worth Reading: FCC Worsens Digital Divide

October 5, 2018

For all their attempts to tout their accomplishments, the current FCC under Chairman Ajit Pai is failing miserably at the their promise to shrink the digital divide in America. In a recent commentary in The Hill, policy and program manager for Next Century Cities Cat Blake explains how, rather than reducing the gap between Internet haves and have-nots, policy changes under the new administration is making the problem worse. Cat offers a few specific examples of policies and actions taken by the current FCC that have not only aggravated the problem of digital inclusion, but masked the realities of its severity.

Lifeline Under Attack

The federal Lifeline Program offers subsidies for phone and Internet access connections for low-income folks. Blake writes that this tool, one of the most effective in allowing people to obtain access to the Internet, is one of Pai’s targets — a big target:

Pai’s proposed changes would cut off approximately 70 percent of the 10 million program participants — including approximately 44,000 individuals in DC alone — widening the digital divide among the country’s most vulnerable populations. Lifeline is the only federal program that provides subsidies to disadvantaged Americans for 21st century communications services and it is relied upon by victims of domestic violence, military veterans, homeless youth and others to stay connected.

Broadband Deployment

Pai has continuously claimed that the current FCC has “taken significant steps to expand broadband deployment in previously unserved parts of our country.” While the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report offered a six percent increase in the number of people with access to broadband — increasing to 95 percent — Blake notes that the increase wasn’t purely due to deployment:

That 95 percent, however, includes 10.5 million people who have access only to satellite service, which was not considered an adequate broadband connection under former FCC leadership….The agency’s documented expansion of broadband is actually the result of an explicit decision to lower federal standards of acceptable service, as opposed to a change in the amount of Americans actually served by high-speed internet….In addition, the report counted 24 million Americans without access to fixed broadband.

As Blake notes, it’s much easier to claim victory if one changes the rules of the game to make themselves the winner. 

Anyone who’s ever depended on satellite Internet access knows that it’s unreliable, expensive, and inadequate for today’s needs. With data caps and often long-term commitments, rural residents with only satellite Internet access as an option should not be considered as “served” by the FCC.

The FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC)

Pai’s beloved BDAC has been under fire for multiple reasons and policy analysts question their recommendations.

Unfortunately, Pai stacked the committee with industry representatives and much of its work benefits the industry’s interest in turning a profit, as opposed to actually making broadband more accessible….Instead of encouraging deployment, this committee has worked to limit local communities’ ability to solve the problems that the market (and FCC) won’t.

“Model legislation” from the BDAC strikes at local authority and clearly puts more negotiating power into the already heavy hands of the big cable and telephone monopolies. Ever since the FCC repealed federal network neutrality protections in 2017, communities have searched for local solutions to protect themselves from the odious control of national corporate ISPs. Many have investigated methods that the BDAC have tried to stymie with their recommendations.

More Work to Be Done

Blake and other policy analysts who are concerned about shrinking the digital divide remembered what Pai said soon after his appointment. He said that he and the FCC were “going to be busy.” He was right; the changes his FCC have implemented are creating more challenges for Blake and others who actually care about shrinking the digital divide.

Read the full opinion here.

Image of Ajit Pai at the 2018 CPAC Convention by Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Ajit Pai) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: fccdigital dividebroadband advisory committeeajit pailifelinesatellitenext century cities

More Complaints From Frontier Subscribers in Rural Minnesota

October 4, 2018

A few weeks ago, we wrote about one of the community meetings held by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to address mounting frustrations over poor service from Frontier Communications. Subscribers at the meeting in Wyoming, Minnesota, complained of download speeds as slow as 0.05 Megabits per second (Mbps), outages that lasted for weeks, and unhelpful customer service representatives.

According to Minnesota Public Radio (MPR), the small town of Ceylon, Minnesota, has had to deal with even more insulting mistreatment at the hands of the company. Residents of Ceylon say that Frontier never actually finished installing its lines in the town. Instead, Frontier has left them lying in people’s yards and dangling from trees — for as long as three years, by one account.

Frontier’s “Corporate Indifference”

Internet access and telephone providers like Frontier usually bury cables underground or suspend them on utility poles to keep the infrastructure safe. In Ceylon, it appears that Frontier has taken a more lackadaisical approach, resulting in lines snaking through the grass, tied to trees, and even crossing over a propane tank. MPR notes that some people in the town have taken it upon themselves to move Frontier’s cables out of the way of harm, attaching them to posts and fences for fear of accidentally severing the connection.

Ceylon officials had previously requested that Frontier fix the problem, to no effect. At the PUC hearing in Slayton, Minnesota, City Councilmember John Gibeau said that the incomplete network installation represented Frontier’s “corporate indifference” to serving rural subscribers, MPR reports.

A representative from Frontier said the company would visit Ceylon to verify that the lines belong to them and to remedy the situation. But for now, Gibeau has a warning for Frontier: "You don't do that to my town and think you're going to get away with it."

Whatever the reason for the slipshod work, Frontier can’t blame it on lack of funding. As Bill Coleman and his team from the Blandin Foundation laid out in their June 2018 report, the company has received millions for rural Minnesota deployment. The FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF II) alone has awarded Frontier more than $27.5 million annually since 2016. The program runs for five years.

