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Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 244

March 20, 2017

This is the transcript for Episode 244 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Christopher Mitchell speaks with Tom Stehn of West Plains, Missouri, on how the community is encouraging economic development. Listen to this episode here.

 

Tom Stehn: Businesses look to expand, move to other locations. There's usually five questions they ask, and one of them is always what kind of broadband do you have?

Lisa Gonzalez: This is episode 244 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. West Plains, Missouri, located in the south central part of the state, is situated in the Ozarks, and known for its beautiful terrain, forests, and vistas. Despite attracting outdoor enthusiasts, the community has suffered some economic losses in recent years and is taking steps to boost economic development. Recently the city began offering high quality connectivity to local businesses. Tom Stehn, City Administrator, talks to Christopher this week about the city's foray into municipal Internet infrastructure. Tom describes how the city's plan to update municipal services led them to discover that local businesses also wanted better connectivity. He describes the city's project, their plan, and how they're starting out slowly to address any challenges they encounter along the way.

Christopher Mitchell: Hey everyone. I just wanted to thank you for listening and helping out to create a stronger Internet ecosystem, making sure everyone has high quality access. Please tell your friends, tell others who might be interested, about this show. If you have a chance to rate us on iTunes, please do. Several people already have. We really appreciate all of the comments, and we really appreciate you taking the time to listen to us.

Lisa Gonzalez: Now here's Tom Stehn, City Administrator, of West Plains, Missouri, talking with Christopher about the community's municipal fiber project.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell. Today I'm talking with Tom Stehn, the City Administrator of West Plains in Missouri. Welcome to the show.

Tom Stehn: Thank you, glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: I've been following a little bit from afar what's happening in West Plains. Actually we've been doing a lot of interviews with folks all over Missouri, so I'm pretty excited to hear more about what you're doing in your corner of the state. Let's start off by discussing a little bit about West Plains is. Can you give a sense for people who haven't been through it?

Tom Stehn: Chris, West Plains is located in the heart of the Ozarks in south central Missouri. We have a population of over 12,000 people. Any given day, we're probably about 17,000 to 18,000. West Plains is home to a two year college, MSU, Missouri State University, West Plains, a 115 bed hospital, called Ozark Medical Center, and has been recognized on three separate occasions as being one of the best small towns to live in America by National Publications. We also have been recognized by a publication called Spark Asset as being one of the top eight places in Missouri to retire.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. It sounds like you're a bit of a regional center and a fairly rural part of the Ozarks there.

Tom Stehn: Yes we are. We're kind of the regional hub for south central Missouri. The closest communities to us, major communities, are about 100 miles away, and that's Springfield, Missouri to the northwest, and Poplar Bluff to the east.

Christopher Mitchell: If there's one thing I know about towns that are loved by nature lovers and that are off in the middle of, what we might say, nowhere, is that you often have problems with high quality Internet access. Is that one of the issues that you've been dealing with there?

Tom Stehn: Yes, it has. Chris, it all kind of started back in basically February of 2015. We were having a work session with council. As a small community, just looking at the city of West Plains individually, we were kind of behind the curve on some technology issues for our own staff. What we recommended to council was we would like to proceed and connect all city buildings to a fiber Internet, which therefore could help us with our police and fire, intranet, SharePoint or Cloud, and some other things. The question asked was, "Would you be able to serve businesses possibly if that comes to play?" We answered, "Yes." The media was there, and that kind of started the process. From February to about September, the community was letting our city council know that they did not feel they had reliable and affordable Internet. Basically around September, the council asked us to form a committee, which we formed a broadband study group. It was about 20-25 people, businesses, and chamber, Ozark Medical Center, and other people throughout the community, to look at this broadband issue. Basically in December, we made a presentation to city council that we needed to proceed. We made three recommendations. One was we would like to proceed with our fiber loop. It's a 14 mile loop around town and connect businesses as they show interest. Then, basically this year we would do some type of pilot to connect more businesses and possibly look at residential. The third would be at the end of this year we would give an update on what's working, what's not, costs, and where do we need to go from there.

Christopher Mitchell: One of the things that sometimes pops up when we're talking about these kinds of things as you're describing what you went through, is whether or not you, as a city administrator, really are thinking this is something you want to do. I'm just curious, as you're going through that process that you just described, is this something that you were excited to do, or is this something that you wish you didn't have to get into?

Tom Stehn: Chris, that is a loaded question, and a very good one. Unfortunately, at the City of West Plains, in the last two years, we've lost over 500 jobs. This fiber or broadband is a huge issues for companies looking towards the future. From that avenue, I was very excited about it. Of course, as a city administrator, I'm concerned, because if we would go completely to all businesses and residents, we're looking at a high price tag that is estimated at $15 million. What scares me the most is the customer service aspect of this. If we're going to do this, I want to make sure the city is successful and that we can respond at serving the customer service. That's the piece that really scares me the most.

Christopher Mitchell: That makes a lot of sense, and we hear that from a lot of communities, frankly. You described your plan. You're going to be serving, what we typically call the anchor institutions, your schools, presumably the police, and that sort of thing. You're going to make it available to businesses. Are you running this out of City Hall? Do you already have an electric utility or something? Who's going to manage it for the city?

Tom Stehn: Right now, basically we are running out of City Hall, and we're kind of doing it through our utility department. Last February, council did agree to add fiber as a utility for the city of West Plains, but we're really managing it right now out of our electric department and our IT department. That is one of the things that we're looking at, as we take some next steps, and that's one of the reasons for the pilots this year is, really getting a better gauge on what type of costs, what type of resources we need, equipment all that. We're still very much in the learning stage here. Chris, I'd like to clarify something. What we're talking about right now is dedicated Internet, which is available upon request. It's 25 Mbps up, 25 Mbps down, so it's a committed source where it doesn't fluctuate based on the number of customers. That's what we're offering to businesses right now.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I think for people who aren't as familiar, that's going to be a higher quality service than they're used to getting, maybe if you get 25 Megabit from a telephone or a cable company. When it's committed, it's always there.

Tom Stehn: Yes, it is. That is correct.

Christopher Mitchell: So let's talk about how you're financing the network. How are you paying for this first approach that you're laying out with the ring?

Tom Stehn: Well, right now, Chris, we're kind of funding it through the utilities department. The costs have been a little over $260,000. Our estimate right now if we would fund the whole thing is $15 million, which would include the residential and commercial service. We probably would be looking at some type of bonding in some fashion, either fully or partially. This would have to go to the vote of the people for the City of West Plains, but those are things we're still trying to work out as we test pilot our system.

Christopher Mitchell: When you say, it's funded through the utilities, is that a loan within the utilities system then?

Tom Stehn: In a way, yes. We're kind of borrowing from the electric department, and then as we add customers and all that, we're going to try to pay that back as much as we can.

Christopher Mitchell: Yeah, that's something that we've often seen. It's nice to be able to do those loans internally. In fact, in our experience, when you actually get into the accounting, it actually works out very well for the electric department to fund it that way.

Tom Stehn: Basically what we're also trying to do is, as we upgrade our lines or improve our lines with taking it from overhead to underground, we'll be putting electric lines in the underground, we'll be adding another conduit for fiber. So pretty much where we're doing those changes or where we're running electric to new services, we're bringing fiber along with it. If you have the potential of receiving our electric from our utilities, then you'll have the potential of fiber as well. We're saving on some of the labor costs there by doing it together.

Christopher Mitchell: Right, and I just have to put in a big plug. Any time I hear of utilities going underground, I'm always thrilled, because I think, particularly if you're in a very scenic area, getting rid of those wires overhead really makes everyone's day better, even if they don't realize it, I think.

Tom Stehn: Yes, we just had a big project last year. What we consider, we call our Southern Hills Shopping District, that's where pretty much our commercial area is with Walmart and other shops. We work with them and basically put all the services underground in front of that. Aesthetically it makes it look so much better.

Christopher Mitchell: Absolutely, so what are some of the results of the fiber project thus far, or I guess to some extent, what are you forecasting as well?

Tom Stehn: Chris, right now we have put out a survey to all our businesses just trying to better understand their concerns and gauge interest. Unfortunately we have not received back all those surveys, so we don't have the data where I can communicate with you on that. We are advertising that we have a dedicated Internet, 25 Mbps, 50 Mbps, and 100 Mbps, trying to get interest on what businesses would be interested in that. We will be trying to go forth, probably late summer, with a pilot of hooking up so many businesses and residents, where basically about a 90 day pilot, where we can really evaluate our system. Other things, later this year, first of next year, we can present to council our findings and kind of finalize our direction even more. Right now, Chris, we're still very much in the learning stage and trying to just better understand the concerns of our customers and their interests, but also trying to better understand what equipment, technology, and all that, that we need to use to move this forward, as well as resources.

Christopher Mitchell: I guess I'm curious, Tom, as there's a debate right now happening in Missouri at the state legislature over whether or not there should be more barriers for cities, is there anything you think the legislature doesn't really understand in terms of what your position is as a small community, maybe outside of the major cities in Missouri?

Tom Stehn: We have Representative Shawn Rhoads and Senator Mike Cunningham. There is a bill filed this year called Senate Bill 186, and if I recall Chris, this is the fourth year for a bill similar to this being filed.

Christopher Mitchell: Yes.

Tom Stehn: We've had several communications with our representative and state senator indicating that we really need that flexibility, especially for a small rural community, such as ourselves, because basically it could be our survival for economic development. We need to have that flexibility. I believe our rep and state senator totally understand our position and support our position.

Christopher Mitchell: Good. I'm glad to hear that. I know that there's been a split. That's why it keeps coming up is because the majority of the legislature recognizes that communities should be making these decisions locally, and I think nobody at the state level has a sense of what every community needs.

Tom Stehn: I feel with our state rep and senator, they have very much been involved in discussions with us and talking to us on our feelings. They totally understand that and realize the situation the City of West Plains has been in with losing so many jobs. They attended some of our meetings with the broadband study group. They're hearing from our citizens as well, and pretty much, they both said they would oppose any bill that comes through limiting our flexibility on this.

Christopher Mitchell: I'm very glad to hear that. Is there anything you'd like to wrap up with as we close up the interview?

Tom Stehn: West Plains is a great community. We have great citizens, and they're very progressive. We just want to do what's best for this community and move it forward and hopefully grow in the meantime.

Christopher Mitchell: I think that you're really smart to be examining what you can be doing and doing the pilot project, because it looks a lot of the rural electric cooperatives in both Arkansas and in Missouri, are seriously moving ahead. It's one thing if you have bad Internet access, and none of your neighbors have better Internet access, but if Missouri's going to be one of the first states that has really great rural Internet access across it, you need to make sure that you're there in the game at the same time.

Tom Stehn: We agree. Our citizens are driving us, and so we're responding to their needs. The other thing is as businesses look to expand, move to other locations, there's usually five questions they ask. One of them is always what kind of broadband do you have. We just want to make sure that we can provide that service, so they really consider the City of West Plains as they grow.

Christopher Mitchell: Great, thank you so much for your time today, Tom.

Tom Stehn: Thank you, Chris.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Tom Stehn, City Administrator from West Plains, Missouri, where the city just began offering high quality connectivity to local businesses. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits Podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcasts@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 all of the podcasts in the ILSR podcast family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Don't miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at islr.org. Thank you to Break the Bands for the song, Escape, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to episode 244 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast.

Tags: transcriptmissouriwest plains moruralmunifiber-to-the-businesspreemptionstate laws

Ting's New Vid In Centennial

March 18, 2017

 

We reported last fall that Ting Internet was considering Centennial, Colorado, as its next Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) target area. In preparing for preregistration, they have developed one of their marketing videos that tries to capture the unique flavor of the place they intend to serve.

 Check it out:

 

Tags: centennialcoloradotingvideomarketing

Mission Viejo, CA, Embarks On Feasibility Study

March 17, 2017

At one time, it’s hilly geography earned it the label “undevelopable” in the 1960s, but now the planned community of Mission Viejo, California, is home to approximately 97,000 people in Orange County. The city with the suburban feel is looking at ways to develop even further.

A Blank Slate

The city has recently commissioned a feasibility study to examine how this suburban community can improve its connectivity to boost economic development and improve municipal efficiencies.

According to the city’s website, they want to:

      • Define the City’s strategic goals, objectives and roles of deployment for broadband network services;
      • Develop an understanding of community-wide need for fiber-based broadband;
      • Document fiber-based broadband demand in the City that leverages the City’s existing relationships with local businesses and stakeholder.
      • Assess the feasibility of using existing right of way, existing and new conduit pole lines and other assets to reduce the cost of FTTP deployments throughout the City;
      • Determine the benefits that a fiber network would provide in terms of economic development, education, healthcare, municipal government and the quality of life of its constituents, residents and visitors;
      • Determine how a fiber network could create added-value through economic efficiencies and cost reductions;
      • Determine the most feasible options to gain consensus on the path forward to achieve the City’s goals.

Like a number of other communities, Mission Viejo has existing fiber within the city that was deployed some time ago for its Intelligent Transportation System (ITS). The community doesn’t own or operate municipal gas or electric utilities. Incumbent Internet access providers are Cox and AT&T.

Business A Priority

Local businesses have been complaining about poor connectivity for years. Back in 2015, one of the community’s two large retail shopping centers found that Cox Communications didn’t see investing in a connection worthwhile. Merchants at The Village shopping center had to depend on DSL and were understandably irked:

“How can you run a business if you don’t have basic services like the Internet?” said Mary Kim, who owns Skimmer’s Panini Grill. “We can’t even run simple (credit card) transactions. We might as well just go back to using cash.”

The complaints inspired the idea for the city to provide Wi-Fi to the shopping center and city leaders integrated the initiative, along with many others, into its 2016 Technology strategic plan.

The results of the feasibility study should be completed this summer.

Tags: mission viejoeconomic developmentfeasibilityconsiderationtraffic lights

Businesses Selected For Ellensburg Pilot

March 16, 2017

Out of 58 business applications, the city of Ellensburg, Washington, recently selected 30 local businesses to participate in their fiber-optic pilot project. Nineteen participants are business owners, 11 are business tenants; 22 are located at commercial locations and six are home-based businesses along with two telecommuters, reports the Daily Record.

The participants will obtain a credit of $5,000 to connect to the network from the city’s telecommunications utility. Any connection fees over and above the credit will be the responsibility of the pilot project participants.

Businesses will be able to purchase Internet access from the city at either 300 Megabits per second (Mbps) capacity or gigabit (1,000 Mbps) capacity. Service is symmetrical, which is critical for business, so speeds are just as fast on the upload as on the download. Month service fees will be $39.95 and $59.95 per month respectively. The city expects to begin connecting businesses in August.

Tags: ellensburgwashingtonpilot projectmuniutilityeconomic developmenthome businesstelecommutingsymmetrygigabit

Eugene's "Silicon Shire" : No Orcs Here

March 16, 2017

Eugene was recently named a recipient for a Mozilla and National Science Foundation Gigabit Community Fund award. The funding will allow education and workforce development ideas that require next-generation technologies to take advantage of the “Emerald City’s” new gigabit infrastructure.

Green Means Go

Last summer, the City Council voted to make a downtown fiber-optic infrastructure pilot project eligible for Urban Renewal funds. The approval allowed the Eugene Water and Electric Board (EWEB) the ability to expand the project to bring Gigabit per second (1,000 Megabits) capacity to more businesses in the city's downtown.

Based on the success of the pilot and the new funding source, the city solidified plans to take the publicly owned network even further last fall. The city has approved up to $3 million to expand the open access network and connect to approximately 120 downtown buildings.

On March 21st, the city and EWEB is holding a Fiber Launch Celebration downtown. They’ll hold a Fiber Lighting Ceremony and demonstrate 10 Gbps Internet speeds from XS Media, one of the first ISPs planning to offer services via the new infrastructure. Tickets to the event will benefit the Springfield Education Foundation and Looking Glass Community Services. From the event announcement:

"More and more businesses and jobs depend on high-speed internet, just as much as they depend on other basic infrastructure," says Mel Damewood, EWEB's chief engineering and operations officer. "This innovative 'open-access' model of public ownership partnered with private ISPs offers service in a cost-competitive environment, and that helps to support our growing tech sector and a vibrant downtown."