Frontier must deploy infrastructure that provides speeds of at least 10 Mbps down and 1 Mbps, well below the FCC’s definition of broadband. Common sense dictates that basic safety and construction regulations should apply.

A picture is worth a thousand words: Be sure to check out Mark Steil's MPR photos of the outlandish Frontier deployment techniques in Ceylon.

Other Minnesotans Aren’t Waiting for Incumbent Providers

Elsewhere in Minnesota, communities are taking it into their own hands to bring high-quality connectivity to rural areas. In Renville and Sibley Counties, residents created the nation’s first Internet access co-op, RS Fiber Cooperative, to make Fiber-to-the-Farm a reality for local households and businesses. Read our report to learn how they made it happen.

Tags: minnesotafrontierpublic utilities commissionrural

Not Too Late to Register: BBC Mag Fall Fiber Conference, Oct. 23 - 25

October 3, 2018

In September, we told you about the upcoming 2018 Broadband Communities Economic Development Conference set for October 23rd - 25th in Ontario, California. “Fiber For The New Economy” will bring a long list of creative, intelligent, and driven thought leaders together to discuss the infrastructure we all need. Those of us from the Community Broadband Networks Initiative also know of one attending speaker who describes himself as “giddy” — Christopher.

“James Fallows is a great thinker on infrastructure. I’m giddy to hear him speak. People should definitely come,” said Christopher during one of his many visits into the Community Broadband Networks Research Team office, “Giddy!”

James Fallows, a National Correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, has reported from all over the world. He’s written 12 books, including his latest that he wrote with his wife Deborah, titled, Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America. He’s won several awards for his writing, including the National Book Award, National Magazine Award, and a documentary Emmy. He’s provided commentary pieces for NPR and spent time as a chief speech writer for President Jimmy Carter.

Deborah Fallows has also written for the Atlantic. Her CV includes National Geographic, Slate, The New York Times, and the Washington Mostly and three books. Deborah is a linguist as well as a writer, reflected in her works.

The Fallows are only two of a distinct line-up of experts, policy leaders, and creative leaders. Several of the speakers and panelists have been guests on the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Some of the others who will present and participate include:

  • Jonathan Chambers from Conexon
  • Michael Curri of Strategic Networks Group
  • Joann Hovis from CTC Energy and Technology
  • Diane Kruse of NEO Connect
  • Jase Wilson from Neighborly
  • Catharine Rice from CLIC

Check out the full list of speakers and panelists here.

See A Giddy Christopher

Look for Christopher, who will be participating in the Blue Ribbon Panel Session along with Dr. Nicol Turner-Lee from the Brookings Institution and Will Rhinehart from the American Action Forum. Lev Gonick, CIO from Arizona State University, will lead the conversation. We expect to see a spirited debate at this panel discussion.

Christopher will also lead a panel on the increasing role of rural cooperatives and how they're bringing broadband to members and nonmembers. 

On the afternoon of October 23rd, Christopher will be participating in the special event hosted by the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC). He’ll participate on the panel titled “The 2019 State Legislative Session and the BDAC: Challenges and Opportunities for Local Internet Choice.” Attorney Jim Baller will moderate the panel that will analyze the FCC’s Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) model codes, potential state legislation, and discuss ways to prepare for the upcoming legislative session. In addition to Christopher, Lisa Youngers from the Fiber Broadband Association and Drew Davis from Larimer County, Colorado, will participate in the panel discussion.

Learn more about the special CLIC session and how to register here.

View the full agenda for the event.

You can still register online for the Ontario BBC conference.

 

Tags: broadband communities magazineeventconferencechristopher mitchelleconomic developmentcaliforniainfrastructure

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 325

October 3, 2018

This is the transcript for espisode 325 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. In this episode, Christopher speaks with Maisie Ramsay from Colorado Central Telecom about how the fixed wireless provider is connecting rural Colorado. Listen to the podcast here.

 

 

Maisie Ramsay: The Internet is an important community resource — it's an invaluable community resource — and so we spend extra money on our network and on our backhaul to ensure that our service is reliable.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 325 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. The state of Colorado has experienced a boon in recent years. Unfortunately, incumbent Internet service providers aren't eager to invest in the infrastructure that rural Coloradoans need. Enter companies such as Colorado Central Telecom. A relatively new company, they started because the incumbent Internet service provider wouldn't improve options regardless of requests from local residents and businesses. Rather than accept defeat, locals got together and formed their own Internet access company focused on the public good and the needs of unserved and underserved communities in the San Luis Valley. They recently won the Mountain Connect Service Provider of the Year award. The company primarily offers fixed wireless service, but it has also invested in some fiber connections. In this interview, Christopher talks with Maisie Ramsay from Colorado Central Telecom. She provides more details about the company's humble origins and the technology they use. Maisie also gets into some of the challenges they faced as a community-led effort and describes the partnerships the company's forging to improve connectivity for residents and businesses in the San Luis Valley. Now, here's Christopher with Maisie Ramsay of Colorado Central Telecom.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell with the Institute for Local Self Reliance up here in Minneapolis, Minnesota. And today I'm talking to Maisie Ramsay, [who does] marketing and business development, as well as other duties as we'll cover, for Colorado Central Telecom. Welcome to the show. So I ran into you and Ralph at the Mountain Connect event in Vail this year, one of my favorite conferences. I'm frequently talking about it. You started this company in 2012 in Crestone when incumbents weren't serving the area well. And then when we met, it was right before you won an award for the Service Provider of the Year. Tell us a little bit about the motivation for starting Colorado Central Telecom.