EWEB’s deployment is part of a regional effort called EUGNet that includes a number of public agencies from Portland to San Jose. Locally, the Springfield Utility Board and the Lane Council of Governments also include their fiber resources in the 1,200 mile collaborative network. There are currently five private sector providers offering some form of services over EUGNet to businesses, public entities, or residents in areas along the extensive EUGNet footprint. As the downtown Eugene network grows, so will opportunities for more private ISPs to deliver services to local businesses. 

Prices Too High, Capacity Too Low

For downtown businesses, connectivity costs from incumbent cable providers are just too high. The region has attracted tech entrepreneurs in reent years and the only way to keep the trend going is to offer better connectivity. City leaders want to drive that economic development by encouraging competition as a way to lower the prices of that essential service for local firms - high-quality Internet access.

Along with high rates, businesses complain about low capacity that stifles growth. Many commercial connections in downtown Eugene max out at 150 Mbps download and slower upload speeds, which are vastly inadequate for the new businesses finding a home in Eugene. Anne Fifield, a city economic development planner told the Register Guard last fall:

“The 21st century is here, and this is something we want to pursue very much…Limited telecommunications infrastructure in Eugene and a lack of competition is leading to lower service levels and higher prices than we see in larger markets.”

Lunar Logic, a downtown Eugene digital Marketing firm, pays $1,200 - $1,500 per month to maintain two Internet connections. They need to be online constantly because they design and maintain client websites. Rather than risk losing a connection due to reliability issues, they feel it’s important to pay for double coverage from the cable incumbent provider.

While ISPs that choose to offer services over the city network will be able to set their own rates, XS Media is now offering gigabit access for $99 per month in the pilot area. Lunar Logic isn’t in the pilot area, but CEO Celeste Edman would welcome fast, affordable, reliable service:

She calls the prospect of faster speeds for $99 a month a game changer for Lunar Logic.

“This number of $99 a month, even if it was $200 a month, the amount of money that saves me in a year is huge,” Edman said. “That could mean more hiring, that could mean updating my own space, providing more benefits to employees, it could mean more charitable giving to the community. It means a lot of things. Just the financial savings alone is huge.”

Palo Alto Software is in the pilot area and switched from Comcast to the new utility. According to CEO Sabrina Parsons, the service is more consistent, affordable, faster, and, “We don’t have to depend on just Comcast.”

From Silicon Bayou to Silicon Shire

Back in 2014, Lafayette earned the nickname “Silicon Bayou” when several tech companies sprung up in the community to take advantage of it’s publicly owned gigabit network. Those new businesses had been the latest in a string of new and retained jobs that depend on high-quality connectivity. Eugene wants to be known as the “Silicon Shire” and an initiative of 400 regional technology companies has claimed the brand. The community’s investment in better connectivity and the Mozilla/NSF Gigabit Community Fund reinforce their efforts.

Continue, a cloud hosting company with servers in three buildings located in Eugene, uses the publicly owned network for connectivity in one of its buildings that is located in the pilot area. He told the Register Guard that, in addition to increasing speeds by a factor of ten, his Internet access costs for that facility were reduced by 2/3rds.

“I’m usually of the opinion the government should keep its hands off and let the private sector fix it in its own way,” Wright said. But the new city-owned fiber network is “going to really help propel the concept of the Silicon Shire, and hopefully bring in more talent to this area.”

 

Picture of Eugene from Hilyard Street looking east by Visitor7 (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tags: eugeneoregongigabiteconomic developmenturbanopen accesssmall businessentrepreneurship

Gigabit Community Funds Coming to Lafayette and Eugene

March 16, 2017

In 2014, Mozilla and the National Science Foundation (NSF) created the Gigabit Community Fund to help local communities test new gigabit technologies. This year, projects in Eugene, Oregon, and Lafayette, Louisiana, will receive awards from the fund. Each community will receive $150,000 $300,000. Organizations that want to apply for the funding with their project ideas need to submit applications by July 14, 2017.

Learn more about the application process and the award at the Gigabit Communities website.

The recent announcement described the reasons for adding these cities to the list of past winners - Chattanooga, Kansas City, and Ausin:

Why Eugene and Lafayette? Mozilla Community Gigabit Fund cities are selected based on a range of criteria, including a widely deployed high-speed fiber network; a developing conversation about digital literacy, access, and innovation; a critical mass of community anchor organizations, including arts and educational organizations; an evolving entrepreneurial community; and opportunities to engage K-12 school systems. (emphasis ours)

Check out this video on Mozilla and the Gigabit Community Fund:

Update: After publishing this story, we received the official news release from the city of Eugene and the Technology Association of Oregon, which provided a little more information. Specifcally that grants usually range from $5,000 - $30,000 and that the pilot period is typically 16 weeks. You can read the news release here.

Mozilla picks Eugene as next Gigabit CityTags: eugeneoregonlafayettelouisiananational science foundationmozillaawardeducationapplications

New Report: AT&T Digital Discrimination in Cleveland

March 15, 2017

A new report from the National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Connect Your Community concludes that the telecom giant AT&T has redlined low-income neighborhoods in Cleveland. The company has cherry-picked higher-income neighborhoods for new technology investments and skipped over neighborhoods with high-proverty rates.

AT&T’s Digital Redlining, uses publicly available data from the FCC and the American Community Survey to expose how AT&T has failed to invest in low-income communities in Cleveland.

See With Your Own Eyes

Read the report and explore the interactive maps on digitalinclusion.org. The National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Connect Your Community spent six months uncovering how AT&T has systematically passed over communities with high poverty rates. The five maps paint a stark picture of the digital divide. 

The extent of AT&T’s failure only came to light after the AT&T and DirecTV merger. As part of the merger, AT&T had to create an affordable Internet access program for low-income residents. The lowest speed tier in the program was 3 Megabits per second (Mbps) download for $5, but many low-income communities in Cleveland were considered ineligible; infrastructure in their communities only allowed access to speeds that maxed out at about 1.5 Mbps download. (Read more in "AT&T Gets Snagged in Giant Loophole Attempting to Avoid Merger Responsibility")

Public Data Can Share Some Insights 

The National Digital Inclusion Alliance and Connect Your Community noticed a pattern and began investigating. The FCC Form 477 data used in the report provides maximum speeds and technology by each census block, which typically overstates the quality of service actually available to households.

We've also used the FCC Form 477 data in our research and can attest to how the data may exaggerate speed and technology. Telecom companies self-report the data on what technology and maximum speeds they offer and tend to aggrandize their own accomplishments. The maps presented in the AT&T’s Digital Redlining Report are a best-case scenario, and AT&T’s best in Cleveland appears to be only for those above the poverty line.

Tags: infrastructuredigital divideohioclevelandfcclow-incomecherry pickingreportat&t

West Plains Builds Network to Preserve Jobs - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 244

March 14, 2017

West Plains is one of the many population centers of rural regions that have been left behind by big cable and telephone companies. Located in the scenic Ozarks of southern Missouri, they are taking their digital future into their own hands with a modest fiber-optic investment.

City Administrator Tom Stehn strolls by our podcast this week to discuss what they are doing and why with a municipal fiber network that will connect anchor institutions and local businesses with high-quality Internet access.

We discuss the need, how they are financing it, and why the state legislature should not enact new barriers to local solutions. The community has already been placing conduit as part of a larger undergrounding effort, which will help them to expand the network over time.

Read the transcript of the show here.

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

This show is 17 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music. The song is Escape and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsmissouriruralmunifiber-to-the-businessanchor institutionspreemptionstate lawsjobseconomic developmentutilityundergroundingconduit

Erwin Expanding Again, Moving Into The Mountains

March 14, 2017

Erwin Fiber is growing in stages and now that the utility in Erwin, Tennessee, has completed phase three of its Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) deployment, about half of its electricity customers have access to high-quality Internet access. That’s not all - phase four this spring will bring gigabit connectivity to more rural customers in two nearby mountain communities.

Reaching Out In Steps

All told, Erwin Fiber more than tripled its service area in 2016. A December grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission (ARC) will allow the utility to complete the spring build out, which will serve an additional 680 homes and 30 businesses. The Temple Hill and Bumpass Cove areas located in the mountains outside of downtown Erwin will have access to Erwin Fiber's symmetrical Internet access. Due to the remote character of these neighborhoods, people here had little prospect of obtaining high-quality Internet access from other providers. The 35-mile expansion will cost approximately $400,000.

November’s expansion added 2,200 homes and businesses, while a similar effort last March included 1,300 homes and businesses. Both expansions came after the community successfully experimented with a 2015 pilot project in which the city’s electric utility connected an initial 1,200 customers. The utility needed the infrastructure for the electric system other utilities; it was the right to to invest in the equipment for high-speed connectivity and phone service 

Not An Impluse

The municipality of about 6,000 people had considered the investment some 15 years prior but couldn’t afford the investment until recent years when the cost of deployment decreased. In January, Christopher interviewed Lee Brown and John Williams from Erwin Utilities who discussed the community’s project and explained how the fiber infrastructure is benefitting all the utility customers, even those who don’t subscribe to FTTH services.

Tags: erwin tntennesseeFTTHexpansionincrementalgigabitutilitymunielectricgrantappalachiansrural

Community Broadband Media Roundup - March 13

March 13, 2017

California

Bo on utility commission's list for broadband Internet by Silas Valentino, Point Reyes Light

 

Colorado

The broadband debate: What 'we' want versus what 'they' want by Jim Spehar, Grand Junction Daily Sentinel

 

Massachusetts

Towns hear broadband service pitch by Diane Broncaccio, The Recorder

 

Missouri

Kansas City unveils a new strategy to get high-speed Internet access to all by Joe Robertson, Kansas City Star

  

Tennessee

How Chattanooga aims to cut poverty with superfast Internet by Lonnie Shekhtman, Christian Science Monitor

 

General

How Trump's FCC is quickly working to undo network neutrality by April Glaser, Recode

America's broadband market needs more competition by Hernan Galperin, Annette Kim & Francios Bar, The Conversation

The battle for the Internet in rural America by Nick Fouriezos, Ozy

The initial effort to provide better internet is costly, which is why profit-focused national providers are loathe to invest, particularly in less-sexy locales. That’s why smaller municipalities feel compelled to pursue public solutions in a field typically led by private companies, as Roanoke did with the formation of its Roanoke Valley Broadband Authority, the engine driving its internet efforts. 

Pai agrees to verify FCC has no role in AT&T-Time Warner review by John Eggerton, MultiChannel News

NY State AG's lawsuit against ISP shows why we need net neutrality protections by Jeremy Gillula and Kerry Sheehan, Electronic Frontier Foundation

Photo of the Highlander calf courtesy of robertobarresi via Pixaby.

Tags: media roundup

Whipping Up Better Internet In Western MA

March 13, 2017

Whip City Fiber has big plans to serve more residents in its hometown of Westfield, Massachusetts, and is already helping some of its neighbors as they seek better connectivity.

Expanding At Home

In February, Westfield City Council unanimously approved the municipal utility’s request for a $15 million bond to fund expansion to more areas of the city. Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity is currently available to approximately 15 percent of the city. The additional funds will allow Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E) to expand the network to about 70 percent of the community, or about 10,000 additional households. WG+E is planning the expansion on a two-year timeline.

As in the past, WG+E will use the “fiberhood” approach, giving priority to neighborhoods with the highest interest. They will also consider seasonal practicalities and the locations of existing infrastructure. According to their announcement, they will be installing overhead services this month and will begin underground installation when the ground thaws.

As Westfield’s FTTH has grown piece by piece, they’ve had opportunities to work out the rough patches and determine what challenges communities in western Massachusetts may face when they build out Internet networks. Now, WG+E is reaching out to other communities who are looking for guidance.

State Finally Releases Funding

A change in recent policy from the Massachusetts Broadband Institute (MBI) has enabled Westfield and it's neighbors to have a little more control over their telecommunications future.

Since 2014, MBI has grappled with how it intends to distribute $50 million worth of state funding designated for communities in need of better connectivity. After several changes in policy, the agency required rural towns to get approval from MBI for business plans and to work with the organization before they could receive funding. The agency and the state have been widely criticized for its heavy-handed, yet slow-footed approach.

In February, representatives from a number of rural towns let MBI officials know that they were unhappy with the agency’s decision to withhold funds from communities that wanted to work with WiredWest:

Charley Rose of Worthington asked Larkin and the MBI to express support for the concept of regionalization of broadband networks. 

"I am completely dumbfounded by the lack of interest in working with an organization that represents the majority of the towns that are affected," Rose said, referring to the MBI's distance from WiredWest. 

WiredWest, the cooperative of local communities that has aimed to develop a regional network for several years, expected to receive some of the state and federal funding for the project. In January of 2016, MBI notified the organization and its 44 members that it did not approve of its business plan and so would not release the expected funding to WiredWest. MBI objected primarily to the WiredWest ownership plan in which local communities would not be the sole owners of the infrastructure in their communities. 

Over the following year, a number of the small western Massachusetts communities left WiredWest and chose to work within MBI's parameters. WiredWest's 27 remaining member towns intend to continue forward. 

In late February, MBI’s board decided that it would now release design and engineering grants directly to local communities that want to build their own last mile networks. After officials from local communities strongly objected, MBI changed course:

"The towns said very clearly that they wanted the state to release the professional service allocation in the form of direct grants, in addition to their construction grants," said [Gov. Charlie Barker Spokesman Paul] McMorrow in a telephone interview Monday [to MassLive].

Even though funds for design and construction will now be released to local decision makers, the prior option of working with MBI for those services still stands. The state agency has new leadership and is partnering with big incumbents such as Charter Communications and Comcast.

Charter and Comcast have their eyes on a few communities that have a "no-risk, no-cost” option. If communities choose to go with one of the incumbents as partners, they don't assume any risk or cost but don't get the benefit of FTTH. If, however, they want to invest in fiber infrastructure that they will own, they can still access their share of the state funding from MBI and issue bonds to meet the required matching funds. They must inform MBI which option they choose by March 24th. 

Whip City Raising The Local Bar

Rather than regressing back to the incumbent cable technology, a number of local communities seem to be taking a positive view toward working with WG+E. The town of Otis has already chosen WG+E to deploy FTTH to is 1,360 residents. At their January Town Board meeting, they reported that WG+E is making progress readying poles and preparing the town’s network design. The minutes also report that the community had been awarded $1 million from MBI for construction and that they are planning to have WG+E operate their municipal network.

Whip City is embracing its new role as a mentor and agent. At a February MBI forum to introduce potential last mile network partners to towns receiving broadband funding, local officials were keenly interested. According to the Berkshire Eagle, attendees at the forum had positive reflections on Westfield's presentation: 

"Game changer," the Charlemont delegate said. 

"Far and away the best proposal," added a Goshen Select Board member. 

"They have a lot going for them and believe in fiber," said Mary Ellen Kennedy, representing New Salem.

At a similar March meeting in Charlemont, WG+E’s Aaron Bean told another group of leaders from local communities about Westfield’s proposal. They’d like to serve as other towns’ project managers to oversee design and deployment and would consider working with towns individually or a group of towns for a regional project. If the towns want WG+E to also act as their Internet Service Provider (ISP) they could enter into a longer contract.

Bean said the company could oversee the design and build-out, then run the network for towns that want it. “For those who continue on with us, that’s great,” he said. “If you go on your own, that’s fine, too.”

 

Image of the Stanley Park Duck Pond courtesy of the Stanley Park nonprofit organization.

Tags: westfield mamassachusettsmassachusetts broadband institutewired westmuniFTTHcollaborationbondfunding

Christopher Talks North Carolina, Local Solutions

March 11, 2017

How do we connect rural America? Unreliable, slow Internet service with data caps is the norm for much of the country. Even though the federal government gives billions of dollars to large telecom companies, North Carolina is one of the many states that still has an urban and rural digital divide.

Western North Carolina Public Radio (WCQS) recently spoke with our Christopher Mitchell about local ways to improve rural Internet access. While Christopher spoke of electric cooperatives, two other initiatives are also seeking creative solutions in the western half of the state.