Maisie Ramsay: So as you mentioned, we did indeed get our start in 2011 when our CEO, Ralph Abrams, led what amounted to a grassroots effort to bring broadband into Crestone because the incumbent just was not upgrading the service. They kept giving the line that upgrades are coming, we'll get around to it, but that was just not happening. I mean, the service there at the time was basically, you know, about as slow as dial-up, and it was falling so far behind the rest of the state that it was affecting economic development in the area. So you know, people were moving away because they couldn't get decent broadband. So they as a community basically decided to take matters into their own hands. They explored several different business models but finally just decided to move forward with an LLC. And the first client came online April 4, 2012

Christopher Mitchell: And Crestone is a beautiful area. It's in the mountains. You're not, like, in the Denver Metro or anything like that. Can you describe to people where you are exactly?

Maisie Ramsay: Our corporate headquarters, so to speak, are at Ralph's house down in Crestone. Yeah, he lives near the downtown area. And then our network administrator Kevin lives a couple houses down from him. Then we've got a little tech support office out on T Road. Crestone is this beautiful village nestled into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. It's renowned for its Buddhist retreat centers. It's just a really beautiful community, very close knit, and it's a truly special place. It's definitely an interesting location to be the base of a telecommunications company, but you know, anything is possible in Crestone.

Christopher Mitchell: My first introduction to those mountains was on a trip in which I was heading out and excited to see Arches and some of the other parks in Utah and get my way down to the Grand Canyon. And I was with a friend and my sister, and I was tired and I was driving and we saw signs for Great Sand Dunes National Monument (at the time I think it was). And they forced me to go. I just wanted to get to where we were going to spend the night. And boy, let me tell you, if anyone's anywhere nearby, I highly recommend this region. It's just beautiful and Great Sand Dunes is one of my favorite national parks. So I'm jealous that you get to spend a lot of time in that area.

Maisie Ramsay: Yeah, it's very special. I go hiking down in the Sangre de Cristos all the time, and if anybody's in the Crestone area, I definitely highly recommend taking a hike up to Willow Lake. It's this beautiful Alpine Lake nestled below Kit Carson and Challenger peaks, which are a couple of fourteeners. There's a waterfall and it's just gorgeous.

Christopher Mitchell: This is the kind of area where, you know, as you're evaluating how to serve people, fixed wireless seemed like the best option. So let's talk a little bit about that and how you started connecting people.

Maisie Ramsay: Right, yeah. I mean, so as you can probably ascertain from the fact that, you know, we started as a community led effort, we were really bootstrapping it, and fixed wireless technology offers an extremely cost-effective means of reaching rural customers. It's a very flexible technology to deploy because you are not having to run fixed infrastructure from your middle mile to the end user. So for instance, instead of having to run a fiber line 10 miles or so to connect one client, you just rig up a dish at their house and essentially beam in a signal from a tower. So you know, what would cost tens of thousands of dollars with fixed infrastructure, getting that same location connected on fixed wireless might be just a few hundred dollars. So it's a great technology for low population density areas, just like Crestone. The big challenge with fixed wireless in a mountainous environment is, as you might expect, mountains. Topography can be a challenge in the mountains because fixed wireless does require unimpeded line of sight. So that's just what it sounds like. You need to literally be able to see from the house to the tower to get a signal in. So if there's trees in a way or a hill or a ridge or what have you, then you might not be able to serve that location or might have to get really creative about how to go about that.

Christopher Mitchell: Some of the people that listen to this show are much more technical than I am or many of the guests are. But can you tell us a little bit about the products that you're using in terms of what spectrum they use and what that delivers to the end user?

Maisie Ramsay: The equipment that we started out with is from this company called Ubiquiti, and it uses primarily the 5.8 gigahertz spectrum, which is an unlicensed frequency. We also deployed some 2.4 gigahertz equipment. And then at the time, we were also using 900 megahertz equipment for heavily treed areas because the 900 megahertz spectrum was better able to penetrate foliage than the 5.8 and 2.4. The speeds that we were able to get with that first generation equipment would vary quite a bit depending on location and distance from our towers. So our lowest plan at the time was 4 Megabits per second and then we went up to 12. But some clients we were able to get a lot higher than that. For customers that were in trees, that is difficult to serve, so typically we were only able to do our lower plans for those folks. But you know, when we first started, it was such a vast improvement from the speeds that they were getting at the time that it was a great solution for our customers. And of course, we continue to invest in new technologies as they become available, and we've increased the bandwidth that we're able to offer to clients.

Christopher Mitchell: If we skip forward to today then, what are you using and what kind of end user speeds are you getting?

Maisie Ramsay: So we have transitioned to a lot of equipment from Cambium Networks. I want to say, and I hope I'm not misspeaking here, but I believe that they started as an offshoot of Motorola. Regardless of their origin, we've been super pleased with the performance of that equipment. You know, depending on the location and distance from our tower, we're pulling speeds of up to 60 Megabits per second during time of install. And we are also using some equipment on the 3.65 gigahertz band from Telrad, and that's also been performing really well. That new equipment has allowed us to increase the service plans that are available to our clients, so we now offer standard plans of up to 25 megs, which is the FCC's definition of broadband service.