Potential Service from Electric Cooperatives

Communities across the U.S. are already bringing better connectivity to their homes and businesses. Specifically, Christopher pointed to the growing number of electric cooperatives providing Internet service: 

“When you look at the threat communities face from not having broadband Internet—the way people are moving away, and fewer people are willing to move in—these electric membership corporations really have to think about what they can do to make sure there’s a high quality of life.”

In our 2016 North Carolina Connectivity report, we explored the work of two local electric cooperatives, Lumbee River and Blue Ridge Mountain. They collaborated with telephone cooperatives to provide high-speed Internet service in the several rural counties near Georgia.

Spotlight on Local Solutions

The WCQS article reported on two more local initiatives: the community network in Highlands, North Carolina, and the nonprofit Land of Sky Regional Council

Back in 2015, the people of Highlands saw that poor Internet access was hurting their community. They quickly built the Altitude Community Broadband network. Highlands Internet Technology Director Matt Shuler told WCQS: 

“Homes just weren’t selling. For economic development purposes, we had to find a solution.”

Looking for solutions, 19 local governments created the Land of Sky Regional Council. Modeled after the North Carolina Next Generation Network, the nonprofit hopes to encourage economic development.  Currently, the council is seeking a $47,500 grant from the Appalachian Regional Commission to study regional connectivity.

More on North Carolina

Explore more about local solutions in North Carolina through our several reports, including: Carolina's Connected Community, The Empire Lobbies Back, and North Carolina Connectivity. Although several large telecom companies offer Internet service in North Carolina, the communities showcased in these reports found that their local solutions provide better, faster Internet service and more accountability. 

Tags: north carolinaeconomic developmentruralappalachiansWestNGNpress centerchristopher mitchellinterview

Transcript: Community Broadband Bits Episode 243

March 10, 2017

This is the transcript for episode 243 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. Mel Coleman, the president of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, explains how electric co-ops can provide high-quality, high-speed Internet service to their rural members. Listen to this episode here.

Mel Coleman: It is on fire and I think it something that most co-ops will, at the very least, be looking at very strongly within the next year or two, if they're not already.

Lisa Gonzalez: This is Episode 243 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I'm Lisa Gonzalez. This week Mel Coleman joins Christopher for a talk on high-quality connectivity in America offered by rural electric cooperatives. Mel is CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative and president of NRECA, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association. The NRECA represents more than 900 consumer-owned, not-for-profit electric cooperatives, public power districts, and public utility districts in the US. Mel and Chris get into the purposes of the organization and how broadband has become such a growing interest for cooperative members. They also discuss the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative's new project to bring high-quality Internet access to its rural members with a phased approach. Mel shares information on their progress and their expectations. Learn more about the next project at naeci.com.

Christopher Mitchell: Hey, folks. This is Chris Mitchell, the host of Community Broadband Bits, and I just wanted to ask you if you could do us a real big favor to help us spread this show around, and that's to jump on iTunes or Stitcher, or wherever you found this show, and to give us a rating, give us a little review, particularly if you like it. If you don't like it so much, then maybe don't do that; but, if you're enjoying this show, please give us a rating and help us to build the audience a bit. Thanks.

Lisa Gonzalez: Now, let's get on with the discussion. Here are Christopher and Mel Coleman, CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative and president of NRECA.

Christopher Mitchell: Welcome to another edition of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Chris Mitchell, and today I'm speaking with Mel Coleman, the CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative and president of NRECA. Welcome to the show.

Mel Coleman: Hey. Glad to be here.

Christopher Mitchell: Mel, I think people have a general sense of what an electric co-op is, but tell us about NRECA, if you would.

Mel Coleman: Well, NRECA, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, is the national association that represents all electric co-ops. NRECA is based in Arlington, Virginia, 700 employees. If you go back to the inception of NRECA, it was to speak for us in Washington on Capitol Hill and to provide services to cooperatives. Today NRECA is one of the largest lobbies in Washington, DC, has a strong voice for not only rural electrification, but any issues that face rural America -- energy issues. Also NRECA is the organization that we use on a daily basis. For instance, all of our employees across the country -- some 45,000 -- have their retirement that NRECA manages for us and also our insurance programs. So, NRECA is a very large, diverse organization: all of that, plus research and technology, education and training, marketing, anything you would expect to see with a national association plus a lot more.

Christopher Mitchell: As you said, one other question about the association before we focus on your cooperative there in North Arkansas. I have a sense that about 10 years ago, maybe, almost no rural electric cooperative was probably doing fiber, in terms of offering service to residents or businesses. It seems like there's a lot more interest. Do you have a sense that this is a rapidly growing interest of your members?

Mel Coleman: Oh, absolutely, and I think you're absolutely correct. I would go one step further. If you're talking about delivering broadband to members, you don't have to go 10 years back. To the best of my knowledge, this has all come about in the last four or five years. A lot of us, and I know here at my cooperative, we've had a fiber network for a number of years, but it was the fiber backbone that connected our substations and our offices together and such as that. As far as a fiber network to deliver broadband to our members, yeah, that is something that has just really taken fire the last two or three years and is coming to fruition.

Christopher Mitchell: If you listen to people like Randy Klindt and Jon Chambers, you get a sense that it's not going to be very many years until almost every rural electric is doing this. Do you think that's the path we're on?

Mel Coleman: Well, I think it is. You can look back, the history of co-ops throughout the country. Some dive right in; some are a little more cautious, understandably so, and it may take three or four years for them to do it. The one thing about co-ops: we all work together, we all share ideas together. We call that cooperation among cooperatives. Yet, we are all individual, we are all unique, and we all serve the specific needs of our own membership. Those needs are different as we look at each of the 900-plus co-ops across the country. In our case here in North Arkansas, we've heard from our membership this is what they need; this is what they want, and we're moving in that direction. Some co-ops aren't quite there yet. This has become, in my opinion, the number one topic when co-ops get together, whether it's at a statewide meeting, whether it's two managers having dinner, or whether it's at the national association, or the educational topics at the training sessions, the number one topic that I hear today is broadband. So, it is on fire and I think it is something that most co-ops will, at the very least, be looking at very strongly within the next year or two, if they're not already.

Christopher Mitchell: Let's talk about North Arkansas, the electric cooperative, and specifically, just to get a sense of what it's like. I think a lot of people hear Arkansas. They think Ozarks. Now you have 36,000 members across seven counties. What's your territory like? I mean, is it rolling hills, mountains? What've you got?

Mel Coleman: We're in the hills of North Arkansas and we do serve the Ozark Mountains. We've got right at 35,000 meters. We serve four counties in North Arkansas, four major counties, and parts of three others. We're in a very rural area. We've got an average density of seven members per mile of line. There's lower densities and there's higher, so that's actually a pretty good density for us to work with. We're in a recreational part of Arkansas. We have a lot of lakes, and streams, and hunting, and fishing, and all that. We do have a pretty good amount of seasonal load here as well as the permanent residences and the industry. I like to say we're in God's country of Arkansas.

Christopher Mitchell: I find that interesting -- You've named your pilot projects dealing with the fiber for broadband to residents and businesses NEXT. Can you tell me a little bit about what NEXT is?

Mel Coleman: Well, many people, if you've grown up in rural electrification, you go back 80 years ago, and what we're doing today is no different than what happened 80 years ago with electricity. Nobody wanted to serve rural America. I don't knock the investor-owned business model; but, when you look at an investor-owned utility, the CEO gets up every day and his number one goal is to increase the stock price of his utility. That's fine. That's their business model. That is not our business model. So, when you go back 80 years ago, there was no money to be made in rural America with stringing of electric lines and poles. That's why co-ops were formed, to serve the farms at that time, primarily. That was all that existed in rural America. Today we see the same thing with broadband. It is the same thing. The business plan of the for-profit communications companies does not fit rural America, and that's fine. It does fit our business plan, because we are only interested in improving the quality of life of our membership. Now, NEXT -- There's a book called The Next Greatest Thing, where 80 years ago a man got up in a church in Tennessee and said, "The greatest thing is to have the love of God in your heart and the next greatest thing is to have electricity in your home." That's where NEXT comes from. We've taken that word 'next' out of that, and what we like to think is, "This is the next 'next greatest thing,'" and that is broadband in your home, true broadband.

Christopher Mitchell: How did this become a priority among your members or your board? I'm always curious. How did you make the leap from thinking, "This would be nice to have" to something that, "We're going to make it work in these pilot projects"?

Mel Coleman: Well, our board's 100% behind us. It's been a topic of discussion for the last year or so at just about every meeting that we attend. I'm good friends with Randy Klindt, Randy, of course, at Ozarks Electric in Arkansas. We started talking to Randy. We put together a Phase 1 project, and our board adopted that. That's where we are today. We're in the Phase 1 project. A very supportive board. They understand. They live out there in these rural areas, and they understand the need for broadband. They hear from our members as well as we do here in the company.

Christopher Mitchell: For the co-ops that aren't doing it, are they hearing less from their residents, or is there just actually a different demand, do you think? Is there something that sets you apart from co-ops that are not doing anything quite yet?

Mel Coleman: No, I don't think there is. Again, you've got differences between all co-ops; but, I think when you take a cross-section, our members are basically the same. Again, each co-op is going to make that individual decision, and I think you have, understandably so, some electric cooperatives that are going to be very careful, very conservative about how they roll this out, the maiden one. We've done this, too, on some of the projects that we've had over the years. We may want to step back and see what success other people are having first. So, I think that's definitely understandable, and all co-ops, I think, are going to have a different timetable.

Christopher Mitchell: Can you describe the plan that you're using to roll this out?

Mel Coleman: Well, we have actually been under way since mid to late last year. What we've got is a pilot project of approximately 1500 meters of what we are looking for and what we're at, I believe -- our goal -- of a 35% take rate. Again, we had a fiber backbone that the co-op owned, and it was already in place. So, what NEXT has been doing, what we've been doing, is putting up the feeder lines, and now we're in the process of installing the drops. The latest numbers that I saw to date: We have about 60 connected. We have somewhere in the neighborhood of 400 or so that are going to be connected. So, I'm very excited about where we are at the present. I think we've certainly got the demand. I know we've got the demand across the rest of the territory, because we hear from those folks all the time, "When are you coming to my area?" But, no, we're very pleased with where we are in this Phase 1.

Christopher Mitchell: This is something that's self-funded, right? You're not getting any support from anyone for this?

Mel Coleman: Correct. This is self-funded.

Christopher Mitchell: I guess a question would be, then, do you have a sense of what it will take, if you keep getting demand, to be able to build out to everyone? Is this something that you could ultimately do yourself, or will you need some form of a program that would help you to reach some of the more rural areas?

Mel Coleman: No. This is not something that we could fully fund all the way through. The plans are now to have five phases. That's not an issue. That's not a problem for us, but it is not something that we would be able to self-fund past Phase 1.

Christopher Mitchell: So, when you say, "not able to fund," does that mean that you would need to secure a loan or you would need kind of a grant, some sort of funding you would not have to pay back?

Mel Coleman: Both. Grant funding would certainly help. We know money has been there, dating back to the stimulus for broadband in America. Certainly we feel like that we should have a shot at that as well as anybody else. But, yeah, also loan funds, we'll have to have. We do have access to loan funds, but that's not going to be an issue for us.

Christopher Mitchell: You're building a gigabit network in these areas. You already have some fiber backbone, but how are you getting to Little Rock or someplace, where you can hand off and connect to the wider Internet?

Mel Coleman: Well, we're actually going to St. Louis. Salem is in North Arkansas, and we have specifically in our Phase 1 -- was not only a good cross-section of our membership, but we went north out of Salem to the Missouri line, which is about 20, 22 miles. We connected with a transmission provider in Missouri that already had fiber strung, and that is our connection to the outside world.

Christopher Mitchell: Let me give you a chance. Is there anything else I should have asked you about this project or your area?

Mel Coleman: Nope. We're really excited about it. Again, I think, as we look at this, it is very appropriate to say that this is the next 'next greatest thing' that our members really are ready for.

Christopher Mitchell: Great. I've actually made the case that I think it may be that the FDR administration does more to get high-quality Internet access out to the rural areas than any other administration, which is pretty remarkable.

Mel Coleman: Yeah, pretty remarkable, exactly.

Christopher Mitchell: All right. Well, thank you for your time to tell us what's going on and thanks for your great work down there.

Mel Coleman: Yes, sir. Thank you and have a great day.

Lisa Gonzalez: That was Christopher talking with Mel Coleman, CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative and president of NRECA. We have transcripts for this and other Community Broadband Bits podcasts available at MuniNetworks.org/broadbandbits. Email us at podcast@MuniNetworks.org with your ideas for the show. You can follow Chris on Twitter. His handle is @CommunityNets. You can also follow MuniNetworks.org stories on Twitter. The handle is @MuniNetworks. Subscribe to this podcast and all of the podcasts in the ILSR family on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever else you get your podcasts. Never miss out on our original research. Subscribe to our monthly newsletter at ilsr.org. Thank you to Break the Bands for the Song, Escape, licensed through Creative Commons, and thanks for listening to Episode 243 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast.

Tags: transcriptArkansasrural electric coop

Rural Broadband Day On The Hill In MN March 15th

March 10, 2017

Minnesotans are known for their penchant for politics, their belief in strong local communities, and their love of getting together. As high-quality connectivity becomes a critical component of every day life, people who live in rural areas of Greater Minnesota are coming together in St. Paul on March 15th. The Minnesota Broadband Coalition is sponsoring the first Rural Broadband Day on the Hill.

A Panel And A Press Conference

Registration for citizen lobbyists filled quickly, but there will be a Broadband Issues Legislator Panel at 9:15 central time in Room N 500 of the State Office Building. It will include Representatives Layman, Garofalo, Baker, and Johnson, Senator Simonson, DEED Office of Broadband Development Director Danna MacKenzie and will be moderated by Steve Kelley, Sr Fellow Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

There will also be a press conference at 10 a.m. moderated by Steve Fenske, from the Minnesota Association of Townships. Speaking at the press conference will be several rural Minnesotans, including local broadband leaders:

  • Mark Erickson - Mark was instrumental in establishing the RS Fiber Cooperative
  • Joe Buttweiler - Joe is at Consolidated Telecommunications Cooperative now, but he was one of the leaders on the Arrowhead Electric Cooperative infrastructure in Cook County
  • Marc Johnson - He’s with the East Central Minnesota Educational Cable Cooperative (ECMECC) now and has extensive experience in education and the connectivity needs of anchor institutions
  • Chuck Novak - As Mayor of Ely, Chuck’s priorities are economic development and high-quality connectivity in his city
  • Sophia Stading - Sophia attends 6th grade in rural Lake Crystal, Minnesota
  • Sammie Garrity - Sammie is also in 6th grade and lives in Lutsen. He attends school in Grand Marais.

For more on the speakers and the agenda, check out the official media advisory.

Stick Around To Watch The Legislative Process

After lunch, citizen lobbyists have scheduled appointments with legislators and will stay for two legislative committee meetings. The Senate Committee on Jobs and Economic Growth Finance and Policy in Room 1150 of the Senate Office Building at 1 p.m. and the House Committee on Job Growth and Energy Affordability Policy and Finance in Room 10 of the State Office Building. The specific agenda for these committees will be announced closer to meeting time. Committee meetings are typically open to the public.

While registration is closed, the Blandin Foundation has some great ideas for how you can grab legislators’ attention and show them that rural connectivity is important to you. Check out their step-by-step suggestions.

And remember, you can contact your legislators anytime via phone, email, or snail mail. You also should be able to meet with the Representative or Senators that represent you, although it may be difficult to get face time later in the session when committees meetings are extended and more frequent.