Christopher Mitchell: Right. And you do also offer the up to 3 Megabits upload as well?

Maisie Ramsay: Yes sir.

Christopher Mitchell: I thought so. So one of the things I thought was interesting — and I don't know how prevalent this is. It used to be that WISPs were commonly using data caps, but you are pretty prominent that you do not have data caps.

Maisie Ramsay: That's correct. We do not limit our customer's data usage at all. We just base our plans on the bandwidth that we supply to them, but we don't meter that bandwidth in that, like, they can use all the data they want within the size of the pipe that they're purchasing from us. And our customers love that. They don't want to have to worry that, you know, they're going to watch a movie and then their Internet's gonna get throttled to nothing for the rest of the month or that they'll stream something on Netflix and next thing they know, they're getting this gigantic bill in the mail for using too much data. So that's been one of our competitive differentiators, and something that keeps our clients happy is that we're not capping their data usage. That's just a benefit of the technology we use and something that, you know, you don't typically see for services offered over a cellular network or satellite based services.

Christopher Mitchell: So what are some of the challenges that you're facing today in terms of expanding service?

Maisie Ramsay: Well, I mean, we're constantly having to upgrade our network to keep pace with customer expectations. Colorado is a very rapidly growing state, and here in the rural areas, you get a lot of folks coming from big cities that moved to the boondocks and want to get big city bandwidth, you know, when they live in the middle of nowhere. And we're doing our best to provide that to them. Another challenge in rural areas is redundancy. A lot of the incumbent providers only use one source of backhaul to the main Internet hub out in Denver, and so as a result, if there's a fiber cut, for instance, you might see the incumbent provider with a countywide Internet blackout. So we've had to invest in redundant backhaul services, which of course is an extra cost for us, but it's one of the things that sets us apart from the incumbent providers. So when, you know, the incumbent provider is having an outage, our network is still up and running. And we've made that investment because we want to provide quality service, and we know how important it is to have your Internet working all the time, which sounds so obvious, but, you know, we're a community oriented company. And the Internet is an important community resource — it's an invaluable community resource — so we spend extra money on our network and on our backhaul to ensure that our service is reliable and that local businesses, government entities, and residents can depend on it.

Christopher Mitchell: And this is something I wanted to just flag. It goes a little bit outside our specific conversation, but one of the things that you've done is work with Mammoth Networks and some other local providers to ensure that you have that robust backhaul. Can you just tell us a little bit about that approach?

Maisie Ramsay: Sure, yeah. We have partnered with Mammoth Networks. They did this really cool infrastructure deployment, and we are leveraging that. We are the anchor tenant on basically this middle mile fiber route that has north-south redundancy. So like if one leg of that fiber ring gets cut, it's still functioning. It's not like a one-way-out type deal. And that redundancy was really proven to be important this summer when we had some wildfires down in the La Veta area that caused the incumbent provider to have a multiday internet outage. I want to say it lasted four or five days, it took down the incumbent provider, [and] it affected cellular service, but our network was totally unaffected by that outage. And that incident demonstrated yet again the importance of having a redundant backhaul connection. Then, in addition to the Mammoth infrastructure that we leverage, we also leverage backhaul from Zayo Networks that is physically independent and path diverse from the Mammoth infrastructure. So, you know, we try to just keep ourself covered on multiple fronts, just in case something catastrophic happens. You want to be able to ensure that your customers still have that vital lifeline to the Internet.

Christopher Mitchell: Yet another reminder that when we talk about wireless networks there often is fiber involved at some point or another. But you've also gone into fiber in some areas where you can make it pencil out. When did that start?

Maisie Ramsay: Well, the fiber — I want to say, you know, technically I think it started about three years ago when we purchased this little company up in Buena Vista called Matrix. And they had done some kind of fiber deployment in town but had kind of let the maintenance on it languish. So when we bought that company, we inherited their fiber assets, which at the time was kind of like this fiber project because it wasn't really complete and as I said, the maintenance had kind of lagged. So it was our introduction to fiber, and we started by just bringing that network up to speed and expanding off of that. And then last year, we completed a fiber project in conjunction with Affiniti and the Colorado Telehealth Network to connect the hospital down in Salida and a couple of their satellite locations. So that was our first fiber deployment in Salida, and we've been able to expand off of that backbone. It's been a really exciting project, and I can testify that our local business owners, when they can get on that fiber, they're absolutely thrilled to have that as a service option.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes, we've heard that in a number of places. They love it, and one of the things we often hear is that once you have them on that network that nothing will take them off. They're not going to go back to the incumbent for a price cut. So you're looking at, or I'm sorry, you've actually established a partnership with a local cooperative to further improve Internet access. How did that come about?

Maisie Ramsay: Ciello is the company in question. They are an Internet provider down in the San Luis Valley in Saguache County, and they're part of San Luis Valley Rural Electric. And they just have these resources that we can't even fathom, and so using those resources, they're able to bring next generation broadband services to Saguache County. And that's very complimentary with our goal here at Colorado Central Telecom, which of course is to bridge the digital divide, so there were some very obvious synergies between our objectives and their goals. So we pursued a partnership with them that we're executing on right now. It's improving broadband service for Saguache County residents, and we're really thrilled to be able to partner with them in such a collaborative manner.