Minnesota Broadband Coalition Day on the Hill Media AdvisoryTags: minnesotalobbyingruralstate lawsgrassrootsblandin foundation

Another Anti-Muni Hack Job: Opelika Mayor Strikes Back

March 10, 2017

Mayor Gary Fuller won’t tolerate lies about his city. In a recent Opelika City News release titled, Setting the Record Straight - Response to Yellowhammer article, Mayor Fuller corrected the numerous misleading errors in a piece written by Jordan LaPorta. The Yellowhammer article covered a Taxpayer's Protection Alliance Foundation (TPA) report, filled with errors and misrepresentation about municipal Internet networks. TPA is one of the many front groups that describe themselves as "nonpartisan think tanks" but are actually funded by industry leaders with an agenda to advance policies that limit competition.

Mayor Fuller has seen untruths written about Opelika before, but this time he felt it was time to fight the flying monkeys.

Get Your Facts Right

Mayor Fuller corrected a number of brazen untruths LaPorta tossed out in his article, including:

  • OPS ONE is not taxpayer-funded - No, LaPorta, there are no tax subsidies. Additionally, there have not been any federal or state grants used for the network.
  • Expenditures grossly overstated - LaPorta incorrectly attributes the cost of an electric grid modernization ($20 million) to the cost of the FTTH network ($23 million). The two are not one and the same. Do your homework.
  • Number of Gig subscribers - LaPorta reports that OPS has one Gigabit subscriber, but they actually have five residential customers who take the service. The city council has recently reduced the price to $94.99 for Gigabit service in some bundles.

This Is Why Opelika Is A Success

OPS ONE is generating annual gross revenues of around $5.5M after three years serving the community. There are more than 3,200 subscribers and testimonials of customers who appreciate obtaining service from a hometown Internet access provider. Even though OPS ONE is still young, states Mayor Fuller, it’s on track:

Mr. LaPorta does correctly quote me as stating Opelika’s network “has not broken even”.  It is not unusual for capital intensive fiber projects to show a loss in the early years of operation. Rapid growth in capital expenditures is a natural part of any start-up enterprise.  Mr. LaPorta knows perfectly well that it is inappropriate to draw negative conclusions from early-year losses in such projects.  Our business plan projected losses during the first 5 years of the project. OPS is meeting all projections in the business plan.

Mayor Fuller went on to school LaPorta on why a line of numbers on a spreadsheet doesn’t strictly define “success” in the world of Internet infrastructure. He noted that OPS ONE has enhanced Opelika by:

  • Creating competition
  • Spurred job growth, including well paying tech jobs
  • Helped the city’s financial condition, which increased its bond rating

Facts Are Facts: Opelikans Want It

Mayor Fuller understands that writers like LaPorta and organizations like the Taxpayers Protection Alliance Foundation are groups paid to front the interests of AT&T, Comcast, Charter and the like. He calls them out and lets them know that he will not allow them to put his city and its municipal network in their crosshairs:

Mr. LaPorta attempts to use the Opelika FTTH network as a platform to discourage other municipalities from pursuing broadband projects. Opelika is very proud of the success that OPS ONE has achieved for the City of Opelika. OPS ONE has created a competitive broadband environment in Opelika. OPS ONE is offering superior infrastructure to its subscribers at competitive prices.

In summary, we are extremely proud of OPS ONE and are confident that it is well positioned for the future.  The system is offering the fastest Internet service in the country at competitive prices.

And The Neighbors Want It, Too

This is the third year in a row that State Senator Tom Whatley, a Republican from Auburn, has introduced legislation to change Alabama’s restrictions for municipal networks. This year, he introduced three separate bills with different approaches, hoping legislators find one of them agreeable. Opelika can’t legally expand beyond city limits now, but Whatley’s community wants OPS to bring high-quality connectivity to them. 

Whatley said he’s heard residents who’ve had to run up high cell phone bills because it’s the only way to connect to the internet from home.

“The internet has become too big of an issue now to where homework assignments are sent via Twitter,” Whatley said. “…I've had two parents call me and say, ‘My phone bill this month was over $700 because we had to use our phone to draw the internet so the child could do the work on the computer.’ That's just wrong.”

Whatley told OANow that he’d prefer to have private providers offer Internet access to people in his district and surrounding areas, but, “If they make a business decision not to do something, then they shouldn't be forced to do it. However, we have somebody over here, the city of Opelika, who is willing to offer the product.”

Tags: opelikaalabamaFTTHbarrierlegislationelectricutility

Christopher Speaks to Politico Live on "The Future of the Wireless World"

March 9, 2017

On March 7th, Christopher participated in a panel discussion sponsored by Politico and Qualcomm as part of an event called "The Future of the Wireless World." The panel was moderated by Politico Technology Reporter Alex Byers and included the following participants:

  • Steven Crowley, P.E., Consulting Wireless Engineer
  • Mindel De la Torre, former Chief of the International Bureau, Federal Communications Commission
  • Christopher Mitchell, Director of Community Broadband Networks Initiative, Institute for Local Self-Reliance
  • Joan Marsh, Senior Vice President of Federal Regulatory, AT&T

You can stream the video at Politico's website by clicking the image below.

Highlights from this conversation include Christopher's interaction with the AT&T representative about their claim that a "one touch make ready" policy was specific to Google Fiber. This interaction is at 36:20 in the video.

Tags: press centerone touch make readyeventchristopher mitchellfccright-of-waydebatefixed wirelessat&t

Muni, Co-op, And Tech Company Make A Broadband Bingo In Nevada

March 9, 2017

Residents and businesses in rural regions between Reno and Las Vegas recently learned that their odds at obtaining high-quality Internet access just went through the roof. A collaboration between county owned Churchill County Communications (CC Communications), the Valley Communications Association of Pahrump (VCA), and Switch technology company to deploy a middle mile fiber-optic backbone will open up a range of possibilities for rural communities along the U.S. Highway 95. The route runs north and south along Nevada's far west, passing through a number of small towns that are welcoming the new alliance.

A Backbone Running North And South

For the past 11 months, CC Communications and the VCA have been working to deploy more than 450 miles of fiber from north to south. Switch provided funding for the deployment to link its data centers in Las Vegas and the Tahoe-Reno area and will also provide funding for expansion to some rural communities. VCA will service the network in the south and Churchill will care for the north section.

Along the backbone, CC Communications and VCA will connect local communities. Beatty, in southern Nevada, plans to be the first use the new infrastructure and to deploy fiber in the community. The unincorporated community is home to about 1,000 people and is about 120 miles northwest of Las Vegas. According to Valley Electric Association, the rural electric cooperative that owns and operates VCA, they have plans to expand fiber throughout the Beatty community.

“With that backbone, you can link up any town anywhere near it,” said Michael Hengel, spokesman for the Valley Electric Association. “The first all-fiber community in Nevada will be Beatty.”

Like other rural electric utilities that have chosen to offer broadband, Valley Electric will be using its existing fiber resources initially installed for managing electric distribution for customer connectivity. The cooperative is currently offering fixed wireless Internet access with plans to offer Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH).

"You have to have a driver," Husted said. "For us, it was the optic fiber we installed to manage our vast electrical system. Our No. 1 priority is to connect the members we serve in western Nevada. Beyond that, we want to make this great asset available to the other rural areas of the state."

Economic Development

Communities in both the northern and southern areas along the new backbone hope and anticipate it will boost economic development. Businesses seek out locations with Internet network infrastructure that can offer the kind of capacity they need for daily operations, but fiber-optic networks enable other improvements that businesses consider when looking for new digs. 

“Camera images, roadway sensors and weather monitoring data will be able to freely flow to and from users in rural settings to assist with transportation issues related to traffic incidents, infrastructure condition, special event management, weather hazards and security issues,” said Tina Quigley, general manager of the Regional Transportation Commission.

There is also the possibility that the network will enable an air corridor between Las Vegas and Reno where drones will be able to fly in to, out of, and between airports and other Nevada facilities. The area is being considered as a testing ground for technologies such as autonomous vehicles.

CC Communications: Has The Knowledge

We spoke with the General Manager of CC Communications, Mark Feest, back in June 2016 about the network for episode 204 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. He described how the community had started with a telegraph wire in 1889 and now people in the western county have some of the best connectivity in the state. In addition to gigabit (1,000 Megabits per second) Internet access, homes and businesses in the rural county can obtain digital TV, voice, home automation, and security services. CC Communications also offers PC repair.

Mark also mentioned that CC Communications had started on the project and how a large Tahoe-Reno industrial park will now have the kind of connectivity tenants need to function. Switch has a data center in the park and, by connecting to Switch’s network there, CC Communications’ customers will have a network that is more redundant and therefore more reliable.

In the northern areas served by the project, CC Communications will first connect additional lines to school district facilities, county buildings, and businesses. Homes that aren’t already connected to fiber through CC Communications will come next.

Education

Schools in the communities along the route - the U.S. Highway 95 corridor - struggle to serve their students when they depend on old connections. Some of the schools are isolated and would like to take advantage of remote teaching opportunities through Skype, but their slow connections don’t have the capacity for video applications. 

Nye County students in the process of standardized tests administered online must start over when the school’s Internet connection fails. When schools have inadequate connectivity, students loose educational opportunities as well. In the small mining town of Gabb, there are only 32 students in the entire school:

"As it stands, we can't even run our online learning program because the Internet speed is so slow," [the school’s teacher Tom] Lyman said. "We can't download a file from YouTube. It sometimes takes two to three minutes for a computer to change from one screen to the next. Other times, it knocks the kids plum out of the program."

CC Communications has worked with other rural schools to improve connectivity. Mineral County School District recently obtained a state grant with the utility’s help. The school used the funds for fiber connections so it could receive gigabit connectivity and a fixed wireless complement. With the new extensive fiber network, more local schools along the route will be able to reproduce Mineral County’s approach.

"The most difficult challenge in rural areas is obtaining the backhaul necessary to deploy robust fiber fed infrastructure. Without that connection back to the Internet Gateway, the potential of fiber to the home cannot be achieved," said Mark Feest, CEO of CC Communications. "This partnership is key to enabling providers to eliminate the digital divide in much of rural Nevada."

Image of the Beatty public library by Finetooth (Own work) CC BY-SA 3.0

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Tags: nevadapartnershipchurchill communicationschurchill countyrural electric coopmuniregionaltraffic lightsschoolschool districtdigital divide

Waverly, Iowa, Exceeds Goals 2X

March 8, 2017

Last April, the small town of Waverly in central Iowa connected its first customers to test the new, citywide, Fiber-to-the Home (FTTH) network. After years of sub-par service from incumbent providers, the residents wanted something better. After securing funding, the municipal Waverly Utilities set to work on the Connect Waverly network. Services officially became available for everyone in July 2016.

Today, Connect Waverly stretches to all 10,000 homes and businesses in the town and provides high-speed Internet service of up to 1 Gigabit per second (1,000 Mbps) symmetrical to more than 1,200 residential and commercial customers. The Courier's Cedar Valley Business Monthly reports that Waverly's high take rate is double their six-month goal.

Jennifer Bloker, Waverly Utilities’ Director of Marketing and Public Information, told the Courier’s Cedar Valley Business Monthly, “We’re investing back into our community. We care about Waverly as a whole.”

Collaboration with Cedar Falls

Waverly Utilities had support from another utility, the long-running municipal network in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The two towns are collaborating and will share ownership of new equipment, such as an IPTV head-end system, to serve the customers on both networks. 

Waverly Utilities’ Director of Telecom Service, Jeff Magsamen, appreciates the support. Magsamen told the Courier:

“We have a good partnership with them. They’re always there to answer questions, they’ve helped us out a lot. Drawing on CFU’s [Cedar Falls Utilities] decades of experience has benefited us greatly.” 

Learn More About Waverly And Beyond

Back in 2013, Waverly turned to the voters to approve a measure for a municipal telecommunications utility. The community had already passed a similar referendem ten years earlier, but the community had not acted on the original election when the incumbents, jolted to action by the referendum, made temporary improvements.

By the time 2013 rolled around, however, the incumbents had once again drifted back into a state of lethargy toward Waverly and its citizens. After a decade, a number of other communities had invested in municipal networks and leaders in Waverly felt compelled to investigate further. After a feasibility study, a supportive community, and an election "do over," the city's municipal electric utility took the necessary steps to establish the communications utility.

To hear the story from a Waverly Utilities' representative, listen to Christopher interview Mike Litterer for episode 53 of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. At the time, he was serving as Interim General Manager.

Congrats to Waverly on the great work and the well deserved results. We are excited to see what the future has in store for this new municipal network. 

For more about citywide, municipal, FTTH networks, check out our resource page with quick facts about citywide FTTH networks throughout the United States.

Tags: waverlyiowacedar fallsgigabitFTTHcollaborationsymmetryexpansiontake rate

A Study In Gainesville; Organized, Residents Tired Of High Prices

March 8, 2017

After consideration and debate, city leaders in Gainesville, Florida, have decided to move ahead with a feasibility study to explore possible municipal Internet network models. Residents are plagued by high incumbent Internet access rates and want the city’s telecommunications utility to dig into solutions.

At a recent meeting, the city commission heard from Gainesville Regional Utility’s (GRUCom) chief business service officer, Lewis Walton, about potential models, costs, and GRUCom’s current functions. Walton also offered some rough cost estimates. The commission unanimously approved the motion to design a study, but several commissioners remain skeptical.

GATORNET For Apartments And Businesses

Even though single-family dwellings don’t have access to Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) from the city, some apartments and businesses have been connected to publicly owned fiber for years. 

GATORNET offers Internet access to apartment complexes, many where University of Florida students live. The university is part of the Gig.U initiative, a collaboration between more than 30 research universities and the communities where they are from to develop high-quality connectivity in and around campuses.

Even before the collaboration with Gig.U, GRUCom had been offering services to government facilities and local businesses as early as 1996. The utility now has more than 500 miles of fiber throughout Alachua County, along with a data center; they also offer wireless services.

Residents Flexing Muscles

According to Connected Gainesville, a grassroots group advocating for city involvement in improving local connectivity, Gainesville households pay the highest Internet access rates in the state. They want GRUCom to offer competition to the incumbent. Bryan Eastman, one of the co-founders, recently told the Gainesville Sun:

"There is only one company in Gainesville that serves the whole city, and that's Cox," Eastman continued. "As the internet becomes more a part of our daily lives, more data gets used. We're going to need to keep up if we want to be a 21st century city competing with the rest of the world."

They’ve already presented a list of relevant questions to city commission candidates and posted their answers online but they haven’t endorsed any specific candidates. Pushing candidates to consider issues related to connectivity is a good way to make them realize consitutents care about the issue and find out which elected officials prioritize this critical issue.

The First Step In A Long Process

At the meeting, Eastman and Chris Dalton, another Connected Gainesville co-founder, spoke in support of the measure to move ahead with the study.

“This is the first step on a long process,” Eastman said. “The commissioners had good input. They questioned where they needed to, but I think everybody understands there is a problem in our community and we need to take action to move in the right direction.”

City staff will now research and outline a potential study.

 

Tags: gainesvillegainesville regional utilitiesfloridagrassrootsconsiderationfeasibilityFTTHgig.u

What's NEXT In North Arkansas? - Community Broadband Bits Podcast 243

March 7, 2017

As an increasing number of rural electric cooperatives are working to bring high-quality Internet access to their members, we’re learning more about new projects and the people behind them. This week, we talk with the CEO of the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative, Mel Coleman. As an added bonus, we get Mel’s insight as President of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA).

Mel and Christopher discuss the cooperative’s new NEXT pilot project to bring high-quality Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) to members. Residents can get symmetrical gigabit connectivity for $79.95 per month. Mel draws parallels between the ways rural electric cooperatives brought electricity to rural areas in the region and now how the cooperatives are meeting the demand for broadband.

As the President of NRECA, Mel sees how other regions of the country are turning to rural electric cooperatives for better Internet access. While many are just getting started and others are well on their way, some have chosen to wait to take the plunge into offering telecommunications services. Why is that? Because just like local communities, cooperatives reflect the unique appetites and needs of their members. Mel explains why the North Arkansas Electric Cooperative feels offering better connectivity to their region is a necessity.

Read the transcript of the show here.

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

This show is 16 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or via the tool of your choice using this feed.

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

Thanks to Break the Bans for the music. The song is Escape and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.

Tags: audiopodcastbroadband bitsArkansascooperativerural electric cooppilot projectFTTHnational rural electric cooperative associationruralelectrification