Christopher Mitchell: So what does the partnership bring? I mean, both of you have your own networks that you're operating. You know, it's like peanut butter and chocolate — what caused you to get together in the peanut butter cup?

Maisie Ramsay: Basically what we're doing is moving our customers over to Ciello one at a time when Ciello's service becomes available at their address. So this means, you know, a diminished presence of Colorado Central Telecom in Sequache County, which is difficult in one sense because that is our home territory, but we feel like it's better for the community in the long run. And it's also a good feeling to be able to partner with another local company to improve broadband service in the region. And we keep it really personal. Our customer service team calls each and every client to speak about the process before the transition takes place. And then in terms of logistics, a service call is needed to physically move each customer from one network to another.

Christopher Mitchell: The thing I want to leave with is talking a little bit about how both your network and the Ciello network as it's moving up into that territory — how is the region benefiting? Are there any special anecdotes that come to mind?

Maisie Ramsay: I guess what I can say, from what folks in the San Luis Valley have told me, is that the Internet connectivity has allowed them to stay in the area, and they haven't had to leave because they weren't able to get this vital resource at their home. You know, it's hard to function in this day and age without Internet connectivity. It's as fundamental as electricity. It has benefited the area in terms of economic development. It's allowed telecommuters to move into the area, benefiting the local economy. I know that I've seen firsthand, the growth in population in the Crestone area just in the last three years has been really amazing. And from what I understand, before broadband became more available, the population was declining because people were having to leave because the Internet service was inadequate. So it makes a fundamental difference to the bottom line of local residents.

Christopher Mitchell: I'll bet some people probably like having your service but are annoyed that you're bringing more people into the area. There's always some people that want it to just stay the same, to be their own little region to themselves.

Maisie Ramsay: Sure, but you have to change, and stagnation is never an option. Especially in a state as rapidly growing as Colorado, there's just no way things are going to stay the same. Everything always changes. And I got to say, even people that don't like change, still like having Internet service, so I think even they see the benefit.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm sure. Well, I really appreciate you taking the time. I know that running a small company like this, I'm sure there's many things that need your attention. So thank you for sharing your story with us and our audience.

Maisie Ramsay: Absolutely. Thanks for your time.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher with Maisie Ramsay of Colorado Central Telecom. Learn more about the company at ColoradoCentralTelecom.com. We have transcripts for this and other podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/BroadbandBits. Email us at Podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. Follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. Follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and the other podcasts from ILSR, Building Local Power and the Local Energy Rules podcast. You can access them wherever you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ILSR.org, and hey, while you're there, take a moment to donate. Thank you to Arne Huseby for the song Warm Duck Shuffle, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 325 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcript

Colorado Community WISP Picks Up Slack When Incumbent Fails to Deliver - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 325

October 2, 2018

When Fairpoint wouldn’t give folks in Crestone, Colorado, what they needed after repeated requests, they decided to take care of it themselves. By 2012, Ralph Abrams and his band of Internet pioneers had created Colorado Central Telecom, providing affordable, dependable fixed wireless service to premises throughout the region at much faster speeds than Fairpoint could ever deliver. In this episode of the podcast, Maisie Ramsay, Marketing and Business Development from the company, tells us more about the company and their work.

Colorado Central Telecom has been delivering Internet access to subscribers for a relatively short time, but it’s clear they have the needs of the community in mind. They’ve made steady investments in their equipment in order to improve their services and have even picked up some fiber network resources. Maisie describes some of the challenges of working in a mountain geography such as the San Luis Valley and the technologies they employ to get past the hurdles Mother Nature has created.

Maisie also talks about some of the collaboration Colorado Central Telecom is pursuing. It’s clear that the company has a goal — to bring better connectivity to the people in the region — and doesn’t mind sacrificing a little as a way to improve the situation for the whole region. No wonder they were named Service Provider of the Year at the 2018 Mountain Connect Broadband Development Conference.

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

This show is 23 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.

Listen to other episodes here or view all episodes in our index.

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

Tags: coloradowispfixed wirelessincumbentaudiobroadband bitspodcastciellocooperativesan luis valley rural electric cooperativepartnership

Governor Signs Bill Eliminating Restrictions for Rural Community Broadband

October 2, 2018

While major media outlets cover news about California Governor Jerry Brown’s decision to sign the state’s network neutrality bill, we’re high-fiving his signature on AB 1999. On September 30th, Gov. Brown approved the bill that removes state restrictions limiting publicly owned options for rural Internet access. The change signifies what we hope to see more of - state action empowering local communities set on improving local connectivity.

We’ve been following the development of the bill, introduced by Assembly Member Ed Chau, since early this year when it began to make its way through committee. Christopher went to California in May to testify in support of the bill at a hearing of the Assembly Communications and Conveyance Committee.

Easing the Way for Rural Communities

AB 1999 focuses on the responsibilities and authority of community service districts (CSDs), created to provide necessary services. CSDs are independent local governments usually formed by residents in unincorporated areas for the purpose of providing the kinds of services city-dwellers often take for granted: water and wastewater management, trash collection, fire protection, etc. In keeping with the ability to raise funds for these services, CSDs have the authority to create enhanced infrastructure financing districts (EIFDs). CSDs are allowed to use EIFDs to fund development of Internet access infrastructure in the same way they would sewer infrastructure, or convert overhead utilities to underground, or other projects that deal with infrastructure and are in the public interest.

Prior to the adoption of AB 1999, however, a CSD would first have to engage in a process to determine that no person or entity was willing to provide Internet access before the CSD could offer it to premises. Additionally, if a private sector entity came along after the infrastructure was deployed and expressed a willingness to do so, the CSD had no choice by law but to sell or lease the infrastructure they had developed rather than operate it themselves.

With the passage of AB 1999, CSDs no longer need to adhere to those strict requirements.

When the California State Legislature chose to pass the bill, lawmakers sent a message to big cable and telephone companies that they are no longer willing to bend over backwards to protect incumbent monopolies that ignore their rural constituents. Other states with restrictions championed by national ISPs and their lobbyists need to take note of California's decision. Voters already believe that the federal government doesn't do enough to bring high-quality Internet access to rural areas. State laws that further restrict options add to their frustration.

Kudos to you, California, for this step toward empowering local communities!

View the law as amended by AB 1999.

Read all the details of the bill in the final version signed by the Governor.

Image of the California Capitol in Sacramento by © Steven Pavlov / http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:Senapa.

AB 1999 as Signed by Governor BrownTags: californiaAB 1999 castate lawsruralregionalincumbent

Community Broadband Media Roundup - October 1

October 1, 2018

Georgia

Regional meeting coming in October for rural broadband by Kevin Myrick, The Polk County Standard Journal 

 

Kentucky

Rural digital divide two-fold problem for KY, Kentucky News Connection 

 

Massachusetts

Springfield explores fiber-optic Internet system but winces at potential $50 million cost by Peter Goonan, MassLive

 

Minnesota 

Real hope for rural broadband on the Iron Range by Aaron J. Brown, Hibbing Daily Tribune 

 

North Carolina

Botetourt County to take next steps in increasing broadband access following end of summit by Alison Graham, The Roanoke Times

Avery receives grant to expand broadband in country by Brian Miller, GoBlueRidge.net 

 

Pennsylvania

Pa. Utility Commission wants to know: How fast is your Internet? by Brian C. Rittmeyer, TribLive

 

Tennessee

Commission considers broadband options by Autumn Hughes, Cleveland Daily Banner 

Dickson Co. applies for grants: Broadband, library could benefit by Chris Gadd, Nashville Tennessean

 

Texas

San Antonio Housing Authority wins $100K to address digital divide by JJ Velasquez, The Rivard Report

 

Wisconsin

Survey to assess Door County communities broadband Internet needs by Terry Kovarik, Door County Daily News

 

General 

Indigenous Connectivity Summit to address need for affordable and sustainable Internet access, Ottawa Citizen 

Poll: Congress isn’t fixing the digital divide by Danise Lee, KBND

U.S. voters say government ‘needs to do more’ for rural broadband, new poll finds, KUNC

Cities are teaming up to offer broadband, and the FCC is mad by Susan Crawford, Wired 

The South Bay partnership suggests a promising alternative: Maybe cities can cooperate and save money without compromising their local autonomy. At this same moment, though, the FCC is on a march to smother local authority by blocking states from regulating any aspect of broadband service, supporting states that have raised barriers to municipal networks, deregulating pricing for lines running between cities, and removing local control over rights-of-way that could be used to bring cheaper access into town.

Speak your piece: What’s D.C. doing for rural Internet? Not enough by Allie Bohm, The Daily Yonder

A digital divide problem: Medicaid recipients expected to prove eligibility online by Angela Siefer, National Digital Inclusion Alliance

How bad maps are ruining American broadband by Karl Bode, The Verge

The FCC’s $350 million broadband map, for example, relies on the agency’s Form 477 data to help educate users on broadband availability. But users who plug their address into the map will quickly find that it hallucinates not only the number of broadband options available in their area, but the speeds any local ISPs can provide. 

 

We must lower regulatory barriers to higher-quality broadband for more Americans by Jeff Westling and Joe Kane, The Hill 

USDA invests $600 million in rural broadband, but farmers still struggle to connect by Jenny Splitter, Forbes 

 

Tags: media roundup

UTOPIA Continues the Positive Trajectory

October 1, 2018

Skies have been brightening for the Utah Telecommunications Open Infrastructure Agency Network (UTOPIA). The trend is continuing for the network that has seen rough times in the past, testament to their fortitude, creativity, and ability to turn lemons into lemonade.

Finishing Layton

Most recently, UTOPIA announced that they had reached an agreement with the town of Layton, Utah, to finish deploying fiber infrastructure to residents and businesses. UTOPIA plans to have deployment in Layton, where approximately half of the city currently has access to the infrastructure, completed within 24 months.

According to Jesse Harris at Free UTOPIA!, expert at all things UTOPIA, this build out varies from deployment in the earlier days of construction in a few ways:

For starters, UIA [Utah Infrastructure Authority] can now issue bonds on its own authority. This means cities no longer have to use their bonding capacity to back them. The Layton plan also has the city backing the bonds using city franchise fees. If the subscriber numbers fall below what is required to pay the bond (which, to date, has not happened in a single UIA expansion area), the city pledges to cover the difference. On the flip side, if revenues exceed the bond payments (which has happened in most UIA expansion areas), the city gets to keep a cut of that for whatever they want. This could include paying off the original UTOPIA bonds, funding other city services, or anything else, really. It’s important to note that this revenue split option is only available to cities who assumed the original debt service.

Harris speculates that, due to the housing boom in the region, UTOPIA may face a difficult time recruiting the people they need to build the network. There are also almost two dozen potential UTOPIA communities engaged in feasibility studies. All these factors, in addition to the possibility of access to materials, may impact the ability for the network to expand at the rate they’d consider ideal.

10 Gigs for Residents

In January, we reported that UTOPIA announced a financial milestone — for the first time, revenue covered bond payments and also allowed a 2 percent dividend for most member communities. 

That same month, network officials announced that residents would have access to 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) symmetrical connections, the first in the state.

“For a state that showcases its Silicon Slopes, no other network in Utah will be able to offer internet speeds close to UTOPIA Fiber’s new 10 gig service,” said Roger Timmerman, UTOPIA Fiber’s Executive Director. “These speeds enable any residence to become the ultimate smart home.”

Internet service providers Xmission and Veracity, both operating on the UTOPIA infrastructure, are now offering the new ultra-fast speeds. 

Working With Idaho Falls

Late in September, UTOPIA Fiber and Idaho Falls, Idaho, announced that the city will work with UTOPIA Fiber to design and manage a pilot program to bring fiber optic connectivity to city residents. The pilot project, an experiment in whether or not the city will expand to a citywide solution, will end in the spring of 2019. By then, Idaho Falls Fiber expects to have enough data to determine if they wish to expand the program.

In August, we brought news about the city’s decision to engage in the pilot project in order to test the waters, estimate costs, and head off some of the challenges they may face if they decide to expand beyond the pilot project phase. Idaho Falls is located across the Snake River from Ammon, which has garnered publicity for developing their publicly owned network as a way to improve competition. Idaho Falls, where the dark fiber Circa network has served businesses for years now, has been slower to respond to the growing need in the community.

General Manager of Idaho Falls Power and Idaho Falls Fiber Bear Prairie told the Post Register that the city does not intend to offer retail services, but to deploy the infrastructure and work with Internet service providers interested in offering services via the fiber. Ten providers offer different types of services via UTOPIA’s fiber network. This is the first time UTOPIA Fiber has worked with another entity from outside of the state.

“We are excited to be able to work with Idaho Falls on their project,” said UTOPIA Fiber’s Executive Director Roger Timmerman. “As the largest open-access network in the country, there’s nobody else with the experience and expertise that we have.”

Tags: utopiautahopen accessgigabit10gbpsFTTHidaho fallsidahocollaboration

Westminster Teens Use Fiber, MAGIC, and Tech Skills to Survive Zombie Apocalypse

September 28, 2018

When communities deploy Internet access infrastructure, they use their investment to reduce costs for telecommunications, improve local connectivity, and encourage economic development. In Westminster, they’re also using their fiber optic network to boost local high school students’ tech skills in a fun and creative way. The community is using publicly owned fiber optic “magic” to multiply their youth’s opportunities.

Setting the Scene

The world has experienced a devastating disaster. Communications systems are down. Your ragtag band of survivors has been hiding from the zombies for several months now. After finding a generator and some computer parts inside an abandoned building, your group decides to use the pieces to create a working computer and try to establish contact with the other scattered survivors. But will you be able to do it before the zombies reach you …?

Or at least that’s the setting for the first ever Project e-Reboot competition, hosted by the Mid-Atlantic Gigabit Innovation Collaboratory (MAGIC) and e-End. Teams of students were tasked with rebuilding a functioning computer from old components in a hypothetical post-apocalyptic scenario. The challenge was held at e-End’s electronics recycling facility in Frederick, Maryland, in cooperation with MAGIC, a nonprofit organization based one county over in Westminster.

Partnering for Project e-Reboot

Fifteen high school students, in teams of up to three, participated in the Project e-Reboot event on September 15. The teams, with names like “Free Pizza” and “Brogrammers,” worked together to build working computers from used parts and then use their machines to complete a variety of tasks, including accessing the Internet and printing off a document. Team Detemmienation, made up of Alana Koh, Ben Bonen, and Elizabeth Metzler, won first place.

MAGIC, a nonprofit focused on developing a local “tech ecosystem,” and e-End, a secure and environmentally responsible electronics recycling company, collaborated to create the event. According to its website, MAGIC “leverages the unique advantages of the Westminster Fiber Network to make our community a go-to destination for technology entrepreneurs, companies, and professionals.” To achieve this, MAGIC has three initiatives, or “collaboratories”: Tech Experiences educates teens and young adults, Tech Incubation supports tech entrepreneurs, and Tech Innovation establishes collaborative technology platforms.

We’ve reported on several other MAGIC programs that have given local teens the chance to gain hand-on tech experience. In the spring of 2016, the program worked with local students to develop temporary wireless networks to bring connectivity to festival goers at the Westminster Celtic Canter and Downtown Irish Celebration and the Flower and Jazz Festival

Westminster’s Fiber Network

At the core of MAGIC’s efforts is Westminster’s community owned network. The city began a fiber pilot program in 2013, but they soon decided to expand the pilots, as a result of strong public interest in the project. Westminster announced plans for full deployment of the fiber network the following year. In 2015, the network was lit, and the first residents began receiving Internet access.

City officials originally wanted the fiber network to be open access. Ultimately, they decided to partner with Internet service provider (ISP) Ting for a period of initial exclusivity. The ISP currently offers gigabit connectivity to Westminster businesses and households over the city’s fiber network. In 2015, The National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors declared Westminster and Ting’s partnership the “Community Broadband Innovative Partnership of the Year.”

Westminster’s network has improved the quality of life for local residents and attracted new businesses. But perhaps the most surprising benefit of the fiber infrastructure has been the wild success of MAGIC, City Council President Dr. Robert Whack explained on our Community Broadband Bits podcast:

“The totally unexpected thing that's been a big engine driver of the success and rapid growth of MAGIC is, I never realized how many technology professionals we already have living in our community that drive into Baltimore and Columbia and Washington DC and northern Virginia. And they're in the car for hours. They hate it. They want to do anything they can … in terms of creating jobs and creating a technology ecosystem in Westminster and Carroll County. So we had this army of volunteers ... that want to do this because they see the long-term benefit for their kids and everybody's kids for creating this thing out of nothing for our community.”

Tags: westminstermarylandtinggigabitpartnership

FCC Stomps on Local Control in Latest Small Cell Decision

September 27, 2018

On September 26th, Republican FCC Commissioners adopted an Order that usurps local control and, in keeping with this administration’s prior policy decisions, strengthens the power of the largest companies, obtaining nothing in return.

Bad Reasoning

At issue are local governments’ ability to determine the amount of fees to charge mobile carriers that want to place 5G equipment in rights-of-way. In addition to establishing fees, the Order sets strict timelines in which cities and towns must respond to carrier applications. The FCC decision eliminates local communities’ ability to negotiate in order to protect their own rights-of-way and the poles, traffic lights, and other potential structures in them.

To back up their decision to adopt the new policy, the Republican controlled FCC relied on the incorrect claims that application and attachment fees in larger communities are so excessive that they create a burden which prevents carriers from investing in rural communities. Former FCC Chief of Staff and one of the architects of the 2010 National Broadband Plan echoed the thoughts of policy analysts and thought leaders in telecommunications:

"[E]ven if one accepts the FCC claim about the $2.5 billion—which is highly questionable—that amount is about one percent of what the FCC and industry claim is the necessary new investment needed for next-generation network deployments and, therefore, is not likely to have a significant impact," he wrote.

The FCC does not require mobile carriers to commit to expanded coverage in smaller communities within the Order. Next Century Cities describes the situation in a press release:

These low fees would create a de facto public subsidization of industry investment. … The FCC is just giving private wireless companies all of the benefits of a utility without any traditional public interest obligations.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who has continued to oppose the Order, described the giveaway:

"Comb through the text of this decision—you will not find a single commitment made to providing more service in remote communities. Look for any statements made to Wall Street—not one wireless carrier has said that this action will result in a change in its capital expenditures in rural areas."

The Order sets application fees at $100 and $270 annual fees for each small cell. Local governments, who have firsthand knowledge of the costs, maintenance, and challenges of hosting industry equipment in the rights-of-way, oppose the FCC decision. Each community is unique and this new policy prevents them from working with mobile carriers to reach the best solution for both parties and the communities they serve.

In their statement opposing the proposal, the National League of Cities wrote:

“Today’s vote, however, overlooks significant concerns from the nation’s cities and counties. Over 100 local governments from 22 states filed comments in opposition to the proposed ruling during the FCC’s comment period.

...

“Local governments share the FCC’s urgency; however, this ruling promises to force local governments to rubber-stamp small cell applications or face crippling legal recourse from providers racing to corner the 5G communications market."

It's Not All About Money

In addition to the limits on fees, the Order interferes in the public safety and aesthetic requirements communities can require for small cells, imposing a reasonableness requirement. The Order sheds little light on the “reasonable” standard. For towns that highly value aesthetic architectural qualities — as in the case of historic downtown districts — the FCC waves away the unique needs of individual communities. Samir Saini, CIO of New York City, commented on the Order in a blog post prior to the vote:

"Without local control, multiple companies could pile many different installations on a single light pole. Imagine a mass of new equipment on a single structure, ruining streetscapes and potentially interfering with first responder, electric utility and other critical equipment."

Prior to the adoption, Next Century Cities developed a summary of the Order. Download the document to learn more about their interpretation of the Order details. Also from their press release:

“Communities across the country are working hard to encourage 5G investment,” says Deb Socia, Executive Director of Next Century Cities. “Local leaders want this technology that will improve quality of life for their constituents. However, this Order puts a foot on the scale for industry, and limits community capacity to serve the public interest. Mutually beneficial agreements will only happen when local governments can come to the table without their hands tied behind their backs.”

Next Century Cities Summary of FCC Small Cell OrderTags: fccsmall-cell5GmobileWirelesslocalright-of-wayjessica rosenworcelblair levin